Adventures Across India - TravelPod
Kolkata (Calcutta), India
After 'A Whirlwind of Tours', Jonathan and I (Andrew) returned to Kolkata with our girlfriends Shayna & Delia for a month of music, concerts, local trips and exploring this wonderful city. A few highlights in April which can been seen in the slideshows below were:
• Pizza Parties with Mitra (our Gurujee's daughter and our 'little sister'). It was Mitra's summer holidays so we found ourselves enjoying each others company playing board games, drawing and working on summer school projects, and of course making our own home made pizza!
• Celebrating my (Andrew) birthday with Gurujee and the family. We enjoyed some wonderful food, music, gifts, and a group meditation.
• An IPL (Indian Premier League) Cricket match at Eden Garden, one of the world's oldest and largest cricket stadiums.
• Monsoon:Duo (Saxophone Brothers)'s performance with Bickram Ghosh for the grand opening of 'Nirvana', a hip and hot new club in one of Kolkata's newest 5 start hotels.
• Some of the pre-monsoon storms, which were a welcome relief of the intense heat that built through the entire month of April; the advent of the Kolkata summer is intense to say the least. The rain brings relief from the heat, but in turn also brings more humidity and mosquitoes to our swampy and sometimes flooded neighbourhood.
Kolkata Memories Slideshow
We made a trip to the famous town of Shantiniketan, the home of Rabindranath Tagore's cultural Ashram, where he founded Rabindra Bharati University. Shantiniketan, literally meaning "the abode of peace" is known as the Bengal's prime centers of art and culture. Gurujee was asked by the university to perform at the Bengali New Year celebration, the major event and concert of the year; so we all travelled together to attend his concert. We then stayed on for a few days to explore the town, meet and interact with local musicians, artists, students and professors, and enjoy the pleasant climate and people in and around Shantiniketan.
At the end of April, Delia and I (Andrew) embarked on an epic journey which covered a large portion of North and the East Coast of India. We were joined by our friend Nina for almost 4 weeks of this journey, and the main portion of our trip which followed the route of the holy river Ganges from it's source deep in the himalayas all the way to Kolkata and the Bay of Bengal. Below you'll find a slideshow from each of the cities/places we visited, as well as a few videos. I'll try not to write too much, but there are surely some great stories that must be shared.
The first stop on our trip was Rajasthan. I've been there a couple times before; you can see some of our previous visits' photos from 2011 (Link) and 2012 (Link). I wanted to share the beautiful and romantic city of Udaipur with Delia as our first stop and then explore new territory by visiting the capital of the Rajasthan, the city of Jaipur.
Rajasthani Dance Performance Video
Camel Drive By Video
Rajasthani Horses and Wedding Band Video
We left Rajasthan and headed to New Delhi to receive Nina at the Airport. Our first stop on the itinerary was a day trip to Agra; home of the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. Since I have been there 3 times before, I took on the job of tour guide and tried my best to inform the girls of this famous place's history and importance. I think we all would have learned more to spend the 100 Rupees on an official guide, but despite not having a knowledgable guide we all had a wonderful time exploring these places and taking hundreds of photos.
In our few days in New Delhi we visited some of the main attractions India's capital has to offer, including: Qtab Minar, Akshardam Temple, Old Delhi & Chawndni Chowk, The Jama Masjid and Conaught Place. One story that can't be left out was my experience getting robbed in Chawndi Chowk!!! This place is notorious for pickpockets and luckily I was aware of this fact enough to catch the guy who opened my sidebag's zipper and grabbed my iPod Touch!! I pointed the guy out of the crowd and accused him of stealing my things to which he fully denied, until upon further inspection by a host of local shop keepers, when we found it in his trousers!! My iPod was returned to me and the man was pretty intensely beaten by the locals, holding him there until the police came to deal with him in a professional and responsible manner, or so I thought!! This included bashing his feet with a large wooden staff and then beating him further while the locals held him down. Despite being robbed by this man, witnessing a host of large men slap and beat him certainly wasn't what I was expecting or believe is the best method of discipline. I tried to tell the men and policeman to stop, which fell on deaf ears, as this was certainly the typical method of dealing with criminals like this. When I thought more about the situation later, maybe getting a beating would actually teach him a lesson, where as taking him to a jail cell somewhere and then waiting for a trial and sentencing, etc. seems like maybe a waste of time and money when surely this sort of beating would have more of an impact and was immediate. The Policeman and locals around continuously asked me if I had gotten everything back and whether or not I was satisfied!! Quite a hard question to answer to say the least! The whole incident lasted about 20 minutes, most of which my heart was pounding and the adrenaline was pumping through my veins like never before!! I can truly say I've never, and hope to never again experience anything like that!! (Sorry, no photos or videos of those moments, but the following video was taken just minutes before the incident!!)
