Long Road Home

26 Nov 2007, by Brian in Culture, Locale

We’ve been home for a week now, so what gives? Where’s the final update to the cliff hanger I left last week? Don’t worry… we weren’t abducted out in the middle of Bihar, India. We didn’t miss our flight or overstay our visa. I’ve just been exhausted and wanted to get a little distance from India and our journey home before writing up the last post.

The last few posts have highlighted some of the challenges we faced in India, and our last few days & return home were not much different.

After arriving at the hotel very late (early) on Friday morning, we really questioned whether we had the energy or desire to see much more of Varanasi… maybe we should just sleep in we thought. After all of the early mornings we had been up for recently though, it was hard to sleep in much past 9am, and by 10am we were eating breakfast and figuring out what we wanted to do that day. Supposedly there was another festival, and we were told (inaccurately we later found out) by our guide to expect the ghats to be crazy with activity. While this might be an interesting cultural experience, we were feeling overwhelmed with the crazy and didn’t feel like we could handle another day of noise and hassling by every tout we came across trying to sell us their goods. Instead, we negotiated a tuk tuk driver to take us out to Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first teachings after becoming enlightened in Bodhgaya. Sarnath is much closer to Varanasi, really you never leave the city as the rickshaw drives the 12km out to the more peaceful surroundings of Sarnath. When we first mentioned going out to Bodhgaya, our guide tried to convince us not to go and persuade us that Sarnath was an equivalent experience. His advice was not really given out of experience (he’d never been to both places for comparison) and we were skeptical of his flippant attitude. But after our harrowing train trip the previous day we were a little frustrated to find that Sarnath was actually very similar to Bodhgaya. Frustrated, because we were so looking forward to Bodhgaya and having put forward so much effort to get out there, we were really hoping that Sarnath (while cool and interesting in its own way) would be quite different. Both places have lots of Buddhist temples from countries all over the world. Both are fairly mellow and relaxing compared to much of the rest of the surrounding city. You do get the feeling that Sarnath is patterned after Bodhgaya in a lot of ways. I still wouldn’t exactly recommend to anybody that if you are keen to see Bodhgaya, that Sarnath is a substitute experience. Bodhgaya is beautifully unique in a lot of ways (the descendant bodhi tree, the mahabodhi temple, the great buddha statue, etc), and in hindsight I am really happy we did experience it on a gorgeous, clear, starlit and moonlit night. I would just say that if you are looking for that unique experience, that you spend the night out there (and a description of what the journey will entail), and that if you are looking more for a general exposure to all of the different buddhist temples, that Sarnath may suffice. I wish our guide had provided us with that kind of information instead of casually dismissing something we had looked forward to for so long.

At any rate, when we arrived at the town center, we left our tuk tuk driver waiting and walked slowly down the street lined by the different temples towards a park at the end of the road where some ancient ruins lay surrounded by more bodhi trees (under which the first teachings were given). There is a huge Indian style stupa in the park that is vastly different than the Tibetan stupas we had seen in Tibet and Nepal… it kind of looks like a big grain silo, more ancient and less refined than the Tibetan style stupas. It served as a backdrop for a Jain temple that we walked into and enjoyed a peaceful half hour of just walking around, reading all of the different inscriptions which seemed to be a mish mash of Jain, Hindu and Buddhist thought. There was a story of the rise of Jainism which sounded almost identical to the story of Siddhartha Guatama becoming enlightened as the Buddha… This similarity makes both stories seem more like folk lore than fact, rooted in a common fable. It’s hard to say what is true, but it’s fascinating to study the slight differences and similarities. Returning to the town center to visit some other temples we ran into our tuk tuk driver who seemed keen to take us to some shops… so again, the negotiation and sales pitch interrupted our serene experience of Sarnath, and we left him standing there as we walked off in the direction of a Korean temple. This temple was further away, and we were hoping he would drive us there, but after it was clear we weren’t shopping he feigned ignorance (despite signs clearly marking where to go) and we were on foot for the 20 minute walk out to this temple. The walk was well worth it though, as we found ourselves, really for the first time, almost in the country side in the middle of nowhere India. We were by no means that remote, but there were just very few people around, all of whom were friendly and genuinely greeting us with “namaste” with no other agenda. Little kids were playing and we walked through what was almost another little town, with houses and little farm plots and small shrine temples. You could see the city just beyond many of the buildings, but it was so quiet and we felt a remoteness and authenticity just beyond the hustle and bustle that had been rare for quite a while. The Korean Buddhist temple was also quiet, and very inviting as we wandered around, unguided and shoeless. You can stay at this temple (if you can find it) for Rs 110 (about $2.75 USD) a night, and that includes breakfast!

