Kathmandu, Kathmandon’t?

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Before leaving Pokhara our guide referred to the drive to Kathmandu as a death drive, with steep drops and hair raising bends around the mountains, not to mention landslides. His attempts at persuading us to take an apparent lifesaving short cut by flying instead were thwarted. We had grown fond of scenic road trips and the thought of the drive was more exciting to us than scary, plus we had the utmost faith that our driver would get us to Kathmandu alive. Up we climbed around the bends that we had been warned about, past goat herders and their four legged entourage, and school buses, bicycles and lorries. The mountains were covered in green and yellow ripples dotted with the bright red, pink and blue saris of the women as they collected their bounty. At the highest point on the pass, slightly deaf from my ears popping, I looked down at the valley below and thought to myself this is definitely not somewhere you want to be if an earthquake or landslide hits. So, our guide may have been right about the dangers, but we were also correct to place our faith in our driver as we made it to the city alive and well.

As we approached the busy streets of Kathmandu I was filled with a sense of nostalgia, gone were the lush green mountains and flowing rivers, our rural scenic adventures in Nepal had been replaced by traffic and pollution. I hadn’t left the vehicle and I already wanted to leave. Maybe our guide sensed my reluctance to be in urban surroundings as, rather than taking us straight to our hotel, he de-toured to the Monkey Temple, Swayambhunath, and if anywhere in the city was going to change my mind it was of course going to be one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Kathmandu. Entering the temple the thoughts of the mountains were pushed to the back of my mind, prayer flags and monkeys taking over my attention. When the earthquake hit I had imagined that I wouldn’t get to see Kathmandu’s famous sites however, despite some damage, the stupa was still glorious and a sight to behold. I managed to walk around the grounds with only one attempted robbery by a monkey. After he grabbed the bottom of my trousers I told him I had no food and he let go, others however were not so lucky.

After an early morning alarm we made our way to the airport to get up close and personal with the mighty Everest. We had booked a flight with Yeti airlines and had been warned that delays were possible because if the mountains weren’t visible then we wouldn’t take off. An Everest flight without seeing Everest was obviously pointless. Luck, it appeared, was on our side. I guess the mighty mountain wanted to show off her beauty to us because our flight departed on time and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky as we faced her head on. Relaxing on the flight with a glass of champagne may seem like cheating to those hardy mountain climbers, however, not all have the skill to climb those dangerous peaks, and going to Kathmandu without seeing Everest just felt wrong. So, I gazed out at the summit of the world’s highest mountain, filled with bubbles and happiness, and feeling extremely grateful that I was seeing something that many people in the world dream about seeing.

We came back down to earth with a soft thud and headed back to the busy streets of Thamel where we wandered around taking in the sights, smells and sounds of the city. Kathmandu Durbar Square had been badly damaged from the earthquake; however we had expected to see more destruction in the centre. It was when we visited Bhaktapur, however, that the extent of the damage was evident, with the ancient buildings being held up by wooden beams and piles of rubble scattered across the area. Yet despite the beautiful and interesting buildings around Kathmandu, my soul craved some peace, so I said goodbye to the wonderful people I had been travelling with on my tour for the past 15 days and headed off, alone once more, to the hills overlooking the city, for some rest and relaxation at the guest house of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery.

Where there’s water, there’s life – Sunrise and rapids in Pokhara

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Standing on the banks of the river, the water buffalo strolling behind me, and the shadow of the Annapurna’s lingering on the horizon, I said my silent goodbyes to the Tharu village and to the beauty of Chitwan. Our time at the park felt brief, and there was part of me that was reluctant to leave, however Pokhara was calling my name and I was looking forward to travelling further into Nepal to discover more of the country I was growing so fond of. The village had come out to see us off and on the drive out of the park we passed children on their way to school, waving and shouting ‘Goodbye, goodbye.’ It wasn’t long before the melancholy I felt at leaving such a welcoming place was replaced by awe and wonder at the sight of the green domes surrounding me and the emerald waters running through them. The water, foaming with white, looked inviting and it seemed a travesty to keep driving through the land rather than stopping to take a dip. After only a short while into our journey we came to halt on the mountain pass, a landslide of rocks and debris was blocking the road ahead, so we patiently waited for it to be removed before we continued on our journey. We passed small villages that scattered the landscape and more children with their braided pigtails, carrying their books, on their way to school. Streams flowed down the hills and the locals made use of the fresh, clean water to wash their clothes and themselves. We eventually passed a sign welcoming us to Pokhara, the first densely populated area we had come across in the country. Being much more comfortable in the countryside than in big cities I surprisingly felt at ease on the spacious streets, possibly because from every angle I could see the peaks of the Annapurna’s, who appeared to be guarding over me. It was in Pokhara that the first signs of the earthquake became evident. I had expected, before entering Nepal, to see a land full of destructed buildings, however the only evidence so far of the devastation was a former restaurant that had been reduced to rubble.

