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Kolkata, Varanasi, Khajuraho, and Agra: Uncovering the Beauty and Cultural Diversity of India

When we first arrived in India, I was expecting to get hounded by taxi drivers the second we stepped out into the thick, humid, Kolkata air. We grabbed a taxi and after five minutes of not moving, a few re-explanations of our destination, and a couple strangers pointing our driver in the right direction, we made it to our hotel. The first thing I noticed about Kolkata is that everyone there drives like a f**king maniac. I thought I had seen and experienced crazy driving in Vietnam but the Kolkata drivers were faster, more aggressive and armed with cars, not scooters. Lane lines act as a mere decoration and taxis, rickshaws, and busses all have the marks to prove they are willing to do anything to get ahead on the road. The car horns are engaged more than they are off, and we saw a car go as far to bump another car in front of it to tell it to keep moving. After a few narrow misses, our taxi driver dropped us off at our hostel and demanded a tip. We paid the man his overpriced fare without a tip, as it is not customary to tip drivers India, and continued into our hotel. Our taxi driver followed us into the hotel to plead his case with the person working at our hotel. After a few minutes, the driver finally left and we checked into our room. That afternoon we walked the streets by our hotel in South Kolkata. We passed people from all ethnic classes. Those sleeping on the streets to businessmen who have spent their lives working in various parts of the world. The economic diversity here is much greater than anywhere we have traveled before. In the afternoon we began the hell that was booking a train ticket to Varanasi.

Since this was our first time booking a train ticket in India, we were a little nieve of the process. First off, trains must be booked a week or two in advanced as the fill up quickly. Trains from Kolkata to Varanasi were fully booked weeks out. Our hotel told us to book the train at a ticketing office ten minutes away and they mat be able to help us. After waiting in line for about an hour, through the ticketing attendants thirty minute siesta, we were informed we need to go to another tourist railway booking office. We were told the tourist office closed at 7:00 PM and the clock had just struck 6:00 PM. Frantic we piled inside a taxi to go to the tourist office to try and obtain our tickets. After deciphering the misspelled address scribbled down by the previous train ticket office, our taxi driver dropped us off lost to our destination. We arrived at 6:40 PM to learn that the tourist ticket office closed at 5:00 PM. Frustrated by the lack of internal knowledge displayed by the government run Indian Railway, we drowned our sorrows in samosas and dal. We awoke the next morning and headed straight to the tourist train station where we had the opportunity to wait in line for another two hours. Here, we finally got everything squared away and we had our twelve hour train booked to Varanasi.

After our super non-frustrating train experience we hunted down some food. We stopped at a place called Hot Kati Roll. I ordered a chicken and egg kati roll. This wrap-like delicacy houses curried chicken, peppers, and onions. Bursting at the seams with spices the curried chicken was top notch and a highlight of our Kolkata experience. The egg was cooked into to the flaky paratha bread. The cook ripped off a ball of dough to cook the fresh flaky flatbread and fried one side of it. The other side was then fried along with the egg, sealing the egg and its flavors inside the bread. All these ingredients were wrapped up in the paratha and enjoyed street side. After our rolls, we hunted down some ice cream. Kulfi, as it’s called in India, is a dense and extra creamy ice cream. They usually come in a variety of fruit flavors such as mango but the “original” flavor is a slightly fruity cream. Regardless of not being to point my finger on the exact flavor, the ice cream was delicious. The best part of the ice cream experience came after we had finished our ice cream. The owner of the ice cream cart offered us a pitcher of water. Not quite understanding that the man was offering us a drink, Jordan instinctively dunked his hands in the pitcher. In Jordan’s defense I was thinking the same thing, but am I glad I wasn’t handed the pitcher first. The owner of the ice cream cart was less than impressed and after a dramatic eye roll he snatched the pitcher from Jordan and dumped out the contaminated drinking water. Laughing at the entire situation we all walked away, thoroughly ammused, by the entire situation. For the rest of that day, we explored the Indian Museum that displayed an assortment of fossils and artwork from all corners of India. Riding on the subway home we met a local kid who was nineteen years old. I made an inappropriate joke on the train and I noticed the local kid laughing (the word “cock” was written on the wall… super mature, I know). This led to a conversation and next thing we knew, we were on our way to a bar with our new friend. This bar seemed very popular with kids our age. Most occupants who were among the higher socio-economic level in India. We ordered a hookah, drank some beers and talked to a wide variety of people who approached us. In our tank tops, we stuck out like a sore thumb and were clearly the only nonlocals at the bar. Everyone we spoke with ranged from nineteen to twenty five years old and were all in or just out of college. The bar was a stock market bar, where prices of drinks varied depending on how many people were ordering them. The higher the demand the higher the price. One of our friends we met there, Piyush, offered to drive us to a popular late night dining location. We ate at Jai Hind Dhaba and it was the best food I have tried in a long time, aside from the delicious kati roll we had earlier that day. I told the waiter to bring me his favorite dish and to make it spicy. I do not remember what the dish was called but it was a type of chicken curry and was damn good, our friends had led us in the right direction.

