Saturday, November 25, 2006

Kolkata - the City of Joy, and it really was!

Nov 25th. Arrived in Kolkata around 9:30am. So funny, the train was supposed to get in around 7am according to the timetable, but as Mahindra told us, ever since he has taken it, the train has never arrived before 9am...sometimes as late as 11am! Aah... the Indian train system (actually it has never let me down to date, so i have no complaints!). In recent years in India, there has been a growing movement to revert away from colonialism towards state-specific independance, which has meant many cities are changing their names to their state language hence Kolkata is the new Bengali name for the city previously known as Calcutta!

Got into fab yellow cabs, reminiscent of NYC (sorta!) although these guys are all the traditional Ambassador make! Off to the Hotel Victerrace. First impression of this, our last city on our whistlestop tour of magical India, is - fabulous! For some reason (many residents of this splendid locale blame the film "The City of Joy"... with Patrick Swayze) Kolkata gets a bit of a bad rap. Also interesting how there are so many of these "public announcement" type signs everywhere, some of them feel good; but some of them with pretty startling statements e.g. Say no to child labour and yes to school!!! Walked around for ages trying to find the one that said "Infanticide is immoral"....seriously! But couldn't remember where I had seen it! So apart from the City of Joy thingy, not entirely sure why people are so hard on Kolkata, apart from those who say the constant influx of refugees here from other parts of the country increases the already large poverty problems this city faces. However, the locals like to think of themselves as the "intelligentsia of India. What Bengal (the state here) does today, India will do tomorrow". (again thanks to RG for this insight!).

Hotel was just dandy.... quick drop of the bags then a bunch of us headed off to the Indian Coffee House ('member I went to one of these in Bangalore!). Hilarious to read the description in our guides (lets just say they make it sound quite posh; then experience the reality).. hmmn a tad different shall we say, but had a great time all the same, and great chat! Oh dear... break up time is coming! We headed out for dinner at Peter Cat, a fab restaurant on Park Street (see how we know our way around already!). Lindsay and Ewan were heading off later that evening for their flight to London so there was a slight pall on the proceedings! There is definitely something about spending nearly three weeks with the same people.. ok, ok the word I'm looking for is not 'tension' hahaha, more like attachment! It's easy enough to become connected to people when you only spend a few days with them (or is that just me?), so you can imagine after three weeks living pretty much in each others pockets, its kind of sad to say goodbye to this bunch!

But, it had to be done, so after a fab evening, we headed back to the hotel lobby where we said our proverbial goodbyes - and had our team photo taken! Poor guy at reception had to take 11 different photos as we all passed him our cameras, one after another.. but he did a brillo job! So a fond and tearful farewell to Lindsay and Ewan. Tomorrow we would say more goodbyes as people headed off in new and different directions.. and then there was me, faffing around trying to decide my next port of call. I had thought about (aka talked up a good game!) staying in Calcutta to volunteer for a while. Ahem.. that was before i took my detour to Nepal and Tibet so i didn't have too much time left in India before heading off to Sri Lanka to meet up with my brother and his soon to be wifey, Ms Helen Patten! Soooo.. I would have to decide what i was up to over the next few days!

