Run the equator: March 2008

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Of ruins, tuk-tuks and Lonely Planet books

An unforgettable first impression
Click photo to see slideshow
or here for all Angkor pictures

Cambodia - the cradle of the powerful Khmer empire in the old days - is a land that has gone through tormented recent times. It slumbered under a brief colonial French rule whose legacy can still be visible today; it achieved independence and survived the Indochina wars almost unscathed; it got its share of civil war between a corrupt western-backed government and ruthless, single-minded communist guerillas and wound up subjected to a horrifying social experiment performed by the genocidal Khmer Rouge. Yet the Cambodians still smile as they go through their days. Lately, after a period of turmoil following the return to monarchy and democracy (for lack of another word to describe the local medley of bickering political parties, military coups, and foreign influence) and the demise of the last Khmer Rouge guerillas, Cambodia’s wounds began to heal slowly. And what could spell “normalcy” better than a steady influx of western tourists and sustained hotel development? In fact, hotel building seems to be at an all-time high those days in Siem Reap, the provincial town used as a base to visit Angkor Wat - possibly the most famous ruin in Asia.

An afternoon in Siem Reap
Siem Reap still has a frontier-town air about it, with its charming old French quarter (now housing cafes, restaurants, bars and internet access points), with its cheap street-side food stalls and its lazy green river flowing peacefully to join the Mekong. The outskirts, however, have already begun to look like a fake resort town. The streets that radiate from the center toward the airport and the Angkor archaeological area are lined with vast luxury compounds boasting exquisite cuisine, flashy discos and relaxing piano-lounges. Their facades are bathed in mood-lighting at night; the lawns are perfectly manicured and the uniformed staff bows to open the doors when you arrive. Many of those new hotels weren’t even finished when we visited, but there is collective hope that the future will see interest in Angkor grow worldwide, which will materialize into a steady influx of package tours to fill the many new, expensive rooms. Understandably, the backpackers still prefer the cheaper guesthouses in town, within walking distance to Molly Malone's Irish Pub.

Mr. Meth, my driver for the day,
watches as his tire is being fixed

There are many ways to get to the Angkor ruins. You can take an organized tour – if you like to spend your day herded from site to site in an air-conditioned minibus, with a bunch of other clueless tourists, listening to a guide who will probably give you less historical information than your Lonely Planet book; you can rent a bike and pedal your lungs out in the searing heat that descends over the Cambodian plain by 9AM; or you can hire a tuk-tuk driver for the day and visit the sites of your choice at your own pace. Cambodian tuk-tuks are similar to rickshaws, but unlike those, they are built by attaching a two-wheeler passenger cart, seating up to four, to a regular motorbike. In my opinion, the extra comfort of a car is not worth the price increase over a tuk-tuk.

Reflection of Angkor Wat

A day-pass for the ruins will set you back $20 (or $40 for the 3-day pass) and you’ll count another $10 or $12 for the driver per day, sunrise to sundown. The three-day pass is the best option. You can’t see everything in one day; the heat will likely send you back to town early, in search of a cool corner and a chilled beer. Angkor Wat and The Bayon may be the most famous and well-preserved of the ancient Khmer temples and they will take a good chunk of your time, but in fact there are enough interesting ruins at Angkor to fill three days of slow-paced exploration, allowing for plenty of down-time to while away the unbearable afternoons. Climbing the worn-out stone stairs, following dirt paths through holy courtyards abandoned to the ruinous vegetation, jumping over giant crumbled masonry blocks brought back memories of our visits to the Mayan cities in Yucatan, almost a year ago. It was the same feeling, the same guilty pleasure of being a dumbfounded spectator to the silent show of broken, wasted glory from a bygone age.

Practically stoned

Cambodia doesn’t bother much with the money exchange business; as weak as the dollar is now, it is still the de-facto currency here. Unlike Ecuador - another dollar-based economy - Cambodians have their own money, the riel, but it seems to be mostly used for giving change under a dollar. Almost all prices are quoted in US$: hotel rooms, restaurants, tickets, groceries, museums. If you happen to have riel you can use those interchangeably, at a fixed rate of 4000 to the dollar. ATMs dispense dollars and traveler’s checks are redeemed in the same currency. Tourists are happy to see their buck going a long way – one dollar will get you a plate of fried rice or noodles on the street and most purchases are negotiable. Children try to sell you water and “cold-ish” drinks as soon as you get out of your tuk-tuk and are about to set off eagerly for the ruins, and after you come out, tired and worn out, heading back to your driver. And if you really don’t need another bottle of water beside the two that you’re already carrying in your backpack, you surely need some books, don’t you?

