FREE BIRD T.V.: Episode 7 (On the Banks of the Ganges)

Considered India’s holiest Hindu site, the Ganges River provides water for over 420 million people. They cook, bathe, pray, and wash away their sins with it, thousands wading into its slow-moving current from the ghats of Varanasi each dawn. (Never mind the 200 million litres of sewage dumped there every day.)

The Ganga, as it’s known in Hindi, is sacred. So sacred that Hindus believe the scattering of their cremated ashes into the river will grant them moksha – liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. The daily cremation count at the Varanasi burning ghats hovers around 300, with an endless cloud of smoke rising above the woodstacks.

We took two boat rides on the Ganges–one in the early morning and one after dark. Despite spotting the floating carcasses of a cow, a pig, and two dogs, we were captivated watching the men, women, pilgrims, children, and sadhus relish in the daily rituals practiced on these banks for thousands of years.

Seeing Varanasi

Bodies burning on beds of fire lit at the edge of the Ganga, people bathing drinking praying washing, beating dirt from their clothes on wet stones, drying the clothes on sun-hot stairs, and women with newly-shaved heads and naked arms and anxious eyes shouting into the golden doors of shrines guarded by unsmiling uniformed men holding long guns in the heat and cows, cows in every sliver-thin alley, swallowing plastic bags and banana peels, and a man with fingerless stumps on the ends of two arms leaning on the wall, next to a silk seller sipping chai in a pillow-floored shop unravelling scarves, and is that a dead monkey sprawled sideways on the street? (String of holy flowers strung around its neck?)  Packs of men carry bodies cloaked in orange cloth (always orange) on wooden stretchers, bodies of their mother or brother or sister or son, lifting them high above the rickshaws and cigarettes, the spicy fried potato stalls and honking motorcycles, the tourists and goats and barefoot fly-swarmed kids, above the constant throb to the river where bells are ringing on the ghats, and pilgrims are singing and candles glow like rubies on the water and a hundred rowboats are moored and the Brahmin priests are spinning circles of fire, the massage men and the boys selling stamps, and the holy bearded man with red holy powder is smiling, rubbing dye into your damp forehead, incense smoke blooming up into the night heat as silver bowls shake along a staircase, their tin skins begging for rupees to fall for the old and the hungry and the waiting.

*Click on an image to view gallery in full-size

Homes Away From Home

In Darjeeling, our room’s charm ended at the bathroom

It’s been 88 days since Joe and I closed the door to my studio apartment in Busan, South Korea and boarded a train to Seoul, where we slept in the first of a long list of hotels, guesthouses, train bunks, huts and faux double beds. (In India, a double usually means two single beds pushed together with a deceptively smooth sheet spread across the top, hiding the soon-to-be-discovered crack down the middle.)

Temporary homes, these shelters provide the illusion of belonging. Kick off your flip flops, hang your sarong on a wall hook, unpack your toothbrush near the sink, and in minutes a few square feet of space can be claimed as your own.

On Nusa Lembongan, a small island off the coast of Bali where we stayed eight days, we woke each morning to roosters crowing from the yard next door. The day was still dark, coconut palms hidden behind the pink curtains pulled across our windows. Our ceiling fan rotated in a slow spin: any faster and it would emit a persistent, noisy squeak. Rooms–like dogs and people–have their own distinct personalities.

Our Lembongan home cost 100,000 Rupias a night–the equivalent of 10 bucks, or four large Bintangs, Indonesia’s local beer. Double doors opened to a small terrace furnished with two wooden chairs and two wooden tables. Through the garden’s trees, I could glimpse the Badung Straight and hear its waters rolling onto shore. Beside the bed, white paint peeled, showing patches of cement wall beneath it and in the bathroom, a blue rubber hose rested on the floor, connected to a cold-water tap we used for rinsing salt water and sand and sweat.

Since leaving Busan, we’ve slept in 29 rooms, not counting the nine sleeper trains, one overnight bus, two desert cots, and an airport bench. We’ve taken to photographing these spaces as soon as we arrive, before our presence becomes evident–what we refer to as “exploding.”

A few shots are snapped and then familiar objects begin the occupation: backpacks are unzipped and chargers plugged in; the laptop cord snakes over a hard or soft or smooth or sagging mattress; our guidebook rests on a wall shelf; my yoga mat is unrolled; maps and coins and tickets and sunscreen and bug spray and malaria pills and sticks of incense we bought somewhere in West Bengal mingle in piles on bedside tables; our shared blue towel “we really need to handwash that” is draped, still damp, over another bathroom door.

