My experience with work, food, and sights in Mumbai, Pune, and Varanasi, India. See also Practical Tips for Traveling to India.
Part I: Mumbai & Pune | Part II: Mumbai & Varanasi
Part I: Mumbai & Pune
November 10/11, 2013 – November 17/18, 2013
Sunday November 10th I woke up at 3:30 am to do some last minute preparations before starting my long journey: namely, a nice hot shower. The taxi was slightly earlier than 4:15 but I was grateful and ready. Once we hit the Mass pike, I received a call from the cab company telling me my taxi had arrived. I said lightly, “I know, I’m already in it!” The guy on the line then angrily told me, “um no, you’re in the wrong cab!” In my anxiousness about getting to the airport on time I’d apparently made two reservations, oops! When I arrived at Boston Logan airport the British Airways counter was still closed, and I got to chatting with a fellow IT professional named Abhishek who was from Quincy, returning to Mumbai to see his family and girlfriend (who he met in New Jersey). When the counter opened I was assured that my bag would go through all the way to India (I had an intentional layover in London), and I walked through security completely ALONE. Amazing! On the other side, Abhishek easily convinced me to go to Starbucks, where we talked about Mumbai and Boston, technology and yoga.
On the plane I faced an ethical dilemma: I paid extra for the aisle seat to be more comfortable and be able to get up a LOT. But the older man sitting in the middle seat was at least 6 foot 7–he was traveling to Ghana for his oil business and was quite miserable about it. Sadly, there was nowhere for the airline attendants to move him. After learning that Abhishek wasn’t in an aisle seat elsewhere, I gave the man my seat and was uncomfortable the rest of the 6+ hours. We did have some interesting conversation about African spirituality (which he taught), and I finally read most of The Science of Yoga to see what all the hubbub was about. I tried to donate my British pounds (from 2003) to a charity on the plane, but they only took bills and I was trying to get rid of coins.
After landing in London, Abhishek and I walked together to make our connection, and went through security again. The board wouldn’t tell us what gate we were at until an hour before the flight, so we decided to get a decent dinner at a place that promised our food in 10 minutes. Yeah, well nothing was further from the truth! Still, I had a nice arugula salad with couscous and chicken. We also had an interesting conversation around relationships, and I was thrilled to see that I’d been to many of the places that popped up on the board as we waited. I tried to pay for our dinner with my old British pounds, which were apparently so old that no one would take them anymore! We then had a hysterical, couple-like interlude walking toward the gate throwing money at each other (he ended up paying because the delay in the service was now making us late). We got to the gate with plenty of time though. Seeing “Mumbai” on the sign was pretty exciting. My seat sacrifice on the prior flight paid off, so for the 8+ hour flight to Mumbai I had a row of 3 seats all to myself! With the magic combination of that, red wine, melatonin, an eye mask, and Jennifer Reis’ Yoga Nidra, I actually slept most of the flight!! (This is truly amazing for me.) I also did a good job staying hydrated and was taking my No-Jet-Lag remedy regularly. Because I expected to be awake the entire time, I brought way too much stuff and didn’t touch most of it. When it was time to wake up, we were offered a choice of “Indian” or “English” breakfasts.
My Boston colleagues, namely Louise, prepped me well on the Mumbai airport: I knew to look for the baggage claim number on the board behind the passport officials’ desks, and got my bag easily. I also knew to put my bag through the “nothing to declare” security belt and head toward the plaza where everyone waited outside to be collected. A short cell phone call and I easily found my host, Bharat, waiting for me with the driver, Vijay. As was also expected, the guards at the gate of the Hyatt Regency Mumbai Hotel stopped our van to check underneath it for devices, and swabbed the steering wheel before letting us in. After going through the mini-security check at the hotel front door, I showered and unpacked in my room, realizing I had no good shoes for the office. Sigh–perhaps some shopping would be in order! After an amazing lunch of salmon and potatoes at the restaurant (for something like $15) I headed to the office to meet everyone. There was a birthday party in the “canteen” at the office, and I was offered a small piece of chocolate cake, potato chips, and soda (which I politely ate) while Bollywood played soundlessly on a TV (perhaps it was Zoom). I enjoyed watching male colleagues playfully feeding each other cake to celebrate, without any issue. After many introductions, getting my machine connected to the internet and some work, Kavita and Shruti took me on my first shopping trip, not too far from our office in Times Square. I believe it was in Marol and that the clothing store was Aayushi. There was also a shoe and bag store across the street, which we ended up visiting too.
The clothing store had everything folded neatly in little plastic bags, which were stacked impeccably on shelves from floor to ceiling. Only a few mannequins and posters showed what might be available. The man behind the counter kept pulling out options for me and all I could think was, “what a lot of work it will be to put all these back!” I tried on several tops, and based on the faces of my female companions judged what might be worth buying. I ended up with three funky shirts and three longer kurtis (tunics) that would be delivered to me at the office the next day, since the price included tailoring. I also got three pairs of sandals, and experienced my first discomfort at being “served”. Every time I would point at a shoe I liked, the ladies would instruct me to “let him”, after which the man at the shop would locate shoes of my size and place them on my feet. I was amused that the boxes were being tossed up and down from an opening in the ceiling, where the storage and a co-worker apparently were located. After shopping I put in some more hours of work and lasted much longer into the evening than I expected. I mildly regretted my decision of having the tailor fit the kurtis “tight” as I was pigging out on chicken tikka malsala and naan in the hotel room for dinner, at around 8 pm. But, even the hotel food was amazing, and I was eager to eat like the locals. I ended up taking melatonin and hitting the sack around 9 pm, ending Monday November 11th, which was probably the longest day of my life (so far).
