Sundarbans – day 75

Pretty much passed out on the night bus only to be woken up at 3.30am by the inconsiderate assholes in the bunk next to us who decided that it would be a good time to begin singing and shouting. Jayne asked them nicely to be quiet – which had no success as they started singing in her face. It was at this point, and the first time in India, that I totally lost it!! I threw open our curtain and shouted ‘Oh. My. Go. Shut. Up!’. Clearly I haven’t lost my teacher tone because the 18 years olds were absolutely silent for the rest of the bus journey. In fact, when it was time to get off the bud, they stayed hidden behind their curtain util we had gotten off the bus… Felt a bit guilty at this point but Jayne told me to stop worrying! Collected our bags from the hold and then started walking towards the tour agency to go on our jungle tour. As the bus got in at 6am, we were ridiculously early for our tour – nothing was open! Sat outside the tour office drinking chai and eating biscuits. Day 75 aDay 75 bThe neighbours of the tour company came out and tried to wake the guys sleeping in the shop with no success. Tried to explain that we were early but, once again, my lack of Hindi hindered me!! The shop opened at 8am and once all the other guests arrived, we jumped into a minibus with a sandwich for breakfast and began our 3-hour journey to the mangrove forest. The bus was drive by someone so nuts that the guide noticed Jayne wincing every 2 minutes so he made him pull over and they swapped seats. A significantly slower drive after that, listening to a random mix of music including Afro Man’s ‘because I got high’, which I haven’t heard in about 10 years. I also hadn’t heard one of the verse before – clearly England had censored it – but listening to tow Indian guys sing sexually explicit lyrics to a bus full of tourists was quite something! Arrived in a port and took a local ferry across the river with a boat hand scooping out water from the bottom of the boat as we crossed…Day 75 cArrived (somehow!) on the other side of the river and jumped into a different type of TukTuk which had no seats, just a flat bit to sit on. 30 minutes of holding on tightly to the vehicle, our belongings and each other, we took another local ferry to get us the rest of the way to the Eco village. Day 75 dArrived and had an amazing lunch of vegetable curry and more of it than we’d normally eat in a whole day! Went for a walk around the local village, watching them cut the rice crops in the field and then strip the rice from the sheaths using a foot operated machine. Jayne had a go and managed to jam it within 10 seconds!Day 75 eContinued walking around the village until we reached a dock where we boarded a rather uncomfortable paddle boat. Took a tow hour trip around the nearby mangrove forest, where the flowing tide brought us further into the mangroves, looking out for wildlife. I’m sure it was just my imagination but I kept seeing flashes of orange amongst the trees! Really enjoyed the peace and quiet of the jungle with the lapping of the waves.Day 75 fCame back to the Eco village and ate some vegetable pakora whilst listening to some local folk music. The one string instrument was interesting and when the guy played it, his hand move so fats it was blurry! Had dinner (again eating way too much!!) and then played a few rounds of UNO before going to be and passing out by 9.30pm, listening to crickets and other jungle noises.

