It all got off to a flying start as we were late for our Mumbai flight. We had however left 2 hours in advance for a trip of 30 km. So we arrived exactly 5 minutes before the closing of the check-in and the last call for boarding! The flight to Mumbai went very fast. At the airport we take a taxi to our huge apartment on the 29th floor of a tower in central Mumbai. In short, we have a drink on the balcony overlooking the sea! And we go to bed to be on the move for the next day.
Day 1 - Dandiya in Mumbai
We head to Colaba, a district south of Mumbai. We could admire the gateway of india and the Taj Mahal hotel. We also enjoyed the view of the sea, the very interesting architectures and varied neighborhood.
Then we went up a little further north to see the Victoria terminus, a beautiful, huge and impressive train station. After that we headed for Marine Drive, a popular walk to watch the sunset. On the way we stopped to see the end of a rugby match. Teams of several nationalities were gathered for some tournaments. It was pretty cool to see! Then we bought a mirror like a perfect tourist and walked for a while on Marine Drive to sit and watch the sunset.
We head for Haji Ali Mosque. It is at the end of a pier, and is in itself nothing extraordinary, but the place is rather pretty although littered with junk. Then we head to the Mahalaxmi temple. There was a long queue but a nice man saved us time. He took us to the beginning of the waiting line, which was actually much longer than we thought!
The temple was pretty cool, but forbidden to take pictures! There were lots of people especially that it was the time of Navratri. Later we went to dinner at Leopold, a famous and old restaurant in Mumbai. I was particularly excited to see this restaurant since it appears several times in the book Shantaram! We were not disappointed by the cosmopolitan atmosphere or the delicious food!
Returning to the apartment, we attend the Navratri festival with an evening organized in the apartment complex. Dozens of people were gathered to dance in beautiful and colorful outfits! It was a great atmosphere. Too bad that I did not have the appropriate attire, as I would have gladly joined the Garba Dandiya dance!
Day 2 - Kolkata Durga Puja
The bag is done. We leave for the airport. And there, everything seems long, very long. We fly over the cities of lights and say goodbye for an uncertain time. The ears are clogged. But the excitement keeps us alive. We pass just above the Hooghly River, which in reality is none other than the Ganga. All the streets are alike. I feel like we're going around in circles.
The air conditioning at the airport masked the hot and humid climate. It is 17:00 local time and the sun is already setting. We take a pre-paid taxi in the airport to Dum Dum Station. We tried to find the subway entrance. We arrived on a platform. There is hardly time to look for a ticket office as a train enters the station.
Kolkata is one of the most coveted cities to celebrate Dussehra. Half of India is here, and the festivities are coming to an end. The trains are full and it is impossible to buy a ticket at the station. Let's be crazy! We ride in it. We'll see.
The current of hot air whips our face full of sweat. It sticks. We arrive at a station that bears a name similar to the one we have on our metro map quickly printed the day before. The train sounds the departure, and we throw ourselves on the platform. We are not in the right direction.
After a few minutes of walking, we cross a rickshaw. We ask him if he can take us to New Alipore. It is too far. He brings us back to the station from which we had just left. We take the train back to Dum Dum. There seemed to be more taxis there. The train is puking with people. We have to push to get back. We laughed. We push. We come back. We arrive at Dum Dum's wharf.
There we see an arch in blue and white mosaic where there is written "Metro station - Entry". In fact, we did not take the metro as planned. It's been two hours since we left the airport. Let's find a taxi. New Alipore? Just "nod" of the head or some incomprehensible words and gestures that tell us to walk there to find. We find a taxi. New Alipore? Ok. It is around 10 pm. There are people everywhere.
It's a party time in Calcutta as it is the Ashtami night of Durga Puja. The streets are full of people. There are lights everywhere, like during carnivals! We discover another world. We have eyes everywhere right on the left in front of behind, on our bags. We take the camera out. My eyes are full. I really wanted to take a picture of this effervescence of colors, lights especially.
It was the Saptami, the seventh day of the festivities. The population of Calcutta doubles at this time. People come from all over India to celebrate here. This is one of the most important holidays. The streets are almost all blocked. Vehicles does not move. The transports are full. Traffic jams are cumulative.
The streets are filled with people. There is music everywhere, gigantic installations, huge ephemeral statues. The smells follow one another of incense, spices, flowers, essence, food, and so on. Sometimes it mixes. Sometimes it's different.
