Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Anxiety Bites

It is November. This is baffling to me because it was, like, May 5 seconds ago right?! I know the years are supposed to go faster as you get older but I swear someone has put this one on some kind of sonic skip forward while I wasn’t 

It’s been a strange year and the last few months, since the beginning of August, have been particularly challenging in many ways. Some of those challenges I set myself (like simultaneously completing two diplomas just for the hell of it – never again) and some were completely unforeseen and bizarre, they never could have been prepared for. I feel utterly exhausted by the whole period of time and this is well reflected in the fact that I have been particularly fragile over the last few weeks, including an incident where I burst into tears in a completely unacceptable situation where I should have been able to hold it 

I feel like a period of intense activity has gone on and left me with nothing further to give. I was in Singapore for a conference at the end of September and the week I was there was nothing short of an ordeal in many ways as I battled the worst period of anxiety I have suffered in about 5 years. It had been a long time since I had been so anxious as to have physical symptoms (I get a lump in my throat that just won’t go away and makes me feel like I am being suffocated) and despite being aware of the tools and tricks needed to cope with such a situation, sometimes it just grips you so bad that you have to take it minute by minute until you can calm down enough to form a plan.

To get through the worst parts (which happened once Stu had left for a trip around Burma – don’t ask) took every ounce of mindfulness I could draw upon. Writing down what exactly I was stressing about and then rationalising why there was no need, making lists of things to look forward to. Deciding on plans of action to keep myself busy and then the hardest part, forcing myself to leave the sanctuary of the hotel room and go out into hot, sticky Singapore to keep my mind full of enough distraction to block the anxiety pangs out.

Me down at the Harbour with the Merlion

I made myself wander, enter temples and smile at strangers and slowly but surely the savage fears subsided. In the daytime, at least, this is possible. I believe it is a particularly evil feature of anxiety that (for me at least) the pangs that are worst, the ones I can never quite get a handle on, are the ones that either wake me in an uncontrollable panic or totally prevent me from descending from half asleep to fully asleep. In this morbid, limbo mind-space it can feel like I am drowning, literally being dragged into the depths with no air, physically gripped with a fear that cannot be shaken.

Even when I manage to break the moment and properly wake up, the overwhelming sense of failure, despair and fear still lingers. Everything seems so completely out of control, broken, disappointing and mortifying in these moments.

Anyway, I managed, moment by moment, to get through the time I had in Singapore and actually enjoy some aspects of it. I also managed, by power of the mind, to bury a huge amount of anger over a particular incident that I had been successfully ignoring. I kind of knew this would eventually need to come out but I sure as hell did not want it to do so while I was away from home.
I don’t think I have ever been so relieved to get home from a trip abroad (for business or pleasure – and this was technically both). 

Most people who know me will think of me as a text book extrovert and usually that is pretty accurate. On the whole though, I really disagree with the labels introvert/extrovert because I think that although people might naturally lean more towards one or the other, everybody has elements of both. I think one of the most interesting things about anxiety for me is that it makes me want to retreat and spend time only with Stu or by myself. The whole rigmarole of socialising becomes an utter chore and the very last thing I want to do. I crave the intimacy and security of just us in these times.  

I have spent the month or so since I returned trying to focus on the things I needed to do to soothe my frenzied brain, sleeping a lot, walking wonderful Fin (our new puppy) and spending time outside on the beach in the beautiful place we live. I still feel fragile but I also feel like the worst has passed. Now I need to concentrate on not being defensive and letting go of some of the residual anger and not letting it colour future plans.

I am heading back to the UK without Stu at xmas and I can feel this being a trigger for further anxiety so I am trying to manage that and not let it spin out of control. I need to be more assertive with how that trip will go and ensure that I spend time only with the people I know will make me happy instead of trying to accommodate too many demands on my time. I need to be selfish on this trip and make it a real respite and not a frantic dash around without stopping and relaxing. I guess this might mean pissing people off but to be honest I think I no longer care too much on that front, I live 10,000 miles from the UK, I don’t need negativity from that direction any more, life really is too short.

And then 2016 will roll around and we can wipe the slate clean and start again. I guess this blog post needed crafting (and it has been written and rewritten more times than you might think to get it into a publishable version) to work through the residual sticky bits in my brain. I am not ashamed to talk about suffering anxiety, I am just lucky enough to have had sufficient help in the past that I can talk about it and manage it when it happens.     

Monday, 8 June 2015

Incredible India - Part 4 - Varanasi


It is a word which will, for the rest of my days, inspire incredibly vivid emotions in me. I fully understand now why G Adventures place the Varanasi experience at the end of the Essential India Tour. Quite simply, to put it near the beginning or to jam it in the middle of everything else would be insufficiently respectful of this wondrous, mystifying, technicolour befuddlement of a city. You kind of have to work your way up to it. And also, you can only really witness and experience it (without losing your mind) if you appreciate that it is the pinnacle, the apex, the crescendo, of your north Indian adventure. It makes sense at the end. Like one last hurrah for old time’s sake.

On the Ganges at sunset

Looking at the banks of the Ganges

If you started your India trip here I reckon you would simply stand around blinking in astonishment until a cow knocked you into a ditch. And that is not a good place to start, let me tell you. 

So, first we had to get here, right? Which involved, I shit you not, the most hilariously terrible overnight train experience of my life. Ok, so it’s actually the only overnight train experience of my life to date but I am pretty sure in my mind it was never meant to turn out like this. I had romantic images and notions in my head of nodding off all relaxed while being gently rocked in a comfortable bed. Ha.

It went something like this.

22:30 A group of fairly bedraggled and mostly hungover travellers arrive at Jhansi station and attempt to board the sleeper train to Varanasi in an organised fashion. This was mostly thwarted by the usual stampede for the train and also the fact that the group was split into 2 smaller groups of 5 in entirely separate carriages. It should be noted that on this train you cannot walk between carriages so once we had gone our separate ways that was it for the night.

23.00 After a great deal of ticket checking and Jai frantically jumping on and off each carriage making sure we were all ok, we were finally settled and the train had started moving. Stu, Bina, Isaac, Emma and me were in one compartment. Each compartment sleeps 8; 3 on each side wall and 2 on the back wall. Some kind of deal had been done, in Hindi, between Jai and a group of 3 middle aged Indians who had swapped their bottom level bed for one of our back wall beds. It turned out they had bought 1 sleeper ticket between them but were planning on sitting next to each other on the 1 bed for the duration of the night (bargainous!). It was easier for them to do this with the beds on the back wall because there was only 2 of them so a taller gap to sit up in. This will later come back to haunt us.