Monday 21st December 2015

Bhubaneswar – day 74

Woke up without setting an alarm although Jayne woke up to the sound of the TV in the room next door… At 5.20am! A very stressful morning trying to re-juggle our bags ready for our mangrove jungle safari tour was made worse by a phone call from reception at 11am saying we should have checked our at 7am and if we didn’t leave immediately, they would charge us for a second night. Managed to get us 30 extra minutes to have a quick shower and throw everything into a least one of our suitcases before going downstairs to check out. Had a brief ‘chat’ with the hotel manager and, I’m ashamed to say that as I am now a ‘genius’ client on booking.com (which says on the app that I’m allowed early check in and later check out), I used the line ‘I get this because of who I am!’. The manager looked suitably shocked, as if I was a celebrity, and began to apologise profusely. He looked less impressed when we continued our bag reshuffle in reception!! Decided to head out to the nearby zoo as we had both had our fill of temples recently. Managed to negotiate a deal with the first TukTuk we found and drove 16km out of the city. The Nandankanan Zoological Park is enriched with 101 enclosures. The very name of “Nandankanan”, in mythology, delineates the ecstatic but imaginary beauty of the celestial garden. Certainly, they use terminology of the same ilk on their website and brochures. It’s worth looking up their ‘About Us’ page for the successful breeding stories and firsts among this zoo and gardens.Day 74 aWe saw Himalayan bears, white tigers, lions, Indian rhinos, hippopotamus and leopards. The enclosures were incredibly spacious although some did make me feel a bit worried about the ability to keep the animals inside! The only sad enclosure was the elephants, who had an amazingly large jungle like enclosure but the three of them were tied up in a shelter near the middle. They were being fed at the time so I’m hoping that it was so they wouldn’t steal each other’s food but who knows! Carried on walking about the zoo, looking for food as we went but the restaurant and snack shop had sold out! Day 74 bTried to get into the nocturnal house but it was closed as there was no lights (seems a bit of an oxymoron, closing a nocturnal enclosure because there’s no light!)…? Finished up at the small aquarium which had wrongly labelled fish tanks which Jayne tried to explain to our TukTuk driver with little success. Left the zoo about 20 minutes before it was due to close although there were still people coming in.Day 74 cGot the TukTuk driver to stop at a road side snack place and got us all something to eat – think he was more hungry than we were, based on what he ate, but the total price for 3 of us came to 50p!! Got dropped off at the main bus station and we searched for a nice place to wait whilst we waited for our bus. Found by chance the ladies waiting room and, as we went in, an older Indian lady came over to me and said ‘ladies!!”. At which point, I pointed to my breasts and said ‘I am a lady!’. The woman was beside herself – clearly was the funniest thing she had heard and seen ever! She then spent 5 minutes trying to talk to us in Hindi before asking me to say ‘have a nice day’ – to which she roared with laughter! After she left, we pulled out the UNO cards and started shuffling. The whole waiting room was intrigued and, by our second game, we had about 20 girls and women watching us. Tried to get some to play but they kept refusing until we dealt out a third hand of cards and just waited. One woman joined us and then they were all keen to help her! She played for 2 games before another girl joined in and suddenly 2 hours flew by! We even taught her how to shuffle cards. Had quite a large audience for most of our game, including men who weren’t allowed in the waiting room but watched us from the door. We were asked where we were going to and when we asked her to show us on a map where she was headed, she really struggled to find it. Really regretted having to leave to get something to eat before our bus. Day 74 dAte a mixed vegetable dinner and then climbed into our ‘double’ bunk to chill out before getting some rest on our way back to Kolkata.

