(And if there is a problem with being able to view pictures, (there are alot), I recommend clicking on the link that will take you directly to the website)
Settle in dear Readers, this is a long one. Or, come back later with a large cup of hot tea ...
(And if there is a problem with being able to view pictures, (there are alot), I recommend clicking on the link that will take you directly to the website)
"Om Mani Padme Hum". It is said that all the teachings of the Buddha are contained in this mantra and that reciting it can cleanse all negative karma. Maybe you are familar with it already. It is a Buddhist mantra of compassion and protection. We first learned of it by a shop keeper in the beautiful mountain village of Mcleod Ganj, Himachel, Northern India, about 2000 metres above sea level, the home of the Dali Lama and the Tibetan Government in exhile.
It was our first day in the village and we were wandering its windy streets and happened upon a beautiful store, filled with exquisite, colourful, hand painted mandalas. The women who owned the store was European, and she began asking the boys questions about how they liked India. Ben quickly announced his fear of the monkeys (we had just walked by a group of large ones, hanging from wires, eating bananas just like a human would. "Don`t look at them in the eyes, don't look at them in the eyes!!" Ben announced in a frenzy as he raced by). The women in the shop sympathised with him and told him she also felt the same way. She then proceeded to tell us a story of when she was travelling in Kashmir and walked up a beautiful, serene mountain to meditate. She left her group about 30 mins away. She began her practice, when she suddenly heard rustling around her. She opened her eyes and saw over a dozen, large, monkeys surrounding her - in a circle of sorts. (Both boys moved not a muscle as she continued her story with wonderful animated gestures). Her first instinct was fear of course, but being a practicing Buddhist for many years she began reciting "Om Mani Padme Hum", over and over to herself. "Om Mani Padme Hum ... Om Mani Padme Hum ... Om Mani Padme Hum..." She got up slowly, continuing to recite the mantra, not knowing how effective this would be but also knowing she had to get through them. Each time she looked around, more had gathered. The women walked slowly, reciting the mantra and like the parting of the red sea, the monkeys made a space for her to walk through them. Creative story telling or not, Ben was sold. We now have all learnt the mantra and Ben has a pendent with it engraved in Sanskrit. The boys learnt to recite it quickly at our visit to the Dalai Lama Temple, as they spun the Mani Wheels, or Prayer Wheels.
These Prayer Wheels, found everywhere where Tibetan Buddhism flourishes, are a device for spreading blessings and well being. Rolls of very thin paper, imprinted with many, many copies of the mantra, printed in an ancient Indian or Tibetan script, are wound around an axle in a protective container and spun around and around in a clockwise direction. True to spreading these teachings to all parts of the world, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that having the mantra on your computer works the same as a traditional prayer wheel. Since a computers hard drive spins hundreds of thousands of times an hour and can contain many copies of the mantra, anyone who wants to, can turn their computer into a prayer wheel! Goggle "digital prayer wheel" and give it a go. Make it a screensaver. You do not need to even chant the mantra, just looking at it spinning in ancient sanskrit has a powerful effect.
We have spent the last 5 days pretty close to heaven. It is a small town, where coloured buildings cling to the hillside and the vibe is laid back. Aside from the islands of Malaysia and Thailand, this is the first place since being away that I could settle in. There is an intense "at home" feeling here. The village is about 2 km long through windy, steep and narrow streets. Streets that are filled with Buddhist Monks, Tibetan refugees, Indians, Chinese and some travellers - like us. Some of them are here for a month, some longer. Some are studying Buddhism, Yoga or other healing arts. Maybe some just come and stay for the incredible views and the cheap lifestyle. $30 per day here will house you comfortably with a view over the mountains, feed you 3 meals a day, offer you a yoga class and perhaps a massage. You could do it for alot less too. Even though I feel like we are off the beaten path, there are people here from all over the world. Many come to volunteer with the Tibetan refugees. Some may come hoping to catch a glimpse of Richard Gere (being a dedicated Buddhist, he hangs out here alot I hear). There is real hippy vibe, no pretense at all. The boys are the only western kids we can see but they garner less attention here. This really does not even feel like India anymore. There are plenty of places selling real cashmere pashminas, and bronze buddhas, but no one is jumping out at you with a hard sell. Many of these stalls are run by quiet Tibetan women with big smiles and even bigger hearts. Bargaining with them does not feel right.
We have so many stories to tell of our time here. We awake each morning to steep rolling hills, backed by rugged mountains. Eagles soar by the dozens, right by our balcony. The sun makes its way above the mountain range around 7am, so this has been the boys alarm. I have awoken earlier, as I often do, to take in the silence and majesty of the dawn hours, when the village is just waking and morning rituals can be witnessed. We can see the entire town from our home here.