With a big backpack (though not so big), we look tired and lost. We arouse curiosity, but by far. We are looked at, but from a distance, and not too long. Finally, we try not to fix ourselves too much. The eyes of the children are full of surprise. Those of adults too, with curiosity and only sometimes a little mistrust.
All that was very trying. Fortunately, I was not alone. We help each other despite everything, even without saying anything. The first impression is both positive and negative, but it's so complex that putting words on that feeling would be a bad thing.
We are hungry. So we try Street Food. What a delight! In the street, several stands are aligned. One offers egg roll, another one of the mutton biryani with the potato. In a folded newspaper sheet, we eat a roll with chicken in it. In plates cut out of boxes, we savor these chickpeas. In a little clay mug, we drink a very sweet lassi, to soothe the fire that persists in our mouth. For dessert, we taste the rasgulla. It is very sweet and very honeyed.
After this escapade, we go to our hotel. We go out. We have a beer and have a good time in a small bar in Calcutta. We discuss everything and nothing. We learn a little more about certain rituals, and about certain customs. Today, we discovered a little more Calcutta.
Day 3 - Navratri in Gaya
It's time to take the train. We cross the whole city by car. From one bank to another, the landscape changes. At the corner of a street, a huge red building stands in front of us. It is the train station of Calcutta, Howrah. It is probably the largest railway station in the country.
We enter the station. It's swarming with people. People are sitting on the floor, in a group, waiting for their train in the lobby. It's impressive. Here we are again alone in the jungle. When the train arrives, we get on the train. We settle down. The train starts. We finally see the countryside. We do not do a single kilometer without seeing a cow, children, peasants, people who sleep outside, who smoke a cigarette on the tracks.
In this train, a snack, a meal, and breakfast are included in the ticket price. Here, we are always offered vegetarian dishes. The food of the train is not famous, but it is always better than that of the plane. There is rice, daal, some vegetables, and of course, tea. Vendors scream at each stop. Pani bottle! Samosa! Chai!
For the moment, no one asked why I was sitting there in someone else's place, except that after an hour, a gentleman arrives and explains that it's his place. No worries, we share! We tie our bags under the bed, and we fall asleep. At each stop, we look out the window to see if we have finally arrived. After long moments of impatience, we are at Gaya.
We arrive at the Gaya Railway Station, in the state of Bihar. Only half an hour late. After pounding the corridors of the station, we see some queues. It must be there to buy tickets. It coincided with the Dussehra, one of the most celebrated festivals in India. Dussehra ends with Diwali at the end of the month. Almost all hostels and hotels were full. In the end, I found a rather gloomy guesthouse, but enough to rest.
We have lunch with pakoras, onion and cheese mashed potatoes, biryani, and a plain naan. I was finally able to reach Bodhgaya, about 12 kilometers away, a small village considered one of the main places of pilgrimage for Buddhists. It was here that, back in the 6th century BC, Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment under a fig tree, and would henceforth be known as Buddha.
Bodhgaya is a fairly quiet and cozy place, where most of the activity takes place around the Mahabodhi temple, a World Heritage Site. It is one of the most revered and sacred places in Buddhism. In the center of the enclosure is the main stupa (a type of Buddhist funerary monument), about 52 meters high. Inside it is a statue of Buddha made entirely of gold.
But without a doubt, the main point, around which most of the pilgrims who go to the temple are concentrated, is the sacred tree. Under it, Buddha reached the enlightenment after several weeks of meditation. Apart from the main stupa and the sacred tree, the Mahabodhi complex has a garden dedicated to meditation. There are a pond and a well-kept area covered with grass, on which people lie down and enjoy a quiet atmosphere, disconnecting from the noise outside.
We reach a series of monasteries, where several countries are represented where Buddhism is practiced. Each one of them has its particularity. Inside, various relics are kept and different episodes of the Buddha's life are narrated through magnificent frescoes, such as Bhutan or Tibet. Finally, almost leaving the village, is a giant Buddha statue, about 19 meters high, built by the Japanese.
Like the arrival to Gaya, with the problems of lodging, the Dussehra festival bothered me again on the way back. With the din of people, there was no way to find an auto rickshaw and those that ply demand astronomical quantities. To make matters worse there was a storm and rain was pouring. Fortunately, in the end, I found a very nice family with whom I joined, in order to share expenses.
In the evening of Ashtami hundreds of people throng the streets filled with food stalls and pandals.
We dined at the hotel with a soup, pakoras, fried rice, and curry. Already in the station, I would still have 5 hours of waiting until my train left, at about 2 in the morning. I did not get bored anyway. Here every once in a while someone arrives and talks to me suddenly, and I already have a conversation for at least an hour.
