Friday, January 4, 2008

Days 8-10: Calcutta (27-29 December 2007)

Calcutta! Calcutta! I am, I am, I am, I am Calcutta!
-from cheesy, 1980s theme song at nightly Victoria Memorial sound-and-light show

Calcutta says to the nations of the world: give me your people, rich and poor, and I will give them . . . life!

On this trip of unexpected finds and misplaced expectations, Calcutta was perhaps my biggest misconception, and my most pleasant surprise. (I'll use the old spelling "Calcutta" in lieu of the new "Kolkata" for stylistic purposes.) What I thought I'd find: a city of slums, like one of the lower circles of hell; waifish, wasted bodies floating toward me, surrounding me, begging for a morsel. What I did find: no shortage of beggars, to be sure (and perhaps more of them, and more appalling slums in areas to which I did not venture), but a sophisticated, cultured city with - that rarity on the subcontinent - a rather well-formed infrastructure. In the center and north, a grand, colonial city (crumbling, yes, but grand all the same). In the south, a punchy and thoroughly middle class district. Probably some veritably posh areas too I could have seen, if I had the time or the contacts.

I'll blame this discrepancy between expectation and reality on a combination of my ignorance (really, how little did I know about India! A few Bollywood titles, names of spices, and token Hindi phrases, yes, but really nothing!) and the media's misleading. It was nothing short of ignorant for me not to have been readily of aware of the fact that Calcutta was Britain's colonial capital for so many years, the jewel of the empire. But it is the global media that has given Calcutta its reputation as a slum-ridden, devastatingly poor city, an image beneath which there is some truth but no much as to overshadow the grandeur and sophistication of the colonial and Bengali capital. The accident of television's rise and the culture of celebrity may provide the best explanations. When televised images of Calcutta were broadcast across the world after World War II, Calcutta was in a period of extreme devastation - yes, the poor indeed were dying in the streets at that time. And the person who has come to be Calcutta's biggest global celebrity, Mother Teresa, was linked indelibly with the city's poverty, a fact that appears to be not wholly enjoyed by many Calcuttans (in the above cited sound-and-light show, this Roman Catholic shepherdess of the poor merited only a brief photographic mention among a postscript montage of eminent residents of this educated, Hindu city).

So, you see, it was something of a relief for me to be delivered from the clutter, filth, and dilapidation of Agra, Varanasi, and Bodhgaya (and the particularly assaulting touristic harassment of the former two) to the relative urbanity of Calcutta. And so I set about for three days on that particularly stimulating mode of urban-focused travel: consuming the city.

My first impression: Howrah train station, on the west bank of the Hooghly River (the heart unfolds along the east bank), is busy, busy, busy, but quite functional and easy to navigate. My second impression: they have proper taxis here! And what delightful cabs they are: bulbous yellow machines, shaped like those iconic London taxis, only rather more outdated. They have meters, too. And the drivers will actually use them. Third impression: thank you, thank you, thank you, no cows in the streets and (yes, oh yes!) sidewalks. The separation of pedestrian and vehicle, which I so regularly take for granted, is now restored. (Walking in the road is just too ambiguous in terms of traffic norms and safety - kind of like being a cyclist in the States when the bike lane ends.)

Always logistics first for me: I checked into my accommodation, the Sunflower Guest House on Royd Street in the Chowringhee district, a few blocks comfortably removed, as usual, from the main backpacker drag on Sudder Street. The Sunflower is graced in the Lonely Planet guide by that most lucrative of marks: the "our pick" label, which makes it stand out from every other accommodation listing. It's a transformative thing for a small business to get such treatment from the Lonely Planet: it has turned the Sunflower from an anonymous, hard-to-find place to one of the most-booked budget hotels. ("You're staying at the Sunflower?" my travel guide for tomorrow confirms on the phone. "Everyone is asking us to book us at that place now.") The Lonely Planet has become ubiquitous, the bible of independent travelers of all stripes, and its near-monopoly status isn't entirely a good thing. There is the Lonely Planet circuit: the miscellaneous assortment of otherwise unspectacular guest houses and restaurants at which you see so many other western faces toting the fat blue book. I am almost tempted to switch, for moral reasons, to the Rough Guide or some other book (I'm still debating to whether consider my old employer, Let's Go, among the viable alternatives) but the Lonely Planet is just too damn good. Lonely Planet fame sometimes comes too soon: the Sunflower was as clean as advertised but they had lost my booking, charged me a little more than they said they would and, god bless them, the staff just couldn't speak English to save them.

I then set out on a rather leisurely walk that took my up and around the Chowringhee district, concentrating on the main shopping boulevard of Park Street. At the top of Park Street, I had my first brush with Calcutta's famous street food. I had decided to relax my till-then strict policy against street food because Calcutta was so well known for it and, I gathered, it was such a part of the culture that the vendors would be tidy enough and would doing sufficient business that the food would be fresh and clean(ish). I stood in the growing line outside Hot Kati Rolls, a Calcutta institution, and ordered my roll: double chicken, single egg. I fashioned myself a kati roll veteran of sorts, since this form of street food (not really street food properly understood, but more side-of-the-road food shack) had become famous among the young, the hip, and the South Asian in New York City through the ever-crowded and intensely delicious Kati Roll Company. Many a 3am I spent waiting in its long lines, and many intoxicated hungers were sated by its product. Oh yeah, I should tell you what a kati roll is: take fresh roti; fry it with egg; fill it with meat or potato or cheese, add onion, chilis, hot sauce; roll it up; devour it. And here I was at the source, and no disappointment (though a little oilier than I like it). I noted the jealous raised eyebrow of the proprietor as I told him that there are not katis in New York and that they charge 200 rupees (mine at the Park Street corner was just 40 rupees).

I then proceeded to get lost. Not too lost, but I soon realized I had wandered well beyond my anticipated right turn, and was entering a rather grittier area (no more sidewalks, more public urination). It was tough walking at times, having to tiptoe around the various other walkers, shoppers, shopkeepers, bicyclists, and loiterers, but just as I was breaking a sweat the order of the city saved me: Park Street returned, my boulevard, my Calcutta ground zero. I realized I had made my way so far east that I was near the Park Street Cemetery, a spot seemingly too distant because it was off the Lonely Planet's center-city blow-up map. It turned out to be a fortuitous wandering because the Park Street Cemetery was a terrific find. The gatekeepers were marvelously welcoming ("All we ask, sir, is that you leave your comments when you go") and strolled through the calm, grassy square, separated from the bustle of the surrounding city, and pondered the enormous monuments to the departed English residents of Calcutta. There we tombs that dated back to the 18th century and all too many were of infants. What struck me most were just how large these monuments were: towering white and brown stone obelisks and big rectangular tombs, marking graves of by and large ordinary (albeit upper class) British Calcuttans? Why such a display? Perhaps it only showed how cheap these materials were in the abundance of India, such that merchants and military men could build tombs that only the nobility could afford back home. Or perhaps it was that, in this distant, steamy Bengal, they wanted to build something so vast and last that, in case their colonial enterprise failed, someone from home might someday stumble across a remnant of their existence.

The first day in Calcutta was running out, and I spent the remainder of it visiting the Indian Museum (a place where modern museum theory has yet to penetrate - too-broad exhibitions ranging from zoology to geology to art history with 1950s era placards. The ancient Buddhist art is, however, worth the admission price), strolling the Maidan (a vast parkland created when the British razed a riverside district to build Fort William, a stronger base from which to run the city after it was recaptured in 1757, after the infamous "Black Hole of Calcutta" incident. The Maidan now is the city's grassy heart, its Central Park, and site many pick-up and organized cricket matches. More street food was here consumed), walking by the Victoria Memorial (a colonial folly, built to rival the Taj Mahal (and failing), but intended more as a sign of colonial strength). I would return a few hours later at nightfall to the Victoria Memorial to attend the campy sound-and-light show of aforementioned catchy theme song. No need to go out of your way to see it, but an OK way to start the evening.

That night, I utilized the first in-room television I had had during my stay to immerse myself in the national obsession that is the Indian cricket team - they were right then playing the Australian's in the first in a series of test matches, and the Indians were having they asses handed to them by the best-in-the-world Aussies. I won't take the space here, but I have quickly become rather well versed in Indian and Australian cricket, and their current big names: for the Indians, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman; for the Australians, Ricky Ponting, and the most strangely alluring of them all, Andrew Symonds, and West Indian-Australian who takes the cosmetic step, unimaginable in America, of painting his lips bright white with sunblock, so that he looks almost like a black-face minstrel show performer. Perhaps Australia doesn't have this same unfortunate performance genre and so doesn't register the shock we Americans would. My cricket watching was rudely interrupted by a chance channel change that revealed the breaking news that Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated. Goodness. It feels even more immediate because I am here in the subcontinent, but at least on the other side of it.

For the second day I put myself into the hands of the folks at Kali Travel Home, who would guide me on a late-morning city walk and then escort me to an early-evening Bengali cooking class. I must admit that I had been looking forward to this day, when I could abandon the responsibilities of day planning and map consulting and instead turn myself over to more capable city experts. Kali Travel is quite the little operation: it is just two men, David and Martin, middle-aged Australians with an uncanny love for Calcutta. They make the city their home for half the year, or more, and have been here for two decades, or longer. The tour company business, in their words, is more of a way to have something to do and a reason to stay than it is a proper for-profit business, and their latest project is buying up an old, decaying townhouse in the north of the city and fixing it up into a western-standard travelers' guest-house/medium-term accommodation for working expats on assignment in Calcutta.

