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Sexy Woman and Rodents

Enjoying our last day in the Sacred Valley


This was our last full day in the Sacred Valley. We met David Ramos again for a tour of Cusco. Our first stop was the fortress of Sacsayhuaman ("Sexy Woman"). Because it was the site of the Inti Raymi festivities the day before, there were still rows of folding chairs and a makeshift stage with a gaudy gold-painted throne. The ruins were composed of some of the largest stones we had seen in Incan architecture. Sadly, the conquistadors had dismantled so much of the fortress. Otherwise, I’m sure it would rival Machu Picchu in grandeur and fame.


David pointed out several patterns in the walls of the fortress such as a serpent and a puma paw print. At the time, I thought he was on some bad ayahausca trip (Later, I saw a photo of another Incan ruin that proved that they did build designs into their walls). At the top we got a great view of the city. I could almost imagine Manco Inca and his warriors standing on that exact spot during the siege of Cusco in 1536.


David led us to the less visited side of the ruins. There were some natural slides in the rock. He said that kids would go sledding down there when it snows. I don't know, they looked pretty steep. Besides, does it really snow there? We passed a circular field to get to some tunnels. There are many niches in the walls that were used in the past to bury the dead. We were told that thieves sometimes hide down there to rob tourists. All we saw was an old lady and her llama. It's sad when the elderly turn to a life of crime.


We then drove a short distance to Q’enko. This temple originally had a large sacred rock carved like a frog. It has been damaged over the years, so now it just looks like a big blob. Nevertheless, there were some extensive rock carvings including a surrounding row of stone seats or niches. Inside are also several openings which were used in the past to store mummies. There was also a small altar inside that formed the profile of a llama.


We headed back into the city to quench our thirst. David took us to a clean watering-hole where we had some chicha, a fermented beverage made with corn. Unlike the spit-fermented chicha that Anthony Bourdain drank in the Amazon jungle, our drink was made with more sanitary techniques. In general, Sherri and I drink very little alcohol. It’s probably because we come from a long line of people who are deficient in alcohol dehydrogenase. Nevertheless, both of us actually enjoyed the drink a lot, much more than the popular pisco sours.


Our next stop was the Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun). Like many other Incan buildings, it too had been converted by the Spanish into a cathedral. The Dominican architecture, while beautiful in its own right, does not compare to the precision and durability of the Incan masonry. The walls of the temple were apparently even more amazing during Incan times. Unfortunately, greedy conquistadors ripped off all of the sheets of pure gold that covered the walls.


I couldn’t leave Peru without trying cuy. We drove out to a small town outside of Cusco known as Tipon that specializes in cooking up guinea pigs. These little rodents were stuffed with herbs and whole-roasted in an oven. They were served up baring a macabre grin and still sporting their little rat claws. I dug in heartily. Sherri only tried a few nibbles and then polished off the accompanying peppers and potatoes. There is really very little meat on these guys especially on the front half of the body. Cuy did not have a strong or gamey taste, probably because it only “free ranges” within somebody’s house. David encouraged me to eat the head, brains and all. The guinea pig and I were not quite at that stage in our relationship yet.


We spent the afternoon at the Museo Inka. Having a guide take us through there was really helpful. There are some descriptions of the exhibits, but they are not as thorough as, say, the Smithsonian. David’s knowledge helped fill in the many gaps. From there we ended our tour at the Cathedral of Santa Domingo in the Plaza de Armas.


This is truly a beautiful building with even more marvelous (and somewhat garish) objects inside. It houses the “Black Christ” which has developed that color from centuries of candle smoke and ash. This artifact is paraded through the streets of Cusco annually as it is thought to be protective against earthquakes. My favorite painting is the infamous “Last Supper” by Marcos Zapata. Created in the Cusquena tradition, it depicts Jesus and his Disciples eating cuy, passion fruit, corn, and other foods indigenous to the new world.

