A Travellerspoint blog

7.23.10: Varanasi, India

Varanasi: Filth Capital of the World..

Today we woke up at the crack of dawn, 4:30 to be exact, ready for our sunrise boating down the Ganges River.
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A little history lesson is necessary to paint the perfect picture:

Varanasi is considered one of the holiest cities in the world today. It is the sacred home of Shiva, where the devout come to wash away their sins in the famous Ganges River. The river is considered a sacred place where mortals can cross over to the divine. Many people come to Varanasi to die, in the hope that they may receive moksha, the salvation of the soul from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. They believe that the Ganges cleans away sin and purifies the soul. After death the deceased is wrapped in no more than a sheet and after bathing the body one last time, is placed on wood piles, and cremated in public view. It is estimated that over 45,000 corpses are cremated on this river each year.
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Along with cremations, Indians use the river for an abundance of other activities. Devotees come to the river to bathe, meditate, and perform rituals. Babies are baptized in the river because they believe it cleanses the child. Don't let its spiritual qualities fool you; the Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
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The Ganges river has been considered one of the dirtiest rivers in the world. The extreme pollution of the 4 mile stretch of ghats is unimaginable. The water there contains 60,000 fecal coliform bacteria per 100 ml, 120 times the official limit of 500 fecal coliform/100ml that is not considered safe for bathing.
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Downstream in this soupy toxic dump, people also use the river as their personal toilet, adding their own 'toxic dump' to the water.
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A few feet away people lather themselves from head to toe and bathe in the nastiness.
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Women wash laundry in the river, scrubbing off the body odor in exchange for poop particles.
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Around the clock you will find children cannonballing into the filth, having the time of their lives.
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I have seen people catching fish in the filth as well, although any fish that can survive living in a cesspool is a fish I won't eat.
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Do you even have to ask why I wanted to come here?

The ad practically writes itself..
Wouldn't you love to spend your honeymoon in romantic Varanasi?
You and your new mate can gaze into each other’s eyes while overlooking a whirling cesspool of bacteria.
AND it's a perfect location for your destination wedding!
Say "I do" amongst the burning corpses and fecal matter.
Think of us for your next baptism!
The Ganges: a river of possibility!

We stood outside in the misty morning and waited for Vikki. We waited and waited and our trusty guide was nowhere to be found. After waiting for ten minutes amongst a hoard of salesmen,each pitching us a different boat ride, we finally picked one who spoke the best English and followed him. With so much history, we wanted to make sure to get a guide who could answer our questions.

You want I take you?
How much?
150.
For how long? One hour or two?
Yes one, two hour.
Same price?
Yes, yes, 150
Ok

We agree and walk with him through the fog, down to the docks.
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You want one hour or two
Two please
Two is 250
What? You said it was the same.
No madam. More time, more money.

We agree and follow him onto an old paint-chipped wooden row boat and sit on a rickety plank, stretched across the middle. As I'm pulling out my camera, he pushes the boat away from the dock and hops out, leaving us with an emaciated Hindu man who doesn't speak a word of English.
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"I thought you were taking us?" I yell. He waves. Already pulling away from the dock, it was too late to protest.
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It was a misty cool morning, a nice change of pace from the unbearable humidity of the midday.
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We watched the sun rise over the river as our boat driver used all his strength to row at the pace of a snail.
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He would row with one arm, stop and hack up a lung, then he’d switch arms, stop, and hack up the other lung. I watched everyone else who left at the same time as us was cruising right past us on boats that made ours look like a paper mâché canoe.
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I felt bad for the guy, but I also felt bad that we got stuck with him. I lounged back and watched the river sludge float by contemplating my what mental state I was in when I chose this destination on my itinerary.
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Some people choose to go to Venice where you can cruise through scenic water highways in a traditional gondola while being serenaded by handsome Italian men. Me? I prefer chillin in a wooden row boat older than I am and paddling though murky grey feces while being serenaded by an emaciated Hindi who speaks no English and who's idea of a traditional soundtrack is hocking up phlegm after every stoke of the paddle. I'm living the life.
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The Ganges was quite a scene. It is definitely the center of life in Varanasi.
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I watched from afar as children back flipped into the trash, naked men lathered themselves from head to toe and groups of people lined up to wash clothes and beat them dry on stacked rocks.
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I watched as people brought pails down to the river for collecting water.
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I found out later, they keep some of the "holy" water in their house as well. How these people don't develop deadly diseases or body deformities is beyond me. It's a wonder they're not dropping like flies.
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As I was floating down the disease infested grime, I was inspired to write a poem:

Floating down the Ganges,
A well-known holy site.
Indians trek to Varanasi,
As they're about to see the light.
It's a straight shot to heaven,
Or so I've been told.
I'd rather burn in hell
Than Wade amongst the mold.
The filth, the grime, the excrement,
Swimming children and boats for rent
Women bring the laundry
And here they wash their clothes for free.
People bathe, both old and young,
They cannonball into the dung .
Better than a spa mud bath,
You can exfoliate using trash.
Bodies burning, smoke and fire,
So you're spirit will go higher.
Being sanitary is quite a feat,
Come see Varanasi, what a treat!
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All jokes aside, It was a beautiful boat ride, especially while the sun was rising, and I'm really glad I got the opportunity to experience it.

The rest of the day we walked around the town and did some souvenir shopping until we could not stand the heat anymore. It was more humid in Varanasi than anywhere else we have been. The small streets, overflowing with people and cows don't help either.
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In southern India where the proper dress code is more lax, I was able to wear tank tops without feeling like a spectacle however, as you move to the northern regions, they are stricter on what is acceptable. Women dressing in beach attire is not. This isn't something you will get a ticket for or anything like that, but I like to be respectful and I certainly don't want to invite any unwanted attention, so I cover up. It doesn't help that it is sweltering outside and I would love nothing more than to strip off my clothes and dive into the ocean. I can't wear sunglasses because a pool of sweat accumulates under the lens and stings my eyes. It's the kind of heat that makes you want to steal something just because you know that the cop car has AC. We could only take an hour of shopping before we were gasping for air-conditioning. We went back and chilled.

I was enjoying my rest in the room, watching the boobtube, when the phone started ringing. I was tempted to let it ring, but the thought of hearing ring after ring for god knows how long, seemed a worse fate than actually picking it up.

"Hello madam, you have a phone call."

I already knew who it was. I'm in Varanasi, India for Christ’s sake! Who needs to get a hold of me here? I have no job, no appointments, and no commitments. Not even my mother knows where I'm at! Who else who it be except that damn Guru! I politely told the receptionist, "Please hold all my calls and in the future you can tell anyone who is trying to get in touch with me that I am permanently unavailable." Problem solved.. I hope.

At 6:30 it was time for yoga. I was really looking forward to getting some quality yoga time in, while I was in India, but I've been on the move so often that it's been hard fitting it into my schedule. I took one class in Mumbai and I've been on the prowl for yoga studios ever since, so I was anxious to start my workout!

I had been to the yoga studio before, when I scheduled my class, and it's fully padded flooring along with an abundance of fans was very appealing. I was a little concerned when I arrived on time and was guided into a different room, half the size with only one fan (which is no match for the sticky humidity). The instructor, named Bharti, was very knowledgeable of all types of yoga and had a straight-shooting, no frills attitude. I didn't mind her lack of fragility, I was looking for a workout and I had a feeling I was in for it. She informed me that there was a massage in session in the room where she normally held yoga, so we would be exercising in the less appealing option. She worked me to the bone! This was a whole different spin on "hot yoga" and my whole body was dripping sweat. Half way through the one hour session, I was exhausted, but I couldn't slack off because I was the only student. Her eyes were fixed on my every posture and I had no wiggle room for resting. I got exactly what I needed, and although I was dog tired when I was through, I felt great! A+ for the Yoga Training Center in Varanasi, India!

As I was heading out of yoga, sticky, sweaty and smiling and as I rounded the corner I was ambushed by Vikki.

