Delhi, Agra, and Varanasi: Beauty and the Beast

Hello Friends and Family!

We are still a little behind on our blog because of the constant traveling around and lack of internet here. When we left off last time we were leaving the warmth and comfort of the Southern beaches and heading to the winter bite of the Delhi air.  We were welcomed to Delhi with a torrential downpour. Luckily, the rain only lasted one day.

Delhi has quite the negative stigma to it. Between the recent news of the awful rape and tragic death of a young university student to the frequent cases of what's known as "Delhi belly" to overall scams and the harsh atmosphere of the city life this place is known to have it all.  We were prepared to be on guard at all times.

We decided to stay close to the airport during our visit to Delhi because of its convenient access to the sights of the city and the Foreign Regional Registration Office (FRRO).  Luckily, we weren't staying at this hotel. 

Our main reason for traveling to Delhi was to get an extension on our visa.  Yes, we said extension. This is why we wanted to be close to the FRRO.  We were invited to the wedding celebration of our friend, Pashmina, but her wedding is on February 20th -24th and our visa was set to expire on the 8th.  Yikes!  We had applied for our Indian visa while we were in Nepal and at the time we only planned to stay in India for a month and a half.  Pashmina so graciously invited us to her wedding but it was right after we applied for our Indian visa.  It's was quite the honor to be invited to her wedding so we made it our mission to figure out how to get an extension on our visa.  When there's a will there's a way.  It wasn't an easy task though!  It took us 5 different trips to the FRRO, pleading our case with 4 different people, a lot of winking, eyelash batting and wide smiles on Leanne's part but we are happy to report that we got the extension!  We can't wait to attend your wedding, Pash!

With the stress of applying for a visa extension behind us, we took in the sights and scenes of Delhi.  Believe it or not, there's actually beauty amongst the grittiness of the city.

Qutab Minar - old Indian ruins including India's oldest mosque

Not an ounce of trash or filth in this place.  That made Josh very happy. 

This cute Colombian couple said Josh looked just like one of the most famous singers in Colombia, Carlos Vives.  They couldn't wait to pose for a picture with Josh, the look-a-like.  They told Leanne that she is a very lucky lady and if we travel to Colombia we should be careful because the ladies will be all over Josh.  This made Josh feel very uncomfortable.

Later that night we looked up Carlos Vives and couldn't contain our laughter.  Maybe there's a small resemblance? Carlos Vives or Josh Bearden? Ha ha it must be the hair. 

One of the good things about India is all of the exotic birds.

Qutab Minar is a small wonder with a powerful presence.

Bahai Lotus Temple - modern temple built to resemble a huge lotus blossom and has a slight resemblance to the Sydney Opera House.  We didn't have much time here so we snapped a picture of the outside and made our way to the other Delhi attractions.

Humanyun's Tomb - built in the 1500s it was the first of many tomb and garden complexes in India.

It was a prime example of beautiful Mogul architecture and was actually the model for the Taj Mahal.  What a introduction to the architecture and history in India for us.

Artsy fartsy shot.

Our last stop of the day was The Red Fort.

We were apprehensive of Delhi but it was a pleasant surprise for us.  The auto-rickshaw (tuk-tuk) drivers set fair prices and we actually enjoyed our week there.

Next stop... Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, one of the most desirable destinations in India.

The Taj Mahal was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife.  He was heartbroken when she died giving birth to her 14th child. Yes, 14th child!  He had the Taj Mahal built as a mausoleum for her and was later laid to rest beside her.  It is one of the largest structures ever built in the name of love.  Talk about romantic!  It is constructed of white marble and it took over 20 years to build.  It is widely recognized as "the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world's heritage." It was truly a sight to see and we were awe struck by it.

Before we show you a glimpse of its beauty let us explain our arrival in Agra. We were completely exhausted after arriving in Agra. We took a 6:00 am train ride in general class (an experience in itself).  By this point in our travels in India, we managed to figure out that there are pre-paid, auto-rickshaw stands outside of the train stations that supposedly set a fair price.  We didn't have a place to stay yet but we knew the area we wanted to stay in.  Of course, we were given an aggressive driver at the pre-paid stand.  They harp on tourists in hopes of taking them to some guesthouse that pays them commission. We've become pros at fighting off all of their attempts to take us to some random place for commission.

We did have a funny conversation with our scammer, er, driver.  It went a little something like this:

Driver: "Welcome to Agra."
Us: "Thanks."
Driver: "I take you to nice guesthouse. Cheap price."
Us: "No thank you. Please just drop us off in Taj Ganj."
Driver: "Okay, okay. You married? How long?"
Us: "Yes. A little over 3 years. "
Driver: "You have babies?"
Us: "Not yet but maybe in the next few years."
Driver (to Josh): You seem strong but you can't make baby? What is wrong with you? Do you have health issues? (To Leanne) Are you sure he doesn't have health issues?"
Us (laughing): "We are pretty sure about that."
Driver: "Sure. I bring you to nice place."
Us: "Please just drop us off where we requested."
Driver (anger in his voice): "This is Taj Ganj. You get out here."
Us: "Thanks." (under our breath) "For nothing."

