Thursday, April 29, 2010

Blogspot blocked in China!

We apologize for interrupting your regularly scheduled posts but we are currently in China and the only way to blogspot is through a proxy which won't allow file uploads...for this reason updates may be sporadic for the next 6 weeks. Stay tuned in June for our adventures in India & China!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The City of Burning and Learning: Varanasi, India

Destination:  Varanasi (Benares), Uttar Pradesh, India
Number of days spent:   4
Where we stayed:  Groovy Ganges Guesthouse (RP650 w/AC, shared bath).  Nandan and his family are a wealth of information and his deep interest in NGO’s makes him a first stop if you are looking to get under the skin of Varanasi.  He also provided valuable insight into the caste system and other Indian traditions that we would not have gotten on our own.
Best Restaurant:  Most of our meals were with the family but Open Hand Bakery is a good option for excellent French Press coffee and a slice of home.  They also have a little gift shop with quality handmade products.
Best of:  Watching all the activity that go on the ghats of the Ganges, attending a traditional engagement party, nightly chats with Nandan and his family
Worst of:  After Bodhgaya, Sarnath was not only pale in comparison but with more hassle from touts. 
Most memorable:  Fire and flesh meld for all the world to witness.  Only the holy waters of the Ganges can extinguish.
Useful Tip:  Taking a sunrise cruise along the Ganges may not be as loud and ceremonial as sunset, but its a peaceful way to watch life happen on shore without being bothered and with far less boats to contend with.
Sitting along the northern banks of the Ganges River, Varanasi has long been a holy and auspicious place for Hindus.  One of the oldest continually inhabited cities on Earth, Varanasi (also Benares or Kashi) has long been THE place for a Hindu to die.  Down along the banks of the Ganges, ghats (steps) stretch as far as the eye can see and every manner of life…and death occurs in public view.  Mesmerizing and shocking, your time spent along the ghats will undoubtedly be filled with ‘I can’t believe what I just saw’ moments…ours certainly were.
After settling into the guesthouse and meeting all of Nandan’s family, we decided to take a quick evening stroll down the ghats.  Starting at the Assi Ghat, we walked down along the river across the steps.  There is little to distinguish one ghat from another aside from various forms of signs indicating which one you are actually on.  In the early evening, this part of the ghats are relatively silent.  A couple of people bathe, but that’s about it.  After about 20 minutes, we stumbled upon the first burning ghat – Harishchandra.  There are basically two cremation ghats with the main cremation ghat, Manikanika a bit further along.  Harishchandra is much larger, space wise, but Manikanika is considered the main one and thus, the most auspicious place to be cremated.  Before really knowing how it all worked, we snapped the photo below thinking that the body goes on later, only to find out that it was there already.  Oops.  Fortunately either no one saw us take the photo or they didn’t care.  We did discuss deleting it until we saw later an entire family stand around a pyre taking photos with their cell phones at various stages of the cremation.
Within seconds of seeing the pyres you will be approached by guys asking you to donate to “help buy wood for the burning of the poor.”  At Manikanika they come close to demanding for a donation and are quite rude when you refuse.  I won’t go as far to say it’s a scam, but I am almost certain little if any of the money you donate will go to actually buying wood.  The caste in charge of manning the pyres are known as Doms.  They are considered the lowest of the lowest caste – the untouchables.  Being born a Dom means your entire life is dedicated to the crematorium.  The caste system is so engrained in society that simply by reading someone’s name can tell you which caste they belong and this in turn encourages discrimination.  There are far too many Dom families for the services rendered so they take turns running the crematoriums.  Some have jobs for as little as 4-5 days of the year and the rest of the time is filled with either ‘scamming’ tourists or drinking alcohol and smoking pot.  Perhaps the most interesting part of the process is the cost.  The wood and the ‘tending of the flames’ has no fixed price, but rather is based on how wealthy the family of the deceased is. 
On one occasion Nandan was down by the ghats and was approached by a man pleading for help in paying for the services of the Dom.  Feeling sorry for the individual, he offered to pay the rest of the bill…a mere 500RP (about $12.50US).  The Doms refused his money because the man had went and tried to buy the wood somewhere else and got scammed.  The Doms were ‘teaching’ him a lesson.  As a matter of fact, the Doms might be the lowest caste, but they garner a fair amount of clout, albeit somewhat mafia esque.  They have a ‘king’ (apparently a massive blob of a man nearly unable to move out of bed – I envision a human Jabba-the-hut) which not only gets a kickback from every service, but has to be consulted on any activities going on in the town of Varanasi itself.  
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Not only do the ghats of Varanasi represent death, but life as well.  Along the Ganges holy shores the living give the place a little character.  The best way to view all the happenings is by boat.  Most people will hire a boat for sunrise and again for sunset.  We also recommend doing both as the two times of day offer completely different experiences.  Not only does a boat allow for a different angle but it also gets away from the touts that patrol the steps – particularly at the main ghat.  Anything from morning yoga to bathing rituals occur all set to the sound of laundry being repeatedly slapped down upon stone slabs. 
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For most of the year, if not the entire year, the water is low enough to walk the entire length of the ghats.  Walking along the ghats is free of charge, but not hassle.  While Lonely Planet warns of countless touts, we only really encountered them right at the main ghat and the rest of the walk, while not as interesting, is more or less tout free.  It’s best to just ignore them unless, of course, you would like a sweaty, overweight, shirtless man (not the one pictured below) to rub you down in front of the throngs of people.  Be extra careful with the offer of a handshake which only ends with you having to forcibly remove your hand from theirs.   On the bright side, the Technicolor display of drying sarees (women’s one piece dress) stretching down the steps are a colorful sight as are the people who come to pray and do their morning absolutions. 
