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There's a Snake on My Head and a Baby in Jar: Varanasi and Calcutta

So the third week of our travels began in typical Indian style with a train ride. As I hinted before, the Indian trains are notorious. We fully experienced this on our way to Varanasi - as evening darkened our train compartment, we heard a rumor through the French travelers next to us that there was a thief roaming the train. They pointed the man out to us - he was richly dressed in an all white outfit and huge gold earring. They said they had seen him eyeing our luggage while walking through the compartments, and, as if on cue, he pulled out a long knife which he flaunted at the other passengers. Needless to say, none of us slept well that night. We purchased chains to lock our bags to our seats (however, my super-backpack already had a chain built in, score!) and I slept on top of my bags to make sure there wasn't any funny business in the night. To protect my purse, I slept with it under my shirt and, since my salwaar pants are so baggy, i decide to try to stick my purse down there as well. That worked for a minute until I tried to actually get comfortable sleeping and ended up ripping my pants. Oh well, was I really going to wear those bright orange pants back home? I think not.

After a fitful night and a few false starts at getting of the train, since we couldn't tell what station we were at, we finally made it to Varanasi. We had already chosen a hotel that the college recommended, so i put on my business face and directed a rickshaw to take us there. Of course, being India, nothing was that easy. The rickshaws dropped us on a street and the guide type guy said we had to walk to the hotel because rickshaws could not fit into the small alleyways. Eli and I went off in search of the hotel with the man, while the rest of the folks (Sam, Alex and Ana) stayed with the luggage. The streets (cobble-stone pathways, more like) were a maze with only enough room for us to squeeze past the many violent looking bulls and cows roaming around (not to mention squeezing past processions carrying dead bodies later in the week). Shit was everywhere, dog, cow, heck even human I bet, and I grew a little concerned about the hotel we were heading to. But it was a cute spot, little shops with candies, people stirring huge vats of desserts to sell directly to a hungry-passerby, tiny temples behind rusting gates. We finally got to the hotel, but there were no available rooms! We had already walked a few km. but we had no choice but to continue on to another hostel the guides new about. Eli and I finally reached the other place and booked a few rooms, and then I walked back to retrieve the group.

The hostel was an interesting place, the stairwells were like the ones in a gothic cathedral - basically, it was like climbing straight up the 5 floors to the rooftop restaurant. From the restaurant there was a beautiful view of not only continental food and Internet access, but also our first real sight of the Ganges, which was beautiful and misty in the early morning light. We had some chai, thank god, and breakfast and then tried to get our rooms arranged. It took them forever to have the rooms cleaned, but we finally moved into our hostel room - no windows, one bathroom and two beds for the four of us girls. The white walls had been covered with drawings and graffiti made by the past inhabitants. After getting organized and antsy, on my part, we went for a walk along the ghats. These are the long areas of side walk and steps along the ganges where basically all stages of life take place. People bathe there in the mornings, make prayers, collect water, wash clothes and dishes, and in the end, dispose of their cremated bodies. It's quite an amazing experience to witness all these aspects of humanity in one place. It was also cool to be in Varanasi, because the locals were very used to seeing western tourists, so instead of gawking, a lot of the people (men only) were willing to have conversations with us.

We walked for quite some time that afternoon, but not really knowing where to go, we finally caught a rickshaw and had the driver take us to a museum I had read about. It was a long, and bumpy drive over the ganges and through the woods (hah) to an old Maharaja's palace/fort that had been made into a museum. I use the word museum lightly as this was the most trifling exhibition of historical artifacts I had ever seen. Things were just sort of lumped into cases, with very illuminating labels like "a big knife" or "knives with different handles". One case contained what were once probably the prince's prized collection of hunting trophies, but were now the decaying carcasses of bears, tigers and leopards. Also the curators were basically beggars who had learned a few words like prince, princess, clothes and guns and after enlightening you to what those were clothes or guns belonging to prince or princess, stuck out their hands and asked for money. The museum was full of signs saying don't take pictures and don't spit, but once we gave the guy 10 rps we could take pictures of whatever we wanted. We probably could have gotten away with spitting too. Really amazing pieces of art were hung in direct sunlight and one whose glass covering had been broken was simply mended with yellowing tape! I could really not believe this place but it was probably the funniest experience I had had in a while.

Outside the museum, we could walk around the fort and get a beautiful view of the river and the city. We also provided some entertainment for a group of muslim women in full burkas, who stopped and just stared at us for a good five minutes. On our way back in the rickshaw, we learned that police men can just jump into a rickshaw whenever they please and get a ride. At one point we had two extra men, a total of three with the driver, riding in the front of the rickshaw, while we bounced along in the back.