Sunday 20th December 2015

Konark – day 73

Having stripped off our thermals like ungraceful ninjas mid way through the bus journey, in the dark and without removing our other clothes, we both got a restless nights sleep on the reclining chairs. the bus was much icier and I think we’d both built ourselves up for it to be a horrible journey so our bodies weren’t in sleep mode!! Arrived in Bhubaneswar at 6.15am and tried to negotiate a TukTuk. Managed to flag one down at a reasonable price once we’d walked out of the bus station. Arrived at the hotel and they let us check-in early. A quick shower and clothes change before heading out to find breakfast. Stopped at first at a supermarket to purchase some more of our jelly fruit sweets before going to the railway cafe. The guy serving us practically drooled as he took our order and then had to come upstairs to tell us our samosas weren’t available. Took him ages to come back with our refund – Jayne and I had bets on whether he was looking for a clean enough bank note to write his phone number on for us! Managed to flag down a bus to take us to Puri although it stopped at a bus stand about 20 metres up the road… Clearly being white and female has its advantages at times! Took about an hour to get to Puri and when we arrived the TukTuk drivers were actually running down the road after the bus. Thought it was going to be hideous but they actually didn’t bother with us after the initial refusal. Managed to find our way to the next bus stand to take us to Konark – a slightly smaller and more crowded bus – I was kind of wishing we’d taken the original TukTuk’s ridiculously overpriced offer to drive us there! Arrived in Konark, followed the horded of people down the roads lined with souvenir stalls and went into another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Day 73 aThe Sun Temple was constructed in the mid-13th century by Orissan King Narashimhadev. Believed to be built to celebrate his military victory over Muslims, the temple was used for only about three centuries. In the late 16th century, Mughals removed the copper over cupola; causing the partial collapse of the 40m-high spire, and subsequent cyclones have added to the overall damage. The India archaeological team are clearly trying to fight a sadly losing battle in restoring it – the massive Sun Temple was unfortunately covered in scaffolding – and in most places, they’ve replaced the crumbling sculptured stonework with plain bricks to keep the building intact. Day 73 bIt didn’t take away from the magnitude of the building though and we spent a good couple of hours wandering around and admiring the sculptures that remain. The entire temple represents the cosmic chariot of the sun god, Surya. There are seven horses (to represent the days of the week) pulling the stone building on 24 stone cartwheels (which represent the hours of the day). Day 73 cThe temple was positioned so that dawn light would illuminate the interior. the entrance is guarded by two stone lions crushing elephants and the staircase leads up to a dancing hall which is intricately carved with stone sculpture. Around the base and the walls of the Sun Temple are stone sculptures depicting that chronicles of Kalinga life; there were women cooking, men hunting and an assortment of erotic statues too. Slightly cruder that the erotic sculptures in Khajuraho, there are more entwined couples in various poses and quite a few solitary exhibitionists too! The Indian sculpture makers also clearly had a very positive opinion of themselves… All of the male genitalia was very generous in size!! After we finished at the Sun Temple, we headed back to the street corner where we had gotten off the bis, hoping to get a direct one back to Bhubaneswar. The bus stop was also the TukTuk stop so we had our usual offers of transport, one evening offering to drive us the entire 70km back. It turned into good banter with the ‘resident’ TulTul drivers as more TukTuks pulled up to offer us lifts – they even began waving them away for us as they slowed down! We managed to flag down the direct bus and settled down to a rather uncomfortable 2.5 hours bus journey, especially as we were both now a bit hungry and tried (a.k.a. hangry!!). Stayed on the bus until we reached the bus stand and got our return sleeper bus tickets to Kolkata for tomorrow night. Got a TukTuk back into town to get some dinner and headed to bed.