Tuesday morning I actually made it down to the gym, where I felt more discomfort being formally presented with a towel and bottle of water as I tried to head straight for the elliptical machine. I kept noticing hotel workers cleaning the machines and sweeping the floor (and others outside at the pool fluffing pillows), although it seemed as though everything was already perfect. The whole hotel smelled overwhelmingly of Pledge! I couldn’t figure out how I’d burned 650 calories when the workout was a slog–later I realized this was because I entered my weight in kg rather than lbs. After showering I did some work in the hotel because no one else arrived in our office before 11 am, and even at home I’m an early bird. (In general, people worked from 11 am – 7 or 8 pm, and women had to leave the office by 8:30 pm. They worked 6 days a week, so Sunday was the only day off.) My favorite breakfast at the Hyatt was Akuri (essentially scrambled eggs with onion, tomato, chili, and coriander) with plain Parantha (flat bread). I liked having all this time in the morning, especially to catch up with Boston-based co-workers and to get my exercise and breakfast in.
At 12 pm each day I had a meeting with the 3 gentlemen on the Engineering team that I worked with closely from the US, and I think it was on this, day 2, that I started noticing the infamous Indian head wobble. I asked about it and we engaged in some cultural teasing. I picked it up a bit myself during my second week in Mumbai, confusing my Indian colleagues as much (if not more) than they confused me! Months later, I still occasionally caught myself doing it, but it’s perfect for when I can’t decide and don’t know what the heck it is I want! Around 1 pm each day was lunch time, which sometimes lasted until 3 pm.
On this first full day Bharat and Mugdha (two of the Engineering managers) took me to a nearby place that’s Bharat’s favorite, though he couldn’t remember the name. He also seemed a little nervous that I wanted real Indian food, but he ordered us all the same thing: roti (bread) and 5 little bowls: 3 different cooked veggie mixtures and 2 yogurt-based ones. The former were a bit spicy but nothing major to me; one of the yogurt ones was sweet. To get from the restaurant to the office and back, we had to cross a busy street and yes, the traffic in Mumbai is crazy: buses, taxis, motorized rickshaw taxis, scooters all honking all the time as a way to say, “I’m coming around you!” or “I am behind you!!” Pedestrian crossings and stoplights don’t really exist, and between the above vehicles and bikes, getting across felt like an advanced game of Frogger. But I am from Boston where we don’t hesitate much, so I did pretty well with it. In the afternoon I did an “Introduction to User Experience” presentation for the Engineering team that was fun and seemed to go well. As expected my audience was quiet and nodded a lot, but my intuition told me that what I said made sense to them.
I felt a little paranoid as there were some mosquitoes in my freezing cold office, but I managed to kill one, and vowed to “deet my feet” when I wore my new sandals the next day. I had brought in several bags of Christmas candy from home to share, and I think that by the second day, it had all disappeared from my office. I showed some of my colleagues what videos of West Coast Swing dancing looked like, and they promised to take me dancing. In fact, that night Bharat took me to a Bollywood movie at the fancy “BIG Cinemas” theater in the R-city mall. Before dinner and the movie, I bought some chocolate souvenirs and Bharat helped me sample almost every type of Indian dessert at the Puranmal counter in the food court.
We saw most of Krrish 3 while eating “movie-mall food” on the comfy sofas. Unfortunately the story was predictable (even being in Hinglish), and didn’t have as much dancing as usual (though what was done was amazing to me), so we left before it was over. I had no idea Bollywood movies were so long–3-4 hours typically, so we still left post-midnight. I learned my first Hindi phrase from Bharat when I dropped something: “kya hu’a” (pronounced “kay-a-hoo-ah”), meaning, “What happened?”
I was definitely hurting the next day (Wednesday) from being up so late the night before, and glad to have had just a protein shake in my belly for breakfast. After my team meeting at noon, a small group of us went to an Indian buffet lunch, our driver taking us a short distance to Saffron in LOTS of traffic.
I learned about subtle differences between North and South India, including roti vs. rice, the acceptance and comfort men have in dancing, and whether or not a greeting of “Namaste” was old-fashioned. Talking with both Bharat and Santosh (both Engineering managers I worked with) was an ongoing Indian head bobble–I was never sure what was “true” (and Bharat had been somewhat Americanized, which added to the complexity). From what I knew about India before I came and based on what I saw, it truly is a land of “it’s all true”!
After our lunch excursion I presented “Introduction to User Experience” again, this time to the lively Test team. I also met with the Web Design team and we talked about changes to styling and CSS, and I answered questions from the Engineering team about the project we were working on finishing in December. Later in the afternoon, I met several of the managers who worked with our Network Operations Center (NOC), in their “cabins” (offices). I also had my first meeting with the other half of our team back in the States, and found it SO much easier being in the India office to help with cross-country communication. I saw many folks taking breaks to play Carrom, but I didn’t get to try it. I was too tired and it was too late for me to have dinner with another NOC manager at 8 pm, so I went back to the hotel via our driver, Vijay. (As an aside, I forget when it was that Bharat finally allowed me to go alone with Vijay driving. He had been very particular about accompanying me himself, or having Madhu (a female admin) join me during my morning commute. As a very independent kind of person, being driven around and called “ma’am” felt like enough pampering, without another person trying to carry my bags and open my doors!)