Nov 26th. Up early today to say our fond farewells to Mahindra, the worlds best tour guide! Such a sweet man; he taught us so much about his country. He was genuinely passionate about us understanding how and why they do things here the way they do, and really wanted us to get a taste of authentic India! I think I almost drove him mad over the last few weeks, asking question after question! Hey, I admit it! I am a complete travel geek! So when I quizzed him about issues surrounding the caste system, how women are treated, why certain customs are still undertaken today.. you know, general stuff like that - he was very patient and did his best to explain it to me! !! Helen and I had a wee cry as we said our goodbyes to him.. yup, we are pathetic! So what do girls do when they are feeling low - yup, you guessed it! Go shopping! You can always shop in India.. no matter where you are! After a potter, we decided to have a wee bitta culture so visited the Victoria Memorial, a beautiful marble building with formal gardens that everyone in Kolkata seemed to be enjoying! There were so many families there, picnicking and generally just hanging out (ok, not in this particular shot - round the back of the building, that's where the crowds were, trust me)! Afterwards, taking a taxi home, we saw these two boys hanging out after marching with their local band downtown! Do like this shot! Back to the hotel, then a bunch of us attempted to see a Bollywood movie! Ahh of course how silly are we! You dont show up 40 minutes early for a film in India. Uhhh try at least 1 1/2 to 2 hours early and you are lucky if you get a seat! Movies are magic in this country.. and Kolkata is no exception. So with no luck there, we decided it was time for Western food (only my 2nd time eating Western food for dinner since I arrived in Asia in June.. not bad eh!) and a slumber party, watching TV in Liv's room! As we waited for our order to arrive at Pizza Hut, a strange phenomenon unfolded in front of us. About six or seven of the staff began to line up, then music from a band called Blue? (no idea who they were!) blared from speakers around the restaurant, and then we were given an impromptu singing and dancing routine to the lyrics of this apparantly well known band (think they are British?). It was absolutely fantastic! The staff were totally into their routine - in fact they "gave it laldi" as we say in Scotland (110% for effort in the US ?)...This is truly one of the most interesting things about Indian culture. These people have absolutely no qualms about performing in public; you dont see any nerves or awkwardness, in fact they seem to thrive on it, but not in an overdone, false way. They just seem so delighted to sing and dance for an audience! Completely unabashed and delighted with themselves and their standing ovation (well, the four of us stood and clapped; some of the other diners must have seen it before and seemed more interested in their deep dish pepperoni pizza, but hey, what can you do!). Another fun evening!

Nov 27th. Can't find my notes on today for some reason (ok i hear the sighs of relief, thanks!) but know we visited the famous Kalighat temple in town, situated right next to Mother Teresa's home for the destitute and the dying. Mother Teresa specifically built this home here, the city's most important centre of Hinduism, in the knowledge that many of the poor specifically came to this temple to die. The temple itself was a hive of activity. Like most temples in India, you must take off your shoes (yes, there is always a wee man willing to look after them, for a price, for you!). For anyone who is in any way squeamish about where to put their feet (when you are not wearing shoes!), especially when you are shown the area where the sacrificial goats are killed, its a bit dodgy. But as everyone is in the same situation, what can you do! There are so many pilgrims here, you need to "ask/pay" for a volunteer holy man to show you around, and actually we were so happy to have him, otherwise we would have been squished to death!!! such were the frantic crowds, waiting to see the dramatic monolith of Kali, the black goddess and form of Shakti (the female principal of divinity). Lotsa good stuff about Shiva going into a frenzy after his wife Sati died, and Vishnu chopping the body into 51 bits but enough of that! The tour ended with us receiving yet another tikka and a red dyed bracelet tied around our wrists and the usual request for a donation to the temple, to help feed the poor. If you don't offer enough, the priest has no qualms about making you feel bad and how if you give more now, your next life will be oh, so much better! Needless to say, we were all wimps..! So yet another interesting day in this fair city!

Nov 28th. Ingrid left at 4am this morning (did i even wake up to say goodbye - how rude of me, i can't remember?). Helen and Liv were leaving this evening and most of the others had already gone, so i had one last night in the nice hotel, then i was heading over to Sudder Street tomorrow, also known as the skanky traveler section of town to hang out till i decided on my plans! Breakfast at Blue Sky Cafe (we were fast becoming regulars there.. then what to do girls do when they have eaten and shopped? Go for pedicures of course! Lets just say I had to double my poor mans fee for taking care of my paws after 9 months of walking around in grotty flip flops... he was a saint. I felt like something out of Lord of the Rings; he, however, made me (or at least my feet) look beautiful again!! Ahhh..soft feet! Afterwards we treated ourselves (haha do we ever do anything else?) to afternoon tea at Flurry's, a very posh and hip cafe-bakery where all the trendy Kolkatans come to hang out, drink tea and look good! Lets just say im a picky customer and my scone could have sunk a ship it was so bloomin' hard.. but then, my family are good ole sconemakers so its a hard act to follow! Back to the ranch.... couldnt believe i was saying goodbye to Helen (going back to England) and Liv (to Melbourne). My two wee pals, leaving me! Sad, sad stuff but had to be done, so packed them into a taxi, and headed back to what would be my last bedbug free night (yup, more on that later!).

