Burning Man – Varanasi, India Edition

25 05 2009

The bank of the Ganga River

The bank of the Ganga River

Varanasi is probably one of the most unreal places I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. It’s a city that people may love or hate, but nobody leaves without a lasting impression.

Varanasi is a place where people come to spend their last days and … pass away. A dark analogy would be that Varanasi to India is somewhat like Florida to United States, but without the nice beaches or the high-quality retirement communities.

Located on the bank of the Ganga river, Varanasi is considered to be one of the holiest cities among Hindus, as well as one of the oldest inhabited places in the world. The general belief is that if you die and your body is burned in Varanasi and the ashes are deposited into the Ganga river, you will take a shortcut straight to Nirvana [as opposed to being re-incaranted and having to come back to this world]. As a result, many people either come to spend their final days here or simply request their relatives to have their bodies cremated here after death.

The fires burning at night...

The fires burning at night...

There are 2 fire sites for cremation that are running on the bank of the river 24 hours a day . Through the course of every day and night, over 150 people are burned and their ashes are disseminated over the waters.

There are, however, five categories of people that cannot be cremated for various reasons, so their bodies are wrapped in cloth, weighed down with ropes to heavy rocks, and deposited into the river. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for the ropes to break and the cadavers to float up to the top.

Carrying a body to the water...

Carrying a body to the water...

Among all of this, the Ganga river itself lies at the core of everything that goes on in the city. Thousands upon thousands of people come out every morning to the river bank for bathing in its water.

Mid-day bath.

Mid-day bath.

We weren’t able to see the full morning ritual, as we arrived too late in the afternoon, but we did witness the evening ritual, during which people gather to honor the river.

Ritual of honoring the river

Ritual of honoring the river

Thousands of observers come out every night for the ritual

Thousands of observers come out every night for the ritual

Some of the best views are from the water.

Some of the best views are from the water.

As we were sitting on the steps and observing the ritual, we were approached by a local kid, about 12 years old. After the usual set of questions of where we’re from and how do we like India, he explained the proceeding to us and then offered us to show the area where the burning takes place.

It was a few minutes away from the crowds, but it seemed worlds away. There was no lighting except half a dozen fires with activity taking place around each one. It was hard to comprehend what was actually happening on each fire. It’s a very a troubling thing to watch as wrapped-up bodies are constantly delivered to the fires by the relatives or the workers for the procedure.

We were introduced to a local worker, who described the process to us and showed us around. He showed us the different kinds of firewood that could be used, depending on your budget (it can go up to as high as $100 or more per cremation or if you have no money, you can opt for a gas-powered fire, which unfortunately doesn’t give you access to Nirvana).

Then, he showed us a few stark-looking buildings and explained that this is the place that older people come to to wait for their death. If they have no relatives or nowhere to go, they can come here and stay for free.

Varanasi is truly something else. Like I said, some people love it, some people it – but nobody leaves without a lasting impression.





Freedom Fighters Go Ahead Of The Line

22 05 2009

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Indian Railway system can be both surprisingly efficient and frustrating at the same time. Booking a ticket can involve numerous trips to the station, paperwork, checking to see if the ticket was confirmed, and so on. Fortunately, some stations, they have setup a separate window for foreign tourists… and freedom fighters? Still trying to figure this one out…





Am I Really Your Friend, Raj? – Scams and “Foreign Pricing” in India

20 05 2009

As a tourist traveling through India, you are often a common target for scams. They come in all shapes and sizes and can be as simple as an inflated price at a street stall to a rickshaw driver intentionally taking you to the wrong hotel or a guesthouse, so he could receive a commission from the owner and so on. Fortunately, after a while, you get pretty good at recognizing and avoiding most of them.

Still, even so, every once in a while, you can let the guard down because you feel like you’re having a genuine “interaction” with a local and then you discover that more often than not, there lurks some sort of an ulterior motive. It’s truly frustrating because it makes it very difficult to trust the locals around you and feels that the only people that you can rely on are your traveling partners or other tourists, who are in the same boat as you.

Moreover, to avoid scams and other pushy behavior, you wind up acting in ways you may really dislike – having to be aggressive and sometimes even rude. Because you know what will come next after every “hello, my friend” and “what county you from” – especially when you hear it 50 times over the course of a day.

