Yangon and Back – Circle Loop Myanmar: 11.11.2013

On our final day in Myanmar we woke early and got chatting with another traveler. It was certainly interesting to hear another person’s point of view about Myanmar and great to get some advice and insight into travel in Vietnam – a destination we’re headed to next month.
What I found interesting was thinking about Myanmar as being a country that, at the present moment, can be seen changing, growing and developing so quickly. In some ways, you could “feel” the development and changes around you, so to speak; especially in the tiny town of Hsipaw, for example, where seven new guest houses are currently being built to be ready late 2013, in order to keep up with the demand for accommodation. That’s how quickly tourism appears to be growing and an example of how much more accessible Myanmar will continue to become.

Matt joined us this morning for breakfast and the three of us decided to go together on the city circle loop train around the entire of Yangon today – a different type of tourist attraction, you could say, that offers insight into the different areas of Yangon and a glimpse at life in and around this city.

We walked down to the train station, accidentally stumbling into a fascinating morning market in full swing. There were locals everywhere eating and slurping bowls of noodles, fried goods bubbling away in boiling vats of oil, people sitting drinking tea, people buying and selling and the pungent smell of raw meat mixed with fresh produce floating through the air. If we hadn’t been in a hurry to catch the 10:15 circle loop train no doubt we would’ve stopped for a snack and a few photographs.

When we arrived at the train station, walking past vendors selling slices of fresh watermelon and water, we purchased our tickets and found out the train was now departing at 10:45am. We could’ve spent more time at that little hidden morning market, after all – oh well.
I went off to use the toilet at the other end of the station platform, leaving Jake and Matt with my bag – and my wallet. The platform was dotted with families sitting and eating, food vendors, news paper sellers, fruit sellers, toy sellers… such an interesting sight.
Once I’d finished using the toilet I went to leave and was met with a tiny frail woman making smooching noises at me to get my attention, beckoning me to pay her money for using one of the filthiest, foul-smelling toilets of this entire trip to date. I motioned “no money” to her and walked away whilst she made even louder smooching noises at me. It was quite a comical situation, in my head.
I still don’t really understand this concept that seems to be found all over Asia, where you must pay to use the public toilets. Someone sits all day outside toilet blocks that are more often than not beyond filthy, putrid, foul smelling and covered in urine and shit. Squatting over a poo-covered hole in the ground whilst trying not to touch any surface, contract any disease or vomit from the stench, I wonder why I need to fork out money for someone to do nothing. Seeing as there is no water to flush, no toilet paper to use, and very clearly no cleaner working, I see no reason to pay. Perhaps if the toilets were kept in a useable condition that didn’t pose a threat to my health – and my life – I might be a little more willing to hand over money. Furthermore, whilst I have to pay to inhale toxic waste, men are quite happy to shit freely over the side of the train platform or urinate on the toilet block wall. Rant over.

On the train, which cost us just 1200 kyat ($1.20 AU) for the three hour round trip, we sat back in clean seats and watched the life of local Burmese move past. It was incredibly fascinating to see life around Yangon: little markets set up on train station platforms, religious aspects of every day life, monks riding trains (one monk in particular took a liking to us three), locals carrying all sorts of goods, little children forever smiling and waving at us – and lots of adults too. We took the train to simply see the people and life here and seeing as the train moved at a walking – jogging pace for most of the journey, we were able to get some fantastic views and photos. We really were able to see a great deal and enjoy the slow paced journey.

With the sun shining, I moved to the open train doorway and sat on the steps with my feet dangling out of the train. It was a really amazing feeling – I felt so free and calm; the heat of the sun and the cool breeze from the slow-moving train was brilliant. I’ve never felt so free as during this Asian Adventure, and this moment sticks out in my memory.
From the train steps I was offered a full view of the sights, scenery, homes, villages, markets and people. The locals smiled at me and I waved to the children who took delight in calling out “hello.”

The train ride was great, really, and very unique to Myanmar in my opinion.
Walking back into town, the three of us went to Lucky Seven Tea House where we ordered tea: the “little sweet” tea, not the “diabeties tea,” although we were still under some threat from the amount of sugar.

Eventually we said goodbye to Matt who left for the airport shortly after – it had been fantastic travelling with him this past week and we had a lot of fun together.

We stopped off for lunch at a street food stall where I ordered a Burmese food known as hot-pot mee shay noodles. I watched as the young boy added various noodles, vegetables, quail eggs, tofu and miscellaneous edible items into a clay pot, added sauces and spices and then bought it to the boil over an open flame. This dish is one of my favourite dishes in Myanmar, as long as it is from a street stall and not a restaurant.

We spent the afternoon flitting about; we tried to find Jacob a barber so he could get a beard trim but no luck – the barber was there, sitting outside his shop, but obviously just didn’t feel like working and put his feet up, telling us to “come back tomorrow.” If we were in India still, there would’ve been several street barbers within a 50 metre radius, all ready to go. Funny.
I like it.

Packing our backpacks for the final time in Myanmar, we prepared for our flight to Thailand tomorrow. It’s hard to believe our travels in Myanmar are now already over and tomorrow we’ll be meeting my brother and mother in Thailand.
It’s going so quickly – too quickly – but I just can’t work out how to slow the time down. Often I remind myself and am consciously aware of how incredible this moment is, this experience is, this adventure is, but I know for some reason I can’t ever fully comprehend what I’m doing and seeing until it’s in the past and I am looking back and reflecting upon ‘that moment from before…’

Already it’s mid-November – next month is December, the last month of 2013! – and I’m already starting to become a little anxious about going home to Melbourne. I have these worries about fitting back into a routine and an environment that will no doubt cause some sort of ‘reverse culture shock.’
Asia has become so normal, so comfortable, so convenient and so continuously exciting and entertaining; it feels so… well, it’s become my every day and I really love the mess, the noise, the smells, the chaos, the hectic traffic and the unorganised-everything. Asia is free spirited in so many ways – disorderly and full of odd and strange things, shocking things and enthralling things… I think – I know – I’ll miss this madness that makes me smile.

I think what I adore most about the life style here is the continual blatantly obvious differences between my own culture and the Asian cultures. I’m always being entertained, educated, thrilled, excited, confronted, challenged, questioned; I am always aware of how out of my depths I am in so many ways yet so conscious of how much I thrive in the different environments I am in. I love the lifestyle I am living currently and how much I am learning and the way my thoughts, opinions and attitudes are forming. I love the atmosphere, the people, the street food stalls and tiny plastic chairs, the six-times-a-day cups of tea, the constant moving and changing. I love our ‘the night before’ packing sessions and dumping our bags in the next destination once we arrive, and I feel completely settled even though every few days we’re on the move again. This part of the world suits me in so many ways and, really, I feel so happy to know that I’ve truly embraced it all.

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Miso Katsu, Salmon Sushi, Green Tea and Cup Noodles: 13.10.2013

Today has been amazing, simply put. We woke in Nagoya and fall asleep tonight with new friends in beautiful Hida-Takayama.

Yuko, our couch surfing host in Nagoya, had arranged with one of her friends for us to learn how to cook miso katsu (pork) at their home this morning. It had turned into a full scale cooking school experience, with Yuko’s friend inviting her friend and cooking teacher, along with his wife, to teach us how to cook salmon sushi. This was pretty much a dream come true for us.

We arrived around 10am and were greeted as if we were family friends; the warm welcome was so lovely and we were served beautiful Japanese sweets and green tea. Then the cooking began…
Yuko’s two friends, along with one of the friend’s husband – who we called “Sense” – are all amazing cooks and they were straight into the cooking action. Sense is a Japanese chef who apparently trained at Kyoto’s most famous restaurant; now retired, he teaches cooking.

We watched as the women seamlessly prepared the various ingredients and dishes, slicing so beautifully with incredible knife skills and Japanese knives, which Jacob was thrilled by.
Once the sushi rice was washed, cooked and seasoned perfectly with seasoning, sugar, salt and water-soaked ginger, sense began his lesson: using chopsticks with the right hand and the left hand to adjust, he showed us how to place the salmon into the sushi making device so that it looked perfect. I definitely did not master this technique. Pushing exactly 200g of beautiful rice into the device and then applying the lid and lots of pressure, out came a rectangular shaped piece of pure, perfectly seasoned deliciousness. Sense showed me how to cut the sushi and clean the knife each time before placing it beautifully onto long leaves and adding pickle for both presentation and taste.

Whilst I was making sushi, the women were preparing the katsu and various delicate and beautiful dishes – both in terms of presentation and taste.

The meal was an absolute feast; we were served an array of vegetable and pickled vegetables, a beautiful pork katsu with a thick, sweet miso sauce and a cabbage salad, a delicate egg soup and the beautiful salmon sushi. We were overwhelmed by the generosity of these people and were just so thankful and excited to be able to experience this. This is an opportunity we would’ve never expected and imagined; we can’t thank our couch surfing hosts or our lunch hosts enough.

After lunch and saying countless” thank yous” and “goodbyes”, Keiji and Yuko went generously out of their way to drive us almost an hour away to a JR train station near-by Inuyama, and we said goodbye; again – it’s always saddening when we have to say goodbye to people who have been so generous and kind. We feel like we are saying goodbye to old friends.

We took the local JR train bound for Hida-Takayama directly, which was a beautiful ride through amazing scenery, mountains and rivers. I love the train journeys in Japan and for the first time in a long time, I was able to sit back, put my ipod in and just enjoy.

