........It's so cold here I can see my breath
02.01.2013 30 °F
A good afternoon to you,
As you can probably guess from the title I am in fact back in the USA after almost 9 months of travelling and circling the earth. Stepping foot into JFK airport I realized right away I was back home. It was a great feeling to go into the shorter customs line for citizens of the US versus foreigners. For the past 9 months I was the foreigner, always having to go through the other lines, answering many questions as to my "purpose" for being in the country. Catching the shuttle to the greyhound station and heading down the Manhattan Expressway I felt many emotions. First and foremost I was freezing as it was a grey day and snow had just started to fall. No clue as to why but the bus driver didn't feel the need to crank on the heat. Secondly, I realized the journey was over and that I was finally back on US soil. I got back into Baltimore after many many hours of travel on Saturday night, just a few days before Christmas eve. But more importantly I made it home for the last regular season Ravens home game. Within 15 hours of being back from Saudi Arabia I was at M&T Bank with a cold Sierra Nevada in hand, too easy. It's now been almost a week and a half since I have been back and already reality is hitting me in the face. Car insurance, bank accounts, car registration, resumes, and phone bills are just a few of the words describing what the past few days have been filled with. Yeah reality alright, reality hitting me on the side of the face like a cold snow ball thrown at the back of Ray Charles's head (that's a Ray Charles joke, not a blind joke.) But all good things must come to an end, and while I definitely wish I had more time in India I am grateful to have had finished up my travels with a week in such an extreme place.
Having only a week to visit India is like having 1 week to visit the USA and trying to paint an accurate picture. Furthermore I only had the chance to travel through three Northern lying cities. Calcutta, Varanasi, and finally ending in Delhi were the three destinations I would visit. Landing in Calcutta without planning anything I was a little nervous. Normally there is some excitement over flying/driving into a new country without any plans or even a pocketful of currency to ease ones nervousness. Here I was with no plans, currency, or even idea of where to go upon landing at the airport. Christ, I didn't even know the exchange rate or the name of the currency. Fortunately as I was making my way through customs I struck up a conversation with a girl from the Netherlands. She was visiting a friend over here who was from India and told me he would be able to point me in the right direction. After exchanging Thai bhat for the Indian rupee and talking with this local friend I was all set. Having just narrowly avoided paying $30 for a cab I was on a city bus for less than $.75. Good thing I talked that guy as $30 is enough to buy accommodation for more than a week and the cab driver had no problems charging a foreigner such an exorbitant amount. After a long bus ride and not really sure where I was going I made my way to the New Market area, where many backpackers would be staying or so I thought. While this was the "backpacker" area there were not nearly as many backpackers present as every country had been. From what I had gethered in my week there India was a spot for a different breed of backpackers. A few hostels here and there in this section of the city, but they were rough to say the least. Really rough as the place I had escaped to off the street was going for about $4 per night and resembled something out of Papillion. It was the size of a cell, had bars on the windows, chipping paint that blanked you in the morning, and a rusty fan that I thought was sure to fall while sleeping. Two doors opened to the common area where the other prisoners were staying. Fortunately many of the other people there were volunteers at the shelter Mother Teressa had opened and ran years ago, which was fairly close by. If I stretched out my arms and legs I would have not fit in the room laying down and the walls themselves were pieces of artwork. Written in pen,pencil,markers, and paint were sayings and scribblings in all different languages. Some I understood, but many others I had no clue. The drawings/sayings were very diverse and overall of a creative nature. Some were funny and uplifting and some were just down right creepy to the point I thought Dr. Lecter was the previous convict, I mean occupant. Calcutta was a pretty extreme place. The smell, pollution on the streets, impoverished people, and crumbling infrastructure was extreme in the purest sense of the word. Sidewalks don't really exist so every person, vehicle, animal, and cart was crammed onto the street. The cars are constantly honking at all times and the exhaust was intense. I was struck several times by the side view mirrors of cars and I was fortunate they were all newer models as they were equipped with mirrors that fold down. Only spending three nights there I made the decision to leave Calcutta and head onto Varanasi which was a 13 hour overnight sleeper train trip.
The sleeper train by itself could be it's own post, but I had asked for a train adventure back in Thailand and a train adventure is what I got. After boarding the train and making my way down the cramped hallways with an 80 liter pack on I understood pretty fast that this was going to be complete and utter chaos. Complete chaos is what ensued for the next 30 minutes and I just kept my head down. The one side of the train has 6 fold down beds from the wall and the other side has two fold down beds. When nobody is sleeping, the middle bed is folded up and the bottom bed is used for sitting by the other occupants, kind of like a bench. Well it became very apparent that we had about 10 people crammed on the seats when it was meant for only 6. Fortunately this little crackhead looking dude from Brazil came in like a hurricane and established order with some of the local Indians. Turns out half of them didn't have tickets and this was a pretty commonplace occurrence on this train. The ticket people came by but didn't really seem to check everyone's ticket. When it was time to sleep some people just slept on the nasty floor and others doubled up or just stayed awake the entire journey sitting upright. Don't worry though as this dog found his bone as I had skillfully negotiated my sleeping space on the top fold out bed. Vendors would hop on the train at different stops selling all types of goods and food. There was no trash can on board and everything is just thrown out the barred windows from the train, much like every other place in India. Obviously there was trash all over tracks wherever I had gone by train. The squat toilets as well emptied onto the tracks and a look through the nasty hole in the train one could see the tracks underneath flying by. Extreme right ?
