India, oh India…
Before I begin this post, I’ll give you a little background on our decision to go to India. It’s always been a dream of ours to see the Taj Mahal, but other than that, India didn’t rank high on our travel list. In our minds, India wasn’t a vacation destination… It was a cultural experience; and one we weren’t sure we were ready to embrace. We’ve had a handful of friends who have had negative experiences in India, and we had other destinations we wanted to see.
With that in mind, we originally didn’t plan on visiting the country at all. That is, until we met Michael and Julie. Do you remember the Scottish couple we met in Thailand? Yep, they had just traveled to India and convinced us to go.
After hearing the amazing tales of India through Michael and Julie’s experience, we decided we must go. We were definitely excited about going to India, but we entered the country with extremely low expectations (which is probably the best way to approach India; your experience has no where to go but up).
After obtaining our Indian visas in Kathmandu, we caught a bus down to the boarder town, Lumbini (also the birthplace of Buddha). By the time we crossed the boarder, it was nearly 7pm. We knew we needed to get to Gorakhpur, the city where we could catch a train to anywhere else in India. We caught the 8pm bus and arrived in Gorakhpur at 11pm… with nothing pre-booked. Normally, if we knew we would be arriving in a city late in the evening, we would book something in advance. But since we had changed our plans around so much, we hadn’t even thought about it. Oh well, it’s India, right? We should be able to just walk around and grab a room.
We went into the first hotel we saw and were astonished when the owner informed us that they were completely full. What? Okay, so we went to the next place, and the next… all full! Thankfully the fourth place we tried had a room left–yes, one room. We looked at it and then turned around. Surely, we can do better than that. With no internet, and no guidebook, we wandered around the streets for the next thirty minutes before realizing that we only had one option. That dirty hotel room. With a sigh, we welcomed ourselves to India. Thankfully, we only had to stay there a few hours. We woke up at 3:45am and went outside to try to find a way out of Gorakhpur. With a little stumbling around, we ended up finding the train station. And that is when we realized we had no idea what we were doing.
There were people everywhere… sleeping on the ground, and standing in lines. We finally found the signs that said “Unreserved Tickets.” That was us, and my goodness were the lines long! I spotted a shorter line over on the side and noticed that there were only women in the line. Is that where I get my tickets, and Jared stands in another line for his ticket?
We gave it a shot and thankfully the “women’s only” line went fairly fast. When I went up to the window, the man asked me in broken English how many tickets I wanted. Two? Can I get a ticket for my husband here? I thought to myself. I guess so. “Class?” he asked. I knew the answer–2AC or 3AC. “No” he said. Hmm… it must not be available. “Only 2nd Class or General Class.” Which class was the better or the two? I couldn’t remember. “Umm… General Class, please.”
I didn’t realize that I had made a huge mistake until we found the train cars marked “general.” They were the last two cars on the train and they were absolutely packed. Even the luggage bins were completely full–of people.
Yes, people were sitting up in the luggage bins, in all of the seats, and all of the floor space was also taken. We found a man who looked like he worked for the station and explained our situation. We asked if we could sit in 2nd class and pay the difference. He seemed to think that was okay. Thankfully, 2nd class was nearly empty. We ended up having a great train ride, but the entire time I was worried we would be kicked off of the train in the middle of India. Let’s just say that we learned the class system of India really fast after that!One interesting thing about the trains in India is their toilets. The hole in the bottom of the squat-toilet leads straight down to the tracks below!We finally arrived at our destination–the holy city Varanasi. In Hinduism, Varanasi is the holiest of the seven sacred cities. For that reason, Hindus from all over the world flock to Varanasi on pilgrimages to become more holy, or in many cases, to die in the holy city. Sacred cremations are held 24 hours a day along the holy Ganges river.
Upon our safe arrival in Varanasi, we hired an auto rickshaw (motor-cart taxi) to take us to a decent hotel that had a/c rooms. We were very disappointed when we booked an a/c room only to discover that is was water-cooled. And if we left the water cooler on too long, it was steam up and turn our room into a sauna. (The temperature outside was around 100-110F.) Anyway, it had a TV and was much better than our previous stay. That evening, we decided to take a boat out on the Ganges River at night to watch the ceremonies. The river is considered holy and the more river water you are in contact with, the better. So each morning hindus will bathe in the river, brush their teeth with the water, drink it, and wash their laundry in it. Sewage and waste pipes lead and are dumped into the river. And dead people who are already “holy” are dumped into the river without being cremated. It was a nice peaceful ride on the river. Under each fire along the river is a body being cremated. The ceremonies performed each night are blessing ceremonies to bring the people good luck. We explored the city the following and we were pleasantly surprised with our experience. Varanasi was full of color and life. There was a bakery of sorts down the street from our hotel where we decided to try an Indian breakfast. At first, I was very against trying curry for breakfast. I love my american-style breakfasts, and I didn’t want to give that up. But I decided to give it a try–just once. Not only did I end up liking the breakfast, but I ended up craving Indian curry for breakfast for the rest of our time in India!
The bakery was just a hole-in-the-wall sort of a place, but we fell in love with the delicious breakfast they served us. I wish I knew the name of the meal, but I never caught it. It was some sort of fried bread that you dipped in a delicious curry. The meal was finished with something that sounded exactly like “jelly bean,” although after looking up the word, it’s actually “Jalebi.” It’s some sort of sweet (honey-flavored) fried batter.
Our breakfast cost us about $0.20 each, but we would normally get a large bottle of Slice (mango juice) to share which added a hefty $1.50 to the cost of our breakfast. Since we didn’t eat any fresh produce in India, we splurged on bottled juices.Are cows really everywhere in India? Yes, they roam the streets like kings. Everyone pets them, gives them the right of way, and feeds them as much as they can eat. Sunset on the river was beautiful. It was a perfect way to end our time in Varanasi. Both Jared and I agreed that the best way to describe Varanasi was not a tourist destination with “sites” to see, but rather a place to be. The culture and vibrant color of Varanasi cannot be grasped through photos and words, the only way to truly experience the city is by physically walking through the streets, smelling the the smells with your own nose, and seeing the city with your own eyes. Next, we were off to Agra to see what is known at the most beautiful building in the world.