Many Many Tigers!

Our train arrived on time at the Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) Howrah station. Let me tell you, this train station is HUGE! By far the most well run and cleanest train station we went to. Just the night before at Varanasi’s train station, there was a train delay on platform 1 due to an obstruction on the track. We found the obstruction. Here it is for your viewing. 🙂


From Howrah Station, we quickly made our way towards the prepaid taxi booth and hopped a cab to Calcutta’s “Traveler Ghetto” on and around Sudder St. A couple days earlier we had met other backpackers that had done a package tour through another one of India’s Tiger Reserves. Their tour guide had sold them on the tour promising to see “Many Many Tigers”. The truth, unfortunately, is that very few tigers exist in the wild anymore. Fewer than 300 (roughly 274) are thought to live in Bengal’s Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. At one time, over 40,000 tigers roamed Bengal and its mangrove forests. Over the last century through hunting, poaching and habitat destruction, the numbers have dwindled down to just a few hundred. Very sad. 😦 Coming back to our backpacker friends, of course they did not see any tigers. Tiger sightings are extremely rare and take persistence, timing and a lot of luck.

We arrived at Sudder St. and made our way to Tour De Sundarbans to meet up with Rajesh Shaw, the proprietor of Tour De Sundarbans. I had spoken to Rajesh over the phone a couple days earlier to confirm our reservation. Though there are many tours to Sundarbans, Rajesh and Tour De Sundarbans provides a unique experience that incorporates the Sundarban experience with a two night stay in their eco-village on a small island near the reserve. With basic accommodations, nightly live Bengal folk music performances, home cooked meals and no electricity, the eco-village experience allows you take a peek in to the lives of the village folk on these rich, beautiful and well-preserved islands.

After we found a place to crash for the night, Anjli and I walked over to Calcutta’s most famous monument, the Victoria Memorial, (Wikipedia) a large marble building that was built between 1906 and 1921 to honor and commemorate the passing of Queen Victoria in January, 1901. The building is now a museum and houses artifacts, paintings and other items from British India. We saw collections of vintage weapons (400 year old swords, bayonets and shields) and amazing paintings. Anjli and I roamed the beautiful gardens and made our way back to our hotel while enjoying some of Calcutta’s famous street food on the way back.

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The next morning we made our way to the Tour De Sundarbans office to kick off our Sundarbans tour. We met up with the other folks that were to join us on the tour. Two Germans (Markus and Andrea), and a French woman (Marianne). On the way to the eco-village, we picked up two Indian couples (one newlywed and one of retired age). After a 3 hour bus ride, a 20 minute ferry, a 30 minute rikshaw ride another 15 minute ferry, we finally arrived. We chanted our mantra for the trip: Many Many Tigers!

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The eco village for tourists was set up right on the outskirts of the main village. The mud huts looked exactly like the village huts on the outside because Rajesh didn’t want the villagers to feel like their houses weren’t good enough for their guests. But I bet our accommodations were a lot more comfortable on the inside with bamboo beds and private showers with western style toilets. However, there was no hot water or electricity!

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After a nice Bengali lunch, we headed out for a walk through the village. It was really neat to experience rural life in India. Anjli grew up in Bombay and the time I spent in India was mostly in Delhi. We thought we knew what India was all about. We were so wrong. Only 27% of Indians live in urban areas, the other 73% live in rural areas like the island we were on. While walking through the village, we saw mud huts, house cows, house goats, women and men working the fields growing their own crops, carrying rice, seeding rice fields, harvesting rice fields, stray dogs, house dogs and much much more. The villagers were extremely friendly – smiling, waving, saying ‘namaste’, especially the kids. The kids spoke just a couple of words of English like Hello and Bye. The little kid on the right said ‘I love you’ to Anjli and gave her a big flying kiss. 🙂


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We came across a two day old baby goat that smelt like goat cheese! The villagers encouraged us to pick up the goat and were so amused that we were squealing with excitement. Anjli says that this is her favorite picture from the trip so far:


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We walked back to our hut and took a short break before setting out for a boat ride through the mangroves over sunset. We navigated through backwaters, spotting birds and other wildlife. We saw villagers fishing and going about their evenings on their way home aboard small kayak like boats. As the mangroves got denser and denser, we were surrounded by trees and had to push our way through the last stretch of trees. We finally cleared and watched the sun go down from the boat. A vast silence had taken over the water. No traffic, no television, no pedestrians, nothing, absolutely nothing to make a sound. The water as still as a frozen lake in the twilight of the late evening with orange, yellow, purple skies. This is called the magic hour. We reveled in it for a while before slowly making our way back to the eco-village.