Stu on the top bunk, me in the middle

Bina looking glam as ever on her bunk

Isaac in his bunk opposite me

23.01 Isaac is up on his middle bunk having a right lark when Emma and I notice that his bunk is hanging on only 1 of the 2 industrial hooks meant to support the weight. We both panic, try and secure the other hook, and thoroughly rattle Isaac in the process. How the bed did not break is beyond me, the boy is blessed.

23.10 I am on the middle bunk of 3 with Emma below and Stu above me. I attempt to sleep. I am trying to sleep on a shelf. It is, supposedly, a bed but it is not very wide and it appears to be made of concrete. Getting comfortable in this space is literally impossible. Isaac is laughing to himself opposite me at the strangeness of the situation and the other passengers in our compartment are just watching us, curiously but not menacingly, like we were the best soap opera they had ever seen. I need to keep my bag in my arms so I know it’s safe. Have you ever tried sleeping whilst holding on to all your valuables? It is not very conducive to sleep. I toss and turn.

01.05 I need a wee. This is not ideal. To get into this bed in the first place required hoisting, climbing, double-jointed contortion and a complete loss of dignity. And that was with the light on. It is now dark and the train is moving. *sigh*

01.15 Fucking hell. I really have to go. I begin unravelling the many layers of blankets and sheets I have cocooned myself in and shuffle on my back to the bottom of the bed. Somehow I manage to get down from the bunk without any major incidents though I am very aware of a number of pairs of eyes silently watching my progress. Isaac, Bina and Stu are all snoring. The bastards. I peer at Emma despairingly, she’s awake. I search for my flip flops which were on the floor when I last looked but the bastard things have disappeared. Something tells me I will really need something on my feet before I face a toilet on an Indian sleeper train. I start shifting luggage round in the dark but to no avail. Pitifully I turn to Emma and say the dreaded words “may I borrow your sandals to go to the loo in please?” and because she is totally all the awesome she just laughs and nods. Toilets on these trains are literally holes about the size of a dinner plate. An actual hole. You can see the tracks going past underneath you. There is a recommended footplate to use. Note the word ‘recommended’. Somehow I pee through the hole in the floor of the swaying train and make a mental note to punch Stu in the face when he wakes up. I somehow manage not to get pee (that I can see) on Emma’s shoes. I shuffle back to our beds and sheepishly declare to Emma “I didn’t get pee on your shoes, honest” and realise that this holiday has made me say so many things I never thought would come out of my mouth ever.

01.25 After a substantial amount of what I shall term “scrambling about” I am back in bed. I try to sleep.

02.10 A pair of very rude, very loud and very angry Chinese tourists appear to have decided to ruin the 5 minutes of sleep I had so far achieved. Groggily, I sit up in bed. They are waving and shouting at someone “Get up, these are our beds, you are in our beds!!” and the 3 people who originally were in Emma’s bed (and are now in one of ours on the back wall) are all pretending not to understand and just repeatedly pointing at Emma. Bina, diplomat extraordinaire, intervened at this point from her upper shelf (note to self, do not fuck with a German’s sleep) and asked to see the Cockface’s tickets. The seat numbers are the same as ours but the carriage number is different. Bina calmly points this out to Cockface. Cockface responds by asking to see OUR tickets. There is a slight problem with this as Jai has them and he is not in our carriage. Thankfully, before world war 3 kicks off, a ticket inspector has been roused from his (no doubt delightful) sleep and has appeared. He double checks the tickets and makes the same observation as Bina. They are in the wrong carriage. Without a single word of apology or even acknowledgement of the fact they have woken everybody up so aggressively, the pair turn on their heels and walk out. At this point I notice we are in a station and have been for the duration of this exchange. Lucky really as if these people had been trapped in our carriage until the next stop, they *may* have been subjected to a blunt trauma injury to the head.

02.30 Everyone else has gone back to sleep. Isaac is lying on his front and snoring. I did not think this was even physically possible. Emma is becoming a little freaked out by the man on the lower bunk opposite her who is groaning in a very erotic way. Both she and I are relieved that this noise is not coming from Isaac but are a tad unsettled by it nonetheless…





07.00 By this point I just kind of give up sleeping. My eyeballs are on fire. My brain is starting to taunt me with hallucinations, I didn’t eat all day yesterday because I kept vomiting and for the first time in 48 hours I am hungry. I have scratched a mozzie bite on my foot until it has bled. My nose is running. I think about the time difference to Adelaide and my team who will probably be going for their coffee around now and I HATE THEM for being in Australia. I tell myself not to be a bitch and to enjoy the experience. I laugh hysterically at that last thought and start drafting this very blog post in my head in an attempt to while away the remaining 6 or so hours.  
09.00 Everyone is pretty much awake now. I have eaten 3 out of date cookies from the pack we bought at Jhansi station last night. It is the first solid food I have kept down in a few days. I would literally crawl over hot coals for a cup of Twinings Earl Grey right now. The train has thinned out some, the 2 men travelling on their own got off a while ago and the 3 middle aged people left at the last stop. We pretty much have the compartment to ourselves. 

12.30pm - So close and yet so far. We have come to a stop about 10 minutes outside Varanasi. The train has not moved in a good 20 minutes but as we are not in a station we cannot get off the carriage and go find Jai. Emma phones him, "The train has stopped" he helpfully confirms (!). 

13.00 - We have packed up the beds and are now sitting on the normal bench seats, which are still covered in random bits of bedding. Isaac and I are sat on the lower bunk that the 'orgasmic moans' bloke was asleep on this morning when Isaac absent mindedly picks up a crumb of something off the sheet...and eats it. I nearly lose my mind, Isaac is horrified but laughing. What happened in my life to lead me to this point?? 

13.15 - Isaac has gone back to sleep and the rest of us are starting to feel like we are on some kind of hidden camera show. The train is getting very warm because the air con has gone off. I cannnot remember my life before I got on this train. It feels like I have been here for ever.

13.45 - VARANASI WE ARE IN YOU! Thank christ our hotel is literally across the road from the train station. 5 minutes from disembarking we are in an actual restaurant in our hotel ordering food and connecting to wifi and so excited to get a room key and to know that SLEEP is on the cards in the near future.

