Sunrise on The Ganges

This morning, as promised, we were up early and headed to the Ganges to watch the sunrise and morning rituals along the river. Prayers were well underway when we arrived at 5:45. We sat for awhile on the stone steps and listened and watched. It was much the same as last evening but the crowd was smaller and seemingly more solemn. Once into our boat, we followed the shoreline for a couple of kilometers. All along the shore there were people praying, washing themselves, washing their clothing, living and dying. It felt like we were watching the most private parts of their lives as we floated along in our boat. Because the morning was quite foggy, the sun rose without much fanfare and we headed back to our docking point.

We had a quiet breakfast at a nice hotel along the street and discussed some of the aspects of our adventure on the river. I think that we are all having difficulty describing what we are experiencing in a way for other people to understand. There is so much beauty in the ceremonies and the rituals that are taking place yet we lack the understanding to fully appreciate them. As we continue our journey and continue to ask AJ the same questions over and over again, I hope that we will indeed have a much greater comprehension of all that is India.

After our breakfast, the rest of the day was our own. Most of us headed back down to the river as that seemed like a sensible starting point. Richard and I wandered along there for some time and then headed up one of the staircases back into the old city. We wandered through narrow streets and alleys, not having any real sense of direction. Throughout these wanderings we came across a bullcow trying to get into a temple (he wasn’t successful), many food vendors tucked into nooks and crannies along the street, people in bare feet, some walking or some riding bicycles, motorcycles squeezing their way through, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers and children going about their daily business. It is the most ordinary yet so very different from our own lives. And that is what travel is all about – an appreciation and compassion for those that are different from ourselves. Let us hope that we can bring these lessons home with us.

We finally found our way out of the narrow street maze to the main intersection that we recognized from the previous day. We decided to call for a tuk tuk and head back to the hotel. Once the line of tuk tuks realized our intention, we were bombarded with offers. The fellow that eventually took us actually evicted a whole family from his vehicle so that we could ride. We didn’t realize this until we were already committed which was unfortunate for the evicted family. As the driver did not know exactly where our hotel was, he dropped us across the street at a shopping mall. It was a bit of an adventure getting across the street but we are picking up the skill of following a local and going when they go. An important skill to have, don’t you think?

So, here we are back at the hotel catching up on our blog and planning the rest of our day. We will probably walk around the area this afternoon and then the group is heading out for dinner this evening. Just another typical day in the life of a traveller!!

Hope all is well with our readers and we always look forward to your feedback.  Miss you all!!

Observing the ceremony before heading out on the boat.

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Before the sun came up.

 

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It took a while to see the sun with all the fog or smoke, but he finally came through.

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Along the shore.

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The symbol below that looks like a swastika is not.  It is a Hindu symbol for good luck.  A swastika is orientated counter clockwise.

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Below you can see a picture of three areas (one still burning) that are used for cremation.  There were two main areas that we saw used for this.  During the Monsoon the river will flood not allowing these areas to be used at which point the bodies will be taken to a crematorium which is right on the shore of the river.  There is also a picture of people unloading wood from boats which is used for the cremations.

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More exploring.

Along The Ganges River

After freshening up, we headed off in tuktuks to Old Varanasi. Sachin from the train had warned me that things may be more congested and chaotic in Varanasi than Delhi, just because of the narrow streets. He was not wrong. We arrived at our destination in about 15 minutes after dodging a few cows, dogs, people  and vehicles. We walked along the streets of the old town, staring at the buildings, the monkeys, the cows, the dogs, the temples, the store fronts with mannequins dressed in beautiful Indian gowns, all the while making sure to stay out of traffic. Our first stop was a silk shop which we found off the main narrow road, down a narrow alley, off another narrow alley and up the stairs.  The owner of the shop gave us a very interesting lesson about silk, cashmere, pashmina and blends. He also treated us to Masala Tea and samosas – both were delicious! After our lesson, he encouraged everyone to look, touch and try on any number of scarves and sarongs. They were all so beautiful! As we are still travelling light, I could not justify buying anything but it was definitely tempting.

Following the silk shop, we headed to the Ganges River. The Ganges is the most holy river for the Hindu people. Many Hindus from all over the world make a pilgrimage here to pray and cleanse themselves of bad karma by submerging in the water.  It is also the final resting place for most Hindus. They either make the trip before death and are cremated along the river or they are cremated in their home country and a family member will make the pilgrimage to the Ganges with their ashes.  We arrived at the river about 4:30 PM and crowds were already starting to gather for the evening prayers. We walked along the river watching the people, admiring the architecture of the buildings and the wide steps leading down to the river. We witnessed a number of cremations taking place and somehow, it did not seem out of the ordinary. We boarded a small boat and headed out onto the river. We were each given a bowl of flowers with a lighted candle that we made a wish on and put into the water (much like we did in Chiang Mai). We then made our way over to the area where the prayers were being held. There were a couple of thousand people along the shore and we estimated that there were probably about 200 boats like ours crowded on the river. We watched the ceremony of fire, music, and dance.  The riverbank was lit up with flaming lamps and the smell of sandalwood filled the air. It was an amazing sight and hard to believe that it happens there every night. Tomorrow morning we will be going back to see the morning rituals that happen along the river. I am told that it is much quieter and solemn. We are certainly looking forward to that.

