“Loosing my religion……”, Kolkata, December 18th, 2011

Oh boy, the bus from south Nepal to its most eastern border town Karkabhitta was full, not what you call comfortable and especially not particularly fast. Nine hours it took for the 280km which on a good day I could match on my bike (at least for half the distance, smile) but hey, I just been at a great Hindu ceremony and I travelled on a train roof, it doesn’t come air-conditioned and with wifi on bord. (even though I would not mind)

Arriving in India was strange. Lately receiving a India visa has become really tough but here I just walk right into the country. I swear, I had to ask 3 people to find the immigration office but once there the well known Indian bureaucracy lived up to its reputation, having to fill in 3 papers with the identical information. On the positive side, the difference to Nepal was obvious in terms of being further developed, a bit richer, nicely noticeable in my hot shower -- cable TV -- 4€ overnight stay and really enjoyable in Gangtok, the capital of one of India’s 31 states named Sikkim. However, for the “white hall” to be white the money does not last here either, smile…………………..

Let’s get into some stories connected to the following photos. The food from Nepal named Daal bhaat (if not too spicy its alright) is also the big thing here, so is the Nepalese language. Being sqeezed up north between Nepal and Bhutan I can understand this. My last visit in India was in 2006 and I wondered if the country has changed so quick towards cleaner, friendlier and more organized or if it is “just” this region. A sculpture of Nehru, a former prime minister, preferring this regions over others, let me to rather believe in the latter and later on my India trip I would be confirmed as well. The beauty of this area also has its downside, being an earthquake region. A 6.9  earthquake 6 weeks ago moved the region into stage 5 danger zones meaning houses must be built different now and so on. The need for that I saw myself and my empathy on such strategy rises.

Sorry to say this but my empathy on other news I will hear in the future will decrease, for example on fire deaths. See that closed gate? Its what you find on basically each hostel. On top of that the windows are also secured with welded bars, a perfect trap. When screaming one day to get out it took 8 minutes until a 3 year old brought me the key. Poverty or dangerous neighbourhoods do not explain this, its simply stupidity. The same accounts for road accidents. The people here are so nice, so kind and calm but once behind a wheel, they become maniacs. I checked to make sure, it does not cost money to drive slow or putting the seatbelt on………

One of the nice people (and a good driver by the way) is Bhola, who I met in the Casino playing poker. He also showed me around Gangtok (cemetery) and told me some good strategic poker lessons. According to my travel theme (go with the flow) I took the freedom to stay 10 days in total doing nothing but poker and enjoying the comfort of a hotel room with wifi and a hot shower. Also, I just loved the routinely phone call from the casino to my room around 7pm: “Sir, the players are waiting for you.”, fantastic.

Finally all the little stalls with the fantastic chicken shop as well. They are the reason for current upraises and general strikes in India. You need to know that supermarkets do not exist here. The government passed a law letting Walmart and co into the country. Fearing unemployment for millions the general strikes have succeeded, the law is on hold again.

Once out of Gangtok I was back in travel mode, cheap stays, cheaper food, crazy transport and tourist stuff like the two famous Buddha statues people come to Namchi for. The older one, foundation stone laid by the Dalai Lama himself in 1997, is the highest statue of the Guru Padmasambhava in the world.  Its also a great spot to view Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. The other one is Shiva, placed into a huge area of pilgrims things to see and touch. Here I experienced my first hit into Buddhism. Two security checks let me through and then this army guy is so rude to me as I am wearing shoes. Funny though, he wears big army boots himself. So what is it? For cleanliness, just give plastic covers for the shoes of the tourists and do not let them walk around a huge outside area barefooted. If it is religion, what is the exception for army soldiers, who decides that? Must be a powerful guy in the name of……………………..

