Varanasi – City of Enlightenment

December 21, 2010
In our first impressions, we noted that we were somewhat surprised at Delhi; other than our visit to Old Delhi, the city was "freshly scrubbed" and didn't represent the India we had been expecting.  We experienced that India, firsthand, in Varanasi on Monday and Tuesday.  On the way from the airport to the hotel, our local guide gave us some of the history of this city. Its first name is "Kashi" (yes, like the cereal) which means "enlightenment". The second name "Varanasi" comes from the names of the two rivers, Varuna and Assi, for it lies with the confluence of Varuna with the Ganges being to its north and that of Assi and the Ganges to its south. The third name is "Benaras", which is a Persian corruption of "Varanasi". It is also known as the city of learning and burning, as this also is the place of ritual cremations in the Ganges.  Most important, Varanasi is considered as holy a city to the Hindus (and Buddhists) as Jerusalem, Mecca, or Rome.

After the obligatory tour group buffet lunch, we headed into the real India. This is the time of the annual pilgrimage, so there were many groups of pilgrims walking around. People had come from near and far. The streets were chock-a-block with vehicles (buses, cars, rickshaws, motorcycles, walkers), people and animals (finally, cows!) and noise (chanting and the ubiquitous car horns), the smells (incense and who knows what), vendors (flowers, fruit, and postcard and bindi hawkers), an abattoir (with a line of cows-in-waiting), and beggars (amputees, small children, women with babies, and faux holy men).  One of the highlights of the day came when the bus entered a railroad underpass (with about 1 foot clearance on each side) and stopped suddenly, as we were grille-to-grille with a large truck going the opposite way!  Of course there were cars and buses behind us, and behind the truck as well. We sat there for about 10 minutes honking horns at each other as the faithful slipped through between the vehicles. Then our local guide got out and began imploring the people / vehicles behind the truck to back up. Inch by slow inch they did until at last (after about 30 minutes) we managed to squeeze by. As we waited for this massive traffic jam to clear up--we gawked at women in burkas, school children, and old men and they gawked at us--it was unclear who was more bizarre.

Next, we went to an archeological site (Sarnath) which is where Buddha gave his first sermon. Ironically, while Buddhism was founded in India, fewer than two percent of the population practices Buddhism today.

By this point, the sun had set and we needed to rush to our next stop--the evening service at the Ganges.  This next segment is straight out of The Amazing Race.  After a short bus ride back into Varanasi each couple got on a tricycle rickshaw and we raced to the riverfront--becoming part of the throngs!  As we traveled down the Grand Trunk Road, which runs from Calcutta across India, through Pakistan and into Afghanistan, it all looked like an intricate action movie set with thousands of extras. But, this indeed was reality. At one point, a jeep cut in front of us and temporarily blocked our path. With some terror, we realized that we were last in line for our group and the others were quickly being engulfed by the crowd as they continued on.  But our driver really began to pedal furiously and soon we caught up. Then, at a main square, we all disembarked and began walking. Our guide said to watch out for the cow pies: "If you step in them, it is good luck. If you don't step in them it is better luck"! We walked about half a mile and came down the stairs at the banks of the Ganges. There, the nightly (yes, they do this every night) ceremony thanking the river was already underway. Thousands of people faced the river and watched as a half dozen Hindhu priests went through a 45 minute highly synchronized set of moves including throwing of flower petals, ringing bells, and waving of fire pots. All during this time there was a continual droning of holy music and burning of very smoky incense. The entire service was awe-inspiring but particularly memorable was the blowing of the conch shells which (to the 3/4 of our group that is Jewish) sounded just like the blowing of the Shofar.  Indeed, several of us started chanting the prayers. With the service complete, we walked back to the square, found our rickshaw driver, rode back to the bus and then to our hotel. We got there about , had a quick dinner (guess what! Another buffet) and then right to bed as we all had mandatory wake-up calls.

Tuesday morning, we left at to see the sunrise over the Ganges. We took the bus into town (surprisingly little traffic at this hour) and walked about a mile back down to the river. This time we were put on two boats; each was a flat-bottomed craft about 8 feet abeam and 15 feet stem to stern. Our boat was rowed by one boy who looked to be about 15. We started out in total darkness (and it was also very cold - probably upper 40s), but there were still pilgrims walking on the shore and people bathing in the water. As we floated along, we were given small dishes with flower petals and a candle; our guide asked us to make our own personal prayers and then set the candles adrift in the river.  It was truly inspirational.  We saw the laundry women standing in the frigid water beating the clothes on the rocks. We passed a school for priests where they were chanting on the steps. At last we came to the "crematorium" on the bank of the river-- where there was a cremation in progress.  About this time the orange glow of the sun began to peak over the horizon. It was an awesome moment to see something that has been going on virtually unchanged for thousands of years.