Sometimes we’re alone in these homes away from home, but usually we share the space with other, indigenous residents. A week ago while brushing my teeth I noticed a small brown squiggle exploring the ceramic base of the sink. “Worm!” I said, pointing. (We’ve started speaking to each other in the one-word style of broken English.) “Centipede,” Joe said, collecting it on the scarf we bought in Jaisalmer and holding it toward me. “Look, it curls into a little spiral.”

Our first night on Lembongan, something large and heavy pounced on the rooftop as we were falling asleep. The sound prompted me to quickly shut the bathroom door–I’d noticed, after checking in, that its ceiling had eroded to create an opening large enough for an island creature to inhabit.  If the pouncing belonged to a monkey, surely it would find the hole, jump through it, and attack us in the night. Despite Joe circling the hut’s perimeter, flashlight in hand, we couldn’t find the animal, or any clues to what it was. But a few days later a local man suggested a possible suspect: “Here,” he said, referring to the surrounding land and flapping his arms, “Big bats.”

Almost all of our roomates go unharmed.  The large black beetles invading my soapdish in Gokarna were trapped, then freed from the confines of our hut (only to reappear hours later).  Giant bathroom spiders in our Agra dive remained on the wall (we closed our eyes while showering and pretended they weren’t there). Ants have been carried outdoors inside Joe’s palm, and the gekkos in Hampi rested undisturbed next to a painting of village women wading in the river.

Last week’s wall lizard–our biggest inhabitant so far (spotted seconds after a large and unknown species of insect was gently removed from our night table)–surprised us when it appeared behind the window curtain, but after a couple quick photos (taken at a distance), we left it in peace.

Only mosquitoes meet their final moment among us. The winged demons like Joe’s blood; he likes keeping it more.

Some of our shelters have provided opportunities to practice the art of awareness. In Khajuraho, sharp metal peeling off the corner of the door beckoned my toes to tread carefully, while the industrial staples holding the window frame in place encouraged Joe to look elsewhere for a makeshift incense holder.

In Varanasi–our most cramped room of the trip–the swiftly spinning ceiling fan whacked my wrist and left it bruised, reminding me to look up before standing on beds. (And to avoid eating bhang cookies late at night.) And in Kolkata, the door frame Joe smashed his head on while trying to get a closer look at the lighting storm outside urged him to proceed with caution on dark, unfamiliar balconies. (The lesson was emphasized again the next day, when the market barber cutting Joe’s hair suddenly decided to give him an Indian-style head massage, aggravating the injury with a series of karate-chop hand thumps.)

And bathrooms! What a tool of surprise and discovery. Will it have a toilet? A sink? Or will I open a suspicious-looking metal door, only to reveal a stained squatter in the corner of a cold cement floor (as in Darjeeling)? If it does have a toilet, will it flush? Or will a rusty tap be jutting out of the wall three inches above the floor, next to a small plastic bucket with a handle–meant for flushing both the toilet and the bum that’s using it? (As in Gokarna. And Nusa Pennida. And Lembar. And Gili Air.)

If there is a sink, will it drain the water that’s splashed into it? Or will bits of soap float among the mini-pool that’s created each time we wash our hands? (Pushkar, Ubud.) Oh, water–cleansing, purifying body-nourisher. Will it burst from the tap in a long, straight, skin-blasting surge? (Gili Trawangan.) Or will the gentle-looking pinholes of a showerhead deceive, only to surprise me when the water spurts every direction but down? (Udaipur.) And heat–I think our water had that once, somewhere in Rajasthan. And after a 16-hour train ride from Varanasi, a check-in staff member at the hotel in Siliguri taunted me with the promise of a hot shower, but despite our turning the tank on and jiggling the taps several times, the water jolted from the faucet in an ice-cold, calculating stream.

Toilet paper? That exists in shops. Or in my bag, if I remember to stock it. Not in bathrooms.

Now, 13 weeks into our trip, we’ve developed a ritual for finding accomodation in a new town/city/island. After consulting our guidebook or asking a local the general direction of budget places, we scope out several spots, comparing prices and room styles. Along the way, we usually come across both ends of the spectrum: dingier than we’re hoping for and way beyond our budget. Though a lot of the places we’ve stayed in have been on the lower end of low to mid-range, it’s off season in India and Indonesia, and we’ve been able to barter our way into a few gems.

“How much for one night?” we asked the woman at Sasak Bungalows on Gili Meno last week.

“150,000,” she said. ($15 U.S.)