Thursday and Friday I got more into the schedule: up, exercise (if possible), shower, and breakfast between 9-10 am (late for me); in the office around 11-12 pm, lunch between 1-3 pm. Dinner I struggled with, since many of the folks in the office worked until late to coincide with the US, so it was often between 8-10 pm, the latter of which is generally my bedtime! Thursday lunch was with Bharat and Kalpesh at Gajalee, where the Kalpesh recommended the wonderful fish thali.
Dinner was super late (near 9 pm!) at Kakori House where I once again followed the lead of my hosts–and ate way too much. The service here was very slow, and it was one of the few restaurants where I was worried about getting eaten by mosquitoes. I went back to the hotel afterwards and slept terribly, being that I was so full of spicy food.
Friday was a ladies-only lunch at nearby 5 Spice. While we waited briefly for a table, I inquired about everyone’s office badges because they listed not just the person’s photo and name, but also their blood type. Mugdha joked that with the traffic, no one would get to a hospital in time for it to really matter. I split a “veg” coriander soup and meal with Kavita, though in truth we all tasted everything. Although we knew we just shouldn’t, we finished by splitting a chocolate mud-cake dessert 4 ways. After lunch, Kavita, the “queen bee” of the office, rounded up all the Mumbai ladies to meet me (and Mugdha, who was also new to the company). We squished into my office for introductions and photos. Dinner was a light tofu dish in the hotel, while working into the evening.
Bright and early Saturday morning, Madhu and Vijay picked me up for my “around Mumbai” (air-conditioned) bus tour offered by a company called Carnival Holidays. The Hyatt restaurant wasn’t open for breakfast that early, so I had a protein shake and brought some snacks with me, hoping it would work out. We drove to the Hanuman Hotel in Sion Circle for the bus pickup and waited. And waited. And waited. My hostess and driver were even talking to one of the organizers who said, “it’s coming, it’s coming.” Now, many things in India are late due to the traffic, which can’t be helped and must be understood. But, it’s usually more like a 30 minute delay, and on a weekend morning, one doesn’t expect such a drastic delay, especially when the tour might last until past 8 pm. The three of us were very tired, hungry, and cranky. After getting back into the car and waiting some more, I asked whether we couldn’t just do our own tour. I really couldn’t fathom being on a bus with such a haphazard sense of time for whatever “all day” meant. What happened if I needed to eat, or use a restroom? I’d be trapped! I was already feeling apprehensive, and the trip cost $15 which I would gladly pay to NOT go. After some phone calls to Bharat clearing the matter, Vijay and Madhu took me on a lovely trip of our own.
The first thing we did was go to the Gateway of India, and the nearby Taj and Trident Hotels. Madhu and I would get out, scout around, take some “snaps” (as she would say), and then meet Vijay for a pick up whenever we were finished. The Taj hotel had been the site of a bombing in Mumbai in 2008, and in the crowds at the Gate Madhu and I had fun trying on hats and observing all the colorful outfits and boats.
Next we went to Marine Drive. Madhu told me it is where many Bollywood movies are filmed, particularly the romantic scenes. It offered beautiful views of the city, but the smog did dull them quite a bit. Madhu “opened her hair” for some more snaps (this time us together, as we were getting quite chummy). Then we got back into the van and drove by the cricket stadium/university on our way to the Hanging Gardens.
It was there that I needed to use a restroom, and when I saw a sign, I was relieved. That is, until I went inside, and a few men collected 3 rupees from each of us, and I had to, well…drop trow and pee in a hole. This was more challenging than I expected, given that I was wearing jeans and everything around me was dirty and hook-less.
After that I learned that poor Madhu had had to leave her home at 4 am to meet me in Mumbai for the bus, so we went to the Phoenix Mall where we ate a proper lunch at Copper Chimney. We ordered too much food, but Madhu had a headache that I thought was from not eating. As an aside, when you go out with someone, it’s important to know whether they are “veg” or “non-veg”. If you are “non-veg”, you can almost expect to get an entire dish to yourself, without any sharing help (which may be good or bad, depending on your perspective)! It was here that Madhu taught me how to say (an informal) Hindi “thank you”: “shukriyaa”, pronounced “shoo-kree-yah”. As I suspected, relaxing and eating made us both feel better, so afterwards we tooled around the mall for a bit. I found a few nice stores and many things I wanted to buy, but I was surprised at how expensive everything seemed. Madhu confirmed my suspicion, so we went to investigate Fashion Street instead. I bought lots of suvis for me and others there, including scarves, bracelets, necklaces, and tops without even trying them on (they were about $1.50-$2 each so why ever not!?).
While we explored the city, I saw:
- official-looking men attempting to direct traffic at major intersections (which like in the US, often just makes things worse)
- women driving scooters in kurtis, men and boy workers in the (open) backs of trucks, toddlers/infants standing up in the back seats of taxis
- families living under bridges. One of the most touching for me was actually near our office–several mornings when we were in traffic I would notice a mother changing her pants (under her skirt) while her baby laid on a blanket with an older sibling, on a flat paved spot near the concrete pillars of the new highway. It looked like they had a few pots and pans, and there were often clothes on a line. I couldn’t imagine being so exposed to not just the elements but the vehicles and noise pollution!
- posters about malaria and dengue, urging folks to “fight the bite“
- a horse race track and Bandra (we drove by/through)
- beauty salons and billboards that had mostly American looking women
- a Cadbury factory and signs for strawberry Oreo cookies, as well as a Sunburn Festival(!)
- an approximately 4 year old girl crossing the busy Taj hotel street, seemingly alone. (The boy who sold hats outside the Gate of India was maybe 8 or 10 years old.)
