Saturday, May 24, 2008

One Week

Today it has been one week since we arrived in India. If I thought 2 days seemed like a long time a week has been a lifetime. I feel that I am now acclimated to India. I have adjusted to the time difference and the heat(as much as humanly possible), and I know somewhat about the cost of things, at least how much for a bottle of water and a rickshaw ride. Varanasi has been my favorite city so far. A little less chaotic and a lot holier. One thing that I thought was pretty cool and I read some of the others mentioned it is that our clothes are washed in the Ganges. Hindus travel from all over the world to take a dip here and recieve it's blessings, so I feel a little blessed wearing clothes washed there. One of the most intereseting things that I have seen here is the burning ghat. In our society death is hidden and not talked. Here it is open and visible. Cremations are conducted daily on the riverbank. If someone had told me that we would see people being cremated here I'm not sure how I would have felt about it. But seeing it here in it's cultural context I do not find it morbid or gross or scary. It seems to be just a part of life. Moving onto other things, I have enjoyed Varanasi because we have visited many religious sites here, which was the point of our visit. My favorite one by far has been the Tibetan Buddhist Monastery. It was like stepping into another world, so peaceful, quiet and beautiful. The artwork was amazing, partly because of the vibrant colors and partly because of the tremendous amount of it in the one temple. I still have not figured out how the make sculptures out of butter, which were also painted brightly and beautifully. I was thrilled to find out that we will be going to many more places like that. Tomorrow we are leaving Varanasi, I will be sad to leave but excited to move on to the other cities. Until then!!

When it pours

So, yesterday we spent all day at the market in Varanasi and when we got home we were tired so we rested awhile before going to dinner. Around 7:30 we all head to Bread of Life bakery about 10-15 minutes away from our hotel. Dinner was good, but like every other time we eat as a was long. We finally start heading back around 9:30 and it starts to drizzle a little bit. That's ok, no one minds that. Five seconds later, out of NO WHERE, a torrential downpour begins. That is bad, but it only gets worse as the lights illuminating the street also go out...wonderful. The only thing left to do now is get back as fast as possible trying to step in the least amount of cow poop as you can in the dark when the dirt in the streets and the cow poop are all starting to blend into one big pile of mud. We end up splitting into groups of two to three trying to stay together as much as possible and help each other avoid the cows or occasional bike that may come your way. I end up with Mike and Sadaf to begin with and we are doing fine...trying to make ourselves laugh by finding the positives of the situation. For instance: someone (apparently me) will have something to blog about, at least we can drink this water since we can't keep it out of our faces, and...well, I think that's about all we came up with. Anyways, I am walking along fine besides the occasional slip in the mud until my shoe gets stuck around my this happens I have no clue, but Sadaf and Mike wait for me to fix it. Now my only worry is the now 20 pound dress that is weighing me down because it is soaked completely through. Somewhere along the way, Mike goes up ahead to keep up with Brittany, our fearless leader in this downpour, and Rachel joins Sadaf and I. The three of us are almost home...seriously maybe 30 feet, and I see a HUGE puddle so I quickly veer to the right to avoid it and I am successful. Well every part of me is successful except my left side. Out of no where, I fall knee deep into a hole filled with water and who knows what else. I get myself up only to turn and find Sadaf waist deep in the same "puddle" of water. Somehow Rachel helps her out and the first thing I hear from Sadaf is, "I thought I was never coming out!" We laugh the rest of the way home ringing out our clothes as we walk. Finally home we all shower and hang our clothes out to dry and settle in for sleep. Today, Sadaf and I try to find the hole we fell into. It is no where to be found...we are guessing it must have been mud turned to quicksand because all we see is a small ditch about 6 inches deep where we are absolutely positive we fell...interesting. Oh well. It's just another adventure in this wonderfully chaotic place we call India.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Mefloquin, Varanasi, and Group Dynamics