On a side note, there are several shops mainly around the San Blas area that sell machine-made replicas of famous oil paintings, usually at pretty high prices. I really wanted to find a copy of this aforementioned painting but was repeatedly unsuccessful. Luckily, I stumbled into a small shop where I found an artist who could replicate any painting from its picture. He would do it for even less than any machine-made copy. I told him that we were leaving Cusco soon, but he promised that he could deliver in that time. I was a very skeptical about the quality but paid the small deposit for it. When I came to pick it up the next day, I was in for a shockingly-good surprise. It was beautiful. He had a done such a marvelous job replicating the painting down to the smallest details on a smaller scale (the original is huge). He had spent the entire night and following day painting it, but still had the Disciples hands to finish. He even delivered it to my hotel late that evening when he did complete it. I paid him more than we had agreed because I thought that he had done such a great job in such a short time. If I ever make it back to Cusco, I’m going to bring pictures of other paintings—“Mona Lisa, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Dogs Playing Poker, Starry Night,The Scream, etc”—for him to replicate. The artist’s name is Enrique Pescoran Perez (artesanias_san_blas@hotmail.com), and his shop is Caller de Arte Souvenir.

We gave David our most heartfelt thanks and said our goodbyes. We truly appreciated his vast knowledge of Incan history. His passion for his heritage is evident. There are several other touring options in the Sacred Valley that are cheaper than hiring a personal guide. However, given our time constraints, I don’t think we would have been as immersed in the culture of this region if we did not have David showing us around.

We spent the evening at the Museo de Arte Precolombino (MAP) near our hotel. Since there is a greater emphasis on art rather than history, I didn’t like this place as much as the Museo Inka. The galleries at the MAP are presented more modernly and professionally, but I could not get over the exhibit descriptions. They sounded too much like a snooty art aficionado piling on the B.S. Did I mention that I am a philistine?


We then dined at the fancy MAP Café. I really enjoyed my appetizer which was essentially a stew with Andean spices and vegetables covered in puff pastry. Puff pastry makes anything good. In my quest to eat two of each animal on this planet, I felt compelled to try the cuy dish. They fancied up the rodent by making a confit of the hindquarters—similar to how duck can be served. Unfortunately, I really didn’t enjoy this version as much because the meat was rendered too chewy and dry in order to make the skin crispy. Overall the food and service were good but somewhat pricey.


Posted by evilnoah 18:02 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Atuhualpa’s Revenge

Surviving my last day in Peru


We began our last day in Peru on a sour note. When we arrived at the airport, Sherri realized that she had left that crappy Peru-Rent-A-Cell phone at the hotel. Failure to return it would cost us more than $50-100 which is ridiculous considering that thing couldn’t be worth more than $5. We had time to go back and get it since the hotel was less than 20 minutes away by taxi. Just to be on the safe side, we instead called the hotel and asked if one of the many doormen could drop it off to us right away. Of course we would give them a nice tip and pay their cab fare. We waited 30…45…60…and finally 75 minutes but nobody from the hotel ever showed. We had to give up and rush to get on the plane as they started calling our names on the intercom. Incidentally, all that waiting gave me ample time to check out the airport security. They had plenty of guys on patrol dressed up in full military fatigues carrying Kalashnikov’s. I’m glad I didn’t buy that dried llama fetus after all.

We arrived in Lima and checked all of our bags in the lockers (total cost was about 75 soles). We had arranged for a half-day tour of the city with Vanessa Vasquez. She recommended we walk an extra 10 minutes to find a taxi outside the airport as those inside are notorious for jacking up the fares. Even then, the price was substantially higher than those in Arequipa or Cusco. We started the walking portion of the tour from the Plaza Grau and headed towards the Plaza San Martin. Along the way, she pointed out buildings with different architectural styles that represented the Spanish and French influences on the city. Unfortunately, many were in such a sad state of disrepair.


Eventually we arrived at the Plaza de Armas. The gated Presidential Palace takes up one entire end. It is a grand-looking building surrounded by much security. Oddly enough, we noticed several portable air conditioning units sticking out of the windows. I would have expected central HVAC for the President. The Plaza de Armas was packed with limeños watching the Uruguay vs. South Korea match on a gigantic flat screen television. Peruvians were much more excited about the World Cup than folks back home. And their team hasn’t even qualified for the event in 20 years. Actually, I think they were all there just to see Diego Forlan’s hair.


