Making sense of India

It has been said that one is not a “traveller” until one has been to India. I don’t have a lot of patience with that sanctimonious observation. India is challenging and confounding and unfathomable and it will take us weeks to process everything we experienced, but good grief – travelling through India has not earned us a special traveller’s badge.  What it has done is knocked down a number of  preconceptions and stereotypes we had about India that were inaccurate and simplistic. It’s also served as a solid reminder of how lucky we are – we knew it before, but we really know it now.

I’ll begin this posting with a train trip – the famous Shimla-Kalka UNESCO toy train to be exact.  Built in 1898 to connect mountainous Shimla to the rest of India’s rail lines,  this six-car “toy train” runs on 30″ narrow-gauge tracks, and takes five and a half hours to travel 96 km. The tracks climb 4660 feet by running through 107 tunnels and crossing 864 bridges. It is an engineering marvel and it is also hugely popular – the trains are booked months in advance. We missed out on our trip up to Shimla, but luckily for us, our host was able to pull a few strings and secure us two seats on our return trip.

Our train left at 10.25 a.m.  with a gregarious family as our seat mates and open windows for A/C. We got the full Indian rail experience.

IMG_0004
The scenery was beautiful for almost the entire trip and punctuated with sweet little train stations.

IMG_0028
A toy train can feel less like a train and more like an amusement park ride. Our connection to our surroundings was vivid and a bit disconcerting – travelling over a high stone bridge felt like being suspended in thin air.

IMG_0054
This video will give you an idea of our toy train adventure. Please note the carefree, safety-first approach to train travel in India – each door was filled with passengers who sat, stood or chatted on their phones as the scenery whizzed by.


This was a memorable way to end our trip before flying home – 14 hours of binge-watching movies, listening to passengers snore and eating breakfast at 3:00 a.m. We arrived in Toronto at 5:30 a.m.,  and waited for an hour while Indian families hauled multiple massive suitcases off the conveyor belt until finally our two backpacks swirled up and dumped down. We walked out into the cold, snowy air and thought, “what the heck just happened to us?”

We’re still digesting our experiences but so far these are the impressions that have stayed with us and we’d like to share them with you.
India is not for everyone, and after three months of travelling by tuk-tuk, bus, train, plane and ferry across rivers, backwaters, lakes, mountains, cities, villages, desert, jungle and forest, we’re still not sure if it was for us. Our friend Sheila had warned us about the obvious challenges – the garbage, the dirt, the poverty, the beggars – but said, “you must go.”  We don’t disagree and we’re not sorry we went, but we’re not sure if we would go again. Travelling through India is not relaxing. It requires constant stamina, flexibility and energy and there are times when the rewards are not immediately obvious. We met a Canadian woman of Pakistani descent who travels to India every 10 years to see family. She was aghast to discover we were in India for three months. “You don’t come to India for a vacation.

We met many other tourists who had been to India multiple times and loved it. There is only one way to know how you will react – to borrow Sheila’s phrase, “you must go.”

We met an Indian gentleman who wisely said, “there are many Indias in India”. Munnar was  one of our favourite Indias.

IMG_0004

I was nervous about travelling through India, and one of my biggest fears was rats. Where there is garbage, heat and humidity, rats will follow and I envisioned  legions of rodents, outnumbering Indians 2 to 1. The first week we arrived, I saw four rats (all of them dead), and with the exception of one healthy rat running down the stairs at a railway station, that was it. Not another rat in three months of travel.
One fear down, a few more to follow.

We were concerned about the poverty we would encounter and it was far worse than we had imagined. India has the highest rate of undrinkable water in the world, the second-highest rate of TB in the world, and 140,000 children die of diarrheal-related illnesses every year. We saw so many people with foot problems – club feet, inward-turning feet, even feet with high arches and thinly-stretched webs of skin from toes to ankle. We wondered if these were birth defects that could have been fixed in the early years, but for lack of money, resources, whatever, were not.
We were shocked by the number of beggar children on the streets, the wizened and frail older people, and the sheer numbers of people who were not beggars, but were still in dire need. It became a defining quality of India, and it coloured a lot of our positive impressions of the country.

That, and the garbage.  We had been warned about the garbage before we arrived, but with one or two exceptions, the garbage is everywhere…and it’s hard to understand why. It is a problem that is complex and multi-generational, so the desired solution of a clean India seems near-impossible to achieve. The view from our toy train ride from Shimla should have been pristine, but it was marred by miles of foil, plastic, and food wrappers that have been thrown out the windows of eight daily trains for years.

We met an articulate young woman who offered her perspective on the Indian attitude and behaviour around garbage.  “Indians are very clean in their homes, but they will sweep out onto the street and expect someone else to clean up. Traditionally, it is the lower caste who pick up garbage and sweep up public spaces, so Indians consider handling garbage is dirty and not their job.”  After listening to her, this sign we had seen posted in Panaji made a lot more sense.

IMG_0006

Of course, the image of cows wandering free in India is an iconic one, but at first it was an unnerving and almost comical sight.  I’ve been told that cows are fed to ensure milk production, but bulls, who have no value, are left to their own devices.
Many animals can be found rooting through the garbage; I once saw a cow with ribs protruding, listlessly chewing on a plastic rope.

IMG_0080
Dogs fare little better – possibly their only consolation is companionship – they tend to congregate in packs. We had just one hostile encounter with dogs; mainly they are either searching for food or sleeping.

IMG_0042

There are so many religions and gods in India, often with much tension between them.  We’re not naive enough to think that a religious person is only capable of good, but the gap between devout belief and appalling violence or disregard for others ( humans and animals) is very hard for a foreigner to comprehend.

Our friend Shelley recommended William Dalrymple and I am currently reading his excellent book “Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.”  He writes without judgement and I am keen to gain at least a partial understanding.

Sanitation in India is an ongoing challenge – with crumbling infrastructure, unclean water supply and a massive population straining the systems. We had heard the stories before we arrived – ” Be prepared to squat. Make sure you bring your own toilet paper.” No big deal and no different from many other countries in the world. Toilet paper, hand sanitizer – good to go.

Our reality check  was a little less cavalier. Fifty-three percent of Indians do not have toilets in their homes.  We never witnessed open defecation, but the sight of men peeing in public became so common we no longer noticed.

Away from hotels and guesthouses, the condition of toilets is unpredictable. Sometimes squat, sometimes, western, usually no toilet paper or soap. Almost always dirty. If I entered a squat toilet, I would roll my pants up around my knees to avoid dragging them on the filthy wet floor. That became normal. A clean toilet with soap was noteworthy and in this case, a selling point.

IMG_0014
Based on inaccurate information I read about the difficulties of obtaining a SIM card,  we chose not to bring our phone with us.  Big mistake. Everyone in India has a cell phone – and not just a cheap flip-phone, but a smartphone.  In fact, one can get a SIM card in 48 hours – activate it one day and return with your phone the next  and voila – you can now order up UBER cabs, and have GPS and operate like any self-respecting Indian would. Don’t even think  about coming to India without your phone.

I was concerned about what to wear in India, both for modesty and to cope with the heat. Here’s the best advice I can give you – bring a very few things to tide you over. Unless you  are staying exclusively in Goa, where anything goes, you will want to cover your shoulders and legs, and it can be done easily and comfortably.  Hit the markets and you can outfit yourself for a few dollars, refrain from offending anyone and most importantly, remain cool in the heat and humidity. I bought palazzo pants, harem pants, and a few loose tops with three-quarter sleeves. It felt counter-intuitive to cover so much of my body, but the light cottons protected my skin and kept me much cooler than a sundress would have.
Men can get away with almost anything, but in some places shorts are frowned upon, so a pair of light cotton pants would work well – you’ll stay much cooler, fit in better and not look like such a tourist galoot.   

IMG_0052
We got used to the crazy traffic, used to losing our “personal space” and became quite comfortable with the staring, which was rarely hostile.  We were asked to pose for countless selfies – we were as much of a novelty to them as they were to us.

The one behaviour we could not cope with was butting in line – this happened all the time. It is quite remarkable to watch. You are standing in line – waiting for the ATM, or to buy your groceries, or to go through security at the airport. Suddenly someone appears beside you, then noses in front of you. We silently fumed until we watched Indians  tell the miscreants to move to the back, and we realized, “This is not an acceptable Indian behaviour, this is the behaviour of someone with bad manners.” Interestingly, most queue-jumpers will comply quite easily once they have been confronted.

So, with the annoying, confusing and upsetting aspects of India out of the way, our final impressions are still very positive.

The best part of India? The people, without question. We had so many memorable encounters with Indians we met along the way – conversations in restaurants, open-hearted welcomes in guesthouses, casual chats on the street. We found Indians to be funny, curious, warm, helpful and engaged people, and almost to a person, they wanted to know how we liked their country.

India is so incredibly diverse that it is not possible to pinpoint a favourite place, although that following places stand out for us –  Munnar (mountain trekking), Goa ( beautiful beaches and sublime swimming), most of Rajasthan ( forts, camels, desert), Pondicherry (French influence) and Amritsar (Golden Temple) and Shimla (finally – cool, clean air).

In three months, we missed way more than we saw – you can’t see India in one trip. We didn’t go to any of the large cities (our choice), missed the Taj Mahal (a disappointment – I was sick), and did not get up into the high Himalayas or on to Nepal. We missed the many tiger reserves and bird sanctuaries. Who knows – maybe we will go back again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monkey Menace in Shimla

There are over 2500 rhesus macaques creating havoc in Shimla; known to the locals as The Monkey Menace.

IMG_0002

They are easily identified by their bright red faces and backsides, and by their brazen and fearless manner. In our seven days here, we have had a few close encounters with these scary simians. We were hissed at walking home from dinner one night; without provocation we were confronted by a big red angry face just inches from our path. We’ve been charged at for food. Stephen was polishing off a bag of chips when a large male monkey ran across the street, heading straight for us – we threw the bag in the garbage and backed away. Locals are no less leery of these monkeys; we watched several people jump to their feet and clear out as a monkey made his way along the fence behind a row of benches. It is with good reason – the rhesus macaques will jump on people to grab food, glasses, and hats. They have been known to attack and bite. Efforts to cull and/or sterilize them have proven fruitless, and their numbers continue to grow.

