India: Week Two

Day eight: Out of the Frying Pan..
Waking to heavy rain, we researched our route from Kolkata airport to Innra hotel hard, and by the time it came for heading to the airport we had it down. Our route, Google map screen shots, train times, hotel numbers, everything. It was going to be easy.

Ready for new surroundings and a new challenge, Kolkata was going to be great we had decided. However, soon after arriving we found out that all our research was a complete waste of time. First of all, the train station next door was closed, meaning out 10:30pm train (according to google) did not exist. Taking a taxi to the train station by our hotel instead (not wanting to risk the whole addresses not existing thing again at night), we had to walk through an entire car park worth of sleeping homeless people, trying not to kick them in the dark. After what seemed like an age, we had navigated our way through busy market streets to our hotel. And it was grim. Hotel Windsor was grubby, but homely. This place was squalid.

We ‘checked-in’ (it was more like an extremely intimidating interrogation), watched a man kick a rat down the stairs, then went to our room. Surprisingly, the room itself wasn't too bad, but first impressions like that are hard to change.

Day nine: Get The Hell Out Of Dodge
Waking at half 6 the next morning, we hastily booked accommodation and left for Bodhgaya a day early. One 6 hour train and a rather bumpy Tuk Tuk ride later, we arrived at the Tara Guesthouse to the warmest welcome we had received, dissolving our Kolkata stresses. Arriving hungry, we were invited into the family kitchen to chat with Sintu and Poonam while we helped prepare dinner, feeling the most at home since we left Britain.

Day ten: A Tiger Can’t Change His Stripes, But a Labrador Can
Early to bed early to rise, and a full day of temple viewing planned, we demolished our onion omelette with toast (which we had come to learn is very common hotel breakfast). And then it started raining. Heavily. So we read for a bit, and had a nap but in the end it was still raining like the proverbial cats and dogs. We resigned ourselves to our inevitable soggy day of spiritual awakening.

Our first stop was a brand new, shiny temple just round the corner from our guesthouse. Made mostly from metal, white stone and small mirror panels, the Metta Buddharam Temple was impressive. However, not so impressive that, in front of a big beautiful bronze statue of Buddha, three grown men didn't think it strange to ask Rory for a selfie..

Three temples, lunch and an 80 foot tall Buddha statue later, we were headed home when Rory suddenly turned. “Clare, is that a tiger..?”, he said squinting. We agreed, it was an actual tiger. Deciding we had to get a closer look, and slowly walked up the path. About halfway, Rory says, “it is as well. It must be heavily sedated, just lying there”. “It's just not ri-”, Clare starts but by now we're about 10 metres away and this particular breed of tiger appears to have big floppy ears. We then realised it was not a tiger. It was a dog. A golden labrador, painted with stripes. But in our defence, those stripes were pretty well done.

Day eleven: Proper Gap Yah Experiences
Hoping for sunshine, we planned to visit the Mahabodhi temple, the reason why Bodhgaya is so significant. It was here where Prince Siddhartha found enlightenment under the bodhi tree, becoming the Buddha. Since RMPS lessons way back in school this had interested Clare greatly, and was the reason we had decided to stop here.

Getting into Mahabodhi temple was one the most stressful moments of our entire trip! For somewhere so spiritual and of such high religious importance for so many people, there was a surprising amount of touters and (a phrase we’d come to loathe), “tour guides”. Armed with our new word from Navin to help us through - “challo” meaning not interested, go away - we fought our way through to an enormous queue. Skipped multiple times by Buddhist pilgrims, mostly on the order of security guards, we finally made it in! And after walking around for a while wondering where in the heck this tree was, we almost missed it hidden behind a large fence. It was a reasonably enjoyable experience, but not nearly as exciting as Clare had bigged us both up to think.

That evening, we ate dinner on the front patio and spoke to Anuj, and Navin for hours about sport, countries, religion and, most interestingly, their school. After being invited to see it before we left the next day, we went to bed the most excited we had been the entire trip.

Day twelve: Like Father, Like Son
Waking early, we packed up, had breakfast and waited for Anuj to take us to Shantindia like he had said. Just when we started to worry we had missed him, in a cloud of dust he appeared on his motorbike, and (apologies to our mothers, who will be most unpleased when they read this) all three of us cosied up on the back to drive to the school.

