INDIA

Kerala: Kovalam, Alleppey, Munnar

 





As we planned on staying in Kerala for 8 nights, time realy wasn’t on our side. Distances in Kerala are quite significant, which we didn’t expect at all, considering Google-Maps showing us 120-150 km routes. Because of the traffic and the narrow roads, 120 km could easily take up to 5 hours of your prescious time.

We landed in Trivandrum, as we were planning on spending New Years Eve on the beach, and we opted for Kovalam, because the surroundings and its red-white striped light house looked very charming.

Kovalam.

Kovalam’s beach was nice, nothing more nothing less. The restaurants at the beach front were quite alright for indian circumstances. However when you moved further away from the back alleys of the shore, the surroundings got pretty odd. There wasn’t an ATM nearby. You’d find plenty of roadstalls selling the usual stuff, chewing pan, sodas and biscuits. On New Years Eve, we were part of the few younger folks walking through the sand of the beach. Bars and restaurants were busy with older people, mostly europeans.

There was nothing going on late at night. Selling alcoholic beverages was prohibited if the bar wouldn’t pay a pretty expensive authorization. Some bars would sell the booze under table and serve the wine, beer or spirits in coffee mugs. For half a bottle of red wine we paid 10 euros / dollars on NYE, which is insanely expensive for indian people. Of course we had to hide the bottle under the table, in case the cops would show up.

Kovalam had its charming side, because only after one day, the locals would start recognizing you, and you’d get in lovely conversations with them. Of course always having in mind to win you as a customer in their shop or restaurant. The weather was flawless, even at night we had t-shirt temperatures. The water of the sea was pretty warm and the palmtrees bordering the shore made Kovalam a pretty place.

One day we drove up to Varkara with a rental scooter, it took us 5 hours in total to do the roadtrip. Varkara looked different than Kovalam, less buildings, more greens. In the end I can’t tell you which beach I actually prefered. We enjoyed the scenery along the road while heading up north. But I guess the 5 hours driving weren’t worth it, to spend some hours on a beach.

Initially we planned on staying 2 nights in Kovalam, but we extended our stay for one more night, as we didn’t want to rush with the usual check-out and packing our backpacks after the night of NYE. Honestly 3 nights in Kovalam is too long, as there isn’t much to do in the area. You can do daytrips to Varkara, the center of Trivandrum which gives you the feel of a city-vibe, or driving down south to the Vivekananda Rock Memorial (which we didn’t do, as it would take another 5 hours of driving in total). The scooter rental rate was a bargain, as we only paid 300 rupees per day (4 euros/dollars).




Alleppey and its backwaters.

After driving up north to Varkala, we figured out that Alleppey would be quite a ride. The distance between both cities is around 160 km which takes up to 5 hours driving.

A local told us that you can reach Varkala by train, however the train only leaves in the early morning and only once a day. So we opted for a taxi, which would cost us only 40-50 euro/usd, hassslefree, with an A/C, and you can sleep in the back of the car. Easy!

Alleppey is well known for its charming canals and its bigger lake on the northern side. That’s what we saw and what we got. In Alleppey we visited the city center, however the town looked like any other indian city. Our pleasant part of Alleppey was definitely our stay the “Bamboo Lagoon Resort”. The Bamboo Lagoon had the feel of a guesthouse, as there weren’t more than 10 to 12 rooms for rental. We had the chance to get one of the 3 rooms of a cottage that were very close to the river’s edge, facing the backwaters. Opening the doors in the morning was very beautiful as you could witness the beauty of the house boats passing by, watching the local fishermen in their canoos, or just observing the neighbours taking “a shower” in the river. It definitely felt more like India, than Kovalam’s beaches.

There wasn’t much to do on the “island”, as you had to a 1 minute canoo-trip to reach mainland. For one day only it was very pleasant to saviour the quietness of the resort, spending an hour in a hammock and watching the boats passing by. You could book a boat from the hotel and do a canal trip through the back waters. The boat cost around 500 rupee an hour (5 euro/uds). It would lead you through different canals and offer you a scenic view of the neighbourhood.

Unluckily on our first day we were told that on the following day, violent riots could take place in the city as there was an issue with a nearby temple, where women were granted access to use the temple for the first time ever. The radical religious fanatics obviously didn’t like that, and the use of violence was expected. So the only way to get to Munnar was to leave in the early morning at 01:00 or 02:00 am, or we would have to stay a second night, and spend all day at the resort, as driving with a taxi or buses was prohibited for security reasons. We decided to leave at night.

However we were already pretty sure that we would stay one more night at the bamboo lagoon on our way back home to the airport.

Munnar.

Munnar was a contrasty destination in comparison to the backwaters and the beaches of Kerala’s coastal region. Munnar is a located in the mountainous area of Kerala. It looks very green and hilly and the temperatures tend to be much lower at night.

Our roadtrip to Munnar was quite an experience. In the end we can have a good laugh about it, however the behaviour of our driver was rather dangerous than hilarious. The taxi driver picked us up at 01:30 in front of the bamboo lagoon resort. We put our stuff in the trunk and our journey began. After a couple of minutes the cab was stopped by the local police. They asked where we were heading, as it wasn’t allowed to drive out because of the riots that would high-probably happen that day. We were allowed to move on.

On the road I noticed how the driving behaviour of our driver changed: accelerating, breaking, accelerating, breaking.. and it went on like this. I instantly knew he was too tired to hold the road. After having hit the sidewalk numerous times, the driver decided to have a break and sleep for 30 minutes. Later on he told us, that he hadn’t slept for almost 24 hours.

