Country Diaries

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Burning bodies & Babas in Varanasi

It’s 5.30am in Varanasi and I have no idea what to wear. We’re taking a boat ride along the Ganges – and the burning of bodies is a solemn affair.  Is eye make-up inappropriate? Jeans too casual? 

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt so far in this crazy town – anything goes. I slap on mascara and head out the door.

Early morning bathing in the Ganges #India

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Varanasi, India’s Holy town

Varanasi is the the spiritual heart of India and a mind-blowing place. To level with you – it’s completely bonkers.

Located along the banks of the Ganges, pilgrims from all over the world come to Varanasi for prayer, meditation, bathing in the holy river, to die or to honour the dead.

In Hinduism, Varanasi is regarded as the last stop on earth before nirvana. Many people trek here to breathe their last breath, believing their soul will go straight to heaven.

As a result, there are a lot of very interesting people round these parts. My favourite thing to do in Varanasi was sit by the Ganges in the glow of the afternoon sun, people-watching.

 

Sadhus & snake charmers

From dreadlocked-holy men painted in ashes, weird westerners in hippy gear, snake charmers, body burners, bodies being burnt, dodgy salesmen and beautiful brown-eyed Indian children splashing in the river, Varanasi is a real melting pot.

It’s a visual feast, and expect an assault on your nostrils too –  there are some interesting smells round these parts.

From burning flesh of the cremations, to the scent of cannabis regularly wafting from groups of Sadhus – or spiritual adventurers.

Hindu deity, Lord Shiva, is often pictured smoking weed. The holy guys clearly figure what’s good for the goose, is good for the ganja (sorry –  couldn’t resist!)

Couldn't resist a cheesy pic with this interesting-looking fella hanging out by the Holy River.

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Celebrating death in Varanasi

A number of hospices line the river, a daily reminder of the many dying people waiting for the end to come. Along the river are two burning sites where giant fires burn bodies right in front of your eyes 24/7.

As you walk closer and your eyes adjust through the chaos and smoke, you’ll likely see a charred hand, foot or head hanging out.

Sir, you want boat?

If families can’t afford the fees for a dying loved one’s burning ritual, often the bodies are just thrown in the Ganges.  Presumably, in the hope this will achieve an equally decent spiritual outcome.

So if you take a lovely boat ride – you’ll hear ‘sir, madam,you want boat?’ on a loop – you might just want to be mentally prepared.

Burning site for cremations on the Ganges.

Magic and mystery in India’s spiritual heart

What a grim bloody place, you’re probably thinking round about now. Bizarrely, it’s not – it’s actually amazing.

Here, the business of burning bodies is simply part of the day-to-day. Locals, workers, cows, dogs and goats all mill around the burning bodies without batting an eyelid.

I’m the world’s most emotional person – I cried when I saw how pretty Bruges was – but for some reason, I’m not upset in Varanasi. There’s a certain mystery and magic in the air that’s pretty special.

To breathe your final breath here is considered auspicious, a celebration. It must be a relief for those in ill-health who make long pilgrimages to finally arrive at their final resting place.

It’s as though everything is following the order that it’s meant to be (in the most disorganised, dirty, unhygienic way you can possible imagine!)

As a random aside – women whose husbands are being cremated may not attend the ceremony. This is for fear the women, in their grief, will fling themselves on their burning hubby and roast themselves to death. All very dramatic.

Every evening, hundreds of people gather by the Ganges for ‘Aarti’, a daily holy ritual, and quite a spectacle. Disciples dance, pray and perform with fire in Cobra-shaped fire burners to honour the Gods.

 

Greeting dawn on the Ganges

So there we were, our last morning in Varanasi, jeans and mascara doing the job just fine as we headed to the river in the dark. As we pushed off in our boat, dawn was starting to break, an ethereal mist snaking across the surface of the river.

The Ganges was totally alive by 6am as people bathed and swam, others meditating and praying on its banks. Acrid smoke from the cremations floated across the river, a constant reminder of those burning bodies.

It might not be your ‘usual’ holiday destination but Varanasi is an amazing place – life and death at it’s most raw spilling out along the banks of the Holy River. I’ll certainly never forget it.

Magical mists over the Ganges this morning #india

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So, if that all sounds a bit heavy – you’ll be pleased to hear we’re off to beautiful New Zealand next. Pristine beaches, dramatic mountains ranges and turquoise waters beckon!

Have you been to Varanasi? Did you love it, or hate it? Let me know in the comments.

India’s golden triangle – Jaipur, Agra and Delhi

India’s ‘golden triangle’ offers an insight into old-world India, from colourful bazaars in Old Delhi to Jaipur’s ancient palaces and the marble majesty of Agra’s Taj Mahal.

Colour and chaos in Delhi

We begin our trip in India’s capital, Delhi, a bustling metropolis split into two parts – ‘old’ and ‘new’. New Delhi is surprisingly green and clean, filled with colonial government buildings and heritage sites.

