Wednesday, September 23, 2009

We’re Back....

After 12 days of travelling around northern India we are back and eager to blog all about it. We got back to the orphanage yesterday after a mammoth 60 hour journey home – I’ll blog about the trip in instalments as it’ll be too long otherwise.


Our first stop on the journey was Varanasi which involved a 4 hour bus trip, dinner in Bareilly and then an overnight train. It was our first train trip in India and we were pretty impressed with the service as it was only an hour late and the betel-spit marks around the windows were hardly noticeable. Being westerners, it is customary to have a crazy guy sit and talk to you in Hindi – normally this is accepted as part and parcel of being here and ignoring them is the best way to deal with it. This guy however was a little harder to ignore due to his garment being a male mini-skirt. I’ve heard unconfirmed rumours of the Scottish wearing nothing under their kilts and I now unfortunately know they must have picked up this habit from the Indians. Once the train finally arrived we had a sleeper cabin so we slept most of the trip and awoke refreshed and ready to explore the oldest city in India and arguably, the world.

We thought the old part of the city was only 500m away and the auto rickshaw (3-wheeler) drivers were trying to rip us off by charging Rs100 ($2.50) to get there. We weren’t newbies to their tricks so we walked off from the main taxi rank and flagged down a pedal rickshaw who offered to take us for only Rs40 ($1). Our map was wrong however and as the poor skinny Indian guy puffed and strained his way through kilometres of crowded streets we felt increasingly bad – so much so that when we got to an incline Tony got out and pushed! We tipped him handsomely Rs10 ($.25) which he was quite thankful for.

Once we got to the old part of the city we began to search for accommodation – using the lonely planet as a guide we wandered around the narrow alleyways, fending off touts and con-artists until we finally decided on a backpacker favourite “Shanti Guesthouse” where due to the low season the rates were a princely Rs150 ($3.75) per night!

I interrupt this blog to give you a ridiculously brief lesson of Hinduism and Varanasi’s significance otherwise the rest won’t make sense – Hindu’s cremate their dead, believing that the best place to do this in the whole wide world is on the Ganges river steps (ghats) of Varanasi where they will receive a free ticket to Hindu heaven. Hundreds or thousands per day are cremated and the ashes (and any remaining bits) are scattered in the Ganges.

The hotel location turned out to be right in the thick of it - so close to the burning Ghats that the cremation smoke stung our eyes from the rooftop restaurant where we had a uninterrupted view over the entire city. After a quick lunch we set off to explore the ghats and it wasn’t long before we realised that lunch beforehand was maybe not a great idea. Within 50 metres of our hotel we had entered the busiest burning ghat in Varanasi which was currently cremating about 6 bodies in separate pyres. We had been warned about not taking photos which seemed like a macabre thing to do anyway and watched with mixed feelings as we saw the ceremony being performed.

It’s not easy to describe this experience as it was a mixture of emotions and different for each of us. Other foreigners we met used words like “beautiful”, “spiritual” and “calming” while Miriam described it as “heavy” and “dark”. I had a few angles that I saw it from – from a practical view that cremation is a clean way of disposal (if done completely), and the public way it is performed reminds everyone that this is where we all end up at some point. Afterwards sitting up in the rooftop restaurant with about a dozen foreigners (Israeli, French, Spanish, Slovenian, British, American, Aussie) we talked about death and discussed what life is all about. This discussion is something that doesn’t happen in Western culture as death is too hidden from us, making it easier to ignore.

That night and the next day was a bit less sombre and we set off to explore some of the ghats where bodies aren’t burnt and enjoyed just watching the locals carrying out their lives. One thing that continually amazed us was the Ganges water being used for washing, bathing and drinking when all around was garbage, cow carcasses and bodies (lepers, cobra victims, pregnant women, children and sadhu’s are just sunk, not cremated). Hinduism says that Ganges water is holy and can cure all your ill’s – all I know is that within days of drinking it, I wouldn’t ever need a doctor again.

We finished up our Varanasi tour by timing the trip back to the train station poorly, ending in a 300 metre sprint in humid heat to arrive late, only finding out that our train had been delayed for 4 hours. Our next stop was Calcutta but that's a different story........


  1. Hi M & B,
    great to hear about your trip.
    I've had a couple of comments that people would like to hear about India from Miriam's perspective, so perhaps she could do a segment occassionally.
    Love Mum and Dad W

  2. A great post. What a thought-provoking and different experience from our everyday lives. Look forward to your Calcutta instalment, with some trepidation though. Good to hear you're both back safely.

  3. Hooray!

    Sounds fun ... and exciting ... I await more stories. Boy's in skirts is confronting enough (some teachers at school wore the girl's uniform on casual day the other week and I couldn't look either of them in the eye), let alone with no pants on.

    Unfortunatly I'll have to wait til we get back from WA. School finishes tomorrow and we're flying out 10pm. Get back at 4pm the Saturday before school goes back and I head of to Canberra 6am Sunday morning for the year 11 trip. Sooo ... I'll have to wait 3 whole weeks before I get back to the ye olde interweb to hear your adventures!

    You've left me hanging ... and know I won't know the next installment for yonks.


    Kate Bom

  4. Nice story telling man (or wo-man). I liked the short-skirt bit. Oh to have no shame (or to have no problems sharing one's nether regions with the world). It's like pants-off-Friday, every day!

    Keep avoiding those cobra bites, could be bad for your cremation prospects (what else affects them?). I like culture. And ancient culture especially. Please tell more.

    Love yers...

  5. Wow... these stories (and many more, I'm sure!) Really make it seem like you are on the other side of the world. I can't even imagine what it must feel like to see, smell, hear these things.

    Keep safe! We love hearing your stories.

    Anne (and Ben) xo