- People living under tarps on the sides of the street, some making baskets, others selling vegetables
Unfortunately I was too tired to check out the Dhobi Ghats washing area, and I was off to the Osho Meditation center with Bharat early in the morning. So, around 5 or 6 pm I retired to my room, got room service for dinner, and vowed to learn more Hindi. Although I usually learn some of the local language before traveling, I hadn’t this time around. My goal was to surprise my Mumbai colleagues with one new word or phrase a day. I found this and another phrase book to be helpful. Other useful words / phrases I learned were: “how are you?” (“Aap kaisey hain?”, pronounced “aup kessy hey”); “good” (“Accha”, pronounced “ah-cha”, heard a LOT); and “OK/fine” (“thik hai”, pronounced “thee-kay”, also heard a LOT).
Sunday I had an experience with the Osho Meditation Center in Pune. I wanted to check it out since I’d done one of his meditations in my yoga teacher training at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. Bharat and Vijay picked me up at the hotel around 7 am, because it was 3-4 hours to get there. I ate before I left, but later Bharat had us stop at a “dosa plaza”, which was essentially a rest stop offering an “authentic” (well, road-side anyway) Indian breakfast. I got a few boxes of nut-based candies at a store there, and was pleased that the restroom toilet came with an actual seat. Later I was also very pleased to realize I hadn’t gotten sick with this second (roadside) breakfast! As one might expect, Bharat and I talked about 100000 different things on the long drive to Pune.
When we arrived, we got ourselves checked in, which was quite a process. First, it was very expensive. We not only had to pay for registration (which included an HIV/AIDS blood test!), but also for vouchers that had to be used for food, as well as to buy maroon and white colored robes (and accessories), because that was all that could be worn on the premises. After “shopping” for our Osho-approved outfits, we locked up our personal belongings (no phones, especially!) and headed toward a lengthy orientation, which took us up until nearly 1 pm. I really wanted to make it to the Chakra Breathing Meditation, and tried to explain some to Bharat to ease his mind about it. Unfortunately, this was NOT the meditation the leader facilitated–we (or rather I) ended up in the massive, stark pyramid building with the sleek, shiny black floor, barefoot (of course), doing one of the more dance-based meditations. Poor Bharat, who was NOT a dancer, seemed relieved to have lunch at 1pm. We picked out interesting things (fruit and veggies were a special treat for me; it could be trusted here given the international clientele) and sat by the pool, taking in nature’s beauty and watching folks swimming in their approved, maroon-colored bathing gear.
At 2:15 pm we went to a different chapel to begin a half hour of silent sitting meditation. At the door, a worker caught me still wearing my black yoga pants under my maroon robe, and made me switch my white socks for their white socks. Of course this completely disrupted my ability to sit comfortably in a cross-legged position, since I felt exposed in more ways than one. Poor Bharat was escorted out after just one moment of fidgeting. At 3 pm I tried the OSHO Nadabrahma Meditation, and at 4:15 pm the OSHO Kundalini Meditation (which was the one I had done at Kripalu). I almost always found Bharat patiently waiting for me outside, and it was fun hearing stories about him getting kicked out of all sorts of things when he was a kid. We were also nice to a French girl we’d befriended–like me, she kept having to use the restroom, and once you stepped out of a meditation (even if it was movement/dance) the guards wouldn’t let you back in. Bharat once tried to negotiate for her, but the guard told him he really couldn’t budge, as doing so would get him in trouble.
We’d previously coordinated with Vijay to bring us our white robes for the OSHO Evening Meeting at 6:15 pm, and changed. They had a live band, but here the whole thing started feeling even more “cult-like” to me. Still, I stayed until halfway through a video of Osho talking because I was interested in what he had to say about the knowable and unknowable. Around 8 pm I started thinking about the long drive home, and met Bharat and Vijay at the car, both quite ready to leave. I was grateful to them both for hanging in there with me during this once-in-a-lifetime experience!
Part II: Mumbai & Varanasi
November 17/18, 2013 – November 24/25, 2013
I must admit the second week in Mumbai was a little more difficult–perhaps more “reality” shining through? I expect the combination of the heavy food, lack of sleep, and the smog that started impeding my breathing was partially to blame, but I also ended up having a lot of stress at work.
Communication breakdowns were happening more frequently, both between myself and locals in India, as well as with some colleagues in the US. For example, I had to intervene several times before poor Vijay and Madhu stopped being questioned about what happened to the bus tour from Saturday. And every time I went to the ladies room, the workers inside watched me very closely. I do not typically like a lot of attention; they smiled and were kind enough, though we didn’t speak much. It made me feel comfortable though. To make this worse, there were a few times while they were watching that I slipped on the floor, not because it was wet but because there were several unexpected level changes. (This was true both inside the office and out and about in Mumbai. Slippery sandal bottoms didn’t help!)
But the most stress was figuring out how my weekend trip to Varanasi, right before my flight home, was going to work. (Before I left the US, our CEO Michael had shown me lots of photos of his time there, and with my yoga background we thought it was the perfect experience to have.) Bharat kept trying to talk me into seeing something more touristy like the Taj Mahal or another all day bus tour instead. When I insisted on Varanasi, the local HR guy started making adjustments to my hotel bookings without my knowledge. To escape I ended up eating lunch by myself at Global Fusion (which was practically in the same building as our office and recommended as a place for tourists not wanting to worry about eating Indian food). It was here, and ONLY here, that I ended up with stomach issues for the rest of the afternoon. Arrgh! (Of course, I’m also trying to work with the India and US folks to get the release finalized through all this.)