After waking up under the roof of the stars we set off on a journey up to Mount Sarangkot, to witness a Himalayan sunrise. Eyes half open, and weak from lack of fuel, we climbed our way to the view point only to be greeted by what appeared to be every tourist in the city. Unimpressed so far, due to lack of sleep no doubt, we waited impatiently craving coffee and a pillow for the sun to make an appearance. All negativity was washed away when the shadows of the mountains appeared under the pink glow of the rising sun. Finding a spot without having a line of heads also covering the horizon proved futile, however the mesmerising beauty of the scene overshadowed all the chatter and selfie sticks. It turns out that a Himalayan sunrise is worth missing sleep and breakfast for after all. The snowy peaks of the Annapurna’s fully visible we made our way back down the mountain to explore another activity on offer in Nepal’s capital of extreme sports, white water rafting.

As we stood by the flowing waters of the Upper Seti River, paddles at the ready, listening to the safety speech from our guide, the nerves started to kick in. After listening to his advice only one thing was in my mind ‘DO NOT FALL OUT’. Falling out, as I interpreted it, would mean landing on a rock and imminent death by drowning, despite all the people there to rescue me. We were also advised that our rowing technique should be strong and powerful like a Vikings and not, as our guide explained, like an English person gently rowing down the river thinking about afternoon tea. So it turned out that as I was in a raft with Viking companions from Norway, Sweden and Germany, I had a lot to prove. All fears of death were quickly diminished as soon as the raft started its way downstream, the adrenaline kicked in and team Viking were powering through the rapids with ease and lots of roars and laughter. Waves of icy river tried, and failed, to drag us into its depths and we not only made it to the bottom alive, but also high on life and wanting to go back and start it all over again. White water rafting turned out to be the best part of our trip and we all vowed that we would definitely be doing this activity again somewhere, with higher grading of course because we were so damned good at it.

Rhino’s and tigers and bears, oh my!

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There is something incredibly special about waking up to the sounds of nature, instead of traffic and alarm clocks. I opened my eyes in time to the cockerel letting everyone know it was time to start the day, the sound of the goats on their way to get breakfast, and the sun lightly shining through my window. The first task today, in order to spot wildlife, was a canoe ride. When we arrived at the river a baby elephant greeted us. Now, seeing a baby elephant in the wild has always been at the top of my wildlife wish list so, for me, this moment was like waking up on Christmas morning to discover Santa had been and left you a room full of presents. I literally jumped out of the car and ran to the elephant to get a closer look, but I soon discovered that this beautiful baby had come from an elephant breeding centre in the jungle. He had been born so that one day he could carry hordes of tourists on his back as they explored the jungle looking for wild animals. The irony of this certainly isn’t lost on me. I took some comfort in the fact that he would never have known what life was truly like in the wild, therefore never experience a longing for it. I just hope and pray that he would never be mistreated. Elephants, when taken from the wild, are beaten in cruel ways in order to get them to perform, but the elephants in Chitwan, as far as I could see, were well looked after by the people taking care of them. There was never any sign of mistreatment. I just hope my observations were true and behind closed doors it isn’t a different story. After leaving the little baby behind we wobbled into our wooden canoe, the water was nearly level with the top of the boat, and I slowly and nervously sat down hoping I wouldn’t topple the boat over. We ventured down the river, the boat being manoeuvred by the local man stood at the back rowing with his giant piece of bamboo. We were surrounded by jungle at all sides, the bright blue of Kingfishers zooming across our eyes, and eagles and peacocks perched on the branches of the giant trees watching over us. It wasn’t long before the bamboo stick was pointing towards something in the water to my right. ‘Crocodile, crocodile,’ he cried. Seven heads swung around in the direct of the end of the bamboo stick, and sure enough, there right beside us in the water were the eyes of a crocodile. Its jaw was level to the top of our canoe. Cameras clicked away trying to collect evidence of our first glimpse of a crocodile in the wild, just in case we didn’t get that lucky again. We didn’t need to worry; the further down the river we sailed the more and more crocodiles came out to greet us. Soon we had lost count of the numbers and we made it out of the boat, and onto dry land, without accidently falling in the water and becoming crocodile breakfast.

