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I swam with Mother Ganga!

sunny 41 °C

Greetings from New Delhi!

I had meant to write when I was in Varanasi (and I definitely should have – I had plenty of chill time), but I couldn’t be bothered. This morning I arrived in Delhi after our overnight train journey from Varanasi. The last time we met was on my last train journey…from Jaipur to Kanpur, so we’ll start from there.

Kanpur day was a very unique day. We arrived at around 11am after an interesting journey in sleeper class; personally I enjoyed it and am really glad I tried it – I’d be happy to travel India on sleeper class. I never felt unsafe, and it’s just as uncomfortable as most Indian guesthouse beds. However, I was on the top berth and Elena was under me, who said she was constantly woken up by people sitting on her bed while she was sleeping. This appears to be quite common, as people without seats will come and just sit and have a chat next to you while you’re sleeping, or fold out a blanket and sleep on the floor in the small aisles. Anyway, twas as to be expected.

When I woke up I sat down on Elena’s bed and looked out the window for many hours, intrigued by the sights of the rolling landscapes; crops, slums, cities, towns, villages, etc. We also spoke every now and then with the family in the seats near us, who were also getting off at Kanpur – which was very useful as the trains have no indication of what stop you’re at (no voiceover or signs) and they rarely run on time so you can’t base it on the timetable either – this makes me paranoid about missing my stop to no end.

When we arrived in Kanpur it was already stinking hot, around 11.30am, and after a lot of excitement and kafuffle by drivers, we got a weird taxi thing (like a large green rickshaw; I don’t think I’ve noticed them anywhere but Kanpur, where they are in abundance) to go to the mall. Our driver was very cute and tried to point to sites out the window (‘building, tree, fountain!’), though he couldn’t really speak English, his attempt was appreciated. He also bowed his head and put his hands together every time we passed a temple, taking his hands off the wheel for a bit too long for my heart to handle, and urged me to do the same.
Eventually after convincing him that we didn’t need to participate in any more of his ‘useful’ city tour we arrived at our destination; the Mall – capitalised to highlight its glorious, saintly, air-conditioned relief. Malls in India are very strange, and we had to go through intense security screening to get in, even opening up our big backpacks and promising we didn’t have any chewing gum. Once in it was worth it though; we’d planned to spend the next 11 hours until our connecting train in the mall – sounds boring, but I seriously loved it. I MISS WESTFIELD!
We basically just spent the day sitting around, eating, looking at shops, occasionally talking to locals who were very interested in us (I only saw three other foreigners the entire day so I don’t think it’s a common tourist destination). As usual, people blatantly stared and men took photos on their phones with the subtlety of an elephant. A few came and spoke to me which was nice and yeah basically we just waited for the endless 11 hours to pass. However – one exciting thing did occur! – I bought a camera. I’d been eyeing SLRs for a week or so and had hesitated due to the lack of international warranty, however I discovered that Nikon had it so I bought my first camera, ‘entry level’ Nikon D3100. Very exciting and I’m loving taking photos – though I take FAR too many; anyone on my Facebook news feed must dread seeing my name pop up every day.

Eventually 10pm came around and we went to wait at the train station – the biggest ordeal ever! Whenever trying to confirm what platform our train came from we were met with various responses, always conflicting. There was a train of the exact same name and one digit difference coming at the same time on the platform next to us, some people saying it went to Varanasi and some saying it didn’t. Regardless, we eventually found the train; but then got in the luggage carriage (where there are unmarked seats and people packed like sardines everywhere). Luckily we found sleeper class; but then couldn’t find our seats as it turns out our seats had been changed and I hadn’t been told. And then the guard came around to try to charge us an extra fare for our tickets as the fares changed after April 1 (even though I’d purchased and confirmed my tickets mid-March). The same thing happened on this morning’s train and will probably happen to Amritsar, but regardless I wouldn’t pay.