Arriving into Takayama after 6pm, it was dark already and the air was cold – a shock to our system after months of heat. The air smelled beautiful and fresh and it felt so incredible to be back here. Too late to explore and on too tight of a budget to afford premium Hida beef for dinner, we checked into our first and only Japanese hostel – J Hoppers – which is honestly the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in. It has awesome communal kitchen, a great living area, big spacious rooms and large, private and comfortable bunk beds with lots of bedding and space. Their facilities are really good and the location is awesome too.

Instantly we made friends with a Taiwanese and Japanese guy in our dorm room and together the four of us walked down to the local supermarket to get our selves some cheap backpacker food: 98 Yen instant cup noodle ramen. Another guy from China joined our little backpacking posse and soon, back in our communal kitchen, there was an even bigger group of us all coming together to cook and eat and drink the free filtered coffee and green tea. It was a lot of fun, and we spent the rest of our evening in the kitchen chatting and laughing.

I’m really happy to be staying here in this hostel; it’s such a different atmosphere and experience to couch surfing. I’m incredibly grateful and having so much fun couch surfing but in a way I’m really grateful we now have the opportunity for two days to simply relax and just be by ourselves, do as we please, sleep/shower/eat when we want and, even though we’re in a hostel in a shared room, have our own space… Couch surfing is fantastic but we’ve been staying with locals for almost a month straight already (with a two day break in Nepal), so a hostel offers another different experience and it’s wonderful to be able to meet such a diverse group of travelers. This place seems great and I already can’t wait for tomorrow morning to arrive.

A Week in Delhi, India, Part 1: 16 – 20.09.2013

Arriving into Delhi four hours later than we were expecting, thanks to train delays, I’d endured all the staring I felt I possibly could have and was grateful when the train finally pulled up in New Delhi station.  Packs heavy on our backs, we queued up (an Indian style queue, of course, which naturally involved cutting-in, pushing, shoving and no real order) and paid to leave our backpacks with the very inefficient and disinterested cloak room man.

Free of our packs, and still with no idea of what the hell our plan was now that we were here, we really needed to sort ourselves out. Firstly, we needed to post off the bag of stuff we’d accumulated in India and no longer wanted to carry around nor throw/give away, secondly, we needed to phone the Myanmar Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal, and find out if we could apply for our visa there or if we’d have to do it here in India, and finally, we needed to call our couch surfing host and see if it was still okay for us to come along to her home. I was starting to question whether or not we should even bother couch surfing; I was ready to leave India and we contemplated just booking ourselves a flight to Nepal for tomorrow. However, we decided we needed to give Delhi a chance and both of us wanted to meet our couch surfing host, so we persevered.

Fighting our way through the crowds of touters and people obviously lying to our faces, we managed to find a public phone and call the Myanmar Embassy in Nepal, which promised we could organize our visas there within three working days. Done. I was in no mood to deal with anything in India that I didn’t have to at that moment. With the visa concern now resolved, we headed to Connaught’s Place –  a very rich area of Delhi filled with fancy shops and cafes and restaurants and well-dressed locals. We took solace briefly in a cafe and made a basic plan for what our next move would be; how much longer would we stay in India, when would we go to Nepal, should we get another iced coffee? All those sorts of difficult decisions that needed to be made.

With a bulging bag weighing me down, we decided out next priority was to post this bag of crap home. The post office was very near by, but of course that didn’t mean that the act of posting some items home was going to be a simple, stress-free, pain-free, hassle-free or quick process. But then again, by now I have learned that the above mentioned processes do not often exist here.

After I had gone to three counters, found myself a man who would wrap and sew my parcel together with calico and a needle and thread, found a pen, gone back to another two counters to get the correct piece of paper, gone back to the parcel sewing man, paid him and waited patiently whilst he sewed my already well-wrapped parcel shut, gone to another counter to attempt to find a felt-tip marker, found a marker, written the address, struggled to meet the requirements for a sender address in India (seeing as I am a tourist!), written a fake sender address, waited a bit more, filled out a form, waited in line a bit more, got told to fill in another form, waited a bit more, and then finally got told I had to go and get my visa and passport photocopied before the parcel could be sent, I realised that this whole “send my goods home to Australia thing” would not be so simple.
Down a few lane ways, in a shack under a leaking, damaged roof, a tiny Indian guy gladly photocopied my passport and visa for a whopping 10 rupees. Strutting back towards the counter with my documents, I was thinking this might actually be the end of the procedure and after more than an hour, my parcel might actually get processed, but no. It was then some cutting, some gluing (similar to primary school when the teachers give you the shitty, cheap glue that doesn’t stick to anything, except for the fact that in India they don’t even offer you a paint brush); I was forced to use my hands as a glue brush in an attempt to stick my very important documents to the material coating of my parcel that was about to travel across the world.
Handing over a parcel wrapped in calico that looked more like a kindergarten paper-mache/patchwork art work, I paid for the ‘slow service’ and watched as the staff member typed some information into a computer and then hurled my belongings over his shoulder onto the ground. My Indian post office ordeal was over… but who knows if that parcel will ever make it back to Australia.

Parcel sent, it was already mid afternoon and time to head out to our host’s home; a 50 minute train ride away. We were worried how we’d handle packed peak hour trains with our backpacks, especially after experiencing Mumbai’s metro madness…And then, after purchasing a ticket in a normal sort of way, we hopped onto a train that was not only modern, but also fast, clean and air conditioned; it very much reminded me of trains in Japan. For a second, I wondered if we were still in India, but then I saw a pile of men – one picking his nose – sitting all over each other on the designated ladies seat whilst three elderly women stood, and I was bought right back to reality.

At the station near by our host’s home, we were greeted with hugs and smiles. Her driver took us to her home, where we met her house mate Michiko who squealed with delight when she saw us and gave us a great big hug. Instantly, we felt at home.
Whilst we relaxed and showered – feeling disgusting after two days of not showering and sweating in the Indian heat – Masami and Michiko prepared us an incredible feast of home-cooked Indian curries. They invited their Japanese neighbour from upstairs, and together, the five of us enjoyed the company of new friends and amazing food.

Within just a few hours, the feeling of intense need to get out of India and away to Nepal as soon as possible began to diminish. We still didn’t know when we’d be leaving India, but it wouldn’t be tomorrow.

The following few days were spent in a really relaxed sort of manner, choosing to come and go as we pleased and take things a bit easier. Basically, it felt like we were attempting to recover here.

On our first night with our hosts we discovered their love for Vegemite, so on our first full day in Delhi we made it our mission to find a jar of the stuff for them. This search led us to Kahn Market, a high-end fancy area of Delhi where many diplomats, expats and tourists come to look through nice shops, eat and drink at fancy cafes, scour through book shops and purchase high quality foods from the many international supermarkets and grocery stores. Milka and Ritter Sport chocolate, quality imported cheeses and meats, jams, sauces, beer, and of course, our beloved Vegemite, were just some of the items lining the shelves. It was an interesting place to spend a few hours.

We discovered the INA market area a few stations away from Kahn Market, when we were searching for Dilli Haat – a food and craft market we’d wanted to visit. Missing Dilli Haat completely, we spent time wandering through INA instead, finding much of the same products as we did in Kahn Market – including a LOT of Vegemite – as well as other bits and pieces and other interesting things.

On our second evening with our hosts we had an Okonomiyaki Japanese feast – so much incredible Japanese food that we were all able to cook and eat and share together around their table. We loved being there and felt so welcomed and at home; I could feel our exhaustion starting to ease through new friendship, comfort and good, healthy food. Jacob and I had visited the supermarket earlier in the day with the hope to find ingredients to bake ANZAC buscits, but we had found none of the main ingredients and had instead found sugar, nutella, eggs and pomegranate – enough to make some kick-ass mini-pavalovas; Jacob hand-beating the egg whites and sugar for almost an hour. This dessert was a real winner, and over the next week or so with our hosts and anyone else who joined us for dinner, we all consumed too many mini pavs to count (or think about without feeling guilty and fat).

Soon after arriving in Delhi and meeting our hosts, our plans changed from leaving immediately to staying for a week: it was going to be my birthday on the 21st and why leave before then when we could stay and celebrate!? One of our host’s boyfriend was flying over from Japan and they were going away together for a few days, but she’d be back and all of us could celebrate together. It suddenly made no sense to leave early – we were having such a wonderful time, relaxing and recovering and eating and making new friends. I was also suffering from a horrible cold, and a few days were spent in a very low-key manner whilst I tried to recover; there was no way I was going to Japan in any less than 100% top condition.

Days were filled in easily, we came and went, took the train here and there when and if we chose to, we spent a lot of time cooking and even more time eating, talking late into the night sometimes, sharing music, movies, stories, culture, language and lots of home-made chai, chapatti and food. We were able to do little things we’d been missing, like washing our clothing in an actual washing machine, showering with hot water and cooking our own food. We cooked dinner one evening, and Jacob attempted to bake bread which, we learned the hard way, does not cook well in a convection oven. One evening was spent choking on the smoke coming from a loaf of bread that had cooked from the inside out, and caught fire. Lucky we’d all smelt it quickly, before any damage was caused! He’d prepared two balls of dough, and after the first mishap, a quick google search explained the best method to bake bread in that specific type of oven. The second loaf was more of a success.

