Month: November 2014

THE RIVER OF LIFE (& DEATH)

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Varanasi is a very sacred city sitting along the Ganges river. There are Hindu temples lining the riverbank as far as the eye can see. What made Varanasi so compelling for us was that there was so much happening every moment of every day; it was impossible to put the camera down! I think between 2am and 4am things quieten down, otherwise the following is being played out in the water:

  1. Cows taking a cooling dip
  2. Boys leaping in for fun
  3. Men washing clothes and linen for a living
  4. Small candle lit offerings being set adrift
  5. Dead bodies being ceremoniously dunked in
  6. Men and women bathing and cleansing themselves of sins
  7. Sewage being pumped in
  8. Fish leaping out to catch a glimpse of the world
  9. Tourist boats gliding past in awe
  10. Locals in boats selling bits and bobs to the tourists in boats.

If that wasn’t enough, on the steps of the temples pooja (prayers) are given and large religious ceremonies, with bell ringing, clapping and singing take place every single day. There are also open air yoga classes, dope smoking Mums and Dads and very imaginative and dedicated salesmen doing everything in their power to persuade you to part with your cash in exchange for something you do not want.

Of all the amazing and unusual things we saw the most extraordinary was the handful of bodies being cremated in bonfires on the riverbank and steps. The bodies are wrapped, however the limbs and heads protrude out of the flames. The cremations are done in full view, with no attempt at privacy and the mourners are indifferent to the many onlookers.

The openness of life and death in Varanasi is a powerful experience which left its mark on us, probably forever.

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HOW I BAGGED MYSELF AN INDIAN BRIDE

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OK – so technically Maura isn’t Indian but we are in India and she isn’t a bride yet, but fiancée isn’t quite as catchy, so please allow me some artistic licence.

The first step in my master plan was to quit my job in order to go travelling for a year with Miss Brickell. The second important step was to agree to visit India during that year. Admittedly Miss B. had to persuade me of India’s merits as I had some big reservations. (I’m very glad that she did as it’s turning out to be a mind-blowing experience). The final key stage was slotting a trip to the Taj Mahal into our heavy schedule. I was more than happy to skip the Taj as I thought it might be one of those overstated cliched attractions that could never live up to the hype. However, I accepted the advice of friends who have been before and it was added to the ‘To Do’ list.

Although my journey to the Taj Mahal was a somewhat reluctant one, my decision to ask Maura to marry me was much easier. Anyone who knows Maura will know what an amazing person she is and I realise that I’m very lucking to be travelling through life by her side.

Obviously I wanted to hold out for the right moment to ask. After being reminded of the story behind the building of the Taj Mahal – it is a monument to testify to the King’s love for his wife – combined with Maura’s excitement about visiting the place meant that it was a no brainier to ask her there.

Upon entering the site the size and beauty of the place takes your breath away. It’s beauty lies in its perfect symmetry and positioning which means it’s only backdrop is the sky. The few hundred people in front of us failed to spoil the view or feeling of serenity that the place exudes.

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Sharing the view with a few others.

Surprisingly I was able to find a quiet corner to say my piece and ask the critical question. Maura was shocked, but not too shocked to say yes. What had started out as an awesome morning visiting the Taj Mahal turned out to be one of the most memorable days of my life.

THE PROPOSAL

She said yes.

 

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Maura recreates the infamous picture of Lady Di at the Taj Mahal. Nailed it.

LADY DI AT TAJ

 

Spot the Maura.

Spot the Maura.

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‘FINDING OURSELVES’ IN RISHIKESH

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We sailed out of the Delhi madness on a clean(ish) air conditioned train headed for the northern town of Rishikesh. We were very excited about our first journey on the famous Indian Railway and it didn’t disappoint: on time; food served; comfy seats; and the perfect blend of Indian organised chaos.

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Rishikesh is in the foothills of the Himalayas and at the start of the River Ganges. The town itself is not much, but the life along the riverbank is really quite magical. This is where the Beatles escaped to in the 70s to ‘find themselves’ and write most of The White Album. Though the Ashram they stayed at is in ruins now, the area is still full of ashrams, aveydic pharmacies, massage shops, bead stalls, yoga classes, basically everything you need to find yourself and live as a true hippy.

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We spent five days wandering along the Ganges, exploring the temples, ashrams and the curry menus in the local restaurants. In fact, Angela had the best curry of her life – a vegetable Jalfrezi in Beatles themed 60’s Cafe if you are interested.

