Friday, 7 December 2012

Hey Everyone,

Sorry that it's been a while but I had pretty irregular internet access out on the road.  I got back to Kolkata on Wednesday morning after an overnight train from Delhi.  The trip was really an awesome time, definitely the best part of my stay here so far.  I had tons of adventures and I think the best way to narrate some of them is through pictures.

 On the evening of November 15th I boarded a night train to Barielly, Uttar Pradesh, from Varanasi after an 18 day stay.  The train ride was fun, I was in a compartment with some Polish people and I got to talk with some educated India dudes who spoke really good English.  In the early hours of the morning I made it to Barielly where I took an auto rickshaw to the bus station.  At the bus station I met up with Shuman Maharaj, the monk in this picture, who would accompany me to Mayavati, a remote mountain ashram in the state of Uttarakhand.  This photo was taken in Tanakpur, a city on the way to Mayavati where we picked up a private driver to take us the rest of the way.  In the background you can vaguely see the start of the Himalayan mountains.  These were the first hills I can remember seeing since I left Santa Barbara, it was a really cool feeling.
 We stopped in this mountain village for lunch on our way up.  It was a really cool ride, we were right up against the Nepali border and we could see over some river to the Nepali side.  The scenery was really beautiful, there was a big river and lots of trees and little isolated villages and what not.
 My room in Mayavati, the nicest room I've had since coming to India.
 Just after arriving Shuman Maharaj and I walked and checked out the area around the ashram.  It was really really really nice to be out in nature after so long in the plains.  The plains really really suck.  But it was beautiful up here.  It was kind of like Big Bear or the Sequoias except the foliage was a little bit different. 
 The main ashram building.
 This is the view from the ashram garden.  Those are the big huge Himalayan mountains that are so famous.  Tibet is just on the other side.
 The ashram building from one of the mountain trails that snakes up the hills around the center.
The Sean Garth Murphy memorial day hike November 21, 2012
The day before I was set to leave Mayavati these dudes showed up at the ashram and invited me to their village.  They're both college graduates, the one on the left is trying to get into some government service position and the one on the right is a medical officer in the Indian Army.  These guys are members of the budding Indian middle class.
 A view of some of the scattered villages and towns in the area.

 This was the family of the guy on the far left.  It was really cool to check out the village area.  Some aspects of these people's lives haven't changed for thousands of years, while they now use Facebook and are able to get more and more goods from the West.  All over India you can observe the effect of globalization on this ancient civilization.
Can anyone spot the white man in this picture?