The boys have learnt about the unjust plight of the Tibetan people. How their country has been and continues to be torn apart by a Chinese Government determined to eradicate their culture, their entire way of life. So many questions I am unable answer from innocent minds who question this injustice in such a real, raw and simple way. Children are not satisfied with answers that contain politics. They see what's wrong and wonder why. Pure and simple. Why are the Chinese so intent on destroying the Tibetan people and driving them out of their home? We spent a long while in the Museum, reading about the history and the current situation. Fascinating. Tragic. Hopeful. All lead by a Dalai Lama who espouses no hatred, no anger and travels the world tirelessly spreading kindness, compassion and peace. "Om Mani Padme Hum". The children have learnt what is self-immolation. We have seen large posters all over the town, a memorial of sorts, with the 99 faces and names of those who have set themselves on fire in the name of protest. We have read their last words and shed tears. But the Tibetan people are strong and their determination to move on and to preserve their culture is a testament in part, to their strong connection with spirit.
We visited a Tibetan School here, set high into the rolling hills. This school has been operating since 1960 and has been one of our favourite memories of India so far. We were shown around the entire school and had a chance to interact with some of the children. Many children are brought here from Tibet by their parents so as to allow them a better chance of education. In most schools in Tibet, children are forced to learn in Mandarin, their mother tongue abandoned. In Temples, pictures of the Dalai Lama are forced down. The Tibetan people cannot openly practice their religion or they are punished, tortured or worse. These are just a few of the unforgivable ways these people are treated. So many Tibetan parents have sacrificed their children to the warm cradle of Northen India, so their children can have a future and grow up in the Buddhist Dharma, as is their human right. Children often do not see their parents for years at a time. The parents go back to Tibet, the few that can afford to relocate, do. Many children are orphans. But this school is full of life and happiness. The moment we stepped onto the grounds the beautiful, joyful sounds of singing children filled the space all around us. It seemed that their voices were echoing from the mountains behind. The sound filled my heart with joy. Everywhere we looked, there were children dancing, singing, studying, playing sports, laughing - all under the strick guidance though of their dedicated teachers.
We entered Grade 1 classrooms to be greeted with warm, interested, smart eyes. We watched as the seniors immersed themselves in sport. We visited the dormitories they call their home. Ben and Jordans eyes were opened when they saw the boys dorm. The iron bunks lined up in a row, single worn blankets, mildew covered walls and the one small locker that houses their entire worldy possessions. Looked more like a prison ward than a bedroom. But these children are well taken care of and given the best that is possible. The school operates from generous donations from all over the world. The staff are incredibly kind and warm, but disciplined with the children. They have to be. I asked about the winters there and what the children have to keep them warm. It gets cold in the foothills of the Himalayas and it snows alot in the winter months. It snowed up in the high mountains one evening we were there! Alot of the children get to leave the school over Christmas when it is closed. They go to family or foster families. But many have to remain. There is of course no central heating as we in Canada enjoy, and no waterproof clothing to keep the children dry when they play outside in the snow. Ben and I looked at each other and both had the same idea. How wonderful it would be to somehow get some gently used snowsuits to the school. I asked if this would be something that would be useful and was told that this would be an incredible gift to the children. A possible project for us when we return. (To our Canadian friends and family ... we may be calling on you to help support this!). We left the school with the children's voices and smiles still in our hearts with hopes to return. Ben has already mentioned coming back when he is grown. My hope is that he will...
It was difficult to say goodbye to Mcleod Ganj. The boys loved it here too. This is a special piece of the world. We meet some wonderful warm, generous people. We enjoyed fresh Momo's (dumplings) and delicious fruit lassis. We hiked to waterfalls, hung out in cafes and watched eagles, we had our palms read by an Indian "guru" on a hill. (This story deserves a whole blog post of its own!) We learnt about Tibetan Buddhism and began to understand the plight of the people. We saw harmony here. It is incredibly peaceful and this is written on the face of its residents, many who have lost limbs from frostbite from crossing the Himalayas on foot to seek refuge from a stolen home. Yet they continue to smile and I know their spirit is strong. They are the lucky ones, to be always in the living room of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the monks who carry the dharma. Our time here will be treasured and each of us will carry very special memories, that will forever tie us somehow to this special village in the North Indian mountains.
Yesterday we visited the incredible, majestic, beautiful Taj Mahal. After making our way back to Delhi, our driver then dropped us off at the hospital... Again, a day of contrast!
The Taj Mahal. You have to see it at least once in your lifetime, if you have the chance. They say that it is the most beautiful building/structure in the entire world. It was built by a Mughal Emperor in the name of love for a wife that he lost in childbirth. It's perfect proportions and exquisite craftsmanship have been described as "a prayer, a vision, a dream, a poem, a wonder". This sublime garden-tomb, an image of the Islamic garden of paradise, has 500 kilos of gold imbedded into it. Around 20,000 workers laboured for almost 22 years to complete it in 1653. But enough of the stats. You can find all that info in the tap of your keyboard. What is it really like to see it yourself? Is it worth the journey to the ugly, dusty, dirty town it is located in? Even after being in India for almost a month and visiting so many amazing monuments, buildings and palaces, the answer is a resounding YES. It make ones eyes very, very happy!
