Agra to Varanasi Via Sleeper Train

Last Day in Agra
We had a free day in Agra. Although there were things to see and do, NONE of us did any of them. The Agra Fort was allegedly nice, but we've been worn out by all the forts we've seen so much. I killed a couple hours on the Internet and walked around a bit. Sat around the hotel having masala chai much of the day though. I went out with 4 other girls to a rooftop restaurant about 20 minutes walk away. Check out the view from the photo on the left. We all met up at 8:00 to walk to a taxi and head for the train station where we could catch a train to Varanasi.

We ended
up not leaving the station until after 9:30 though...Indian trains are NEVER on time. As always we were getting stares from all directions, especially the girls. We were in our PJs since we had all planned to just head straight on the train and pass out. I was sweating in the heat, though I've gotten quite used to it by now. The picture on the right is what we had to deal with just a few meters in the doors leading to the tracks. They were doing construction RIGHT there while people were trying to get in and out. They didn't stop for anybody and a dump truck had poured stones/gravel on my feet and I had to go through the rubble to search for my sandal. We got on the train and were on our way to Varanasi.

Varanasi, India
We arrived in Varanasi several hour later than scheduled, but we were still there by 10:00. We took auto rickshaws to our hotel. I had felt very different atmosphere here in Varanasi. First off, there are very little non-Indian tourists here. Secondly, the feel of the city is just more...Indian. More cows on the road, more poverty, more manual labor jobs, less English, etc. Take a look at the video below of some of my trip from the train station to my hotel.

We all took cycle rickshaws into the city center later in the day to see the market. Ajit had taken us to some cotton shop where they were showing us how they made their fabrics using block printing. It was a 'routine' stop that all Intrepid tours went on and I was sick of the bullshit so I got 3 other people and just left. I walked around the town with Lisa (the German), Debbie, and Emily (both Aussies). We ended up making our way to a small street side restaurant and we stopped for some lunch. I ordered an Onion Dosa (see photo on left), which was just ok...but for less than $0.40 USD it's hard to complain. We could see them washing the dishes and silverware and glasses with tap water and dirty rags. None of us seemed to care...and I have yet to have even the slightest of upset stomachs. We walked around some more, looked as some Saris, and took in the atmosphere. I took a picture from some typical street, which you can see the picture on the right. We came across a painted elephant in the street. You see, tomorrow is the color festival Holi. Everybody paints everybody...but I'll get to that in a little bit. We caught a cycle rickshaw back to our hotel and met everybody at 6:00 for a boat ride up the river Ganges. We went, 12 in a boat, to watch the puja ceremony. They performed puja, or a blessing, for the river Ganges because of it's alleged holy origins. Please click on the link to read some history. I was not too impressed with the actual ceremony. It was interesting to have witnessed the event, but the actual ritual seemed quite barbaric and uncivilized to me. They perform this blessing in multiple places along the river and each place does it twice a day (see photo on right). Each time lasts for 45 minutes, I was bored after the first 5 minutes. They were ringing bells and beating drums...BUT GET THIS, not to any rhythm. They were waving candles and incense around...BUT GET THIS, not with no particular choreography. Maybe if I was into voodoo or believed that they were actually doing something I would have found it more interesting. The boat ride was 2 hours long and VERY VERY buggy. You have no idea how dirty this river really is. People bathe go to the bathroom in it, they burn dead bodies and dump them into this river and they still wash their clothes, bathe, and drink from this river. They find it holy, yet they still shit in it? Afterwards we met at a restaurant called Haifa, which served Indian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern cuisines. The funny thing is I'm fairly certain I've been to the actual Haifi (in Israel). I ordered American Chop Suey, which was amazing. It was probably on the top 5 dishes I've had while in India. You can see a photo of it on the left. After dinner I turned the wrong way out of the restaurant and stumbled upon some interesting things. First I met some local guys who tried to get me to follow them to some liquor shop and then when I was there they wanted me to buy two bottles, one for me and one for them. They said it was the festival 'holi' and I should do it in the name of the holiday. I said that it was quite coincidental because today is my holiday (I made up some bullshit name) and claimed they needed to buy me two bottles and them one bottle. They didn't like this, but took the hint and left me alone. Of course they tried to sell me pot as well, everybody tries. From what I have discovered it's legal here in Varanasi and you can buy it from government-run shops for 60 Rps for 10 grams. In American units that translates to under $3.50 USD per ounce...yeah you heard me correctly. I'll have to pass on the offer though. On the way back to my hotel I came across a Muslim protest with hundreds of men and boys wearing all white. They were marching and chanting along with a huge speaker they lugged around on a wooden cart. Back to my room and after some effort I finally got some sleep.