We visited very few areas of Delhi during our few days there; often choosing respite over sight-seeing. I drank a lot of bubble cup, Jacob cooked a lot of chapatti and chai, our host cooked incredible foods and the three of us – sometimes four of us when the upstairs neighbour came down for a meal and a chat – had a lot of fun.

We visited Dilli Haat again one day where the momos were average and the crafts the same as everywhere else except much more expensive, and ventured into New Delhi station very briefly to check out the touristic area of Paraganj – which we very quickly left, but not before more foolish touters tried to mess with us and tell us we were apparently going the wrong way and should absolutely follow them as they are experts in this area (and no doubt at scamming money from naïve foreigners too). There’s no fooling these two whities any more!

Amazing how in just a few days of being away from the intensity of pollution, heavy traffic, touters, scammers, people harassing us and hoards of people, entering back into the sprawl of craziness left us overwhelmed, frustrated and impatient.

We went shopping nearby to where we were staying one day; I bought a pair of jeans and a jumper in preparation for Japan. Our clothing has become embedded with so much dirt to the point it can not be removed, and I refuse to walk around Japan in brown trekking pants that were once a light beige colour, and a streaky light-blue faded t-shirt that was once a dark navy colour. Besides, how could I pass up brand new Levi jeans for $25 AUD, when back home they’d cost me more than $100.

We arrived in Delhi on a Monday, the start of the working week, and by Friday evening, the end of the working week, Jacob and I had become quite at home with our host. Our second host was still away with her boyfriend, due back on Sunday. Saturday is my birthdayi, and Sunday is my non-birthday birthday; our host will be back with her boyfriend and we’re having a party. The details are being kept top secret, but I am so excited to be here with our little Japanese family in Delhi. It’s funny how things have a way of turning out. We needed this – we needed to end our time in India on a high with good people, healthy food and respite from the intensity and overload that India so often offers. I certainly feel that’s how things are happening here, and it was just so much luck that our paths crossed.

Varanasi: Confronting India: 13 – 15.09.2013

Varanasi is known to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, and also the holiest city in the world. Each of these statuses is impressive on it’s own, and it’s no wonder this magnificent and mysterious city attracts so many domestic and international tourists, on top of the millions of pilgrims and devotees. Love it or hate it, this chaotic, dirty, ancient and incredibly religious city is not for the feint hearted. Every one of our senses was heightened here in Varanasi – we could see, feel, hear and smell the life, death and deep religion surrounding us; there was not one moment outside the confines of our guest house that we weren’t immersed in Varanasi’s captivating magic. We could see it in the people and the buildings, along the ghats and in the river. We could feel it surrounding us as if the deep religion was physically moving; it was in the air and on our skin. We could hear it through the chanting and the temple bells, the early morning rituals and the evening puja. We could smell it in the smoke and in the incense.

We’d been warned about the intensity of the touters here, but that wasn’t actually the biggest challenge for us during our stay here. Varanasi is shockingly filthy; the lane ways are so polluted and covered in waste – we could not take a single step without trying to dodge something nasty, and the smells were often so overwhelming I frequently had to cover my mouth and nose with my scarf. The filth, pollution, rubbish and faeces was something quite difficult to overlook, however, my immense fascination and surprising love for this extraordinary city was thankfully ,much greater than my disgust.

We arrived into Varanasi very early; walking out of the station into a cloud of smoke, hopping into a tuk tuk and then wizzing through the early morning city buzz, we arrived in front of a place that did not look like Mishra Guesthouse… because, it wasn’t. Very quickly we were introduced to Varanasi’s old city’s  sprawling maze of tiny laneways that dart and change and turn at every possible corner, and seemed to be brimming with shit, cows and rubbish.

Dodging and near-missing the never-ending mountains of cow, dog and no doubt human poo, whist struggling to breathe in the scent of human excrement infused with smoke, we followed our driver around corners and through lanes and arch ways, squishing past enormous cows, stray dogs, small shrines and images of Ganesh. At one point, two massive cows cornered me and I was forced to step back into a pile of shit in order to avoid being crushed between them both, which was a little bit scary considering the size of their bodies and horns.

Welcome to Varanasi.

I was so excited to be here.

We arrived at our guest house, dumped our bags and immediately headed to the roof top – Varanasi and the river Ganges was a view I was desperate to see, and one that’s now imprinted in my mind forever. The smokey haze covering the massive sprawl of buildings that curve around the Ganges and ghats was spectacular in its own right; like nothing I had ever seen before. Below me, tiny boats were waiting to set out on the river and monkeys pranced between temple roofs. I could hear the city swinging into action – the ding of cyclists and the horns of motorbikes, people talking and yelling and the sound of temple bells ringing out.
We were staying very close to Manikarnika Ghat, the burning ghat, and the stream of smoke billowing up from the cremation sites was constantly smouldering; a sight we got strangely used to during our short stay. It was a lot to take in on our first view, but over the next few days we spent a lot of time up on that roof top pondering the scene.

The mother Ganges was a sight to be seen – a massive body of water peeping out of the morning haze and smoke, people living and breathing around her pulsing heart. People were washing and bathing, performing religious rituals that are too complex for me to understand,  rinsing away their sins and empowering themselves as they immersed their bodies in her waters.
The mother Ganges river is sacred to Hindus, often I’ve heard it is considered the “lifeline” for the millions of people who live and depend on her for their daily needs. She washes more than 60,000 bodies every day, and to bathe in her waters is considered an honour and a privilege.
Furthermore, to die in Varanasi and be cremated on the banks of the Ganges guarantees the deceased a life in heaven, and is a devout Hindu’s greatest wish. Those cremated here are released from the cycle of life, death and re-birth – in other words, those who die here better be done with living, as this is the final stop before heaven. The burning ghats smoulder and burn 24 hours a day.
We are told there are many hospices here in Varanasi – people come from all over India to live out their last years, months, weeks and days here in order to die here and be cremated; their bones and ashes then thrown into the river.
It is a great honour to be cremated here, but there are certain people who can not be burned, and instead are thrown straight into the Ganges. We were told that children under a certain age (we were told a few different ages, between 2 and 10 years old – I’m not sure what is correct), pregnant women, holy men, monks, suicide victims, cobra bite victims and those with leporacy can not be burned, and instead are thrown into the river, and either sink to the bottom, tied to a rock, or break free and float as they decompose naturally.

Whilst Hindus consider the river Ganges to be pure, and purifying, it is apparently one of the most polluted rivers in the world. In Varanasi alone, we were told that around 200 – 250 million litres of raw, untreated sewerage flows into the Ganges every day, which is a pretty shocking statistic and one I can not comprehend. With this in mind, I decided against taking a holy dip.

Our days in Varanasi became a bit of a blur – we spent most of our time walking through the old city’s maze of lanes and narrow alleys, dodging cows, motorbikes, rubbish and poo. The old city was a never ending exploration; we continually got lost and stumbled upon something new, fascinating, surprising, shocking or delicious.
The laneways are literally pulsating with religion and spirituality – temples and shrines can be found at every turn, images and statues of the various gods and prints of Ganesh mark almost every doorway of every ancient home. The people of Varanasi are so deeply religious, I found it incredible and fascinating to see them and watch their dedication and devotion. They dress in religious clothing, many people with markings on their foreheads or freshly shaven heads – one tuft on the back-top of their head remaining. The practices seemed so varied, the clothing, the rituals, the markings… We wandered about the city trying to take everything in, understanding so little of what was surrounding us; the complex rituals and practices are difficult to comprehend, and there appears to be so much happening in the one place that it was hard to grasp. The religion surrounding me felt so huge – something so unbelievably large – that I occasionally felt overwhelmed by it all. I wanted to know everything, why people were doing what they were doing, why they were dressed in such a way, what they were making, offering, saying… I wanted to know the meanings and traditions and beliefs behind the practices; I wanted to understand, rather than just walk past. By the end of our three days here, I was left with so many questions that I don’t know will ever be answered.
Within this mix of religion, life and death intertwined; Varanasi is both full of life and full of death. People are everywhere – as are cows – and so are the dead. The first time I saw a body being carried through the streets, the last time, and every time in between shocked me to my core and I could not comprehend what I was seeing before my eyes. We were confronted by death several times on a daily basis during our stay in Varanasi, and it was something I never quite felt comfortable facing.

When we weren’t wandering through the old city, or through the main chowk area, we were usually at the Blue Lassi shop – an institution in Old City that every tourist will know and probably have fond memories of. It was a fantastic place to meet people from every part of the world; we spent many hours over our three days chatting and listening and meeting new people, including one obnoxious Australian man who enjoyed beginning debates with every one he came into contact with, then attacking them, insulting their country, and backing them into a corner until he “won” the argument by force. He appeared to enjoy interrupting everyone, talking over the top of people and squashing everyone else’s opinions. Although he didn’t vote in Australia’s recent election – due to the fact he was on holiday – he took great pleasure and went to great lengths to insult Jake and myself for not voting, and enjoyed pointing that out to all those around us. He had a strong view about travel blogs and anyone who is “stupid” (his words) enough to waste time blogging or reading them, so it’s safe to say he wont be reading this.
Blue Lassi became our second home – we usually had breakfast and dinner here, and sometimes, some incredible street food in between. This tiny hole in the wall shop served up fruit filled lassis and a view of the lane way that was always crammed with the living and the dead. We often occupied the front two seats in the window sill of the shop, watching the pedestrians, motorcyclists and cyclists try to negotiate the spaces between each other, along with the cows, dogs, children, men using the wall as a urinal, chai wallas and food sellers, non-spatially aware tourists and piles of shit. Furthermore, we listened to grieving men as they chanted “Rama nama satya hai” and watched as they passed, waving incense and carrying the bodies of their family members through the streets. Seeing the men carrying the bamboo stretchers, the bodies of their loved ones covered in flowers and gold, red, orange, pink and white cloths, was something I never was quite able to comprehend. It felt so shocking and confronting and at the same time, so final and complete. For me to understand that in just a short while, these bodies would become nothing but ash and be released, in a literal and spiritual sense, into the holy Ganges, is very difficult. Death is not something I am used to being exposed to, but here in Varanasi it was a constant.
More than once during our stay, as we wandered through the lanes, we became caught up in a “traffic jam” of crowds of people and motorbikes, and stuck between a funeral procession. It is difficult to explain, but being unable to move away from the dead body that was held just centimeters from us was, for both Jacob and myself, quite a confronting and disconcerting experience.