The truth is, I can’t really blame the locals for trying. Although I don’t think that scams and overpricing is necessarily fair, at the end of the day, people committing them are not doing it to get rich. They are surviving – at whatever costs involves.

If I was a rickshaw driver, I would also try to milk my foreign customers for as much as I could – because an extra $1 to me means a whole lot more than a $1 to them. And I would have a very hard time understanding why is it that the people that can probably most afford that price are also the ones that are arguing the longest to shave off a few pennies.

As a tourist, I’m not sure what the proper way to deal with this is. Many travelers are on a budget and are not necessarily made of money either, so haggling helps to keep costs down. So are we necessarily wrong for trying to get a fair deal and the same price as everybody else?

Or are we focusing too much on the matter of principle when we’re trying to get a rickshaw driver to lower their price by $0.05 USD, and forgetting the human element to this interaction?

This gentlemen is 74 years old and has been riding his rickshaw (the one in the picture) for almost 5 decades. He's one of thousands of others trying to make a living.

This gentlemen is 74 years old and has been riding his rickshaw (the one in the picture) for almost 5 decades. He's one of thousands of others trying to make a living.

Would love to hear your thoughts if you’ve travelled abroad – in the developing or developed countries – and had to deal with these things.

P.S. Ironically enough, the day after I wrote and prepared this post, we actually met a couple of kids that spent several hours showing us their town – without any side motive. So, you never know…





Last Minute Trip to Taj Mahal

18 05 2009

On the spur of the moment, we decided to modify our plans and swing by Agra to see one of the remaining wonders of the world – Taj Mahal. After all, we were just a short night ride away and we had to see what those 2 to 4 million tourists visit every year.

It did not disappoint:

Approaching Taj Mahal through a gate

Approaching Taj Mahal through a gate

The Taj - for some reason, black and white felt more appropriate

The Taj - probably, one of the most photographed buildings in the world. For some reason, black and white felt more appropriate.

Opposite of Taj

Opposite of Taj Mahal

Tolik was nice enough to take a picture. Unfortunately, the camera died before I could take a photo of him.

Tolik was nice enough to take a picture. Unfortunately, the camera died before I could take a photo of him.





Exploring Rajasthan, India

17 05 2009

Travelling through India can at times feel like a whirlwind. For the past week, we’ve been in “travel mode” – every day, it’s a new city. Every night, it’s back on the bus or a train or whatever mode of transportation is available to take us to the next destination.

Since over the course of the last four months, I’ve primarily spent large chunks of time stationed in specific locations, we decided to take a different approach this month and visit as many different places as possible. It’s not always the ideal form of travel, as I think you get to know a place much better when you stay there for a month or two, but it certainly keeps things dynamic and interesting.

Since the distances are far (and we are cheap), we structured our itinerary in a way that allows us to spend most nights travelling, while arriving to our destinations by morning.  India is known for its excellent network of railroads, which are commonly used by the locals (and tourists) to travel across the country. And when the trains are not available, there is also the option of using one of the most unique modes of transportation I’ve even been on – sleeper bus. They are just plain brilliant! From the outside, they may look like a regular coach bus, but inside, there are sleeper bunks within self-enclosed containers. It’s almost as if you have your own room on a bus separated either by a curtain or a sliding door. Not for claustrophobics, though. 

The buses are wonderful - especially if you travel with a friend. Otherwise, expect to share a bed with a stranger :)

The buses are wonderful - especially if you travel with a friend. Otherwise, expect to share a bed with a stranger :)

People waiting for trains at a station.

People waiting for trains at a station.

Below are the top pictures from the last week travels:

 13 Photos from Rajasthan – Udaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer

Rajasthan is known for its extravagant palaces and temples. This palace is still occupied by its king, although a portion of it has been "pimped" out as a hotel.

Rajasthan is known for its extravagant palaces and temples. This lake palace is still occupied by its king, although a portion of it has been "pimped" out as a hotel.

This royal residence has been built as a part of a famine relief effort by the local maharaja (king). 3,000 men spent 15 years building it. Nice act of philanthropy, eh?

This royal residence has been built as a part of a famine relief effort by the local maharaja (king). 3,000 men spent 15 years building it. Nice act of philanthropy, eh?

After a long day of exploring, nothing beats climbing a hill and enjoying the city views at sunset.

After a long day of exploring, nothing beats climbing a hill and enjoying the city views at sunset.

Tolik is not satisfied with simply climbing the hill...

