Sunday, April 10, 2011


Caryn: First off! Here are some pictures from Kolkata that we didn't put in our last post

In Kolkata, visiting Mother Teresa's house and orphanage.

The Victoria Memorial building.

Our friend from Varanasi who gave us all the advice.
I felt like he was the Indian version of my Grandfather.

The first person to want a picture with Ali and I, which was at the Victoria Memorial. We only thought it was fair that we took a picture with him, and it was our intention to take photos with everybody who wanted to take a picture with us. However, we have long since abandoned that idea, and are glad for it, as with the number of times we have been asked they would take up too much space on our camera!!

Flower market. Our pictures don't quite capture how truly chaotic it was.

There's Ali at the Flower Market.

Traffic in Kolkata was something else! As we drove from the Airport to our hotel i kept seeing these "obey the traffic rules" signs...but either they actually have no rules, or everybody does not obey them!!! somehow they manage to fit 3 cars into 2 lanes. It is terrifying at times, although i never actually felt like i wasn't safe. And the honking!! Everybody is honking their horns all the time constantly. I kept getting headaches from all this noise! Eventually i became less annoyed with all the honking by pretending that the cars were talking to each other in some sort of honk language. It made it easier to think the Cars were just greeting each other and exchanging idle chat instead of the "get out of my way! watch out!" that horns usually signal in Canada.

From Kolkata to the holy city of Varanasi.

Alison: You recall the man from the bench who laughed at us taking pictures of squirrels and scowled at the boys for us (see picture #3 above). He is from Varanasi and he says "it is the greatest city in all the world." Hard to argue with that.

Varanasi is indeed beautiful. Even though the Ganges is terribly and visibly polluted, it is lovely to be along the river.

But I get ahead of myself. Let's talk about the train trip!

It was easy enough to find were we needed to be in the Kolkata station. So we bought chains and locks from the chain and lock man and then we knitted and journalled among the rest of the waiting passengers.

The train trip was pretty good, at least in our air conditioned bunks. We were in top bunks for about 15 hours (with the exception of bathroom trips. The Indian style toilets were essentially a hole that dropped onto the tracks - thrilling!) Sleeping on the train wasn't too bad for us, little cramped. Caryn had a wonderful laugh in the morning when she asked me to describe in detail my last train trip: the Canadian Rocky Mountaineer.

The couple on the bunks below us were very helpful. And their main advice? "Don't trust anyone." I said, "Except you, right?" They both said, "NO! No, not even us." This, combined with re-reading the Varanasi section in the guidebook, made for two very nervous girls hopping off the train. Off we got, trying to look confident, but it's hard not to look like a newbs when you're wearing giant backpacks.

Caryn: When we got off the train we were prepared to be hounded by people- the Lonely Planet guide book warns that Varanasi is one of the worst cities for this. Pretty much as soon as we got off the train, this man glommed onto us asking "where are you going ma'am?" and we politely tried to shake him by saying "its ok- we are fine." He cued into the fact that we were trying to find the tourism office, which is in the main part of the building, to get some advice from Mr. Umashankar (another Lonely Planet tip). He led us there and waited for us as we stepped under a rope to the office- it was in this section of the station that was partitioned off with a rope and there was a HUGE crowd on the public side and only a few fellow foreigner on the tourism side. It was a first haven from the Chaos of the train station.

Mr Umashankar was a wise old Indian man who greeted us, made us feel at ease, and asked us how we were finding the weather.

Ali: I almost cried I was so happy to meet him.

Caryn: He pulled out a map of Varinasi and filled it up with costs of how much rickshaws from here to there should cost, how much we should pay for a 1 hour boat ride on the river, hotels we should stay at. He told us that when dealing with boatmen "be firm, be bold". His most valuable piece of advice was concerning all those who would try to approach us in the area surrounding the river- "no talking, no problems". This is advice we have stuck to and no longer feel rude just walking by and ignoring the constant question "Ma'am? Hello Ma'am?" or "Boat ride Ma'am?" or "Ma'am, what country you from Ma'am?". We have gotten SO good at this technique, that today when walking back from breakfast along the river, we were happily ignoring a "Excuse me miss?" when on the second time this voice called out, we realized that it was a European couple who were hoping we could advise them where they could find a European breakfast. Luckily they understood our ignoring tactic and we all laughed.