The next day was spent preparing for our first Indian train experience and visiting various sites through Kolkata. We saw the Victoria Memorial which, was built in memory of the British Queen Victoria. Here we learned that Kolkata was the first major city in India and that the country was essentially founded by the East Trading Company. As the sun began to set, wandered to the train station where it seemed like the whole city of Kolkata spent their evenings. There were thousands of people at the station and between the eighteen platforms, finding our train was overwhelming. We ate dinner and a fudge brownie, fought the crowds, and eventually found to our train. There are various classes on the Indian railway system. There are air conditioned cars (1A, 2A, 3A, AC chair) and the non air conditioned cars (first class, sleeper, second sitting). 1A is about expensive as a flight to and from the various locations and only has two bunks per side, therefore a full birth fits four people. In second sitting class, there are padded benches and any seat assignment is ignored. This cabin is a free for all, with many people standing or sitting on the floor for the duration of the train ride. We booked a 3A seat for this trip. In 3A each birth has six beds, three on each side. There is a lower, middle, and upper bunk. There was an Indian family that generously took up the majority of our birth. Since everyone uses the lower bunks as benches before they go to sleep, we were graciously given had of our bench we booked. In addition, people were running back and forth on the train and all were talking to one another. We learned that a large section of our train car was one family that was in Kolkata for a house warming party. One of their family members bought a new apartment, so the entire family took a train across the country to celebrate it. The family was from Amritsar, close to the border of Pakistan and the capital of the religion Sikhism. We got the majority of this information from a fifteen year old kid we met on the train. When we introduced ourselves to him he promptly followed with “Hello, I am a Sikh from Punjab.” Taken aback by this extremely formal introduction,  I responded with my name. This encounter helped prove to me how vastly diverse and different Indian culture is compared to anywhere else we have traveled. Even something as simple as an introduction became completely foreign to me. The rest of the train ride was fairly noneventful… for Jordan and I. We were quick to find out that our upper and middle bunks were a much more valuable commodity than we expected. Alex, on his lower bunk, had the privilege of sharing his bed with two other locals. He had the bunk to himself for the beginning of the night. Then, boarding the train at 5 AM, some new local passengers decided the end of his bed looked inviting, so they claimed it. This was not before one of the gentlemen threw his suitcase down on Alex’s legs, giving Alex an early wake up call.

We arrived in Varanasi to realize that the driving in that city may have outmatched Kolkata. Horns blazing and swerving tuk tuks defined our drive to the hostel. Arriving early in the morning, we set our bags down and entered the holy city of Varanasi. Varanasi is regarded as the holiest city in India and is the holiest city in Hinduism. Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi will bring them ultimate salvation. Varanasi lies along the Ganges river which flows from Northwestern India to Bangladesh. Many Hindus bring their deceased loved ones to Varanasi to be cremated and spread their remains in the river. The cremation is said to help release their souls from their physical body. Cremation is said to cost between twelve and seventy-two dollars. Large piles of wood are stacked all around the cremation ghats for families to purchase upon arrival. A ghat is essentially a series of stairs, and sometimes platforms, leading down to the river bank. There are two cremation ghats in Varanasi and several others that are used for worship and access to the Ganges. For those who cannot afford cremation, their loved ones will be cremated elsewhere or just partially cremated in Varanasi. The ashes and remains, regardless if the body has been fully cremated are released into the Ganges river. This helps bring the dead to salvation as well.  Lepers, those infected with smallpox, children, and holy men are not cremated as their souls do not need assistance in being released from the body. This group of individuals are traditionally bundled up and weighted to the bottom of the Ganges. Only men attend these funerals as it is the belief that women will be too emotional during the cremation. For those still living, bathing in the Ganges is believed to wash away one’s sins. Throughout the entire day, hoards of people made their way down to the Ganges to wash away their sins. When all of this was combined with the Indian heat and humidity, it was a lot of culture to take in.