Nov 29th - Dec 3rd. AAhhh... the joys of Kolkata! So many experiences as i whiled away my time here. Moved into my new abode, run by a lovely Sikh family. However, as I later realised, I would be sharing my attractive space with some mice, quite a few bedbugs and of course, the man next door, who seemed to cough up a lung every few hours, it wasn't the most salubrious of dwellings (but hey, I was only paying 100 rupees (about $2 a night so not allowed to complain, even tho' that's more than other travelers i met were paying - what!!!), so I counted the days before I could hightail it out of there to my last country on this world tour - Sri Lanka. Yup, I made my decison and its official! I am a loser! Just a big talker, that's me! Felt bad about not volunteering here I have to admit, especially having met so many incredible people who were doing it for up to a year; quite humbling actually as these folks were so inspiring yet very quiet about their work. I did have such high hopes. And I am being totally shallow i know. It is relly no excuse, but I'm kind of knackered, definitely running out of money and I'm almost at the point where im ready to go home! I suppose that is no surprise as ive been on the go for nearly 14 months (with a short stop back in Boston) but that's no excuse for my lack of good will towards others, so i do feel quite the bad samaritan here!

So, I spent my last few days getting to know Kolkata a little better. Being in the same place for a while, you get to recognise the regulars and they, you! So began hanging out with some street ladies a little, chatted to them most evenings for a wee while, then they realise you are a soft touch (I sound cynical here but its true!) and then managed to pull a fast one on me...more than once too (yes, Im useless!). They don't ask for money, just that you buy them rice and flour for their family instead. Made sense to me! But once you have bought the food, and say goodnight, they turn around and sell it back to the store keeper... at a discount to him, but still its cash to them. OK not so great but what can you do? These people still need money... but apparantly this little scam is quite the racket here, and only certain families are allowed to "do business" on this part of Sudder St. The women called out "sister, sister" every time they saw me, and said they would pray that i met a nice man on my travels. Hmmn, thanks for that, ladies!

Did some more exploring on these last days; St. Pauls Cathedral erected in 1847. Lovely building. Park Street aka the Scottish Cemetary - gorgeous place. A haven from the busyness of the streets; so quiet and lush and green, loved it here! Described as one of the city's most haunting memorials of its imperial past, it has a ton of obelisks, headstones and pavilions, dedicated to both well known figures as well as young women, who came here to be with their husbands and died very young. Also saw Indira Ghandi's statue, near the Maidens.

Met my pal, Shahil, a young lad with a smooth tongue, who invited me for chai, every day, when I passed his stall on Park Street, until I finally acquiesed (don't worry mum - he was about 12 and didn't seem like a serial killer)! What a giggle, as we sat talking, his two pals arrived and sat behind us, texting him on their mobile phones. I think they were all about 20 but as we chatted, Shahil decided (as he practised his English) to announce his undying love for me! I couldn't help it - I burst out laughing and said "ahem, thanks very much, and by the way, are they your pals sitting behind us?". After a bashful silence, Shahil turned around and gave his pals the look of death...then we all had a laugh about it and sipped some more chai together, chatting about life in India for young folks today!! Ahh.. to be young again! After we were chai-ed out, the boys very kindly walked me back to Sudder Street, afraid i wouldn't be ok walking around on my own (eh, thanks boys but I have managed so far!). But very gentlemanly of them, I have to say!

Love this Indian bag Helen bought when she was living and working in Kolkata before she started traveling around India! It was great to get her input on the best places to visit; she did a great job and was quite chuffed to show us around and of course we were delighted! One of the places I really wanted to see was Mother Teresa's "Mother House" so I headed out to go to mass one morning at 6am. Met and chatted to some lovely nuns and volunteers. There was a huge mix of people working at the mission; gulp, guilty feeling returned due to lack of volunteering effort! Returned to hotel (tad strong description for my wee room!) and chatted to owners about strike going on right now. Local farmers angry with TATA steel corporation taking over good agricultural land instead of buying up barren land to use for new factories. Ongoing fight in the Kolkata assembly erupted with desks and chairs thrown; the newspapers wrote about their disgust at the failure of parliament to come to an agreement on this and other current political problems in the province (yup, im reading the local papers!).