When we got back to the hostel we had dinner and relaxed on the terrace. It was nice to just be quiet and relax a bit, and we also got to know a few of the other travels there, although many of them were not very friendly.

The next day we weren't sure what to do. Varanasi is really about the Ganges, and you're supposed to see it at sunrise our sunset. Since we weren't able to get up at sunrise that day, and had walked all along the river the last day, we decided to do something else. Eli had heard about this NGO that worked to help sex-workers and stop human trafficking, so she called them up and arranged for a visit. After meeting them at the entrance to the police station and having a really awkward time with our rickshaws, we had a quick chat with the founder of the group and then took a visit at a school for the children of sex workers. It was really fun to play with the kids and see how similar they are to American kids. The school was trying to prepare them for the regular public schools, teaching them life lessons and behavior that they might not be getting at home. The kids seemed really well adjusted and the teachers were sensitive and seemed to just enjoy being with the kids. It was really fun to be with them, but we had to run to try to catch the sunset ride on the ganges.

Unfortunately, we missed to boat ride but we did have a very exotic rickshaw ride. Our driver was mad, truly mad. He didn't have a horn, so he just made beeping, or meowing, noises to alert the rest of traffic. All the other drivers looked at him like he was insane, which he definitely was.

The next day we got up early and took the (free with our hostel!) ride on the ganges. The boat was small, and I was afraid that all of us tourists with all of our camera equipment would sink the boat, but it didn't. We could barely see from all the fog, but the weather made the city seem quiet as we floated along. We watched (and clicked our cameras) as people had their morning baths and prayers. It was almost more interesting to watch the multitudes of tourist flotillas covering the water, zooming in on every personal detail of the lives of the bathers. It was awkward, and I participated too, I'm not denying it, but I felt bad. At least it seemed like all the locals were used to us, they didn't even look up at us!

After our boat ride, I went along with Ana and Alex to do their pujas. They had shaved their heads in Golpalpur and brought the hair along to offer to the river. Ana also wanted to make a prayer for her Grandma, who had died a few weeks earlier. It was precious, she bought a chocolate milk shake and put it in a ceremonial dish. Along with that, they both put their hair, flowers and a candle on big palm leaves and floated them out onto the river. Meanwhile, I bought these cute little brass jugs and hopped into the dirty water to fill them up. The one thing my mom said not to do in India! Ooops. On the way back to the hotel we saw a woman snake charmer! She had a cobra in a basket and another snake in her hands. One of the guys who had been following us around and chatting with us said we should have the snake put on our head because it was a good blessing from Shiva! The woman was excited to oblige and she put the huge snake on each of our heads one by one! I don't know if I felt blessed, but it sure was interesting!

We spent the rest of the morning packing because we had our train to Calcutta that night. After getting ready, we headed off to Sarnath, the deer park where Buddha first preached after enlightenment. When we got there, I naturally hired a guide to show us around and we looked at all the monuments that had been made to the Buddha, mostly by Sri Lankans. I walked under the type of bamboo trees that the Buddha would have lived in and we saw the stupa where Ashoka reportedly buried the tooth of the Buddha. It was really cool, and it was a nice outing.

When we got back to the city, all hell had broken loose. It was a holiday called Shivaratri, a day in worship to Shiva where all the women fast, and as we soon discovered, all the men get high on bong (pot). We couldn't get anywhere near our hotel, our fifteen year old rickshaw drivers had to bribe a policeman (it cost only 10rps!) to get us closer. Then we had to walk through the hordes of stoned zombie men, feeling their bodies against our skin and feeling totally violated. We followed some kids who were climbing up stairs and taking zigzags to avoid the men. When we got back to the hotel, I nearly cried with relief. We took a little break, and then Eli and I went down for a farewell to the river. I had an interesting chat with a guy who told me all about the drug use in the festival that day. As we walked back, we saw that they were burning bodies on the ghats. It was surreal, pretty much like our whole experience in Varanasi. We had a lot of trouble getting a rickshaw to the railroad station, and our driver was crazy again and hit a poor sleeping dog on the road. We all yelled at him, and he drove a little better, but I felt so bad. The train was late so we had to wait for a long time among starving dogs and beggars. It was definitely a low point on the trip. So was to bomb scare on the train - some passengers found some abandoned luggage- just a bucket with some stuff in it, that apparently looked like a bomb someone had set off a year or so ago on a train. When the police found the owner of the bucket, which was actually harmless, the policeman slapped the man twice across the face! It was crazy. Later on that night, there was a mentally retarded beggar doing some cleaning in our cabin. He started to sort of move our stuff around and touch us so Sam kind of yelled and then another passenger came over and hit the guy! We felt really bad and yelled at him to stop. Gah, so much violence that day! I was anxious to go to sleep and reach Calcutta.