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At night, the Ganges bursts to life.  Hundreds of candles are set alight on the calm waters by pilgrims and tourists alike.  At the main ghat, every night from around 7pm till 8pm, there is a ceremony.   They ‘put the river to sleep’ with much pomp and circumstance.  Candelabras are swung over head by several satus (Hindu priests) while countless worshipers pray and chant along to the beating of a drum and symbol.  The ceremony lasts for about 30-40 minutes, and then is repeated at the ghat next door.  The steps are crowded and since the ceremony faces the river, the best view is from a boat.  With that being said, don’t expect to be alone – parked in front of the ghat with countless other boats carrying anywhere from 2 people to 20 all vying for a closer look at the action.
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The ghats may be what everyone comes to Varanasi for but the back alleys and sideways of the city are a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours.  The city streets can be extremely confusing.  There are no names and no signs, just a maze.  The best way to experience this is to just dive in and forget about maps.  Even though you will feel lost, you never really are.  All roads lead either to the main street or the ghat and wander around enough and you will eventually come out at one or the other.  Cows, trees, monkeys, and as always in India – tons of people vie for space in the tight alleys.
One of the more interesting aspects of social life in India are the weddings.  Weddings are not just a ceremony in India – they are an all out party.  A wealthy family will spend thousands of dollars throwing weeklong extravaganzas including renting out a hotel for the week, nightly fireworks and tons of food.  The more interesting part in not so much in the wedding as it is in what leads up to it. 
In India, arranged marriages are still very popular.  In an arranged marriage, the parents of the groom meet with the parents of the bride and decide if they feel it will be a good match.  If this goes well, then the ‘courting’ period will commence.  Until recently, the bride and groom had never met or spoke to one another until the wedding day.  Things are becoming a little more relaxed with phone conversations now being allowed and in some rare cases, even a couple of chaperoned dates.  While this is going on, the parents begin discussing the age old tradition of a dowry.  The practice of ‘purchasing’ a husband (in some countries, it’s reverse) is alive and well and a wedding can be just as much, if not more, of a business proposal than love.  Depending on the wealth of the brides’ family, dowry’s can be as little as a chunk of gold to homes, cars or cash.
We were fortunate enough to be invited to Nandan’s sister-in-law’s engagement party.  In this case, they had talked on the phone 5 times, never met and since he was unable to take off the afternoon from work, it was only her in attendance of their engagement party.  The sister of the groom stands in to ‘exchange’ the rings and gifts of fruit – a symbol of welcoming and hospitality - are given to the bride by the groom’s family.  She looks very nervous in the photos because she is – this will be the first time she has met them. 
All this may seem strange to us, but there is no denying the success rate – far greater than our ‘love’ marriages.  Part of the success, in my opinion, comes from the fact that the grooms parents traditionally move in with the young couple.  This allows the parents to watch over and help nurture the relationship.  
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Just a few kilometers north of Varanasi lies the Buddhist holy site of Sarnath.  After the Buddha achieved enlightenment, it was here that he gave his very first sermon and started spreading his message.  The site, perhaps being closer to the tourist trail, was a bit of a let down compared to Bodhgaya.  The whole place gave off a tour bus stop feel, complete with more touts than tourists and little to really see.  Perhaps if there is a special event going on at the stupa, it might be worthwhile, otherwise give it a pass.
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As perhaps one saving grace, the town did introduce us to the Jains.  Also arising around the same time as Buddhism, the purist Jains are quite strict dietary wise.  Not only are they strict vegetarians, but they take it a step further to root vegetables which require killing the plant.  Some carry a broom and cover their mouths so they don’t accidently harm any other insects or bugs.  Their holiest men (all men of course) go naked.  Don’t ask me why, but they do.  Sometimes I can’t make this stuff up even if I tried.
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As we found in our travels all over India, trash and environmental impact seem to be low on peoples minds.  While they keep their homes clean, the common areas are simply filthy.  Wrappers, bottles and other forms of non-organic materials are just tossed to the side.  Cows crap freely in the streets and the smell of human urine can be quite pervasive at times.  Little to no controls are made on what flows into the Ganges.  Drought like conditions combined with overpopulation strains the nation’s natural resources to the point where the mighty Ganges has shrunk considerably.  When the ghats were built, they all touched the water, now, only the main ghat touches.  This can make for a depressing outlook on the future of our planet, and India specifically.  There are some groups that are taking on the monumental task of trying to clean up the river at least, but it’s going to take a lot of education and enforcement before real change is seen.
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Interesting.  Crazy.  Unique.  No one word can sum up Varanasi.  We could have spent several more days here talking with Mandan and getting more and more under the skin of India, but we had booked our train tickets in advance – a must in India.  Next stop – the greatest tomb ever built – the Taj Mahal.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The path to enlightenment - Bodhgaya, India


