Hindu Holy Sites Tour

Trip Start Jan 31, 2005
Trip End Mar 30, 2006

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Friday, December 2, 2005

The day after Thanksgiving, we were back at the train station, this time for a short ride to the town of Jhansi. It was a nice enough trip through the countryside with pretty mellow fellow passengers (kind of a crap-shoot in the class of travel we'd been using). In Jhansi, we spent a frustrating (but amusing in retrospect) few hours buying tickets for our two remaining train journeys in India. First, buying train tickets in India is a pretty physical experience, requiring careful use of elbows and backpacks to maintain one's place in line (helped significantly by the fact that tourists are allowed to go in a special line that also is used by women traveling alone, cancer patients, the handicapped and a few other categories of people - thus much shorter than the "normal" lines). We complicated things by buying a ticket for a class that we decided we weren't happy with, which required a few different additional waits to cancel that ticket and buy a new one. All the while we were tailed by persistent rickshaw drivers who were trying to convince us to use them (instead of the bus) for our final destination that day (a nearby town called Orchha). In the end, we got the tickets we wanted and still had the rickshaw drivers bring us only as far as the bus to Orchha. When we pulled into the bus station, the driver was sure to point out the bus we'd be taking (pretty typical rickety local bus), apparently thinking we'd be fazed by its lack of luxury. He must see a lot of package tourists coming in from Agra. We weren't too worried about the comfort level for the half-hour trip and got on as planned...

We arrived in Orchha around dusk and spent quite awhile roaming around the village looking for a hotel. Our theory about lots of package tourists visiting Orchha was strengthened upon discovering the greatly inflated rates guesthouses were charging. Our search paid off, though, and we ended up in a brand-new place just outside of town that was one of the best deals we had in India. Spacious, clean, hot water, international satellite on the TV and a balcony for about $5.

We enjoyed Orchha quite a bit and stayed for four nights. The main attractions of the town are a fort (lots of old forts in India, as you probably have gathered) and old Hindu temples. The village also is located on the bank of a beautiful river and surrounded by nice countryside. The central square of the town was filled by day with vendors, mainly catering the crowd of Hindu pilgrims - they sell stuff like rice offerings, bracelets that have a particular significance, and "paint" for marking foreheads - but they also throw in crafty stuff for tourists for good measure. Our favorite vendor was a lady selling fruit who, every time we passed, would sing-song out "Hel-looo, GUAva?"

We spent our time in Orchha taking a walk by the river, visiting the fort and temples and generally roaming around town. We were ready for a few quiet days. Unfortunately, we have one bad memory of Orchha - a little boy living with the family running our guesthouse who seemed most content when torturing a motherless puppy. We joined a few other travelers in trying to convince him and his family that puppies shouldn't be thrown, kicked or have their legs twisted, but they didn't really understand our Western paradigm any more than we understood how they could stand the puppy's shrieking and crying. Sort of traumatizing.

From Orchha we traveled to Khajuraho, another Hindu temple town about 5 hours away by bus (though less than 100 km, which gives you an idea of the road conditions). Khajuraho is home of some of the most famous temples in India, which are known for their spectacular carvings, the most famous of which glorify the more sensual aspects of humanity. Though the town of Khajuraho wins of award for most annoying in India (far exceeding the much-detested, hassle-ridden Agra), the temples really were spectacular works of art. There are dozens of them in the town, most of which are in one large area that has been made into a nice grassy park. The temples are covered, inside and out, with three dimensional human sculptures representing aspects of life ranging from war to love. The art is fantastic both in its quality and quantity. Our photos give you a PG-rated perspective.

