Sunday, November 8, 2009

Nepal/India Border + Day 1 in Varanasi, India

Hello friends!

I still have more journal entries to transcribe from the Annapurna Trek, but in the mean time, I wrote a blog today about our voyage from Nepal to India and our first day back in India. Lots to report! Since writing this blog earlier this afternoon, we've had even more crazy experiences in Varanasi. This city is drenched in an unmistakable intensity. Hopefully more soon....

Today is Sunday, November 8, 2009. I am currently lying on my bed in an overall decent room at the Sahi Riverview Guesthouse in Varanasi, India. I woke up yesterday morning at 5:15 am in Pokhara, Nepal and spent the ensuing 24 hours traveling by land to get to my current location. Having only gotten a few hours of sleep last night, I laid down to take a nap. But the there is just too much floating around in my head right now. India has overwhelmed me. I must write it all down before I forget!

Before we left for our trek, we had penciled in a solid three days in Pokhara that was reserved for resting up and planning the coming weeks in India. This was a much needed break and by the third day, I felt like I was nearly back to a fully charged battery. By the third day, I had also become thoroughly sick of Pokhara and its endless stream of shops selling postcards, trekking gear, knock-off Tibetan arts and crafts, and "multicuisine" food. Since our goal was to rest, we didn't venture very far off from the tourist area, and by the end of our time in Pokhara I was more than ready to leave. The supposedly soothing "Tibetan chant" music that casts an unrelenting auditory blanket over all of Lakeside (Pokhara's tourist district) had evolved from a comical annoyance into the eternal soundtrack of my own personal hell. Just thinking about the ever present semi-tonal melodies of this music makes me shudder.

The one thing Lakeside had going for itself was a string of solid bookstores, many of which had great second-hand selections. I traded in some of the books we had already read for a decent amount of Rupees and picked up Jurassic Park, an Isaac Asimov novel about robots, and Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which I somehow have never read. I'm already almost finished with Jurassic Park and I can only say that it's not quite as impressive as I remember it being as an "eager to read big books" ten year old. I would however, like to take this opportunity to quote a line from a rap about Jurassic Park that I wrote with my grade school chum Chris Dunlap for a literary fair contest. Ahem: "From T-Rex chases to Raptors in cages/This book's totally awesome it's 400 pages!"

But alas, I digress. We began yesterday morning by walking about twenty minutes to Pokhara's interestingly named "Tourist Bus Station." Sure enough, it was a bus station entirely populated by tourists heading in one direction or another. As those of us heading to the Indian border piled into a bus that in size and condition was no different than any other bus we'd taken in Nepal, a Frenchman began complaining that someone else was in his assigned seat. Mimi and I both looked at each other and thought, "This bus has assigned seats?"

Everyone else seemed to know that assigning seats on a bus in Nepal was an exercise in futility, but this one guy kept at it long enough to hold up our departure. On top this, another French couple began arguing with yet another European couple because they both had the same seat assignment. We shared glances and rolled our eyes with a middle-aged American couple sitting across from us. Their accents strongly suggested a Brooklyn upbringing and their eyes spoke to me, "What's with this fuckin' guy? It's a bus in Nepal. Sit down and shut up!"

At this point, the bus depot's coffee and tea vendor barreled up to the side of the bus, clearly vexed. He approached the French couple from their window and began yelling, "Why wouldn't you pay me for your coffee and pastry? This is so unfair!" The French couple looked at each other as if they didn't understand the problem, to which the vendor countered, "It is always French people who did this! What is with you?" Meanwhile, the initial Frenchman was still complaining about the seating situation. At this point, Mimi and I could barely contain ourselves, but we managed to keep our lips sealed and laughs to a minimum. So this is life on the tourist bus, I thought.