We also partook in some light finding ourselves activities including evening meditation sessions with a very peaceful German named Eva. Unfortunately, as it takes approximately 4.5 seconds for me to fall asleep normally and quicker if I am lying down (as we were in the meditation sessions), I took relaxation quite literally and was completely mortified when I woke myself up snoring during our second session.

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Cows feature heavily in Rishikesh and, as we are finding, in much of India. They pootle about the narrow streets munching on bits and bobs, standing in the middle of heavy traffic or on the bridges seemingly without a care in the world.

DSCF6574 Avoiding the many aggressive monkeys which swing through the town whilst trying to catch a perfect photograph of them also took up a fair wedge of our time. As did trying to figure out if the 60 year old American lady in our hostel was really heavily pregnant or had some other mysterious ailment. We tried a number of leading questions, but left none the wiser.

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Getting around the supposedly pedestrian streets was a real adventure: huge huddles of families; slow moving long haired holy men; aforementioned cows and monkeys; and motorbikes all battle for space on the winding streets and on the two suspension bridges. Nothing like a traffic jam made up of a huge cow, ten hippies, 20 grandmas, a couple of men selling postcards, and five motorbikes, to wonder about just how much a bridge can handle. Turns out it’s quite  a lot.

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However, it was here that the Indian friendliness we had encountered in Delhi stepped up a gear. What would often start as a shy boy asking for a photo with us, would end up as four generations of a family blocking the road to cram into the photograph. It’s still the Diwali holidays, so we met people from all over India. My favourite was a gang of little old ladies from Gujarat in bejewelled saris who were thrilled to meet us, stroking our hands, smiling so wide and fascinated with Angela’s tattoo. The attention was occasionally overwhelming, with people approaching us every 10 minutes or so, but so wonderful to be welcomed so warmly and to make people smile just simply by being there.

One of the highlights of Rishikesh was attending a Hindu ceremony called Ganga Arti on the banks of the river. It involved singing, clapping, music and some pretty awesome hand cymbal playing. It was very moving to watch the sun set on the river as floral offerings were carried away by the Ganges and it was a perfect introduction to what we would find at our next destination: Varanasi.

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WELCOME TO INDIA

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After a few hours of sleep we stepped out into the Delhi daylight and the full impact of India hit our exhausted eyes.

India is everything you imagine, everything and then some more. Walking along the main bazaar was a complete sensory overload – it is like being smashed in the face with a Michael Palin documentary.

You quite literally walk through smells of cinnamon, urine, incense, garlic, rotten food, spices and petrol. Shouts, car horns, music and squealing children all vie for your attention, whilst you attempt to politely escape stall holders pleas to look at their wares and simultaneously dodge an oncoming cow. There are cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, tuk tuks and bikes everywhere. Crossing the road was the most terrifying and liberating experience: after realising that there is never a break in the traffic, you just have to step out. They actually drive around you….well, just about.

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The majority of our time was spent figuring out a route round India that fitted in with the few train tickets left on the almost sold out trains. It didn’t help that we got good and scammed on our first day when our tuk tuk driver took us to a fake tourist information centre – luckily we sniffed a proverbial rat and didn’t part with any rupees. We had a small train related victory when we bought the smallest phone in India so that we could buy train tickets ourselves without the help of the many ‘official’ ticket sellers we met.

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Ours for just £7.00 including £2.00 credit.

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Old Delhi

We also spent a fair amount of time chatting to curious Indian men, who made us laugh and attempted to lure us into their ‘tourist office’ or what was actually a travel agents. They certainly love English sayings or rhymes and would crack up whilst saying to us: ‘see you later alligator, in a while crocodile’ and someone actually said: ‘lovely jubbly’.

We did manage a day of sightseeing and even braved the metro, which is very clean, fast and had actual air conditioning putting the hot and sweaty (even in November) London Underground to shame.  We visited Humayun’s tomb and the Red Fort, which were both absolutely stunning.

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Turns out they have named a station after our friend Chandni.

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Humayun’s Tomb

The Red Fort

The Red Fort

Though Delhi was exhausting, stinky and dirty, we loved it almost exclusively for the people. Yes, they might be trying to sell you something, but they are so friendly and genuinely happy that you have come to visit India, that it’s hard not to feel welcome almost immediately.

Early days, I know, but we think we might be falling in love with India.

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