Tolik is not satisfied with simply climbing the hill...

As the sun comes down, the locals come out on the roof to welcome the relief from the heat. Slowly, but surely, every roof is occupied with activity.

As the sun comes down, the locals come out on the roof to welcome the relief from the heat. Slowly, but surely, every roof is occupied with activity.

I wonder if the "cyber" cafes were popular in the 12th century when the fort was built.

I wonder if the "cyber" cafes were popular in the 12th century when the fort was built.

Exploring the local markets is always a joy because you never know what you're going to find. We can only hope that the boxes were empty :)

Exploring the local markets is always a joy because you never know what you're going to find. We can only hope that the boxes were empty :)

Since it's the off-season and there aren't a lot of tourists, we wind up attracting a lot of attention from the locals (although we try to fit in!). Sometimes, when every 2nd  person says Hello to you, it's difficult to tell apart between genuine friendliness or trying to get you to buy something. But quite often, people really do seem just happy to say Hello... and ask for a picture.

Since it's the off-season and there aren't a lot of tourists, we wind up attracting a lot of attention from the locals. Sometimes, when every 2nd person says Hello to you, it's difficult to tell apart between genuine friendliness or trying to get you to buy something. But quite often, people really do seem just happy to say Hello and ask for a picture.

Cows are very common on the streets of villages and even cities. They wander around unwatched, enjoying their freedom and high status in the society, causing occasional traffic jams and potential “dung” mines on the road. But all in all, they are pretty laid back and relaxed.

Cows are very common on the streets of villages and even cities. They wander around unwatched, enjoying their freedom and high status in the society, causing occasional traffic jams and potential “dung” mines on the road. But all in all, they are pretty laid back and relaxed.

As you wonder around the small cities, you get to watch in on many various rituals that take place. Whether it's a morning prayer or a ritual asking the gods to bring children to the family, they would not be complete without a musical soundtrack.

As you wonder around the small cities, you get to watch in on many various rituals that take place. Whether it's a morning prayer or a ritual asking the gods to bring children to the family, they would not be complete without a musical soundtrack.

A short drive from Jaisalmer, you have the desert dunes begin.

A short drive from Jaisalmer, you have the desert dunes begin.

We skipped the camels and decided to take our chances on foot.

We skipped the camels and decided to take our chances on foot.

When the heat got too strong, Tolik decided to wrap himself in a foil blanket to stay cool. Good idea in theory... not so much in practice.

When the heat got too strong, Tolik decided to wrap himself in a foil blanket to stay cool. Good idea in theory... not so much in practice.

OK, wish I had time to post more, but we got to run to the train station to figure out where we’re going to next! More to come!





Reflections at the Mid-Way Point

10 05 2009
Photo of Kids from the Dharavi slum (Mumbai)

Photo of Kids from the Dharavi slum (Mumbai)

Several months ago, I read a blog post by another Kiva Fellow, Milena Arciszewski, who spent a few months volunteering in Africa for Kiva. In the blog post, she said that before going there, she had a certain expectation of what it would be like: “I imagined myself sitting on a street corner in Kenya, smoking cheap cigarettes, as poor children would laugh in the distance and I would sigh, reflectively, finally understanding the meaning of it all.” As she concluded in the end of the post, it didn’t quite turn out that way.

That’s the funny thing about expectations – they rarely work out the way you plan. I had almost  identical thoughts prior to departing. I wanted to go to these faraway places in order to better understand other cultures, other people and the problems that they were facing. I felt – and still feel – that I’d be able to take that learned knowledge and use it to do some good in the world in my future career path.

The reality is that the “answers” never quite come in these neat, pre-packaged boxes. Especially when you’re not quite sure what the questions are! In fact, being in these places often adds to the confusion because once you scratch the surface, you start to see how complex and multi-dimensional everything is. When I think about what I learned after spending a month in India and two months in Central Asia, I feel that I know less about the world now than I did before I left the U.S. At least back then, I *thought* that I knew things. I may have had limited information and knowledge – but I didn’t realize that there was so much more that I didn’t know!

However, as I’m getting ready to end my assignment in Mumbai and move on, I feel that there were things that I’ve learned after all – and I’m very grateful for having the opportunity. The experience of living abroad has been rich and fulfilling in a variety of ways.

