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.


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).

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.

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.

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.

The interior of one of the temples:

A closeup of some of the carvings:

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.

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

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:

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

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.


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.

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

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.

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.

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.

And again.

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.


Another camel train going by.

A driver collecting his animals for the night.

Desert sunset.

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.

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.

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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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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And this guard, resplendent in uniform and Rajasthani moustache – handsome and proud.

The main palace courtyard.

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.

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

A closeup of some of the mosaic and tile work.

A relic from bygone days – carrier pigeon cages.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

A close-up of the carvings:
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.

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

Sun setting against City Palace

Art take many forms in Udaipur – from wall murals:

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.


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.

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.

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.


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.

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.)

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

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

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.

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.


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

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.

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

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.

Our reward for the long climb down.


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.

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.

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.

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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.


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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.


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. 


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.

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.

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.


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


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.

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

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


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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

…to shaving.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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


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

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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.

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.

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

Typical alleyway.

Cricket being played on many of the ghats.

The magnificence of some of the buildings.

Early morning clean-up.

Laundry hanging on a line – fresh from the Ganges.

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

The goats are naturally built for heights.

Varanasi in the early morning.

Flower seller

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.

Pondicherry’s spiritual aura

Although French rule ended here in 1954, the small colonial city of Pondicherry is still very much under the influence – in architecture, food, and street style. The French Quarter is solidly French – right down to street names and door signs.

There are many shopowners, hoteliers and restauranteurs who are French nationals and the vast majority of tourists are also from France. (You can pick them out – they are insouciant and lean. The men with expensive loafers and sweaters tossed over shoulders; the women with glossy bobs and fabulous bags.) Well, once again I have proven to myself that whatever capacity I had for speaking French has vanished. My clumsy high school French was no match for their effortless and charmingly accented English, so I gave up.

No matter – Pondicherry (or Puducherry, as it is now called; Pondy for short) is welcoming to all and well worth the visit – a feast for the senses. One can find a genuine croissant as well as a path to spiritual enlightenment.  Pondy draws thousands of visitors to the world-famous Sri Aurobindo Ashram and to the experimental village, Auroville, which is just outside of town.

The French Quarter is the main tourist area; several blocks of leafy streets fronted by a gorgeous stroll along the Bay of Bengal. The Gandhi Memorial is situated mid-way along the water, providing an eternal image of the great man in mid-stride.


The French Quarter is divided by this particularly odiferous canal, with “real India” happening noisily and chaotically on the other side.


If you come to Pondy, be sure to book well ahead to snag a room in a charming heritage building right in the French Quarter. We waited too late and were lucky to find a room at all. Our hotel is in a new building a couple of blocks away from the canal, and down a side street, so we glide through the many faces of India several times a day. We move from this tranquil and lovely room…

… to the main street, filled with traffic, markets selling cheap western clothing and an eye-watering blend of smells. We cross over the canal and enter the rarified world of the French Quarter once again. This hotel is beyond our range – rooms run about $300 a night, but the structure is typical of the lovely buildings that line the streets.

Even the tuk-tuks match the decor.

More street colour. This makes me wonder why we favour such drab, “tasteful” colours for our exteriors in our cold countries – the greys and blacks and tans. In the middle of February in Canada, wouldn’t we all feel perked up with these yellows and oranges and pinks?

Although we are still in the south of India, Pondicherry does not feel as oppressively hot and humid as we had been experiencing for the past several weeks. It is a great relief to simply enjoy what we think of as “summer weather” – hot, with a breeze, and cool at night. Apparently the dogs don’t share my view – they still spread out for naps during the day. The dogs in India appear to have sprung from the same gene pool – mid-size, light-coloured, short-haired and relatively benign.

There are plenty of cows wandering the streets on the Indian side of Pondy, but on the French side, we have seen just this one stopped outside the gelateria. Perhaps some cosmic connection between her milk and the finished product  filtered through to her bovine brain.

Pondy is undergoing quite the facelift – we are curious to know what it will look like in five years. Currently, for every beautifully finished building, there is a derelict one – often they exist side by side.

Several important buildings are also under renovation, with bold banners showing the before and after shots.

If you saw the movie Lion, you will remember that the boy’s mother moved rocks for a living. I didn’t know what that meant until we saw this woman at a work site. In India, very hard manual labour still exists, with many people doing the work that would be done by one machine in Canada. A reminder that so many people work so hard for so little.

This is another common sight – less drudgery to be sure, but I’m quite sure no-one is over-paying this gentleman for those immaculately pressed shirts.


