the Long's Strange Trip

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~  A Love/Hate Relationship ~
October 4 through October 10, 2000
$1 U.S. = 45 Indian Rupees
(Remember to click on the thumbnails for enlargements of the photos)

Agra, India
October 4 through October 5, 2000

(ccl) Our plans had been to take the train out of Jaipur the same day we got back there, but both trains that left that day were completely full, so we settled for second class reserved seats on the train to Agra the next afternoon.  Second class isn't bad, as long as you don't have to spend too much time there.  The differences between it and first class seem to be generally related to cleanliness, and to the number of beggars and vendors that are allowed to make their way into the car.  There's no air conditioning in second class, which isn't too bad in and of itself, because there are fans and there's usually a nice breeze coming in through the open windows.  The problem becomes evident when you get off the train at your destination and discover that you're covered with a layer of pollution, sweat, and dirt.  I don't know that I've ever been happier to take a shower as I was when we got into our hotel in Agra.

Choosing a hotel in both Agra and Varanasi is not a casual affair.  Like every other place in India, once you get in a cab and start for the hotel, the driver tries to convince you that the place you've chosen is too expensive or full, because he wants to take you to another hotel which will pay him some commission.  We're used to that by now.  What you have to watch out for in these cities, the tourist "Meccas" of India, is a racket which has been perpetrated by different hotels in the area for the last couple of years.  According to Lonely Planet, and to an article I read in "Outside" magazine last year, some hotels have been known to poison the food they serve to their guests.  When the guests inevitably become ill the hotel rushes in to "help", calling their doctor, who then proceeds to charge exorbitant rates for his services.  The tourist, who's not in much position to argue by this time, has no other choice but to pay the bill.  Lonely Planet advised only staying in hotels that they recommended, because they had received quite a few reports on this scam, and were diligent about keeping those places out of their book.  This is what we did, choosing the Hotel Siddhartha, a dingy little place whose saving grace was that it was two blocks from the Taj Mahal.  We met two American girls in Varanasi who weren't so lucky.  They checked into a hotel which was NOT listed in Lonely Planet, and sure enough, they both got violently ill after eating in the hotel's restaurant.  The hotel wanted to call in their doctor, but the girls were on to the scam by then, and instead went to the hospital, which they told us was NOT a place you wanted to spend any time.  One of the girls was still quite sick when we met them.  We marveled that neither one of us has gotten sick once in India.  We've been eating pretty much anything we want, except meat.  We ate the fish in Goa, because it's really fresh there, but other than that, I've had no meat since getting here, and Wiley's only eaten it a couple of times a week.  Maybe that has helped, or maybe we've developed "iron guts" from living on the road for so long.

If it weren't for the Taj Majal, I don't know that anyone would come to Agra.  It's incredibly crowded and incredibly dirty, with a thick smog hanging over the city.  Like so many other towns that we've visited in India, it's groaning under the weight of too many people, and it's unable to support them with either employment or services.  The average tourist now spends less than twelve hours in Agra, and we could see why on the ride to the hotel.  

We were up bright and early the next morning to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise.  This incredible monument to love was built by the emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century.  The emperor's wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died during the birth of their 14th child, and the heartbroken ruler commissioned the Taj as a final resting place for his beloved.  Some 20,000 people worked on the Taj, from all over India and Central Asia, and afterwards many had their hands or thumbs amputated by order of the emperor, so that the perfection of the Taj could never be duplicated.  

Shah Jahan had plans to build an exact replica of his wife's mausoleum in black marble, which would serve as his final resting place.  When it became obvious that the emperor's obsession would lead to financial ruin for the kingdom, his son, Aurangzeb declared himself emperor and imprisoned his father in the Red Fort, within view of the Taj Mahal.  He lived out his days in this prison, and was laid to rest in 1666 alongside his wife in the Taj.

When we arrived at the gate at 5:45 A.M., there were several tourists milling around, waiting for the gates to open.  Admission prices went up four months ago, and it now costs 505 rupees, an exorbitant amount in India, for foreign tourists.  Indian tourists pay 105 rupees to enter after 8 A.M., as none of them would pay the 505 rupee price required for them to enter for sunrise.  It was quite nice, as we almost had the place to ourselves.  Later in the day we learned that they had closed the Taj for several hours during the afternoon so that Russian President Vladimir Putin could visit, and that once they opened the gates, the crowds were tremendous.  

