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August 10, 2020 / catherinebwrites

INDIA 24 – WILDLIFE TOURS

Village market

How you travel in India depends on time, funds and personal preference. It also depends on what you want to see. Top of our wish list was TIGERS.

India’s National parks have a huge range of wildlife, elephant, tiger, leopard, bear, plus a abundant deer, monkey, peacock and boar, not to mention the birds. Indians want to preserve their wildlife and they don’t need tourists clumping through their forests destroying rare plants, plucking the fruits locals need and disturbing the animals. Besides it is dangerous.

Tigers might cast a disdainful glance at a jeep full of tourists, but humans, gamboling on their patch, might look tasty. Wild elephant are dangerous too. When a new herd entered the park, the wardens closed the tour route that passed near them. Leopard sleep during the day. Still, I wouldn’t fancy my chances if I happened to disturb one. So, the only way to see wildlife is with an organised tour.

Any excuse at all to show off my tiger photo!

THIS IS HOW WE DID IT

Booking:

Googled “Tigers in India”. Talked to friends. Researched. Bandhavgarh National Forest was considered the best places to see tigers.

We tried contacting them through the Bandhavgarh website. That didn’t work. After much bumbling we found this. They sorted safari trips to the forest and accommodation.

The Holidays (Regd.)(Unit of Indus Excursion)

Head Off.: C-3, Ground Floor, Kachnar City, Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, India

Tel.: +91 8989007070, 0761 4006070

Whats App: +91 9425412741

Email: indusexcursion@gmail.comtheholidaysindia@gmail.com

Website: www.indus-excursion.comwww.theholidays.inwww.madhya-pradesh-tourism.com,

www.bandhavgarh.co.inwww.indore-tourism.comwww.khajuraho-india.orgwww.agra-tourism.net

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Travel:

Our first thought was, “We’re in India, it has to be train.” But there was no direct train from Delhi. We found a suitable flight from Delhi to Jabalpur with Bravofly.

The Holidays rep picked us up in a taxi and we drove another 3 hours to our hotel in the village of Tala, in the National Forest of Bandhavgarh.

The Hotel was charming. The Safris well organised and our wonderful driver Ramilan picked us up each morning and afternoon in his jeep. And we saw tigers… and not just tigers….

Fabulous creture

This was a brilliant few days. (See blogs India 5 and India 6 for more details.) Seeing tiger in the wild and close up is one of my greatest experiences. I know this sounds silly, but, afterwards, I felt that somehow it had made me a better person!

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July 28, 2020 / catherinebwrites

INDIA 23 OLD DELHI

Interesting electrical installations.

Tourists told us that Old Delhi with it’s market streets was difficult. Indians warned that it was full of pick-pockets, thieves and tricksters waiting to part you from your cash. That you have to be very careful. That best way is to hire a bicycle rickshaw and a guide.

But, unless you live in a hole in the ground, you know that every city and every market has pick-pockets, thieves and tricksters and that you need to be careful with money cards and documents. Besides, the great pleasure of markets is wandering around, seeing the goods close up, bargaining and buying. And you can’t truly enjoy a market from a moving vehicle. So we took a tuk-tuk and headed for the Spice Market. Within minutes we were stuck in a traffic jam.

Traffic jam
Traffic jam
Traffic jam

But by now we were traffic jam veterans. We knew that Delhi traffic jams are to be savoured, so we sat back and admired the infinite variety of vehicles and the range of passengers and goods that they carried. I’ve tried to describe them in earlier blogs but the pictures tell all.

The market was jam-packed with people, mostly men. Shop owners, assistants, customers, hangers-on, friends, tuk tuk drivers, porters, bicycle-taxi drivers. Tiny shops on either side of the street had displays of spices and nuts, loose, packaged, tinned and bottled. The smell was intoxicating. Unusually, the shopkeepers didn’t try to lure us in to buy their goods. I reckon they thought that westerners wouldn’t be interested. But we were, and this gave us the chance to look and smell and ask questions which is half the pleasure of being in a market.