We arose at 3:30am. It is a 3 hour drive to the city of Agra from Delhi. We wanted to be there to experience the dawn light, the sunrise and less crowds. The boys, normally difficult to arouse at that time, were quick to bounce up to begin our day. This is one monument they were both excited to see. We arrived after an uneventful journey, to a quiet, peaceful and awe inspiring sight. To reach the Taj, one must enter through the central gates of another massive, ornate building. So as you approach this entrance, you begin to see it in the distance, through the massive arch. One cannot help but let out an "oh my goodness ... wow... incredible!" In fact, when we were leaving, the boys and I giggled as we watched a Japanese couple, amongst the throngs of tourists who were approaching the entrance, let out a delighted squeal. This middle aged couple were in complete heaven, the wife gesturing madly for her husband to stop so she could take her first picture, the husband obliging her impatiently before he turned quickly on his heel and made his way in, excitment and joy exploding on his face. Her racing to catch up, pushing her way between the growing crowds. Little did they know how many pictures would be taken over the next few hours! Priceless.
It is difficult to describe being in front of the Taj Mahal. This is of course an image we have all seen over and over, since we were kids. It is in Bens grade 7 geography text. I remember when Paul and I stood under the Eiffel Tower in Paris for the first time, and when we first laid our eyes on the the Parthenon in Athens. These iconic sights ... it is difficult to believe you are actually there. And you do not want the moment to be a "Chevy Chase" moment, as Paul and I call it. If you have seen tbe movie Vacation you will understand what I refer to. The family make the long, arduous, event filled journey to the Grand Canyon, everything going wrong along the way. When they finally get there, exhausted and frazzled, Clark (the dad) is determined to enjoy it. He puts his arm around his son, stands looking out over the canyon, says one or two profound words, asks how long they should stay there, silence ... then 2 minutes later they are done and drive away. It`s a funny scene. I often think of that scene when facing a sight such as this. How long should one stay?
Of course, everyone is racing around frantically trying to pose for the perfect picture. Trying to capture that quintessential image, the beauty of what they are witnessing through their camera lenses. However, even for the most professional of photographers, I say that this is an impossible feat. Even while standing in front of it, it does not look or seem real. It is surrreal, this structure so utterly perfect. We took the regular photos, jostling amongst other visitors. Luckily, the crowds were thin at this time of day so we had some great openings. We were helped in our intent to make creative pictures by a friendly Indian man who suggested a few vantage points. He grabbed my camera and before we knew it, he had the kids jumping in mid air, standing on benches and clearing the growing crowds to make the best picture for us! I clued in after all this, and realised that we had just, unknowingly, "hired" him as our Official Taj Mahal Photographer. I thought to protest, but it had gone on too long and it was too hot to try to stop him now. (It was only 7:30am and already it was over 40 degrees. Agra is said to be the hottest city in India. Another heat record). And besides, the kids obliged alot better having a stranger march them around for the perfect picture, than their photo-obsessed mum. I often receive a few groans and some protest from them before I capture them all smiles! "Really Mom ... is it necessary to take MORE pictures!? Why can't we just take the pictures in our heads?!" shouts an exasperated Ben, sweat dripping down his forehead as I scramble with my tablet, my camera AND my phone, trying to capture it all perfectly. "Over there Ben, quick ... there's an opening! ... Ben! ... Ben!! ... Ben? Jordan, where's Ben?"
We got our pictures, hundreds of them. Most of them taken by our "Personal Official Taj Mahal Photographer". The cost for this? I am sure he gets all kinds of offerings. He "suggested" we give him 500 rupees (about $8). I gave him 300. It was a pretty good deal considering. He had me jumping in the air, even as I sweated in the suffocating heat while at the same time dealing with stomach cramps, nausea and a general feeling of malise... Which is why we ended up at the hospital. Since I became unwell back in Thailand, I have never really been able to get over it. I have had good days and bad, and have put it down to the food, bottled water, change in routine and in life!. I have stories about my "road runner" dash to toilets/holes of all kinds, in cities, roadsides, trains, boats, palaces, hotels and alleys. Not always pretty. My digestive system has always had its weaknesses and so I am used to dealing with it. But the past few days, things got much worse and my health started to really plummet. As I had already treated myself with a course of anti-biotics when this first came upon, I had come to the conclusion that it was not a bacterial infection. I was wrong. We were dropped off at a large, clean, very busy hospital close to our guest house, in the leafy suberb of Saket in Delhi. There were Moms and Dads dashing to Pediatrics for their well baby check ups, people waiting for appointments, doctors in and out of consulation rooms. It was pretty chaotic. It was why I had avoided coming in a few days ago. What kind of care will I get here I wondered?