This time we were in 2-Tier AC Class, which is kind of like 2nd class – and very nice! There are curtains, set seats, personal lights, powerpoints etc. It was really nice, but not as entertaining as sleeper. However, we did see a man peeing off the side of the train (literally next to the bathroom that he could have gone in) – Elena thinks he was masturbating but I wasn’t interested enough in looking. THEN, after we were settled in our beds Sasha went to the bathroom and as she was doing her business saw an Indian man looking up at her from the grated vents by the floor. Truly disgusting and pathetic – I don’t know how you can get off on seeing someone pee on an Indian train. Men would also often open our curtain and stare at us sleeping for a few minutes. It’s harmless but creepy – considering how much tourism India has (especially to Varanasi) you’d think they’d be used to seeing white women. However we’re seen as having ‘loose moral character’ and thus are always subject to comments, touching (luckily I haven’t experienced this yet, only seen it happen at the Elephant Festival), and taking photos of us everywhere we go.

Anyway, eventually I got to sleep and had a very short rest before we arrived at Varanasi around 6.30am (though of course I was up earlier, very paranoid about missing our stop and ending up in Kolkata!). When we arrived we got a taxi to take us our guesthouse, and the drive itself was an exciting site to be seen. Within about five minutes I saw a naked man walking down the street; completely starkers just going for a stroll. About ten minutes later our driver pointed out the window to see a funeral procession walking down the street, where I saw the body of a dead man being carried down on a decorated bed and people singing around it. Anyway, after seeing both a naked man and dead man within my first 10 minutes in Varanasi, we asked the driver to take us to The Yogi Lodge, where we booked, but we decided instead to go to Sandhya Guesthouse, which was a bit cheaper and close to Assi ghat. We found rooms for about $3/person and settled our stuff, getting breakfast and resting after the long two-day journey. Eventually in the afternoon we went for a walk to visit the ghats along the Ganges (or Ganga as the Indians refer to it); the main attraction of Varanasi.

Basically, the ghats are the stairs that line the bank along the 2,525km River Ganges, and they are considered the holiest place in Varanasi as the river is seen as the embodiment of goddess Shiva. People live their lives by the ghats (which number over 100), bathing, washing their clothes, fishing, praying, and it’s truly an amazing site to see.

We ended up at Harischandra ghat, one of the cremation ghats. As Varanasi is considered so holy, many people come from all over to be cremated at her banks – I was even told that George Harrison’s body was brought here two years ago. It’s somewhat remarkable to come within metres of a dead body, as it takes a few minutes to consider the fact that this was once (a few hours ago) a living, breathing, thinking, feeling, mother/father/daughter/sister/brother/husband/uncle/neice etc etc. We met a man by the ghat who told us a bit about it; apparently there are 80-90 bodies burnt every day on the Ganges, round the clock. Within about 72 hours of passing the bodies would have been performed a funeral procession and then brought down to the ghat, where there are a few different places to be cremated, generally depending on how much money you’re willing to pay for the location – the man at the ghat told me that they can cost around $200 for the ‘highest quality’, though I’ve heard different prices from various sources so I’m not sure. Those who can’t afford a cremation are sometimes left in the Ganges unburnt. By the river, the body normally takes about three-four hours to burn, though we were told that after this time normally for the female the hips are left unburnt and for men the chest or something. Virtually anyone may be cremated by the ghats (it’s mainly a Hindu practice, though the bathing ghats are shared by all different religions), however there are certain groups who cannot; children and babies under ten, those killed by cobra bite, pregnant women, the handicapped, people with small pox or leprosy. These people are already considered to be pure and thus don’t need to be cleansed through cremation; they are simply taken out into the Ganges uncremated.

Surrounding the ghat were people standing or sitting around and watching, even small boys playing cricket nearby, and some under the shelter of a building which houses an electric crematory (these burn quicker but aren’t considered as pure). However, you will not see a woman in sight. It is illegal for women to attend these ceremonies due to the action practice of ‘sati’; a remarkable example of the view of women in India. Being a widow is seen to be dishonourable, and so often a wife would commit suicide (either willingly or through coercion), often by jumping on top of her husbands burning funeral pyre. This is seen as the ultimate act of marital devotion for a woman, and would cleanse her of her sins, release her from the cycle of birth and rebirth, and bless the seven generations that followed her. Apparently, this practice is still continued in some rural village areas of India.

