We are in India’s polluted, chaotic capital city of Delhi to do some shopping before we head to England. But before we get to our story, we’ll share two photos that didn’t make it into the last post. Back in Varanasi we had two special visitors come to our guest house window. The windows were tinted to block the mid-day sun, so birds got a really clear view of their own reflection and seemed to enjoy sitting in front of the window chatting away to themselves. Usually it was pigeons. But one day a special visitor arrived… A bright green parakeet.
And this little guy used our window sill to watch for food offerings….
On to today’s post:
Sarnath was the last stop on our pilgrimage to the Buddha sites of Northern India. We spent five days there, across from the Deer Park where the Buddha delivered his very first teaching following his own enlightenment.
Of all the historic sites we’ve visited on this tour, we thought Sarnath the best. We felt there’s definitely something special about this quiet and peaceful place.
When the Buddha achieved his enlightenment he decided to share his insight with others. The first people he sought out were the five companions with whom he had spent so much time practicing physical austerities (see previous post) in the hills above Bodhgaya. They had retreated to the Deer Park near Varanasi to continue their practice after he had left them to meditate alone under the bodhi tree.
The Deer Park in Sarnath was a protected forest for animals and for those seeking a spiritual path. It had long been a special place for serious meditation, even before the Buddha. It is a very special place for Buddhists, obviously, given that the Buddha spent much time meditating and teaching here. But is also a very holy place for Jains who have worshipped here for many, many centuries.
Maybe this place was different for us because it’s one of the very few places we saw monks and nuns practicing meditation in the park for much of the time. It was also a much quieter place than the other sites, with a lot fewer tourists. The best thing about Sarnath is that most tourists don’t stay here. They just bus in for a couple of hours, visit the temples and the Deer Park, then head back to Varanasi. So mornings and evenings were quiet and peaceful.
We also found people here exceptionally honest. Which is saying something in India. On our first day in town, we went to a shop to buy some water and snacks. The cost was 127 rupees. Scott handed the shop keeper 130 rupees and said, “It’s ok,” meaning, don’t worry about finding the three rupees change. We’ve been here long enough to know that most of the time you never get change if it’s less than five rupees. India is a strange place where most things cost little requiring payment in small bills, but small bills (five-, ten-, twenty-rupee notes) are really hard to come by. And shop keepers rarely scruple about stiffing you three or four rupees in change. What to do? But this time the shopkeeper looked at Scott blankly and said, “Why would I keep it? This is not my money. It is your money.” And he handed him the three rupees. Nice.
Another time, we visited a fantastic little bakery called Hope Arts. It’s a non-profit that trains and employs widows from the surrounding villages. Widowed women don’t fair very well in India. Many end up beggars. Hope Arts also provides housing for around twenty widows. They do great work. We had come at the end of the day, and the security guard there was sitting with another woman. They welcomed us, but neither spoke English. After much searching a young boy came running from somewhere to help us with our order. We bought cookies and cinnamon rolls for 90 rupees and left to make our way back to our guest house. About 5 minutes later we were walking down the rural back roads that led us here (Hope Arts is about a 30-minute walk from Sarnath) when we heard someone shouting, “Uncle! Uncle!” (a polite term of respect used to address older men). We turned around and the boy from the bakery ran up to us and handed Scott a twenty rupee note. “Uncle, I charged you too much money. The cookies were thirty rupees, not fifty.” We couldn’t believe it. Scott tried to hand the note back to him, saying, “it’s ok. You didn’t have to run all this way. You keep it.” But he shook his head violently and said, “No!” Then turned and ran away.
So there are lots of reasons we liked Sarnath the best. But most of all, it was our time at Jain Paying Guest House that really made our stay here special. It is a very clean and simple place with a few neat rooms in the home of Dr. Jain and his family.
His wife is delightful and cooks the cleanest, freshest food we’ve had in India.
Dr. Jain is also the founder of several village schools that provide free education for children from the surrounding villages (most are very, very poor). The organization especially encourages girls to attend school. This is very important in a country where girls are too often left out of the public education system, such as it is. He started the first school classes in the mid-1990s with about 40 or so children attending. Today there are around 1500 children in the area getting education provided by the organization. It’s quite amazing. This is one of the only non-profit organizations we’ve encountered that really appears to make a difference in the community it serves. We were lucky to be invited to attend a ceremony that the children from the schools participate in every year to honour the students from the schools that have died in the past year. Sadly, there are many. It was a very interesting event. We enjoyed it so much. And despite the sad events that the ceremony marks, there were hundreds of smiling and happy little faces that made it impossible not to smile.
Regrettably, our five-day respite in Sarnath came to an end, as everything must, and it was time to return to Varanasi, to the train station and our over-night Indian rail journey to Delhi, India’s smelly capital.
