Sunday, 22 January 2017

Varanasi the city of death – Part 1

In a way I found out about Varanasi by chance. If it were not for meeting Stephano in Pokhara I would have never come here. Not doing research while travelling can make you miss amazing place when you are so close yet don’t know about it. It took two days of idle chatter before Stephano urged me to just google the place and see the pictures. First picture that loaded on google pictures and I was hooked. Varanasi it is and a re-route was planned.

After a good bath in the hostel all I wanted to do was rest in the nice cool air-condition room and sleep but chai time at 4pm drove me away from the journal entry and out into the common area to mingle with the hostel people.

Varanasi - Main Streets before entering Narrow winding Ghat
There were lots of people as expected in hostel like these. Friendly environment with lots of travellers mostly from English Native countries. One could observed and notice how some clicks will talk to you and answer your question but slowly tune out to ogle the pretty faces. The four British girls was fascinated with the two British boys but for some reason the boys …. Adam and Josh asked me if I wanted to join them to walk around the Ghats after chai.

Sure I felt refreshed enough just after a shower and a few hours of rest in cool room. I decided to take up their offer to go exploring Varanasi on the very first day. Ghats as they call them means steps in Hindi … steps to the river and there are 87 Ghats in Varanasi. This area is also one of the most interesting in Varanasi for it forms the old part of the city with narrow alley streets which keeps turning and ending up in dead end.

The streets were very narrow such that if you stretch out your arms you will feel both sides of the building. Still it was filled with people and cows and goats and dogs and all kinds of livelihood that goes by in this small world. Shops was like a boxhole barely two bunk beds put together. They sold and peddled all kinds of things from food to trinkets to lassi to temples to shrines to holy men to modern knock off made in china T-shirts to prayer items and so forth. One could get lost in here every day walking the same streets and still find new things to see.

Josh and Adam wanted to see the evening ceremony which was held by the Ghanga river every evening at 730pm. They asked locals along the way and people were always happy to help and point us to the right direction. Sometimes, if you asked the wrong people you will accidentally pick up a guide who would be so kind to walk you to where you want to go giving loads of history and explanation of the mystical Varanasi only to guilt you into a donation when you try to leave them behind.

Evening Puja at Varanasi
We got there in time and choose a spot to enjoy the ceremony. By this time I understood it was the puja ceremony but on a grander scale that what I have ever seen back in Malaysia. According to the locals it was a small one for apparently the Ghanga river is flooding right now and the water level is very high.

While we waited for the Puja to start more and more people crowded in, locals and local tourist and foreign tourist alike. The first glimpse of the Ghanga river for most Indians were always followed by a touch of water and a spray of water into the air or over the head with a silent prayer and a for the more devoted a wash of the face and truly devoted a sip of the muddy and highly contaminated water. Peddles were selling flower with candles to be offered into the river … some brought their own kind of offering and everything was dumped into the river while more people spill in to be blessed by the water.

The puja started with chants to incense dance to pots with lots of smoke dance to fire dance which had a cobra as an ornament. I can only say it was mesmerising like most lonely planet guide will tell you. We watch it for nearly half an hour and it did not seem to be ending soon but it was time to find something to eat and little did we know the night was still full of surprise waiting for us.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Train Ride from Gorakhpur to Varanasi

4pm came and I could not wait to leave the blasted town of Gorakhpur. To the train station and queuing up for the train ticket I have to bare the brunt of local cutting my queue just as I reached the window. Either shout at them or let it be. This is India ….. sigh.

Soon it was my turn and all I could say was Varanasi. Repeat it like a mantra and thankfully the ticket officer could speak a few words of English. Sleeper or general admission he asked. I gave him the Indian head wobble. He asked me again as if he was the tourist and I was the local …. So funny but I kept a straight face …. The third time he asked I said sleeper.