Anyways back to the Train station. So we set off from the tourist office, feeling more confident, but immediately our "friend" who had been waiting behind the rope found us and led/followed us out to the area where there are rickshaws. Alison and I were very wary of him- just because of his constant attention/insistence and were very hesitant to get into his rickshaw. He assured us that he would not stop at any shops, would take us to the hotel we wanted (This is something you have to be careful in India- sometimes taxi drivers will insist that your hotel has burned down or make a fake phone call to the hotel and say "no they don't have your reservation" and then take you to a hotel where they are getting commission to bring guests.) We settled on a price of 30 rupies for him to take us to a hotel, which is actually 30 less than we should have paid.

One thing about Varanasi- the old part of the city is the "roads" are only a couple of meters wide- so no rickshaws can drive on them. These narrow lanes are really like a labyrinth and it is super easy to get lost. Luckily if you can make you way to the river, you can tell where you are by which Ghat you are at. Also there are signs painted on the concrete walls of buildings, pointing the ways to cafes, hotels, yoga studios etc.

This is the gecko that we are sharing our hotel room with in Varanasi.
Its nice having a temporary gecko pet!
Ali: every time we got back to the hotel Caryn would say, "Now where is our gecko friend?" and search until it was found.

Caryn: Our first night we took a boat ride on the Ganges to see a Hindu ceremony that happens every night from 7-8. Varanasi is a holy Hindu city- this blurb from a tourist website explains it well:

"The land of Varanasi (Kashi) has been the ultimate pilgrimage spot for Hindus for ages. Often referred to as Benares, Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world. These few lines by Mark Twain say it all: "Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together". Hindus believe that one who is graced to die on the land of Varanasi would attain salvation and freedom from the cycle of birth and re-birth. Abode of Lord Shiva and Parvati, the origins of Varanasi are yet unknown. Ganges in Varanasi is believed to have the power to wash away the sins of mortals."

So there is much death in Varanasi. This is also where many Hindu funerals are performed. One of the men at our hotel explained to us that in the Hindu religion the body must be cremated within 24 hours of death. If a family cannot make it to Varanasi in time, family members cremate their relative in their respective town/city and then make a journey to the Ganges at a later date, where they spread the ashes. The funeral is a 13 day ceremony. As it is preferable to be cremated on the banks of the Ganges if you are Hindu, there are several burning Ghats where cremations occur pretty much 24/7 from what we can tell. It is preferable to be burned buy wood, but quite expensive due to the amount of wood required. If a family cannot afford this, then there is a 'electric' option, which i imagine is close to what occurs in Canada.

Alison: We lived right near the main burning ghat, so we walked through every day a few times.

Caryn: It is interesting that in the Hindu religion there are 5 circumstances in which a body is not cremated. If it is a child under 12, a pregnant woman, a holy man, or a person with leprosy they are not cremated as they are already considered pure (everyone else needs to be burned to become pure). Instead these bodies would be tied to large rocks and cast into the Ganges (which is around 150 meters deep, one of our boat men told us). The 5th circumstance is if a person has been bitten by a poisonous snake- especially a cobra which is a holy animal to the Hindus. This person would be tied to wood and floated down the river. As a snake bite kills you relatively slowly, the idea is that if somebody has the cure they can scoop you from the river and revive you, almost like you are given a second chance at life.

The view of the Ganges from a boat on the river. We made the mistake of forgetting our bug spray that night- which we did not do again. The bugs were horrible on the river!!!

Ali and i on the Ganges at night, on our way to the ceremony.

candles floated off along the river

Poor picture of the ceremony- all those people in front of us were in boats! It is pretty much a floating audience, and all the boats tie themselves to one another. The ceremony was full of clapping, singing, holy men, fire. Ali and i are not exactly sure what it all meant, and our boat man did not speak English very well, and so could not explain.

Another thing to do is to take a boat ride on the Ganges at sunrise (which is very early! We were up at 5 this day!) It was very peaceful and hauntingly beautiful. There were many other boats on the river this early.

Another sunrise picture.

Alison really wanted to try to row the boat. It proved difficult, and we spun around in circles for a while, but improved with some coaching from our boat man.

View of the Ghats from the river.

