Sunday, October 29, 2006

a not so short update

Where to begin???
Each day has been like a complete adventure in I will try to start from where I last left you.
I left Varanassi 6 days ago on a train ride that was by far one of the most interesting train rides I have taken so far. Since there seems to be a million different festivals going on right now in India, it has been difficult to book a train ticket to just about anywhere. I decided to take my chances and go to the train station. Of course the train was sold out and I had to board a train to Gaya with a general boarding ticket. For anyone who has traveled in India you will understand what I am about to describe. General boarding basically means tht you don't get a seat - you get crammed into a train car with hundreds of other passengers like sardines. I was traveling with a Swiss girl that I met, Conny, and we decided to avoid the hassle and found a spot inbetween two cars (near the toilets). The train was originally suppose to take 4 1/2 hours, but ended up being 7 hours. Because it is very uncommon for foreigners to do this (most travelers get proper sleeper class tickets) we were a constant source of amusement for the guards and passengers throughout or journey. We actually had a guard break into laughter when he saw our tickets (as if now he had seen everything).

But even though it was uncomfortable, smelly and we had cockroaches crawling over us for most of the journey - we got to meet some really interesting people and experience something that most travelers wouldn't try. We arrived into Gaya station just after 1am and hired an autorickshaw to take us the 10kms to the town of Bodhgaya. To our surprise, the drivers had no idea where our guesthouse was and we spent an hour driving through the small town in search of a guesthouse that was within our budget. At one point we even got stopped by a truckload of armed police - the rickshaw driver turned to me and said "police problem"...I didn't even know how to respond... but luckily the guards didn't make much of a fuss and we were waved through. It was only the next day that another traveler told us that Gaya is infamous for being dangerous and that we shouldn't have arrived at night...hmmm.

Anyways, we made it to a guesthouse just after 2am and slept until late the next afternoon. Later that night , Conny met a guy in our guesthouse, Chris, who has been doing some volunteer work at a local orphanage and school. So the next morning we tagged along with Chris to the Ao Zora School (which means Blue Sky School). The students are amazing and very bright. Most of them don't have parents and/or come from very poor families that can't afford to take care of them. The founder of the school, Nikesh, is a very loving man who has given up most of his life to live with and care for these children. Since the orphanage has only been operating for less then 6 months, things are still very basic and the school is in need of a lot of financial assistance. The room that Nikesh rents serves as classroom and dormitory for the children. There are approximately 70 children in the area in need of help. But right now, the school can only accommodate 10 children. Conny and I have been visiting the school for the last couple of days and have been getting to know the children and the Indian teachers. I am planning to stay until November 2nd to help out as much as I can before I continue on with my travels. Besides helping at the school, we have had some time to do a little sightseeing around Bodhgaya. The town itself is quite busy and the markets are always full of people (human traffic jams most of the time) but the temples are quiet and peaceful. As most places in India, things are quite old and a lot of the times I feel like nothing has changed here in the last 100 years. (you will see once I get my photos uploaded) For example, a couple of days ago, we got a ride with a horse and carriage to the Dungeshwari caves - about 12kms north of the town. We actually had to cross a river by foot and at several times push the carriage through deep water and up small hills. We passed through several small villages and even stopped in one where we met a large family (9 children) and enjoyed chai with the women while they painted Bindis on our heads and painted our feet red. Apparently this is a symbol of marriage - even though I told them I am not married. On our way back we relaxed under a Banyan tree with some farmers and watched the cows (painted red of's a Hindu thing) go by.
Yesterday, I had to book my train ticket to Rajasthan so Conny, Chris and I caught a share autorickshaw (another experience...10 people in a small autorickshaw...yep - you get the idea...but it's cheap) to the town of Gaya. It took over 2 hours waiting in a line at the train station (everything in India takes a long time) but I managed to get on a waitlist for a train to Jaipur for November 2nd. Since I am 5th on the waitlist, there should be no problem to be confirmed for my trip next week across country to the desert. The rest of the afternoon, we spent eating Talis and trying to negotiate a ride back to is very common to be quoted prices 3 or 4 times the actual amount - so it took several attempts ( along with a crowd of 20 men staring at us...if I ever had stage fright I am sure it has gone now) to get the real price.