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Overnight Train to Varanasi

As a group we were apprehensive about this overnight train journey to Varanasi, the religious capital of India. However, as it turned out, all our fears were for naught as you will soon see.

At 5 PM we jumped into a number of cars and headed for the train station. Again, the trip to the station did not disappoint as we weaved through cars, bicycles, pedestrians, tuktuks, and street vendors. AJ says that you need three things to drive in India – Good Driver, Good Car and Good Luck!!

All three elements came together and we all arrived at the railway station in one piece. We obediently followed AJ through the station to our platform amidst the other thousands of passengers that all had the same goal. Our train had already arrived so even though we were early, we boarded immediately. We were all the in same carriage but as there is only six bunks per berth (three per side) we were divided into groups of four. We were paired up with Lisa and Louis and two local gentlemen rounded out our six. One of the fellows did not speak much but the other was very friendly and we spent a pleasant few hours enjoying Sachin Singh’s company. He told us his travel tales and gave us local information and tidbits. Around 9 PM I felt that I was ready for bed.  Each bunk had a set of sheets wrapped in brown paper and a rough blanket. I was on the top bunk so it was bit of a struggle getting the bed made but it was good enough. After one last trip to the toilet, which smelled bad but wasn’t too dirty yet, I crawled into my bunk in the same clothes that I started the day with. The movement of the train rocked me to sleep and though I woke up a few times during the night, I actually slept pretty well. We arrived in Varanasi about 8 AM and after comparing notes, I found that most of the group slept better than expected. The toilets were still useable in the morning so the train journey was not nearly as scary as we imagined that it would be.

Leaving the station, AJ packed us all into tuktuks to take us to the hotel. This is the first time that Richard and I have been in a tuktuk and it was another experience that did not disappoint. The traffic is much the same as Delhi, though the streets are narrower and in much need of repair. So, as in Delhi, horns are honking and all types of vehicles are fighting space on the road. The difference is that now we are a much smaller vehicle and a scrape against us could do some serious damage. Richard took a number of videos but I do not think that they will begin to capture the sights and sounds that we were experiencing. Cows and pigs were wandering the streets or picking through the garbage on the side of the road. A few dogs and many people also added to the confusion. 

We got to the hotel, had some breakfast, checked into our rooms and had a much needed shower. We are now ready to head out for an afternoon of sightseeing with an evening river cruise to follow. It should be nothing but interesting!!  

The following three videos were just on our way to the hotel.

A Day in Delhi

I am not even sure how to start. After my post yesterday, Richard and I went for a little walk around our hotel. Walking in the street was taking your life into your hands. We tried to look at the shops around us but we had to keep watching out for traffic at every moment. There were many street vendors selling clothing, which included everything from suits to winter parkas. Most of the shops did sell clothing or textiles of some sort. We did find a little corner store where we were able to buy some water. We found a McDonalds and checked out the menu though we did not have anything to eat. There are no beef products on the menu – only chicken and vegetarian. We headed back to our hotel and waited in the lounge  for our group and tour guide to arrive. We have a wonderful group (I have to say that because they are all following the blog now LOL). Caroline from UK, Lisa and Louis from UK, Mick and Roe from Australia, Miriama and her son Felix from New Zealand and Naoya and Noriko from Japan. Our tour guide is AJ. I listed all their names because we will be spending the next 11 days together and I am sure that their names will come up periodically. After our tour briefing, AJ took us to a restaurant around the corner. Everyone tried something new and though the flavors are different from what we are used to, I think that everyone enjoyed it. It was a great opportunity to get to know each other within a social setting.

We started early this morning with a walking tour of Old Delhi. Though we had been briefed and we knew what we were going to see, it was the journey to get there that was the most interesting. We walked to the metro station and as it was still fairly early, the streets were not as crowded as they had been the afternoon before. About a ten minute ride on the metro took us to Old Delhi. The cacophony of cars, people, motorbikes, and horns honking assailed the ears. Oxen and horses pulling carts and walking alongside the motorized carts, bicycles and vans seemed incompatible. The smells of exhaust, street food, and garbage assaulted the nose. And AJ led us through this traffic towards the largest mosque in Delhi – Jama Masjid. This mosque was constructed in 1650–56 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahān who was also responsible for the construction of the Taj Mahal. After taking off our shoes, we wandered around the courtyard area that holds 20,000 people for prayers. Jama Masjid is oriented toward the holy city of MeccaSaudi Arabia, which lies to the west.