Back to the French influence here in Pondy. There are many French organizations and institutions here, including a number of French schools. Here, La Lycée Francaise:


Rav Nivas, the Governor’s residence, with a gendarme riding by:

The Alliance Francaise, with its attentive guard. I peeked inside the gate, hoping to grab a photo of the luscious courtyard beyond, mais non. He did agree to pose for a photo.


Even the hospital looks inviting:

Our second day here, we left our hotel in search of breakfast, only to discover there was a one-day strike on and everything was closed. One-day strikes are common in India. So far we have had three – taxi strike, water strike and now GST strike. We can’t imagine they have any effect, other than to inconvenience the locals, lose money for the business owners and annoy the tourists.

We came upon this lovely hotel, with the gate open a crack, so we ventured in to see if they would consider feeding non-guests. At first, we were promised coffee, but that turned into fresh juice, fruit, eggs, toast, and pancakes. We returned again at lunch, since most of the French Quarter was closed until the evening. This is the courtyard of Villa Helena, our strike-day saviour.


On a whole other level, we made the obligatory visit to The Indian Coffee House, a Pondy institution that was the birthplace for Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.  Martel began his book with meeting an elderly man who tells him, “I have a story that will make you believe in God….” Far from having an uplifting effect on us, we found it dirty with so-so food. But, they’re carrying on without us – the place is packed and buzzing.


We bought coconut water a number of times from this gorgeous woman. We stopped to watch her hack away with her machete – hack off the top, scoop out a bit of flesh, insert straw, repeat. She had a few customers on the go; a big personality and a bigger smile. “Here you go, mama”, as she passed  me some fresh coconut.

I don’t know why I like this photo – I just do. Three gents having a good ole chinwag.

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And onto Pondy’s spiritual life – the many faiths and belief systems that co-exist here.
We really like the kolams, found outside many homes and businesses. Each morning, the women draw them with rice flour or chalk – usually quite simple designs to bring prosperity and good luck. Sometimes bowls of flowers or small offerings are added.

There are many churches and temples in Pondy – Notre Dame des Anges covers the Catholic side of things. The interior was simple, with life-size sculptures of Jesus in various states as he made his way to the cross. Accompanying inscriptions were in French – Jesu est tombe pour la premiere fois.

We were allowed to visit the Hindu temple Manakula Vinayagar, but interior photography was forbidden. This exterior shot is an example of the lavish and colourful friezes.

And…Sri Aurobindo Ashram – the internationally-known ashram founded by Sri Aurobindo and “The Mother” – who also founded Auroville. The ashram attracts thousands of visitors each year; many of whom stay for a period of time. Tourists were only allowed to enter a small part of the building, following a flower-lined pathway to a centre “stage” where we were invited to pray. I prayed for our family and friends, and then moved to join others in quiet contemplation. My challenge was I could not get the image of Julia Roberts in India (Eat Pray Love) out of my head, so meditation was out of the question. Still, a moving experience to observe others; many of them in raptures.

The ashram

And on to Auroville, the utopian community about 10 km. outside of Pondy that was founded in the late 60s by Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. The vision of Auroville was to realize human unity through diversity and is the only experiment of its kind in the world. There are about 2500 residents – 60% of them from other countries and of all ages from infant to 80. The community is dedicated to peace, sustainability and divine consciousness and depending upon with whom you speak, has been a resounding success or a shady, self-indulgent escape from reality.

It is possible to visit for an hour, a day, a week or longer. We chose to go with a tour, which was a mistake, as we were rushed through and did not have a chance to visit properly.

First, we visited the excellent Visitor’s Centre and watched a 10-minute video before walking down the leafy 1-km. path to the main attraction, the Matrimandir.

Along the path, there are stone markers depicting each of the twelve flowers The Mother chose for their significance to Auroville’s intentions.

This 10-sq. km. area is beautifully planted, with two million trees and many gardens. As you approach the main area, there is a sign asking for silence, as this is a meditation area.

And there it is – the Mothership. The Matrimandir  (or “soul” of Auroville) has been compared to a giant golf ball or a space ship, and you could be forgiven the comparisons. Inside is a large crystal, and the whole interior has been designed for individual silent contemplation. You must make reservations a few days in advance to be allowed to enter, so we just contemplated from outside.

Visiting Auroville was an otherworldly experience. I wish we had more time to talk to people and get a better sense of the place. There are accommodations in the area for those who wish to explore the concept a little more.

Et voila! Another side of India that we had no idea existed. Our spiritual tour is far from over – next we head to Varanasi, one of Hindu’s holiest (and most colourful) cities.  We met a Scottish gentleman a few weeks ago – he travels to India frequently and is a huge fan. We asked him about Varanasi, and in the words of everyone’s favourite Donald, he replied, “It is a stinking shithole. But you MUST go.” We can’t say we haven’t been warned.

