Monday, September 1, 2008

Varanasi/Agra/Delhi

india it is! varanasi, a holy and spiritual city sitting on the Ganges river was the perfect place to begin our journey through India. The many ghats(steps leading into the Ganges where ceremonies and holy rituals are performed daily by the multitudes of residents and pilgrims of India and beyond) form the center of life in the city. We chose to stay on the river in the old city where narrow alleys leave even the most competent navigator disoriented. The traffic of cows, holy men, pilgrims, beggars, touts, children, and the occasional yet common transport of a dead body headed towards cremation at a ghat occupy every alley. We spent the majority of our time exploring the city by foot. Sunrise provided us with the nicest view from the hotel courtyard where we could see the men and women bathing in the river. Later we walked to one of the two main burning ghats, where cremations are taking place continuously. The body is first walked through the streets on a bamboo stretcher covered with colored cloth, then it is dipped in the river and finally placed on a pile of wood and set ablaze. The burning is done on a platform above the river and the ashes are then dumped into the river. Witnessing the burning taking place is rather disturbing and after several minutes we headed back to the alleys. On our evening boat ride we observed floating ash in the river and were reminded of what we saw earlier that morning. Every evening at the main ghat a ceremony performed by 5 young men is done to praise the river. Drums, singing, fire, flowers, incense, food, all play a part in this elaborate ritual. The next day we checked out Benares Hindu University in the south of the city. Inside we visited a museum and a large temple. This was the first Hindu temple we were permitted to enter, as the non-Hindus that we are. On our final day in Varanasi we found where all the Israelis had been hiding. A small, dirt cheap cafe called MonaLisa.  Good shakshuka, rice pudding, pastries, ice coffee, macaroni, and cheap coke made for a good time as we were waiting for the rainy cloud to pass. All in all we really enjoyed our time in Varanasi and were quickly adjusting to life in India. Our two delicious Thali dinners (dal, kofta- a fried potato cheese ball in sauce, veg curry, rice, parathas-bread filled with potato mash and spices, curd, and custard) were enjoyed overlooking the imposing Ganges. This view made up for the lack of AC in our room and the shared bathroom that was in the courtyard where we would have to walk amongst dinner-goers to get to our shower. Having bought our train tickets to Agra the day before we packed once again and caught a rickshaw for our first sleeper train in India.  After the unreserved train debacle, we decided to upgrade to an AC class, not the best class, but the third best.

Our train tickets came from the tourist quota and so the other people in our berth were also foreigners. 2 koreans and a japanese. A local befriended us and we spoke with him at length about things we had been curious about for the last couple of days. Particularly food related questions and some other Indian habits we had the benefit of observing. We arrived in Agra early and caught a ride to our hotel, 200 meters from the Taj Mahal! Climbing up to the rooftop of the hotel we were greeted with a blue sky and the massive Taj Mahal directly in front of us, with no obstructions of our view. We just sat there in awe, taking pictures, and giddy that we were here. The Taj was closed for a prime ministerial visit so we found a place to eat. A lovely "hole in the wall" cafe called Joney's. Somehow this Joney guy pops out delicious sandwiches or jaffles as he calls them. It is basically a grilled cheese with whatever you want inside and an extra slice of toast in between. He also makes a killer shakshuka and ice coffee with ice cream. As you can see we have recently been spoiling ourselves with delicious food. But, hey that's what traveling is all about! On to Agra fort, a huge Mughal design fort built by Akbar where he was later imprisoned by his son. The fort is made of red sandstone and sits on the Yamuna river. We spent the morning walking around it and then headed to a local market that was not that great. We went back to Joney's for refueling and then went into the Taj, around 4 pm. Inside is as impressive as you would expect and met every expectation we had. The beautiful white marble with red and black inlays in perfect symmetry make for quite a site. We couldn't get enough pictures. As the sun began to set it only got more beautiful and we stayed in the complex until closing.

Our negotiating skills have been improving ever since day 1 in china. We had a few sites we wanted to see and so propositioned the rickshaw drivers to take us to each and wait at each site. The commission driven world of India resulted in the deal of 3 sites for 50 rupees plus stopping at 2 shops, "just to look". This was a bargain but in the first shop we had to listen to the rug dealers story of how the rugs are made, etc. Anyway, we began our tour at the Mughal Gardens where you can see the Taj from across the Yamuna river. Next we visited what is known as the "Baby Taj". This was built before the Taj and for the Wazir of Akbar, his right hand man. It was smaller but the entire structure was decorated with inlays. Then we went to the bus stop and caught a bus to Fatehpur Sikri, a city destined to be the capital but was abandoned after the lake dried up resulting in a severe water shortage. The structures were similar to Agra Fort in appearance but more buildings to explore. The Jama Masjid, an enormous mosque, was just beside and our volunteer guide showed us around passionately. After our second batch of samosas for the day we jumped on an Agra bound bus and had one last Josey meal before going to the train station for our ride to Delhi. Our train was the luxury of India. We booked the fast train for a slightly higher price but were greeted with uniformed attendants and a warm thali meal aboard. They even brought us ice cream for desert. Arriving in Delhi was a interesting affair, with thousands of people around, most trying to sell you something. Our hotel was a short walk from the station and we stumbled into the Cozy Place Hotel. Clean, quiet, hot shower, and cable. We were even able to catch some live tennis matches from the U.S open.

We are now writing from Pahrganj in Delhi. It has been nice being in a huge city for the last couple of days after more than a month of being in smaller, quieter places. We spent most of our first day wandering the area surrounding Connaught Place in central Delhi. We checked out a couple markets, one with mostly clothes, and the other, an underground one with electronics, clothes, and lots of people. Our haggling skills were tested again and our first day in Delhi left us exhausted. The following morning we ventured out to the Lotus temple, A Bahai temple in southern Delhi. An extraordinary structure shaped like a lotus flower. The museum was very informative and the people working there, volunteers, were friendly. Not to mention the admission was free. We tried an Indian McDonald's where NO BEEF IS SERVED. After a few mcveggies and ice creams we checked out India Gate, a memorial for soldiers. We walked in the "government building" area and then called it a day. Part of our evening was spent uploading our tons of pictures for your enjoyment!

Here we are now....







 

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