I’ll have that… and that… and that…
Choices…choices…
All of these please….

By the time we’d explored one side of the street we were starting to flag so we went in to visit Fatehpuri Masjid. This is a mosque built in 1650 by Fatehpuri Begum, one of the wives of Emperor Shah Jahan. After the crowds and the noise it was a haven. You have to remove your shoes before you go in.

Fatehpuri Masjid.
Fatehpuri Masjid courtyard

There were several old men sitting by the pool chatting or just sitting. We had the impression that they met here every day. We too sat by the pool to enjoy the peace and quiet. Several families wandered in.

As part of the complex there was a boys school on the first floor. The pupils came out on a break to play football on a wide first floor terrace. Every so often, the ball bounced into the courtyard below. We retrieved it and threw it back. The boys were polite and grateful and highly amused to see tourists fetching their ball.

Then I noticed a man doing his washing -or perhaps someone else’s. In Hindu society launderers belong to the lowest cast. I could not discover how it is viewed among Muslim people. All I know is that it demands careful attention to remove all najaasah (impurity) and, depending on the cause of the impurity, may need several washes. It certainly looked like very hard work

man washing clothes

Back on the street we bought herbs and spices, nuts and jaggery (a sugar made from cane sugar and date palm used in sweet dishes in India). We wandered along absorbing the sights and the sounds and saw few other tourists.

Quite a load to carry on your head.
Waiting for work
Hoping to sell
All kinds of electrics
Blankets anybody?

The weather was just warming up but now it was time to leave India and return home. We were sorry that we hadn’t ventured into Old Delhi earlier. We felt we’d only experienced the tiniest sliver of India and now learned of so many wonderful places we wished we had seen. But that’s always what happens when you visit a country for the very first time. Especially India, which is more than a country, it’s a continent with an unimaginable variety of languages, cultures and peoples. We can’t wait to get back.

While we waited in our hotel for a taxi to the airport, there were news reports of a viral disease in Wuhan, China. A group of Chinese guests arrived. Two of them sat in the lobby. One took a bundle of face masks out of her bag and shared them with her friend. Little did we realise that, when we got home to Ireland, half a world away from Wuhan, we’d soon need face masks ourselves.

It may be quite some time before we can return to amazing extraordinary, beautiful, challenging India.

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July 13, 2020 / catherinebwrites

INDIA 22. HOMESTAY

Harish sits among his silks.

Homestay is in a quiet area of Varanasi but close enough to the main streets to ramble over there. It has a garden to sit in. Cold beer available to order and three meals a day on request. The rooms are immaculate, large, airy and with en suite shower and toilet. It is an oasis. The Varanasi experience is intense, so you do need an oasis.

Our room

It is run by Harish and his wife Malika. Their son does the admin and their daughter helps prepare and serve the food. They can arrange several different tours ( see previous blogs India 17-21) so they also employ a couple of guides and drivers. Take these tours if you only have a short stay in Varanasi and want to make the best use of your time.

Harish also has a shop on the premises which sells silks. O.M.G., the silks! They are luscious. You just want to dive into them and wrap them all round you. And the colours, dazling, rose and sunset, peacock, mandarin, peach, cherry, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, azure, midnight, dawn, lightening, thunder, starlight, there’s no end to them. I passionately wished that I was a millionaire and could buy up the lot. Failing that, if only I were a skilled thief with magical powers who could whisk them away in my baggage and escape. Being neither, I had to content myself with looking and longing and buying a simple scarf. However, now that I have the scarf home, it is causing considerable jealousy and many inquiries about where I got it.

But for me the best of all was mealtimes. It goes without saying that Indians know how to cook and Malika is up there with the best. But what mad meal times great is that, you share the table with the other guests. This meant that we met two lovely Austrian ladies. An English couple. A serious Indian called Siddhartha who was to come to Ireland with his wife in August. He and quizzed us up down and sideways about what they should see in Dublin. But I guess Covid 19 has put paid to that.