While Vanessa was telling us about the Cathedral of Lima that was built by Francisco Pizarro after he founded the city, an old woman standing nearby went apeshit on her in Spanish when she heard the Pizarro name. I guess old animosities never die. We passed the Archbishop's Palace on the way to the Convento de San Francisco. I had to find a bathroom as I was starting to feel sick. We stopped at a new library/convention center converted from an old train station. The building was open air except for a beautiful stain glass ceiling. The St. Francis Monastery is a popular tourist destination because of its underground catacomb. There are tens of thousands of skeletons neatly arranged by bone type. Although I’ve had to deal with cadavers a lot in the past, the place still gave me the shivers.


But then again, it may have also been my stomach. I suspect that that the cuy I had eaten the day before was trying to claw its way out of my belly. When we had made it to our next stop, the Huaca Pucllana pyramids, I spent the next hour fighting groups of school children for access to the bathroom. Vanessa took Sherri on a tour of the site while I lay passed out on a park bench.


After bidding Vanessa farewell, we had lunch at the adjacent restaurant of the same name. We were a little surprised that the waiters didn’t speak much English considering this is such a touristy location. Fortunately, I had been able to hone my Spanish over the previous two weeks (i.e. I pointed at the menu and muttered something unintelligible). Sherri loved the fried ceviche appetizer marinated in leche de tigra (it’s not really ceviche if it’s cooked, right?). She also piled it on with a more traditional ceviche dish. I picked through their shrimp risotto which tasted exactly like Louisiana jambalaya. I was too sick to enjoy this place which is unfortunate as it gets good reviews from other travelers. To add insult to injury, we had to watch our boys get knocked out of the World Cup by Ghana on the nearby TV.


We had planned on visiting some of the local museums before our flight home, but I was in no shape for that. Instead we spent the afternoon at the Larcomar shopping center. It reminded me of the malls at home. There is a great view of the Pacific Ocean from there, provided you can see it through the Lima fog.


There was a Peru Rail kiosk advertising the Andean Explorer experience. They had some nice comfy chairs and a TV screen showing scenery whizzing by. Curiously, they left out the horrible, incessant shaking. We caught our flight at midnight and made it home the next day.

Overall, we had a great time in Peru. Our itinerary was a bit hectic leaving us really no time to relax. We were able to sleep in after 7 AM only once the entire trip. We were very lucky not to run into any problems that could have obliterated our plans. By the time we got to Peru, they had the train to Machu Picchu up and running (well, at least partially). The strikes that paralyzed Cusco happened while we were already away on the Inca Trail. Furthermore, the flights in and out of the Amazon were not cancelled or delayed due to weather. We accomplished everything that we had planned ahead of time.

Tourism is a vital industry in the areas of Peru that we visited. Our limited Spanish was not a problem since there are plenty of English-speaking people or signs around. In the Cusco area especially, we were accosted by a routine stream of people trying to offer massages, sell junk, or cajole you into their restaurants. It is no different from many other countries that we have visited. Most areas of Peru are poor. Clean water and sanitation are lacking and even non-existent in some rural areas. The most frustrating part was that these people’s ancestors had created an impressive infrastructure of buildings and roads that have and will stand the test of time. I would expect that with their modern technology, vast mineral resources, and continuous influx of tourist money, Peruvians could do much better than the dusty dirt roads and crumbling adobe houses. From speaking to many Peruvians, most blame this problem on their long history of government corruption. In my opinion, Peru was a great place to visit. It would be a shame if they don't eventually fix their problems.