Hello madam
Hey Vikki
Madam, I am sorry about this morning.
Ya, what happened to you? I thought you were going to meet us out front at five?
Yes, I am sorry but I wake up and I get sick. I throw up, you know, and I feel very weak.

Even though the kid looked like he was healthy enough to run a marathon, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and played into his little story. I didn't care either way, I still went on the boat trip so there were no hard feelings.

Oh I'm sorry that you don’t feel well, Vikki. You should rest.
Well I wake up and I throw up, but I go to Guru Baba and he heal me.

I knew exactly where this was going. He went on and on about the Guru and his powers and that I need to go see him,yadda, yadda, on and on. I wasn't born yesterday but I liked the kid, so I nicely explained it to him. "Honestly, I cannot afford his services right now. I only went to see him out of curiosity and although I appreciate his explanations of the process, it is not something that is financially feasible right now."
"You go, you talk to him and tell him. He will make you very good price"
"Vikki, I can't afford anything, not a dime."
"You tell him and he help you, you pay later."

By now, he has followed me all the way back to my hotel.

"Vikki, I have two more months left on the road. I am living out of a backpack. I'm wondering about how I can afford my next meal, not if I was a horse in some past life."
"Ok you go and tell him because actually, he is mad."
"He is mad? At what?"
"Well he know that you go see the other Guru and-"
"How does he know that? Did you tell him that Vikki?"
"No,no he say he see you, it is very small place."

Now I was upset. I knew there was no way the Guru could have seen me because the other place was tucked in such a hole in the wall, it was barely accessible. Not like I gave a rat’s-ass if he did see me. I’m not his to claim and I didn’t owe him anything! Not to mention the fact that he came to my hotel uninvited, called multiple times, and is now having Vikki relay his anger to me. Some Guru! And Vikki must think I’m stupid to come and tell me that he was deathly ill this morning and now he’s magically healed. This kid was feeding me a BS buffet and I was full! I played the naive tourist for long enough and I was tired of this eighteen year old tout trying to hustle me. You can't hustle a hustler and I was tired of pretending like I didn't see through his charade.

I'm sorry that your "Guru" is mad at me but I don't owe him anything and frankly I'm not going to waste my time going to say this to his face. Since you obviously work for him you can tell him that stalking tourists is bad for business and sending an errand boy to tell me that he's "mad at me" doesn't make me want to seek him out for anything, ever. And telling me that you're sick and the guru healed you just makes me discredit you as much as him. And although I appreciated and enjoyed you showing us around yesterday, the fact that you keep pushing this Guru issue, even though I have repeatedly told you that I am not interested, on top of the fact that you obviously think you can take advantage of me, makes me want nothing more to do with you. Thank you for your service but I will be hiring a different guide.

He apologized and I felt a little bad for unleashing my wrath but I've found that touts and salesmen in India do not take no for an answer until you get mean. I can say "no thank you" a million times, till I'm blue In the face and all they hear is "keep trying, I may become interested eventually". I am a rational person and I have tried many methods to deter the unyielding salesmen. I've tried ignoring them, speaking Spanish, speaking made-up gibberish, being polite, just saying "no", nothing works. I've never had to be so abrasive with so many people in such short periods of time. It's exhausting. One time a man followed me for three blocks trying to sell me henna and I tried every tactic I could think of, I even told him I was allergic, and he was unstoppable. I finally stopped, whirled around and said, "I said no! When people say 'no', they mean NO"! To which his response was, "I give you very good price." I really have enjoyed my experience in India, but it can really kill a good mood when you’re forced to be a bitch all the time.

I went up to the room and relaxed after an intense workout. I was satisfied that I was finally able to wiggle free of Vikki and I had a good night’s sleep free of unwanted guests and incessant phone calls!

Posted by emichele 05:44 Archived in India Comments (0)

7.22.10: Varanasi, India Day 1

Guru's, Monkeys, and Yoga

We woke up this morning at Hotel Alka, peeled back our window shades and gazed out into the beautiful Ganges River in Varanasi, India.
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I woke up raring to go and set out to explore. I read that Varanasi had a large yoga community and I wanted to find a studio that offered drop-in classes. I wandered out of our hotel and was immediately greeted with, "Hello Madam" coming from all directions. As I attempted to skirt the crowd, a young man approached me. “What are you looking for madam?” he asked me with an innocent allure. I told him about my quest for yoga and without delay he was guiding me through the back alleys of Varanasi.

He introduced himself as Vikki.
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He told me that he was a tour guide, and offered to help show me around, if that was something I was interested in. I was.
In no time we arrived at the yoga center and I arranged a class for the next day. As we were leaving Vikki told me that if I was interested in astrology, there was a famous Guru in town that was highly acclaimed, and offered to show me where he was located. Normally I am a huge skeptic on this sort of mumbo-jumbo, but I have a friend who had visited India and told me how amazingly accurate her reading was, and I have to admit, I was a little curious. Not having a schedule to maintain, I agreed to go check out this “Guru”.
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We weaved in and out of the alley ways, sidestepping cows and salesmen, and finally reached the Guru. I walked in and sat on the padded ground in front of an overweight man. He was clad in only a sari that was wrapped around his waist. After his cigarette fizzled and he was finished watching highlights of yesterdays Cricket match on a TV, placed strategically behind my head, he introduced himself. He called himself Guru Baba and he was truly a gift.

I listened carefully as he chain-smoked cig after cig, and explained to me how the process worked. I had three options of astrological readings ranging from $50 to $250 based on depth of information. First I was to present him with the payment. The majority of this payment, he assured me, went to charity. Next, I needed to provide him with my date, time and place of birth. Then he would tell me the hardships of my life, my lucky numbers, lucky dates, and dates to avoid, AND if I paid more money, he could tell me what I was in one of my past lives.
Boy was I excited! Not only could this man tell me why my life sucks, he can also tell me when, exactly, it will be the worst! And all I have to do is pay him?! What a dream come true!

He talked my ear off for an hour as he switched his gaze from me to the TV and back, and I could not get away. Every time I would start to open my mouth to say, “Well thank you for your time” he would interject with another tangent about healing crystals or breathing exercises. I finally escaped, telling him that if I could find out the information on my time of birth, I would return.

As Vikki guided me back to my hotel, he guaranteed me that this Guru was the only true Guru in town, and that I would be a fool not to return. He raved about his special skills and it was all too apparent that they were working as a team.

This practice of commission is very common in India. You hire a guide to show you around, who claims to know the tastiest spots to eat, the cheapest place to buy pashmina, the best massage therapist, and they proceed to take you to people they know who will pay them commission for bringing in the gullible tourists. I saw right through it.
Despite nagging me about the Guru, Vikki had brought me to a nice yoga studio, and he seemed like a nice enough kid, who knew a lot about Varanasi, so I agreed to let him be our guide for the day.
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Our first stop was the Shree Vishwanath Temple at Banaras Hindu University.
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This white marble temple was one of the nicest Hindu temples we have visited and the well-groomed University grounds set the scene for a very enjoyable tour.
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As we were walking out of the temple we ran into a mother monkey and her curious baby.
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I watched them for a while as the nosy baby sniffed the side of a lemonade jar, before sticking his head in for a closer look.
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They were a funny pair.

