Decidedly urban couple who quit their jobs and successfully backpacked their way through Asia for a year. They met Buddha, drank baijiu and learned to master the squat toilet. Now appearing in a new life as ex-pats in Singapore.
The first month in India we drove through several towns in the southwest of the country, each very similar in their (lack of) general infrastructure. On poorly repaired streets cows competed for dominance with tractors, over-sized trucks and sedans that were packed with families. In the downtown areas tiny homes with corrugated roofing leaned against crumbling buildings; everything seemed to be in a general state of disrepair. And there were people everywhere, in the road, sleeping in truck beds or lounging on top of moving vehicles. It felt like life was on the edge of chaos – the crowds, the traffic, the poverty were overwhelming.
Rickshaw race, day 2
Breakdown on the side of the highway
Every time we left for a new city I would think, “OK, this next city will be different. There will be fewer people, better roads, more development.” But that never really happened and after a while I lost that sense of expectation and became accustomed to India. Not just accustomed, we joined in, becoming active participants in a life filled with constant stimulation.
Waiting room of a train station
Gradually we developed an ever-present state of preparedness – we were constantly ready to face the onslaught of traffic, prepared for the crush of humanity that you face while getting on the train and geared up to fight off the touts, the vendors and the beggars. We became numb to the sorry state of garbage disposal, readily accepted the abject poverty and eventually enjoyed bargaining for each and everything we purchased. Instead of all the insanity, we simply saw why ‘India is Incredible!’ and enjoyed the ride.
Traffic in Calcutta
The safe way to cross railroad tracks
And then we left.
Our flight landed in Dubai, one of the wealthiest cities in the world. We stared at the gleaming marble floors, the crisp reflection in the spotless mirrors and the heavy sense of quiet. Instead of talking in normal tones, we whispered, uncertain of the rules in this pristine new environment. In the hotel we marveled at the hot water and called the front desk to learn if we were allowed to flush toilet paper in the toilet (yes, you can).
It's the Burj!
Fake islands. Pristine beaches. Manicured lawns. WHAT IS THIS?
Outside we were faced with a resounding lack of car horns, no one was proudly inviting us into his store, or gazing up at us, motioning for food. No one pushed against us to rush out the door or crowded us at the ATM. Where were the people, the animals, the LIFE?
Suddenly, we deflated. We went into withdrawal. The adrenaline that kept us pumped for months drained away leaving a shell of exhaustion. We acted like accident victims who could only look at each other and say, “Did that really happen!?”
It’s appropriate that we finish our trip in the one city that most embodies the beauty, the history and the insanity that is India – Varanasi.
Alleys of Varanasi
Oh my God, Varanasi.
It’s impossible to translate the utter shock, dismay and overwhelming fascination that you feel when confronted with this place that’s “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” (Thanks Mark Twain!)
Shiva the Destroyer!
This is the famed city where the faithful come to die so their spirit can be released from the cycle of birth and death. Where male family members cremate their loved ones in open funeral pyres and scattered their ashes into the Ganga. The very same water where thousands of people dip to cleanse their souls and wash their laundry. Where toxic runoff from local factories mix with cow excrement and untreated human sewage to form a potent brown liquid with 120 times the level of fecal bacteria permitted by international safety standards.
Bathers in the Ganga
We woke up early to visit the flooded ghats. Stairs leading down to the bathing area were covered with water and lonely traffic signs in the river marked the height of the monsoon rains. We gazed at the current for a few minutes before spotting a large tree trunk floating our way, hitting into boats and getting caught in the fishing wire. The tree moved closer, it’s flexible branches spread in a distinctly familiar position, wrapped in what looked like gauze… What is that? Could is be? Is it possible?
This is exactly what it looks like
The tree rushed closer to the bathing ghats where several people were washing and drinking the water. The tree slowly came into focus. We blinked. Nooooo…. It was not a tree. IT WAS A BODY. An uncremated, decaying, human body floated down the water, brushing against the pier where we stood, staring slack jawed in shock.
It was at this moment that we decided that we would NOT be joining the bathers as they dipped in the most polluted river in the world.
The next few days were no less interesting. We wandered around ancient alleys, maneuvering around massive cows and into crowds of colorfully dressed pilgrams carrying bottles of dirty brown river water. Skinny sadhus and gregarious holy men approached, asking for food or money, dabbing your forehead with color or shoving a basket of hissing cobras in your direction. Images of Lord Shiva were painted on every surface, flower offerings and remnants of milk colored the narrow walkways. People stood with their heads bowed, lighting candles at small shrines or smoked charras in front of the tall temples that line the river.
The monsoon rains poured down and the Ganges rose to meet the flood water on the street. We walked through the knee deep brown rapids trying not to think about the potential for water borne illness.