In Hindu religion the cow is also considered a sacred animal. There are many Cows just wandering around Varanasi, most of them not seeming to belong to anybody, although they might. This is one that lived in a gazebo like structure on the river near the lane we had to go down to get to our hotel. Alison used it as a landmark "turn Left at the cow" she would always say out loud as we went by it.

More cows by our hotel.

One of our best meals! The "cook" came down and helped us pick all of our food- explained to us what it was and how it was made, insisting that he cooks everything "homestyle" without oil or water as other restaurants do. This was the first meal where Alison didn't feel like she was having a allergic reaction, which may have been due to the fact that he told us there were cashews in some of the dishes we ordered, but when we informed him of Ali's allergy, he made them without.

When we first arrived at the restaurant, we glanced over the menu and realized that like most places we have been going for food, it had a VERY extensive menu which includes European type dishes, Chinese, Indian, Italian etc. When he was making his recommendations he said "Like all other restaurants here we serve many types of food but Indian is our specialty- You are in India now, so eat Indian". This was a good piece of advice. I have learned (through ordering 'European type food'- mostly for breakfast) that it is important not to imagine too closely what you believe you will receive when ordering. For instance, if you order a chocolate banana pancake here and picture a fluffy banana pancake with chocolate chips in it and maple syrup, you will be SHOCKED when what you actually do receive is a rubbery crepe like pancake, drowned in chocolate sauce (the type on ice cream) and with no banana to be seen.

One of the wider streets out of the old city part. It looks a bit chaotic- it is 10X what it appears in this picture!

The Ganges- it is a beautiful, haunting river, but very polluted. It is essential to the daily life of those in this city- it is where they pray, bathe, swim, fish, do their laundry etc.

Alison: Our last day in Varanasi we attended a wonderful yoga class. We headed off on another night train to Agra. We met some lovely Dutch people on the train, but for that, another post.

Much love, missing you even more than in New Zealand,
Caryn and Alison


  1. Wow. I just made a trip to India on my lunch hour!!!! Very well described, the sights, sounds, food, faith, life, death....all of it. Prayers for you from here, as you navigate so much new ness every day!!!! And I love the honking cars, talking to each other!And the very polite ignoring of aggressive tour guides! Well done Caryn & Ali! Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy, from sub-zero Saskatchewan!!!!

    Beth xoxox

  2. These photos are unbelievably gorgeous, Ali. It looks like you two are having a blast!!!

  3. Wow wow wow!! You two are SUCH great bloggers. Photos are fab, writing is spectac. I was enthralled. Sounds like you are having a totes amazing time. It also sounds like tougher travelling than NZ.

    Currently watching a documentary on Sask's river delta. Interesting. Sadly, though it is one of the biggest/most diverse something-or-others in the world, it has very little protection. Sigh.

    So are you done your Buddhist retreat or on your way? Please write more on India, it is very fascinating!

    Other things:
    1. Disgusting lizard. I would not be happy to share my room with it.
    2. Beaut sunset pics. Very good of you to get up so early.
    3. The poor Ganges!
    4. Your supper sounded so good!!!

    Miss you two, too!!


  4. Obv by sunset I meant sunrise.
    Also, I laughed when you ignored the fellow travellers. Are there many other travellers?


  5. Oh, my. Oh, my. It's an experience -- reading your blog! It is the funniest thing. Even though it's you, and pictures of you, it's still hard to believe. India, I mean. And that you are there. Eating and sleeping. Loved your info. on food, cows, train, people. The river. Ancient. Romantic. Noise. There must be smells, too. Sensory overload! Lots of helpful people. Well, your blog is wonderful. I'm glad you are safe and sound. Ha ha. I can see you knitting at the train station.

    And lovely to talk to you, Beth! My book club did The Help, too. And LOVED it! It's different, nice. Touching!

    My cousin Lorraine loved India -- Said when she got there that she felt like she'd come "home".

    Wonder why they want their picture taken with you...Lovely blog, and lovely bloggers. Pat

  6. Wow, these pics and the things you write are incredible and so very interesting...a whole different world there - something you will never forget, I'm sure! I can't even begin imagine what its like - so different! Stay safe - my love and prayers to you both.......... Annette

  7. Beautiful post! I keep coming back for the pictures