In spite of all this, Stephen and I chose to take the steep climb up to Jakhu Temple, one of the highest points in Shimla, guarded by a healthy simian population. Visitors are warned to carry big sticks to ward off the more aggressive monkeys, so it was not without a fair bit of trepidation that we began our climb.

The path begins with this sign for testing fitness levels.  It is a 2.5 km. walk to the top, most of it straight up. (We finished the climb up in 45 minutes; down in 33). Apparently we are “ABSOLUTELY FIT” – news to us.

IMG_0007
The climb up was, in a word, – brutal. At one point we both were ready to give up, but for our pride. We were passed by families with small children; many of the ladies wearing thin sandals. We met up with this gentleman, carrying his grandson for much of the way.

IMG_0010
We met up with them a little later at a rest stop. This was our turning point – if this sweet man and his little grandson could make this climb, then we would as well.

IMG_0012
Our first indication that there were monkeys in the neighbourhood – many cars were covered with thorny branches, to foil simian theft of the windshield wipers.

IMG_0011
Dozens of monkeys met us on the final ascent, but interestingly, none approached us. We had no need for a big stick, but we did keep a close eye on them.

One of the gatekeepers at the entrance to the temple. The figure behind him is a statue, not a human.

img_8918
The 98-foot bright orange statue of Lord Hanuman is lit up at night, and visible from the town of Shimla. When we reached the summit, this was our close-up view.

img_8916
Back down in town, the monkeys are no less a presence. Many homes and buildings are monkey-proofed, with enclosed chain-link cages and barbed wire.

IMG_0003

While we’re on the subject of animals, let me introduce you to the beautiful and unique Rajasthani horses that are a fixture on the Ridge. I did a little research on these animals, and the Marwari horses seem to match the appearance – small, lean and with ears that turn inward to the point of almost touching. However, I asked two of the owners and they both called them “Indian horses from Rajasthan.”

IMG_0002 (1)
There are usually about 10 horses lined up and ready for rides and it can be quite comical to watch.  Each rider is led by the owner, usually with a small press corps in pursuit, so no actual “riding” takes place. I probably could have managed this.

In addition to the usual complement of excited children, there were a number of young men; quite unconcerned about the optics of being led around like a pony ride at a fair.

IMG_0002
This fabulous specimen of Indian manhood was happy to pose for a photo. He may have thought I was admiring his biceps, but I wanted to show you his hair. Most Indian men have luxuriant thick black hair – baldness is not as common here as it is in North America.
Many young men style their hair short on the back and sides with a 3-inch hive on top – a hipster pompadour that they carry off very well.

IMG_0003
And now onto some of the more enterprising business plans we have run across. I mentioned the bathroom scales in the last post – I tried my luck at another set of scales today (this time one with horseshoes), and yes!…down another 2 pounds. This woman was charging just 5 rupees – she would need 10 customers to make just one dollar.

Right beside her was a woman selling hand-knitted children’s slippers. At least a dozen woman have small stands set up and they sit for hours, knitting and chatting and tending to their children, but I never saw a single sale.

IMG_0006
When we first saw this lineup of baby strollers, we thought perhaps a massive birthday party was being held in a nearby restaurant. But no, these strollers and a couple of wheelchairs are for rent. How intriguing! I’m trying to imagine how anyone with either mobility issues or small children would find themselves in hilly Shimla without their necessary accoutrements. Apparently these enterprising gentlemen have seen fit to invest in these products, just in case.

IMG_0024
We passed by this one-stop shop a number of times before I really appreciated the diversity of the goods and services being offered. A homeopathic clinic, bolstered by fresh fruit, hot chai, plants, selfie sticks and backpacks.

IMG_0014

There were quite a few businesses that were around before Independence and have hung in all these years. This musty old Antiquarian bookshop was a bit of surprise. Who are the customers for this highly specialized business?

IMG_0005

The Embassy Restaurant, in business since 1942, has changed with the times – selling “good ice cream to good people”.

IMG_0021
The Indian Coffee House is another relic, with a fascinating history and branches all over India. We visited one in Pondicherry, and this one is a variation on that same theme – ancient servers, cracked leather seats, less-than-pristine interior, and really great coffee. You get the feeling the same old gents have been meeting here daily for years – tourists and women stand out, but are still welcome.

IMG_0004
Part of the decor…and the charm. Right of Admission Reserved – as I looked around the room, I wondered what the criteria might be for customer selection.

IMG_0005
There are many sides of Shimla, and some are less picturesque than others. This is how we imagined Shimla:  moody and mountainous.
IMG_0063
Here, Shimla from another vantage point – a good perspective of how this city has grown from British hill station to almost 200,000 people clinging to the hillsides.

IMG_0007
And, of course, like any city – not everyone gets the great view.

IMG_0019
We’ve spoken to a number of Indians who are adamantly opposed to the caste system that is still in existence in India, most particularly in rural areas. We met a young woman who is a lawyer and who is immigrating to Toronto in May. She offered a bright and articulate view of her country (which she fully intends to return to one day), and offered us an interesting perspective on the subject of garbage. She told us that Indians are very clean in their homes, but will sweep out to the streets, confident that their mess will be cleaned up by someone else. In her opinion the reason Indians do not carry their garbage with them until they find a bin is that it is considered “dirty” – the job of the low-caste person who is responsible for garbage, sweeping the streets, etc.

A strong movement is afoot to eliminate the caste system and not relegate lowly jobs to people who have had no means to escape their destiny.  A nation-wide strike took place yesterday, with businesses closing down for several hours in solidarity.

The streets of Shimla were filled with dozens of police and military, including these riot police. There were hundreds of protesters out, but as far as we could tell, it was peaceful.

IMG_0028
While all this was going on, we were on another epic trek (15 km. return – uphill both ways:>) to explore the wooded areas just outside the city core, and to see Annandale, once the playground for the British elite with horse racing, polo and cricket, and now Shimla’s only golf course.

IMG_0010

Although it was a beautiful day, there was just one golfer on the course; possibly this alarming sign has frightened off potential members.

IMG_0009

Annandale is also the grounds for the Army Heritage Museum; an excellent museum that showcases the history of the Indian Army and underlines the great importance and prestige the Army holds in India.

IMG_0003
The grounds are beautifully maintained; we enjoyed a peaceful couple of hours here before we attempted the ThighMaster of a road back up to the top of the hill.

IMG_0014
About halfway up the hill, we came upon the Shimla British Resort; once a grand old dame and now a somewhat musty old hotel that does not appear to have been updated or well maintained. Still…another glimpse into the old days of British rule.

IMG_0022
Probably the most impressive of all was the former Viceregal Lodge, now the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. This magnificent building was completed in 1888 and was the official summer residence of the British viceroys until 1946.

img_8886

This was the location of government every summer from April to October, and tours are available daily. Our timing was poor as we chose Easter Sunday to visit, along with hundreds of other tourists; the wait for a tour was over 2 1/2 hours. When we asked if it was worth it to wait, the ticket-taker shrugged, “a bunch of photos and old furniture.”
That took the sting out of missing out, so we had a grand time exploring the beautiful grounds instead.

And…that’s it, folks. Our time in Shimla has almost come to an end. We had missed out on the famous narrow gauge toy train to come here ( it books up months in advance), but through a great stroke of luck we are taking the toy train back down. Our host pulled a few strings for us, and we are as happy as if we had tickets to a sold-out concert.

Our last posting will be in a few days – a few photos of our train trip, and a reflection of our time in India.

 

Shimla’s mountain air: cool at last

For the past 90 days, we have sweltered and sweated our way through India; our faces dripping and our clothes sticky.  Three days ago, after five hours of bus travel, we climbed 2200 metres into the foothills of the Himalayas and left the heat and humidity behind.

Our last week in India will be spent in India’s oldest hill station – the former summer playground of the British upper crust and the current favourite of newlyweds and Indian families fleeing the spring and summer heat. Today in Delhi it was 38 degrees; in Shimla, it was 23 degrees with a light breeze. Once night falls, we  will need coats and hoodies. We’ve been sleeping under two heavy blankets and no air conditioning – heaven.

Shimla, with the snowy peaks of the Himalayas on the horizon.

IMG_0007

We have been putting our legs and lungs to the test – the town is built on seven steep hills, and the inclines can be brutal. Some of the smaller staircases are a little heartstopping – a fall down these stairs and you would be airborne.

IMG_0001
We’ve been able to soften our ascents and descents by sticking to the broader roads, most of them pedestrian-only. The main part of Shimla’s centre core is defined by The Ridge, a large open area ringed with small greenspaces, monuments to Gandhi and Indira Gandhi, and vistas of the town and mountains. This is where everyone gathers- Ground Zero for  the millions of selfies that threaten to drive me mad. I’m trying to sidestep fogey attitudes, but  for some reason, selfie-nation gets under my skin in a big way. There is no background too innocuous for a selfie; no opportunity wasted for yet another shot of me, glorious me.

Don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful. (at some point I may look around and appreciate the scenery, or…maybe not.)

IMG_0053
Selfies aside, without cars and motorbikes and tuk-tuks dominating the landscape, the people-watching becomes far more interesting.

Stephen has been collecting photos of mannequins – this started last year in SE Asia, where the mannequins were bizarre and downright scary. He’s found a few in India and noticed this one – her hair cut with pinking shears by a stoned best friend who also gave her really bad advice on eyeglasses. The gorgeous girls in front of the mannequin wanted us to take a photo of them as well.

IMG_0070 (1)

We stopped in a square for a break from our mountaineering, and almost immediately these two little brothers began tearing around in front of us – trying to get our attention and showing off outrageously.  Of course, we were encouraging them until their mother scolded them to behave properly, and on her instruction, they came over to practice their English.  “Are you from America?” “Do you like India?” “Thank-you for speaking to us.”
There are a number of very good schools in Shimla, and these two boys are attending one of them – learning their subjects in English.

IMG_0056
Shimla is different from much of India in a number of ways. Due to the steep terrain, traffic is confined to lower roads,  which means much of the city core is like a walk in the park –  peaceful and stress-free. There are very few beggars here, so hopefully that means there is a little more money to go around for more people. There is very little garbage on the streets. There are do-not-litter signs up everywhere, and plenty of garbage cans. Shimla has declared itself a smoke-free city and smoking inside and outside is punishable by fine. We did not see a single smoker – amazing. And – hallelujah – spitting is another civic misdemeanour.  We did see a few spitters, but it’s a hard habit to break.