After spending the rest of the morning learning how to basket weave in the village with the women it was time for part two on our wildlife mission, a jungle safari. This was when we were hoping to see the big animals, rhino’s and tigers and bears, oh my! Seated in the jeep, cameras at the ready, and our eyes focused on the vegetation surrounding us, we set off. Or should I say, we zoomed off, because we appeared to have the Nepalese version of Lewis Hamilton driving our vehicle. Our jeep safari, where we were trying to spot animals in the wild, was more like flying around a Formula One race track and the jungle surrounding us turned into nothing but a green blur. ‘Are we supposed to be going this fast?’ I asked. Being a safari novice I wasn’t sure on the protocols or speed limits. My travelling companions, however, had been on safari’s in Africa and they looked at me worried in response and shook their heads. A few times en route we managed to spot, and I can only assume it was by a miracle, a few deer and wild boar, but there was no sign of any of the big animals we were desperate to see. There is never any guarantee of seeing animals in the wild, and all in the jeep knew that, however we had been so excited about the potential of seeing these glorious and endangered animals that we couldn’t help feeling deflated after four hours of hoping and praying. It was only on our way out of the park that Hamilton decided to slow down and just when it seemed all hope was lost a girl in the group whispered, ‘Rhino.’ The engine stopped and we peered over to the right, following the direction of her finger, and found a patch of grey hidden in the bushes. ‘Rhino,’ repeated our guide. We crept further up the path giving this giant, one horned, marvellous creature room to cross the path without being in his way. We stood, the hairs on our arms standing on end, in complete silence. We watched as he came out of the bush to stand straight in front of us, giving us the perfect view of him, with no jungle obstructions. I am pretty sure he was thinking ‘go on, take a look, get your pictures and then leave me to eat in peace.’ So that’s exactly what we did and as we left the park behind, filled with a huge sense of happiness and relief, I said a silent thank you to God, the rhino and to the girl who spotted him. We may not have seen a tiger, but I am pretty sure that hidden somewhere in the deep, dark bush, a pair of yellow bright eyes had definitely seen us.

Into Nepal, into the jungle…

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I was eager to see Nepal, a country completely new to me. I was also eager to see the border between Nepal and India having never crossed a land border before. I expected major delays due to the current fuel crisis in the country, and queues there were for vehicles, however crossing on foot wasn’t a problem. I didn’t anticipate that there would be such a difference between the two countries so soon, them being only a few feet away from each other, but the difference was there. It could be felt instantly as soon as we were on Nepalese soil. For one it was raining, and for the first time in my life I didn’t get the urge to run in doors and cover up, I welcomed the rain. The soft, gentle, cool drops were exactly what my overheated skin needed. The second stark difference was the silence, and I don’t mean total silence, I mean the lack of car horns. Anyone who has travelled to India will understand what I mean, it is one of the things I love about the country, the chaotic traffic and the constant beeps from every vehicle passing by. But sometimes, just sometimes, the silence is a welcome break. And so, with our visas approved, we walked into wet and peaceful Nepal excited to explore and see what the country had to offer.

The first stop on our itinerary was Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, but unfortunately recent events meant that the town was blocked off from visitors, as previous groups had been unable to leave the town due to protests and our schedule just didn’t have time for a 24 hour block in. So, we made our way through mountain roads, with steep drops into the jungle below, to Chitwan National Park. Driving through rural Nepal is a wonderful experience, and because the countryside is so beautiful you quickly forget that you are in a vehicle from 6 to 8 hours. Lush, green vegetation and colourful houses are dusted across the land, with milky aqua rivers curving through the mountains. The higher the climb the steeper the drops and we witnessed many rainbow coloured lorries that had slumped down a ditch and toppled over. Despite this, however, the drivers of different vehicles seemed to navigate the roads between each other safely and considerately, driving slowly and stopping in tight spots to ensure that others could pass them by. We were due to stay with a local tribe in Chitwan, a community homestay, and on arrival the women from the village came out to greet us dressed in their traditional outfits, clapping us as we walked towards them where we were given a hibiscus flower and the traditional red powder dotted onto our foreheads. We would be sleeping in small huts that had been purpose built for tourists by the side of the river and the excitement rose as we discussed the possibilities of seeing the different wildlife that the park inhabited. ‘Are there crocodiles here?’ we asked. ‘Yes, there are crocodiles.’ Our eyes darted to the river in search of them, something was swimming across to the opposite side of the bank making ripples in the water the way the shape of a crocodile would. We waited for its arrival on land, but it was only a water snake. We brushed off the disappointment, mission see- a -crocodile -in -the -wild wasn’t over yet.