In this crush of humanity, with cows, traffic jams and millions of people, it was impossible to forget the reason why we were all here: the spectacle of life and death.
The sandalwood smoke from the funeral pyres drifted over the city, through the ancient walkways and temples. The alleyways spread between two burning ghats, a walk in either direction would eventually pass by the very open display of life passing from it’s physical form into ashes. Beside the burning ghats, children climbed the massive trees that were soon going to be sold for fire wood. At the water men carried their dead loved ones for their final bath in the Ganges. And in the street, right in front of your eyes, fire envelopes what used to be a living person. A foot turns brown, curling backwards as it’s reduced to charred bone. The untouchable man whose family has been burning bodies for centuries pokes at a wayward arm, returning it into the flames.
Wood at the cremation ghat
Varanasi marks the end of our time in India, it’s truly the culmination of everything that we’ve witnessed in this country. A place where striking poverty blends with unparalleled color and beauty. Where life screams past you in a rickshaw and death is just a part of the journey. No matter what God you believe in, he’s waiting for you in a temple, at a shrine or under a Bodhi tree in India.
And let’s not forget those Holy Cows.
Through the flood and into the river we go!
Smoking Charras for Shiva
Offerings for Shiva
Ironing clothes on the side of the street
Time for a Tiny Chai!
The news is less fascinating that reality in Varanasi
If I were to tell you a tale of a modern day warriors with massive turbans carrying swords who pray at a temple made of gold, you may think that I’ve been overindulging on the pot pakoras. But clearly you’ve never been to Amritsar, home of the Sikh religion and their gorgeous Golden Temple, an architectural success that according to people in the know, rivals the Taj Mahal.
The Golden Temple
Religious sites as a tourist destination can be a little tricky. Of course you’re not entirely familiar with the rites and rituals so it’s easy to make a mistake, (ie: accepting the offering with your left hand at the Mahalakshmi Temple in Bombay. Or accidentally joining the men on their side of the temple at Wu Wei Si. Or letting the shawl drop from your bare shoulders during lunch at Vipassana.) Most of the time people ignore you, sometimes people correct you and occasionally people clearly do not want you there.
Nightly prayers before putting the book to bed
The Golden Temple may be the most inviting religious destination in the world. Sikh’s are huge believers in equality and everyone – EVERYONE – is invited to visit their temple, listen to the continuous chanting and -best of all- sit down and enjoy a meal as a community. At the langar (canteen) Sikh’s demonstrate their belief in equality, sharing and community by feeding everyone at the free kitchen.
Over 35,000 people every day eat at the Golden Temple!
Food for everyone!
It must be said: The Golden Temple is stunning, it’s magnificent, it’s a masterpiece. But the thing that I loved most about my visit to Amritsar was the inclusive, inviting atmosphere in the langar.
Hundreds of people stream in and out of the entrance. As you walk in a man in huge turban hands you a metal plate and points you down the line where someone is waiting with a bowl and another person with your silverware. All around you sit groups of volunteers. They’re chopping onions and mincing garlic. The smell hits your eyes and you can do nothing but follow the crowd, blinded by the immediate tears. You ears tingle from the continuous din of metal trays being washed, dried and thrown into a pile.
Volunteers chopping the veggies
People surround you, jostling, pushing you into the canteen as soon as the doors are opened. Everyone runs for a spot on the freshly washed floor and even before the entire crowd enters, servers are tossing chapatti and ladling spicy dal onto waiting trays. The food is served until everyone is full – but this happens quickly. Another group of hungry people are already pushing at the door and men with buckets and brooms are heading your way to wash the floor you’re sitting on.
The Production Line
Many religions preach about tolerance and charity, about feeding the poor or helping the needy but Sikh’s put their money where their mouth is. It’s amazing to walk into a temple and be welcomed not just with hymns and icons but with a smile and a steaming cup of tea.
The word Kashmir brings to mind two totally unrelated thoughts, one being the famous song by Led Zepplin and the other being a horrifically dangerous militarized border between India and Pakistan. Neither are wrong, except for the fact that the song ‘Kashmir’ was written about Morocco and this year things are pretty peaceful in the region.
This has been one of the more confusing parts of India. Huge swaths of barbed wire cover buildings where sandbag barriers and men with machine guns stand at attention as you walk past. Graffiti in the old town shouts “Go India, Go Home!” and oddly, “Pakistan!” (Oddly because Kashmir wants autonomy, not to be part of Pakistan.)
What are they trying to say?
While trying to judge the security situation, we were also confronted with the most stunningly tranquil scene in all of India. Dal Lake is the center of tourist activity where intricately carved house boats line the shore and families pile into smaller shakira boats for a relaxing afternoon floating along enjoying a little shopping, a shave or a meal all from their bed on board.