Eventually, we got on our way. Despite only being only 180 kilometers away, the trip to the border would ultimately take us seven windy and bumpy hours. Additionally, despite being advertised as a "tourist bus," the driver and his trusty assistant nevertheless began picking up Nepalis along the way and cramming them into the aisle of the bus. By this point, we'd taken enough buses in Nepal that the insanity of experience barely even registered. In fact, I spent most of the ride tearing through Jurassic Park.

By 2pm, we had arrived the dirty, dismal border town of Sunauli. Over the course of the past seven hours, we had gradually weaved our way out of the foothills of the Himalayas and down into the flat, fertile land of southern Nepal, a broad region known as the Terai. For some reason, the bus didn't take us all the way to the border, so we pushed aside the aggressive bicycle rickshaw drivers and eventually found the local bus. Unfortunately, the bus was packed to the brim. The conductor pointed to the roof of the bus and gave us a smile. We had done this once before in the Kathmandu Valley, and we knew the border wasn't far, so we threw our bags up top and climbed up. As we drove along the road, we kept getting smiles, screams and waves from rooftop Nepalis coming in the other direction, who seemed ecstatic and proud that foreigners were riding the bus Nepali style. 

Immigration at the border was a breeze on both sides, and before we knew it, we were back in India.

Actually, now that I think about it, finding immigration on the Indian side was a bit tricky. Let's play "Find the Immigration Office," shall we?

India was instantly overwhelming. Maybe it's just because it was a border town, but India was a shock to the senses. It was at this moment that Mimi made a very astute observation. It isn't that India is poorer than Nepal. In fact, the statistics show than Nepal is actually one of the poorest countries in all of Asia. It's just that India has so many goddamn people. I don't know how else to put it. India is insane.

Following the border crossing, we hopped on another bus that would take us from Sunauli to another town called Gorakhpur. From there, we would take an overnight train to Varanasi, which is purported to be one of India's holiest, and consequently one of its craziest cities. The train station in Gorakhpur was a bit overwhelming, but we had cut our teeth in Kolkata, so we were pretty much ready for anything. Our train didn't leave until 10:30pm, so we had a solid five hours to kill at the train station. A decent dinner and 150 pages of Jurassic Park later, it was time to board the train.

Once aboard, Mimi and I instantly passed out. Our train was scheduled to arrive in Varanasi at 4:40am, and I woke up five minutes before my alarm at 4:20. We packed our things, held a brief pep rally, and hopped off the train. Both our guidebook and a steady flow of fellow travelers had warned us that Varanasi is chaotic, aggressive and relentless; a city that takes no prisoners. Its touts and scammers are world renowned. And yet, tourists flock here to catch a glimpse of the mystical aura that emanates from the holiness of the Ganges River. We gathered it was the kind of city that you simply have to visit, but that you wouldn't want to stay in any longer than you needed to. Our plan was to get the vibe, and get on.

We exited the train station and negotiated a fair price to our guesthouse. To get a better price, we took an "autorickshaw" instead of a taxi. An autorickshaw is something between a golf cart and an oversized motorcycle, but it got the job done this morning. That being said, I was a nervous wreck for the entirety of the fifteen minute ride. Would he take us to the right hotel, or would he take us to his buddy's hotel for a commission? Would he drop us off in the middle of nowhere and demand money to take us back? Or maybe he'd take us to the right place, and then claim that we had agreed on a different price. The fact that it was still dark out and his route included what seemed like a play-by-play tour of Varanasi's most deserted streets and sketchiest back-alleys didn't help. But sure enough, he pulled his vehicle over, led us through a few more alleys by foot, and pointed at a sign that said Sahi Riverview Guesthouse. We had made it. Perhaps next time I should be slightly less suspicious.

It was only 5am by this point, and we had to wake up an attendant to unlock the gate for us. He groggily but kindly told us that because the place was fully booked (which, by the way, is always a good sign) that our room wouldn't be available until 11:30. I had expected to this might happen, and we had already formulated a plan. We had read that the best time to take a rowboat tour along the Ganges was at sunrise, when many devotees of the river come out to pray and bathe in its holy but dangerously polluted waters. So we asked the attendant if he could store our bags and possibly arrange a boat for us. He told us that someone would be there at 5:30 and could arrange a boat for us.

