Indescribable India

The real face of India, as seen tonight at “high-five village”, where locals came out to greet us. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Friday, March 3, 2017

I can’t get enough of India’s chaotic, off-the-wall traffic.

I decided this earlier today, as our mini-bus weaved in and out of the traffic from Farakka and approached the Farakka Barrage. We sped past trucks, weaved around motorcyclists, dodged carts pulled by oxen, narrowly missed livestock and dogs, and had close calls with pedestrians.

I love the traffic in India! Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Setting out by van…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…for a day of adventure…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…in India! Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

If the actual ride is something like a race course, the passing scenery is downright amazing. Every town and village you pass holds an indescribable array of characters, buildings, cars and scenes. I took photos as fast as I could out of the car window, and I couldn’t keep up. While some guests found the incessant noise and the honking of horns to be an irritant, I found it exhilarating. A simple drive from Point A to Point B is guaranteed to be absolutely insane, and I loved every minute of it.

Days on India’s Ganges River with G Adventures aboard the Varuna begin in a relaxed fashion. Tea, coffee and biscuits are served in the Saloon at 0630, followed by breakfast at 0730. Morning excursions typically begin at 0830, with some returning to the ship for lunch at 1300. Others, like our tour today, include lunch at a local restaurant.

G Adventures’ Varuna is actually the MV Sukapha, chartered from the Assam Bengal Navigation Co. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Breakfast is fairly standard, with Western favorites like bacon and omelettes mixed in with a smattering of Indian delicacies. Fruit juice is offered along with tea and coffee and water, all of which is safe for Westerners to drink. The ship also makes some incredibly good toast, served warm in a basket and wrapped in a little blanket of sorts. It’s got the consistency of corn bread but tastes like white bread. Pair it with the sharp-tasting chutney on the table; the equivalent of an Indian marmalade.

Watching workers dredge the Ganges…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…as we disembark our Country Boat for our full-day tour. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Because we arrived late last night, I didn’t get a good look at our ship. It was only this morning that I realized our ship isn’t called Varuna at all. Instead, it is the MV Sukapha. Assam Bengal Navigation Company’s website shows no Varuna, and I can’t find much in the way of reference to her elsewhere. It could be that Varuna is easier for guests to pronounce than Sukapha. I don’t know. For sake of clarity, I’m going to continue to refer to her as the Varuna throughout these reports, as that’s what G Adventures calls her.

At 130 feet in length, she’s got a haphazard exterior profile that only a mother could love. On the inside, however, she’s immensely cozy and comfortable. Don’t let appearances scare you away.  Built in 2006, she carries 24 guests in 12 cabins. She has three passenger decks (counting the sun deck), and all passenger accommodations are clustered on Deck 2.

Inside the ancient walled city…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…of Guar. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

At 0830 we set out on our day’s tour to the town of Guar, with its numerous stone and brick monuments that stand as a reminder of India’s rich, storied history. Guar is also sometimes known as Gour, Gauda, and Lakhnauti, which makes it constantly baffling as to where you are (and where to look in your guidebook).

But it is here, next to a small, dusty village, that the ancient city of…Guar…exists. Remains of the walled city are still visible, as are the city’s historic entrance gates, all of which are built with red bricks that have a decidedly Mars hue to them.

Our guides did an excellent job of explaining the history of these monuments to us…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…like the spectacular Firoj Minar column. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

This region is over 300 kilometres north of Kolkata, and we had to drive for roughly 90 minutes from our ship, docked near the Farakka barrage, to reach the site. The journey, however, was well worth it, and G Adventures provided a comfort stop with refreshments at a local resort en-route, where we would later return to enjoy our local lunch.

Most of the locals loved having their photos taken, if you ask nicely. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

In India, men hold hands as a sign of friendship. It’s an interesting cultural distinction. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Another exciting first today involved visiting the border between India’s West Bengal region and Bangladesh. Some pleasantries were exchanged with the Indian border guards, and pretty soon we were walking across “no man’s land” towards the Bangladeshi border, mingling with trucks that kicked up dust as they roared past. Indians couldn’t do this, but doors are certainly opened and rules bent for tourists – and the experience was a pretty cool one.

From the ancient…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…to the equally-ancient…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…India is proving to be a feast for the senses. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Beyond the smells and the smog, this is the true heart of India. People smiling and waving. Children practicing their English, frantically waving and saying “Hello!” at the top of their lungs. Old women stopping from their washing or sweeping up to pause and wave. Teenage girls shyly giggling at the passersby. Young men showing off by marching right up and asking if they can take a selfie with us.

Friendliness is at every turn here in rural India. We’ve been treated with nothing but respect and curiosity everywhere we’ve been today. I have learned much about humanity – and humility – today.

Heading back to the Varuna tonight…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…and passing through what we’ve affectionately dubbed, High Five Village. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

The entire village came out to see us off as we headed back…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…to the Varuna. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

As we returned to the Varuna, we walked through a small village filled with all of the above. I don’t know where we were; I couldn’t find our location on a map if you asked me to. Instead, we’ve started calling this “high-five village” because of all the kids that wanted to high-five these strange-looking travellers, with their loose-fitting expedition wear and their sunblock and perspiration, as they walked by. This simple, ten-minute walk will join a very short list of moving experiences I’ve had around the world. It’s up there with the elephants of South Africa, the glaciers of Antarctica, and the stillness of the Arctic.

Up on deck, guests watch the sun go down…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…on the banks of the Ganges. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

I sample the local beer and catch up on some destination-specific reading…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…as we sail into the night.Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

It would be easy to look at the haphazard nature of India and be dismissive of it. Everything here is so strange, so foreign, that all Western points of reference are all thrown off. But this is surely one of the most amazing countries I’ve ever visited, and G Adventures is showcasing the very best of it.

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Our Voyage Report aboard G Adventures’ Varuna along the Ganges continues tomorrow as we visit Murshidabad, India! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog.

On the Ganges with G Adventures

March 1, 2017Arrival in Kolkata, India
March 2Train to Farakka and embarkation of Varuna
March 3Guar, West Bengal
March 4Barangar & Murshidabad, West Bengal
March 5Plassey, West Bengal
March 6Matiari & Mayapur, West Bengal
March 7Kalna & Chinsura, West Bengal
March 8Barakpur, West Bengal
March 9, 2017Disembarkation in Kolkata

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