We spent a lot of our time here walking the streets and exploring the sights. We were staying very close to the burning ghats, and just once took the opportunity to go and see the cremations taking place. We’re still not sure how we feel about the whole experience, and if we felt ‘right’ going to view the cremations, but we were curious and fascinated by the religious and spiritual practices that make Varanasi so famous world-wide.

By the burning ghats, there are several areas where wood is stored and sold. Massive scales weigh the wood, and there are different types of wood at different costs. There is a “fine art” to using the right amount of wood to completely consume and burn a body (it takes around 300kgs of wood – sandalwood being the preference, and the most expensive), and it was fascinating to see the wood being carried and sold and weighed on the scales. If you can imagine how much wood is needed for just one body, and the number of bodies burned daily here in Varanasi, it’s understandable but hard to comprehend that wood is bought in from up to 1000kms away.

There appeared to be two main sights where cremations were taking place at Manikarnika Ghat – up some stairs to a higher mezzanine level, and on the banks of the Ganges. We were told that up to 200 bodies are burned at this ghat each day.
We climbed some steps, very unsure of where was acceptable and allowed, cautious of touters and scammers, and trying to remain respectful. We stood for a few minutes above the cremation sites, the smoke burning our eyes, watching the burning taking place on the banks of the Ganges, and what I saw will remain with me forever.

Whilst it’s impossible to explain what I felt there as I watched, I understood what was happening to be deeply spiritual; that these bodies and souls were now at peace and on their way to heaven.

The cremation process is a complex one – steeped in religious rituals and beliefs – and one I became fascinated by. Wood is bought by family and friends for the deceased to be cremated upon. How wealthy the purchaser is determines what kind of wood, and how much of it, can be bought. The poorer people may not be able to afford enough wood to completely reduce a body to ash, which results in remaining body parts being thrown into the river. Those who can afford more, can choose where their loved ones are cremated along with other important religious considerations. It costs between around $10 – 70 to burn a body, as we were told.
Bodies of the deceased are wrapped in a simple cloth, then covered in coloured cloths with individual meanings. Before a body is placed onto the wood to be burned, the coloured cloth is removed and the body dipped into the Ganges then smothered with ghee.
It takes around 3 – 4 hours for a body to completely reduce to ash, and male family members and friends observe the process whilst Doms – members of the “untouchable” cast – stoke the fire to keep it burning. If the skull explodes during the burning process, it is considered lucky, as the soul can escape to heaven. If not, the skull is cracked by a family member – usually the eldest son. Quite often, a hip or chest bone remains, and together with the ash, they are thrown into the Ganges when the cremation is complete.
No women are allowed to attend the cremation ceremonies; only male family members watch the bodies turn to ash. I’m not exactly sure what the reasoning for this is as we were told two different stories: firstly, that no crying is allowed at the cremation sites as it will damage the soul on it’s way to heaven, and secondly, that many years ago, the female family members of the deceased – particularly the wives – would occasionally be overcome with grief and throw themselves onto the fire. To stop this, women were banned.

Besides the five or six cremation sites (it was difficult to tell as the cremations were at very different stages of burning) bodies still on the bamboo stretchers were left on piles of rubbish and cloth and dirt, waiting to be burned. Cloth piles were everywhere, and the monsoon rains had left mounds of sediment and filth along the entire ghats. Amongst this mess, I watched as cows chewed slowly on wilting flower garlands and men with giant metal bows sifted through the mud, river water and human ash, searching for gold and jewellery once worn by the deceased.

We didn’t stand there for too long, a few minutes was enough, and we climbed down the steps and through the masses of people and piles of wood, back away from the ghats.

One evening, we attempted to take an evening boat ride on the Ganges – without a torch and due to the mighty monsoon, the ghats were flooded and we walked through filth, mud and water (which I can only assume came from the Ganges and was posing a serious threat to my health). At the ghats, hundreds of people were bathing, brushing their teeth, washing their clothing or simply standing or sitting around observing. Our boatman walked us to where our boat was meant to be, then left and didn’t bother to return – after ten or so minutes standing on the banks of the Ganges in the dark, whilst men stared and I fretted for my health, we left. Squelching back to our room, we headed straight for the bathroom tap where we washed the holy filth from our feet and let the water and soap absorb into our skin for the next half hour or so. I prayed we’d make it through.

The next morning we woke early and made a second attempt to take a boat ride on the Ganges. This time there was light; enough to see where we were stepping and make a decent attempt to keep our feet Ganges-free. There was eight of us in total on the boat, and the poor boatman struggled to paddle whilst our guide explained much of what I now know about the Ganges and Hindu cremation rituals. As we watched the sun rise over the river and the pilgrims performing their morning rituals, the cremations came into full view and once again, I felt confronted by my surroundings. This was such a different world to what I knew.

Our guide answered happily whatever questions were thrown at him, but it was most shocking when one of the Spanish tourists asked whether or not was true that people actually drink the Ganges water.
Cupping his hands, he leaned over the side of the boat, collected some water and poured it down his throat. Meanwhile, I almost vomited into the body of water he’d just drunk from. The same body of water that collects hundreds of millions of litres of sewerage every day, where the bodies of deceased people and animals decompose, where waste from countless sources and ash from thousands of bodies is dumped, and where water-borne diseases are rampant. He drank from one of the worlds most polluted and highly infectious rivers, yet, somehow, he was still alive. He explained, revealing his tiny biceps, that “I believe this is my mother Ganga. If I believe I drink her, she make me strong. If I believe I drink water, I sick.”
Still reeling with shock, I told him that “regardless of what I believe, if I drink, I die.”
We continued the rest of our boat ride, which was really a highlight of our stay in Varanasi, and I continued to fear the possible sight of a floating body.

On our final day in Varanasi I woke with a cold, feeling pretty rotten. We took a walking tour with a guide from our hotel which was 100 rupees very well spent. He took us to some very magnificent religious sites – temples, ashrams, shrines and mosques – and explained in detail about various religious practices, gods, beliefs, and the buildings themselves. He toured us through lanes and alleys we’d not yet discovered during our stay, and we saw a very different side of the old city that was fascinating.

We departed Varanasi on the evening of the 15th at 7:40pm – for once a reasonable train departure time! It meant a final dinner at Blue Lassi after our walking tour, where a shockingly high number of bodies (for me – not for the shop owner who said that’s very normal) were carried past our window sill.

At around 5:30pm we collected our luggage and headed for the train station. Walking through the narrow lane ways with our packs bulging, it was difficult to manoeuvre ourselves amongst the cows, motorbikes, pedestrians, rubbish and excrement, and even a funeral procession. We made it to the ‘top’ of the old city where the chowk began, and were instantly pounced on by several keen auto drivers who screamed and shouted until Jacob got them in order. It was hilarious to watch him holding an “auction” of sorts, attempting to find the lowest offer to take us to the station. The drivers were all so eager to get our sale, and one even resorted to holding his hand in the air like a school child in order to win us over. He did in the end, and we got into his tuk tuk and said goodbye to Varanasi, but not before a police officer stopped him for whatever reason and we were left sitting alone whilst a thousand people stared and the policeman looked very angry.

Eventually we made it to the station; we ate some naan at a very dodgy looking local place and then boarded our train – our very last overnight train in India. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved in some ways; whilst I love the Indian Railways, climbing up to my top berth bunk is becoming too familiar and worrying about my safety and my belongings all night is getting tiresome.

As we sat on our seats, an Israeli girl joined us, and I was grateful for one more tourist – and a female! – in our cabin.
Whilst we sat, waiting for our train to move, a small child shoved his hands through the open window with a metal dish and spent a very long time clanging it against the metal window frame asking us for money. I felt very distressed by this situation, and again, was grateful this was the last train journey for now. We were soon joined by five more men in our 8 bed cabin, who proceeded to stare at both me and the Israeli girl for the duration of our trip – what would turn out to be a whole 16 hours. Beside our 8 sleeper cabin, still in our view, two more boys proceeded to stare and photograph both us girls on their phones, until Jacob gave them such a nasty glare they put away their phones… at least until the Israeli girl climbed up to her bunk, at which point they both took their phones back out and quickly snapped a couple of pictures of her bottom.
At that point, I was so relieved that this was our last train trip, and I was beginning to feel very uncomfortable.