Morning was with David, and we wandered the northern part of the city, called BBD Bagh, which houses the biggest concentration of crumbling colonial buildings. BBD Bagh was originally called Dalhousie Square after the early 20th-century British Lieutenant-Governor, but was reamed after the three nationalists who tried to assassinate him (Binoy, Badal, and Dinesh) in 1930. Calcutta has a taste for such ironies: they've renamed many of their streets post independence, and the Communist state government had the wherewithal to rename the street on which the American consulate sits "Ho Chi Minh Sarani." Some streets are still popularly referred to by their old colonial (e.g., Park Street), others by their post-independence name (there is even a Dr Martin Luther King Sarani, nee Wood Street). David led me an a nice jaunt that took us past numerous landmarks I might otherwise have missed, or at least not fully processed, on my own. The Bengal High Court: closed for the coming new year's holiday - a shame because apparently the market outside bustles during business hours with outdoor typewriters hammering out briefs and affidavits. The Raj Bahavan: built in 1799 as the seat of British government, now the residence of the Bengal state governor. The BBD Bagh itself and the abutting Writer's Building : BBD Bagh is a palm-lined pond, er, swamp, formerly a source of the city's water supply; the Writer's Building housed a more mundane function than its name might indicate: it housed clerks for the East India Company, and later for British trained Bengali bureaucrats. What abiding gifts the British gave! Then an extended through the cramped street and pulsating activity of the old market - wonderful just to wander, and I must say I enjoyed doing it accompanied: made me feel a tad less vulnerable and unconcerned with finding my way out. From there we meandered to the river bank, where bathers washed in the dirty waters of the Hooghly at Mullik Ghat, and then we tiptoed through the colorful (metaphorical and literal) flower market along the shore leading to the cantilevered steel Howrah Bridge. Howrah Bridge is something of a city icon, but the government (local? state? federal?) has short-sightedly banned photography of it, presumably out of some pervasive fear of security breach. I slipped a few surreptitious shots all the same - who can ever enforce these ridiculous provisions? Howrah bridge is, perhaps apocryphally, the busiest bridge in India, and we walked across it, getting good, if hazy, views of the river bank and of burnt red Howrah Station (where I had arrived the prior morning). We then caught a ferry further north to the Kamatuli District, well worth the trip to see the crumbling (really in bad shape, worse than elsewhere) colonial-style buildings built not by the British but by the Bengalis who had enriched themselves under British rule. Now these pretty, historic buildings are all but falling apart, subdivided into rooms occupied by squatters and rent-controlled tenants. Through David, who is trying to acquire a property, I learn that Begal's socialist/Communist predilections have created something of a housing crisis: tenants pay pittance rent and have a right not only to continued occupancy but also to transfer their occupancy rights to others: as a result, building owners do nothing to keep up the properties and are virtually unable to sell them. Deeper into the district are numerous shops, all selling painted clay representations of Hindu gods and goddesses, of varying sizes. This is where Calcuttans come to purchase their god statues for their festivals, and it's a good ongoing business because there are plenty of festivals and the statues or disposable: they're burned and/or tossed in the river at the end. David also tells me that Bengalis are keener on the goddesses than they are on the gods: the image I see most around the shops is of the goddess Kali standing on her husband Shiva, and sticking out her tongue in embarrassment. I can't do the story full justice, but apparently Kali got a bit headstrong and was going to destroy the world, and Shiva stopped her by lying down in her path, knowing that when she would accidentally step on him, she'd come to her senses and realize she'd gotten a little out of control. Or something like that.

In the two-hour break between my programmed activity, I purchased my only domestic flights of this trip: Visakhapatnam to Delhi, via Hyderabad, on Jet Lite Airways (formerly Air Sahara, but recently purchased by Jet Airways). India has seen an influx lately of low-cost carriers, which has made travel through the country relatively easier and certainly cheaper (I still prefer trains on a trip like this, for philosophical reasons I think I may have touched on before). Unfortunately, none of the low-cost players serviced my route, so I was left with a full-fare ticket, but still not terribly expensive (~Rs 8500).

Now the evening fun: a Bengali cooking class. I viewed this, in a way, as the next step in an extended Bengali cooking class I had been taking since 2001. Well, not really: back then, when I was a junior in college, one of my Bengali classmates had let me watch as he made a Bengali meal in the Randolph Court kitchen in Adams House. Back then, and really up until this trip, I didn't exactly know what Bengali meant and certainly not what distinguished Bengali food from that mass we Americans have lumped together as "Indian food." Hint: what we get in the States at "Indian restaurants" is mostly Punjabi and Mughal food. India's a vast regional conglomeration, with local identities certainly older and still rather stronger than the national one (this is a point I am certain to come back to, as it's one of my key learnings from the trip), and it extends to cuisine as well.

OK, you're going to have to indulge me here as I devolve into something of a food blog for a bit (don't forget that my plans for a food blog are older than my plans for this travel blog, and I still maintain that it will someday come to life). Logistics out of the way first: Martin, the other half of Kali Travel Home, escorted me through the pleasant and better-kempt middle class district off the Kalighat metro station in the southern section of the city. We entered the apartment of one of their friends: a vivacious, free-thinking women, mother of two, who in addition to possessing cooking prowess, was before marriage a champion table tennis player. We started with some basic principles of Bengali cooking (I *love* learning about cooking through principals, though I'd probably benefit from some more practice in hands-on technique): there is the typical Hindu distinction between veg and non-veg, though I learn from her that the more orthodox Hindus extent the non-veg characterization to onions and garlic as well; Bengalis use different oil for veg and non-veg: sunflower oil for veg, and mustard oil for non-veg; fish is a key non-veg ingredient, though unlike the coastal regions, they mostly eat river fish; rice is the principal grain (true for most of the south; in the north, it's more often wheat, turned into chapatis, rotis, and parathas); they use whole spices, instead of ground, in their garam masala blend; and their taste mix is spicy with sweet, with green chilis providing the kick and an extra spoonful or two of sugar giving the sweet; and, as we've started to enter the southern zones of India, coconut makes an appearance.

We cook (or, really, she cooks, and I watch, which is basically my choice since I'm rather tired at this point and the rounded Indian pot ("karai") doesn't have handles and I'm none too keen to burn myself. We make a aloo gobhi (potatoes and cauliflower, with no onions and garlic - this is veg), fried aloo pakoras (using refined wheat flower instead of gram, using the moisture from the potatoes to bind), sweet and thick yellow dal with coconut, and, the piece de resistance, river fish curried with onions, garlic, and ginger (fully non-veg here, so we cook in mustard oil, imparting a rich, pungent flavor). I must say that I really like the use of mustard oil, especially with fish. The night before, I had eaten another Bengali fish-mustard dish, behkti paturi, at a Bengali restaurant called Rupasi Bengali. Behkti puri is river fish covered in mustard, wrapped in a banana leaf, and steamed, imparting the full pungency of mustard to the fish. All of the dishes we cook come with a health serving of rice, which she boils and then drains at the very end, while we nosh on pakoras: the rice should be served steaming. A delightful evening and a delightful woman: so nice to be in someone's home, eating home-cooked food, having "modern," intelligent conversations. Highly recommended (and only Rs 700).

And the street food: after the Kati Rolls, I had many other bites here and there. Without a local expert to guide me through, I wasn't able to pick up the Bengali names, so English descriptions will have to suffice: fried cornflower fritters (a little bland and dry - in need of spice and sauce); puffed rice and sprouted beans, mixed with onions and spices and served with a few slices of boiled potatoes (and, best of all, presented in a small pouch made from old newspapers); the ubiquitous puffed fried dough, "puris," filled with vegetable curries (didn't have the chance to try these); countless delicious sweets of various milky, sugary, and coconutty varieties (Bengal is famous for its sweets). Next visit perhaps I'll ask my cooking instructor to take me out of her kitchen and onto the streets for our class.

The last day in Calcutta I took in more of the sights further north: again, sights are central and north, residential is south. Kind of like Delhi. I went first to Mother Teresa's mission, which is still operational after her death 10 years ago. From what I can tell, the poor to whom they administer aid (and minister religion) aren't at that site, but there are prayers going on as well as Mother Teresa's tomb, her old bedroom, and an exhibit about her life to visit. From there, I took a long taxi ride north (on the meter!) to Dakshineswar Temple on the banks of the Hooghly, aptly described by the Lonely Planet as something of a Calcuttan version of Paris's Sacre Couer. It was mobbed with Indian visitors, I think because of the school holidays that were currently taking place, but I managed to make my way in and have a lookabout. Photos again were prohibited, but your correspondent again surreptitiously flouted that requirement. I did comply with the understandable but annoying rule that shoes must be removed: by the end of my day of temple visits, my feet were black, my back was getting sore, and I had handed out more money in shoe-minding "tips" that I ever had before.