Visiting the school was an amazing experience, just as we had hoped and it's unlikely to be beaten for our favourite part of the trip. Made up of around 8 classrooms, and signs of expansion underway, the feeling of children wanting to learn was evident throughout. Some of them would not even stop writing to say hello, which in contrast to school kids in Britain, was fascinating. Upon hearing that Rory had just graduated with a degree in biology, he was immediately called up to teach the children. For some reason he went for chromosomes, mitosis/meiosis and recombination, which was not the best choice considering the class of 15 yr olds only had a basic grasp of English. The next class he was again called upon to teach, he went for explaining the difference between Britain and England instead.

In the end, we left Tara Guesthouse for our train to Varanasi having had an unbelievably good time and feeling amazing having met so many wonderful people. And hopefully, one day, we will return.

Four hours later, we arrived in Varanasi and eventually made it to our guesthouse. The lovely owner Sonu (the only reason we booked this hotel was because of the shining reviews all relating to his hospitality) welcomed us, but seemed confused. Asking us to sit while he greeted some other people, he turned back to us, “Okay, how can I help?”. Confused, we explained that we had a booking, and wanted to check-in (wondering why this was not slightly obvious), only to be told he did not have any bookings. Aggravated, Rory took out his phone, “yes you do, see? … oh balls”. Our booking wasn't until the following night. Despite our stupid mistake, he explained that our room was free, and that we were welcome a night early. Climbing staircase after staircase, we found out our room was on the roof and were given a tour of the rooftop with its, even in the darkness of night, spectacular views.

Day thirteen: Only Fools and Camels.
We had read in our Lonely Planet that Varanasi was unapologetically in your face and hectic, but still we were not quite expecting it. Within half an hour of our first day, we had had to use challo around 20 times, Rory had been given an unexpected arm massage and Clare had a baby thrust into her arms for a photo. Feeling slightly overwhelmed, we went back to the hotel for a bit, recuperated, then set off again. This time we avoided the ghats (which due to the rainfall during monsoon season, had risen to crazy levels, were mainly big walls of clay), and walked through the winding alleys and bazaars. This is when we met Manoj.

Rattling out words at a rate that has to be heard to be believed, Manoj whisked us into his shop to sell us everything and anything we wanted at “damn cheap” prices. Rory managed to get some shorts despite there only being trousers as Manoj knew a tailor to sort us out. Whilst waiting for the tailor-made shorts, we were offered everything we could dream of. Whiskey, beer, wine, cigars, boat tours, walking tours, rickshaws, jewelry, even marijuana: whatever we wanted, Manoj knew a guy. In the end, the Indian Del boy gave us his number “in case we changed our minds” on anything.

After going back to the hotel for a pointless shower (the humidity was so great that even drying yourself caused you to become sticky with sweat), we ventured out to watch the Aarti ceremony. With a packed crowd, lots of incense and lots of candles it was an interesting experience. It is hard to watch and enjoy something whilst being constantly told to come to someone's boat or follow someone for a better place to watch, but we still managed to.

Day fourteen: The Early Bird Watches Fog Get Slowly Paler
We had arranged to join a 5.30am boat tour to watch the sunrise from the Ganges with Sonu and some other guests. After drinking some chai tea from clay pots (it’s the only way to drink it, don’t you know!) and hearing some stories about the history of the city we clambered into a boat and were confronted with a thick fog covering the city. The pictures weren’t as nice, but we didn’t get sunburnt and still saw interesting sights, such as a body being washed in the river ready for cremation and pile of people’s ashes.

The early rise led to the need for many hours sleep throughout the morning, and now it had started pouring with rain, it was far more pleasant to do so. After that, and a short walk around the local ghats (mainly through clay),we then went to watch the Aarti ceremony at a different ghat. It was similar to the previous night, but reduced humidity levels made it a much more pleasant.

A ballsy Tuk Tuk driver spent the whole walk from the guesthouse to the main road convincing us that the train station was 9km away and should be 400 rupees at least. Google maps had told us it was 4km away and Sonu that is should only be 150 rupees. Eventually, another driver appeared and instantly agreed to our price, allowing us to wave goodbye to the conman. 10:30pm, we settled down in our lovely cool sleeper train for the 14 hours to Delhi.

Ps. We know you want it, so here’s the damn ‘tiger’.