Old Buddha, new head

Maybe you want a guide for Angkor Wat, with nice aerial pictures and in-depth historical explanations? No thank you… Maybe you need a Lonely Planet guide for Cambodia, Vietnam or Laos for only 2 dollars? No, thanks… wait! Only two dollars for the most recent Lonely Planet edition!? How is that possible? You take the book in your hand and slowly flip through a few pages. Yes, it’s indeed the last edition and it definitely looks brand new, not a used copy abandoned by a tourist. But there’s something wrong about it, something you can’t identify immediately. It just doesn’t feel like a Lonely Planet book, it doesn’t fit and bend in your hand the same way. And then you suddenly realize – it’s a knockoff copy! Yes, even the photos are printed on glossy paper, but they are less shiny and the colors are rather dull and sometimes off the mark. The photocopied black-and-white text looks just a bit flawed, the maps show grainy bits of grey where the original pattern was too delicate. Some pages are a bit faded, where the toner had started to run out; they are not aligned properly so you can’t see the black markers that delimit the chapters when you look at the book sideways… still, for only two dollars… I have serious objections to buying illegally-copied intellectual property, but if I were traveling in Cambodia, desperately needing a guide book for my next destination I might chop off some of that moral integrity by way of reasoning that my purchase helps the local community...

The real thing
But we had already bought our genuine Laos LP guide in India, so there was no need to commit a moral crime… Later we realized that it’s not just Lonely Planet guide books that come fresh from the Cambodian printing presses; all the action, mystery and romance bestsellers that tourists usually read on vacation (including the dreadful Davinci Code) were lying on book stands wrapped in plastic, neatly photocopied from the original editions and bound into seemingly-genuine soft covers. On closer inspection they may look just a bit too cheap, but they would do the job just like the originals. Happy reading in Cambodia!

Posted from Pakse, Laos - we may not have much internet access for the next few days!

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Everything goes in Bangkok

At 3AM I wake up suddenly: somebody is screaming in the street. Paaw-paw-paw-paw-paaaaw-paw! Ah, it’s Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes, I realize… clearly, no army is going to stop these guys in their tenuous, stumbling journey back to their hotel… or to the next bar. I go back to bed. At 4AM the roosters in the temple yard across the street start crowing, louder and longer with each cry, as if they were locked in a deadly contest for supremacy. There is no earplug in this world thick enough to dampen the sound of roosters crowing. And who would have thought… roosters, in the touristic heart of Bangkok?

Bangkok
Click photo to see slideshow
or here for all Bangkok pictures

Nonetheless, I forced myself back to bed; drunk tourists aren’t much of a nuisance at 4AM in Bangkok, when even the German poofta-poofta-poofta techno music has stopped on Khao San Road. And the roosters… well, I had to remind myself of that little quote by Saint Francis of Assisi: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” or at least to ignore them while I try to sleep. And sleeping well wasn’t that difficult: for once, we had decided against our preference for fan-only rooms and went for the more expensive air-conditioning option. It was worth all the 450 baht (about $15) we paid for it; in Bangkok’s crushing hothouse nights air-con is a very desirable commodity and a good investment for your peace of mind. Air-conditioned or not, decent budget hotels aren’t hard to find in the tourist district of Bangkok. Except for the guesthouses featured in Lonely Planet, which - good or bad - are usually booked solid, most hotels will have rooms available, no matter at what hour of the day or night you happen to land in Bangkok. But trust me, the 150 baht tiny single-person fan-only rooms at the Sawasdee hotel should have been used as cremation chambers instead…

Peaceful Bangkok

Bangkok is a city that you can easily fall in love with; it shows many different faces and has something for everyone: it’s brash and quiet, ultra-modern and historical, crazy and subdued, cheap and expensive; it’s a melting pot of Asian cultures and western influence, of tradition and modernism; it’s stylish, huge, and clean and it makes you want to eat all the time. For a slice of craziness it’s enough if you wander at night on Khao San Street, where the party never stops. For peace and quiet, visit one of the many wats (Buddhist temple complexes) spread around the city, preferably not one of the famous ones. And for style there’s always Siam Square and the never-ending row of malls on Rama I Boulevard. They are nothing like our pitiful suburban, single-level shopping avenues. Bangkok malls are cathedrals of glamour; they raise six, seven stories above the ground, without counting the multiplex cinemas on top.