Kashmir is heavily reliant on tourist dollars and with the recent unrest those dollars have dried up. Kashmiris are clearly trying to rebuild the image of Srinagar as a summer capital where wealthy Indians can come to relax. But even while trying to put on a positive face animosity lingers behind the smile.
What do we want! Freedom!
People were very quick to tell you about their troubles with the Indian government, about the number of Kashmiris killed in last year’s unrest and how oppressive the military presence is in their daily life. Then in the next breath they will present a huge smile and ask when you’re planning to return.
Kashmir felt like one big emotional contradiction: safe and peaceful on one hand, simmering animosity and violence on the other. In a situation so tense and straight up confusing the only thing I can say is that after just a few days I was ready to leave and sad to go.
When we mentioned to a friend that we planned to travel to Leh and he became super animated and excited for us. “Beautiful! Leh is beautiful. But it has one problem.” In all seriousness he said, “Leh lacks oxygen.”
Beautiful Breathtaking Leh
Leh is tiny Buddhist city nestled in the Himalaya mountains. The entire city is bathed in searing light and the white stone buildings glow against the mountain desert. Gompas, prayer flags and stupas line dot the barren landscape. Monks and women carrying prayer wheels walk in the shade of the huge Potala replica that looms over the city.
It’s a stunning site but our friend was right. You absolutely can not breathe.
Prayer wheels and cell phones
It’s difficult to catch your breath as you casually stroll downhill. Simple things like showering too vigorously can send your head into a spin. I constantly found myself trying to take huge gulps of air and panicking when I couldn’t fill my lungs. It’s not uncommon to spot a tourist sitting on the side of the road, eyes bulging, chest heaving, trying their best to simply breathe.
Mini Potala Palace in Leh
So in that environment the only thing we could think to do was TAKE IT UP ANOTHER 1,500 KM!
Need LESS Oxygen!
Vin and I teamed up with a few Frenchies and an Englishman to form team ‘Full Power!’
India has many, many amazing expressions. In casual conversation people will bust out with things like, “No worry, no hurry. No chicken, no curry” and the ever popular “First Class!” (Vinnie heard this the street everyday. Someone would call out to him, “Boss! That is a FIRST CLASS mustache!”) One of the most famed Indianism has to be “FULL POWER!” Anything and everything worth buying/eating/visiting/seeing was FULL POWER!
So on the way when the car broke down, we continued on with FULL POWER!
The trip starts off well...
When we hit a swiftly flowing river, we found a way to cross it with FULL POWER!
FULL POWER river crossing!
When the dizzies set in and we nearly fell off a cliff, team FULL POWER was there to help!
Team Full Power!
The hike had no trail markers instead we were told to follow the path of donkey crap to find our way. Surprisingly this worked. Donkeys and their droppings were are hiking partners the entire climb and honestly, they are the only creatures cut out for moving at this altitude.
Don't get stuck downwind!
Our first day of hiking ended at a nearly empty Ladakhi village 4,000 meters above sea level. Giant stone stupas lined the path to the village where the 50 villagers poked their heads out of their mud homes and welcomed us with smiles. It’s always amazing to realize how many cultural divides can be crossed with just a smile.
Family house in Rumback
The village water supply
We spent the night sleeping on a mattress on the dirt floor in the home of a young family. After a fantastic dinner of potato and spinach momos (Love those momos!) we settled in for the night, only to be abruptly woken by the frightening bray of a donkey. And then the screech of a goat. And the wail of several unidentified animals. It was the soundtrack to a horror film or noises heard nowhere else but a delivery room. Clearly we are not farm folks.
It turns out we’re not billy goats either and the next day of a vertical hiking proved very, very difficult.
We started out early, aimlessly walking through a vast valley surrounded by soaring cliffs. How were were expected to cross? There was no break in the vertical wall of mountain, no pass or even a smaller looking mountain.
The road to nowhere
Our eyes did not deceive us. We walked over a vertical kilometer to the top of the Stok mountain pass. In the thin air, on a tiny gravel path used by donkeys and criminally insane backpackers.
Keeping our energy up during the climb
We walked until we had to climb. Then we climbed until we had to crawl using every muscle to propel our bodies up another foot. We gave it a FULL POWER effort but every five minutes one of us would collapse to the ground, gasping for breath, fighting the dizzies and trying to stay on the path. We were in constant danger of passing out and rolling off a cliff.
It took four hours to reach the top. And I would love to say that once at the peak we enjoyed the sweet smell of success but honestly we couldn’t breathe at all. It wasn’t until we had walked down a good 1,500 meters before enough oxygen hit out brain and we basked in the euphoria of walking to the top of the world.
At that point we gave out a scream that echoed from the mountains that once again surrounded us. “FULL POWER!!”
