Varanasi, Darjeeling, Pelling - by gabrielle
10.7.10 - 10.17.10 68 °F
It's hard to believe it's almost time to leave India. After many loud, colorful, eye opening weeks we are ready for round two of our trip starting in Bangkok. But first, here's a summary of some of the last couple places we visited in India along with some of my final thoughts.
Every other traveler we have met around India has had a pretty strong opinion about Varanasi, mostly discouraging us from spending too much time there. Unfortunately, we had braced ourselves for the worst to such an extent that we only stayed two nights and didn't venture too far from the main ghats(steps or landing on a river) and our hotel which we now think may have been a mistake for such a peculiar place.
Situated on the west bank of the Ganges River, Varanasi is one of the holiest places in India for Hindus. Hindus travel from all over to bathe in the holy river as it is believed to wash away a lifetime of sins. Further, dying and being cremated by the river frees a person from the cycle of death and rebirth according to Hindu belief which is why many Hindus try to hang on until they have made the final pilgrimage. The bodies are wrapped in different colored fabrics (white for men, gold for old women and red or bright colors for younger women) and carried down to the river through the narrow alleys of the city on a bamboo stretcher. Once they arrive at the river bank, the bodies are doused in the water of the Ganges and placed on a carefully crafted wooden structure to insure that the entire corpse is incinerated. We were told that the family pays about 4 to 6 thousand rupees or $85-130 dollars for a proper ceremony. If they cannot pay, the cheaper option is a quicker, Westernized system of cremating with the ashes spread in the river later.
We took a boat ride at sunrise to see all the activity along the river and I was half hoping no funerals would be happening when we passed. Even though our guide book referred to Varanasi as "unapologetically indiscreet" I felt our presence there might be offensive or disruptive. I was a bit relieved when we passed a "burning ghat" that had nothing more than a few piles of ashes and some left over decorations. Our rower was an interesting chap who told us a few tidbits about the city but we mainly talked about marriage. He asked if we were married and if our marriages would be arranged. When I said no he seemed pretty surprised and even offered to arrange my marriage for me if i came back... or he offered to marry me I'm not totally sure. I also got quite the eyebrow raise when I said it was possible to have something like seven boyfriends before marrying. Either way it's easy to forget that "our way" is just as weird to them as theirs is to us.
Darjeeling, West Bengal
We had originally planned to go to Nepal for our last week but decided the possible border hassle and travel time wasn't worth it for the time we had left. Instead we went up to the far northeast to Darjeeling. Darjeeling is a fun little place tucked up in the foothills of the Himalayas where on our two clear days we had spectacular views of Khangchendzonga, the world's third highest mountain peak and the tallest in India.
On the train from Varanasi, Melanie sat by a family with an adorable four year old son. We went to breakfast with the family before catching out jeep to Darjeeling and two things Ram (the dad) said really stood out to me. First, he was talking about other people visiting India and how if you can handle traveling here, you can travel anywhere because of the overall lack of order and all that comes with it. He said, "it's good for you guys to suffer because your life in the US is too good." We have hardly suffered by actual standards but I'd be lying if I said traveling through the country has been a breeze. You can't expect or even demand toilet paper or soap in bathrooms, fair prices, a harassment free walk down the street, punctuality of transportation, customer service or even a strait answer. So yes, I agree with Ram that it is important for us to "suffer" by our standards a bit and experience a way of life so completely different from our own. I think that's the basis of why I like to travel, I am so curious about how other people live their lives everyday in a way that is just so foreign.
Ram also discouraged us from giving food or money to the poor who approach us begging each day. He said if we give them anything we are enabling them and they will never be forced to change their lives. This one is hard for me because I know I am so much better off than them and they know it too just based on the color of my skin being a foreigner and the fact that I can afford to travel. Generally I would just look at them and shake my head, I probably only gave about 10 people money the whole trip and it was usually mothers with babies. Ram also said not to look the people in the eyes because then it's harder to say no. This part was too much for me. My roommate when I studied abroad in the Dominican Republic told me when we dealt with the same situations that "everyone deserves to be acknowledged as a human being." She is right and since then I have tried to always look people in the eyes, even if I am saying no. It's heartbreaking because i want to do something to help but feel overwhelmed by the need and fear that it would never be enough. This is definitely an aspect of travel in developing countries that I still need to work through and decide how I'll respond.