Saturday 19th December 2015

Kolkata – day 72

Got up early as we promised the hotel manager we’d check out earlier for him as he had a school group turning up. Heard the rowdy bunch of students turn up just as we were packing up our stuff and got free chai tea from the manager as a thank you! Stored our bags in the luggage room and started our mini walking tour of the city. Went first to Mother Teresa’s hour. Went inside but we were outside of visiting hours so we didn’t linger. Read about the aims of the mission and made plans to visit again when we come back to Kolkata. Stopped to get the best eggy bread we’ve ever had – quite literally an onion and chilli omelette smushed and cooked into a cut up bread roll.Headed back to the tourist section of the city to book our three day trip to the Sunderbans – a mangrove forest and tiger reserve. Went inside and sat with one of the owners brother. While we waited for his brother to turn up, he showed up Indian comedy on YouTube. Even with subtitles, it wasn’t particularly funny but this guy thought it was hilarious and kept rewinding it cause we didn’t laugh! Turns out, it is his favorite comedian and he watches that episode repeatedly! Booked the tour and, as Jayne and the owner chatted about Irish schooling (the owner had attended the first Irish school in Kolkata), the brother checked all of our money looking at us as if we were master bank note forgers!! Left the shop in the direction of the Indian museum but seeing the cost of it and realising that neither of us actually knew what was inside, we decided to skip it and head to the Victoria Memorial instead. Walked through a playing field where there was at least 5 games of crickets going on and some people flying kites (although none of them were as high as the ones we spied in Varanasi!). Started off by walking around the gardens and found a nice bench to enjoy the view.
 As we went inside, we got waved past the bag search (I guess they don’t think tourists are a terrorist treat) and were inside looking at the mis-mash of exhibits. the first section was photos of the building being built with some portrait photos of the key people involved. the next section was 2015 paper painting which had no explanation to them exception that they had been painted recently. We then went into the main dome which had a collection of 400-year old weapons and Queen Victoria’s grand piano. We then climbed up the spiral staircase to the top section of the dome to look at the murals (oil canvas inlaid into the marble stonework) showing the main event of the Queens life. The final tow sections were a collection of oil paintings and an exhibit about the history of Kolkata. The paintings seemed to be a random mix of donated artwork and the history exhibit had more writing than anything else. The only section that caught our eyes were the postage stamps and the first telegraph wires to be installed in India. Left the museum and went for a walk around the ground, sitting for a while by one of the water tank lakes and watching the mist/smog descend on the city. Went over to St. Paul’s Cathedral where there was a nativity scene in the grounds. Went into the church separately as you weren’t allowed in with bags and we didn’t want to leave our bags with passports, electronics etc. outside.      Jayne went in first while I looked at the Indian nativity scene and then we swapped over. The church was deceptively big on the inside – with three main sections and a beautiful stained glass window mural on the back wall. Went through the back streets to the metro and went three stops up town back to the main tourist area. Walked past the Oberoi hotel, decided to see if they were serving Christmas dinner and check whether they’d accept day guests. As we went in, we were asked by several different people whether we wanted to check in… I wish!! The restaurant manager seemed delighted that we wanted to dine with them and booked us in for 1pm on Christmas Day. Went to Domino’s for dinner and we were both craving comfort food – Jayne ordered a pizza that had cheese in the middle of the base.
 It was amazing but so filling. Really had to force the last slice in!! Went back to the hotel to collect our bags and put on our thermal tops, leggings and socks ready for another night bus. Flagged down a taxi to drop us off at the bus stand and found our bus… Quite literally a palace compared to the other night! All the windows were in place and it actually looked like it was serviced recently! We had reclining seats rather than a bed and we were slowly cooking in our thermals… Until they put the AC on!!

Friday 18th December 2015

Kolkata – day 71

Would love to say we slept well… But we didn’t! Would like to say we slept… But we didn’t! Would like to say that we both have all ten toes attached to our feet… But it is possible that one or many might be lost in the next few days to frostbite!! Woke up repeatedly during the night due to the cold, or excessive horning, or snoring and snorts from the bed next to us. After a couple more toilet breaks, the last thing I remember is Jayne saying we’d done half of the journey and me silently wanting to kill her!! Woke to the sound of Hindi music blaring out from our neighbours phone at 5.30am and my desire to kill someone intensified!! After 12 hours on the bus, we arrived at the bus stand as we were told (both of us were pleasantly surprised). Got off the bus and received both our backpacks from the hold (again – we were both pleasantly surprised!!). Got the usual taxi calls and, when I told him we were crossing the road to get to the main bus station, he said ‘so, taxi?’. Almost wanted to give him the fare for making me laugh! Used the relatively clean toilet before booking our bus tickets to Bhubaneswar for tomorrow. Decided since it was early and we both needed to stretch our legs that we’d walk the 3km to our hotel. Walking through the parks and streets, Kolkata reminded me very much of Mumbai. Got to our hotel with ease, thanks to Jayne’s navigation skills, and after they gave us free chai & biscuits and let us use the Internet to book upcoming accommodation and flights to Goa on 26th December. Felt a bit disgruntled that they cost the same as our flights to the Maldives, until I realised that they were double the distance!! The hotel then let us check in early – think he felt bad for not having put us on the booking list – so we headed upstairs for a very hot shower before going back into town. Wanted to try and find a cinema that would have the new Star Wars film (which is released here on Christmas Day) so that I could pre book tickets for Jayne. Unfortunately, all the cinemas within walking distance of the hotel only show Hindi films. A quick supermarket shop to buy some new underwear for me (as mine don’t fit anymore…) and get a snack lunch. The shop was playing Christmas songs – I hadn’t realised how much I missed them! Spent time wandering around the shop, listening to them!!Having both really enjoyed ‘Shaandaar’ we decided to spend the afternoon at the cinema watching the new Hindi film ‘Tamasha’. Not as easy to understand as Shaandaar but could have also been because we were both practically asleep at some point during the film – it was a love story with an ‘on again, off again’ theme. Too little dance numbers for my liking! Came out of the cinema and went into the restaurant next door for some hot dinner and some amazing milkshakes – the Oreo one was incredible!!  