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Our next stop was the Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum, filled with paintings, sculptures, Mugal artifacts, and ancient weapons.
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In all honesty, it did not wow me.
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The displays were poorly lit or not lit at all. In each room that we'd wander into, I would have to wake the sleeping guards and persuade them to flip on some lights. If I stumbled upon a guard who was awake, he would watch me meander around in confusion and would wait until I requested the lights be turned on to move an inch. At that point he would only light half the displays and wait until I was, once again, in darkness requesting illumination. Truthfully, I wasn't really in a museum mood anyway. I have been to so many museums on this globe-trotting voyage that sometimes I feel like, if you've seen one rock sculpture, you've seen them all.
4Picture_032.jpgA few of the paintings did catch my eye, but all in all I was pretty bored.
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We hopped back into the rickshaw with Vikki and we were off to the monkey temple. This Hindu temple wasn't much of a spectacle had it not been for the rambunctious primates fooling around every corner. Unfortunately, as I passed through the metal detector at the front gate, I was forced to hand over all of my belongings. Due to a terrorist attack at the temple a few years ago, there is strict security and no electronics are permitted, so I was not able to snap any pictures. Once we passed the security checkpoint, we walked along a lengthy path bordered with tall trees, blooming bushes and monkeys all around. Monkeys swinging from trees, grooming each other, springing, leaping, and bounding around; it was a feast for the eyes. As I walked along in awe, I bent down to get a closer look at a mama cleaning her young and Vikki swiftly grabbed me by the arm and lifted me up. "Do not look at them, do not touch" he said sternly. Then he proceeded to tell me a story about a monkey attack that terrified me to my very core. Two years ago he had been near his house and a monkey abruptly jumped up out of nowhere and sank his teeth into Vikki’s rear end, causing him to tumble down two flights of stairs and break his leg. After an abundance of shots, multiple surgeries, and months in bed, he finally recovered physically, but mentally he still had some reservations about the furry creatures. After hearing his story I did not challenge his advice. I wanted to make it home with my ass intact.

We strolled along the path for a while, watching hundreds of monkeys frolicking around until we reached the temple. We walked around for a while and sat quietly as people prayed next to us. After we had seen all there was to see, we started our walk back through monkey territory, to the rickshaw driver.

Vikki and Max walked a few strides ahead of me as I took my sweet time observing the funny monkeys. Suddenly, a lone monkey sitting on the path next to where the boys were walking, turned and snarled its teeth. I watched, five feet behind, as the monkey rose up and lunged forward at them. Visibly terrified, Vikki hurled his body behind Max, who also had no idea what to do. I watched with wide-eyes, wishing I had my camera for this episode of 'When Animals Attack'. Just as I was thinking how lucky I was not to be next to them, the monkey turned towards me. This is one thing they don't teach you in school. There was no How to Fight a Monkey 101 in my curriculum. I know that when you come face to face with a bear or a mountain lion, you are supposed to make yourself look as big as possible and make loud noises to scare them off. I know that you're not supposed to look dogs directly in the eyes because they think you are challenging them. I must have missed that episode of Animal Planet where they tell you what to do when Indian monkeys try to bite your face off.

So here I am, standing tall and screaming profanities but making sure not to look directly at the rabid beast, as he leaps closer and closer. I yell to Vikki, "What do I do!?" He says nothing. What a guide. As the snarling monkey crept closer, I instinctively got into fighting stance, dukes up, ready to do what? I have no idea. At that moment it was like I was outside of my body watching myself, fists high, squaring off with this monkey, and I knew, I was screwed. What was I going to do, punch the monkey? It's a monkey! I was not trained for monkey combat. I'm standing here, a lone warrior, as the boys stare at my situation blankly; probably just relieved it's not them. A million thoughts ran through my head as the monkey was now within a foot of me. I kept thinking, "If I throw a punch, the monkey could bite my hand, then I’ll get some crazy monkey disease and I’ll have to go to some broke Indian hospital and I'll wake up with one kidney!" Punching the monkey was a no go. Instead, I grabbed for the closest weapon at my disposal, my flip flop. I swung it around like a windmill and jumped about like a lame kangaroo, until I had successfully averted the monkey attack. I ran, like a little girl, all the way back to the rickshaw, leaving the "men" chuckling in my dust.
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After my near-death experience, it was time for some food. Vikki told us that he knew the best pizza place in town, where we could sit on a patio overlooking the Ganges and I was all about it.
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Since we have been on this trip, every country that we go to has their own version of pizza. The South American style where the dough is still sticky is probably the worst. But I'm always curious to see different cultures version on the classic pizza pie, so I was immediately on board.
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We headed to the Vaatika Cafe and ordered a fresh lemon tea, fresh mint tea, and a margarita pizza.
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The mint tea was fresh and delicious and the pizza was the best I've had in months! A+ Vattika Cafe!

The funny part came when I asked to use the restroom. They pointed up a column of stairs and told me to make my first right and my second left. Armed with my own personal toilet paper, I set off in search of a toilet.

  • side note: it has become a necessary routine to make sure we are fully stocked with toilet paper at all times. In the morning before we head out we run through the checklist.

Wallet, check
Phone, check
Key, check
Toilet paper, CHECK!

It is the most important thing on the list. Almost no bathroom in India will provide toilet paper. This is because a lot of people in India cannot afford toilet paper. A normal Indian bathroom consists of a hole in the ground, surrounded by two steps for your feet. They do their business, wipe with their left hand and rinse. Isn't that charming. They say that this is the main cause of stomach illnesses in India. It isn't food washed with dirty water or parasites; it is most likely caused by left over fecal matter from tainted hands. It is common for people with poor hygiene to be the same people who prepare your food. Mmmm is it time for lunch yet?

Anyway, back to the lecture at hand..

Every time I go off in search of a bathroom, it is an escapade. I never know what I'm going to find. This time was no different. I excused myself from the table, grabbed the TP and headed up the stairs. I made the first right, as instructed, and found myself in a tiny barn wedged between two larger-than-life cows, who seemed less than thrilled to have me stomping through their living room. I squeezed through and made the second left, past the woman scrubbing clothes on the concerted floor, into the bathroom. This "bathroom" was an unlit, door less room, with a hole in the ground. You know what the sad part is? Going to the bathroom in a dark hole, while being watched by a laundry woman and two bulky Bessie’s is not the worst bathroom I've seen. You do what you gotta do, where you gotta do it. The bathrooms that I've been in, make the nasty state fair port-a-potties look like porcelain gods. Once you have no other choice then to stop being a diva, step off your high horse and shit in a hole, then you can truly consider yourself a third world traveler. I came. I pooped. I conquered.

This is what a NICE Indian bathroom looks like..
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Enough of my potty mouth, let's get back on track..
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Earlier while we were walking through the city, I peeked my head into a little pashmina shop. I looked around for a little bit and decided that I would come back later. As we walked away Vikki told me that I should not go there. "Very poor quality. No good madam. I show you good shop, big place, you will like."

He took us through the textile factories in Varanasi, where we got to observe the work, first hand.
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He showed us the different areas they were divided into and we walked through blocks of weavers, hand embroideries, and dye shops.
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We were able to see the products from start to finish and our prying eyes were met with friendly warm smiles. He took us a shop and introduced us to the owner and distributor. He was a nice man, although talked our ear off for a half an hour before showing us any product.

This is the way Indian people con tourists, they talk you to death. They will spend five minutes telling you that they won't rip you off before they even quote you a price. They all deter you from other businesses claiming the only authentic goods in the city. They always know 'a guy'. They are true hustlers with connections everywhere and they always know the best person with the cheapest prices for everything your foreign cash can buy. You finally cave just so they'll stop talking about not ripping you off, while their ripping you off. And that's how it went. We walked out of there with stuff we didn't need that was not in our price range.