Friday: Mefloquin Day. I told you I would elaborate on this gem of a vaccination more in my last post and I know all my readers have been hanging from the edge of your seat, eagerly anticipating this weeks edition. For those who don't know, Mefloquin is a Malaria vaccination that I had to start taking a week before arrival in India, each week after arrival, and for four weeks after returning to America. This fine example of western medicine does have some odd effects: mainly lengthy, vivid dreams. It has been interesting every morning to trade stories with my comrades about where our Mefloquin influenced minds have taken us the previous night. On a more tangible note, we are in the holiest Hindu city of India, Varanasi. The big story from traditional Hindu myths is that if one dies in Varanasi, automatic moksha is given; this is a really big deal as one person may normally be reborn hundreds or thousands of times. In contrast to Delhi and Agra, there are many less tourist targeted market areas and far fewer and less accostive sales-people. Only in the largest tourist spots, such as Sarnath (just outside of Varanasi,) where Buddha gave his first sermon, do those hawking their wares completely ignore your personal space and a polite no thank you. Rishikesh and Ganges River swimming is next (which is likely to be a Mefloquin dream tonight,) which I am very excited about, especially considering the heat has only escalated since our arrival. Our group grows together every day and it seems to me as though we have all changed in our own ways; we encounter things we have not before and it makes us stronger, together, as a result. I look forward to seeing how this continues to progress almost as much as the actual places we are seeing on the remainder of the trip.

Market in Varanasi

Today was a free day in a market in Varanasi and I was thinking that maybe after days of tiring activities we'd have a little break. I was wrong. Shopping so far in India is one of the most intense and exhausting experiences. We took rickshaws to the market, which as other people have said is quite an experience in itself. I have learned to like it, as long as I don't pay too much attention to the road ahead of me.
Before our market activities we visited a Nepali temple and one of the burning ghats. We were followed around by children trying to sell us postcards (what else) and bindi stickers. It is so hard to say no when they continually ask you, and obviously their marketing strategy works because several of us have given into their insistent demands that we need yet another set of postcards. While the kids today were cute and charming, it made it very difficult to enjoy the experiences of the temple and the ghat. This seems to be a common theme in India. It is so easy to get distracted and miss something very important. There is just so much going on.
The market itself was just a narrow alley with a variety of shops and everyone trying to sell you something. It is even a chore just trying to pick out one thing you want, because you are usually being sold 5 things you don't want. When I think about some of the things I have bought, I can't help but be amazed at how easily these people are able to sell us things that we never had any intention of getting.
I think I am getting used to the heat. Sort of. If I were at home right now I would be so miserable, sweating all day and taking a lukewarm shower at night. But it is just all part of the experience, and I feel better at night when I am exhausted and know that we have spent the day well. It takes some getting used to.
Overall, I am thoroughly enjoying my Indian experience. There is so much to take in that my brain will probably be processing it forever. I am already wondering where I can go next and what other cultures are like. Since this is my first time in a foreign country, I think I expected to be constantly conscious of the fact that this was an exotic place. But as different as it is, in some ways it still feels like an extension of home. Weird.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Interesting day in the neighborhood

Nemaste (hello) from India!

After our day of visiting the Hindu temple, the University, a Buddhist monestary and Sarnat Megan and I decided to walk around the neighborhood we were staying in before we went to a musical concert. I wanted to buy a Buddha replica for a friend who collects them so we stopped in a little shop we had passed on the way back from town. After we walked in, it wasn't long before we found ourselves being asked to follow the owner farther into the shop to see his "best work". We followed and found ourselves in this small room with a mat on the floor surrounded by shevles upon shelves of varying sizes of Hindu gods, buddhas, and animals.
I looked around asking prices and trying to convert in my head while he showed me Buddha after Buddha. Finally I chose one and paid. While I paid, we all turns out 21 people live in his house! He lives with all seven brothers and their wives and his mother, his sister, his wife and son, and lots of pets. He says that they all run the business together. He really is a wonderful craftsman and was fun to talk to.
After we finished talking he asked me if I liked the mark on his arm, I told him that I did and he said he would make me one...what? he was going to make me a tatoo?, he wanted to make me a necklace with the same symbol. A gift he of charge. Now that is something you don't hear too often in India. We are always trying to be sold something. He makes my gift explaining that the symbol is "ohm" (like what you say when you are meditating) and that is good luck and it is his blessing for me. He asks for nothing in return (at least not from me) and we go to leave...again. Before we can, he asks Megan if she would like one. She says she has no money and he, free of charge, my gift. She accepts and he makes another one just like mine. As he gives it to her, he asks what her gift to him is. cricket...we have no gifts...what have we just accepted and what will happen if we don't find some sort of gift...
Well, we obviously made it out of there because I am writing this so we must have found a gift right? Well, I gues we did if you call 52 cents American money and a small tube of paint Megan bought off a little boy today a gift, then we came up with one. So...lesson learned...don't take gifts if you don't have gifts to give in return. oh well...just another lesson learned in India! :)

p.s. you have all read how crazy the driving is EVERYWHERE...well, here is a quote directly from our driver today: "To drive in India you need three things: Good horn, good bag, and good luck." Where good luck is the most important one...haha. Oh yeah and by bag he means air bag!