Went investigating at some travel agencies for trips to Sunderbans Mangrove forests and tiger reserves. Found a three day tour which we can do just before Christmas and add some volunteering days onto the end. Sorted it out with the hotel to make sure that we definitely had accommodation on Christmas Eve / Day. Watched ‘The Hunger Games’, had dinner of chocolate cakes & Fanta and took it easy for the rest of the evening.  

  Thursday 17th December 2015

Bodhgaya & Travelling – day 70

Had made the right decision to stay another night – we were both clearly more tired than we thought. Jayne woke before me and stayed in bed playing games until I decided to rejoin the land of the living!! Took our time packing up our stuff and getting ready, using the hotel wifi before the hotel owner turned it off again. As Jayne headed off to get our overnight bus tickets to Kolkata, I did a supermarket run getting snacks for tonight and a surprise for Jayne for Christmas. Having not achieved what we wanted last night and this morning using the wifi, we decided to kill some time before getting our bus in the local Internet cafe. Located at the back of a deep dark cellar, it seemed like we were walking to our impending doom… A little more successful with our list of jobs than when using the wifi but still had lots of issues with booking buses, trains and flights for the next few weeks. Decided to call it a day and try again when we had better wifi connection (hopefully in Kolkata). Went to the Tibetan temple, which was the only one we had missed and then headed to a little tent restaurant nearby for a late lunch / early dinner. Stuffed ourselves with vegetable fried rice, chowmein, spring rolls, momos and ‘creespy chilly chicken honey’, washed down with 2 cups of hot honey, ginger and lemon tea.  

Went back to the hotel to collect our bags and then went to our travel agents hut and waited for our bus to arrive. About 30 minutes before it was due to leave, a man beckoned us into a TukTuk to drive us to the actual departure point. The bus is… Strange! Blinged up at the front with neon lights and has seats on the lower deck and beds on the upper deck. We have a 2-person (thin people.. Very thin!!) bed on this bus – I’m telling myself it is like the Knight Bus in Harry Potter – held together by what can only be magic but, I’m presuming, a hell of a lot less comfortable!! Gave our bags to the conductor to put in the stow, hopefully to be seen again but who knows?!? We then climbed into our bed to find one of our windows was missing and replaced with a piece of plywood. Deciding 12 hours was going to be hard enough without a natural ventilation system, we managed, after much negotiating and waiting, to organise a bunk change. We settled into the journey, Jayne much more at ease with being tossed around on a bunk bed than me!!!  

