- Mark Twain
Our next stop after Delhi was Varanasi, also known as Benares or Kashi. Varanasi was founded approximately 3,000 years ago but many Hindus believe their deity, Shiva, founded it more than 5,000 years ago. Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges river will cleanse a person of their sins and that dying in Varanasi will relieve a soul from the cycle of reincarnations.
We had heard horror stories of travel in India but had been spared any difficulties by staying with the Ericsons and driving around with Sanjay. The trip to Varanasi from the airport was a reminder that we would no longer enjoy those comforts in India. Our taxi driver politely informed us that the hotel we had selected was full, that we couldn't book a room for less than four times our agreed upon price, and that there were bugs. What he really wanted to do was take us to a different hotel so he could pick up the commission from our business. Despite our pleas to simply bring us to the hotel we asked for, he tried to drop us off at two different hotels. The final straw though was when he tried to pick up another man who was giving a sales pitch for a different hotel. Infuriated, I opened the door and pushed the salesman out of our stopped taxi and screamed at the taxi driver to take us directly to our hotel without stopping anywhere else. When we finally arrived at the hotel, the staff told us that the room we reserved was already occupied. After a brief argument over the definition of reservation and threatening to go to a different hotel, we finally were able to get the room we asked for at the agreed price. I spent the rest of the day in bed, trying to shake some flu like symptoms. That evening, we left the hotel for about an hour but that was enough time to grab dinner, check email and get our phone stolen. I should note, however, that we have not had such difficulties with hotels or taxis since.
The first day in Varanasi was not so pleasant but with some sleep and a new hotel, things seemed much different. We spent our remaining nights in a hotel in "the Ghats," the area near the Ganges river.
We took moto-rickshaw, a small three wheeled taxi , to our new hotel but stopped a few hundred meters away when the vehicle could no longer fit down the streets. The driver grabbed a local kid who led us through alleys to our hotel. Since Varanasi's development predated the concepts of city planning and vehicles, the area near the Ganges is a rats nest of narrow, colorful alleys filled with locals shops and of course cows.
We dropped our bags and decided to have lunch at our $5 per evening hotel's restaurant and in the process got our first glimpse of the Ganges. The water was low, as it is currently the dry season, and local families played and picnicked on the sand bar opposite town that's otherwise underwater. Looking down from the perch high above, we saw people soaping up only to wash themselves off in river water that is so dirty as to make any westerner cringe.
Our next priority was to hire a boat for a quick ride down the river. The best view of the town is from the water (pictured above). We passed Dashashwamedh Ghat, which is appropriately nicknamed Burning Ghat, at sunset and saw five simultaneous cremations.
And finally a quick video of a ride through Varanasi, as seen from the top of a moto-rickshaw.
Next, we took a train from Varanasi to Bodhgaya, the town where Prince Gautama Siddhartha found enlightenment and became the Buddha in 500BC. At all times the town is busy as pilgrimage site for Buddhists around the world but when we visited the town was especially packed. High level delegations from Buddhists countries all over descended upon Bodhgaya for a two week chant-a-thon around the Bodhi tree. We spent a few hours one day trying to meditate but really just drank chai tea, listened to chanting, and chatted with monks.
The Mahabodhi temple was built where the Buddha achieved enlightenment and signs all over the complex let visitors know where he spent each day.
We also briefly stopped by the world's second largest Buddha statue.
Since there is little to do in the small, rural town other than visit temples and meditate, we spent some time making friends with local kids.
Of course, I found another friend along the way.