After our visit the man we’d met at the ghat took us to see some local silk factories and watch it being made (I saw this in Vietnam and it remains to be highly uninteresting) – although a few times I’ve seen through peoples doors on the street where artists and children paint, decorate and embroider saree fabric which is pretty cool. We ended up at a fabric shop (clearly commissioned) and the owner was actually very cool and hospitable. His products were great but pricey, and I wasn’t interested anyway, but he was great to talk to. He has a shop in Camden, London, has an interest for jazz music, especially blues harmonica, and gave us some great chai. We spoke for an hour or so as he donned Elsbeth in fancy sarees and he told us a few places to see which ended up very useful. Elena and I actually bumped into him on the street the day before we left as well which was cool! Although strangely, he mentioned to us that he was writing a book called ‘Tourists are human too’ or something – “everyone writes books about India FOR tourists, but I’m writing one ABOUT tourist. Visiting India is like taking LSD; it could be a good trip or a bad trip but you’re always taken for a ride’. I know this doesn’t sound too strange, but two days after I was talking to the owner of our guesthouse who also lived in the UK, and he said the EXACT same thing, word for word. Yet they weren’t related or anything. Very very odd.

The next day I set my alarm for the sunrise and woke up early to go on a solo mission along the ghats. I met a young girl named Roshin who gave me a little henna design on my hand, and chatted to a few people here and there as I strolled along the ghats. The ghats really come alive in the mornings as men and women bathe and wash their clothes. It’s a bit strange to consider it as soul-cleaning as the river is filled to the brim with human remains and sewerage – something like 200million litres of untreated sewerage are disposed of into the Ganges every day, which makes it no surprise that it’s considered one of the top five filthiest rivers in the world, and that 80% of illnesses and 1/3 of deaths in India are related to water-borne diseases. Regardless, the river is seen as holy and Indians are renowned for their culture and faith. The riverbanks are littered with women in their drenched sarees (it’s interesting at their lack of self-conciousness here seeing how traditional and conservative dressing was in Rajasthan), incense and offering being made, men laying their clothes in the sun – I had some great photo opportunities for my new camera as so many people here absolutely loved having their photos taken. Once I’d had my fill I went back to the guesthouse to have some breakfast and wait out the heat (41 degrees!!) until the afternoon.


In the evening we decided to get a boat ride to watch the evening ceremony, which I think is at Munshi ghat or just near it (I am really bad at remembering Indian names). We met a lovely boat driver named Shiva just by the ghat at our guesthouse and slowly made our way up the river. Across the other side of the river is a small bank where it looked like there were heaps of people gathered, so we rowed over to check it out – it was a Bollywood film set! They were packing up but it was pretty funny once we realised what was going on, though to be honest we felt like the stars – most places we go we’re followed by guys (and less often women and children) who want to take our photos. Often women will come with their children to shake our hands or have a photo, which I think is really cute. I find it less cute when creepy old men come up for a photo (I’ve been told they use it to tell people you’re their girlfriend). And I find it much less cute when they’re pretending to text and are really quite blatantly following you with their camera phone. You’re constantly bombarded with “Yes Madam. Which country madam? Australia? Ricky Ponting!” At times it’s funny but when I’m in a bad mood I could cut their heads off. Though I must say, the day we were in Kanpur we looked like absolute shit after a 9 hour journey and it was ALMOST flattering haha.

Anyway, we soon got back in the boat (literally having to rush away from three young guys in particular following us begging for photos – one asking if he could come in the boat with us) and went to the other side of the river where a crowd was gathering for the ceremony. As you drift along you can see all the beautiful candles and flowers that are laid as offerings onto the river – it’s really, really pretty. I made friends with a boat of two older Indian couples next door, who invited me onto their boat for a photo. Very cute. We then watched the ceremony, though it went for an hour and was mainly hands signals and candles and brass cups being moved around by five guys dressed in fancy cloth. After I lit and laid my own candle/flower offering into the river, we began to made our way back to our ghat, and went to a restaurant we’d seen next door for some dinner – however there’d been a power outage and a party of about ten people just before we got there so after an hour of waiting we decided to leave (I’m 90% sure they hadn’t yet started our meals). We went back to our rooftop restaurant, got some food and went to bed.

The next day we had quite a lazy day in the hotel as it was ridiculously hot again, and in the afternoon Elena and I decided to go for a walk through the streets rather than the ghats. What a crazy crazy sight. It’s similar to other parts of Asia (ie insane) but having mainly stayed by the calm of the waterside for a few days it was strange to be walking on crazy streets again, dodging cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, autorickshaws, goats, pigs, cows and the latter threes poop. Eventually we decided to hang a right towards the river, though we ended up even more lost in the various narrow alleyways which make Varanasi so interesting. It was honestly like being transported to another century, other than the occasional motorbike squeezing its way along the path. We even passed a man ironing who had hot coals inside his iron, and people sewing with the machines that have foot pedals rather than electricity.

