I visited Morocco several years ago–I believe it was back in 2010 or 2011—and it was a fabulous trip, full of the most amazing natural vistas, stunning architectural marvels, as well as lively markets and very friendly people. I had always wanted to visit Morocco, mainly because that’s where Penny Lane, the groupie from the movie “Almost Famous” picks as the location to restart her life. I wish I had a better reason for wanting to visit Morocco, but I was a part time groupie back in the day and obsessively watched “Almost Famous”, so I can’t lie and say it wasn’t a huge motivating factor in my decision to go. Plus, as I’m sure my readers all know, I’m pretty much game to go anywhere, at any time! I’m also a very big fan of deserts, and especially the Saharan desert, which I had visited a few times from the other side of North Africa, but which I had never seen from the Western edge.
In addition, I was studying Arabic, and wanted to visit a place I could practice what I had learned, although, sadly, I came to find out quite quickly that Moroccan Arabic was almost completely different from the Egyptian Arabic I had been learning in class. The dialects are so completely different that speakers of the same language can barely understand each other, at best. But the written language was similar (although the letters spelled different words), and I was able to practice reading and pronouncing the signs as they went by our bus.
I traveled alone to Morocco because, as usual, I could find no one with either the time or money to fly with me. Since I was alone, and felt no desire to do all the planning myself, I hitched up with GAdventures, an adventure style tour company I’d used often in the past, and with whom I’d had great experiences. I joined the “Highlights of Morocco” tour, which began in Casablanca, and ended in Marrakech (passing through Essaouira, the Atlas Mountains, Merzouga, Fez, Meknes and a host of other great locations as well).
I will skip the details of this tour, as I plan to post each city as a separate post, but I will say flying into Casablanca was terrible and I almost died! I was flying into Casablanca from Rome, as prior to the trip, I had spent a few days checking out the Vatican and other such sights in the city. I flew Alitalia, which I recommend you NEVER do, because they were the worst airline I’ve ever flown (and that’s saying a lot!). I was in first class, and the seats on the flight to Rome were not even completely flat, and on the flight to Casablanca they were the SAME SEATS as
economy, they just didn’t sell the middle seat! Not cool. Even worse, on the flight to Casablanca from Rome, the airplane’s landing gear somehow
failed, and we had to turn around and fly back to Rome (after flying half way to Casablanca AND after being delayed in Rome by several hours). Because the landing gear was bunk, the pilot wasn’t sure if we were going to crash on the runway or not, so he had the air hostesses announce that if “you have a God, start praying now”. The entire plane was full of devout Muslim Berbers and Roman Catholics, so everyone was in tears and praying hard and shit got very wild. There were old ladies on their knees in the aisles, begging God to spare their lives! It was a bad move, and things were completely haywire.
Long story short, we landed relatively safely, with the plane skidding on it’s metal belly onto the runway, and people flying everywhere across the airplane and lots of smoke and sparks. No one was seriously injured, although several people had broken bones, whiplash, and concussions. I, thankfully, being at the front of the plane, had none of these and once the ambulances arrived on the scene and everyone was evacuated from the plane, I was taken to a hotel and put up and had all my food and medical exams comped. I love the European system of having doctors make house and hotel calls! So nice!
Anyways, delayed now by a day and a half, I finally arrived in Casablanca. I had had the foresight enough to leave a few days cushion before the tour started, and I was lucky that I didn’t miss the departure.
Besides all this, the end of the tour in Marrakech was amazing as well! We visited the Majorelle Gardens (pictured in the above gallery) while
touring the city, and they were simply breathtaking! The gardens were divided into several different environs–desert, bamboo garden, waterlily pond, etc. Different areas had different plants, and while there were tons of interesting plants, the garden had by far the best cacti collection I’ve seen outside of America. The alternative name for the garden is “Yves St. Laurent Garden” because the garden was partly owned by the famous designer, who bought it in the 1980s and who had his ashes scattered there when he died. The Majorelle Gardens have been around for a long while, since the 40s I believe, and also house the Islamic Art Museum in Marrakech.
While touring around Marrakech, we saw some more attractions as well (including the famous Jemaa el Fnaa, which I will post about later). When the tour ended, I stayed in a riad with a fellow tour member I had befriended. She had booked the riad through a friend of a friend, and it turned out that the woman who owned the riad was a sort of local Gertrude Stein of the Marrakech art world. She was an amazing lady, originally from London, who had bought up a bunch of old riads and refurbished them, and then of course, rented out their
rooms. She lived in one, and had blazing red hair, chain smoked, had an amazing art collection and knowledge of art, as well as a catty sense of humor and charisma pouring out of every cell in her body. She lived alone and as an older woman in her late 50s, especially in Morocco, this was a rather brave thing in and of itself. She took me and my newly made tour friend out and about in Marrakech to all the art galleries she owned or had the work of artists she sponsored showing. She showed us the best food and the best places to shop in the city. She also was the only one brave enough to just walk headlong into Marrakech traffic, screaming and shouting in Arabic (she was fluent) and waving her arms at taxis to help us get a ride to wherever we were going. I loved her dearly, and I aspire to be like her someday. I never got her full story, but maybe one day I will.
Recommended Tour: GAdventures, “Highlights of Morocco“. $1699 USD for 15 days, Casablanca to Marrakech. $300 USD single room supplement (if you want your own rooms). It’s a fast paced tour that catches all the best cities in Morocco and includes one night of camping and a camel safari in the sand dunes outside of the desert town of Merzouga.
To See: Majorelle Gardens. Garden entry fee is 50 dirham ($6 USD). Fee to the Islamic Art Museum within the garden is 25 dirham ($3 USD). You must be sure to know where it is located and take a good map, as it’s entrance is off a small side street and the garden is walled, so you can neither easily see the entrance or the garden itself from the nearest major road. There are lots of gifts to purchase inside the gardens and the whole place (including museum) takes about 90 minutes to tour.
To Listen: Music from Morocco, or music that I was listening to at the time that captures the spirit of the place.
- Traditional Berber (nomadic tribes of Morocco) Music
- “Lalla Fatima” by Hamid Zahir
- “On The Floor” by Jennifer Lopez (ft. Pitbull)
Hello again! The second piece regarding my trip to Ukraine and my visit to the Ukrainian protestors camped out on the Maidan can be found here. Please take a moment out of your day to give it a read and a share. It’s provides a perspective on the Ukrainian situation that most people in America aren’t, sadly, offered. If you’re a current events follower, or even just a curious traveler, take the time to become educated about this situation, as it may directly affect American foreign policy in the near future.
A Revolution Of Dignity has had some great responses on Facebook:
From Jeffery B. — “My heart bleeds for the Ukrainian people. Wonderful article. Maybe if the mainstream media would carry this story, this viewpoint, more governments would be willing to help. It really is about people wanting a fair shake from their politicians.”