150 rupee he said and I placed the money over the window. Once the ticket was printed the officer took it and with his right hand he held it up and proceeded to do a toss with a pause just as the hand reached the peak arc and the face of a stuck up kid. It was like a snobbish toss …. Here you go and get out of my face toss for you are too low for me to even sully my hand passing it to you. I notice he did it for every people that purchase a ticket from him.

Find the train and the platform and here I was waiting outside a train set to leave in 15 minutes. The outside of the train was marked sleeper largely but I had no idea what my ticket mean. Do I have seats specifically or do I just randomly seat at any seat in sleeper class? Walking into one that was fairly empty I asked a local that could barely speak English. Showed him my ticket and after pondering a while he said general admission …. Not this train …
Train from Gorakhpur to Varanasi
India - Sleeper Class Bunkbeds
I have learn not to trust people too much … a pessimist but then it started me wondering if I did get a wrong ticket. Did that ticket officer cheated money off me ??? There was no clear indication that the ticket was sleeper …. Some marks here and there but I had no idea how to read it. Walking further down I saw a guy turn on the train internal carriage power. Must be a train officer or worker I thought.

The first attempt to communicate and all he said was NO ENGLISH.

I shoved my ticket to his hand anyway and after looking at it all he said was yes Varanasi .. yes sleeper … and pointed to the same carriage. At this point I just took a chance and got in and choose an empty bunk and plunk my stuff down and hope for the best.

An hour later when the train departed and more people crowded the carriage a ticketing officer appeared. Moment of truth. He took my ticket and with one glance it was pass back to me without a word. So I guess no seating arrangement. Time to sleep but before that I got the time eta to arrive at Varanasi …. 11.10 am … so only a 5 to 6 hour journey instead of 12 hours …

Food rationing, water rationing and finally toilet rationing. The train was so crowded that if I leave the bunk to go to the toilet there will be no more bunk when I get back plus there was also the trouble of how to lug a backpack to the toilet. I would have to take my chances and leave it there and hope to see it when I get back. Small bag was always with me of course.
The crowded sleeper class train - India
3 hours into the journey I decided I needed to know where the hell I am. GPS was not working and I needed open window or door to see the sky. True enough, leaving the bunk not even 2 minutes and I spot someone trying to climb aboard while I linger at the doorway. The kid actually looked guilty when he saw me looking and pause midway climbing. I waved him up and he scurried up immediately.

GPS locked on and I now know where I am. Right direction and more or less on time. I went back and waved him over to share the bunk seating. Me, the kid and my backpack on the bunk. No more sleeping but at lease it was combatable

I arrived at Varanasi at 1120 am.

Off the train and got a tuk tuk for 150 for I barely negotiate. I knew it was either 150 or 100 but I was too tired to care. Needed to find sanctuary. The driver was insistent to show me a few other places first that he said was great place near gangha and cheap for only 400 rupee but I turn them all down just by looking at the bed. The sheets looks so much like the one in Gorakhpur and at this point I rather have a clean bed in a dorm than a privet room with itching bed.

Finally he gave up and brought me to the hostel. 300 rupee for a dorm without aircon or 450 with one … I upgraded, thank the driver and gave him a generous tip making the ride 200 rupee.

Sanctuary …. Breakfast, wifi and a good clean toilet with hot shower …. Aircon was a luxury now that I am glad with all the sun burn I had accumulated in Lumbini walking.

Me = Indian Head Wobble.
Varanasi - India

Monday, 26 December 2016

Gorakhpur – An Indian Cultural Shock

Gorakhpur. Got off the bus and I walked straight to the train station. The city looked like a metropolitan shithole and I was about to sacrifice sleep and comfort to get to Varanasi as soon as possible. I asked the few hotel that was near the train station and they were full. One did had space but wanted 900 rupee for it and I was not about to fork out that much money.