To many in our group, the poverty, deplorable living conditions, begging, and lack of sanitation were disturbing.  Several voiced their thoughts:  "How can they live like this", and "Aren't they miserable?". But having seen the same types of cultures and living standards in other countries, we knew it's not that simple.  It is often we Westerners who are unhappy, chasing after material things, when these people may very well have everything they want or need. 

Magnificent Splendor

December 24, 2010
As we write this update, it is Christmas morning in Jaipur--the pink desert city of palaces, gem cutting, camel sightings, splendidly-decorated elephants, Christmas songs piped into the hotel lobby, and Muslim calls to worship echoing on the way to our room.  Since we last wrote, we have been to Kharjuraho, Agra, and across the countryside.  Wayne and I have both had a mild case of delhi belly, and Wayne developed India hives.  We met a wonderful Indian doctor who took care of that.  No worries, we are good and haven't missed a beat.  But, we digress. 
Back to the matter at hand.  OK: On with the tour: We flew from Varanasi to Khajuraho, the site of one of 28 UNESCO World Heritage sites in India. It has the largest group of medieval Hindu and Jain temples in one area (a beautiful park setting). These are famous for their erotic sculptures (although, there are thousands of scenes of everyday life and you really need a guide to point out the "risque" ones), and is considered to be one of the "seven wonders" of India. The carvings were fantastic - so lifelike, meticulous and each one was unique.
Then on to the Taj.  We left Kajuraho on the 22nd and drove across the countryside to pick up an authentic Indian train. We first drove to Orchha. There by the side of the Betwa river is a collection of temples, palaces and cenotaphs built by the Mughals from the 16th through 19th centuries. One of the highlights was seeing a number of vultures roosting on the roofs.  Then we went to Jhansi (an authentic train station, rats among the tracks and all--and as our readers know, Wendy is not a huge fan of rodents) to catch the train to Agra. There are three classes of cars on most trains. We were in class I (the only car of its type on our train) which was just like Amtrak - regular cushioned train sets, a bathroom in each car, and they come through and serve water and food (like on an airplane!) for no extra charge (we were advised to skip the food). The class II cars (we were told) are not quite as accommodating. We especially like the "Sleeper Cars" we saw which were crammed full of people. I guess you have to learn how to sleep standing up. Our train did not have any class III cars....our guides said that was a good thing, so I'll leave it to your imagination. One of the highlights was the announcements made on the train. Imagine the voice of a 5-year old British girl: "Welcome to Agra. It has been our great pleasure to have you with us. We wish you happiness as you continue your journey and sincerely hope to see you again soon."  Was the same message was piped into the other class cars? 

We have traveled extensively and certainly realize how lucky we are to have experienced and seen more awe-inspiring marvels than most. Sometimes we come across something that is just so splendid, so amazing, that we truly run out of adjectives.  Our first sighting of Lake Louise was like that. So did the Taj Mahal! It is not lit at night so our first viewing was through the mist in our room--when we woke up on the 23rd.  Even from 2 kilometers away it was breathtaking. Our tour there left the hotal at , and by then it was clear. Heavy security to get in. You walk up a brick pathway and turn to your right to go through the main gate (don't think "gate" like a fence, it is more like the India Gate or Arc de Triomphe). Because of the way it is laid out, you can't really see the Taj itself until you walk through. Then, there it is in beautiful magnificence. Yes, you've seen pictures many times, but the real thing is profoundly amazing!  And learning details about it from our guide only added to its glory. As you get close, you see that it is decorated with verses from the Koran and intertwining leaves and flowers. It is 400 years old; how can they look like new? Because they are not painted on, but all inlaid! Jade, lapis, turquoise...all set flawlessly into the white marble. The designers were very clever, too, in that the calligraphy that adorns many of the arches and entryways is actually bigger the higher up that it goes so that it looks like a uniform size from ground level. It took 20,000 workers 22 years to complete. This is the mausoleum to Shah Jahan's wife. He had planned to build a similar structure in black marble for himself, but his son said "No way! Too much of my inheritance!" and had his father locked in Agra Fort  (where he could view the Taj from across the river) for the remaining 8 years of his life. But don't feel too bad for him as he had 200 concubines to keep him company. 
So our next stop was the fort itself - a combination fort and palace. It is bigger than any fort or castle in Europe.  Most is made of red sandstone, but again, in the royal living quarters there is much marble and inlays of precious stones. Five great Mughal rulers lived here,  and the country was governed from here. It contained the largest state treasury and mint. It was visited by foreign ambassadors, travelers and dignitaries.
Some other things we have learned: The word "pur" indicates that a town is of Hindu origin (Jaipur, Udaipur); "bad" indicates a Muslim origin (Hyderabad). Begging is a full-time "profession" for many people. And yes, people are maimed (blinded, limbs cut off) and controlled by a beggar-master (as portrayed in Slumdog Millionairre). Furthermore, some women work as nannys for wealthy people and then drug the child and use it as a prop to beg all day returning home before the parents.
The population of India increases by about 25 million each year, which is roughly the population of Australia. India is truly a melting pot of religions and cultures. And, for many people, religion is the central point of their daily lives; religion is everywhere.
At this time, there are about 1,600 languages in use in the country.