IMG_0027
I marvelled at this store. Does this mean anyone could kit themselves out in full uniform and pass themselves off as police officers? Think of the revenue possibilities.

IMG_0002
Two of Shimla’s police officers in ceremonial garb – patrolling the streets.

IMG_0054

Due to the incredibly steep inclines on many of the streets, moving goods is done by sheer brute human force. You can imagine what four cases of pop weighs, held in place by heavy nylon straps. We saw many such amazing feats of strength – including incredibly, a full-sized refrigerator.

IMG_0062

The main shopping street, called The Mall, weaves around the Ridge on either side and runs for seven km. This is where tourists and locals congregate, and where some of the town’s main attractions and interesting architecture are found.

IMG_0036
One very curious business enterprise in Shimla are bathroom scales. Vendors set up blankets on the ground with the scales in front (and mysteriously, there are often horseshoes set up alongside – perhaps a token of good luck for the weigh-ee?) The cost is 10 rupees – about 20 cents. I passed by a number of decrepit scales until I came to this lady, with her bright shiny digital scale, unadorned with horseshoes – just the scale.  I liked her style, plus she charged double her competitor’s prices – 20 rupees, so with the logic of “you get what you pay for”, I removed my shoes, and hopped on. Aha! I’ve lost at least 10 pounds  – worth every rupee.

IMG_0029

Thus encouraged, we continued on to our destination – The Oberoi Cecil Hotel.

IMG_0052

Built 130 years ago on the site of Tendril Cottage, where Rudyard Kipling lived and wrote his novels, The Oberoi Cecil played a large role in the social life of the British Raj era and was the scene of many balls and galas. As Kipling noted, Shimla at the height of British rule had a reputation for ” frivolity, gossip and intrigue.” The Cecil no doubt added to that reputation.

It was completely refurbished in 1997, in the  original understated old money style and while we could not afford $400 a night to stay there, we decided to stop for lunch in the atrium, just to absorb the atmosphere.

IMG_0048
Our delightful waiter would have noticed our less-than-polished appearance and our consternation over the menu prices. When we decided to forego lunch and share the least expensive item on the menu, he nodded as approvingly as though we had just chosen the Himalayan trout, paired with a crisp white wine.

Our coffee, served with tea cakes and complimentary biscuits. Coffee was excellent, cakes were a touch dry.  Our bill was just over $30. (Lunch would have been just under $100). Nonetheless, a wonderful experience.

IMG_0049
The main dining room of the Oberoi Cecil. Can you not imagine the glasses of sherry and the poached fish and the dinner conversations?

IMG_0051
Shimla still has many buildings from its heyday as the summer capital. From 1864 to 1939, the entire government of India would flee the heat of Calcutta and transport all the files and documents of government to Shimla. It became not just the centre of government, but also the stage for the social life of the British elite.  Picnics, balls, galas, hunting, and amateur theatre at the Gaiety Theatre became the focus of each Season.

IMG_0006

The Gaiety Theatre has been beautifully restored, and on-site historian Mr. Gautam gave us a very animated and interesting tour of the theatre and explanation of its history. He modestly shook his head when I ask him if he was also an actor, and acknowledged that I was not the first to come to that conclusion.

The theatre was a huge diversion, and each summer plays by Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw would be staged by amateur  British actors to a British-only audience. No Indians allowed – neither on stage nor in the audience.

Today, about 15 local theatre groups still perform on the well-worn stage.

View from the stage.

img_8859

Restoration projects are happening all over Shimla – so many grand mansions that have sadly been left to ruin.  This one – Bantony Castle – is almost impossible to imagine that it can be reclaimed. It has deteriorated to the point where the roof has collapsed in spots, so interior damage must be severe. However, restoration is in the works – it would be so interesting to see when the work is completed.

IMG_0022
The simple, elegant Christ Church Cathedral is another landmark from the British era. Built in 1846, it is one of the oldest churches in northern India.  We walked around the side to the manse, where they were serving Good Friday hot cross buns and coffee.

IMG_0065
Shopping in Shimla is a curious mix of Western knock-offs (Puma, Adidas), carved wooden toys and keychains and embroidered clothing and wool shawls. We bought a large shawl made of yak wool from Tibet, (which we will likely use as a lap blanket) – our only purchase so far, other than light clothing. There were many beautiful things along the way, but we didn’t want to have to carry stuff along with us as we travelled, so we’ve bought nothing. We may end up spending our remaining rupees at the Delhi airport.

Fancy gold jewellery is a huge thing in India – for weddings and for everyday use. While this jewellery is far too ornate for me, it is perfectly suited to Indian women, with their beautiful saris, their white teeth and red lipstick and their dark colouring.

There are a number of very good jewellery stores in Shimla – here is an example of some typical Indian gold jewellery.

img_8864
This has nothing to do with shopping, but is an interesting fact of life in Shimla.  Since vehicles are limited to the lower roads, traffic is horrendous and parking is at a premium. Most of the roads have limited shoulders and/or are on very steep inclines. Many hotels have just a handful of parking spaces for their guests and this is what they look like. Can you imagine the nerves required to park cars on this rooftop?

IMG_0055
Sunset at Shimla.

IMG_0075
We’re in Shimla for another four days and have lots more to tell you about.  I’ll be sending out another posting before we leave.

Happy Easter from India!

Chandigarh: “one of the greatest urban experiments of the 20th century.”

Chandigarh is India’s only planned city; and at 60 years old, it is one of its youngest.  After the trauma of Partition in 1947 and the loss of Punjab’s capital city Lahore to Pakistan, plans began by Prime Minister Nehru to create a capital city that would serve both states of Punjab and Haryana.

Work began in 1949 and finished in 1960. Over 50 small villages were cleared to create a city and union territory that Nehru claimed would be “symbolic of India’s freedom.”

After early plans by architects Mayer and Nowicki were scrapped, Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier was hired to implement Nehru’s vision.

Part of the City Beautiful movement, the goal of Chandigarh was to create a city unlike any other in India.

IMG_0001
Billed as being one of the cleanest cities in India, as well as one of the wealthiest, we were keen to see how it differed from the many faces of urban India we had already experienced. “Sweeping boulevards, lakes, gardens and grand civic buildings.” Sounds lovely. “Buildings executed in Le Corbusier’s favourite material: reinforced concrete.” Hmm… not sounding so cozy. Maybe a little grey.

Le Corbusier’s urban plan was to create rectangular Sectors – each measuring 800 by 1200 metres; with each one intended to be self-sufficient and fulfill four functions: Living, Working, Circulation and Care of Body & Spirit.

Each Sector includes greenspace and small interior roads, with the main arterial roads dividing the Sectors and punctuated with roundabouts. The main arterial roads also feature tree-lined boulevards, to soften the effect and provide safe walking paths.

IMG_0038

A quote from Le Corbusier, to describe his philosophy:

The curve is ruinous, difficult and dangerous. It is a paralyzing thing. The straight line enters into all human history, into all human aim, into every human act.

So how has this experiment worked? We don’t know how it functions for residents, but as tourists, we found the city design extremely disorienting. Yes, we could leave our hotel (in Sector 35), and walk down the street to discover stores and restaurants. We could walk on a sidewalk, and not have to dodge cars, scooters, and cow patties.

But where was the life? We trudged along in a straight line (sorry, Le Corbusier, most people do not follow a straight line – either in life or out for a stroll.)  to our restaurant, then walked in a straight line back to our hotel.

We were “contained” in our self-sufficient Sector, until we hailed a tuk-tuk to take us to other Sectors.  Driving along the arterial roads, the scenery remains unchanged from one Sector to the next – broad boulevards, trees and vehicles.
What lies behind those high walls?

IMG_0120
Le Corbusier envisioned apartment buildings and office buildings designed in the same linear fashion as the Sectors – concrete, rectangular and efficient.

IMG_0122
The main shopping area is Sector 17, also referred to as City Centre.  We headed there with hopes of finding a “downtown” or a  gathering place, and we did find a semblance of a centre core. Much of the main area is pedestrian-only, which is what every good city should have. The challenge is that there is no obvious centre – no collection of temples, churches, plazas or seating.

This pathway leads through a park to the main shopping area.

IMG_0003
The shopping area runs for a number of blocks, with mid-range North American stores such as Nautica and Gant side-by-side with university bookstores  and sari shops. It resembles North American plazas from the 60s – the same charmless layout and gone-to-seed ambiance. No-one can be bothered to even sweep the streets, it seems – it just ain’t as pretty as it used to be.

IMG_0042
Still, parts of the shopping complex attracts greater crowds – drawn by the fake Ray-Bans and the cotton candy.

IMG_0043
The shoeshine boys were hopeful – many of them chased us to demonstrate “a free sample of my work”. We probably should have taken them up on their offer, just to see what magic they could work with our worn-out Merrill running shoes and dirty old Birkenstocks.

One nice feature was this Le Corbusier-inspired “Open Hand” fountain.  There are many Open Hand sculptures around the city – designed as “open to give, open to receive.”

Behind the fountain you can see the typical storefronts, not just in Sector 17, but throughout the city. Three-storey rectangles of stained grey concrete, plastered in signs for travel agents, shoe stores and hair salons.

IMG_0009
After failing to make a connection to the City Centre, and trying to find the essence of Chandigarh, we headed over to Sector 10 to take in a couple of museums.

We spent a few hours wandering through the Government Museum and Art Gallery, admiring carvings, textiles, old terra cotta, Mughal miniatures, and a decent contemporary art section.

Le Corbusier – designed building.

IMG_0033
The entrance.

IMG_0003
We were keen to see some examples of Indian contemporary artists and these were a few of my favourites.

Sheltered Woman by Arpana Caur – an artist who works in feminist themes.

IMG_0029
On the Beach by Amrita Sher-Gill. A fascinating Hungarian-Indo artist who lived a short,  scandalous life and died tragically at age 28 under mysterious circumstances.

IMG_0032
The Pilgrim – Guru Nanak  by Jaswant Singh. I couldn’t find a lot about this artist, but his subject, Guru Nanak,  is the founder of Sikhism.

IMG_0017

Enroute to the museum, we walked through the Rose Garden, dutifully obeying the many “Keep off the Grass” signs, although very few other people paid attention.