So, I think it is fair to say I have no urge whatsoever to repeat the experience of an overnight sleeper train in India ever again. Maybe it was just the perfect storm for me, being over tired and ill - I am glad I can say I did it but I feel like I survived some kind of endurance challenge. Nothing about it, to me, was relaxing or particularly enjoyable. That said, most of the people I travelled with (including Stu) slept through it almost entirely and enjoyed it to some extent.

Varanasi, from the get go, is IN YOUR FACE. The roads are particularly mental and that is exacerbated by the fact that this is a place of pilgrimage for Indian people as well as being an international tourist magnet. The traffic here makes Delhi look like a fairly sedate and organised place. We had a number of near misses with traffic, all over India, but the ones that literally had a hairs breadth between life and death/injury were all in Varanasi and included:

  • A cycle rickshaw vs school bus moment which defied physics in how nothing actually touched
  • A cycle rickshaw vs 10 ton lorry moment at an intersection where the lorry was so close I could taste the paint 
  • A tuk tuk rolling backwards with no handbrake into a gutter with 4 of our group in it
View ahead from a rickshaw

View behind from rickshaw - Dean and Jade and crazy roads

But from the moment you near the edge of the Ganges the sounds of chanting and the vibrancy of the people and the smell of the incense becomes overwhelming and hypnotic and you can feel this powerful vibe about the place, which must be because of the importance and the history of it in the lives of so many Indian people.

On our first evening in Varanasi (after some restorative food and sleep and showers) we went down to the Ganges at sunset and went out on a boat to view the riverside activity from the water and to perform our own blessing ceremony.

Stu and I on a boat on the Ganges as the sun sets

Our group preparing to perform a candle flower ceremony

We also got to see the funeral pyres burning at the edge of the water which, despite my previous reservations, were not as disturbing as I imagined they would be. The Hindu religion places such a wealth of value and importance on a person after their death, part of which is through this ceremony and actually, after spending so much time in and around Hindu people it made a lot of sense and felt right for them to honour their departed in this way.    

Although our boat were respectful and did not take photos of the funeral pyres but just sat very quietly observing, it was a little uncomfortable to witness other boat loads of tourists doing exactly that and making literally no attempt to be discreet about it. Sometimes, I am ashamed of my fellow human beings and their lack of restraint.

After the boat returned we watched the prayer to the river ceremony and had free time to wander along the banks, which was not as relaxing as you might imagine due to the sheer volume of people selling things and the tendency of them to try and hoodwink you into parting with cash in all kinds of innovative ways. One of these which I can't really see a way out of involves a 'blessing' being performed, whereby a fellow with a bowl of the sacred red dye sticks his thumb between your eyes to leave the special mark and then demands money for this service. Unfortunately, this happened to me when I was completely not expecting it, I turned round from looking at the river to find him right behind me and his thumb was between my eyes before I could even open my mouth. I was having this blessing whether I liked it or not. On this occasion I was so cross at having been duped I refused point blank to pay any money which led to a rather uncomfortable and prolonged exchange. 

The blessing I was bestowed with (and did not expect)

A continuous problem for the men in our group (though not the women) was the offer of a massage. Offer might be the wrong word. Poor Dean got thoroughly massaged despite repeatedly telling the guy "no thanks" and it is a bit of a strange situation as they will persist in massaging your shoulders despite this, completely ignoring your body language and clear protestations about it being done. And then of course there needs to be payment for the service. Basically you just need your wits about you continuously here and being assertive and persistent is key. 

What was far more relaxing and I would thoroughly recommend is revisiting the river at dawn. It is far quieter, you are able to people watch without being bothered and the atmosphere is much calmer at this time of day. My favourite memory of Varanasi is the boat we took out as the sun started to rise, watching people doing yoga on the banks, enjoying the serenity and beauty of the temples and the ancient buildings. In this atmosphere Varanasi feels like a salve for the soul and I feel truly honoured to have experienced this holy place.

The river at dawn - much calmer

In the late afternoon of our second day in Varanasi we went for a tour of the silk factories in the Islamic quarter of the city with a fabulous, delightful elder of the community whose name, I believe, was Dada. He was so thoroughly charming and took us down small alleyways, into workshops and machine filled spaces where incredibly talented weavers spun silk into the most beautiful designs.

Silk being woven into amazin designs

Despite the fact it was around 43 degrees we managed to spend 45 minutes to an hour exploring this amazing side of the city and one of the younger guides in a thoroughly charming and gallant way positioned himself with a large fan every time we stopped and became a punkawallah for the ladies. I cannot tell you how grateful we were for this service.

At the end of the tour we were taken into the studio/showroom of one of the local silk merchants and he led us into a wonderfully air conditioned room with heaps of cushions on the floor, plied us with masala chai and showed us his wares. The best thing about this (and again we have Jai to thank for it) was that from the word go we were told "you are not obliged to buy anything" and he meant it. 

There was no pressure at all, it was one of the most interesting and relaxed experiences I have ever had. It turned out this guy sells to retailers across the world, that's his bread and butter so the pressure was certainly not on to buy from him. Around half the group bought some bits and pieces, I bought a beautiful scarf for myself and we got scarves for our mothers too. A lovely touch at the end of the session was that he gave every member of our group (even those who bought nothing) a basic silk scarf as a gift.

I have to say here, this was another example of the wonderful job that Jai did as our guide. Every encounter we had, such as the one described above, was so thoroughly researched and checked out by Jai. He never took us to anywhere that we were even slightly pressured, he never let us head off with anyone who he was not 100% sure would look after us as well as he would. I have never met anyone who is as diligent and committed to their job as he. The fact that he does all this and is also one of the nicest, funniest blokes you will ever meet is astounding. I am honoured to say he is my friend and I know that our paths will cross again in the future. G Adventures must think themselves incredibly lucky to have this guy on their staff, I feel incredibly lucky to have had him as our CEO.

Me and Jai

So, the final night in Varanasi was also our final rum party. It was a LOT more subdued than the Orchha affair (but then most other things in my life have been to date). Somehow it was us hosting again (must be the British desire to be polite) so everyone piled into our room and we broke out the final bottles of Old Monk. By now we were all so relaxed with each other that this just felt like a family gathering and I think it was probably on all of our minds that it might be the last time we had such an event. 