Finally got to a Bollywood movie -yah, Dhoom 2 the big blockbuster! As i waited to get in, a gentleman sitting with his family asked me "Excuse me, madam , could you tell me which fair country you are from?". That is the typical way most questions are phrased here - very polite. I explained I was from Scotland and enjoying my time in Kolkata. After looking very puzzled, he asked if i was going to see Dhoom 2. I replied, yes, i was very excited to see my two favourite Bollywood actors, Aishwarai and Abishek, in this new film! But after quizzing me and realising i knew it was a Hindi film and i didnt speak Hindi, he sat looking at me completely puzzled, then related the whole tale to his wife when she arrived with the rest of their family. I just smiled .. its not hard to understand a Bollywood blockbuster. You always get a little drama, lotsa action, and of course, full blown singing and dancing routines - and the odd bit of romance too! I loved it!!! Funny enough, I was the only Western person waiting to get into the movie! I was delighted - you gotta love being one of the locals!!!

Last day i pottered, had farewell chats over breakfast with Cyril (amazing Irish guy who works with the homeless in the city's train stations every day), Collum (also Irish, who works with the dying at Mother Teresa's in Kalighat), and Chris (Swiss-German who had previously worked with NGO's in Tanzania and Denmark before coming to Kolkata for a while). Hmmn... see why i feel such a heel! These people are truly incredible and inspiring. Also met up with Michelle and Leigh, two hilarious English girls who had been in India for 5 months and been seriously sick about 15 times. They couldn't wait to leave and definitely couldnt believe i had never been sick here (yup, the only person who comes to India and puts weight on - thats me!!!). Said my final thanks and got hugs from Sirikantin and Samsi, who have worked at the Blue Sky Cafe for years. Such sweet and lovely men, were very good to me, and definitely didnt look their ages - Samsi was 46, with three children, yet he didn't look a day over 26, I mean it (well, apart from his moustache of course)!!!

My flight was really early so I left my wee hotel at 3am... my last hurrah in this wonderful, magical, incredible country of India. This was the place I was most excited about visiting; in a way most nervous about too (before I came!). What I found when i arrived was so much beauty. From the incredible, wonderful, totally different landscapes, the south with its backwaters and tropical lands to the north and its dry deserts and mountains, i loved it all. And then there were the people; their friendliness, their curiosity and desire to find out everything about you, their need to practise their English, to share their passion and pride for their wonderful country with you and their desire to know if you love it as much as they do! The people of India could not have been kinder to me - I would like to think I could be half as hospitable to people visiting my hometown as these people were with me. I smiled from the minute I arrived to the day I left. Of course it goes without saying that there are also many, many reasons to cry at the poverty here, the street children born into awful, immeasurablely sad lives, the issues surrounding womens rights and the lack of opportunities for them, the caste system and its complicated unfairness. One cannot ignore these very difficult aspects of Indian society. But I have to speak with my heart and although there were times when it felt full of sadness, there were more times when the kindness of others brought the smile to my face! I truly love this country and know i will be back again..and again....and again!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Holy, holy, holy - the Ganges and venerable Varanasi!

Nov 22nd. Arrived in the holy city of Varanasi at 5:30am. Everyone just ever so slightly knackered! Jumped into a few handy rickshaws and headed to the hotel; "Hotel Temple on the Ganges" to be precise. Location is everything of course so just as our experience in Agra (which was 2.5 seconds from the Taj!); we found ourselves right next door to Assi Ghat, one of the more famous of the hundred ghats (meaning literally "steps leading to water") which can be found all along the banks of this holy river. Our rooms weren't quite ready so we took a democratic decision (ok, ok.. there were a few grumblers but in polite fashion, we ignored them!) and decided to head out for a sunrise boat trip along the Ganges (which is one of THE things to do when visiting Varanasi!).
Check out Helen and I looking "oh, so awake" this morning (not!).