We arrived in Munnar just before 07:00am. We stayed at the “Kaivalyam Wellness Retreat” for one night only. Before checking in we didn’t know that the resort had a fully-packed schedule with activities for their guests: free yoga classes, free tea tasting, early morning visits of the tea plantations, and many many more. They even gave free cooking classes 3 times a week. Obviously the cooking classes didn’t take place when we were visiting… as for myself, I’m always missing the best parts while traveling. Bummer!

The Kaivalyam Retreat was most definitely a beautiful place. Surrounded by endless trees, different kind of plantations (black tea, cardomon), it felt so refreshing breathing in the mountain air with all those scents outside of your room.

After having checked in, being led to our room, taking a shower… we notice the beautiful tree houses outside of our window. The lovely owner of the hotel, was so kind to give us a kind of upgrade, and let us move into one of the few tree houses that were available. Spending the night in a tree house was already worth the 5 hours we drove in a taxi to reach Munnar.

We were looking forward to discover the mighty green hills that we found on Google. Sadly during our visit, most of the tuk-tuk drivers were off work, because of the on-going strike all across Kerala. So it wasn’t possible to get to those greeny landscapes, as they were located 15 kilometers away from our resort.

Nevertheless, we were enjoying our 30 hours in Munnar. The 07:00 am yoga class was fun. It was interesting to witness the indian point of view about yoga, its flow, and how they practice it. We were executing all the asanas on traditional matt, rather a rug, and it kinda felt like I was doing yoga for the first time.

This was pretty much our Kerala trip.

So during a whole week, 7 days, we managed to visit 4 different cities: Kovalam, Varkara, Alleppey and Munnar (and we made it back to Alleppey and Kovalam on our last 2 days). Obviously we couldn’t experience all the parts of that beautiful state. But we experienced enough, to agree that it’s worth doing the drip. The whole trip changed my view of India, as it wasn’t actually that fun the first time I visited the country.

If you’re a fan of Bali or Srilanka, you will love Kerala.

Namaste to all the lovely people that crossed our path on this trip, … we met too many lovely ones!

Back to India: Kerala & Varanasi

Most of my friends and relatives wouldn’t believe me, if I was telling them that I’d travel back to India.

In 2017 I visited a couple of cities in the northern part of the country: Delhi, Agrar, Varanasi, Vrindavan. Back then, I wouldn’t hold myself back shouting out loud my disappointment about India on social-media, as I remembered the wise words of a friend “you either love or hate India, there’s nothing in between”.

Follwing my India trip in 2017 I stood rather on the “hating” side, than among the appreciating crowds. However I had never argued about the fact that India’s culture had so much to offer: the mesmerizing colors, the scents of spices and flowers, the fascinating beliefs and rituals of the Hindu religion, the mouthwatering indian dishes… India has a lot to give, even though sometimes it can hit your nerves in the roughest way.

Reaching the last days of the year on December 2018, I headed back to India. How did this happen?

  1. After my exhausting trip in 2017, I told myself, I would never again travel through India by myself.

  2. And the second condition would be the southern part of the country. I would give India a second chance, while visiting the south, famous for its beaches, palm trees, and yoga retreats.

A quick stop in Delhi at the Humayun Tomb

A quick stop in Delhi at the Humayun Tomb

We decided to visit the state of Kerala on new years eve.

The fact that my girlfriend is a total Sri Lanka aficionada, I felt like adding Varanasi to our India trip. Kerala doesn’t look that much different than Sri Lanka. Adding some contrast to our trip would make our journey across India more interesting and versatile.


Varanasi.

Writing a second blog-post about Varanasi would be pointless, as I mostly visited the same spots and areas as I did in 2017. We booked our 2 nights at the lovely Ganpati Guesthouse, the same guesthouse that I stayed at on my first trip. The room was flawless (for Indian standards)!

On the first day we checked out the surrounding area of the guest house. The "burning ghat” was located very nearby. As the darkness kicked in, the scenes of the flames dancing over the dead bodies covered with piles of wood, was rather surreal. I knew that we weren’t allowed to take any photographs during the cremation of the deceased.

Sometimes you gotta act very naive or stupid, to get lucky with photographs.

As we were standing long enough at the bottom of the stairs, observing how the flames were decomposing the body, a family started asking where we were from. Obviously, like many indians do, one of them asked for a photograph with us. We agreed, and as a returning favor, I asked if I could take a couple of photos of the cremation. I respected the ritual in the deepest way, took out my camera and shot a couple of photos. I was kinda happy that I managed to get some descent snap of that holy place.

The next early morning we headed to “assi ghat” around 05:45 am, to watch the sun rise, surrounded by chantings, pranayama sessions (breathing yoga) and watching the locals go wild during their morning rituals.

2017 I was blown away by the beauty of the sunrise and the diversity of the morning sounds that came with it (chantings, loud breaths during pranayamas, the fire ceremony, Bon Iver playing on my Ipod). All of this together made it to an unforgettable experience, as it felt like being ejected backwards in time.

2018 things had changed. “Assi ghat” looked less crowded. A peer down the river had been installed. The thing that blew me away this time, was the delicious masala chai that was served close to the main square. It was the best chai I’d ever had. Still being very cautious about what I eat and drink while traveling across India, I couldn’t hold myself back and bought 3 chais that day. The lovely gentleman explained us how to do the “best chai” in his own proper way. Just because of Varanasi I finally know how to brew the “best” masala tea.

I also learned, that if you travel with the least expectations, you will enjoy your trip a lot more. I expected to be really annoyed by boats-men and local salesmen. They were less hard on tourist than my previous year. Eventhough Varanasi blew my mind the first time, I even enjoyed it more on my second visit.

