Thriving in intense Varanasi!

Of all the places on our itinerary, Varanasi was the one we thought would be the toughest. Preoccupied with thoughts of corpses floating past in the Ganges river, we touch down in the evening and book a prepaid taxi to take us to our guest house on the banks of the famous river. The airport is about an hour from the ghats, so we have some time to talk to the taxi driver. We learn that Varanasi is a big city with 10m people. We were expecting 1m tops!

Our guest house Rahul Guest House is located to the south of the main ghats like Assi Ghat, and in a Muslim area. The staff are lovely, and we’re shown to our room on the roof terrace which looks out directly over the ghats and river.

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Yoga

The next morning we head to our Hatha Yoga lesson with Siddharth Yoga, which was widely recommended. The studio took some finding through many twisting streets but eventually we found it - a cute little room for the teacher, us and another student right on the ghat with the river and all its activity down below us. Siddharth is incredible, he knew how far to push us before backing off and providing savasana rest breaks. Walking out in a dreamy haze, Quentin calls it as the best yoga class he’s ever had (aside from Leti’s classes of course!).

Sitar

We’ve been loving the idea of taking lessons on the various Indian instruments, and today we want to try Sitar. We pick one of the many music schools we come across and are met by a wizened old twinkly eyed Sitar guru called Bhaji. He was totally brilliant, systematically teaching us how to sit and hold the Sitar and then play our first scales. It’s a lovely and unique sounding string instrument and we both leave the lesson very happy and wanting to learn more.

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Cremation and the path to Nirvana        

Varanasi, as one of the 7 holiest Hindu cities in the world is revered as a place to both come and wash a lifetime of sins away in the river Ganges or to cremate your loved ones. We visit the main burning ghat Manikarnika to get a sense of the ceremony. We’re apprehensive about whether we will be able to handle the sights and smells of the ceremonies.

We’re intercepted by a man who tells us not to walk down the path where the relatives are walking but shows us the tourist path which also leads to a waiting guide. The guide explains that he and his colleagues are working to ensure that the place is respected and also to help the people who come here to die that don’t have relatives to support them. Such people often can’t afford the wood to be cremated (apparently it can take 120kgs of wood to fully burn a body down) and they rely on wood purchased with donations from visitors like us. To this day we think this is a scam but there may be (some) truth in it.

He explains to us that people from all over the country bring their dead relatives to be burned down on top of stacks of firewood. The fires for the various casts/classes are located at different levels - upper for upper class and lower for the lower classes. Once burned down there is only chest bone (man) and hipbone (woman) left, which is placed in the river to be carried away and to nirvana. They do this to end the circle of life, and not be reincarnated and come back to earth - a process called Moksha.

For those who can’t afford cremation they can instead tie stones around the dead bodies of their relatives and push them out into the river to sink a little below the surface and then get carried away.

We spend a few minutes observing the process. Bodies first get washed in the Ganga. If the father is being cremated then the eldest son has the lead role, which includes getting his head shaved and lighting a hand-held bundle of sticks and grass in an ever-burning fire which has been kept going day and night by those dedicated to this holy task. He then is joined by four or so brothers or relatives who circle the body set up on the cremation pyre and then he sets it alight. If the mother is being cremated, then it’s led by the youngest son. It is surreal to witness this and actually see the head and feet of someone within the flames. We are humbled and reverently walk away.

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Ganga river cruise

We find a cute little bakery called Brown Bread Bakery which has a nice rooftop as well. They also do Ganga river tours for a little less than other places. True the boat is oar rather than motor powered but that just adds to the magic for us. 

We take a sunset trip and it’s great to get a new perspective on the ghats and see the steady flow of cremation ceremonies from afar. As we glide on the slow moving river we pass unidentifiable objects partially submerged in the water. Sobering thought that these are most likely dead bodies of humans or dogs on their way to Nirvana.

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Ganga Aarti

Every evening without fail there is the spiritual ritual called Ganga Aarti that is performed on the banks of the Ganga just after sunset. People crowd around the Dasaswamedh Ghat, on land and in boats on the river to see the spectacle. The ceremony is elaborate and intense with beating drums and music, and saffron robed young men performing intricate rituals.

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Don't miss Varanasi!

We only stay for one full day, but Varanasi has captured our hearts and the intensity and vibrancy will last in our memories. We’re already looking back and considering it one of our favourite places we visited in India. If you have doubts about whether you’ll cope just put them aside and go!

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Living the good life in Rishikesh

When we planned our trip to India, we thought we thought it’d be good to start from a ‘quiet’ place. That’s why we chose Rishikesh as a starting point for our adventure. We wanted to be able to gradually get used to the busy life in India and it’s been so great being in this beautiful place just below the Himalayas.  