What an amazing and beautiful experience. All of us sitting in this over-sized wooden row boat with two lovely boatmen rowing us up and down the holy river (gosh, that sounds very colonial of me! Not meant to!). There was such a hive of activity along the river bank. It's hard to imagine unless you have visited here I think...over 60,000 people a day make the pilgrimage to Varanasi to make their morning ablutions in the sacred waters! This number represents residents of the city itself but also many pilgrims from all over India.
From brahmin priests offering puja (prayers) to people brushing their teeth, from full-on morning baths being taken, to swimmers doing laps across the river and back to shore - we saw it all. Men bathing in tiny traditional shorts; a tad strange considering Indian people's modest views about showing alot of skin in public! Women bathed separately from the men but again, we saw much more skin than we were used to in other parts of India. (yes, i know that might sound a bit wierd.. we weren't being dodgy, but you couldn't help but notice as you sailed past). Mind you, of the people bathing or doing their morning yogic routines; some waved and smiled at us, others completely ignored us. Either way, they seemed pretty used to this strange spectacle taking place during the early morning! We also saw a number of women with shaved heads. These were pilgrims from the south of India who have had prayers answered and so in thanks, they shaved their heads! In addition, we saw tons of washing being done - from saris to jeans, to hotel sheets and individuals doing their own weekly wash!

Each ghat is paid for and representative of different states around the country, and Mahindra explained to us that he could tell where a pilgrim was from based on their clothes, esp. sari colour and the way it was worn, and of course which ghat they frequented! As we sat in the boat, watching the world go by, we lit candles in the dawn, and let them sail down the mighty Ganges, as millions of people had done before us, and I'm sure millions will do after us too! One very interesting note; many holy men (sadhus as I'm sure you remember!) practice their meditating while swimming in the Ganges. One such man was completely underwater apart from his nose and feet; another floated while he "oommmmmmmed" his way down river. Amazing! As was the incredible sun itself when it finally rose to bathe all of us in a vibrant burnt orange... really really gorgeous!

Some other facts about India in general.. did you know 38% of the Indian population lives on less than $1 a day? That is quite a shocking statistic when you keep hearing about the increasing wealth here and the fact India is now one of the fastest growing economies in the world.. hmmn dont think the trickle down effect has begun yet, at least not to the regular man or woman on the street! And regarding the holy Ganges itself; there are over 30 sewers that flow into it every day, and according to the Lonely Planet, a "safe" level for bathing is 500 fecal particles per some measurement (can't remember this part!). Needless to say, when tested, the Ganges had 1.5 million particles for that same measurement... hmmnn maybe not the safest option for us wimpy westerners.

We had much discussion about this particular point.. Mahindra explained to us that Hindu people believe that the calcium that leaks into the water from all the bodies that are burned on the banks of the Ganges and then their ashes are tossed into it, helps clean the water and make it safe to drink. In addition, there are some other rules which determine who is cremated and who is not. Anyone who has died and is under the age of 16; anyone who has died of a snake bite or of leprosy; holy men (who are never cremated i dont think), all of these groups do not have their bodies burned. They have a special ceremony and their bodies are weighted down and sunk to the bottom of the river. Mahindra demonstrated his confidence in the water by leaning over the side of the boat and taking a big drink! Now I wasn't in the slightest bit squeamish about this although some folks couldnt believe Mahindra could do this. But the whole point is, it is all about blind faith (and we all have it in our lives in many different ways, from religions to morals/values etc. that we believe in). Who are we to say it is disgusting and wrong and "how could anyone bathe and wash their dishes here, never mind drink and cook with it".

Varanasi, and the Ganges in particular are so sacred because Hindus truly believe if they die here, they attain instant "moksha" or enlightenment, and go straight to heaven, because the Ganges is the elixir of life. Known to many as Kashi the Luminous (the City of Light founded by Shiva), Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world, with records showing its religious traditions beginning in the 6th century BC!!!! (thanks Rough Guide!).

