Thursday, April 24, 2008

Rapid travel in slowmotion

To start off with an oxymoron: work holiday.

That's what Seb and me were having the first three months (we were doing a project). So it was nice to finally have some time off with our girlfriends and do some unadulterated travelling.

So we travelled like crazy and saw all that we wanted, all that we needed and all that we could see. The list is staggering and would make most travel agencies jealous. I could use some rest after all that in Delhi. Seb and I met Machiec, the Polish guy we met in Pakistan and who took the beautiful pictures of Muharram.

What follows in the coming posts is an account of my travels, from March till now (June). I tried to have the posts out earlier but working on the computer was proving too much: traveling, filming, editing the video... there was not enough time to also write blog posts without being confined to the computer screen totally. One needs to see things too!

So: Delhi. Machiec. He was staying in a cheaper place so we decided to stay there as well. It was located in some alleyway from the Main Bazar (hence it's a 120 Rps price tag for a double room). Immediately Delhi gets a lot more interesting from the back streets and alley perspective.

I stayed a few days longer after Seb headed out to Nepal. I had some business cards made, with the beautiful process of silkscreen printing. Only 120 Rps for 100 cards is a steal. So I had some made for our own project and for Jet as well.

Taking the metro in Delhi delivers a nice paradox. The metros are really clean. I would call them European like, but cleaner. They are spotless, reminiscent of airports. The paradox is that using them gives you quick and clean transportation, but robs you of the experience of India. Haha.

A little run-into
Queues can be a little chaotic in India. Or to put it more graphically: instead of having a linear shape, they tend to have a larger concentration of people on the beginning of the line. Especially in post offices there are two kinds of people: people who stand in line and others who go up front and squeeze in.
I didn't dare to squeeze in up front so I tried to form a line. Being a model of patience and wait. When somebody new would come in and try to cut in front I'd give him a tab on the shoulder and point to myself with a somewhat surprised expression on my face. They always get the hint and go wait behind me, or sometimes beside me (which is a quite annoying). The funny thing is that it actually makes me feel a little sorry, for it creates an extra atmosphere of waiting. Whereas the other method of "people who want to wait; wait - others go" might actually work better. You could argue that some people have more time than others. The reason I don't do it is some culturally European inbred sense of justice. Everybody equal and that sort of thing. Well sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. About the post office I haven't decided yet.

In the train station it is another story. There cutting in front is not accepted. People you see cutting in front usually just need a reservation form. Sometimes you see people with money in hand go up to the window. That is annoying. Women are allowed to do this. This is the culture (it is mentioned on signboards). There aren't a lot of women around so it is acceptable. It's a little more annoying when a man goes in the woman's name (with the woman behind him). (This is not accepted according to those same signboards...) Other times it's men alone. I haven't figured out what gives them the right in those instances. I guess they are either very late for their train or cheer cheeky. I also tried to be cheeky one or two times (when my train was sorta late) but that didn't work: people got mad and told me to go to the end of the line.

In most places there are the sort of lines, based on first come first go principle, but you have to watch your place carefully. Somebody jumps it in a blink.

The metro is kind of a save heaven for all this. Boarding the metro vehicle itself by the way is Indian style: pushing and squeezing in no particular order. But the line for tokens is one orderly experience.

So I was really surprised when I was waiting in line and a young guy just comes in from the side and stands in front of me. I tab him on the shoulder and point to myself. He gets really annoyed and says: "Yeah yeah, don't worry man!" Worry? I don't worry. I ask. If you want to cut the line than ask too. I don't get a chance to say all this, another ticket window opens up. He sees it and takes the free spot. He already has his token as I get up for my turn. He passes me and says: "Haha, I'm first and you are second, I win!" Hahaha, wauw I didn't know we entered a competition. Indians can be very nice, but there is a top layer that is also competitive. But making taking the metro a competition... I think to myself: "You are more like the first billionth to get a token and I am the second trillion." I get my token, and walk up to the turnstile, and I see that his token isn't working, refusing him entrance. Oh karma!

Making travel plans
I wanted to do the Buddha Route and I wanted to travel alone for a while. I like the tranquillity and the intensity of it. And so it happened: Seb went to Nepal, as I set out to Varanasi, Budhgaya and Sarnath.
I wanted to do the Buddha Route. So now I was going slooooooooooow.

The Buddha was born as prince Siddhartha Gautauma, in Lumbini, currently in Nepal. He went in search for the answer to life's fundamental questions, making his way through Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, in current India. He found enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, and then when to Sarnath, near Varanasi, to preach his first sermon to five friends that he met on his quest.

But first stop: Varanasi. It is on the way to Bihar (where most of the places are where the historical Buddha lived and taught) and it was a city I was interested in seeing. Going by train I hadn't taken the time to reserve a ticket and so when I came at the train station ('railway station' as they say here, which I always seem to forget) in a last moment spur, the sleeper compartment was already fully booked. Normally this isn't really a problem: you get a general ticket and then see if there are foregone reservations for the sleep compartment to get a last minute place there. And this had always gone right. Well what do you know? Two firsts for this trip: the train was in time, and it was fully booked. No place in the sleeper. So I rush over to the general compartment to get at least a (good) seat there. Because there is no guaranty for sitting even! I've heard stories and seem completely packed compartment. So I was glad to have found a place on a higher bunk so I could have my bags next to me and try to sleep leaning on them. The coach was full but not too full for Indian standards so it would prove a relatively relaxing ride to Varanasi.