 Meanwhile back at the Ashram this Japanese Swami does battle with the huge white Hanuman monkeys with his slingshot.  There are monkeys all over India, but in the mountains I encountered the Hanumans for the first time.  They're probably about 4 feet tall, mostly white with black faces.  They're pretty intimidating and they could cause serious damage if you tried to go hand to hand with one.  
 Shyam Maharaj, a really sweet guy, the day I left Mayavati.
 Tappan Da, a totally righteous homie
 Posing with Shuman Maharaj and some other Swami just before I boarded my bus from Lohaghat to Haridwar on Thanksgiving Day 2012.
 I took this photo during one of the stops on my 15 hour bus ride from hell through the mountains of Uttarakhand.  It was hands down the worst Thanksgiving ever, sandwiched between a bunch of Nepalis with fish breath all night trying to get some sleep.  When I finally did get to Haridwar around 4 AM or so the guest house at the Ramakrishna Mission center wasn't open yet so I ended up passing out on a bench in the lobby of the RK Mission hospital in the freezing cold until it got late enough for me to go look for someone to help me.
The Brahmakund, Haridwar.  It's the place where all the pilgrims come to bathe in the Ganges.
My coffee station I set up, my dad would have been proud if only I could have found some Folgers.
My room at the Kankhal-Haridwar ashram.
The ashram street dogs square off with some monkeys.
Ramakrishna Temple at the center.
Vinayak Maharaj, the last living monastic disciple of Swami Akhandananda.  He's in pretty good shape for 99 and I got to hang out with him a lot while I was at Kankhal.
Swami Pramuktananda on the left, one of the cooler monks I met on the trip.  We took a lot of walks and stuff while I was staying in Kankhal.
Me and Vinayak Maharaj
Pramuktananda got super into the photo shoot and took to putting different hats on Vinayak Maharaj so I could take pictures.  It was pretty awesome.
My favorite street dog curled up in the cold early morning as I departed from Kankhal for Vrindavan.
The Haridwar train station before sunrise.  I had decided after the disastrous Thanksgiving bus debacle that I wasn't going to take a direct bus from Haridwar to Vrindavan.  I decided instead to just take the train to New Delhi and from there figure out some other way to get to Vrindavan, which is only a few hours drive from the capital.  I figured I could just go to the foreign ticket office and get a train ticket from Delhi to Mathura, then take a rickshaw from Mathura to Vrindavan. Turns out it was a much more complicated process than I thought.
Taken from the train on my way from Haridwar to New Delhi.  This woman is gathering firewood.
Typical India, two women working while some able bodied man sits on his ass.
When I finally made it to Delhi I went to the foreign ticket office, which was so packed there was no where to even sit down.  I talked to some guy who told me there were plenty of buses from Delhi to Vrindavan and I just had to make it to the Interstate Bus Depot.  I left the station and got a bicycle rickshaw to take me there.  But the rickshaw wallah took me to the city bus station, not the interstate one, and I figured that out after he drove away.  I started talking to people and found out there was a city bus to the interstate station and eventually I made it there.  That's where I found this super sweet deluxe toilet. 
I had some coffee and a snack at the interstate bus station then jumped on a bus to Mathura via the Jamuna expressway.  I met some cool middle class Indian dudes on the bus to talk to and the 3 hour ride flew by.  All the sudden the bus stopped on the freeway and my friends told me this was Mathura.  I got off and realized they'd dropped us at a freeway off ramp.
I realized pretty quickly that my options were either walk or hitchhike, so I flagged down some dudes who drove me off of this off ramp and down in the direction of Vridavan, which is probably about 30 miles away from where this picture was taken.
The first car I jumped in got stuck in this traffic jam, so I bailed out and started walking up the highway looking for my next ride.  By now I was down to my last 2000 or so rupees (about 40 dollars) so I wasn't about to fork over 200 rupees to the treacherous taxi drivers who live to rip off westerners.  If you don't haggle the crap out of these guys you can pay over 10 times the amount for stuff that an Indian would pay.  I had decided by now that on basic principle I was going to walk or hitchhike as far as I could stand before I forked over anything to those cheating bastards. 
Eventually I jumped on this horse cart and got a ride over the Holy Jamuna river into the Holy city of Mathura on my way to the Holy city of Vrindavan.  I got a ride on a 3 wheel transport car down to the start of the road to Vrindavan where I jumped in a shared rickshaw with seriously like 12 other people.  I made it to the Ramakrishna Mission center for 10 rupees (20 cents).  It was a victory for White men everywhere.
My room at the Vrindavan ashram.  By now I had my travel routine totally on lock.  I'd get into my new room and start looking for a place for my coffee station, shrine, book shelf etc., then unpack my backpack and get totally set up.
Ramakrishna Temple at the Vrindavan Ashram.  Vrindavan has like a totally absurd amount of monkeys hanging around.  Seriously all over the place there's pods of dozens of monkeys.  As long as you don't make eye contact with them they won't attack you, but God help you if you do.
I was talking to this cow from my balcony.
Sudunkshu Maharaj, the best part about the Vrindavan ashram.  He was one of the Swamis I met who I could really talk to for real.  He's generally interested in the West and Western people and isn't judgmental towards us at all.  If you can believe it, he's 90 years old.
After a few days in Vrindavan I left and went back to Delhi on December 4th in order to catch a night train back to Kolkata after 37 days on the road.  This pic was taken on my train ride to Kolkata. I'm sorry it didn't come out well but these are my Muslim friends from Bangladesh setting up their mat to say their prayers.  3 times during the trip they kicked me out of my seat and up into my bunk so that they could face Mecca and say their prayers.  It was really really cool.  They do this beautiful singing thing and then some other stuff.  I had an awesome time talking to them, they were upper-middle class so they spoke good English.  Two of them were marine engineers who work on transport ships so they'd been all over the world.  One of them had even visited the US.  
My Muslim homie catches some zs in his bunk.  

 I got back to Howrah around 6:30 on Wednesday the 5th and took the bus back to Belur Math.  Somehow I got some stomach virus that's giving me hell right now, but I saw a doctor last night and I'm feeling better today.  Overall the trip was a totally amazing experience.  My Bengali improved a lot out there and I got to learn a little Hindi.  I met tons of people and learned a lot about this area.  When I got back to the University it didn't seem like the same place at all.

So thanks for reading everyone, there will probably be one more post on India before I leave on January 1st for Australia.  On January 23rd I leave Sydney and come back to the US.


Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Hey Everyone,

So I made it to the first stop on my trip, Varanasi, on 10/29.  I took the train with this American guy Brian who was at Belur Math and also happened to be going to Varanasi about that time.  We figured it would be safer to travel together since Indian trains are notorious places to get all of your stuff stolen.  He left for the Himalayas a while ago and I'm staying on until the 15th.