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We enjoyed dinner over an hour long Bengali folk music performance just for us. Afterwards, Marianne, Andrea, Marcus, Anjli and I stayed for a bit longer enjoying beers, discussing travel, family and of course tigers! We finished our beers and chanted our mantra one more time for good measure. Many Many Tigers! We went off to our huts, carrying our oil lit lanterns. Anjli and I drifted off to sleep, dreaming of tigers.

At the butt crack of dawn (5:30 am) as light was just creeping over the horizon, Ajay, our tour guide woke us with a loud bang on our door. Anjli and I took a quick shower with a bucket of hot water from the tube well heated on a wood fire stove, before heading on over to the boat that would take us in to Sundarbans where we hoped to see many many tigers. J Our eyes still filled with sleep, the weather still cold, and morning dew stuck to everything. We pushed off the dock and floated towards the reserve. After a quick stop to pick up the cook, we headed over to the Tiger Reserve office to get our permits and to pick up our guide. An hour and a half later, we were on our way in to the jungle. Our guide was a skinny Bengali fellow, he wore a moustache and a smile. He explained to us the lay of the land and the various wildlife we could expect to see; crocodiles, ten species of kingfishers, wild boars, falcons, spotted deer, jungle cats and of course many many tigers.

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About an hour in, we’d seen many kingfishers, some egrets and other birds when we saw our first croc. This motherfucker was HUGE! Roughly five to six meters. Markus with his long range camera took many amazing photographs. Anjli and I with our point and shoot cybershot actually managed to get quite a few good shots. We were actually surprised at how beautiful the photographs from our tiny point and shoot came out.

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Throughout the first half of the day, we saw many other birds and animals including spotted deer, wild boars, monkeys and other birds. Finally, around noon while we were looking at some deer, someone yelled “TIGER!” and pointed to the other end of the shore. All of us standing turned in unison and instantly became silent. Andrea saw something move and the rest of us carefully, slowly and quietly scanned the shoreline and the mangrove trees. We sat there for nearly five minutes in silence, scanning until someone finally made a sound. We moved up and down the shore line for another ten minutes before conceding that there was nothing to be seen and moved on down the river. The rest of the day was spent looking at other wildlife, including many crocodiles. But alas the many many tigers we had hoped to see eluded us. The afternoon turned to late afternoon which turned in to the early evening. We started for the eco-village, dropped off the guide and the cook an made our way back where a new batch of people had just arrived. Marianne, Markus, Andrea, Anjli and I took our dinner near the water reservoir under the stars as the music performance from the night before replayed for the new group of people. We listened to music, drank beer, ate dinner and just generally had a good time. All of these people were genuinely nice people. After being away from Seattle for so long and it having been just Anjli and I, it was nice to meet these wonderful people. It really made us miss our friends in Seattle. We walked to the boat as our second night was a stay on the boat. We stood on the deck and looked out over the calm and silent water. We all felt a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the privilege of having this experience. The darkness, the stars, the waters, the boat, the silence, the company, the twilight all made this night ever so beautiful. Anjli and I slept that night feeling like we had made the right decision to travel for six months. Any doubts, concerns we had were wiped away.

Anjli and I walked away that evening feeling that everyone, absolutely everyone should have the opportunity to travel and experience the world this way. There is so much beauty in this world, all we had to do is step outside and see it.


Following the Ganga – a spiritual journey in India Part III


We made a pit stop in Kanpur to see my paternal grandmother and uncle (chacha). My parents also happened to be visiting at the same time which was a bonus! We had great conversations, ate a lot of chaat and consumed a lot of alcohol – something that is somewhat of a trend when Dad and Raj, Chacha and Raj or Dad and Chacha get together. So it was triple the enthusiasm this time ;). Raj collected firewood from the backyard and built a bonfire on our last night there 🙂

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Here is a funny picture of Dad getting a massage from chacha who in turn got a surprise massage from Raj!