As a conclusion of my passage through Bodhgaya, the site is nothing out of the other world, unless you are passionate about Buddhism. It is worth noting that the Mahabodhi temple has its point and that there is a good feeling inside. But I do not think it is worth the visit if we consider how badly connected it is with other places of interest.
Besides, accommodation options at a good price are very scarce, and for those who are interested in shopping, here you will not see anything that you cannot find in any other Indian city and for a better price. Even so, I cannot say it was a disappointment either. I ended up taking good moments and details, and a small leaf of the sacred tree that is already part of my collection of fetishes, next to my water jug of the Ganges or the stamp of Guru Nanak.
Day 4 - Navratri in Varanasi
At midnight we continued our journey by train. We had chosen 2A class with bed, air conditioning, and curtains to hide from people passing in the hallway. For once the classes with bed and air conditioning are really good and rather clean.
After arrival in Varanasi the taxi driver parked near a market accompanied us through a labyrinth of narrow streets to our hotel in Varanasi. It is in front of the Ganges and right next to the Manikarnika Ghat, the most active crematorium in the city. And there I was, dodging the suitcase through the cows, the irregular pavements and the hundreds of steps that give access to the ghats until finally, we entered the hotel.
In the room, it was cooler than on the street, impossible as it may seem. Perhaps the huge window without glass in the bathroom was to blame. The room had a shared balcony overlooking the Ganga and the first thing we did was go out there to finally start the trip.
Before us, the Ganges stretched, with a horse much bigger than I expected and dirty, very dirty. By its waters navigated boats full of pilgrims or tourists. On the banks there were the ones purifying their soul bathing in its waters and on the right is the smoky transit of those who were being incinerated. Walking in small streets with very different smells with this heat was not very pleasant but good.
We went to the street and went down the stairs of the Scindia Ghat. It was all very dirty. There were cows and dogs and puppies feeding on the garbage that was everywhere and raining mortar ashes on us. Surprisingly, it smelled nothing, neither good nor bad. My sense of smell, which is already atrophied, did not detect any nauseating odor even though my brain was warning otherwise.
We decided not to eat anything because, seeing the rush of the waiters, we knew that it would end at night and we would not have time to take a boat ride on the Ganges. While we walk along the riverbank, we are constantly being approached by boatmen offering their services for Rs 100 per person.
Our boatman was a young boy and not very tall. He kept chewing pan that left his teeth red and that produced spits of the same color and at the same time evasive hallucinogenic effects.
Slowly, we progressed until we reached the Assi ghat, where we turned around to return to the starting point. At that point, we were more relaxed. The music emanated at full volume from the boatman's mobile. Slowly, it was dusk and the flames of the pyres began to stand out in the darkness.
We set off in a southerly direction, crossing the west bank of the Ganga. As soon as we took a few steps, we passed five bodies moved on bamboo stretchers and wrapped in colorful shrouds that went straight to the Manikarnika Ghat. We were surrounded by people and piles of logs that were sold directly behind the ghat crematorium. We approached the Manikarnika Ghat and saw the pyres that had been lit from afar.
A man warned us very seriously that we cannot take photos since we could take away the karma of the deceased. We continue walking through the Lalita Ghat, the Meer Ghat, the Man Mandir Ghat until we reach the Dasaswamedh Ghat. On the way, people stopped us and asked us where we were from, our names, profession, marital status and then they said goodbye.
This same questionnaire was a constant throughout the trip, but it was nice to interact a bit with the people. I liked that they were so open. We are now in search of the famous lassi as the walk has awakened our hunger. So we look for a place. We took two lassis, one orange, and one papaya, both very good.
Arriving at the Dasaswamedh Ghat we went up the stairs to walk the Dasaswamedh Road. It is a commercial street where we were looking for an ATM to withdraw money. Something that seemed so simple a priori, ended up turning into a chimera. We barely saw banks throughout the trip, at most ATMs and that's it. We almost did not have money, because the ATM in Delhi airport was bad enough, so we just withdraw a bit.
After taking money, we went back the same way we had come back. Another of the things that surprised me the most was that people kept asking me to take pictures of them. It had never happened to me before. Normally, when I travel I like to take photos of people, but I have to do it clandestinely like a paparazzi or approach to ask for permission and end up doing a posed shot.
Here in every two minutes, the people asked me to take pictures. Maybe when they saw the SLR, they thought that I was a media professional and that they would end up in some TV or magazine.