The driver dropped us off 2 miles from where we wanted to go because he was angry with us. We found our way to Taj Gang despite his efforts to make us stay in some dumpier area of town.

Agra may contain one of the most beautiful monuments but the town sure is dirty and dumpy.  Josh went to check out a cheap room.  It was a complete dump of a room but the view from the window sold us.

The rooftop restaurant had an even better view.

Ahh...nothing like having some Chai with the Taj.  We found ourselves staring at it, completely captivated by of its magnificence and the love that it symbolizes.

We put the Taj Mahal on hold until the following day.  It costs almost $15 per person to get in so we wanted to spend as much time as we could there.  When you are on a tight budget, every dollar spent at monuments should count.

Leanne struck up a conversation while we were at lunch with Yo, a nice guy from Belgium.  We shared an auto-richsaw for the remainder of the day to take in some scenes of Agra.

Agra Fort

Beautiful views of the Taj Mahal from the Fort were everywhere.

Josh got a chance to drink his favorite soft drink in India, "Thums Up."  It's actually made by Coca-Cola and is Coke with an Indian Masala flavoring to it.  Plus, it looks like a Gig 'em right on the bottle.

If you ever visit the Taj Mahal don't forget about the Taj Gardens across the river.  It has great views of the south side in a garden setting.

You also get to catch some great culture on the other side of the river!

Glamor shot!

Are you ready to see the Taj Mahal? We made our way through the front gate. 

Wait for it...there it is!

Stunning, stunning, stunning!!

Goofing off on the quiet side.

The mosque inside of the park

We took so many pictures.  Here are only a few.

We spent almost 4 hours inside the grounds of the Taj Mahal.  That was plenty of time to capture every obligatory touristy shot.

Jumpy pic

Normalish pic

Look, I am holding the top of the Taj pic

Funny pose pic

Remember our Irish buddy, Neil?  He met us in Agra and we visited the gardens again the next day before we headed to Varanasi.

A picture of the elusive Irishman, Neil.

We were regulars at a Chai tea stall in Agra and the man that ran the tea stall was convinced that Josh looked like a Bollywood actor named Bobby Deol so he insisted on getting numerous pictures with him.

Here's a picture of Bobby Deol for reference.  He kind of looks like Carlos Vives too.  ha ha

Changing gears to some honest words of traveling in India for a second...

Besides the lack of internet stability there's also another reason why our posts have been sporadic during our travels in India.  Traveling in India is tough and it's hard for us to put our travels into words.  We mean really, really tough at times. It's virtually impossible to book train tickets without jumping through all kinds of hoops or settling for the lowest class train ticket just to get to the next destination.  Also, there are a lot of desperate people in India which means there are a lot of scams and people looking to rip you off.  It's a daily struggle of people trying to rip you off and take advantage of you at every turn.  Obviously, it isn't always the case but make no mistake, you are a walking dollar sign most of the time.  If you want to buy a bottle of water you have to check the price, if you want to go to the bathroom you have to check the price.   It can be miserable at times.  People ask us all the time "Is it as great as it looks?"  The answer to this is HELL NO.  It completely and totally sucks some times.  The streets are riddled with trash and filth and it is actually disgusting in some parts.  We have witnessed countless children and grown adults relieving themselves (number 2 style) in the streets.  Many nights we have had to skip dinner because we're trying to stay on budget not to mentioned we are worried about the cleanliness of the restaurants in smaller towns. Not being able to figure out what anything is or items that look like a major source of food poisoning isn't fun at all.  If you're ever in the mood to not only step out of your comfort zone, but fly out of it with a rocket launcher attached to your back come check out India.  Don't get us wrong we're enjoying ourselves and learning a ton but like we said, it's tough at times. Even with the tough times, our sense of wonder has not diminished. 

It was another frigid 18-hour night on the sleeper train as we made our way to Varanasi with our buddy, Neil.  During our 18-hour trip we made a stop in Allabahabad.  Kumbh Mela was going on that night and we will never forget the sound.  It is estimated that more than 70 million people were there!  70 million!!  Can you imagine that?  The sounds of 70 million people is pure and total madness.  It literally sounded like a huge beehive with music playing.  We were very glad that we were sitting on a train in our seats and didn't have to get off to navigate through that.