Varkala: Where yoga meets the sea

While Varkala is not India’s ground zero for yoga,  a walk along the town’s cliff-top path will have you tripping over tanned and toned aficionados. Signs for sunrise, sunset, rooftop and beach yoga classes proliferate. “Oh right,” I thought, looking at this poster, until I saw a beautiful woman do a similar pose on the beach, with legs in lotus position, propped on one hand. This otherworldly creature then gracefully disengaged her limbs and strode into the ocean – the far north end of the beach where no-one swims and where red flags warn of dangerous currents.  Does advanced yoga promise immortality?

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Another poster seems to suggest cult membership, or at the very least the chance to have a scary boyfriend for a while.

And no, dear yogi friends, I’m not mocking. My body would be very grateful if I bought a yoga mat and actually used it. After a week here, I feel inspired.

Varkala is a seaside town in the south of India – with beaches that are not, in my humble opinion, nearly as lovely as those in Goa, but still… a holiday within a holiday. We needed a week to get off the road, stop travelling, stop sightseeing and just enjoy doing nothing. It has achieved all of that and more.

We booked into the Keretheerum – a nine-room guesthouse down a lane and a half-block to the beach. Clean, quiet, A/C, balcony and on-site laundry – perfect.

We could have stayed here, but we figured it might not measure up to the original.

We could have stayed here, at Clafouti Hotel – very pretty beach resort, but just a shade over our budget.

We did eat a lot of our meals at their restaurant –  affordable, great views, warm, professional staff and clean, delicious food. Here is a view from our favourite table. We sat directly behind this table to stay in the shade and avoid the stream of vendors going by.


A big chunk of the beach area is on top of a cliff, with stores and restaurants and hotels on one side and the cliff on the other. There are a few staircases that lead down to the beach.  The path runs for a few kilometres and in parts, it is like this – scenic and clean and fenced for safety.


In other parts, it is like this – scruffy and filled with garbage.

The garbage in town and on the beach and in the water is extremely distressing. The Sea of Arabia is a priceless asset and no-one seems to care. There is a sign in our room asking  us to avoid plastic as the municipality does not collect garbage and it is either being burned or thrown over the cliff.

We have seen small signs to improve the situation – workers on the beach picking up garbage, and small trucks coming by to take away huge nylon bags filled with trash, but it is a drop in the bucket. I watched a man finish his lunch and casually toss the wrapper over the  cliff – that action was as natural and unconscious to him as breathing.

At first,  swimming at Varkala felt wonderful. The water is warm and there are good waves to play in.

But we aren’t in the water for long when a piece of plastic wraps around our ankles, or we step on something that feels distinctly icky. We try not to swallow any water. By contrast, our swimming in Goa was blissfully clean.

We have been greatly amused by Varkala’s lifeguards. Neatly dressed in blue, they spend their time either checking their cellphones, or gossiping with their partners. Periodically they leap to their feet and emit several short blasts on their whistle all the while motioning with their red flag to either come in, or move down the beach. Of course, no-one pays any attention and this scenario is repeated all afternoon.

We wondered what they would do in the case of a drowning, since they are not equipped with lifesaving apparatus – not as much as a ring or a board. Also, the first dilemma would be to safely stash their cellphones and remove their nice shirts.

We stopped to talk to them and they told us that their job involves saving several Indians every year, since “Indians don’t know how to swim. ”  We had gathered that – many  Indians simply play at the shore’s edge, often hanging on to one another for support.

Since lifesaving is obviously not a big moneymaker, our new friend also volunteered that we might want him to take us out on a dolphin-watching tour. We could swim with the dolphins, but not touch – we might end up in jail for that offence. Anyway, it could be dangerous to get too close – since we are Canadians and come from a cold country, we are “fresh meat.” After a great laugh at his own joke, he jumped up for a photo.

The surfers were out in full force on one end of the beach. There seemed to be a collegial community of about 15 or so surfers, both Indians and foreigners.

The south end of the beach also serves as a bathing and religious area for Hindus. A couple of days ago, we stumbled upon a ceremony. Several small huts were set up, with holy men administering blessings and small food offerings for departed loved ones. We aren’t sure of the significance of this ritual, but watched as people would receive the food and blessing, then walk toward the water.

It appeared solemn, but not sad – I believe this is a regular occurrence to honour the dead. The food offerings, wrapped in banana leaves, were left behind.

Although we are not religious, it is always an interesting part of our travels to observe how people practice their faith. We met an Indian woman from Delhi who has great disdain for “all those little Hindu rituals” but I found that dismissive. We have witnessed Indians receive comfort and affirmation with those actions.