Read our books for a bit whilst we settled into the rhythm of the bus before negotiating a pee stop in the middle of a field in the pitch black. Back on the ice block (a.k.a bed), we watched ‘Jurassic World’ on the netbook and then tried to settle down to get some sleep. Jayne won the argument about sleeping next to the drafty window whilst I got the aisle (protected by a little strip of metal). Managed to get some rest whilst listening to the man snore very loudly opposite us. I had to get the bus to pull over by the side of the road to go to the toilet again in the middle of the night – the cold air was playing havoc on my bladder!! Back to bed for a very uncomfortable night…

Wednesday 16th December 2015

Bodhgaya – day 69

Decided that after yesterday, neither of us could face a 12 hour bus journey to Kolkata so we decided to stay an extra day in Bodhgaya. Didn’t set alarm clocks and only woke up when the other guests in the hotel decided that it was late enough to make significant amounts of noise!! Got up, dressed and, still being in a bit of a grumpy mood, headed to the nearby 7eleven shop to buy Oreo biscuits and mango juice for breakfast. Continued walking around town, going to all the temples and monasteries that we didn’t make it to yesterday. Jayne made me stop back at a Tibetan market stall where I had seen a silver ring yesterday that I liked. Think the seller took a liking to Jayne as she chatted to her for about 20 minutes whilst I ‘entertained’ myself by looking at shiny things! Jayne bought me the ring which is engraved with the 6 words from the Buddhist manta in sanskrit – Om, Ma, Ni, Pad me, Hum. As we walked further away from the main square, the temples got quieter and quieter until we were the only ones there. Each temple was surprisingly similar but different to each other. 

 The thing we both found refreshing was the amount of colour used to decorate the inside and outside. Having been exposed to mostly stone and brick over the past few weeks our eyes were feasting hungrily on the wall murals and ceiling hangings! In fact, we sat down in one temple just so we could spend time admiring the ceiling without hurting our necks or feeling dizzy. Our favourite temple was the Terger Temple. Floor to ceiling murals and 3D decorated alcoves filled the huge main temple room. 

 Along the wall was the story of Buddha – from the queen having a dream, to the prince being born, his education as a child, when he ran away from the palace, his severe penance and finally to his enlightenment. Whilst the story of Buddha has been displayed, in some way, in every temple, it was particularly beautiful in this one. There was a sign saying no photos, which we respected, so unfortunately we don’t have any photos to put on the blog, but it was stunning! Slowly made our way back into town (revisiting the Vietnamese temple in the daylight), going down back streets watching the locals living lives away from tourists. 

We stumbled across the Korean temple and headed in – Jayne got a bit distracted by a couple of bee eater birds near the entrance but the temple was clearly not very well visited based on the upkeep of the grounds. Headed back to the hotel to grab jumpers and scarves before returning to the Thai restaurant to order exactly the same meal as yesterday!! Went back to the hotel to Skype Mags and Tom before using the poor wifi connection to do some planning for Kolkata and onwards.

Tuesday 15th December 2015

Bodhgaya – day 68

Despite not sleeping properly for the second night in a row, we set the alarm and headed out early to visit ‘the holiest place on earth’ – the Mahabodhi temple. Fortunately it is, quite literally, across the road from our hotel so we handed in our mobiles and walked in. The temple is situated at the place where, 2600 years ago, Prince Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment beneath a bodhi tree and became Buddha. The original Mahabodhi temple is believed to have been built by Emperor Ashoka about 250 years after Buddha’s enlightenment. A newer temple was built there 800 years later but was destroyed by 11-century Muslim invaders. The present temple was restored in 1883 but there is still part of a stone railing surrounding the temple which is the only ancient remains on the site.  The bodhi tree is still there although legend says that the original tree was destroyed by Emperor Ashoka’s angry wife who was jealous of her husbands attention towards it. Fortunately, their daughter took a sapling to Sri Lanka, where the tree still grows. A cutting from that tree was then brought back to Bodhgaya and planted in the same place where the original stood, alongside a red sandstone slab that marks the spot of Buddha’s enlightenment (known as the Vajrasan or Diamond Throne).  

The temple complex itself was really nice. There was a sea of maroon and yellow robes in every direction as Buddhist monks from around the world came to pray and meditate.  