We passed by the “Vishnu’s Tea Emporium” as I read on trip-advisor it would offer a unique tea experience. I had the typical tea-shop image on my mind, the tidy western shops, with all kind of teas and smells. As we walked by the “Emporium” we missed it twice as it just looked like a small, dirty and untidy living room. It didn’t look like a tea shop at all. Following the recommendation of a friend, we stepped into the shop, and a couple minutes later Vishnu welcomed us. We got our second introduction how to make proper Masala tea, starting with a plain tea sample and adding each ingredient (ginger, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon..) step-by-step. After our initial shock of the tidiness of the room, we appreciated how much love Vishnu put into his tea ceremony. We bought two tea bags and a masala-spice-mix to thank him for his time and service.

Varanasi is very picturesque old city that comes with “that special vibe”. You can feel the holy spirits within the city. You will see hundreds of very poor people, you will see too many smiles, you will hand out unlimited change and tips, some people will annoy you, others will make you happy with their grattitude, but in the end Varanasi will leave a unique memory within your heart.

During a tea-break we had a short conversation with an older british lady, she told us that she’d stay in Varanasi for 2 weeks. I asked her if she could recommend us some hidden gems of the city, however all we got was the answer I had expected. She told us, that she would spend most of the day along the ghats next to the Ganges River. It was my second time in the city, and all we did, was spending time on the river-walk. That must be the magic of Varanasi, being happy with almost nothing, just enjoying the views and having a masala chai.

While traveling as a couple, you will get used more easily to the poverty, the dirty streets, the endless honk sounds, after one day you will go with the flow, and witness the uniqueness of the probably oldest city on earth.



Kerala.

If you start talking about the south of india, about their beaches and yoga-beach-bums, Goa normally would pop up in most people’s heads. Kerala is just the state below Goa.

The main reasons we were visiting South-India, were the summer-ish weather, the local cuisine, and the glimpse at the indian culture. It could have either been Goa or Kerala. We opted for Kerala as it seemed less touristic than Goa. And we could get a change of scenery within hours.

Kovalam and Varkara are beach destinations, 150km further north you can explore the back-waters of Alleppey, from Alleppey heading north-east you’ll reach the greenish hills and mountains of Munnar. All this sounded very convenient for a 10-day trip through India.

I decided to write a seperate blog-post about the single stops on our journey through Kerala. Writing down our experiences in Varanasi took more lines that I expected.

Briefly I can summarize Kerala as a wonderful experience, as my expectations of India were very low. After bumping into too many rude and unwelcoming indian people in the north, I witnessed how lovely the indian people can be in the south of India. During our 10 days we didn’t experience one single unpleasant moment while interacting with numerous locals.

The local people we bumped into, were very friendly, welcoming, generous and helpful. Especially taxi-drivers were super friendly. Their job wasn’t the easiest, as traffic in india can be a severe pain in the ass. Some of the drivers had to drive 5 hours straight to drop us at our next destination. The drives were chaotic, the cab-driver had to stay attentive during those 5 hours. And the maximum we paid for 4 to 5 hours rides was 4500 indian rupees {50 euros/dollars}. We decided the use taxis to move inside the state of Kerala. Besides doing shorter trips with a rental scooter, taxis would be the quickest way of transportation and we wouldn’t lose much time during our 8 days in the south.

Obviously bus and train rides would have been cheaper and would have offered much more of a backpacker-feel, however some trains only leave once a day (early in the morning) and the rides would take up to 9 hours. As we wanted to visit 4-5 different areas within 8 days, taxis with a driver, was the optimal choice.

Prior our departure, I was convinced that we’d rent a car and do a roadtrip on our own across Kerala. I knew that traffic could be very harsh in Delhi and Mumbai. I didn’t expect this to be the case in Kerala. The main roads weren’t as congested as in the north, however the streets in Kerala were at some points very narrow. While driving around on our rental-scooter, we had to swerve buses driving on our lane towards the oppostive driving direction. Animals and peoples were sharing the road with us. Long story cut short, driving in india is very adventerous and be quite dangerous sometimes.

As we reached the middle of our trip, we were involved in an accident. That moment I thought that we would get in serious trouble, because it actually was our fault, that someone got injured. Surprisingly the police officers that showed up didn’t even ask for our passports. The locals surrounding the spot of the accident almost ignored us. Without any hesitation we paid cash for the damage we caused, and the taxi driver moved on and dropped us in Alleppey.

In Trivandrum we met up my friend Vinoy’s family. They picked us up and dropped us at the airport, they invited us to their house were we got cooked a delicious indian dinner. The whole family was very welcoming. We even got presents after leaving their house.

During our whole stay in Kerala we felt like - King & Queen. The hospitality of the locals was out of this world.











- GANPATI GUESTHOUSE - {Varanasi}

As you might have read in my blog-posts about my India trip, I sounded pretty fascinated about this little gem of a guesthouse. I tried 'em all during my journey in India, cheap hotels, one fancy hotel, a hostel and this guest house. Maybe it was the perfect match with the city, the calm laidback athmosphere at this guesthouse & the spiritual vibe all across Varanasi. All I can tell is that, Ganpati fulfilled my expectations, and that this guesthouse made me feel, like I initially expected it to be.

I remember when my friend José showed me his photos of Varanasi and a couple of images of this guesthouse. Both just matched perfectly together. When I was trying to book a room at the website "booking.com", I was told that the guesthouse was sold-out during my stay in the city.  But luckily a week later, I got to manage to book the last room available. 

GANPATI was the second "hotel" I checked-in at in India, and without any doubt it was the place where I instantly felt at home. I got a warm welcome by the guesthouse-staff and you could really feel, that the clerk at the front-desk, made some efforts to explain me how the boat-trips work, how to get to the roof-top restaurants, how much I should pay for the different services along the ganges river. I didn't feel like a living dollar-sign at this hotel. 