To my surprise, I was given an appointment with a Gastro Doctor with just a 2 hour wait. A competent, highly experienced doctor told me immediatly that I had a bacterial infection, after I described my symptoms. He prescibed me a new anti-biotic and I walked out with a "here's how to get better" list (my title), an arm full of medication, natural and pharmacetical. All this cost me less than $40. Astounding. I was taken care of so beautifully, so efficiently and with alot of competence. I left already feeling better. I got back to our guest house and had a question that I forgot to ask the doctor. Thinking it a long shot, I emailed him with the address I was given by his gracious and kind secretary, and within 5 mins, I had a reply. This is a city of 18 million. Many of it's streets are littered with years of garbage. People have made homes from scrap metal on the sides of conjested streets. And I got an reply from a specialist in 5 minutes. So many contradictions... Unlike in North America, one does not have to have insurance to be able to afford prescription drugs here. In fact most drugs that would need a doctors appointment and then fancy packaging and jacked up prices in North America, Austraila or NZ, are sold over the counter here - to anyone, for cheap. And I mean incredibly cheap. Less than a tenth of what you would normally pay. Although I am told this is soon to change and insurance companies are chomping hungrily at the bit here - waiting in the wings to pounce. Of course there are problems with a system such as this and regulation needs to be increased. There are lots of fakes out there, so its buyer beware.
But enough of hospitals. We have spent the past 6 days enjoying this city the best we can. Our journey from the mountains through Rishikesh was rough. The long car rides on trecherous roads made us all quite sick. We passed through this "yoga capital of the world" quite quickly, although we did have a chance to briefly experince Ashram life and got to witness the beautiful Ganga Aarti ceromony outside our Ashram. The Ganga Aarti is a Hindu spiritual ceromony, held on the Holy Ganges River in Rishikesh every night at sunset, that welcomes people from all culture, languages and religions. Very moving, incredibly colourful and definitely unforgettable. I will return again one day, under different circumstances to dive into a practice and study of yoga.
So whilst in Delhi, we have not run around madly, crossing off a list of monuments, museums and famous sights.... It has been too hot for that! We have rested and recharged our low batteries. We have ventured out for a few outings and we mastered the metro. Delhi is nothing like I expected. I found it to be quite relaxed and very green. Loads of beautiful parks, groomed impeccably, to meander through. A subway system that is clean, safe and efficient. Traffic is congested, yes, but still doable to move about. We saw an incredible live Bollywood show, roamed the streets and spice markets of Old Delhi, visited the Red Fort and spent a good few hours at the place where Gandhi lived his last days, and was killed. We meet some local people and slipped away from the tourist areas. We lingered over long breakfasts at our incredible guest house and the boys caught up on some school work. We had a pizza and movie day where we did not leave our room.
I leave India after 27 days with a mixture of feelings. It will take weeks, maybe months to really assimilate what we have experienced here. As I have already conveyed, this is a country of contradictions and that alone is sometimes difficult to digest. So many times I wanted to get as far away as I could, then I would be in awe again at the blinding beauty and strong spiritual underpinnings that run beneath it all. It is like nowhere else on earth, that I do know. We have had an incredible time and the boys will come away with vivid, colourful, long lasting memories ... and a suitcase of stories.. I have been challenged here like never before, on so many levels, but I am stronger for the experience. Someone told me the other day that if you can do this, you can do anything! I believe he is right. So we bid farewell to India, bowing our heads in gratitude to all the wonderful angels that helped us along the way. And to those that didn`t. I will return and I am sure the boys will also.
We made the trip to Amritsar in the state of Punjab specifically to see one thing - the incredible Golden Temple.A Sikh gurdwara, completed in 1784, it seems that this is not on the tourist path, unlike the Taj Mahal. Admittedly it is out of the way, but for us, it was a logical stopover on our way to Himachal Pradesh and up to McLeodganj, home of the Dalai Lama.