Final rum party in Varanasi

Next morning we checked out of the hotel and headed to Varanasi airport in a bus seemingly driven by The Stig (although by now we just didnt even flinch at such hi-jinks). Along the journey, which rattled the teeth of us all, I pointed out to Jai that the most common vehicle make in India (Tata) is a word with a rather different meaning in Australia and Europe. This tickled him enormously and coined the innuendo filled phrase "Touch the Tatas". 

We flew from Varanasi back to Delhi for one final night in the hotel where the tour began (at the aptly named Good Times Hotel). The familiarity was particularly appreciated as we were all pretty shattered by this point. Everyone started making arrangements for getting back to the airport the next day, organising their next tours and travel onwards - except for Stu and I, the only members of our group who were heading back home after this tour. It was sad. 

This two week period of my life will be ingrained in my memory for the rest of my days. India truly is a remarkable place, full of life and colour, amazing food, good people, sights and scents and sounds that are distinctive and vivid. We were so incredibly lucky to have a brilliant, open minded, laid back group of people to share it with and a CEO who made the experience so joyful. I came home absolutely knackered, completely overwhelmed and with a whole new perspective on the life I lead and what it all means. You cannot spend time in India without questioning what you need to be happy and I think I will always now be calmer in the face of adversity thanks to the train ride to Varanasi. 

Strangely, we have not eaten curry once since we got back but my appetite for it is returning and it won't be long before we are back on that wagon too. We gained some awesome friends and some amazing stories on this holiday, the anecdotes are still making us laugh and the pictures are still making us smile and I believe they will continue doing so for many years to come. We have already had out first mini India reunion (less than 1 month since returning!) and I am pretty sure it will not be the last.

Thank you India - never has the description of 'Incredible' been more aptly applied.        


Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Incredible India - Part 3 - Alipura and Orchha

Day 8 of our trip began by saying goodbye to our drivers and the amazing bus we had had for the past week. Little did we know as we parted company with them how much of a hilarious contrast the next bus would be, or what fate waited us after the train journey between Agra and Jhansi.

This first train ride in India was surprisingly smooth and the train was modern, air conditioned and comfortable. Indian train stations on the other hand are absolutely batshit mental (to the casual western observer). As with many things in India which at first look completely baffling and overwhelming, however, there is a strangely ordered undercurrent to the chaos. It just somehow works.

In my experience, at Indian railway stations, there always seems to be way more people on and around the platform than the station or any of the trains can possibly cope with. Also, people set up like a picnic on the platform itself, by which I mean they lay out a blanket and sleep/eat on it, which generally does not help with the complete insanity going on around them. I am continually amazed and humbled by the way Indian people can and do literally sleep anywhere, it makes me feel like a very precious, coddled person to require black out blinds, total silence and at least 8 hours of uninterrupted rest to feel remotely human.

Anyway, this ‘chaos’ is something which it can be tricky to navigate around with a massive backpack but nobody seems to get bent out of shape when you accidentally step on their blanket or kick their sandal across a platform (ahem). Testament to the wonderfully laid back Indian mindset I think. This mindset tends to momentarily disappear, it has to be said, the moment a train actually arrives, when there will be a full on, elbows out, stampede for the doors like you wouldn't believe. No time for British hesitation or politeness – Jai was an absolute godsend at moments like this, shepherding us, continuously counting we were all there, being very assertive about our seats and luggage and generally just being awesome.

It goes without saying, by the way, that railway station platforms also play host to dogs, monkeys and the occasional cow. You can pretty much assume by now that these creatures make up the background to pretty much every scene I mention, in some description, even when not explicitly stated.

Anyway, this first train ride was only about 2.5 hrs long. We spent the journey reading and watching the landscape and Stu noticed a strange feature of Indian newspapers whereby they print very graphic pictures of unidentified dead bodies with descriptions of where they were found and any distinctive bodily features, to try and get info on who it might be. Strange (and rather unsettling to the casual reader) but true.

On arrival in Jhansi we were due to board a bus for a 3-4 hr journey to Alipura. We shall christen this bus “The Venga Bus” because the experience was rather psychedelic and traumatically memorable, just like the 90s song of the same name.

This is a stock image of what our Venga bus looked like in terms of size/shape. Oh the fun.

It needs to be remembered that it was over 40 degrees outside and there were 10 of us plus luggage to fit into the bus. A very small transit style minibus had been provided - this would have been bearable if the air conditioning actually worked and our new driver was convinced that it did. After the spacious comfort of our previous bus we all found it slightly amusing to cram into the very small space with the blowers seeming to continuously circulate the hot, dry air. Once the bus started moving, we figured, the air con would kick in properly, right?

Wrong. After about 20 minutes, Jai tried to boost morale and give us a pep talk as it was clear we might actually boil to death in this bus. He gave us some inspirational quotes from Mahatma Ghandi about "being the change" and somehow, in a state of delirium, this ended with a line which will stick in my head for all time - “Mahatma Ghandi once said, open the windows m&*$%f*&$s!” 

As we roared with laughter and opened the windows there was a brief respite of the outside air rushing through the parched interior; within 5 minutes, however, it just felt like someone was aiming hot blow driers into the cramped space and we all started to get a little bit heat-strokey.

Isaac got his speaker out at this stage and we turned the infernally hot bus space into a comedy disco, singing along to Nelly’s ‘Hot in Herre’ and ‘I Will Survive’ and ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ and basically getting through the experience with laughter (hysteria/deliria). Isaac also took to wailing “Heeeeelllllpp” out of the bus window as we drove through small villages, much to the confusion of the people on the streets. 

I think all of us were very relieved to finally arrive at Alipura Palace and Jai was straight on sorting out a different bus for the next few days which was reassuring. This was another hotel converted from the royal palace and apparently it is still used from time to time by the local King and his family (though I believe he was not in residence when we visited).

This was one of my favourite hotels that we stayed at during our tour, the building was beautiful and full of character and every room seemed to be different. Ours was huge with a fabulous shower (and plenty of hot water) and a great air con unit right over the bed. There was the prized addition of a kettle and tea/coffee in this hotel room which also scored points and it was quiet outside due to the rural location (no honking horns!).