Jama Masjid of Delhi

From there we walked over to Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib, a Sikh temple. This time we took off shoes and socks and went into the temple. We sat for a few minutes and listened to prayers to the 10 prophets. From there we walked over to the Soup Kitchen (for lack of a better description) which is attached to the temple. Here, food is prepared for 5000 people per day, free of charge. We walked through the kitchens where they were cooking lentils and making chapati (similar to a crepe) and the dining hall where they were making naan bread. Other than the bread, all food is prepared by hand. It is a huge undertaking everyday but they have many volunteers and many donors to keep this program alive.

We headed back to the metro station and then to the hotel. Funny story – At our metro stop, Lisa and I were talking and somehow did not make it out of the train before the doors closed on us. I’m sure our faces were in shock as we watched our group standing on the platform as the train, with the two of us still in it, left the station. Luckily, a young Indian man had also missed his stop and he guided us back to where we should have got off. A couple of seconds of panic but it all ended well.

So now we are waiting to board our overnight train to Varanasi. They say that you haven’t had an Indian experience until you ride the train. The group as a whole is apprehensive but I am sure that we will survive. See you in Varanasi!!

Our family for the next ten days.

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The favourite or most popular beer in India is Kingfisher.

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On the street.

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Keeping the bad spirits out.  People will hang a combination of peppers and lemons in order to catch the bad  spirits.  When the lemons and peppers are dried out they are thrown into the street along with the bad spirits thus keeping the bad spirits out of your shop or home.

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The Mosque from the outside.

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Getting our headgear on the enter the Sikh Temple and inside the Temple.

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The following are pictures of the area in the Sikh Temple where they prepare the food for the thousands of people they feed every day.

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The temple from the outside.

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Goodbye Thailand, Hello India

We flew out of Chiang Mai to Bangkok on Monday afternoon. We spent our last night in Thailand at a wonderful hotel near the airport. The hotel was down a small lane off the main road and on the road there were a number of street food vendors, outdoor pubs, a couple of 7-11’s and lots of traffic. We wandered around for an hour or so feeling the vibe realizing that our time in Thailand was coming to an end. We had dinner on the rooftop restaurant of our hotel, listening to the sounds of a soft guitar player singing English ballads from the 70’s, while jets flew overhead.  It was a fitting end to a wonderful month – good food, good drinks, lots of noise and polite, fabulous people.  Though Thailand was not one of my first choices for this journey, I will be ever grateful that we were able to spend so much time here.

We arrived in Delhi, India around noon on Tuesday. After a false start by standing in the wrong passport line, we finally got through immigration and met our tour operator rep outside the baggage area. He called the driver to come and get us and while we waited he gave us some facts about India. Delhi has 22 million people and is the largest city in India followed by Mumbai with 18 million. One in six people on the planet live in India giving it a population of 1.36 billion people – the second most populous country in the world after China.  The main languages are English and Hindi and the predominant religion is Hindu. He said that there is lots of fast food – street food but cautioned us that it may not be safe. He mentioned that the rural areas are very nice and the food is really good. We commented on the armed guards that were patrolling the airport and he said that the army has a large presence in all of India. We can expect to see them on street corners everywhere. Comforting? Not sure.

By this time our driver had arrived and we began what can only be called an adventure like no other. The horn honking began before we even left the airport and did not stop until we reached our hotel. If we thought the traffic in Thailand was crazy then this was absolutely INSANE!! Even though there were only one or two lanes marked on the road, there would at times be cars, buses and motorcycles five across – apparently the lines are only a suggestion. Many of the vehicles that we saw were scraped and dented and most were much too close for comfort. At times there were people walking among the traffic selling food and knick knacks. Cars would stop to make a purchase causing more horn honking and more squeezing to get through the traffic.  As we got closer to our hotel, there was now the addition of street vendors and pedestrians to add to the already chaotic jumble of traffic. Though the trip was entertaining, we were quite happy to step out onto the sidewalk in one piece and check into our room.

We are on an 11 day organized tour while we are in India and tonight we have our first meeting with our group. The tour is with a budget tour operator and if the hotel is any indication, the rest of the accommodations should be very interesting indeed. I am sure that everyday will be a new adventure and we can’t wait to share it with you.

Until then….