Backpacking is certainly not a high class way to travel and in the past few weeks we’ve been discovering how low can we go. Bus rides. Himalaya Mountains. Days and days of jam packed public buses swerving up and down the steepest, most dangerous roads in the world.
One lane road high in the sky - without a guardrail
Surprisingly we weren’t the only people deranged enough to travel for over 76 cumulative hours in cramped, claustrophobic vehicles with crash-prone, slightly stoned drivers. On one particularly grueling, disaster-prone ride there were 7 other countries represented on our bus. It was like the mini-UN with three security council members on board – this helped delude me into thinking that we were safe. After all, what has ever gone wrong at the UN?
Here, today, presented for your amusement and our overwhelming relief that this part of our trip is complete, a run down of our Himalayan bus ride adventures.
Rishikesh to Manali – 19.5 hours of public bus battering One would think that after viewing our chariot that we would turn around and head back to Delhi. Instead we boarded early, sliding across the cracked, oil-stained bench seat to grab a spot by the window. When the three-person bench seats were stuffed full and people were standing in the aisle, the bus lurched out of the station.
Public bus. Yes, I'm serious.
It was difficult to breathe; diesel and dust mixed with the fresh air that managed to flow through the small window opening. The whole bus was oddly silent; everyone seemed to be concentrating on the driver, silently supporting him to continue on through the night.
Our happy face
Across from us was a bench packed with four adults and a diaper-less, naked baby who peed out of the window. Occasionally young kids would board the bus, sing at the top of their lungs and beg for change. At one point in the voyage a young woman leaned across several seatmates and began throwing up out of the window. We slid shut our only source of fresh oxygen to avoid the run off.
The bus got stuck in hours of traffic. We did not sleep that night.
Left at 1:45PM: Arrived at 8:30AM: 18 hours
Manali to Leh – Breakdowwn! The 14 hour journey that took 2 days.
We hoped never to repeat the above scenario ever again so instead of taking the much cheaper public bus, we grabbed a minibus to Leh. A caravan of minibuses depart Manali at 3AM and they tend to stick together for the entire 14-hour journey. Our caravan was especially colorful, it included drivers under the influence of mind altering substances, a passenger who nearly died from altitude sickness and lots of momos. (Any trip involving dumplings can’t be THAT bad.)
One of the drivers showed reeking of booze and breath mints – he was absolutely dead drunk. The mini-UN of international passengers rioted, cops were called and after several hours the driver was replaced. This did not ease our mind that the journey over some of the highest mountain passes in the world would be a safe one. Especially when we began to notice the drivers take quick charras breaks…
But the drunk, stoned drivers weren’t the real problem- those men can drive! The problem was rain. The mountain paths are 98% dirt and gravel, a monsoon quality downpour can bring traffic to a halt and keep it there for days. Our minibus caravan ran into a three-hour traffic jam at the Rohtang pass where the mud was knee deep. In the misty morning fog with visibility at exactly 0.06% and the single lane pass covered in mud, I was pretty certain that we weren’t going to make it to Leh. This suspicion was confirmed ten hours later when we ran into the next major roadblock- two trucks stuck in a roadside waterfall.
So with little else to do, the driver turned around and dropped us off at a tent on the side of the road. The inside of the tent was lined with cushions where you could sit down and enjoy a meal or a chai. These cushions also doubled as beds for the displaced.
Home for the night!
That night in the snowy Himalayan mountains at 4,000 meters above sea level, we slept in a circus tent beside 60 other travelers.
Left at 3:00AM:Arrived at 5:30 PM the next day. Total time in van=26 hours, total time traveling 40.5 hours
Leh to Srinagar: OMG!It’s love!
One thing that I did not mention about the minibus is that it’s very, very uncomfortable. The narrow dirt roads are severely pockmarked, causing vans swerve to left and right to avoid the holes. There isn’t much room to swerve on a one way road 3,500 meters above sea level therefore not only do you NOT miss the potholes, you actively hit them – hard. Your ass is blue upon arrival and your head is spinning from the combination of lack of oxygen and being thrown against the glass window several hundred times.
Faced with these conditions, we upgraded once more. With a packed public bus out of the question and the prospect of another minibus ride causing night tremors, we spent big bucks on a miniVAN!
Sure, it was slightly less jarring. And yes, we had space to stretch our legs a bit. But this may have been the worst ride of all.
Our young English van-mates had commandeered the radio and choose to play their new purchace, a 51-track bootleg CD titled, “OMG! It’s love” with such classics as ‘Missing you now’ by Kenny G and Michael Bolton, ‘My Love’, Westlife and ‘Home’ by Daughtery. I wasn’t sure what made me more nauseous, the twisting switchbacks on the road or having to listen to John Mayer – twice.