“Ah, a little too expensive for our budget,” Joe said. “We stay two nights. Can we pay “120,000?”

Pause. Nod.

“120 okay?” Nod again.

“Including breakfast?” I said. She agreed–and we moved into a beautiful wooden bungalow built only two years ago.

It had a big, comfortable bed with a white sheet and a patterned throw blanket folded at the end. At the top of the bed two pillows with white pillowcases and one of those long tube-shaped decorator cushions leaned perfectly against the wooden headboard. In the front, a small terrace with two wooden chairs and a small wooden table faced a path lined with newly-planted trees. Connected to the back by a wooden door was a huge outdoor bathroom with stone-covered steps, a sink that rose from a long wooden counter (a counter!), and a basket full of coral. The toilet had a flush, and was divided from the shower by a wall.

After we moved in, I took a long cool rinse under the stars. (The weather’s too hot for hot water anyway.) Only after digging out the roll of toilet paper I’d been packing around since Nusa Pennida did I notice it: a silver metal holder, attached to the wall beside the toilet. With toilet paper already there.

Luxury found!


*Click on a photo to check out the gallery of some of the spots we’ve stayed.


FREE BIRD T.V.: Episode 5 (Rajasthan~Land of the Kings)

Here it is–our newest India-inspired video!  Joe and I combed through, trimmed, deleted, re-trimmed, arranged and re-arranged an hour and a half of footage to create this 5+ minute montage of our Rajasthan experience.

Hope you enjoy glimpsing the Land of the Kings–we LOVED our adventure there.

Riding the Sleeper Car

Joe walking on the train platform in Sawai Madophur

The first time I experienced claustrophobia was in Northern Laos, in a cave, on my belly, covered in dirt, wriggling through a tunnel so tight both my arms scraped the sides and my head brushed the top.  It was 1999.  My best friend crawled inches ahead, following two young local boys who eventually guided us to an opening on the other side.  As the tunnel grew smaller, my panic grew stronger, quickening the pace of my heart and amplifying the voice in my head, which said, over and over, I want out of here.

The second time I experienced claustrophobia was four weeks ago, on a sleeper train in Rajasthan.

I had the top bunk, which in India, is the best bunk to get, because it allows about six inches of extra space between your head and the ceiling when you’re lying down.  If you’re careful, you can even sit up, sort of, without knocking yourself out on one of the fans attached to the ceiling.  Sleeping in the middle or bottom bunks means you’re staring up at the bed above you, sandwiched between it and the vinyl mattress, with no room to rise.  Once you’re down, you’re down.

Joe lay on the bunk across from me.  Below us: two men in the middle, two men on the bottom.  On the other side of the aisle, a man lay on the top bunk, another on the lower.   Eight bodies sharing a space the size of a walk-in closet.  Toes stuck out the ends, brushing the shoulders of passengers squeezing by.  Metal bars covered the windows, and a cage-like barrier separated my bunk from the next compartment.

My friend Ashley, who travelled here last year, calls this mode of transport the Prison Train, but it’s actually not that bad.  I was pretty comfortable up top, tucked inside my sleeping bag, head resting on a rolled-up blanket, my canvas bag and flip flops wedged between my body and the wall.   Most passengers had quieted down by the time I was ready to drift off, leaving me to listen in peace to the sound of the wheels turning on the track. We were leaving Sawai Madophur, where we’d seen, earlier that day, a wild tiger in Ranthambhore National Park.  And we were headed for Agra to visit the Taj Mahal.  Bordered by these kinds of experiences, a night in a sleeper car was nothing to mind, even if I did fall asleep to the scent of sweaty feet.

Around 1 a.m., shouting woke me: distant, but loud.  Then louder, and fast.  Chanting, whistling, clapping, yelling.  I turned to my side and tried to fall back asleep, but the noise drew closer and more frenetic.  Lights turned on.  I sat up as Joe said, “What’s going on?” and we leaned on the edge of our bunks, watching the aisle fill with bodies.

People entered the train from every direction, pushing past each other, yelling, and climbing onto bunks already inhabited by passengers.  Bags and boxes and shoes were stuffed in the cracks of space that remained below the bottom rows.  Fists banged on the train from outside, the emergency windows were opened, and more bodies crawled through, passing clothes and babies to people on the inside, who then pulled the others in, tugging on their arms as they leaned across bunks and wriggled onto the sleeper car.