The next temple, Bebur Math, was on the other side of the river, and is best arrived at via uncovered ferry boat. I crowded in with the other Bengali holidaymakers and visitors, where we sat cross-legged on the deck for the ride. I was something of a phenomenon to the other riders, and I was shortly thereafter befriended by a chubby (Indians seem to love talking about others' physical appearance) teenage Bengali girl who insisted I walk through the temple with her and her cousins. This is an important caveat to my rule about always turning down advances by Indians who come up to you and seem too eager to help: if they are tourists themselves, then they're probably genuinely interested and not touting you. Or maybe you can just tell from the look in their eyes. Or maybe the rule only applies in Agra and Varanasi. No matter; use your own judgment, but be on guard, pretty much all the time. Anyway, I quickly determined that she was friend. Her English was functional but far from proficient, and she dutifully instructed me to sit in silence on the floor inside the temple as we waited for the opening of the ark that would reveal the shrine to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, a 19th Indian spiritual man who preached the unity of all faiths. The temple itself is, according to the sages at Lonely Planet, an attempted admixture of the Hagia Sophia, a Catholic cathedral, and an Indian palace, which was apparently intended to be in keeping with Ramakrishna's unifying message. It was an oddly serene moment, sitting there silently on the temple floor, and I felt a wave that ever-elusive sense of "authenticity," which made me glad I had put myself in the hands of my young Bengali benefactress. When the ark finally did open, there was the usual shoving and clamor to get near the shrine; here my height and my lack of an overwhelming desire to see Ramakrishna up close helped me avoid much unpleasantness.

Outside the temple my relationship with my newfound Bengali friends simultaneously intensified and deteriorated. First, they tried to teach me a few Bengali phrases - an activity I usually prioritize when I travel but have yet to do so hear because of the prevalence of English and also my tendency toward exasperation with regional dialects (I spent 6 weeks in Hong Kong leaning no Cantonese and being ticked off that few people understood Mandarin, a language I had been working all to hard to learn). But, I managed a few giggles with "Aman nam Jonathan" (spelling not verified): My name is Jonathan. The sound of my Bengali utterances must have caught the ear of some of those around me, because I was quickly swarmed by another family (families? Who can tell - families are big and people travel in packs) rife with glad-handing youngsters and at least over-aggressive mother. I was transformed into an object of attention - something I was hoping to avoid - and it almost got out of hand after one of the youngsters asked if I had a candy from my country I could share. My first reaction was no - who travels with American candy? - but then I remembered I had an emergency Cliff Bar in my backpack and I took it out to share with the assembled masses. Whoops: bread line mentality set in and the Cliff Bar was torn to pieces in my hands as everyone scrambled for a bite. You're welcome (that and "thank you" don't think figure quite as prominently in day-to-day discourse here, or so I've been told - I wonder if my constant "please"s and "thank you"s make me come off seeming wonderfully polite or cluelessly naive).

After a couple of photos, which my admirers were more interested in than I was, I separated from the pack and was walking again with just my friend and her family. I thanked her for her hospitality and told her I'd be heading back to the center city for a bit before departing town that night. She seemed crushed and asked me to come with them to her house, then asked me when I'd visit again, then begged me not to forget her, a mantra which her cousin then took up as well. They seemed unwilling to believe me when I said I wouldn't, and, you see, Priyanka, you see, Debarati, I didn't! Our afternoon together is now immortalized on the World Wide Web! Since they told me they didn't have email IDs (er, email addresses), they unfortunately may not be able to discover they have not, in fact, been forgotten.

A boat ride, a stroll, and a taxi ride took me back to the heart of northern Calcutta, where I had two more sights on my itinerary: the Marble Palace and Tagore's House. The Marble Palace was a vast, overindulgent European-style palace built in the mid 19th century by an Indian who had grown wealthy through contacts with the British. It is clearly designed to impress: huge halls adorned with huge mirrors; classical sculpture and painting (including a Rubens and a Murillo, no less) adorning the walls. The whole place has fallen into a state of disrepair, both physically and administratively. The paintings are fading and the paint is peeling, and, stranger still, one had to obtain a "permission letter" before entering from India Tourism or West Bengal Tourism (the two government companies) and then satisfy the demands for baksheesh (tips) coming form just about everyone involved in the operation, from the gatekeeper to the (mandatory - and moderately helpful, though scarcely educated) tour guide. These are your far-too-typical baksheesh seekers who 1) are overly insistent in their demand for money after providing a wholly unneeded service and 2) are never satisfied with what you give them. Me to tour guide: 20, that's all I'm going to give! Me to gatekeeper: I'll give you 50 but only if you let me take a photo (otherwise prohibited). Nope! Only 50!

The situation at Tagore's House was rather more professional, if less spectacular: this collection of rooms in a family mansion was home to Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian poet of the late 19th/early 20th century, and India's first recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. Worth the visit if only to read some selections from his poetry posted on the walls. Once again, no shoes. Should have worn slip-ons today.

Back in center of town, with a five hours to kill before my train, I was hoping to find some downtime, but to no avail. First, I had a going-away Kati Roll, well worth the wait. Second, I thought I'd stop in at Barista, one of the ubiquitous Starbucks-style coffee shops in Calcutta and in other big Indian cities, for a cup and a spot of relaxation. No luck: I did get a decent latte and was tempted into ordering a brownie sundae (called "dark temptation") but that was in the midst of an overcrowded shop replete with the requisite crammed line and extensive waiting. After that I made my way to the boisterous New Market, no paragon of hassle free shopping ("Hey Mister, you want shawl?). It was closing down for the day, which meant the meat market was less spectacular, but I did get to see an array of skinned animal heads and hanging internal organs -ah, just like being back in Uzbekistan, with its unending stores of sheep heads and lamb entrails! I finally found the spice and tea vendors and bought 300 grams of Darjeeling tea that was cheaper than even I expected - probably means I didn't get very high quality stuff but who can complain when all I paid was Rs 100 (~$2.5o). Good to be in a place where getting ripped off doesn't really hurt the pocketbook - only the pride. And, quality wasn't so much of an issue: I bought the tea mostly so at some future dinner party, after I had boiled it up with some milk and Indian spices, I could pompously declare: "This is masala chai, made from Darjeeling tea that I purchased in Calcutta." Kind of like when I serve the honey my friend brought me from her lakeside summer house in Kyrgyzstan, only that honey is wickedly good.

And so, my Calcutta escapade drew to a close with an Internet session (blog writing as well as surreptitious over-the-shoulder reading of an email being composed by a 20-something Brit seated next to me, in which she confessed to a friend a recent tryst with a Buddhist monk) and a cab ride back to crowded but functional Howrah Station. In all, an urbane and sophisticated three days - a welcome return to the pleasures of city life. I can't tell if I'm overstating how sophisticated and well-to-do Calcutta is - I didn't get to explore the middle class and the posher areas too much - but it was a nice surprise for me to discover this historically rich city to which I'd be delighted, one day, to return.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Day 7: Bodhgaya (23-25 December 2007)

Bodhgaya was the first newly-added stop on my reformulated north-to-east India itinerary, and I decided, for lack of time and for a description of the place as "gritty, dirty, and poor" by an experienced traveler, to make it a one-day stop-over. This is, I am afraid, all too typical of my travel style: trying to pack too much in, piecing together complicated and easily foiled transportation logistics, and, frankly, exhausting myself. In this case, I was catching a 5:30am train from Varanasi, arriving Bodhgaya at 10am, and then departing Bodhgaya that same night at 10pm for the overnight train to Calcutta. But, hey, it saved me a day I could spend on the Orissa coast, and it kept from from having to spend the night in what sounded like an unattractive town.

So what is Bodhgaya, you ask? Or maybe you're less ignorant than I was I know that it is one of the holiest cities in Buddhism, the site where the Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. It is a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists from around the world, and the town is littered with (trash and with) temples from numerous Buddhist countries: Thailand, Vietnam, Nepal, China (I think in this case, when they refer to China, they mean Taiwan), Tibet (see earlier parenthical), Burma, Japan. The centerpiece of Bodhgaya is the Mahabodi complex, where a towering, geometric temple marks that special spot where Siddhartha Gautama became Buddha.

And quite a desolate place he chose to do it. Bodhgaya is in the heart of Bihar state, one of India's poorest. The terrain is dusty, flat, and unforgiving - I got to see a bit of it on the 40-minute auto-rickshaw ride from the train station in neighboring Gaya. Not much to say for the ride, except there were a lot of people standing by the side of the road looking for a lift. And my driver, despite his claim when selling me the overpriced ride of "no other passenger," stopped for at least eight of them. No worries: carpooling is more carbon friendly! One thing I enjoyed about the ride was that, at least for part of it, we were on a fairly open stretch of road, the first I'd encountered in India. Delhi, Agra, and Varanasi: packed, packed, packed. We got going at a decent speed, I felt a little wind in my hair, and, best of all, no suffocating fumes in front of me and no constant horn blasts all around me.