First glimpse of the Taj - it doesn't disappoint  I've commented on other pages on the website about how seeing imminently famous monuments has been somewhat disappointing.  They seem smaller than they did in the pictures you've seen of them, or there's trash around them, or there's scaffolding on them.  But the Taj didn't disappoint.  As you enter the main area through a huge red sandstone gate, your first view of the Taj is framed in the arched doorway of the gate. The Taj seems to float from this angle, and the pre-dawn mist swirls around it.  It's impossible to take your eyes off of it as you walk towards it - it seems to rise to meet you, in some way.  As the sun rose in the east, the white marble took on various shades of pink and yellow.  The image of the Taj is reflected in a long pool in front of the building.  Surrounding the mausoleum are four minarets, which aren't actually used to call anyone to prayer, since the Taj isn't a mosque (Shah Jahan was a Moghul, and consequentially, a Muslim.).  The minarets are designed to fall away from the Taj in the event of an earthquake, so as not to damage the mausoleum.  

The Taj Mahal at dawn  The grounds and walkway leading to the Taj are beautifully kept, but the real attraction is, of course, the mausoleum itself.  With a technique still used by craftsmen in the area today, stonemasons of that time inlaid semi-precious stones, like jade, lapis lazuli, and carnelian, into intricate floral designs and Arabic script all over the inside and outside of the building.  Sunlight filters in and illuminates these works of art in an incredibly beautiful fashion.  The masterpiece is the actual tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, which is covered with semi-precious stones arranged in patterns of twisting vines and beautiful flowers.  You can see some of the detail of the work in this picture.  Amazing inlaid semi-precious stones

But there is a downside to the Taj, and it's the backside.  The Yamuna River flows past the back of the Taj Mahal.  Scientists recently declared that it is incapable of supporting any life form, and the stench of the thick, black water is almost overpowering on that side of the monument.  In addition, the World Health Organization has declared Agra a "pollution-intensive zone", because of the city's coke-based industries and its noxious vehicle emissions.  The result is acid rain, which threatens to destroy the beautiful white marble of the building.  There are no easy answers to these problems.  Shutting down industries in a country where unemployment is already astronomically high is extremely difficult, and would fuel other problems.  

We had arranged with the auto-rickshaw driver who had taken us to the hotel the night before to pick us up at 11:00 to see the rest of the town.  Due to Putin's visit, the Red Fort was closed, and we weren't really all that keen on seeing another fort, anyways.  The driver took us to see another mausoleum in the area, known familiarly as the "Baby Taj".  Moving around in this traffic-choked city takes forever, so after that it was time for lunch.  He took us to a restaurant called "Zorba the Buddha", which is run by members of the Osho Asram.  You may remember a guy known as the Rajnesh Bahgwan, who had a community of followers in Oregon in the 80's, and who was eventually deported for immigration fraud.  He was viewed as something of a nut-case, and his followers were openly ridiculed in the States and in Europe.  Whatever - they make great food, and we had a great lunch there.  The name comes from the Bahgwan's vision of a spiritually enlightened man who also knows how to have a good time - sort of a cross between Zorba the Greek and the Buddha.  Their logo is of the Buddha, sitting cross-legged in a tuxedo and holding a martini glass.  India - the land of every imaginable religious philosophy.

I mentioned earlier that we weren't able to get tickets in an air conditioned sleeper car for the overnight trip to Varanasi.  In addition, the train was over three hours late, so it was after midnight when we finally boarded.  Before that I had an "I've had enough of India" breakdown outside the train station.  When we found out the train would be late, we decided to go and get some dinner.  Outside the train station, every rickshaw driver wanted to know where we were going, or what we were looking for.  There must have been twenty of them following us through the parking lot.  A survey of the makeshift restaurants in the direct vicinity of the train station pushed me over the edge.  We finally escaped into a bicycle rickshaw pedaled by a man old enough, easily, to be our grandfather.  I calmed down and we were able to enjoy dinner.

