18.03.2019 - 22.03.2019 33 °C
It's time for a little map update... you can see our original route from Sydney up to Yangon.
From there we travelled north to Mandalay, took a bus west to Bagan, flew south to Yangon and then over to Kolkata before arriving in Varnasi. Phew! Thankfully flights haven't been expensive as they're a real time saver given the larger distances we've been covering.
Today is day number six here in India and already we have a lot of feelings and thoughts on this country. India needs little introduction with a population of more than 1.3 billion people. Every person I've ever met has told me its worthwhile visiting despite its challenges. The easiest way for us to enter was to fly into Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta.
We had no local currency when we landed and having been told the ATM was outside we naturally left the airport terminal to get cash. Unfortunately the ATM machine was not working and the only other one was back inside the airport, upstairs. It seems to the case that in India you cannot enter an airport without a valid flight ticket. One must do their best not to get upset in situations like these! We were able to buy a pre-paid taxi ticket using our card but it turned out the driver had no idea where our accommodation was and was unable to get through on the phone. After an hour in the car it was dark and starting to rain. It turns out our accommodation was up a small alley street that was in the dark. There were a number of people there and after a lot of initial confusion from the locals and frantic hand waving we were brought to what appeared to be a derelict building. Our internal alarm bells started to ring and we were about ask our driver to find us another hotel when a man appeared and told us our apartment was upstairs.
We thought this couldn't be possible... we're staying in a hotel. Aren't we? We were told the power had gone out and the lifts were not working. I'd have to go up to the 8th floor to see for myself if it was legitimate. Just as I was deciding whether or not to trust the man the lights came back on and it didn't seem so bad. I decided to take the lift up with the man and view the apartment. Its advertisement on Booking.com was deceiving but we must admit it was in very good condition. There was a suspicious looking sign on the door but it turns out the swastica is a symbol of divinity and spirituality in India. Don't judge a book by its cover eh.
Kolkata is the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal and more than 14 million people live here. We only had two nights/days and I'll be honest we set our expectations to very low. However we were pleasantly surprised to find that it's quite a cosmopolitan city and relatively accessible from a Western point of view. There's even a Hard Rock Café and I'm not ashamed to admit we indulged in western comfort food one evening. There's not a lot to do as a tourist but we were able to fill up a couple of days. Mother Teresa is best known for her work with the sick and poor in Kolkata. This is where her tomb resides and we were only a 20 minute walk away. There were very few people there, perhaps a dozen Western tourists and a couple of nuns handing out cards. This didn't come as a surprise given most of the country are Hindu.
There are people everywhere and everything seems familiar but different. Traffic is a nightmare but thankfully they have Uber and after getting an Indian sim card it's been relatively easy to get taxis. You just have to be prepared to spend a lot of time in them.
That afternoon we took a trip out to the Dakshineswar Kali Temple, the number one attraction. It's home to twelve small temples dedicated to Shiva, one of the Hindu gods. I won't lie this was a frustrating visit. It took over an hour to get there (12km), two hours to get back (rush hour) and we must have spent at least an hour and a half in the queue to get through. There we were, the only westerners in the place. We had to remove our shoes and socks which we were used to from Myanmar but at least then the ground was somewhat clean. We were stared at by many who were curious and some would ask for 'selfie selfie'. They don't see foreigners too often so you just have to embrace it. We weren't allowed to take photos inside but I can tell you the statue everyone was waiting to see was tiny and we were only able to glimpse it for seconds in what felt like a mosh pit where you're constantly pushed forward and skipped in the queue. We found this particularly amusing given it's meant to be a religious site.
On Wednesday we arrived in Varanasi. I'm delighted to say we had no flight or arrival dramas! However the Holi festival was due to take place on Thursday and we didn't realise we'd have to lock ourselves in our hotel room for 24 hours for fear of being pelted by dry coloured powder and water guns. This sounded like a lot of fun until we were told we may get something toxic in our eyes or colours in our hair that could take weeks to get out. Women and men have been assaulted and we were warned by our hotel several times not to go outside so we took their advice. Holi is a festival known for 'spring, love and colours' but our interpretation of it is more closely akin to a more playful version of The Hunger Games.
I took the photo below from Google to give you a better idea of what you could expect.
Varanasi is one of the most religious cities in India and many Indians come here to die, spending their last few weeks or months in a hospice as they believe that if they die here they won't be reincarnated. The Ganges river flows through here and you'll see many bathing in it because they believe it has healing properties despite the fact the water is highly polluted. The level of bacteria from human waste in the waters of the river near Varanasi is more than 100 times the Indian government's official limit. That won't stop many bathing in it daily. Down one end there are women washing their clothes in the river and up another end there are bodies being cremated right next to it. It's intense to say the least.
Next to the Ganges river is a large area filled with narrow cobbled stone streets, food stalls and shops. It's a labyrinth and we got lost in there for hours just wondering around and taking in the chaotic sights and sounds. Smells vary from 'bearable' to 'hold your nose at all costs'. Many people regularly spit out saliva or chewing tobacco, there's plenty of urine you can smell and lest we forget the cow dung. Dead bodies are frequently carried through to the Ganges by their relatives and are covered in bright decorations. You can thankfully (?) just see the outline of each corpse. We stuck out like a sore thumb to the locals who are only too happy to try and sell us everything they have but as it's all just so bizarre and interesting it is worthwhile. At one point we were caught running in-between a group of kids with water guns who couldn't wait one more day for Holi and a massive cow (also running) to the sound of Bollywood music being blasted out. Couldn't make it up.
The streets are claustrophobic and even when you're out in the open there are cars, tuk tuks, motor bikes, regular bikes and pedestrians all around you. It really is some kind of organised chaos and it's very unlikely we'll ever see an accident despite the mayhem. Horns are constantly beeping and there's rarely a foot path so you have to have your wits about you at all times.
On our final day in Varanasi we were able to venture back onto the streets again to people watch and see who survived Holi...
We also took a boat ride in the Ganges. It was physically the furthest we had been away from people for almost a week and it felt great. We got adventurous at one point and dipped the tip of our finger into the water but quickly applied hand sanitiser afterwards. You would too.
We're happy to report that we haven't gotten sick yet and we get to hold onto our diarrhoea tablet stash for another day. The food in fact has been great so far and we both agreed that Indian food here is tastier and feels healthier than what you would typically eat in Ireland or Australia, dodgy food stalls excluded. We knew India was going to be difficult. It's like visiting another planet and a real reminder of the downsides of overpopulation. Everyone is in a hurry and many are rude. It's hard not to be suspicious of those that are friendly but we have met a lot of nice people. Twenty percent of the population live below the poverty line... it's hard not to feel incredibly sorry for them and at the same time it's a reminder to be incredibly grateful for what we have. Tonight we fly further west to Jaipur before heading north and off the beaten track to Rishikesh.