India. The final destination of my trip. I’ve been on a whirlwind couple of days, getting through Calcutta, Varanasi and Agra, and every place has been a wonder in its own right.
I had timed my arrival in Calcutta with the Cricket World Cup final, played in Mumbai with India battling Sri Lanka for the trophy. The city ground to a halt as everybody was watching on any television available. India won and there was complete pandemonium in the streets, not of the usual kind, but an enormous elation and happiness. It went on deep into the night, and many hugs, chants and dances were had.
I thought I would be clever by doing India last so I would be prepared for it. I was wrong – nothing can prepare you for India. It’s so vastly different from any place I visited. It’s loud, chaotic, busy, charming, disgusting, all at the same time. The poverty is striking and everpresent, and it’s difficult to look past it. Still, Calcutta was an easy introduction, and it was Varanasi that would be really challenging.
I’d been looking forward to visiting Varanasi since planning this trip. I’d visited another center of religion, Jerusalem, which had impressed me greatly, so I was very curious to see what the focal point of Hinduism would be like. And it was overwhelmingly amazing. It’s India at its most ‘Indian’. Think cows blocking alleys, snake charmers, piles of rotting rubbish, monkeys scampering across rooftops, music pounding, rikshas crisscrossing traffic, huge crowds – the whole deal. But it’s much more than that still. Intense, enchanting, bewildering, maddening, and ultimately a strongly affecting throng of humanity. And that’s before you witness the outdoor cremation ceremonies.
To die in Varanasi is to be liberated from the cycle of death and rebirth, and bodies are burned under piles of firewood, their ashes slipping through grates in the floor and mixed with water, then flushed into the Ganges river. The same river used for bathing by thousands. The same river all of Varanasi’s sewage is dumped into. Water safe for bathing may contain 500 faecal bacteria per liter – the Ganges there contains 3000 times as much! The city is unbelievably dirty. Urine flows in streams, there’s excrement everywhere (cow, goat, dog, man), piles of rotting food, clouds of flies, dogs eating cow shit, you name it. At times it’s an assault on the senses and you always watch your step but it’s just a part of the spectacle of life unfolding everywhere around you.
Then it was on to Agra, to visit the uber-famous Taj Mahal. The first glimpse is breathtaking. I had mine on my hotel’s rooftop, as I turned around and saw the massive white dome baking in sunlight. Truly stunning, and I was well excited to visit at dawn the next day. It didn’t disappoint – it’s quite possibly the most beautiful building I’ve seen on this trip. Perfect from every angle, every distance. Its size imposes from afar and awes from up close. Like all of India so far: spellbinding.
So yeah, I’m loving India. Yesterday my bus never appeared so I hitched a ride on the highway, ended up on some backstreets of Agra, then shared a tuk-tuk with seven people (plus the driver, and two babies) to get close-ish to my hotel. Traveling is an adventure again and I like it very much. I can also happily report that my bowels are still functioning fine, a small miracle with all the (delicious) street food I’ve eaten so far.
Tomorrow morning I head to Jaipur in the province of Rajasthan, where I intend to spend two weeks traversing the province visiting various fortresses, palaces, painted cities, and to ride a camel through the Great Indian Desert. It’ll be hot as hell, it’ll be awesome.
Here are some photos but I’d recommend checking out the whole album on Facebook here – it’s my favorite collection of photos so far.