Chawdni Chowk Crossing (New Delhi) Video
New Delhi Slideshow
From New Delhi we headed up towards the Himalays to the holy city of Haridwar. We spent only a few hours there finding a travel agent and setting up a driver and car to take us deep into the world's largest mountain range. We were headed to Gomukh, the glacial source of the river Ganges, one of the four popular Char Dham pilgrimage sites in this area of India. In a trip that we thought we could complete in 4 days, it ended up taking a week as almost every step became delayed and took much longer than expected. Our first stop in the mountains was in Uttarakashi, where we stayed at the Sivanananda Ashram with Swami Premananda. Despite the wonderful hospitality, wisdom, and charm of Swamiji and the ashramites, here's a list of a couple problems we ran into there:
• Our driver ran over Delia's foot (no major or serious damage), and again then later into Nina's leg in the exact same manner as before; again, no major damage, except the smack I gave him for his idiocy!!
• My camera battery charger blew when I plugged it into the wall. I then spend the entire next day finding a cellphone repairs shop man who rigged up a make-shift charger for me, as there were no camera shops that offered a replacement charger.
• Getting our official park entry papers from the Forest office took a day (and then 3 hours) longer than we had hoped, which pushed back our journey to Gangotri by a day.
• Finally after making the 6 hour drive to Gangotri, we arrived too late to start our trek to Gomukh, in turn pushing our trek back by yet another day. That night we stayed in the Forest Check Post Ashram, an opportunity that seemingly isn't offered to tourists very often. One trade off of our situation that night, was the chance to see the opening Pooja (worship and offering ceremony) that happens once a year to open the pilgrimage season.
Our trek to Gomukh, despite being delayed by a few days of hurdles and hiccups, was truly one of most amazing experiences I've had in India and in my life. I'm sure Delia and Nina would agree. We spent a full day trekking 18 kilometers to Bhojwasa, the last place to stay before Gomukh. We stayed in the Lal Baba Ashram and just after our arrival a storm came in and it snowed!! We were only prepared for moderate weather and not the frigid conditions we were now faced with, but luckily there were lots of blankets, chai, and other fellow trekkers to keep our bodies and spirits warm. We actually met a whole group of Canadian students travelling together as a part of their religious studies program at the University of Quebec!! So on that day, deep in the Himalayan Mountain range there were more Canadians that anyone else!! Now at an altitude of almost 4000 meters (half of mount Everest!), we all felt the affects of the thin air and cold temperature. After a good night's rest, with only one interruption to use the toilet, which led to experiencing one of the finest night skies I have ever seen, we woke very early to start a truly epic day of trekking. A morning hike to the glacier and then a chilly dip into the holy waters was followed by hiking back to the ashram for lunch and then another 5 hours of hiking back down to Gangotri for a total 26kms and just over 50kms in three days. We stayed the night in the Forest Check Point Ashram and left the next morning for our longest day of driving that we would experience in our whole trip. We drove from 8am and arrived all the way down in Rishikesh at 7pm, almost 12 hours or straight mountain driving!! We had made it, safe and sound with only a few minor scrapes and bumps, only 4 days later than we had planned. As we would find out later (only two weeks ago now), a major rainstorm combined with the warm weather resulted in one of India's biggest natural disasters, which I'm sure you have all heard and seen on TV. The exact same roads and towns that we visited only two months ago have since been washed away, along with the lives of what people are now speculating to be over 10,000 lives lost. After experiencing the state of the roads and witnessing first hand various landslides that engulfed villages and part of the main road, I can only imagine the damage that this recent catastrophe would have cost. Our love and support goes out to all the families affected by this disaster and we can thank our lucky stars that didn't choose to visit this spiritual & beautiful, but also hazardous place a month later than we did.
Spending less time that originally planned in Rishikesh, we enjoyed staying at the Sivananda Ashram, rafting on the Ganges in the biggest rapids usually seen before they close for the season, and exploring the Maharishi Maharaj Ashram, the place where the Beatles came to stay during their 1968 trip to India. The ashram is now defunct, derelict and home to wandering and homeless sadhus who make their living by charging tourists money to enter the grounds!! Totally worth the 50 rupees as we explored this important place and tried to imagine what it might have been like when the Fab Four were here on their Transcendental Meditation journey over 45 years ago!!
From Rishikesh we travelled along the route of the Ganges to what is considered the oldest consistently inhabited city on earth, Varanasi. Also a major religious destination for Hindus, this ancient city is truly a must visit stop for anyone considering coming to India. As with many of the stops on our trip, I've been here before a couple times, but like everything in India, the opportunity to have your eyes opened is always there. Here we enjoyed exploring the ancient alleys that make up the oldest part of the city, walking along the riverside ghats and taking an early morning boat ride to witness the sunrise upon the thousands of people performing their daily routine of Yoga, Pooja, offerings, bathing, and swimming. We also visited Sarnath, an important site of the Buddhist religion, where the Buddha gave his first sermon to his first disciples after his enlightenment.
From Varanasi we travelled home to Kolkata for a brief 5 day stop over to catch up and spend some time with Jon & Shayna, Gurujee & the family, and share some of Kolkata's sights with Delia and Nina. While in Kolkata we visited the Kali Temple in Dakshineshwar (North Kolkata), where we met a lot of monkeys! We took a boat ride on the Ganges, went shopping in the dense markets of Gariahat, sat for some wonderful music with Gurujee, and tried our best to catch up on some R&R while in the comforts of our own home.