As we were talking to the owner of the shop, he filled our ears with all kinds of information. Before we even saw any of his goods we had discussed travel, religion, politics, and alternative medicine. He mentioned that he knew a good Guru who practiced nearby and my ears perked up. After my last encounter with Guru Baba, I was curious to compare and contrast. I asked him where he was located and he offered to have Vikki take me there. I was a little skeptical on telling Vikki that I was seeking out a different Guru, but I had no way around it. I thanked the shop owner and left with Vikki.
"You go see a new guru"
"Yes will you show me the way"
"Why you want to go"
"Just to check it out"
"This guy is no good, you see Guru Baba"
"I don't know if I'm going to do anything, I'm just going to go check it out"
Silence. I could tell he was not thrilled with me questioning his judgment. He guided me around the twists and turns of Varanasi’s small lanes, down a dead end road, up a small flight of stairs, around a corner and back down a flight of stairs, to the Guru (how this guy gets any business, I do not know, because I would have never found it by myself). Vikki waited outside. I walked in and introduced myself to a shirtless man who sat Indian style on the floor with his arm wrapped in a sling. He walked me through the process of the astrological reading, which was roughly the same as the first Guru, only much cheaper. He was far less pushy than his other plumper version and much more laid back. I told him that I would review my finances and think about it and I may return later. No fight, no struggle, just a kind 'thank you'.
To be frank, I was never going to get an astrological reading in the first place. I am a spiritual person and, yes I do believe in the supernatural, but I am skeptical, to say the least, to buy into a Guru that I meet in a street stall in India. Plus, I'm a broke backpacker. I'm not living lavishly and I can't be blowing money to find out that I used to be a janitor in some past life.

Vikki kindly guided me back to my hostel as he prodded me with questions about the second Guru. As he started on another sales pitch for the first Guru, I quickly changed the subject to tomorrow’s excursions. He told me that he had a friend with a boat and that he would escort us on a tour of the Ganges River for a reduced price. We opted for the early morning boat ride and he agreed to meet us outside our hostel at five am so we could catch the sunrise.
I thanked him and headed into the hostel for a much-needed cold shower.

After a long, hot, eventful day, it was heavenly to kick back and relax in an air-conditioned room. I was laying in bed watching the one English channel that we had, when the phone rang. It was the reception desk informing me that I had a phone call. I thought it might be Vikki calling with some change of plans for the next day (who else could it be) so I accepted the call and told them to patch it through.

Hello?
Hello, Emily?

I knew immediately that it was not Vikki.

Hello?
Hello, yes, this is Guru Baba.

Oh crap. How the heck did he know how to call here? Did Vikki tell him where I was staying? Crap! I had just begun to relax and the last thing I wanted to do was haggle over the phone for something that I didn’t even want. This guy already talked my ear off for an hour, 45 minutes of which I was trying to politely excuse myself, I did not want to go through it again. I decided to play the 'ol "I can't hear you" game.

Hello Emily?
Hello?
Yes, it is Guru Baba. Can I-
Helloooooooo?
Yes, Emily. May I speak with you?
Hello, I can't hear you?
Click.

I know this is the chicken-shit way of handling the situation but I just didn't want to deal with him. I thought I solved the problem but the phone rang again. I decided that I would just let it ring. So it rang. And rang. And rang. And rang. I am not joking when I tell you that this phone rang for at least three minutes straight. Once one minutes of relentless ringing passes, it's too much. Once two minutes pass, it's ridiculous. But when three minutes past, the only conclusion you can draw is that this guy is crazy! That was all the confirmation I needed to know that I made the right decision passing on the Guru.

We ordered room service for dinner. When your options are to eat outside amongst the swarms of flies and the sticky humidity, or relax in an air-conditioned room and take advantage of the free room service, you opt for the latter.

Sitting in our air-conditioned palace, we enjoyed our first ever traditional Indian Thali.
Thali= a multicourse sampler platter of Indian goodies.
Our thali featured parantha (a tortilla-like bread), dal (lentils), veg masala (spicy vegetarian meat-balls), vegetable pulao (rice), and raita (a yogurt-based dish, similar to tzatziki sauce). It was delicious. Just as I was settling into bed about to settle into a food coma, the phone rang. Are you kidding me!? I let it ring. A few minutes pass and I get a knock at the door. I open it to find the front desk clerk, "I'm sorry madam, but there is a large man who says he is a Guru and he said it's very important that he come up and speak with you." I was shocked. Am I really being stalked by a Guru!?
"Please tell him that I am sleeping and that coming to my hotel is highly inappropriate and unwelcomed."
"You don't want me to tell him to come up?"
"Absolutely not. Do not send him up here."
"Yes madam"

I double bolted the door, unplugged the phone and went to sleep.

Posted by emichele 05:31 Archived in India Comments (0)

7.21.10:Train to Varanasi, India

Another Day, Another Train...

We were so sad to say goodbye to Khajuraho after such a short trip. When we made the arrangements we had no idea what a beautifully relaxing place we were going to be in, but we had a train to catch to Varanasi.
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We got up early and met up with Ashish and Washim to say goodbye and sipped some chai before our drive to Satna. They hooked us up with a friend of theirs who would drive us down for a good rate, we thanked them for their kind hospitality and said farewell to gorgeous Khajuraho.
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The drive back to Satna was even more peaceful with out the obnoxious beeping and once again we watched nature blossom around every turn.
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An hour into the trip our driver pulled over for some water and wandered into a small restaurant as we waited in the car. I stared out the window as a mama cow and her calf, no more than a few weeks old, wandered down the middle of the road with in inches of my curious face poking out of the car. Every time a car would roll past, the calf would get scared and scamper awkwardly off the road. Just as Bambi was learning to walk, the calf would get tangled in his own limbs and I watched in amusement while he unknotted himself and they continued down the road. Just then two dogs darted out and started barking and taunting the young calf as the mother protectively circled around her young. This continued for a few more minutes until three more dogs approached. The cows were surrounded. The calf stood directly underneath his mothers belly while the dogs snapped their jaws and closed in on him. Just then local Indian man, who had been bathing at a nearby well, approached the situation. Sensing the necessity of an intervention, he hurled rocks at the attacking dogs and they quickly retreated. The grateful cow and her calf continued their stroll down the highway and I gaped in awe at the National Geographic scene I had just witnessed.
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After a nice two hour drive from Khajuraho, we finally reached the Satna train station just in time for the downpour.
It was raining cats and dogs and our train was late.. typical.
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It's always a toss up with the train rides in India. Either we have a whole berth to ourselves and are able to relax in blissful solitude or we are inundated with a herd of obese obnoxious Indians and their pound invasive offspring. It's either golden silence or screeching children, sweet dreams or sour snores. It can never be mediocre; one extreme or another. We cautiously approached our berth waiting for impending doom. We had a good idea of what was in store for us for the next five hours when we pulled the curtain open to reveal mother and son and crap everywhere. The world was his playpen and we were mere visitors to the world revolving around him. I don't know what it is with the children that we've encountered, but their parents inattentive lack of discipline astounds me. I wouldn't have gotten away with any of the stuff these kids do without getting a verbal lashing and a time out, and rightfully so!

As I lay on the top bunk and gaze over the top of my book at this demon child and his sleeping mother, I notice that he is sitting on top of her kicking the wall (which has people on the other side as well). He is singing loudly and slamming his dirty little heels on the wall to the beat of some unrecognizable tune. The only time he takes a break is when he sits up and starts to play patty cake on his mothers sleeping face. She shrugs it off with no acknowledgment and pays no heed to the two Americanos sitting across from her, whose eyes have switched from sleeping serenity to glaring missiles aimed in her direction. We were clearly discontent with the new soundtrack we had to swaddle us to sleep and she acted surprised at my request for a lower volume.

The train was late getting into Varanasi and turned into an eight hour ride instead of the expected five. We arrived at 10pm and were starved and tired. We caught a rickshaw to Hotel Alka, checked into our room and immediately requested a menu. After a much needed shower and a late-night dinner it was off to dreamland.

Posted by emichele 21:01 Archived in India Comments (0)

7.20.10:Khajuraho, India

This is a long one, but it's worth it...

Indian drivers make Peruvian drivers look like precision NASCAR elites. This may be the worst aspect of India. Forget the belligerent salesmen, street food spiked with feces, unsuspecting mosquito bites, child panhandlers, public cremations, and perverted massage practitioners. Indian tuk-tuk drivers top the cake. Every time I ride in their pathetic excuse for a cab, I feel like I'm volunteering for a kamikaze show and tell.
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Before the 'ride' even begins, it's an adventure. Everywhere we go, our white faces glisten under the sweltering Indian sun and the rickshaw drivers smell the sweat dripping off our faces and sniff us out as easy prey. Hoards of chauffeurs encircle us arguing over who saw us first, without first asking us where we want to go or if we even want to go anywhere at all.

