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.


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