As the train began to move from the platform, much later than 7:40pm, people began to lock up their belongings with chains and sellers moved amongst the carriages selling drinks and newspapers. We bought a drink and a paper – the drink smelled like poison and we didn’t drink it, and the boy next to me spent a good hour leaning way too close to me, pretending to read my news paper whilst I kept nudging him away from me. Now I was feeling more than uncomfortable.
I quickly moved over to Jake’s side of the berth as soon as the fat man in our carriage (who had the world’s most disgusting and terrifying feet!) got up to use the bathroom. I’ve learned by now that on Indian trains it’s every man for himself, so I stole his seat and hid next to Jacob, wishing we could get off. Sitting there was safer in some aspects, but also put me in full view of every man in our carriage, and I spent a good hour or so being stared at by at least six pairs of eyes. I was now hating this train ride, and wanted to get off.

Feeling horrible, I was momentarily relieved for the police presence that walked through our carriage. “Oh good” I thought. Then I saw their massive guns, and wondered why they were walking towards Jacob, the Israeli girl and myself. Each one of us was handed a piece of paper, a pen and a form, something I’d never experienced before on the Indian Railways – I wondered what was going on. The police stood over us, and I proceeded to read the piece of paper, which informed me in poorly worded English that basically, this specific train journey (Varanasi – Delhi) is renowned for intentional druggings and theft of tourists, and that it is in my best interests to decline any food and drink offered to me, as well as to lock up my belongings very securely. We then had to sign a waiver form saying we read and understood the form, which felt a little bit like I was signing my life away. By this point, I was terrified. Whilst I sat their quietly shitting myself, the fat man with foul feet put down his bed, and then lay down opposite me with one eye open, staring at me. The next five or so minutes went something like this… “Jacob, he’s sleeping with one eye open, staring at me… Jacob. He’s still staring. Okay, I’m getting scared, he’s still staring. Jake, he’s still staring, I hate this. Okay, I hate this, I really hate this. Oh fuck, they’re all staring…! Okay, that guy just took a photo of me! Jake! Jake! Jake – seriously – are you sleeping!? How!?…”

Eventually, I climbed up to my bunk (with Jake standing directly behind me so no one could photograph my ass) and lay there fretting. Below me, I could still see staring eyes, and I knew it was going to be a really, really long train ride. Any relief I had felt about this being my last train ride had been replaced with fear, and the wish that this ride would simply be over.

Varanasi was well and truly behind me now, and Delhi was just a few – very long – hours away.

Agra-essive India: 10.09.2013

What a full on day we’ve had here in Agra; I can safely say that after what we experienced – rather, endured – today, I am never coming back here in my lifetime. The Taj Mahal really will be a once-in-a-lifetime for me.

Our day started wonderfully, we took a tuk tuk to the station (after one ridiculous driver tried to charge us 300 rupees for a 15 rupee ride!) and boarded the one train I have been waiting enthusiastically to take in India! The Shatabdi Express! – once described to me as “luxurious, by India standards.”  It was pretty awesome; we had comfortable upholstered seats, leg rests and the train was clean and spacious. We had room to store our bags above us, a tray table, and staff who served us with a news paper, water, tea, breakfast, candy, buiscuits and chai. Very luxurious, I’ll say. I felt like I was on India’s version of the Japanese Shinkansen, and I was almost a little disappointed that the train ride was to be only three and a half hours – it was so lovely!

On the train, I sat admiring my surroundings and wondering if I’d made the right decision to book us flights to Japan… then I heard a little voice say “Ah-gu-ra?” I turned around instantly, recognising that cute accent. A little Japanese man sat down in the seat behind us, and I had to smile. By the time we exited the train, we had an offer from the Japanese man to show us around Osaka when we arrived, and I was feeling 100% sure we’d made the right decision.Thank you, to who ever sent me that little sign of confirmation.

Stepping into Agra Fort train station, we dumped our bags in the cloak room and were immediately preyed upon by a rickshaw driver. We were cautious – evidently not cautious enough – and tried to shake him, however, he oddly seemed like maybe, just maybe he was being a little less schemey than the rest of them… We took him up on his offer for a days sight seeing, and hopped into the rickshaw where his son was very helpful in telling us what scams to look out for in Agra. He forgot to mention the one him and his dad were running.

We arrived near the South Entrance to the Taj, and proceeded to walk through a lane way packed with shops and touters, all begging and pleading and trying their hardest to hassle us into their shops. I kept my backpack on my front, with my arms hugging it tightly.

We lined up for our tickets, which cost us 750 rupees each (just a little more than the 20 rupees that the locals pay for their entrance tickets) but absolutely worth it.
We were then waved through to the front of the security line, passing through and being patted down by officers before they went through every section of my bag, wallet and possessions. They accepted my bulging pack, but declined my lap top, a tiny torch and a deck of UNO cards entrance into the Taj, so it was back to the cloak room to store my goods. I’m not sure what was so dangerous about my UNO cards, but it was all made clear to me when they said gruffly “Government Policy.”

Stepping into the Taj was exciting! It was crowded with people, but it didn’t matter, we were here and it was incredible! The entrance gate was magnificent in its own right, and walking through gave us a glimpse of what was to come, with the Taj coming more and more into view with every step towards it. I had butterflies!

We stepped through the entrance gate to see the Taj in full view, and it was really exciting! People were everywhere, lots of domestic tourists taking hilarious photos of themselves in strange poses. It was a big competition to get a photograph without several men posing with borrowed sun glasses and arms folded, but we succeeded eventually; I guess everyone wanted a piece of the Taj.

We spent a good hour or so wandering about the grounds, around the Taj and inside it, where we were speechless. It was beautiful, spectacular and just so massive! How amazing it was to be here…
I was left speechless again when I watched a man very obviously and intentionally grab a female tourist’s bottom. Not good.

It was very special to be there, but eventually we left and wandered back through the lane of touters, where I had to yell at a small child to leave me alone, after he followed me for way too long trying to drag me into his 1-rupee per-post-card shop, grabbed my arm and harassed me aggressively almost to breaking point. The Taj Mahal was indeed beautiful, but stepping back out was simply walking into a feeding frenzy.

Back in our tuk tuk, the drivers took us to see the Agra Fort, which we decided not to enter and instead, marveled at from the outside. Seeing as 75% of the fort is inaccessible to tourists and is used by the military, the Red Fort was pretty impressive from the outside without the hefty foreigner entrance fee.

Tuk tuk driver then took us to a chai shop where he assumed we would pay for his drinks, and spent a lengthy amount of time explaining to us in detail, with lots of “true stories” to back up whatever he said, that apparently every guest house with a restaurant in Agra has a network with tuk tuk drivers, doctors and the local hospital, and intentionally poisons tourists in order to get commission from each of their networks, and earn more money from sick tourists who are forced to pay use a tuk tuk to go to the doctors, then to the hospital, then pay to stay extra nights in their guest house recovering… Whilst we’re not sure how true this is, he was very persistent about just one restaurant in Agra being safe to eat at, and ensured us it was in our guide book (it was not). Driving past the place to “just show us,” I was pretty sure that if any restaurant in Agra was actually out to make tourists sick, it was that one, and we gladly declined his ‘generous’ offer.

After originally promising not to, and then attempting to lure us to a Government shop , which I flatly and continually refused, tuk tuk driver must’ve realised we were in no mood to “shop” just so he could get commission. I think he got a bit shitty, as he then declined my request to take us to an orphanage I wanted to pay a visit to, to donate some stationary and colouring books for the little children. He had originally agreed to take us there, but suddenly 5km was “too far,” and just like that, our “seven hour tour of Agra” with the tuk tuk driver was over – just two hours later… Furthermore, when I asked for my 100 rupees change, he refused and basically shoved us out of his tuk tuk, telling me how wonderful his shit service had been and that he deserved that extra 100 on top of the already ridiculous fee, simply for doing not a whole lot.

That bitter taste in my mouth was becoming unbearable, and it was only 1pm. We still had 10 hours to spend in Agra, in the heat, with the thousands of sharks (touters), before our train to Lucknow arrived.

We decided to walk through the train station to cross over to the local bazaar, hoping it would entertain us for a while. Fending off monkeys with my backpack, we crossed over and through a filthy area where dozens of men were urinating and shitting on piles of filth. The bazaar was jam packed and traffic was heavy, congested and dangerous. Wandering about was difficult, and it wasn’t long before we made the attempt to walk back to the near- by fort area, passing cows, dodging rubbish, poo and touters and dogs mating in the street.

By the time we walked to the top of the road, we were hot, stressed and sick of having to duck and weave and dodge hectic traffic and constant touting. We attempted to hail a rickshaw, but no one wanted to use their meter (of course not), let alone give us a price anywhere even near reasonable. 300 rupees for a 1km distance was out of the question. Declining one driver who refused to use the meter, he quickly changed his tune and immediately tried to repair two very obviously severed wires. Whilst doing so, we were suddenly surrounded by at least 20 men who all wanted to know what was happening, and why we hadn’t chosen their rickshaw. One man was particularly aggressive, and demanded we get into his tuk tuk for 100 rupees. Declining him politely, he quickly dropped to 80 telling us that this was the local price. Then again dropping to 70, all whilst I was politely saying no thanks, no that’s too much, that’s not a fair price, no, no, no, please – no, listen – no!…NO!”  He continued to yell “70! Okay! Get in! 70!”, and we were stuck in a circle of men who seemed to be really enjoying the show whilst I tried to escape. I thought it had ended with me screaming at them and pushing through the crowd… but then the aggressive man got into his tuk tuk, drove after us and screamed at us to get in. It officially ended with Jacob screaming – and I mean, screaming (never had I heard him scream before!) at the driver in Hindi to leave us alone. It was an awful experience and left me almost in tears from sheer exhaustion; I was sick of this bull shit and we’d both had enough of the horrible treatment we were receiving from everyone we came into contact with. We walked away in silence, feeling rotten and wanting to get out of this city as quickly as possible, yet knowing we still had hours to go.

