28. This is the Real India. Madurai-Chennai-Varanasi

One afternoon in Madurai and a lot to do. Finding accommodation, doing the laundry and going to Decathlon to buy new shoes for Callum (some smart ass stole the old ones in Goa). After Goa and Kerala it was weird to come back again to the “real” India where tourists aren’t very common. Staring again, I got used to it. It took a while to get to the outskirts (why do they always build Decathlon so far away?) but we still had some time to visit famous Meenakshi Amman temple. I really don’t get these ridiculous Indian rules of not allowing cameras and other electronics in tourist places. Do I look like a terrorist? Anyway, after getting rid of all prohibited things we entered a complex of 6 temples that were definitely worth a hussle. All covered with colourful Vishnu and Shiva carvings made a huge impression and the interior had a really spiritual atmosphere. It was one of the best temples I’ve ever been to. And it was free. We didn’t have time to see anything else but I’m sure the rest of the city is worth seeing as well. As our room didn’t encourage to stay there for long we quickly fell asleep ready for our morning train to Chennai, the next stop before Varanasi.

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Meenakshi temple in Madurai

I’ve never heard about Chennai until I found out that the old name was actually Madras. All right, that rings the bell. Although Wikipedia praised this place as one of the most important tourist destinations (praised a bit too much…) the reality was totally different. If you feel like a celebrity in Jaipur there you will feel like a star. Lots of poverty and no tourists whatsoever. The first thing we noticed after a short walk around the city was the smell. The river that flows directly to the sea was a mixture of rubbish, pollution and faecal. I’ve never seen dirtier water in my life. And what is even worse, the poorest people live right on its shore. Very sad. We had a lunch in one of the local restaurants where we got a delicious thali on banana leave. They’ve probably never had any tourist there so we were treated like kings. Madurai didn’t have much to offer besides Jumbo circus so we went to the beach where all “tourism” was concentrated. Passing the Madras University and beautiful MGR Memorial we got to the coast passing 1 km of the sand and rubbish. I wouldn’t put a foot in this water but couple of daredevils swam in the sea while the rest of the crowd was watching them. Well, I hope next day they didn’t wake up with a third arm. This place could be so beautiful if people cared a little about the environment. But no one gives a shit and it will surely take long to change the Indian mentality…

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Polluted Cooum river in Chennai

As all the hotels in the area were full we were offered a room of lodge’s owner on the roof of the building. 1 bed but for Rs 200 (£2) it was worth it. The owner was really strange though, I think he had his own imaginary world. After we asked him for a key Callum found him watching a TV in a living room. Later, after he offered us a beer and we paid him I found him dowstairs surprised that I wanted something from him. After I came back upstairs upset in 5 minutes he showed up (8 pm) with his poor translator saying to vacate the rooom.That was a way too much for me. I shut the door in front of his face and prayed for a good night sleep. In the end when Callum went downstairs again the man announced there was no problem at all. Complete freak. Fortunately the rest of the night was quiet so in the morning we were ready to get our 36 hour train to Varanasi. That was a long 36 hours.

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Nooo, it’s not spicy at all… 😉

And here we are, Varanasi, home of the holy river Ganges and also the biggest cemetery in the world. Of course the train was late so in the end the journey took 39 hours. At least we travelled in 3 ac class where you can sleep comfortably without someone sitting on your face. I had lots of time to write my blog so I could be finally up-to-date. Callum found a great host who invited us to Yoga Training Centre where he was teaching. Pure, kind, Australian soul and a really great yoga teacher. In our mini-hostel we met a nice French guy Nicolas totally devoted to yoga and Buddhism, a funny couple from Spain and 2 guys from South America. In such environment we were forced to speak Spanish and it definitely worked out well for us. We got on so well that we hung around with our Spanish gang for most of our stay there.

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One of the narrow streets in Varanasi

The first day we spent on visiting the ghats around Ganges. The most interesting one was Manikarnika where bodies are being burnt 24/7. It looked spooky. Fire and ash everywhere, bodies being delivered every hour and “gold diggers” looking for treausure in the ash. Hinduism is probably the craziest and the most mysterious religion for me and understanding it is beyond my ability. Without doubt, it’s one of the most beautiful religions though. Every little thing has a meaning here and the whole city just blooms with colors. But there’s one little thing. I love the idea of cremating bodies in the river but bathing in it after it’s a little much for me. Most of the Hindus don’t seem to mind it though, bathing and washing clothes in the ashes of their ancestors. As we learned, the dead bodies of holy men, kids and cobra bite victims are thrown directly to the river so as you can imagine, from time to time you can see floating baby somewhere in the water. Insane. Varanasi, although very crowded and covered with holy cowshits, is one of the most amazing cities I’ve seen in my life. The spider’s web of old, barely walkable alleys has an incredible mystic atmosphere that makes you feel the long history of this city.

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Bathing time

Second day was dedicated to shopping. With a help of our crazy Argentino friend Alf we bought everything we wanted after hours of bargaining. We practiced yoga every day with Adam and Sunil, sweet but chaotic owner of the Centre. Both professionals, gave us lots of tips and inspiration for yoga while Nicolas infected us his passion for massage and reiki healing. Jose mexicano showed us a bakery which became the favourite place of our morning chats. Benjamin, the French Baker just opened his business but as it wasn’t registered yet he worked at home selling pastry to the black market. Power of his charm and smell of his delicious “chocolatiers” attracted already many people though. And we were definitely his best clients. The third day, although planned as productive, ended in a flat of Emilia, Argentinian girl who lived in India for years. Together with our Spanish team we cooked delicious tortilla de patatas after that we went to see the evening ceremony by the river that gathered people all around the world. The music, lights and the atmosphere literally makes you go back in time when the river was the main source of life of the city. Besides so many centuries and thousands of tourist the time stopped here so when you open your eyes and focus you can see the faces of the people with pure hearts, joy and happiness who are truly grateful to their gods for whatever they have. India is just amazing. It’s definitely a school of life and patience but only here you can learn how to appreciate it.

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Manikarnika (burning) ghat

The last morning together with the guys we took a boat at 6.30 in order to see the sunrise. Although the city was slowly waking up, the holy fire, that lightened the graves for centuries in Manikarnika ghat, was glowing in the distance. Sunrise was spectacular, unveiling the deserty side of the river. After saying goodbye to our monsieur Ben we enjoyed our last lassi with Adam and promised to visit him in his home in Australia. Our last day was the Valentine’s Day and even if it wasn’t very romantic we found some time for a short walk by Ganges river. We were happy to hear that Jose and Patricia, the Spanish couple, will probably travel to the north-eastern Asia like us so saying goodbye to Varanasi wasn’t as difficult. We got to the station at 9 pm ready to head to Darjeeling, Indian Railways surprised us though. Our train was 14 h late.

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Morning at Ananda Bakery 🙂
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