It has been awhile since I last wrote and this is of course because I am now traveling and living the rough life (without a computer of my own, actually kind of nice once I got used to it). Sadly since I am no longer working with SEWA I do not have any interesting field interviews to report. I have still been having some wonderful experiences but to any readers who were more interested in the work I was doing I apologize. Though I have had some well-thought out revelations, much of what follows will merely be taste of backpacking in India. If nothing else these entries will at least satisfy my dad who keeps harassing me for details about my travels.
Cailey and I have now arrived safely in India after spending about a week in Nepal. The trip across the border, though free of major glitches, was still a tiring endeavor. We woke up at 5:45 am on the 25th and took a taxi to the bus stop, from there we took an 8.5 hour public bus to the border of Nepal and India. We then took a cycle rickshaw across the border and stop at immigration. There it turned out that they hadn’t given me the right visa stamp in my passport so Nepal immigration said I should go back to Kathmandu. Kathmandu would have been another 7 hour bus ride back. I tried to muster up my New York toughness to tell them absolutely not but I am afraid it may have came out more like a meek a pitiful “please don’t make me do that.” The border patrol relented and told me to just speak with India immigration and that turned out ok.
We then got on another 3 hour bus to go from the border town of India to Gorakhpur, where there are trains. At the train station we waited for 2 and a half hours on the platform and then got on a 6 hour sleeper train. We got the most expensive train tickets for the ac sleeper car so we thought at least it would be some small amount of luxury. But this of course was not to be. Nonetheless we attempted to settle in on two of the upper bunks. Just as we were getting comfortable the conductor came around and told us we had to go to different bunks. So then we moved our heavy backpacks to identical bunks 10 feet down the car. Somehow, probably because we were so exhausted already, I did manage to fall asleep. Then at 5 in the morning I woke up to an Indian man yanking on the curtains and yelling at me. I thought he was telling me I had the wrong seat because I kept hearing “seiit,” all I could think was “No, I’m not moving again they told me to go here.” Luckily Cailey figured out that he was saying “Varanasii” and it was our stop. We clumsily strapped on our backpacks and I kept bumping into peoples beds as I was trying to stumble to the exit in a half awake stupor.
Of course as soon as we get onto the platform we start getting harassed by rickshaw drivers telling us to go with them so we finally got in one and went to a hotel suggested by the guide book. The cold shower was the most amazing thing ever. By the time we were done showering and everything it was almost 7 and we were starving because all we had eaten the day before was a box of digestive biscuits, water, and chai. We tried to go out and walk around and find something but everything was either closed or too sketchy so we gave up and came back for breakfast in our hotel.
After a very complete breakfast and a brief rest in the lovely air-conditioned (size of a shoe box) room we made it out onto the streets of Varanasi. We had barely stepped foot outside our hotel when we were harassed with calls of “boat, do you need boat?” One man leaning against the outside of our hotel struck a different tune with, “burning bodies – that way.” We said ok and started off but he followed and said he would show us the way. We attempted to wave him off, “we’re really ok,” we said, we didn’t want someone leading us around only to ask for a large sum later. “No, no, I’m from your hotel, I don’t take any money from you,” he insisted. We shrugged and allowed him to lead us along the river.
We walked along the Ganges towards Manikarnika Ghat where they were in the process of burning three bodies on large fires built of wood. Our self-designated guide told us that they burned people with three different types of wood depending on how much they could pay. The most expensive is sandalwood for 15,000 rupees. After our tour of the ghats our guide led us through the narrow passages of Old Varanasi to a number of temples and then to a silk shop and finally to a guru. (the Guru experience is deserving of its own entry)
Eventually we went back to our hotel to relax a bit but by now our guide was attached. There was a major festival going on in Varanasi while we were there and so our guide offered to pick us up from our hotel at 7 to take us to a large ceremony just a short ways down the river. We happily accepted.
In the end I was very glad to have an unofficial tour guide. Though I am sure we would have managed, it was nice to have a knowledgeable guide who wanted nothing more than to share his knowledge of Varanasi and the culture. It is interesting that our first reaction to his attempt to help was annoyance. We are finding it hard to differentiate on first glance when people are being genuinely kind and when they are just trying to get something from you. Between my time spent in Ahmedabad and traveling around in other cities I have been struck that there are these two very distinct aspects of India and India personalities. This is an issue deserving of more time than I currently have but it is something I have written about some in my journal so perhaps I will share it here in the near future.