I was glad I had a good book with me - bought in Mcleod Ganj: The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep (how appropriate!) - so that I could grow more tired and could practice the ancient art of half sitting half leaning sleeping. The book didn't get me to do dream yoga, but it was a good explanation on Karma and how it relates to dream – quite a recommended read...) Reading till 2 a.m. I could finally catch some sleep till 6 a.m. with the help of earplugs.

Full, but not too full general compartment. This man has found a place in the luggage rack. Good for lying down indeed (impossible to sit in...)! Notice the use of the fan, for placing the shoes when sitting on top. Nifty!

Because sleep-sitting -or is it sit-sleeping?- isn't for everybody, some practice even more ancient art of lying down on the good ol' floor -sleeping. Others forego sleep altogether (for as long as they can muster) and opt for sitting (together) instead.

Yea! Taking photo and being photographed - picture that!

Varanasi - wauw

Entering Varanasi over the Ganges river bridge we enter the city in the early morning. Slowly we crawl in the city as it is waking up, just as I. The river causes differences in elevation in the city and some green (trees) and this gives it a friendly and varied character. Arriving there is the typical Indian mumble jumble at the station with hundreds of rickshawmen looking for customers. I find somebody who understands where I want to go for a reasonable price and we set out. Fifty meter before the Gaths the alleyways are so narrow that no rickshaw can come there. So my driver beckons me to get out and I follow him on foot. After five minutes of narrow streets we come near the riverbank. This is where the Gaths are: the holy bathing places, well known from film and TV every other visual medium depicting the Indians bathing in the Ganges water. Walking until then I was not bothered by any salesman. We walk some more to the guesthouse, walking up and down stone stairways on the ancient slabs of sand stone. As the guesthouse was in the lonely planet and had views on the Ganges river (only some rooms of course) it was very expensive. So I let the driver show me another place near, the one he wanted to show me in the first place (oh stubborn Westerner!). The place was 10 seconds away from the riverbank, with a roof terrace with nice views on the Ganges river and rooms with warm water for only 150Rps (€3). Good deal (oh stubborn western!).

After checking in I went to the roof terrace to have a Chai and to film some of the view. I was a little bit sleepy after the short night. Sitting on the terrace were two Danish guys who were freelance photographers and journalists. Exchanging some experiences from India I found out that there would be a Shiva Festival in Varanasi on 7th of March. Shivaratri is in name of Lord Shiva. I was told that a lot of Bhang Lassi is drunk by people because it is believed to be Shiva's favourite drink. Bhang lassi is made of female marjiuana leaves. Because Varanasi is believed by Hindus to be founded by the deity Shiva, I thought it would be an interesting time to be in the city. But the 7th is still a week away, so it would be a good idea to see some other places and come back for Shivaratri.


Our exchange of stories of India and doing a project here was interrupted by a large black-faced Languor monkey coming on the terrace balcony. I saw nothing special in him except for his size, but the cook was franticly shouting at the monkey trying to scare it away. He was also shouting at everybody else on the terrace to get their things and leave. Whether the monkey was dangerous or not could not really be established: the cooks shouting got everybody scared and the monkey agitated. So the monkey got angry and the last thing you want to do is test your luck with a big monkey, so there we were: five guys and three staff members in the kitchen with the door shut, the cook still shouting at the monkey and a stick waving through the barred window. Hahaha, what a drama.

The monkey leaves soon enough and so do we, ready for some fast city exploring.

Exploring Varanasi

Varanasi is one of the most holy cities in India. It's a city dedicated to the deity Shiva: in the hindu trinity he takes up the role of the destroyer, but this is seen positively. The Ghats along the holy rives Ganges attracts pilgrim bathers who want to wash away their sins in the holy Ganges river. A lot of Hindu's also want to be cremated here - most Indians believe that onyone dying on the banks of the river in Varanasi attains instant 'Moksha" or enlightment.
With these huge importanties Varanasi for the most part feels like a village at least on these ghats: if not friendly, at least no intrusion from people who want to sell you something.

People are also not bothered by you as you walk among the rituals, as Hindus are not quickly bothered by anything, but mostly people are quite inviting and willing to explain what is going on. Some rituals mundane, like people splashing in the water, other less so, like people getting all their head shaven, women too, and other still quite exceptional ones like a cremation. The only thing not allowed is filming the corpses being cremated, but after paying a fee (that reportedly goes to an elderly home for people waiting to be cremated there) filming this is also possible....

The cremations take place during the day as well as during the night. Cremations take place on a few ghats. Walking along these is quite something to see for the first time. It takes you back in time walking on the sandstone pavement and to see huge piles of wood sold by the kilo for burning a human corps.
It's almost breath-taking to see a funeral pyre for the first time.
It takes some time to take in that a human body is burning and it is also quite consoling somehow.

The river is beautiful, with its wooden boats tied to the shore and each other, and the mist clearing in the morning making the waste shore on the other side visible.

The Ghats feel medieval with its sandstone and archaic instruments for ritual burning and it's little food shops - especially yoghurt products like dahi served in one time use clay pots.

Next stop is Budhgaya to come back to Varanasi on the 7th. Next Blog post also!

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