Eventually, we found a tuk tuk driver who finally agreed to a price that was only a reasonablye rip-off, rather than just simply ridiculous, but before we could get in to his vehicle, we witnessed a hit and run accident; a tuk tuk on the wrong side of the road smashed into a young boy on a bike and immediately sped off at a ridiculous speed, leaving locals chasing after the driver and running to the boy’s aid. He was fine, but after seeing that and the distress written all over that poor boys face, I was now at almost breaking point.

Our driver took us to a café – but not the one we’d requested; one much closer and more convenient for him. We argued that we did not want to go to this cafe, and a passing cycle rickshaw driver told him where to take us, but not before offering us some “very good weed,” which we declined angrily. I was expecting to have to fight with our driver to get our agreed price, after he drove for several minutes more to take us to the correct café, but it came as a sheer relief when he accepted what we had agreeed upon.

Entering Café Coffee Day – the Indian version of Gloria Jeans or Hudson’s Coffee – we simply needed respite. It was just 4pm, and we still had 7 and a half hours until our train arrived. We dragged our packs up the steps, dumped them by an empty table, slumped into our seats, and did not move from there for another seven hours. Yep. That’s right, we, along with many other tourists, bunkered down and hid from Agra for seven whole hours until our night train arrived.

Whilst whittling away the hours, we spoke with a girl who’d just come from Lucknow – our next destination. Jake and I had heard great things about Lucknow, and were looking forward to a less touristy area with great food! However, had left her with memories that were obviously less than perfect; she’d been quite distressed by her experience there, and she really put fear into me about our next destination… after today’s events, I didn’t feel I could handle anything else distressing… This meant our last few hours in Agra were spent with me worrying about what was to come, and wishing we could just go to Delhi and fly away.

Still cautious about the possibility of food poising, we hadn’t eaten all day, besides our bits of bread, biscuits and tea on the Indian Shinkansen at 7am. Outside the café, still within the distance of our safety net, was a vegetarian street stall cooking up great food and packed with locals. Food we could trust; Jake had some sort of Indian street food, and I ate a piece of naan. That would do.

Around 11pm, we braved the streets and I bartered a tuk tuk driver down from 200 to 50, my first (little) win in Agra. He took us down  narrow bumpy streets and dropped us at the station, just as another tourist got out; another Japanese boy.

On the platform, surrounded by thousands of staring eyes, we and the Japanese boy found another pair of tourists and congregated near them. Then another few tourists found us, and soon we were one big group on a platform surrounded by families on blankets eating and drinking and staring and sleeping and pooing over the rail tracks.

We had sleeper class tickets to Lucknow; we’d taken a few sleeper class trains when we first arrived in India, but had switched to taking  3AC class berths after discovering they were a little safer and nicer, and not packed with people on waiting lists for a seat. This train was really dirty,  the worst we’d come across, and I missed the luxury of having a sheet to protect me from the grime and several sets of staring eyes. I lay awake for ages thinking about India and Japan, whilst attempting to block out the strange noises coming from the train.

I really hoped Lucknow would be as great as we’d originally hoped.

Rat India: 5 – 6.09.2013

The train ride from Jaisalmer to Bikaner was tiring; overwhelmingly loud noises, the incredible speed of the train and the fact that I frequently had to hold onto the rails to stop myself falling off the top bunk had me wide-awake for most of the journey, fretting that our train was going to de-rail. Maybe a tad over dramatic – who’s to say?

We had planned to Couch Surf here in Bikaner,  however, when we got off the train, some random guy by the name of Ali was there waiting for us; turns out his friend from the hotel we stayed at in Jaisalmer had made a call to him to say we were coming, and Ali was well prepared at 6am to take us to his friend’s hotel he was sure we’d prefer. Oh, India.
It’s not like we were difficult to spot on the Bikaner train platform either; two whities amongst a crowd of thousands of Indians: not one other tourist stepped off the train…

Our couch surfing plans fell through, and we headed instead to a guest house I’d read great things about: Vijay Guest House (around 4km out of town). Vijay, the man himself, wearing a full set of white Kurta Pyjamas and bright orange crocks, with a curly Rajisthani mustache and a big smile welcomed us.
He was generous and kind, and knew how to treat tourists. What a relief. He offered to take us into town with him around 11am, when he was going in to the market area. We took him up on his offer, and traveled by car to the old town area.

Bikaner is a desert city – right in the middle of the Thar Desert – but its jam packed with people; it’s not such a big place, but it’s damn busy and has a population of around 600,000. Once you take into account the number of cows, camels and dogs walking the streets, that number probably doubles or triples.
It is hot here; so hot that the heat exhausted us quickly. We found solace in a very local-only sweet shop, Chotu Motu Joshi Hotel, and filled our empty stomachs with delicious lassis, puris with potato and the apparently “must have here because it’s the best in town” rasgulla – another Indian sweet we couldn’t stomach.

We had an hour and a half to enjoy before meeting Vijay, but the heat, the constant hard staring from people, the photo photo going on and the hectic traffic made us feel the need to retreat. It felt as if this place had never seen a tourist before; we were something everyone needed to get a very good, long look at: something that is really starting to exhaust me.

Back at Vijay’s, we slept the afternoon away, emerging eventually to get chai from the vendor outside the guest house. The many men drinking there were fascinated by us, and every time we went there we had a crowd of people wanting to talk to us, stare at us, call their friends over to see us, shake our hands… Funny.

We spent our one night in Bikaner in our safety bubble – choosing to eat dinner at our guest house and watch the night fall over the town whilst I strummed my ukulele and looked back on our travels in India to-date.

I’m beginning to have mixed feelings towards India, and I’m starting to find traveling here more of a challenge each day. There are so many factors that make each day in India incredible, interesting and lively, yet at the same time unbelievably challenging, frustrating and distressing. I have found myself becoming less patient with those who try to take advantage of us, try to rip us off, those who stare and photograph us, those who try to cheat us. At the beginning of this trip I was able to accept it, laugh it off and say – Oh well, I guess we have to expect that here! – but now, I don’t feel like I have to accept it. I’m growing a bit tired of having to argue with people to treat us fairly, and argue with people to leave us alone. It’s exhausting to feel so skeptical and not be able to trust people around us. It can be stressful worrying about our safety every time we get into a tuk tuk, walk the streets, meet someone new, travel by train overnight, eat anything….
It’s upsetting to feel that I can’t trust those around me; even more so those who may be genuinely nice (it can be very hard to differentiate between genuine and not-so-genuine offers of “may I help you?”). I find myself having to talk to people aggressively, or sternly, simply because I feel here it is necessary at times. I don’t go around yelling at everyone, of course, but I’m starting to find it difficult not to get angry when people feel they can harass us to almost-breaking point, and take advantage of us simply because we are white, and therefore, must be rich and happy to hand over our hard earned money.

I still love India, that’s for sure – it’s a country I want to come back to, explore more of, become captivated by over and over. We were like children in a candy store when we arrived here; the chaos and traffic and people and sounds, light, colours all captivated our attention. Now, trying to constantly dodge shit, pot holes, deadly traffic, cheating touters and upturned or missing pavement isn’t so wonderful. Perhaps what I am trying to say is simply, whilst this country is truly incredible, and never ceases to amaze me, I’m starting to get a bit tired…

I think it’s quite common for people traveling in India to feel this way; I hear and read a lot about this whole “loving India – hating India stage” process that people seem to go through; maybe I’ve reached a new “stage?”

On our second morning in Bikaner, we walked from Vijay’s guest house to the bus stop, which was about a 50 minute walk down the road. Tuk tuks offered us many ridiculously priced rides which we declined on pure principal; preferring to walk in the extreme heat on the road and dust (no footpaths), rather than be ripped off.

We took a bus (after Rock, Paper, Scissoring whether or not we actually wanted to make the trip) out to Deshnoke, a town about a 40 minute bus ride away through dusty, sleepy desert towns. Apparently when people come to Bikaner, it is rare that they don’t make a trip out here, simply to visit one place: Karni Mata Temple: The Rat Temple. I guess Rock, Paper, Scissor was right – we had to visit.

The idea of a temple full of thousands of rats, for me, does not bring about the most pleaseant thoughts. However, it does intrigue me…just a little.
Karni Mata is worshiped as the incarnation of the goddess Durga; she was a Hindu woman who lived a very elegant and revered life, and is known for her temple in Deshnoke, for which she laid the foundation stone.
Karni Mata temple is not like any other temple we’ve visited, for the fact that it is home to around 20 thousand-odd (very sick looking) rats, which are considered to be sacred animals and highly respected by the thousands of pilgrims (and curious tourists like ourselves) who visit this temple daily.
The story behind this temple goes something like this: Karni Mata’s son, Laxman, died, so she asked Yama – the god of death – to bring him back to life. Refusing to do so, Yama instead allowed Laxman and all of Karni Mata’s male children (she must’ve had a lot of them…) to be reincarnated as rats.
The rats here are fed daily by the thousands of worshiping visitors, who bring with them bowls upon bowls of India sweets and milk for the rats to enjoy.

