Monday, June 21, 2010

Varanasi, India

Our time spent in Agra had gotten away from us. After being sick we had missed a train to our next destination Varanasi. This meant that two more days were spent before we continued. Finally, we were able to get a couple seats, on the famously overcrowded India Railway, to the city of life and death. Varanasi famous for the Ghats along the edge of the sacred Ganges river. We only spent a short amount of time in this very dirty city because we opted to escape the heat and head for the mountains of Nepal, but the best thing that we did was the evening river boat tour.

We left with our guide in the late afternoon for the Sacred Ganges river. We were very happy we had a guide, as the traffic was horrendous and the walk through the narrow winding streets was confusing. Arriving at the Ghats, stairs leading down to the river, we were escorted to a boat. A young girl immediately wanted to sell us a candle and flowers in a small cardboard dish. After haggling over the price, I purchased two small "offerings" and snapped a photo with her consent. Chels and I placed our candle boats in the river, the young girl hopped out of the boat and we shoved off.

Our oar man was quiet. We soon discovered it was due to his lack of command of the English language. Throughout the trip we did discover that he had been rowing tourists up and down the river for many years. Fortunately we had done our research on the river and the activities which took place on its banks.

As dusk set in the river became creepy. The air was warm, thick, and pungent with odors of smoke and filth.

The ancient buildings, temples, and occasional hostel stared down the stairs at us. It was just the the three of us as we were slowly paddled along.

There were many idols perched along the banks which stared out at us too.

The stairs were quieter in the evening for the most part, as there were no vendors and fewer people coming to wash.

Due to the strong religious beliefs tied to the sacredness of the river, one of the primary practices that takes place are the cremations on the waters edge. It is the goal of many dedicated Hindus to make the pilgrimage to Varanasi to give berth and to die in the holy city. Many also come to be married. After death, the bodies are cremated on the steps and then the ashes are pushed into the river. All is tied to deep seated beliefs of reincarnation into the next life.

As we neared the burning ghats, our boatman advised that we withhold from taking photos when we got closer out of respect to the families. The pile of ashes on the banks covered up the stairs and formed a bit of a peninsula into the waters. We counted a total of seven fires burning that evening. It was very erie.

As we continued down the river, we watched as candles and other trash floated by. In the distance I saw a strange form approaching. I soon realized that it was a dead body. One that had not been fully burned. We recalled from our research that in some cases the family cannot afford enough wood for the cremation to fully take place, even yet the remainder of the body is still pushed into the Sacred Ganges. Chunks of charred wood also floated by our boat as the evening went on. It was shocking to say the least.

We spotted a number of cows roaming the banks of the river.

Amongst the ashes and body parts floating in the water, there also is a toxic amount of sewage. Millions of gallons of raw sewage run into the river from the city and upstream daily making the water extremely hazardous to ones health. We refrained from any form of contact with the water, but others were obliged to do laundry, bathe, swim, and to our horror, drink of the thick sluggish brew. It is believed that the holy waters of the Ganges can cleanse ones soul.

Along the river there were also ceremonies which took place late in the evening. Our boat driver paddled up beside other boats stopped to watch. The music was exotic and the rituals unusual. Notice the man going for a swim in the river. Yuck!

Many had come to observe and to participate.

Where the boats had come to gather, young children would go from boat to boat selling candles, snacks, and chai tea. We have heard that sometimes the tea has been made from river water.

We watched as the ceremonies preformed incense and offerings of fire and water.

One of the best decisions that we made in this incredibly dirty city was to stay at a nicer establishment which we could escape to. It was also a place that we could order off the menu knowing that it was safe for consumption.

Tasty lime and mint smoothie. I ordered one of my new favorites, fresh lime with soda water and a dash of sugar.

We were very anxous to leave India and head to the higher elevations where it would be cooler. India had taken its toll on us. We were ready for something a little less intense.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Agra, India

The difficult part of travel photography is that you are always on the move and sometimes don't have time to wait about for better weather conditions. You have to do your best with the sky you are given. I was disappointed with the gray sky the first day we were in Agra, but you can't always have beautiful days, but I must tell the story even yet.

Agra Fort itself was just as grand as the fort that we had seen in New Delhi, but the interior was far superior. It was built by the same emperor, Shah Jahan, as the Taj and the fort from the previous post.

One of the things that I noticed was the patterns and details that were incorporated in to the architecture. Below was the walking path.

A portion of one of hundreds of ornately carved red sandstone walls. Architects, craftsman, and especially stone masons from all over the world were hired to assist in the building of the Taj Mahal and the emperors palace within the fort.