Ganges River

I would like to start off with saying that I am in no way a morning person. I usually dont even function until after nine on most mornings so this morning was quite difficult in the fact that we had to be getting onto a boat at 5am...yes, functioning, moving, and semi alive to get onto the Ganges River. Luckily, the river is right outside of our hotel so it did not include a whole lot of activity. Besides the fact that most of us were complaining about the ungodly hour that it was, there were many people up and running around in the wee hours. Varanasi is a holy city that sits along the Ganges river. People come here to die, because it is believed that if you die in Varanasi you recieve enlightenment or moksha. As we all boarded the wooden boat, there were two guys that were rowing all 17 of us up and down the river. The river seems to be the main focal point and the center to many different things, even at 5am. I would look over to my right and there were people preforming cremation ceremonies, and a woman selling candles that you could place in the water that would float. These candles were meant to be honoring those that have passed. It was beautiful to see the little lights floating on the dark water. Then there were the swim lessons going on. All of the little kids were lined up, sitting on the stairs, kicking there little butts off in the Ganges River. An even more interesting spectacal were the people doing laundry. They had piles and piles of clothes all sitting on the rocks. Then you would see them slinging the garment around their heads and beating it with sticks. I have no idea if this method works, but I guess I will find out soon enough because I sent my clothes off to the "laundry service" aka the Ganges Wash, the other day. Despite the fact that it was 5am, this was by far one of my favorite activities that we have done. I felt like we were all getting a peek inside this extremely diverse culture by being able to see some of their holy rituals involving cremations, and also by seeing their everyday rituals, such as laundry. All I have to say now is that I hope I get my clothes back and perhaps they will be a little holy...and not have HOLES in them.


No sleepa train .... no problem

This post is coming to you via Buddy system, Britt and Tee!
India is one of the most beautiful places either one of us have ventured too. As roomies we have experienced many different things as a team. This has happened through learning how to work the toilet system to haggling children. As of right now we are in Varnasi overlooking the Ganges river. Compared to Delhi and Agra which we have already visited, this is a much more peaceful city and one of the most holly places in India. Today we ventured to many sights including a wonderful Tibetan Monastary. As of now we have tried many different cuisines, but mostly toast all types of toast: Toast, butta toast, jam toast, butta jam honey toast, Butta cheese toast, cheese tomato toast, and butta honey toast. Most of all we have loved every experience and laughed hysterically about every incident, there truly is no way we could mention everything we have seen or done or heard! Thankfully we have taken many pictures to share with everyone. So this most likely will be the longest post because we are wasting ruppeeeess by the minute, in which we could be using to buy you something... sike !
India is magnificent, but there have been a few problems
1. The sleeper train was a horrible, especially for Tee. The night began by hopping train track, escaping mangy dogs, and a never ending marriage proposal for poor sadaf. After finally getting on the train we realize that six of us are packed into a small compartment like sardines with are only protection being Arron. As we are amazed at where we are about to sleep we get laughed at by two "sleeper" regulars in our car, being made fun is pretty common over here. Tee was unable to sleep on the train due to strangers looking at her through the window, freezing because she had no blanket, and was utterly pissed because the train wouldn't stop shaking and the toilet was a squatting hole with no "TP". Early in the morning the idea of the language barrier became very apparent, when the train Chai Tea man demanded us pay him triple the cost of the Tea while still asking for more. All in all to make a sleeper train pleasurable you need not to venture to a bathroom and take many sleeping pills and never buy the Chai Tea.
2. Britt has decided that Driving anything like a rickshaw, bike, or car in India is strictly for those who want to die. I can only describe these drivers to adrenaline junkies, who live to scare the hell out of us foreigners. I actually think i would have less fear jumping out of an airplane because unlike the cars they have less liabilities. There is no such hing as licenses, traffic police, Speeding tickets, speed limits, distinct lanes, or Street lights. This is the only place i have been where it is more suitable to hit a person then an animal laying in the street. The only time i feel any of us have been truly silent has been in the car or bus rides solely from fear of killing someone or ourselves.
3. There is more feces than anyone can truly handle here. As the cows, dogs, goats, pigs, peacocks, chickens, birds, monkeys, and humans roam the street they leave everything to "mellow" in the streets and walkways.
love and peace from the other side of the Orb
Britt and Tee