Woke up early the next day...a little too early. I've been waking up before 8 most days. I met everybody for lunch at 9 and ordered a banana pancake with chocolate. They brought my pancake, but forgot the chocolate. They came up with my chocolate 10 minutes later when I was already done with my meal. WELCOME TO INDIA. I say that on average I get what I've actually ordered 60 to 70 percent of the time. Sam, Dave, and Myself went out walking along the Ghats along the river Ganges. We were targeted several times by water balloons filled with thick colored paint...since it was the color festival. Luckily they all missed. We were accosted by Indians trying to sell us things and take us on boat trips. We had one boy try to sell us pot, then a boat ride, then he followed us into the local market. We walked no less than 15 minutes, briskly mind you, into the main bazaar area and we still was following us and asking us if we wanted to buy things. We finally decided to ditch him by going into a restaurant and get some drinks. That little ****** can't afford to follow us in there...and I mean that both literally and figuratively. We left that place and walked aimlessly for close to an hour. We met some man who was going into a small town within Varanasi to buy some cheap saris, we decided to go along with him. We took 2 cycle rickshaws, since there were now 4 of us. We road for 20 or so minutes and made a pit stop for some whiskey. Sam and Dave wanted some drinks for the festival tomorrow. We got back on our rickshaws and rode another 15 minutes. Man where these drivers working for their money. We rode through some VERY INDIAN feeling areas. Very off the beaten path. One area was clearly a Muslim area and it was nice to see the clear divide of Hindus and Muslims. All the children and younger adults were smiling and waving at us. Many of them ran along the cycle to shake our hands and touch us. Many of them have likely never seen a white person before. We got off and paid our drivers...only 30 Rps. per driver (that's only 60 us cents for more than 30 minutes of non-stop cycling). We went into some fabric store and Sam bought a silk, or pashmina, scarf for his girlfriend. We then left and walked for 30 or so minutes to hail an auto-rickshaw. We had to walk some distance since we were nowhere around that type of technology. We found a couple and bargained. We were going to Sarnath, the birthplace of Buddhism. It was here the Buddha gave his first sermon in 528BC. You can see a picture of me on the left. There wasn't much to see but o well. We also went a museum that had ancient and Buddhist stone carvings. We took the auto-rickshaw back to our hotel, but ran into some mess. The ride was about 25 minutes to get there, but all-in-all it took over an hour to get back to our hotel. We ran into bumper-to-bumper traffic. I can not even start to explain the mess. People were on motorcycles, bikes, small cars, and trucks, all of them beeping their horns. There must not have been a stretch of silence lasting longer than 5 seconds. My head was aching by the time I got back. I was shocked, and I MEAN SHOCKED, that our driver not only didn't hit somebody but didn't completely kill someone. There are no close calls in American, not like this. The drivers here are amazingly aware of their entire surroundings. They have to be. Much of it is due to the Caste system. If they are in a caste of tuk-tuk drivers they learn the skill, and they learn it well. But we finally made it back, safely, to our hotel around 4:00.

OK, so back to the color festival, called Holi, which is tomorrow March 11. Many of the Indians drink on this day, and Indians don't really drink. People that don't often drink and get plastered typically don't know how to handle their alcohol. It's for this reason that everyone in our group has decided to do the following; At 6:00 in the morning tomorrow we are checking out of this hotel and booking 2 rooms, just for the day, in a hotel near the train station. We are going to play the 'color festival' on our own on the roof at the hotel until it's time for us to leave for our overnight train to Kolkata. Then we'll wash up in our 2 rooms and check out of the hotel and take our last overnight train. Being on the streets is not safe, especially for the girls. There are drugs and sexual violence all over. Police forces are ramped up for days just for this holiday. I was already painted with blue 'color' while I was walking today. It's just not safe to be on the streets so we are all back in the hotel tonight early as well. We might venture out for a quick bite, but not too far. Ok, I think I've said enough and am not even sure if what I wrote makes much sense. Hopefully it does make sense. Cheers everybody. O and one more thing. Uncle Marc, I sent 4 saris home, but they're not what you wanted. I am going to try to buy you what you want, but my guide, Ajit, told me that the FedEx here in India won't accept payment through an account number. I'll check this out for myself, but I'm not sure if it will work out. Cheers!