Old Delhi is the complete opposite – a vibrant mess of chaos and colour, street vendors, beggars, shop owners and locals spilling out in every direction.

We took a rickshaw through Old Delhi’s backstreets, whizzing through tiny bazaars filled with colourful sari shops, flower sellers, ox and carts, street food and spice stalls.

A faithful ox and cart in Old Delhi last week. I had no idea this method of transportation was still a thing!

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India’s ‘pink city’ Jaipur

Next day, it was time for the four-hour journey to Jaipur, India’s ‘pink city’ – painted in exotic hues of blush pink. As we head into town my excitement levels were high, yelling out names of all the interesting things I could see.

“Look, camels!” “Holy shit – elephants! 

“Whoa, Jim! Manoj! Look! More camels! Camels pulling carts! Camels with Hindu symbols painted on them!”

At this point, Jim tells me to shut up about camels as our lovely driver, Manoj, sees them every day and is not interested to hear me yap on about them.

I stop talking about the camels and quietly observe the streets of Jaipur through the car window.

Athletic baby goats hop up steep walls, monkeys steal fruit from market stalls, slums spill out into urban areas and beautiful women wear rainbow-coloured saris. (“Little goats! Baby ones! Monkeys! Oooh, look – pretty colours!”)

We stop by Monkey Temple on the outskirts of town. This run-down temple has a faded charm and is totally overrun by wild monkeys who are very happy to play.

Encouraging feral Indian monkeys to stick their grubby little hands all over your face probably isn’t the most sensible course of action. But, it was hella fun.

Things getting slightly out of hand at the monkey temple 🐒

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Jaipur is filled with amazing architecture, rich history and a rugged natural landscape. Next day, we’re up at sunrise to visit the spectacular Amer Fort and palace that overlooks the city.

The ancient fort is built of pale pink and yellow sandstone and offers spectacular views across the city. Inside the palace, there are exquisite carvings and courtyards with a number of chambers to explore.

Many visitors choose to enter the fort on richly decorated elephants. A procession of them trudge up and down the hill daily, a magnificent sight as they deliver tourists to the fort.

New government regulations have recently improved working conditions for elephants, but the hill is steep, and sun hot. Concerned for the welfare of these beautiful creatures, we didn’t want to ride one.

Our guide told us the Maharajas who lived at the palace inside the fort in the 16th and 17th centuries would have hunted tigers on elephant back in the surrounding hills.

Passed this beautiful painted lady at Jaipur's amber fort today.

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Agra, home to the ‘jewel of India’

Our last stop was Agra, a grotty town that sits on the bank of the Yamuna River, famous for the Agra Fort and majestic Taj Mahal, the ‘jewel of India’.

We rise early the next day to watch the Taj ‘wake up’ at day break. Joining throngs of jostling tourists from all around the world, there is a sense of excited anticipation in the air.

The Great Gate Archway is finally flung open at 7am and I catch sight of the white marble beauty. It’s a snapshot you’ve seen a thousand times and that first glimpse in person makes it all worthwhile.

Bizarrely, the Taj experience was amazingly tranquil, despite the crowds.

Sunrise at the Taj Mahal. Well worth getting out of bed at 5.30am for!

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Ten travel tips for the Golden Triangle:

1.Arrive armed with some rupees. Recent changes to India’s currency system has resulted in cash flow problems. For three days, we struggled to find an ATM that wasn’t empty. We saw tourists everywhere – including ourselves – rely on guides to lend them cash to get by.

2. When you finally manage to get your mitts on some handy cash, break it down into small change. Cash is king here and everyone is going to be expecting a tip from now on. From the waiter, the snake charmer you take a pic of and the lady who hands you a tissue outside the bathroom. Make sure you have some twenty rupee notes to whip out – you’ll need them.

3. One of my guides said it’s fine for tourists to dress how they wish (within reason!) but a modest approach – pashmina, long sleeves or light-weight cardigan – will help you blend in. It’s a good idea to carry a scarf so you can cover up if visiting temples.

4. Local people will want a selfie with you! Our guide told us many of these people travel from remote villages to see the famous monuments and have never seen westerners before. Jim was very popular the day we visited the Taj. Apparently bald white guys often play the villains in Bollywood movies so his face was particularly interesting! An adorable little Indian girl grabbed my arm shrieking “Hello! Hello!Hello Hello!” delighted to be able to share her, somewhat limited, English with me.

5. Barter for everything. A good rule is to start at 70 per cent discount, then up to 50 per cent of initial asking price. If the answer is ‘no’ – act disinterested, shrug and start to walk away. Nine times out of ten the vendor will call you back “ok, ok, deal!” It can be emotionally exhausting after a while. The constant hustling and haggling drove Jim up the wall but it’s just the way it is in India.