Because there is an important festival (Chat Puja) on right now, this morning there was an important Puja ceremony at the river across from my guesthouse, so we woke up at 4:30am to go and watch the big event. It was incredible!!
There were litrally hundreds of people down by the river giving worship to the sun god as the sun rose over the landscape. We walked through the crowds and enjoyed sharing the food with some families. Then we returned to the school to play with the kids again and sing some songs. This afternoon, Conny and I walked around the town again and saw a few more temples. Tomorrow Conny is leaving for Kolcutta and Chris left for Nepal today, so I will be travelling solo again.

Anyways, I am sure you get the point that everything is still so amazing and I am feeling like each experience I have is part of a bigger destiny...I am just trying to soak it all up. I guarantee there will be plenty of more stories to tell when I get home is so hard to write them all down right now. I have a million photos to add , but as usual the computers are crap and I can't add any photos. But hopefully when I get to Rajasthan I can find a better computer...but no promises. Also, sorry for the length, I am going to try to make an effort to blog more often over the next month.
Love you all (only 30 days until I return to Canada...mark your calendars!!!)


Monday, October 23, 2006


I have had an amazing couple of days in this beautifully chaotic Hindu holy city.
The old city is a maze of tiny steets - each full of life and activity.
This weekend was a huge Hindu festival called Diwali. The streets were full of people and there have been almost non-stop fireworks every day and is still going on.
I have spent my days shopping and exploring along the ghats. My nights have been spent sipping chai on rooftop cafes and listening to local misucians play at nightly concerts.
It is all just so incredible.
Tomorrow I am off to visit some of the Buddhist pilgrimage sights north of the city and then off to Bodhgaya in a few days.
I have added a few more photos so you can get an idea of the city and atmosphere.
Enjoy and I will update again soon

