This past weekend, I had to vacate my room in order for the hotel in Chandelao to use it for guests, so I took advantage of this opportunity and left for a long weekend with Emily, my fellow intern. Being that we have traversed the touristy areas of Rajasthan already, we planned an adventure that would take us to two holy cities of India: Varanasi and Sarnath.
Let me begin by explaining the idea of getting there in and back in four days time. Being that we do not like to spend very much money on travel, because we work for free, the trains are the most economical option. After booking our train rides, Emily and myself would be traveling to Varanasi on a 25 hour train from Jodhpur in sleeper class, the cheapest option with pull down berths, then two more overnight trains to get back to Jodhpur with a day stop in Delhi. This sounded like a good idea, being that the total for all the trains was less than $50 each. Well three out of four nights on trains took its toll that would show up at the end, in the form of unwavering tiredness.
The train ride to Varanasi was not too bad. We left in the morning out of Jodhpur and arrived the next morning in Varanasi, thank God the end of the train was mostly the nighttime or we might have gone crazy. With a large bag full of fresh cut veggies, a jar of peanut butter, and some bread, we started our journey to the holiest city of India. Once arriving in Varanasi, we ventured out into the city, accompanied by the rickshaw driver who would take us around the city for the upcoming two days. The first stop was to find a hotel and take a shower… Oh how we needed a shower. The first hotel we stopped at was full and the second was too expensive for our backpacking tastes, so we settled on one that was within our price range but the equivalent of the terrible room we rented in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. If you don’t remember that one, it was the one with a bucket, an Indian squat toilet, and three beds in need of the prometherin that I brought. Well this room was not much better, but I didn’t bring the prometherin this time. There were two twin beds, no window, a fat lizard scaling the wall, and the bathroom: a half squat toilet, a bucket with faucet, and no sink… Oh well, that is how we live.
After splashing ourselves with some water and soap, we left the hotel to conquer the city. This day was to explore Varanasi, the holiest city for Hindus in India where Indians come to bathe in the Ganges River or to die and be burnt in the Ghats. It is very auspicious to die in Varanasi and have your ashes spread in the Ganga. The river, though efforts are being made to clean it up, is a festering river that I would be afraid to touch due to the things floating in it and knowing how the ashes are spread everyday of the recently deceased. The first day though, we spent navigating the city with the tuk tuk and went to the Shiva temple, Hanuman temple, and Dunga temples before getting lunch and getting sucked into silk shopping. The merchants of silk and sarees really know how to sway women into buying their goods. Imagine yourself sitting on a cushioned floor having colors of all shades thrown in your direction from all sides and covering your body like a silky, colorful cocoon; it’s hard to resist once you are wrapped up in it. We didn’t leave the silk factory without a bed spread each in very vibrant colors, and as we left the thought couldn’t help coming making us wonder why we each bought a bed spread without a bed or home to go back to once we leave India. Oh India!
The time had passed by as the silky colors were engulfing our bodies and eyesight, so when we emerged it was time to go see the evening prayer ceremonies in the Ghats. We boarded a small wooden boat that would transport us to the main ghat where we would sit along side a slew of other tourists to watch the ceremonies of the Hindu priests performing puja for large crowds of tourists and Indians alike. A part of me couldn’t help if this has gotten to be more for the tourist attraction rather than true worship due to the influx of Western and Indian tourists in the past few decades. Oh well, drinking chai from a mud cup, slowly rocking in the Ganga waters, and watching the four Indian priests perform puja in flawless unison was a beautiful site to behold. After leaving the river at night, hoping not fall in the river with the bloated dead pig we passed as the boat rocked on waves sent from motorized boats quickly passed the slowly rowing, and preferred, boat we manned, we went to dinner. Like every other meal Emily and myself procured on this trip, we went for touristy non-indian food and had a REAL salad with lettuce (unheard of around Rajasthan) and tuna, then some fried eggplant, and Thai coconut curry. We even went back to the same place for breakfast the next morning.
The next morning came too soon with a 6 am wake up in order to see the sun rise over the Ganga (Indians call the Ganges River the Ganga). And what a sight it was! Beautiful and pastel lighting gave a soft glow to the river and the sandstone buildings along the ghats as we slowly rowed along the river with all the other tourists from countries all around the world. While we are tourists, the preferred trips are those where a white face is few in far between, but in the morning on the Ganga, it felt more like the sinking the Titanic there were so many tourists from Asia, Europe, and American on the surrounding wooden skiffs being propelled by a man with two long bamboo oars. While the spirits of the river and the holy meaning of Varanasi may not have been apparent to us as the river slowly swept us along, the sites where beautiful and awe inspiring.
The rest of the day in Varanasi was spent in the neighboring city of Sarnath. A small town that is one of the four holiest cities for Buddhists due to the history and understanding that the enlightened Buddha gave his first teachings there after becoming enlightened. For me, this city had a strong pull due to my understanding and affinity for Buddhism. I believe, like most, that although Buddhism is considered a religion, it is more a lifestyle that anyone can follow while practicing their own religion. The first stop was of a newly constructed 80 ft. tall statue of a Thai Buddha. Here we walked around the Buddha clockwise, as is done by Buddhists, similar to what Hindus do in temples as well. The next stop was an Indian government museum that, because we did not have high hopes for, blew us away with the preservation of archeological finds from the area.
Once we met up with our guide at the Chinese Buddhist temple, he showed us, rather speedily, around Deer Park that was established to commemorate the teachings of Buddha. In the park, there stands a large temple possessing a large statue of the Buddha in teaching pose and walls covered in frescos painted by Japanese artists. Around to the right of the temple, stood the third generation of the ficus tree that Buddha taught under to spread the knowledge of enlightenment and the eight-fold path. Lastly in Deer Park stands a large Stupa that was built as a memorial for the Buddha’s memory. A stupa is a large stone structure that is to be walked around and used as a remembrance of a time, memory, or relic that may be placed inside. Once we were leaving Sarnath, the last stop was the Tibetan monastery that teaches and houses Tibetan monks and young monks in training. Before entering, we read the words painted outside incriminating China with very biased and strong words, although somewhat true, that explained Tibets current situation.
The rest of the day, we passed by just abiding our time till our night train left to take us to Delhi the next day. After getting Pizza Hut, yes that’s right, Pizza Hut, we made our way to the station and boarded our 3 AC sleeper class car. Thank god we sprang for the extra money on this leg of the journey, due to recommendation, because our train was 6 hours late getting into Delhi. But once we arrived in Delhi, and washed up, we were on a mission that had been planned for a week at that point. Hard Rock Café Delhi, was on the horizon and all we had to do was navigate the Metro and find the mall that housed the American franchise that promised of real beef burgers! After taking a tuk tuk to the wrong mall, why there were two malls with the same name we will never know, the decision had to be made of whether to back track to get a burger… Didn’t take long to decide HELL YES! Finally, reaching our true destination, our own spiritual journey came to an end with nachos, burgers, and apple cobbler, which we ate every crumb of before venturing back to find our night train to return us home to Jodhpur. Oh the glorious holy animal of India serves as a temptation walking down the street to American’s living in India and not able to get beef to eat. But alas, we found a burger that was everything we had hoped it would live up to be.
This week is Holi though so once arriving back to work, there is no work to arrive at. Everything will be closed for Holi on Wednesday and Thursday so I am going to Jodhpur later today to get oil, water balloons, and colored powder in order to enjoy the festivities with friends in Jodhpur.