Jaipur to Agra via Bharatpur

Our Last Night in Jaipur
We all went out to the movie theater, Raj Mandir, which critics claim is the best cinema in all of Asia. It was very nice inside. Pictures were not allowed inside, but you can see a photo of the outside on the left. We saw the movie Delhi 6 and it was all in Hindi, all 3 hours of it. After it was over I had to explain to everybody what it was about. Our guide had fallen asleep during the film so I needed to tell him as well. The group couldn't follow the plot, but it was very very simple. It was about the Hindu-Muslim conflict in Delhi and there was SO much symbolism in the film that it would make even a 10th grade English teacher want to puke. I got some McDonald's after, which was just down the road. I ordered a Mexican chicken wrap and it was good to eat some quality food for once. Yeah I know, McDonald's food being classified as 'quality', quite scary, huh? The next day we left early to leave for Bharatpur, India.

This was a sleepy town particularly known for the Keoladeo National Park, which is 29 sq km. I went there on my own because I wanted to be able to walk at my own pace. 4 or 5 of the girls didn't even bother to go, while many of the others went in groups of 2 or three. All the others hired a cycle-rickshaw for 50 to 100 rupees. This park is known for bird watching, and I'm not the type to watch birds, but I thought it would be a nice escape from the 'India' that I've been immersed in for the last 2 weeks. I knew it was a large park, but I had NO idea. I ended up walking, briskly mind you, for a little over 3 hours. I went over the map and scaled it to see how far I had actually walked...the total...between 14 and 17 km. That's between 9and 11 miles. I had worn a pedometer and it read 18000+ steps just during those 3 hours. I had seen turtles up close, as well as monkeys, antelope and deer. 10s of different species of birds within a few meters at one time. I even came across some local villagers when I was trekking off the main road and onto, unpaved, dirt paths. You can see some type of antelope or deer eating in the water in the picture to the left. The sounds were so amazing and coming from all over. At some points I was a little frightened, but I managed OK...I was even able to see a beautiful female peacock with all her wonderful feathers attracting a male, not too far behind. Afterwards I relaxed and then most of us ate at the hotel's buffet. It was quite expensive, but we ALL made sure to get our money's worth. See the photo on the right...that's my second serving, you can guess how much bigger my first serving was.

We took a short, 2 hour, bus ride to the city which has the 1st wonder of the world. Yep, you guessed it, the Taj Mahal. I went to the Taj Mahal after settling into my room at around 1:00. I have my own room again, but this time only for one night. I went alone because the others were going to go later to see the sun set. I wanted to go when the sun was over head for the best light for my photos. Also I've seen so many sun sets on this trip and found them ALL to be pretty pointless. I am 'clever' enough to know what something would look like without actually seeing it. So many people are convinced that watching something with a sun set or sun rise makes that thing inherently more beautiful, which is completely bogus. The aesthetics of something is the same without or with the clear skies and sun. True, it might make the 'moment' more meaningful, but that's only if you let it...but it's not me to make something out of nothing...My first impression was that, "wow that is big". I just starred in awe for a little bit. It was so perfectly symmetrical and the gardens so just it made me smile like a fool. My guide had said it would take at least 3 hours to walk through the entire Taj Mahal complex. I guess I set a record with my little shy of 1 hour walk-through. It cost 750 Rps. ($15 USD), which is VERY expensive, but it only cost 10 Rps. ($0.20 USD) for native Indians. I felt I spent ample time looking at all the finely carved and set marble and inlaid gem stones. I exited the Taj and walked out of the opposite gate I entered. I walked around just to see the street of Agra. I was grabbed and hassled by 10s and 10s of men and boys trying to sell me marble, t-shirts, Internet, post cards, ice cream, rickshaw rides, food, etc. I enjoy telling the Indians, "no", mostly becuase I mess with them. I only mess with them if they don't leave me alone after I politely say, "No thank you sir" at least once. You can see some more photos at the Taj Mahal if you check out my pictures.