After we dropped off our bags, and freshened up after our long journey, we walked across the rice fields to the Tharu village, the Tharu’s being our hosts, to be taken on a bike ride through the villages. On our walk across we were met by a small black dog that proceeded to guide us to our destination. This was starting to become a common occurrence on this trip, as if the dogs could sense our lack of direction and therefore came to ensure our safe arrival. It had started to rain again as we hopped on our bikes, trying to keep our balance over rocks and stones and huge holes in the road. We had gathered a few extra local cyclists behind us who got the giggles when an ambulance veered round the corner and, due to a lack of brakes, we all crashed in to the back of each other. Unharmed and filled with a sense of adventure we hopped back on, wobbled a little, but eventually found our equilibrium and were greeted by the sounds of ‘Namaste, Namaste,’ by every person, adult or child, that we cycled past. The friendliness of the locals, and the fun we were having, meant that the little speckles of rain couldn’t dampen our spirits. With the wind blowing in my hair, and the sense of freedom and happiness at being amongst these special people, I floated through the bumpy roads feeling the most happiness I had felt so far on this journey. Half way through our ride we stopped at the entrance to the national park to see if we could spot any wildlife. A short walk into the park and we came across a wild boar and a deer and then a local man approached our guide to inform him that a rhino had been spotted further up by the water’s edge. We hurried, as quietly as possible so as not to disturb the rhino, up to the spot he had been seen and hid in the bushes, waiting. Time ticked on; there was no sign of him. Still we waited, not daring to move in case he finally came out and showed his face. Then another group of tourists came along, who obviously didn’t get the memo about noises scaring away the animals, and after listening to their extremely loud conversation we realised that there was no point waiting around anymore. If the rhino was there, he definitely wasn’t now after that racket. We made our way back to the bikes determined that tomorrow we would definitely be more successful, and not only would we see a rhino, but we absolutely would see a tiger, too. Positivity ran through the group as we headed back to the village where we were due to be entertained by the villagers who were performing their traditional stick dance in order to welcome us. Little did we know at the time, however, that we would be part of the performance. The women were bundled off with the women of the village where they proceeded to dress us up in their traditional attire, complete with a makeover and hair extensions. A few giggles were thrown in for good measure as they tried to fit their small pieces of clothing around our much bigger western frames. Every man, woman and child from the village had come out to witness our welcoming and a few more giggles were heard as we entered the crowd in our new outfits. The men of the group got to kick back, relax and watch the show whilst the females got up to take part in the dance, and in my case tried and failed to master the moves. Despite my lack of co-ordination skills the night was a huge success and after lots of smiles, laughter and group photos we made our way back to the huts for some much needed sleep. Tomorrow we would be seeing crocodiles, rhinos, bears, tigers, and every wild animal in the park. We would, we absolutely would. So we told ourselves.

Sarnath – Where the Buddha gave his first sermon

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Not far from Varanasi, in a quiet little village, away from the hustle and bustle of the main city, is a place where Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha, gave his first sermon. There is something about Buddhism, its temples, statues, the sight of monks in their different coloured robes, that makes me feel at home and I am instantly filled with a sense of inner peace in these surroundings. As we approached the stupa, the actual spot where the sermon took place, built by the Emperor Ashoka who spread Buddhism throughout Asia, we passed a group of female Buddhists from Sri Lanka on their way to sit and meditate in the grounds of this spiritual place. There are many Buddhists temples surrounding the area, Tibetan, Thai, Cambodian, but hidden amongst them all is also a Digamber Jain temple. As we entered we were greeted by a devotee responsible for guarding the temple who kindly provided us with information about this branch of Jainism. It was interesting to learn about this religion as it is a subject I know little about. He provided a list of comparisons between Jainism and Buddhism and there at the bottom of the list was something that brought out the feminist in me, an occurrence that seemed to happen frequently in India. Digamber Jains, unlike Buddhist’s, believe that women cannot attain Moksha. As a female we are destined to be continually reborn into the cycle of death and rebirth, liberation isn’t possible for a woman. Whilst I respect all belief systems and cultures, that niggling frustration was bubbling away inside me again. Will there ever be a time when women are truly equal to men? Across all religions, cultures, countries, careers? Maybe that’s why Buddhism provides me with inner peace, because in Buddhism inner peace is attainable to me, despite the fact that I was born with a womb.

Varanasi – life, death and everything in between

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‘Masala chai, coffee, chai, coffee…’

On and on the names of hot beverages were shouted out to the passengers on board the overnight sleeper train to Varanasi. It was early morning, time to wake up and take in my surroundings. It had already been a long journey, a journey that deprived me of a deep sleep as I guarded my belongings from any wandering hands. Several times the emergency brake was pulled and the train stopped in the middle of rural India in order for the wandering hands to escape the train with someone’s luggage, luckily mine wasn’t one of them, my watchful eyes, chains and padlock’s had managed to do the trick.