Clearly the driver was equally enthused about 3 hours of music from Jason Mraz and Savage Garden. As soon as the CD began to play the driver drove straight into a motorcyclist.
Left at 4;00PM: Arrived at 8:00AM – only 12 hours!
Srinagar to Jammu to Dharamsala: The horror
Public buses are bad. Sitting in the very back seat of a public bus is worse. Sitting on the back of a 100 degree public bus traveling through Kashmir where the military stops you every 5 minutes and highly-trained snipers wait in the bushes with machine guns is worser-then-worse. During this 22 hour trip a child peed on me and Vinnie was showered in vomit.
That’s all I can talk about, the memories are still too painful.
Left 5AM: Arrived 4:30AM the next day
Public bus unrination
Hello machine guns!
Final Leg of the trip – Dharamsala to Amritsar: Laughable
Public bus. Five hours. Piece of cake. We are PROFESSIONALS!
On the road again.
76 hours later: Denoument
Emerson may be right that life is about the journey not the destination. But Ralph Waldo Emerson never traveled in India. If he had taken the trip we just survived, he may been quoted for saying something like, “Are we there YET?”
No this bridge did not scare me. It should have though..
Rishikesh is famous for several reasons: for yogis Rishikesh is the world capital of Yoga, for Shaivas it’s the location of a holy 12 km pilgrimage from the Ganges to a famous temple and for Beatles fans Rishikesh is where the Fab Four discovered transcendental meditation and wrote the BEST ALBUM EVER.
The Beatles with Sexy Sadie
The Beatles stayed in Rishikesh for several months where they zenned out, wrote music and chowed down on pure veg food. Rumor has is that the Ringo hated the food and left early – he was probably as constipated as were are after a week of eating nothing but dal.
The other members of the band left after a falling out with their guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The song Sexy Sadie, originally titled ‘Maharishi’, was inspired by the departure from the Ashram.
The place where nothing is real
The Beatles put Rishikesh in the hippie guidebook but these days you will only find monkeys living on the property. Chaurasi Kutia Ashram has been closed since the mid-nineties and has receded back to the wild. There are huge signs across the front gate warning against trespassing. Rumors abound that the gate is guarded by a bribe-accepting official but we didn’t see anyone so we jumped the wall.
The fool on the hill
Sexie Sadie, you broke the rules!
The path in front of us was overgrown with flowers and weeds, the air was still and it was 41 degrees. Although this might not seem like the setting to a ghost story, it sure felt like one. India is not a quiet country and the silence surrounded us. I was sure that we were soon to be accosted by a crazed Beatles-loving hippie, government employee or the ghost of John Lennon. It was creepy.
Well here's another place you can go, where everthing flows
Only waiting for this moment to be free
The entire Ashram is runover and crumbling. One story stone igloos that were once set amongst the woods have now become part of the forest. Larger residential buildings were crumbling, rooms were full of glass and naked electrical wires. Beatles graffiti decorated everything. Paths laced with spider webs and thorn bushes led to frustrating dead ends. We hiked the property for hours, not really sure what we were looking for or understanding what we we found.
Follow close or you're gonna lose that girl!
I Look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping
On top of a large compound of buildings sat squat white cones structures with ladders leading the the very top. From this perch on top of the world you could see from the small clusters of igloos on the property all the way to the Ganges and beyond to the mountains in the distance.
Looking through the bend back tulips to see how the other half live
Kristine in the sky without her diamonds
We were just two of the millions of Beatles fans have trekked to Rishikesh to find the Maharishi Mahesh ashram and somehow it felt like we had discovered something new and exciting. Perhaps we felt this way because there are no directions to this place, as if it’s some hidden secret. We searched for hours trying to find a map, a guide or instructions on how to find this ashram before finding it just 500 meters from our room.
So here you go, here are the directions to the Beatles Ashram.
The road to the Beatles Ashram
Walk across the foot bridge to the Swarg Ashram area of town. Continue along the water, passing Parmarth Niketan ashram and the bathing ghats. Walk beyond the Sri Ved Niketan ashram and keep going even when the road turns to dirt and the cows outnumber people.
You're on the right path!
From here you will see the sign pointing towards the Beatles Ashram (it’s about 1/2 mile from the foot bridge). When the road ends at the beach, turn left. Soon you will see the gates to the Beatles Ashram on your right. Enjoy!
That damn Beatles ashram was difficult to find. Instead of spending a lazy afternoon exploring the abandoned grounds where the White Album was written, we followed thousands of charras-smoking Shiva pilgrims on a 12km hike to the Neelkanth Temple.
Avoid the babas!
The road immediately turned into a dirt path heading straight uphill. At each turn we were convinced that the destination lay just a few steps ahead. We had a vague idea that the orange devotees were heading to a holy waterfall but had no idea where that waterfall was located or what else we would find.