I have spoken alot about heat since being here in India. Well, I now have a new benchmark for what the body can take as far as bearing the heat goes. The moment we stepped out of the airport in Amritsar and headed towards our taxi, I almost passed out. More humid here, I am not sure. But different - not the dry desert heat that we had almost become used to, this was horridly oppressive. We made our way by beaten up taxi in the firey afternoon sun with the AC bearly sputtering any relief. We came upon detour after detour on our way to our hotel and snailed through the horridly conjested and noisy streets. If there is one thing I could remove from India, it would be every single horn in every single car, rickshaw and motorbike. The sounds, which are unending, pierce into the eardrums and shatter ones nerves. (Especially if one has not done ones yoga practice that morning!) Over an hour later, nerves frazzled, body temperature soaring, we came to a stop outside the Golden Temple complex. Our hotel must be close. Alas, I was wrong. The driver had brought us to the wrong hotel. I pointed this out, trying to keep my cool, literally and figuratively, when I caught a glimpse of it in the distance - over 500 metres away. I gave our driver a questioning look, trying not to appear exasperated. The kids were nattering constantly, like annoying bees around my head "Mom ... Mom!! Whats going on, its so hot ... I can't do this Mom. Mom!! Their voices coupled with the deafening and constant honking and crush of people was undoing me. We had been up since 4:30am to catch an early flight, that ended up being delayed by over 2 hours. We only just made our connection in Delhi. We were all totally exhausted. Jordan awoke that morning in tears, crying that he could not get up, that he wanted to sleep for "a hundred years". I had an inkling that the day ahead may be a challenging one. Our driver began gesturing us to walk, him empty handed, us loaded down in the heat with what seemed like three times our bags actual weight. "WOULD IT NOT HURT YOU TO HELP CARRY SOMETHING!" I yelled at him silently. "Just here ... Just here!" he kept saying as he lead us down laneways and through the crush of traffic and people. It was not "just here" it was far, very far. I felt rage rise up inside of me while the kids continued to yell out their complaints to me, as if I could do something to ease the situation. I hated India at this point. All of it. It was all pointless - the noise, the people, the smells, their ridiculous rituals and their dam heat. I wanted to yell, scream, cry ... right outside the gates of the Golden Temple. Right in the middle of the thousands of worshippers who were graciously making their way in. Calmness, peacefulness and wisdom in their eyes. And me, almost a fully fledged basket case amongst them, barely able to move another step. But something carried me on, maybe it was Guru Ram Das, maybe Yogi Bhajan, maybe just knowing that I had no choice. After what seemed like hours, but was only really about 10 minutes, we had arrived finally at our hotel. I looked up and saw filthy windows and years of dried up pigeon poop everywhere. I asked to see our room, the one I had reserved and my heart sank. It was tiny, cramped, musty and dirty. No windows. Hot. I could not do this tonight. I asked for the best room they had, which I knew would still not be good, but it had to be better than this. I did not care how many ruppees I had to pay for it. The thought crossed my mind to find another hotel, but could not navigate the streets again. We were given their "Executive Delux", and this one at least had a window and was a little bigger. AC worked. I could see the tip of the Golden Temple through years of filth and pigeon poop that covered the oustide window. Pigeons crashed the window constantly. This would have to do. I collapsed on the bed and the kids navigated the old TVs remote control through the static.
After a couple of hours rest, I gained some composure, got cleaned up and we all realised that we had not eaten for hours. I looked at the dusty, stained menu on the bedside table and reluctantly browsed its contents. I did not want to know where this food may originate, but the thought of going anywhere to search for a meal was too daunting. And besides, I wanted to be at the Golden Temple for sunset, just an hour away. So, I ordered some room service and hoped for the best. The thing about India is that it never ceases to surprise. In 20 mins, a meal fit for a king arrived at our door. A five star meal in a one star hotel. Delicious Vegetable Tandoori with Paneer and the most incredible Dahl Makani I have tasted. Crispy, fresh butter Naan. We devoured our meal and set off, refreshed, to the temple.
Upon entering the Golden Temple compound, you feel the energy here immediately. Calming, beautiful, profoundly spiritual energy. True to Sikkisms inclusive nature, everyone is welcome here. The four entrances to the Holy shrine, from directions, signify that people from every walk of life are equally welcome. Proper dress and a covered head is expected. Shoes must be taken off and the feet must be washed. I have to say here, that pictures of the temple do not do it justice. It needs to be seen with naked eyes. The style is a blend of Hindu and Islamic. The golden dome is said to be gilded with 750 kg of gold and represents an inverted lotus flower - a symbol of a Sikhs aim to live a pure life. Chanting poured out the loud speakers that surrounded the holy lake. Chants that I recognised from my study, practice and teaching of Kundalini Yoga, (which came through the Sikh faith and espouses many of its virtures.) As opposed to other temples we have visited, this one felt familar somehow. I felt connected.
We arrived just as the sun was setting and the low light threw a deep glow to the temple. We made our way inside and spent some time enjoying the moving chanting that fills the space both inside and out. Hundreds of dedicated worshippers, praying, meditating and bringing offerings. I wanted to just sit smack in the middle of them and close my eyes too. I wanted to chant. I wanted to be still. However, travelling with two children, as wonderful as it is, does not always allow these luxuries of stillness and of going within. I have to get up very early in the morning to indulge in that kind of space. We made our way to the walkways surrounding the lake and there we sat. The boys sensed that I needed some quiet, still time - and they sat patiently with me, taking it all in. They were also moved by the awe inspiring sight in front if them and were very respectful. They let people take their picture. We were the only Europeans from what I could tell. They respected my wishes to remain until dark, so we were there over two hours. I would have stayed for hours more, but to two pre-teen boys who have been dragged through temple after temple, I did not want to push my luck! My soul was satisfied. The days challenges melted away. I loved India once again.
Venice in India? Who knew?! After a long and bumpy ride through dusty villages, then through monkey laden windy roads that took us over green hills, the geography of our surroundings had suddenly changed. We arrived at our final destination in Rajasthan ... aptly named "the most romantic city in India". The city of Udaipur, founded in 1598.