I was eager to arrive at our destination, the main reason being to finally see the sacred waters of the Ganges that awaited me. After another bumpy journey in another rickshaw, which appeared to get smaller and smaller the further inland we seemed to travel, our wider hips just managing to squeeze into the seat, we were dropped off in the middle of a Muslim Festival. Our feet would have to take us the rest of the way, the roads being blocked to vehicles, rickshaws and all other forms of transport. The streets were full to capacity, trying to stay together in a group proved difficult. I kept my eyes on the top of my travelling companions heads in order to not get swallowed up by the crowd. Eventually we made it to the Ghats, the gateway to Mother Ganga.

My excitement was short lived, however, as we arrived to find more stalls selling statues of Ganesh, more postcards, more of everything available throughout all tourist resorts in India. My heart sank, once again another place of wonder and significance had become commercialised. My disappointment, however, was short lived, proving that in all situations one should always be patient and persevere, as walking along the river bank for only a few short minutes I was greeted by the life on the Ganges that I had wanted to witness. Gone were the shopping opportunities, replaced by the Sadhus, covered in the ashes from departed souls from the funeral pyres, children playing badminton with their parents, pilgrims bathing in the holy water, as well as western spiritual seekers on their journey to find the meaning of life. The sun was setting, its last rays of the day providing just enough light to witness life by the holy river. And so I stopped and sat on the Ghats, watching, taking it all in, breathing deeply and feeling incredibly lucky to be able to come to a place that is so special to so many people. So many of us rush through life, travellers included, trying to tick off a never ending to do and to see list, but I believe it’s far more important to stop, take in your surroundings and feel and appreciate where you are and down by the Ganges is a place to do just that.

After the sun had set we ventured out on a boat to watch the cremations on the funeral pyres further up the river. The moon was the brightest I had ever seen it, providing light and shelter in the darkness. Boats, filled with tourists and pilgrims, surrounded the pyres. The fires flames flickered in the darkness, dancing to the rhythm of the chants from the priests. One by one bodies were brought down in colourful shrouds of reds and gold. I expected the smell to be overpowering, however the direction of the wind was in our favour and the smell of burning flesh was drifted off into another direction. I observed the scenes in front of me, saying a silent prayer for those departing from this life. Funerals, from my experience, are filled with sadness; however the atmosphere at the pyres felt calm and peaceful. Somehow it didn’t feel like the end of someone’s life, just the passing of one’s life into the next. Reincarnation was taking place in front of my eyes, and you could feel it in every sound and visual aspect of the ceremony. For some, however, the scene in front of me appeared to be just another tourist attraction, as all the people on the boats, with the exception of myself and the guides, stood to get a snapshot of what they were seeing, no doubt to post on their social media accounts. Feeling saddened by this I approached my guide to ask how he felt about people taking pictures. ‘It’s not right,’ he said, ‘this is someone’s funeral, how would they feel if it was the funeral of someone they loved?’ I understood his frustration, saying goodbye to a loved one, to a life, shouldn’t be a photographic opportunity.

We left the pyres in order to attend the Aarti ritual that’s performed every evening by the priests to thank Mother Ganga for the life that she brings. On the way we made our own individual offering to the sacred river and whilst placing our candles in the water we noticed something floating along by the side of the boat. ‘Is that a body?’ someone asked. Concerned about the person’s death, a normal reaction to an outsider, a member of the group pressed our guide to call the police and report it. ‘There’s a body in the river,’ said our guide. ‘There are lots,’ was the reply, and then the line went dead. To die in Varanasi, and have your remains scattered into the Ganges, is regarded as a way of receiving Moksha, liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth, for Hindu’s. So, for those who can’t afford to be cremated, their bodies are dumped into the river instead. This wasn’t the first, and it wouldn’t be the last, person to be floating along passed tourists and pilgrims.

Agra – Up close and personal with the Taj Mahal

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The Taj Mahal, a token of love and devotion from Shah Jahan to his beloved wife Mumtaz, is high on the top of most travellers bucket lists. Expectations ran high as the rickshaw driver steered me towards the entrance. I had waited a long time to see this building up close and personal. My visit happened to be on the same day as a festival so the crowds were higher than on an average day, as people flocked to see one of the world’s most stunning pieces of Mughal architecture. I walked through the woman’s entrance, had my bag searched to make sure I wasn’t taking anything that could possibly cause harm to the structure, and finally entered the Eastern gate.