The driver dropped me off in the center of town, if you can even call it a center. There was the usual retinue of rickshaw drivers (cycle and auto), street vendors, beggars, and tourists. Two things were noticeably different: the tourists were mostly East Asian - Buddhists here for pilgrimage/religious tourism; and the locals were a mix of Indians and Tibetans. Bodhgaya is home to a large segment of the Tibetan exile community, and apparently the Dalai Lama himself spends time here in the winter when his home base in Dharamsala gets too cold (and when his travel schedule permits). It was a little disheartening to see the Tibetans here: visibly poor and, on stuck these dusty plains, even more topographically distant from their altitudinous homeland. I've never been to Tibet proper, but got fairly close, if not actually there, in Western Sichuan province (Daocheng and Litang), which is ethnically, culturally, linguistically, and geographically Tibet. It's just not in the demarcated zone that constitutes the Tibetan Autonomous Region. From what I've heard, Western Sichuan is one of the best places to experience Tibet, because the people there are relatively less oppressed and, as a result, relatively happier. (For anyone interested, the northwest Yunnan-Western Sichuan-Chengdu journey by public bus was one of my most satisfying and stimulating journeys - I can share more with whoever might be planning to head that way.)

I decided I'd spend the bulk of the day walking, since I was by now quite sick of autorickshaws, and there appeared to be a fairly manageable temple-to-temple stroll I could do. I saw a lot of Buddhas: fat, emaciated, serene, serious, Asiatic, Christlike. It was an terrific display of different styles of Buddhist art and architecture - I don't know where else one might get to see such a geographically diverse juxtaposition.

As lunchtime approached, I found myself walking through some back fields behind the temples and the main road, in search of the Root Institute for Wisdom Culture, a Western-run Buddhist education, meditation, and service center. I had heard they served a good lunch. Wandering in this open fields was nice - although they weren't especially pretty and the footing was often difficult, their openness was a welcome change from the clutter and filth of Agra and Varanasi. I was drifting toward a sense of serenity that had eluded me thus far in India, save a few calmer moments in Varanasi. I came across locals who, at last, wanted nothing of me except to talk a bit and hear why I was in Bodhgaya. And they even helped me find the Root Institute, walking with me most of the way.

The Root Institute was the first enclosed spiritual community I had come across in India. There are many such communities, institutes, monasteries, and ashrams all over the country, some run by Westerners, others by (often cultish) Indian gurus. I had initially listed "Ashram stay" on my list of trip goals, but those tend to require a bit more time than I had and, possibly, a bit more of a wacky/hippie/earthy/new-agey streak. But I can't rush to judgment not really knowing what goes on at these places, and I shouldn't judge too hastily based on the physical appearance of the residents and the fact that many Western counterparts of these institutions are clustered in San Francisco and elsewhere in the Bay Area.

I was too late for lunch, but I wasn't sure whether it was open to me anyway, because the Root Institute was in the middle of one of its multiday meditation workshops. Frankly, this sounds like a pretty good place to come to learn/practice meditation and also, if one is so inclined, to learn a bit about Buddhism. They hold 10-day introduction to Buddhism workshops, as well as other courses. 10 days is a bit long to spend in Bodhgaya, but if your focus is Buddhism, then might as well do it here. Kind of like taking an intro to Judaism course in Jerusalem. (Should synagogues offer that as an option for intermarried-spouses considering conversion? Nothing like a bit of travel and sense of ancientness to stimulate spiritual feelings...) What I found most intriguing about the Root Institute, in addition to the students, were the teachers. I didn't meet any of them, but I read their bios in the office. Most were Americans who had converted to Tibetan Buddhism, taken Tibetan names, lived in the U.S., and came regularly to Bodhgaya to offer classes. Two of them live in the Bay Area. Maybe I will look them up. It gave me a nice reminder that there are a heck of a lot of different paths people take in this world. Well, I'll confine that last statement to the different paths Westerners take. Seeing the poverty and street people in India have given me a not-so-nice reminder about the different paths people take in the third world. Anyway, if you're interested in more, and didn't click on my nifty hyperlink, check it out at Oh, and there are a number of other Buddhist meditation places in Bodhgaya, and elsewhere in India, so look beyond the Root Institute if you're serious about it.

About 30 meters outside the Root Institute, I saw a group of young Indian Bodhgayans playing a game of pick-up cricket. India is truly a cricket-mad nation, and the best evidence of it, to my mind, is the fact that the pick-up game the young people are always playing in the streets is cricket. Kind of like the fact that in Brazil, every kid is playing soccer. One them called out to me and asked me if I wanted to play (so nice not to have to feel defensive and suspicious with every interaction here) and encouraged me when I initially hesitated. He explained to me the rules - I already knew the basic rules of cricket from my brief stint on the Jesus College Graduate XI a few years back - but this finally elucidated for me how pick-up cricket can be played. They have one stumps and one batsman at a time, instead of the usual two, and the number of wickets to be taken is equal to the number of players on each side. We played in a space enclosed by a short wall and their rule was if you hit the ball on the fly beyond the wall, you were out, unless you hit it so far that it hit the large brick wall a ways away, in which case you scored a six. The other usual rules applied: 6 balls to an over, and you could be called out by catch, by bowl, by LBW (leg before wicket), and by run.

My play was moderately incompetent - OK in the field (they put me as wicket keeper, which I think in pick-up cricket is the equivalent of being put in right field) and a disaster at bat (popped out on the first ball - a "duck" in the parlance). Our team lost handily, but the kids (ranging in age from early teens to early 20s) were extraordinarily welcoming and nice. The one who had reached out to me - a well-spoken 25-year-old and clearly the leader of the group - had already explained to me that he was the principal of the local school. I thanked him for the game and asked if I could take a look around his school. He happily obliged, and I looked through his well-kempt but crumbling building. There were four rooms, plus a tiny principals office, covered in students' artwork. He told me that the school has 80 students, 6 teachers, and him. He showed me the pile of student information forms - perhaps the application they had to fill out before enrolling? - and one of the fields was daily wages. They all seemed to range between 50-60 rupees per day - around US$1.25-1.50. That's either just above or just below the global poverty line, depending on which measure one uses. I think he was probably already expecting it by then, but he seemed genuinely grateful when I asked him if I could make a small donation.

Then, back to the pseudo-reality of the Bodhgaya tourist/pilgrim trail. I wandered into a newly constructed temple complex outside of which were huge tourist buses and inside of which were many chattering Chinese speakers. I busted out some Mandarin, which caught my targeted conversation partner by surprise - it turned out she (in Tibetan monk robes), and the others (in regular dress), were Taiwanese.

I had some Tibetan snacks - vegetable momo (dumplings) and thupka (noodle soup) to recharge before heading to the pinnacle of Bodhgaya, the Mahabodi Temple. By now, the sun was starting its descent, which told me that the temple would have both uncomfortable crowds and pleasant oblique light. Upon approaching, I heard the hypnotic drone of a Buddhist chant coming from a set of loudspeakers and also from human voices - as it turned out, from an ocean of red and orange robes seated in masses on the western and northern sections of the courtyard surrounding the temple. In the other sections were Tibetan monks (and Westerners in the monk attire) doing a very physical form of prayer that involved using an elevated wooden board and slippery hand pads to go from standing to kneeling to a thrusted prostrate position and back. Kind of like some type of prayer yoga. The stone temple itself climbed toward the sky like an ornamented pyramid, an angular stupa, and an elongated ziggurat (this last sentence probably is more demonstrative of my architectural ignorance than anything else). Inside, I struggled through the crowd to catch a glimpse of the 2-meter high golden Buddha (the serene, thin, Asiatic variety). I followed the crowd in a slow progression around the inner courtyard to the back side of the temple, where that famous tree still stood. Well, it wasn't the actual tree but a descendant - a sapling had been taken to Sri Lanka and planted, and a sapling from that tree was replanted at the Bodhi tree's site. I lingered a bit - as much as I could given the push of the crowd - to ponder Buddhism's ground zero.

By now, it was nearly dusk. I hurried to the Tibetan exile market and quickly bought some beads before the vendors packed up shop - given how little I negotiated, I'm sure I got fleeced, but one of the beauties of this country is that when you get fleeced it's for a dollar here, a dollar there, at most five dollars (U.S.). I had an uninspiring tourist dinner - I've been super careful about food in this dirty and podunk towns, and can't say I've enjoyed much of the Indian food I've eaten - and hired an autorickshaw back to Gaya. I repeated what is becoming my usual train-platform routine: I waited nervously for my train, because there was no information I could find about the platform on which it was arriving, or its actual arrival time. I made a friend: again, a young Indian guy who took quickly to me, talked my ear off, asked for my "email ID", and begged me not to forget him. And, Ashok, if you're reading this, I haven't forgotten you!

The train arrived with the all-too-common two hours delay. By this point, I was becoming an expert: I had confirmed my waitlist ticket and found my berth assignment only, and I confidently folded down my middle bunk for a rather pleasant night's sleep on the ride to Calcutta.

Days 4-6: Varanasi (23-25 December 2007)

Varanasi. Aka Banaras. Aka Kashi. Ancient city on the Ganges. Holy city. City of Light.

"I don't think I get Varanasi." This was what I told the seasoned traveler seated to my left in the queue at the Varanasi train station's foreign tourist bureau. I realized once I said it that it was something of a silly thing to say, as I had at that point only been in Varanasi for a little under 24 hours. But I had been expected something grand, something moving, something spiritual from this city, which had been described to me as "astounding," "exotic," and "amazing" by some trusted fellow travelers.