Train station and the tourist ticket counter said the train is full. No more ticket for the 4pm train. Thinking back I should have just went to the normal ticket counter and bought a ticket but then again how was I to know since it was my first train ride in India and I had no clue what the system is. Next train was morning at 530 am or 630am then it was 4pm again.
Gorakhpur - India
Thinking I had no choice I went back to hotel hunting.

Row after row of hotels that ply the road opposite the train station all said they were full. I was starting to get desperate but pride would not allow me to go back to the one hotel that had a room for 900 rupee. End of the road and I headed back to the main junction to try the other side.
First hotel I asked, Hotel Gupta and they had a single room for 300 rupee. At this point I barely care how bad the room was but still I pretended to inspect the room before accepting it. Bags down I went out to eat and then back to the hotel to crash.
The room was a single bed room with a large fan that looked like an oversized oven. The fan had to be plugged in to a socket using bare wires and the wire crossed the room front door. One had to carefully step over the wire to get in or out of the room. When the door close I discover the attached single bathroom that had no door.
The large Box on the Right is the Fan ...
Everything about this hotel was like a picture from a 3rd rate indian movie.
I went to sleep after a shower which I erase from my memory of how I did it for it was so dirty I doubt I was cleaner after it. I tried to sleep with the very noisy oven fan blowing hot air onto my body. At 8pm I woke up hungry again and decided forgoing dinner was not going to be a good idea with a long day tomorrow. So far I misunderstood that the train ride was going to take 12 hours.
Walking out the hotel for a smoke a minute later a boy walked up to me and said I needed to check out. WTF was all I could think of. So many people at the reception and they were trying to kick me out without retu…..rning any of my money. 300 for the night but I gave them 500 as a deposit. Fine I told one of the indian guy who could speak better English and seem to be the one in charge (not the one who checked me in).
I go find a new hotel first then come back and check out ok?
Off to the left side going from one hotel to another again but thankfully this time I only had to pass two before I found one that had a room for 400. Cant be worst that the one I had I thought and I was right. This one was a double bed, large room a ceiling fan but a crappy squat toilet with no shower.
Upgrade ....
I went back to hotel Gupta and headed upstairs to pack my bags all the while being followed by a young boy who was keeping an eye on me to make sure I was leaving. He kept trying to take the room key from me but I held on packing in the dark and refuse to let him touch anything.
May I carry your bag sir?
No …. I can carry it myself.
Can you give me tip sir?
….. I wonder how dumb do they think I am …. Or how thick face could they be.
Back downstairs with all my stuff I demanded my money back first before I passed the keys. The guy who checked me in said it was only 300 rupee. My displeasure must have shown on my face but I kept a firm voice and said it was 500 as a deposit. The more in charge better speaking English Indian guy gave me 500 and I return the keys without a word.
Thank you sir and sorry about this ….
I left without a word nor looking back.
New hotel two doors down and I paid the 400 rupee and checked in only to go out two minutes later to find food. The initial reason why I came out in the first place. Local food and I had no appetite to eat but shoved the dhal fry into my tummy anyway. Going back to the hotel I stopped outside to roll a cig. The indian boys was so intrigue with what I was doing they could not keep their excitement off their face. I offered them and they scratch their head trying to figure out how the pieces fits. Soon I rolled two sticks of cig and offered it to them which they happily accepted.
Nothing like a peace offering to get good local helps.
I extracted all the information I could about the train ride in the morning to Varanasi to their best knowledge. Any info you get from Indian locals had to be taken with a pinch of salt anyway. Soon I was upstairs trying to sleep in a bed that seem to itch like crazy. I am pretty sure the bed has been there older than I was born and the sheets were probably not washed in years.
4am came and I could not wait to leave the blasted town of Gorakhpur.
I thought after traveling so much in so many different places nothing could faze me anymore …. But stepping into India … yep this is going to be a challenge like no other … can’t help but feel terrified yet the grin on my face is wider than ever …. The thrill of an adventure and I could feel it in my bones.
4am Train from Gorakhpur to Varanasi