There are many parks in Chandigarh, but they’re not at their peak – they’re dry and washed-out looking – the way our gardens look by late August. They must be stunning about a month after monsoon season.

IMG_0002

The Nek Chand Rock Garden is the one that draws the crowds. In absolute contrast to Le Corbusier’s straight-line world, Nek Chand is all about the curves.

IMG_0049
With the idea that it is better to ask forgiveness than permission, Nek Chand worked quietly to create his fantasy garden, built of stone, debris, and discarded junk. The  transport official began his work in 1957, and it took over 20 years to complete. At first, he worked in total secrecy at night for fear of being discovered. When authorities did find out what he was up to, they threatened to demolish it, but in the end decided the garden had civic merit and paid him a salary as well as provided money to hire other workers.

Today, it stands on 25 acres and is a fantastical creation of waterfalls, amphitheatres, narrow pathways, child-sized doorways, mosaics and  2000 sculptures.

IMG_0051
Nature is well-incorporated into the stone and rock.

IMG_0073

One of the many waterfalls provided a natural backdrop for photos.

IMG_0075
Another small shaded pathway.

IMG_0080
This gentleman came over to chat with us and find out what country we’re from. This has been a common experience here in Punjab, since so many Indians from this region either have family in the Vancouver area, or they have moved there themselves and are back in India for a holiday. It has provided an instant bond; followed by their curiosity about our impressions of India. Followed by photos of us standing beside them!

As it turns out, this gentleman and his wife have lived in Paris for 20 years, but their son has just graduated from University and is moving to Montreal.

IMG_0090
Much of Nek Chand’s genius involved the creation of small “villages” of human and animal sculptures.

Look closely and you will see that these women’s bodies are encircled with broken plastic bangles.

IMG_0109
There is a more sombre tone to this group – bent postures and sad expressions.

IMG_0105
In the background, a wall made of broken crockery. In the foreground, some unsettling images. Are the figures begging? Holding out a plate for food perhaps?

IMG_0114

The Nek Chand Rock Garden was our favourite part of Chandigarh. We walked with groups of people and had the opportunity to connect with them – for photos, for chats, or just for acknowledging curious stares with a smile.

We admired the unimaginable work that went into the making of this garden and wondered about the motivations of the artist. We cooled off in shady rest spots and shared benches with other tourists.

Best part of all – we all flowed together down the curvy, labyrinthine pathways – not a straight line to be found.

We’re happy to have had the chance to visit this unique planned city, and it was a welcome change to dial back a bit on India’s usually full-on assault, but still…
From a tourist perspective, there’s no heart, no soul, no people-watching and way too much concrete.

And now, we’re on our way to the foothills of the Himalayas – to Shimla, one of the British hill stations.  We’ll be there for a week – enjoying day trekking in cool mountain air before we fly home from Delhi on April 8.

See you again in a few days.

 

Amritsar: not all that glitters…

This is the reason that tourists find their way to Amritsar, in Punjab State: the spectacular Golden Temple that is India’s holiest Sikh shrine and a sacred pilgrimage for millions.

IMG_0019
The Golden Temple is the centrepiece, but it is set within a huge compound and surrounded by the Amrit Samovar, or Pool of Nectar – a massive tank of water kept clean by a school of koi. Refreshingly, there is not a speck of garbage around – not so much as  a gum wrapper is floating in the holy water, which is said to have healing properties. Pilgrims (men and children only) come from all over the world to bathe in the waters and wash away their mortal sins and bodily ills.

IMG_0023
The Golden Temple is free of charge and open to everyone, regardless of religion. To enter, you must first remove your shoes and walk through a foot bath ( kept clean by piped-in flowing water.)

IMG_0014
Dress is modest and heads must be covered.  With that protocol observed, the Temple takes on a home-away-from-home atmosphere for devotees; many of whom will spend the entire day there. It was not uncommon to see people simply flaked out in the middle of the pathways.

IMG_0026
Some devotees appeared overcome by emotion; many dropping to kiss the marble floors and others engaging in quiet prayer.

IMG_0031
One of the extraordinary features of the Golden Temple is the Guru-Ka-Langar – a gigantic dining hall where free meals are served to over 100,000 people every day. The Sikh principles of equality are at play here – everyone sits on the floor and eats together, regardless of caste, religion, colour or economic status. We were still nursing tender tummies and did not want to appear rude by not eating, so we didn’t partake, but we did gratefully accept bowls of filtered water being offered at stations throughout the compound.

IMG_0043
Stephen, with souvenir scarf,  in front of the Golden Temple. We were among the very few white faces in the crowds and attracted a fair bit of attention, especially from the children, who gazed at us with such curiosity.

IMG_0037

One does not have to be Sikh to feel deeply moved here – by the respect, the devotion and the awe that we witnessed from almost everyone around us. We could imagine how profound an experience it was for them, as it was for us.

The temple is made of white marble and encased in 750 kg. of gold leaf and is accessible by walking down a long causeway. But first, you must line up and with an estimated waiting time of up to two hours, we were just not up to the challenge.

We did hang around for a bit at an opening in the lineup and talked to a man and his son. He became quite animated once he found out we were from Vancouver – he is an NRI (non-resident Indian) living in Langley and back to India for a visit.

It was fun to watch the method of crowd control – once the lineup made it to the straightaway, there were large bamboo poles in place to measure out the next chunk of people allowed to move forward.  By now, they had been waiting for an hour and a half, so they were chomping at the bit.

They lift the pole, and they’re off…dashing ahead in a mad, albeit good-natured, pack. The pole comes down again and the next group will be let though in about 10 minutes time. The video didn’t pick it up, but about another dozen or so people shimmied under the poles and squished in, pushing ahead in the lineup. It’s the Indian way.

The prize – worth waiting for a chance to visit the inner sanctum.

IMG_0025
From the peace and serene beauty of the Golden Temple compound, our re-entry to the outside world was somewhat jarring.

Amritsar is doing its best to Keep India Chaotic – back to the world of beeping, honking, garbage-strewn madness. The side streets and alleyways are enticing, but we’re on a mission – we’re heading to the scene of a 1919 massacre.

During this time, Amritsar was the scene of protests and action for the Independence Movement, and it was at Jallianwala Bagh that 5000 people gathered into a public courtyard for a peaceful protest. The British army moved in and without warning, opened fire on the unarmed crowd. With just a narrow laneway as the only exit, most were trapped. When it was finished, over 1000 were killed and more than 1500 wounded.
It was a vicious and unprovoked attack that was widely denounced around the world.

Today, the courtyard is a beautiful space, filled with gardens, a memorial, a small museum and signs pointing out the bullet holes that are still visible in the brick walls.

IMG_0094

We also visited the excellent Partition Museum. This relatively new museum explains the tumultuous events leading up to India and Pakistan becoming self-governing countries, and the catastrophic fallout.

IMG_0003
The partition of 1947 coincided with the dissolution of the British Raj era, and the independence of India. The history and key figures of Partition are far too complicated to explain in a blog posting, but in a nutshell, this is what happened:
The state of Punjab was divided into East and West, and overnight millions of citizens found themselves on the wrong side of the borders and were forced to flee. A mass migration of 1.4 million people created a refugee crisis of epic proportions, and more than 800,000 people of all religions were killed in the riots that followed. The killings and hatred continued, creating religious-based conflicts that are not entirely over to this day.

It is a part of history I had only heard fleetingly about and knew very few details.  One haunting display in the museum was a recreation of a well – to illustrate how women would fling themselves to their deaths in the wells, rather than be captured, raped and killed. Yet another potent example of how we never seem to learn.

The interior courtyard of Town Hall – part of the stunning complex that houses the Museum.

IMG_0005
Our visit to the Partition Museum was a perfect set-up for our visit to the border-closing ceremony between India and Pakistan (we’re just 30 km. from the border), but more on that in a moment.

First, a couple of signs that caught our eye.

This doctor’s office was just down the street from our hotel, and this sign stopped me in my tracks.  India leads the world in TB cases, with an estimated 2.2 million out of a global rate of 9.6 million.  (Canada had just 1600 cases). (WHO 2011)

We’ve both had phlegmy, rattly coughs for the past couple of weeks, so this sign was not reassuring. Mind you, everyone has phlegmy, rattly coughs here – the air is just so dirty.

IMG_0015

We passed this sign on the walls of a military installation – long, clean walls with this sign every 200 yards or so.

img_8852
It’s not a friendly sign, and we won’t be the ones to put it to the test. As in Jaisalmer, Amritsar is close to the Pakistan border,  and relations between the two countries are still uneasy. The hundreds of troops and tanks and armoured vehicles are not there for show.

The famous border-crossing ceremony at the Attari-Wagah border, on the other hand, is pure show.  Part Monty Python Silly Walks, part military showmanship, this 30-minute spectacle draws 20,000 – 25,000 people every afternoon.

The suspense begins as we make our way from the parking lot to the border. Cycle rickshaws are on hand for those who don’t want to walk the final kilometre.

IMG_0005
We are instructed to bring our passports, just in case. (they were checked), and we all pass through a security scanner and a vigorous patdown. No bags allowed – just a small purse and camera.

Then, once past the military and the police dogs, the games begin. Vendors hawk flags, fans  and hats with “I Love My India”. We brush past them to race for the stadium – trying to get the best seats, preferably in the shade. Several military are on hand to direct traffic and in our case, to encourage me to stay put, after I had been told (with several blasts on the whistle) to sit down. Down we sat, and watched the hordes flow in and fill up the seats.

IMG_0018

The whole point of this ceremony is to take down the flags on either side and close the gates for the evening, but what started out as a semi-formal, military drill has turned into a theatre of the absurd.

On the Pakistan side, the crowd was being warmed up with a somewhat sedate performance.

On the India side, it was raucous. Jai-Ho (the famous song from Slumdog Millionaire) brought the crowds down for an impromptu Bollywood performance.
Vendors worked the stands, selling ice-cream, popcorn, and drinks. The crowds kept streaming in.

IMG_0017
And then…with military precision – the dancers were scooted back to their seats, the vendors shooed away and at 5:00 pm on the nose – showtime.

It began with officers running smartly with their dogs, and the crowd went wild.

IMG_0024
Actually, the crowd went wild for the entire 30 minutes, and amazingly…they were otherwise very well-behaved. At the first sign of trying to stand up (and block everyone else’s view while they got their photos), they were sternly told to sit down, and didn’t need to be told twice. Subsequently, everyone got to see and everyone got their money shots.