Posted by evilnoah 19:18 Archived in Peru Tagged peru lima Comments (0)

Traveling Eleven and a half Times Zones Away

Starting our trip to India

sunny 75 °F

[I am now posting my blog that I have been writing daily during my trip to India. It is more three weeks behind because I've been too cheap to pay for internet access, and I'm a slacker]

My wife, Sherri, has always been infatuated by the colors of India. She's been drawn to the glittering gold trim of a sari, the fiery red sauce of a curry dish, and the white marble of the Taj Mahal. For me, I was concerned more about the brown—that is, India’s poor reputation for dirtiness, polluted water, and rampant animal and human fecal matter. Nevertheless, like any happily-married couple, the wife always gets her way, so off to India we go.

For the past six months we researched our trip. Sherri poured over several guidebooks, tripadvisor posts, and books on Indian history and culture. I just perused a bunch of Bollywood flicks, episodes of Outsourced, and an issue of Maxim India that I had found on the Internet. We arranged for our trip through Deepa Krishnan (delhimagic.com), a travel agent, blogger, and very helpful contributor to the India tripadvisor forum. Last year in Peru, we were very fortunate that our trip went absolutely according to plan. With the issues of road congestion and transportation delays that plague India, we would probably be pretty happy seeing 80% of our planned itinerary.

Our first stop was a five hour layover at Chicago's O'Hare airport. Despite being the third largest city in the U.S, Chicago has a pretty disappointing airport. It's functionable, but lacks the special amenities such as secured trams or automatic walkways between terminals, free wifi, or charging stations for electronics. But what the airport DOES have is Rick Bayless' Tortas Frontera. Frommer's has named them one of the top ten AIRPORT restaurants in the country--a distinction that evokes the same mixed emotions as the winner of a tranny beauty contest (Yaay!...Eeewww!). Despite the stigma against airport food, the sandwiches there are really worth the airport-inflated $11 price. The Cubana is tasty but the Pepito, containing tender braised beef short rib, jalepenos, cheese, and salsa verde, is even better. We chased them with mango-lime and raspberry prickly-pear juices.

Fourteen hours, three in-flight movies, and one bar of Vosges' bacon and dark chocolate bar later, we landed at the Delhi airport. We found that India has one central time for the entire country. However, it is off 30 minutes from the rest of the world. How odd. We picked up an Airtel sims card for our cell phone for 500 Rs right at the entrance to the airport (we also added an extra 1000 Rs on it for good measure). A copy of my passport and a photo was required.

My first impression of New Delhi is that it seems like any other big city. There are lots of cars on the well-paved roads. The houses and buildings seem fairly modern. And the people wear Westernized dress. No slums. No army of beggars. No cows. But, it is only the first night.

We checked in at the Hotel Palace Heights located within the inner ring of Connaught Circle. It is definitely no palace. The rooms are modern with a comfortable bed. It is a little cramped. But, it is a nice, clean hotel not unlike a Holiday Inn, except without the screaming kids running in the halls nor the soft-core Spectravision movies.

Posted by evilnoah 03:21 Archived in India Tagged india delhi Comments (0)

Brains, Jains, and Trains

Our first day in Delhi

sunny 78 °F

I must be a zombie because I have a craving for brains. Specifically, sheep brains. In a sea of vegetarians, Mughlai food is terra firma for the obligate carnivore. The dish I really wanted to try is mutton brain curry. While exotic to the Western palate, this dish is apparently standard fare for many Mughlai-inspired restaurants. One of the oldest and most well-known of these institutions (at least to all the guidebooks and ex-pats) is Karim's located in Old Dehli. Supposedly, the family that runs it had cooked for the old Mughal emperorers (the last one being deposed by the Limeys in 1857). Karim's was on my to-do lists.

We started the day early at 7 AM with a complimentary breakfast at the hotel. They had the obligatory choice of stuffed paranthas or the "western style" breakfast. Having been served steamed bacon years ago in China, I knew better to stay away from Eastern interpretations of Western food. While the aloo parantha was good, Sherri and I enjoyed two other side dishes more. One was labelled "sambar" and the other "uthapam," two words we've never seen at our local Northern Indian-biased restaurants. I pulled out my iPad and fired up the $3 "Hurry with the Curry" app. Sure enough it told me that sambar is a stew with curry and lentils, and an uthapam is a savory fried pancake with fermented rice and vegetables. There's definitely a good reason that app has five stars on the reviews.