At the Delhi airport waiting for our driver who will take us to our hotel and driving to the hotel…

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The Move, American Thanksgiving, Loy Krathong and 21,000 Steps

After a couple of weeks of lazing about, the last couple of days have been really busy – at least for us!! Yesterday we had to move to a new apartment. Because we have extended our stay a couple of times, we could no longer stay in the apartment at the Astra. We were so fortunate to stay there for as long as we did. It was in the heart of Chiang Mai and only a 15 minute walk to the old city. Our new apartment on the other hand is quite a ways from the Epicentre. It is also not as luxurious so we were feeling somewhat sorry for ourselves for a few minutes. The new apartment is right next door to a super mall so we thought we would check it out. It is definitely a high end mall with most prices higher than our North American counterparts. It does have a food court however so we were able to have a bite to eat and sooth our wounded souls. It also has a movie theatre so we spent a lovely afternoon watching Bohemian Rhapsody- the story of Freddie Mercury and Queen. It is a wonderful movie and if you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage you to do so.

Today we were up and about fairly early as we were celebrating American Thanksgiving with some of our new expat friends. We met at the Grandview Hotel and enjoyed a wonderful International Lunch Buffet.  Unfortunately there was no turkey or mashed potatoes and gravy, but the food and the company was good nonetheless.

After lunch we decided to walk back to the Astra as Richard had forgotten his belt there. It was a bit of hike but we were prepared with our running shoes and a couple of full water bottles. About half way there we stopped for a couple of beers at our favourite Canadian pub. We got to the Astra a little after 3 PM, retrieved the belt and came up with a plan for the rest of the afternoon.

Loy Krathong (the Festival of Lanterns) and Yee Peng Lantern Festival are currently on in the city of Chiang Mai. We thought that it would be worth checking it out so we started walking towards the river where we were told most of the events happen. As it was still mid afternoon, we crossed the river and walked alongside the riverbank. We were able to watch the vendors setting up their stalls, the pyrotechnicians setting up for fireworks and many other preparations taking place. We were looking for an establishment to sit for an hour or so (most activities start after dark) but with American Thanksgiving and Loy Krathong both taking place, there was not a seat to be had. We finally decided on a spot on some cement steps looking over the river. We struck up a conversation with our neighbors, four young women from Chicago who were in Chiang Mai for a few days. They had spent the last week or so touring in Vietnam and Cambodia. We whiled away a couple of hours as we waited for the festivities to begin. The festival consists of Sky Lanterns – Khom Loy/Khom Fai and Krathong – Floating Lights

The Khom Loy, also known as Khom Fai, is a cylinder of paper about one meter high, braced with wire circles. Suspended from the bottom of the cylinder is a coil of cotton soaked in kerosene. Fireworks and firecrackers are also often attached to the tray. These catch fire and explode after the balloon is launched. Once the cotton is lit it takes about a minute for the air inside the cylinder to heat up enough to lift the balloon into the air.

It is believed that launching one of these balloons can send a person’s bad luck and misfortune away into the air, especially if it disappears from view before the fire goes out. Often people will say a short prayer before launching the balloon. Sometimes they will also place their address in the balloon, or write it on the outside. Anyone who later finds the balloon can then claim money from the sender. In this way the good fortune is shared.

The Krathong is a small floating offering about 20 centimeters in diameter. Traditionally this is made from the leaves and wood of the banana tree. The raft is decorated with flowers, a candle and an incense stick. People often leave a small coin in the krathong, and occasionally they will leave a lock of the hair or even nail clippings. On the night of the full moon, people will light the candle and the joss stick, say a prayer, and float their krathong down the river.

As with the Khom Loy, this is a way that bad fortune can be discarded and made to float away. Thousands of these will float down the river making for a beautiful and moving spectacle. Usually, at the same time, thousands of Khom Loy will be drifting across the sky, so that the night sky mirrors the spectacle on the water. Almost constant firework displays, and the splashes of small boys diving in to collect the coins in the krathongs, complete the picture, and make for an unforgettable experience.

We purchased a Krathong for 20 Baht (less than a dollar) and the Chicago girls and I lit our offering and let it go down the river. I didn’t put any coins in mine so didn’t see any boys diving into the river after it!! The sky was also lit up with thousands of Khom Loy. I read an article that stated that Chiang Mai had asked for permission to launch 64,000 of them. Not sure if there were that many but it was pretty spectacular. We wandered back into the streets and it was MAYHEM!! People, music, food vendors, motorcycles and cars were all on the streets. We grabbed a couple of food selections and headed towards a quieter street where we called an Uber (or Grab as they are called in Asia). After walking about 12 miles today, we thought we deserved a ride. All in all, it was a wonderful day and we were able to take in some of the Chiang Mai culture. It doesn’t get any better than that.

There is an ice rink at the mall next to where we are now staying.

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Celebrating American Thanksgiving with our new American friends.

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Nope, those are not stars, but Sky Lanterns.