Blog #11 - India Can Be Varanasty, But We Still Loved It!

We are definitely getting into the groove and adapting to how things work here.  Every town has its own mix personality and attractions, so it’s hard to get bored or tired of this fascinating country. 

Last we left you we were rolling out of Mundalai Tiger Reserve by bus and were on our way first to Mysore (nice), then Bangalore (quite fine), to be followed by Varanasi (totally crazy).

Mysore was very nice, and while we were there we cranked up our inner tourists and got to most of the main attractions inside three days.  Although the people in Mysore (mainly the rickshaw drivers) weren’t as friendly as we had hoped, it didn’t affect us too much as we spent most of our time in our own little world, either near our hotel or going to and from the attractions. 

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Our favourite attraction in Mysore was definitely the zoo.  It is over 100 years old, and afterward we discovered that it is the best in India.  Near the zoo was a city nature park where we burned a few more hours, and hung out with peacocks up close, at full ‘peak’! 

Overall it turned out of be a “recharge that batteries” kind of stay.  Which was fine by us as we had traveled a lot lately and Varanasi was quickly approaching.

However, on one occasion we did learn why this city could genuinely be called “my sore”.   We both wore flip-flops on the day we visited the Mysore “Ambas Vilas” Palace.  Whether due to religious reasons, or sometimes just in order to minimize wear and tear, you are often required to remove your shoes before entering a building.  Not a problem so far.

After we were done touring the cool tiled palace, we were spat outside at the back – not back to the main entrance.  We were in the actual back.  Aside from a museum, a temple, and a few souvenir shops, the only other thing to do was walk back around the palace to the main entrance where your shoes were.  Re-entry to the palace was not permitted.  Please remember we were barefoot.  As was everyone else.  Oh, and it was noon without a cloud in the sky. 

Oh India.  We were a little in disbelief but they don’t call this “Incredible India” for nothing.  We start on carpet, but of course the carpet comes to an end at a point, and then we are on dark interlocking stones.  It was warm, at first.  Then hot.  Then really really freaking hot – such that our reflexes took over both of us and steered us screaming straight into the closest shade.

Perhaps our western toddies were just not used to it.  It was like a scene from a 'Just for Laughs', and the joke was on us, running from shade to shade, with people pointing and laughing.  Health and safety is not a huge concern in India but when our giggles turned into cries of pain the joke was over and we really began to feel this was some strange kind westerner abuse.

We made our last dash across paving stones (bad) and carpet (not as bad) back and arrived at the shoe storage booth, the attendant said to us with a smile, “small tip, small tip?”, to which Vince responded, “Here’s a tip - run some longer carpets!” 

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The soles of our feet were sore for a few days following :(.  So that’s our sore spot about Mysore.  Oh well off to Bangalore, by train!

This was the first train ride Vince paid for entirely online.  We logged in, picked the train, train time, and seating class and printed out our ticket and just showed up with our passports.  It was a small leap of faith, and it worked!

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As for Bangalore, it was far better than other travelers had us believe.  Bangalore is also called the Garden City, as the city is lined with beautiful trees and green space all over.  It’s also called the silicon valley of India, as it is loaded with high-tech firms.

We’re still kicking ourselves for not spending more time there.  But since we already had a flight booked out of town the next morning all we could do was spend half a day.  Both of us are capable of traveling fast, so we ramped up the intensity to make the most of our time, and we left with an overall good impression of the city. 

The first stop on our whistle-stop day was the science museum, which was very retro, but also pretty cool, and which brought back many childhood memories for both of us.  Their interactive science experiment booths needed a lot of maintenance, but their chain-reaction “Rube Goldberg Machine” was Steph’s most favourite thing in the world. 

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After a short stop at the science museum, we went straight to one of Bangalore’s many malls and shot down an item Vince didn’t even know was in the cross hairs of his bucket list.  Vince discovered that there is a flight simulator in the Forum Mall in central Bangalore.  For about $25 (a quarter of the price it would cost back home), Vince got to “fly” a Boeing 737-800 from, and back to, the Dubai airport, with the (necessary) help of a qualified, uniformed, co-pilot! 

We don’t know if Vince has what it takes to actually be a pilot, but he did land the plane himself (with the co-pilot’s help on throttle), and only three flight alarms went off during flight (each of which the co-pilot dealt with).  Haha, what fun!!!

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Alarms or not - Vince was so in the zone that after the simulation was over he actually was afraid to fly the next day (and it didn’t help that our flight to Varanasi was on a Boeing 737)!  But by the next morning his acute fear of flying had subsided, and it was time to run to the airport to get to Varanasi. 

We had no idea what was in store but we were as ready as we’d ever be.

After a hopscotch flight that landed in Calcutta, then Lucknow (all on the same plane), we landed in Varanasi.  We had arranged for a driver, but as you can guess by now, he was nowhere to be found.  India airport drivers 2, Vince ‘n’ Steph 0. 

We won’t go into too many details as to how we got to our hotel, but let’s just say it wasn’t pretty: it involved many cellphone calls, a ‘guy’ who showed up and showed us the way to the pre-paid taxi booth, a dodgy ‘receipt’ made out fully by hand for the same price our ‘guy’ quoted, and then four different drivers in succession, whose ages ranged from 14 to 50 - the last one of which didn’t know where we were going.  That led to some serious talking from the back seat…

But we got there, and the place was great.  The Marilyn Guest House is just a two-minute walk from the Ganges River.  It is a clean, friendly, family run business, with a very hard working chef!  We were not impressed with how we got there, but after a quick nap, we were happy that we’d be staying there, safe in one place for the next four days in this holy Hindu land and all its crazy energy.

If India had a “Texas”, it would be Varanasi.  This is where much of what you’ve heard about India is not only true, but amplified.  Yes, cows roam the streets in India, but in Varanasi there are always a few within view, and not only do they block traffic but they block pedestrian alleyways, too.   

We took two boat rides along the banks the Ganges – the centerpiece of any visit to Varanasi – one at sunset and one at sunrise.  Both were entirely different experiences.  At sunset we got an orientation of all the different “ghats” (steps) that lead into the river, and watched the Shiva ceremony from the boat after sunset. 

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The next day we however saw the ghats in full action.  At sunrise thousands of Hindu faithful partake in their ritual washing in the river, and whether we wanted to or not, we saw several “sadhu” men getting dusted in white powder, from head to toe.  We don’t really know why we took this photo, but as you can see we’re not the only ones shooting ;)

This is definitely a place everyone needs to see once.  Preferably on a day you’re feeling particularly ‘connected’ to the universe and not in a 5-star mood.

We’re wrapping this up just as we leave Varanasi.  We’re on our way back to Delhi by air where we will (hopefully, fingers crossed) be picked up by a car and meet our friends Ritu and Jay and their children for a week-long set tour of Agra and Jaipur, and then some time in their home-state of Punjab.  We’re looking forward to it as it’s about time we put this India trip on auto-pilot! 

So good-bye for now until next week with more Luciani fun!

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