India’s religions have played out powerfully in their history and continue to play out today. Not for me to comment in any way, but it is impossible to be in India for longer than a day and not witness the impact of religious conflict and the seemingly impenetrable divisions that have shaped life here. The Modi government appears to want to eradicate Christian and Muslim religions; violence has broken out in many parts of the country.

Ironically, India continues to attract droves of spiritual seekers. They are perhaps drawn to the irresistible notion of nirvana that so few Indians seem able to attain.

That is what makes India so endlessly fascinating – the questions with no answers, the dilemmas with no easy solutions, and the stereotypes that might deserve a second look.

We’ve all heard about the male stare in India, and it is no exaggeration. This young man has a pushback; either he is trying to change that negative impression, or he just wants to be a little cheeky.


Along with the many stores that line the clifftop, Varkala has a number of Tibetan shops. I remember when singing bowls became popular years ago in North America, which also brought back memories of purchasing Indian bedspreads and incense.

These are quite beautiful – I watched as the shopowner demonstrated for a couple of tourists.

To walk the clifftop is to run the gauntlet of shopkeepers, keen to stop you long enough to lure you inside. Mainly, the shops offer identical merchandise – beachwear, gauzy dresses, sandals and jewellery.

Some of the stuff looked quite nice, but since no amount of pleading will convince the merchants to allow you to browse without being hassled to death, I didn’t dare stop.

There are quite a few tailors in Varkala as well, offering ready-to-wear and custom designs.  I couldn’t resist this sign as I realized I no longer own a “dearest piece of clothing”  There are times when living out of a suitcase and wearing the same easy-wash, low-wrinkle clothing gets very, very boring.


Our first night in Varkala, we ate at a rooftop restaurant and watched the sun set behind this palm tree. It was so tropical, so romantic…and then we saw a rat run up the trunk. I think my aversion therapy to rats is coming along nicely – I keep seeing them and my reactions are becoming less hysterical.


Ir you look closely at this photo, you will see a few lights – the night fishermen were just setting up. In the morning, they might bring in a prize like this – yellowfin tuna. And yes, those are Stephen’s feet in the background.

We’ve had a perfectly relaxing week in Varkala and now we’re ready to go exploring again. Off to Pondicherry tomorrow – India’s French colonial city – we’ve been promised real croissants. We’re there for a few days of civilized, leafy ambience.

Welcomed like family on Munroe Island

We would have missed Munroe Island, but for the chance meeting of a fellow traveller and her heartfelt endorsement. She had just come north from staying at a nearby ashram and raved on about the beauty of the area.   Canoe rides through narrow canals. Cycling on flat dirt paths by the river. Losing an afternoon reading in a hammock.
Yes, please – this was everything we had hoped to find in Kerala’s backwaters.

Getting there from Alleppey was easy – we hopped on a regular unreserved train and headed south for 1 1/2 hours. Cost – 40 rupees for two – less than $1. Ambience – priceless. This is an unflattering shot of Stephen, but will give you an idea of the train’s interior. The ceiling fans do a not-bad job, and the wide -open doors also help with ventilation. It hasn’t been cleaned in a while, but that’s what hand sanitizer is for.

Images of Indians clambering on train rooftops are familiar to moviegoers;  I guess this stencilled notice is here for good reason. This action is apparently  “punishable”, but they’re not saying how. Since no-one came by to check our tickets, I think travelling short distances by train for free is not uncommon.

The train stops at each station for about 30 seconds, so you need to be ready to roll. Stephen jumped down, grabbed my suitcase and helped me down. Boom – train resumed travel and was gone. We grabbed a tuk-tuk, and 15 minutes later, we arrived at Green Chromide Homestay, to be welcomed by the lovely Sunaina. This picture manages to make her look freakishly short and me freakishly tall.

Sunaina recently switched careers and lifestyles – she left her job at Yahoo in Bangalore to open Green Chromide Homestay in her husband’s family town of Munroe Island. They built a home with their quarters downstairs and two guest bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs and have been in operation since September. Her husband commutes each week to his job in Bangalore, but is on hand on the weekends, along with his brother, to help Sunaina welcome their guests.  They all pitch in with preparing the fantastic meals. This was one of our dinners – the namesake green chromide fish, along with more food than we thought we could eat – but we managed.


Sunaina’s little daughter is also thrilled with the move. In Bangalore, she missed her extended family and was confined to an apartment; on Munroe Island she runs barefoot and has the whole neighbourhood watching out for her.  Her self-appointed job is to watch out for her 2-year-old cousin. The little cousin has an older brother – he and Stephen would solemnly fist pound each time their paths crossed.