A lot of to-ing and fro-ing and perfectly choreographed arm-swinging and leg-lifting.

And then, the chest-thumping, teeth-baring finale. Flags were lowered, carefully folded and carried away.
Soldiers on both sides carried out a provocative show of force – first from India:

IMG_0083
Followed by a call and response from Pakistan:

IMG_0079
And the India-Pakistan border was peacefully closed for another night.

IMG_0108

Now we’re in Chandigarh, which could not be more different from Amritsar.  It is still in Punjab state, and is  India’s first planned city – by Le Corbusier, no less.

Jaisalmer: on the edge of the Thar Desert

Jaisalmer is the most western and remote of the Rajasthan cities: the golden jewel right on the edge of the Thar Desert. Formerly a prosperous camel-trade route between India and Asia, its fortunes dropped drastically after Partition in 1947, and the area seemed destined to dry up.  Ironically, its proximity to the Pakistan border gave it fresh importance and today the economy is bolstered by a massive tourism revival, numerous military installations  and countless  kilometres of wind farms.

img_8747

The city is small – just 65,000 souls, and golden – most of the buildings are of shade of tan and gold, which reflect the desert sun and heat. This is not the landscape bold colour. It  is dominated by the mammoth Jaisalmer Fort; which from a distance looks like a giant sandcastle constructed by an army of six-year-olds armed with inverted sandpails. (Please forgive the poor, fuzzy and distant photo quality, but this is the best shot I have – taken from our hotel rooftop).

IMG_0001
The main attractions of the fort are the Jain Temples and Fort Palace; but inside the fort walls is an actual small city, with people who have lived there since its founding in 1156. Currently there are about 3000 residents, whose homes and shops are lined along narrow winding lanes. For centuries, residents have necessarily been meticulous about water conservation and have lived without incident until recent years when tourism and its incumbent unrestricted water use has brought about extremely serious consequences.

And herein lies yet another example of how untrammelled tourism has the potential to take away so much more than it brings to a community. Water usage and disposal have not been monitored nor restricted and the Fort is under serious threat unless appropriate measures are taken to restrict water use and/or continued guest occupancy within the fort.  It is built of sandstone, and part of the wall fell down because of water seepage; an ongoing issue as  there is nowhere for the water to drain away. Tourists are encouraged to book rooms outside the Fort, but certainly guesthouse owners inside are not willingly giving up their revenue streams.  It is shocking to think that irreversible changes to such a treasure could be allowed to happen and yet it appears headed in that direction.

This is the entrance to the Fort – on overview of some of the exterior details.

Once inside, one runs the gauntlet of shop after shop selling colourful and really beautiful hangings, rugs, tablecloths and cushion covers. Although we’re not in the market to buy, it is still a pleasure to stop and admire, and that becomes impossible as the slightest side glance turns into a full-on sales pitch. “Come in madam. I have more inside. Lots of colours. Good prices. What are you looking for?”  Since entreaties to be allowed to quietly look are ignored, I freeze and panic at the onslaught and keep moving.

IMG_0046
The Fort offers endless glimpses into people’s private lives, but then that could be said about the rest of India – much of life is lived publicly and outdoors.

img_8745
The Jain Temples date to the 15th and 16th centuries, and the opulence and carvings are extraordinary.
Jain religion forbids the wearing of leather and all shoes are left outside the door. I wondered how many leather belts made it inside, or small leather bags and wallets.

The temples forbids menstruating women from entering  the temple as they are “unclean”. This is not restricted to Jain temples but it was the first time so far we had  seen the sign. Since proving menstruation is difficult, women between the ages of 10 and 50 are simply banned from some temples at all times. Encouragingly, protests against this shameful notion have been ongoing in India for a few years; another sign of the push-pull struggles of modern India.

IMG_0052
The interior of one of the temples:

IMG_0073
A closeup of some of the carvings:

IMG_0074
Back in our little ‘hood, lots going on as well. Our hotel is called The Secret House, a brand new build by the extremely charming Naru, and designed by his Spanish wife. After some of our less than pristine guesthouses, arriving here was a gift – of comfy bed, immaculate bathroom, fluffy towels and scented air – along with sweet design touches and very professional service.

This became our refuge from the blistering 38 degree mid-day desert heat.

IMG_0026
Not all our neighbours live as comfortably as The Secret House.

IMG_0084
We met some of the locals on our walks, including this little gang of kids who waved and smiled and yelled out to us like the bold little kids they are, and the second I asked for a photo, this happened:

IMG_0039
Next time we take a tuk-tuk, you can bet we’ll be checking  the seats carefully for signs of goat-hair.

IMG_0086
In the market, we came upon this stall of amigos – one of them giving his friend a strenuous leg rub with what looked like coconut oil. In India, the land where PDAs among opposite-sex couples are not considered appropriate, it is open-season for great physical affection between men. Some young girls walk together with arms entwined, but it is the men who have cornered the market on touching. They hold hands, fingers spread and clasped tightly. They walk with arms around one another. It is unabashed, seemingly without any sexual intent or overture – just the way it is. This is a man’s world.

I’m trying to imagine this same gentleman sitting there, with his wife massaging his legs in public – just wouldn’t happen.  Another of India’s many mysteries and contradictions.

IMG_0083

Camel safaris are one of the biggest tourist draws in Jaisalmer:  half-day, full-day, or multi-day excursions.  The most popular one is an overnight safari leaving mid-day, with two hours of camel riding, camping for the night and sleeping under the stars. By all accounts it is magical.

Before I go any further, I must tell you both Stephen and I had been extremely sick for four days leading up to our arrival in Jaisalmer. Delhi Belly hit with a vengeance as we arrived in Jodphur and after a night to remember, we then just fell into a waking/sleeping/sweating/shaking/ fitful limbo where the hours slowly crawled by and day turned into night and the nightmares were horrifying and we didn’t seem to be getting any better. Then, bit by bit, we emerged and made it to Jaisalmer in what could be described as 70% function and health. Unfortunately  we missed Jodphur entirely.

I’m telling you this for two reasons – most visitors to India have similar stories to tell and now we have ours.   I was going to use it as an excuse not to go on a camel ride. “I don’t think my tummy can take a camel ride – let’s just go on a jeep safari.” 

Stephen was not all that keen to ride camels either, so we chose to book a jeep safari and it ended up being a highlight of our time in Rajasthan. Our guide Papu grew up as a camel driver and still lives in a village out there. He spoke perfect English and was extremely knowledgeable about everything.

We drove through a small village that is populated by “untouchables.” This low caste, called Dalits, have been ostracized from the rest of society and consigned to do the dirtiest work such as cleaning public latrines. There is much effort to do away with the caste system, but it still exists in remote places. Naturally we did not take photos.

Our next stop was a typical village – neat and orderly and modest and similar to the one our guide lives in.

IMG_0018
A source of income in this area is goat farming – the males are sold for their meat.

IMG_0019
Papu brought us into this home to learn a little about village life and be served chai. A single-room cottage with no electricity or running water, it was spotlessly clean and swept; the pots shone and gleaming. We sat on a thin carpet on the ground and talked.

IMG_0024
This woman lives here – photos of her family are prominently displayed, most notably several large ones of her husband, retired from the military. Hers has not been an easy life, I wouldn’t think, but she has family, friends, community, income and a home. She seemed quite interested in learning more about us.

img_8756
On to the main event – we off-roaded up into the desert (or at least what I think of as being desert – it’s all desert). As we passed a few camels, Papu casually mentioned that we should consider going for a short ride – even 15 minutes. Stephen really warmed to the idea and considering we were there, and would likely never be back, we went for it.

Like a mirage – two drivers and three camels soon appeared! They brought their animals down to allow us to climb on ( if you are looking for ways to feel ungainly, this would be one), and then gave us instructions to hang onto the pommel and lean back as the animal rose to its feet. Whoa – up, up , way up. There…we did it.

IMG_0042
And again.

img_8769
And away we went – with me gathering promises from the driver that he would go slowly and not let the camel trot. You’re about 10 feet off the ground and the gait is rolling – you have to let your body follow the animal (as opposed to hanging onto the pommel for dear life and hyperventilating as I did for the first five minutes). If you ride horses, you would likely take to this in a snap.

The driver took us up into the higher dunes – a ride of about 15 minutes in total. I’m very happy we did it (that Stephen talked me into it) – I think we would have been so disappointed to have missed out on our tiny camel adventure. We were then directed to climb the top of the dunes to watch sunset before being picked up again.

An example of the dunes – as Papu noted, “not the Sahara” but good enough for us.

IMG_0066

Another camel train going by.

IMG_0056
A driver collecting his animals for the night.

IMG_0072
Desert sunset.

IMG_0077
Good-bye beautiful Jaisalmer – thank-you for providing us with such memorable experiences.

Tomorrow we fly to Amritsar, home to the sacred Golden Temple.

P.S. A few hours ago, we went to the local lake to witness the Gangaur festival that was pure joy.  Women and girls celebrate the monsoon, harvest and fidelity; hoping for marital happiness. Today was the final celebration after the 18-day festival; culminating in a procession leading to the lake, with groups of women  carrying offerings to the water, and enroute, dancing to Lord shiva and Goddess Parvati.

It was an incredible spectacle, with hundreds of beautiful women of all ages taking part. We are including the photo of this little boy (whom we suspect is a girl in costume), because he reminds us for all the world of our friend Nick McAnulty. He was our son Alex’s best friend since they were five-years-old, and are friends to this day. This is what he looked like back then, and it made us feel sentimental.

img_8818
The street dancing and drumming was fabulous – many groups performed as they travelled down to the lake – this was one of the more energetic ones, thanks to the drummer.

 

Udaipur: The Most Romantic City in India?

Based on our travels through India so far and with so much yet to see, we can’t say for sure that Udaipur lives up to its marketing slogan, but it is certainly one of the most photogenic we’ve seen.

IMG_0002 (1)
Udaipur is a city of lakes and mountains, with centuries-old havelis ringing every shore – the setting is magical. Rooftop dining is romantic – many restaurants boast views like this.