From Adrienne E. — “This is why we need independent journalism like this, from people who see what is going on in the world firsthand and can share their narrative experiences. We’re not even going to hear this from supposedly progressive news sources like Vice or (what was) Current, who have their own vested political interests; real understanding of what it means to live through an event like this can only be gained by asking your friends, or friends of your friends, what it was like for them personally. You’ve seen a lot and met a lot of remarkable people in your life, Suzie, and it’s so wonderful that you’ve found a platform to share that collective wisdom.”
From Wendy B. — “I really liked your questions~ you wrote it in a way that made me feel like I was walking along there with you. My heart aches for those people, who are putting absolutely everything on the line. Hard times for Ukraine.”
From Jessica P. — “The revolution of dignity. I loved it. It was moving, informative, not a single spelling error or grammar mistake that I can find. (and you know how I love to read books and keep tally marks of all the errors on the right hand side of the front page). I still wish you had not gone because I was afraid for you, but I think perhaps, you have done Kiev a good justice. Perhaps they need someone to tell their side of the story. It is unfortunate that American Media, and media in general won’t share that beautiful piece of scholarly journalism my darling Suzie.”
From Herve R. — “Rien de tel que la proximité du terrain pour prendre conscience de la réalité. Un grand courage de ta part d’ y être allée .L’ Ukraine devrait être libre et entière dans sa territorialité , sans aucune intervention des pays étrangers. Europe , USA , Russie. Les témoignages que tu as recueillis sont très intéressants. Bravo!”
From Philip M. — “Suzie, this was a great article. In the USA, we get stressed out over whether we have fancy enough cars or big enough houses,
whether our Botox needs to be renewed, if we are wearing the right clothes or carrying the right purse. We watch ridiculous tv shows about affluent housewives complaining about their bitchy friends and or for the more sedate, there are the game shows in which we find out who can answer more questions and your article is a great reminder that there are people in the world who have real life issues to deal with every day, very basis issues such as the freedom of choice and yet Miley’s twerking has gotten more coverage than the struggles of the Ukrainian people. We live in a fantasy world here and your article helps us break through that.”
Summarily, A Revolution of Dignity is worth a read. Get to it, give feedback, and please share with everyone you know! Thanks bunches! –DOAP
Going to sub-Saharan Africa for the first time was quite an adventure. I had always wanted to visit West Africa (Ivory Coast, Liberia, etc), however, I had a few friends who wanted to do the whole safari thing and see the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater, so I decided to tag along. Well, I ended up planning the entire trip myself, and they went along for the ride, to be more accurate. 😉
Flying into Nairobi from Zurich, where I had been stationed for awhile working was quite a unique experience. I didn’t know what to expect traveling to sub-Saharan Africa, because at the time, it was one of the only parts of the world I had yet to visit. I always try to study at the people on my flights to figure out how the native population will dress, look, and act. One of the first things I noticed on my Swiss Air flight into Nairobi was that there were no Africans on the flight. It was quite sad, as usually no matter what country you are visiting, there will be a few native people on the airplane with you. No so, in this instance. I think that says a lot about the ways that sub-Sarahan Africa is isolated, economically, culturally and racially from the rest of the world, which is very unfortunate, as I was to find such a rich, beautiful culture upon landing.
The Nairobi airport was much more modern than I was expecting, and while not a gleaming mecca to Duty Free zones and business class lounges like say, Bangkok, the airport was very
functional, clean, and well laid out. Customs were very quick, and it was easy to purchase a single entry visa upon arrival for $50 USD. I had anticipated spending $100 USD for a multiple entry visa as my tour itinerary had me re-entering Kenya after being in Tanzania and Zanzibar before leaving for the United Kingdom. However, I was told at customs that if you travel to Tanzania, it’s still considered “part of Kenya” and you don’t need a multiple entry visa. I don’t know if this was because I smiled sweetly at my customs officer or what, but I didn’t have any issues re-entering the country, nor did any of my travel mates, so I believe that they allow travel to Tanzania without needing a multiple entry visa.
However, a note for those planning to visit Kenya and Tanzania: you need a Yellow Fever certificate, both to enter the country and to re-enter your home country. You can get the Yellow Fever Vaccine at the airport, prior to customs, and they give you an option for an extra $20 NOT to get the vaccine and just get a stamped piece of yellow paper saying you have actually gotten it. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a fan of the yellow fever, so I took the actual shot. You can also get certified yellow fever vaccinations at travel health agencies and doctor’s offices across the USA and the world. Some countries, like India, periodically run out of the vaccine, so it’s best to do this months in advance. Plus, your immunity doesn’t build up
immediately after getting the shot, and since it’s a live vaccine, you can get some flu like symptoms from the shot, so it’s better to do this at home and be prepared vs. being sick in Kenya.
After grabbing my bags, which arrived promptly, and meeting my driver at the airport, I was shuttled to the Sarova Stanley hotel in downtown Nairobi. I was really amazed at how safe the place seemed to be, given all of the dire travel warnings one gets prior to any sub-Saharan African travel. I arrived in the evening, so my first view of the city was at sunset, and it was gorgeous! The setting sun lit up the very 80s style buildings in the downtown core, highlighting bizarre right angles and triangularly shaped hut-like structures, soaring 50 feet in the air. The city had a very exotic feeling to it, despite having all the hallmarks of any modern city–office buildings, markets, mobile stores, and the like. Huge signs for Tusker Beer, the national beer of Kenya, were painted on all manner of surfaces, and Java House coffee shops (the Kenyan version of Starbucks) were common on every street corner. The streets were also quite lively and full of people, with lots of dance halls, casinos and discos.
The traffic on the 15 km stretch of highway going to the airport was horrendous, as the Nairobi airport is rather small for the amount of traffic it receives. It’s the only modern airport in all of East Africa, and all safari-goers fly through it, along with tons of Somalian refugees (the Somali border is not far from Nairobi). There are often huge lines flying out, and bad traffic on the last 15 kms of highway as it is the only way to enter or exit the airport. But after that, the traffic wasn’t too bad getting into the city, and eventually I arrived at my hotel and was delighted to find I was upgraded to the “Windsor Suite”! It was a
huge suite with a living room, dining room, massive terrace, and beautiful bed. I couldn’t have been more happy with the room, or with the accompanying beautiful breakfast spread the next day, that I consumed while sitting beneath a beautiful acacia tree in the hotel courtyard.