Indian kids are the cutest. Almost all the children we’ve encountered are curious, confident, sweet-natured and very well-behaved. “Hello. What is your name? Where are you from?” – they call out to us, and we call back and then they giggle. Stephen has taken to saying,”Where are you from?”, which causes them no end of consternation. (How could he not know they are from India?) The older ones sometimes get it. Steve being Steve, this joke will never get old, so I am doomed to hear it for the next two months.

On our last evening on Munroe Island, Sunaina invited us to join her family at a festival at another family member’s home. We still don’t know what the festival was about, and neither did our host. He shrugged – apparently the whole neighbourhood was lighting small candles and offering food to departed relatives. Most of Sunaina’s relatives and friends did not speak English and needless to say, we were the subjects of much curiosity and also the recipients of tremendous hospitality.

I got to hold this little dumpling – she must be so used to being passed around to adoring relatives, she didn’t bat a (kohl-rimmed) eye.


Sunaina’s relatives live on a large property with three buildings – the original 100-year-old small home, the much larger family home and a shrine. We began celebrations by slurping a sweet liquid out of our hands (I accidentally ate with my left hand – a huge no-no), and then went back to the shrine for the brief ceremony.  The woman with the pink sari began – offering prayers for about five or ten minutes.


We followed by throwing flower petals around the shrine and then moved back to the main area. Our hosts had made small sweets – something like a little banana pudding wrapped in leaves and steamed over a fire for an hour. Delicious – plus we got a few more to take home. I got lots of arm pats and looks and giggles – it felt very warm and welcoming, although of course they could have been saying anything about me – how would I know?

We came to Munroe Island for a peaceful backwaters experience and lucked into this lovely new friendship. It was an honour and a privilege to be part of this family gathering, and will remain one of our top Indian experiences so far.

On to the backwaters… Munroe Island is a cluster of eight small islands, covering 13 square kilometres, linked by innumerable small canals, a large lake and a river.

The view close to our homestay:

We borrowed a couple of bikes at the homestay and took off to explore the island.

First up – a dad and his son skipping rocks across the water.

This little store is very typical in India – sometimes they carry fruit and vegetables, sometimes cigarettes and toilet paper – others carry jars with small candies and perhaps a few bottles of shampoo. I think they function on a greater level as a hangout.

IMG_0016 During our three days on Munroe Island, we were serenaded day and night with chanting, singing, and prayers – sometimes at teeth-rattling decibels – part of the festival. We cycled by this woman who was reciting prayers from a book, much enhanced by the mic and loudspeaker.

At first, we were aggravated by the noise, especially when it began at 5:00 am. It soon became part of the background and we stopped hearing it – we must be surrendering.

We arranged with Sunaina for a canoe ride through the backwaters. We were picked up at 4:00 pm for a two-hour tour, on a typical Keralan dugout canoe. I sat in the middle and Stephen sat in the front – he was soon instructed to start paddling as well!

Our captain:

As in Alleppey, the river life unfolded, but in a much quieter way.

One beautiful scene after another:

Birds were a big feature of our trip – we were accompanied by birdsong the entire time, and we did see a hornbill, although my only photo is a bird in silhouette on a wire, so I’ll save you that non-image and give you this video instead.

More boat-and-trees-reflected-in-still-water-shots.

The birdsong was disturbed by our captain’s nonstop expectorating. Even by Indian standards, he was outdoing himself.  Every five or ten minutes, we would hear a phlegmy, chest-rattling hork, followed by an emphatic pttchoo into the water. I looked back at one point to see him crouched and covered with a towel.
We passed this happy group twice – here for the weekend and armed with selfie-sticks, they were having a grand time.

These sturdy wooden boats are called into duty for any number of things, including the transport of household appliances.

We passed by the simplest of dwellings:

As well as a more comfortable home, complete with a jaunty Christmas tree.

And boys – lots of boys. This little crew reminded us that boys are the same the world over – they yelled out to us, with big bright smiles, and then a couple of them felt obliged to climb a tree and hang over the water.

We approached two young men – one very proudly sitting on his new bike and the other taking photos. They agreed to pose for us.

Pick-up volleyball by the river. This game was going on every night we were there.

Stephen heading under the bridge, wearing his new Tilley-ish hat bought in a market in Alleppey.  The days when we would not have been caught dead in a hat like this are over – function over form is our new approach to travel fashion.

A parting shot – good-bye to bucolic Munroe Island – we are on our way to another beach holiday in Varkala for a week.