Eventually we made our way to the ghat on which the ceremony we’d seen the night before was performed. It was becoming alive as the ceremony was in an hour so, and markets, locals, tourists and touts were all bustling about. We walked around for a while and went further along the ghat, sitting at one point to watch the candles float by. At this point I heard my best line yet – ‘Excuse me, is you dad a gardener?’ ‘No’ ‘Then why you look like flower?’. Normally you just ignore the ‘hello madam, which country?’ – but I couldn’t help to laugh at this one.

Tired, hot and sweaty, Elena and I strolled back to our guesthouse and I got a coke for dinner as it was too hot to be hungry. I think that coke was a bad idea – it always makes me sick from too much concentrated sugar, and I ended up ill. Anyway, I ended up getting over it and went to bed.

Yesterday morning we all reluctantly woke up early to go for another boat trip with Shiva to watch the sunrise. It was very beautiful, and nice to see the ghats in the morning from a different perspective, but not all that interesting. We got him to drop us off at other end of town where the main cremation ghat is (once again, don’t know its name). We walked around for a little bit and Elena and I decided to get a rickshaw back through the streets, however it was much cheaper to get a cycle rather than a rickshaw. The last time I’d been on one of those was in Bagan, Myanmar, as I always feel so evil making the poor skinny man push my fat Western ass along. Plus, the seats aren’t designed for our fat Western asses either so they’re not all that comfortable.

When we got back we packed all our stuff up and I finally committed to something I’d been debating all week – swimming in the Ganges. It may sound crazy after all the pollution I’d described before (especially to you clean-freak Mum) but I could quell my desire. When you don’t think about its contents it looks like it’d be nice to swim – especially in this heat. I went down to the river to my local ghat where a young boy and an old woman were bathing. I joined them and instantly the woman came back into the water and urged me to swim out with her. I went out a bit but didn’t want to go too far, as I wasn’t willing to put my head underwater – after all I had read an article that morning about a young British guy who had died after swimming in it. Anyway, I had no open wounds and decided to go for it – I’ll let you know if any third nipples emerge in the near future.

I came back to the guesthouse and bathed for about an hour, as well as throwed out my clothes (sadly – I liked that dress!) and then we all went to the roof to spend our last ours in hot steamy Varanasi before boarding the train. Suddenly, the wind went wild and the whole city became hazy in a mysterious sandstorm, which was followed by thunder and rain. An American girl came up to us, freaking out, as she wasn’t used to this weather and I think fears of 2012 may have been rolling around in her head, but of course it was fine. By early evening we were ready to say goodbye to our hotel staff and get in a rickshaw to the crazy Varanasi train station. While waiting for the train we saw a very strange situation in front of us; there was a bald old man who kind of looked Nepalese with his hands tied behind his back with some kind of thick red rope. There were some men with him who appeared to be holding him hostage and did not at all resemble authorities. Sasha thought he might have been autistic and was very shocked. Of course we can never know the circumstances surrounding it but it was pretty mysterious indeed.

Eventually we made it onto the train after dodging station rats and monkeys and shuffling through platforms. Sasha got caught up in the mix of things and we lost her for five minutes getting on the train – really not a nice feeling to have – but it worked out. I slept like a baby virtually the entire ride until about 6am where I waited restlessly for our stop.

We arrived in Delhi this morning at about 8am, and to be honest I really don’t see what all the fuss is about. Yeah, it’s dirty and noisy and busy – but so is everywhere we’ve been in India. Elena suggested that people probably go on about how intense Delhi is because it’s often their first stop in India, whereas we’d been kind of eased into it and hence think it’s tame. We found a room at Namskar Hotel which is in Paharaganj Bazaar – the main tourist district right across from the train station.We then went to search for some food at a rooftop restaurant – nothing like our lovely Varanasi rooftop (and much more expensive) but it’s not bad here.