After breakfast, I had a few hours to kill before my 2pm tour of the Kibera slums, which are the largest slums in Africa and which sit about 5 kms from Nairobi’s city center, where my hotel was located. To pass the time until my tour began, I decided to walk to the nearby famous City Market in the dead center of
Nairobi, and after a few attempts at finding it, turned a corner into a massive parking lot filled to the brim with vendors selling all manner of “Africana”. I made the walk alone, and despite almost being arrested for smoking on the street (apparently it is a dire crime to smoke a cigarette on a public street in Kenya), and after bribing my way out of Kenyan jail with roughly 600 Kenyan Shillings (about $7 USD), I was finally able to shop to my hearts content.
It was rather disappointing to me that the City Market was mainly touristy garbage and not authentic African handicrafts, but what can one expect really? It’s a market geared towards tourists, not natives, and there’s more of a profit to be made off of marked up Chinese manufactured, mass produced “Masai shields” than there is off of the real deal. I get it. But word to the wise: don’t go shopping there expecting real handicrafts. Also, don’t go if you don’t care to bargain or are scared of bargaining. Everything is massively overpriced because of the expectation that one will spend at least 15 minutes haggling over the price of each item you want to purchase. Also, bring Kenyan Shillings with you–
you’ll end up getting better prices that way because you can haggle down to a lower level. Sure, vendors there accept USD as well as Shillings, but instead of bargaining to say, $5 USD (433 Shillings) you could go do to an even 400 Shillings and save yourself some money.
Everything an African tourist could possibly want can be found at this market, from wooden carved statues and masks, to paintings, to Masai bric-a-brac, to spears, clothing, jewelry, etc. All of it is sold by Masai tribesmen, and most of the men speak fairly good English (and probably some other languages such as Dutch and German as well). All are friendly and inviting but beware that if you express interest in something you will be accosted heartily to buy it. Look furtively and strike when you’re sure you want something. And if you want multiples of something try to buy all from the same vendor, to get a discount.
After shopping my little heart out, it was time for the Kibera slum tour. I had called an arranged the tour the evening before, and was easily accommodated at the timing of my choice. At 2pm sharp, a taxi driver sent by the Kibera Tours company arrived in the lobby of my hotel. My friends and I got in the cab and were taken on a short drive to the suburbs of Nairobi, where we were dropped of at a Java House Coffee shop. There we met with the other tourists taking the 2pm tour, along with our guides, Freddy and Martin. Everyone was friendly and welcoming, especially Freddy and Martin, who mentioned several times that they were from the same Kenyan tribe as President Barack Obama. 🙂
We all started out on foot to the slums, meandering behind the shopping center with the Java House coffee shop and a few other stores, and down some dirt roads, and through some light bush. Eventually, we popped out into one of the most impressive shanty towns I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen shanty towns in Mumbai, Brazil, Bangkok, etc, but Kibera was different. It was so BIG! Plus, everything was built on rubbish, literally. Kibera sits on one massive rubbish heap, and the ground beneath my feet turned into compressed garbage as we got closer and closer to the heart of the area.
The tour passed through several enclosed markets, and the dwellings all began to be made of corrugated iron sheets and blue tarps, with a few made of scrap lumber and plywood. In one of the markets, a local woman pulled me aside and showed me how to wear my purse–clutched in front of me, not hanging loosely to the side. Our guides hadn’t mentioned any danger of theft in the area, but looking back, I should have probably known not to look like a rich white tourist with a dangling purse waltzing through a place where the
vast majority of people lack basic food, water, and electrical services. I thanked her for her advice, and asked Freddy and Martin how dangerous the slums really were. I am not a big believer in danger, as in, I don’t ever notice it or feel it or even really believe in it. I feel like people who perceive danger are all making it up in their heads. Freddy told me that it probably wasn’t a safe place to walk around at night, but during the day, with them, that I would be alright.
A word about the guides–Freddy and Martin are native Kenyans who grew up and who currently live in Kibera. Their homes just recently began to benefit from electricity. They still don’t have running water or plumbing in their homes. I really enjoyed having them as tour guides because they were FROM Kibera and could really represent their home to foreigners without feeling like we were somehow exploiting or gawking at their misfortune. It was fun to walk around Kibera and hear a “Hey Freddy, how’s it going!” or “Martin, when are you coming by, your mother says to visit her later!”. It really felt like I was part of the neighborhood, so to speak. I probably wouldn’t have taken the tour, otherwise. I generally feel that tours of economically impoverished areas are unsavory, but given the circumstances, I gave it a go.
After a general tour of the main streets of Kibera, which were hard to navigate in sandals (wear closed
toed shoes if you go–there’s a lot of open sewage, rotting food, sharp nails and waste in the streets), we were taken to a small primary school which functioned inside Kibera to try to educate children who grew up there. It was very difficult to see, as these children were all huddled in a dirt floored, corrugated iron shed, with about 30 small children to one teacher. However, they were lively, bright eyed, obviously eager to learn, and singing a song and dancing around when we visited. They had some blackboards and some chalk and were doing some lessons, but the teacher stopped for a moment and let them swarm us, giving us hugs and shaking our hands and asking in broken English all manner of things–“What name? Come from? You live Kibera?”. It was utterly adorable and I just loved all the attention these kids were willing to give us! Plus, they were so HAPPY, which I think goes to show you that money is not the dividing line between being satisfied in life and being empty. Almost all of the people, young and old, that I ran into and had the privilege to interact with were happy, or at least, in good spirits. People were laughing with their neighbors, telling stories, working hard with their friends. It was a very social place, because no one had much privacy as all the buildings were right next to each other, and the walls simply a plywood board. Kibera may be lacking in water, food and electricity but the people there certainly don’t fixate on what they don’t have. It’s more of a community that any I’ve seen and more tight knit and supportive.
Speaking of which, our next stop were several charities based in Kibera, mainly there to assist people who were HIV positive (which a large
portion of Kibera was) and especially women who were HIV positive. A lot of the education these NGOs gave (most were Kenyan founded, run and directed) were geared towards women who were HIV positive who became pregnant. They focused a lot on how to keep the child from getting HIV from the mother’s breast milk, in addition to supplying small loans and financing to women who wanted to start their own businesses. I was very impressed by the work they were doing and met some amazing HIV positive women who owned bead and jewelry stores. A few people on our tour wouldn’t touch the HIV positive women, which I found supremely insulting, especially after it had been explained a few times that HIV cannot be spread by touch or even by kissing! I was rather disappointed in a few people on my tour and wanted to apologize for their actions.