I read some unpleasant reviews about the guesthouse, so I really didn't know what to expect. Once I figured out that I would get room number 7, right in the middle of the courtyard, I felt really happy. There are lots rooms which are facing towards the river, however the ones in the center of the building, seem more peaceful and colorful. 

All room-doors were locked with a golden-shiva-lock. Everything was very charming about this guesthouse, the colors, the vintage locks, the scent of the rooms... The rooms weren't fancy at all, but you aren't asking for any kind of luxury when checking-in at a guesthouse. The rooms were very clean, the bathroom as well. The bathroom lacked some space, but it didn't bother me at all. 

I loved staying on my bed during the day, with the yellow room-door wide open. You could hear the calming noise of the water-fountain.

On the roof-top there was a restaurant, that was serving food til midnight. Their menu consisted of only vegetarian dishes. The dishes were very simple, but I couldn't complain. The waiters were extremely friendly, and the food was very cheap. During my 4 days in Varanasi, I only had food at their restaurant, because everything just seemed perfect. The food tasted fresh, and of course I didn't get sick of it.

 

There's a main-exit that leads straight down to the ghats, right to the river's edge. On the rooftop you can enjoy your breakfast or lunch with a beautiful view all over Varanasi. What can I say? There's nothing to complain about.

 

When I was checking out, I told the staff, that I took the room's hand printed laundry tote bag, because I wanted to keep it as a souvenir. I offered them to pay for it, but the lovely man at the desk told me I could keep it for free.

As soon as I left the guesthouse, I got one last "namaste" from the door-man. Everytime I left or entered the guesthouse, a "guard" opened the door, put his both hands together close to his chest and greeted me with a "namaste". I loved GANPATI GUESTHOUSE, it was one of the few lovely experiences I brought back home from India. 

Varanasi: Oldest city of India

Varanasi is supposed to be the oldest city of India. Not only the oldest, but also the holiest. Among the 5 cities I initially planned on visiting, Varanasi was the one I was really looking forward to discover. 

On the airplane to India, I started reading a book about the Sadhus of India. "Sadhus" are holy men, considered as renunciants who have chosen to live their life apart from society to focus on their own spiritual practices. Some sadhus used to be wealthy and successful people, but they chose a path in their life where they would cut all familial, societal and earthly attachments. This way they could achieve their purest and highest spiritual level. Sadhus don't lead a normal life like others, they choose to live poorly and only find richness in spirit and humanity. I was told by a local in Varanasi, that they use the ashes of cremated bodies to cover their skin, because the ashes of the deceased is the last remaining of a human body on earth just before it reaches heaven & god. 

I found the lifestyle of the Sadhus very fascinating. Sadly while discovering my first Sadhus in Varanasi, I was told that the holy men I'd meet along the ganges river, would be fake sadhus. Those were the beggars, who'd ask you for money if you'd take a photo of them. Which was actually true, some were even begging for a photo, because all they were looking for was getting a tip. Some of the boatmen considered those "fake sadhus" as lazy people, who were getting high all day, and they were making it through life just because of their fascinating look. I even noticed myself, that those sadhus were accepting money from the very poor people. The poor people were still convinced that the beggar sadhus, could bless them, for having a better life. That's how my interest in finishing the book about the Sadhus stopped! Nevertheless I was told, that there were real sadhus out there in Varanasi, but the real holy men, wouldn't hang out along the river. They would stay away from the crowds, and they would never dare to ask for a tip, if you would shoot any photos. The topic of the Sadhus still remains fascinating. 

Varanasi, wasn't only about the Sadhus. On my first day, upon my arrival at the beautiful guesthouse "Ganpati", I was told that there were 3 main ghats "burning ghat", "assi ghat", and guess the next one, "main ghat". The stairs that lead down to a river are called "ghat", which are usually very big stairs, big enough to do any kind of activity like meditation, yoga, washing clothes, ...

The burning ghat is a public holy place where only Hindus cremate their departed in a sacred ritual. People are allowed to watch the whole ceremony, but taking photos isn't allowed, out of respect for their family. The locals still allow tourists to take photos from a boat, considering that you won't notice an morbid or personal details on a photo shot from a further distance. There are 2 cremation spots along the ganges river. At the "burning ghat" only hindus are allowed to get cremated. The cremations take place 24 hours a day, and 7 days a week. There's no time off. At the entrance to the ghat, people can weigh the wood, which is required to cremate the body. The cremation takes about 3 hours for one single body. The family gives the dead body a last massage at home, with natural oils, to make the deceased "feel good" for one last time, before they reach heaven. At the burning ghat, they wash the body right in the ganges river. Following the cleaning, they put the wrapped up body on the cremation spot. The relatives cover the body with the woods, and spread pieces of sandalwood over the body to accelerate the ignition of the deceased. The family members aren't supposed to cry in front of the body, the mourning takes place at home. After the cremation-process, the remaining ashes are shed into the river. The relatives aren't supposed to keep the ashes, otherwise the soul of the burnt body, would find its way back home. Pregnant women, children, holy men aren't allowed to get cremated, they get all wrapped up, and the whole body is thrown into the river. So there's a chance that you could witness a dead body floating on the water. Right next to the burning ghat there were lost buildings, where people used to spend their last days or weeks. Older people would come to Varanasi, just to die in Varanasi. They believe if they get cremated in the holy city, that they will make it to heaven, and won't get reborn in another life. 