Hindi pop music blared from cell phones.  Another chant began: one verse shouted by a man or boy, then repeated by several voices as though the train was a stadium in the midst of a match.  Mothers and grandmothers and barefoot men settled onto the dirty floor, knees to noses, babies tucked into saris, elbows touching thighs, feet touching feet.  Children clambered onto mattresses, leaning against the legs of strangers, shouting and laughing to each other.  Passengers who had been sleeping were forced to sit up, suddenly sharing their bunk with two or three or even four of these new, presumably ticketless people.  No train staff were in sight; no one appeared to be in charge.

Of course I had to go to the bathroom.  (A small bladder is the traveller’s nemesis.)  Joe and I were still sitting upright on the edge of our bunks, watching the throng of people in disbelief, attempting to guard our territory from encroachment.  Where had they come from, and why were they  bombarding our train? I peered to the left, which was the direction of the chanting: bodies, still moving, still clamouring for space, the bathroom door blocked completely by the crowd.  To the right, more bodies, the floor invisible, the aisle a carpet of people.  It was around this time that I noticed my heartbeat speeding up, my mind absorbing the notion that navigating this mob to relieve myself may prove impossible.  Fire, too, entered the imagination–how would we escape?  And surely there were more stops ahead–would people continue to board?  My heart was really pounding now, a panic seeping in.  I took a couple slow breaths.  My bed felt suddenly very small, the threat of someone overtaking it imminent.

Agra was still five hours away; waiting wasn’t an option.  “I’m gonna go for it,” I told Joe, slipping on my flip flops and grabbing a wad of toilet paper from my bag.  I grabbed the metal bar attached to my bed and placed one foot on the edge of the bottom bunk.  Faces looked up as I scanned below for a spot to place my other foot.  Most of the lights had been turned off again, the people transformed to shadowy shapes.  A woman caught my eye and pointed: a crevice beside her, big enough for toes.  I stepped into it, cradling my other foot in my hands and pivoting it around to avoid kicking anyone in the head.

The bathroom was about 15 metres away.  Slowly I drew closer, the path both blocked and guided by people, fingers pointing to openings, hands touching heads to signal my presence.  The crowd on this side had begun to quiet down; chants still erupted from behind.  I continued in the dark, one foot in front, the next to the side, dodging body parts, finding room where there was none.  If I could make it to the bathroom, then I could make it through the rest of the ride.

Space, India has taught me, is a luxury.  Between the train cars, in front of the bathroom door, people sat crammed together on the filthy floor, side by side, foreheads resting on their knees, bags tucked beneath their thighs, riding through the night.  As I approached, they stared, then leaned sideways to make room.  I closed the stall door behind me and crouched down above the metal squatter.  Relief.  Back on my bunk, heart beating at a regular pace, I lay beneath the ceiling of rusted fans, grateful.  Alone on these beds, Joe and I had more space than anyone else on the sleeper car.

Despite the children shouting in the compartment next to mine, and the music blasting from a man’s cell phone on the bunk below them, and the urgent banging of fists against the train’s windows at our next stop, and the chants that continued to burst from the end of the car, and the intermittent lights switching on then off then on again, I managed to fall asleep.  A broken, dreamless sleep, that carried me out of the train and into that darkened space we drift to in our minds.

So when I woke, some time later, to see a man sitting on the edge of my bed, I jerked upright, unsure if he was real.

He was real.

Joe, too, had woken, and was asking the man to get down.  He just sat up straighter, securing the blanket around his shoulders and waving his hand in a loose gesture that seemed to insist his presence wouldn’t bother me.

“This is my bed,” I said, but my voice was faint, the protest brief.  Could I really kick him off, considering all the space on the train that others had given up?  His hands were folded into his lap, his back leaned against the wall–he was taking no more room than necessary.  If I curled my legs a little to the side, our bodies didn’t even touch.

I sighed and laid my head back down, closing my eyes to the sight of whirring fans.  We stayed that way for the rest of the trip, my toes beside his knees, riding silently until light began to filter in through the windows and the noise of the children in the compartment next to me grew too loud to ignore.  I sat up, exhausted.

“Good morning,” the man said, nodding at me.  I stared back in surprise.  To my Western mind, the greeting seemed ridiculous: a stranger had stolen part of my bunk in the night, and now he was tossing me a casual hello?

But this wasn’t the West.

We were pulling into Agra now, the train slowing on its tracks, dirt-streaked windows revealing a landscape of garbage and buildings and miles of people.  I looked at the man, orange blanket wrapped around his shoulders, orange cloth tied around his waist, residing on a square foot of space at the end of my bed.

Our bed.

“Good morning,” I said.


*Click on a photo to view gallery in full size

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