I think it was late Thursday when I got my travel plans straightened out finally: I would pay for one “night” back at the Hyatt Regency Mumbai after returning from Varanasi and before my flight home. It was really a few hours time, but I desperately wanted to repack, grab a shower and a nap beforehand. (At one point I considered shipping some of my purchases home rather than trying to get them all into the suitcase, but it was cost prohibitive, that’s for sure.) Turns out this was a great intuition and I’m SO glad I did!
Regardless of the stress, there were still many wonderfully fun and touching experiences (and of course more food!) during my remaining time in Mumbai:
- Madhu “gift bombed” my desk one morning. I couldn’t believe all the clothes and jewelry she had found for me, and how nicely everything was wrapped. It was if it were my birthday! She also sent me well wishes from her mother, who liked me enough just from hearing Madhu’s stories.
- I was welcomed into the home of Mugdha and her family, where she had arranged for Kushboo, a famous Bollywood star and friend of the family, to teach us a dance routine. We spent a few hours rehearsing to Munni Badnam Hui, doing some of the moves from the video. We also had a homemade snack, and took several photos with Mugdha’s daughter who presented me with a lovely hand-drawn picture. Santosh told me that the Lungi Dance was another popular one, and I wished we could try it, as he seemed like he’d be a fun guy to dance with (i.e. he’d actually be into it)!
- I had lunch with Prasad at a seafood restaurant called Mahesh, where we talked about a South Indian style of cooking that uses lots of coconut, called Kerla.
- My Engineering team and I had a group lunch a bar/restaurant called Spirit, selected by Sukhi. It had fantastic food, great music, and a dance club upstairs. Again I was bummed I missed the opportunity to go out dancing with Santosh, but my Saturday night plans were to be in Varanasi.
- On my last day in the office, Kavita arranged for a “thank you” from all of the folks there, complete with a bouquet of flowers and a sweet speech.
- One of the guys on the Web team that I worked closely with, Sayed, was very soft spoken and had always called me “madam” when wanting to ask a question or explain something to me. The first week, I asked him to call me “Jen”, but it was as if he didn’t believe me, and was always very polite and only smiled faintly when I asked him to call me by name. By this second week, we were joking whenever he “slipped up”, and he started joking about it in emails to me too. It was very nice and by the time I left, we were clearly on an equal name basis.
- I ended up trying Indian Ice Cream, called Kulfi. I’m pretty sure I had the pistachio flavor too!
- Santosh and my immediate team presented me with a mug that had our group photo on it–little did they know I’d started collecting mugs on my travels, so this was a perfect gift! Also, Santosh had expressed an interest in Reiki, so I gave him a session that had us both incredulous over the healing energy.
- I led an interactive design session with a subset of the people who had attended my “Introduction to User Experience” sessions earlier in the trip. I was really impressed with how they participated and all they learned, and we were all proud of what we accomplished!
- Bharat announced that I’d be teaching yoga in the hallway. I had what might be my biggest class ever in the tightest, smallest space ever, so I wasn’t able to do much. Forward folds are definitely not recommended! I found it ironic to be bringing yoga to colleagues who lived in India, though a few who had their own practice talked with me afterward. Shruti even brought in a book she followed at home to show me.
Early Friday morning Prakriti picked me up with a driver (and small bouquet of flowers!) so we could start our adventures in Varanasi. Despite all the stress of the plans, Bharat had been fabulous in finding me the best tour guide ever, as Varanasi was Prakriti’s home town. We arrived at Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji airport, learned that all carry on bags needed tags that were stamped by security, and found our way easily to the gate. I got a little snack and Prakriti and I started chatting to get to know each other. Our seats were not together, and I felt badly that my flowers were starting to wilt, but the flight was a short 1 1/2 hours before we landed at the much smaller Bahadur Shastri airport in Varanasi. Prakriti found our young driver straight away. The drive was much more as I imagined India would be, with many animals on the sides of the road.
We headed for Hotel Surya, where we planned to get me settled, have lunch, separate for a time so Prakriti could visit with family, and then reconvene for the evening. During the drive to the hotel, I learned that unfortunately, Prakriti’s family home was on the opposite end of town, so traffic would be challenging. I also learned that she’d never flown in her life–trips home were generally insanely long train rides. I felt bad that I’d not made an effort to change seats to be closer to her, and in retrospect was even more impressed at how she navigated both airports like a real pro. I quickly learned that Prakriti was a very resourceful and level-headed young woman with similar, shall we say, organizational sensibilities: on the drive she handed me a printed out schedule of all the places she planned to take me to while I was in Varanasi (complete with short descriptions)! After glancing at the schedule, I felt exhausted, and we talked a bit about what activities might be “optional”.
Our driver had some trouble finding the hotel, but soon we were there. Because I couldn’t check in for a little while yet, we had lunch on-site at the Canton Royale. We were the only ones in the restaurant but the service was slow. They were kind, however, when I sent back the soup they’d covered in bits of raw apple (just being safe). Once again I ordered too much food, and drank a diet coke just for some caffeine. By the time we were done, it was later than we imagined. Prakriti saw me to my room, which I thought was a bit sketchy after the Hyatt experience. I worried over the cleanliness, especially after trying to use a cup and finding a stain in it, as well as noticing that the empty trash bag was also dirty. But hey, I was in Varanasi!
After a nap and some delay because of traffic, Prakriti and her cousin Jacky picked me up and we headed to the Bharat Mata Mandir (Mother India) temple. We left our shoes at the door and took in the map of India at all different angles. Once back outside, we gazed into the old well.
Then we walked down the crowded main market street to see the Ghats. Prakriti, Jacky, and Prakriti’s mom had arranged a boat ride (“nauka vihar”) on the Ganges for us that evening! I was shocked, thrilled, and nervous at the same time.