There it was, beaming white and bright amongst the smog, regal and majestic, towering over me, and also towering over the thousands and thousands of people that crammed into the gardens. I didn’t feel the magic I expected to feel, the noise, the pushing and shoving, it evaporated any sense of wonder and awe that one should feel when faced with such beauty. I wondered as I looked up at the building what Shah Jahan would think about all these people with their cameras trying to get the best shot, aiming to replicate the photo of Princess Diana on the bench in the centre of the gardens. Did they think about the love and heartbreak of the man who created the structure for the woman he loved? Or how it took 22 years of hard labour to build? Or how Shah Jahan, when imprisoned in Agra Fort for 8 years by his own son, Aurangzeb, spent every day staring out at the building that housed the remains of his beloved wife until the end of his life? It seems that the perfect photo opportunity is overshadowing why places, such as the Taj Mahal, are special in the first place.

Regardless of the throngs of people there is no denying how stunning this building is from the outside, and from a distance the crowds resembled an army of tiny multi-coloured ants as they queued to enter the building. The guards allowed people inside until the room resembled a cage full of battery hens and just as I was about to pass out through a lack of oxygen and heat exhaustion we were finally released into the open. After a visit to the Agra Fort, and to watch the sunset over the Taj Mahal from the Mehtab Bagh gardens, it was time to head back to the train station; the next part of the journey in India was the overnight sleeper train to Varanasi.

Jaipur – Suburban scenes and Bollywood dreams

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Jaipur, otherwise known as the pink city, although now the amber city would be more apt, is the capital city of Rajasthan, and deservedly so. It is a mixture of the old, new, rich and the poor. Arriving in the city, driving through the local food market, we passed stalls with caged chickens ready for the slaughter, fish being hacked into little pieces, the smell of death lingering in the air. Hidden amongst this horror show to an animal lover, however, was The Bissau Palace, our accommodation in the city. Now, there are lots of hotels in India called palace, so turning into the car park we were pleasantly surprised to find out that this hotel actually was what it said on the package. At 300 years old it belonged to a royal nobleman of the city and had been transformed into a hotel in order to keep the property from destitution. Stepping into the foyer was like walking back in time and even a photo of Prince Charles and Princess Diana graced the walls. Well, if this place was good enough for Charles and Di to visit then it would certainly be good enough for a bunch of tired and weary backpackers.

Walking through old Jaipur was a contrast to the normal roads in other Indian cities as this was the first place in India to have organised and purpose built streets, and walking along wide and spacious pavements, without having to worry if a car, rickshaw or motorbike was going to run you down was a welcome relief. It turned out that our visit to the city coincided with a Hindu festival, not surprising really as according to our local tuk tuk driver, who liked to serenade me with his English pop music whilst looking in his mirror and wiggling his eyebrows for added effect, India has 365 festivals a year, one for each day. Our guide suggested we went along to the festival to watch the burning of the effigy, but that we should stay clear of the crowds and observe from beyond. When we arrived, however, we were escorted to a VIP section by armed guards, which was placed in the middle of the festival, and therefore surrounded by a mass of people. The longer we stayed, listening to what appeared to be the Indian version of the X Factor on stage, the more and more people arrived. Our guide’s enthusiasm for the festival quickly turned to nerves, as the only foreigners in the venue, we stuck out like a sore thumb and he became worried about our safety. The armed guards once again escorted us out of the venue, shielding us from a threat that didn’t appear to be there, however once we reached the streets and were waiting for our taxi’s a local man approached our guide and, after discussing something in Hindi, proceeded to stand behind us with his entourage. Curious as to what the man had said I asked our guide for a translation. It turned out that the man had advised him that as foreigners it wasn’t safe for us to be stood on the streets in the dark on the outskirts of the city, and as the man lived in the area he kindly offered to wait with us to ensure our safety. It appeared there may have been cause for concern after all. We left the suburban streets of Jaipur unarmed, and extremely relieved.

After another day of exploring the rich history of Jaipur, from the Amber Fort to the City Palace, and learning how to block print in the backstreets, we headed to the cinema to watch a Bollywood movie. The art deco building was grand and spacious, with wide aisles and comfortable chairs. As the movie started, and the heartthrob appeared on the screen, the cheers started too. The excitement of the locals was infectious and we settled into our seats to try and understand the plot without, regrettably, understanding the language. Having never seen a Bollywood movie before we assumed that the film would be about traditional Indian life, with lots of song and dance. What we saw on the movie screen, however, seemed to be a contrast to what our guide had informed us about Hindu culture. On screen an arranged marriage was taking place, the young girl was overweight and had listened to the constant insults of her soon to be husband for many days. On the day of the ceremony the brave young woman stood up to her betrothed, whipped off her outfit to show the proud curves of her body and decided she wasn’t going to go through with the wedding after all, with much encouragement from her parents. Watching this show of brave feminism on screen was an inspiring thing to see, however I couldn’t help but wonder about the thoughts of the audience, who were cheering at this young girls bravery, when we had been informed by our guide that if such a thing were to happen in real life the girl would actually be disowned by her family. Apparently Bollywood films tend to have such modern thinking plots these days, and I wonder how the audience feel seeing this life on screen, when they don’t have such freedom in reality. Will it create a more liberal India where marrying for love, regardless of caste, is allowed? It certainly sounded like the audience hoped so.