Varnasi: very-nicey

As the couple I sat next to on the long flight to Delhi explained to me, people in the West and in the U.S. tend to be very solitary and live in their own world. We have our own schedules to work around, and just decide to call off plans and move on if it doesn't agree with the vast network of obligations we have. It can take forever to finalize an agreeable meeting time with someone or shop and find the best price for something. Here in India, there are too many people to have this mentality. Of course, it's part of the culture, but people have to finalize things on the spot or it will never happen. Vendors will spend what feels like ages to negotiate a price if you are interested. If you say, "I'll just come back later," the next time you are in the viscinity, you can bet everything you've got that they will be looking for you.
The deeper part of this is that people don't have the same idea of personal space. The kind of personal space we give ourselves to lie about our plans and make excuses for things. The point is I've noticed the whole group fall into this as well. Within the first fewdays, we all went from coming to the airport with different lives, to becoming sort of like a family (I don't mean to get sappy on you guys). The key was recognizing the fact we don't know what to expect and opening ourselves enough to assimilate really well. We don't have many reservations, it's best to be out in the open with, excluding things like how much money you're carrying and being unreserved about what you're eating.
As far as I know, noone has become extremely sick. I blessed the tip of my pinky finger in the Ganges today, and I hope I don't become sick just from that bit of filth. Either way, I'll be wearing clothes that were washed in the river as a part of the guesthouse laundry service. Everything in general seems to have been increasingly hospitable along the way. Varnasi is treating us nicely. I'm looking forward to banana pancakes and hot tea for breakfast tomorrow, and wandering the market later on.

Night Train

If people think a 14 and a half hour flight to Delhi was bad, then apparently they have not been on a train that runs for 13 and a half hours under India's conditions. Leaving from Agra and arriving in Varanasi. The only good perk was that it was at night which made it easier to fall asleep; if one could given the not stop rocking, people in and out of the car, and the smell(which is a common theme in India). There were eight of us per sleeping area whch was about a space of 11 x 8 ft, otherwise known as sardenes. If one needed to use the bathroom (and I assume no females did) you would walk into a piss filled room with shit in the air, the best option was to wait and hope that your bladder would not burst until the hotel. Myself,coming off of a 24 hour sickness did not mind the conditions, because I had about 2 hours of sleep the night before, but from what I understood in the morning no one enjoyed it. When we finally arrived, the tell sign of everyone's state of mind was their reactions to hagglers outside the train, which kind of looked like blockers plowing the way in football. But once we arrived at the hotel that has a wonderful view of the Ganges relaxation set in, I feel is entirely due to the incredible A/C in each of our rooms. All I can say is hoo rah, we've got another f*cker to Delhi in a couple of days.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Yesterday was our last day in Agra where we spent quite a bit of time oogling over the greatness that is the Taj Mahal. As we walked into the entrance gates we passed many hagglers all trying to get you to buy their "one of kind, special deal only for you" gifts. It was wall to wall people in line all to the see the amazing Taj. I have to say I was more in love with the Agra Fort which we had visited the day before. That was where Shaa Jahan was later imprisoned by his son because he was spending a little too much money, but if you have to imprisoned, this was the way to go! Anyways, we walked all around the whole Taj where we had removed our shoes and our class soon realized that if we stopped for too long you would have a line full of people all wanting a picture with you! All of us will soon be in everyone's photo album.
Last night we caught a night train to Varanasi. The train had fold down beds and I probably slept the best I have since I've been here. Today we're kind of just exploring the Assi Ghat (the little town we're in) and so far it seems much more peaceful. Tomorrow is a full day of amazing sounding events that I cannot wait to experience but I'll have to get back to you on all of that.

Well, now that we are halfway around the world, I feel that it is safe to say that this is the most exotic place I have ever been. Even though the heat is unbelievabe, it sort of adds to the mistique of some of the sites. For instance, while standing outside of the Baha'i Temple, the heat was so intense that I felt as if I might pass out. However, the structure itself (appearing to be a white lotus flower surrounded in pools of water) looks so pure. The overall vibe that I got from the temple was that of peace and welcome. I felt completely comfortable inside, and especially so while the women sang prayers. The museum was also very interesting. I never knew the history of this new-world religion. The history in which I read supports my initial feeling of peace and also seems like one of the most accepting of other religious thought. So far the Baha'i Temple along with the Taj Mahal have been the most impressive sites that we have seen. The Taj speaks for itself; being ranked on multiple lists as one of the 8 wonders of the world. It is a magnificent site. The white marble also gives a peaceful and pure overtone to the structure. The size is also an impressive feature to observe. I also like the fact that it was built out of love for his wife, yet he was imprisoned across the river (Agra Fort) where he could pine over her. It is tragic and romantic: Shakespeare would have gone crazy with this story if he could have learned about it in time.