While waiting on the train, we noticed a group of fierce-looking men, bearded and turbaned and dressed in white robes, who were all carrying some sort of antique weapon.  They were absorbed in the task of weighing themselves on the coin-operated scale when Wiley summoned the courage to ask one of them for a picture.  He complied, and started to ask for a tip, until Wiley pulled the picture up on the LCD screen of the digital camera and showed him his image.  He was amazed and soon Wiley had the entire crowd of them gathered around, staring in wonderment at the tiny image of their cohort.  They then insisted on a group photo, and tried to communicate with Wiley, but the gap was too great.  They managed to make him understand that they wanted a copy of the photo, and supplied an address as to where it could be sent.  We still don't know who they were or why they were carrying swords and spears around the train station, looking like human anachronisms.  Throwbacks from another age

In the third class train cars theft is a big problem, and armed guards regularly patrol the aisles.  I slept with the laptop bag positioned right at my head, and it turned out that the open windows weren't much of a problem.  It was cool at night, and there were no mosquitoes.  We got to Varanasi around noon and checked into a hotel.   

Varanasi, India
October 5 through October 6, 2000

Varanasi is one of the most holy cities in India.  Dying in Varanasi ensures a Hindu that he will be released from the continual cycle of death and re-birth, and he that he will go to be with God in heaven.  In addition, there is a complicated ritual of worship that Hindus can perform in Varanasi, which will also guarantee them salvation.  It involves bathing in and drinking water from the Ganges at several different bathing ghats, worshipping at many different temples, smearing yourself with cow dung, and circling the city on foot five times, among other things.  We had heard a lot of bad things about Varanasi, so we were prepared for the worst.  But maybe because we've been in India for almost seven weeks, we weren't really surprised by anything we saw.

Varanasi claims to be one of the oldest living cities in the world, at over 2000 years.  The city is holy to Buddhists as well as Hindus, as the Buddha received enlightenment not far from here, and did much of his early teaching here.  Tourists flock to Varanasi, despite the hassles of pushy sales people, hotel touts, and three-foot wide streets often blocked by large cows.  Perhaps it is because there are few places in the world where you can so openly view people going about the business of religious devotion.   

Sun filters through the narrow alleyways of Varanasi  I suppose you could take an organized tour of Varanasi, but the best way to see the city is to simply walk the narrow alleyways, visit the ghats, and soak in the atmosphere.  Almost as soon as we hit the streets, we picked up two "escorts" - local boys who offered to lead us to the burning ghats and the Golden Temple.  Of course, they had ulterior motives - they wanted us to look in some shop somewhere, owned by someone who would give them commission if we bought anything.  They were nice kids and the narrow alleyways of the city can be disorienting, so we let them lead us around for awhile.  They showed us one of the two burning ghats in the city.  A "ghat" is a flight of steps that leads down to a river or lake, and in India, the ghats are often one of the main centers of activity in a city.  People come there to wash clothes, bathe, make offerings, and socialize.  In Varanasi, there are over twenty-two different ghats leading to the Ganges, and each one has a distinct purpose.  The burning ghats are the places where the dead are cremated.  It's quite expensive to use wood for cremation, and most people can't afford it.  The burning ghats are piled with tons and tons of cut wood, and scales stand ready to weigh the amount of wood needed for a cremation, as the cost is based on this.  It costs about 4000 rupees to cremate a body with wood, versus 400 at the new government-built electric crematorium (our young boatman said it was electric, but he may have meant gas).  Only those considered "rich" by Indian standards can afford to cremate their loved ones on the traditional wooden funeral pyre, but this is definitely the preferred method.  Men known as doms  handle the bodies and carry out the cremations.  Doms are "outcastes", literally, the lowest of low, those who belong to no caste.  The doms immerse the body in the holy waters of the Ganges, then cremate them.  

Faithful gather to offer prayers to Durga  Varanasi was particularly crowded while we were there, due to the ongoing festival to Durga.  Pilgrims from all over the country streamed into Varanasi to pay their respects to the goddess.  During these festival times, makeshift temples are often erected all over town, and worshippers gather there to sing songs and offer prayers.  It's easy to find all of this very strange, these people praying and singing to a painted plastic statue, but as I write this I'm watching a story on BBC World in which the pope is praying and kneeling in front of a statue of Mary, and I'm not sure that the two things are all that different.

