“You’re not in Kansas anymore,” I thought as I crossed the Nepali-Indian border on foot, with my pack on my back.
Smouldering piles of burning garbage on the roadside mix with heavy diesel fuel from the overloaded open-canvas lorries to suffocate the air.
Small shops selling all sorts of goods line the streets, but with only Nepali rupees in my pocket, I focus on the task at hand, getting to the Indian city of Varanasi and securing a hotel room for the night. I spot a local bus, confirm its destination with the driver and hop in.
I disembark near the train station and am immediately accosted by children and beggars crying out for rupees. Travelling in India, you must have thick skin and a strong stomach to make it out alive.
I locate the train station and hold my breath as I walk past the open-air latrines near the entrance and join the enquiry queue to find out how to buy a ticket to Varanasi, as all signs are in Hindi.
Braving the chaos of the station, I manage to secure a general class, unreserved ticket for the seven-hour ride for 61 rupees, or $1.25CAD.
Ten minutes past the expected departure time and there is still no train on my platform. I enquire with a rather imposing security guard who looks at my ticket and begins to chuckle.
Unsure of what I’ve gotten myself into, he helps me locate my berth which has changed platforms without notice.
We walk past the 1st- and 2nd-class seats, past the 3rd-class air-conditioned seats and the 3rd-class non-A/C seats, past the sleeper seats and we finally reach the general seating cars.
The large security guard jumps into the train, elbows up, and pulls me into the train by the straps of my backpack, bullying a place to sit for me amidst the unreserved benches and seats.
Extremely grateful, I place one quarter of my right butt-cheek on a three-person bench which I am sharing with seven others, and settle in for the eight-hour train ride.
Once in Varanasi, I locate an Internet café, crossing through the hectic city traffic like I was in a game of Frogger. A few phone calls later and I find an available room for ten dollars per night in a family guesthouse.
A half-hour later, my auto-rickshaw driver has navigated the ancient side-streets of what has been called the oldest city in the world, to reach the guesthouse.
The following morning, my guide takes me around the city explaining the various sights and local customs. Earliest records place Varanasi at more than 6,000 years old, but most scholars contend that the city as it is now known would have been settled around 1200 BCE.
As such, the old city is spread out over a series of confusing, narrow alleyways often no more than two meters in width. Small trenches on the sides of the alleys accommodate waste, both human and animal, and so it is imperative that I keep an eye on where I am stepping.
This is further complicated by the throngs of people, the whirl of scooters and more importantly the roaming cows. Deemed holy across India, cows roam freely around the cities. Mostly harmless, they are surprisingly frightening when encountered face-to-face in a dark alley!
The spectrum of smells ranges from the warm scent of incense, to hunger-inducing curries, to stomach-turning excrement and garbage littering the streets. A two-minute walk through these snaking roadways is an experience in and of itself.
The city banks along the Ganga (Ganges) river, considered holy in Indian culture. Ghats, or concrete steps leading down to the water, are the spiritual centre of the city as Hindus bathe in the sacred river daily as a ritual believed to absolve sins.
According to legend, the city was founded by the Hindu god Shiva who proclaimed that laying to rest in the waters of the Ganges river was the most direct way to avoid the cycle of rebirth and death, and thus reach the afterlife.
For this reason, tens of thousands of pilgrims come to Varanasi to die. The burial ceremony and cremation are completed in open air, but are off-limits to photography as a sign of respect.
The body is wrapped in linen and placed on a bamboo stretcher, which is then submerged in the river. Following a thorough cleaning, it is anointed in Ghee, a butter-like substance, and placed atop a stack of firewood for outdoor cremation.
My guide and I continue to wind our way through the tight alleyways, and it seems as though there is a temple around every corner. Lines of worshippers stretch to almost one hundred meters around some of the sacred sites.
From the bustling centre of Varanasi, I head to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal (pronounced Mahel), India’s most famous landmark. The Taj was commissioned by Shah Jahan in 1632 as a mausoleum in memory of his 3rd and favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
Standing at almost 50 stories in height and made entirely of marble, its massive scale is as impressive as the ornate mosaics that cover its walls. Despite a humble interior, the complex does not disappoint as one of the World’s New Seven Wonders.
Hoping to turn some of my journey into a vacation, I look into “hill stations”, which are cities Indian tourists visit to relax. From Delhi, I fly to Srinagar, the summer capital of the Kashmir region in northern India.
The city is nearly devoid of foreign tourists, which I don’t mind one bit.
I am now sitting on the banks of shallow, quiet Dal Lake, surrounded by large mountain ranges in all directions, including K2, the world’s second highest peak. Relaxing in this calm setting, I look forward to a few days of reading and leisure before the long flight home.
Looking back on my short visit to India, it is best described as ‘raw’.
It is an absolute assault on all of the senses: from the vibrant colours of the traditional saris worn by all women, to the constant horn blasts of rickshaws and the babble of incessant tourist touts, to the poisonous fumes of the burning garbage piles and finally the deliciously spicy curries.
Like it or not, India leaves an impression.
J-F Démoré is a president and CEO of financial planning firm Integra Wealth and a sought after motivational speaker. A world traveller, this is the final installment in a three-part series in which he chronicles his adventures in India and Nepal.
J-F will be making a presentation about his recent travels at the Mackenzie Street branch of Greater Sudbury Public Library on Dec. 5 at 6:30 p.m. There is no charge to attend.