An Assault on the Senses

December 27, 2010
One of the great things about our itinerary is that we are seeing the real India. This is not a sanitized tourist-friendly version (although we are staying at some amazing hotels), but the real raw, gritty side of this country where 70% still live in rural areas. The land and the people hit all of your senses: the constant din of car horns, the smell of incense and smog and a variety of spices, the colors of the clothes and the buildings, the amazing tastes of the food - spicy and hot or cool and refreshing, the different and strange languages (only 10% of the people speak English, but of course these are the ones who control the government, the economy, and work in tourism), the feel of the silk that is produced here, the repetitive sounds of calls to prayer, the beauty of the architecture and the inlaid marble, and our sense of propriety (there is nothing unusual about seeing men urinate by the side of the road, or worse).

You may have noticed that we haven't provided our customary food reports over the past few days.  Frankly, there's not much you can say about chicken soup and rice (in any culture)...but we are back on our normal eating marathon.  We've had many wonderful Indian meals but perhaps the most memorable so far were on Christmas Day--when we had a beautiful, traditional lunch, followed by a festive Indian Christmas buffet unlike any other buffet we've experienced to date.

After a morning of touring at the Amber Fort in Jaipur (including an elephant ride up the steep entrance), we went to a lovely heritage hotel where we took in a puppet show followed by a traditional lunch.  The servers paraded in with a domed silver platter for each guest. Each platter had eight small bowls with different dishes including--but not limited to--chicken tikka masala, the ubiquitous dal, spiced potatoes, raita (yogurt to cool the palate), green beans, eggplant, rice, and more.  It was a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.  Of course, this was followed by a similarly arranged dessert platter.

Lunch would have been adequate but, it being Christmas Day, our tour guide decided that everyone should have a holiday dinner as well (by the way, there had been an elaborate spread for Christmas Eve with Indian, Thai, Chinese, and American delicacies--and, in the holiday spirit, our guide had purchased a wide array of Indian tsotschkes for each of us representing every possible Indian trinket one might imagine, ranging from bangle bracelets to Ganesh calendars, to puppets and everything in between).  But, I digress. For Christmas Dinner, we chose the Indian restaurant (something about eating turkey and brussels sprouts while in India just doesn't make sense). We entered a festively-decorated courtyard (complete with Indian music and yet another puppet show) and, luckily, heated with space heaters and table-side charcoal braziers (which spewed sparks from time to time) as it was in the upper 40s (northern India is not the tropics).  We sat down only to discover another buffet (argh) but quickly changed our tune when we realized this one was interactive.  There were five stations; at each one, the chefs were standing by to explain the tasty foods being served.  We were pleasantly surprised to see that at several stations they were serving "street food" which we had been forewarned not to eat (not that that prevented us from needing to eat chicken soup for two days).  Anyway, when we sat down we were served pappadam with an array of wonderful chutneys.  Then, it was time to go to the food stations.  We started with chaat--these were the Indian equivalent of bite-sized taco shells filled with vegetables and hot sauce.  They were fantastic and it was very difficult to eat just one or two!  The next station had salad offerings--we chose the lentil salad and baby fried spiced okra... just delectable.  Next, we moved to the tandoori kebabs (murgh malai, achari macchli, saunfiynani paneer, tandoori shimla--translated to fish, chicken, cheese, and vegetable--not  necessarily in that order). These were simply outstanding.  Now, mere mortals might have been done at this point, but we persevered.

The next course was the main course--here we had several to choose among (tandoori murgh masala, lamb nilgiri kurma, kerala shrimp curry, saag paneer, aloo jeera, jogiya tarkari, dal palak, subq biriyani, and assorted Indian breads). We piled our plates high--focusing on the chicken, shrimp, potatoes, dal, and biriyani (and, of course, the nan). The flavors ranged from hot to piquant to spicy to mellow.  Unbelievably, we finished every bite.