IMG_0048

But there will be no romantic strolling hand-in-hand through charming narrow lanes. Those charming narrow lanes create a constant bottleneck of traffic; a chaotic every-man-for-himself pedestrian and vehicular mash-up, accompanied by nonstop honking and beeping. There is but one way to navigate – wade in, watch your toes (for cow shit and motorcycle wheels), and keep moving. You’re unlikely to be hurt if you do get hit – no-one is going very fast.

img_8710
Based on everything we had read about Udaipur, we arrived here with great expectations and the city has lived up to them all. This is the “White City” (Jaipur was the “Pink City” and Jodphur is the “Blue City”) – so-called because of the predominant paint colour of many of their buildings.  Crazy traffic aside, Udaipur is a walker’s paradise – twisting, winding alleys open into main streets, then close up again, to bring you closer to the heart of the local neighbourhoods.

These neighbourhoods are not rich. Many of their citizens may do their bathing and laundry in the lakes. We got a glimpse into lives that are poor, but not desperate – possibly typical of how many Indians live.

IMG_0045
Before we arrived in the north, we were told that the people here were “different” – a little harder, a little tougher, the men a bit scary. We have found exactly the opposite – we’ve found the people here to be so friendly, and welcoming and curious. Sure, the men stare, but that is cultural, not threatening – I just walk by.   The women stare too,  but I smiled and they smiled right back. When I asked if I could take their photo, the lady in the middle perked right up. She primped her hair, adjusted her headscarf and demanded to see the photos afterward.

IMG_0016
Now before I go any further into extolling the many virtues of Udaipur, let me confess that we succumbed to the starstruck madness of Octopussy – a hilariously cheesy James Bond film that was shot largely in Udaipur in 1983. Long before the days of #Time’s Up, Roger Moore is at his eyebrow-lifting, double-entendre best and of course, every Indian stereotype is hauled out.

A number of restaurants are still dining out on an event that took place 35 years ago, by showing the movie every night. Obviously saturation point has been reached, as we were the only diners in our chosen restaurant but we had a great time laughing ourselves silly. We were asked to suspend disbelief long enough to imagine James on an island full of young women in red jumpsuits (when he was not fighting an angry Sikh on top of a  plane, or navigating crowded Indian streets in a tuk-tuk capable of pulling wheelies down staircases).

imagesSince James Bond stays only in the finest hotels, we followed his path to the ultra-luxurious Shiv Niwas Palace Hotel, part of the City Palace complex, and apparently closed to those who can’t spring $600 a night for a room. I can’t say I blame them for their discretion – busloads of camera-wielding tourists hanging out in the lobby and checking out the washrooms would put a serious crimp on the exclusivity of the place. This is as close as we got.

IMG_0011
Another exclusive hotel – Lake Palace Hotel – is accessible only by boat, thereby guaranteeing privacy from the non-guests. This was the scene of Bond’s women-only fantasy island.

IMG_0056 (1)

Stephen and I said that one day we might treat ourselves to a crazily-expensive, full-on pampering retreat. Then we discussed it a little further and realized first we would need to upgrade our wardrobes, get better haircuts, perhaps lose a few pounds and invest in a decent suitcase. Then we would need to cultivate insouciant attitudes – it all feels like way too much work, and so not us.

City Palace – the star attraction of Udaipur, Rajasthan’s largest palace and a seriously impressive complex of several buildings connected by courtyards. The first building began in 1599 by Maharana Udai Singh, the city’s founder.

You enter the place by the main gate, Tripolia, built in 1725. Now we’re talking – this is the India of my imagination.

IMG_0075 (1)
And this guard, resplendent in uniform and Rajasthani moustache – handsome and proud.

img_8713
The main palace courtyard.

IMG_0030
The palace is graced with many shady courtyards, to rest and recover from the sun – a godsend. It allowed us to spend three hours wandering, without buckling from heat exhaustion, as is so often the case with trudging around large palaces and forts in the hot sun. I watch groups of senior travellers, red-faced and sweating, clutching maps and brochures, and feel sorry for them, until it dawns on me. “I too am a red-faced, sweating senior, slugging water and gasping like a guppy. ”  I may never get this whole travelling-in – hot-countries thing down gracefully.

IMG_0043
One of the many decorative courtyards, with stained glass, mirror and glass mosaics and intricate carvings.

IMG_0063
A closeup of some of the mosaic and tile work.

IMG_0054
A relic from bygone days – carrier pigeon cages.

IMG_0042 (1)
India is full of charmingly-phrased signs; a country where English is prevalent, but often a tiny bit lost in translation.

IMG_0058
Another movie nod – this time for a substantially more worthwhile film – Gandhi. The glasses Ben Kingsley wore for the film are on display.

img_8648
Another important building is the 18th-century Bagore-ki-Haveli, once a prime minister’s residence that had been left to ruin and was fairly recently restored.  A bit of a letdown after the grandeur of the palace, the haveli has by no means been brought back to the level of its former glory, but it is  a good example of wealthy homes in Udaipur at that time. One lonely guard watched as we wandered through the halls.

IMG_0036
Its museum houses some esoteric exhibits, including the world’s largest turban, weighing in at 30 kg., measuring 151″ long and 30″high. The photo doesn’t do it justice – it looks less like a turban than it does any number of disgusting things, but interesting  for folks who like the “world’s largest, biggest, tallest, etc.” sort of attractions.

IMG_0039
We noticed this plaque with a quote from Mark Twain’s 1897 book Following the Equator, based on his travels through India. In pure Mark Twain fashion, he nails India in this passage. And in all that time, so little has changed.

IMG_0065
One final tourist-y thing – the Jagadish Temple – a stunningly carved multi-storey structure. As we entered, we noticed about a dozen men sitting along a wall, being fed lunch. They were obviously very poor and I wondered  if the temple feeds citizens every day. Hopefully that is the case.

IMG_0018
A close-up of the carvings:
IMG_0015
Boat rides on the lake are hugely popular – we took one last night for sunset, joining a large tour group of British high school students who spent the entire time checking their phones, gossiping about their friends and snogging with their boyfriends. It’s so funny – so often the field school is a good excuse to get away from parents, with the destination being a secondary attraction.

We did not snog, and paid attention to what we were seeing.

IMG_0061
Jagmandir Island – a hotel, restaurant and bar – open to visitors.

IMG_0091
Sun setting against City Palace

img_8681
Art take many forms in Udaipur – from wall murals:

IMG_0055
To these whimsical and beautiful designs that decorate many a doorway. They are all variations on a theme – horses, elephants, maharajas, etc. and appear to be the work of one artist.
IMG_0077

We believe they must be stencils, but this young man Ricky claimed to be the artist for this one.

IMG_0006
Udaipur is crawling with artists and art classes – many of them are classes in Mughal  miniatures. Every second store carries similar pieces of art and the artists all claim that a single piece takes them 20 hours of work, yet they charge just $6 or $8. It is hard not to be a little skeptical, since the price does not reflect the effort and the effort appears to be identical from one shop to the next and available in massive quantities.

IMG_0042
We are splashing out a little tonight – having dinner at a fancy restaurant on the water’s edge. We want to celebrate our last night in Udaipur – the most romantic city in India – in style.

Next up – Jodphur – the Blue City, home to a huge fort and birthplace of those unique riding breeches.

Tiny Pushkar brings us back

We had hit that point in our travels where the heat, dirt, noise, garbage, cows, dogs, beggar kids and marauding motorcycles were taking their toll. We were losing our energy and worse, we were losing our interest. Emails and photos from home were making us homesick – not just for friends and family but for cool, clean air and toast with marmalade. We were planning out the rest of our trip, saying, “Just four more weeks and we’re home“, as though our remaining time here was an obstacle to be endured.

And then we arrived in Pushkar, a cattle and camel trading town of around 20,000 souls, perched in a valley and ringed with low hills, and something switched in us. There are still the unrelenting touts and throat-closing smells and starved dogs, but we realized we have an incredible opportunity now. Our trip no longer stretches ahead without horizon, with days to be frittered. Now, we don’t want to miss one thing – good, bad or sad.

Pushkar is a holy town; many Sikhs and Hindus make a pilgrimage here at least once in their lives.  The town centres around a small  holy bathing lake, ringed with 52 ghats. Some of Gandhi’s ashes were scattered here. One must remove shoes to walk around the lake and photography of temples or bathers is strictly forbidden, but we did sneak in a couple of long shots of the buildings on the other side.

img_8542
Our first evening in Pushkar, we spent a couple of hours by the ghats until we were driven away by the touts. There is a well-documented scam that exists here – there are even official signs posted for tourists to beware of anyone “offering gifts.” What happens (dozens of times) is this: you will be approached by young men trying to press small flowers into your hands for “good karma”. If you refuse to take the flower, you are angrily accused of being disrespectful. The whole idea is to bully the unaware tourist into approaching the lake with the flower, and then the sales pitch for a hefty donation begins. Because we knew about this ahead of time, we cut them off every time and each time we were met with anger. It is the downside of Pushkar and casts a deep shadow on the holiness of the place.

We discussed this concept with another young man, Sandeep, who has no use for these characters. As he said, “karma cannot be bought.” What can be bought from Sandeep however is chai tea.

We were expertly hauled into his stall and before  we knew it, we were sitting on stools and waiting for our tea tasting tray to be prepared.

Sandeep’s chai is not served with milk,  “a hangover from British rule”, he said. He prepared 6 small cups of chai – rose, lemon, mint – among them – all of them refreshing and healthy. We bought a tin to bring home – paid way too much for it, but you can’t keep your guard up all the time and he was charming. Good karma.

IMG_0065
There are over 400 temples in Pushkar (many of them tiny shrines, really), and non-Hindus are not allowed to visit inside most of them.

This is as far as we could proceed, but it will give you an idea of the intricate lacy design.

IMG_0049
Everyone is welcome to visit the Sikh temple – a massive white pile on one end of the lake. I had my head covered, but Stephen’s ball cap was not allowed, so they tied a dirty old dewrag on him. We washed our hands,  removed our shoes, bathed our feet and proceeded. It is a somewhat strange thing to visit temples – we have no context of it being a religious building, so it is not always clear what we’re looking at.

On a purely aesthetic basis, this temple was worth the visit.  Stunning, pure white marble and immaculately clean.

IMG_0042
The town of Pushkar is made up of twisty, tiny laneways that lead down to the main shopping bazaar and beyond that, the lake.  Our hotel is well tucked away from the hubbub, and this is the lane that leads up from our front door.

