We went to bed early on our last night in Nepal since we would have to wake up at 4:00am for our private taxi to the Nepal-India border to catch a bus to Varanasi. Border crossing was strangely easy, however disorganized and chaotic. All of the foreigners going on the bus had the same deer-in-the-headlights look in their eyes as we all shared a couple laughs as a remedy to the confused, nearly clueless state we all shared. Finally, we boarded genuinely hoping we had got on the correct bus. As we crossed, we noticed a stark contrast between Nepal and North India. Yes, the roads were paved but the first sight in India was a brawl at 6am in the middle of the street between two men, stopping traffic, and demonstrating the chaos to come.
Our bus took us directly to Varanasi 12 hours after crossing the border. We took a tuk tuk directly to our hostel near Assi Ghat. Arriving late in the evening, we were tired but the live traditional music at Assi Ghat drew us in. We listened to music, overlooking the Ganga (Ganges River), and welcomed the adventure to come.
We wanted to return to India after Nepal for Varanasi specifically over these dates. Dev Diwali is one of the holiest festivals in India, let alone the world. We knew it was big but had no idea to what caliber. Our hotel manager told us that over 10 million people (an embellished truth?) flock to Varanasi over this holiday. The ghats (stone river front steps and forts lining the Ganga river) are lit up by oil lamps, forts decorated with dangling lights, several ceremonies and performances line the river front of 87 ghats total. The festival happens over the first full moon after Diwali and is dedicated to the gods who are believed to come down to the Ganga that night. We also learned the Ganga is tied to Shiva thus several of the ghats and ceremonies were to honor Shiva.
Before we started our travels, we were told North India was a bit of a wild place to travel, Varanasi especially having the potential of chaos, specifically over Dev Diwali due to the crowds. Of course, we ignored all the warnings. We believed we were prepared enough for North India after spending a month and a half in South India but we truly were not aware of what we were getting ourselves into.
The chaos has its rewards. Varanasi is like no other place in the world. The narrow alley ways, the beautiful ghats and cremation ceremonies, intricate temples, and ancient traditions of Varansi were enough to draw us in. Every morning at sunrise and every evening at sundown, Aarti ceremonies facing the Ganga take place in honor of Shiva and Mother Ganga. Five to six men in saffron (the holy color) robes come down from the ghats, line the stage facing the Ganga, and proceed with the ceremony. We learned so much from talking to our boat rower and a friend, Arjun, we met on the bus to Varanasi from Mumbai that took us under his wing. The Aarti ceremony is done with fire, since it is believed that fire connects this world and the spirit world, while chanting to Mother Ganga, and also includes water, flowers, lamps, incense, bells as offerings. This tradition goes back as far as 2000 BC! Crowds swarm, on land and river boat, to watch the night sky light up with the synchronized dance of fire, smoke, and the sound of bells as the Ganga is adorned with hundreds of floating candles. After the ceremony is complete, it is believed that the Goddess blesses each individual present. There truly is nothing else like it.
During the day, we found ourselves trying to get errands done or see attractions only to get frustrated from either being hassled by tuk tuk driver after tuk tuk driver, told misinformation, or people simply brushing us off and not wanting to help us. For example, on our first day we wanted to get SIM cards in case we were separated. What should have taken at most an hour took 5 hours with no results. Being bounced around from one store to the next, we felt cheated and felt like no one in the city was on the same page. By the end of the day, we were exhausted. This first full day in North India became a theme as we continued through Varanasi, Agra, and Delhi.