Burning Ghat

Another interesting fact was the "eternal flame of Shiva". Right next to the cremation ceremony you could notice a fire, which they used to ignite the bodies. That's the spot where one of Shiva's girlfriends set herself on fire. For more than a couple of hundreds years, people are responsible to keep that fire burning all day. All the dead bodies are lit up by the "eternal flame". It's not allowed to use any matches or lighters. The second cremation spot down the river, would allow non-hindu people to be cremated.

There were daily ceremonies, to praise the gods, at the main ghat (twice a day, at 06:30 in the morning and in the evening), and another early one at 06:00 in the morning at the assi ghat. The main ceremony at the main ghat, was interesting to watch for the first time. There were thousands of visitors every evening. I personally preferred the one in the early morning. Every morning I left my guest-house at 5:30, and walked towards the assi ghat. The walk took about 20-25 minutes. Sadly it wasn't a peaceful walk, because some boatmen were awake by then, and kept asking the early birds for boat rides. 

The ceremony at 06:00 am at the assi ghat, started with a fire ceremony, were they burnt cow dung, to worship god. While they were doing their thing, you could observe the most beautiful sunrise arise. It was such a serene moment. And with a little luck, if you would find a spot close enough to the ceremony, the boatmen didn't dare to bother you. After the fire ceremony, followed a concert with indian meditation music, and a free yoga session. It was interesting to see the older generation sitting down on the floor and participating at the yoga class, which mainly consisted of pranayamas (breathing exercices). I wish I had participated as well, but all the instructions were in hindi, so i didn't feel comfortable sitting down among the locals, and too many tourists around me. It was also fascinating, to see how yoga is "normal thing" for the indians. People were dressed up in their daily clothes. Some used a towel, others just a plastic bag. There weren't any yoga mats, no fancy yoga clothes, ... it didn't look like trendy thing, as we know it from the western world. Some tourist girls tried to be even more indian than the locals, and they tried really hard to be the most convincing yogi among the locals. It looked so pathetic. 

After the whole ceremony which lasted around 90 minutes, you could watch how the locals of Varanasi, made it the shore, to take a bath, wash their clothes. Another thing I hadn't seen before. Some of the locals were meditating towards the sunrise, others completed their yoga postures. Kids started running around. It felt very uncommon for me to see so much life in the streets at seven o'clock in the morning. Varanasi totally fulfilled my expectations, how I had imagined India. 

However I gotta admit, after 3 nights in Varanasi, the endless "GOD" topics and stories, got a little to much. The locals would mention Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha, in every second sentence, it was all about the holy river of ganges, shiva power (weed), shiva-city (Varanasi), holy cows, pujas (prayer ritual)... The indians would even drink the water of the ganges river, the dirtiest of the dirtiest rivers. 

The walks along the river and the different ghats never got boring. I totally appreciated the mix of street art, hand-painted letterings, and the very old architecture of the city. There wasn't much going on in the busy main streets of Varanasi. It just looked like any other indian city. The narrow alleys, that felt like a walk through a maze, were another charming part of the city. However the streets were most likely very dirty. Cow shit and urine all the way. Too many police officers on every corner, due to a recent threat by the pakistanis, who mentioned they would blow up the "golden temple" of Varanasi. That's why there were  too many heavily armed police men, as well the military, securing the streets. 

Even though the boatmen could get very annoying, the boat rides were the only quiet moment you would find along the river. I took about 3 boat rides during my stay in Varanasi. I got to know a lovely man, called "Diamond" (which is the translation of his hindi name). Even though, I was just another customer, Diamond seemed to be very legit, and I had the most interesting discussion with that man on his boat. The boatman explained me that there were too many boatmen on the river, more boats than tourists, which would make it pretty hard to earn any money. Diamond allowed me to switch places, and I had a chance to get a grip on the paddles. I gotta admit that it was a pretty hard job rowing for 30-60 minutes. Diamond was half my size, and he would keep on rowing for an hour. I could feel my shoulders getting tired after 5 minutes. Despite the amounts of physical power they had to put into the rowing, the boatmen only made 5 to 10 euros/dollars an hour. 

Diamond proudly showed me his shiva tattoo, which he got in Goa (south of India). It was the last time Diamond had ever traveled. Because I was curious about his life, and his stories, I promised Diamond one last boat ride before I'd leave Varanasi. The next day, I took a last ride on his boat. As a gift, Diamond offered me one of his shiva-beeds necklaces. That was a lovely gift! Since the old man told me, that he couldn't afford any new clothes, I gave him two of my shirts I was carrying in my backpack. Diamond gladly accepted the shirts and thanked me with his shining eyes. 

Varanasi was quite an experience. Now being back home for almost a week, and writing about the city on this post, I actually realize how unique the city was. While being in a city, we're so busy soaking up all the informations around us, the noises, the smells, the views, the people... and once we get back home, our mind gets the time to process all the informations we collected, especially when we start writing about it. That's what I like about my travel blog, it doesn't just keep me busy, sharing photos, videos, and stories with people all around the world, but it helps me processing the memories I collected on my trips, and bring them to "digital paper". 

 

 

Update (02.04.2017).

Like I mentioned above, it really does take a while til you realize what you've been through on your journey across the world. I wish I could thank the "yogi" in my video on the top of this page, for being such an inspirational person. While I was observing the early morning yoga session, this gentleman just caught my eyes, and I kept observing him for a while. It just seemed very authentic to my eyes, and I was just blown away to see how much devotion this man put in his daily practice. I guess that's why I also chose to take a couple of shots & film-footage of him. High probably I just looked like any other tourist, taking photos of the locals. I really didn't want to offend anyone, and sometimes I just wish, I could show them what the end-product looks like. Of course it's not a professional documentary and it never will, but it's going to be a souvenir for the rest of my life. My memories in motion, which I will be able to share with my family & friends, and other travelers across the world. 