Waterworld: gliding through Alleppey’s murky green canals

The backwaters of Kerala have been compared to the American Bayou and billed as “Venice of the East”. This area of low-lying barrier islands is linked by five lakes, 38 rivers and hundreds of canals, both natural and man-made.

Kerala backwaters have been used for centuries for transportation, fishing and agriculture; the dykes built to keep freshwater and saltwater from mixing are similar to those in the Netherlands. In places, houses run along a narrow strip of land on one side of the canal with rice paddies,  and fields of bananas, cassava and yams on the other.

This dreamy, languid region has attracted tourists for years. Drawn by the irresistible notion of rollin’ on the river, (albeit in a comfortable fully-outfitted houseboat, complete with A/C and staff), the hordes have arrived.  Sadly, tourism has grown to the point where there are serious environmental threats from over 2000 houseboats and untold numbers of smaller vessels.


Alleppey is one of the two main hubs where one can arrange for boat tours. There are half-day and full-day tours on double-decker boats, small canopied Venetian-style boats and low wooden dugout canoes. Heavily promoted as a “must-do”, overnight houseboats come in a staggering range of price points and amenities.  They all offer bedrooms, bathrooms, dining facilities, lounging facilities and on-board staff, and quality ranges from frankly frightening to quite luxurious. Prices correspond accordingly. This was one of the nicer houseboats that passed by – we waved at one another, as you do whenever you are onboard any  boat.

To step back for one minute – we chose to stay right in the city of Alleppey, instead of one of the more rural canal-side resorts, as we had a number of housekeeping issues to take care of – laundry, ATM, assurance of good wifi, etc.  It was perhaps not as authentic and laid-back as we had hoped, so we are tacking on another few days in the backwaters further south, after we leave here. However, we had yet another fantastic homestay experience with our host, Jose, his wife Tiny and their two adorable small girls – Angel and Annie. Jose and his cousins Jiju and Simpson run the homestay; his wife is an elementary school teacher.

Jose, Tiny and Jiju, heading out for the evening.
A side note here: I want to figure out how Indian women deal with heat. They are unfailingly elegant, unruffled and covered from neck to toe in layers, complete with floating scarves and gold jewellery.  I, on the other hand, am panic-stricken and cannot find a way to calm myself. Red-faced and beaded in sweat;  my damp, wrinkled clothes cling to me like saran wrap – I am not doing a good job of representing western female tourists.


Our homestay neighbourhood is fun – on our street we have a mosque, a recycling depot, a girl’s school and a ruby financier. One narrow alley leads into another and by now we have figured out the labyrinth.


On our first day, we wandered around the town of Alleppey without much success. Our bodies were coping with the shock of being plunged back into dripping humidity and temps in the high 30’s. Like a scene out of High Noon,  we arrived at the lighthouse, an Alleppey landmark, only to be urged by the caretaker to “run – we close in 10 minutes.” The purpose of the lighthouse visit was to climb its many interior stairs and enjoy the panoramic view of the city. We could no more have run those stairs than run a marathon, so on we trudged down a shade-less street toward the beach. We became so dispirited by the broad stretch of dirty sand that we hid out in a small cafe and drank lemon soda.

Just prior to that, we had visited the other Alleppey attraction, the Revi Karuna Karan Memorial Museum. The widow of the late wealthy businessman (second-generation owner of a massive coir factory, among other ventures) housed their personal collection of porcelain, ivory, precious stones, furniture, crystal and art  in a spectacular white columned building. She was hoping to create her own Taj Mahal, as a testament to their love.

It was interesting enough ( she has the world’s largest collection of Swarovski crystal), except we were followed by a “guide” who kindly read the plaques on the wall for us (“this is a table with ivory inlay”), and rushed us through, then hinted at a tip.

Note to self: not everything listed in Lonely Planet is worth visiting.

Back to the main event – our boat trip. We arranged for a half-day tour on a private boat – just us and our captain, Sudo. The sarongs Sudo and Jose are wearing are very common in southern India.  The men endlessly unfurl them and wrap them up to miniskirt level, then drop them again. I’m sure they are cooler than pants.

We met up at 9:00,  and soon we were underway – happy to sit back in our rattan chairs, a light breeze on our faces and watch life on the river unfold. Contrary to what we had heard from other tourists, we witnessed no bathroom habits, but we did see people brushing their teeth, bathing and washing their hair.

Many women were washing clothes, scrubbing them with soap, then pounding them against the stone steps.

Commerce is conducted waterside – we passed a number of boats carrying a variety of goods.

Homeopathic medicines delivered right to your door

IMG_0062 (1)
We stopped for breakfast at Tasty Land, where we were greeted by a very warm woman who brought us coffee and pancakes and watched us carefully as we ate every bite.


