Travel Journal

Reuniting with Ottile – Agra and Varanasi

This is part two of my travel adventures in India – pre virus/lockdown days 😂

You may recall that in June of 2019, I met a wonderful young woman named Ottile while staying at a Yoga Ashram in Nepal. Ottile and I kept in touch after meeting and planned to reconnect sometime later in the year, as she would still be traveling in the region.

Our plan was for her to come to Amritsar. Due to construction on the railway lines, there was no way for her to get here during the time allotted for our visit. We decided the next best thing would be for us both to travel to some halfway point. Our destination became Agra and the Taj Mahal.

There is a comfort and familiarity in Amritsar that slip away when traveling. I boarded the train before dawn and climbed up into my sleeper bunk. I made myself cozy for the approximately 11 hour long train ride. Between napping and reading, the hours slipped by and the next thing I knew, I had arrived at the Agra station.

Immediately upon deboarding, I knew I was in a very different place. I was now completely illiterate. There were no signs in Punjabi or English. Secondly, monkeys were overhead using the Platform rafters as a highway! Now that is something you will never see in Amritsar.

I secured a cab and rode to the lodging Ottile had arranged for us, at the Anukampa PG house. I was delighted with this place and would highly recommend it if you are going to Agra. The rooms, hosts and proximity to the Taj Mahal were excellent.

Anukampa Guest House

Ottile arrived the next day and we felt like we had never been apart.

We spent the day checking out some restaurants and gathering information for our visit to the Taj Mahal, which we planned to do very early the next morning.

This subji wala (vegetable merchant) we saw while walking, had the most artistically displayed cart I have ever seen, complete with carrot obelisks.

We went to the same restaurant three or four times in a row. Ottile enjoyed omelettes, cha and honey curd. I fell in love with the “Israeli” section of the menu. The fresh salad, hummus, falafel and grilled eggplant with tomato sauce were a heavenly change.

The feast!

Pre-dawn the next morning, we awoke and began the 5 minute walk to the admissions building and procured our entrance tokens. We made our way over to the East entrance gate and waited in line until we were allowed in, around 6:30 am. There was a lot of conflicting information around ticket purchase, entrance gates and times and duration of visit. One thing we weren’t sure about was a statement that tickets are good for three hours after purchase. Did it mean you have to enter the premises within three hours (not able to purchase entrance a day or days ahead of time), or you can only stay inside the grounds for three hours…?

Once a woman I met made a harsh judgement about the Taj Mahal. She said “There is nothing there!” I disagree. Despite the crowds, I sensed a profound silence in and around the Taj Mahal. There is an energetic quality of quiet, stillness that is beyond what you see. It struck me deeply.

We decided the three hour rule wasn’t about staying in longer than three hours and took our time both around the gardens, inside the Taj and in the red Mosque to the East.

Taking time to read Japji Sahib

But, we were mistaken. When we went to leave, the men at the exit booth told us we had overstayed and we would each have to pay something like 1,300 rupees – basically the price of a new ticket. I tried to reason with them (partly in Punjabi) that we weren’t even allowed in until almost 30 minutes after the entry time on our tickets.

I handed the men my credit card and waited for them to charge the fees so we could leave. Then something unexpected happened. The men discussed somehing, hesitated some moments, then handed my card back to me saying that since I had spoken in Hindi (Hindi and Punjabi have many similarities) there was one other solution they would suggest. They then told us that the fee for a lost token was only a few hundred rupees. They gave us our tokens back and waved us off.

Ottile and I wandered around to the South Gate. Somehow between the two gates, we lost our tokens and paid the small fee at the other gate to leave the premises.

We still had the better part of a week together and decided to move on to a new destination – Varanasi. One of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. We boarded a night bus that smelled like stinky socks and away we went. About 11 hours later, we arrived late morning in Varanasi.

Varanasi Door
Market street of old Varanasi

What I didn’t expect was, Varanasi felt familiar, beloved, comfortable. I felt like I had been there before.

We hired an electric rickshaw to take us to our hotel. After 20 minutes of bumpy driving our driver told us he couldn’t find it and a phone call to the lodging indicated we were still 10 minutes away. But the hotel was in a street inaccessible by vehicle. We would have to walk with all our luggage. Ottile and I were both pretty tired after being on the stinky bus all night and decided to check out a hotel that was across from where our rickshaw was temporarily stopped. The rooms proved acceptable and affordable, so we decided to stay where we were.

We were just minutes from the Ganges which made it easy to walk down frequently.

Varanasi is a fascinating place. On one hand the history and spirituality are soaked through everything. It feels tangible. On the other hand you have tourists, snake charmers and phony Sadhus (holy men) everywhere. The phony Sadhus are easy to spot. They are dressed very elaborately, sometimes covered in ashes with a loincloth. They are always walking around with their hands out for money, or seated in a prominent place with a pile of cash before them. And if you want a picture of them, money is demanded (which is why they are so picture perfect to begin with). These guys are basically like a circus and no matter how interesting they looked, I didn’t want to look at or take a picture of a fake holy man.

But, there are also real Sadhus. Easy to spot because they are off to the side. They do not want any money and they do not want their picture taken. They are there for spiritual purposes. As it should be. I snuck a few pictures of the real Sadhus.