My grandma and I swapped stories about Rishikesh. She had been there in the late 1950s with four kids in tow (my uncle hadn’t been born then and Dad was just seven years old!). She described crossing the Ram jhoola and hiking up the hill to her uncle’s cottage where they spent a few days. She remembered acres of mango orchards and I was sad to report that I hadn’t seen a single mango tree. She also took all the kids down to the Ganga for a dip in the holy water. I was imagining Dad as a seven year old chilling on the banks of the Ganga surrounded by mango trees 🙂

Kanpur is also on the bank of the Ganga but it is far from a holy place. The leather tanneries let out their waste in the Ganga making it one of the most polluted rivers in the world. While there were no worshippers at the ghats in Kanpur, this pollution didn’t seem to stop or bother the believers who were happy to take a dip, bathe, and swim in the waters downstream at Varanasi, our next stop.


Varanasi is the oldest and one of the holiest cities in India where Hindus from all over the country come to die or cremate loved ones. Many Hindus believe that dying at Varanasi brings moksha. Bodies are cremated on the banks of the Ganga, ashes are sprinkled in the river and heads are shaved for the rituals around death. Death, a concept that frightens me, is so out in the open at Varanasi. The city is so in your face, so raw. I’m glad I went to Varanasi but I don’t think I ever want to go back.

We arrived in Varanasi by train and ‘splurged’ $20 a night for a room with a balcony overlooking the river. We took a boat ride the next morning to explore the various ghats and watch the sun come up. Dawn breaking over the Ganga was beautiful. The ghats came to life with people washing their clothes and themselves, folks offering early morning prayers along the bank and tourists in the multiple boats being chased around by hawkers in smaller boats. The ghats were typically named after a temple or the ruins of the palace by the Ganga.

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Our boat driver gave us minimal commentary and subsequently, information about the different ghats and their significance. We came to the Harishchandra ghat where dead bodies are cremated. Three bodies were being cremated on big pyres of wood. Our boat driver came to a standstill there and mentioned that bodies are cremated on that ghat 24 hours a day. The area started to look like a Niagara falls of sort with boats filled with tourists looking on to a family’s seemingly personal moment, some taking photos with zoom lenses. It was a bit shameful, really. I asked the boat driver if he thought it was weird that so many strangers seem to partake into something so personal. He responded with – everybody has to come here one day which meant that everybody’s dead body will be burnt at this ghat someday, so what’s the shame in people looking on. Anyone and everyone who lives in these religious towns is a philosopher! With life and death so in your face all the time, I guess one is forced to think about these things constantly. We asked our boat driver to hurry away from the cremation ghats and drop us off at the main Dasashwamedh ghat from where we could walk back to Assi ghat to our hotel. We saw the same sights on foot as we had seen from the boat including the cremation ghat. This will sound bad but should probably not be very surprising – it smelt like barbeque. I tried not to look at the burning wood pyres and hurried along. And then we came across a sight that is probably etched into my memory forever. A family of five – men and women – were getting their heads shaved by a barber. Beautiful black hair fell onto the steps of the ghat. Nobody was crying. In fact, they were very composed and just looked onto the next person getting their head shaved. For the loss of their loved one and hair, I was overcome with emotion, tears and nausea all at the same time. Raj noticed this and hurried me back to the safety of our hotel room.

After some discussion we came to the conclusion that Varanasi was a bit much for us and we decided to take on the easier, lighter side of Varanasi – narrow alleyways with markets, graffiti and art, even a beautiful Indian classical music concert. We spent an evening with some other travelers drinking beers at one of the nicest (and only) bars in Varanasi – this made me miss my friends back home so much!

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Raj and I acknowledged that it was probably a bit of a cop-out to not get over the emotions and truly immerse ourselves into the culture, to get the true Banaras experience. But even now, in retrospect, I’m not sure I could handle the alternative. We left Varanasi a day earlier than planned to visit Sarnath, just 18 kms away.


Buddha gave his first sermon to his five disciples in 528 BC in Sarnath, making it one of the holiest places for Buddhism. The Dhammekh stupa was marks the spot where Buddha gave his sermon. We spent a day walking around the ruins of the stupas and the old monasteries, and were lucky to see a group of monks chanting in front of the Dhammekh stupa. While these ruins are also protected by the Archeological Division of the Govt. of India, they didn’t seem to be taken care of as well as the temples in Khajurao. People were walking up and down the excavated brick structures in spite of written warnings, and there didn’t seem to be any guards to stop these folks. I couldn’t help but wonder if there weren’t enough funds diverted to these ruins because they were Buddhist, and not Hindu.

