Saturday, March 22, 2014

Khajuraho, Orchha & Varanasi

Well...remember how I said we ventured out for dinner against our tour guide Praveen's recommendations in Agra? He got to have a big 'I told you so' moment with us because Jason and I both ended up getting sick. Me the very next day and Jason the day after that. I even got a fever which let me tell not fun in 95 degree heat. I felt like death but I was so very thankful that I didn't miss out on any activities and most of that day was a day of travel. After about 12 hours of antibiotics and rest I was feeling so much better and fever free. Jason had pretty much an identical course only his started 12 hours later. We were both lucky to have a fast recovery. Can't go to India without getting some kind of freaky poop bacteria...we wouldn't have gotten the full experience had we missed out on that ; )


We left Agra for Jhansi by train fairly early in the morning. The train station was something else. It was very dirty, stinky, and dusty. It is not uncommon for people to go to the bathroom wherever they please in India but apparently the train tracks are a popular place to take a poo. Just a word of advice if you're ever in a train station in India...when the train comes rushing in, close your mouth. There were monkeys running around everywhere and they were even getting freaky with each other right in front of us. It was not boring waiting for the train...that's for sure.

It is a great time to be in India because it was the Holi celebration while we were there. During that time, people are celebrating the triumph of love over evil and people celebrate but dousing each other in colors. They either squirt one another with water guns with dyed water or throw chalky paint at each other. Everywhere we went people were multi-colored, happy, and yelling "happy Holi!". It was fun to watch!

We arrived in Jhansi and headed by bus to Orchha to see some ruins. We stopped for lunch at a cute little place along the river and even though I didn't eat much, I enjoyed what I had!

There was a really awesome palace there that actually has a hotel built into it now. It's along the banks of the Betwa river and it's really beautiful. Here are some pictures of the castle. Jason can be credited for several of these photos because I wasn't really feeling like taking pictures at that time ; )

 Love the outside of this stairwell for some reason
We then traveled from Orchha to Khajuraho by bus which was a very long ride. It was on some bumpy terrain and that's when my fever was spiking. It wasn't awesome. But Praveen assured us that the drive off the beaten path would be well worth it.

One thing that was a nice change of pace was the beautiful countryside. We saw lots of lush green grass, rivers, valleys, and some very hilly areas. It was a nice break from the city : )

We got to the hotel that evening, I took some meds and went to bed for 12 hours. I woke up feeling like a new woman!

We then headed into town at Khajuraho. This city is known for it's extremely detailed carvings on it's temples. Apparently no one knew about these temples til fairly recently as they were covered by brush in the jungle...what a cool discovery that must've been. It's a huge complex! Also, a lot of the carvings are erotic and based on kama sutra which was quite interesting as well! So prepare your eyes for some sexy time.

Jason saw a bat inside one of the temples!
Here are some of the erotic carvings. So much sex, so little time.

Like the carvings or have to admit that's some pretty impressive artistry right there!

Jason's turn to not feel good:

After touring Khajuraho we headed to the airport to catch our plane for Varanasi. I can't quite describe to you how excited I was to go to Varanasi...but I was so pumped. To see the Ganges, to witness cremations, to see spiritual ceremonies and be around people who base their life around this river was going to be a trip highlight for me...I just knew it!

And in case you're wondering. I do not practice any particular religion. I am definitely a spiritual gal in search of what I personally believe. I tend to believe things happen for a reason, that I should treat everyone with as much respect as I possibly can, and that inner peace and love is what all people truly desire. Our India and Nepal trip has been a great springboard for me to explore other religions and ways of life. It was impeccable timing.

Now let's talk Varanasi...the big gun.

We arrived in the late afternoon to our hotel in Varanasi. It was a gorgeous hotel. Beautiful pool, lobby, and tasty food. They had lush gardens everywhere with gorgeous flowers. I can't wait to get my garden up and running again this year after seeing those flowers!

 And gorgeous flowering trees:

The hotel was gorgeous but the city itself was a bit overwhelming until you reach the river. It was definitely one of the poorest cities we had been in. Very dirty, stinky at times, and always loud. I will say that pretty much every city in India was an assault to the senses. People use their horns on their cars and motorcycles to communicate their position so it's basically a perma-honk. There is no such thing as a space bubble, the random smells can be unpleasant, and there is just a general busyness at all times. Jason and I already knew this going in and we were mentally prepared. These are some of the things that make India...India after all! And up until Varanasi I think I handled it all with grace. I was able to accept everything for what it was and not let get me riled up.

But Varanasi was a different beast. We took a rickshaw ride from our hotel to the river bank which ended up being an insanely busy and very long ride each way. The dust and the smells were almost too much for me. I had to put my face in my shirt to breathe at times. It was an adrenaline pumping ride just like our previous rickshaw ride but a lot more hard core. Praveen called this rickshaw ride a once in a lifetime experience for more reasons than one. I laughed out loud when he said that because at the end of that ride I simultaneously wanted to vomit up all the dust and bugs I had just inhaled and cry and dance because it was so much fun. It's hard to explain. I am glad we took the ride and was ecstatic to be in Varanasi but it was very intense ride and is intense city in general.

Our rickshaw driver and his creepy awesome eyes:

Some things we saw along the, bikes, people, cows....

More cows...just strutting down the middle of the street:

Oh an imagine that...another cow!