Alipura Palace

On our first evening we went for a wander round the village with a guy from our hotel and Jai, the people were so awesome again, wanting to talk cricket and brewing masala chai for us and generally being so incredibly welcoming and warm that you really felt like you could relax and enjoy the experience. They invited us to play a full game of cricket with them the following evening and the lads (plus Emma) all duly went. Apparently this became a highly competitive event which much money was placed on. As I understand it, at some point the sledging from Australia got a little out of hand and one of the Indian lads stormed off (well, rode off on a motorbike which I guess is the equivalent). Stu also claims during the same game he “slogged an Aussie for 6” which I believe is a feat he will never let Dean forget. Ever.

Two of Dean's photos from the Alipura cricket match

In the evenings at Alipura Palace we mainly wandered around like fools holding our phones in the air trying to connect to the mystical wifi. Only Bina and Isaac ever seemed able to connect. It seemed mighty strange until we realised Isaac had given a dud wifi password to the rest of us….we couldn’t prove that this was mischief but the suspicion was certainly there….

We also watched a couple of pretty good Bollywood movies on the TV in the restaurant, my particular favourite was 3 Idiots which had a very amusing storyline. The food at Alipura Palace was pretty awesome, my favourite butter chicken of the trip and special mention must be made for their cheese toasties. I am pretty sure the staff here thought our group was slightly unhinged after Jade ordered a cheese toastie and the rest of us saw it and immediately ordered a heap more. Sometimes, when you have been eating curry 3 times a day for a while, the thought of a cheese toastie on plain white bread can do funny things to the mind of a human being raised in the west.

Day 2 here we visited the Karma Sutra temples at Khajuraho. They are quite epic in size and stature and decorated with literally every sexual position and combination of beings you can imagine. Bestiality is not off the table. Neither are orgies. Isaac bought some very amusing and graphic key rings here from Hawkers who can only be described as dogged. A number of them actually stood right outside the door of the restaurant we had lunch in waiting to continue their hard sell the moment we stepped back out. Anyway, thanks to the fact these temples were over grown and off the beaten track when the Muslim crusaders came through many years ago, these ones survived and really are a sight to be seen.

Rude things....

Group shot at Khajuraho

After 2 days based in Alipura we headed to Orchha for a night, a small town closer to Jhansi station where we would be getting the overnight train to Varanasi from the following evening. Orchha is beautiful, set on the banks of the Betwa River and full of historic temples and buildings. Inhabited by rival troops of langur and macaque monkeys who are continuously jumping between trees and rooftops above your head, it is fairly chilled out and has a number of small shops and restaurants you can browse without too much hassle.

Orchha will also retain a very special place in my memory because of Rum Party #2 – aka the night we all seemed to lose our collective shiz simultaneously and indulge in a marathon session of drinking, dancing, laughing and more of the same until 4.30am. What happened in Orchha that night will stay in Orchha that night. Oh, apart from the multitude of video and photographic evidence that exists across peoples phones. Whenever I am having a bad day now I have an immediate memory bank (and physical FB bank) of sheer lunacy to amuse myself with and I think the events of that night cemented our crazy intense bond as a group, some (shareable) moments included:

·         A rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody which involved STUART actually DANCING!!!
·         Bina and Jade somehow procuring beer at 2am from a closed hotel bar
·         Stu following that up an hour later with the procurement of 2 more bottles of rum

Little did we know what was to follow...

The quote ‘You don’t know, man, you weren’t there’ has never been more appropriate in my life.

Breakfast the next day (well lunch, truth be told) was a very strange mix of still-slightly-drunk-and-worryingly-aware-of-it with horrific incredulity at the video/photo footage which seemed to show some kind of crazy frat party culminating in Isaac being sick on the floor of our room to everyone’s amusement.  

It turned out not to be sick (phew). It was spilt beer which he was going to try and lick off the floor. Of course it was. Stu and I both had zero recollection of the smashed bottle or the spilt beer or the resulting series of photographs. I tell you, dear reader, this is the stuff dreams are made of (psychotic, terrible, dreams).

Jai had been very sensible of course and missed the rum party for an early night, though I believe at some point he may have been disturbed and photographed in his bed. Poor guy, he had such a beautiful amount of patience with us at times.

The hangover that eventually caught up with me the next day (the very day I had to get on a freakin’ train for 15 HOURS no less) could legitimately be described as an utter bastard behind the eyes worthy of remark in my eventual obituary. Add this to the cumulative exhaustion, dehydration, stomach upset and the start of a head cold that would plague me for the next week (oh and the 20 or so ‘active’ mozzie bites I had by this point) and I would have happily knocked myself out for the next 24 hours and “come up smiling on Tuesday” instead if that had been a medical option.

Unfortunately for me, there was no such option and as such the most harrowing, hilarious, quite frankly insane chapter of our Indian adventure was about to begin, whether I was ready for it or not…

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Incredible India - Part 2 - Tordi and Agra

The bus journey from Jaipur to Tordi was around 4 hours though it felt like longer on some very crazy roads. Once you get out of the cities the "roads" become so rough and full of potholes that you quickly learn not to sit over the rear suspension of any large vehicle. Unless you like being continuously catapulted into the ceiling. One of my enduring memories of the many bus journeys we took in India is the sound of Isaac cackling as he failed to tire of this experience and got thrown around a LOT.

People were also a little tired and sick and so Jai bought bananas and oranges for those of us who had been struggling to eat. I usually avoid citrus fruit due to suffering migraines and I dislike bananas immensely, but I knew I had to eat something and fruit you can peel is a good idea here. I ate my first orange in about 15 years and actually enjoyed it, this was a win! I dropped a couple more hydralyte in my bottle of water and sat back to enjoy the journey, rock and effing roll.

Arriving in Tordi Garh we were intrigued for our first experience of more rural Indian village life. The hotel we stayed at (Tordi Garh Hotel) is the renovated palace of the former local royal family. The rooms we had, on the front of the building, were very spacious with amazing air con (which was definitely needed). They were basic (no TV or fridge) and you are pretty much off the grid here in terms of wifi, but it was for one night only so, you know, #firstworldproblems and all that. 

More of an issue for me was the plumbing in our room, we had no water at all through our taps (like, literally, taps on full bore, not a drop). So we used the plentiful and cheap bottled water and a number of wet wipes (the other major sponsor of our tour) to freshen up. Stupidly we didn't mention this to the rest of our group until later when they all said "why did you not just come and shower in our room?" and we realised it was a dim thing not to check (and also, how awesome were our trip buddies for offering?!). The next morning we had water again (albeit cold) so it wasn't an issue. Showers in India are cold most of the time (in our experience) but when it is over 40 degrees outside this is not usually a problem.