IMG_0019

There are so many shops and stalls and impromptu markets all over India. We’re trying to figure out the business plan. In little Pushkar,there may well be 400 shops or more selling almost identical merchandise. How do you bring enough tourists in your door to make it work? One enterprising young man offered me cigarettes and when I told him I don’t smoke, he was undeterred. “You can start!”  Refreshingly, there seems to be less of a hassle here than elsewhere in India – often the shopowners just sit and let the world go by.

IMG_0023

The produce market is also low-key. They’ve got all day. We watched this old gent park his bike, walk slowly over to inspect a bunch of parsley, make his purchase and head back again.

IMG_0031
On one of the India forums I follow, I had noticed a query about a good place to get a tattoo in India.  I can’t get my head around why anyone would run the risk of getting a tattoo or piercing in India, with the lack of sanitation and uncertain standards of hygiene. Here in Pushkar, I found my answer. If you’re going to get a tattoo in India, you’re already a badass.

IMG_0037
We stopped by a shady garden restaurant yesterday for a cold drink and had a most interesting chat with the young Russian manager Olga who has lived in India for six years. We admired her tattoos – an airplane on one arm ( to express her love of travel), and these sayings from Mother Teresa on the other arm. I had not heard them before – and I love the way they can be interpreted a number of ways.

IMG_0051

Today was International Woman’s Day and we were delighted to come across this march. These young girls were loudly and proudly yelling out as they marched along; no cowed and covered girls – these are the faces of modern India.

They belong to a school that was created just a few years ago, with 60 girls. Today, there are over 500 students.

The alleyways bring such surprises – you have to remember to look up, backwards and sideways to see it all. Much of the paint has a chalky quality to it – almost as though it would wash off in the next monsoon.

IMG_0057
Many teeny little doors or windows like this one. Yes, I am quite sure those are urine drips running down the wall.
Stephen and I were sitting on a shady ledge today, minding our own business, when a dog came over to us, lifted his leg and peed on my foot. A woman walking by told us that it is good luck (I think she was making it up to make me feel better.)

IMG_0005
Beautiful carved doors, filigree, stained glass on the second floor – all set above a nondescript ground level.

IMG_0010
Art imitating life – this scene repeats itself countless times across India.

IMG_0013
Part of Pushkar’s raison d’être is the camel trade – each year the Camel Fair draws thousands of buyers, traders and tourists. The rest of the year, camels are available for safari or for a cart-drawn ride around the outskirts of town.

IMG_0063
We passed a number of camel carts on our way to grab the cable car to Savriti Mata Temple – a Lego piece precariously perched on the narrow top of the hill. There are two ways to get up and/or down – the cable car or a 45-minute to 1-hour walk up very high uneven steps. We chose to ride up to begin to watch sunset, then head down and catch the full sunset before we reached bottom.

The panoramic views from the top were amazing, especially to watch the shadows lengthen on the mountainside.

img_8597

We watched a young photographer chase down a number of tourists for photos. He  did snag a few shots, including this family.

img_8617
We were kept company by dozens of black-faced monkeys, who according to everyone we speak to, are the “good” monkeys. They will approach if you are offering food, but otherwise are not aggressive. The red-faced macaques are trouble – they’ll jump on you, grab your glasses, bite and scratch if provoked.

We had the chance to really observe them – they are tender with their babies, they groom one another and except for a couple of squawks, seem to get along.

img_8613
Our photographer friend was demonstrating to his customers how to feed the monkey out of his hand; the little boy did not look convinced.

IMG_0088
As we made our way down the steps, we met a donkey train on the way up. The first two were labouring under the weight of dozens of water bottles. The last one fairly skipped up with his load – potato chips.

These items could easily have been transported up in the cable car, but as is often the case in India this small job creates work for someone.

IMG_0097
Our reward for the long climb down.

IMG_0113

Pushkar came just at the right time – we really enjoyed our stay here, and tomorrow we head south to Udaipur – billed as the most romantic city in India.

Jaipur: Rajasthan’s Pink City

Well, we are more than halfway through our travels and I had to jinx myself. “We may make it through this trip without getting sick,” I said. Oh boy, a day later it began, with chills and fatigue (luckily we flew from Varanasi to Jaipur before I began feeling unwell). By the time we got to our hotel, I needed to lie down and a few hours later, I got nailed with a particularly virulent strain of acute diarrhea that lasted for 24 hours, eliminating whatever evil I had ingested but leaving me too weak to move for hours after.

The reason I am telling you about my GI woes is this: I missed Holi – one of India’s most exuberant holidays. Holi is set around the full moon – this year March 2. Holi, (or The Festival of Colours), marks the end of winter, the triumph of good over evil and the burying of old grievances – all done by rampaging around town with fistfuls of coloured powder and squirt guns and playfully “baptizing” anyone in your path. It is meant to be festive and fun, but you need to know not to wear your best clothes.

I was so looking forward to being part of this silly, happy street event, so it was extremely disappointing to be sick and stuck inside our hotel. Stephen headed out to see what all the fuss was about and almost immediately he encountered these Aussie kids.

img_8441
By the time Stephen made it back to our hotel, he had been thoroughly, although monochromatically “holi-ed”. They use cheaper synthetic powders these days, so it took a couple of days for the red to leave his beard.

IMG_0002
We had been warned by our hotel manager not to travel around on Holi by tuk-tuk, because “there is a lot of drinking and driving.

We’re so interested in the conflicted approaches to alcohol in India; many of them driven by religious beliefs, but not necessarily observed. At least three states are completely dry but almost everywhere we’ve been outside of Goa has a secretive attitude towards drinking. Many restaurants will serve beer but you have to ask – it is not listed on the menu. Finding a liquor store is almost impossible and if you are in a predominantly Muslim area, there is not a drop of alcohol to be had. As a result, we drink very little (not a bad thing!), and from time to time, if beer is easily available, we order it.

Last night we went to one of Jaipur’s favourite tourist restaurants, The Peacock. Set on the rooftop of a heritage hotel, we had a wonderful evening, with fun people-watching, fabulous wood-fired pizza and beer.

IMG_0002 (1)
The Peacock offered somewhat cheesy entertainment for the tourists, but it was traditional and lent a nice background tone.  We were the only ones paying attention to them – all Stephen could think was how much the singer looked like Russell Peters.

IMG_0007

Our bill arrived – with our beer added on to the printed bill by hand! The denial of sale and consumption is a mystery, but from what we hear over-drinking is a serious problem in India and these prohibition-style rules must feel like a solution.

So…here we are in northern India, in the state of Rajasthan. If your impressions of India include images of camels, massive sandstone forts, desert dunes and palaces, you’ll find it all here.

There may even be a snake-charmer or two. We wouldn’t normally fall for this, but we were kind of ambushed by our tuk-tuk driver on the way to a fort.  We were assured the snake was “very dangerous“, but I’m sure I could have wrapped that critter around my neck and taken it for a walk.

img_8482
Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and home to the Old City or Pink City (named for its salmon coloured buildings) that contains most of the city’s important architecture as well as the honeycomb of bazaars within its walls.

Beyond Old City, Jaipur sprawls; a city of over three million people. Our drive in from the airport was pleasant – past modern office towers and luxury hotels. Our travels around town since then have been the opposite – absolute chaos.

We have been commandeered by a young driver, Ilyas, who keeps his tuk-tuk just outside our hotel.  He has taken us around to a few sites and to give him his due, has respectfully accepted our refusal to “go shopping.” He did show us a video on his phone of his friend smoking hashish – floating it out there as another potential revenue stream. “Why yes, we’ll buy drugs from a tuk-tuk driver in India,” was our first thought.  Since Stephen does not partake and my very occasional foray usually results in paranoia and sightings of giant squirrels, Ilyas had mis-read his clientele.

However, he was excellent and chatty company as he drove us around –  telling us about his life as a father of three, married to a Muslim woman but still seeing the Hindu girlfriend he had not been allowed to marry due to religious differences. He’s uneducated but street-smart and seems to have a few deals on the go to keep things afloat. Very hard-working and doomed to live this hard-scrabble life until old age.

We visited City Palace, much against Ilyas’ best advice – “they charge you 500 rupees ($10CA) for a museum – it’s a rip-off.”  We dutifully went in, because it is listed in Lonely Planet and he was right – large courtyards, a few boxy gardens, and little else to look at.

img_8461

img_8453
Driving through the streets of Jaipur provided us with way more to think about than any palace. As in all of India, animals roam freely, but we had not yet seen pigs right in the city. These big porkers drew our attention to the thick black sludgy sewage that ran along the gutter – a perfect bed for them, but also for small children and dogs.

IMG_0129
The smells were almost overwhelming – even mouth breathing was not helping. These ladies must make a few rupees sorting through garbage – it appears to be a lot of plastic.

IMG_0043
Traffic on most streets looks something like this. The beeping is constant and miraculously everyone gets through without mishap. We have driven past vehicles with not even inches to spare dozens of times. I look around – no-one bats an eye – they’re all on their cellphones.

IMG_0008
I am currently reading The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga; an unforgettable Man Booker-prize-winning novel about India that is all the more compelling for us being here and witnessing what he is talking about.

Cell phones, for example. EVERYONE in India has cellphones and not just any old flip phone – smartphones!  They are obviously cheap to buy and plans are cheap. As Adiga points out in his novel – the government has made it possible for everyone in India to have a mobile, but not drinking water.

Even mahouts are on their phones 24/7; this photo breaks the magic a little for me, I have to say.

IMG_0057

Amber (pronounced Amer) Fort is the big draw in Jaipur. About 11 km. out of town, it is  a formidable presence. Built in the late 16th century of sandstone and marble, the Fort is built in four sections, each with its own courtyard. 

IMG_0053

Amber Fort is accessible from the main road by crossing the lake then climbing up stone steps to the entrance. This 10-minute walk is also available by elephant, but there were few takers. Hopefully the message about cruelty to elephants is starting to penetrate.

Just watching them within the confines of the fort is a beautiful sight though – reminiscent of how it likely was 300 or 400 years ago.

img_8487
People-watching was almost as much fun. This group of Thai women were unabashedly posing and their guide snapping away madly. I waited to ask them about their gorgeous Indian outfits (bought at Anokhi, an upscale shop). Fabrics here are simply the best – I will have to pick up a couple of things just before we head home. These are way too nice to travel in.