The most famous temple in Varanasi is the Golden Temple, and the Hindu faithful packed the narrow streets leading up to it.  800 kilograms of gold cover the upper exterior of the temple, dedicated to Vishwanath, the incarnation of Shiva as lord of the universe.  Photography is strictly forbidden in the area, as the BJP, a Hindu fundamentalist political party, has declared the Great Mosque next door to be one of its next targets for violence.  India is amazing in many respects for its religious diversity.  Hindus, Muslims, and Christians live and work side-by-side, and in most areas, things work well.  The widely-publicized tensions in the Kashmir region are an exception.  Kashmir is the northeastern-most state in India, and is predominantly Muslim.  When the Indian subcontinent  was split into India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh in 1947, Kashmir was left with predominantly Hindu India, and the Kashmiris have been fighting for their independence almost ever since.  The government of India is secular, meaning that the government attempts to uphold the laws of the different religions as well as the laws of the state - the exact opposite of the separation of church and state that we supposedly have in the U.S.  The result of this is that there are laws that apply to Hindus, laws that apply to Muslims, and laws that apply to Christians.  It's an attempt to keep all of the groups happy in a country with an acute case of religious fervor, but the reality is that, with a 90% majority, the Hindus run the country.  This is why Muslims in states like Kashmir want their independence.

We enjoyed just hanging out and watching life go by on the main bathing ghat, Dasaswamedh Ghat.  We watched people praying, bathing in the holy waters of the Ganges, straining under the weight of huge vessels of the water as they carried it away from the river, getting shaved, getting massaged, and floating garlands of bright yellow and orange flowers, coconuts, and little leaf boats with tiny candles in them on the surface of the muddy brown water.  The World Health Organization says that the Ganges has a fecal coliform level of 250,000 times the "safe" level, yet people go right on bathing in and drinking the water, and the city has suffered no major cholera outbreaks, even when it was rampaging in nearby towns.  I think about the terrible outbreak of E-Coli that claimed the lives of several children who had been playing at an Atlanta water park one day a couple of years back, and my mind reels at how the masses of people who immerse themselves in these waters stay healthy.

Just another sacred cow  As always, there were cows everywhere on the streets, but since many of the streets of Varanasi are no more than glorified alleyways, the cows and their refuse seemed to be more of a problem.  Perhaps more than any of the other problems in this country which are so blatantly obvious to visitors, the plight of India's animals has bothered me the most.  When I observe the often emaciated and diseased cows and bulls, wandering the streets or crowding onto medians in the midst of intense auto exhaust, I can't reconcile how it can be that 90% of the citizens of this country revere these animals as sacred, yet seem content to let them reproduce at will, eat plastic, paper, and garbage, and live generally miserable lives.  As long as the cows give milk, someone will claim them, but when they stop, they are left to roam the streets and fend for themselves.  We watched as people filed by a bull in one of the alleyways of Varanasi, blood streaming from his head, as he had sustained a terrible injury to one of his horns, probably in a collision with an auto.  I am disgusted and appalled by this, and then I remember that in a country where human survival is often hand-to-mouth, animal health and well-being is, sadly, secondary.  And since animals left to their own devices will do what comes naturally to them, the problem continues to grow unchecked.

I started thinking in Varanasi about how I have developed what I would describe as a "love/hate relationship" with this country.  Most of our experiences here have been overwhelmingly positive, but the problems I've observed and written about here will continue to dog me probably for years after I leave here, just like the mental images of the beauty and color and the memories of the intense flavors of the delicious food.  Nowhere in India has this love/hate been more apparent to me than in Varanasi.  We were lost in the back alleyways of the city, where the pathway is no more than three feet wide and lined on both sides with shops selling every imaginable souvenir.  It's stiflingly hot, as little or no air circulates back there, cow "bombs" are everywhere, and pushy sales people who can't take "no" for an answer follow you around, attempting to wear down your resistance.  Just when I'd had about all I could take, we emerged from the labyrinth onto the main bathing ghat, where a sunset festival was taking place.  At the water's edge, a priest, situated on a raised platform, offered various things to the goddess Durga.  Hindus gathered around him, banging drums and cymbals as he carried out a ritual that took almost an hour and involved fire, coconuts, and flowers.  He chanted constantly, apparently in an ecstatic trance, and as the ritual reached its climax, the drums got faster and more urgent.  At the end he was exhausted, and the faithful clustered around him and prayed and sang.  I can't describe the privilege of being able to observe something like that - something that was so obviously NOT carried out for the benefit of the tourists, but purely for the purpose of offering thanks to God.  Priest offers prayers to Durga