Friday, October 20, 2006

I feel like I could write a book about the last 48 hours (but seeing how I already wrote this entry, and just as I was about to post my entry, the computer shut off - it might be a bit shorter).
I decided to leave for Varanassi by train from a city called Pathankot. The bus between Mcleod Ganj and Pathankot is suppose to take about 4 hours, but actually took closer to 6 hours. Just before boarding my bus a large truck full of Punjabi women, men and children arrived and I quickly became the focus of their attention. I have a feeling that many of these people would make good money as papparazi if they ever traveled to America.
I am not entirely sure the reason for their excitement, but for every moments I got to feel like a celebrity.
Anyways, after the photos and video, I finally got on my bus and made my way to Panthankot.
Once there, I tried to buy a ticket for my train and get a refund on the tickets I won't be using to travel down south. As most things in India, getting a refund on train tickets takes some paperwork and sometime. However, as the refund counter was about to close for the day (it was already after 8pm) and I must have looked like I didn't know what the hell I was doing, a kind man helped me with my refund and the paperwork required.
Since the train to Varanassi was fully booked, I could only purchase a general boarding ticket. This basically means that I would have to stand with 100 others in a car/ or try to upgrade my ticket on the train. I chose the second option. After declining 2 offers to 'share' a seat with Indian men, I found the conductor and paid him some cash to get an upgrade to second class sleeper.It was now 9:30pm. After being given my bed I quickly fell asleep. Just a note: sleeping on trains in India requires 2 things : a strong desire for sleep and very good ear plugs - fortunately I had both.
I awoke to the tapping of guards wanting to see my ticket, the stares of the Indians around me and the calls for 'chai!" echoing through the train. I knew it was going to be a long day.
Being the only foreigner in my car, I was a constant source of entertainment for those around me - every move was carefully watched, scrutinized and talked about - so I chose to climb down from my sleeper and open my book to avoid any unwanted attention. A few hours later a woman came onto the train with her baby boy and sat down next to me....and by sat, I mean squeezed in between me and 3 other men (in one seat!!)
She was obviously traveling alone and gave me a slight smile as she sat down. I noticed she was carrying her wallet in her hand, along with her cell phone and her baby boy. For the next hour people came on and off the train. At times it was so packed, I had people standing between my legs and at times actually sitting on me. It was just as a group of people got off the train that the woman beside me noticed she didn't have her wallet. She quickly handed me her son, while she frantically searched her seat and the floor for her wallet. After several minutes of searching by her, me and others around us - we realized that her wallet was gone. She began to cry. I was still holding her son and didn't quite know what to do. It was clear that whatever little money this woman had was lost and she didn't know what to do. A few people around me gave her some money and I gave her some food from my bag for her and her baby - but it was little consolation. The guards came , but were unable to help her very much. Eventually she got off the train, still crying. Needles to say I have been thinking of her and her baby ever since. I hope that they made it back home safely.
The rest of the train ride was just as crowded (sometimes even more so) but less dramatic then the morning. I met a family whose oldest daughter spoke English, and they were all captivated by my stories of Canada and just how cold it gets in the winter (interesting that none of them had ever seen snow). I was equally capitaved at their stories of life in India. By the afternoon I was exhausted and climbed back up into my sleeper for a few hours rest.
Just before we reached a city called Lucknow, a group of business men sat down next to me and as usual struck up a conversation. I find it very interesting how excited Indian men get when they meet foreigner women. Each of them invited me to meet their wives and family - trying to convince me to stay in their city for a day or two. However, I had to gracefully decline. I have never felt unsafe while traveling here, but it is always important not to be put in a dangerous situation. They gave me their phone numbers and made me promise to call if I ever needed anything in India - very thoughtful.
The train didn't arrive into Varanassi until 4:30am - more then 30 hours after leaving Panthankot. Although I tried to sleep the second night, I was constantly bothered by the crowds of people (whom didn't pay for a sleeper) trying to sit beside me, on me and around me. I was very very tired!!
Thankfully a friend I met in Mcleod Ganj recommended a guest house to stay in Varanassi and they offered free pickup from the train station.After a quick call to the guesthouse, a man named Shiva arrived to collect me and I arrived at the guesthouse around 5:30am and slept for most of the day.
The guesthouse is called Shanti Guesthouse and is located near the main burning ghat in the old city of Varanasi.
This ghat is famous for the hundreds of cremations that occur each day along it's steps.
After I awoke and had a few chai's (tea with milk and sugar) I made my way to the ghats. It is quite a sight to see for the first time. There are no photos allowed at the burning ghat (out of respect for the families) but I was able to spend a while watching the cremations and the bodies being carried to the ghats.
Woman are not allowed down to the steps of this ghat ( I watched from a platform above), so the men carry the body (always wrapped in cloth) and lay it on a pile of wood that has been previously weighed and set out for the cremation.
Then one of the men (usually the oldest son) walks around the body 5 times and then lights the pile of wood on fire. I don't know very much about Hindu traditions, but just watching the few ceremonies today really opened my eyes. It is common that the families don't cry during the cremation, so that the person can leave this world without any regret or sadness. Also, I have been told that babies and people who die from snake bites are not cremated. Instead their bodies are tied to rocks and then dumped into the Ganges River. It is thought that babies souls are already pure and that the snake is holy - so if you die from a bite you are saved and do not need to be cremated. After a body is cremated, the ashes are collected and dumped into the river.
Surprisingly, there is no smell from the cremation (well very little), however, being that it was very windy today, my eyes are a bit sore from all the smoke and blowing dust.
After I left the burning ghat it was starting to rain, so I returned to my guesthouse (making my way through the narrow alleys) for some more rest and dinner on the rooftop terrace.
Tomorrow morning I am going to take a boat ride along the Ganges River to get a better view of all the ghats and the city.
I plan on staying here for the next few days. There is a large Hindu festival, Diwali, that has begun and ends on Saturday - so there should be plenty to see over the next few days.
Next week I am going to go to Bodhgaya (the place where Buddha became enlightened) and then hopefully head west to Rajisthan to discover the desert and camels.
Anyways, I will try to upload some photos by the weekend - but as usual, the computers are a bit slow, so be patient.
I also apologize for the spelling errors - this computer won't let me spell check.
I love you all and can't wait to tell you more about my trip across India.