Instead, I found filth. I found frustration. I found harassment. And I wasn't quite sure whether I was finding that quality I and so many other travelers crave: authenticity. These Varanasi failures threatened to ruin my experience in the city, but by the end of my three-day stay (always too short to get a true feel for any place, but some places speak to us immediately, others over time, others never), I felt like I was at least beginning to see what makes Varanasi one of the most special places in India.

Some of the failures were of my own doing. Much of the frustration came from the peculiar moment in my travel itinerary in which I happened to be, which had me spending far too much of my time in Varanasi at its (naturally) chaotic train station. I arrived on a Sunday at the train station, returned on Monday to makes some ticket bookings (one hour line at the foreign tourists' bureau - the office had closed just before more 6-hours delayed train had arrived on Sunday), again on Tuesday to change my tickets after getting updated availability information from the friends I was planning to visit, and finally on Wednesday mornign to depart. Let us just say that Varanasi's magic does not happen at or near its train station.

That magic happens in the old city and along the Ganges, and it is this location along the banks of the holy river that is Varansi's raison d'etre. The heart of Varanasi is its river bank and the ancient city of alleyways and lanes that emanates from its western bank. Along the river is a extended walkway with steps leading down to the river and up to the city proper. These river steps are called "ghats" ("ghats" also refers to hills: the mountain ranges in the southwest and southeastern parts of the country are called the "Western Ghats" and "Eastern Ghats," respectively), and every hundred meters or so is divided is demarcated as a separate ghat, with its own name, meaning, and type of activity. My guest house (the Sahi River View Guesthouse, with clean rooms, hot water, a tasty kitchen, and an attentive staff) was located near Assi Ghat, the southernmost ghat of the main strectch of ghats along the old city. Assi Ghat is a relatively more tranquil location (tranquility in Varanasi is always relative) - the main flurry of activity happens further up the river in and around Dasaswamedh Ghat).

Since the ghats seemed the most important part of Varanasi, I devoted my initial attentions there. My train had been so late that I had little daylight left upon my arrival, and so I set out for an early evening walk from Assi Ghat north to Dasaswamedh - about a half hour's stroll. Here: harassment and filth. I was regularly (not quite constantly, but regularly) approached by boatman asking me to hire their boat for a short river trip (cheap price!), by beggars with the ubiquitous extended arm, and by those horribly unhelpful "helpers" offering various pieces information, suggestions, and other unwelcome chatter, all in expectation of a handout. In Bangkok, where these folks are often telling deliberate untruths in hope of luring you their way ("Wat Po closed today! Didn't you see on the the news?") I labeled these touts as members of a vast "misinformation campaign." In India, they are more often giving correct information (though not always) but often it is something you could have just as easily figured out yourself. The feeling that others view you as being made of money, and that their sole aim is to extract some of that money from you, wears thin on the patience. And the filth: the ghats, and the Ganges itself, were something like a communal toilet. Not merely the stench of urine, but the regular sight of men urinating onto the walls. And feces - cow, dog, and, as I'd later discover, human. This city-as-latrine wasn't confined to the ghats: the streets had open sewers into which men would urinate, some (those with pants) in the usual standing posture, others (those with some sort of wrap-around covering) by squatting down. And in the train station: directly onto the tracks. Public urination everywhere.

My stroll up the ghats that first evening did provide two interesting glimpses onto life onto the banks of the Ganges. I lingered at Harishchandra Ghat, one of the two "burning ghats" where corpses are cremated on huge piles of firewood and the ashes left to float in the Ganges. Varanasi is considered one of the most auspicious places to be cremated, as those whose final resting place is the Ganges are released from the cycle of death and rebirth (i.e., achieve "moksha"). I watched, without too much disturbance, as the funeral pyres were stacked, as the corpses were paraded in, wrapped in white linen and gold cloth, and as they were placed on the mounds and set alight. There was some hierarchy to the affair, or so I overheard (overhearing is free!): those cremated lower, nearer to the water, were poorer; those higher up, on platforms, were richer.

As the sun was setting, I reached Dasaswamedh Ghat, where there was a flurry of activity. A large crowd had gathered - one or two thousand people by my imperfect estimation, mostly Indians but a fair smattering of foreigners - to watch the nightly "Ganga Aarti" ceremony, in which priests performed an elaborate, coordinated dance to the river. The dance involved the waving of various lamps, torches, and other sources of light, the burning of incense, the constant ringing of bells, and the playing of music. As Dasaswamedh Ghat, they have the biggest Ganga Aarti, with seven platforms on one side (one priest per platform) and five on the other. The ceremony lasted for near on an hour, and I couldn't quite tell if it felt touristic or not. On the one hand, there were a number of Westerners in the crowd, the group playing the music pitched its CDs during the breaks, and there were plenty of beggars and postcards salespeople; on the other hand, this was the Ganga Aarti ceremony that was performed all along the river, not only at Varanasi but elsewhere, and the crowd were mostly Indians (tourists themselves, perhaps? Or locals? Or some other type of spiritual visitor?). I wasn't sure, but perhaps because of the mood I was in and because of the other disappointments along the Ganges, I left feeling like I had seen something more of a "production" put on for my foreign, prying eyes.

The next morning I arose early for that other quintessential river experience: the sunrise river trip. I took a few moments to sit on Assi Ghat and take in the pre-dawn activity: groups of pilgrims coming to buy flowers to put in the river and prepare to bathe. And no shortage of flower-selling children and boat-ride offering youths coming up to me. But this time, the latter, at least, was welcome, and I quickly negotiated a 1.5-hour boat ride with a seemingly affable and well spoken guy (Rs 200). His English was good, and he turned out to be my age, and we quickly moved from the antagonism of the negotiation to friendly relations. And the ride: again, something short of expectations. First, the pervasive morning haze that seems to drape all (or only where I've been?) of India this time of year essentially nullified the sunrise. No marvelous colors, no slanted light, in fact, no sign of the sun until well after it was fully light outside. Second, I couldn't get beyond the filth. The central morning activity along the Ganges is ritual bathing and the performing of "puja" (a form of ritual prayer). This morning, perhaps because it was uncomfortably cold, the bathers were few, but even there I couldn't believe they would venture into this cesspit of a river to bathe. And it wasn't just a quick dip: they would fill their mouths with Ganges water, slosh it around, and the spit it out, or sometimes swallow. No fewer than two times on that short morning jaunt I saw young men walking to the lower part of the ghat, dropping trou, squatting with their asses facing the river (i.e., pointed my direction) and defecating. Right there on the ghat. My boat driver told me he felt lucky to live in Varanasi because it allowed him to bathe in the Ganges every day, but all I could see was fetid river and a grimy, overcrowded, aggressive.

So, that was how I felt about Varanasi after the first 24 hours as I sat in that train station waiting room: a filthy, frustrating, harassing, and (maybe - not sure yet) touristic city. Over the next two days, I would would experience, in snippets, some things that would challenge my initial reactions and would help me begin, just begin, to understand Varanasi.

It didn't happen that afternoon. That was when I took a day trip to Sarnath, a village some 10km away from Varanasi that is one of the four key pilgrimage sites in Buddhism. It was here that Buddha gave his famous first sermon, and I thought it would make for a nice, soothing escape from Varanasi, not to mention a good precursor for Bodhgaya, the most important of the Buddhist pilgrimage sites. I got everything right except for the nice, soothing part. My first mistake was hiring an autorickshaw and not a taxi, which meant I spent the 40 minute ride inhaling the toxic fumes of the various vehicles in front of me - and there were always vehicles in front of me - an dealing with the constant horn honking and swerving that seems unavoidable on any trip on the roads. There is some sort of strange hierarchy of the road here, based on size and speed of transport, with the bigger vehicles honking their way through and the faster vehicles zipping around on the right, often into oncoming traffic. The hierarchy (from top to bottom) is something like car, autorickshaw, cycle-rickshaw, bicycle, pedestrian, cow. The cows really screw things up, but at least I only have to worry about stepping in, and not inhaling, their exhaust. I have begun holding a extra shirt or the sleeve of the shirt I have on in front of my face to lessen my inhalation of the fumes - an imperfect and rather unpleasant technique. So I spent these unwelcome 40 minutes in transit, only to find the Sarnath wasn't at all secluded, but just a temple and gated compound that appeared in the midst of the endless sprawl of dirty village. The large, fat stupa in the center of the park was a nice site, as was the ore modern temple next door, but all that was merely a brief interlude before the unwelcome 40 minutes of commute back to Varanasi. Oh, and my autorickshaw driver was a bit of a twerp. Next time, take a car, or just chill in Varanasi. (That said, Sarnath does seem to be pretty well known - I've seen references to it popping up all over India, and Sarnath plus Bodhgaya do get me to 50% of the major Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India, an unexpected accomplishment on this seat-of-the-pants trip.) (Also, Sarnath did provide a bit of quiet, though dodgy mobile reception, for me to field a call from my friend Tem confirming that I am welcome to visit him and his family in Andhra Pradesh on the New Year: the journey east is on!).