6. Carry hand sanitiser, deet and tissues everywhere you go. Bottled water is a must and don’t eat any fruit you can’t peel yourself. Try not to overload on water during the day – you’ll find clean toilets few and far between. Obviously, avoid dehydration, but be mindful that you may regret chugging down litres of water when you can’t find a bathroom.

7. A private driver is a great way to explore the golden triangle and get the most out your trip. We used Manoj from Private Driver in India. He was friendly, professional and fun, helping us get off the beaten track to see the ‘real’ India. Manoj’s glowing testimonials on Trip Advisor tell the story of many other happy travellers.

8. If you don’t have a guide, be wary of ‘not a guide’. These random chancers lurk around famous monuments sniffing out tourists. They will then attach themselves firmly to you, spouting local information, and then, of course, expect a tip. Don’t be shy about shoo-ing ‘not a guide’ away.

9. Drink the local chai masala – milk-based tea made from tea leaves and ground Indian spices including cardamom, cloves and ginger. It’s ­­served in neat little cups that make a Venti latte at Starbucks seem quite vulgar. Do give it a try, it’s delicious and refreshing.

10. Finally, keep an open mind. From a six-legged cow (yup, we actually saw one!) to beggars, babas and blaggers – you will undoubtedly see many unusual sights on your trip to India. Some will be confronting, others amazing. It’s all part of the unique charm of this crazy, wonderful country so drink it in, and enjoy.

What were your favourite things to see on India’s ‘golden triangle’? Leave me a comment, I’d love to know.

Goa’s beach paradise

Rose-gold shimmers across the beach. A blood red sun takes its final bow, slipping into the silver Arabian Sea. I sip my frozen coconut drink and think, “Goa, you’re alright.”

We travelled to India last week, the journey slightly fuzzy around the edges due to numerous refills at the A380 bar.

I’m blaming the handsome Irish bar man, “Go on ‘av another,” he’d urge. So I did.

 

For a few panic-stricken minutes, I lose my passport at Dubai Airport and Jim sighs very loudly in my face. The passport is found, and we’re on to Mumbai, and our final connection to Goa.

Welcome to India

I am wildly excited, and slightly delirious with jet-lag, when we finally arrive at Goa’s International Airport – joining a motley crew of hippies, backpackers, loud Brits and locals.

Face-pressed against the window, I gorge on my first sights of India en route to our hotel in South Goa.

A woman in a bright blue sari carries a water jug on her head. Coconut sellers crouch at the roadside, faces shielded from the pounding sun.

Children play in arid, red dirt and holy cows meander by with a lazy flick of the tail.

Holy 🐮!

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Two days ago we were driving along winding country roads in England, a procession of hunting dogs and riders in top hats clattering by. Now, here we are, in India.

 

India’s west coast paradise

Goa is the most westernised part of India, a recommended good introduction before braving the mayhem of the cities.

Divided into two states – north and south – Goa is home to over twenty beaches. And they are all idyllic – clear blue waters and soft, gold sand fringed by palms and coconut groves.

Palm trees for miles 🌴🌴🌴🌴

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The area is also notorious for its party scene, a result of the many hippies migrating here in the late sixties.

We skip the Goan trance parties and local lethal ‘moonshine’ – cashew feni – for some good old-fashioned sunshine and rejuvenation.

Delicious coconut frappe by the pool. Loving Goa's tropical climate after a few chilly weeks in the UK. 🌴🌴

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The days pass slowly as we fall into a lazy rhythm of breakfast, pool and early evening stroll along the beach for sunset, drinks and dinner.

Tourists, locals and expats gather on the beach nightly to watch the spectacular Goan sunsets. No two nights are the same as the sky explodes into gold, pink, red and orange.

Kingfisher and seafood while bathing in the rose-gold hue you only get from a truly awesome sunset.

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Thali,  a feast for the eyes, and stomach

The local food is fantastic – aromatic Goan fish curry, fresh seafood and coconut-flavoured curries. The best food I sample is a delicious, colourful vegetarian thali.

Delicious Goan vegetarian thali. This colourful feast included a fab pineapple curry and coconut crepes.

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‘Thali’ is a way of serving food in lots of little dishes, generally served with roti and rice. The pleasure of thali is sampling a number of dishes, savoury and sweet all in one hit.

My favourite thali included  colourful pineapple curry and a red spinach and coconut dish, followed by sweet coconut crepes and a tart, lassi drink.

A friend told me she crept up a dress size while travelling India.

“Well that won’t happen to me,” I smugly thought at the time. “I’ll eat lovely healthy veggie and fish curries, lay off the rice and actually, I’ll probably lose weight.”

I may have spoken too soon. The food is insanely good and the ‘healthy’ veggie curries are served with mounds of steaming rice, roti and garlic naan.

I’ve been hitting the hotel gym in a desperate bid to work off some of the calories.

Sadly, the lure of the delicious food is far greater than that of the gym.

Goa has been blissful and I know we’ve barely scratched the surface of its natural beauty and old charm.  However, it’s time to pack up and head off – the cities of India beckon!

 

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