Once we name our destination and price, the haggling begins. Like some sort of retarded auction, the prices yo-yo around like the U.S economy. One will offer 100 rupees, then I'll hear 75, and then 200, as if I don't know how to count.

When we finally decide on the cheapest tuk-tuk with the least life-threatening vibes, the ride takes off. Sometimes these clown cars are so small I have to angle my body in the vehicle and cross my legs just to fit. Though it may seem appealing to let an elbow or a toe flap in the wind, you must keep ALL body parts securely inside the vehicle at all times.. Or risk losing them. I've had my elbow nicked a few times by other drivers who get so close you wonder where one vehicle ends and the other begins. The instantaneous, mind-changing maneuvers, while gallivanting, the wrong way down a one-way street, playing chicken with oncoming traffic is a terrifying yet masterful art...depending on if your viewpoint is in the backseat or a sidewalk onlooker.

The traffic, the brushes with death, the price bartering, the lack of legroom, the sweating my pasty-white ass off in the back of a non-airconditioned tricycle moving like molasses in January, all this I can tolerate.. With a smile or at least a smirk.

You know what I can't take? What makes me want to have my eardrums removed at the hands of a veterinarian in Tijuana.. is the beeping. Oh the beeping! A sound that haunts my dreams worse than the horny roosters in Peru, the incessant, unreasonable honking! These people honk for everything...EVERYTHING! For "Go", "Stop", "Hey, I'm here.", "Hey, just saying 'Hey'.", "I'm coming", "I'm going", "I'm gone", "I'm turning", "I turned", "I think I might turn", "I saw a bird", "I have an itch", "I'm bored", for everything, there is a reason for the beep. The orchestra of horn-honking chaos is everywhere, all times of day, traffic or no traffic.

By far the worst I've seen was our driver from Satna to Khajuraho. He won the auction at the train station and for 750 rupees we agreed to put our lives in his hands for the two hour drive east to Khajuraho. His guy blared his horn for seemingly, no apparent reason. On a stretch of highway with no curves and no other occupants, he'd beep and beep. He didn't last more than ten seconds without honking at something. It was so excessive
I thought maybe that's what propelled the car forward. No gas pedal for me, I just honk my horn. I haven't the slightest clue.

Then there's the infamous ending to the roller coaster. This is where you have to pony-up the dough and pay him for his superlative chauffeuring skills. An act that may be easy in the U.S, where it simply consists of reading the meter and handing over the cash, it is not so in India. Even though we never enter the cab blindly, don't think they don't try to sucker you into forgoing the pre-negotiation.

Hotel India please.
(infamous head bobble)
How much?
Yes, get in.
How many rupees?
Hotel India, as you wish.
How much?
Yes, I take you. You get in.
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However, even once we've settled on a price, when we reach our destination, we always have to endure another price-haggling, BS battle.
The first problem is navigation. Navigating the labyrinth of Indian streets is like trying to solve a Rubik's cube on acid. Partly because all the streets are named Krishna or Vishnu or some other Hindu deity. There could be five streets with the same name ( almost as annoying as Texas where they have two names for every street). It could be that you've reached a part of town that has no street signs, which is also common, or simply because, despite acknowledging our desired destination point like he knows exactly where he is going, "Yes, yes, get in!", he does not. I sit with patience and no other alternative as he pulls over more than six times to ask for directions, getting conflicting advice from every person he asks, until we finally arrive at our destination. This is where he demands that I fork over a larger sum of money because his directionally-challenged ignorance cost him more gas money.

One outing, our driver breezed past our hotel, despite our repeated requests to be let off. He overshot it by about two blocks and after we asked him to circle back around to avoid trudging through pouring rain, he tried to charge us for that too.

Word of advice when traveling to India; either bring lots of money or bring your game face.

I eventually pulled the plug on our horn-addicted driver and asked him to stop honking when the noise started making me twitch. The honks were impregnating my brain like a tumor and I could take no more.
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Once the beeping ceased it was a wonderful car ride. The scenery was beautiful! For once I wasn't looking out the window at men peeing in the street and trash piles bigger than my house. We left the city, passed through the Panna tiger reserve and were officially in the boonies.
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The plants were thriving off the monsoon rain and everything was shining emerald green. Forests of trees as far as the eyes could see and no traffic at all.
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It was green and serene. It was the best drive I've taken the whole time we've been in India. Every time I'd look up from my book I'd see something extraordinary. After noticing that we were slowing down rapidly, I looked up and we were in the middle of a heard cows, maybe fifteen of them, walking down the middle of the highway.
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I saw a man riding an elephant through a small dusty village, a group of monkeys grooming each other on brick wall running along the road, natural entertainment around every curve.

Khajuraho is the Kansas of India. Smack dab in the middle.. Of no where. It is quite off the beaten path and far off the track to any major cities. Why go here, you ask? Two words: Kama Sutra.

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It's time for a story children. Gather around..

Once upon a time a long long time ago, the Moon God looked down on the earth and gazed his eyes upon a young maiden named Hemavati, bathing herself in a river. Her beauty moved him so deeply that he descended to Earth and seduced her into a passionate love affair. Before his return home, he would impregnate her and one day their son would erect a temple to celebrate the intimacy of their relationship. And so the temple was built, not just one, but 85. Almost all of them sharing the central theme of erotica. These temples in Khajaraho are a staple of India and although they are a little bit of a trek to get to, these taboo temples were enough to catch my attention and I quickly added them to my itinerary.

We arrived at Hotel Harmony, a subtle foreshadowing of the day ahead, got situated and set off for an exciting encounter with the steamy temples. First, I ran across the street looking for batteries (a good amount of our vacation time has been spent looking for batteries since the ones we buy seem to have the life span of a dog in Korea.)

I went across the street to a local convenient store to buy the double A's I needed and that's when I met Ashish. A 21-year-old Khajaraho local, Ashish caught my eye with his red Billabong t-shirt and relaxed attitude. He approached me with sincerity, asked me where I was from and how I was enjoying India. It is rare for me to have a conversation with a stranger without feeling like they're trying to sell me something or hitting on me. Ashish exuded a simple charm and when he asked me if I needed a ride to the temples, I gladly accepted. That's when we met Washim, his talkative counterpart. He would drive the rickshaw and Ashish would come along and be our guide. We loaded into the most spacious rickshaw in India and began erotic excursion.

The temples are divided into groups based on their geographical location and the southern group was the first stop on our titillating temple trip.
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The first temple we visited was one of the last temples to be built and is dedicated to Shiva.
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The Duladeo Temple features well endowed, over accessorized characters engaged in acrobatic sex acts that one can imagine are not the most comfortable.
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The temple is surrounded by well kept flourishing gardens, a nice change of pace from the monuments we'd seen in other parts of India, where the weeds and lack of general maintenance take away from what could be a great money-making tourist attraction.
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Only two miles away, we visited our second temple, Chaturbhuj.
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Although this is the only temple in Khajuraho without lewd characters, the stereotypical big-breasted ladies are featured proudly.
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Nymphs and mythical lions adorn the exterior and housed inside the sanctum is the image of Dakshinamurti exuding an expression of calm bliss.
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The eastern group of are comprised of both Hindu and Jain temple and our first stop is to the Jain temples, Parsvanatha Adinath and Shantiath.
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When you enter the temples, you are greeted by mounted slabs that provide a beginners guide to the Jain religion.
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The Jain religion began of reform movement and although it did not spread outside of India, over four million Indians practice Jainism. The Jain religion practices strict rules such as vegetarianism, complete sobriety, and reverence for all forms of life. Since Jainism promotes a disciplined doctrine, there are no erotic images featured on their temples, but ironically current photographs of naked holy men are displayed with honor.
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Past the charts of Jainism beliefs, the Shantiath Temple is guarded by a pair of allegorical lions, protecting the marble sculptures inside. This is one of the most original temples on our tour and the boxy enclosure is built with marble rather than the typical sandstone.
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As the other temples feature intricate exterior carvings and an interior shrine to a specific deity, this temple displayed non characteristic carvings in the main courtyard and featured a colonnaded hallway that lined the inside, which was filled with many individual marble shrines.
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It was a lovely temple however I was taken aback by sudden invasive pictures of naked Indian men lining the walls. Call me crazy, but there's something about unanticipated male nudity that is quite startling. If I didn't ask for it, I don't want it.