After breakfast we meet up with a university student named Ashit (yeah, I know). Ashit was giving us a tour through Old Dehli, the city built by the fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jehan, and egotistically named Shahjehanabad. Our first stop was the subway. While it can't compare to the Tokyo system, Dehli's underground was much more clean and hygienic than those in most major U.S. cities. However, they have pretty tight security as guards will check your bags and pat you down. The subway car got packed in pretty tightly, but not as badly as what we experienced in Japan. It was a total sausage-fest. It was odd that the entire car was just men, except for Sherri. I guess many women use the female-only car.

Once we arrived in Shahjehanabad, we were taken in a peddle cab/rickshaw through the bumpy streets. When Sherri took me to China for the first time in 2002, we saw only a few peddle cabs still being used, mainly in the lesser developed interior cities. In the three times that I had been back there, they had since been replaced by the auto rickshaw. I guess that is a sign of economic development and prosperity. Not so in Old Dehli. In New Dehli which was designed by the Brits during the Raj era, the roads are spacious, well-paved, and lined with greenery. Shahjehanabad's roads are strewn with trash, bombarded with craters of putrid brown liquid, and built too narrow for the traffic mixture of cars, rickshaws, and horse-pulled carts. But then again, that is part of the charm of a 17th century-built city that has survived invasions and massacres.


We proceeded to visit three temples of worship--Jain, Hindu, then Sikkh. Not to seem disrespectful, but they were all...eh. Pictures were not allowed which was fine since there was nothing really interesting to photograph. The fascinating aspect really lies in how the people there practice their religion. The ultra-PETA Jains run an on-site bird rescue hospital. They were nursing all varieties of fowl from peacocks and parrots to the omnipresent pigeons. The Hindu's seemed to be very tactile worshippers, touching different areas throughout the shrine. In a behavior that would make even Adrian Monk blush, one guy had to bend over and touch all of the 15-20 steps leading up the temple.

Now the Sikkhs, to me, were the coolest. They abide by five tenets of dress: uncut hair, a comb, a special bangle on their wrist, underwear, and a ceremonial sword. Now, who can argue against any of those things? Nixing the haircuts can save me almost $200 annually. A comb (and hair spray) is a no-brainer if you want that glam rock look. A bangle? Who isn't wearing a "Live Strong" bracelet already? I never understood going commando or crotchless panties (especially on guys), so my vote is for the tidy whities. And a big-ass sword is a great accessory for men who are trying to compensate for any inadequacies. Or so I've heard. To enter into the Sikkh temple, we all had to cover our heads. Our guide was given a manly blue cloth that could be fashioned into a doo-rag. I was given a lacy hot-pink number that made me look like I was wearing panties on my head. My hotness factor increased ten-fold, but I think I have crabs now.

We observed people cleansing their hands and feet prior to entering the Sikkh temple. Juxtaposed to to them were men kneeled over drinking the water (the more dignified ones were collecting it up into water bottles first). One of the amazing areas we saw in the Sikkh temple was a small kitchen tended by about 10-15 men and women. They were rolling out poori's while lentils simmered in large pots nearby. Ashit told us that this temple serves free food daily with up to 25,000 mouths being fed!



We wandered through several old alleys of Old Dehli that were famous for different themes such as jewelry, bangles, or shrine decorations. Many were still closed this early in the morning. But we did experience the large city slowly waking up. As the hours went by, the place turned into a cacophony of sights and sounds. The street food vendors fried up mounds of foods that will soon be covered in flies. Men brushed by us in the narrow streets, off to their jobs. Finally, the beggars aroused and began harrasing us. We ended up at a small, serene alley containing old, beautifully-painted houses--an oasis from the harsh filth and noise of Old Delhi.