Getting into Varanasi early the next morning and with little sleep I made my way to a guesthouse. Not wanting to waste a moment I immediately started off exploring after diving into a cup of Masala Chai from the guesthouse owner. Varanasi is the holiest city in all of India and sits directly on the Ganga river. The river is very holy in the Hindu religion and many people come there to bath in it's water. Even more interesting is that this sacred city is a place where Hindu's come to be cremated an then scattered into the river. The cremations occur in several of the Ghats along the banks and the process is in full view of the general public. Those who can afford it have there bodies burned by wood and those who can not opt for the quicker and less expensive option of electric cremation. The fires are lit on the side of the river and then a short ritual takes place prior to the body being placed on the pile of timber. The ritual is not overly grim or forma andl it seems as life just carries on around this ceremony. No pictures were to be taken, but people were on cell phones, laughing, and wild dogs were fighting all around. Little street kids tried to get me to buy something from them as I was watching the ceremony in front of me. Pulling my arm and then pulling out my arm hair I pretended like I was deaf and paid no attention to them. It seems cruel, but there is no other way around it and they had obviously seen this tactic before and knew how to counter. Each of them started yelling in an effort for me to feel embarrassed and then quieting them down by purchasing one of their trinkets. Well played children, well played, although you didn't get a rupee out of me as I stayed strong and continued my stone like posture with an emotionless face. I was only about 10 feet from one of the bodies being burnt and was pretty dumbfounded as to what I was seeing. I really couldn't believe where I was, what I was seeing, and feeling the heat from the fire was all in all an extreme experience. It takes approximately 4 hours to burn a body by wood and different parts of the process were repeated several times while I was there. According to the Hindu religion those who are holy people (baba's), pregnant woman, lepers, the poor, people who committed suicide, transgender people, and those bitten by cobras were not to be burned. Instead they have ropes and cement attached to them where they are then sunken in the middle of the river. Sometimes the bodies/body parts would come loose and could be seen floating in the river. The same river people drank from, bathed in, and washed their clothes in. Needless to say its one of the most polluted rivers in the entire world and I opted not to drink any of the water even though it's supposed to cleanse all sins. I wasn't really thirsty anyway so that's good. A dip of my hand in the river and I was satisfied. Of course those who live in India or grew up on the river are kind of immune to the ill effects it would have on westerners. I stayed in Varanasi for a few days and just witnessed the sights around the city. There was not much to do at night so I made sure to make the most of my days and even caught a sunrise boat ride on the chilly Ganga river at 5:30 am. During the early afternoon kids would fly kites on the roof tops of their houses. They way they fly their kites is truly a work of work and seeing all the kites dotting the sky was a great feeling. I wish I was a better photographer as at one point I was sitting on the guesthouses rooftop deck sipping on tea and taking in the sights around me, when I had noticed a man across the street was doing some pretty intense yoga on his balcony. Meanwhile a family of monkeys was swinging their way around his balcony and as if this wasn't enough the sun was just starting to set and kites were scattered all over the sky line. I couldn't capture it on my stellar 3rd generation 2nd hand iPhone from Saigon, but it's an image I will see in my minds eye for the rest of my life.
Heading out of Varanasi I made my way via sleeper train into Delhi. Another train ride lasting over 20 hours and I enjoyed every second of it. I met a beautiful Spaniard girl by the name of Martha (apparently the "h" is silent) who just so happened to be sitting in the same berth as I. Adjacent to us on the bench seat was an Indian family of 4 who was travelling from a local village to meet up with their father in Delhi. They had brought good food and snacks with them and offered it to us throughout the duration of the journey. The one kid even fixed a busted zipper on my backpack which was nice of him. The language barrier was intense so I eventually just nodded out and put my headphones and sleeping mask on. Arriving early the next day the Spaniard lady and I made our way to a local guesthouse and slept for several hours. Feeling refreshed after a cold shower we took in the city sights for the remainder of the day and just enjoyed the nice weather. I had never really been a huge fan of Indian food prior to travelling, but can now honestly say it's right up there with Chinese food (at least the american version of Chinese food.) Delhi is also full of trash, crazy crowded streets, and vendors selling everything and anything. I hate to keep bringing it up, it's the just the amount of trash I had witnessed in India is like nothing I had experienced before. On a happier note the metro system was very efficient, logical, clean, and cheap which was a pleasant surprise. Although at times it was a little over the top the way people push you into the train and it felt like a mosh pit at the Chili Peppers concert back at RFK in 2001 minus the crazy base line by Flea. After a couple days in Delhi it was about that time. It was time to let this adventure come to an end and make my long voyage back to the US.
Just being a little short of nine months on the road I am happy to be back home and consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to take such a great trip around the world. I had encountered many trying situations and witnessed my fare share of things I never thought I would have laid eyes on. Some good things and some bad things, but it's through these experiences that I have a new found love for the US and appreciate many things I had previously taken for granted . We are very very far from being a perfect country and i think most would agree we have a long way to go. However, after travelling it's very evident that we do a lot of things right and we should be proud of where we are from. With that I will step off my soap box for the last time. Probably a good thing to as I am feeling more and more like Dougie Howser M.D. as I have brought these last few posts to a close. Hopefully this blog has entertained some and for others motivated. Motivated those to make moves and put things in place, things that will help turn a lifelong dream into a reality.
Life's a garden....dig it,
Matthew R. Holthaus