Parsvanatha Temple is best preserved of Khajuarho's Jain temples and the intricacy is apparent and amazing.
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Despite the lack of eroticism, the temple features nude meditating saints, snuggling couples and curvaceous maidens.Temple_Angles.jpgPraying_at_Temples.jpg
In the same complex sits Adinath.
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These three temples and the smaller vestibules weaved amongst them, create a beautiful triangle of architecture that can be admired from all angles.
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We headed down the road to Javari temple.
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This secluded temple sits alone amongst green fields filled with grazing mules and lazy water buffaloes.
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It has the least traffic because it is not associated with any 'group' of temples. It features a progressive series of spires and carved embellishments protruding outwards on the exterior.
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It is surrounded by fresh cut grass, wildflowers and fluttering butterflies which complete the serene scene.
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Our last stop was the Hindu temple, Vamana, built for the reincarnation of Vishnu.
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It is decorated with small erotic panels stretching high in the sky.
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As we circumnavigated the exterior, we were greeted by a group of paparazzi, eager to snap some pictures of us.
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As we obliged the first few who beseeched us, a crowd gathered and we were instant celebrities. As is struck pose after pose, my only thought was, "They must have seen Girl Meets Gown".
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As we ride from place to place among the multitude of cab ans rickshaw drivers we've employed, there are only a handful of them that can, and will carry a conversation with you. Ashish and Washim are amongst this handful, their English is superb and they have interesting thoughts to add the the conversation. We have only hired them as drivers but they also offer up free information on the different temples and have willingly merged into tour guides as well.
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From temple to temple they asked us intriguing questions like "What are your dreams?" and "Where are you going in life?" We carry on a refreshing conversation, unlike the shallow generic questions we are used to, "Where you from?" and "You see Taj Mahal?". We were really enjoying having some new people to talk to and we were digging their style so instead of heading directly back to home base, we decided to walk out into the open grassland, park ourselves under a tree and chill for a bit.
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It was perfect weather, you could tell it was going to rain later, but the sky exuded a peaceful gray-blue shade that set the perfect scene. They broke open a cigarette pack and handed me a hand rolled clove cigarette. I haven't smoked a clove in months and now, thanks to Obama, they are illegal in the U.S so I was stoked when I was presented with a real fresh clove.
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They asked us more intriguing questions and in return shared with us. Washim did most of the talking, sharing with us his ambitions to finish school and give back to his community. He wanted run an organic farming community and open a school so he could liberate the lower classes and provide jobs and education to the less fortunate. Ashish was also in school and worked at the largest stone carving factory in Khajuraho.
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His factory provided all of the stone work for Delhi, Khajuraho, and exported goods all around the world. There are no machines in the factory and everything is done by hands. Although he is skilled at his craft he expressed his goal to teach, using the stonework only as a means to pay for his education. They both expressed strong ties to the community and asked us if we would like to go with them on a tour of their neighborhood. Aside from showing off the tourist sites in Khajuraho, it was important to them to show visitors an off the beaten path view of their town, something that we were very interested in.

This whole trip I have been wanting to find India, the real India. Not the retentive salesmen that I have to haggle with, not the maniac cab drivers, the real people, the real culture of India. I gladly obliged him and we set off our original path and into the villages of Khajuraho. First we arrived at one of their friends houses. We walked through an open cement door and followed them down a narrow entryway and into and open air horseshoe of small cement and brick dwellings all nested together facing one another.
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We walked past a leashed cow, hopped over loose gravel and strayed cement blocks and into a small pink bedroom. We made ourselves comfortable and waited as Washim ran off to grab some chai.
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He came back with a photo book and showed us childhood pictures of him and his family, pictures of his village and a special section that he reserved for pictures of his international friends, a group that he informed us we were now a part of.Family_Photos.jpg

We walked outside into the main courtyard of the houses and drank some chai. We met Washims friend (the owner of the house) and his three children, who immediately took a liking to me and my camera.

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I snapped a picture of the little boy reading a book, who eyed me and my camera warily until i turned the screen toward him and let him see his image.
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Immediately his vigilance disappeared and a smile stretched across his face.
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He pointed to the picture and back at himself in wonderment.
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I told him where to stand and snapped a few more and each time he heard the click of the shutter he'd run up to me so he could have instant approval of the shot.
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By the end of the day he was the biggest diva, running into all the pictures, dancing for the camera, and modeling like a pro.

The little girl was older and more reserved but I caught her eying her uninhibited brother and I turned the lens toward her.Young_Girl.jpgSay_Cheese.jpg
She shot me an appreciative, shy smile and the whole group joined in.. Some more excited than others.
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After we sipped some chai our friends took us on a walking tour of their village.
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They taught us about the caste system in India and walked us through the different class neighborhoods, separated only by a strategically placed speed bump. He showed us different temples, that the villagers pray at each day. Not what I would expect as a 'temple' some of them are merely a cement block with a small deity figurine displayed next to the sidewalk. Their places of worship can be massive artistic temples that cannot be missed or small camouflaged shrines you could easily pass by. However big or small, their purpose is the same and the effect is equally acknowledged. We walked the narrow pathways that knit the village and were greeted with smiles and waves by the natives.
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The heavens opened up and it started to pour. We busted out our trusty umbrella and continued on our way, weaving between rows of cattle and children playing in the rain. Although we were having a great time, it was really raining hard and even with an umbrella I was drenched.

We headed back to the hotel, changed out of our soaked clothes, and grabbed a quick bite to eat while we waited until the rain let up.

After the rain subsided we met back up with Washim and Ashish and headed across the street for a cup of chai at a rooftop restaurant. We enjoyed our spiced tea and overlooked the innocent town of Khajuraho.
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Over chai, Washim told us how much he enjoyed showing us around and asked us if we would like to join him and his family for a traditional Indian dinner. We eagerly agreed! He lived close to the town and it was a quick rickshaw ride to his home. We were welcomed inside with smiles and looked at family pictures while we waited for dinner.
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Washim spread out a table cloth, transforming the bed into a table to eat dinner. His mother laid a feast in front of us and we thanked her with smiles as she did not speak English.
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The spread consisted of a fish curry, daal, rice, and paratha bread and it was all very delicious.
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We thanked his family profusely for their welcoming hospitality and said our goodbyes.

Our next stop was to the stone carving factory that Ashish works for. We were really intrigued when he was explaining the stone carving process to us so he said that he would give us a first hand look at his artistic work. It was a small factory filled with huge complex carvings down to small figurine displays.
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We saw the different stages of the art, starting at a huge stone block and they explained that even a small, one foot carving can take weeks at a time.
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From there we headed to a warehouse that houses and sells the sculptures. We met his boss, a large Jain man who opened the shop just for our curious eyes. He showed us their gods which ranged from the stone that we had seen previously to jewelry, pashminas, gold statues, saris and more. His shop was well kept and professional and he was a very knowledgeable businessman.
While we were looking around the shop Ashish took off on an Indian version of a beer run. This consists of running down the block to "a guy" and coming back with a water bottle filled with some homemade alcohol. We could not resist sampling this Khajuraho moonshine. The drink, which slightly resembled wine, could be mixed with water or drunk straight, as they explained.
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Washim, Ashish and his boss sat with us outside of the warehouse as we drank our prison wine and talked amongst the crickets. Being Jain prohibited Ashishs boss from participating in the boozing, which made me wonder if we should even be drinking with him. I wouldn't eat pork ribs in front of a rabbi or take a Mormon out dancing, is this a no-no? This question sparked a great religious debate. Actually, I wouldn't call it a debate as much as a discussion. He put my mind a ease and told me that it did not offend him that we drank in his presence, he would just choose not to partake. I asked him to what extent he practiced Jainism and he told me that, while his family went to pray every day, he chose not to. He told me that his family accepted his distance because if he went to pray when he did not truly want to, it would mean nothing. It would simply be the act of going and he would not benefit from it. He prayed when he felt spiritual but he practiced the Jain religion in his everyday life, hence the sobriety. I looked around at our group realized what an unusual, special mix of people we were. Here, I am agnostic, but raised Jewish by my converted Christian mother and my Jewish father. Max who is also agnostic, but was raised by his Buddhist mother, and comprising the rest of our odd little circle is Washim, a Muslim, Ashish, a Hindi, and his boss, a Jain. We had quite a mix of people all sitting together talking peacefully and respectfully with no harsh words, no judgments, no bombs.