Stressful Bangkok
The more sophisticated establishments showcase Ferraris and Maseratis across from Prada and Gucci; the more popular and affordable choices are beehives of frantic cruising between stalls of cheap jewelry, knock-off designer wear, electronic gadgets and the food courts. Picture Pacific Place in Seattle… times 10. And then multiply that with small variations on both sides of the street for a mile or so! This shopping Mecca comes of course with a huge traffic problem; in the streets around Siam Square cars and buses seem to be stuck in the same spots for hours; the only relief comes from the Sky Train – an elevated transportation system that runs above the boulevard – but Thais, like Americans, seem to prefer their personal vehicles even at $4 a gallon…

Temple protector

Displays of piety are common in Thailand; many people visit Buddhist shrines, lay offerings, pray and burn incense sticks. But for the westerner, the most striking act of devotion is that to the king. His serene face can be seen everywhere in Thailand: on billboards, on bank notes, on giant posters hung above the escalators in the malls, in the bus driver’s cabins, on flower-like monumental sculptures along the median strip of boulevards. The king is the first in everything: he is the foremost scholar, the best engineer, the first photographer (often shown with a camera hanging around his neck), the most hard-working agricultural worker, the wisest teacher, the most courageous army commander, the father of the country – all the symbolic attributes every communist totalitarian leader has tried to appropriate - have been granted to the king of Thailand by the own free will of the people, without violence or fear.

Royal pride
The Grand Palace guard
His persona is above all criticism; in a country like Thailand where governments are a-dime-a-dozen, politicians are corrupt and despised, and military coups are just another way of making politics the king is a unifying, deeply symbolic figure who gives strength and meaning to the life of the ordinary Thai people. We too stood up a few times and paid our silent homage to His Majesty, King Rama IX, before the movies started at the cinema (as a side note, we saw Rambo 4 – oh heavens, what were we thinking!, There Will Be Blood – weird but at least not boring, and 10,000BC – how much longer will Hollywood believe that special effects can make up for poor storylines, bad acting and worn-out clich├ęs?)

Amulets are serious business here

Bangkok will also make you fat if you enjoy it to the fullest; luckily we only spent a few days here... How can you even resist eating all day long in this paradise of street food stands, restaurants that cover all forms of Asian cuisine, cheap beer (isn’t that food as well?) and food-courts with an infinite number of choices? Shortly after finishing lunch in the “Food Avenue” at the 6th floor of the MBK shopping center we walked to the first floor and had some Chinese dim sum… Later we grabbed a few skewers of unidentified meat from a street grill. A short stop at Starbucks for coffee and a cake… beef-noodle soup as a late afternoon snack, pizza and pasta with wine for dinner. After a few beers at an open-air bar, we finish with a late-night gigantic bowl of chicken and noodles for one dollar from a street-side wok. And tomorrow we’ll do it all over again.

Posted from Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The dream islands

Angela, Jess and David in Ao Nang
Click photo to see slideshow
or here for all Railay pictures

The first night we stayed in Railay - a lush, rocky peninsula south of Krabi, with beautiful, isolated golden beaches - we partied hard in an open-air bar with Jess and David, two South Africans who happened to dine at the table near to ours earlier that evening. I yelled in their ears for a few hours, trying to make myself heard above the deafening music, until I lost my voice and could talk no more. That was the only time we had some late-night fun, because for the remaining days we spent in Thailand’s southern islands I kept nursing that sore throat and Angela had to fight a stomach bug she had most likely acquired while we were still in India. As a result, we had to drop our plan to go diving in Thailand (equalizing ear pressure is problematic when one has a cold) and we were lucky to be able to go on a snorkeling trip on our last day in Ao Nang, when we both felt finally healthy enough for an outing of the kind. Yes… Ko Phi Phi Leh Island (where The Beach was filmed, that dream-vacation adventure flick with Leo Di Caprio that made many a backpacker fantasize about never returning home) is as beautiful as they say, however I have no pictures of it. For once I chose to enjoy the water and the sun without worrying about the perfect camera angle and the direction of the light. We enjoyed the elements a little too much because we both got a bit burned despite then 45-SPF waterproof sun-block we used.