Destination:  Bodhgaya, Bahar State, India

Number of days spent:   4 days

Where we stayed:  Root Institute – 900 Rupees per night.  On the outskirts of ‘town’, Root is a little haven of western ran peaceful tranquility.  Set up mainly for meditation retreats, which we had came for until it was cancelled, the grounds are well kept and the rooms are simple but clean.  The cheap communal style meals are all vegetarian and delicious – we had the best samosa here, but it is, of course, luck of the draw. 

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Best Restaurant:  Even after a month in India and multiple samosa samplings we’re still dreaming about the awesome samosas they had for dinner one night at the Root Institute.  Even their takes on Western favorites like pizza and burgers (both vegetarian) somehow came out excellent as well.

Best of:  The Mahabodhi temple, aka. ‘the stupa’, one of Buddhism’s holiest sights is a delight to visit at anytime, especially at sunrise/sunset.  Perhaps a stretch to call it ‘the best of’ but going out with the mobile health clinic to a poor village gave us a new perspective on the struggles of Indian villagers in Bahar.

Worst of:    No public transport from the airport?  We didn’t plan ahead and they wanted 500 rupees (over $10 to drive the 10 minutes from the airport).  Thinking we could jump on a friendly Burmese families tour group’s bus, we asked but they didn’t have any more room.  After getting rejected, we luckily had an offer to split the taxi with another man.