Even in America I would be skeptical starting a religious conversation with a group of people. You always get somebody trying to convert you, some jerk who has to turn it into a heated debate, and someone usually gets offended. This is a different story and I am enlightened with their knowledge and maturity. As we talk further, the conversation moves to travel and Ashish tells me how he's been to Thailand and what a good time we will have. I ask him if he has ever been to the US and he laughs. Despite his impeccable English, his education, and his docile demeanor, he informs me that there is no way he'll ever
be granted, even a visitors visa, because he is Muslim and the American perception of Muslims has permanently branded him a terrorist. This is a huge wake up call to me. It was so easy for me to get a visa. Apply, send money, get Visa. Done and easy. It didn't even occur to me that there was a possibility of not getting one, of being told that I was not allowed to visit someplace. Through this whole trip, it has been very apparent to me how lucky I am. When you walk among the poverty stricken and live without everyday comforts, you realize what a truly privileged life you lead. However it is unfathomable to think that a no matter how hard you work, how educated you are and no matter how big your desire to do well, the possibility of liberation slim to none. Even if he had a verified US address to stay at, even for a vacation, he would be denied access. It's sad.

Today was a dream come true. It was an eye-opening education that I would have never had the opportunity for, had it not been for Ashish and Washim who opened their life to us. These guys were willing to show us their world, without anything in return except an open mind and a gracious heart and I can't tell you how much I benefited from it.

Posted by emichele 00:12 Archived in India Comments (1)

7.19.10: Train to Satna

Another looooong train ride..

Today we woke up, grabbed another memorable meal from Kamat Hotel and booked it to the train station, we had another lengthy ride ahead of us. We left at 8:30 am and would arrive to Satna at 7:30 the next morning where we would hire a driver for a three hour ride to Khajuraho where we were staying. Not much to say, not much to do.. We got lucky and got a whole berth to ourselves for most of the trip.
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I read a book, jammed my iPod and tried to teach Max how to play rummy like a winner. We had a lovely catered lunch.
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I would have rather had McDonalds.

We changed trains in Nagpur and had an opportunity to grab a bite to eat at a nice hotel nearby. It beat the hell out of meals on wheels.

Although we were in our own berth for the first part of the day, we weren't so lucky when we boarded our overnight train to Satna. I passed out around eleven and woke up to deafening obnoxious Hindi. It took me a minute to find out what the appalling racket was and as I came to, I noticed the guy on the bottom bunk was on his phone. This guy was like a talking machine, he didn't take a breath. It was like he was announcing at the Hindi horse races, this guy was incessant.

Sometimes peoples blatant lack of respect baffles me. I mean this guy was laying in a hallway space filled with three other people, one of who was not more than a foot apart from him and he's talking like a love struck twelve year old girl. He carried on the conversation for five minutes after I had woken up, not bothering to lower his voice even a decibel. I sat up and glared at him and I noticed that the other two people in the berth were doing the same. He made eye contact with me which did not deter his conversation in the slightest. After another minute of the one-man talk show I decided it was time for a chat.

“Excuse me.” I said sharply.

As he held up a finger as if to tell me to hold on, I repeated my interjection.

“Excuse me sir but some people are trying to sleep and if you're going to—“

“Shhh”

He picked up his greasy little finger held it to his lips and Shhh’d me!
How are you gonna ‘Shh’ me when I'm ‘shhh’ing you!? Blasphemy!
I continued my reprimand.

“If you're gonna talk while people are sleeping take your damn phone out side!”

And he did.
I spent the next half hour trying to calm my heart rate from the beating I almost gave this guy and right as I was getting back into sleepy mode, IT happened….

Snoring!

The large Muslim man across from me didn't have as much trouble falling back asleep and drifted in dreamland leaving behind a eardrum shattering snore. I hate snoring. The only thing I hate more than snoring is people who claim they don’t snore and then cause earthquakes with their blaring nasal noises (that one was aimed at you, mother).
I can deal with snoring just fine once I'm asleep. Once I'm asleep, I'm good. I'll sleep through earthquakes, parties, hell, I'd have probably slept through Hiroshima had I been there or alive at the time. But falling asleep to an asshole farting out his nose is not a lullaby!

I put on my iPod, laid there for another hour or two and fell asleep to the musical styling’s of Mr. Al Green.

Posted by emichele 19:49 Archived in India Comments (1)

7.18.10: Hyderabad, India

More to see..

I started the day with the perfect breakfast at a quaint little bistro called Kamat Hotel.
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We stumbled upon this delicious hole-in-the-wall and liked so much we came three days in a row. We had a savory meal of cheese toast with tomato and onion uttappam (a thick savory rice-flour pancakes with minced onions, chopped green chilies, coriander and coconut) and I washed it all down with a flavorful cup of steaming chai.
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The heat in India this time of year is unbearably humid. I thought I would be used to it by now having lived in Texas for the past year but I was wrong. Dallas is arid in comparison. Makeup is pointless here. As soon as you open the door, you've sweat it all off. I have actually had to start carrying around a rag to wipe the off the sweat beads that plunge down my glistening face. That's the reason I'm not in a lot of the pictures I'm posting, it's not a cute look. I'd rather give you a nice monument too look at rather than a nice monument with my flushed, clammy, haggard-looking face. I'm doing you a favor.

To escape the scorching heat we decided to move our travel train indoors and see a movie. Hyderabad, India is home to the worlds biggest IMAX Theater and being a huge movie buff I had to feast on this beauty.
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At over eight stories high, this screen is a beast... I want one. We watched 'Inception' which was a great action/thriller and the perfect movie to watch on this screen. I was enthralled from beginning to end and at a quarter of the price as it would be in the states. Money well spent.

As we walked out of the theater, I started feeling the rumbling of hunger pangs. It was past lunchtime and my stomach knew it. We agreed that we would find the first place that looked like we wouldn't contract TB and eat there. Not more than a moment after I made the deal max spotted McDonald's.
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Normally I would put Mickey D's in the TB category. I don't particularly care for fast food at all unless it's two am or curing my hangover, but McDonalds is the worst and I try to avoid it whenever possible. If you don't believe me, try watching the first five minutes of 'Supersize Me' and then we'll see how often you visit Ronald. Max was so sprung at the idea that I had to give in, but I must admit, I was a little curious to see how the menu differed from the American version.
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First, there was not a single beef item on the menu, they had the normal McChicken, chicken nuggets, French fries, etc but then they had some random cosine choices I had never heard of. Chicken Maharaja Mac, Salsa Paneer wrap and Chicken Mexican Wrap were among some of the more interesting items.
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Max was feeling ambitious and ordered 20 nuggets, fries and a coke and I played it safe with some potato wedges and a vanilla ice cream cone. I tried the chicken nuggets (strictly for journalistic integrity) and I
Thought they tasted just as crappy as they do in the states although max wolfed them down before I was even done with my ice cream. I have to say though; the potato wedges were really outstanding. I don't know if we have this as an available menu item in America (I haven't been to McDonalds since I was too stupid to know better) but if we don't, we should.