When we began to wander the town we quickly noticed another important part of Hindu culture, their reverence to cows. Cows are highly respected and honored in Hinduism which, makes finding a hamburger in India impossible. Even McDonalds only serves chicken and lamb. Cows roam the streets like the stray dogs, releasing fecal matter wherever they please. This causes the narrow alleyways of Varanasi to be extremely stuffy and claustrophobic. Combine this with the many open aired urinals and self-designated “pee corners” and your hit with a sent Abercrombie & Fitch will probably not be dousing their clothes with. Regardless of the scent of Varanasi, it was all part of the experience and an eye opening one at that. As we walked through the streets we would be passed by men carrying the deceased on bamboo stretchers covered in various cloths bound for the cremation ghats. In stride, they chanted prayers in song-like fashion their entire way to the Ganges. 

The evening of our only night in Varanasi went to the Agni Pooja which, is a ceremony performed every day in the evening. It lasts around an hour and they pay dedication to Lord Shiva, River Ganga (the Ganges), Surya (sun), and Agri (fire), and the rest of the universe. A variety of incense, dried cow dung, and oil are set a flame and ceremoniously waved over alters. The next morning we went for a sunrise boat tour on the Ganges to get a view of the city from the water. Locals taking their morning baths were swimming in the river, families were doing laundry, and some locals were brushing their teeth and gargling with the river water. One of the most staggering facts we learned is that not only do some hotels and hostels get their linens washed in the Ganges but the local hospital also cleans their sheets in the Ganges. Sanitary or not, I guess this is just how life goes in Varanasi.

Varanasi was also our first experience with the aggressive sales tactics of the Indian locals. There was never a time an empty tuk tuk would pass without the driver asking us if we needed a ride. It usually took us thirty seconds  to a minute to convince the driver we did not need a ride and he would drive off. Every shop you walked passed owners would holler their best prices on the goods they were selling. According to the tenders, everything was the highest quality and the best priced. One scam we did not see was the hand massage scam. This is when a local would approach you and put his hand out to shake your hand. In a death grip, he would begin to massage your hand and your arm. Telling them to stop did nothing and we had to forcefully pry our arms out of his grip and walk away. We learned quickly that if we were not quick enough to pull our hands away, the self-proclaimed masseuse would demand payment for his services. Locals attempting to sell you on their boat tours on the Ganges were frequent encounters as well. Every twenty feet we would be approached by someone trying to sell us boat services, after a minute of “no thank you” we would be quickly be offered just about any drug you could think of. From marijuana to opium or heroin, they were stocked full. The most entertaining encounter we had with a seller was with a self-proclaimed holy man and a palm reader. After denying him on the palm reading he tried to sell us on a boat tour. After another refusal, he continued the string of offers with drugs. Offering a plethora of drugs that we could buy from him at the cheapest price, we refused once again. We couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of that situation. The most difficult thing we encountered was the begging. Children would pull on your clothes and grab your arms being you for money. Trying to ignore this became very difficult as they would follow you for as far as one hundred feet and even longer in some cases. In Kolkata, there were signs everywhere discouraging begging but there was none of that in Varanasi. 

Our stand out meal in Varanasi was more of a snack and was a lassi. Lassis are a yogurt based drink that you can get in all different flavors from sweet to savory. Our first lassi was banana, coconut, chocolate flavored and after the first bite, we all just about died. The cold lassi instantly refreshed our bodies from the hundred degree Indian heat. They are served in clay bowls and their consistency is somewhere between half and half and whipping cream. These became our lifesavers from the humidity, heat, and sweat in Varanasi.