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Rishikesh has definitely gone beyond our expectations. A friendly, vibrant and alive place where the Indian culture nicely welcomes and integrates the western one. Western people, who like us, are here mainly to explore the beautiful surroundings or practice some Yoga, chanting, and Indian music. The nature is beautiful, green forest and mountains surrounding the city and the Ganges river which has this incredible green colour that you can’t forget. 

 

AIRBNB & ATM ADVENTURES

We arrive at our Airbnb Ixora Villa super tired at 8am in the morning after travelling from London to Delhi and Delhi to Dehradun, and Dehradun to Rishikesh. We soon discover that our stay is 15 km from the centre of Rishikesh and there are no tourists around, which makes us feel like we are living the real adventure. On the other hand, being so far from the centre is challenging. At midnight (when yes we are supposed to be in bed and not around exploring by ourselves!) it can be challenging to find ‘tuk tuks’ to bring you home and negotiations for a fair price can take longer than expected.
Moreover, in our neighbourhood and pretty much everywhere in Rishikesh, ATMs haven’t been working for us and as we didn’t have rupees with us, not having a working machine has definitely been a blocker. Let’s only say that we spent a good few hours over a couple of days looking for a a working ATM with cash.

SPIRITUALITY
You can breathe spirituality everywhere in Rishikesh. It blends well with the western world and bring magic to the town. Old men with long beards chanting for hours with their sitars and harmoniums. ‘OM NAMAH SHIVAYA’ in the background while walking down the main ghat. We love Rishikesh because it is very friendly and approachable but at the same time remains authentic to its core traditions. 

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HOLY GANGA
The Ganges has so much charm. The vibrant green is so beautiful! The water is clean as close to the source and many people including tourists choose to bath in it.

THE BRIDGES: SHRI LAXMAN JHULA & RAM JHULA

The ‘famous’ bridges are so busy with people walking and motorbikes buzzing and tooting to get around them. There are plenty of people who want to take selfies with foreigners. There is always someone in front of you, who is taking a selfie and including you in the background. Quite funny to be honest and we’ve learned to pull a cheeky face.

The area around Ram Jhula is quieter than the ‘centre’ around Shri Laxman Jhula, but there are definitely more cafes and things to do around Shri Laxman Jhula so this area became our favourite. 

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We have a couple of meals at the Little Buddha Cafe (which is actually quite big), where the food and the views over the Ganga is really good but the service is fairly slow, which works for us because we are happy to slow our lives down. Despite the busy environment around us with the loud cars around and the crazy horns constantly in the background there is something very chilled about Rishikesh, something that fascinates us. 

 

MUSIC & FRIENDS

In the area of Tomovan, we find a lovely music ashram where we take an harmonium class with an amazing teacher. We learn 2 mantras and Quentin and I manage to practice them during the 1 hour class. As you may know, music is a very important part of our lives and having the chance to learn and explore Indian music is just so inspiring and refreshing. There are plenty of music stores in Rishikesh. We end up in a very cool one where Leti loses herself looking at meditation bowls, harmoniums, and ends up buying a flute. In the store we meet a great couple, who’s been travelling from Switzerland to Australia by bike! We become friends straight away, so much in common! In the 3 days we spend in Rishikesh we have some amazing time together, chatting about our dreams of a life that brings together travels and remote work. 

 

YOGA

There are so many Yoga classes in Rishikesh that it is difficult to choose which one you want to attend. Yogis training to become teachers are everywhere and every corner has a sign offering any kind of style. If you are a Yogi like Leti, you know what we’re talking about. We choose to spend one day at the International Yoga Festival at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram. There are some good teachers and both Quentin and I enjoy the vibes and the adventure of waking up at 5 to join the second morning class (we couldn’t make it for the first class at 4am, jet leg too bad!). Some great teachings from both Kia Miller and Jules Febre (who was covering for Sharon Gannon, creator of Jivamukti), friendly people from all over the world, good food, an inspiring and moving talk about the connection between Yoga and Science. The only bad point: a very poor lesson about essentials oils with a very boring and ‘heavy’ teacher in the afternoon, who made us fall asleep! 

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CONTRASTS
There are definitely questions that arise within us. People like us paying to attend an international Yoga festival while outside of the ashram many people struggle to find food for themselves and their family. Inspiring talks to improve our lives and bring love to the ones around us and yet a sense of helplessness that we can’t help everyone around us. We definitely have many questions with no answers and many things that we would like to see differently. 

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FOOD & JUICES

Food is cheap and super tasty and most places claim to use mineral water which makes it easier for us to trust we’re minimising the chance of Delhi Belly! The best one is a little spot near the Ram Jhula where we had some amazing roti and dahl. A little bit heavy but so tasty! It's a new restaurant and we unfortunately don't remember the name of the restaurant but we'll try to dig it out. 