Long-tail boats in Ao Nang

The southern coast of Thailand seems to have become a favorite vacation destination for the Northern Europeans, mainly Swedes. You know that the powerful hordes of Euro-loaded Vikings have claimed the place as their own when the signs on shop doors are often written in a strange language that is obviously neither Thai nor English, when the restaurants advertise Swedish-Thai cuisine, and when the grocery stores sell you fresh tabloids from Stockholm. The Thai sellers of juicy and salacious news have smartened out and entered the digital age like the rest of us: the sheets on the display racks are not actual newspapers - which would have to be shipped from Sweden and would invariably be at least one-day stale by the time they got to the shelves - but stapled printouts of pdf files downloaded from the mighty internet. Whether the Thai merchants actually have a license for duplicating and selling those newspapers is doubtful; there is just too much pirated music for sale here to leave place for an honest, subscription-paying reseller. Every music CD you can imagine can be bought for 100 baht (that’s about $3) on the main tourist drag in Ao Nang, complete with color-printed album cover. Can you even imagine what Bangkok is like?

Thrilled about street food

Thai food, anyone? I would carefully avoid staying in a place like the Railay peninsula again – there is no in and out except by long-tail boat and you are stuck with a range of expensive restaurants that aren’t even living up to their prices and bring you insipid food to the table… and that in a country which lives to eat! After we moved to Ao Nang – a real town for a change – things got as bit better. I wouldn’t lose faith in the culinary delights of this country yet, but Thailand is certainly not India; hunger and the mere sight of a restaurant menu don’t make me drool with anticipation.

Yum! (from fotofeewa)

Still smoking? – There’s nothing like the cigarette packs for sale in Thailand to convince you to quit! Last I’ve checked cigarettes sold at home and in most of Central and South America still didn’t have any visual deterrent against smoking besides the mild warning of the surgeon general in minute print; Canadian and European packs had the big bold front prints with “smoking kills” and other horror stories that wouldn’t even send children scurrying away in fear… Well, Thai cigarette pack front panels have full-color pictures of cancerous lungs and lips, tracheal bypass tubes, and for the milder version, an man wearing wife-beaters (obviously a bad adult!) blowing the smoke in the face of a baby he holds in his arms… This explicit display of death may not instill the expected fear of smoking in too many potential consumers but it makes holding a pack of cigs in your hand somehow gross and certainly un-cool. Will this ever happen in the US? Maybe if one of those two lefties wins the next elections, who knows…

Published from Bangkok.

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Sunday, March 9, 2008

Welcome to Thailand

We have been in Thailand since February 28, visiting the beautiful islands that dot the Andaman Sea coast in the Krabi province, but I had too many things left to say about India to bring myself to write something about our new hosts. Quite frankly, spending time in this tropical paradise is rather boring after having been in India, not to mention expensive. But at least Thailand has two things we have been missing for a while: cleanliness and Starbucks.

More stories coming soon!

Posted from Ao Nang, Krabi Province, Thailand.

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Friday, March 7, 2008

Leaving Wonderland

Incredible India

After six rather exhausting weeks we left India on an early morning flight from Kolkata to Bangkok. As the purgatory of contradictory emotions faded behind the silver wing of the plane in the misty morning air I sat buckled in my cramped middle seat thinking that I should be able to say that I learned something from my Indian experience, preferably something deep, something about beauty, kindness or spirituality. Instead, all I could come up with was that I had become more skilled at bargaining for the last twenty rupees, that I learned how to dismiss the touts, hawkers, peddlers and beggars more gracefully, that I no longer got frustrated when people didn’t give me a straight answer and that I could live without toilet paper. A few months before in Egypt, the constant harassment that I had been subjected to had all but drained my reserves of social empathy, but India’s renewed assaults on my patience had in fact increased my tolerance to unwanted human contact and strengthened my ability to deal with ambiguity. In a country where nobody says “no” when they should, and every question is answered with a perplexing side-to-side wobble of the head that could mean anything, frustration and anger won’t get you too far...

Attack of the Alien rickshaws

Every interaction is a bit of a struggle. Going to the place of your choice is a feat of endurance and patience when you have to depend on taxi or rickshaw drivers to take you there; they will try to divert you to the hotels where they get commission for your business (if you’re leaving the railway station or airport) and will ask you many times to reconsider your destination, ignoring each “no” that you blurt from the back seat, increasingly annoyed by their tenacity. Otherwise, if you’re just taking a ride through town you will be bombarded with offers to be taken to a great shop “only for looking”; if you’re hiring the driver for a city-tour the shopping trap may be disguised as “a quick visit to the cultural museum.” “No” is always the best policy; you may feel stupid for having to answer the same question again and again, but you can’t help admire their perseverance and optimism – the available rickshaws sitting idle far outnumber the tourists in search for a ride and the lucky winner of your business will understandably try a couple of tricks to add a few rupees to his evening meal.