We commenced our tour at one of the many Haldiram's restaurants. Sherri tried the recommended raj kachori chaat. I'm not a big yogurt eater, so for me it had the similar sour and acidic taste that you get if you throw up a little in the back of your throat. Interestingly enough, it also looks a little like vomit. Hmmm. I wanted the kesar kulfi (saffron ice cream) but they were out. The matka kulfi was really good anyway. The shop displays a plethora of scrumptious-looking sweets behind glass cases. However, for us, it was very intimidating as we had no clue what anything is. None of the confections seemed like anything we have back home.

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While we sat, we were able to have a nice chat with Ashit. There seems to be a similar thread amongst college students around the world. Ultimate frisbee, Grand Theft Auto, online shooters like Call of Duty, and bit torrents. However, I was a bit disappointed to finally meet someone who actually enjoys Ghost Hunters and doesn't think that Man Vs. Food hasn't jumped the shark. Seriously, has Adam Richman surpasses Samantha Brown or Tony Bourdain as the face of the Travel Channel!?!

We met up with our driver, Sanjay, back at Connaught Circle and told him we wanted to see the Jama Masjid mosque and the Red Fort, two big tourist attractions. He was surprised to hear that we weren't taken there already since both are in the old city. He was a good sport though and braved through the awful traffic to get to Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in Asia. Sherri had to put on an ugly robe to cover herself according to Islamic customs. I really think they should've provided burkas because as they say: "Come strong, or don't come at all!" That silly robe was just half-assing it.


Since we were short on time, we just planned on running inside, catching a quick peek, snapping a few obligatory photos, and getting out. However, we got roped in with some guy who just started giving us a tour. Being the naive idiot, I just assumed that it was included in the entrance fee. He kept droning on about the place, but we were too polite to cut him off and tell him we had to leave. He then introduced us to a guy who supposedly is the 16th generation caretaker of artifacts of the prophet Mohammed. He then proceeded to produce a cast of a footprint, a lock of his beard, and other stuff like toenail clippings or whatever. Now I am no scholar of Islam, but religious "relics" always make me suspicious (remember the Shroud of Turin?). Especially ones that are stored in a plain wooden cupboard with a simple padlock.

Cast of Mohammed's Footprint?

Cast of Mohammed's Footprint?

Mohammad's Beard?

Mohammad's Beard?

Mohommad's Sandal?

Mohommad's Sandal?

Koran Written on Camel Skin

Koran Written on Camel Skin

The guide then finished and had the gall to ask for 500 Rs for 10 minutes of unsolicited work. In reality, it's not that much money, but it's the principle of paying for dishonest work. Is it fair to have to pay the guys who start washing your windshield at a red-light? We didn't have time to argue and gave him half the amount. When Sherri dropped of her robe to the attendant at the exit, I just glared at him as he stretched out his arm with his palms raised up for a tip.

We were too annoyed and pressed for time to stop at the Red Fort. It looked immense from the road.

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Sadly, both the time constraints and the horrible traffic also prevented Karim's from fitting into our schedule. In fact, we just decided to skip lunch altogether. Our next stop was the Gandhi Memorial Park back in the new city. It is well-maintained and picturesque. It would have been serene if not for the throngs of middle-school children on their field trip.

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We then visited Dilli Haat, a marketplace for artisans around the country to gather and sell their wares. There are several food stalls selling cuisine from different areas of the country. We didn't try any because of questions over cleanliness. We did partake in the fresh coconut juice that can be mixed with several other fruity flavors. There is also a stage for live music or performances, but we were there mainly for the shopping. Sherri was seduced by a smooth-talking Kashmiri man who convinced her to buy four 100% pashmina shawls. Now I don't believe half of what he was telling us, but I have to admit, they looked and felt wonderful, and the haggled-down prices were very reasonable.

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We then finished up at a store of Sanjay's "friend". The goods there were of higher quality (and price) compared to Dilli Haat. Of course Sherri had to blow even more money there while I chatted with our driver about the economics of the tourist industry. He told me a guide will generally get a 3% commission and a driver 2% at these tourist shops. However, since we had no guide, he was going to get the full 5%.