The rest of today was a wonderful day! Elena’s father is in business with a man from New Delhi, and had arranged for his lovely wife Sonia to take care of us when were first came in. After breakfast I went with Elena to the Qatar office to sort out her flights, then we were picked up by Sonia with her driver – it felt very fancy but I think it’s quite common for the middle class society here to have a lot of house staff. She took us to Janpath, which is a local market that she said she used to shop at when she was our age. It was pretty cool, and I got a nice black maxi skirt for about 100 rupees which I’m really happy with. She then took us for lunch at the Meridien Hotel – oh dear god I think I’m in love! I want to grow up and work for an international company so they fly me business class and house me in fancy hotels! Even the bathrooms were more amazing than anything I’d seen in the past two and a half months – I stole some toilet paper. We learnt a lot about India with Sonia and had some delicious spaghetti and dessert which made me eternally happy. It makes me so guilty that I love indulgences like this because it seems to conflict so strongly with my views on all the poverty that is in such abundant view around me. I feel completely undeserving and guilty about my situation in the world as I simply got lucky with the lottery of life, but at the same time I miss the comforts of home that I’ve been brought up with to see as normal expectations.

(*I think I’ve written about this before, but if not, you should all check out the Lottery of Life campaign by Save the Children if you can find it online – though I don’t think I could access it in Australia).

After lunch we got back in the car and drove through the embassy area of New Delhi, going past their Parliament House and their equivalent of the White House. Interestingly they have both a Prime Minister and President in India, though the President is just a figurehead and doesn’t really do much. Even more interestingly, the PM is female! For such a male dominated society I was pretty amazed to learn about this – in fact India was the first country to ever have a female Prime Minister. …The land of contrasts indeed. We then drove down to India Gate, which is similar to our Anzac memorial, with names of those who passed away in the war inscribed all over it, and a flame which has burned eternally (apparently) since the gates construction.

Sonia then took us to her house to meet her daughter Saachi, who is our age, and see her beautiful home. She lives in a colony, like we did in Jaipur, and I think it’s very common for middle class Indians. Saachi is currently studying for her final board exams, which are a very big deal here as Indian universities are incredibly competitive apparently. We had some tea and convinced Saachi to come with us for a break of study, before we went to see the Qutub complex.

The Qutub complex is a serious of buildings that date from the Slave Dynasty from 1206-1290, and are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The main attraction is the Qutub Minar, which Sonia described as India’s ‘leaning tower of Pisa’ – as it’s a tall 72.5m minaret building with immaculate carvings which has been amazingly preserved. You can’t go in anymore as Sonia told us about a tragedy when people had tried to run out down the stairs and were not able to get out as the door open inwards – people then toppled on top of each other and many died from suffocation. The complex is also home to Quwwut-ul-Islam Mosque, Delhi’s oldest and grandest mosque, which was quite pretty – though now mostly in ruins. There was also some weird pole that Sonia said something about if you could reach your arms around it backwards it meant something about a relation to a God – I clearly wasn’t paying attention but people seemed interested in it. There were lots of Indians and tourists walking around enjoying the gardens and it was generally quite pleasant.

Sonia then took us to the Lotus Temple, as she herself hadn’t been there either. It is a Ba’hai temple which is shaped like – you guessed it – a lotus. We walked up the long gardens and went inside, where you had to be completely silent, but we left pretty shorting. As an attraction there isn’t a whole lot to do but it’s a really really beautiful building and some magnificent architecture – which was especially nice to admire as the sun was setting.

On the way back Sonia pointed out to us some great places which I’m sure we’ll check out in the next few days. It was so nice to meet her and Saachi, and really quite interesting to learn about the life of the middle class in India. Delhi is becoming much more of a cosmopolitan city and it was a really unique side of India to see. Everything we’d seen today has been beautiful, and much more green than I’d imagined – so either Delhi isn’t as crazy as everyone says or we’re in for a rude shock for the next few days when we don’t have a driver in an air-conditioned car and kind locals to show us around. I think in general it probably changed quite a bit after the Commonwealth Games, as the metro came in and India showed their city off to the world.

For the past hour or so we just looked around the shops and markets in the bazaars, and here we are relaxing in bed – might go out again a bit later. Anyway…this is reaching 5,000 words which is nothing short of ridiculous so I must sign off now. I might consider doing dot point form in the future as I’m sure you’re bored of reading and I’m sure bored of writing.


Posted by georgiaellen 04:39 Archived in India

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