Wow… it has been an absolutely crazy week, a climactic end to a very challenging month and the final part of our trip.
I didn’t get much sleep after that last late night post and actually slept in past our 5 am meeting time to go catch the train… we were woken up by a knock on the door “we are ready to go”!! Fortunately we have packed light and well and I was basically still dressed from the previous day, so we threw everything in our bags and ran out the door. Also fortunately (or not) our train was running late and we weren’t in any danger of missing it. So it was a lot more of “hurry up and wait” that we’ve become accustomed to.
The train arrived in Agra in the afternoon just in time for us to freshen up (I was in serious need of some freshening, especially a shave and overdue shower) and head off to see the Taj Mahal at sunset. We didn’t go to the Taj proper, but to the other side of the river at the footsteps of the foundation upon which the Taj’s mirror image was supposed to be made in black marble, before Shah Jahan’s son Aurangzeb imprisoned him in Agra Fort. A little travel weary and tired, it was nice for us to relax and watch the sun go down with the white marble Taj in the background. Although, I think Kim was more excited about the Costa Coffee located at our hotel, where she was able to get a quality latte with soy milk!
We awoke early again the next morning to watch the sun rise at Taj Mahal. Watching all these sun rises and sets sounds a little monotonous, but it’s actually just a good way of getting yourself up early for the day instead of sleeping in and I kinda hate to say I’m almost getting used to it. The Taj is everything that everybody says it is, impressive, beautiful, unique… but I guess I wasn’t just totally blown away. It’s almost like the high expectations set up by all the superlatives used to describe it make the actual experience incomparable. It would be better to have no expectations and discover it for yourself, but that’s impossible with such a famous site. At any rate what I liked most about it wasn’t the marble or the jewel inlay or the domes, but rather the intricate Arabic scripting reminiscent, for us, of the Alhambra, the red sandstone mosques, the symmetry, and the detailed landscaping. Again, it was kind of relaxing to have to take your shoes off and walk barefoot through the mosques, and we lingered for a while taking lots of photos which I will probably get up on the site when I get home. We had arranged to have our driver take us around all day, so we also visited the baby Taj (mausoleum for Shah Jahan’s grandfather, built before the Taj). Both buildings are impressive in the sheer manpower it took to build (although the baby Taj was designed by a woman), with thousands of workers building constantly for decades on both buildings (the exact numbers elude me right now). Baby Taj was followed by a visit to the Agra Fort, which was also impressive, but we had liked the Red Fort in Delhi a little bit better in comparison.
There is more to see in Agra, but after lunch we were getting pretty tired, and the 40 kilometer drive out to the deserted town of Fatehpur Sikri was more than we wanted to tackle, let alone in a bumpy rickshaw. So we went back to the hotel where we arranged our train tickets from Varanasi to Bodhgaya a few days later. After dinner we relaxed for a while before meeting our group at 9pm to head to the train station. This is where things really started to go downhill. Our group leader showed up to the hotel late, more than a little drunk, with only 2 cars for 15 people and luggage. So we watched in shock and horror as he chaotically tried to get another car, and totally neglected to communicate clearly to us… at one point he started speaking Hindi to us as if we fully understood what he needed. We did make it to the train station, and didn’t miss our train because, again, it was late. So we’re standing on the platform when our drunk leader disappears. We gathered that the train was late, but he wasn’t there to let us know what was going on, at midnight, with no information on which train we were supposed to board and when it was coming. Serious frustration was setting in. We finally boarded the train to Mirzapur and tried to sleep.
When we woke up the next morning to get off the train, which arrived a couple hours late, we made our way to a hotel where we were supposed to freshen up and eat, but not stay at because we were taking a Ganges sailing trip to a campground. The hotel was a sty though, and the showers didn’t work. The restaurant staff struggled to deliver toast and calculate our total in time for us to leave. Then we were rushed off, we thought to our boats, but made a stop at some temple to visit which wasn’t on the itinerary at all… this was concerning because supposedly we were already late for a long boat ride ahead and wanted to make sure we made it to camp before dark. We were also skeptical that this temple was really a trip to buy gifts for which the drivers would get commission and we were starting to think that our leader has had us on some dodgy transportation so he could pocket the savings. So we made them skip the temple and take us straight to the boats… well it turns out the temple was in the completely wrong direction and put us an hour out of our way. Our leader tried to blame the drivers for this, but he’s supposed to be in charge of these arrangements. India is hard enough of a country to travel in. Every rickshaw ride is an argumentative negotiation and you have to put up with your driver trying to stop by shops and then ask you for more than you agreed to at the end. Everything (except for very good, very cheap food) is overpriced and must be bargained down. Almost every guy has been staring and leching at the women in the group, no matter how modestly they dress and cover up, which is hard to take as usually the only guy and a protective husband. Supposedly the culture is consumed with modesty, hospitality, and compassion, but everywhere you look people are taking advantage of each other and you and violate the boundaries of even our heathen western sensibilities about controlling desire. I don’t want to generalize too much, but this is the experience we have been having by far more often than not. We knew India would be a difficult leg of our trip – harsh, dirty and poor – but the cognitive dissonance of these ironies made us feel like our mental preparation was inadequate. When you start to feel like your trusted tour guide is either complicit or unable to shield you even a bit from all of this it’s that much more disconcerting.