Anyway, after our exhausting morning (sitting on our bums doing nothing but enjoy ourselves!), we headed off to the fabulous Bread of Life bakery (yup, its food time!) for a scrumptious breakfast then we headed out for an orientation walk around the Old City, also known as Vishwanatha Khanda. Made up of tons of tiny little alleys, bursting to the seams with stalls and shops selling everything you could ever imagine, with special emphasis on flower and incense offerings to the gods, there was barely room to breathe. Slightly off-putting was the presence of many army personnel guarding both the Golden Temple (Hindu) and almost adjacent to it, the Jnana Vapi Mosque, as there have been some tense Hindu/Muslim situations in the past, with fanatics on both sides trying to vandalize the buildings..and more (so yes, you do have to go through metal detectors, no cameras, back packs etc. allowed!). And not many photos allowed to be taken around these buildings hence.. no pics!

Hung out for the afternoon then more exploring. Some people call this city "Varanasty" due to their perception of the Ganges (as discussed earlier) as well as the large contingent of water buffalos and cows who roam the streets here, leaving poop pretty much everywhere. It didnt bother me.. I really quite liked my first day here! Dinner at the fab Haifa restaurant (hmmn sounds more Israeli than Indian eh? but the food was fab!).... and a bunch of us snuck upstairs to the balcony to consume our illegal stash of alcoholic beers. This being a holy city and all.. not really allowed (oops tut tut such tourists we are!).

Nov 23rd. After a bit of a rough night (lets just say the cast iron stomach let me down a tad.. no more information needed here!), a bunch of us met up and went to a silk factory. After all, Varanasi is THE place to buy silk in India so of course, that's what we did! People were buying duvets, scarves, blouses but I was there to get my very first sari. Yup, in honour of my brother's wedding, which would take place in Sri Lanka in less than a month, I had decided (ok, my mum thought it was a good idea!) to buy a sari to wear. Now they may look graceful and pretty easy to wear.. if you are Indian. Me - i found it a little more difficult to keep that one piece of silk wrapped around me. And the colours - where do you start. Clearly, I'm looking a bit shell shocked in the purple/lilac; but the green, thats a winner! It was funny having an Indian man explain how you wear it...and even stranger to look at myself in the mirror with it on. As i mentioned earlier in my blog, coming to Asia, specifically Nepal and India, has been enlightening for me in many ways. My "Indian-ness" has been called out to me on so many occasions, I'm used to people asking me which state I'm from (and i dont mean the ones in the US!). But seeing myself, with my tan, long hair and this sari on, well, i had a wee moment, I have to say! So of course, I bought the sari (yeh!) and they measured me for the wee blouse that you wear underneath it.. to be picked up tomorrow! Also asked them to make me two dressing gowns (not quite sure what you say in the States) for my brother and his soon to be wife, Helen, as part of their wedding present. His and hers, to be embrodiered in gold with Bride and Groom! Great idea eh!

Later in the day, a few of us went to view the "Burning Ghats", Harishchandra Ghat being one of the two busiest in Varanasi. It might sound gruesome to think we went to watch people who have died burn on a funeral pyre; but in some ways it was a much more celebratory event than the silent way we do when we have funerals in the west. Bodies are wrapped in gold cloth, dipped in the Ganges, then once the gold outer wrapping is taken off, the body is put on a large bed of branches and wood, and set fire to. It was so busy here. There were lines and lines of bodies waiting to be dipped and burned. Once the ashes are gathered, they are scattered over the river, and the souls go directly to heaven!

More walking then later in the evening, we were going on our "sunset" (this time as we had already experienced the sunrise!) boat ride on the Ganges. This flower ceremony was much more solemn than that of the sunrise event. We all got into the boat; Mahindra and the boatmen lit tons of tiny candles which sat in dried leaves made into bowls with fresh flowers around them. We rowed out into the slowly enveloping blackness of the night; the sun set and we gently dropped literally hundreds of these candles onto the river; and watched them bob along in a haphazard line behind us, afloat and twinkling into the night. It was just one of the most special moments I have experienced in India (and there have been quite a few already as you know!). (oh yes, and check out the name of this row boat!). Mahindra led us in some wonderful meditative prayers (I know it sounds a bit much, but you had to be there; it was so beautiful!), then we had three minutes of silence as is the custom. Honestly, in that moment, looking out onto the water, watching our candles and those of other boats (pretty far from us tho') twinkling away, hearing the muffled sounds of the activity on shore, as well as Hindu music playing from one particular ghat; it really made your heart full - and felt like a very hypnotic, holy, spiritual moment.

