Sunday, March 20, 2011

Holy Cow!

We're getting married!!!!!!

So it's been a crazy few months and my resolution has gone out the window - apologies. But you can't be angry because we're getting married!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It all started in India.

After swinging out of Singapore we arrived in Delhi, thankful we had made the last minute purchase of two matching blue billabong jumpers. The temperature in Delhi was a chillin' 10 degrees and fog filled the air. I had read many scary encounters of arrival at Delhi airport complete with mob scenes and harassment but thanks to some preplanning we walked safely into the arms of our extremely friendly escort ready to whisk us away to Sunstar Heights hotel. The half an hour drive into Delhi from the airport was a real eye opener. We thought we had been well prepared for the third-worldness of the country I had always wanted to visit. But nothing, I mean nothing, can prepare you for a small 7 year old girl knocking at your window holding a smaller girl in her arms. But we were under strict orders from our interprid tour under NO circumstances were we to give items/money/food to the beggars as part of our responsible travel - which would confuse me most of our trip.

When we arrived at the hotel we were warmly welcomed by the minions. A large collective of bellboys/doormen/receptionists/waiters/etc who for a hotel serving roughly thirty rooms was from first impression rather excessive. We learnt through our trip to India that this was in fact fairly common and that each individual had his own role and responsibility within the organisation and running of India. Which led to most of our budget disappearing into the tipping jar! For example, at this hotel, simply ordering our breakfast required 6 boys - one to take the order, one to take the money, one to organise the change, one to give us the change, one to deliver the breakfast and one to collect the breakfast tray - and each requires their own tip. But, believe it or not - it works and is extremely efficient.

Our first point of call as independent travellers was to suss out our local area. We headed out into the cold and after about 100m returned to the hotel. It wasn't the cold that turned us around it was the constant questioning of our needs. Well, the constant questioning of Jarratts needs. Hilarious for me, not so for Jarratt, was that all the questions whilst in the past had been sprayed at both of us were landing squarely at Jarratt - fed up he about faced and headed back to the hotel. There we organised a location for lunch as well as a car to take us to the Indira Gandhi Memorial and India Gate. That night we met with our tour group and learnt the in's and out's of IST (Indian stretchable time), the mentality "Don't worry, eat curry" and our rather blunt and to the point tour guide Anuj. That night we celebrated with our new friends and fell happily into bed - excited for our 15 day tour ahead!

The next morning after breakfast we headed to the train for another eye opening experience. Within India men and women ride in separate carriages - Anuj had already decided I would be the best person to be in charge of the ladies and from this point on I became Tour Leader 2. Once aboard the train we headed for Old Delhi, where we wandered the alleys, visited India's largest mosque and had our first glass of chai, chai, chai. After our orientation tour we wandered down to the Red Fort, which unfortunately was shut. So we made a quick decision to head to Humayun's Tomb, the precursor to the Taj Mahal, by autorickshaw -very interesting! After hard negotiation, we managed to swindle a pretty fantastic deal and quickly dove in. We were followed in toe by other members of our tour group, who unlike Jarratt, Jain and I needed to pack 4 into there autorickshaw. This would not have flown in Australia as they laid like sardines in the rickshaw that dodged between trucks/buses/anything on wheels - except cows. You see they are holy in India and large trucks even swerve to miss them - NUTSO!

Anyways... we arrived safely at Humayun's Tomb and were overwhelmed - the sight was amazing! We sent about an hour exploring before we autorickshawed our way to connaught place for a late thali lunch. That night we boarded our first overnight train.... words can't describe. One of our tour friends arose the next morning and asked "have you been to the toilet?" to which I replied "Not yet, why?" and she said "I now understand levitation .... it is necessary!" - I think that wraps up the whole experience.

India's largest Mosque

There were four in the rickshaw and the little one said....

Humayun's Tomb

We disembarked the train and headed towards Mother Ganges and our accommodation for the next 3 days/2 nights - boats! On the way from the station we passed through our first small town and were mobbed by smiling children and the first cries of "Photo, photo, photo!" - I loved every minute! Upon arrival at the river we poured into our boat and ate the first of many fantastic meals on the ganges. For the next 3 days we laid back, relaxed and watched the world float by. Passing by many village communities and abundance of life on the ganges we really were exposed to the spiritual nature of this famous waterway. Highlights include being swamped by the seagulls (ow, ow, ow), playing cricket on the banks of the ganges, catching glimpses of the infamous dolphins diving through the river and friendly locals following us as we heard the call of nature. After 3 tranquil days we sailed into Varanassi - calm, relaxed and ready for the spiritual heartland of India.