Turistas, go home!

I don’t usually require a high level of comfort when I travel; I do well in noisy backpacker places, I’m ok sharing bathrooms, I’m fine enough if the sheets are clean and the toilet flushes, and I don't think hot water at the shower is necessary in a tropical climate. But in India, low-maintenance as I am, I had to lower my standards even more. Cheap rooms in budget hotels are rather gloomy; the crudely painted walls are stained with the flattened innards of dead mosquitoes, hard beds and lumpy, thin pillows are the norm, the weak pipes may catch you off guard with unexpected leaks and water jets when you turn on the wobbly and often slimy faucets; the drain may often be a simple plastic tube spilling its guts over your feet. You’ll pray that the floor is well surfaced and all the water flows toward the drain, but that’s not always the case and your bathroom will end up with a permanent puddle in one corner. There aren’t any bath tubs, shower cages or curtains; taking a shower means flooding the whole bathroom; you’ll wash the floors, the walls and the toilet as well, and if you don’t pay attention you’ll soak the toilet paper – but only if you brought some with you; generally it’s not provided since Indians do not use it.

India welcomes you... noisily

Hotel rooms have switches outside by the doors, which control the power to the plugs and light bulbs inside. Since the doors all have padlocks the hotel staff knows when you are not in your room and always turns the power off if you happened to leave it on. Forget about charging your camera batteries while you are out for dinner. Power cuts, accidental or planned, are frequent, making air-con rooms a less-desirable investment. Beer will be warm and hell only knows what happens with the frozen chicken during the blackout hours (just another reason to become vegetarian!) but internet will generally work – that’s what batteries are for, right?

Indian scaffolding. Advanced technology.

I could continue to add details to the list of little strange things, uncomfortable situations and puzzling attitudes India assaulted us with, from the complicated telephone network made from a patchwork of incompatible operators to the strange but efficient train class and reservation system, from the unlicensed restaurants selling Kingfisher beer camouflaged in tea-pots and white cups, calling it “special tea” to the menu cards featuring fifty-four different types of masala dosa, from the irritating, dumb stares to the almost complete lack of display of public affection between Indian couples… but I’m afraid I would never finish and my blog will be forever stuck trying to cover India.

Shadows and gods

Beauty is everywhere, they say, you just have to know how look for it. And in India beauty is very well hidden behind rubble, trash and smog, a little less so in the countryside; it requires serious training and self-discipline to uncover. Nevertheless, a lot of travelers seem to be successful and find here whatever they were looking for; they leave elated and promise to return, undeterred by all the cow shit, the public pissing and shitting, the diarrhea, the hassle and the filthy toilets. For every tourist who finds his or her blissful karma in India there must be at least two or three who leave in tears, angry, sick and disappointed, and vow never to return before they show the finger to the airport departure hall one last time. I do not belong to either of those extreme categories; I had my share of disgust and anger but I was lucky enough to find peace and beauty when I least expected it; I cursed and rolled my eyes in frustration but I also smiled and went with the flow. I surrendered to India’s ebb and tide of sensations; I merely poked a finger at the magic mirror that opens into Wonderland. I will be back someday, armed with nothing but patience and an open mind.

Posted from Ao Nang, Krabi Province, Thailand.

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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The rest of India

After Mumbai we moved fast through our remaining Indian destinations: a tour of the Hindu and Buddhist caves at Ellora and Ajanta near Aurangabad, a quick visit to the magnificent Taj Mahal in Agra, and a brief stopover between two night trains in Varanasi, the sacred city of the Hindus.

The Sacred Caves

The Kailasa temple at Ellora
Click photo to see slideshow
or here for all Holy Caves pictures

When I first saw the incredible caves carved in the mountainside on Elephanta Island, my first thought was “What the hell were they thinking?” But touching as it was, that visit didn’t prepare me for the sight of the incredible Kailasa temple, the crown jewel of the Ellora archaeological site near Aurangabad – a magnificent Hindu shrine cut out of the mountain rock, complete with gate, courtyard, standing sculptures and side-galleries; a true awe-inspiring sight worthy of being counted among the architectural wonders of the world.

