After 12 days, over 70 hours of travel, 9 towns, 3 states, and visiting 8 other volunteers, the 5 of us (Kas, Elly, Beth, Eden and I) have returned to Varanasi.
We set off two weeks ago on our 23 hour train ride with positive spirits but obvious worries such as whether or not or food supply (which included 10 pizzas!) would last us the entire journey. We arrived safely, with enough food and a decent amount of sleep at our first stop, Dehradun.
Immediately as we stepped off the train, there was a different feel in the air to that which we are used to here in Varanasi. It was a lot cooler in temperature, but also a lot calmer in atmosphere. Before anything else we had to recover from a few minor shocks in the town centre of Dehradun- which included our inability to use traffic lights ( a confusing concept after 3 months without them), seeing heaps of large brand-name stores along the main street, being served in shops by a seemingly equal number of women as men, and generally feeling as if we had been transported about 30 years in the future from our current home of Varanasi.
Once we had come to terms with some of these things, we met up with Millie and Shab (two of the volleys who live in Dehradun)- it was so great to see them again! Soon after we were also met by Jacqui and Mardi- the two other volleys who live in Dehradun. Together we had dinner at a really nice place which easily could’ve been a restaurant at home in Australia, complete with English pop music!
During our stay in Dehradun, we visited the hill town of Mussorie which was a beautiful place to spend our day, however did give us a little surprise when we rode the gondola up to the lookout area, to find what seemed to be an abandoned carnival...the atmosphere was completely desolate with faint music being played, the squeaking of rides being moved in the wind and men desperately trying to get you to shoot their balloon or throw the hoop around their prize. A seriously confusing place!
The rest of our time in Dehradun was spent hanging out with the other volleys, visiting Mardi and Jacqui’s school, and eating some great food- in particular peanut butter cake.
From Dehradun we made our way to Manali to visit the rest of the volunteers. It took us a 5 hour taxi drive- complete with taxi-driver miscommunication, potato chips for dinner and using the bus station toilets which came with their own special touch of old vomit- and an 8 hour bumpy bus ride to reach our destination.
We arrived in Manali early in the morning, and were greeted by stunning scenery including snow-capped mountains and a pebble stream. We got off the bus in Putlickle where two of the volunteers, Claudia and Sheena, live and were met by them. We then met Maddie and Jo (the two other volleys in the Manali area) with Mardi and Jacqui for a picnic in a river! Yes, IN a river! The river ran down from a waterfall, and was the seemingly clever idea of some local brothers who claimed the river as their cafe and set up a popular little spot.
Diwali, the celebration of lights, and one of the biggest celebrations in the Hindu calendar fell on our first night in Manali. To celebrate we all went to Sheena and Claudia’s school to watch the fire crackers going off all across the town from the rooftop, to set off our own fire crackers and to eat sweets and drink chai. It was a great way for us all to celebrate Diwali together!
The other highlights of Manali included shopping in town with the backdrop of beautiful snow-capped mountains, 11 of us squashing in the back of a pick-up truck to put an immense amount of pressure on the poor engine as we pushed up hill for about half an hour to reach the most beautiful waterfall with the most pure water flowing from it; and taking a small hike up to a temple which sits on the hill and has both a peaceful and welcoming atmosphere- with the locals giving us sweets and asking as question, as well as another stunning view overlooking the mountains, towns and the stream.
We also had the opportunity, while with our volley friends, to visit the placements which they have been working at for the last 3 months. We first visited Claudia and Sheena’s school (while in action), which gave me goosebumps as soon as we entered the area! The school is very small but with a relatively large outdoor area, in which, the majority of the students were sitting in small groups of about 5-10 with their teachers. And the backdrop, yet again, was of the Himalayas! We were able to meet some of the kids, all who spoke good English and were keen to learn, as well as to look in on some of what Claudia and Sheena have been doing with their own classes- both are great teachers by the way!
Maddie and Jo’s school similarly gave me high reactions- this time it was tears in my eyes to be honest! The school is very well-resourced, set in a beautiful location, has great educational decorations and has many opportunities for the students. The classes are again reasonably small. Although we didn’t get to see Maddie and Jo teach, the kids were so excited to see them and it was obvious that they are adored.