First rays of dawn on the Ganges  One of the highlights of visiting Varanasi is taking a sunrise boat ride on the Ganges (If you've been paying attention, you realize that we got up twice this week to see sunrise, and you're impressed.).  Our boat "man", Bablu, was twelve years old, and charmed us into giving him double the original asking price for the trip.  He pointed out the names of all of the ghats as he struggled to row the boat against the significant upstream  current.  Truly, the town was magical in the light of dawn.  Pilgrims entered the water, their hands pressed together, their lips moving in silent prayer.  The sounds of chanting and singing wafted over the waters, and intermittently people shouted the name of God at the top of their lungs.  The devout immerse themselves in the waters of the Ganges

In the afternoon as we prepared to leave Varanasi, we enjoyed a few moments of gazing out at the Ganges from our superb vantage point on the balcony of our hotel.  Bablu had told us in the morning that their are four types of people who aren't cremated when they die, according to the tenets of the Hindu religion.  Those include children under ten years old, pregnant women, people who've been bitten by cobras, and sadhus, or holy men on a spiritual search.  Varanasi is full of these men, who have shuffled off the trappings of the material world in search of enlightenment.  Instantly recognizable in their minimal clothing, with matted hair and begging bowl, they sit on ghats and stare out over the Ganges, I suppose, searching for answers.  Right before we left the hotel to go to the train station we saw something floating down the river, and realized that it was one of these men.  Dying in Varanasi assured him of eternal salvation, according to his religion, and fittingly, his body completed its journey on earth in the holiest of holy waters.

Our train for Delhi was over two hours late leaving Varanasi.  I have new appreciation for the boast of the British that when they ran India, "the trains ran on time".  I suppose Gandhi would protest that that was small compensation for the years of denigration suffered at the hands of the British, but I would have settled for a little more predictability in the train schedules.  We had first class tickets for the ride to Delhi, so we slept well in air-conditioned comfort all night, arriving in Delhi at around 7:30 A.M.  We had made a hotel reservation from Varanasi, asking specifically if they had direct dial phones, so that we could work on the web site, get email, and get some things done before heading for Kathmandu.  The hotel room turned out to be pretty dirty, and had no window, and when we tried to dial out from the room, we were told by the guy at the front desk that he would have to place the call for us.  Upon hearing this, we got our bags and went down to check out, so that we could go to a hotel that "really" had direct dial phones.  When we told the desk clerk of our intention, he refused to refund our money, saying that they *did* have direct dial phones, you just had to come down to the front desk to use them.  Right....  

Our next hotel proved to be a 100% improvement.  Dependable phone lines, an incredibly comfortable bed, and cozily sandwiched in a lovely green neighborhood between the Granadan Consulate and the Greek Embassy.  While here, we received the following email from our sherpa in Nepal:

Dear Wiley & Kristine,

Greetings. How are getting on there? I am very well here.  Hope you are having great time in India. I would like to
inform you that I am going to Gosainkund trek on 6th Oct. for 6 days. I extremely sorry for I am being unable to pick
you up at the airport. I am so sorry for it. I will arrive in kathmandu on11th Oct. then I will meet you soon after I arrive at Acme Guest house (where I have reserved a room for you) by 2-3Pm. I will send to my friend at airport in order to pick you up and he will take you at Hotel at Thamel. He will have been standing by holding a piece of paper like a board, where there is written on
   Wiley & Kristine Long
    From United States
    Hiran Magar,Nepal
When you will see your Name written on the paper carring a man, please! Come towards him. After I arriving, I will tell you about every thing what we need in trekking and we will arrange about our trip on 12th whole day. we will drive to pokhara on 13th and we will fly to jomsom on 14th, I have already arranged a tickects to jomsom for all of us. thank
you very much for all yours kind co-operation. I cannot wait to see you on 11th. take care of yourselves.

sincerely yours

We can't wait to meet this sweet-sounding guy, who thinks that we need to be told to approach someone who's holding a sign with our names on it.  And we're looking forward to a slower pace of life, and breathing some clean Himalayan air.  There is no doubt that India has left a permanent mark on us.  I find myself questioning my former views about the necessity of foreign aid to places like this, as I become more convinced that India's problems are now or will become our problems.  After meeting and living among these people, it is difficult to see how I can remain detached or uninvolved.  I imagine that images from India will pop into my mind from deep in my subconscious for years to come, when I least expect it, and when I'm not quite sure what to do with them.  I know that I am compelled to come back, and take it all in again, despite the fact that being here is often difficult.  Something draws you in, demands your attention, and shakes up your Western sensibilities and all you thought you understood.  It is an appalling and magical and dirty and beautiful place, and one which I will never forget.

Click here to continue in Nepal with "On the Roof of the World"



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