I'm in a different world. Varanasi is unique and amazing, the kind of place worthy of a National Geographic special. This is the Hindu holy city on the Ganges river where people come for ceremonies in the sacred waters, the most auspicious place for a Hindu to die. The water is polluted, but everywhere there are people bathing to purify their souls, if not their bodies. As one enters into the city from the funerary ghats, one enters a maze of twisty passageways, with temples and shops, including this Internet cafe. Outside the door as I type, corpses are being carried down to the river for burning. There are serious holy people everywhere, plus "pseudo sadhus" (also known as "bogus babas") trying to swindle a rupee or two from the hapless tourist; they can be spotted easily, as they're the ones who approach tourists offering worthless gifts; real sadhus don't do this. But even the bogus ones add color to the scene. There are monkeys all about, and work elephants. It's hard to imagine a place further away from Colorado. Do visit this most interesting place, but watch out for the cow dung as you walk around!
At my Varanasi guest house, I coincidently met up with not one, but two friends from my yoga classes in Manali. The more one travels in a given region, the more frequently these "small world" coincidences occur. One friend, Natalia, is the only Brazilian I've met on my trip so far, who now I've met twice. My other friend, Irene, from Holland, bought a purple Royal Enfield motorcycle in Manali, and drove it here via Nepal. She and I were both planning to leave for Bodhgaya, so we rode together. And what a ride it was! The first night we stayed in Sasaram, the most polluted, noisiest, and generally ugly city I have ever seen. It is also dusty, smelly, chaotic, and notorious for street crime, but fortunately, we had nothing but pleasant encounters with locals. The state of Bihar is an important side of India that most tourists don't see. Here is where many millions of incredibly poor people live.
We arrived in Bodhgaya safely, and the contrast couldn't have been greater. Bodhgaya is where Buddhism began, with a monument to mark the exact spot where Siddhārtha Gautama became enlightened, meditating under a bodhi tree. Unlike every other ancient temple I know, where the temple is a dead relic and the tourists somehow take away from the place, here the tourists are monks who bring positive energy.
The more I learn about Buddhism, the more I like it!
One long train ride later: Agra. It was a VERY long train ride. I got sick just when I got on board. I'll spare you the details. Let's just say that I was delighted to get off of that &@^*(% train! I got up early to see the Taj Mahal. For a while I was the only tourist, and that was awesome. It really is a most beautiful building. Many budget travelers do not go inside because of the hefty US$15 entry fee, which is a lot here. But it's worth it.
On my way from Agra to Jaiselmer, it might theoretically have been possible to get a non-stop, air-conditioned sleeper train, but I didn't get one. Instead, in second class, packed full of loud, smoking, snoring Indians, somehow I managed to sleep through my scheduled pre-dawn stop in the city of Jaipur. When I woke up at first light and realized my mistake, I had to make a new plan in a hurry. I was supposed to meet my friend Emil the next day... To where was my train going? (Bikaner). I had never heard of Bikaner, so I dug out my handy guide book. Is it in the right general direction? (Yes). Is there anything worth seeing there? (Yes). Rats! Thousands of the furry critters, at the Karni Mata rat temple in Deshnok. The temple is so bizarre, one could think it's a tourist side show, but it is an amazingly real place of worship in a remote desert village. It is certainly worth a look if you happen to be in Deshnok! The city of Bikaner is also interesting, with few tourists, colorful Rajasthanis, and lots of camels. Rajasthan has a different style from the rest of India. I like it! Can I please get a good night's sleep now? (Yes). I'm in Jaiselmer, a highlight. My room is in inside the amazing fort, with a great view, for only USD $2.
I went camping with an ever-expanding group of "random friends" in the Great Thar Desert. We had an easy itinerary and great food. We slept on sand dunes with locals singing around the campfire. I think camels are wonderful beasts, enduring endless suffering (eating thorny plants and carrying tourists) but remaining calm, gentle and never complaining too much. Ahhh... camping!
Travelling to Pushkar from Jaisalmer, "the golden city," I came through Jodhpur, "the blue city," with its well-preserved, impenetrable fort (often attacked but never conquered) - now a museum. Pushkar is famous for the world's largest camel fair. Pushkar also has a famous Brahma Temple. For me, it's a quiet place to hang out with friends. Pushkar is meat-free (not even eggs are allowed), but I usually order the all-you-can-eat vegetarian thali plate anyway (so cheap that Western meals at tourist restaurants seem outrageously expensive for $2 US dollars). Pushkar has the usual Indian tourist stuff: clothes shops, constant come-ons from shop owners, and beggars, but at least there's not another fort :^) No, seriously, the forts are awesome!
The old British part of Bombay has a strong British influence (go figure) in its architecture and civil engineering. Bombay is clean compared to Delhi thanks in part to a distinct lack of cows (there are more Christian churches here, and not so many Hindu temples). Prices are high compared to Delhi (especially for hotels), but Bombay is the cultural capital of India, home of Bollywood and financial markets, so it is worth more; it's a nicer city. Since I have explored little however, I must count myself as a poor authority. On the way here, I stopped at Mount Abu, home of impressive Jain temples.
Arambol is my favorite beach in Goa. First, I saw Calangute's beach with my Canadian friends because that's where our ride dropped us off; Calangute is an expensive "package tourist" beach, so we left for Vagator, a beach with mostly Indian tourists. From there we rented motorcycles to drive to Anjuna for the New Years Eve parties. This is a techno-music beach with young European and Israeli tourists. It was a fun place to spend New Years Eve, but I can only take a certain amount of loud techno music. So I moved to Arambol, which is more my style. I made a side trip by motorcycle to Palolem Beach, which I also liked. Goa is the "place to be" during India's winter. It's not about Indian culture; it's about chilling out.
My Canadian friends are leaving for Taiwan to teach English (see video on the MonkeeTime Channel), but my Dutch and Spanish and Greek friends will be arriving soon, and I've met some Italians with whom I juggle and play footbag at sunset. Arambol has restaurants with great food, the vendors are not aggressive, and nothing is crowded. Things are more expensive than North India, but still cheap (it's peak season now, too). The surf is low which is great for swimming but not for surfing (the waves get big during the monsoon). There is Yoga and Tai Chi, and soon I'll look into that. This is the spot I've been waiting for. I moved to a nicer room where I can hang my hammock overlooking the beach. I paid up-front for a month and got a discount: USD$1 per night, the best hotel bargain ever.
Hampi was once the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire. Now it's a small town. The 500-year-old ruins and gigantic boulder fields, however, create one of the finest archaeological sites on the planet, a surreal and energetic landscape. If you go to Goa or Bangalore, go to Hampi, too. Bangalore is my final stop in India. I'd stay longer but this is a world tour, and Asia beckons...