Back to our time in Darjeeling;It was a bit chilly up in the mountains and we were surely not prepared with our desert wardrobes. Most days we sported multiple layers of baggy, brightly colored clothing, socks with sandals and fuzzy animal earmuffs we bought for less than a dollar from a refreshingly non pushy street vendor; a sight to behold for sure. We wondered if people thought that this was how we normally dressed where we came from or if they assumed we were just unprepared for the cooler temperatures...yikes! We spent our four days in Darjeeling wandering around checking out monasteries, going through the Himalayan Mountaineer Institute museum, doting on the fluffy red pandas at the zoo, climbing up to various viewpoints around town one of which had a 20 foot concrete t-rex (random), waking at sunrise to try and catch a glimpse of the Himalayas before the clouds settled in and dominating some delicious food. All in all, a relaxing much needed change of pace for a few days.
From Darjeeling we ventured even further northeast to the newest Indian state of Sikkim. Sikkim is bordered by Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan and was only annexed in 1975. The people here look and act nothing like those we encountered in the rest of the country. Most appeared to be of Nepalese or Tibetan origin, spoke Nepali or a local language instead of Hindi, dressed more stylishly western, seemed visibly happier, healthier and more content and were not aggressive or pushy in the slightest.
I got miserably carsick winding up and down the mountains to our Sikkim destination called Pelling but was rewarded by fresh mountain air and beautiful scenery once we finally arrived. The town consisted mostly of restaurants and hotels that couldn't possibly survive on the sparse number of tourists who visited. There were barely any souvenir or knickknack shops and we had the darndest time finding a piece of fruit or a phone. Our first day we decided to make up our own trekking route down the mountain to a river we spotted from above. We found some clear paths but mainly walked through various terraced crop fields and peoples' property. They seemed confused but not entirely shocked to see foreigners exploring the area and were happy to wave and talk to us a bit. Our best encounter by far was at a lopsided hut by the creek where a woman in her late 70's or 80's erupted into dance when she saw us! She emerged from the hut with a huge smile on her face and motioned for us to take her picture while she twirled and swayed and hummed to herself. She was so adorable and full of energy! With her were two young children, an infant and a teenage girl. I have no idea where the men of the family were or how often they leave their hut if ever but she was certainly happy to see us. It definitely made my day.
I celebrated my 23rd birthday on Friday and was treated by my crew to some lovely colored toilet paper streamer decorations on our breakfast table. The hotel staff even added a small vase of flowers and a candle to top it all off! We spent the rest of my birthday sitting on an abandoned buildings' foundation enjoying the view and eating cookies. Later in the evening we watched "Up" in English! A good day with dear friends, I was happy.
We left Pelling in the rain early Saturday morning to journey to our final destination in India, Calcutta. All three of our assigned seats on the bus were either double booked or occupied by someone without a ticket hoping no one else would show up. The bus was packed so my seat ended up being the single seat right in front of the door by the driver. I was the only one with an assigned seat but still shared half the seat with a 13year old boy and the area in front and to the side with a family of four and another 14 year old boy. The 14 year old boy, Probin was so impressive and wise for his age. He told me about his school which taught both spiritual studies (mainly Buddhism) as well as general education. He said his daily schedule is to get up at 5am, wash his face, chant mantras until 8:30am, eat breakfast, have regular non religious class until 3:30pm then more mantra chanting. He said his favorite subjects are math and science so I asked him if he wanted to be a doctor and he said, "no, I want to help India." The boys had a break from school and were heading to their hometown to dance in a Hindu festival. I asked if they were Buddhist or Hindu and he said, "both. some people think their god is the big god but I think they are all good. it's not good to have any negative thoughts." One of his instructors was sitting/standing right behind me and would chime in every once and a while and tell me more about the school. I found out mainly orphans attend but my new friend did have parents, I also found out they are not allowed to speak Nepali at school (English only except Tibetan for mantras) and if they are caught they have to wear a certain hat until they next student gets caught and they can pass it on. When Probin asked about me I told him I was traveling and then would return to the US for a while to find a job, his response was simply, "oh that's good. I will pray for you." I really enjoyed talking to him and was so blown away by his respect, wisdom and attentiveness to our conversation. Once he got off the bus his little friend scooted over to share the seat with me and we shared my ipod while he grooved and bobbed his head to my country music. They were a perfect distraction from my severe leg cramp and fear of the windy road ahead.
Now that it is almost time to leave India I still maintain a neutral position on the "love it or hate it" spectrum and feel my time here and experience was just right. I will surely miss the Bollywood movies, music and gossip but will find a way to keep up on all the juice! The cashew nut gravy, squishy short bread sweet and head wobbles will also be greatly missed. So long India, hello Thailand!
Our photo gallery is updated too! http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/3ifbysea/