For those of you who may be James Bond fans, you may be familar with these surroundings from the movie Octopussy. There is a brilliantly white, world famous palace smack dead in the middle of this man made lake. It was built originally by a king, as a royal summer palace, a playground of sorts, a place to entertain and hosts guests. Talk about the have and have nots. Today, apparently 5000 people in India control 80 percent of its wealth. A recent comment from a fellow traveller spoke of how "convenient" hinduism is, in that the majority of the population here are poor, and believe that this is because of their karma - debts they may be paying off from another life. So they remain under the poverty line, not expecting nor demanding a "better life". My traveller friend thinks that this is very convenient for those small percentage of upper class citizens. The extremely wealthy. (And there is extreme wealth in this country). And an easy way keep to population in line and not revolting. These are his thoughts, not mine. I am not even close to understanding the contrast in this country. (But it is so obvious that the children pick it up all the time. They cannot understand how they can be walking through disgustingly opulant palaces, laiden in gold and solid silver one minute and then walk outside its gates and see the broken down shacks that so many call their home. Many interesting conversations have followed, with altruistic tones). I do know that Hinduism is years old and and precedes recorded history. It is rooted so deeply into the culture here. And besides, his wife mockingly said that "... here we go ... Mr Negative, Mr Cynical talks again". Interesting all the same to hear people opinions.
Anyway, I digress! The Lake Palace Hotel is an incredible sight and $500 US a night will buy you a room there. But we are happy with our home here, less than a tenth of that. And with breakfast served on the rooftop, with sweeping views over the city, the lake and the Palace Hotel... who wants to leave? This "Venice in India" is georgeous. We see purple ridges of the wooded hills stretching in every direction. Lonely Planet describes it best: " ... countless, narrow, crooked, colourful streets add the human counterpoint to the cities natural charms... ". It is peaceful here (not a word I have thought to use yet, to describe this country). The city meets the lake literally. Its buildings, Havelis, and its Palaces are in the water. Reminds me alot of Venice ... minus the canals and the gondolas. It does have coloured glass however, loads of it. Beautiful, intricate glass work built into windows and door frames, where the light catches and dances onto white washed walls.
Part of Bens grade 7 Geography curriculum is the study of Place and Location. We are living what the textbooks are teaching. The change of human and physical characteristics fit perfectly into our morning lessons... and into our days. Our final days in Rajasthan have been incredible. This is the hardcore India, the India that the mind conjures up when the country is mentioned. At least it has been for me. Before arriving in Udaipur, we came through a bustling fort town called Jodhpur. The fort here is the largest and best kept in India. Truly incredible to visit. The streets are manic, but now not such a shock to move about in seach of what we needed. We have met very few western travellers as this is quiet season. I am thankful for this beause it has enriched our time here. The boys have felt like celebrities and we have had our photo taken sneakly many times. ( I have incredible peripheral vision!) But mostly, people are interested in where we are from, what we are doing in India, about the boys school etc. For the most part, the people of Rajasthan have been incredibly gracious, welcoming and kind. I just wish they could bring the smile from their eyes into their mouths sometimes, so as to read them a little clearer! I truly hope that I have been able to convey the magic, the beauty and the feel of this very special place. If you ever have the chance, I strongly encourage you to visit, so as to awaken senses you may not have realised you even have !
Next post: The Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab.
Today I saw a cloud in the sky - nothing to write home about one would think but here in the desert it is stiffling hot, under a sun that beats relentlessly from a hazy cloudless sky. So hot that I am sure you actually could fry food on tin lids. I have prayed for days for a cloud to give us some respite from the heat. "Not verry hot on this day madam .. this actually verry nice temperature ...you come here in May ... Then verry hot madam" says the Indian man in jeans and a long sleeved shirt. Are you kidding?! It has been over 40 degrees every day ... ambiant. I am going to add my own "feels like" factor here of 50. I have lived 2 years in the Australia desert, so I am not a stranger to these extremes, but I have never felt heat like this before. The boys are coping surprisingly well - but after few hours their nerves are frayed so we take seistas when we can.
The past few days have taken us about 150 km from the Pakistan Border, into the Thar Desert. Our home has been an incredible room in an 858 year old fort in the town of Jaisalmer. 4000 people call this fort their home and tourists like us are welcomed into its historic havelis and guest houses set high above the town below. This place is dripping with character, history, colour and beauty. I feel like we have stepped into a scene from Arabian Nights. Brightly coloured turbans worn like a crown of glory on men of age. Saris, silks, gold and silver adorning women cleaning their stoops in narrow alleys. Intricate carvings into city walls, buildings, temples that the eyes cannot believe. Delicately made silver jewellery sold from tiny, cramped stores. Women carrying colourful ceramic jugs on their heads and helping the men haul rock. Then the contrast: Cows - everywhere. Poop, flies, garbage and stench that makes you gag. Yet turn another corner and the beauty hits you again as strongly as the smells do. Rickshaws, motorbikes and carts all competing for the small spaces in between the pedestrians in these alleys. The boys now know to walk single file close to the sides and they bear the constant beeping, mooing and swerving of traffic quite well. I like it here. I think the boys do too. This town is smaller than those we came through to get here. Its people are helpful, interesting and genuine... albeit intense. Our room and the terrace where we eat looks out over the whole magical city and captures both the sunrise and the sunset. We sit for hours over dinners of delicious dahl and panner watching over the town as the sun dips. And after sunset our eyes are focused intently on the pink sky as the thousands of pigeons fly back to their holes in the fort and are replaced by thousands of bats! We are high here in the fort, so they swoop close to our heads ... precariously close. The image of a bat tangled in my long hair sees me quickly covering my head with my scarf. Fascinating to watch but I must admit there is something about bats that sends shivers up my spine. The boys hardly flinch and think it's the greatest show on earth. Thousands of them. "No fear!" I announce, lying to them both.