But enough of all that earthy-crunchy stuff (ahh...not really, this is the holy city of Varanasi after all).. back on shore, we watched a traditional prayer (or puja) ceremony that a family was receiving from a priest with burning candles surrounding them, prayers chanted in offering, songs sung, and the looks on peoples faces.. this place really has a special feeling about it - you can feel the faith here! So our last "holy" thing of the evening, was to receive a tikka from a local brahmin priest Mahindra knows. This particular tikka (there are so many and all mean different things and are offered in memory of different gods; and remember, there are over 2 1/2 million Hindu gods!) was the tikka of Shiva - white stripes across with a large red line down the middle. Quite fetching eh! I know some of you are thinking (as did some of the gang here), "Why are we getting these things on our foreheads? We don't really know what they represent, they are someone else's religious beliefs and here are we, using them merely as a tourist attraction, making them somewhat meaningless". So ok, i can see some folks might feel that way, but when i talked to Mahindra about it, and how much i had enjoyed the evening, he said to me that the tikka ceremony was part of the whole experience for him to show us the real India, and religion is so deeply wrapped up in Indian life, how could we not experience some of that? As long as you respect someone else's beliefs and enjoy your small part in it, in the manner it is given.. what is wrong or fake about that.. well, that's my opinion anyway! So a very spiritual evening all round! Loved it!

Nov 24th. Packed up this morning (damn, how did my backpack get so gigantically huge and heavy again!) for our next journey; our last stop in fact, Calcutta, the city of joy! Liv and i headed out and found a nirvana of a place, and just around the corner too.... the Open Hand Cafe (with amazing craft shop attached). Not only was the food incredible, the jewellery, duvets, cards - all handmade - were gorgeous! This was a one stop shop.. so of course.. we shopped!

Time to leave the wonderful city of Varanasi. I have to say i thoroughly enjoyed my time here.... it was very different than some of the other places we visited, which i loved. But most of all, i loved the spirituality that pervaded through here (i know, i know, here i go again!). That's it - just thought it was wonderful!

PS Check out this wierd sign for a local convent.. hmmn! Oh yes, one other quick note here! As we settled down for our overnight (actually our 16 hour) train journey to Calcutta, we were (as usual) befriended by lots of curious folks (this time students on their way home on break). Not only did they want to practise their English with us; they wanted to sing (and us to sing with them..) Ahem - for those of you who have heard me try to keep a tune, it is literally impossible. But not for these guys. So, in a crushed carriage packed full of people, without the slightest hesitation, my little friend began to sing "We Shall Overcome" in English. Mahindra then sang it again in Hindi and Helen finished off with a verse or two in Bengali (which she learned from her time in Calcutta!). Not bad eh!!! Pretty impressive i thought! And yet another special moment that made me think "I love India"!!!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Agra - it's time for the worlds most beautiful building. Taj Mahal - here I come!

Nov 20th. Ahhhh 5:45am start today as we are heading to one of the highlights of my trip to India - visiting the Taj Mahal. But before we arrive in Agra, we are going a little out of the way to visit what is known as the ghost city of Fatephur Sikri.
Quite funny, the local bus dropped us off just outside of town, and a busy little town it was, where there were only so many rickshaws so a few of us got lucky, and a camel ride into town! How cool eh! And all the locals thought it hilarious as we bounced along!!!

Former imperial capital of the great Moghul emperor Akbar, the city was built in the late 1570's and has lain silent for almost four hundred years. The reason - some daftie didnt realise the water supply was incapable of sustaining the population of the city, so Mr. Akbar moved the court to Lahore.
Bit of a bummer for this city, but even so, now that it has been perfectly restored, it really is an amazing place; glorious sandstone that glows in the hot sun, changing colour as the evening arrives and shadows play around the ornately carved buildings. Really just a beautiful, beautiful atmosphere here, well worth the side trip!