Best of all were the two Brazilian doctors, Wilton and Eduardo and the lovely south Indian couple who had come to buy silk and walked the Ghats every morning. The Brazilians joined us on trips and, after dinner, Harish would join us and we’d all sit around discussing, politics, religion, Life, the Universe and all that. Us non Indians were able to ask about aspects of Indian Culture and religion and the Indians asked about ours. It was a fabulous enriching exchange, the kind you wished you could have regularly. And, seeing what is going on in the word to-day, the kind of mind-opening discussion you wish everyone could have.

Dogs snoozing peacefully near Homestay.
Cows resting near Homestay
Homestay
D-61/16, Sidhgiri Bagh, Varanasi, 221010, India
Phone: +91 94154 49348

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July 6, 2020 / catherinebwrites

INDIA 21 VARANASI

The Burning Ghats

In the west we’re protected from the realities of death. Death is confined to hospitals and sanitized viewings of the corpse in a funeral parlor. In Varanasi they let it all hang out, so it’s no surprise that, we westerners view the Burning Ghats with horror and fascination. Indians view them as just part of life,

Hindus believe that cremation in Varanasi frees you from the cycle of rebirth and death caused by your karma. So, freed from karma, you are guaranteed entry to Paradise. For that reason, many Indians come to pass their last days here. But, even if you die elsewhere, you can have your body sent to Varanasi for cremation. We saw the rows of containers. It explains the sheer volume of cremations which continue day and night, every day of the year. Out of respect for the dead and their families Sunny, our guide, asked us not to take photographs.

He told us that some people cannot be cremated. Lepers, in case the smoke from their bodies might spread their disease. How scientific that is, I don’t know. Also children and pregnant women… why? Perhaps their karma is already cancelled?

The Dom light the funeral pyres and tend to the cremations. They are a subset of the Dalits, the lowest rank Hindu caste but, even within that lowest caste, the Dom hold the lowest rank.

The family of the deceased pay for the wood. The wealthy choose sandalwood, others something cheaper. Sunny insisted that the Burning Ghats were happy places because families know that their loved one is going to Paradise. But women are not allowed to attend because they will weep and wail and spoil the happy vibe. The vibe we experienced didn’t strike us as happy.

We saw a father bring the body of his dead son to the Ghat. The body was wrapped in a white sheet but the head and shoulders were visible. The son looked young, maybe nineteen or twenty. The attendant and the father brought the body to the river to wash it. The attendant then built the funeral pyre while the father sat by the body. He would wait till his son was reduced to ashes then he’d put the ashes into the Ganges. He looked broken and sad.

Meanwhile other funeral pyres were burning brightly. Then we heard a sound like an explosion. Sunny explained that this was the sound of the Dom breaking the skull of one of the bodies. The human skull is thick and difficult to burn so…

At that point we left the burning Ghats and headed back into the alleys of old Varanasi. It was an interesting, solemn and sobering experience.

“Dust to dust, ashes to ashes” as the priest says on Ash Wednesday.

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June 23, 2020 / catherinebwrites

India 20 VARANASI

Sunny at his friend’s sweet naan shop – delicious

Harish, our host in Varanasi Homestay, insisted that we would enjoy the walking tour of Varanasi old city. It lasted five hours. Five hours! Five hours walking through crowds, animals, broken pavements and uneven steps…yikes… Our hips were complaining at the mere thought of it. But Harish said we’d see aspects of Indian life that we’d otherwise miss and, if we got tired, we could always just stop. So off we went with two Brazilian guests Eduardo and Wilton and Sunny as our guide .

Our first stop, Sunny said, would be an Indian sweet shop. “Not like any sweet shop you know.” he promised. He was right.

They’ve been growing sugarcane in India for thousands of years and the English word ‘sugar’ comes from the Sanskrit sharkara. So Indians know about sweets. But, Holy guacamole, I’ve never seen anything like it. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the range and variety.