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Many pilgrims from Buddhist countries come here to pray. Multiple countries such as Thailand, China, Japan and even Myanmar have set up their own temples and monasteries around the old ruins. We spent the night at the Tibetan monastery with cold bare rooms, great traditional food and surprisingly fast wi-fi!

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By popular demand, here is another picture of Raj with one his gai (cow) friends 🙂 This is a baby cow, just three months old!


In conclusion

We were finally at the end of our spiritual/religious journey in India – a mix of good and bad, overwhelming and sobering experiences, sometimes fun other times not so much. We were ready for some fun, light hearted experiences at least for the next few days and hopped on a train to Bengal to see a tiger or two!

Following the Ganga – a spiritual journey in India – Part II


After the good and the bad in Haridwar, we decided to make our way to Rishikesh, another historic Hindu town made holy by the number of rishis (priests and gurus) who meditated for the good and peace in this world, for the betterment of humankind. Rishikesh has the title of being the ‘yoga capital of the world’ and I was excited to take a few yoga classes here. We took a local bus, the ride not as eventful as the bus ride in Goa but saw four grown men on one motorcycle who were only too pleased to be photographed 🙂


Rishikesh is on the other side of Ganga from the main town and is connected via two pedestrian bridges which are also shared by bicycles, motorcycles (unfortunately), cows, dogs and monkeys! The bridges are called Ram jhoola  and Laxman jhoola. We walked across the river on the Ram jhoola and made our way to the Parmarth Niketan ashram which would be our home for the next 10 days!

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We got a large room for 400 rupees (about $7 a day) with a shared courtyard. Our days consisted of going to daily yoga classes (at 6 in the morning!), getting porridge/muesli breakfasts, reading fiction, drinking chai by the Ganga ghat and feeding the stray dogs and cows, chatting up fellow travelers, and listening to the sermon during the evening artis. We also went to a Sufi concert in this Hindu town! We had a regular chai walla who we would go to every evening, even a regular bindi walla who would sing old Hindi film songs like Teri Bindiya Re while applying bindis on our foreheads :). It was a true vacation and at the very same time, it quickly became a lifestyle that we felt we could adopt when we retire. Only downsides – strictly vegetarian food, they wouldn’t even serve eggs or garlic or onions, and NO alcohol! 😦 In spite of this, Rishikesh was easily my favorite place to visit in India!

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Each ashram is led by a religious guru whose teachings the workers and volunteers in the ashram follow. The guru at Parmarth Niketan was very progressive. His sermon at the evening artis was very secular with emphasis on one God and how the humankind should help each other no matter who they pray to and what they look like. He also stressed on how people should donate to causes that build toilets in India as opposed to more temples. In his words – you can’t go to school before you go to the toilet. He made everyone at the arti pledge to plant a tree and reduce the use of plastic bags – a rather refreshing experience after the Mansa Devi temple in Haridwar!

Raj’s Beena massi and Shyam mama and family came to visit us in Rishikesh for a couple of days. It was fun hanging out by the Ganga with them and hiking out to the nearby Neer Falls 🙂

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I want to share a personal experience while in Rishikesh. One morning, after the yoga class, I took off to get some chai on my own. I went to this café called ‘The Office’ which we frequented during our time there. Ironically, none of the patrons of ‘The Office’ had any work to do :). The place had a nice balcony laid out with sheets and cushions, with a view of the Ganga. A swami dressed in saffron robes with a tikka on his forehead took a seat next to me and I offered to buy him a chai. We ended up conversing for over two hours on life, love and purpose. It was amazing to me how this swami (along with others) left all worldly relationships – his wife, parents and kids, and all material possessions to live a life meditating and praying in Rishikesh, all the time not knowing where the next meal would come from. We discussed fate, highs and lows in life, attachment to materialism, and how the one God would always take care of you no matter where you go and what you do. He shared these words with me, to share with Raj, but I’m sure he’ll be happy to share them with anybody who reads this blog:

Om Namaskar

Life is short

Fix your mind on God

Try to understand yourself

Time is passing fast

Your death is waiting

Follow your intuition

Listen to your inner voice

Believe in God

Surrender to God

Remember God

Open your third eye

Wake up

Everything is possible

God bless you

Universal love

Thank you Ladu Babaji! In speaking with him, I’m back to being agnostic, spiritual even. I went back to Raj at the ashram feeling happy, more in love and ever so grateful.

