Friday, November 6, 2009

Crowds, Forts, and More Monkeys

The streets of Varanasi are unrelentingly colorful, curvy and crowded. Vendors sell everything from 2 ounce cups of chai ladled out of big bubbling vats, to deep fried mashed potato patties and samosas drenched in corn sauce, to medicines, spices, underpants, gold jewelry, pots, pans, office furniture, and silk sarees and scarves (Varanasi's speciality). As much as we've been enjoying the hustle and bustle and getting lost-even Lonely Planet's maps didn't help us here-on our last day we decided to venture over to a different and more peaceful part of town.

After strolling through the quiet and peaceful tree-lined streets of Banares Hindu University, supposedly one of India's finer institutions of higher learning (it was a holiday and very few students were on campus), we attempted, for the first time all week, to cross the Ganges river. With the help of some students we took a bicycle rickshaw to a large and slightly rickety bridge at the end of a shanty town, navigating loose boards for 15 minutes until the bridge came to an abrupt end--50 meters from shore. Sadly, we retraced our steps and managed to board a tiny row boat with one oarsmen and at least 35 passengers. We made it across in time to see the sun go down from the ruins of a majestic colonial fort.

The boatride home served as a perfect viewing point for Dev Deepawali (not to be confused with Deepawali, which we celebrated recently in Pokhara), a huge Hindi holiday marking the crescendo of a festive week called Ganga Mahostav. Celebrations were scheduled to take place all up and down the river, aiming to make people feel like they are "in heaven, witnessing a celestial happening." Accustomed to peaceful Nepalese holidays, we were surprised as we floated back into the old city to be greeted by Vegas-style flashing lights, techno music, and periodic bursts of ear-splitting fireworks. Less rattling were the burning candles set in small clay saucers decorating all of the stairs leading up from the river and into the various temples and shrines.

We disembarked in the middle of the madness at the main Ghat, where the celebrations and crowds were at their most intense. As we attempted to make our way to a calmer place from which to view the festivities, we were swept up in a stream of people, struggling to keep our feet on the ground. Suddenly, we found ourselves herded into a particularly narrow and jammed passageway and quickly realized that women and families seemed to have vanished; mainly young men remained. A few groping hands and a minor altercation later, the sea split and we escaped to the relative safety of our hotel terrace. Relating the incident to our friendly hotel receptionist, who, judging by prior conversations, was a bit paranoid about the safety of western women, he told us: "nice people don't go to the river on holiday." We weren't quite sure what to make of that, given the impressive number of foreign-and Indian-tourists who had descended on the city to take part in the festivities. But as the old adage goes: India is a funny country. We are learning more and more about it.

After a 12-hour train ride during which we sat across from a sweet, recently-married Indian couple who were dropped off and picked up by a horde of male family members, we arrived in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. In Agra, the lemon tea is terrible, the vegetable curries are extremely spicy, postcard peddlers are amazingly persistent, and Jeremy had a bag of bananas ripped from his hands by monkeys on two separate occasions, to the absolute delight of passerby.

There is an unbelievable concentration of majestic forts, mausoleums and mosques in a 5 km radius, which we toured with a warm and yoga-obsessed rickshaw driver on day 1. Visiting the Taj Mahal and seeing it from various riverbanks and rooftop restaurants has been a surprisingly powerful experience. The structure itself is incredibly mesmerizing, seductive and, yes, romantic.

Anyway, our health has improved and the series of unfortunate events seems to have at least temporarily ceased. We arrived this morning in Udaipur, a smallish city, by Indian standards, in Rajasthan, where we will spend the next week enjoying hot water (first warm showers in over 2 weeks!) and celebrating Ali's birthday by taking cooking lessons and horse-rides and treating her to a long massage.

No wi-fi here so it might be a while till pictures are loaded.

Love,

A and J

1 comment:

Lucia said...

I am impatient for your Indian outfits.