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!








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