Sudo brought us round the side of the restaurant, where there were two eagles with wings clipped, posting on a perch. This seems to be a thing in India – this is the third or fourth “pet” eagle we’ve seen.  Sudo wanted the eagle to sit on my shoulder, but it kept hopping onto my head – perhaps confusing my hair for a nest.


Our boat, tied up and waiting our next adventure.

Like any neighbourhood, there are homes of all types.

A modest houseboat:

A modern, newly-built two-storey home:
A luxury resort:
And most of the services you would expect to find in a small town.
A hospital:

A school.   Jesus has been thoughtfully outfitted with an umbrella to guard against the harmful rays of the sun.

Lots of people-watching. This family waved at us as we glided by.

A stern-looking woman standing sentry.

And, as we’ve seen everywhere in India, such brutal manual labour. We watched men  fill and carry massive baskets of dirt and stone on their heads, from the boat to the yard behind.

As you would expect in this environment, there is regular ferry service.

One last beautiful scene before we headed back.

The entrance to our boat tie-up is pretty grim – where old boats go to die. It would appear that derelict boats are not hauled away – there were dozens like this and it is obvious they had been there for many years.


This was an extremely interesting introduction to life on the backwaters. We’re heading to Munroe Island tomorrow, which is about two hours south of here. It is isolated, rural, and promises walking, cycling, canoeing and napping. Sounds perfect – expect more backwater photos in a few days.

Munnar: our first Indian hill station

Our five-hour bus trip to Munnar was entertaining (non-stop Bollywood dance sequences), comfortable (clean seats, A/C) and calm (our driver drove the twisty, winding roads in a safe and gentle manner; allowing the impatient masses behind him to pass on blind corners without challenging them to a game of chicken). We left behind blistering heat in Cochi to reach the cool, serene heights of hill station Munnar, former resort to the British Raj elite. Our final ascent to our guesthouse in the hills was by tuk-tuk.

The entrance to Green Magic Hotel.

The view from our hotel balcony.

Green Magic Hotel was a perfect choice for us – just five rooms and run by the sweet and hospitable Robin, who also happens to be a professional chef. Each breakfast and dinner guests met around a table groaning with food. Robin explained the dishes and left us to chat. So far we have met guests from England, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland and India. Last night we had three mother-daughter groups, two friends who had left kids and husbands behind and us.

Our guesthouse is set high in the hills about 6 km. from the town of Munnar. At night, it is silent – the stars come out, the temperature drops and we sleep with windows wide open to cool mountain air. We wake in the early morning to raucous birdsong. If this was the turn of the century, we would be in the mountains “taking a cure”.

The area around Munnar is the largest tea-growing region in south India, and the oldest; plantations date back to the late 19th century and plants like this are 75 years old. As you can see, they thrive on poor soil – the gnarly roots appear to grow right into the rock.


From a photographic point of view, our timing was off – the tea pickers were in another area the day we went hiking and they don’t work on Sundays. Picking tea has not been mechanized – each leaf is still picked by hand. Just the shiny light green top leaves are picked – the rest are left behind.


The rows of tea plants are trimmed like miniature ornamental hedges – immaculate and glossy – they stretch for as far as the eye can see.


Munnar is well-known for its “soft trekking” – unlike the Himalayas, the Western Ghat Mountain range is rounded and more gentle for hiking. It is possible (but not advisable) to head out for the hills without a guide. The paths are wide and easy to navigate and the incline is gentle and gradual enough for beginners. There are 25- 30 km. treks, but we opted for a five-hour, 15 km. hike.  Our guide Ramish met us at our guesthouse at 7:30 am, and within 15 minutes we had reached the trail, bitterly regretting not having brought a coat or hoodie. There was frost on the plants and ice on the ground. Munnar frequently gets below-zero overnight temperatures in December and early January, but as is the case in the rest of the world, Munnar is experiencing climate change and unseasonable weather. We don’t stay cold for long, and soon the rewards of the hike begin to unfold.

The mountain range layers away in all directions, from deep purple to forest green to the palest lavender. For the first time since we’ve arrived in India, the air is pure and the sky is bright blue.


We walked past a group of people resting on a boulder. Some of them were sitting right on the edge, with feet dangling over the abyss.

A rare sight at this elevation – a high tree and some shade.


We stopped for a water break and to admire the view. A long line of blue uniforms began to appear – the Navy cadets were heading toward us in full force. About 50 young men trooped by and settled in on another rock just in front of us. The drill began and so did the push-ups. We had a great laugh watching some of the guys trying to fake it after about 10 push-ups – they have a way to go yet in their training.  We found out they were from Delhi – an exuberant group of 20-year-olds down for a weekend camp.