Hiking up the endless hill
After an hour of walking straight uphill, dripping with sweat, barely able to breathe, we halting asked someone where they were headed: how far is this damn walk? For the first time in India, no one spoke English.
“Twenty kilometers!” someone shouted at us as they walked past.
Now we’ve been in Asia a long time and we have learned that no one willingly walks 20 kilometers in 100 degree heat at 2,005m above sea level. We were fairly certain he meant two. Two kilometers.
Rain and sweat equally as unbecoming
So we continued to climb. And climb. And CLIMB. By the time we had climbed 8km, we had lost our will to live. So when a posse of stoned Shaivas called for Vinnie to join them for a rest in the shade, he willingly acquiesced.
The group of guys had traveled from Goa and Delhi to make the holy trek together. This was the Indian version of a Cancun spring break with a religious twist. All the pilgrims carried two things: a bottle of water from the Ganges and a black fanny pack filled with charras, papers and matches. The water is poured over a stone at a temple at the top of the hill. The charras was to help make the climb a little easier.
Tents along the path
The men sat under a tent, buying individual cigarettes from the vendor and roll a joint. Not just one joint. The men rolled one after another sharing the hash between each other and dozens of other men walking up the hill. Who knew that pot played such an important role in spiritual enlightenment!
They excitedly chattered away about their quest and the charras. The leader of the group turned to Vinnie, repeatedly asking, “How do you feel, are you happy?” “Be Happy!” demanded.
Vin and his newfound friends
Together with the men we continued up the hill, albeit very, very slowly. The steep winding path was lined with garbage bag tents on one side and a sharp drop on the other. We may have been in the middle of the wilderness but it was never silent. Exuberant boys who had already reached the top ran downhill blowing on whistles and shouting “Bum! Bum! BOULE!”
We passed babas playing drums and asking for money, “Hurry, do not stop!” the group warned. Serious pilgrims slowly climbed the hill performing arduous prostrations – kneeling to stretch their body against the ground, then standing up to repeat the action until they reach the top.
A difficult climb
Every few steps another joint would circle around; when it’s effects were felt, we would take a break to buy water or food for the monkeys.
Depending on the level of stonedness, the men would either marvel at their environment (“Oh my God. Oh my GOD. Look! Look my friend! Amazing!”), or discuss God (“You know God? God is great. GREAT!”).
Bum Bum Boule!
It took us over four hours to reach our destination and like most things the best part was getting there. Hundreds of pilgrims had carried water and offerings for miles just to lay them at the temple. At the temple’s entrance we took off our shoes only to walk across wet garbage, bottle caps and discarded offerings. Every step produced a wet squish as your weight crushed the remains beneath your feet.
The walk to the temple
We followed the line of people into the temple where two men watched as pilgrims poured their Ganges water onto a stone. After only a few seconds we were ushered out of the main temple into the outdoor courtyard where incense filled the air.
Dozens of people stood at the base of the temple emptying their water bottles and throwing the plastic into a pile. Behind the temple people were preparing to take a dip in the small pool.
Holy disposal of water bottles
Bathing in the spring behind the Neelkanth Temple
I looked around, did I miss something? Was that IT!?I had expected something more.
Yes, that was it. Thousands of men walk for hours, chanting and smoking copious amounts of ganja, only to stand in line and pour water on a stone. I can’t claim to understand this particular religious rite.
The Neelkanth Temple
Dusk was approaching, Vin’s high was wearing off and my feet were killing me. The men had fulfilled their spiritual quest and now, much calmer, were preparing for the walk down by rolling yet another joint.
It was time to take the easy way out – we called a cab!
That night as we returned to our room, we could easily hear the shouts of “Bum Bum Boule!” from the street outside. Pilgrims were just returning from their epic hike and clearly had enjoyed every moment. We did too.
India is not a country where you can simply observe, you’re compelled to participate. If you don’t join willingly, there are a billion people who will take you by the hand and physically persuade you to become part of this country.
Kris and the Ganges
We dropped by Haridwar to find a city full of orange-clad men chanting and parading down the streets. Their excitement was contagious so we hurried behind, trying to find an inch of space in the crush. That’s when we arrived at Har-Ki-Pauri and had out first look at Mother Ganga.
The sight was shocking. It felt like we had left modern India behind and had stepped into the spiritual soul of the country.
The banks of the Ganges
Women sat fully clothed in waist deep water furiously splashing their heads and washing huge swaths of fabric. Bare chested men in their underwear waded into the rapids and struggled to gain their footing before being swept downstream. Thousands of families clung to metal chains as they dipped together to wash away their sins.