A few minutes later, a very nice man arrived and told us that if we didn't mind waiting for another couple from the hotel, that we could all go down to the river together. A few minutes later, two Canadians showed up and we all walked down to the river. We agreed to share a boat with them and before I knew it, we were out on the river just as the sun was coming up.

Varanasi is known for its 80+ "ghats," a diverse collection of broad stairways that lead down to the water of the river. As our boatman propelled us down the immense Ganges, we watched as the local people went about their business in the river. Some had come to pray. Others had come simply soap up and take an early morning bath in the river. Others still had come to do their laundry.

I tried not to think about the pollution and the unhealthy paradox of a city's primary water source also serving as its main sewage dump. When our boatman pointed to a ancient looking cylindrical building that rose from the water and told us it was the city's main water purification center, I witnessed a collective cringe among us and the Canadians.

Beyond the pollution though, there was something special about the ghats and the way people went about their business. As Mimi pointed out, Varanasi seemed just as dirty and poor as Kolkata. And yet, it somehow projected an unexpected warmth and positivity that Kolkata unquestionably lacked. Here are some pictures from this morning's excursion:

The boat ride lasted two hours. As we crept along the ghats, we took many pictures and chatted with the Canadians. Native to Calgary, they both worked as engineers in the oil and gas business, but the husband had recently been laid off so they took a year off to travel. As always, it was nice to chat with fellow travelers, exchange stories, and pick up tips. On our way back up the river, we past one of Varanasi's two holy cremation sites, which are casually known as the "Burning Ghats." On the way down, there had been no activity. But now we saw a large fire emanating from the pyre. Upon closer expecation, we discovered a lifeless hand creeping out of the flames. As I looked even closer still, I could make out the contours of an entire ashen body slowly disappearing in the fire. I had never seen a cremation before.

After returning to the guesthouse, we ate a much needed breakfast. We still had over two hours before our room would be ready, so despite our low energy, we decided to go back out into the city and wander around. I really enjoyed this walk. We didn't understand what all the fuss about. Sure, there was a steady stream of persistent boatsman, not to mention a few children who begged for money, but Varanasi seemed no different than any other city we had recently been to. On the contrary, there was a positive energy that we couldn't quite place our finger on.    

Among the highlights was the constant presence of India's holy bovine community, not to mention a bizarre wall that someone had laboriously plastered with manure, or to use a phrase borrowed from Mookie Singerman, doodle pies. We also saw some surprisingly "hip" graffiti and a cool collection of abandoned bicycle rickshaws.



After half an hour of aimless wandering, we found ourselves at a large, ragged field where some young boys were playing a pickup game of cricket. I am perplexed and amused by cricket, a game whose rules have continually eluded me. We decided to watch for a bit.

After a few minutes, some of the boys wandered away from the game and began chatting with us using the few English words they knew. They seemed very curious about us and where we came from. You could tell that they wanted to ask us a million questions, but lacked the necessary vocabulary. We chatted for a while with a young boy name Sadu and before we knew it he was happily taking pictures of us with our camera. Gradually, one by one, the boys quit playing cricket and came over to us to see what the fuss was about. Before we knew it, we had 5 or 6 boys vying to take photos with our camera.

Finally, one of the bigger boys came over and said something to the rest in Hindi. I couldn't understand it but I imagined the translation to be, "Come on guys! Forget about these stupid foreigners. Let's get back to the game!" Several of the boys reluctantly went back to the game, but a few more hung on.

We hung out for a bit longer, making stilted small talk and looking at the map of India in our guide book. This experience really made me happy. I had come to Varanasi expecting endless hassle, but what I found was a variety of friendly, curious people. We'll see what the rest of our time here brings us, but thus far, I'm having a complete blast here. This afternoon, we will go back out and explore more.

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