For me, it’s the realization that you can go thousands of miles across the globe and find something very similar and familiar on the other side. It’s fascinating, but after a few weeks in a new country, you start feeling cozy (parents – don’t worry, I’m not staying in India :)). There is a certain routine in place – going to work, recreational activities. You befriend other people – at work or otherwise – with whom you start to interact with on a regular basis. You even become familiar with the streets, transportation, food, and all those other things that you do without even thinking at home, but may feel so foreign here at first.

I still remember how lost and confused I felt when I just arrived to Mumbai and it’s amazing how much more comfortable it has become in a short span of just a month. There are many, many differences in regards to living here versus New York – subtle and not-quite – but at the end of the day, going to the market to get food in Malad, Mumbai is not so much different than going to a supermarket on Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.  Especially in this day and age – thanks to the Western influence that has permeated every part of the world – things are often more similar, than they are different (did you know that Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives are the most watched and discussed shows in the office).

===

I’m finishing up my time in Mumbai this week and reaching my traveling mid-point (3.5 months out of 7). I will be going to my 2nd placement for Kiva in Kyrgyzstan in the middle of June. In the interim, I’ll be joined by a friend from New York and we’ll head out to spend a month traveling in the Northern India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines.

Thank you for reading :)





Sometimes the journey is the destination – unforgettable train ride from Mumbai to Goa

2 05 2009

I looked at the clock – it was already 8pm. 3 hours to go before the train left Mumbai. “Good,” I thought, “there’s plenty of time.” Grabbing some ice cream on the way, I hailed down a rickshaw and told him to head to Bandra [neighborhood]. At that point, I’d have to switch to a taxi, since rickshaws are not allowed to pass that border and the train was leaving from a little further away.

While street vendors, motorcycles, and the rest of what makes up Mumbai was passing on the sides of the rickshaw, I relaxed – as everything was going according to plan.

I reached Mumbai Central – one of the main railway hubs in the city, through which many local and long-distance lines pass – in about 2 hours. Walking up to the security guard, I decided to double check from which platform the train was leaving. He looked at my e-ticket print out and exclaimed – “That’s not from here! You need to go to a different station.” That was the first inkling that signaled that the rest of the night wasn’t going to go smoothly.

After asking him again where exactly I needed to go, I ran out of the station and jumped into the first cab. “Mumbai CST. Hurry, we don’t have much time,” I pleaded with the driver, knowing full well that it was in vain. He nodded, as they always do, although I could see a glimpse of confusion in his eyes as to what is it exactly that he was asked to do.

30 minutes later, while nervously glancing at the watch, we finally came to a stop. Unfortunately, no train station was in sight. The driver flagged down a pedestrian and asked him the worst question that anybody could’ve asked under the circumstances: “Where is Mumbai CST railway station?” The pedestrian shrugged. He didn’t know.

Several attempts later, somebody finally gave him some instructions and he excitedly put the pedal to the metal and started driving with a sense of purpose. We reached a station five minutes later. That was the good news. The bad news was that it was the wrong station. However, ithe train was actually passing through it, so it would do just fine.

When it rains, it pours…

As I was waiting for the train to arrive, I glanced at a printout of the e-ticket again. Something curious caught my attention. The printout stated that the “passenger’s name must be confirmed on the reservation list or they will be treated as a passenger without a ticket”. That was certainly somewhat surprising – if you already bought the ticket and paid for it, why do you need to confirm it and where exactly do you need to do that anyway.

I walked up to the inquiry window to find out. The guy at the window took a quick look at the print out, keyed in a few letters in his computer, and passed the sheet back to me. “Not confirmed. No ticket,” was his response.

“Well, what am I supposed to do now,” I asked him in bewilderment. “Buy a new ticket,” he pointed at the queue at the next window which consisted of about 50 other people waiting to buy a new ticket. At that point, his interest in me waned and he went back to reading the paper.

As I was walking away from the window, a guy that was observing the whole situation from afar came up to me. “Ticket not confirmed, huh. What you need to do is get on the train anyway and go straight to the ticket checker. Tell him that you’re on the waitlist, give him 150-200 rupees and he’ll give you a seat.”

It seemed like legitimate advice. Although I haven’t seen a whole lot of “corruption” here thus far, it wasn’t that shocking to hear that you could bribe your way into something as innocent as getting a seat on the train because of some administrative mishap. Anyway, with only a few minutes left before the train arrived, that was the only option that had a chance of working. I was determined to make it to Goa tonight, so I decided to go for it.