They got me into a motorized boat because we wanted to travel up and down the river to see the sights, but be able to get back for the Ganga Ji Ki Aarti–an elaborate ceremony performed every day at sunset. We saw many different Ghats and stopped at one to observe (from a respectable distance) a cremation ceremony. While standing next to a cow, I learned that they weighed the wood and knew exactly how much it would take to burn a body. I was fascinated by this and although I wanted to show no disrespect to the grieving family, I was so curious to be closer. At the Aarti I thoroughly enjoyed the chanting to Shiva, and even got to release a diya into the water. There were several other things I remember about this amazing experience:
- Feeling like I was in a dream. There was a haze over everything, and at dusk with all the chanting and ceremony, it was truly surreal.
- Worrying that I was on a river, at dusk, when the mosquitoes are out and I am a prime target. (Anyone remember the ELEVEN bites I had on one hand after being in Venice, Italy? I do!) Although I only used the permethrin on two sets of clothes, I was thrilled that I brought them to Varanasi.
- Hearing Prakriti’s mom urging us to cover up, not because of bugs, but because at 76 degrees or so, it was cold. (This was around Thanksgiving time in Boston, mind you! 🙂 I tried to explain how cold it was at home; I don’t think they could comprehend it.)
- Watching all the floating, lit diyas in the water, resting up against wooden boats. I recall wondering whether any had ever caught fire.
We left the ceremony and traveled to Assi Ghat, where I had my first taste of street food in India (oddly enough, looks like from the very vendor in this Wikipedia photo!). I was careful not to put any sauce on my Pani puri (also known as Gol-gappa), and I loved tasting the handmade sweet that Prakriti’s mom brought for us. After saying goodbye to her mother, Prakriti and Jacky and I went to Shyamal Restaurant for a very late dinner. I got biryani but tried so many other foods that I ended up taking most of it back to the hotel.
Unfortunately, I didn’t sleep well (again). I was nervous about bugs and itchy all over–to calm myself I ended up texting a friend for hours after getting back, and realized I didn’t want to die over something stupid like a bug bite. (As some of you know, my life had been slowly falling apart over the prior few years, and there were definitely some occasions where I’d just wanted it to be over. It was while lying awake in my Varanasi bed that I firmly decided I did NOT want to leave this world just yet!) I calmed down some, but had nightmares about strange men breaking into my room through the balcony.
When I “woke” I noticed my throat was feeling scratchy, and hoped it was just the dust and not a cold taking hold. I had some cold biryani for breakfast, then Prakriti picked me up for our adventures of the day. On the drive to our destination, she told me of the man she wanted to marry, and a bit about how religion, caste, age, and appropriate timing played into the arrangements. I found myself wishing that everything would work out for her the way she wanted.
My visit to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple was the second truly magical experience I had in Varanasi. But honestly, I wasn’t really aware of what I was in for. Prakriti and Jacky walked me down the narrow streets, and we stopped at a little shop where we each purchased a tiny locker to store our things and leave our shoes. I wish I’d worn different clothes, because I wasn’t about to leave my passport in any locker–I ended up stuffing it down the front of my pants! Prakriti picked up a few offerings for us to take, handing several to me. I didn’t quite understand what was going on, but I was holding a basket that contained a box of something, some flowers, and what looked like spinach leaves. She held a plastic cup of what looked like watery milk with chives in it. (See Shiva Puja for a description of what these items may truly have been!) She and Jacky guided me through the crowded streets carrying these gifts, and warned me not to let the monkeys take them.
Soon we arrived at a guard station where Jacky had to go in the men’s line and Prakriti and I went in the women’s. Once in the tent, Prakriti and the guards started having quite a conversation. My head was covered with my scarf and I was nervous. I didn’t know what they were saying, but it didn’t sound good. The next thing I knew, Prakriti and I were retracing our steps back to the little shop. As we walked, I was dreaming of my next pedicure–we treaded barefoot on sidewalks covered with water, various forms of food-based garbage, and animal droppings. I kept trying to tip-toe into clean spots but pretty quickly gave up.
When we arrived back at the shop, Prakriti explained that foreigners couldn’t go through that gate. Somewhat relived this was finished, I wiped my feet with my socks and put my shoes on; we waited for Jacky’s return. When he came, he and Prakriti ended up talking with the shop owner as if they had known him all their lives. (I asked, and she said no, she picked the place at random.) I believe he told Prakriti of the gate to use for me, and the three of us went together again. This path was empty of people, but even dirtier than the more traveled one. I remember being very reluctant to embark again, but Prakriti assured me that this was a “must do” while in Varanasi. I was curious as to what it was about, and I didn’t want to disappoint my hosts who had gone through all this trouble. When we arrived at the gate the second time, we were allowed through. I had to show my passport to two men at a desk, who wrote something down in a book (a similar thing happened at one of the Indian airports). Prakriti told me to respond with “om namah shivaya” if I was questioned. I recognized this mantra and agreed. It would let the guards know I was a believer of Lord Shiva, whose temple we were about to enter. No one asked me anything.
And then in one swift moment, it was over. We entered the narrow doorway along with what seemed like 50 other people, placed our offerings in the well where the lingam resides, touched it, and were pushed through a door at our right. The entire floor was covered in water, as people were shoving and tossing their cups over the lingam–Prakriti said it was to keep the god cool. Outside, she spoke to one of the guards while we noticed the monkeys on the walls. The guard told Prakriti that the temple was built in the 1700s, that there was gold on top and silver at the entrance, and that security was high because it was next door to the Gyanvapi (Muslim) mosque, etc. Obviously, there are no photos of all this!