After Khajuraho, we took a bus to the city of Satna, where we caught a train to Varanasi, the third stop on our Hindu Holy Sites Tour. Varanasi is the holiest of Hindu holy cities, located on the shore of the Ganges River. Nearly every Hindu tries to make it there during their life to bathe (and, as we observed, wash clothes, brush teeth, gargle...), but it is most well known for being a place to die and be cremated. Our entrance to the city wasn't the best. Varanasi has a reputation in the travelers circuit for being one of the most hassle-ridden cities in India, and we got our taste in the form of a new breed of hotel tout. The thing that set these guys apart was that rather than try to convince us to come with them to their hotel of choice (who gives them a good commission), some of the guys in Varanasi simply follow you around until you select a hotel and then collect a commission (we aren't sure of the amount, but the common wisdom is that it ultimately is paid by the traveler in the form of a higher room rate). The guesthouses next to the Ganges are located in an old part of the city filled with narrow winding alleys where rickshaws and taxis aren't allowed, so we were let out by a cycle rickshaw at the entrance to the alleys. One of the leeches immediately latched on, ostensibly to show us the way to the guesthouse we wanted to look at. We told him politely a few times that we didn't need help, but he insisted that he actually worked at the guesthouse. We didn't believe him, but we also didn't really know where we were going, so we decided to follow (we actually had picked that particular guesthouse as a decoy, anyway - we weren't really planning to stay there, it was just going to get us in the right neighborhood, where we could try to get rid of anyone looking for a commission). So, we arrived at the guesthouse and gave it a look, which confirmed we didn't want to stay there anyway. We went back downstairs where our "guide" was waiting, and told him that we were going to look around, but thanks for the help. Not surprisingly, he followed us. So, we asked him why he was following us if he worked for the first place, as he had claimed. Things were starting to get heated when he got a little hostile and told us he had lied and that is just the way things work in India. Things got worse when he was still waiting for us after checking out the next place and started to follow us again. By this time, polite was wearing off and quickly degenerated into shouting from all parties, right next to the poor Holy Ganges. He left us at that point, but it was not our best moment. And, in the end, we just had more leeches attach themselves to us as we kept looking for a place to stay, so the Varanasi tout syndicate got us in the end...

But, this bad start behind us, we ended up loving Varanasi. The Ganges was much more beautiful than we expected, the old alleys filled with shops and enormous bulls seemed like something out of history and there was always something interesting going on along the riverside (kite-flying, boat rides, vendors, music). There were pilgrims along the riverside bathing and we spent a little time watching the cremation ceremonies that go on 24 hours a day at two locations along the Ganges. First, the recently deceased person is wrapped from head to toe in colorful cloths and then brought down to the river on a sort of bamboo stretcher, where they are dipped in for a final bath. Then the stretcher is set on a partially constructed pile of wood, after which more wood is piled on top. The whole thing is then burned, which apparently takes 3 or 4 hours (we just watched a little here and there as we were passing). The cremation is much more beautiful and less grotesque than we had imagined. It is hard to describe exactly, but it certainly seemed a lot more natural than what we normally do back home. We also learned some interesting things from a guy who was happy to educate tourists and, well, bring them to his silk shop after the lesson was over. He told us that women aren't allowed at the cremation (except tourists), because it is bad luck for the spirit if anybody cries (which made us wonder, do men never cry? and, what if the woman wasn't a crier? hmmm....). And there are a few types of people who are never burned, but are wrapped in cloth, weighted with a rock and then put directly in the river, because they are already considered pure: high-level priests, children, pregnant women, snake-bite victims, small pox victims and (if we remember right) those dying of any high fever. Very interesting....

From Varanasi we took our last Indian train ride to the city of Calcutta, where we would catch our plane to Bangkok. It was another crazy trip, first involving a 4 hour delay, then getting in the wrong car and then finding the correct car was ridiculously overbooked, which meant that the people in our correct car weren't being very generous about letting us put down our berths to sleep, despite it being around 11pm. In the end, they moved, but Allison almost ended up in a fight with a few of them to make it happen (this never would have been an issue if we had not been foreigners - they all knew perfectly well that we had a right to our bunks like any Indian would...).

Having arrived, we spent three nights in Calcutta, which was a great surprise - we loved it and wished we had had more time. It was very much an Indian city - crowded, kind of dirty, crazy - but it had a sophistication that we hadn't seen elsewhere: bookstores, coffee shops, no cows in the road... Though, now that we think about it, we did see a herd of goats being led down the road - India is insane.
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