The shop was doing a roaring trade. The display cases were packed with sweets made from every fruit, nut, pulse, cereal and vegetable you can think of and many you’ve never heard of. Some sweets were baked, some fried, frozen, roasted, boiled and jellied. Many are made specifically to serve with a meal, or for weddings, certain festivals, for celebrations, as religious offerings, as gifts. The variety is endless.

We ate some in the shop and wow, they were so sweet you could feel your teeth cringing! But unlike the rather dull sweets you get here, you couldn’t scoff a whole box full. You could only manage one, maybe two. We bought a large box of mixed sweets. We intended to invite family around for a meal to hear of our travels and share the Indian sweets. Covid 19 put paid to that but, they sure sweetened our lockdown!

Then we headed into the ancient narrow alleys of Varanasi. We stopped to watch a baker slap dough into the sides of a tandoori style oven in his work counter ( see photo above) and minutes later he brought out sweet naan and gave us some to try – yum, double yum.

We wandered on. Sunny pointed out several factories. Not the big industrial buildings we associate with the word ‘factory,’. These were tiny dark workshops where people made things. Like this shop below. The owner made highly ornate badges with raised gold and silver wire embroidery, the kind you see on military uniforms and the blazers of expensive golf clubs.

Badge designer and embroiderer

We saw this woman going from house to house collecting old clothes and exchanging them for new saucepans. A man on a bicycle cycled by tooting a tin flute to rustle up business. We walked through the lanes where the “Untouchables” live. Many are laundry workers who wash clothes in the Ganges and iron them in the street using ancient irons filled with hot coals. Do you get extra blessings if your clothes have been washed in the sacred Ganges?

Any old clothes?

We passed by the building where the Sadhus hold their parliament. The place where they discuss and decide whatever it is that concerns the lives of Sadhus. It is also where stay when they come to Varanasi for religious festivals or when making a pilgrimage.

Sadhu’s Ashram
Entrance to Sadhu’s Ashram.

We saw where they make paneer, a printing press, several sari wholesalers, tailors and a Government bhang shop selling balls of dope the size of a tennis ball. I thought dope was illegal in India but I know Sadhus use it in their ceremonies.

Everyone In India, Sunny told us, wants to own their own business, no matter how tiny. Everyone wants to be their own boss. And that was clear to see in the alleys of Varanasi.

Printing press

Alley Varanasi

Some alleys are as wide as the one above. Others just wide enough for two people to pass. Some so narrow that, when two people meet one has to stand aside to let the other pass. Our way was blocked by a cow now and then. There were plenty of placid dogs, the occasional goat and when you looked up you might see a couple of monkeys scurrying about or watching you from a high niche.

Alley Varanasi

Then we came out on the ghats and sat on the steps and had tea while a goat ambled by and some children gathered to giggle at the strangers. By now we were fading rapidly but Sunny assured us that once we’d drunk tea flavoured with sugar and spice we’d be ready for more. We were… but not too much more. We visited the one of the burning ghats but I will write of this separately in my next blog

The Ghats
The Ghats and the goat.

We went back into the alleys and passed a dark gym where handsome young men with amazing physiques were training with indian clubs. Sunny pointed out the remains of several ancient temples. Then finally we came out into the main street, noisy and busy with tuk-tuks, motorcycles, bicycles and crowds of people. A bit of a shock after the quiet of the alleys.

Sunny led us through an entrance and into the flower market and we watched the long-winded haggling and the buying and selling of flowers. Eventually we got to sit down in a lassi shop where the owner served the most delicious lassi I have ever tasted. It came in unglazed earthenware cups. Behind us, hundreds of these cups were stacked high against the wall. These cups are broken immediately after use to ensure that no high caste person will ever drink from a cup previously used by someone of a lower caste.

FColourful alley
Entrance to a restaurant
Remains of temple with washing
Another corner
Haggling in the flower market

By the time we got back to our Homestay we were hanging in threads. We felt like our feet were bloody stumps- they weren’t- and that our knees were pushing up through our hips – they weren’t. But we had lasted the whole five hours and a bit more besides. Harish was right, we wouldn’t have missed it for worlds.