We spent a long time wandering around the outside of the temple, trying to find all the seven different places where Buddha spent his weeks after his enlightenment. Jayne got chatting to an elderly Buddhist monk who declared his undying love for her because she was tall and strong. We then queued up to enter the main temple which is when our day unfortunately took a slightly darker turn. As we waited to see the Buddha statue inside and listened to the monks chanting, I noticed the Indian security guard putting things into his pockets. He then stood opposite us, emptied his pockets of the Buddhist food offerings and put them in his bag (either to take home or to resell to the shop). Feeling appalled that someone would steal from a temple alter, we decided to head round the back of the temple to the bodhi tree. As we sat contemplating what we just witnessed, a leaf from the tree fell to the ground. The Buddhists scrambled after it like bridesmaids after the bouquet at a wedding!! I don’t think either of us realised how important this tree was/is to Buddhism. We then saw an Indian man climb up the railings and start picking leaves off the tree. He was told to get down by the security guard but the man climbed up again as soon as the security guard turned his back. Totally despairing for humanity at this point, I felt a bit teary so we decided to leave and walk to the 25 metre tall statue of Buddha. 

Unveiled by the Dalai Lama in 1989, the statue is located in a small garden and is surrounded by 10 smaller statues of Buddha’s disciples. We then visited some of the numerous monasteries and temples that are dotted around the town which have been constructed by various countries. The Bhutan one was so beautiful and detailed compared to the plain simple construction of the Japanese temple next door.  
It was fascinating to see how each country has put its own spin on Buddhist temples and you can definitely see the influences from each country and culture. Managed to get into the Vietnamese temple before it closed and got to watch them ringing the bell – headed back to the hotel to grab our fleeces before going to a Thai restaurant for dinner. Stuffed ourselves with pad Thai noodles, green Thai curry and papaya salad – which was a much needed change of cuisine! 

Monday 14th December 2015

Travelling – day 67

Uneventful, yet painful. That would the only way you could describe today’s bus journey.  Although the seats on the bus weren’t broken, the owner was clearly inspired by cheap flight airlines and the rows of seats were really close together. We had to swap places half way through the journey as the pain in my knee caps had become unbearable. We both had bruises that evening to prove it. 

But, back to the beginning. The aforementioned 7am bus didn’t actually leave until 07:30. There must be a dozen ways you could explain half past an hour in any language, but clearly that’s wishful thinking… ahem! So, arriving at 06:15, we were cold from having packed our fleeces away and we were optimistic that the sun would be out to greet us on our final day in Varanasi. Alas, we were wrong.   The sun finally put its hat on, and the other passengers began to stir enough that we stopped long enough for people to get out and stretch. For Katherine, that meant a personal escort from the Indian equivalent of the ‘Cheshire Cat x Phileas Fogg’ to the hospital  where he made the security guards open the building so she could use the toilet. The same gentleman, whom was a rather pleasant soul, decided that I should be escorted to the toilets at the main bus depot. A lovable rogue who then worried we weren’t eating so starting offering us Guava and encouraged us to join him for dinner at the side of the highway. We were politely discharged from the bus on the main road, 2.5km away from Bodh Gaya. What should have been an easy 4hr trip turned in to 8.5hrs on the road, plus the 1hr15min seating around that morning. We’ve had worse journeys, don’t get me wrong. Certainly we’ve also had worse company than previous excursions. But, when you’ve not slept properly in days, been run down from tummy upsets and were expecting a quick, easy trip, those extra four hours are a killer.   Thus, bags on, haggling mufflers on (i.e. Ignore the TukTuk drivers) and march to what the banners and signs describe as the most sacred place on Earth. Oh, but someone did spot some psychedelic trousers that we had to go back for after dinner.   Found the guest house with comparatively little problems (folks, don’t trust maps for where they say the hotel should be, this has been our third sting). Ventured out to see the 80ft Buddha statue by night and found a restaurant that serves Momos – those Tibetan dumplings that we first discovered in McLeod Ganj. Hot showers and ready for a day of temples tomorrow. 