Our last stop on the tour was Freddy and Martin’s house, where we were able to make donations to any of the NGOs we had visited or to Freddy and Martin themselves. We all signed a tour book and were offered hand made t-shirts for $10 USD. It was interesting to visit their home, as it was like any other home in Kibera–made of scrap metal and wood, with no running water and furniture dug out of the garbage heaps. After spending 4 hours walking around with Freddy and Martin and getting to know them as friends and humans, seeing their living situation made you realize that all of these people living in Kibera were both human and intelligent, and not so different (in fact, the same) as you or me. A lot of people see poverty as a dividing line between humans and that poverty brings certain characteristics with it, such as sloth, lack of intelligence, or some sort of other defect. Fact is, poverty just happens. You’re born into it, and once there, in ANY country, and especially in Kenya, it’s almost impossible to remove oneself from it’s clutches. I admired Freddy and Martin for doing what they could to make money and to build a business based off of their situation, rather than being ashamed of it. I hoped that the people on the tour realized what I did, and that they saw poverty not as a result of a defective character but as a circumstance that should be fought as much as possible through charitable work, education, NGO resources, and correct political policy.
The tour lasted about 4 hours, and by the time the tour was over, the sun was setting and everyone said their goodbyes and went our separate
ways. My friends and I caught a cab back to our hotel, and after so many hours in the bright African sun, we happily took a nap before dinner. Well, I took a 30 minute nap (as opposed to everyone else who slept for 3 hours!) and then hit the pool. Hey, you can sleep when you’re dead! I had some swimming to do…
To Get There: SWISS Airways, a codeshare partner of United Airways and part of the Star Alliance. They have daily flights to and from Nairobi from Zurich, priced around $800-900 USD, round trip. Decent airline, with modern airplanes, replete with economy plus seats, personal entertainment centers, and charging outlets under the seat. Flight is approximately 8 hours.
To Stay: Sarova Stanley Hotel, the first 5 star luxury hotel in Nairobi, built in 1902, and upgraded in the mid-90s. Rooms start at roughly $150/night, and go up to $400+/night for luxury suites. Location is great, in the heart of downtown Nairobi, and the City Market is within walking distance, as are many shops, restaurants, and discos. The pool is rather small and the menu during the day is limited, but the breakfast spread is to die for!
To See: Kibera Tours, the only walking tour of the Kibera slums, which sit on the outskirts of Nairobi and are the biggest slums in Africa. The tours are run by Freddy and Martin, two local Kibera residents (born and still living there). Highly recommended. 2500 Kenyan Shillings (about $30) per person, with the option to donate money to various aid agencies at the end of the tour or to buy handmade t-shirts that promote Kibera tours. Tours depart once in the morning, at 8am, and once in the afternoon, at 2pm. To arrange a tour, simply call the number listed on the website, or send an email. The response is quick, and pick-ups easy to arrange.
To Shop: City Market, located in central downtown Nairobi. Looking for African souvenirs? This is the place to go. From Masai shields and spears to carved wooden masks and beaded necklaces and bracelets, City Market has it all. Be ready to haggle, bring your money in Kenyan Shillings, and be aware that most of the items being sold are not locally produced.
Hello everyone! I wanted to take a moment to cross post a link to my newest article about my travels to Kiev, hosted by Wheat City Magazine. You can read the article containing the interviews I did with the protesters on the Maidan here. I have another article that I have written that goes deeper into the mindset and motivations of the protesters; however, it hasn’t been published yet. Whenever it finds a home, I will link to it in this post as well. Stay tuned! 🙂
A short video of my epic road trip from Jodhpur to Jaipur and then onwards to Delhi, where I caught a flight to Almaty and then Kiev.
I had asked to stop for a snack, for some fresh roadside samosas, so we had pulled into a local market in a small town between Jodhpur and Jaipur. I also grabbed some fresh bananas and salty yoghurt. In small towns in India, such as this one, it usually causes a scene for me to leave whatever vehicle I am in, so I generally send the driver to get what I need. I just look so different and so foreign, and my tattoos are such an attraction, people want to stop for photos with me and families throw their babies into my arms for photos, and young men try to get me to enter my phone number into their mobiles and such. I always dress appropriately for these sort of trips (covered shoulders, long pants or skirts) so that isn’t an issue, it’s just the unwanted attention I get which causes mass hysteria and difficulty in stopping quickly for snacks when I am in a hurry to get somewhere.
This is a typical small town in Rajasthan, 212 kms from Jaipur, and probably something like 250 kms from Jodhpur.
The last time I visited Kiev was back in the summer of 2010, and it was blisteringly hot, full of packs of wild dogs, gypsy cabs, and general wackiness. Landing on a plane from Budapest on ’10, we exited the aircraft directly onto the tarmac and were shuttled through a very simple terminal, into a huge sea of touts and taxi drivers, all swarming around me and the few friends I was traveling with.
Not this time! As I landed from Almaty (I had flown on Air Astana, the national airline of Kazakhstan from Delhi, India to Almaty, then to Kiev), I was struck by how modern, new and clean the terminal at the airport was! Customs was completely revamped in the typical European style, and the baggage claims were new, fast, and efficient. I could tell that in the 4 years between my summer in Kiev and my present arrival in the country, things had improved quite a bit. Ukraine was obviously making efforts to modernize and improve both their airports and the rest of their capital city.
A friend of mine from picked me up and took me directly to my lodgings, at Kiev Central Station hostel. I stayed there the time I visited before, and I chose to stay there again, despite not generally being a fan of “budget travel” or hostels in general. However, Kiev is a place which is very hard to navigate as an English speaker, and it’s very helpful to have a hostel full of people to join you on outings and a great owner like Aricio to assist with finding a translator and local guide. Aricio treats all of his guests like family, and despite being Brazilian, he speaks Ukrainian and can arrange anything you want, whether it be a trip to Chernobyl or a guide fluent in the local language to help you navigate the city. Back in 2010, he found a great guide for my friends and I, and it made all the difference as almost no one in Kiev speaks a word of English; the predominate languages are Ukrainian and Russian. No street signs are in English, no one knows even the most basic of English terms, and no taxi driver can read an English language map. So my advice to anyone visiting Ukraine, and Kiev in particular, is to make sure you have a translator to join you on your outings at least at first, until you get the hang of the local language.
It was nice to be back at Kiev Central Station hostel, and, like the rest of Kiev, it had grown, expanded and improved since my last visit. Instead of just taking up one flat on the top floor, the hostel had expanded to another apartment on the level below it as well. The hostel is most definitely a hostel, and there are no elevators in the building, as the hostel is composed of two Soviet-era flats in a Soviet-era building. You must walk up 5 flights of stairs with all of your bags to reach the first level of the hostel.
However, it is very homey, clean, and inviting and as stated, Aricio, the owner, is a fabulous host and makes you feel right at home. Because of the protests, the hostel this time around was very empty, but usually there are also tons of travelers willing to welcome you into their social groups and join you as you learn about and explore Kiev.