And so on to Agra, capital of all India under the Moghuls! Part of the Golden Triangle with Delhi and Jaipur, this city is not known as being one of the prettiest but who cares, with the worlds most romantic building as part of its heritage!

Nov 21st. Described by the poet Rabindranath Tagore as a "tear on the face of eternity" the Taj Mahal is without a doubt one of the most amazing sights i have ever seen (not that ive seen so much of course, but this is just incredible). Known to be the ultimate in Moghul architecture, so much has been written about it, so many photos taken (no surprise i took tons myself!)..but when you see it you just can't help taking a deep breath and letting it out very, very slowly - the WOW factor is huge
Of course I loved these two signs right next to each other - please take off your shoes, but please keep your shoes on here too! Hmmn.. which one to follow! Always a tough choice!
Even though there are literally hundreds of people milling around, you still get this quiet, peaceful feel, all around you. The buildings are vast, the people look like ants until you get up close, but the beauty transcends everything. It's difficult to really emphasise the vastness of these buildings; the Taj itself, as well as beautiful gardens, serene mosques, even a museum if you need a break from the sun .. there is so much to see within this walled complex.

You are probably wondering why there are so many pics here. Well, we had to do things properly of course! We started out before sunrise, walking down to the back of the Taj to see it glow as the sun came up, the light was incredible, we had a perfect view on the banks of the River Yamuna..

Also beautiful in perfect sunlight and then of course at sunset; which apparantly we missed due in part to it happening so quickly and also because Helen, Liv and I were so busy chatting, by the time we turned the cameras on, the sun had set - ooops!

Of course part and parcel of visiting the Taj is to think about how it came into being - it has been labeled the most romantic building of all time, the ultimate symbol of eternal love. Built by Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died shortly after giving birth to her 14th child in 1631. The Shah was devasted by her death and vowed to create a monument beyond anything ever built before, to remember her by! Over 20,000 men worked on the Taj from all over Asia and it took over 20 years to finish. The story goes that Shah Jahan spent the remainder of his life, gazing wistfully at the building, remembering his one true love.

Recent historical research however, has uncovered a slightly more cynical/sordid storyline! Not only did the Shah situate his tomb in a similar layout to that of the Sufi's belief of how God's throne was set out (hence he was a bit big-headed about himself!); unlike the romantic view above, the Moghul's most decadent emperor expired after a protracted bout of sex and drug-taking. His death in 1666, at the ripe age of 74, was brought about not by grief, but a massive overdose of opium and aphrodisiacs.. hmmn.. think i like the romantic, pining lost love fable myself! (thanks for the info, Rough Guide!) What - you lot think i just knew that stuff off the top of my head!!!

Liv, Helen and I had a fabulous day here; from our Princess Diana poses in front of the Taj (and yes, you have to get pretty tough with the official (and unofficial) photographers in this prime photo spot...) to trying to get that corny but cute arm holding, Taj inside your hands shot. OK Helen is about 6ft and I'm about 5ft so it was a bit of a struggle .. but we had a giggle trying! It was hard to leave such a beautiful place; I absolutely loved it and will remember visiting it for the rest of my life! OK OK where are we talking about again! I really need to get some help for this memory problem!

So as we trudged back to pick up our bags yet again.. and head off on the overnight train to the holy city of Varanasi, we made sure to stock up on samosas, pakoras and the like! Hey, you never know when the next chai or chicken tikka masala delivery man might - or might not, as is the fear!! - pop past your cabin!!

One last note here - the train station in Agra was GROSS!!! It was seriously like something out of a horror film. There were hundreds of rats scurrying around the tracks...and then to our terror, hanging out on the platform across from us! Then there were the birds - literally hundreds of them (I'm not exaggerating here!) screeching from the rafters and obviously they had eaten something nasty, as many of them felt the need to relieve themselves on us unsuspecting travelers hanging out down below as prime targets, as we waited on our overnight train - yuk, yuk, yuk! Not the greatest of parting gifts from Agra.. but hey, definitely worth it for the Taj Mahal!