Calcutta reminded me a lot of New York City. When we arrived at the station, there were tons of old fashioned yellow cabs waiting to whisk us away (cabs! actual cars, not rickshaws!). We had already made reservations at a hostel so we were feeling pretty confident. However, when we got there they said they hadn't understood our call and didn't have room for us. So we had to start this whole trek of finding a hostel. We went to the tourist area of town where all the hostels are and eventually found a really cheap place that had rooms and internet access. The street was under construction which was interesting because even road work is different in India. Apparently, when a place is under construction all the workers and their families move to the site and live there in tents. So the men and women were working, hauling bricks and stuff on their heads and the kids were running around the street. The whole place smelled like woodsmoke and urine. Besides the construction families, the street was full of mostly white tourists, wearing all kinds of hippy stuff. All the restaurants had continental food (mmm, corn flakes and bananas) and almost everyone spoke english. We had lunch at a really nice Chinese restaurant and explored the neighborhood a little. Eli and I were really excited to find used bookstores everywhere! I had rediscovered Archie comics at the train station and then found some more at the book stores! So i did some really literary reading that day!

In the evening, I was getting antsy to see things so I took a walk on my own to the Maidan, the big park in the center of the city. It was probably about 5 o clock so i was walking with the business crowd. The streets were lined with vendors selling their wares on the sidewalk. I was approached by so many men on this walk I couldn't believe it. First when I was entering the park, I saw this old blonde tourist woman who I smiled at. It was really cool, because we looked alike and were doing the same things, just at totally different times in our lives. So this older man came up to me, having seen both the old woman and me, and said that it had probably made her happy to see me. He helped me get across the street to the park, asked me a few questions and we had a nice little chat. That was the nice man. The next man who came up to me was a business man with a briefcase. He was walking towards me and almost passed me, then did a double take and asked where I was from. I told him, and then he asked if I was travelling alone. I told him no, and when he pressed me, I lied and said my friend were just around the corner. Then, as I was trying to walk away, he asked me if he could "spend some time with me". Now, I'm not sure if that has some cultural meaning that i don't understand, but i certainly didn't want to spend time with this creeper, so I just said no thankyou and walked away. My next encounter was with a group of y oung men who saw me from afar and cat called me for the next five minutes until we crossed paths. It was charming, to be sure. Men in India are weird. But more on that later.

The next day, I got up early to go to the Indian Museum, like their version of the Smithsonian, it is one of the biggest museums in Asia. Like all museums I've been to in India, this place was crazy. We walked around and looked at tons of temple art that was just sitting out for anyone and all the elements (they were outside) to touch. The labels were sparce and generally unintelligible. There were some really awesome things though, in one room they had completely recreated and old temple. After seeing all the temple artwork, we went into the rock/mineral room which literally had things in display cases that were in little buckets or plastic bags. In the natural history part, we saw lots more decaying animal carcasses, which is always fun. The Indian painting gallery was really cool and we bought some prints. Then we went into another natural history gallery that had ... wait for it.... human babies in big jars of formaldehyde! It was crazy, they were up on a shelf next to goats with three heads and cats with extra bodies attached! After that, we felt pretty ready to leave!

After lunch, we tried to go to Chinatown, but like most of the Indian drivers, our cabbie had no idea where anything was and basically just dropped us off somewhere. I refused to pay him full price, but after I walked a way a mob gathered around Sam and made him pay! WE started looking for an Armenian church that Alex wanted to visit. When we found it, it was a really cool old building. When I entered, I felt really warm and happy, like I was home. Something about the familiar iconography and all that just made it feel like a church and that was good. After that, we tried to find a synagogue for Ana. Calcutta was a big trading center so it is one of the only cities with large Armenian and Jewish populations.

After dinner we went to an art show held in support of the children's library that we had visited in Bhubeneshwar. It was nice to see Sujit, the president, again and the art was really cool - all young, Indian artists who incorporated a lot of the issues or imagery from Orissa into their art. We totally didn't fit in with the artsy crowd, but it was really fun to look around and we got free snacks and CHOCOLATE! REAL CHOCOLATE NOT THE FAKE INDIAN CRAP! So that was nice.

For the life of me I can't remember what all we did on the last day in Calcutta. I know that in the evening, Eli and went to a play at a country club. It was really fun, they performed this British play outside on the lawn and we had a cute little dinner after that. The next morning, we had to get up before dawn to make it to the airport and fly home to Bangalore! It was so nice to get back and rest and do laundry and know our way around. I never realized how much I liked Bangalore until we got back to it!

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