Passing through the center of town yet again, we got back into the tuk tuk and had him take us to the Tibetan Buddhist temple, which he didn’t have much choice about since that was on the way to the hotel. He had the gall to actually follow us into the temple and try to hurry us along since we were now wasting his time. Even his annoying presence could not rush us or hinder us from enjoying this little slice of Tibet. Just entering the temple, we felt instantly transported back to Lhasa. It was like this was a national embassy, transforming the ground into foreign soil. The Tibetan monks excitedly greeted us with “Tashidelek!” in response to our “Tashidelek!”. The temple was filled with scrolls and statues and the smell of yak butter candles.

Thankfully, our driver took us very quickly back to the hotel (we were now a lost cause for shopping for sure) without a word. We had a few hours to kill before leaving for our night train back to Delhi, so I ran a few errands to make an internet post and buy some provisions for the long train ride (toilet paper, snacks, juice). A power outtage, frequent in the state of Uttar Pradesh, waylaid me a bit from my internet errand, but I did get a chance to check email and start the previous post. I tried to get back to the hotel in time to meet everybody for dinner, but apparently there had been a big dinner the night before when we were out at Bodhgaya. Unfortunately, because of the whole boat trip fiasco, which was a change to the itinerary after everybody had booked the trip, this night train was our last evening together and we were leaving around dinner time… Also unfortunately several people had booked plane tickets leaving Delhi on Saturday since we were originally supposed to be arriving there on Friday evening. Since we were now arriving in Delhi on Saturday people were starting to peel off from the group, and we didn’t get a chance to join for a last group meal as we had done with the Tibet group in Kathmandu. So Friday afternoon we lost Elena, the Ukrainian girl, who flew back to Delhi to catch her early morning flight to Goa. And everybody else was getting ready for the train so Kim and I grabbed dinner on our own. Because of the festival our hotel was apparently not preparing Indian food, only Chinese (in an Indian hotel in India… ok), so we walked a few blocks to another hotel for a really delicious Indian meal (pulow for Kim, chicken tikka masala and garlic naan, nearly a staple, for me).

So far we were having a really pleasant final day in Varanasi and were really just looking forward to head back to Delhi, and then home. Unfortunately our alcoholic guide had a little more chaos in store for us. Not learning from the ride to the train station in Agra, we were greeted again by only two cars, only this time the luggage was strapped on top and we were crammed inside just the two this time instead of getting a third… against all our demands. We were surprised (though we shouldn’t have been) to learn that the train was going to be a few hours late and against all his previous assurances the train would not be arriving at 8am the following morning, but more like 10… or 11… maybe. This was really upsetting for our British friend, Louise, because she had a 1pm flight back home on Saturday. She had asked our guide several times if the timing would be problematic, and was always assured “we will be there in plenty of time, what are you worried about?”. Well, this was exactly what she had worried about, and as he drunkenly tried to solve the problem of his own making it all of the sudden became clear that she was going to miss her flight if he didn’t do something fast. Even though he had told us several times that the trains were all sold out in advance, he was suddenly able to find two tickets on an express train back to Delhi that would arrive earlier than ours. He first tried to get Rs 2000 ($50) each from Louise and Shae (one of the two Australian girls who proudly, and commendably, offered to travel back with her so she wouldn’t be alone). In a burst of anger and assertiveness, Kim kind of surprised me when she stepped up and demanded that he pay for this out of his pocket for his mistake, and he sheepishly agreed! The commotion was drawing quite a crowd of onlookers which I tried to disperse… only somewhat effectively. We were all really angered and shocked to learn from Shae the next day that the face value on the tickets was only Rs 700! Our guide who we had already paid well, and who was supposedly hoping for some kind of tip at the end, was trying to rip these girls off in a moment of anxiety for a problem that he himself created and pocket $60… maybe he felt he was owed for providing such a great service of getting them these last minute tickets?! So we lost ourselves another from the group as we said goodbye to Louise. She text messaged the next morning that she made it to the airport on time and thankfully got on her flight home.

At last we were on the train, on our way to Delhi and soon to be rid of this increasingly horrible guide. We didn’t arrive at 10am, and certainly not at 11am as he was still sleeping off his hangover, and at noon there was some worry that we wouldn’t arrive in time for Anke to make her 4:30pm flight out of Delhi (also going to Goa)! Luckily we arrived about 2pm, and heading straight to the airport from the train station she also made her flight just in time, and we were down one more as we went back to the hotel. With everybody leaving at different times we said a few more goodbyes to Agnes, Maria, Sylvie, Stewart and Eleanor, and Shuguna and Shamini… and thankfully, finally to our guide.