It [beginning to understand Varanasi (I'd like to keep the same rhetorical structure, but after that long, rambling paragraph, I think my pronoun needs an appositive)] did happen later that evening, at a Christmas Eve dinner at a delightful little rooftop restaurant called Karki (ooh! I found a link to it!) that I had stumbled across the night before. It is owned by a Italian-Nepali couple and serves a curious but delicious mix of Italian and Nepali food. I saw that there were serving a special Christmas Eve Italian menu for which one had to sign up in advance, so I signed up. Being a solo traveler once more, I've rediscovered my ability to sidle up to people and to make myself welcome, and I did just that with a group of folks sitting at one of the low tables, the kind where you sit on pillows and eat and lounge and relax. It turned out to be two groups: one bunch of French people, another threesome of Italians. I can't resist: with each group, after introducing myself in English and making some initial small talk, I bust out with "I can speak a little ... " in their respective language. Turn to the right: chat in French with Daphne, a lovely French girl my age or a little older, who has come to Varanasi for a month to do a yoga course at a small riverside studio. Turn to the lift: chat in Italian with Gaia, Valentina, and Luca, the former two Italian designers on a work-cum-leisure trip in India, and the latter a recently-divested entrepreneur here for a three-week yoga visit and to unwind as he transitions from his successful advertising start-up to his next project (he tells me he's planning on applying for a Ph.D. in social psychology, and that his first choice is Berkeley - good taste he has). It was refreshing to meet some travelers who were a little more like me - not like me to the extent that they had come to one place to stay for a good while, whereas I was constantly on the move; but like me in that they were early 20s/late 30s, were educated professionals in their back-home lives but keen and devoted travelers when they could manage it, and were not dirt poor, penny-pinching backpackers. Like me in that they prefer to avoid the main backpacker drag of a town and instead stay in one-rung-above-cheapest places in a somewhat more quiet area. Like me in that we snigger at the "India backpacker look" that is so pervasive here among traveling foreigners: some mishmash of loose fitting pants, shawls, wraps, bangles, and the like. Clothes bought in India, but that clearly call out "backpacker" and not local. We, instead, self-conscious but content in our performance wear. (I'll break here to note that my friends Michael and Lauren did their recent India travels in *real* local attire: kurta for him and salwar kameez for her - see photos and the like on their blog.) Oh, and how this relates to me beginning to understand Varanasi: I was intrigued by these thoughtful, well-spoken people and the fact that they had chosen to spend their entire India trip in Varanasi. They helped me to see that Varanasi is, and has been for centuries, millennia, a place of knowledge and learning. In their case, the knowledge they had come to seek was yoga, and they had found a spiritual community of fellow learners here.

It continued later that night when the Italians invited Daphne and me to accompany them to a musical performance happening at the nearby Hotel Ganges View (note: if you have a slightly higher budget, and can book further in advance, stay here). We sat for an hour in a packed room listening to a tremendous sitar and tabla concert. Varanasi: creative cultural center: on this evening, to Indian musical virtuosity. Even I, normally subdued, was swaying, tapping, and nodding to the music, though nothing like some of the more expressive in this crowd of rapt (and rather amusing) foreigners. It was quite an array of people in that audience, a good selection of the slightly-tripped out, aging Indophiles. None more so than the eccentric woman seated to my left, who has having something approaching a religious experience at the concert. She stared directly at the sitar player throughout, and at moments in his playing that seemed random to me would call out, "Yes! Oh, yes!" She would tap and hum in a state of near ecstasy - more annoying than amusing, like singing along at an opera. I don't know if she was merely so transfixed by the performance that she did not notice that she was encroaching on others' enjoyment of the show, or if she was so lost in her own world - not just then but always - that she was no longer able to recognize her own anti-social behavior. Quite the lot that one finds in India, and not just the Indians!

It didn't happen the next morning, which was another logistical pain: finding a hotel near the train station (to facilitate tomorrow's trip to the station for my 5:30am departure), which meant wading through the less desirable parts of town and dealing with the attendant harrassment, and, worse, the constant threat of harassment. Then, a logistical triumph: short lines at the foreign tourist bureau where one of the most patient and competent ticket agents in the country worked with me to assemble my precision travel from Bodhgaya to Calcutta to Orissa to Visakhapatnam. He and I got the schedules to work perfectly (as perfect as three overnight journeys in six days can be), and I canceled the tickets purchased the previous day. All tickets bought for the rest of the trip! And a handshake and appreciate compliment for the gentleman ticket agent.

It did happen that afternoon, which I spent walking through Varanasi old town. How long this was overdue! It was silly of me not to have walked through the old town until then, because here was a magical Varanasi that I had begun to see on the stroll along the ghats on on my boat trip, but was only now getting as I wondered through the tiny alleys and steps of this ancient town. (For potential visitors, Assi Ghat really isn't the old town. It is a nicer and relatively quieter place to stay, so I recommend it, but the heart of the old town are the alleys around the central ghats.) These alleys were teeming with life: pilgrims pushing their way to the ghats, a herd of sacred cows rambling along and stopping and creating a backlog of pedestrians and motorcycles, corpses being carried to for cremation at Manikarnika, the main burning ghat. Had I more time, I would have been content to get lost in these alleys (never too lost - the tourist cafes and guesthouses have signs and arrows painted on many of the walls). As it was, I wandered to the burning ghat and lingered at the intense, smoky theater of the riverside cremations. I made my way back, following the signs, to a small upstairs yoga studio, where I attended a two-hour hatha yoga class (very slow and relaxing, with an emphasis on breathing - here, the principal transitional pose was not the upward-downward dog sequence (chaturanga dandasana), but corpse pose (savasana). I know now: if I return to Varanasi, it will be for an extended yoga course.)

It was on this afternoon that I achieved my main Varanasi revelation, that I understood (though didn't quite overcome) my main grievance with the place: the filth. I realized that Varanasi MUST be filthy. It is a place of pilgrimage, and pilgrimage is an inherently dirty, grimy experience. Think about the pilgrims of Europe, of elsewhere, crawling to their holy sites, in rags. We may have luxury pilgrimage opportunities now (like the Japanese in Bodhgaya, say - read the next entry), but in India it is still the old-fashioned arrival of the poor. It is a city for the pilgrims, where they perform their both their daily rituals and their life-cycle rituals of birth and death. It's inevitable that there will be some shit produced in the process.

And, that evening, another important, if smaller revelation. At dinner, again at Karki, I was unexpectedly joined by Luca, who pulled from his pouch a book: Banaras, City of Light. The author was none other than Diana Eck, Harvard professor and famous in my world as the master of Lowell House, home to a number of my good friends. Seeing this book, silly as it may sound, prodded me into the realization that Varanasi is a place of genuine historical and cultural significance, worthy of scholarly attention by an academic luminary. And it helped me with another filth-grasping fact: Banaras is ancient. Older than Jerusalem, Rome. So, I can cut it a break that it's crowded, dirty, overwhelming. It's old and it's alive, and thanks for letting us tourists come in for a glimpse.

Now just please stop harassing us.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Train from Agra to Varanasi

My first overnight ride on Indian Railways, and it only confirmed my initial impressions of the system: organized chaos. Chaos: people of all walks of life swarming the station, sleeping on the floors, attending to their splintering suitcases and boxes, forming huge masses at the ticket window that can only charitably be called "queues." Organized: well, they've got their act together. The network covers the entire county, the trains to each place are numerous (one or more per day in most cases), and the personnel are highly competent and very professional. For a county with such grossly underdeveloped infrastructure - I've got plenty to say about what passes for a "road" around here - the rail network seems almost out of place. What it does is allow India to have, from what I can tell, a fairly mobile population (good for a country in which religious pilgrimage is important) but not a particularly mobile economy. Good luck getting anything anywhere quickly on a truck. And my condolences to any business person who has to travel anywhere besides major cities on the rail (and now low-cost airline) network.

Anyway, I had a feeling I wouldn't have the most straightforward journey when I was issued a "waitlist" ticket for my Agra to Varanasi journey. I suppose a quick primer on Indian trains (to the extent I have them figured out) is in order. Most long-distance trains are divided into a number of classes, but the two big distinctions are reserved and unreserved. Don't go on unreserved. I don't think any foreigners do, and I'm not even sure they're allowed to. They're like cattle cars, and it would take the hardiest of travelers to deal with it for anything more than a couple of hours. Reserved is divided into a number of classes, in ascending order of niceness: sleeper (6 berths per open cabin - stacked three high - plus two more across the aisle, un-airconditioned, less comfortable berths), 3AC (6 berths, airconditioning, more comfy, they give you sheets and a pillow - this is what I have been riding), 2AC (4 berths - stacked two high - with curtains to separate the cabins), 1AC (never seen it - sounds divine). At bigger, more popular stations, foreigners make their reservations at a special room or window - in smaller stations they join the general queue. When you buy your ticket, you fill out this arcane, gritty little form that the ticket agent then types into an ancient computer interface (black background with soulless green text - remember that?) to produce a list of trains between your desired locations, and then prints out a ticket. With this ticket, you either get a confirmed cabin and berth right then, or you get put on the waitlist. With the waitlist, you still buy your ticket and wait for enough others, hopefully, to cancel - the tickets are refundable on a sliding scale that is pretty generous - and get issued a berth later on. Usually there a fair number of cancellations, and when I booked my ticket the day before and was WL/6 (6th on the waitlist), I was told "very good chance."