Oh Varanasi how do we describe you? The city is sacred to Hindus and also one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. Varanasi epitomizes the best and worst aspects of India.  Describing it as overwhelming at times is putting it mildly. It is a spectacle of life and death.  Over 60,000 people bathe daily in the water of the holy Ganga (Ganges).   A dip in the river is said to cleanse you of your sins.  The bathing ritual has continued unabated for centuries. There are countless ghats (series of steps) along the river's edge that are used by bathers and pilgrims. "Hindus consider it auspicious to die in Varanasi, so some ghats are known as burning ghats, where bodies are cremated (in full view) before their ashes are placed in the Ganges." (taken from wikitravel)

There are several categories of people that are considered holy and their bodies are weighted down and sunk to the bottom of the river.  Often times the bodies float to the top and are spotted on the banks of the river.  To us, this would be a disturbing image but to those that live in Varanasi it's a common thing and they don't even think twice about it.

This place changes you. Whether the change is for the good or the bad, we're not certain.  For us, it was a sobering visit to say the least.  We saw things in Varanasi that have forever changed us.  We debated writing about it but we just can't bring ourselves to talk about what we saw.  Some things are better left unspoken. We were in the thick of of the least understood phenomenons to the western mind.  How can you bathe in a river littered with human feces, bodies, ashes and water deemed septic because of the amount of sewage that is deposited on the banks of the river?  It's actually a complicated blend of religious splendor, complete and utter filth, and a drab environment of death with pops of vibrant colors of life. 

One of the burning ghats. This part definitely took us out of our comfort zone.

The filth.  Those are monkeys rooting around in it.

And cows eating it.  Think about that the next time you get a burger.  Even though we saw cows eat trash we would still love to have one!  No offense to our cow-fearing Hindi friends out there.

Piles of poop

At least this guy was putting some use to the piles of poop.  He was making patties for fuel for heat at night. 

A boat ride down the Ganges is a must do.  The guys wore their country's t-shirts with pride!  Josh's doesn't make any sense but at least it says "American" on it.  It was a bittersweet boat ride because it was our last day to hang out with Neil.  He caught a flight to Nepal later that day.  We truly enjoyed traveling with you, Neil and we can't wait to see you and Fiona in July!

People come from all over the world to visit Varanasi.

River view

Another burning ghat.  Notice the sign that says " Fortunate are the people who reside on the banks of ganga."

We visited this ghat on another day and this is where we witnessed the things we can't talk about. 

Hindi families were actually filling up water bottles with the holy river water and drinking it.

We took another boat ride at sunrise.  We nicknamed this guy Ghandi and were really hoping he would be our boat man for the morning.  Apparently, his boat rowing days are behind him and we had some younger chap row us around.

It was a spectacular sunrise.

We considered getting our laundry done. NOT!

After a lovely sunrise boat ride it was back to the madness of the land.

Indian traffic jam!

The vegetables actually looked nice.

We attended one of the nightly prayer ceremonies.

This little cutie was all decked out for the special occasion.

We found a quiet, slightly less dirty ghat to hang out at.

We decided to brave it an make our way into the city.

We made our way to Vishwanath Temple (Golden Temple).  You can't even begin to imagine how long the line was to get into the temple. Often times foreigners are not allowed to enter so we didn't even try to wait.

Another angle of the long line.

We took our first bicycle rickshaw ride.  We managed to travel around in Southeast Asia for 5 months without riding a bicycle rickshaw. We are not sure how that happened.  The rickshaw driver was so tiny as in Leanne was double his size.  He rode us about 4 miles.  We felt so bad for him when we got to our destination that we gave him our water and double what he had asked for in fare which was only $2.  He was so appreciative.  Thanks bicycle rickshaw driver man. You helped restore our faith that not everyone was out to get us in India.

Varanasi and the Ganges was so intriguing that we couldn't leave without at least touching the water.  We watched a few men do a ritual and mimicked what they did.

Remember how we mentioned Kumbh Mela above?  People were making their way from Allahabad to Varanasi as part of a pilgrimage. Well, it was because of this that we got stuck in Varanasi for way longer than we ever wanted to be there.  The only way in or out of Varanasi is by train, plane or private car.  All trains were completely booked for several days.  Flights and private cars were ridiculously over-priced.  We were both on the verge of having a breakdown.  We felt trapped and we couldn't do anything about it.  Varanasi is not the place you want to be trapped in. It was so cold at night and we were exhausted, dirty, overwhelmed, you name it.  We were finally able to get a train ticket out by waking up very early and begging the tourist bureau to give us an emergency ticket out.  After 5 days we were finally out of there!

We said one last goodbye to the sights and smells of Varanasi.

We couldn't help but have the biggest smiles on our faces because we we leaving on a 20-hour sleeper train to Jaipur.

We will always remember Delhi, Agra and Varanasi.  What a true test to our patience and mental health.

As always, thanks for following.  We miss you all so much!

Leanne & Josh