Sailing down Mother Ganges at sunset - stunning!

Life on the river.

"Photo, photo, photo"

Row, row, row your boat.

Varanassi is the most blindly colourful, unrelenting place on earth and by far one of my favourite places in all of India. As we floated along the river we saw first hand the circle of life and the intrigue of Varanassi - mothers washing babies and clothes next to children playing in the water beside men doing their 'business' alongside the very confronting burning ghats. We pulled into the Ranamahal Ghat and waved goodbye to our brothers and headed upward to our hotel (and desperately needed shower). Upon arrival, the hotel was less than impressive and Anuj quickly went to work to find us another hotel, in the mean time we had an orientation tour of the town. We walked along the ghats and took in the explosion of colour and activity which after the dullness of Delhi cause me to go into photo overload. Anuj had also organised for us to visit a silk scarf shop complete with free chai, chai, chai and samosas! Since Jarratt wasn't feeling 100% I was able to scan the shop and buy up big, unhindered! Afterwards we made a mad dash through the alleyways to move hotels. That night we slept in 5 star luxury suites which had EVERYTHING, even a swing!

The next morning was spent walking along the ghats, the colour, the movement, the activity and life was just magical! We wandered from the centre of town down to Manikarnika Ghat, the main burning ghat and the most auspicious place for a Hindu to be cremated. We spent a few moments at the ghat but were overwhelmed by the sight, smells and sounds. Prior to burning the corpse is wrapped in cloth and dunked in the ganges 3 times. It is then stacked onto logs of wood, which are weighed on giant scales so the price of the cremation can be calculated - some families are too poor to afford enough wood and so not the entire body is cremated. At our visit there were about 16 cremation piles with thousands watching on. Its a surreal sight and one that leaves you contemplating life. That afternoon I visited a palm reader who gave some insight into my future. Some of the predictions I can remember is that I will have 3 children opportunities, I will travel alot in my life, I can have any man I wanted (despite only wanting the one - Matt Cooper :)), I have a wonderful, beautiful energy and that my life will be one of great pleasure and purpose. When I asked about money I was told I'd never have alot but I'd have enough - Jarratt was less than impressed.

The local shops and salesgirls.


Life on the ghats

After my visit to the palm reader we headed back to Mother Ganges for our lotus flower candle ceremony. Each night boats take to the water to set adrift candles, the candles fill the river and create the most amazing sight. Each floating lotus candle signifies a wish which is truly magical. We then headed back to shore where we watched the ganga aarti ceremony from our boat. Utterly exhausted we briefly wandered through the markets and headed home for a luxurious sleep.

Lotus Candle Ceremony - wish away!

Our last day in Varanassi saw us head out to Sarnath, where Buddha's bodhi tree is located and on this day the Dalai Lama was presenting his teachings. Ecstatic about the prospect of seeing his holiness, we booked a cab and left. The streets of Sarnath were filled with beautiful Tibetan people and millions of monks! Our first stop was the Mulgandha Kuti Vihar, where Buddha's first sermon is chanted daily and is the home of the bodhi tree. We then made our way to the Tibetan University to register and check in for the Dalai Lama's afternoon sermon. As it turned out his holiness was running behind time and we did not have the time to wait for him! Disheartened we made our way back to our awaiting cab. On the walk up the pedestrian street we saw a convoy heading our way, we instantly knew it was him and stood awestruck as he drove past smiling in the front seat! We felt incredibly lucky - we then continued on to the train station for our second less eventful overnight train.

Mulgandha Kuti Vihar in Sarnath

Men's line into the Tibetan University to see the Dalai Lama.