If you go to Varanasi do take this tour. You will see things you would otherwise miss and learn so much about the city and its people. Afterwards the you can always go back wander the alleys by yourself.

Contact Harish at Varanasi harishrijhwani@gmail.com

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June 12, 2020 / catherinebwrites

INDIA 19 – VARANASI

Sadhu on a Ghat

We got up at some ungodly hour and headed for Assi Ghat where morning Aarti starts at five. The ceremony is held every morning come rain or come shine. It was dark and cold, and I was grinchy for lack of coffee. Why hadn’t I just stayed in bed?

Morning Aarti is like a reverse of the Evening Fire ceremony. This time a group of young women sang the hymns with elegant gestures to emphasize phrases.

Singers at morning Aarti

The priests began with with fiery candelabras and continued with smaller fires and smaller fires. As the ceremony progressed darkness began to fade, the river began to glimmer, the sandbank and the sky melded into one pearly presence. Indians, it seemed, celebrate the natural rhythms of life much more than we do in the West.

Words are never enough to describe these ceremonies. For a better idea take a look at this video https://youtu.be/tYGKvRYGMvY

https://youtu.be/tYGKvRYGMvY

When Aarti was over, Sunny, our guide, led us down to a boat and we rowed along the ghats as the sun rose to tint the world pearly pink. Beyond the wide ripple of river, the sandbank was a violet stain. Birds marked the sky like a Japanese print. And all was quiet. Peace descended like a protective cloak.

Dawn on the Ganges

As we floated past the Ghats pilgrims bathed in the water. It was cold and I shivered at the thought of immersing myself in the river but Sunny insisted that the water was warm. I dipped my hand into the Ganges. He was right, the water was warm. Was it heat retained from Indian summers? Or from the uses the river is put to? Who knows?

Early morning bathing in the Ganges

I closed my eyes and listened to the lap of the water and the slap of the oars. I was glad I had not stayed in bed. This was worth getting up for. Now I understood why Indians say that the Ganges is it is sacred.

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May 28, 2020 / catherinebwrites

INDIA 18. VARANASI

Varanasi is considered the most sacred and holy place in India. If you want to see religious ceremonies and Sadhus this is the place to come to. If you die here, it is said, you will go straight to heaven. And if you are cremated here, on the banks of the Ganges, you too will go directly to paradise.

We walked through the quiet back streets to get a sense of direction and came across this tree shrine beside a pond dedicated to Lord Rama. In the middle of the lake there were statues of Lord Rama his wife Sita and his brother Lakshman.

Another view of the pond and the shrine.

We sat and enjoyed the quiet. Several curious schoolchildren came to chat to us.

“Where you from?”they asked.

“Ireland.”

“Beautiful country” they said.

I suspect they hadn’t the faintest notion about Ireland, but Indians are unfailingly polite. Their Mammies would have been proud of them. A nearby temple bell started clanging and the air was filled with chanting.

We moved on, zig-zagging through streets and alleys until we stepped into a tornado of noise and people and traffic. We were on the main street leading down to the Ganges.

Indians are good in crowds but we had to watch where we were going. I kept getting distracted by glitter and gleam. The shops were filled with bright saris, vermilion, crimson, cerise, sunfower yellow, spring green, midnight blue, crocus purple, dawn pink, all bordered with silver or gold, spangled with sequins, and embroidered with beads. There were wedding suits for men in gorgeous brocades and jewelled turbans, elegantly draped silk scarves and two-toned shoes. Indian men have no problem with colour and pattern and riotous shine.

Wedding party
Main street

It was thrilling, exciting and exhausting. Eventually we made our way back to our Homestay to have lunch and recover. We’d be facing the chaos again on our way to a boat trip on the Ganges.

