Saturday, June 09, 2007

Well, of course our plans have changed, albeit not too dramatically, but 3 days of silent meditation turned out to be about all we could handle! A complete post regarding our experience with Vipassana meditation will follow, so this is just an "update" post, but since we'll be internetting it for a while today, to begin the long overdue photo dump, there will be ample time to wax nostalgic about being silent while being mindful. Two days ago, then, we departed the meditation center in the afternoon, and rode a cycleshaw back to Lumbini, where we rechecked into our hotel, and relaxed for the remainder of the day. After getting a normal night sleep (both in length and timing), we departed relatively early the next morning, aiming to end up in Varanasi, India, as soon as cheap transportation would allow.
Our first bus ride was to Bhairawa, near the border, and was again on the bus rooftop, since there was a definite lack of seats available. It was nice and breezy, though again sitting on metal bars wasn't the most comfortable. Better than boiling alive in a cramped bus though, and we certainly had a bit of that later in the day... In Bhairawa we had lunch, our last "Nepali thali" of daal bhaat, at least for a few months, but our plans to ride a shared jeep to the border town of Sunauli were dashed by an inconveniently timed bandh (strike), which literally began during the 20 minutes we were eating lunch. So we took a cycleshaw, easily talked our way through the barricaded street (blocked by a micro bus and jeep), since our explanation of needing to exit Nepal due to our expiring visa was thankfully satisfactory to whomever was in charge of the blockade (seemed to be a mid-20s man in semi-communist garb...). The cycleshaw took forever, and of course we got passed by several jeeps that were obviously still running, but in due time we arrived at the border. Taking a cycleshaw doesn't really make one feel the best, as a thin, sweaty driver pedals the huge load of 2 people and baggage along the bumpy, dirty streets, on a definitely outdated and low-quality modified tricycle. But it's a "catch-22," since the drivers need the work, to earn money to feed their families, and they want it very badly, we were followed by around 5 vigilant drivers, and the one we finally settled on even waited while we ate lunch - but you can't help feeling terrible that you forcing someone to physically abuse themselves solely to transport us a few kilometers. Is it better then, to refuse someone work who wants it, especially if the nature of the work is utterly degrading and potentially physically harmful; or instead give them the work they need, regardless of the cost, so that they and their families do not starve? The ethics of international travel are depressingly tricky more often than not.
Once at the border, we attempted to change our Nepali rupees into Indian rupees, while being bombarded by taxi touts, but everywhere was demanding (but not being up front about doing so) a 2% commission, and since we will be heading back to Nepal soon enough, we decided to just keep our extra currency rather than lose some of it to greedy middlemen. Our actual border crossing was quite simple, a bit of paperwork to leave Nepal got us our exit stamp, and a little lengthier form enabled us to reenter India with our multiple-entry visa. The whole process barely took 30 minutes, which was unexpectedly easy. Since we hadn't changed any currency, and the border lacks an ATM, we only had 300 Indian rupees that we had saved from beforehand, so we had to be very fiscally responsible in order to get to Gorakhpur, on the way to Varanasi, where there would be an ATM (despite what the money-exchange touts kept telling us). Lying touts are highly annoying, and unfortunately inevitable, so we have finally come to the conclusion to simply lie right back, not that two wrongs make a right, but we just need to deal with all that unnecessary hassle because we feel "bad" towards someone who is trying to either take advantage of us or personally profit off of us. Fortunately the bus ride from Sunauli was only 70 Rs each, leaving us 160 rupees of usable currency. The bus ride, however, was slow, hot, and ridiculously packed. Not that Nepali buses weren't stuffed with bodies, but this bus at times could not have fit another person, sitting or standing. Everyone was uncomfortable, and had no choice but to suffer through it, with the worst part being a half-an-hour off-road on bumpy dirt tracks, clearly not intended for a bus. At one point there was an impromptu bathroom break, primarily so enough weight was off of the bus in order for it to ascend a steep hill!
We eventually escaped the inferno, to every one's obvious delight, and were able to get off the bus directly in front of the Gorakhpur train station, which was full of chaos and unfortunately reminded us of Lucknow, though thankfully not quite so frustrating. Liz played the gender card and got in the ladies' queue, which still had a decent line, while Anderson wandered about trying to determine when the next train to Varanasi would be. Turns out one was scheduled to leave in about 2 hours, so decent timing on our part, and then A's next mission, the ATM, also proved readily obtainable, which meant we had enough money to actually buy some much-needed mineral water. We were concerned that finding an ATM would be difficult, so we were saving our rupees for our train tickets, but everything fell into place nicely, as a lady train station guard, after busting up a bunch of line-cutters (Indians struggle with the idea of an organized line, and that is really being as polite and culturally sensitive as is possible...), then let Liz, as the only whitie, do exactly that. Sweet irony, though obviously rather unfair, but what can you do?
We then headed over to our platform, bought some magazines, and began waiting for the train. And we kept on waiting, until an hour after it was supposed to have departed, which we deemed as more than sufficient time for potential lateness, we headed back over to the information area to see what was going on. We still don't know for sure, but either somehow the train arrived and departed without us being aware of it (rather doubtful), or it simply never showed up at all.
Back to the lines then, first to book unreserved sleeper seats on the next train, departing at 10:45 pm, and then to get a refund on our unused first ticket (minus 20 Rs processing fee). Pretty painless, and in some ways an overnight train works better than arriving in a big city just before midnight, so maybe that was simply our fate :-)
We then had a surprisingly delicious dinner at a restaurant across from the train station, reminding us that Indian food is truly spectacular, though the ice-cold Kingfisher Strong probably didn't hurt our enjoyment of things! We took our time, since we had plenty of time to waste, around 5 hours or so, but soon enough we were back at the train station, waiting at a different platform. Since we were wait listed, that meant we didn't have a reserved seat in the sleeper section, so we weren't sure how things would work out, but thankfully we got bunks, middle and upper berths, in the car that we were supposed to. Sleep came quickly, but wasn't at all of adequate length, as we arrived in Varanasi earlier than "bright and early" at 4:30 am. After wading through rickshaw touts, and their multitude of Westernized (read: increased) fares, we finally took one for 40 Rs to the main ghat area. Iain & Claire had recommended a hotel by Hotel Alka, listed in the LP, though they hadn't stayed there themselves, so we headed there first, wandering through feces-filled alleyways for a ways first. The morning Ganges rituals were just beginning, so we relaxed on the stairs, soaking in all the insanity, as the Hindu faithful bathed in the literally toxic, yet very holy, river water. Boats of tourists, Indian & Western alike filled the river, today being Sunday meant things were busier than usual. We decided to wait until tomorrow for our boat ride, so that we'll be less sleep-deprived and thus more prone to fully enjoy ourselves. Of course constantly we were being asked about boat rides, hotel possibilities, and a few charras offers for good measure. How we love thee India, and your infinite simultaneous stimuli!
We checked out the recommended hotel, and then the next-door Alka as well, and in a tight race of alright places with alright prices, Alka won, its higher fan speed being of higher importance than its more-claustrophobic bathrooms. Seriously, the squatty-potties barely even have room for a user to squat! After breakfast, tasty and filling, and some aimless street wandering, we found ourselves at a nearby Iway, which is obviously where we are still at :-)
Sorry about the rambling nature of this post, must be the lengthy travel combined with the lack of sleep...
Next up: full report on Vipassana meditation - so no talking!


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