From traffic jams to holy water – the journey from Delhi to Pushkar

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The streets were still under the cover of moonlight as we made our way to Delhi’s train station, passing people asleep by the side of the road, and even more people up and about starting their daily rituals. The soothing sound of the muezzin greeted us as we arrived at our destination and forced our way through the already busy crowds to reach the platform. As we stood waiting for our train, huddled together surrounding our giant backpacks, the local people watched our every movement fascinated by this band of travellers in their midst. ‘Why have they come to India? What is there to see?’ a gentleman asked our guide. We all looked at him confused as his question was translated to us. ‘Everything,’ we replied.

We were warned that the trains in India sometimes lacked punctuality skills and it was possible that we could be delayed for anything up to ten hours. So, mentally prepared for a day sitting on the floor of the platform watching every train but ours come and go, we observed the people as they walked across the tracks without a second thought that they were standing in the face of death, and as they sprawled out on the floor with a piece of cloth as a bed and a bag as a pillow. I had envisioned the train ride to be an uncomfortable, claustrophobic, but exciting experience, rammed into a cage of a carriage with peoples arm pits in my face all fighting for oxygen in the sweaty hot temperatures. However, right on schedule, our train pulled up and as we stepped into our carriage we were greeted with seats, air conditioning and an included breakfast, this was not the train rides they showed on TV. A little disappointed with my luxury ride to Ajmer, I rammed my backpack into the overhead luggage compartment and took my seat.

As the train pulled away from the platform the morning rituals of the local people were on display. Every three seconds we passed a man squatting by the tracks releasing his morning bowel movement, while the women washed and hung out their clothes to dry, the pigs buried their snouts into a pile of rubbish trying to scavenge some leftover food and the cows sat basking in the morning sun. It wasn’t long before the pollution and traffic jams of Delhi were a distant memory and the view from the train window was transformed into beautiful countryside, with a scattering of people spread out across the land as they worked their fields.

Four hours into the journey, tired from the 3:00 alarm clock, and aching from being seated in the same position for so long, I was grateful that the train was a lot more luxurious than I expected, doing this journey with no room or air conditioning now seemed more like torture than an exciting experience. Another two and a half hours later and we finally pulled into the train station at Ajmer. After squeezing our way through yet more crowds of people we entered the car park to the sounds of horns blaring once again. Ajmer, it appeared, was a typical busy city and we were soon surrounded by women trying to sell us postcards, tuk tuk drivers trying to take us to our final destination and the midday sun soaking our skin with its searing temperatures. We hopped into a taxi, backpacks being far too big to fit into the tiny tuk tuk’s, and made our way through the streets. The higher we climbed the more peaceful the outside world became and soon we were in the mountains overlooking the city of Ajmer and on the bumpy road to Pushkar .

Now, out of all the destinations on my itinerary in India, Pushkar was the one I knew least about, other than the famous annual Pushkar camel fair which takes place every November, so I was pleasantly surprised as our driver made his way to a small hotel set back in lush gardens, under the watchful eyes of a mountain. Pushkar, it appeared, was the more peaceful setting I had been craving after the hustle and bustle of Delhi. We made our way down to the famous holy lake, where it appeared to be siesta time for the dreadlocked sadhus who were guarding the holy bridge. Incense burned, filling the air with the aroma of sandalwood, as the guards of the bridge slept soundly, accompanied by their pet monkey, under the shade of a canopy. Signs were repeated everywhere along the Ghats advising not to take photos, this is after all where Hindu’s come to bathe in the holy water, as well as performing puja’s. As there was no-one bathing in the water at the time we were advised by our guide that we could take a few snaps and capture the peaceful setting that surrounded us. Leaving the holy water behind we headed up to the local market, again the sweet smell of incense engulfed the air, and after viewing some of the local stalls, selling their tie dye t-shirts and harem pants, I soon felt like I was back in Anjuna hippy market in Goa. Goa, however, doesn’t have a temple dedicated to Brahma, the Hindu God of creation, as there is only one such temple in India and that is situated in the middle of the hippy vibed streets of Pushkar. We were allowed to enter the temple, where we watched as the devotees rang the bell and were presented with Prasad, food offerings blessed by the God of the temple, and then returned to devotees. Pushkar is also home to the hilltop temple of Savitri, Brahma’s wife, and it has excellent views of the town. So, at 5:00, we climbed in the dark up the rocky steps of the mountain, with local dogs coming to guide us through the darkness. At the top of the hill a congregation of tour groups and monkeys had amassed and we sat, catching our breath, as the sun slowly greeted us with its presence. The green hills surrounding Pushkar came to life and the orange hue of the sun provided a hazy, and relaxing, atmosphere and the steep and dangerous climb in the dark was soon forgotten about.