Our first sight of the Ganges

We set off in late afternoon with our guide Sunny ( the perfect name for him) and arrived at Dashashwamedh Ghat. The Ghats are sets of steps down to the river. Dashashwamedh Ghat, according to legend, was created by Brahma to welcome Shiva. And Brahma sacrificed ten horses here during Ashvamedhaan – an ancient ceremony, long out of use, performed by a victorious king

Dashashwamedh Gha

The Ganges was wide and smooth with boats scattered over the waters and a sandbar on the opposite shore. It was January and the river was low because mountain snows in the far-away Himalayas had not yet melted. We stepped from the bustle of the ghat into a row boat and floated on to the calm of the river.

The Ghats from the calm of the river


We rowed down river and back viewing the Ghats. There are 88 of them. Many have temples devoted to Hindu deities. Some have palaces built by Maharajahs who wanted be close to the spiritual power of the Ganges.

Everyone has heard of the Burning Ghats where the dead are cremated – I’ll write more about them in the next blog. There are only two Burning Ghats so, while they’re the most famous, they are a small part of the complex. Most of the Ghats are used for puja, religious rituals, for prayers and for bathing. Dhobi Ghat, is for the those who do laundry.

Boat full of sadhus
Us on the Ganges
Sunny – Our lovely guide
Boats on the Ganges

The boat trip was quiet, relaxed, peaceful and calm. The river was dove-grey and silken. As we came to the end of our trip the sky flushed from pale to gauzy pink to gold as the sun sank.

But every so often the calm was disturbed by an outboard engine zooming past and, as the time for the evening Fire Ceremony came closer, there were large motor boats, crammed with tourists, pulling up parallel to the ghats.

Traditional boatmen resent these intrusions for several reasons. They disturb the peace. They pollute the waters. And they’re putting local boatmen out of business. Hopefully, the city authorities will recognise the damage they’re doing and ban them.

As we came ashore for Ganga Arti, the Fire Ceremony, a young girl sold us small containers with flowers and a candle. Offerings for the Goddess Ganga. We lit the candles and sent them floating down the river.

Ganga Arti began. It is a devotional ritual performed every evening, using fire as an offering. The Pandits, Hindu priests, face the river and are accompanied by songs in praise of Mother Ganga. It is colourful and dramatic and, although we did not fully understand the ceremony, we found it very moving. There was a palpable sense of something spiritual happening and a feeling of being blessed. Words do not describe it well. Take a look at this video and you’ll get some sense of it.

Afterwards we climbed the steps to the street where beggars were lined on either side. All were were poor, many were disabled but none of them badgered us. It was one of those occasions when I found myself thinking that when we in Ireland complain about social and medical services we have no idea how the other half lives nor how very fortunate we really are.

We got back to dinner in our Homestay but more of that later.

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May 16, 2020 / catherinebwrites

INDIA 17. VARANASI

The Burning Ghats

Where else are you going?” my friend asked. He’d traveled in India a lot.

“Varanasi.” I replied.

“Gird the loins,” he warned, “it’s an experience.”

He was right.

We set out from the main station in Delhi in the dark. We reckoned the train journey would give us a chance to see the Indian countryside.

Main train station Delhi

Because the journey was 8 hours long, we decided to treat ourselves to first class. The seats were comfortable, there was plenty of legroom and considering it included meals, snacks, drinks and newspapers, the cost was reasonable.

We set out in the dark and waited impatiently for the sun to rise and show us India. The sun did rise but all it displayed was a curtain of fog so thick and so grey that all we glimpsed were ghostly shadows, a tree, a building, the heft of a station.

“The sun will soon burn it off.” we consoled one another.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is GettyImages-80398079-5c0b6709c9e77c000166e344.jpg
First class travel

It didn’t. We spent six hours in the thickest fog I have ever experienced. When, finally, we emerged into daylight the train gathered speed. We watched swathes of bright yellow mustard flash by, boys driving goats, women squatting to work in fields of green corn, hamlets of mud-coloured houses,clusters of trees. But not a hill or a mountain in sight. It seemed as though all of India was one great plain. I rose to go to the toilet.