Last friday during my first yoga class, following my trip to India, I was happy to witness that I hadn't lost any of my flexibility after a one-month-break. But the most beautiful part, was that everytime I closed my eyes during the asanas practice, Varanasi popped up in my mind. I had all these colors, the sunset, the children's choir chants, the morning yoga rituals, right in front of me. After the class I came to the conclusion that Varanasi had a bigger impact on myself, despite the numerous negative moments I went through on my India trip. 

Sometimes we just aren't aware of what we experienced on our holidays, til the right moment kicks in, in the near future. I'm so glad that I had the chance to visit Varanasi, and that I was able to absorb and capture the sounds, the colors, the scents of the city. 

India: Love & Hate.

India's been on my travel-list since I started with yoga practice half a year ago. To be honest, I never imagined visiting India someday, til a work-colleague amazed me with photos of his trip to India and Nepal. The city of Varanasi looked so surreal on his pictures. That's exactly how I got really curious about the huge country of India: the origins of Yoga & the holi city of Varanasi.

Now after I made it back home "safely", I really can't choose if I should start with my "love" or "hate" part of my journey abroad. This is going to be quite a long blog post, because there's so much to write about. I will get into more detailed stories with upcoming blog-posts about Varanasi and the "Ganpati Guesthouse" in Varanasi. For now, I'm going to summarize my good- and not so pleasant experiences.

It all started with my trip to Delhi, the capital of India. My expectations of the capital were pretty low, after I've read too many travel reviews about it, and most travelers were advising to just skip Delhi at all cost. Just for your information, ... Delhi isn't the worst.

I had a typical indian welcome as soon, as I left the airplane on indian soil. The E-Visa appliers were split up into different queues. I had to wait almost 50 minutes to make it to the counter, where my fingerprints were taken, a snapshot, and I was good to leave the airport. I went to the "official" taxi booth and asked for a cab. The ride from Delhi international airport to the city center takes about 40-60 minutes. I didn't bargain on my first cab-ride, and was kindly asked to pay 800 IR (10 euros/dollars). On the way to the hotel the driver told me in a veeeerry broken english, that he didn't know where my hotel was located. So he tried to call the lobby at the hotel, but no one was taking the call (it was already 2:00 am). After several attempts of contacting the hotel, I asked the taxi driver about his plan, and he replied "you choose different hotel!". Well man, I had it all booked in advance, and I wanted to get dropped in front of THAT hotel. So after a couple of seconds of total silence, I asked him for his GPS and I entered the address. So I'm pretty sure that the good man was an illiterate. The hotel was only 3 minutes away. After I got dropped, I had to notice that, the lobby was busy with 2 hotel employees but still no one dared to pick-up the phone. 

"Lodi Garden in Delhi"

I told the receptionist that I booked a room for 3 nights at their hotel "GRAND GODWIN". They seemed to be very welcoming at first and offered me a chai (tea) or a coffee, which I gently refused. They picked up my luggage, and told me to follow them to the building next-door. I could feel the taste of "rip-off" in the air. I told them that I certainly booked a hotel at the "GRAND GODWIN"  and not at the "GODWIN DELUXE". But they were insisting that I was wrong, and that my room would be ready inside the neighbor building. I was just too tired to argue about it... But I wanted to check the room first. The whole staff, were debating in indian and I could feel that there was something wrong. After they brought me up on the 2nd floor, showed me the room, I agreed to accept it. Of course I tipped the bellboy who carried my backpack. Pretty soon I wanted to get online, but noticed that the wifi password wasn't working. I took the room-key ... Damn! They didn't gave me room key, but a paper business-card. Of course being pretty naive, I still tried it, but obviously it wouldn't open my room. I went downstairs and asked them for a proper room-key, and was told "paper card works, but we can give you plastic card instead (broken english)". By the way, later for my check-out at the hotel "Godwin Deluxe", they tried to rip me off again. On the check-out bill, they added every single payable tax twice, and charged me for a airport pick-up which I never asked for. They charged me double the price, than the one which was set during my booking at the website booking(dot)com. 

I hadn't visited anything in Delhi yet, but still I had to manage several issues of incompetence of the indian world. 

Delhi.

I got up pretty early, because I couldn't wait anymore to discover India. I left the hotel around 8:00am, and walked towards the main road, which lead to a bridge. I bumped into a local, who recommended to take a rickshaw (tuc-tuc) because walking to the different tourist spots would be way to exausting. "Don't pay more than 20 IR (30 cents)", and of course the first tuc-tuc driver accepted to bring me to a tourist office for only 20 IR. I went to the first tourist office, just to get a free map of Delhi. As soon as I sat down, they were trying to sell me a bus-tour to other indian cities. I told them that I already pre-booked my trip, and that I just needed a map. I left their office as quickly as I could. On the next corner I bumped into another local, and we got into a little chit-chat. After walking a hundred meters, he told me "Hey, it's your first day in the city, I can bring you to my friend's office. If you have any questions about Delhi, they will help you."

I really don't know why I even followed the stranger. It was just another tourist trap. One office, 4 guys sitting on a couch, and 1 dude sitting behind the desk. They tried to rip me off for sure... but in the end I bought a city tour by taxi for 4 hours, for only 10 euros/dollars. It actually was a bargain, because I saw most sights within those 4 hours. A cab picked me up in front of the office. While I was waiting I got introduced to every single "clerk" who was sitting on the couch. Of course they all looked like the "world's most stupid criminals". I just could tell, that this wasn't a proper tourist office. 