There are always gems in the darkest of caverns. We met a few locals who were helpful and genuinely kind. Arjun, our friend from Mumbai, wanted to stop in Varansi for a night on his way back home from cycling in Bhutan and was kind enough to invite us along on his private boat his chartered. He sure loved his bike (aka Baby) so much so that we had to share space on the boat with his touring bicycle so he could take selfies with his bike…on a boat. It was pretty entertaining. He acted in part as a cultural tour guide even though he had never been to Varanasi. From him we learned that women are not allowed at the cremations since they have delicate ‘hearts like flowers’ and tend to cry. Crying at a cremation is believed to taint the spirit of the deceased, which is counterproductive because Hindus who are cremated at the Ganga are believed to make their way straight to the divine. It is a very intimate ceremony and even he admitted it would be hard not to cry. We also learned that sadhus (orange robed Hindu devotee), people who have been bitten by a cobra, or pregnant women are not to be cremated, but given to Mother Ganga by tying a stone to help sink their bodies. He helped with translation and showing us traditional street food down the narrow alleyways of Varanasi where we discovered our love of Dal Vada!
We were told to be weary of street food however the restaurant food was the food we needed to be careful of. The night before Dev Diwali, we went to a restaurant recommended by our hostel. That night, Dan was abruptly awoken to an all-night spell of explosions coming out of both ends. His body tends to metabolize a bit faster than Rachael’s thus Rachael wasn’t affected until the next day. As Dev Diwali approached we were in ‘shitty’ conditions and unfortunately were unable to experience the festival to its fullest. A gamble you tend to take when traveling. We were able to get out long enough to attend a ceremony at Assi Ghat and take a short walk. Small oil lamps handmade of red clay lit every step of the ghats and intricately beautiful Rangolis line the walkways. River boats light floating candles and the forts dangle beautiful lights down the sides of their walls facing the Ganga. Women are dressed in their bright, beautiful sarees and people actively celebrate this holy holiday. The crowds were a bit congested to say the least. Rivers of people flowing to different ghats tended to be formless as lines and order are not the norm from getting from point A to point B in India. We had to learn to shove and elbow our way through if we wanted to get anywhere. Needless to say, our erupting stomachs and ebbing and flowing nausea were great motivators to shove and elbow our way out of the festival back to the hotel.
The day after Dev Diwali, we booked a sleeper train to Delhi. We mistakenly booked a train to Delhi as we wanted to go to Agra first. Unfortunately, we were unable to exchange our ticket thus had to take a sleeper train to Delhi, then board a second train to Agra. Nothing arrives or leaves on time and our first sleeper train out of Varanasi was 5 hours late. Our entire trip from Varanasi to Agra took 25 hours.
We were surprised by our first sleeper train. It was a 2AC that was a bit more modern than pictures we’ve seen of sleeper trains. It was quiet, had privacy curtains, and we had our own bunks. However, there must not be a limit to how many people can fit in one bunk as the lower bunk across from us had a family of 4 that was meant for 1 person. They were kind people and had adorable kids but were talkers and selfie takers (once the camera idea was introduced), so the overnight trip became a long drawn out conversation and photo shoot featuring two white people and their Indian children. We quickly learned headphones have multiple uses as the conversations dulled once you put them in.
The second train from Delhi to Agra was what we were expecting. 3AC car with almost every seat trying to cram families of 4 in them. 3 layered bunk beds and small spaces to fit several pieces of luggage, as it appears Indians tend to travel with a shit ton of stuff. Crammed in fetal positions, we squished our way on and settled in as best we could with the two of us and our 60L packs on one bunk.
Arriving in Agra, we hoped on a tuk tuk direcly for our hotel. Just as in Varanasi, the tuk tuk driver tried to hassle us and get us to hire him as a tour driver. Dan became good at being direct (and at times, rude) in order to cease the relentless pitches for tour guides, private tuk tuk drivers, and overpriced trinkets. This also came in handy when dirty old dudes or younger men with a questionable intent wanted selfies with Rachael. She was good at saying ‘no’ however they continued to try and take selfies anyways, at times being more aggressive than necessary with the tug of her arm. After talking with multiple traveling women, we learned we were not alone in this. The selfie quest of Indian people with foreigners would not end so were ok taking selfies with families, children, or women. We noticed a difference in the aggressive selfie culture of North India vs South India. Why the difference? We are not entirely sure.