Of course, it would not be a complete meal for Wendy and Wayne in any culture if we didn't have dessert.  So, we summoned up our energy (and courage) and trekked over to the dessert bar. Again, there were many choices including, but not limited to steamed chocolate pudding (the Indian answer to molten chocolate cake), coconut ice cream, Indian donuts (steeped in sugar syrup), and sugar syrup soaked fried dough (the Indian answer to churros). Again, we finished every bite. We are accustomed to Chinese food for Christmas dinner; our Indian dinner was a treat for sore eyes (and luckily, not sore stomachs).

As we write this letter, it is Monday evening, December 27.  Yesterday was a rest and travel day; a highlight was the sari and turban demonstration after lunch.  We both got dressed up (as did most of our group) and we have the pictures to prove it.  We arrived at Udaipur (city of lakes) late in the evening. 

This morning, we stayed at the hotel and enjoyed a camel ride (well, perhaps enjoyed is not the right verb here--quite an experience) and then took a tuk-tuk (open air taxi) into old Udaipur where we visited an outstanding textile store where we indulged in some serious retail therapy.  If there was a limit on scarves and shawls, we certainly would not pass customs!  Tomorrow, we depart for Mumbai.


January 1, 2011
As we write this final chapter of our journey, we are sitting in an airport hotel in Delhi whiling away the hours as our original flight out last night was cancelled (nothing like spending New year's Day in an airport hotel waiting for 12:40 a.m. when we'll try again). We look at it as yet another experience in our journey--and a wild one it has been. So here is what has happened since we last posted.  (Please note:  because we have so much time to kill, we've provided lots of details... we hope you'll bear with us!)

We flew from Udaipur to Mumbai. We were very lucky as our flight was only slightly delayed; the northern part of the country, including Delhi was covered with fog. And since Delhi (like O'Hare) is THE major air hub of the country, the whole system was bollixed up. Over 70 flights had been cancelled; some international flights had been rerouted to Mumbai (can you imagine!?). Even some trains were cancelled (because they don't work in the fog?????).

So we arrived in Mumbai (Bombay now) in the late afternoon. Mumbai, which has a population of 18 million, was originally  made up of 7 islands. But over the centuries, the sea was reclaimed and it is now one contiguous area. As we drove in, our initial images were of much construction, but, as in other cities, many half-finished (and abandoned) buildings, highway overpasses to nowhere, high-rises on one side and hovels and decay on the other. It reminded us at various points of Bangkok (tropical, tons of cars), Rio, Rome, Miami Beach, and even
Lake Shore Drive
(sans palm trees).  At one point we crossed over a very modern new bridge. The sign at the entrance summed up the city (and perhaps all of India): "No 2 wheel or 3 wheel vehicles or bullock carts allowed"!!!!  As in most of the other cities there were many statues of Gandhi.

We had arranged several day tours and were fortunate to get an excellent guide (who informed us she had also toured with Kevin Costner and Barack Obama--not too shabby).  We started early (!) on Wednesday and took a walking tour of the wholesale flower market. As you might imagine, the market was teeming with people--squirming, pushing, barreling into us--we felt perfectly safe so long as we ducked to steer clear of people's heavy loads. Once again, we were in the throes of it--fantastic. Back to the hotel for a quick breakfast and then out again for a guided city tour, including the open air laundry (Dhobi Ghat--movie coming out in January), Jain temple, Farsi Cone of Silence for burial rites), British monuments, the impressive Gateway to India, and so forth.

But the highlight of any Mumbai tour is Elephanta island--an hour ferry ride away to an island, originally guarded by elephant sculptures--with natural caves adorned with fascinating (amazingly well preserved) Hindu sculptures. However, the real highlight of our Mumbai tour was unplanned.  We had paid for a market tour but, acknowledging that we'd bought just about every scarf and shawl available, we asked our guide if it would be possible to see a movie instead because we wanted to experience Bollywood firsthand. She was game and led us to the Regal Theatre, built in 1931 and a landmark structure - you know, those big old movie houses with the balconies (it seated about 800 people). The cost was $2 a ticket!

It was a showing, so most of the audience was women. First there was a PSA for mosquito and malaria control. Then they showed the flag of India and everyone stood for the playing of the National Anthem (but no one sang and no "Play Ball" at the end). Then the movie began! We saw "Band Baaja Baaraat"  ( which was basically a boy-meets-girl, boy and girl become partners as wedding planners (a hot industry in India), boy and girl are successful and fall in love, girl gets angry and breaks partnership, boy and girl get back together and...... A wild movie! Full of lots of dancing and colorful wedding parties.. It was hard to keep Wendy in her seat as she was dancing throughout.