Shortly after arriving in Tordi we ladies got beautiful henna done by a wonderfully talented local woman, she was so quick and steady with the brushes it was remarkable and it was a joy to watch her in action. This was something I had wanted to do for a while and I was very pleased with how it turned out.

My Henna

Henna being applied

After the henna we went for a village walk and met all the kids and people who lived around the former palace, this was one of my favourite parts of our tour, interacting with the locals for a quick game of cricket (the game ended abruptly when the ball went for 6 through an upstairs window of an empty house). Cricket is not just a sport but a religion in India, the kids might not speak as much English as those in the cities but they know ALL the names of Australia's cricket team and the excitement on their faces when you want to play with them makes you realise quite how entitled and spoiled western kids are - all these guys want or need is a ball and some makeshift wickets to be exceedingly happy with their lot.  

Dean bowling for Australia

Our group with the cricket kids in Tordi

During this game of village cricket (and before the ball was totally lost) there was a close encounter with a bull. The ball at some point went over into a closed off courtyard between the houses which Emma and I were stood next to the door of. A small child quickly unbolted the door and shot in to retrieve the ball, he ran back out and left the door unlocked at which point we realised there was a large bull staring straight at us from inside the courtyard. He eyed me and Emma peering at him a bit stunned, saw his escape route and began charging towards the door. We somehow managed to shut and lock the door quickly before he reached it but it was undoubtedly another "Oh, India" kinda moment. 

We then went for a camel cart ride into the sand dunes - for some reason I took this picture of me with a camels arse, I think it was the dehydration kicking in. 

Our camel cart

Once we reached the sand dunes I sort of lost my mind for a moment or two as tiredness and the extreme heat kicked in. It was nearly sunset so it was starting to cool off, but I had now been feeling unwell for over 24 hours and was weak as a kitten and the very, very, last thing I wanted to do was climb up a sodding sand dune at this point. As Stu can attest, I have VERY little patience with sand at the best of times (ironic as we live at the beach). I dislike the way it sticks to everything, the feel of it and especially trying to walk in it. I hit my own mental wall at this point - but as with everything in India (or so it seems) it panned out well in spite of this.

I climbed the first part of the dune but then decided I had had quite enough so I sat where I was while the rest of the group climbed further up to a vantage point. Within a few minutes the son of the camel cart guy ambled up and joined me. He was 4 and allowed me to practice my (terrible) Hindi on him. He was very chilled out for a small child - they usually unsettle me but he was pretty awesome and patiently waited while I consulted my 'Handy Hindi for Dummies' sheet of phrases to figure out his name and age and so on. Then the pair of us sat in mutually agreeable and content silence and watched the sun set for a good 20 minutes. It was so incredibly peaceful and allowed me to just gather my thoughts and breathe and enjoy the moment, it was exactly what I needed at that point in time and I will never forget it. 

To top it off the wonderful guy from our hotel suddenly appeared at the top of the hill too with masala chai and frickin' cookies (for real!). All was suddenly OK with the world.

That night we sat on the rooftop of the hotel and I ate some rice and a small amount of dahl and then the rum came out and we played some music and chatted about the day. Unfortunately, both Stu and I spent that night up and down being ill. We were not the only ones to have trouble sleeping though, rather amusingly, Bina and Isaac had got the air con stuck on 16 degrees in their room and couldn't sleep due to the COLD. Unbelievable when the temperature outside didn't drop much below 30. At 4am they went outside to get warm. This provided much mirth the next day on the bus and there is a hilarious photo somewhere of both of them wearing pretty much all their clothes in the room. 

And so to Agra...

I have to say that the hotel in Agra was my favourite of the entire trip. It had a great shower with plenty of hot water, wifi available (in reception), a TV with BBC World Service and a kettle/fridge. Perhaps this was indicative of the fact that it was also the most text-book-touristy place we visited, a wonderful quote from Jai about Agra which will stick with me and sums this up was that "if it wasn't for the Taj Mahal, nobody would even piss in the direction of Agra".

Agra is very disorganised in terms of roads and traffic, it is also utterly besieged by hawkers and is a strange mismatch of modern chain hotels and falling down buildings. It is clear that it runs entirely on the tourist $ and it was the first place on our trip where I felt a bit overwhelmed by the attention that we got as tourists. It is very hard to continually ignore a small child who has terrible cataracts and is pleading with you to just spend 100 rupees (about 2 dollars) on whatever he is selling. Fair play to Dean who bought 5 small elephant key rings off one child as gifts, only to demand an exchange for one which was "faulty". Much banter and amusement on the bus about that and the child in question gave as good as he got too.

On the first evening in Agra Jai took us to a fabulous rooftop bar with view of the Taj Mahal, many selfies were taken and a few cold beers went down a treat, it would be hard to find a better view from any bar in the world. From this vantage point we could also see the monkeys of Agra moving across the rooftops and settling for the night and the sky was full of kites from the kids playing out in the evening sun. 

The Taj Mahal is indeed as beautiful and impressive in real life as it looks on TV. We saw it at up close at sunrise (the only time Isaac managed to get up this early) and the group wore the Indian clothes we had bought, resulting in some pretty cool pictures and strange looks from the other tourists.

Nadine became a minor celebrity here due to her red hair, she had queues of people taking photos of her and wanting their photo taken with her, she took it in her stride.    

The story of how and why the Taj Mahal was built is very romantic and it is hard to believe how old it is, given how pristine it looks. It was finished in 1653 by Shah Jahan for his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal in testament to his grief over her death and continuing love for her. Interestingly she was one of 3 wives, but the only one he married for love - he had 14 children with her, whereas his other two (political) marriages bore no children.  

The good thing about getting to the Taj Mahal before sunrise was that it wasn't too hot, as we were leaving around 8am the massive tour groups from other companies were just arriving and it was getting very busy and very hot. Definitely one worth the early start for. 

Late in the day, after breakfast and much needed massages and sleep (and very tasty local samosas shipped in by Jai for lunch) we headed back out to see the Baby Taj and Agra Fort at dusk. Although impressive, these were nowhere near as beautiful as the Taj Mahal itself. I always think Cambodia's Angkor Wat made all other temples seem a bit 'meh' in comparison and I reckon the Taj Mahal does that in India. You simply have to see it for yourself.