It was wonderful to see how well these schools ran and to be shown that the Indian school system is capable of creating these kind of institutions. I guess for us though it was both heart-warming to see these successes, but also frustrating to know that our school, and particularly our students could benefit so much from some of the aforementioned aspects of these schools.
After saying goodbye to our volley friends in Manali we set off for a windy, overnight taxi ride to McLeod Ganj. We all became somewhat car sick on this trip and so wound up in McLeod Ganj at 4.30am with no sleep in our system and rolled into bed at a hotel.
When we awoke the next day we were greeted by a lot of beautiful mountainous scenery. We did a lot of shopping on the first day through the shops and stalls- with a lot of inspirational Dalai Lama quotes being bought (in various forms). Along our trip, I got approached by a group of about 15 college students from Punjab who gathered around me and started asking me questions as if I was in a media interview...it was quite hilarious but an obvious show of how fascinated many Indians are by our presence in their country. McLeod Ganj is in fact where the Dalai Lama lives, and so on our second day we went to see his residency (unfortunately he wasn’t home!) and the temple which is in the same grounds. The temple was such a peaceful place to look around and just sit for a bit.
Our final leg of the trip was Amritsar. As soon as we drove into the town we all had an immediate jolt of ‘we’re back in India’! The assault on the senses came back and we were reminded of the diversity of India. We had two boxes to tick off on this trip- the changing of the border guards at the Indian-Pakistani border and the Golden Temple. The changing of the guards was first and we all had a few little butterflies in our tummy as we literally drove towards Pakistan! 1km from the border our taxi driver stopped and we had to walk to the border...among our slight confusion (which is forever present in Indian anyway) we got caught up in the local’s line to get into the grand stands. Luckily a local soon shepherded us into the foreigner’s line and we were on our way to three passport checks and a quick pat down before we were seated for the ‘show’. I got goose bumps as we sat down looking at Pakistan! Each country then begun their respective ceremony- it seemed as if they were trying to outdo each other which was quite entertaining. India’s show included the local women in the audience running with flag to the border and back, the local women dancing in mosh-pit style to Bollywood-style music and the guards doing various marching displays. After some time the two country’s guards came together to perform- with the border gates being dramatically opened and closed and the guards facing up to each other in what looked like a competition of high-kicks and hard stares.
After the show, we headed to the Golden Temple. The temple is a Sikh temple and we were not disappointing by its absolute beauty. The temple is very large but inside is the ‘golden’ section. It sits in the centre of a very calm man-made lake and is literally made of gold!
The rest of Amritsar was a rushed mesh of confusion with hotels and such, and so we were glad to be on the train the next morning at 6am and ready for our 19 hour ride home. By around dinner time however we were back to that feeling of confusion which has become very normal here, as the train sat still at a station for almost four hours...we found out that they had been in fact changing the engine from electric to diesel (go figure!) and so our train was running quite late. We went to sleep with an alarm set for 4am (3 hours after the initial time that our train was meant to arrive) and hoped that we had estimated correctly...no one on Indian trains tells you which stations you’re at you see. At 4am I woke up and asked an official when we would be reaching Varanasi station and he told me that it would be another two hours. So, we all went back to sleep. On waking up at about 5.30am the train did not stop for another hour, so Kas went out to investigate. She was told that we had in fact missed Varanasi station and that we would have to get off at the next station- being a stop which is 3 hours away from Varanasi and which would mean us having to catch a 3 hour train back in sleeper class! This prospect made us all freak out quite a bit- not something we really wanted to do!
However, another passenger told us that according to her phone we were approaching Varanasi...and low and behold (with confirmation from a track worker) we were! We all literally screamed and hugged with joy!
So after 26 hours of travel we arrived back home in Varanasi! It was a relief to be home but we all had a great time along the way seeing a part of India which is so different to what we’ve become used to. It’s certainly a country full of diversity which makes me even more excited for my travels after placement!
Hope everyone is well xx