We chose our hotel in Agra because it was within walking distance to the Taj Mahal and planned on waking up before sunrise to try and beat the crowds only to find out we that the same genius idea as everyone else. The line was already formed at 4am. Again, lines do not exist when there are not metal bar dividers even at these high tourist sites early in the morning thus we had to fight for the window space at the ticket desk, even though Dan had gotten there first. However frustrating as it was to get to Agra and get the ticket, the Taj Mahal was worth it.
The line, thanks to the metal dividers, was so long that we missed first light when entering the Taj. The first sight of it in morning light is like a dream, regardless of the crowds of tourists and Instagram aficionados dressed in their cutest outfit waiting to find a good moment for that perfect photograph. The outline of the beautiful structure reflects in the turquoise blue pond lining the walk to the building. The irony of pollution in India makes a beautiful red sun. As it rose, it created a pink hue on the white marble. The details of the tilework, calligraphy, and décor in the Taj are just breathtaking. Photos are not allowed inside the building, so you will have to go to see yourself. We were so grateful to have made it to this UNESCO World Heritage site.
After Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort was not too far away. Again, we had to haggle for a 10-minute ride and convince the tuk tuk driver we didn’t want a private tour. Immediately after getting out of the tuk tuk near the entrance to Agra Fort, we were bombarded by vendors pushing trinkets into our hands trying to sell them to us. By that time, Dan was on his last straw. He called them a “virus” and attempted to push them aside while Rachael was a bit more polite in telling them “no thanks”.
Built in 1573, the Agra Fort is full of rich history and is another UNESCO World Heritage site. The fort is a walled city that was used by the Mughals so there are many places to explore. Some of our favorite were the mosque built for women to pray made entirely of marble. You have to take your shoes off to enter, but Rachael learned from a nice local man that it is best to take your socks off as well simply because the cool feeling of the marble on your feet is so relaxing, especially in the heat. The other room that stood out was the Palace of Mirrors. Back when the fort was inhabited, sunlight would shine into the room and illuminate all the small mirrored tiles decorating the room. Unfortunately, it was closed off at the entrance, so we were able to get only a glimpse.
We had only short time in Agra as we had to catch a train back to Delhi and did not book our train tickets beforehand as it has been easy to book ‘tourist quota tickets’ everywhere we went. All the tuk tuk drivers informed us the bus is faster and cheaper, however we decided on the train as it was something we were familiar with. Once we figured out where the ticket office was and elbowed our way to the counter, we found out the next train wouldn’t leave for another 3 hours. We decided to take the tuk tuk drivers’ advice and take the bus, which we thoroughly regret.
The tuk tuk drivers at the train station are in a que. We didn’t understand at the time but once we got to the tuk tuk stand and they discovered we were taking a bus, they started fighting over our fare. The driver who won the fare dropped us off at a tourist office and waited for us to get our tickets and then left. We thought it was odd until we discovered why all the tuk tuk drivers want tourists to take the bus instead of the train. After purchasing our ticket, the tuk tuk driver seemed to have gone into the bus vendor to get his share of the cut for leading us to the tourist office. We were scammed. The tuk tuk drivers all state the bus is cheap and only takes “2.5 hours”. After waiting 1.5 hours for the bus to arrive, we had to fight for our seats as the tourist office overbooks the bus to line their own pockets. From there, the bus became more miserable and long as what was supposed to be 2.5 hours ended up being a 5 hour bus ride that dropped us off in the middle of a highway in Delhi where a bunch of other tuk tuk drivers wait for us to fight for our fare. The tuk tuk driver asked for 600 rupees for a 20 minute ride, much overpriced according to what we had heard from other locals, but Dan was able to get him down to 300 rupees. We reasoned that if the train showed up on time, we would have arrived in Delhi 1-2 hours before the bus did.