I'm having a pretty good time so far.  When I first got here I spent a ton of time exploring the city on my own.  Varanasi is one the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, so its layout is totally insane.  The part of the city where most of the temples and tourist stuff is is called the old city.  The streets are only these tiny allies mabye 10 feet wide at the most.  They're crowded with people, motorcycles, cows, goats, tons of dogs, cats, children, and the occasional water buffalo.  The most interesting part of the city is the ghats.  Varanasi is built right on the Ganges, and the streets that dead end into the river turn into this long system of stairs that stretches the whole length of the city.  Different stretches of stairs have different names, and collectively they are know as the ghats.  These stairs extend mabye 40 feet down into the river (based on what I've heard and my guess) and built into them are tons of shops, temples, lounging places, and other buildings.  The most fascinating thing about them is that when the river rises during the rainy season, the ghats, including the shops, temples, etc. go underwater and are eventually covered in mud.  When the river recedes the government sends these guys with big hoses around to blast the mud off of the stairs and reclaim the ghats.

The cops here are also pretty fascinating.  They're more like a para-military outfit.  They carry these old Russian and British weapons, mostly World War Two era, and their only concern is keeping traffic moving and checking for bombs.  It's not the safest place in the universe, but there's a lot of Westerners around, Westerners and Chinese.  My American pride has been pretty wounded by the lack of American tourists and the heavy Chinese influence.  I was under the impression that China was pretty much a third world country, but there's Chinese people all over the place over here who don't seem to have any less money than any of the white people.  I've only seen a few Americans, virtually all the other westerners are Europeans.  Again I pretty much thought that the US was the only country in the world, or at least the most important one.  But over here, besides the big multinational corporations, the US is a pretty abstract concept.

So anyway I'm having a good time.  I'm sick of the city and I'm spending most of my time nowadays just relaxing at the center.  I leave on 11/15, after Kali Puja, for Mayavati.  I'll close with some pics.


Brian posted on the Indian train.  The train ride was like 10 hours and it went by pretty fast.  We sat next to some Russian guys and it was a good chance to see the Indian countryside, which has some pretty beautiful parts.  It's good to know that not every inch of India is filthy and disgusting (even though the train pretty much was).

 View of the Ganges from a hotel at Varanasi

 Varanasi from the Ganga just before dawn

 Sunrise on the river

 The city just after sunrise
 Another view of the city from the river.  If you look closely in the center you can see a fire burning.  That's one of the many burning ghats, places where dead bodies are cremated, around Varanasi.  Varanasi is a holy place to die according to the Hindus and walking around you see lots of funeral processions with people shouting and chanting going by.

 Here are some of those guys hosing the mud off the ghats.  Like I said, they do this every year after the waterline drops, unveiling all kinds of stuff that is buried by the mud for part of the year.

 For example this temple, which still has some time before it will be fully out of water.  Its foundation is starting to slip into the river bank causing it to lean.

 Varanasi is an old old city.  Here are some ruins I saw along the ghat, notice the cow hanging out in front.  The cows in India are basically just big rats or raccoons.  They live off of the trash and charity of humans just like any pest, and since no one kills them they are all over the place.  There pretty cute though, especially the native Indian cows, and if they didn't shit all over the place I would say we should get some for the US.

 Another view of the ghats.
 A view of the city from a rooftop restaurant.  It might be a pretty good shot if it wasn't obscured by the monkey-proofing job.

 If you look closely you can see a troop of mischievous monkeys scattered throughout this picture.  When these monkeys came around, people got out on their roofs with big sticks to try and keep them from causing trouble at their place.  It was pretty awesome to watch from behind our monkey proof cage.

 Another boatman I met.  He let me try rowing for a second and it was insane.  I couldn't move the boat at all.  Not only do these guys have to be really strong, they have to know how to maneuver a boat and have to be able to fight currents in the water and stuff.   They make bank though.  A boat ride costs 200 rupees per person per hour, about four dollars, and this guy gets to keep half.  To put that into perspective, anyone who makes above a hundred rupees a day (like 2 dollars) in India is not poor.  So this guy does get bankrolled for his toil.

 Temples like this are dotted all over the ghats, built into different nooks and crannies.  It's hard for me to imagine that this was totally buried in mud just a little while before.

 Shops and stalls built into the ghats.

 A quieter section of the ghats I found to chill at.

 This dude is washing his water buffalo.

 This guy's fishing.

 After the bath the guy chains up the baby and leaves the mom off leash to wander around and graze on whatever trash she can find around.  Presumably that guy will be back later to collect them.

This is the night worship at the Ganga.  

With obsequious pranams,