Back to road danger. I photographed the jeep tires on our journey to Darjeeling and 5 minutes later it blew up. No spear but another jeep helped out, there is always a solution I guess. Arriving in the famous tea city (black tea) of India I had to learn that for the fields its not the season and the city is no place to stay long. I took some proof shots of my believe that women are the harder workers and better people, bought Christmas presents (yes, tea) and moved on to Siliguri, the train hub in this area. Dana (from the Czech republic) I met on this last jeep ride and we had a quite interesting trip of an unexpected sort. What I believed it to be from seeing it driving by proofed to be an even bigger and more western mall than I could think off in this part of the world. Just opened 4 months ago I almost fell unconscious at seeing a McCain snack stand, truly a global company I worked for. That was only topped by the VW, Skoda car house having its opening day. The owner did not know the global VW claim (Das Auto.) but he liked the brand and he knows the Skoda claim -  India first, the world later. I have to say, I love India, its people are nice, but somehow this claim is justified. It’s the way they think, they behave and I am sure its also what they being told. Personally I am not sure if this is heading the right way. The next day I took off for my 12 hour train ride to Varanasi, arriving at 1pm, having to spend 6 hours in the waiting hall. Why? Everybody advised me not to leave the train station in darkness. Varanasi better be worth it………….

At the break of dawn I took a rickshaw, of course got ripped off, but made it to a cheap but nice backpackers hostel with great rooftop view. Besides being a the biggest Hindu hot spot on the Ganges river Varanasi has another speciality. The entire stretch along the river is cut off from traffic by the old town with tiny roads hardly wide enough for bikes and cows. This results in quietness, as all the horning stays out. A joy only a India traveller understands. The entire day I would walk along the river capturing the religious habits, taking the must do boat ride and participating at the evening ceremony. My hostel was based about 100m from the burning Ghat (gate) which you see here……

Yes, Varanasi is a special place, a spiritual place, yes, you will be touched by what you see, hear, smell and experience here. So what is it all about and why does it let me loose my religion? I wish I could believe in something helping to fight my fear of death but all observation of religion has let me down so far. Just lately the shoe Buddha thing and now it was time for Hinduism. The Ganges is holy, so is the city of Varanasi, here both comes together and that’s where people want to die. Everyone who has the chance or the money to make it here before dying will do so. Once passed away they are carried to the river, washed and then burned on an open fire. The oldest son shaves his head and takes 5 circles around the fire. After an hour he takes a stick and hits the head of the burning body so that also the since here can leave. The ash is then put into the river.  So far so good, here comes the issue.

In the past, the widow of a death man, was pushed into the fire as well during the funeral as no one had the means to take care of her anymore. Remember, from her wedding age 14 or younger she was not allowed to learn or work anything. So what is the solution nowadays to prevent such killing? The wifes are not allowed at the funerals of their husbands. Excuse me.

Depending on the wallet of people they are burned on expensive or cheap wood and the no haves go through electric burning. The whole process is very ritual and big fights have occurred on tourist taking pictures but hey, if you pay, no problem……………………

Not everyone gets burned. Children under 10, pregnant women and sadhus are free of sins. So what happens to them? They get thrown into the river just like that. Yes, on that one photo, that is a death person floating in the river. The other photo is “only” a cow.

So you can imagine how dirty that water is, 3000 times the allowed pollution for German rivers for example. Nevertheless, people bath in it, wash their clothes and use it for cooking and so on. Talking of short live expectancies. Where is the informing, the education by the government or hindu sadhus, who by the way collect tax of the wood and burning ceremony. The hostel posts everywhere that they wash guest’s clothes in a machine. Good to know. All the cows living within the house, among the streets and the nice cigarette advertisement just rounds it up.

Having complained so much it must be said that of course I have no issue with religion. I also have made wonderful experiences with it, for example United Methodist Church in Michigan is like a family or all my encounters with Islam have been positive but I can not accept how leading people in religion adopt modern methods and knowledge when it is to their advantage and how they don’t if it is not, for example if it would cost money.

The last morning in Varanasi gave me my mist fog sunrise I asked for. It was fantastic. The 2 Italian girls I walked around with where fun, playing Frisbee with the locals, showing me the more relaxed side along the river. Then I went on to Kolkata, the city where people rickshaws are still big. I visited the Victoria memorial, some cemeteries, enjoyed street food but mainly shopped for a present for David and Deborah. I was on my way back to Singapore, getting ready for Christmas in style………………..

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1 Comment

  • gabor says:

    What happend, REM headlines and no corner in sight?
    Just waiting for the spot light and your orange crush?

    Next time you have to be more creative! Because, “Cannot” lives in the “will not” street, you know.

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