I find this trip to be amazing, the group we are traveling with make it even better. Everyone is so much fun, and I am thankful to have Sharee here as my roomie to keep me out of trouble! :D

Been here a few days...Here is what I think...

Alright so Tony was so was crazy just getting here...the flight, customs and the heat were really exhausting and once we got to the hotel I really didn't know what to think. Now that I have had about a week here and have gotten in the swing of things I have realized some things...
1. All hotels in India (except the expensive ones) are kinda sketchy
2. The water here drys out your hair, and smells horrible
3. If you ever wanted to know what HELL would feel like...take a trip here!
4. The culture here is amazing, the people are beautiful, and not wearing shoes and touching what is "Holy" ground sends a tingle through my spine.
5. My roommate Liz and pretty much everyone on the trip is a riot! (the Melon song, Crazy 8's, and the Tea Bandit)
6. The Taj Mahal, the Ba'hai temple, and Agra Fort are so breath taking I could have cried.
7. People here apparently never see Americans so they always want to take pictures with you like you are a celebrity!
8. Dr. Maher isn't an expert on everything so stop asking him all those stupid questions!
9. No one knows what to eat so just pick something and hope you don't puke later
This experience is awesome so far, I can't believe I am here. I am having a great time and everyday I wake up I can't wait to see what is next!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Trip Has Landed

After days watching the sun rise and set from the relative discomfort of airports and airplanes, we have arrived in India. Fourteen hours sandwiched between four screaming, kicking children has left me both physically and mentally famished. After passing through customs we met with our leader and his assistants and took our first bus ride back to the hotel, which sounds somewhat uneventful, but the complete and utter chaos of the transit system makes every ride an interesting and suspenseful one. Motorcyclists with their entire family piled onto the back weave between cars and buses, and cows munch on trash in the middle of the road. After harrowing the trip back we were welcomed by our hotel crew, ate a late snack, and finally were able to rest. Our first day was spent mainly shopping in one of the more colonially influenced sections of the city whilst recovering from the drastic time change. I have noticed that I can only absorb a certain amount of the cultural differences in everyday life at a time; each day something new catches my eye. Our second day was highlighted by the incredible meal we were privelege to at a Tibetan restaurant; course after course was piled on our plates and a reprieve from the soarfing temperature was exactly what was needed. The heat is taking its' toll on all of us as everyone was asleep within an hour of returning back to the hotel around five and staying hydrated is a serious concern. Mefloquin, the malaria vaccination medication I am taking, is profoundly affecting my dreams in a very strange way, however, that will be saved for another post. Spirits are high and I anticipate that the best is still yet to come.


Yesterday was our first day here. It was really hot. We went to a cafe, an observatory and a market. The city is so busy. We rode in our first rickshaw, it is kind of like a golf cart but smaller and more manuvarable. It was terrifying and wonderful. Driving here is tricky business, strategic chaos is the best way I can think to describe it. Just walking on the road you have to be careful not to get run over by a car, moped, rickshaw, bike or a cow and avoid stepping in cow poop too. The people begging especially the children and disabled tug at my heart strings. There was one very dirty cute little boy who barely came up to my hip, his tiny open hand encouraged me to reach in my pocket for change. I was glad to hear later that someone else in our group gave the same little boy their leftover lunch. A few mothers came up to me with holding dirty and sometimes half naked toddlers asking for money for food or medicine. I wanted to give but I did not have change and feared being mobbed by more mothers and more children, though I know they are truly in need. The people who follow you around trying to sell you sunglasses, tiny chess sets, bindi stamps and postcards on the other hand do not tug my hearstrings, especially when they hound you dropping the price trying to get you to buy something that you do not want. It is very noisy, with constant horns and enigines. No one is shy about using their horn at all. Today we visited the Red Fort which was very beautiful with it's pleasure palaces and ornate architecture. In one of the trenches that used to hold running water there was an adorable litter of puppies. We all wanted to rescue them. After the Red Fort we went to Ghandi's park. It was very pretty. You had to take off your shoes and there was an eternal flame lit. There were all types of people there paying their respects to the father of the country. After lunch, which was wonderful, a never ending feast that ended with strawberry ice cream, we went to a beautiful Bahai Temple. I think it was my favorite place so far. The singing was beautiful and the information center was interesting. I really like what I've learned about Bahai so far and would enjoy learning more. Although it has been only 2 days, it feels like a lifetime in this hot unfamiliar busy, bustling place.