Monday, October 16, 2006


Well, it's been a while and there is a bit to say...nothing to exciting, but maybe grab a coffee and get comfortable.

To begin with I am still in Dharmsala/ Mcleod Ganj. I was suppose to be leaving tonight for Varanassi - but plans have changed (as they usually do).....but I will get to this in a while.
Let me go back a few weeks...
A few weeks ago I began my first Vipassana meditation course - which basically is a 10 day meditation course designed to guide people towards a better way of life.
I had been warned that the course was difficult, but it was a lot harder then I a good way. For 10 days there was no speaking, no eye contact, and a strict schedule that included waking up at 4:00am each morning, meditating for over 10 hours each day and eating a strict vegetarian diet. To my surprise, it wasn't these things that were the difficult part. The hard part was dealing with all the mess that has built up over the last 27 years of my life. Like small volcanoes erupting, many things came to the surface that I didn't expect. It is obvious to me now that there is a huge connection between our minds and our bodies. Every reaction brings about more reactions...the cycle of craving and aversion seems never ending.
I spent most of the days wishing I could leave and hoping that at the end of my 10 days I would feel differently. I did and I managed to survive and have hopefully began to eliminate some of the 'misery' in my life.
This meditation technique is very different then any other I have practiced, and I am very grateful I have had this opportunity. I know it will be a part of my life from now on.
After the course ended, I had an opportunity to meet the people that I had been sitting next to for the past 10 days and have made some excellent friends.
It is amazing to meet people who are on the same 'path'.
Since the course ended on the 12th I have been hanging around the small town of Mcleod Ganj with some friends , shopping, taking walks up in the mountains,and basically enjoying all the good things that life has to offer.
This town is truly 'chill.
Yesterday I went to a beautiful waterfall (not the swimming kind...the water comes from the Himalayas...very very cold) and then spent a few hours discussing the meaning of life with a monk at a near by monastery.

As I mentioned, I was originally suppose to leave today to head south to Varanassi, but decided yesterday to change my plans. I have not been able to access my money from Canada (for whatever reason, my bank card isn't working in India) and thought it might be a sign for me to just sit tight for a few days here while I figure out the money situation.
So this morning I caught a bus down the mountain in search of an ATM that might accept my bank card... picture it....5 Tibetan monks, 2 small boys, 4 Indian men and me squeezed into a small minivan, speeding down the windy mountain roads as the sun is beginning to rise further into the morning sky. It feels like every driving experience in India could be my last.
We made it to the town of Dharmsala and to my surprise the only ATM there didn't accept my card either.

Luckily when I came back to Mcleod Ganj, all my money problems were solved with the help of my credit card and online banking (oh Thank you to the series of tubes that enabled this process - Sue are you laughing yet?)
Soooo....I need to make a few decisions. Where to go next???
I most likely will go with my original plan to Varanassi - especially since there is a big Indian holiday on the 21st - it would be fun to be in a large city for that.
But I have already decided to skip the south of India (for now) . There is just too much to see and enjoy here in the north (so much for booking train tickets in advance eh?)
But stay tuned...I guarantee things are about to get really exciting.

P.s. I have added a small amount of photos again, so check 'em out.