So, I'm prepared to show up early at the train station to see if my waitlist ticket has come through, when one of the very helpful folks at the Tourist Rest House clued me in to this site, where you can enter your ticket number and see if you've been assigned your berth. Lo and behold, it worked! That silly little form and that ancient computer linked me into a network where I can get live ticket updates! Glory be! Except for the fact that I am still on the waitlist - up to WL/3, but still no berth. (This was starting to feel eerily like certain graduate school applications experiences.) Go to the station at the usual time (30 minutes before departure), I was told, and talk to the staff on the platform. On the way there, I play alternate scenarios in my head: head straight to Jaipur that night? The next morning? Wait it out in Agra, that dump I'm ready to be rid of?

At the station, I find the men (no female employees, at least that I've seen) manning the information table on the platform and show them my ticket. "You'll have to consult the conductor," they tell me. "Where is the conductor?" I ask. Apparently when the train arrives he'll be up by the A/C-class cars. So, I have a challenge: find the conductor in the 10 minutes the train is stopped before it heads out again.

The challenge will wait until the train arrives, which, as it turns out, isn't for another hour past its scheduled arrival time. On the platform I make some friends (so nice to be talking to people who aren't trying to sell me something, hassle me, or otherwise misinform me!). First, three brothers from Lucknow who are in Agra for the holiday weekend and run a tailor shop back home. Second, a seventeen-year-old boy, also from Lucknow, who is attending school in Agra and loves it there (who knows, maybe there something good in Agra besides the sighs, but it sure ain't there for us foreigners). Both sets of friends ask for my "email ID," which I give (the next day I get a somewhat cryptic message from the seventeen-year-old with the subject "urgent" and signed "I love you dude" - not sure what to make of it, I write back to see if everything is OK, but no response as yet). And I take my leave when I see the train coming to find my potential savior, the conductor.

Where is the conductor? I can't find him. I don't even know what he would look like. Rushing up and down the track, I peer around to look at any man who appears vaguely official, but no luck. I ask some other people on the platform where I'd find the conductor and they tell me to get in a certain car. I get in, and don't see him. The train is about to leave. I ask another - he has on a name badge which makes me think he might work on the train, but I'm really not sure. He tells me to get in another car, and gets on with me. He points to an old man sitting with a big stack of dot matrix printouts - the updated seating chart - with a short line of people waiting to talk to him. The train starts moving; I'm told to say on, that it will be fine, but I still, as far as I know, don't have a seat on the train. I start to see myself unceremoniously booted off the train at the next stop, in some unknown town in the middle of the night.

I get my turn with the conductor, who seems like a stately old fellow, and I take off my hat, docilely hand him my ticket, and politely ask him whether I have a place on the train. He tells me to take a seat next to him, looks through his charts, and finds my name: WL/3. No dice. He tells me to stay there (well, more indicates I should stay there, since he doesn't particularly speak English), and I sit, like a guilty child waiting for his punishment. I keep waiting. The conductor comes and goes, looking stern, but says nothing. I make friends (so many friends on the train!) with a pudgy little 9-year-old boy from Kampur who says delightful little British-y things like "Not I!" His sister and two others come join the conversation. We are talking far too loud for a 2AC car at 11:30 at night.

Two hours pass - fairly quickly, with the help of my friends - and I don't think the mixed amused/bemused left my face. The conductor returns and tells me I have a berth. How he found it I don't know - did he check every other berth on the train? Wait for someone to disembark at an intermediate station? Who knows, but at least I'm not getting kicked of the train or (worse?) relegated to unreserved. I'm not entirely sure if I've done something wrong or have just been done some extraordinary favor - the conductor and his assistant both seemed rather stern when they announced my seat assignment - but I mosey on back to my berth, pull out my sheet/sarong (which I bought in Thailand 2 years ago and now take on every trip - no sheets and blankets were given to this waitlist straggler), and spend a rather comfortable night. The only obstacles to a good night's sleep was the tremendous snoring of the man sleeping across from me (bring earplugs when you come to this country. Bring them! Do not forget them! I did, and I continually regret it) and the shuffling and turning on of lights when passengers leave and board at stations along the way. But, hey, pretty comfy overall, and I'm going to be in Varanasi in the morning!

Well, morning turned out to be optimistic. Our scheduled 9:30am arrival morphed in to 3:00pm. But, no worries. It gave me a chance to read, mostly the Lonely Planet, and in the process I feverishly rejiggered my itinerary: no more looping back to Delhi and going to Rajasthan. Too touristy, too cold, too hazy, too standard. Too easy. Of course, I'll complicate things, and do something that feels a little more creative. The new plan: Eastern India. From Varanasi to Calcutta to Andhra Pradesh on the central eastern coast, where my friend Tem (from high school, college, and California) is visiting his Indian cousins.

But first: Varanasi. Aka Banaras. Aka Kashi. Ancient city on the Ganges. Holy city. City of Light.

* * *

Postscript: I spoke later on with a Kiwi/Brit who had traveled extensively in India (and who, by his estimation had spent the last 13 of his 40 years traveling almost constantly, with occasional interludes to replenish funds in the UK). According to him, you can always board the train with a waitlist ticket. You won't get kicked off (or at least he never has), because at some point the booking system stops issuing tickets if the waitlist is too long too close to the journey. But even though you're on the train, you may not get a berth if none becomes available, and you'll have to sit in the seats in the bathroom area between cars for the duration of the journey. His record for sitting: 48 hours.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Days 2-3: Agra (21-22 December 2007)

Not terribly long after purchasing my train tickets at Delhi station, I was there again to depart for Agra. I say not terribly long because the train was scheduled for 6:15 a.m., and the ticket seller told me I should be there by 5:45. It seems that many transport options here run at ungodly hours - did I mention that my flight back to the U.S. departs from Delhi at 12:15am?

This was my first ride on an Indian train, and I was quite pleased, not least because I had seen Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited last month. One thing they got true to form in that movie was the lettering on the train cars - kind of retro-chic, with a very plain sans-serif font in garish yellow on a blue background. This ride shouldn't really count as a first journey, though, since it was only two hours and was on a Statabdi Express (all seats, no berths).

On the train ride I struck up a conversation with a woman sitting next to me whose accent I couldn't place and who had a horrific sounding cough. It turns out that was born in Italy but had been living the last 30 years in the United States, most of which in her current residence near Santa Rosa, California. So, she is my neighbor (to the extent that Los Altos Hills and Santa Rosa aren't all that far apart). She is a high school Spanish and French teacher taking a year's sabbatical and traveling for three months, the first two alone and the last joined by her husband. Props to her! Gives me some hope that I can continue to have significant travel experience throughout my life, even if less frequently than I do now. (Oh, and the cough wasn't contagious - it was from lung irritation from the horrible pollution on the roads outside of Kathmandu.)

She and I wound up at the same guest house, the Tourist Rest House, located near Sadar Market and away from the mayhem of the Taj Ganj area near the Taj Mahal. I think I've decided I prefer staying a bit removed from the epicenter of activity/the backpacker zone of a city. It does tend to make meeting fellow slightly harder, but the accommodations are generally nicer and I enjoy escaping the mayhem of the backpacker areas.

Since we had hit it off, we spent the rest of the day sightseeing - the Taj was closed on Friday for the Muslim holy day, so we first went to Agra Fort, an enormous complex - more like a palace - built by the Mughal princes of the 16th and 17th centuries. In addition to being beautiful in its own right, the palace has great views onto the Taj Mahal - unfortunately the thick haze (pollution? Usual winter fog? Both?) made it nearly impossible to see. Just before that, I had returned to the train station to change my departure ticket to a day earlier (I had booked the wrong day in my haste). I was told there weren't any seats available on the next night's train to Varanasi but I was given a "wait list" ticket and assured my changes were good that I'd eventually get a berth (more on that later).

We then took a public bus to Fatehpur Sikri, an abandoned palace complex and town that was briefly the Mughal in the late 16th century during the reign of Akbar. On the bus ride over we met an American guy who had been traveling for nearly a year and half - to our mutual delight we found that we had both been in Kyrgyzstan around the same time (August 2007) and had a good time sharing memories of kymys (fermented mare's milk), Lake Song Kul (the beautiful alpine lake in central Kyrgyzstan), yurts (the tents in which we stayed near said lake), and other Kyrgyz dairy products.

Back to Fatehpur Sikri: the complex is in remarkably good condition, and its most impressive feature is the 54-meter-high gate leading into an enormous courtyard mosque. It was so stunning that I deemed it worthy of inclusion in my yoga-pose-in-front-of-major-world-monument series of photographs (for those of you wondering, I chose tree pose. Thus far, my greatest work is upward-facing dog in the Palacio Real courtyard in Madrid). There were a remarkable number of Indian tourists visiting the site as well, since it was the Eid al-Adha holiday and many Indians had the day off from work.