Free of his poor advice, Kim and I ventured out with Shae and Rebecca for a really great dinner at a place called Tempting, just around the corner from our hotel in the Karol Baugh district. The food and atmosphere were both excellent, and we had fun gossiping with the Australian girls about the ups and downs of the trip. It wasn’t exactly the group dinner we had expected, but it was one of the best meals we’d had on the trip. The following day we crossed paths a few times again before wishing Shae, Rebecca and Dion (all the Aussies, two of whom were continuing to travel onward) a safe trip on the rest of their travels.

We hadn’t seen much of Delhi the first and second day we arrived, so we ventured out on our own on our last day to see what we had missed. With a little more tuk tuk negotiating, we scored a ride out to Qutb Minar, Ghandi Memorial, and Connaught Place all for Rs 300, and no shopping. Qutb Minar is a complex of early Mughal architecture including mosques (one of which was the first ever built in India), an ancient iron column built of an unknown technique (for the time) that somehow hasn’t rusted in 2000 years, and an impressive minaret that rises above it all. There’s also an aborted attempt at a second minaret that was supposed to be 5 times as tall, given up after only the first story was partially completed. The whole complex is spectacular to look at. The Ghandi Memorial was more impactful than I expected it to be and goes into great detail about the day and place where he was assassinated. What was a little perplexing is that through all that detail, there is almost no information about the political situation that led to his assassination, and zero information about his assassin (who he was, whether he was caught or killed in the act, etc). Ghandi was simply this amazing testament to peace who was gunned down by an anonymous man one afternoon… That may be the most important thing to take away from Ghandi’s life and death, but I found myself just a little confused by the lack of context. We wrapped up our sight seeing with some browsing and shopping through Connaught Place and Paharganj… picking up a last few tshirts and sandals to take home. Back at the hotel we packed and readied ourselves for our flight home, but not before grabbing another great meal at Tempting, our now favorite restaurant in Delhi.

The international flight home (16 hours) on Continental was a welcome return to some luxury… not that we were flying first class or anything, but even coach on an international flight is luxurious with several good meals and deluxe in-flight entertainment – movies on demand and multi-player video games. We arrived in Newark airport, effortlessly breezed through immigrations and customs, and waited (3 more hours) for our domestic leg home to Seattle as chunky wet snowflakes fell down outside. Just days before Thanksgiving, it was like “welcome home, it’s time for the holidays!”. It wasn’t snowing in Seattle (7 more hours… 26 hours total), but Kim’s parents picking us up at the airport and taking us out for sushi for lunch was just as welcoming.

So I’ve had this whole week since then to write this up and give the finale to our great trek across Asia… what have I been doing? Well, I went back to work right away… maybe not the best idea since I’ve never been more jet lagged in my life. I used to think jet lag was a myth, just one night of sleep and I would be back to normal, but I’ve been a zombie for a week. Along with jet lag I’ve also been feeling a sort of backwards of culture shock. Just being at work feels very strange… driving is weird (no horns, everybody staying in their lane), walking down the street unmolested is weird, the overload of information being plugged back into the internet is weird. Apparently I lost a whole bunch of weight because 3 co-workers commented that I looked skinnier… I weighed myself at home after that and despite all the great Indian food I’ve been chowing down on I managed to lose 16 pounds during the course of the trip. Thankfully I only had to spend two days catching up on email and projects at work before a nice long 4 day Thanksgiving weekend. I mostly slept through Thanksgiving and the following three days, and even though I was up early this morning to start writing I am feeling back to normal and ready to start work again, catch up with friends, and get back into the swing of everyday, non-traveler, mundane life. We have been incredibly challenged over the course of the past 6 weeks, and I think we need some more distance from it before coming up with too many conclusions about how we’ve been affected. One thing I’m definitely taking away though, is the inspiration to not let everyday life slip back into too much of a routine. We just lived a lot more than 6 weeks worth of experiences, and there’s no reason that sort of attack on life can’t happen each day. It’s a kick in the ass to make each day as interesting, to make sure we keep learning something new and growing, and to work hard on what’s important to us instead of letting life slip by one work day at a time. We’re incredibly happy to be home again with our great family and friends, and hope to keep in touch with the new friends we’ve made.

I will be working over the next few weeks on a huge update with lots of photos, audio and video (arg, one thing I found out upon returning home is that it wasn’t all those pirated copies of XP in India that wouldn’t read my mp3 player… the USB port stopped working on the damn thing and I need to pop the hard drive out to get all that trip data off there)… and we’ll be traveling again someday (hopefully soon)… so just because we’re home doesn’t mean this site won’t stay fresh. Until the next post… Tashidelek!

  • Kathryn Reply

    Brian and Kim,

    I’m so glad you had a wonderful vacation. I’ve had so much fun following your blog. Glad you are home and safe.


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