Since, we were planning to take the overnight train to Varanasi, we wanted to grab some takeout for dinner. He drove around pointing out some small hole-in-the-wall joints that were way too shady. Fast food typhus. Finally, we arrived at a small strip mall with several nicer restaurants. We chose the Have More Restaurant. It sounded terribly inauthentic, and sure enough, there were 20 American tourists there and nobody else. At that point, we were tired, it was clean, so we didn't care. As luck would have it, they did have the brain curry on the menu. We added some butter chicken, paneer tikka masala, mutton barra kebab, and some naan.

We boarded the train and dined on our meal in the cramped car. I'm sure that I can get hundreds of recommendations on other restaurants with better or more authentic butter chicken or brain curry, but I don't care. That stuff looked awful, but tasted great. The sauce for the butter chicken was so rich and decadent. The mutton brain curry was very tasty with a small hint of spiciness. It was like eating silken tofu without the guilt of eating something healthy. The train attendant also served sweetened chai for 20 Rs each. We finished our meal with a box of assorted barfi (a sugar and milk confection likened to Indian fudge that tastes much better than it sounds) that we got earlier from Haldiram's. We found that there is no such thing as plastic utensils, as Indians traditionally eat with their hands anyway.


We are booked on AC1 class for our train trip. I have to admit, it's not too bad as far as trains go. We have a room to ourselves, and the public bathroom has Western style toilets, not squatters. The train is not very bumpy either like the fiasco we experienced last year in Peru. Heck, they even have an outlet here so I can recharge my iPad and type outing this silly blog at 3AM in the morning. I love jet lag.

Posted by evilnoah 03:50 Archived in India Tagged india fort red delhi jama masjid haldarim's Comments (0)

Silk, Spirituality, but not Sarnath

Our voyage to Varanasi

sunny 78 °F

When Sherri woke up this morning and peeled open the curtain to our window, she was greeted with the sight of a man taking a squat, his hairy balls dangling in the wind just a few feet away from the railroad tracks. You would think that he would have had plenty of opportunity to hear the train coming and show some modesty. Nope. Welcome to "Incredible India."

There were also plenty of men urinating out in the open. Now I really don't have a problem with that. I DO have a problem with them not finding a landmark. Someone taking a leisurely stroll through a field can step in it, mistake it for early morning dew, and then track it into their home. Now if a landmark that people don't normally walk into were used, then this would eliminate the problem. Good landmarks include trees, potted plants, walls, and toilets.



We got to see our first glimpses of the countryside. Beautiful green fields ruined by callously scattered trash. All sorts of pigs and wild dogs rooting through that trash. Ladies in vibrant saris' hunched over in fields tending to their crops. And little dirt-covered children playing makeshift games of cricket.

Predictably, our train arrived late. Three hours behind schedule. We had decided to take the overnight train since it was supposed to arrive at 7:30 AM while the flights would only land at noon. Similar results, just 16 more hours of boredom. So much for having the whole day to spend in Varanasi. Because of the late arrival, we had to eliminate something from our itinerary. Sherri voted to cut out Sarnath, a nearby city where Prince Siddhartha gave his first teaching on Buddhism. I voted to omit sari shopping because technically my family IS Buddhist. After the votes were tallied, we arrived at a touristy shop called The Mehta International Silk-Weaving Centre. They still practice artisanal methods of silk weaving using the most advanced hand-operated looms from Europe. Of course, these looms were last produced in the 1800's.


It was fascinating to watch these craftsmen painstakingly weave the silk thread into a six meter sari. It takes them on average about six weeks to finish one.


Punch cards are used to produce the desired pattern. An even older loom that required two men to operate used a system of knotted rope for creating designs.


The tour was very informative, but Sherri really wanted the products. They had a plethora of textiles ranging from saris, scarfs, shawls, tapestries, and table cloths in many different patterns and designs. Although, I am a philistine, I could appreciate the quality and artistry of their handiwork. While these products are nowhere close to being cheap, they are definitely reasonable by Western standards.


With a much lighter wallet, we met our guide for the city, Mr. J.P. Mishra. We first visited the Bharat Mata (Mother Earth Temple). Right outside of the temple was a sad looking elephant chained to a post. We were told it is used for ceremonies such as weddings.