Ottile and I enjoyed going down to watch the large Arti ceremonies performed alongside the Ganga before dawn and after dusk.

Ottile had been on the road with her travels for many months at this point. Her travel backpack had broken a strap, it made moving around very difficult for her. Luckily, she had a small sewing kit and I managed to secure a repair that lasted until she got back to the Netherlands.

Varanasi Monkeys

The Ganges is amazing. Ottile and I took boat rides on it 3 or 4 times, both in the morning and at night. Every time was worth it. I was able to do Path and meditate on the boat as well as bathe my new rudruksha mala in the sacred waters.

Late one afternoon, we walked down to the large burning Ghat. This is the main area in Varanasi that cremates bodies. As we drew closer, the smell of burning wood was very strong. We passed massive stock piles of wood. I felt an eeriness, knowing what all the wood was for.

As we were walking, a group of men marched by, chanting and carying a cane stretcher with a fabric covered body laiden on it above their heads. Life and death are apparent here. In the western world we hide death and pretend it can’t touch us. In the East, it is embraced as an equal part of existence. This is one thing I love about the East. It was beginning to get dark, and we were far from our lodging, so we headed back to our hotel.

Closer to where we were staying was a small burning Ghat. One evening Ottile and I were there when a new body was brought in and placed on a carefully arranged pile of wood right in front and below where we were sitting on a bench overlooking the Ganges. Ottile and I looked at each other silently, then turned forward and sat as the cremation proceedings continued. I said a prayer silently, to the person before me. I prayed for their peace and thanked them for the opportunity to be there during this sacred moment. Reverence, gratitude, appreciation.

Then, a day came with another very spiritual experience for me. You recall my last post about the Anand Shikhar retreat? Well, there is an unexpected connection to Varanasi. Yogananda’s teacher’s teacher, Lahiri Mahasaya, had lived in Varanasi. When my friend David T. heard I was going to Varanasi, he said, “Look for Lahiri Mahasaya’s home. It is difficult to find, you will need a guide. You can’t go inside, but it is worth it.” This is the place Lahiri Mahasaya took his Mahasamadhi.

I had written off the idea of looking for it for two reasons. One it was difficult to find and two, I didn’t want to drag Ottile on a wild goose chase that she probably wasn’t interested in. But then something happened. I had a conversation with our hotel clerk. We ended up talking about yoga and meditation. I mentioned that I had meditated and practiced Kundalini Yoga for many years and that I was a member of Yogananda’s organization, SRF/YSS. He said he was also a member of YSS. It seemed too much of a coincidence. I asked excitedly, “Do you know where Lahiri Mahasaya’s home is located?” He smilingly replied yes and proceeded to point out the route on my Google map. Turns out, it is located down the street from the hotel we were originally planning to stay at. Interesting!

Ottile was up for the adventure, and it was only supposed to be a 10 minute walk from where we were staying, so we set out. Down the main road, then off to the left on a narrow cross street – more like an alley. Then we walked to the west. According to the map, we were very near when I paused to re-calibrate the map. My eyes met with a kind man who was sitting there facing the street. he started to say something and I said, “Lahiri Mahasaya”. He smiled and gestured across from where he was sitting. There was the door to the house. I had come right to it and happened to stop right in front, even though the map said it was still some meters off. The man cleared a space for me to sit beside him and I began to meditate.

It wasn’t the most profound meditation. There were motorbikes and cows in the tiny road. But I could feel a sacred energy and moreover, I knew I had been brought there. It felt like Lahiri himself had come and brought me to his doorstep. I sat and let the beautiful experience soak into me. When I got up to leave, I thanked the man. He gestured inside his open building and I could see on the back wall hung a portrait of Lahiri Mayasaya.

One last account to round out the adventure in Varanasi. Ottile and I were napping in our room one afternoon. We had the window open and fan on because the room had a funny chemical smell. Suddenly, I awoke to Ottile yelling, “Amanjot, a monkey was in the room!” She told me that she had woken up and seen the monkey come in the window behind our heads twice and go to the other side of the room. We closed the window as the monkey sat disappointed on the ledge outside. I was disappointed that I had slept through the whole thing. There was even a dirty monkey footprint on the white sheet, right next to where I had been soundly asleep, moments before.

Guilty!

It was time to head back to Amritsar. Ottile and I traveled to a petrol pump station where we would catch another night bus to Delhi where we would then part ways. It was a 30- 40 minute ride to the petrol pump over wrecked roads in an auto rickshaw. We arrived as darkness was falling. I was starving. We hadn’t eaten for several hours. I had a silent prayer that somehow food would manifest. Then I noticed something in the corner of the petrol pump parking lot and went over to get a better look. It was a tiny roadside Dhaba (food stall)! They were serving trays of traditional Indian food for a bargain price.

Ottile and I sat down and were served trays with daal, subji, salad and roti. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I was so grateful.

Shortly after eating, we boarded our night bus and arrived in Delhi late the next morning. I am so grateful for my special adventures with Ottile.

Next time, I will introduce you to the experience of visiting a village in Punjab for a wedding.

Blessings to you all!

Dinner at the Dhaba

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