Unfortunately for me, I was late in my arrival to Ukraine. I had missed my flight in Kiev and due to the nature of the flights between Delhi and Kiev, I ended up arriving two days later than expected. I only had a little more than 24 hrs in the city, so I had to make use of my time wisely. I arrived late at night, dropped my bags off at the hostel, and proceeded to get some dinner. I knew of a little place called Palata #6, which was a short walk across the street from the hostel, so I went over to grab some dinner. It’s a rather difficult spot to find, as it’s down a back alley and underneath an office building, in a basement, but it’s well worth the search. Waitresses dressed up like hot nurses serve a large variety of good food and drinks, for rather cheap prices. Plus, there’s non-stop MTV videos being played on the TV screens set up around the eating area, and tons of young hipsters hanging out, having fun. The place has a really nice, laid back vibe.
I decided after dinner to go find a nightclub, because Ukraine knows how to party like nobody’s business, and they have some amazing house DJs. At this point it was rather late, probably 11pm-ish, and I went back to my hostel, changed into something club worthy, and ran out to the street to hail a cab. The neighborhood was much more quiet than I remember it being in 2010, which I attributed to the protests and the general lack of tourists. I didn’t see a single tourist in Kiev (besides myself) for the entire duration of my stay. The roving packs of wild dogs which had bothered me non-stop in 2010 were also nowhere to be seen, and my favorite aspect of Kiev, it’s “gypsy cabs” were also seemingly missing, which made an issue for me as I stood on the street corner hailing cab after cab, only to be turned away. “Gypsy cabs” were simply random people driving along the road who would pick you up if you hailed them down and would drive you to your destination so long as you were going in the same general direction they were, all for very cheap prices. This practice seems to have disappeared in the city, and as I took to walking in my 4″ heels to the nearby club, called the “Boom Boom Room“, I silently cursed whoever outlawed them.
I had forgotten it was a Sunday evening, so low and behold, after finally getting a cab and being dropped off at the club, I was disappointed to find out it was closed. I figured I could try to find another club, but Sunday nights are always terrible in the nightclub industry, so instead I decided just to hit the Maidan in my heels and fancy outfit.
I know I’ve said that you need a translator to get around the city, but I’ve been to Kiev before and I know my way around. I wouldn’t recommend that a newbie get out at midnight and hail cabs and bar hop without some knowledge of Ukrainian and Russian, but it is possible if you’ve been here before and know your way around the city and can flirt with taxi drivers to get to where you need to go. So I did just that, and got a ride from the club to the Maidan, and wandered around a bit.
For anyone who is considering a trip to Kiev or to Ukraine in general, please don’t be scared by the government warnings. There is absolutely no threat to Westerners, at least not in Kiev and Lviv. I would think twice about Crimea at the moment and parts of the deep east of Ukraine, but as I walked around the Maidan past midnight, in heels and a fancy coat, not a single feeling of being unsafe ever passed through me. The entire time I stayed in Kiev I felt completely safe, and would not hesitate to return. In fact, I felt safer in 2014 than I did in 2010, due to a large part to the city’s effort to handle the wild dog problem and to generally clean up the streets. If one can walk around as a single woman past midnight in the middle of a massive protest camp and feel utterly safe, there is no threat to ANYONE’S safety!
The Maidan after midnight was really an amazing experience. I had waited so long to visit and had built up so much about what it would be like to visit the camps, so to finally be there seemed a bit surreal. I wandered around, smelled the burning rubber and campfires, and kept wishing I could read all the signs, grafitti, and banners that enveloped the camps. There were some checkpoints on the outer perimeters of the square, to keep out opposition forces, who have a history of coming in and abducting and torturing protesters at night. I had to stop at one of these, but they quickly waved me through because I obviously did not look like any sort of harmful force. In fact, during my time in Kazakhstan and in Ukraine, I constantly was asked about my ethnicity. I look very Eastern European, and in Kazakhstan I was often labeled Russian and in Ukraine, I just looked like a local. It definitely
helped make my tour of the Maidan easier, as I didn’t stand out as a tourist or as a Westerner. However, even if I had, I doubt there would have been any issues. Everyone there seemed friendly and open, and when I visited again the next day, they were all eager to talk, eager to get to know me, and to share their stories and their reasons for protesting. Spirits seemed high, and people were sitting around their campfires, joking, laughing, drinking and smoking. As it was my first time seeing the Maidan since 2010, it was a large shock to see how much it had changed. Bricks had been torn up and the entire place was filled with tents and encampments from all different types of people–eastern, western, and Crimean Ukrainians as well as Georgians, Azerbaijanis and Chechnyans. There were mounds of flowers and make-shift memorials for fallen protesters, as well as large mounds of bricks (pulled up from the sidewalks), candles, huge amounts of used tires and tons of old scrap wood and metal. These were piled into large barricades, which allowed the Maidan guards to have checkpoints to control who entered and left the Maidan.
I wandered around for a good period of time, and then decided to head back to my hostel. I came across a musician playing a piano on a sidewalk of the Maidan, and donated some money to his cause. I then easily caught another cab back to the hostel, using my hands to tell the driver “left here, right here, ok straight” as he didn’t understand English and I didn’t have a Ukrainian map to show him how to get back to the hostel.
Smelling of campfire smoke, I slept well that night, as my trip to Ukraine and the long walk around the Maidan at night had worn me out. I woke up early the next morning, excited to see the protest camps in the daylight. I had arranged for a friend of a friend to meet me around noon to do
some translation work. I wanted to speak to the protesters myself, to get a better idea of what was actually going on, and what their motivations, hopes, and dreams were for their country. I also intended to write a piece about the Ukrainian protests of 2014, so I needed someone who could really do a good job translating both in language and in spirit, the sentiments that these people were trying to express.
However, because I was so excited to be in Kiev, I couldn’t sleep past 7am and decided to just get up and head over to see the Lavra again before meeting with Katya, my translator. The bunk bed I slept in at the hostel was more than comfortable and I only needed a few hours of sleep, a super hot shower (of which there were plenty!) and some wifi and I was ready to hit the streets of Kiev again, this time grabbing a taxi to the Lavra.
The Pechersk Lavra in Kiev is an amazing complex of Eastern Orthadox churches and monasteries, along with some museums, and a bunch of underground tunnels that house many holy relics (most are mummified bodies of ancient monks who were canonized and who are said to help provide healing miracles). The Lavra has been a cave monastery since the 1500s, and the tunnels underneath the church complex go deep into the ground. There are also full on underground churches, and services are conducted down in these tunnels several times a week. To reach the tunnels, you must pay and entry fee and there are also English speaking guides available for hire if you’d like more knowledge about what you’re looking at as you walk through the cramped, low ceilinged tunnels. Before they let you enter, you must cover your head with a scarf (if you’re a woman) and wear a long skirt (for woman) or long pants (for men). If you don’t have the appropriate clothing, they have some temporary wraps you can borrow to put over your clothing and scarves are for sale all around the Lavra grounds. In fact, the scarf must be worn as soon as you enter the Lavra grounds, not just inside the tunnels, so it’s good to bring one or to buy one before purchasing a ticket to enter the Lavra complex.