"Humayun-Mausoleum in Delhi"

However I was glad that I met Prem, my taxi driver, through that office. Prem seemed to be a genuine guy, and like after half an hour, he told me that he would be working for that office, but recommended me not to trust those guys. They were just after the money, and of course with his broken english, he tried to explaine that they had no good "karma" :). 

After the 4 hours, I was supposed to get back to the office. Prem explained me that this was the condition of this sightseeing trip. I told Prem, that I was definitely not going back to their office, and if he wouldn't accept that, I would jump out of the car on the next crossing. Prem called the office, and explained them that I wasn't coming back. They asked for me on the phone. I told them that I wanted to get back at my hotel... but, almost like a threat, they forced me to come back with Prem. I told them to f*** o**, and hung up the call. Prem unterstood my decision and drove me to Connaught Place, a huge shopping lane, in the center of Delhi. I paid Prem another 1000 IR, because I wasn't sure if he would get this share of the "deal", since he didn't drop me at the tourist office. I was glad to be out the cab, and asked Prem for his phone number. He seemed to be a trustworthy driver, so I told him I'd be glad if he could drive me back to the airport for my trip to Varanasi. 

After that day, I tried to avoid any contact with locals, because I knew that a short introduction, or just any small-talk would lead me into trouble.

On my second day in Delhi, I just got ripped off by some tuc-tuc drivers. Nothing too bad though, instead of paying 2 euros/dollars, I had to pay 5. 

Gurudwara Bangla Sahib - Sikh temple in Delhi

Gurudwara Bangla Sahib - Sikh temple in Delhi

I had a memorable experience on my second day though. Somehow I never accepted a rickshaw ride, if the divers were hunting for customers. I always picked the drivers I had a certain sympathy for. I opted for Jagdish, a punjabi tuc-tuc driver with a well groomed moustache, who was wearing a yellow turban (see the photo above). On my way back to the hotel, I asked him if he was a hindu or a muslim. He explained me that most religious people wearing that specific turban would be worshiping the religion of Sikhism (sikh). To be honest, I've never heard of the sikh relgion prior that tuc-tuc ride. Jagdish suggest, he could bring me to the biggest Sikh temple in Delhi. I gladly accepted the invitation. The visit was for free, and I was shown all of it. I had to wear a head-cover as well, as all the men did inside the temple. Drinking "holy water", tasting a sweet almond dough, and a private tour through the kitchen where they were preparing the free food for the poor people, were the more entertaining moments of this visit. I have to admit that it was a lovely temple, all white and golden. And all the "sikh" people seemed to be very welcoming, they didn't care to see me in short pants, all covered up with tattoos.  After the visit Jagdish insisted for a selfie in his rickshaw, and asked me forward the photo to his son's mobile phone, that would make him happy. Well ... that's what I did! :)

Varanasi.

Just before taking off for Varanasi, i had to suffer another major panic attack. The ATM at the airport didn't allow me to withdraw any cash, with the reason "CARD BLOCKED". Being stuck in India for 11 more days without any money wouldn't be fun. I tried calling my bank, but their hotline wasn't reachable because of the timezone difference. After my dad helped me out, the bank told him that they blocked my card, because their security service noticed money movements inside of India, and they decided to block my card. SO! Just prior your India trip, contact your bank, and tell them that you're traveling abroad, to avoid this sort of unpleasant surprises.

Varanasi struck me like a lightning. The oldest and holiest city of India was my indian destination with a "wow" effect. Once again I had a typical indian welcome. After my suicidal airport ride stopped at a big crossing (1 hour driving, for 800 IR - 10 euros/dollars), there was already a young local guy who opened the side-door, and helped me getting to the guesthouse. For once, I gotta admit, that I would have never found the guesthouse on my own. The streets were crazy busy with thousands of pedestrians and rickshaws. I followed the guide through very narrow lanes among the old colurful buildings, and after 10 minutes we finally reached my guest house, ... well after I had to tip the young man. 

The Ganpati Guesthouse was the loveliest place I stayed at in India. The staff was amazingly welcoming, and the whole place just felt very cosy. I was lucky to get a room without a balcony, but instead my room-door lead straight to a colorful courtyard. There was a noticeable scent of flowers, inside my  room and outside, around a mandala-shaped fountain. It was my first moment of pure happiness in India. I couldn't wait to get out and have a look at the ganges river. 

I left the guest house, and asked the first locals I met for the right direction to reach the river. And again, the chitchat started, they advise me to visit the "Burning Ghat". The burning ghat is a public holy place where only Hindus cremate their departed in a sacred ritual. People are allowed to watch the whole ceremony, but taking photos isn't allowed, out of respect for their family. My teenage-guide showed me the three main ghats along the river. It was about time to pay a tip, and to spend even more money at his uncle's shop, where I got ripped off. I paid more like the triple for a silk scarf... but yeah, you only live once. I remember how I couldn't stop repeating "this is unbelievable. I saw all those photos of Varanasi, and now i'm standing right in the middle of it". I was so blown away by the very old temple-shaped buildings, all worn off. Many walls were covered with hand-painted letterings and signs. The whole place just looked so photogenic. 

Sadly after my first hours in Varanasi, with disappointment I had to notice, that all the boatmen, the locals, the fake sadhus (wanna-be-saints), wouldn't stop asking for a boatride, for prayers, for a massage... You were invited to spend money on bracelets, on floating flower pots, on colored powder. Tourists just couldn't be on their own, and enjoy the scenic views for 10 minutes. Even in the very morning, when tourists were leaving their hotels at 5:30 am to walk towards the "Assi Ghat", for an early morning ceremony, the boatmen started following you, and kept asking for a boatride. The boatrides were pretty cheap, they charged you 4 euro/dollars for a 30-40 minute boat-ride.  But it was a real pain in the ass, explaining them that you weren't interested. 