Sometimes, money can’t buy you a way out (or in)

The original ticket was for a 2nd class air conditioned sleeper car. Although not particularly luxurious, this was supposed to be a very nice and comfortable way to travel for a 12 hour journey to Goa. Especially, since they promised a bed, clean sheets and a pillow – what else do you need!

When the train arrived, it stopped at the station for exactly two minutes. During that time, people need to get off, get on, and be ready to leave. I jumped into my 2nd class car, found a seat and thought of what would be next. I decided to wait until the train starts to move, then when the ticket checker would come over, I’d act surprised that my name was not on the list and offer him a few bills to settle this matter amicably. That was the plan – after all, I did book the ticket, so it could’ve happened to anybody. I started to wait.

It didn’t take long for the guy to come. He was equipped with a manifest of all the registered passengers, so he quickly realized that I wasn’t on there. While looking very concerned, I passed him 150 rupees and inquired, “is there any way that we can resolve it… sir?”

“No, the train is full,” he answered. That was unexpected. Maybe he wanted more money, I thought, so I added an extra 100 rupees. He wasn’t budging – “there is no space.”

If my look of concern earlier was acted up, it became real very quickly. “How about 3rd class,” I asked. Screw the damn pillow and the bed sheet – I can live without it. As long as I get where I’m going. He shrugged and said, “you can try it.” Unfortunately, when I approached the ticket guy in the 3rd class, his response was the same. At this point, we were already a fair distance away from Mumbai and I definitely didn’t look forward to starting the journey from scratch the next morning – especially since the story would probably be quite similar, as all of the trains seemed booked.

I decided to try my luck in the 3rd class, non-AC compartment.

As I was making my way between cars, it was amazing to watch how the environment changed. The difference in the train cars was much more than a few amenities. It was hard to believe that the same train could have such an enormous difference in terms of how people traveled. Every available inch of space on the floors, near the bathrooms, near the doors – was occupied by people sitting or lying. Although the the lack of windows did a fairly good job at ventilating the car, it had a permanent smell of sweat and feet, completed by the occassional breeze from the latrines as people entered and exited from them.

The people’s reactions as I was passing through were particularly amusing. Judging by the quizzed look on their faces, they thought that I was lost because there weren’t any other westerners or tourists in this section.

After reaching a point of not being able to go any further because the passageway was filled with people sitting, standing and lying down, all I could do was wait. Ticket checker was nowhere to be seen, so I wound up standing with a group of other travelers that were in a similar situation. I looked at my watch – it was about 1am, or 2 hours into the journey. Just 9 hours left until arrival. It wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but there was certainly no turning back at this point.

Suddenly, the conductor appeared and I explain the situation to him yet again. Finally, a stroke of luck. “For 543 rupees, you can stay,” he said. Not quite sure if that was supposed to be a bribe or what, as it was somewhat of a strange amount, I double checked – “so, for 543, I’ll get a bed here?”

“No, no – no bed. But you can stay. For 543 rupees,” he repeated yet again. It didn’t take long to get what he was getting at. The reality sinked in – the train really was full. No bribe or money would change it at that point. But, at least, this offered an opportunity to stay in the train and complete the journey as planned. I paid the 543 rupees fine, which included the cost of a new ticket and got my receipt.

When the guy left, I sat on the floor, looked at the people around and smiled. And they smiled back. I think that was the most amazing part of the past few hours. As dirty and crowded as this train was, not for a second did it feel unwelcoming. Although, most of the people there didn’t speak much English, the smile seems to transcend whatever language abd cultural barriers you had. Whenever you looked at anyone – man, woman, child – and smiled, they always returned it. It was as if you non-verbally communicated – “Yes, these conditions are shit but at least we’re going where we need to go. Could be worse.”

It was starting to get late and people were settling down. The legitimate riders slept on the 3-tiered bunks and everybody else found a spot wherever there was space. I put my backpack underneath my head. I couldn’t quite stretch out, as my own feet would hit the person next to me, but I found a semi-comfortable position, closed my eyes, and smiled to myself yet again. At that point, I knew that this is one train journey that I’ll remember for a long time to come.

* As much as I wanted to share this, I decided against taking any pictures on this train ride – as I thought it would be rude to the fellow riders.

* On the way back, I’m taking a bus :)








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