Our guide whispered translations from time to time (as there were no subtitles) but really, we could pretty much figure out what was happening without even understanding the dialogue. There weren't many complexities to the plot or theme. Loved this!!!

Friday we had a guided tour of five synagogues--ranging in age from 80 to 250 years.  While there isn't a significant Jewish population in Mumbai (about 4,000 now)--the population was significant at one time--and was comprised of both Bene Israelis and the Bagdadi Jews. The synagogues were impressive--particularly the arks and Torah covers and Wendy was thrilled that she was actually able to hold the Torah in the first synagogue, Magen David Synagogue.  A slightly different experience from Highland Park.

Can't finish our Mumbai report without a food report.  Incredible. We have been eating naan-stop (nyuk, nyuk!).  First dinner was at Trishna, which happens to have been written up in the NY Times last weekend.  Famous for seafood and king crabs freshly caught from Arabian Sea.  If you have eaten shellfish or roast chicken with Wendy (and you know who you are), just visualize the scene.  We had a huge vegetarian lunch (skipped dinner!) and another lunch in a restaurant (Khyber) decorated in Muslim style--chicken in an almond cream sauce with lassies to drink.  Memorable.  Perhaps the most beautiful restaurant of the trip was in the Oberoi hotel--their new Indian restaurant Ziya.  The room reminded us of Spiaggia overlooking the water.  The food was high gourmet Indian, each plate was a work of art prepared by a Michelin chef.  We started with amuse-bouches of one rice coated cherry tomato with mango chaser.  Then, with wild mushroom naan, Wayne enjoyed a trilogy of chicken (malai chicken; red pepper & chili chicken, mustard chicken, and pineapple Jhenga).  Wendy had the vegetarian subz platter (tandoori cauliflower, hariyli seekh kebab, and pomegranate raita. For mains, Wendy had the grilled ginger chilli lobster with broccoli khicdi and lovingly garnished with spiced cocoa powder (ok, decadent but we thought it was our last night in India!).  Wayne had prawns cooked coastal style, infused with Kaiffir lime leaves and lemon grass and served with steamed basmati.  Of course, both of our mains were served with dal and I wouldn't want to forget mentioning that we ordered saffron sesame naan and roti.  Again, no meal in any country is complete for us without dessert and as long as the elastic pants are ready and waiting back home we ordered two things.  The waiter told us we really didn't need two (shucks, the grilled saffron pineapple with kheer ice cream and warm coconut basundi which Wayne wanted sounded so good...but we stuck with the choco-palette).  On an actual palette we were served:  warm marbled chocolate samosa, silky chocolate delice with carmelised nuts, cumin-hazelnut warm chcolate brownie, rose petal kheer-white chocolate kulfi--paan chutney--chocolate pana cotta.  Need we say more except that I have now discovered another Indian scarf treatment--drape around your ever-increasing stomach.  Now, I fully understand why saris have caught on! sum up this trip:
We have seen roaming freely in the streets: cows, pigs, goats, dogs, cats. monkeys, and donkeys. We have also seen horses, rats, elephants, camels, parrots, vultures, owls, Indian-versions of squirrels and chipmunks, hawks, and pigeons (in Mumbai they actually have special areas set aside where they put out birdseed for them!). Alas, no tigers or cobras.We have had close encounters with a baboon, camels, and elephants. 

We have been on planes (jet and prop), busses, cars, taxis, auto-rickshaws (tuk-tuks), boats (ferry and rowed), trains, elephants, and camels.

We have seen or visited houses of worship for Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

We have seen many types of architecture spanning thousands of years and representing numerous cultures and religions. And these were constructed of everything from marble, to sandstone, and many great Victorian-era English built stone buildings.

We have tasted the huge variety of foods of those cultures.

We have seen excessive wealth (the world's most expensive "house" at $2 billion!) and poverty beyond imagination.

We have heard the different languages and seen the variety of lifestyles (some unchanged for centuries, others very 21st century) of this melange of peoples who, for the most part, live together in harmony. All this and we feel we've only scratched the surface.

Some visitors, upon returning home have said "'India' stands for 'I'll never do it again'". We'd say it means "India never dies, it's alive!". And we are currently in negotiation as to when we will return... there are sections of the country (Himalayas and the South) yet to see. 

Thank you for being with us on this amazing journey; we look forward to seeing many of you soon.

Namaste and Happy, Healthy New Year to all.

India Photo Album Link

You can see our Shutterfly photo album for this trip. 

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