 

MASSAGES & AYURVEDA
We had an amazing massage at the Sanskriti Spa, a more ‘luxurious’ place than others but everything seems super high quality. With an amazing view over the Ganga, the spa also has a delicious restaurant with Ayurveda food and tasty juices. Highly recommended! 

More photos coming soon...

How to survive arriving in Delhi late at night

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04 March 2018. First arrival in Delhi, India. 

After a couple of years of talking about it (Leti mainly, Quentin pretending to listen) it's hard to believe we're actually on a plane about to touch down in Delhi's airport.

It's 1am and we land in Delhi with apprehension - having had everyone say to us before leaving to: "be ready, it's super intense, and no-one escapes Delhi belly!" With our minds on high alert we can feel/imagine the eyes of every local on us. We're careful to not stand too close to each other, having already pre-formulated our "we're married" story and shifted one of Leti's rings to her ring finger to try to stave off unwelcome advances. Yes people stare at us, particularly men who stare at Leti, but after a few hours we realise most of it is pure curiosity and not anything more creepy.

We arrive without any Rupees as not so easy to get outside of India, and most of the info we pre-read said that ATMs are everywhere in India. Well yes they are, but we found a lot of them aren't working or don't have cash, and we have tons of teething problems getting our cards to work. Out of the seven or so cards we have only one works: Leti's Revolut prepaid credit card. Our other UK based cards don't work for various reasons which took a few days to untangle. 

As we're travelling for four months across different climates we have arrived using our full baggage allocation from London, each having a single 23kg bag for the hold plus two pieces of hand luggage. There's no way we want to carry all that around India, and in fact most internal flights have a standard allocation of 15kg hold luggage. So we plan to leave our wheeled luggage in Delhi luggage storage and go on with just our backpacks. The Left Luggage facility is actually over the road from Terminal 3 in the Metro building. It costs about 400 rupees per day per medium weight bag (7-20kg) which we think is pretty reasonable. What we find less reasonable is the assistant's refusal to let us redistribute our weight between bags to have one of them reclassified as small and be half the price. It's too late now, the receipt is already printed she says. Welcome to India we say to ourselves!

Putting the annoyance behind us we head over to get our ticket to board the bus to terminal 1. Waiting patiently in line like well trained Brits we're amazed to see someone who we assume is a local rocking straight up to the front and interrupting the assistant serving the guy in front of us. Once it gets to our turn the suspected local then jumps in front of us. With frustration boiling over we both tap the guy on the shoulder vigorously a few times and say "hey we were next don't push in!". 😡A bit surprisingly he doesn't say anything and heads back behind us. 😏

Boarding the dilapidated bus we marvel at the characters around us, and in turn start to feel uncomfortable with all the eyes on us. Everything seems a little more scary and dramatic in the pitch black of 3am, and we're happy to jump off when we arrive at the airport 20mins later which feels like a lifetime.

Thinking the little challenges were over we start to check in for our flight to Rishikesh. Then the assistant asks for the card we used to pay for the flight and we realise that the fun isn't over yet. Leti had lost, then cancelled, and then found that card, and it had been replaced with a new one. Luckily he was willing to accept the onscreen statement showing the transaction that Leti found on her mobile.

Wanting to cross the next thing off our list we ask about local SIM cards and are assured that we can buy one once we pass security. Nope, we don't find such a shop and assistants don't know of any either.

Finally we board our Indigo plane to Rishikesh, surprised and pleased that it's shiny and new looking, much more so than the tired BA plane from London. Onwards to Rishikesh, post coming soon! 😅


Recommendations for arriving in Delhi:

- Bring a few different credit card options, including some of the more modern and travel friendly options like Revolut and Monzo (enable the magstripe ATM option in Monzo account settings - the ATMs in India use a different technology to the UK).

- Bring some rupees, or be willing to exchange a major currency (USD, GBP etc) at the money converters for a poorer rate than you get at ATMs.

- If you need to leave luggage, then redistribute the weight for lowest costs before they complete the transaction. And factor in time to head over to the metro where the left luggage facility is.

- Bring a lock for your luggage, and do anything else you need to do to the luggage to make your valuables safer if broken into (Quentin lost an hour of his life worrying about not having a lock for his bag and data being stolen as no password set up as required at start up).

- Terminal 3 is the newest and most equipped terminal, get a local SIM card and any other supplies there before transferring to other terminals for local flights.

- Allow plenty of time for getting through the arrival process and try not to get annoyed if locals push ahead of tourists.

- Smile and say Namaste to anyone staring at you. Assume it's curiosity rather than anything more sinister. In saying that, play it safe as you should anywhere else in the world and don't put yourself in situations where you could be vulnerable, especially if you are a women. 

- Seek to understand, accept and respect the culture - once we did we found it a lot easier than at the beginning when we were judging with our learned Western customs!