One thing I have no fear about at all in this country is shopping! Who`s absurd idea was it to travel with carry on only?! I have a 1/2 inch of room in my small humble bag. For this is the home of silk and exquisite tapestries. Bed linens, scultpures, clothing ... colourful, plentiful and cheap. I am sure that India can be exhausting for the serious shopper, I find that too ... but it also amuses me and I am now having fun with it. "Madam ... Hello! ... Where you from? Ahh ...nice children. You come look in my shop... No buy, just looking. Make your eyes happy!!" A hundred times a day ...same line. Some will vhase you down the street, others just yell it at you. I love this line and have heard it throughout Rajasthan. "Make your eyes happy!". Well, let me say that my eyes are VERY happy, my wallet still in tack and my willpower strong! There is however something that I can fit into that 1/2 inch space in my bag and that is silver jewellery. Both Ben and Jordan are currently on the look out for a local horseman from whom they can purchase some blinders from. Each time we pass a jewellery store they now say to each other ... "lets get our Ipodsand bring on the Chai!" Bless them both for their enduring patience for a silver loving Mumma!!
Silver aside, I have forgone shipping textiles or clothing or hand carved marble Ganesh chess sets home. I have instead decided to give money to who I feel needs it, be it a kind driver, a child in a village, a mother selling handicrafts or the camel guide who showed humble warmth through his eyes only. I want to give more, and know that our small contributions go only so far, but this is a lesson I want to teach the kids. Not to throw money away, as here this is easy to do. EVERYONE, and I mean everyone wants your dollar. But to choose moments that require genuine compassion and answer legimate needs. Often easier said than done, and several times we have been fooled, our genorisity taken advantage of. But thats ok, its all in the learning and the kids are slowly getting it. We have visited remote desert villages, and have been warmly welcomed by its children and invited into the homes by their mothers. We have given where we can. The boys are learning how children can be so happy - and have so little. Toys that are made from tires, bottle caps and grass. Children that live in concrete and mud huts with grass roofs and a few blankets for bedding. Children that know of another world but seem perfectly content with the one they have. Strong community in these villages. It is humbling indeed. It has been my favourite experience here so far.
We reluctantly left the villages, said goodbye to the children and went via Jeep to meet our camel guide to take us further into the desert. In the middle of nowhere, under a group of sparse trees, our camels were waiting. I have never ridden a camel before, and after this experience, I may not be chasing the chance to do it again in a hurry. Don't get me wrong, it was amazing and being on the sand dunes was incredible, peaceful and very moving for me. But I have never had such a sore butt in my entire life. And mean, removal of skin kind of sore. I still feel it. The kids were fine, although Ben mentioned not being able to keep his legs closed for a day or two! It's just such an awkward animal to be on ... from the time you mount it and the death defying "stand up" move to actually staying on the thing. Then you have to get off. Personally I wanted to just jump off the camel right into the dunes and skip the whole "down on the knees" move they make so ungracefully. But, alas, we had arrived and we had a hour to play in the massive dunes, here in the Thar Desert as the beating sun dipped into the horizon. The boys played hard climbing the massive dunes, sweat pouring out of them. They loved it here. We were the only ones on dunes and we took a million pictures. After the chaos of the city, this was such a welcome respite. After the sun had begun it's descent, we made our way again by jeep to the desert camp, where we were welcomed by spine tingling drumming, fire lanterns and were blessed by sacred ash on our brows. After an incredible traditional Rajasthan feast served with music and dance, we spent the night in a hot tent, fighting off the hundreds of bugs that had made their way in. Ben has invented a new dance, we have called it the Grasshopper being named after the insect he was fighting all night. He is so very fearful of bugs of any kind, he "danced" into the night and finally fell asleep with a sheet over his head. By 1am, the generator had cut out and so did our fan. We lost a lot of fluid that night. We were woken at 3am by a pack of dogs nearby, then by 4am the peacocks and crows had begun. Who knew they were so loud!? So by 6am after no more than an hours sleep, I greeted the sun rise and walked the dunes. A true desert experience, one in which we will all never forget.