Vinnie and the men
We hesitantly dipped our toes into the FREEZING COLD water. It felt like every person in the bathing ghat was gauging our reaction, staring to see if we would brave the Himalayan water. Before we could make the decision for ourselves, a group of boys made the decision for us; they began splashing, laughing at our sputtering outrage.
We spent the entire day dipping and swimming against the strong current. A nearby group of women chastised me for not holding onto the chains, grabbing my hand to ensure that I didn’t float away. Upstream children shouted for Vinnie to join them as they jumped from a bridge into the water and floated downriver. Every five minutes another smiling face would approach us with a photographer in tow, “Sar, sar! One picture!”
One picture became five pictures, which became twenty pictures and then forty. Strangers would approach us and jump into the frame. “One more!” they would scream. And people didn’t just want our photo, they wanted US to take THEIR photo.
Smart little kids who steal rupees from the offerings!
As night approached, people dried off and huddled together waiting for the ceremony to begin. Old women, sadhus, children selling mendhi and the mandatory cow were all packed on the marble steps leading into the river. Men in blue uniform scouted the crowd for donations, yelling at people to take off their shoes and not to use banned plastic coverings. Overhead the speakers were blaring music and announcements.
Vinnie in the crowd
Offerings floating down the Ganges
The jovial party atmosphere turned more introverted and personal. People clutched prayer beads, chanting and bowing into the Ganges. Others lifted a cup of milk and while mouthing a prayer, emptied it into the water. Flowers and coin offerings floated downstream until they were upended in the rapids where entrepreneurial young boys waited with magnets and rope.
An excited young guy turned to us and asked, “Are you ready to see the most amazing thing in all of India?”
Pouring Milk into the Ganges
We cheered but weren't exactly sure why
As the sun set and the rain cleared, several men brought down a large diety and the Aarti of the Goddess Ganga began. Across the river from us, lamps were light and circled around the deity. The crowd pushed towards the fire, putting their hands into the flame and holding the heat to their foreheads.
Lighting the flames
Blessing of the Ganges
Six minutes later the ceremony was over. We had waited in the rain with thousands of people to witness the most amazing thing in India and it lasted as long as a commercial break!
All at once the crowd stood and lumbered towards the stairs. We moved with the people, crossing the bridge to look out to the Ganges. Bobbing on top of the water were tiny flower petals and brightly lit candles. Small boys waded into the water to grab the coins before they were upended by the rapids.
In that huge crowd, surrounded by so much activity, I realized why the day had been so special: we had joined in, not just watched. We may not believe that our souls are wiped clean but there is this a lingering sense of togetherness and belonging. We held hands with people, laughed at their jokes and chanted along together. We connected.
For the record, not everyone loves their dip in the Ganges.
India is a study in contrasts; for ever unequivocal statement about this country, the absolute opposite is often true. The only absolute thing you can say about India is that there are a lot of cows.
Prior to visiting this country I had always pictured India as a predominately Hindu nation with a small minority of Muslims. And this may be true to some extent, on paper at least. But as with everywhere else we’ve traveled, we’ve learned that things are always as they appear – 13% minority in India is over 160 MILLION people. That’s the world’s third largest Muslim population after Indonesia and Pakistan!
The rich Muslim history of India was on full display as we traversed India’s golden triangle – Jaipur, Agra and Delhi. We toured massive sandstone forts built by Shah Jahan, gorgeously ornate mausoleums that predated the Taj and the ruins of one of the oldest cities in the world.
The experience of touring a World Heritage site per day made our heads spin – though it could have also been the heat. Delhi in July is very, very hot.
Gates to the Pink City
Women’s chambers at the Amber Fort
The Amber Fort
The Jantar Mantar (an astronomy observatory)
Hawa Mahal – royal women could observe without being seen!
Good times at the Taj
Gates to the Agra Fort
Drank loads of this before discovering where the water came from…
The Qutub Minar
Humayun’s Tomb – the Taj expanded on this design
India Gate in honor of those who died in WWI
Gate to Rashtrapati Bhavan (President’s house)
The Red Fort (Lal Qila)
Purana Qila (Old Fort)
Purana Qila- Ruins of Shergarh (a city pre-dating Delhi)
J’adore Indian style from the saris and bangles right down to henna painted hands and feet. Even the most casually dressed Indian woman leaves the house wearing perfectly matched earings and a scarf thrown casually around her shoulders. It’s beautiful.
I was beautiified by our hosts in Kolhapur
As a backpacker with two pairs of pants and a black dress, it’s hard not to get caught up in the wild display of color and beauty. In every town I find myself inextricably drawn to the sari bazaar; lane upon lane of small shops selling nothing but gorgeous, brightly colored fabric.
One of many sari alleys
The stores are nothing more than small rooms. Men sit on the floor in puddles of fabric, looking out at passing shoppers. “Come in, come in. Only looking, no selling! Come look!”