Incredible considering it was all done by hammer and chisel.

Perfect geometric designs carved from solid stone.

Beyond the red sandstone there was incredible amounts of white marble that had also been fashioned to create the palace.

As we wandered about it seemed like a magical place where Aladdin could have sailed up to on a magic carpet and met Jasmine.

There were always many native Indians who wanted their picture with mostly Chelsie. For the most part they were very considerate and asked first, but at times they were very pushy or even secretly took pictures. Sometimes when we felt as if we were the tourist attraction.

The story goes, that when emperor Shah Jahan promised his wife that when she would die, he would build the most beautiful mausoleum in the world for her. That is just what he did. It is the Taj Mahal. Shortly after her death, the emperor's son abducted the throne and placed Shah Jahan in "prison". From his prison, the beautiful section of the palace in the photo below, he could gaze out of the window and see the beautiful Taj. He was kept there until his death.

The beautiful Taj Mahal surrounded by grime and poverty.

People live by the river in grass huts. They raise sheep and crops.

The interior of the palace did not come up short on amenities in the least.

A courtyard within the palace.

Chelsie, as usual, makes friends with small furry creatures.

One evening we followed the guide book to a rooftop restaurant. We had fresh lemon sodas along with our tasty entrees and a beautiful view. We look so happy in the picture, but what we didn't know is that this was a meal that would make us pretty sick. Yep, it is almost a guarantee that when you travel in India you will get sick at some point during the adventure.

Fantastic sunset. It is pretty hard to see, but there were boys on the rooftops flying kites in the gentle breeze that evening. Look closely in the video below.

In India we always looked for really nice and sanitary places to eat. It is the easiest way to keep from getting sick. We did strike a really nice dinner at an expensive hotel one afternoon. A very traditional mix of curry and fried breads, along with a sweet rice ball, fried cheese, and chunks of meat.

The following day we made the trip to the Taj itself. The que line was about 20 minutes long, with the men in one line and the women in the other. We were security checked, just like we were going into the airport. Patted down, metal detected, and bags searched and x-rayed. We planned on making this visit in the early morning when there were less people, but because we had gotten sick, we had to wait until the afternoon.

It was one of the those things that we were really amazed by. We were not let down. It was gigantic and majestic.

Looking the opposite way the entrance gate.

It was packed. There were thousands of people, but mostly Indians.

One of the most interesting observations that we made in this visit was the price of the tickets for foreigners. The admission price for each of us was the equivalent of three days at the hotel that we were staying at. ( 1 Ticket $15 = 3 nights stay) There are about 3 million tourists that visit the Taj annually and about 250,000 of them are from overseas. Although the Indians payed considerably less, we did some math and realized that it brought in millions each year. It may take a lot of maintenance to keep this thing looking good, but we wondered where the rest of the money went. The community and the roads leading up to the Taj were in shambles. The money wasn't making it into the community. There are cities that are completely fueled off of one tourist attraction. We wondered why the city of Agra wasn't a bit nicer.

There are two buildings like this on each side of the Taj. One is a mosque, the other was built for symmetry.

Sights like these became very common as we traveled. We soon became more callused to them. We saw many sick, homeless, and dying laying in the streets at times as well.

The man below is looking in the ashes for copper wire.

The grass may very well be greener on the other side of the fence for these cows. I asked a tuk tuk driver one day if there were owners for the cows. He responded, "De cows go out in de streets in de day and find dings to eat, and den at night, dey come home to get milked."

Bicycle rickshaw drivers taking an afternoon nap.

Chels and I went to another guidebook restaurant. It was a bit sketchy, but we had fun finding that Korean travelers had been there before us.

One of the sites that falls among the shadows of the Taj is the "Baby" Taj. Another mausoleum

Delicate and detailed inlay.

We always make friends along the way.

The Yamuna river.

Cows cooling in the river. The numerous cow paddies in the foreground are methodically dried and stacked to to used as a fuel for cooking fires.

There was so much trash in the river and more sewage that you cannot probably see.

Perhaps one of the most beautiful days that we had on our whole trip was the evening that we went to the backside of the Taj Mahal. We arrived early in the afternoon so we could relax and enjoy the view.

The weather was perfect and we escaped the crowds for just as nice a view.

Looking across the Yamuna River is the Taj. The real mosque on the right and the false mosque on the left. Built for symmetry. If you look closely in the trees you can see the smoke from cremations going on nearby.

Another picture from earlier that evening when they first lit the fires.

Our next and last posting of India will be from Varanasi. The city of life and death. There we saw many more creations first hand.

From there off to Nepal