The toilets in all our hotels had been fabulous and as we were travelling first class expectations were high. I opened the door and found a hole in the floor. Oh… The problem was… how can I put this delicately? When a train is racketing along, lurching from side to side, accurate aim is next to impossible. I stepped gingerly on to the low, foot-shaped pedestals and discovered that a lurching train also makes it hard to stay balanced. I vowed not to visit again.

We reached Varanasi in the late afternoon, two and a half hours late. And stepped into mayhem.

Try finding Wally here!

Our Homestay promised to send someone to meet us. We stood in a tsunami of people wondering how could they possibly find us? We were sure we’d be stuck on this platform forever or else we’d be crushed to death.

Every tourist who’s been to India returns with tales of the crowds and the chaos. What they never tell you is that Indians know how to do crowds. We, impatient westerners, push and shove in a crowd. Indian’s don’t. They flow around one another like water round rocks.

The train is enormously long, hundreds were getting off, hundreds more getting on. People were greeting family and friends, or saying good byes. Parents were guiding children and carrying babies. Men were unloading packages, others loading on goods , some were wrestling with suitcases, some lifting plastic-wrapped bundles on to their heads. Boys sidled around selling water or snacks. But no one was crushed. We found that, if we moved slowly and sideways, we could weave our way through the melee.

We searched about for someone holding a sign with our names. We couldn’t see anyone. Should we head for the entrance? Should we stay where we were? Then it dawned on us, we were the only westerns in sight. They wouldn’t miss us. Suddenly two young men emerged smiling and waving large sheet of paper with our names on it.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 20200122_164351612.jpg
Street in Varanasi

They guided us out into the street where a different chaos reigned. A chaos of tuk-tuks and bicycles, cars, taxis, carts, cows and miscellaneous traffic all tangled together. They got us into a tuk-tuk. Off we careened, beeping and swerving along rough-surfaced streets, through a welter of traffic that made rush hour in Delhi look staid. I had to remind myself of the lesson I’d learned on our first days in India. They definitely know what they’re doing. We’re probably safe.

Quiet street in Varanasi

At last we turned into some quieter streets and pulled up outside a gate. Inside there was a calm garden courtyard and a man there to welcome us. He was Harish, owner of our Homestay. He showed us our room and told us what time dinner would be.

We lay on our bed and recovered.

May 4, 2020 / catherinebwrites

INDIA 16 DEEPAK SHYALAKOTI

DEEPAK SHYALAKOTI

Deepak arrived at our hotel looking very dapper and off we went through the mad Delhi traffic. He was the driver taking us on our tour of the Golden Triangle (see blogs INDIA 10-15) .

Despite the mayhem of horses and carts, tuk-tuks, lorries, wandering cows, bicycles, motorcars, pedestrians, motorbikes, scooters, vans and monkeys, it was soon clear that we were in safe hands (See INDIA 2). Deepak was a good driver, experienced and skilled. We sat back and relaxed.

As we got into chat, we realised that Deepak wasn’t just a driver, he was an intelligent man, interested in a wide range of subjects. Over the next days our conversations ranged over history, philosophy, society, politics and religion. Never discuss politics or religion they say, but we’re Irish. Any half decent conversation that doesn’t include religion and politics is hardly worth having! Deepak was curious about us and our culture, we were curious about him and his.

It was soon obvious that Deepak knew as much about the sights we visited as the guides allotted to us. Often he know a lot more. Because of his range of knowledge we assumed he must came from the educated middle class. We were so very wrong! He was born in poor family in a poor village in the mountains. When he was a boy, a villager who lived and worked in Delhi returned to visit. This sparked an ambition in Deepak. The man was dressed to the nines and the boy wanted, one day, to be able to dress as smart as that. At the age of fourteen he ran away from his village and came to Delhi. He had no money, no education, no skills, knew nobody and had nowhere to stay. All he had were brains and ambition.

