Saturday, January 31, 2015

Christmas on the Ganges

I arrived in Varanasi on Christmas Day, my second stop on a two-week adventure organized just for me by India Someday.  After spending a bit of time in New Delhi, I was ready to see the REAL India.  New Delhi just felt like a big city in Asia.

Well, if India was what I was looking for, India is what I got.  From the moment my taxi left the airport parking lot, I was on sensory overload.  You know when you picture India in your mind, or you see a B-roll clip in a movie?  That’s just what Varanasi was like for me.

In the taxi ride from the airport to my hostel, I saw a dog chasing a pig, cows sleeping in the intersections of ridiculously busy roads, goats in coats (yes!), and a little girl shitting on the roadside.  I was in love.

Varanasi traffic
Look at the napping cow!

As soon as I walked in the gate at Stops Hostel, I was recruited to join the evening Ghats Tour.  I dropped my bags and grabbed my camera, and we set off on a walking tour of Varanasi that lead us down to the Ganges River.

Our tour guide helped us into a boat, and we pushed off into the ‘The Ganga.’  The guide was full of information, and I was soon leaning forward away from any possible splash from the river, as I learned about all the dead bodies floating around in there.  Unlike the East River in New York, where bodies are dumped in hopes of never being found again, the Ganges is a sacred river that is believed to secure salvation for cremated ashes released into its waters.  

The Ganges at dusk

Hindus also believe that a dip in the Ganga will purify them from sin.  That’s why you see men swimming in the river, even though right upstream they are tossing in dead bodies.

We saw a cremation ritual happening along the banks and watched a Puja prayer ceremony at sundown.  I learned that certain dead bodies, such as pregnant women, young children, and people with leprosy, are not cremated.  These bodies are tied to a rock and sunk down to the bottom to reach salvation.  Floating along in our boat, with all those bodies below, I was very careful when I placed my ceremonial candle down into the water to float away in offering.  Unfortunately my depth perception at night has deteriorated and my fingers plunged beneath the surface of the Ganges straight up to the first knuckle.  I may have leprosy, but now I’m holy.

The beautiful ghats of Varanasi

The next morning, I took a stroll through the back alleys of Varanasi, taking in the colors, the people, the smells, the sounds, the cows.

Morning in Varanasi


Varanasi Life

Back down by the banks of the Ganges, there are more than 5km of ghats to walk along.  Ghats are the big sets of stairs leading down to the river from the town on top of the banks.  I spent a couple hours enjoying the holy river and all the life happening on the ghats.

Kedar Ghat

Boats on the Ganges

Ghat games

Ghats of Varanasi

Life on the Ganges
Notice the men bathing in the river (the guy
in pink is about to do a backflip into the water)

Laundry day on the Ganges
The clothes are washed and rinsed in the river.

Ghat life

I loved watching these brothers flying their kite in the wind. 
Fresh one

At the far end of town, there is one special ghat that does very holy cremations.  Only men are allowed to watch the cremations because women used to throw themselves on the fires in grief.  Tourists are allowed to do some gawking, at a respectable distance.  I had a look, and it was an experience I will never forget.  I saw actual dead people being burned in a fire right in front of me.  They use a mix of sandalwood and other fragrant woods, so the smell is not like you would expect.  It’s the visual that really did me in.  As I stood looking at a group of men tending to one fire, I noticed one man using a stick to poke at the fire.  After a few jabs, I realized he was shoving the dead man’s foot back into the blaze.  Then the glass was shattered, and all I could see was limbs and blackened heads sticking out of the fires, being licked by the flames.  I moved on quickly.

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering deeper into the alleys and back streets, buying souvenirs, and eating some of the most delicious food I’ve ever had.


These alleys wound all around in a dizzying maze.

Pomegranate banana lassi from Blue Lassi

Kite shop
I bought a few!

Feast! (paid about 2 dollars!)

And to top it off, I took a rickshaw back to the hostel.  The poor guy had to keep getting off this bicycle to get a running start in all the crazy traffic.

I thought rush hour in Saigon was bad....

Varanasi was amazing and made for the most bizarre but wonderful Christmas I’ve had in a while!  (And I’ve spent Christmas lounging outside in hot springs and eating vegan food on a mountain...)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Cliff Dives and Sexy Slides: Canyoning in Dalat

Recently I took a trip to Dalat for a weekend away with the girls.  After the shortest flight in history, a mere 25 minutes from take off to touch down, we landed in Dalat for a weekend out of the city.  Our goal was to get some fresh air and see what all the fuss was about for this little city in the Central Highlands.  We got that and more when we signed up for a canyoning trek with Viet Challenge.

Now, I’m all for new experiences, but the thought of rappelling down waterfalls and jumping off canyon cliffs wasn’t my idea of a relaxing weekend away.  Deep down, I’m a wimp.  But Lisa, Lou, and Trina wouldn’t hear it.  So we geared up, wrangled ourselves into our harnesses, strapped on helmets, and set off into the woods with our guides, Duan and Roy.

Trina, me, Lisa, and Lou
Locked and loaded!

Our first abseil was down an 18m cliff.  I was terrified, which I tried to keep under wraps.  But after seeing a couple of the girls take that step backwards off the edge, jump and rappel down the rocks, and land safely at the bottom unscathed, I took a deep breath and grabbed the ropes.  After the initial nerves wore off and we took the plunge, we were all hooked!  The adrenaline was pumping, and we were ready for more...

Eeeeeek, so high!!

Next up was an “easy” jump from a 3m cliff into what looked like very shallow water.  I won’t point fingers, but some of the group backed out of the jump -- it seemed like you would surely smash your skull on the rocks as soon as you hit the water!  (We didn’t die!)

From here, the day got more and more exciting.  We did a few water slides down some shallow falls, which were equal parts terrifying and exhilarating.  We had to lie on our backs, tuck one arm behind our heads to protect our necks from snapping, and use the other hand to plug our noses so we didn’t inhale water and drown.  Fun!

Lou prays that she kept her insurance coverage current

Over the next several hours, we hiked along the canyon, waded across rivers, rappelled down ever-more-frightening waterfalls, jumped from higher-than-sanity-should-allow cliffs, and barreled down slippery water slides.  We even got to share some intimate moments together during a “sexy water slide” which challenged my personal space limits.  If you want to know what is involved in the sexy water slide, I’m going to make you travel to Dalat and find out for yourself.  It’s just too intimate for me to describe here on Samantha in Saigon.

Lisa climbs out of the canyon

Human chain across the river

Riding the waves

We jumped from the platform above that guy!!
11m -- what were we thinking??

Just abseiling down a 25m waterfall.
No big deal.

Wading through the water because the rocks are too slippery

Trina rappels down into unseeable depths in the Washing Machine waterfall

The canyoning trek was incredible, and I can’t say enough about our guides, Duan and Roy.  We had such a blast doing things we never thought we could and laughing possibly more than four grown women should.

But I do have share one truly ghastly thing that happened:

I lost a sock in the notorious 16m Washing Machine abseil!

They call it the Washing Machine because you spin around in the water so much,
you come out clean on the other side!

Sock down! Sock down!