After our two days in Varanasi, we boarded another train bound to Khajuraho, home of the kama sutra temples. Although only ten percent of the statues on the temples were erotic, it brought out the middle schooler in all of us. The intricacy and design in the temples was staggering. Hundreds of statues were carved deep in the outside of the structures. They weren’t simple etchings we saw on other temples, but proper statues carved into the temple walls. The majority of the statues displayed daily life in the Khajuraho area during 950 – 1050 AD, the time when the temples were constructed. The erotic statues only made up around ten percent of the art. They varied from five to six person orgies to beastality imagery. All of these carvings were very exciting, to say the least. That afternoon we rented bikes to bike around the town. Hoping bikes would give us a break from the persistent store owners and tuk tuk drivers, we set off to explore further into town. Immediately we were surrounded by at least five bikes and a few motorcycles. Almost all of them were asking where we were from, where we were going, and if we wanted to go into their shop. These were how most sales went, the sellers would try to get you talking to them and before you knew it they were trying to pull you into a store. This cycle was constant. After making various U-turns on our bikes, we were able to ditch most of the sellers. There were two kids, around fifteen years old, still talking to us. Assuming that they were going to try to get us to buy something I politely asked them to leave as we entered a temple. After leaving the temple they were still there ready to follow us to the next place. We gave the kids the benefit of the doubt and started talking to them a bit as their English was next to perfect. They followed us to a restaurant and promptly demanded that I buy them something at the restaurant for their guiding services. Extremely frustrated, I refused, and they finally left. As frustrating as that experience was, I came to the realization that these kids probably come from nothing. This was their way of survival and how they are able to live. I’m sure this internal battle of frustration and empathy is going to be a constant struggle during the rest of my time in India. We only spent one full day in Khajuraho as there was not much to do there besides visit the temples. We awoke the next morning to catch our day train to Agra and the Taj Mahal.

The day train was another eight hour ride in our 3A coach and was fairly unexciting. I got sick again from one of the restaurants we ate at the previous nights so most of my time was spent sleeping. Jordan and Alex somehow managed to play War, yes the card game, for over three hours. During a break in my slumber, I woke up when we were stopped at a station in the middle of our trip. Alex and Jordan exited the train to get some food. In my half awake daze, I noticed the train was moving and neither Alex or Jordan were back. Since all their belongings were still on the train, being left behind in the middle of India, would not have been an ideal situation. Lucky, before the train got moving too fast I looked out to see Alex and Jordan running to get on the train. Grinning and laughing about their close miss they boarded the train hands full of snacks. They sat back down and got right back to their card game. We arrived in Agra in the evening and I went straight to bed while Alex and Jordan hunted down a McDonalds for some non-beef hamburgers. The next morning we woke up for sunrise to get to the Taj before the crowds. At this time, were one of about fifty people there at 6:00 AM. The sheer size and perfect symmetry of the Taj Mahal was mind blowing. There it was, one of the new seven wonders of the world, just perfect. The marble masterpiece was completed in 1643 and built to house the tomb of Shah Jahan’s favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Jahan was was the fifth Mughal Emperor of India. Both Jahan and Mahal were laid to rest in the basement of the Taj Mahal out of sight from the public. Their false tombs lay on the main floor and are the center pieces of the entire building. The majority of the structure is made of marble. The only pieces that are not marble are the inlaid floral patterns surrounding the tomb. The detail in the Taj Mahal came to light in these inlays surrounding the tomb. Various gems and stones of all colors were mixed in the marble fence surrounding the tombs. Each inlaid stone could be as small as one centimeter in any dimension. Aside from the beauty of the Taj the wildlife surrounding it was surprisingly diverse. We saw monkeys, parrots, chipmunks, hawks, and even small owls on the property. After the Taj we went and explored Agra Fort which was a massive walled fort that was used to house various political leaders in the area. Most of it was closed off due to reconstruction so we were only able to see part of it. The rest of our time in Agra was spent in our air conditioned room because the daytime temperatures were breaking one hundred degrees but with the humidity, it felt closer to one hundred twenty. After Agra, we boarded an extremely bumpy and cramped night bus north to Rishikesh. Here we plan on river rafting, and beginning our trekking in the Himalayas. Since Rishikesh is also where yoga started, we may take one or two yoga classes as well. 

AJ

AJ

Software developer, kiteboarding instructor, and world traveler. Always having the best day ever and on the constant pursuit of the endless summer.

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