Varanasi and Kolkata

We woke up VERY early and took our things to a new hotel, one that was closer to the train station. We only had one car so we took shifts switching hotels. We were all down by reception by 5:00 am. When we arrived in the new hotel we went directly up to our two day rooms and passed out. We crammed on the beds like sardines in a tin. I couldn't sleep and went just tossed and turned until finally going up on the roof for some tea around 7:30. The others slowly trickled to breakfast and by 11:00 everyone was awake. The food at this hotel was VERY expensive, but at least they served meat. Everyone played 'colors'. I did not see the fun in it and listened to my ipod instead. Maybe it was because I was the only one sober, or maybe it was because I already did this stuff at camp during our Maccabiah games? Everybody was completely covered and after 2 hours we all had to take turns showering and changing and re-packing for our sleeper-train to Koltata. Nobody was able to get all the paint off their body and they still have it on them as of today...haha. Our dinner took ages to get, mostly because there was only one cook. Our waiter was drunk and stoned, which didn't help the matter. After an hour of waiting for our meal the waiter finally came out only to tell several of us that our meals couldn't be made and we had to choose something else. We finally got our food, which was average at best and paid the outrageously inflated prices. We took shifts getting to the train station. We got on the train and were on our way to Kolkata by 6:15 pm. I had taken the top bunk (of 3) and laid my sheets down first, before doing anything else. On all my other sleeper trains (6 or 7 so far) I have just slept on the bed w/o even using any sheeting. It's always so hard to make a bed when you don't even have enough room to sit up. And doing this when you're already tired, you can forget about it, as many people did. We chatted for a bit and I tried to get to sleep by 8:30 or so. That didn't work out too well. It was a crappy night's sleep.

When we arrived in Kolkata I noticed how much more 'industrialized' this city was. The train station was much more developed than the other places. There were no rickshaws outside the translation (any anywhere really). There were swarms of old fashion yellow taxis. We took 3 taxis and got to our hotel, where I shared a room with Dave. We went on an orientation walk through the city and we left Ajit 30 minutes later. We all went to the Victoria Memorial and we largely impressed with the architecture, but not so much the art exhibit inside. I walked around the gardens and then most of the group went back to the hotel afterwards. Debbie, Emily, Lisa, and I walked around to find a place to stay for the next night (and for the next two nights for me). We went to 4 or so places and I decided to let the 3 girls share a room and I would get my own (and maybe share one night with David). Sorry if this entry makes no sense, as I'm having a conversation with Emily right now (the twin). The 4 of us walked around and ate some street food. We walked to the New Market, and I bought some stuff. On our walk home we stopped in a bottle shop I spotted and got some wine and vodka. It was VERY cheap. We made some more shops at a few book stores and DVD shops and before we knew it it was getting late and we had to meet the group at 7:30. I found and bought a Lonely Planet for Ireland...what luck. We took a cab back to our hotel, but the driver couldn't find it and got lost for over 45 minutes. He would stop and ask for directions at EVERY damn corner. One time he had left his car to ask someone and we just all left, but we paid him and left the money on the seat. We walked the rest (asking everyone we saw for directions). At the hotel we started drinking and had a grand feast at dinner. Afterwards we drank in Ajit's room. He had to get up early so he had gone to bed and we all went out to a club. It was SOOO expensive. It was expensive for western standards. I only got one drink, but some guy was buying us drinks. I got 2 drinks from him and many others got one or two. He just saw us having such a good time he wanted to be kind i guess? I danced and danced for HOURS. Sam danced a little, but Dave didn't. Most of the girls danced on and off, but I SWEAR I danced the ENTIRE TIME. I danced with this GORGEOUS girl that I met in the bar. She lives in India. We talked a little and were flirting and I swear I could have married that girl. WOW. She was Nepali...I think that's where I'll go to next.

I'll keep this short because this girl next to me wants to go online. Basically we drank and danced all night. Back at the hotel, well after 2 am the party moved to Dave and My room. I wasn't up for drinking more and Debbie, Dave, and Astri (the girl from Norway) wanted to. I gave them my bottle of wine and went to bed in Debbie's bed. Emily, her roommate had woken up and saw be next to her and was a little curious, but all is good. They had spilled wine all over the bed and floor in our room. They didn't get much sleep and are trying to sleep it off now (it's 11:30). We're meeting at 12:00 in the lobby and then maybe going to the Marble Palace, but I still need to work out where I'm staying for the next two nights. I'll have pictures up sometime in the next day or so. Cheers.


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!