Most memorable:  Wonderfully intellectual chats in the gardens of Root Institute with Buddhist (Swiss) monks/nuns.  Their insight and perspective on life gave us a deeper understanding of what perhaps every religion needs – tolerance and acceptance.  As Anita succinctly puts it, “The world has enough Buddhists.  What the world needs is more kind and accepting people.”

Useful Tip:  Instead of taking the main road filled with diesel belching trucks, take the path from Root to ‘the stupa’ through a couple of villages offering a unique look at varying degrees of poverty.

Born Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the last Buddha walked this patch of the earth a mere 500 years before Jesus and nearly 1000 years before Mohammad.  It was here, sitting in the shade of a Bodhi tree that it is said he achieved enlightenment, or nirvana – freedom from life’s suffering.  From here, the Buddha spread his message of ending internal strife and leaving footprints and strands of hair all over Asia for generations to later enshrine and worship.  The original bodhi tree was destroyed by a jealous wife of a king around 200BC, but not before a cutting was taken and planted in Sri Lanka.  The current tree is a cutting of that tree somehow surviving despite the temple itself suffering razing and destruction a couple of times.  The current temple was most recently restored in the 1800’s with a few of the stone fences somehow surviving from the original temple built here over 2200 years ago.

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The temple and the tree are merely a diversion however from the real site.  Daily, hundreds of pilgrims from all sects of Buddhism descend on the temple.  From saffron robed monks to western clad…umm…westerners, simple white clothes to bright yellow hues, all walks of life pray and worship in various ways.  Some do countless prostrations on a prayer board in the lush lawns surrounding the complex.  Others join in reading scripture from Buddha’s teachings as they slowly turn prayer beads over and over in their hands.  Many simply pray and meditate on their own terms.  It’s a fascinating look on humanity and gives some insight on just how one person’s teachings can be interpreted in so many different ways.

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Of course, there is one other type of visitor to the temple – the tourists both local and foreign.  This was our first of many encounters with the “Take photo?” question so prevalent in India (although to be fair, we have received this question in other places as well).  No, not to take their photo with their camera, but rather, can we (by we, I mean Tracy 90% if the time) join them in the photo about to be snapped with a cell phone camera.  Also prevalent in India, perhaps due to the oversized population, is how personal space means nothing.  See how uncomfortable Tracy looks in the photo as the lady just throws an arm up on her shoulder? 


As how auspicious sites in religion tend to go, everyone needs their own unique places to worship.  To get a sense of the different forms of Buddhism and the architectural style associated, a wander around the town is in order.  From Tibetan to Japanese, Thai to Sri Lankan, Vietnamese to Mongolian they all have temples here.  While it certainly does not replace actually going to these places, you can still get a sense of style and society and how they differ.  Built in 89 and unveiled by the reigning Dalai Lama, a 25m statue dominates the end of one of the main roads in town.  It is said to be partially hollow and contain another 20,000 smaller bronze Buddha statues.  




Buddha talk and holy temples aside, you can’t escape the fact that you are now in India.  Perhaps one of the more bizarre, but all too common sites in India are its cows.  Considered to be sacred, or holy, cows wander about the streets in towns small and large grazing on trash and whatever else they can find.  This would be the first of many cow photos.

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Speaking of Holy cows there were also ‘Holi’ dogs.  Dogs are not considered sacred, but are found all over the place, vying with the cows for prized niblets in the trash strewn streets.  The markings on this dog are from Holi, a festival where brightly colored chalk is thrown by thousands of crazy Indians all over the country to usher in the spring growing season.  We had missed the festival by a mere day or two so not only were dogs and cows covered, but many shirts, hands and hair were still bearing the marks of a crazy time.