After reclaiming our belongings we did some shopping on the narrow streets. I bought a small piece of copper that had the well and lingam imprinted on it (as if I’d forget the experience without it!), as well as a small Kali statue and a heavy green stone in the shape of the Lakshmi Devi temple towers. I also learned a new Hindi word: “chalo”. It’s pronounced more like “chello” and means “let’s go.”
My host and hostess were acutely aware that this experience had been a bit stressful, so they whisked me to a fabulous cafe and shop called OpenHand, which Jacky managed. We spent quite a bit of time there, eating, visiting, and shopping. Next to the Hyatt in Mumbai, it was the only place I had real coffee; I got to check in on Facebook, and relax from the busy streets. I ended up buying quite a few souvenirs here and feeling good about them; I was supporting many good causes in making those purchases.
I’m not sure how it’s possible with so much food, but I think it was after Open Hand that I had my first real lassi. It (as well as the second one) were nothing like anything I’d tasted before. The first one was at a street vendor where I was nervous about how the glasses were being “rinsed” out with water and seemingly re-used. The men preparing the drinks were in bare feet or old sandals. I had a few sips and it was sweet and tasty, but the bits of yogurt were floating at the top and I didn’t want to push my intestinal luck.
Our next stop was BHU, which stands for Banaras Hindu University. (Banaras is another name for Varanasi.) Here it was also very peaceful. The campus had lots of different buildings with plenty of green space in between, an amazing temple, and beautiful gardens. Prakriti pointed out that the Allopathic and Ayurvedic medical schools were right next door to each other. (I did notice several Ayurvedic places throughout Varanasi but never went inside any.) I believe it was here that Prakriti and Jacky had a playful game of trying to ring a bell at the entrance to one of the buildings; Jacky kept ringing it to show off, and Prakriti kept trying without any success. I didn’t bother, as I was shorter than she!
It was here that I whispered a wish into the ear of a cow statue (carefully closing off the other ear with my palm to prevent it from escaping out the other side), and where I had a short but truly authentic rickshaw ride back to the main gate. True to form, as soon as we were finished our visit here, I had to use a restroom.
Jacky was lovely about it, and suggested we visit his grandmother (who he called “nani”). After the drive there, I was able to use her very clean toilet (all the toilets in Varanasi were essentially porcelain holes in the ground, but there was quite a difference depending on where you ended up going)! She then offered us enough homegrown fruit for about a week (for each of us). We laughed over the quantity and accepted it good naturedly. It was nice to see how locals lived, so to speak. They had a nice house with a courtyard and a view, and Jacky explained that they grew their own food.
Our next stop was Ramnagar fort. The entry fee for locals was 30 rupees; for me as an American, it was 150. Jacky joked it was for the quality of the printed ticket they handed only to me.
We had fun exploring in the museum, looking at old model cars and weapons. We visited a shrine in the back that had beautiful views of the water, and Jacky explained they were in the process of building a bridge that would make traveling from one end of Varanasi to the other much easier. (To give some perspective I think it took us about an hour to get from his grandmother’s home to the fort.) Back inside one of the buildings, we began running like children through one of the dark stone hallways–Jacky hollered with the intent of stirring the bats that were resting at the roof, at which Prakriti and I whispered “shhhh!” with wide eyes. The three of us were becoming quite good pals.
Then it was time for another lassi. This one was the best, and this place seemed a lot more sanitary, with the dishes being disposable. It tasted like sweet yogurt with ground up cashews and almond piled on top. I would have eaten the entire thing but I was so full, so we gave our extras to some stray dogs who much appreciated it.
Then it was off to Sarnath. I took many pictures during the driving, not only because we were in the car a lot, but also because it was amazing to see what local life was like.
I didn’t initially realize that we were headed to the place where the Buddha first taught and where he sat under the Bodhi tree, and although we arrived around dusk and couldn’t see everything because things were closing, I was very grateful for what I was able to take in. We first went inside the Mulgandha Kuti Vihara Temple, where I bought a lovely stone Buddha and we took in all the beautiful art on the walls as well as the central Buddha statue. Outside we stood under the Bodhi tree and marveled over the grounds.
Then because the three of us were still feeling pretty playful, Jacky started us jogging through the yard, turning each of the copper cylinders as we passed. He noticed that the plaques had explanations in every language except English and Hindi (I took his word for it–I didn’t see any English that’s for sure)! Then he suggested a race. We all backed up to the gated entrance to the (closed) zoo, and he suggested that the first person to touch the temple would win. Prakriti and I said it wasn’t fair as she had a large backpack to carry, so he offered to take it from her and still win. We lined up for the race; Jacky and I were neck and neck for awhile, but he ended up getting there slightly ahead of me. We laughed and had great fun doing it.
Then we went on a hunt for candles to light at the temple. After checking out a few shops across the street, Prakriti and I ended up at a small cart where a woman was selling thin candles–she was sitting tucked up into her cart under the roof, as it was now dark. Prakriti purchased the candles and some matches. We went back across the street to the temple, where she showed me to use the melted candle wax to hold the remaining lit candle in place at the doorstep. Back at the car, my host and I talked more about our race, and that’s where Jacky discovered I was almost 15 years older than he! (In other words, I did pretty well.) After this we tried to visit another nearby site, but it was too late.
However, Jacky quickly discovered that THE largest annual market in Varanasi was happening this weekend; vendors from all over India would be selling their goods. Not even my guides had been to it, what great fortune! Jacky was eager to find things for the shop and his new apartment, and I was eager to spend the rest of my rupees before going home.