Once inside the tunnels, it’s very dark and the only light is from lit candles, carried in one’s hand and candles which burn in brass candelabras places in the larger rooms of the underground complex. The tunnels are very narrow and the ground is uneven, so you must be very careful to not trip. I wouldn’t recommend that people with any sort of disability try to go down into these tunnels, and likewise, if you are claustrophobic, don’t do it. Once you’re down there, it’s easy to get lost as well, so I would definitely recommend spending the 400 Hryvnia ($36) for a guide. You must also be careful not to let your candle catch fire to anything, as it’s just a wax stick with the wick lit, and you are not offered any sort of candle holder.
However, for all of these warnings–if you can go down and see the holy relics, GO. They consist of mummified bodies of the monks who built these tunnels by hand, slowly but surely digging out meter after meter of underground tunnels to isolate themselves in in their quest to serve God. These bodies are naturally mummified (unlike the ones in Egypt) and in the old days, they considered this natural mummification a miracle and hence considered the bodies to be holy relics, touched by God. Some of these people were also renowned healers of their times and a prayer or two to them is said to help with health ailments. All of these bodies are housed in class coffins, and while you can’t see much except a mummified hand here or there, the cloths that they are draped in are embroidered with the finest gold and silver threads, and have many jewels and other beautiful personal adornments on their bodies.
After touring the tunnels at the Lavra, I visited some of the magnificent golden-domed cathedrals on the grounds, as well as some the museums. The museums cost a little extra to enter, but are well worth it, especially the micro-miniature museum, which is filled with the tiniest works of art you’ll ever see. The cathedrals are all gold gilt and soaring ceilings covered in the most beautiful paintings, and they surround a lovely clock tower.
Once 11:30am rolled around, I had to leave to meet up with my guide. We had decided to meet at the Arsenala metro station, which happens to be the deepest metro station in the world (it was a Soviet era bomb shelter as well), and a short walk from the Lavra. Once we met up, we grabbed some coffee and proceeded to commence on a “revolutionary walking tour” of the city. On the way to the Maidan, she pointed out certain government buildings, told stories of street corner skirmishes, and, since she had taken part in the protests herself, she was able to give a very thoughtful, in depth explanation of what had happened, and why. Katya was an amazing guide and I was thankful to have had her insight while traversing the main thoroughfares of the revolution.
She told stories of people “disappearing” and then showing up in the local morgues with signs of torture, and of officials refusing to release the bodies to the next of kin, for fear of their speaking about the torture. Instead, they dump most of these bodies into mass graves, which
have appeared near cemeteries in Kiev. Katya also told of the “revolution of dignity”, as most of the protesters are now calling the February clashes. She explained that, at first, the protests had been political. People had gathered to voice their opinions about how to modernize Ukraine and their desire to join the EU. They were pragmatic about the whole thing, and didn’t figure that the protests would immediately change anything, but yet felt that their voices did need to be heard. They were initially hoping to start the process of joining the EU, and wanted to voice their support for this. However, once the violence started, the protests became less about politics and more about human dignity–to stand up for their right to be treated like human beings, and not to be shot at, disparaged, or “disappeared”. It was very touching to hear her talk about the protests, and I could tell from the size and scope of the encampments on the Maidan that the true heart and soul of the Ukrainian people had sparked and stood behind these protests. One cannot be so passionate only about politics–it was obvious that these were people fighting for their basic human right to the pursuit of happiness.
We had a quick lunch in a local cafeteria after wandering around, looking at the homemade catapults, the makeshift stands displaying the bullets that were fired on protesters, and all the various graffiti art that covered the square. After lunch, I got to talk to a lot of protesters in the camps and got some good insight into what their goals were. I was surprised and the breadth of countries represented on the Maidan–it was not just Ukrainians protesting but people from all over the former Eastern Bloc. Citizens from nearby countries, some of whom had also faced Russian forces and invasions, had traveled all the way from their homelands to help support the Ukrainian cause. In addition, Ukrainians from all over the country were there–from the east, west, south, central and Crimea. It was not just Kievians and Western Ukrainians fighting for a more modern, less corrupt state. All of Ukraine was on the Maidan, and it was a beautiful and inspiring sight to see.
After the last interviews and photos, around 5pm, I said goodbye to Katya, and took a cab back to my hostel, passing the Kiev Opera House along the way home. My flight left the next morning at 6am, so I had a quick dinner at a middle eastern restaurant near my hostel, and went to bed. At 3am sharp, as requested, a taxi came by the hostel, grabbed me and my luggage, and whisked me to the airport, where a Lufthansa jet took me to Frankfurt, and then on home to LA.
All in all, while my visit was short, it was inspiring, heart breaking, and amazing. I urge everyone to visit Ukraine and to show support for their cause. Do not listen to the US State Department warnings, which are overblown most of the time anyways. If you stay in the the north and west part of Ukraine, you will be just fine. Ukraine has a lot of unique historical sites, as well as a very friendly and welcoming populace, a thriving backpacking culture and yummy food–be sure to try their cherry dumplings with sour cream, sprinkled with rock sugar. Brilliant!
I hope to return again sometime to Ukraine in the near future and I wish their people and their protesters the best of luck. I will never forget the kindness, the inspiration, the hopes and the dreams that the protesters on the Maidan shared with me. May all of their wishes come true…
To see: Kiev Pecherska Lavra, a UNESCO World Heritage site– Adults, 50 UAH/Students, children and pensioners, 25 UAH. English language tours of the tunnels under the Lavra, 400 UAH for up to two people (prices increase as group size increases). Entrance is free on the last Monday of every month.
To stay: Kiev Central Station Hostel. Private twin room for 2 people (bunk beds) runs about 15 EURO a night. A four bed dorm is 12 EURO a night, and the cheapest beds are in a 12 person mixed dorm for about 9 EURO a night. Aricio is the owner of the hostel and can arrange for airport pick ups, tours of Chernobyl and local translators, fixers, and guides. All rooms have wi-fi coverage. Beds are clean and comfy, showers run hot water, and the whole vibe of the place is very positive and backpacker friendly.
To party: The Boom Boom Room. Local DJs spinning house and EDM. Closed Sundays.
To get there: Air Astana, national airline of Kazakhstan. I was quite impressed by how nice this airline was. Their food was really good, and they had a full meal service (including hot towels) as well as amenity kits even for economy passengers. Their layover facilities in Almaty were very nice, and their lounges were also well stocked and friendly. Also, Lufthansa runs flights to Kiev from other parts of Europe, and while I flew on Lufthansa only because it’s a United Airways codeshare partner, they generally have pretty good service, despite not being vegetarian friendly and having a rather maze-like airport layout in their Frankfurt hub. However, their business lounges are quite nice and their business seats go fully flat on their Frankfurt/LA flights.