Going beyond the meditation center, Root Institute also runs a health clinic.  The clinic is free, as is all health care in India, but is necessary due to the local government’s lack of funding and resources to care for everyone in need.  On Friday’s, Dr. Sanjay, founder of the clinic and the one who speaks English the best, goes out with the mobile clinic to the poorest of villages in Bihar – the state that is the poorest in India.  Crawling into an old land cruiser we drive about 45 minutes from Bodhgaya armed with one doctor, a driver, one ‘pharmacist’ and two curious Americans.  We arrive in a tiny village and the two professionals get set up with the help of a local woman.  Every village they visit has a contact person who provides assistance – mostly in the form of letting everyone know the day the doctor is coming and providing a table and chair for the doctor.  Even with most village homes little more than mud covered straw, the community tries to have one concrete community building and a temple.  If they do not have this, then a school is used.  That’s it.  No waiting rooms, no old copies of Golfer’s Digest or cheesy elevator music helping to sooth your nerves while you wait.  The only forms you find consists of a quick checkup they have filled out since the last visit – no insurance cards, co-pays, or bureaucracy.  It’s four concrete, open breeze walls, two plastic chairs and a makeshift table offering hope to people just as well forgotten. 

The pharmacist sets up on the floor, and the doctor begins seeing patients one by one while everyone else looks on.  No privacy here, this is India…rural India at that.   The medicine dispensed is of the homeopathic variety – both cheap and trusted by most people as it is all natural.  He is armed with a stethoscope and a blood pressure kit that looks like it belongs in a medical museum highlighting equipment used in the 20’s.  The doctor will see around 200 people in a normal, 6 hour visit.  Most common ailments – children with ear infections from playing in bacteria ridden water and hypertension in the older people from a poor diet rich in fatty and cheap oils.  Anything too serious and he refers them to the hospital.  One patient comes in wielding x-rays she had taken since the last checkup. 


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One thing that you have to get used to in India is their lack of visible emotion.  They are rarely so excited or happy that they smile and “Please” or “Thank You” are reserved for only the rarest of occasions.  Yet beneath all that gruff exterior lies some genuinely welcoming people.  They have nothing and yet you get the sense that if invited into their home, they would give you the last morsel of bread they had.

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One mistake perhaps that we made was opting to take the 6am train – before daylight and travel options are more widely available.  We had arranged a taxi the day before and were supposed to meet him at the end of the road from Root.  After getting the guard to let us out, we waited patiently looking up the drive think he will be here any minute.  15 minutes pass and there is no sign of him and we begin to panic a little thinking that we had perhaps miss communicated the need to leave at 5am for 5pm.  The guard makes a phone call and five minutes later a guy on a motorbike shows up and motions to a parked car just across from the gate to Root.  He had been there the whole time – asleep in the backseat.  Apparently the instructions to knock on the window and yell “Driver.  Hello.  Driver.” had escaped us.  The driver arises from his slumber, and proceeds over to the local urinal – i.e. any wall, bush, side of the road, pond, rock or tree that is semi or somewhat semi out of plain sight.  Relieved, both us and the driver in slightly different ways, we made our way to the station at breakneck speed.

We had heard stories of how confusing the train stations in India can be but nothing really prepares you for them.  After spending time in India now, we have since realized that the train stations in Bihar, or at the very least, Gaya are the worst of the lot.  Entering the building you are greeted with literally a sea of humanity sprawling about in front of you across the floor.  Stepping over bodies as if they were dead, and perhaps a few were close to that, we tried to decipher the handful of computer printouts on the wall looking for our names.  Nothing.  The board that tells you which train is on which platform?  Not here.  And the English speaking info desk?  Do you even need to ask?  Luckily there are only a couple of platforms so we rushed to where we thought it might be and started to ask.  After getting a couple of opinions, it was finally determined that Platform 1 was the right place to be, which was currently being occupied by a freight train. 

Meeting the afore mentioned definition of a semi or somewhat semi out of plain site, the parked freight train also serves as a convenient urinal for that first of the morning relief for men.  Thinking to myself, “just because God gave us the ability to pee standing up does not mean that we have to use that ability at every opportunity” I turn to see an old woman, mid stride, skirt hiked up, underwear pulled to one side letting a stream fly right there on the platform.  As the warm pool formed, the train arrived and we hopped on headed out of Bihar and on to Varanasi.  I turned to Tracy and muttered, “Welcome to India!”