Once we got on the boat, away from the chaos of the previous night and morning, we got set to relax and enjoy a quiet trip down the river Ganges. The scenery was beautiful, with kingfishers landing on the river banks, and even the sight of a few very rare fresh water Ganges River Dolphins jumping in the water. Leaving around noon, the boat was sailed/floated/rowed downstream peacefully while we soaked up the view. After a few hours of floating they started up the diesel motor so we could make it to camp before dark. But as the sun set we all started to wonder how far away this camp was… “20 minutes” was the constant reply. When the sun finally went down it was “20 minutes, see that light there is our campground”. Well, that light and the ten that followed were not our camp, and in the dark they had to turn the motor off and row since they could no longer see the bottom and avoid the shallow parts. We ran aground several times which took 20 minutes just to dislodge us, and I no longer believed that our captain actually knew where the campground was. We only had some fireworks in the distance, lingering after the last days of Diwali, to keep us occupied as we tried not to worry too much. Our guide was not much help… the crew was saying a lot in Hindi, but he didn’t communicate any of it to us other than “20 more minutes”, and there were frantic cell phone calls, non of which were explained. We were just about to mutiny when at 8pm our boat finally came upon a bridge marking the end of our trip where our jeeps picked us up to drive us to our camp. The stress of it all was starting to show as the group cohesiveness fractured a little bit with a little bickering throughout the day… I don’t know if 3 weeks is just a week too long to travel with a group of strangers or if it was just the different coping strategies for the situation we were in but dinner and sitting around the campfire was all a bit uncomfortable.
We were anxious to get to Varanasi early the next morning, and thankfully our hotel was able to get most of us into our rooms before noon when we arrived. Kim and I were really looking forward to this because Varanasi was the last city we’d be in with the group before going home and we were hoping for a nice end to the trip after the previous troublesome few days. We also had booked our day trip to Bodhgaya during these 3 days in Varanasi and were really excited about that. We were also looking to get a little space from our leader since he’s really hands off during our city stays, and hoping that we wouldn’t have any more problems from him on the train ride back to Delhi, as we personally hadn’t had any problems before Agra.
Varanasi had also been described to us with a lot of superlatives, but it really lived up to them easily. It had a lot of the negatives we’d been experiencing with pollution, traffic, etc, but once we got down to the ghats and boarded a boat on the Ganges for a sunset ride we were enthralled, watching people bathe, swim and fish in the filthy water. As the sun went down behind the city people were lighting candles that float in the water and the river filled up with bobbing lights speeding past us in the current. For Rs 10 each we bought several flowered candles too and set them floating ourselves. The boat ride took us down to some cremation ghats, which amazingly burn 24 hours a day. Varanasi is a holy city where the god who judges you after death and decides your fate is powerless there, so if you are cremated there your soul is directly released from the cycle of rebirth. The ashes from these ghats are dumped into the river, which our guidebook said is septic in places (containing no oxygen) and has been measured to have 1.5 million coliform bacteria per 100 liters of water (500 per 100 liters is considered the maximum safe for bathing). So to see people swimming and fishing here is completely shocking. We also stopped in front of a ghat to witness a nightly ceremony with fire and music before heading back to the hotel for dinner. Dinner ended up being free because the hotel was hosting a huge Indian birthday party for a little kid and we were being compensated for the noise caused by it, but when I was recording the music and taking photos, one of the parents invited us to the party anyway. After dinner Kim and I joined the party, mostly to watch as they danced (in separate male and female groups)… we didn’t join the dance floor, not being dancers much anyway, especially if it’s not together (the guys were grinding each other, not for me). Though I did enjoy some cotton candy (aka fairy floss according to the Australian girls).
We woke up early again the next morning for another sunrise and for what would be a very long, challenging day. Our train tickets to Gaya were booked for 10:20am and we knew we’d be getting back late, so we didn’t want to take in the sunrise the next day. Instead we chose to do the sunrise on Thursday before getting on our train. Sunrise was just as beautiful as the sunset down at the river so we stayed for a while to eat breakfast as well before heading to the train station. Now, we knew this would be a challenge to make this a day trip. Gaya is 250km from Varanasi, and Bodhgaya is another 12km beyond that by rickshaw. We asked our tour leader about it at the beginning of the trip and he said it was “impossible”… but with a little more inquiry we found that to be inaccurate. We got train tickets for 10:20am on an express train that was supposed to take 3 hours, and another express back at 9pm. So we had 6 hours of round trip train ride ahead of us, giving us about 7 hours in Bodhgaya (give or take for the rickshaw ride, etc), or some buffer for late trains.