To Listen: Songs of revolution!
I’m in Ukraine now and things are fine. I’ve had a grand adventure traveling all over India and Eastern Europe and Central Asia (helloooo Kazakhstan!). I will update my blog with new photos and videos and stories soon.
But just a side note: I’m staying about 4 blocks from the Maidan and everything is fine. No one should worry about coming here for safety reasons. In fact, people should come here to be inspired by what the courageous Ukrainian people have done. The Maidan is breathtaking in it’s size, scope and ambition. If only more of us could be so inspired…!
I had always wanted to visit Buenos Aires, Argentina for one reason–to see Evita’s grave! I have been a fan of the charismatic and infamous first lady since I first saw the movie “Evita”, starring Madonna. As a young kid at the time, her style and her forceful personality struck a chord with me, and I was bound and determined to visit the city she called home, as well as her gravesite, someday in my future.
Eventually, I got my chance, and found myself in Buenos Aires. One of the first stops I made was to visit the La Recoleta cemetery, where she lies buried amongst many other notable members of Argentinian society. Her grave is not well marked, although it is noted on the cemetery map, there are no big signs pointing to it or even so much as a guidepost assisting you in the right direction. I was surprised at how hard to find her grave was, actually, and I spent probably 30 minutes wandering around the general area, trying to find it. I ended up having to ask for assistance from a graveyard keeper, who was washing the mausoleums of other families, several blocks away from where Evita was buried. Her grave was down a narrow alley way between mausoleums and was completely devoid of tourists, which was really wonderful. There were some flowers adoring her grave, and some colored beads and tokens, but besides those items, it was deserted. A lifelong dream of mine was met, utterly alone, and just the way I had hoped it would be.
Besides my Evita fascination, the Recoleta cemetery is also a really magnificent place to visit simply for the artistic merit of the many sculptures that adorn the many tombs of the burial grounds. Most tombs are magnificently decorated in various different artistic styles–anywhere from ultra modern cubist stone boxes to classical angels and gold gilded birds and stone flowers. The cemetery is very similar in style to those found in New Orleans, with all the tombs being above ground either in family mausoleums or in rows of boxes built into the brick wall of the cemetery. Thankfully, La Recoleta cemetery is kept up much better than any of the cemeteries in New Orleans, so it’s much more clean, well organized, and easy to walk through. Upon entering the cemetery, there is a map of all the notable people buried in the cemetery, along with several volunteer tour guides, so you won’t get lost trying to find the grave you’re looking for (unless you’re me and assume you can read a map better than you actually can). The guides there are free, but be sure to tip them well. I believe you can also arrange paid tours of the cemetery through 3rd party tour companies, although it truly is not needed. La Recoleta is best experienced by lazily walking up and down the mausoleum corridors on a sunny Sunday afternoon. It’s a quiet place of reflection and beauty, and the cemetery is laid out in city blocks, in a grid pattern, so it is easy to stroll amongst the graves without getting lost.
After walking around the cemetery, I would recommend a brief tour of the adjacent church, called “Basilica Nuestra Senora del Pilar“, which is absolutely beautiful. It’s a smallish church, but the interior decorations are breathtaking and covered in gold gilt! The views of the Recoleta cemetery from the church’s second floor are worth noting as well, although the bars across the windows prevent any good aerial shots of the graves. There’s also an option to tour the church and to see some religious artifacts, and you must take this tour (which costs nearly nothing) to get up to the second floor room that allows you a view of the Recoleta cemetery from above. Plus, the tour gives you a pretty good idea of the religious feelings of the colonial times, as the church was built as a mission. In fact, those from California will recognize the architectural style of the church as it is very much like the Spanish Mission churches in Southern California.
The Recoleta neighborhood in Buenos Aires is also fun to poke around in, after you’re done with the church and the cemetery. Across the street from the church and the cemetery is a strip of cute Italian and French outdoor cafes, and if you walk a little further, you hit a modern shopping mall and the main road through Recoleta. The neighborhood is full of street-side cafe’s and boutique shops, as well as lots of nightclubs, bars and discos. You can rent apartments in Recoleta (which I did) for much more cheaply than you can rent a hotel room, and since the neighborhood is so walkable, and taxis are so cheap and plentiful, it makes more sense than staying in a hotel. If you rent an apartment, you can spend more time exploring the area and less time ordering room service! Some say that Recoleta is dangerous after dark, but it truly isn’t if you just take general precautions and don’t wear 10 karat diamond rings out after dark. There were some student protesters in the area, who were protesting the government take over of a local theatre, but they were very harmless and mostly drunk on cheap wine and wanting to juggle and sing songs.
Lastly, if you’re into a little crazy with your cemetery, after the dark falls, try out one of Buenos Aires only swingers clubs, Anchorena. It’s spread out over 5 floors and has several pools, a jazcuzzi, and way more than enough hot men and women to satisfy even the most insatiable couples. Along with many rooms (some couples only, some for singles) there are also live sex shows and, of course, a bar. If you’ve come all the way to Argentina, why not have a little fun? Plus, this is not your typical American swinger’s club, replete with fat housewives and ugly old men. No, this club is filled with young, hot, freethinking, bohemian youths, all of them fairly attractive. It’s well worth the 120 peso entry fee for men (and no cover for women). Plus, for 120 pesos, you also get two free drinks. Score!
To stay: TripAdvisor Vacation rentals; I paid 300 USD/per week for a small, 1 bedroom apartment with security in Recoleta.
To party: Anchorena, a swinger’s club, 120 peso entry for men, free for women (includes two free drinks). Dress code required–close toe shoes for men and long pants + collared shirt, dressy casual for women.
Part of the included activities for Varanasi, as part of the GAdventure tour I joined, was a sunrise boat ride down the River Ganges. This event was an absolute once-in-a-lifetime experience (although, truth be told, I’ve experienced it several times now). Seeing the crematoriums alongside the Ganges was truly astounding, although it was difficult for some people on my tour; the smell of burning flesh permeates everything in the city, as the crematoriums run 24/7, 365 days a year to keep up with the demands of Hindus and Jains who wish to be cremated in the holy city of Varanasi.
We had a wonderful guide who explained in detail all of the religious practices of Hindus and Jains while we floated past bodies being cremated in open air fires along the banks. It was hard too, for some to see the remaining bones of these cremations being dragged around and chewed on by stray dogs. The cremation fires are not like they are here in the West, which burn hot enough to incinerate human bone–these are just funeral pyres made of wood, and thus major bones like the pelvis and skull are left behind, sometimes with flesh still attached. In addition, some members of society (such as Brahmans or priests, as well as pregnant women and babies) are not cremated, as they are believed to be sinless and thus not in need of salvation. So, instead of being cremated, their bodies are tied down with stones and thrown into the river. This leads to “floaters”, or dead bodies that occasionally pop up to the surface of the river, half decayed, to get buoyed along on the current, and sometimes even to wash ashore, also to be eaten by stray dogs.