I tried on sandals from a man who seemed to know about Boston, I bought jewelry only after Prakriti was satisfied with the quality as well as the price, and finally the material for a beautiful saree (that would have to be made when I got home). Jacky had a designer’s eye which was fun to see in a young man, and I think we tired Prakriti out with all our shopping! We also stopped at one point to shoot a BB gun at some balloons to see if we’d get a prize.
It was late so back at Hotel Surya we waited impatiently for a table and ordered food that once again took forever to come, especially since this time the restaurant was full. Prakriti was getting messages from her love, who was worried about her being out so late (it was past 10 and she still had at least an hour to get home). This was making her anxious. Jacky and I tried to cheer her up as there was nothing we could do about the service, and I was able to have wonderful ginger tea and authentic Khichdi as my last meal there.
Once back in my room I found a mosquito, but packed up everything and showered so I’d be all ready to leave in the morning. I found the cleaners had not emptied my trash. I left my chemically treated clothes behind, and was eager for a shower back at the Hyatt in Mumbai. I ended up having some bad coffee and Jacky’s family’s banana for breakfast (I was told not to eat fruit, but I was also told not to eat street food; plus this was home-grown and had a peel so I was absolutely secure in that decision). It was one of the best bananas ever!
Prakriti and Jacky were late picking me up due to traffic, but I was also late checking out because of a man who apparently lost his credit cards while traveling and was freaking out trying to use the phone at the front desk. (Poor thing!) My guides did seem to factor in the extra time well–we were not late in any way. Prakriti presented me not just with flowers, but with the gift of a little notebook from the OpenHand shop, since during the entire trip I was always taking notes to remember what we did. I was sad to say goodbye to Jacky, as I imagine Prakriti was. He’d been wonderful. I tipped my driver excessively by Indian standards, and he smiled a very wide grin as I left.
While we were waiting at the airport to return to Varanasi, Prakriti and I listened to some of my yoga music by sharing my headphones, and noticed a woman decked out in beautiful clothes, with bangles up and down both arms. She was accompanied by an equally handsome young man. Prakriti told me that after a woman is married, she must wear these bangles for a whole month. When I asked her what the men had to do, she smiled a reply of “not much”. We sat together on the plane this time, and when we said goodbye as she dropped me off at the Hyatt, and I knew we’d continue to be friends.
I was so grateful to have insisted on returning to the Hyatt that last “night”. Being able to shower properly, nap briefly, and repack for the long journey home was worth every rupee. Bharat came to get me, and we shared dinner at the hotel restaurant. He seemed very glad that I was back safe and sound, and asked his customary “what happened?” every 5 minutes or so. I tried to explain that I was just tired (plus I was coming down with a cold). We shared tomato soup and prawn stir fry rice. I had a capppicino to try and perk myself up a bit. Bharat noticed that in the hotel lobby there were many TV stars dressed to the nine’s. Apparently there was some sort of function going on. I enjoyed looking at the lovely outfits, but it got a little uncomfortable when I was dressed in my “long-journey-airplane-attire” and ran into a bunch of the fancy Indian women in the ladies room. They were all taking photos of each other and it was hard to be out of their way!
Fortunately at that time of night (~10 pm Mumbai time) we had an uneventful drive to the airport. Bharat pointed to the proper line and it was crowded, but manageable. He went as far as he could with me, and we hugged goodbye. I was going to miss him; he’d been a great host. After getting the proper stamps on my carry on bags and checking my large suitcase all the way through, I followed the excellent signage to the gate. Once we were called to board, I was one of the people singled out for additional searching, but it was oddly kind, because the men referenced me by name. However, when the worker handed my boarding pass back to a tall British man instead of to me, I got a little worried (as did he)! I took a small bus to the plane, and ended up sitting next to two newlyweds, which I now knew of because of her bangles. There was a joke made when the new husband asked the flight attendant for earplugs: “you just got married, do you need them already?!”
When I arrived back in London I was completely exhausted. After trying to sleep unsuccessfully at the gate, I got myself a coffee and a snack, and hopped online to check on things. After pacing the airport for some exercise, it was almost time to board when I realized that for the life of me I couldn’t find my boarding pass! At the very last minute, when I was nearly in tears thinking the trip home would never end, I found it! I’d never been so relieved.
The sweatshirt I was wearing wasn’t enough to keep me from the cold I experienced stepping out of Logan airport. What I also didn’t realize, something more subtle, is that I had gotten kind of used to being taken care of. The cab driver who took me home tossed my large suitcase in the trunk, but there was no opening of the door for me. And when he dropped me off at my apartment, there was no offer to help me get my bags up even the few icy porch stairs, much less the huge flight that awaited me inside the front door. I found myself hesitating slightly, waiting for this help, and feeling not just cold, but alone with my stuff. India certainly knows how to make a lady feel comfortable! Of course I ended up getting that full blown cold/flu the week I arrived home, and I will say the jet lag was much worse than what I experienced getting to India. (However I’m not sure it’s a fair comparison, as forgot to take any of my remedies on the way home.)
About a month later I finally had my saree made, and the women at Raj Collections in Waltham not only helped me pick out all the other pieces I needed, but also showed me how to dress in it. When I sent the photo to Prakriti she said it was “proper”, so that was good. I’m not sure if I’d remember how to tie it now though!
In January 2014 soon after I moved to Austin, I got my nose pierced like many of the women in India. I will never forget my trip, and feel so fortunate to have lifelong friends in both Mumbai and Varanasi.
Note: For my full set of photos from India, please visit my Google Album.