This will be our first and only train ride in India. So we went all out and booked 1 AC tickets, which is first class. Not many trains in India have first class bogies (as train cars in India are called), so we were lucky that the Shiv Ganga Express is one such train. We had pre-booked with a local agency for car to pick us up at Dr. Jain’s at 5:00 PM and take us to the Varansi train station. Five PM came and went. No car. Traffic between Sarnath and Varanasi can be nasty, so it’s important to leave enough time to get to the station. Our train was departing at 7:15 PM, so to get there by 6:00 or so, we had to leave by 5:00. When it go to be 5:20 Scott hauled out the phone and called the agency owner, whose name and mobile number we had from our other (much better) agency in Mumbai. Mr. Nitin answered after a long while and a few tries, thankfully. Scott re-introduced himself. Then reminded him of the deal we made. All the while, of course, half our mind was problem-solving what to do when the agency failed. Mr. Nitin said, “Oh my god. Mr. Scott…. Actually, I have missed this completely. My apologies. Let me call you back in five minutes.” Okay. Scott hung up and then dialed the mobile for Mr. Nitin’s assistant who had done the actual booking, Jitesh. He told Scott, “I want first to assure you everything will be satisfactory.” Then he hung up. Okay, that was weird. Scott dialed Mr. Nitin at 5:35 (15 minutes later). Busy. 5:40. Busy. 5:45. Busy… Now we started to worry just a little. Dr. Jain and his wife were very worried. Scott tried again. This time Mr. Nitin answered and told us a car was on the way and gave us the license number.
At five minutes to 6, a car pulled up. The driver reeked of alcohol, but we had to just throw our bags in the boot and jump in. Our train awaited. The driver might have been totally wasted. But it’s hard to tell in India. Everyone drives all over the road, swerving, honking, braking suddenly after stomping on the gas and passing in the opposite lane. It was a wild thirty-minute ride. But he dropped us right where Dr. Jain told him to, at the back of the station to avoid crowds and hassle. It was perfect advice. We got out grabbed our packs and made our way up the stairs to the overpass and into the station. We were supposed to meet Jitesh at the front entrance, but decided to let that go and try to make our train ourselves rather than waste time looking for a guy who may or may not be there. But India always keeps you guessing and never fails to surprise. When you think you’ve been screwed, often you haven’t. Jitesh ran into us coming the opposite way. He was looking frantically for us. After a few minutes our train pulled up and he led us on to the platform and helped us find our car, H1A. Which was right in the middle of the longest train we’ve ever seen. It must hold thousands of passengers. You couldn’t see the engine or the end of it, it just went on and on in both directions. Amazing.
Turns out we were lucky enough to get our own coupe, a private cabin for just the two of us with two beds and a sliding door that locks. Still, despite the best possible accommodation, neither of us slept very well. We were glad to arrive in Delhi early in the morning to wash up and take rest in our hotel.
Before we left the Varanasi station, we were given very specific instructions from the hotel in Delhi as to where we were to go at the Delhi station to meet our pick-up who would be holding a card with Scott’s name. It took us a while to find the right spot. Our train was scheduled to arrive at 8:40, but arrived around 10 minutes late. Not bad, really. Still, there we were waiting at the special spot — the Baroda Bank ATM on the right as you leave the main exit from Platform 1. No one was there to meet us. No guy holding a name card. Just a hundred taxi drivers vying for attention. After 15 minutes we called the hotel. The woman who answered the phone asked our name, and then said she would send a car to pick us up. Good thing we had a cell phone. But so much for the special instructions. No matter how you arrive in Delhi, by train, bus or plane, the city hits you full in the face. It’s India writ large. Very large. Chaos, smells, garbage, dust and smog, unbelievable crowds and noise. We just waited patiently, taking it all in. It was really great that we had arrived in the morning and not at in the middle of the night. So it felt pretty tame. Finally, the hotel guy arrived walking up to us with his sign. We got in the car and off we went to the Ajanta hotel.
The hotel is lovely. The service isn’t so great. But we have a very clear objective for our stay in Delhi and that is to pick up warm clothes for England and buy a few souvenirs. Mission accomplished.
Here is a video of early morning sunrise and the sounds of the city coming awake, from the rooftop of our hotel in Delhi. There is a special message for someone in this video…. 🙂 Karen is pretty sleepy. This is BEFORE her morning coffee.
Tomorrow we are taking a one day tour of some of the main sites in Delhi. And then on October 15th we fly to England to sit our 30-day course.
For those of you that that have been following us on our journey since we started in July 2011, you know that we will not be available for the next month. See our previous post England: 30 days in Hereford for more information about what we are doing in England.
Our course ends on Nov 17th and we will return emails then.
If you need to reach us, we will have email until we leave for the UK.