Ramish points out Anamudi Mountain – at 2695 m., it is South India’s highest mountain peak.  The mountain is in the background – that’s Ramish in the foreground; a little the worse for wear for having helped an old lady down a steep incline. After I slipped and nearly fell a couple of times, he became alarmed. He stepped in front of me, grabbed my left hand over his shoulder and performed a cross between a fireman’s carry and a human shield to bring me to safety. My trusty Keen sandals are normally solid, but they would not grab the talcum powder surface of the dusty slope.

We spent two days with Ramish and got to know him a little. His English is not great, but he tries very hard and really wants to improve to become a qualified tour guide. Our host Robin recommended him (they are good friends), and we were happy with his services, but we got a bit of an insight into the challenges of his life.

Ramish is 31 years old, has a wife and two young children and has lived in Munnar his whole life. He has a night job with the tea factory; he works from 10 pm to 7 am and he and a friend switch off duties during the night so they can take turns napping (probably not an encouraged practice.) He earns 300 rupees each shift – about $6 Canadian dollars. His company also pays his health care, his children’s school costs and gives him a house to live in until he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 58. Hopefully in the intervening years he will have made other arrangements for a home. To supplement his income, he bought a tuk-tuk and drives during the day. Three to four times a week during tourist season,  people like us pay him 1200 rupees ($25) for five hours touring – four times his salary at the tea factory. By many Indian standards, he is doing fine. The challenge for Ramish is that he is bright and ambitious but he only has Grade Nine education. When we stopped for lunch, we sat by a guide and his Italian guests and we watched Ramish observe them. That guide was obviously educated, fluent in English, and polished in dress and demeanour. How does our Ramish find the time and the opportunity to improve his lot? Both Stephen and I felt his longing for more – it was palpable. Ramish is charming, decent, very hard-working and bright – in Canada that would be his ticket to a comfortable life. Still, he seems to be a happy man – young, strong, self-sufficient, surrounded by community and living in a beautiful place.

Heading down the mountain and through the tea plantation; Ramish walks this almost every day and never gets tired of the view.

Ramish took us out in his tuk-tuk on another day for a tour of the area. The draw to Munnar is the natural beauty, the trekking, the cool, clean air and the escape from the chaos of urban India. Munnar’s tourism board feels the need to gild the lily by marketing a raft of unappealing and pointless attractions, such as a garden centre with a couple of acres of parched dahlias and listless roses. We passed on that, so Ramish headed for Mattupetty Dam.  He instructed us to walk over the dam and “come back in 10 minutes.” Dutifully we obliged, wondering why we were staring through a chain-link fence to garbage and murky green water. We walked along the lake for a bit and headed back to the tuk-tuk.

There are bison and wild elephants in the area, and although we saw dried-up evidence of animal visits on the pathways, we did not see so much as a squirrel while we were driving and hiking. As luck would have it, a mum and her baby elephant appeared, but sadly too far away from us to get a closer view. They were way down on the beach while we were way up in the hills. But still, it was a squinty-eyed thrill to see them.

Ramish pointed out a low shrub called Kurinji that blooms just once every 12 years, and 2018 is the magic year for the next mass blooming. Apparently the area around Munnar has the best viewing, but I’m hoping we will be able to see this flower in other parts of India as well – they are due to bloom in March and April.
In the meantime, the hills were filled with giant colourful flowers – red, blue, yellow – names unknown.
Munnar’s town market is quite lovely – filled with such exotica as banana flowers.

Just a few stalls down, we watched fresh banana chips being made – scraped from a mandolin into boiling oil. We couldn’t resist this perfect Indian snack.

Today, we went for a six-km. walk into the plantations and hills around our guesthouse. We ran into these characters – here on holiday from Toronto. The gentleman with the Blue Jays cap has lived in Toronto for six years and works as a chef with Aramark – the company that provides food for Rogers Stadium. He is originally from this area, and obviously could not resist doing what you can’t do in Canada – sit on the top of a Jeep while driving down a steep mountainside.

One of the many viewpoints from the winding paths leading to the village below.

And again…

Our time in Munnar has been picture-perfect.  We had planned to visit Periyar Reserve, and nearby Thekkady, but learned from our host that the 900 elephants there are no longer easy to view. Three years ago, a couple was trampled to death by an elephant when the flash on their camera startled him. After that tragedy, the park closed trekking into certain areas of the park, and elephant sightings are now very rare.

Disappointing, but there are a number of other great animal reserves in India, which we will hopefully visit. Tomorrow we head for Alleppey, which is the hub of Kerala’s backwaters.