Nothing in India is done without first sitting down and having a chat. You can’t simply point to a sari and ask how much. Instead you take off your shoes, climb onto the raised shop floor and join the crowd of other women on the floor.
What about this sari?
“What color you like? Red? Blue?,” and suddenly yards and and yards of fabric are thrown in the air. The fabric doesn’t even float to the ground before more saris are taken from the shelves and thrown into the air. Then the niceties begin, “Where are you from? Ahh! very nice country! You like India?” After ten minutes of chatter and looking at fabrics, you finally get to the point, how much does this damn thing cost! “Ohh! Handmade embroidery. Very nice! 600 ruppes.”
Random sari shop in Jaipur
Never pay the first price! That hand embroidery is not really hand made! First you must listen to the lies before you get to the truth.
Ten more minutes of debating colors and fabrics – most of that time spent just trying to understand what bullshit line they’re feeding you – you finally agree to a price that makes both people happy. And that’s how business is done. Sit down, chat, lie to each other, bargain and pay.
This process is the same for everything from bangles and bracelets to hotel rooms. Nothing happens quickly. You’re always offerer a seat, you’re always fed a line and you’re always asked to pay more. Just keep calm and remember, it’s India!
It was time to get a move on and since we had to hand over the keys to our rickshaw, we were faced with only one way to get out of town – train. Train travel is generally not horrible, but train travel in India is a whole different level.
22 hour jail sentence - a train in India
Just getting to the train was an event. We jumped on a moving subway that had no doors, shoved ourselves into the mass of men and exited to find ourselves face-to-face with a multi-acre slum. Also, there were sheep on the platform. SHEEP.
Sheep on the 2nd floor subway platform
There are shacks and people living on the street all throughout Bombay but this was the first sprawling, 2-story slum community we’d come across. And we didn’t just see the slum from above, we got to walk right through it!
The subway exit is not a far walk from the train terminal, but what an interesting walk it was. Monsoon rains had caused a minor flood and the passing buses sprayed us with stinky, fetid water. We tip toed through mud and cow shit while tuks tuks screamed around us. Birds sat on cows who were busy eating piles of garbage and on the side of the road kids played cricket. It was 40 degrees.
View from the platform
Garbage taller than Vin!
Cow eating garbage in front of a cricket game
And when finally arriving at the terminal we discovered that our wait listed ticket never got off the waiting list. We couldn’t get on the train! So we had to turn right around and do it all over again the next day, only this time we had a real ticket and it was worth exactly what we paid – 10 dollar to travel 1,100 kilometers in a non-AC, second class sleeper.
Our seat, bed and table for 22 hours
This may not have been the cleanest place to lay your head but it was certainly interesting. The train was packed. People without tickets had boarded early to claim their tiny spot on the floor, lying down newspapers to sit on and opening containers of home cooked food to eat for dinner. When the train started moving people appeared from nowhere to shake hands and join conversations, cramming 8 people into a booth or sitting on top of bunks with their legs dangling into the seat below. Even with so many people sitting so close together, the mood was oddly upbeat and jovial, people were laughing with each other, babies were crying and someone played Bollywood tunes from their phone. Everyone was eating and ordering Chai. It felt like a big crowded family party.
Drummer on the train to Jaipur
After a questionable nights sleep our 22 hour train ride wasn’t even half over, in fact the fun was just beginning. During the day, sellers (wallas) began to walk through the cabins. Chai walla after chai walla yodeled down the corridor. Shoe repair people, women selling fruit, locksmiths and toy sellers all had their own unique sing-songy cry to let you know they were there. Beggars would crawl on the floor asking for food or stare into the train giving you sad dog eyes at each stop. The train was never, ever silent.
And when we entered Rajashtan the drumming began.
Train Station in Rajasthan
Men with deep baritone voices and tambourines sang down the train, stopping to play for 20 cents. The men in our area adored the drummers and suddenly we were in the middle of a concert. 100s of rupees were thrown around, guaranteeing us a show for the ages. The men began dancing, pointing their fingers in the air and waving their hands. More and more people came to sit in our 6-person space, more and more drummers added their voice to the dim. Tomato-onion-cucumber sandwiches were passed around and we all began to sweat in earnest in the 100 degree heat.
This did not stop for three hours.
And then there were 4 drummers!
In India something as simple as taking a train is never that cut and dry, there is always drama. There is some odd farm animal in your way, there are thousands of readily apparent safety violations and dozens of very poor, very dirty people are asking for cents. With all this happening someone gives you a huge smile, serves you a sandwich and buys you song.
This blog documented our year long adventure as backpackers in 2010 & 2011. We are now living in Singapore and we still travel - but now we have a bit more baggage! You can find us at @Krissymo and @vlauria.