I certainly felt more like an Indian tourist, and less like a Westerner, on the bus ride back to Agra from Fatehpur Sikri. We hailed down a public bus from the side of the road and inside found a seating arrangement like none I had ever seen before. On the left side of the bus were normal seats, but on the right side, and on top both the left and right sides, were sleeper berths into which people were crammed, often four or more in each one. And then there were people standing in the aisle as well. The bus driver and ticket taker took pity on us and let us sit on a tiny ledge up front, which meant that not only was I in the least claustrophic spot in the bus but I'd also be the first one through the windshield in the event of any sort of hard braking. Fortunately, on this narrow road, with buses, autorickshaws, pedal rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians, and cows (yes, cows - sometimes donkeys and dogs too) clogging the way, we never got going fast enough to do any real damage. Well, it still probably would have hurt. We got home just fine, but there must have been 80 people on that bus.

The next day, I had a bit of a lie-in, forgoing a sunrise visit to the Taj Mahal for the sake of 12 hours of much-needed sleep - between my 3 hours the night before departure, the plane ride over, a jet-lagged first night, and the 6:15 train, I was starting to run a little ragged. I spend the late morning and early afternoon seeing some other more minor - but still tremendous - sights, most notably the Itimad-ud-Daulah, nicknamed the "baby Taj" for the marble shrine in the center of its courtyard, and the Mehtab Bagh gardens, which give a view onto the southern side of the Taj Mahal complex (unfortunately, looking south means that the sun is almost always in one's eyes, making picture-taking much less fruitful).

During this sightseeing run, I very nearly reached my exasperation point with Agra. The city has almost nothing going for it outside of its (spectacular) sights, and rickshaw drivers, would-be guides, and just about everyone descend on the visitors with a barrage of offers, requests, begs, and misinformation. Most troubling of all are the children, many of whom aren't beggar children per se, but far too many of whom are constantly swarming foreigners asking for handouts. It's always hard to say no to a child, but, harsh as it may sound, these children didn't leave me feeling like I wanted to give them anything. What they did leave me with, in addition to the initial repulsion, was some thinking of charitable contributions I will make to Indian organizations on my return. One justification I have for not giving to beggars is that I tell myself the money would be put to better use elsewhere - now I need to live up to that and actually give that money somewhere else. Suggestions (and criticism) about the above would be welcome. Anyway, Agra is dump: filthy, crowded, full of hassles. The Taj and the other sights are must-sees, but get in and get out of Agra quickly.

Ah yes, the Taj. As good as advertised. Stunning. The photos don't quite do it justice. Translucent white marble. Set atop a platform so that the only background is sky. Expansive courtyard and reflecting pool. Elaborate flanking building of red sandstone setting off the Taj's marble. And that dome: such a pure, refined shape. The only downside to visiting the Taj when I did (late afternoon) were the crowds. Loads upon loads of people. Twenty minutes waiting to get in (no bags allowed, but a cloakroom nearby). An absurd crush to get inside the central building to see the tombs (thank goodness I'm tall and a good barrier to people's pushing). Impossible to take a photo without hundreds of others in the background. So, what was supposed to be the piece-de-resistance of my yoga pose collection came out only so-so (side plank pose - an inspired choice, I maintain, but imperfectly executed).

A couple of hours in the Taj was enough, and I returned to the guest house for a meal and some rest before heading to the train station to see if my wait list ticket to Varanasi would get me any where. This turned out to be adventure enough, lasting well into the next day, so I'll save it for the next post.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Day 1: India arrival (19-20 December 2007)

I arrived in Delhi international airport late last night and found one welcome and one unwelcome thing. Welcome: the driver holding my name placard was waiting for me in the reception line. I had read and heard that the Delhi airport-to-city trip can be hazardous (read: taxi drivers trying to scam you in switching to/staying at overpriced and shoddy hotels) and I had booked a room and a ride late the night of my departure. Well done, Skype! The ride cost me Rs550 - more than a regular taxi, but worth it for the peace of mind (and cheaper than the Rs900 ride some other upscale hotels were offering). Unwelcome: fog/smog/haze. Walking out of the airport doors I found myself ensconced in an eerie haze, much like what greeted me when I last arrived at the Beijing airport. It added to the exoticism a bit, but I feel like exoticism will be no short supply on this trip. And I've had my share of pollution for a lifetime after just two weeks in Beijing. I've heard the fog is just a December-January nighttime thing. I hope so.

I didn't sleep so well, from a combination of jet lag (I can't not sleep on planes!), the cold in the room (I should have packed some long-johns for nighttime), and the occasional noise (ditto for earplugs). I spent most of the morning running errands: Connaught Place, the concentric-circles roundabout at the heart of New Delhi, was eerily quiet at 8am and didn't pick up until after 10am. Nothing like China, where folks are up and at 'em early, or like Vietnam, where they're up earlier still. I ate my first motherland meal - a delicious, flaky onion dosa. (It's southern Indian food, I admit, but one of the glories of national capitals is how well they do the regional fare from all over the country. Beijing is a perfect example. But not DC.) I found a decrepit Internet cafe running Windows 98 and an outdated version of Internet Explorer that couldn't properly read Gmail or my Stanford webmail. I purchased a SIM card for my phone. (I decided two or three trips ago that I'm going cell-enabled from here on out.) I took a nap. I had lunch (butter chicken curry at what appears to be an old Delhi stalwart, Kwality. I'm a little bummed that traveling alone means I can't order obscene amounts of food to share with others.)

The afternoon was for sightseeing - I decided to take it easy and save the crush of Old Delhi until later. I found a autorickshaw driver (actually, I intended for it just to be a one-way trip but he persuaded/cajoled me into hiring him for the afternoon) and went first to Ghandi Smitri, the site where Ghandi lived the final months of his life and where he was assassinated in January 1948. It was a simple place, and the most moving part of it were the concrete footsteps that showed Ghandi's last steps as he walked to his evening prayers. Watch the film "Ghandi" before going, if possible - the scene played over in my head, and according to all the descriptions at the site, the movie's portrayal was painstakingly authentic. After that was Humayun's tomb, a sprawling complex with well-tended gardens and a large mausoleum housing the remains of a 16th century Mughal emperor. I must say that while I am glad that these emperors thought so highly of themselves to have such architectural wonders erected in their memory (Timurlane's Guri Emir mausoleum in Samarkand being a prime example fresh in my mind), I am pleased that such displays are no longer the norm. Better to have vast halls of justice, government, books, art than tributes to one person.

Both Ghandi Smitri and Humayan's tomb were quite peaceful, wholly different from the everyday Delhi that was waiting outside. I plunged back into it at the New Delhi train station, which was as thundering and crowded a train station as I had ever seen. People were pouring out from everywhere, and the were quite an eclectic group. Even the train station in Urumqi, in China's Xinjiang province, with its rag-tag mix of Uighurs, Han Chinese, and other Central Asians was calm by comparison. My big challenge was finding the International Tourist Bureau at the station - it's the only place that non-Indians/non-residents can book their tickets, where apparently are on some sort of tourist quota. Once I got to the Tourist Bureau the ticket buying process went quite smoothly: the process is a bit arcane (one has to fill out a detailed form with the train number and date, after which they issue the ticket) but the information desk was quite helpful. The trick was finding the Tourist Bureau in the first place, which took me no less than one hour. Here I'm going to have to blame the common language that separate the Indians (and Brits) from us Americans: the signs and guidebook insisted the office was on the *first floor,* and to go nowhere else. Well, I should have remembered that for some first floor doesn't mean ground floor but first floor up the stairwell. That would have saved some time and aggravation.

The train station is right next door to the bustling Paharganj district, which offered little let down from the train station. One the one-line bazaar street I stopped first for two full-size cars headed in opposite directions down this impossibly narrow lane, and after that for an elephant - yes an elephant- walking down the street. I had been told to expect the unexpected, and had done so to date: crowds, dirt, loudness, hassles, touts I was well ready for. But an elephant walking down a narrow market? In the nation's capital.

Whew, that was a long first post. Let's see if I can keep it up.

India trip intro - December/January 2007-08

I can't tell how long India has been at the top of my list for travel destinations. Well, now that I think of it, I can tell you: for at least two and a half years, when I first set out to rectify that glaring omission of my never having been to Asia. I was primed to make India my first desitination on the Asian continent (or, sub-continent, as the case may be) but was frightened by the reports of searing heat and drenching monsoon rains that I would have faced during my travel window in July and August. So, instead, I headed off to Vietnam and China, got the China bug for a spell, and never made it to India. Until now.

I've got a little under three weeks - it's winter break during my final year of law school, and I had promised myself when I went back to school that I'd take advantage of all the ready-made breaks on the university calendar. I've got my two little travel backpacks, probably too small to hold everything I need, but a small source of traveler's pride. And I've got, well, not a whole lot else. I'm traveling alone for the first time since I edited Lets Go Australia (Victoria and western New South Wales chapter) seven years ago, and that is my first big adjustment. I also don't yet have anything resembling an itinerary - not having a traveling companion has let me be a bit cavalier in my travel planning. Hopefully that won't come back to haunt me (I do have visas, immunizations, health insurance, and a working ATM card, so I've got the basics covered).

So, three unstructured, solo weeks in the mother country. I suppose I don't have much right to call it the mother country, being wholly descended from Eastern European Jews, but perhaps my demonstration of desi pride in this video allows me to take some license.