Sunday 13th December 2015

Varanasi – day 66

Suitably informed that we would be able to get the 7am bus to Bodh Gaya, and not have to take the 11pm night bus, we had another full day in Varanasi to explore. 
We started (or at least planned to start) at Kashi Viswanath Temple. Also called the Golden Temple due to the 800kg of gold plating on the tower and dome, it is one of the most famous Hindu temples and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is one of the 12 Jyotirlingas, the holiest of Shiva temples, while Varanasi itself is the holiest existing place of Hindus. Thus, we took only our passports and joined the throng queueing for the alley to the temple. For some reason, which we can’t explain properly, we weren’t allowed in to the temple – having checked our passports, and being questioned if we were of Hindu religion – while other tourists and foreigners were. The thought was there and we tried. 
We decided to treat ourselves to a mega breakfast, having enough money secreted about our persons to pay the bill. A buffet wasn’t laid out, but still provided and it seemed that course after course kept being brought up. Cereals, fruits, juice, tea, basket of bread, spreads, eggs, sausage, potatoes. And then a cheese platter. If I fell down the stairs, I know that Katherine wouldn’t have worried as I would have rolled and bounced, maybe she would have taken a picture???
The German couple from the night before happened to arrive at the same restaurant and were happier with their new lodging. Hot water and vermon free sounded appealing. We returned to the guest house, suitably disgruntled that they had escaped the sounds and tribulations of the family next door, who, even while sleeping still managed to sound like a set of road works chugging away or a dog chewing a bone. Plus, they had taken all the hot water. From having sat for over an hour next to a burning ghat, one can imagine how desperate we were for a good scrub before venturing out in the city. 
We walked down to the nearest ghat and turned right. The river was blissfully devoid of the boats and engines, and the views up and down the river of the forts and palaces gave a real sense of how the city would have looked thousands of years ago. The coxswains didn’t miss any opportunity and were trying to push their boat trips for the next day, when they would be allowed back on the river after the prime ministers visit.   
Scurrying up the banks, through a portion of the city, back down to the ghats, we looked back on the area cordoned off for the ceremonial visit and were impressed with the sheer numbers of army and police… All standing around doing nothing. We continued our promenade down the river, enjoying the kids sliding down the steep, bricked-up banks, teenagers playing both cricket and a form of sticks, and every age group (capable of standing upright) flying kites. The sky was a swirl of colour and activity, with some groups on the far side of the river and the occasional sneaky rowing boat, getting higher without the kite battles interfering in their personal ambitions. I think they’re missing a trick by not having the string looped in to a fishing rod, but no spool would ever hold the amount of line some of these guys were using.   
The burning ghat we came across on this leg of the journey was not as impressive. In fact it was probably harder to witness or pass by. Without the cover of darkness and the enveloping colour of the flames, everything was much more visible. With it being a less popular area, the question was, where were the families or were there just ‘workers’ and priests. 
It was while taking a moment at a set of steps, listening to a priest give an astrology reading to an unsuspecting Australian girl, we saw the same French lady we bumped in to in Chandigarh. Her daughter had now joined her for three weeks and it was an intense half hour of French conversation, where I understood less than half of it and agreed with 90% of it with my “Bien Sûr” and “Non Non Non”. Varanasi seems to be the place to bump in to people, and certainly is the place to come for a chat and mingling, if you were still enthusiastic and up for such ventures.
We struggled to get back home, with those less than useless police blocking off all the roads and not having any crossing points. It was a case of just looking confident and crossing. No sound of guns, no sounds of shouts, I think the tourists clearly making their way home are harmless. Our respite on the roof was perturbed by two other guests smoking something dubious and feeding the monkeys. The one monkey clutching her dead baby pulled at the heart strings from what was already an emotionally tiring day.   
Saturday 12th of December 2015.