Ganges Swimming (Kolkata) Video
For the last portion of our trip with Nina, we decided to take a trip to Puri, the seaside town and home of the Jagannath Temple. Unfortunately, non-Hindus and westerners are not allowed inside the temple, so we spent most of our time enjoying the sea swimming, beachside, hotel swimming pool, tasty seafood caught fresh everyday from the sea, and fresh mangoes from the mango tree in the hotel courtyard!! We made a day trip to Konark on rented scooters, and visited the sun temple in the pouring rain, and eventually got caught riding home in very cold and dangerous weather on scooters with no lights and a lack of protection from the elements. We made it home safely despite being drenched and shivering, and quickly recovered with a warm shower and lobster dinner with fresh mangoes for desert!! As this was the last few days of Nina's trip in India, Delia and I said our goodbyes at the train station before her train journey to Kolkata, where she was flying home to Toronto from, and we continued on our journey south to Pondicherry.
After a 35 hour sleeper class train journey, Delia and I can say that we truly roughed it here in India. As the 3AC (air conditioned) class of train tickets that we had were 'waitlisted', we found out only an hour before our train that our tickets were not confirmed. We were stuck at a random train station in Orissa with no way to get where we needed to go!! So, with the advice of the attendant at the station, we waited for the our train to arrive and ran frantically to find the conductor to see if he could find us an empty berth on the train. The upper class sections were completely booked, so he sent us to the lower class section and said that they would find us a spot. The majority of people here in India travel in sleeper class as it is extremely affordable. (Our journey of 35 hours covering over 1000Km cost only 500Rs.=$10 each!!). However like most things in India which are under-regulated and over burdened by the demands of too many people, sleeper class is a free-for-all and can be quite an intimidating experience. As we just jumped on the train in hopes to be accommodated, Delia and I ended up sharing a single side bunk with all of our luggage, closely surrounded by more than 15 people who were sharing this tiny space; sleeping two or three to a bunk and even on the floor amongst the luggage, garbage, shoes, rodents, and insects!! We tried to get some sleep in our tiny little space before the conductor came and told us to move to two free bunks six train compartments down!! Not an easy transition with the amount of luggage we had to drag through a sea of people. We ended up sharing our new section of the train with a huge family including 3 young children who didn't mind causing a scene and making noise for most of the rest of the trip to Pondicherry. In the end, we made it without any major problems, and came out of our sleeper class experience feeling as though we had met and connected to the everyday Indians who make up the majority of the 1 Billion plus populated land.
The following slideshows cover our entire two week stay in the south of India in the month of June. Delia and I thoroughly enjoyed our time at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, exploring the various departments and experiencing the beautiful ashram life of the people living there. I've been there a few times before which you can check out our visit with my parents last year.
We spend 6 days in Auroville, one of the worlds leading examples of a city of universal ideals encompassing spirituality, communal living, alternative living, organic farming and food production, environmentally safe methods of building and design, and in general just an overall awesome place to be and/or live!! We spent our time exploring the yet to be developed areas of bush on our rented motorcycle, meeting interesting people from all over the world- living, visiting, working, and volunteering at the various centers throughout Auroville. This is truly an inspirational place and I urge you all to look into it more by checking out the following link: www.auroville.org
We made a two day side trip to Bangalore to visit our dear friend Biran-jetu (Uncle Brian) who brought the world famous K.C. Das sweet company there over 40 years ago. The Das family is one of the strongest supporters of Music, Art, and Culture, and having spent a great deal of time with them over the year we have been here in Kolkata, we always look for an excuse to visit and spend some time with our favourite uncle and sweet maker! We can't thank him enough for his kind generousity and hospitality offered to us while we were there. It gave me a chance to share with Delia the wonderful world of Bengali sweets and show here how they are made at the factory, which is attached to the home we were staying in.
We returned for a couple more days in Pondicherry, where we met Jonathan and Shayna along with Gurujee's Mother and spent a wonderful time celebrating her birthday at the Ashram with her other son, Dipankar, and his family. Delia's time here in India was quickly drawing to a close, so we packed our things and started on our long journey back to Kolkata. As our last sight seeing day we visited the Sea Shore Temple, and the impressive and oldest solid rock carved temples of Mamallapuram. We continued in our car to Chennai central rail station where we embarked on Delia's final train journey, a 28 hours train home to Kolkata.
Delia and I spent the last few days here in Kolkata together packing, picking up her final gifts for family and friends, enjoying some homecooked food as well as some great modern Bengali inspired restaurant food, and saying her goodbyes to Gurujee, his wife Durbadi and their daughter Mitra. Her four months here in India seemed to fly by, but in that time, we covered more of India than I could have imagined and gained stories and experiences to be remembered for a lifetime. I can't thank her enough for coming to travel with me here in India and for the amazing support and love she continuously shares.
We'd like to thank you all for reading and checking out all the photos. Your continuous support and interest is a huge inspiration for what we are doing over here and we love to hear from you. Please leave comments and write to us telling us what you've been up to and what you think of our studies and travels here in India.
Andrew, and the whole gang: Jonathan & Shayna, Delia & Nina, and Justin & Natalie