I really loved the cows being everywhere for some reason and I had to resist petting them. They looked so damn happy. Never seen a cow wag it's tail like that. It got me to can I eat such a cute animal!? I'm sad, I need to stop eating beef. I proclaimed my plan to Jason on the rickshaw ride that I would try to be a vegetarian for 30 days when I got home. All he had to say was "tacos" and I fell silent. Sorry're cute and I love you but I also love tacos.

On with the rickshaw sightings...

We will throw in a goat for good measure:

And a family of 5 all on a motorcycle....we saw this everywhere:

Tons of people:

And finally, a cow:

Any anxiety or discomfort I felt on the rickshaw ride was gone as soon as I saw the Ganges. This was the moment I had been waiting for. To see the river that so many people deem to be holy. To be in the city where dying people come just so they can be cremated on the banks of the river right after they die. To see a traditional Hindi ceremony where tens of thousands of people show up every single night without fail to give thanks and get hope. And that's really just the tip of the iceberg. I was so so so very thankful to have the opportunity to be there.

We walked down the ghats to get in a boat which Praveen had organized as a surprise. We took a short boat ride down the river and back in time to see the ceremony.

Walking in:

Little cuties selling the flowers with candles to release into the river:

The priests' platform and preparation for the night's ceremony:

Some ladies getting ready for the ceremony:

We hopped on the boat and headed downstream as the sun tucked under for the night:

Each fire you see is a cremation of someone who died that day. This happens constantly on the river banks. Those who are cremated and their ashes placed in the river believe they will have instant salvation when their ashes reach the water. It's an eerie and beautiful thing. Families will sit on the steps watching for hours upon hours.


The ceremony started and we watched from the water in our boat. There was smoke, fire, bells, and more during this ceremony. There was a sort of music in the background that was a mix between a chant and a song. The priests spread out  on their own platform to perform the same movements. As Jason described it, it wasn't a celebration but it wasn't somber. It was it's own being.

Jason said he looked at me as we started watching the ceremony and he knew by the concentrated look I had on my face that I was about to cry. If he looks at me when I am about to cry I will cry harder so he was nice enough to look away. I was definitely brought to tears. There was something so moving about so many people coming together for a common belief in that way. It was indescribable. The energy was electrifying.

So many amazing!

As we walked out a beautiful old man had chalk and was giving people bindis (forehead dots) in exchange for a small tip. Jason and I both got one and he smiled, looked right at me and said, "you will live a long and happy life". So sweet....and to think I had just got done crying   ; ).

As you can imagine it was very chaotic as we left the river. People everywhere. But we eventually found our rickshaw driver and made it back to the hotel. I knew it was a successful ride because when I got into the room I spit into the sink and there were three bugs in there. So nasty but yet so funny. I definitely screamed and showed Jason right away...he thought it was awesome.

We went to bed early that night because it was an emotionally and physically taxing day.

The next morning we were up again before 5 to see the sunrise on the was just one fabulous thing after another. It was amazing to see it in the light of day when the crowds were less intense and people are there solely to pray, meditate, bathe, and relax. Some people were even doing laundry.

 Praveen, our fearless leader...just gets more awesome everyday:

We all got flowered candles to release into the water. We said a mantra: om namah shivaya as we released it. This means 'I bow to shiva' which in essence is oneself. So it is paying respect to yourself while also remembering your ancestors. Those of you who have read Eat Pray Love may remember that mantra as well.

We saw many other gorgeous sights along the way as well (as well as an adorable little kid):

As we left the boat and bid farewell to the Ganges. I took one last look to soak it all in. As we walked out of the river bank area we walked past a cremation area. There was a body lying there of someone who had just died and had not started the cremation process yet. The family was all gathered around as other fires nearby burned brightly. It really hit me again how very different our cultures are from each other. I felt compassion for the family whose loved one had just died and also felt happy for them that they were in the ideal place to be cremated.

We walked through the streets and of course saw many varieties of animals...and lots of monkeys:
More from the walk:

After that it was still early morning and Praveen took to a Hindu temple. He practices hinduism so he showed us his rituals. It was in a beautiful temple that had a great echo inside. I will never forget the man who was sitting in the corner singing softly and praying. I listened closely and this man had the most beautiful soft was so lovely. I teared up listening to him (clearly I was feeling extra sensitive still). I was so happy to end the temple visit on that nice note. Just as we were about to leave Praveen took us to the upper level of the temple which had a special room that had an even more amazing echo. Inside there was a statue of Shiva and he explained that the reason the room was made that way was so people could come in, sing their thanks, and their words could be echoed to the heavens. He then started singing this beautiful tune in hindi that made everyone fall instantly silent. We had no idea he could sing...and man is he ever a good singer! His words echoed everywhere and it was gorgeous music. I got the chills and tears started falling. I was a mess. Jason gave me a hug as we left and said he got choked up himself so he knew I'd be a blubbering fool. He was right.

We went back to the hotel for breakfast and then visited our first Buddhist temple. It happened to be the place that the Lord Buddha gave his first sermon. It was a cool place and it was nice to learn a little more about Buddhism as we would encounter much more of it in Nepal. We went to a museum as well and then headed back to the hotel.

 The tree under which Buddha gave his first sermon:

When we returned to the hotel, we had our first really big chunk of free time. We enjoyed it by having a leisurely lunch, laying by the pool for hours and having a cocktail or three. It was lovely. We relaxed all evening and rested up.

The next day we went to Nepal....more to come on fabulous Nepal : )

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