We left our temporary home in northern India and hit the road. We had an invitation to the best guy in Mumbai’s wedding and we couldn’t wait to attend. But, as it goes in India, it would take us days to reach the wedding and so we planned to make a few stops along the way to break up the journey and see what we could see.
We said our goodbyes to our colleagues and friends at Tendrel Travel and they sent us off with a dinner/dance party featuring a delicious peanut stew, an acknowledgement of our peanut butter addiction which we had failed to conceal and had become the source of much teasing. (Peanut butter has long been a favorite treat of Austin’s but has been mostly unavailable in the places we’ve visited. When she found a locally produced non-hydrogenated version in McLeod costing about $1 she made up for all the time she’d been without it in a short two weeks.)Our first day of travel toward the wedding started at four o’clock in the morning. We stood in the living room of the apartment we’d occupied for the last couple of months waiting for our taxi to arrive to shuttle us down the mountain to the bus station. If we had woken up hours before dawn to catch a taxi to the airport, we thought, we’d probably be excited right now. Air travel is always such a fun experience for us. But because we knew we had days of overland travel ahead of us we found that we were bracing ourselves, ready for whatever might lie ahead.
Our first stop on our journey to the wedding was Amritsar. We took our four o’clock taxi to our five o’clock bus. The five o’clock bus brought us down the mountain as we exerted ourselves to remain in our narrow seats while we careened around the turns. We arrived in Amritsar by eleven o’clock the same morning and we checked ourselves into the Tourist Guesthouse, noting its astute name. Amritsar is a holy city to the Sikhs and its main attraction is the Golden Temple. Surrounded by water and housing the Sikh religious text, the Golden Temple is a beautiful sight and serves a free lunch to 100,000 people daily, regardless of their caste or creed. We admired the temple and passed up the free lunch because we were too hungry to stand in line with 100,000 people. But we did visit the Central Sikh Museum which was filled mostly with painted portraits of gurus and battle scenes. According to the museum, Sikh history is full of bloodshed, torture, dead babies and martyrdom. The museum even featured some shockingly graphic photographs of the corpses of martyred Sikhs. We were a bit traumatized. And then we had lunch.
From Amritsar we took a 24-hour train ride to Varanasi. Surprisingly, we really enjoyed the entire ride. We each had been assigned a top bunk and we happily perched there above the incoming and outgoing passengers and napped, read books and ordered chai and snacks from the endless stream of vendors coming down the aisle with various forms of sustenance.We took a rowboat ride before dawn one morning and watched as Varanasi woke up. All along the western bank of the river are ghats, flights of steps that lead down into the water. It is along these ghats that the people of Varanasi go to bathe, wash and dry their laundry, pray, meditate, make offerings, sell stuff to tourists, cremate their deceased or wash their cattle. We spent the following day wandering through the narrow alleys of the city, strolling along the ghats and sitting for an extended time at the cremation ghats. It was a fascinating experience to watch a public cremation. Bodies wrapped in white linen were carried on stretchers from the nearby hospice to the edge of the river. Holy water from the Ganges was splashed on them. A pyre was constructed of large logs and a body was placed atop, followed by more logs. The fire was set and the men who operate the crematory kept the fire burning strong. Occasionally they poked it with a large stick. It was a strange sight seeing a woman’s pristine ankles and feet sticking out of a pile of logs – the cotton having been burned away – while the rest of her body was engulfed in flames. We watched as a scalp flaked away from the top of a skull in a white ashy sheet, noting with great surprise that this was far less traumatizing and grotesque than the contents of the Sikh museum. We sat on the ghat watching the pyres for quite a while with a sort of morbid fascination, the ashes of dead strangers falling gently onto our hair.We visited the town of Sarnath, a 45-minute tuk-tuk ride from Varanasi. We wrote about Sarnath while working at Tendrel Travel and David especially was eager to visit in person. Sarnath is known for being the location where the Buddha offered his first sermon to his five disciples after attaining enlightenment. We had a very short window of time to explore Sarnath, but we were happy to have the opportunity to visit the Dhamek Stupa, a large dome-shaped structure built around 500 CE containing Buddhist relics, and sit quietly on the grass in a historic place of interest to us.From Varanasi it was only a 5-hour train ride to where the wedding would occur in Patna. We’d made it through the several days of travel and despite the mild trauma from our visit to the museum had enjoyed the trip. We were ready to find out what an Indian wedding was all about.