For sure, Varanasi is not for the faint of heart; however, I was very impressed to see the Indian population who handle death and the experience of dying and bodily decay so naturally. In essence, death is as much a part of life as birth or living, and our Western cultures could learn a lot about the inevitability and acceptance of our own mortality from the Hindus and Jains of India. As I am fascinated and intrigued by the concept of death, and as I am very interested in spirituality and religious practices, I was not at all upset by the boat ride experience (although we did see a dead baby float by, which was hard, and we saw a dog chewing on a pelvis, which still had flesh attached, as well as several cremations which we were obviously not allowed to photograph or video). Overall, I found it a magnificent and visceral experience.
We also were told, by our guide, about aghoris, who are sadhus (religious men), who inhabit the charnel grounds of these crematoriums and who worship death as a way to find meaning in life. I was absolutely fascinated by this concept and the existence of such men, and was determined to find one, despite the warnings of my guide, who told me that aghoris give the worst curses in Hinduism and that they are not to be bothered. I was told they were most likely to be viewed at night, so I gave it my best and returned in the evening, and after witnessing the sunset ceremony on the banks of the Ganges, I wandered around the ghats of Varanasi trying to find one, but sadly, to my ill-luck (or luck?), I didn’t stumble across any aghoris.
Sunrise boat ride…
…and me being a dork and sticking my finger into the River Ganges!
(In this video, you can see the wedding procession I later crashed; it’s filmed from a rickshaw I was riding, that actually crashed into a car midway through the video. I flew off the rickshaw and landed on the ground, hence the several seconds of black in the video, before my friend and tour-mate, Rick, helped me up!)
The first time I went to India was on a tour hosted by GAdventures (Kathmandu to Delhi). I had never visited India before, and honestly never wanted to! I know it sounds crazy, because I’ve visited so many times since this initial trip, but before visiting India for the first time I had some very bad preconceived notions about what India would be like–mainly hot, humid, and dirty. Turns out I was so wrong, and so bigoted!
As I said, I didn’t necessarily have India on my “must see list” of countries, but I ended up visiting in June because the Kathmandu to Delhi trip was one of the last tours GAdventures had with spaces available on my short notice leave (3 days before the tour started). Turns out, the reason the tour was so empty is because NO ONE SANE travels in India in June. It was 120 degrees fahrenheit almost every single day, and didn’t get much lower than about 90 degrees during the evenings and nights. Even though we stayed at fairly decent hotels, there was no escaping the heat, for even the most advanced and modern air-conditioning systems could not stop the heat from seeping into every corner of our hotel rooms, buses, train carriages, and restaurants.
However, as I’ve stated before–even with the unbearable heat, and the accompanying heat rashes and misery–India won my heart. I fell in love with the country completely and utterly unexpectedly. I’ve been visiting often, ever since; so often, in fact, that I have a 15 year tourist visa!
Varanasi was one of the stops along the initial tour I took of India and one of my favorites. There were too many amazing parts of Varanasi to include all in one post–the photos and videos would overwhelm you, much like the city of Varanasi overwhelms those Westerners who visit it for the first time. It is a colorful, insane, holy city, full of life and death (much like the rest of India proper). However, all of these aspects of Indian culture are magnified ten times in this city, as it is one of the most ancient cities in India as well as one of the most holy. If you are unfamiliar with Hinduism and Jainism, Varanasi (also known as Benares, the old British name for the city) is the holiest of the seven sacred cities (Sapta Puri) and it is believed that a death in Varanasi brings salvation or release from the cycle of death and rebirth. In addition, being cremated here is considered another way to reach salvation, and thus there are tons of crematoriums along the banks of the Ganges river, which runs through Varanasi. The city has also played an important role in the development of Buddhism, being quite close to the place (Sarnath) where Buddha first taught about Dharma. No matter which way you cut it, Varanasi is a spiritual center for a lot of Indians and for a lot of people around the world.
I had a great time in Varanasi, despite the oftentimes overwhelming smell of burning human flesh. I had a great time viewing the city from the river Ganges during our scheduled sunrise and sunset boat trips. I was also able to visit a silk factory in the Muslim quarter of the city, which produces some of the world famous Varanasi silk saris for which the city is renowned.
However–my favorite part of Varanasi was crashing an open air wedding procession in the street outside of the restaurant where our group decided to eat dinner. We were eating at a rooftop cafe, recommended by our guide, when we heard an upcoming wedding procession. In India, weddings are a HUGE deal–multi-day affairs, including painted elephants, grooms on horseback, dancing brass bands, neon signs, and thousands and thousands of wedding guests. No expense is spared, truly, and the entire community is involved in a local wedding! It’s really quite lovely! We had passed this same wedding procession on rickshaws whilst traveling to the restaurant, and when we heard the procession coming around the street corner with their neon lit, colorful signs, full brass band, drums, dancing and horses, our guide looked at us and said, “Do you want to crash a wedding??”. I, never one to turn down an opportunity to crash anything, emphatically said YES, and made everyone else in the group join me as we ran down several flights of stairs to meet the wedding procession as it passed in front of our building.
It was dark outside, probably around 8pm, and the procession rounded the bend as we all (10 of us total) jumped in line and started dancing with wedding guests who were marching and dancing along to the procession’s band of drums and brass. It was amazing–sure I was sweating like a pig in 95 degree heat and 60% humidity, dancing for all my heart, but it was absolutely wonderful! I love to dance and while the more shy members of the group just stood there and gaped at me, I made friends with the wedding guests, stole some dude’s sunglasses, break danced with a few kids in small, tiny suits, and then, finally, met the bride and the groom (along with their parents and family). We all were invited to the wedding, but we had an early morning the next day (for a sunrise Ganges boat ride) so we had to decline.
However, to this day, dancing with the Varanasi wedding procession is one of my favorite memories from that trip to India! I have many more stories from Varanasi (including silk shopping and Ganges boat rides and crematorium visits) but since Varanasi is such an complex and colorful city, I will break the experiences up into multiple posts, as not to overwhelm my readers. 🙂
Tour: GAdventures, Kathmandu to Delhi— $1499 (they no longer run the Kathmandu to Delhi tour, although they run the exact same itinerary, backwards from Delhi to Kathmandu, to which I have linked).
Hotel: Hotel City Inn — $45-50/per night (great hotel, good A/C, Wi-Fi that works and is fast, as well as a good restaurant in the lobby and a beneficial location close to the Varanasi railway station).