After making our way back down to the lake we were greeted by a local Brahmin priest who had offered to perform a karma cleansing ritual for us travellers, as the waters from Pushkar lake, a holy Hindu pilgrimage site, are believed to cleanse people of their past sins. We sat on the Ghats where the priest informed us that the lake was created when Brahma placed his lotus flower on Earth and, as one of the petals landed in Pushkar, the lake was formed, hence the reason that Brahma is worshipped in this town. We were each presented with a bowl of offerings containing rice, sugar and rose petals and repeated the mantras that would cleanse the past sins of not only ourselves but our relatives, alive and dead. After presenting our offerings to the holy water the priest then provided us with a red and yellow thread to wear around our wrists to bring us luck on our journey. Peace and serenity filled the atmosphere around us as the ceremony was taking place; there was no sound of traffic, people, or animals, just our mantras blowing in the wind, being carried through the air. It was exactly what I had come to India for, to see and experience the spiritual life of the people. Pushkar, the little town I knew little about, had given me exactly what I had needed. With my karma cleansed it was time to set forth further on my journey into India and into myself.

Peaceful intentions on congested streets – Graduating in London

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London, England’s shining star. The modern city that still manages to create romanticised images of the past as it blends the old with the new. Walking along the river bank with its restaurants, bars and shining silver buildings looming over me, I turned back and looked up at Tower Bridge. As someone who is fascinated by history I couldn’t help but hope that Apple would soon be adding a time machine feature to the iPhone so that I could go back to the old London, Elizabethan London, when the likes of Shakespeare and Marlowe were local’s and little Artful Dodgers wandered the streets to pick a pocket or two. Alas, that day may never come, so I faced modernity head on with my entourage in tow. There were ten of us in total, here in the capital to celebrate my graduation. After five years studying I was excited about finally accepting my degree, but nervous about being up on stage, all eyes on me. I am the sort of person that likes to be heard and not seen, I’ll leave the stage for the actors, thank you!

Coming to London without seeing the famous landmarks, however, would be inexcusable, no-one should go home without saying hello to our Ben at least once. So, on our last day in the city, we made our way down to South Bank to soak up the atmosphere. When the sun graces London with its presence it sure does add a touch of magic to the streets. Performers show off their talents, there are people dancing in the street and everyone seems to have a smile on their face. Well, they do before midday at least, for that is when the streets start bursting at the seams, and trying to find a space on the pavement to take a step proves difficult. There was only one thing for us to do to avoid the congestion, escape to higher ground, or a higher platform at least.

Enclosed in a capsule on the London Eye, suspended in the air, the separation from the crowds below was a welcome break. Our eyes were taken on a tour through history as we followed London’s heartbeat as it zig zagged its way through the city. Afterwards we attempted to walk across Westminster Bridge, fighting against the current. It occurred to me that this bridge turns into a daily version of the Serengeti migration. As we ducked and dived through each tiny bit of space we could find the approaching wildebeest pushed us apart. Individually we made it out alive, just. Bewildered, exhausted, the three days of hectic, fast paced, city life started to take its toll. It was time to leave before admiration for the capital turned into loathing. But, just as the jungle was about to devour me and make me turn my back on London forever, I heard the calls of the Tibetan community from across the other side of the bridge. ‘Peace and compassion,’ they shouted, as they handed out stickers and stood, beaming smiles on their faces, with signs welcoming His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  It was as if the universe had sent me a sign. For amidst the chaos, the noise, the traffic, and the flood of people, there right in front of me was peace, calmness, serenity. It was the perfect analogy for my current situation in life; behind me was the never ending daily grind, the busy circle of working and studying. But in front of me was freedom, the calmness of sitting in nature, the serenity of watching Buddhist monks chant and meditate. I looked across at their happy faces and smiled, with peace in my heart. It was time to say farewell to London, time to say goodbye to routine, my home, my friends and family. I am ready for the next journey, my real journey, to begin.