So much to tell, this is just a fraction of what we have experienced these past 12 days in this wild, unpredictable, frustrating, gorgeous, intense country. I still can't really find the right words. Maybe I never will. I know many have tried. So we move through each day, embracing whatever comes our way, with grace when we can, but sometimes with exasperation. I understand however, and the boys are learning this too... that it is futile to let impatience take over. Things happen as they will, and for the most part it all seems to flow. This is what strikes me the most. That it all works, and never yhave even een look a look of frustration, stress or impatience on one of these faces. Not in the midst of their excruciating poverty or their surroundings of heat, filth and pollution. No. They will smile at you and communicate their incredible humanity while they bring their hands together at the heart and bow slightly with a namaste. And even while having textiles or jewelry flung at you as you sit in their stores, drinking incredible, sweet Chai Masada tea, they are still gracious when you walk out with nothing and tell them " "thank you ... Namaste ... My eyes are very happy!
ps: I know I mentioned that my posts would be short, and I have done my best. Just so much to share! Also, the boys have finally added something to their pages!
With the risk of sounding like the opening paragraph to Lonely Planets travel guide to India ... How does one really describe a first visit here? Well, actually, one cannot. But I will endeavour to do my best... Everything and I mean EVERTHING about India that I have read, researched and heard from friends that have travelled here ... is correct. Overwhelming, exhausting, enlightening, humbling, filthy, incredible, beautiful. Love it ... Hate it.
We have not had a gentle introduction to India and I do not think that this is even possible. You either dive in - or stay away. Although perhaps arriving on her beaches as a first destination may have been less of a shock - but you still have to GET there! And it's the getting around that's the challenge of course. Once at a destination, be it a palace, a fort, a textile factory, a Haveli (heritage hotel), all is well. Right now, we are staying in a city in Jodhpur, Rajasthan in a 500 year old Haveli, that was once home to kings. It is incredible, like nothing I have seen before and has intense energy. You really feel the lives lived here all those hundreds of years ago. Solid marble flooring, ornate limestone ceilings that are over 14 feet high. Quiet courtyards. Antiques and relics from another era. A time when Maharajas ruled this land...
And the boys are watching Tom and Jerry on TV. Outside our doors is a magnificant fort, palaces and markets that sell Rajasthan jewellery, silks, handicrafts and other incredble items we have no room for. But we cannot see it all... The boys need some TV time today, as strange as that sounds ... especially coming from me - the Mum that vehemently despises TV. Ben especially is overwhelmed by this country the most.. Today he does not want to leave the Haveli. He is happy to watch TV and forget where he is and how challenging his world has just become. Jordan is eating each new experience up for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He is fearless and I have never seen him so full of life. His questions are exhausting but also so rewarding. He gets it. He gets why we are here and loves the chaos. Our first auto-rickshaw ride in Jaipur (the capital of Rajasthan) was like nothing we have ever experienced. Out of the hotel, into the auto and we were wisked away into another dimension. I have never seen chaos like it before. There is no road rules here. No one has indicators on anything, unless you consider three loud beeps or a moo from a cow and indication that yes, I will now be ruthlessly cutting you off and going about my day. There are cows, donkeys, elephants and camels on the street, in the traffic, all carting something about - except for the cows who seem to have no designated role except to just sit wherever the heck they please, as much to say - "go around me please". And so we do. Jordan almost had a taste of a cows behind as we swiftly swerved to divert 10 inch potholes and motorcyles with a death wish. He thought this was hilarious. Ben was not impressed. The look of motification on Bens face was priceless. Jordan and I were laughing hysterically at madness of it all, but not Ben. His CPU was processing it very differently. But what we did quickly realise after our knuckles were turning opaque, was that it all works. No accidents did we see, no one flipping the bird to another driver, no road rage at all. Everyone just on with their day...
We have so many stories to share already, like the pigeon pooping on Jordans head (supposedly bringing good luck), to paying way more than I should of at a textile factory for tailored Indian clothes, to experiencing our first Indian railway station and train ride. I feel more confident in Indian dress and garner less attention with a scarf over my head in public. The kids are a point of attraction for sure and for Ben, this is what keeps him from feeling comfortable on the streets. Jordan keeps asking me " Mum .. are we famous .. I feel famous!". Bless this wonderful child of mine. So many stories - I have to pinch myself to be sure I am not dreaming.
So back to Tom and Jerry. We have experienced so much these past 4 days since arriving in India, that it feels like a week or more. We are exhausted and I am still strugging with digestive issues. So for a few hours, the boys sit and watch the Cartoon Network or National Geo. Wild. This gives them a sense of comfort I think, that their old world may just still exist! Are we homesick? Yes. It will take us a little longer to settle in - if that is even possible. It would be easy to bail ... Make our way back to Delhi to catch the first plane out of here. It has crossed my mind. This would be Bens choice. But no ..... Tommorrow we dive deeper into this colourful desert state of Rajasthan to the town of Jaisalmer, on the edge of India, where we stay in an 858 year old fort and ride camels at sunset into the Thar desert.... More soon! xx