He slept on the streets, suffered attacks, saw all kinds of degradation and poverty, scams, violence, “things you wouldn’t believe”. But slowly, gradually, he found jobs, found help, worked his way up and educated himself on the way. Now he drives for Noble Tours but also, he runs his own tour agency OMINDIA TRAVELS* ( contact info below)

One day he surprised us.

“Thank you for respecting me.” he said.

What on earth did he mean?

He meant that we were polite and we had conversations with him. Hey… we were spending four days together, what else would we do? But, apparently, many tourists treat their drivers like their personal slaves and never speak to them except to give orders. Well more fool they!

Deepak and us outside Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds) Jaipur

This was something we heard a lot from people in service jobs in India. They all had similar stories to Deepak. Realising the kind of difficulties they had to overcome gave us huge respect for them. So many people in India, like Deepak, build lives for themselves against overwhelming odds. Congratulations Deepak. Congratulations all of you. You have more than our respect, you have our admiration.

DEEPAK SHYALAKOTI www.omindiatravels.com

MOB:++919654387235

April 27, 2020 / catherinebwrites

INDIA 15 SAMODE

We left Jaipur for Samode and saw the Aravalli Mountains. At last some hills after all the flat land we’d traveled through. The town of Samode was poor and straggley but not overcrowded like the cities we’d seen. We drove up the main street, steering round a couple of goats, the inevitable cow. We saw men sitting outside their shops, a woman carrying a bundle on her head, another peeling vegetables outside her door. We passed a high stone wall, made a sharp turn, drove through a gate, up a ramp and walked into this.

Samode Palace

Samode Palace. I thought it was sight to visit but no, it was our hotel. Those stripes on the pavement are made of flower petals, preparations for a wedding.

The palace, was built by the ‘Maha Rawal’ , the local lord and it is still owned and run by the family. It was totally spectacular. Once again we had expected a modest hotel but, take a look at our bedroom.

Our bed

Those drapes are silk and brocade.

The day bed for watching T.V.
The balcony with a view
The pool
The bathroom.
A nice place to sit.

Wall painting

The place was so big that you’d need a map,compass and the handy sherpa guide to find your way around all the courtyards, terraces, hallways, corridors and sitting rooms.

That afternoon we were taken on a “safari”. Well, not so much a safari as a drive to Samode Bagh, the hotel’s other property, a garden with tent accommodation, very luxurious tent accommodation. In the past, the noble ladies and gentlemen used to retire to these gardens to relax and enjoy themselves. Now it’s hired out for business conferences and weddings.

On the way we passed a farm worker’s house where a wedding was getting under way. The guide insisted that we should gate-crash. We felt uncomfortable. There were very few men about, just a few boys who were staying well away from the women and a couple of young men who seemed to be setting up a sound system. Presumably the groom hadn’t yet arrived.

The lads

It turned out that there were two brides, both secluded inside the house with other women. They were first cousins. Neither of them looked more than fourteen and neither looked happy at the prospect of marriage, more resigned . But maybe that’s just my assumption.

One of the brides
The kids

Outside a crowd of women were gathered. They were outside were having a grand old time, laughing and talking, eating and drinking. They all seemed highly amused at these foreign interlopers taking photos. Everyone wanted me to take their photo.

,

The ladies
The grannies.
The young ladies.

Samode Bagh, is an enclosed or garden, with a water channel and a row of fountains fed by springs and wells. We had tea on the tea house terrace and watched a huge variety of birds flit about and come to the table for crumbs.

On the way back, we drove through Samode village and, inevitably, we were brought to see local crafts. This time it was a jeweller who instantly started his sales pitch. The display of the jewels glistening at my feet made me want to throw common sense to the winds and buy handfuls of them. But I restricted myself to a modest silver and amethyst silver ring.

When we got back to the Palace it was gearing up for a very different wedding from the one we had just seen. This one must have cost serious serious money.

Note the camels standing on each side of the steps. And the women on the steps ready to paint your forehead.

Later we went to dinner in the magnificent dining room… and got Delhi belly!

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