IMG_0080
They were very pleased to hear we had been to Thailand. One lady thrust a parasol in my hands and told us to pose and their guide began snapping away.

IMG_0085

I love seeing large groups of Indian women – like a flock of tropical birds in their colours and flowing fabrics.

IMG_0116

And then we ran into this trio. I seriously thought they were part of a cult – dressed in white muslin, with fluffy white bedroom slippers, a mop tossed over their shoulders and the “speak no evil” paper tied in front of their mouths. They are part of the Jain faith, an ancient Indian minority religion that practices among other things, an absence from hate and harm and from attachment to belongings. They are vegetarian, if not vegan and wear no leather. Not all Jains look like this – I wish I could find out more about them.
They were quite friendly, posing for photos, and chatting, but obviously eschewing an attachment to objects does not include giving up a cellphone.

IMG_0104
And then there was these two beauties – attached to everything life will bring their way.

IMG_0025
The Fort is well maintained and appealing – we spent close to two hours wandering through courtyards and along narrow hallways.

IMG_0109
IMG_0072

On the way back into town, we pulled over to view the Water Palace – at first glance, a shimmering vision. When you walk up to the fence for a better look, the first two or three feet of water are filled with garbage.

img_8499
Hawa Mahal is an extraordinary building – intricate layers of salmon-pink that was built to allow the royal ladies the ability to watch processions in the streets below in privacy.

IMG_0050
Right across the street is this building. It seemed to be a popular hangout and we stopped by for a cold drink, but could not find a table in the shade. The building is typical of those lining the streets in Old City.

img_0809
Hawa Mahal rises up five stories and tiny corridors open up to views like this one.

IMG_0037
These little windows would allow the ladies their chance to watch goings-on without being observed.

img_8526
Back out on the street – it is business as usual. The bazaar is in full swing, with everything from key-cutting…

IMG_0048
…to shaving.

img_8535

And now we leave the big city behind and move on to discover Rajasthan’s famous  and much more manageable charms. Next up is Pushkar.

Benediction on the steps of the Ganges

Varanasi, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, has been described in many ways, but calm, restful and quiet would never be among the chosen adjectives. Of all our destinations in India, this was the one I was most apprehensive about – anticipating noise, sights and smells that would be well beyond my comfort zone.

Well, even my fevered imagination could not have summoned the Hieronymus Bosch landscape that is Varanasi.  From the moment we left the airport and drove into town,  we bounced and jostled along a broken-down goat path, passing small groups of men huddled over fires, tarps strung over falling-down shacks and animals wandering down dark lanes. It felt like travelling through a post-apocalyptic refugee camp.

As we drove closer to the city centre, we came upon this scene. A massive wedding was underway and the festivities had moved into the street.

On the advice of a friend, we opted to stay right in the old part of the city – made up of ancient crumbling buildings and alleyways so narrow that cars cannot pass through. Lodgings in this area are less than pristine, but to stay elsewhere is to miss out on the essence of Varanasi. The driver led us down a long alleyway to our guesthouse and while it is not exactly dirty, it is not exactly clean either. That has been our experience with restaurants (Lonely Planet-approved) as well – the tables might be sticky and the windows smudged, but they are clean-ish. Good enough – this will not be the city where we tempt fate with the street food.

IMG_0068

To describe Varanasi as being filthy is like describing Bill Gates as being rich. Buildings and doors and paving stones are crumbling. Water leaks out of crevices and runs down gutters. Garbage piles up in corners. Animals roam as freely as humans – dogs, cows, water buffalo, goats, monkeys – and the streets are their toilets. It is no small feat to walk around the alleyways, dodging animal (and possibly human) shit, great gobs of spit and nasty little puddles of murky water. It smells just as appetizing as it sounds.  Add the constant sound of chest-rattling horks and spits, and it can be a full-on sensory overload. “Mouth breathe. Mouth breathe” has become my mantra.

IMG_0067
Varanasi is a holy city. Myths and mysticism date back 10,000 years and pilgrims, both Hindu and non-Hindu, travel here for spiritual enlightenment.

Besides the 2000 temples in the area, the main draw are the more than 80 ghats (stone steps) that line the Ganges River. Two and a half million people come each year to bathe in the waters and receive blessings. In addition there are 300 cremations every day. Being cremated in Varanasi on the Ganges is very desirable – it is said to break the cycle of birth and death.

Finding peace after death supposedly requires 350 kilos of mixed wood to burn one body and the cost to families can be over 10,000 rupees ($2000).

We watched a couple of funeral processions. Bodies are wrapped in colourful cloths, anointed with fragrant oils and brought down to the river to be immersed.  Obviously photos of the actual cremation are strictly forbidden, but we were allowed to take photos of the massive woodpiles.

img_8431
The Ganges River is one of the most revered rivers in the world and it is also the second most polluted – so much so that even touching the water is considered dangerous. However, that does not deter many Indians, who believe that bathing in the water will release suffering. While the river plays an obvious holy  role in the death of its citizens, it is also where much of daily life revolves – bathing, swimming and laundry.  We even watched one man fill his plastic bottle with water from the river and drink it.

Think of old city Varanasi as a crescent, with a path that follows for about 6 km. and at least 80 ghats dropping down to the river.  To reach the old city from the ghats, you must climb up steep stone steps that lead into a labyrinth of alleys. We were not that interested in visiting temples, so spent our time right in old city.  The best time to visit the ghats is dawn and dusk, for the diffused light and the cooler temperatures.

img_8439
We had read about the persistent vendors, the young children begging and the sadhus or holy men who are looking for photo op cash.  They were all there in abundance which made the atmosphere far less peaceful than it should have been in a holy city.

The children broke our hearts. These are not the happy little faces we’ve been seeing throughout India. These kids approach with hands held out and practiced sad faces – tilted to one side. It is very difficult to walk past them, but that is what we’ve been told to do – the country really wants to discourage this practice, in an effort to have these children in school rather than begin or selling on the street. A noble notion, to be sure, but we saw so many kids on their own, without an adult in sight.

These kids are so vulnerable – half of India’s children live in acute poverty. Figures for missing children go as high as 500,000 each year and those numbers are considered conservative as many are unreported.

These kids had cleverly strung up a pole across part of the walkway; stopping passersby for a five rupee toll.

IMG_0047
We watched the mother of this tiny boy send him off with a bag of trinkets, presumably to sell them with his older brother. He struggled along, pants in one hand and bag in the other.

IMG_0040
This little boy tugged at my heartstrings  – so young and so alone.

IMG_0033
The animals don’t fare any better – dogs are skin and bones and covered in mange. I witnessed a few moments of kindness – a man stopping by to drop bits of food to the street dogs, and this man – so gentle with the puppy.

IMG_0006
The number of beggars in Varanasi is really distressing. People with gross facial deformities, club feet, open skin lesions, missing limbs, missing eyes – all in desperate need of help.

We spoke to a young man who is in Varanasi to earn his Masters degree in English. We asked about the street kids and he acknowledged the problem in Varanasi was very bad. His view was that everyone we saw had a place to live ( a mat on the ground) and food to eat (scraps) and a job to do (begging). The next life would provide better circumstances. The Hindu belief in reincarnation supports that thought, but since everyone is bathing in the Ganges to reduce suffering, it is hard to imagine that people are sanguine about their station in life. To witness such wretchedness is almost more than we can bear.

We watched young mothers begging with their babies – in one case a young girl slapped her baby to make him cry and hopefully elicit some sympathy. She looked like a little animal – hard and desperate, as of course, she was.

This young woman was stationed outside the restaurant we ate at regularly, her hand out for spare change.

IMG_0112
The  sadhus (holy men) are fascinating. Most of them go about their business, and will offer blessings for a coin.

IMG_0031

Others will stroll by, eyes sunk deep in their lined faces, smile and mutter, “photo. photo.”

IMG_0040 (1)
The vendors were easy enough to brush off. We learned not to engage in conversation, not to allow someone to grab our hands, and to just keep walking. It didn’t feel polite, but it felt way happier than being trailed and hassled.

There were many people who smiled and said, “namaste”, and kept walking. They didn’t want anything , they just wanted to be kind. They saved us, as we were becoming quite soured by everything.

One big attraction in Varanasi is to take a boat out on the Ganges at dawn or dusk. We chose a sunset cruise for 1 hour for roughly $5 and found our way down to a tiny wooden boat that already had three other people in it. Very convivial company, but our boatman pulled a classic trick – “I can take you out for an extra 1/2 hour and then you’ll see the show as well.” Steve and I had already seen the show (more later), but the other three had not, so we went along with it. The 1 1/2 hours turned into 2 hours and cost everyone double – not a big deal at $10, but it was the principle of the thing. We are so tired of being grabbed at for every last rupee, and having little tricks like this played on us and being outright lied to.  It becomes exhausting.

The sunset cruise was not that interesting – we would have been better off getting up at 5:30 am for the sunrise. However, we did see the Aarti Ganga show from the water’s perspective, surrounded by dozens of other boats.

img_8402
The night before, we saw the Aarti Ganga show from shore. It is quite a spectacle that is held every night –  to thank the five gods of the river.

Varanasi has been way harder than we thought it would be. We’ve been trying to find the beauty and the redemption here, and have to remember than for so many, that is exactly what Varanasi offers.

To leave on a happier note, some images of Varanasi that will stick with us.
Meditation

IMG_0041
Bathing in the Ganges – it was so hot we were (almost) tempted to join them.

IMG_0049
Typical alleyway.

IMG_0071
Cricket being played on many of the ghats.

IMG_0017
The magnificence of some of the buildings.

IMG_0009
Early morning clean-up.

IMG_0046
Laundry hanging on a line – fresh from the Ganges.

IMG_0012 (1)
The animals of Varanasi have adapted to their surroundings. The cows climb up and down steps easily.

IMG_0053
The goats are naturally built for heights.

IMG_0046
Varanasi in the early morning.

IMG_0049
Flower seller

img_8356
Whew! This was a tough one – to experience and to write about. We talked to people who love Varanasi, have come here many times and intend to return. We can’t get out of here fast enough. Maybe we’re missing something. But we are very happy we came here. This was an eye-opener and will stay with us for a long time.

On to Rajasthan – home of palaces, forts, deserts, camels and snake charmers. We land in Jaipur tomorrow.