Buddha
It’s the same all over the world: holy men and earthly rulers seem to have succumbed to the sin of pride time and time again, and have outdone themselves over the years building the houses of their gods in the most formidable and difficult ways imaginable in their times. The ones paying for this unrestrained holy ambition ended up being the thousands of workers who broke their backs digging and carrying the rubble.

While in Aurangabad, we had also planned to visit the equally-famous Buddhist caves of Ajanta, but in good tradition we woke up late and lost the little steam that we had left in our engines as soon as we walked out of our hotel in the excruciating afternoon heat…


Agra

Sunset over the Yamuna river
Click photo to see slideshow
or here for all Agra pictures

Taj Mahal entrance - Indian national: 10 rupees, foreigner: 1 million rupees… It’s not quite as high a number in reality, but the admission prices at national parks, museums and historic monuments are blown out of proportion for foreigners, and the Taj Mahal tops it all. Foreigners are charged more because they can afford to pay, and they do, but being told in the face “now’s the time when we take your money” is an experience I cannot ignore blissfully in a land where I am constantly asked to pay outrageous prices for every kind of goods and service. I’d be happier if I knew that the money went towards conservation and maintenance but I have a slight suspicion that given the precarious and derelict state of many historical landmarks, the dough will rather end up fattening some politicians and their wives…

Palace inside the Agra Fort

It’s quite the irony that many of the masterpieces of Islamic architecture left by the Mughal Empire are located in the most god-forsaken, ugly, foul-smelling, nondescript city in the whole subcontinent. Agra is not only a place that’s impossible to enjoy on a visit - which may be an excusable deficiency, compensated by its abundance of famous monuments - it also has bad and uninspired food, and that is an unforgivable sin.

The "Baby Taj" - perfect symmetry

Don’t believe what the books say about the Taj Mahal changing colors at dusk and dawn with the setting or rising sun; it’s just a legend, deceiving many early risers and hopeful photographers - the famous marble monument to undying love is gray-whitish from morning till evening. The story of changing colors could be true only if Agra weren’t as polluted as it was when we visited - the sky was opaque and milky with smog all day; the thick, hazy air reduced visibility to no more than a mile ahead; the light was dull and discouraging for the many amateur photographers storming the gates at 6AM. Besides, my camera battery died shortly after sunrise. And then the spare decided to do the same…

Conclusion: do not stay overnight in Agra; you can visit the Taj Mahal, the fort and the other monuments during a day-trip from nearby Delhi.

Varanasi

Shedding bad Karma
Click photo to see slideshow
or here for all Varanasi pictures

There’s probably no other city in India that symbolizes Hindu spirituality at its fullest as much as Varanasi, the ancient holy site on the banks of the Ganges. Along the river ghats devotees bathe with fervor to free themselves of sins and bad karma, dipping in the murky sacred water, undeterred by the sewers which pour the filth of the city in the river, the ubiquitous cow shit, the floating garbage and the general poor sanitary conditions. Spirituality and religious devotion can obviously live apart from and unhindered by the modern western concerns about health, noxious bacteria and the microbiological purity of water.

The burning ghats

Varanasi is also the temporary home to a large community of westerners, most of them sporting long dreadlocks and wearing clothes flaunting the “Om” sign in a variety of sizes and colors, meant to set them apart from the mass of regular tourists who are just “passing through”. They are the spiritual junkies in search for the ultimate redemption of the soul, and India is the supermarket where enlightenment and inner peace can be acquired and paid for in the currency of your choice: cash if you prefer the easy, chemical way, or hours of void-seeking meditation, passionate prayer to your favorite god, or selfless submission to a guru’s ashram rules. On the train from Agra to Varanasi we met an Australian guy who has been living in Varanasi with his wife and young son for the last two years. He was nice, helpful, with a wide congenial smile and talked casually; the only time I detected a slight tinge of smugness in his attitude was when he said, “You know, we’re big into this spiritual thing…” Like he belonged to the club of the selected few…

Life along the river ghats

The average conversations between westerners, which we could occasionally overhear in restaurants located in the labyrinth of narrow alleys behind the Ghats, were more along the lines of “duuuude, I cannot even begin telling you how fantastic India is… it’s so aaaawesome! I can’t describe how spiritual I feel here, I don’t ever want to leave!” Uhm, yea, ok… can I have a puff of that spirituality please?

Posted from Railay, Thailand - and I still have things left to say about India...

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