It went on like this, for the 4 days I spent in Varanasi. I will write another more detailed blog post about Varanasi, so stay tuned for more informations. 

Agra.

I will keep my summary very short about Agra. It's not even worth mentioning. Well ... once again... I reached Agra, leaving from Delhi, in a very typical indian way. I booked a bus-ticket the evening just prior my departure to Agra. It was a crazy cheap ticket, and the tourist-office guy told me to show up at their office around 06:00 am. That's what I did. While I was trying to wake him up after I reached his place, he instantly stood up, and pretended like he hadn't even slept. He took out his mobile and made a phone-call.  When the bus-driver showed up 10 minutes later, he was kinda in a hurry, and told me to follow him. On the way to his bus he asked me in a pissed-off way "Why did you book your tickets 5 minutes ago?". I told him, that I did the booking the previous evening, and that I paid my bus-ticket in advance. "Really? Your tourist-guide contacted me 5 minutes ago, and you gotta be very lucky today, because there was only 1 seat left on the bus"!!

From 06:00 to 08:00 am, the bus was picking up people all across Delhi, fueled up the bus at a gas station, and finally took off after 8 o'clock. It took us 4 hours to reach Agra (my worst bus-ride ever). After the bus had dropped us at the "Old Fort" in Agra, I had to explain them, that I wasn't interested in a tour, and that I just needed a ride to Agra. I got my back-pack and took a rickshaw to get to my hotel "Grand Imperial Hotel". This one surely was my fanciest stay for one night. The hotel had a colonial architecture flair, and it was pretty posh for India. Sadly the neighborhood outside of the hotel, was a pile of dirt. Extreme poverty, and too much filth covering the streets of Agra.  After I checked in, and already had paid in advance, the receptionist brought me to my awesome room and started asking me "Excuse me sir. Due to the heavy rain yesterday, a couple of hotel rooms were flooded, and we can't host all the guests who booked a room at this hotel." I got pretty mad, because they put another colorful dot on my forehead upon my arrival, they garnished me with a flower-necklace, I got a free orange juice, I paid the room... and after all that, I was kindly asked if I would agree to spend my night at another 5-star-hotel, which wouldn't cost me a dime. I disagreed, because I was so looking forward to spend one night at their beautiful hotel. 

Agra... the Taj Mahal... that's it. That's all I did. There was absolutely nothing else to do, except for the Old Fort. The streets of Agra were extremly dirty, hundreds of tuctuc-drivers handing out their phone numbers. It wasn't a peaceful place, and I was happy to leave. 

Vrindavan.

In Agra, I left in the early morning to get to the train station. I went to their ticket office, and got a train ticket to Mathura, the city just next to Vrindavan. The train ticket was 80 IR, not even 1 euro/dollar. The train station was quite an adventure. I felt completely lost, and had to asked several indians which train would leave towards Mathura. Once I stepped inside the train, I could notice the scent of poo and urine. A passenger invited me to sit right next to him. Jimmy, a university student, was one of the few indians  I met, who wasn't after my money. The friendly young man, had to spend 28 hours on that train, to get back home. Honestly, I was glad, I could get out of it, after 2 hours. 

Outside of the train stations, the tuc-tuc drivers were flying around me like vultures. I was asked by ten men, if I needed a ride. I gently denied and picked out a driver who seemed cool. The one I chose wasn't cool though. He couldn't speak english, and didn't know the location of my hotel. On the way to Vrindavan, I gave him my phone so he could contact the hotel for precise directions. 

908.JPG

Vrindavan was just crazy. It was supposed to be the most traditional, but also the craziest, city for the "Holi Fest" in India. I gotta admit, it was just too much for my taste. On my way to the hotel, I got covered with too many colors. My black backpack was all messed up, my new shirt was all covered up with colorful sand/dust.  It went on like this for the next 2 days. Myself, I barely could stay outside of the hotel for 2-3 hours. Every local felt so lucky to color my face, kids were amazed to pour endless buckets of colored water over me. They used big water guns as well, with artifical colors. Those colors wouldn't even vanish after 4 showers. After my first 3 hours among the crowds, my hotel room looked like a mess. I was glad that the room service didn't clean up my room on the next morning, because on the 13th of march, the official holi-day, got just insane. The Hindus were rushing towards the several temples in the cities, throwing all kinds of colors in the air, pushing women, and kids aside. It was a real battle making it inside the temple. I got heavily pushed back by a police officer, because I wasn't barefoot, so I decided not to follow the crowd inside the holy building. Every body aperture was filled up with colors, I had to throw away my clothes, it took an hour to clean my camera, and my go-pro. This was a next-level holi experience. The locals really didn't care, they smashed the colored powder right into the your eyes. I'd definitely recommend wearing goggles!

The hotel I stayed at was total crap. They had no mini-bar, and no shop, where I could buy water or food. Outside of the hotel weren't any shops or restaurants. It almost felt like a survival training, getting plastic bottles of clean water, and killing my hunger with street food. After my lucky catch with the street-food samosas, I suffered a severe diarrhea for the next 3 days. I couldn't wait to leave Vrindavan again.

Because of my bad experience in Agra, and Vrindavan, I decided to not move on towards Jaipur, the last indian city I was supposed to visit on my trip. But instead I turned back to Delhi, and booked a room for my last 4 nights at a hostel. I was looking forward to some chit-chat with travelers. I really haven't had a real discussion with people during those first 9 nights in India. I really missed the contact with people around me. So I thought that a hostel-stay would feel great.