On arrival, we got off the bus to be greeted with touters, tuk tuk drivers, beggars, dust and dirt and a LOT of staring. Covering my head with my scarf barely made a difference.
We walked over to the area where we had to deposit – very unwillingly – our shoes, and demanded some sort of material slipper; there’s no way I was walking bare footed through a temple where thousands of rats live, eat, poo and die.

Looking like absolutely ridiculous tourists, with material bags covering our feet, a thousand people stared as we lined up to enter the temple. Staring back at the thousands of bare feet around me, I felt sick already by the sheer thought of what we – and they – were about to stand on. I’d love to see the results of a bacteria swab of the temple floor; or maybe, I wouldn’t…

On entering the temple, we saw a rat.

Then two…
Then a thousand. Oh, fuck, get me out of here now.

Apparently it’s good luck if you see a white (albino) rat, or if a rat runs directly over your foot. Even more so, it’s considered to be a prestigious honour to eat food nibbled by the rats themselves. Oh, I’m about to be sick.
I was more concerned about what diseases I may contract during my five minutes inside the temple than I was spotting a white rat, and someone help me if one even so much as came near my foot!

Whilst bare footed pilgrims fed the diseased looking rats bowls of sugar and Indian sweets, I tried to stand as still as possible for fear of stepping on any more grainy rat poo. I watched as two women scraped the grey-black dusty, oily rat-germ infested grime from the floor and touched it to their foreheads, leaving a greasy grey mark. I almost vomited, but then stopped myself for fear of attracting rats.

We wandered around the temple, avoiding the rat poo and many cameras shoved in our faces, to see a group of pilgrims touching their hand to every rat-waste-covered step as they ascended to another rat-infested area. So many rituals seemed to be taking place, none of which we could comprehend, and we were shocked by all of what we saw, to say the least.
The fascination and shock that India offers us never seems to end.

After the eight hundredth person had photographed us – instead of the temple they had come to visit – and a rat came remotely close to me, it was time to leave. We escaped into the sun light, unscathed and without an albino rat sighting. No eternal good luck for us, I guess.

What an experience.

At the shoe stand, it was almost impossible to get our shoes back, let alone put them onto our feet, which were now thankfully free of the bacteria-sodden slippers. A massive crowd had forgotten they were meant to be visiting the rats, and instead was more fascinated with these two terrified whities. The crowd formed around us while the shoe guy demanded we pay him, right underneath the sign that said “free service.” Whilst I argued that no, actually, this is a free service and just because we are white-skinned doesn’t mean you can rip us off  (a rant I am getting very well versed in, and a little bit sick of having to repeat), a screaming baby was shoved into Jacob’s arms. I tried to escape from the pappping, but it was no use; still trying to put my shoes onto my feet, a plump woman grabbed my arm with such a grip she left a bruise. I was forced into the photo with Jake, standing a few steps up from everyone else, feeling like some sort of mistaken celebrity on a podium. The huge crowd had doubled – all with cameras out – as Jake and I made ugly faces and the baby cried some more. It was a very weird experience, to add to what we’d already just seen, and I continue to wonder how many hideous photographs are now floating around Indian Facebook of these two Aussie tourists.

Escaping the crowds, we emptied an entire bottle of hand sanitizer onto our hands and ran to the nearest Bikaner-bound bus. We were safe.

Back in Bikaner, we headed for Chotu Motu Joshi again; we needed a lassi. There was a lot we wanted to see today, the Fort, Old Town, the Havelis… but we ended up simply walking to The Garden Café where we happened to meet Ali, the same guy from yesterday morning who met us at the station. Strangely enough, he knew we did not stay with the couch surfer, and furthermore, he knew where we WERE staying… he proudly told us that he knew exactly how many tourists had and were arriving in Bikaner today, where they were arriving from, where the tourists were staying, and conversely, how many tourists were leaving Bikaner today on the buses and trains. He explained he “has connections, and anyone in India that does business does too.” This makes me incredibly uncomfortable about traveling here , as though we are being constantly watched, followed, observed by those in the tourism industry, and all in a very sinister sort of way. It’s something I’ve started to suspect recently, after noticing sometimes people just seem know things about us, when really it seems impossible… but, Ali confirmed it, explaining the people at the station see the tourists leaving one destination/arriving at the next and make a phone call, then someone makes another phone call, and then another phone call, and then another… “That’s how we do business,” he said.

Chatting with Ali was an experience; he was able to answer our “taboo” questions about India, but I never felt quite sure what his motives were. It’s funny; he was proud to say that if we want to travel well here, we should lie about everything; who we are, what are names are, where we are from, what are jobs are, where we live, how many times we’ve been in India, where we are staying… basically, he explained “anytime someone talks to you, they want to know where you from, how long you be in India, where you come from, where you stay… simply so they can calculate how much money they can get out of you; how badly they can rip you off.” I felt really saddened by this, and my deflated feeling about traveling here was starting to come back.
Of course, I know this is absolutely not true of all Indian people – we have met some incredible people here – but it’s a shame that he was able to confidently – and proudly! – make such a generalized statement like this.

He showed us his shop – of course – but he was adamant he did not want to sell us anything. He then gave us a hand-made bag as a gift, but then explained that every one in town will know where this bag came from – his shop – and made us promise to tell every touter in the street who asked us the price, that we bought it for 600 rupees… Not sure what his intentions were, but when someone did later ask us, we didn’t tell them anything.

We left Ali eventually, feeling still unsure about what our meeting with him had been like; we just never were really able to trust him, even when he was being seemingly generous – or, is it that we just can’t seem to trust anyone here anymore?

We wandered about the old town, taking photographs and dodging cows and touters, looking at the beautiful havelis and old buildings, the market stalls and food being cooked. People all seemed to want a photograph of them taken; funny, how opposite it is for me.
Passing by a women’s clothing shop, I wandered in and ended up buying myself some Indian-style clothing; I’ve been told several times by locals and tourists alike, that wearing Indian clothing will take a little bit of the ‘edge’ off of the unwanted attention I draw in from way too many Indian men. Whilst some times I feel this attention is purely innocent and sheer interest, more often than not I am starting to feel very uncomfortable from the staring.

After my little shopping spree, we ended up walking all the way to the Bikaner Fort, where at night it was lit up and looked quite impressive. We never made it inside, but it was pretty impressive from a distance regardless.

From the fort, we flagged down a tuk tuk who drove us back to Vijay’s Guest house with his neon lights flashing and Hindi music BLEARING. I could barely hear when we stepped out, so naturally, I needed a chai from our favourite chai joint, complete with all the local men who loved to stare and were oddly desperate to know how much a chai would cost in Australia.

Back at the guest house, we were treated to a home cooked meal again before collecting our bags and waiting for our tuk tuk to the train station. Of course, minutes before we needed to be at the station, Jacob had a small accident; smashing a glass bottle accidentally and sending glass flying into his leg. Finally, our enormous medical kit came in handy! A smothering of betadine, some steri-strips and a piece of opsite and we were good to go, Jake a little worse for wear…

We boarded our overnight train – our 3AC sleeper class bunks were both top berths again – and lay under the thick covers whilst the air conditioning pumped full blast.
Bikaner had been an interesting destination, and I wondered what Jaipur would have in store for us.

Desert Girl and Camen Man India: 2 – 3.09.2013

Stiff all over from too many hours (for a novice) spent sitting [bouncing] on a camel’s back, exhausted from a sleepless night, covered in sand, sweat, sunscreen and insect repellant, smelling like a camel and suffering from terrifying flashbacks of having to squat behind a bush to relieve myself earlier that day, we had arrived back from 35 hours spent in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert… It was brilliant.

Driving out of Jaisalmer, 40-odd kilometers into the Thar Desert in an open jeep, at 8am it was already starting to get hot. Eventually, when the city ended and the landscape became a blur of various desert plants, herds of cows and goats, the occasional camel, a lot of red dirt and countless wind turbines, our  jeep parked and we met our “Desert Family”  for the next two days – Mr. Kahn, our camel man guide, and our three camels. Jake quickly forgot the name of his camel, but he was big and white and docile, just like Jake, so I like to now refer to the camel as JJ (Jacob Junior). My camel – Kalu – was the smallest of the lot, a little more tanned than JJ and a lot more stubborn. He had a rebellious streak and didn’t like to do what he was told; he preferred to do things in his own time and enjoyed winging every time he had to stand up or sit down; funny – sounds similar to me. Kalu, being the feisty rebel that he was, flicked me into the air every time he stood up, which was so fast I had to hold on each time with all my strength. Kalu was a handsome boy; he had cute ears and loved a good head pat every now and then, and especially loved when his saddle was removed and he could splay his back legs and stand in a hilarious position.
Mr. Kahn’s favourite camel was Victoria, so of course we made sure he rode him. Victoria was a big dark brown coloured boy who was obedient, calm and plodded along quite happily; much like Mr. Kahn himself.

Comfortable in our saddles (as comfortable as a camel’s back can get), together the three of us and our camels began our trek into the Thar desert – yep; we were finally here, bouncing about in our saddles in the heat of the harsh sun, living the Desert Girl and Camel Man dream…

IMG_0077

Desert Girl in the desert

The scenery was surprisingly green and plants, bushes and shrubs dotted most of the ground. Monsoon had been mighty this year, and as a result plants were flourishing – good for feeding the thousands of cows, goats and camels that trot about the Thar, herded by children and frail elderly alike. Amongst the shrubbery, thousands – literally – of wind turbines protruded high into the air, turning gracefully in the wind.