Early the next morning we arrived in Agra, after quickly dropping our bags at the hotel, we headed to the Red Fort where we were greeted by a family of monkeys and possibly the most number of touts I had seen all trip! We entered the fort under our local guide, Saf's lead. He was clearly up on all the comings and goings of this amazing Mughal fort. It was originally built as a military structure, but Shah Jahan (the famed emperor who built the Taj for his wife) transformed it into a palace and later still it became his prison after his son seized power. But beautifully, his prison lied in sight of the Taj, so that Shah Jahan could gaze out to the tomb of his wife *sob* so moving! We then left the fort and headed to lunch via a carpet factory where we were lucky to leave sans purchases. That afternoon, I braced myself for something I'd dreamed of all my adult life, a trip to the Taj Mahal!!! The Taj Mahal - despite the hype - is as every bit as good as you've heard... if not better! Your whole life you see photos of the Taj Mahal, but it isn't until you pass through the Taj Gate and step onto the marble platform that you realise how stunning and marvelous it truly is! I was already welling up at the gate - much to Jarratts amusement! As if the pure sight of it or the romance behind the Taj is not enough to bring about tears, it is also the place that Jarratt chose to ask me to marry him. In the soft light of sunset on bended knee Jarratt proposed! It was the most unbelievably wonderful moment of my life, one that is etched in my memory and one that has made many a girlfriend jealous ;) He did such a great job of keeping it a surprise, as hand on my heart, I had no idea it was coming. The rest of the evening is a blur of excited laughter, black market champagne and celebration... I had never been happier!

Red fort at Agra


Lush caperts




The next day we boarded a bus for Jaipur where we arrived early in the evening and headed over to Raj Mandir Cinema by cycle rickshaw, which was a terrifying experience but had to be done! Raj Mandir Cinema is the number one Hindu cinema in all of India and we were treated to a once in a lifetime experience! The movie ran for almost 3 and a half hours complete with intermission. The crowd of Indian (mostly) men hooted, whistled and yelled as if it was a football match. At one point the screen failed and the picture went black leaving the cinema filled with only sounds - the muffled movie and the crowd almost rioting! Thankfully the picture flickered back on and we were on our way again. It was a most enjoyable night! :)

Following our breakfast the next morning we travelled through the old city of Jaipur and were tickled pink! We stopped briefly at the beautiful Hawa Mahal before travelling out to the Amber Fort. Despite our best efforts, Anuj crushed our hopes of riding a painted elephant to the top of the fort as it did not fit with intrepid's responsible traveller policy. Instead we had to settle for quick snaps of the incredible creatures as they slowly wandered past. Unfortunately, a lot of the fort information was lost in translation (as I found understanding our guide difficult), but it was interesting looking around the maharaja's apartments and the zenana (women's quarters). Most memorable was the secret passageways between the zenana for the maharaja's discreet nocturnal visits. I think it was at this point Jarratt started referring to me as a concubine - which he found deeply amusing! That afternoon, left to our own devices we headed into city palace for a look around the royal stomping ground and a failed shopping expedition! That night we busted some moves a nightclub and rode home dangerously perched in an autorickshaw - sorry mum!

Hawa Mahal

Amber Fort's beautiful painted elephants.

City Palace.

The next day we raced the wind out to Roopangarh Fort to live it up like a maharaja! Upon arrival we were laced with flowers and escorted to our room, which was the size of our unit - no lie! We then spent the rest of the day lazing around, attempting to fly kites, sticky beaking at a wedding reception, as well as chasing peacocks around the grounds. That afternoon we took to the streets and were, in a word, mobbed by the locals. It was hilarious! The villagers were so warm and welcoming... and very keen to show off their goats. It truly was a high light of the trip!!! That night we had a few drinks with the boys and did our best to dance bollywood style!

Maharaja Jarratt at Roopangarh Fort

Friendly Locals in the village around the fort

Pushkar was next on the list. After checking into our hotel we had a quick bite to eat before it was all aboard our ships of the desert - the camels! The next 2 hours were spent trying to get into a comfy position, as well as riding past many small villages into the desert to enjoy an evening of a spectacular sunset and general campsite fun! Early the next morning we headed back into Pushkar for a day (or two) of shopping madness! With our bellies full, our bottoms sore and our bank accounts empty - it was time to head back to Delhi and home! India had proved to be a most enjoyable holiday destination and filled us with memories we won't fast forget. We can't wait to return!

Camel Safari