After Agra Fort we went to a rooftop restaurant and I nipped to the loo (unisex) only to find the chef himself emerging looking half asleep. On entering the toilet the smell of weed was so strong I nearly passed straight out. Clearly the chef was not hampered by his substantial pot habit as the chicken biryani I had here was incredibly tasty. A novel aspect of this restaurant was that the terrace had treetops all around it and throughout our meal monkeys were jumping about above our heads. I collected around 10 mozzie bites during this meal too, doing my bit for the local wildlife with my delicious blood.

Back at the hotel, rum party #1 kicked off in style. I love the way Jai, our tour leader, was able to procure ANYTHING at any time of day or night via the thriving black market. A guy had sidled up at the restaurant table earlier and taken his order and returned on a moped with 2 bottles of rum a little later. I seriously believe you could buy a granny, an AK47 or a bouncy castle from the wide boys of India without too many questions (not that I am suggesting you would need all 3 at the same time, mind you).

Rum party #1

This party set the tone for other rum parties to follow - someone would volunteer their hotel room (usually us as it turned out) and then at a set time everyone would bring their chairs and glasses from their own rooms and the laughter would commence. Highlights of this particular rum party included:
  • The christening of Isaac as 'Campy Segundo' following a rather effeminate latin american dance recital.
  • Emma getting very upset when the rum ran out
  • Stu describing the Taj Mahal in a very phallic way and leaving Jai literally laughing until he cried. I don't think Jai will ever look at the Taj Mahal without smirking ever again. 
Next morning we were leaving Agra for Alipura which involved a train ride for the first time, so we headed to bed not too late and the Agra chapter of our trip was complete.  

Part 3 - Alipura and Orchha to follow....

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Incredible India – part 1 – Delhi and Jaipur

Red Fort - Delhi

We have just returned from a trip of a lifetime to India and it stirred every emotion under the sun. At times it nearly broke me, at times I was moved to tears, at times I laughed so much it hurt, I met friends for life, saw sights that defy explanation and experienced a culture so vivid, intense and different to my own that it was life affirming and framed my thoughts in a whole new way. I never really considered that a ‘holiday’ was capable of having this level of impact on a person but I can tell you that it has on me.

I had heard tales of people that “find themselves” in India and those who return year after year or disappear into a yoga retreat for long periods so I figured it must have some kind of magical ability to impact deeply on visitors. Julia Roberts and ‘that terrible film’ have a lot to answer for in painting a narcissistic, hippyish, self-obsessed image of the stereotypical Indian experience. This is not what happened to me. I just had my eyes opened to a country that defies any kind of stereotype, it can be all things to all people, it has the power to redefine who you are but it does not need you. In film version, the (wonderful) Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a much closer portrait than the ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ depiction (in my opinion).

So, we arrived in Delhi on a very hot Sunday afternoon in late April. I was slightly wired, having spent the flight from KL in a seat with 2 CRAZY women sat behind me who shouted at each other for the whole 5 hours and got up and down around 10 times during the flight, repeatedly whacking the back of my head as they did so. They seemed to think this was acceptable behaviour. I did not. At least there was beer on the flight (though Malaysian Airlines made us share a can!).

Our transfer from the airport was with the Planeterra supported Women on Wheels project which enables women to get their driving license and become private chauffers, giving them independence and confidence and a means of support in society. Our lady driver pulled no punches on the roads of Delhi (a note about the roads of Delhi, I thought they were pretty fucking mental until I had experienced other Indian cities, in context the roads of Delhi are pretty calm and ordered) and used her horn a healthy amount (ie every 10 seconds – restrained by Indian standards). She was not frightened of tuk tuks, cows, the fact that a 3 lane road had 6 lanes of traffic or even the 10 ton lorries doing insanely high speeds and weaving in and out of all of the above.

During the trip between the airport and the hotel we saw:
·         A Suzuki swift containing 8 people get pulled over by police
·         A motorbike with 3 people and a basket of washing and a pig on it
·         A cow standing in the central reservation of the freeway

All of these would later become very normal - we were definitely not in Kansas anymore. Less amusing was the dead puppy outside our hotel; this place challenges your precious, preconceived ideas of what is acceptable so very often that you have to learn to let go of them at times.

Sunday night we met our group for the first time, there were 9 of us: 5 Aussies (including us, the pom contingent), 2 Germans, 1 American and 1 Costa Rican. This was actually the element of the trip I was most anxious about as we knew we would spend every day with these people for the next 2 weeks on a busy itinerary – if any of them were dicks it would have been rather unfortunate.

Thankfully Ganesha was clearly smiling on us when this group was put together and the stars aligned to give us a group that were, across the board, laid back, well-travelled, easy going and very, very funny. I never expected to laugh as much as we did over the course of this trip. From the initial meeting to the final dinner we shared food (we shared LOTS of food), hand wipes, medicines, water, insect repellent, fruit and just about everything we had. Oh and we also shared a heck of a lot of rum. Which was medicinal (or so we were told).

The medicinal rum did not, unfortunately, prevent any of us from getting sick. At pretty much every point during the trip, at least one person was not right. The fortunate thing was that there was a genuine feeling of team spirit and care for each other – fostered by our amazing guide Jai – which ensured that despite the fact people were feeling rough and struggling to eat or keep anything down, we managed to see everything we were meant to and looked after each other through the worst parts. Believe me, a sense of humour and a great deal of pragmatism are essential qualities on this kind of trip through India.

This is our group, our first ‘selfie’ at a hilltop temple in Jaipur as the sun set. I love the bones of these folk. We only need wifi, rum, showers and curry to be completely content. And (as Mahatma Ghandi once said) The Verve – Bittersweet Symphony, which became the soundtrack to our trip and part of a hilarious joke.
L-R - Emma, Eric, Nadine, Isaac, Jai, Stu, Me, Bina, Dean & Jade

Anyway, back to our first full day in Delhi which was a busy one as it was the only full day we had before leaving for Jaipur. We were up and out to visit another Planeterra project, the fantastic Salaam Baalak Trust which helps and supports street kids with education, clothing, food and a place to stay as well as training them to work as tour guides to support themselves in later life. We spent time on one of the tours and then time with the youngest kids currently in the trust’s care, all of them spoke alarmingly good English and they were intrigued by our cameras and phones, wanted to show us their colouring and drawing, were genuinely excited that we were visiting them. It was humbling.