We were told by friends from our time in Mysore to stay is New Delhi opposed to Old Delhi. By looking at the map, it was hard to tell where New Delhi and Old Delhi are and how they are divided. We took a chance on booking.com and picked a spot centrally located. Unfortunately, that was in Old Delhi.
Our tuk tuk driver dropped us off in front of a dark alley and pointed down stating “hostel, in there” and drove off. We walked down this dark narrow alley that bends and weaves to the point you don’t know which way you came from. Eventually we found our hostel and was pleasantly greeted by a pregnant pug and a clean room. We took a hot shower, a luxury we had been missing, and rested for our final days in India.
Delhi is a polluted, dirty city but has some history and beauty tucked away in it. Waking up and sifting our way back out of the alleys, we attempted to make our way to Asia’s largest spice market. We were warned that navigating the streets of Old Delhi is tough, even with a tuk tuk driver, but attempted it anyways. We opted to buy face masks prior to our adventure into Delhi due to the amount of pollution. Unfortunately, the 3 hour journey to try and find the spice market failed as we were dropped off at an unknown corner. Dan speculated that the tuk tuk driver just got tired and didn’t want to drive us anymore, while Rachael thought it also could have been partly due to a lost-in-translation moment. Annoyed, we turned back around to meet up with a friend from Mysore in New Delhi.
Our friend took us to a haven in the middle of a chaotic city, a cute little quiet coffee shop in the middle of an amphitheater full of art sculptures. He owns the Mysore Music Shop and travels to Delhi in attempt to start a new business running a traditional Indian music school. His goal is to have it be geared towards foreigners and have it in Mysore, however right now it’s open to all in Delhi with more mainstream instruments like guitar and piano as he builds his business. He shared our feelings with traveling through Old Delhi in saying he never goes there because it is too chaotic. Meeting up with him was a breath of fresh air as he helped re-instill our initial beliefs of the genuine, goodhearted nature of Indians we met in Mysore.
We also met up with a good friend we studied yoga with in Mysore who lives in New Delhi. We shared our recent past experiences so far in North India and she confirmed the same experiences happen to her when she visits tourist areas and there is a difference between South and North India. She too is a good soul thus the stereotypes must not permeate through all North Indians.
Our time in Delhi was short but we were able to visit some tourist sites. The Akshardham temple is an incredible site displaying old traditions, art, and architecture with modern development. We were able to enjoy the temple as tourists due to the temple rules of no cellphones allowed thus no selfies. It was like traveling back in time. You could actually enjoy the architecture and all the features without the selfie culture. Rachael found herself much more relaxed as she absorbed the fascinating details of the structure without distraction. The traditional temple included stories that seemed a bit embellished however fascinating. Next to the temple includes a theme park-like exhibition hall. Unfortunately, we did not have time to attend all the exhibits, but we were able to attend the boat ride through India’s past that looked strangely like the ‘It’s a Small World’ ride at Disneyland. As one of the highlights of our time in Delhi, we were directed to sit in a boat with a group of Vietnamese Buddhist monks. The entire ride, all the Buddhist monks were laughing and pointing at the odd caricature statues, the embellished truths (apparently “spaceships” were invented 200 years prior in India before the first manned spacecraft built by Soviet Russia), and hokey sound effects. It was hard not to join them. The only time they quieted down was when the boat floated next to a baby Buddha being born (which was in Lumbini… Nepal).
Although our experience in Varanasi, Agra, and Delhi were not enjoyable 100% of the time, we were grateful for the positive aspects of traveling there and came to the conclusion that North India is full of contradictions. There is obvious death and thriving life, vibrant color and dirt and shit covered streets, kind people and aggressive people, smells of incense and jasmine and smells of decay; the list goes on. The people, food, culture, architecture, and belief systems inspire us to return. We were lucky to get a 10 year Indian tourist visa thus we know this is just goodbye for now. We packed our bags, left with one last obnoxiously dangerous taxi driver at 5am and boarded our plane.
-Dan and Rachael