The Bharat Mata is known for its large topographical relief map of India carved in stone that took six years to complete in 1936. Used by the Indian independence movement against British imperialism, the monument was supposed to unite the people of India as one. The existence of Pakistan and Bangladesh has undermined that ideal.


Our driver dodged herds of cattle, hundreds of rickshaws and carts, and groups of slow children as he sped through the city to reach Benares Hindu University.


We took a long tour of the large Hindu temple on campus. J.P. gave a long passionate discourse on the Vedas and gods of Hinduism. I was so tired from lack of sleep that I didn't hear a single thing except that the Buddha was just another incarnation of Krishna or Shiva. Wait. Does that make my family Hindu? Great, I'm probably an 'untouchable.'


We had some time later that afternoon to wander the narrow streets of the main city. There is no shortage of energy whether it be the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, haggling merchants and their customers, or the animals practically everywhere. It's not just the sleeping dogs in every nook or cranny, but also the cows that block the narrow streets or shops, and even the monkeys spying from above.


Although Varanasi is a holy city for Hindu's, J.P. told us that approximately 40% of the population is Muslim. It is hard not to notice the omnipresent security throughout the city. There has been centuries of tension between the two groups stretching back for centuries. In the older section of Varanasi, the intolerant Mughal emperor Aurangazeb had the Gyanvapi Mosque built over a Hindu temple that he tore. In that part of the city, stern-looking security forces carry FN-FAL assault rifles (they carry outdated WW II era Enfield rifles everywhere else). That mosque is accessible through a door with electronic lock. Nearby for the Hindu's is the Kashi Vishwanath Temple (Golden Temple). Visitors are screened through a metal dectector, and cameras and electronics are not allowed inside.


That evening, we proceeded to the Dasashwamedh Ghat and boarded a small rowboat for a night voyage along the Ghats. There was a bombing there only three months ago which killed a small Indian child and maimed some foreigners. J.P. recommended that we visited the ghats by boat as it is much safer and more relaxing. Fires illuminated the shoreline at the Manikarnika Ghat where deceased Hindu's were being cremated and subsequently washed down the Ganges. It perplexes me that so many tourists try to get front row and center to watch a body being burned. I would think that any grieving family would want some privacy during a funeral. But J.P, reassured me that most Hindu's feel honored that foreigners are interested in their religion and culture, so he didn't mind the extra eyes when he cremated his parents there years ago.


We tried watching the nightly Ganga Fire Aarti from our boat. We made it through about 5 minutes of the 45 minute festival. The lack of English translation, sleep deprivation, and gentle rocking of the boat kept making me comatose. Before heading back, we did do the typical touristy act of lighting a floating candle on a boat of foil as an offering to the Ganges. It was immediately crushed by the boat tailing us.


We were originally scheduled to stay at the highly-rated Radisson farther way in the newer part of Varanasi. A month before arriving I had requested a room at the Rashmi Guest House which is right next to the Dasashwamedh Ghat. Our room (104) would have had a nice view of the river had there not been a huge tree right in front of the window. The bathroom was lower end with no separate area for the low-pressure shower. The Dolphin restaurant on the rooftop had a nice view of the river, but the service was slow and the food mediocre. Plus it is four flights up with no elevator. We ordered a couple of dishes for dinner--a phaldari kebab (composed of compressed fruit and nuts), murgh shah-e-mehani (chicken in cream, khoa, and dry fruits), aloo dum Bernasi (deep fried potatoes in a creamy red gravy with dried fruits), and Hyderabadi biryani (rice with mutton, onions, and ginger). There was so little lighting at night (I suspect to keep mosquitos away) that I have no idea what our food looked like.


For the priciness of the hotel, the amenities were poor, but the location was unbeatable. I think this hotel really appeals more to the backpacker or younger crowds who may not care as much for creature comforts. Unfortunately, we were just too tired to immerse ourself in the nightly energy of the city.

Posted by evilnoah 19:25 Archived in India Tagged india ganges varanasi ghats Comments (0)

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