Following the Ganga – a spiritual journey in India – Part I

We spent a couple of days in Delhi and Meerut to spend some time with Raj’s wonderful extended family. Grandma, Uncles, Aunts, Cousins, Nieces, Nephews – a good time was had with all, especially Raj’s cute little nieces and nephews.

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We then took off to travel in India for a few days. In India – a country I didn’t want to travel through at all outside of meeting with family. Raj had traveled in India back in 2005 and if you ever get him started about that trip, I promise you it’ll be difficult for you to make him stop :). Somehow, this man convinced me to try traveling in India for just a few days. We didn’t book our flight out to Bangkok so that we could leave as soon as I wanted to. We ended up spending another four weeks (!!) in this country in addition to the two we had already spent in Goa, Bombay and Delhi!


Raj suggested we go to Rishikesh where I could get my yoga fix. The best way to get to Rishikesh was via Haridwar. Haridwar is one of the holiest cities in India – millions of Hindus go there every year to wash away their sins by taking a dip in the Ganga river. The evening artis (prayers) were supposedly beautiful and both my and Raj’s grandfathers’ ashes were spread on the Ganga here, so we decided to spend a couple of days exploring this little city.

On our first evening in Haridwar, we tried to figure out when exactly the morning arti was held. We asked three different people and got three different answers ranging from 5am to 5:45am, none of which were correct as we found out the next morning. Anyone who has traveled in India will know that Indian people don’t like saying ‘I don’t know’, so they give you an approximate answer to the best of their abilities. In any case, since our hotel was a bit far from Har Ki Paudi (translates to footsteps of Shiva), the Ganga ghat where the morning arti took place, we left real early at about 4:15am and arrived at the ghat before 4:45 am. You have to take your shoes off, so we were standing bare feet on the cold, wet stone steps waiting for the arti to begin. In spite of being harassed by self-proclaimed pandits to perform a private pooja and our feet slowly but surely turning into ice, it was fun to watch the activity around us – hawkers setting up shops, diyas made of flowers and leaves with a small candle and incense sticks floating downstream in the river, and groups of people taking dips in the water.

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Men undressed down to their underwear and some women down to their sari blouses and petticoats (most women were fully clothed in sarees),  stood waist deep in the often fast flowing Ganges and held onto the railings or chains built specifically for their safety or held on to each other, and quickly submerged their upper bodies in the water right to the top of their head – this action of dipping one’s entire body in the river and letting the water wash the body is said to wash away all your sins. We saw a group of eight women standing in a circle and holding onto each other’s hands to steady themselves in the fast flowing river take 10 dips in unison while yelling out ek-do-teen… (one, two, three…) as they came up for air. The scene really makes you question your inner atheist and ask yourself if you’re the one who is missing something important in life, if it was possible for you to believe in god as unconditionally as these folks who subject themselves to freezing waters at four in the morning, all in the name of religion.

Raj and I took in the scenes and lit a beautiful diya made of all compostable materials and let it flow in the Ganga. We got some hot chai to warm us up, watched the arti which finally started at about 6:15am(!) and hung around till the sun rose about 7am.

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The next day, we decided to go to Manasa Devi, a famous Hindu temple on top of a steep hill in Haridwar. In spite of a cable car available, we decided to hike up the 2km in the blazing sun – the temperature variations were really quite extreme. While we were rewarded with beautiful views of the Ganga plains, it was just too hot even for a short hike.

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The visit to this temple, one that is visited by Hindu pilgrims from all over the country, was ironically the least spiritual experience for me. We were ‘greeted’ by two scary looking men in black robes and faces painted black who insisted on touching us and putting tikkas on our foreheads so that they could ask for ‘donations’. We dodged them and made our way up. Along the way, there were plenty of hawkers selling flowers and other offerings who insisted on sharing their opinion on what you should buy and what you should be doing at the temple. The temple itself wasn’t very impressive with statues of a few Gods/Goddesses, just overly crowded with people who wanted to darshan (view the faces of the deities to absorb some of the divinity) and make cash donations. A few priests said things like – if you don’t darshan this particular God, something untoward will happen to you, or you better make donations to this God. Frankly, I was far from moved and in fact, disturbed by their pushiness and decided to make an early exit. A lowlight of the trip. At the time, I had a difficult time separating the priests’ pushiness from that of the religion’s and considered myself fortunate to not succumb to the superstitions instilled by these so called messengers of God.