It was six in the afternoon and it was completely dark. We pay our boatman and went up to the guest house. That afternoon we had to finish deciding if we would go by train to Bodh Gaya without fear of delays, or look for an alternative way. The price was too high and the option to go by car made us very lazy.
So we decided to take a chance. We want to see the Ganga Aarti in a smaller ghat with fewer people, so we visit the Kedar Ghat. And as it is the Navratri, there are many lights and idols of Durga and lots of people on the streets.
We went down to the hotel restaurant, which opened at 7 o'clock in the evening and an elderly man gave us a notebook to write down the order. We decided to start with soups, pakoras, rice with mushrooms, vegetarian masala curry and cheese naan. After placing the order, we prepared to wait patiently while we talked with other travelers in the hotel. The order took 45 minutes to arrive, but the wait was worth it because it was all great.
I was lucky enough to see the Durga pooja in the courtyard of the guest house. It's pretty amazing when I think about it. There are an orchestra and some ice cream vendors. We take out the chairs to sit and everyone dances around the goddess in a circle.
I admit that I remained hypnotized by this dhunuchi naach dance, on a very peculiar rhythm. In fact, women start the circle, then enter the girls and babies for a few laps. Then, the young boys (who are waiting with impatience on the edges) join the dance, followed by the men. All the while, the little ones sneak between women turning to go chipping ladoos and sweets on the altar.
Nobody says anything. The first circle is always very small and concentrated. Then when there are too many people, it splits into two or even three circles that rotate around each other. All this for hours and hours without stopping. Personally, I find it quite impressive. I made a video but do not know if I can put it on the blog. With a full satisfaction, we went up to the room to try to sleep a little.
Day 5 - Dussehra in Delhi
The alarm sounds at 04:30 in the morning. I woke up knowing that it had already dawned, but not wanting to get out of bed. After setting myself up, I got dressed in record time. And we see a different, magical sunrise. The bustle begins to seize the ghats. We are spectators of life, of those scenes I've seen before on the Discovery Channel.
At 7 o'clock in the morning or so, we finish the walk by the sacred river. The jetty is two-three minutes from the hotel, so we go to the room, and clean up a bit.
And we went up to the terrace for our breakfast, with the intention of eating something fast. The word fast is one of those that we have to leave out of the suitcase. To bring us tea, pancakes, an omelet and some sandwiches took more than 40 minutes. After breakfast, we went to the reception, where our car driver had been waiting almost half an hour to take us to Delhi.
We reach at 2 o'clock in the afternoon in Delhi and with the streets completely filled. That was exactly the typical image I had of what would be one of the most populated cities in the country. A former colleague telephoned me to see the celebration of Dusshera in Old Delhi near Chandni Chowk. Of course, I accepted immediately. So we went to Old Delhi after passing the Ramlila Maidan and we parked far enough and took a rickshaw because the cars are not allowed in this area.
We arrive in a kind of field delimited by many garlands of lights. Of course, it's flashing everywhere, and I can see, above the VIP stand, a demon's face sticking out its tongue and whose red eyes are flashing! I just love it! The crowd was huge. In short, I squeeze my bag because we are on top of each other.
Apparently, one of the scenes of Ramayana and Indian mythology was played in the center. But even being tall, it was impossible to see because everyone was standing on the chairs. Or rather, 5-6 people were standing on small outdoor chairs.
This is the story of Rama who wants to recover his wife Sita kidnapped by King Ravana of Lanka. Today the scene shows the battle and the death of the king of Lanka with his brother and his son. Then, Rama recovers his wife and brings her back to India. But before flying over India, Rama walks on a bridge connecting Sri Lanka to India built by Hanuman.
In short, the scene is played in the center and to my left are the three large statues of Ravana, Meghnath, and Kumbhakarn. Everyone is burned in turn. I was very surprised and impressed as a disc of fire swirls in the belly of the statue made of bamboo and paper. The fire comes out of the mouth and eyes and the whole ends up exploding and to form a huge column of fire! As much to say that I was happy to be so far for once! The debris came down pretty well at the level of the crowd.
Once finished, the crowd rushed to the exit. I was a little carried away in the current. As it was the last day of Navratri, I was able to meet in the streets, families walking with their idol of Durga to go immerse them in the river. People play drums and dance wildly. Once again, I was able to participate in this, invited with a lot of generosity. And we find ourselves covered with pink powder, stuffed with offerings and get solicited for dances, photos, and handshakes. It's party time!