After this we visited the Jama Masjid mosque which has great views over the city and is beautiful and huge. Strangely they made all the women in our group wear gowns over our clothes, though we were all completely covered in preparation, they didn’t ask us to cover our hair though. It felt a little like some kind of bonus way of extracting rupees to be honest, or at the very least, marking us out as tourists ripe for badgering to everyone else.

Next we walked through the streets of old Delhi to a Gurdwara which was beautiful, I covered my hair for this one with a funky purple headscarf and we were allowed in while they were having a ceremony. It was wonderfully peaceful and inclusive, I have a soft spot for Sikhism as I grew up with a lot of Sikh friends and of all the religions it seems to be the most completely focussed on equality throughout. In support of this notion, Gurdwara’s have a tradition of ‘Langar’ which means a common canteen where they will feed anyone, of any background, creed or religion, for free at lunch time. People volunteer to man the kitchens, serve the food etc as their personal contribution to the community and the dahl and roti is basic but tasty. For the homeless and less fortunate these places are a lifeline. They happily fed us too.

Volunteers shaping roti

Langar - roti and dahl

In the afternoon we spent the worst heat of the day in a pleasantly air conditioned mall – there was a Starbucks which seemed very exciting after a few days of only having access to weak nescafe. Once it started to cool off we headed to Haus Khaz and sat on the grass in the middle of the beautiful ruins (in what is now a trendy and affluent part of town) while Jai told us the history of the things we had seen that day. 

A feast for mozzies

A number of mosquitos feasted on me while this happened.

In the Haus Khaz district we went to a Nepalese restaurant for dinner. This was my second experience of Nepalese food and the second time I have disliked what I ordered, this must be bad luck, I should have had the momos (dumplings which were delicious) but I somehow ordered cheese soup with whole chillies in it (are you mad, Nepal? How is this a meal?). I didn't eat very much but lovely folk in my group shared theirs happily and I made a note not to order this terrible dish again.

Next day there was a "kerfuffle" over some toast in the dining room which was incredibly amusing though I am not sure it was meant to be. I felt terrible for having caused such an inconvenience but I couldn't face curry for breakfast on this particular day and there was a toaster and a loaf of bread so I assumed toast was at least a possibility. 

Unfortunately, the toaster was only there for show and on my putting bread in it both waiters looked utterly perplexed. What followed was a 30 minute wait for toast while the waiters tried to find a place to plug in the troublesome appliance. There were no spare plugs. Someone bought an extension lead, it was not quite long enough. Another extension lead was procured following extensive phone calls and shouting. It still did not reach. At this point one of the waiters walked off with the toaster and the bread and (I can only assume) plugged it in elsewhere. This is India, it is entirely plausible that my toast was cooked on the reception desk. What a complete nuisance I am. 

It was sort of like watching Fawlty Towers dubbed in Hindi, which, if nobody has yet done, should surely be created immediately?! The head waiter definitely had a touch of the Basil's about him anyway. 

After breakfast we boarded our pretty awesome bus to Jaipur. We had air con and plenty of space and it was a very comfortable journey - en route we saw:

  • An elephant on the back of a flat bed truck
  • A crop of marijuana growing behind some public toilets
Arriving in Jaipur, in Rajasthan, India's desert state, the heat was quite insane. We spent a few hours chilling and then headed out to the monkey temple at the top of a hill which had a great view of sunset over the city, that is where the selfie at the start of this blog is taken from.

There were cows and goats and pigs and dogs as well as monkeys at this place and all of them wanted food and petting. Well, actually the monkeys were not so keen on the petting and mainly wanted to rob you of whatever edible delights you were carrying. But the cows, goats, dogs and pigs were happy for some fuss. 

This guy feeds the monkeys every day, they love him.

Looking over the rooftops of Jaipur

That night we went to see a bollywood movie at the famous, art deco Raj Mandir Theatre. We saw "Mr X" which was like an Indian James Bond but with dancing. The samosas were amazing (seriously, all cinemas should offer samosas as snacks!) and the inside of this place was even more spectacular than the outside, truly beautiful. It was so cool to see whole families enjoying this very Indian experience. 

Inside the theatre, v cool art deco design

After the movie, Jai took us to a v nice restaurant (entirely vegetarian) where I had the best aloo gobi of my life. A tuk tuk ride through the streets of Jaipur turned into a race between the three drivers which was mildly amusing and simultaneously very scary indeed. We were still fairly new to the crazy Indian traffic at this point, give it a week and we wouldn't have even blinked...

Next day we were up fairly early and out to see the Palace of the Winds and the Amber Fort before the real heat of the day kicked in. This was where we saw heaps of elephants for the first time, though Stu and I were determined not to ride them up to the fort. Jai told us that there have been changes to the rules around the elephants for their welfare and now each elephant is only allowed to make 3 trips up and down the hill each day whereas previously the poor things had no limits at all. G Adventures does not support this use of animals, which again, for me, underlined why I think they are a fabulous company to tour with. At least now there are limits on how much they do each day and the horrible bull hooks have been replaced by wooden sticks.

Palace of the Winds

Amber Fort

After a morning of exploring we headed to a local fabric maker and bought some outfits for our approaching visit to the Taj Mahal, Bina and Jade bought beautiful Saris and Emma and I bought Indian style tunic tops. This was a really good place to go which again thanks to Jai was not a tourist trap but a seller to retail outlets. There was no hard sell which was nice and they gave us masala chai and let us shop at our own leisure. 

This was the afternoon where I unfortunately got very sick. Ahead of an evening out in Jaipur I became very ill and had to stay at the hotel while Stu headed out with the gang. I kid you not, I was in so much pain with stomach cramps that I just lay on the floor of the bathroom sobbing for a while. It was a very uncomfortable night and meant that any plans for climbing a hill at sunrise the next morning were abandoned (who am I kidding, right!?). One of our group was hardcore (lookin' at you Bina!) and attempted the hill despite being ill, this resulted in a vomit break near the summit. Isaac tricked Emma into thinking he would join her after they drank beers into the early hours. He bailed, Emma was not amused. 

We left Jaipur a few hours after the sunrise walk returned, I could not eat anything so just knocked back some Hyrdalyte (the official sponsor of our holiday) and kept sipping water. We then headed off to Tordi for a night in a local village before heading to Agra. Part two to follow soon....