The heat bore down on us, but it was more than bearable; it was thoroughly enjoyable. We stopped at a “local desert village” which was more like a house in the middle of no where, where a grandmother and several men and naked babies were sitting in the sand. They gave us chai, yoghurt and a melon.

We stopped for lunch and “small siesta” under the shade of a large tree, where the camels were set free of their heavy saddles, in order to eat and mingle as they pleased. Mr. Kahn prepared us a lunch that was surprisingly varied, very authentic and full of flavor! We enjoyed some sort of Indian deep-fried snack made with lentil flour, onion, chilli and spices, and then had a large curry, fresh made chapatti and rice – all cooked over an open flame. Our meal was washed down with litre after litre of water, which we diligently sterilized with our Steri-Penyep, it finally came in handy. (Much unlike the Camel Man we saw who drank with his hands from the same filthy lake that the camels were drinking from. I think he may have possibly died from that mistake. If not, he needs a Steri-pen).
After lunch, dishes were hygienically scrubbed and washed with simply the desert sand (much to my horror) before we took shelter from the heat of the day and snoozed on a blanket.
Meanwhile the camels had escaped somewhere into the desert to feast on every possible bit of greenery, and finally around 3pm, Mr. Kahn made the trek to retrieve them whilst Jake and I packed up “camp.”

Camel Man, JJ, Desert Girl, Handsome Kalu and a very chilled Victoria

Camel Man, JJ, Desert Girl, Handsome Kalu and a very chilled Victoria

JJ and Victoria were happy enough sitting down to be re-saddled, chewing and smiling as Mr. Kahn loaded them back up with blankets, cooking utensils and 40 litres of water. My handsome Kalu, on the other hand, winged and complained before finally giving in, jerking me onto his back so quickly as if to say “take that!”… Camels are funny animals.

More camel riding, more wind turbines, more goats, sheep and cows being herded by children no older than ten or so…, a few more villages and the promise of desert sand dunes; we found ourselves heading further and further into the desert. Mr. Kahn entertained us by explaining important “Camel College Desert Knowledge” information, such as “No chapatti, No Chai, No Woman, No Cry,” “Full Power, 24 Hour, No Toilet, No Shower” and “No worry, have some Curry.” We are learning… slowly…
Our backs, legs and bottoms had had enough by around 5pm when we finally reached the incredible dunes. It was like a dream. Desert Girl (me) and Camel Man (Jake) were out of our saddles instantly (much to my handsome Kalu’s delight!) and running, sliding, jumping, crawling and surfing the endless dunes. Meanwhile, the camels once again got to trot off into the desert shrubbery to eat and frolic.

Desert Frolicking

Desert Frolicking

Sandy

Sandy

Desert Girl

Desert Girl

The wind blew the sand across the dunes in a magical flowing motion, and stepping into the dunes was like nothing I can describe. The music from Aladdin’s Arabian Nights was filling my head and we totally saw an Indian guy out in the dunes who looked like Jaffar… “Arabiannnn niiiiiiii-iiights…..”
We spent a good hour or so jumping in the dunes, watching the sun set, and comparing our fat camels with another safari group’s thin and injured ones (according to one of the guys on the tour who had to ride a camel with a painful looking hump).

"Arabiannnn Niiiights..."

“Arabiannnn Niiiights…”

As the sun went down, chai was served, along with curry and chapatti, Steri-Penned water and a decent amount of sand, which whipped across the desert in the wind. Then, with dinner eaten and the sun setting, Mr. Kanh decided he couldn’t be bothered with us two whities any more and went off to eat dinner with the other camel man down at his camp. Fantastic.

With no light and wind whipping up sand from every direction, everywhere, we were forced to get into bed: two thin mattresses and heavy blankets that, within only a few minutes of being set out, were now covered in more than an inch of sand. This is when things started to get a bit shit.
An attempt to block blowing sand using the camel saddles was feeble; and the big black desert beetles had come out – along with eighty thousand other insects and creepy crawlies – which all seemed to congregate around and on me! Using our scarves to cover our entire faces was almost useless; sand came from every direction and made its way through the material weavings.

Whilst I spent a happy couple of hours swatting insects, burying black beetles so they would no longer harass me, rubbing sand from my eyes and shaking inches of the stuff out of my hair, Jake was on animal watch. Since we’d spotted a group of wild dogs circling our camp and a happy camel who’d trotted over to watch us sleeping, and the fact that Mr. Khan had pissed off never to return, as it seemed, we were stuck in the dunes coming to the realization that actually, the desert is nice but this Desert Girl is probably more of a Civilisation Girl.

Finally, Mr. Kahn had to return – he’d spent a good few hours wandering the desert to retrieve our naughty camels, who had walked for kilometers away from our camp in order to get some good shrubs.  He didn’t seem worried about possible wild dog attacks, and instantly went to sleep. Oh. So no sitting around a fire listening to him sing and entertain us, like we were promised? Okay.

On account of the fact that I had earlier seen two wild dogs strutting near by, that my body was now covered in more than an inch of sand – which was growing by the minute! – and the fact that it was actually surprisingly cold in the desert, I didn’t sleep much that night… Desert Girl was more of a “Wishing it was Sun Rise Girl.”

Sun rise came and Mr. Kahn was busy making chai. I woke to what felt like an entire desert wedged under my eye lids and in my mouth. Desert Girl was a bit over the desert.

What I believe was once our beds for the evening, but is now covered in sand

What I believe was once our beds for the evening, but is now covered in sand

Mr. Kahn went and fetched the camels back from the desert shrubs where they had spent the early morning socializing and eating half of the bushes. JJ and Victoria sat happily as they were saddled, whilst my dear Kalu winged and complained – much like me about my sand filled eyes, mouth, hair, clothes, bum crack, shoes, backpack, camera…

On the saddles, our thighs and bottoms were already aching after only a few minutes. Oh, how I bloody love the desert.
We spent a good few hours walking and trotting – yes, trotting at a decent speed! – through the desert, which made our bums go from being quite painful to being in full blown agony.

"Look! No hands!"

“Look! No hands!”

We made a stop at a “Desert Gypsy Village” where we made the foolish mistake of getting off our camels. We were greeted by children who began begging before we could even stretch our legs, asking for everything; from the standard money, school pens and chocolates to tubes of henna, cigarettes, bottles for the malnourished naked baby, the clothing off my back, and for us to take photographs of them in return for money. They instantly, without him even noticing, opened Jake’s backpack and removed his carabina, and as a result, had to deal with Desert Girl’s growls of “DON’T TOUCH THAT!” They responded by snatching Jake’s good drink bottle from his hands.

Gypsy aka Beggar Village

Gypsy aka Beggar Village (Desert Girl is hiding behind the camels next to Mr. Kahn)

This “village” – which was essentially two mud huts and a family of impoverished beggars who spent the entire time harassing us – made me feel really saddened, and I was glad to be back on the saddle where Mr. Kahn simply stated “It’s best for you safe, you stay on camel.”… Aaaahh….Thanks for telling us that now… this information may have been more useful before we were bought here…

More trotting, more cows and goats, a few desert people who were obviously much better at being desert people than I was, countless wind turbines and relentless heat; we made it to our lunch stop where a group of desert people joined Mr. Kahn for a chit chat.
Mr. Kahn cooked us another delicious lunch (we made the chapatti) and gave us some more “Desert Knowledge at Camel College” – yep, we’re totally Desert people now!

Goaties! I call the black one "Lucy."

Goaties! I call the black ones “Lucy.”

We played uno and tried to let our aching legs and bums recover for a few hours in the shade, whilst Mr. Kahn talked with our fellow desert people and our camels strayed again from the camp to feast.

Can you find Camel Man in this photo?

Can you find Camel Man in this photo?

Eventually, as usual, Mr. Kahn went to retrieve the camels, who had trotted far off into the desert once again. When he returned almost an hour later, we asked him how he finds them. “I look the foot prints”. Far out!… we are definitely not Desert people…
As usual, JJ and Victoria were good sports about the re-saddling, whilst Kalu was whiney and quick to throw me about when he stood back up.

A couple more hours in the desert, and we were bought to the final stop. Thank goodness – my bum could not handle one more trot!
We waited for our Jeep to arrive whilst Mr. Kahn sang us his version of Aqua’s “Barbie Girl”, which goes something like “I am Camel Man, in the bloody sand, life is fantastic, bottom like plastic…” (he made it up himself apparently).

Finally, our Jeep arrived and we said goodbye to our Desert College teacher, Mr. Kahn. Walking over to the jeep with legs so sore I looked like a heavily pregnant woman walking, my bottom rejoiced as we hauled ourselves into the jeep…
40 minutes or so later we reached Jaisalmer, and as we passed a group of men sitting around a campfire in the dirt alongside twenty-odd cows, a few goats, a pig and amongst traffic that could kill, our driver said “welcome back to civilization!”…

Comfortably back in our hotel room, Desert Girl and Camel Man had had enough of the desert for now (possibly for a life time) but, I’d be lying if I said we didn’t love every minute of that experience… Okay, okay. I am lying. I hated the wild dogs.

And the insects.

But that’s all.

…Now, to wash the sand from my skin and sleep for a week.