What we didn’t anticipate was that every step in the process would go wrong. I’ve come to expect somethings to go wrong, but not every single thing. Our first train was over 2 hours late. Then, just before it left they switched the platforms on us, twice, which is tricky to figure out when there are no reader boards on the platforms (only back at the station) and the announcements are difficult to hear even when they aren’t in Hindi. There was a lot of running, but we did make the train. Kim caught some much needed sleep while I worried as the train slowly crept along the track for an hour. Assured by the conductor that we’d be there by 3, and reassured when we started to speed up to top speed of 110 kph, I relaxed a bit. We talked to some of the people sharing our car who were very nice and shared their fruit with us. It was called singhara and looked/tasted like a tiny, watery coconut with a texture between that of coconut and water chestnut. At 3:30pm we were told “45 more minutes”. This was really frustrating, and a little scary because Gaya is in the state of Bihar, the poorest and most lawless state in India. Our plan was to see Bodhgaya by daylight and head back to Gaya at sunset for dinner before waiting for our train, because the guidebook recommended not traveling on the road between the two after dark. But when we got off the train at 4:30, watching the sun go down, we didn’t have a whole lot of choice. We couldn’t go all this way just to sit at the Gaya train station for 5 hours and go back. I was consoled by the sight of armed guards on the road, and lots of traffic, but Kim was still pretty anxious. It didn’t help that our rickshaw driver was trying to stop to pick up locals on the way, we had to demand that we were paying to just take ourselves to Bodhgaya and were in quite a hurry… yet he still stopped for gas, tobacco, and to drop off our freeloader, etc. The Great Buddha Statue we wanted to see was supposed to close at 5 and we were thinking we wouldn’t get to see it. When we did arrive our driver wouldn’t make change for my Rs 500 (they always claim to not have change) so I offered him what I had in small bills which was half the agreed price until he figured out a way to suddenly make change… Luckily the gates were still open and we were able to walk into the area where the statue stood.
Finally we were there, and even with the sun going down we relaxed again and started to enjoy what we had struggled so hard to get to. The whole vibe was more peaceful again as we walked past Buddhist temples from every country and made our way to the Mahabodhi temple which thankfully was open until 9pm. The temple is huge and pyramid like, almost Mayan against the darkening starry background. Entering through the gate, we walked past stone railings that encompass and predate the temple, around 2000 years old. Walking around to the back of the temple we saw a huge bodhi tree all lit up with green light. The original bodhi tree that Buddha sat under when he achieved enlightenment supposedly sat here, from which a sappling was taken to Sri Lanka before the original was destroyed. That sappling is still in Sri Lanka and this tree in Bodhgaya is a cutting taken from that tree. It is huge and ancient and looks as if it might as well be the original. Now we were almost glad to be here at night to see it all lit up. I am sure it is impressive by daylight too, but I’m glad to have seen it the way that we did. We walked around a bit more and decided to have dinner in Bodhgaya which was much nicer than Gaya, as long as we were going to be driving back in the dark anyway. The food was good and we finally felt content; the journey had been worth it.
Over dinner we discussed taking a taxi back instead of a rickshaw, no matter the price, just to be safe, but none of the taxi drivers seemed to be around. It was about 7 and we decided to get back to the station as quickly as possible. As we sped back through the dark in our auto rickshaw, there was still lots of traffic and I didn’t feel unsafe due to roaming bandits, but rather from our crazed driver who weaved in and out and sped past cars more insanely than any other ride we had experienced yet. I don’t feel like I scare easily, but several near misses really started to have me worried. When we arrived at the station feeling like we had conquered one more obstacle we were a little horrified at the state of the place at night… we hadn’t really noticed on the way when we arrived hours earlier. Fortunately our train wasn’t too late and took off shortly after 9:30pm, but when midnight rolled around and we were still in the middle of nowhere we started getting concerned again. The rail employee in our car wasn’t very helpful, refusing to tell me how long to Varanasi “go sit down, I’ll tell you when we’re there”. 1am, 2am… we stop for 30 minutes here and there… at 3am he comes in “next stop”. Our 3 hour express train took 6 hours to get to our station. Arg!! Again, we had to fight through the rickshaw drivers to get one who would actually take us to our hotel and not one of their choice, and then our driver wanted to sell us on some sight seeing… “maybe you see sunrise this morning?” No!! Take us to our hotel! As if we weren’t frustrated enough, the gate in front of the hotel was locked when we arrived. We called the front desk which didn’t answer, and considered scaling the gate for a minute until somebody did show up in response to our driver’s honking. Finally, at 3:30 am, we were back in our room for a shower and shave and a good night’s sleep.
As I drifted off I considered how Buddhism teaches that all life is suffering, and suffering is caused by attachment and desire, and that maybe the last few days were a lesson to not expect things to make sense here and just take it as it comes. In hindsight we were never in any serious danger, just frustrated and scared by the lack of communication, and maybe it was our desire to have things go the way we expected them that was causing us anxiety and suffering.
I don’t care… I still wish those trains could have just been on time… or that at least one thing would go right, and I felt immense attachment to my clean, cozy bed as I finally felt free of the anxiety of the day and fell into a deep, restful sleep.