We left McDonalds and headed across the street to Lumbini Park to explore. There wasn't too much to do in the park, some kiddy rides and food vendors, it reminded me of a mini state fair but it was nicely groomed and a nice view of Hussain Sagar lake.

We hopped in a boat and cruised out into the lake to feast our eyes on the worlds largest freestanding stone Buddha Statue.
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Towering over 17 meters tall, this gargantuan god’s intricately carved stonework is worth the trip.
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After running around the park a while we decided it was food time. I looked up a Palace Heights restaurant and bar headed there. We walked around in circles for 30 minutes trying to find this place as the map told us we were basically on top of it. Come to find out that it is nestled at the top floor of a drab dirty high-rise. Although the buildings exterior was u welcoming to say the least, we thought we'd venture in for a peek, and I'm so glad we did. The restaurant was a high class gem, the service was excellent, the menu was extensive and we had a sensational view over the whole city.
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I'm not going to wander into every disheveled restaurant I come across but this was a good reminder not to judge a book by its cover.

Posted by emichele 23:47 Archived in India Comments (0)

7.17.10:Hydurabad, India

Exploring the city of pearls...

I woke up refreshed after a successful night's sleep on our overnight train to Hyderabad, India.
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Our train rolled into the station at 5:30 am and we schlepped our sleepy selves off the train and into a rickshaw to take us to our hotel.
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We took our time getting situated, watched some TV and ate breakfast before heading out for a busy day of sight-seeing.
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Driving around Hyderabad was pretty much what I expected; poverty, pollution and over population.
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Lonely Planet described traveling here like a treasure hunt: the jewels have to be earned and I was on a mission to find the subtle charms and archeological gems I had heard so much about.
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The first stop on my treasure map was Golconda Fort.
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Built in the 16th century this massive infrastructure kept Mughal armies from invading Golconda for 8 months.
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Only after an insider turned treacherous were they able to conquer the complex.
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Besides massive gates adorned with iron spikes, their successful defense strategy was also attributed to acoustics.
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They built the structure with advanced technology and precise angles so the acoustics guaranteed that even the slightest sound from the entrance would echo across the entire fort complex.
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The fort was built on a 120 meter high granite hill allowing you beautiful views of the city below. We climbed up and down the fort and spent a good two hours trudging through sprinkling rain and over slippery rocks and it was absolutely worth it.
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Definitely puts to shame all the bed sheet forts I used to build as a kid, that's for sure.
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Being a walking spectacle is not something I was prepared for when I came to India. All the time everywhere we go, people stare at us like we are conjoined twins with elephantitis. They point and take pictures like we are celebrities. I'm obviously not Indian but I'm not Britney Spears either. To quote Marshall Mathers, "y'all act like ya never seen a white person before, jaws all on the floor.." it's like they either think our white skin is some sort of evolutionary astonishment or an absolute abomination of skin pigmentation, I don't know. Anyway, we were walking around the fort and were being stalked by a group of 10 high school boys that seemed to be infatuated with our every move. Finally one of them grew a pair and approached us for a picture.
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Once we obliged him and the others knew we wouldn't bite, the flood gates opened and we were swarmed by gawky teenagers who wanted their picture with the whities. We had quite an entourage.
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Next we headed over to the Tombs of Qutb Shahi Kings.
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These charming domed tombs scattered amongst wild gardens hold mausoleums of ancient kings and their families and are the subject of some great photos.
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I wish I would have been able to enjoy them more however my bladder had been filled to the brim for quite some time and was about to overflow in my pants at any moment. There was no bathroom anywhere and too many people to pop a squat anywhere (plus I like to avoid urinating on holy monuments, it's good for my karma). The tombs themselves had an impressive exterior, however the interior mausoleum was simply a stone box draped with cloth in the middle of the room, with no literature about the tombs, the kings, or the construction anywhere.
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So I didn't feel bad when my bladder won the coin toss of whether to stay or leave.
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We hopped in a rickshaw and headed back to the hotel where I was guaranteed a sanitary toilet not just a hole in the ground, handled my business and set out for lunch.

Now before I tell you where we went to lunch, let me just say one thing: it is true what they say about Indian food. I love spicy food. I eat it almost everyday back home and a lot of time I will plan my whole meal around the hot sauce I intend to use. I buy the super sized bottle of Cholula at Costco. I love spicy food. I thought India would be a breeze for my palette and I laughed off all the warnings I'd heard. But no. I was wrong. Very, very wrong. After indulging myself on the spiciest, sauciest, delectable Indian cuisine, day after day, meal after meal, I was paying for it... Big time. I was downing Imodium and Pepto tablets like sweet tarts and nothing was helping the matter. This would be a problem in the states as well, a rumbling tummy is a bad situation no matter where you are. However, being in a third world country whose idea of a toilet is a whole in the ground and whose idea of toilet paper is your left hand, it makes the situation really shitty.. Literally.

Do I paint a vivid picture cause I can go on...

So I didn't feel like the tourist sellout I vowed not to be when I strolled my American ass right into Subway. I needed blandness. I ordered the safest thing on the menu, a spicy Italian (made with lamb not beef, they don't have beef in India), a little mayo, a squirt of mustard, pickles, olives, lettuce and a warm, gooey chocolate chip cookie. It was just what the doctor ordered. I never thought I would be so stoked on subway.

With my tummy satisfied and settled, it was time for the shopping maze of a lifetime. The Laad Bazaar is a dream and a nightmare all wrapped up in a pretty bow.

You could get lost easily navigating through this labyrinth of vendors. Shiny bangle bracelets call your attention one direction and the smell of fresh naan pulls you in another. The organized pandemonium gives you a rush to see all you possibly can but it's that same pandemonium that will rush you right out the door.
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It is madness all around and it is easy to get sucked in and spit out. You'll find fine silks, gold, silver and the most beautiful fabrics, scented oils and perfumes made from scratch right in front of you! We came in search of something specific.. Pearls.
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Hyderabad is known as the 'pearl city' and this bazaar in particular is the center of India’s pearl trade. I've heard that you can get great deals on real pearls here, so I set off in search of the perfect neck ornament. We went to several shops and got price quotes and finally settled on one shop that showed us perfectly round pearls of every shade and I indulged myself in a little eye candy. I wanted to shop around more but it was ridiculously overwhelming swimming in a sea of people and sweating like pig. I looked at a few street stalls and after about five minutes and 500 'Madam's" I through in the towel. There's only so many times you can hear "Madam you come here, I have something very special for you, very good price!" before you want to rip off your own arm just to have something to throw at them.

We flagged down a rickshaw rode out of the congested shopping Mecca and back to the Abids area where we were staying. The last time I had laundry done I mysteriously had only two pair of underwear that made it back to me. Apparently someone needed my thongs more than I did. I went to the market and bought a few pairs to replenish my collection.

After a great vegetarian dinner it was time to relax my eyes after a day of running around the city.

Posted by emichele 04:40 Archived in India Comments (0)

7.16.10: Train to Hydurabad

Train number 2...

Today was our second train ride in India and the longest one we'll have all month. We were saying farewell to Goa and heading northeast on a 22 hour train ride to Hyderabad. All I could do was pray that it was better than the first one. I would go insane if I had to listen to uncontrolled brats for 22 hours. I would murder someone, I would go to jail, my mom would cry, it would be a bad situation all the way around. I could deal people who had body odor, even people with gas, give me some one with Tourette's syndrome, just as long as there are no children. For the love of all that is good and pure, no children!
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I was ecstatic to find out that we had a whole berth to ourselves. I could lay down, sprawl out, read a book, listen to my iPod, play some cards, and eat some snacks... The possibilities are endless! It was a great train ride, even if it was 22 long hours.

Posted by emichele 04:37 Archived in India Comments (0)

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