I can’t believe 18 weeks have passed and my overseas sabbatical is drawing to an end… I felt a mix of emotions as I spent my last two weeks in India, looking forward to seeing my friends back in Oz and regaining a somewhat ‘stable’ life, but at the same time wishing I had many more weeks to continue my discoveries through this beautiful world that is ours.
India was a brilliant finale full of vibrant colours, spices, scents, textures and sounds. A welcome assault to the senses.
Varanasi, the holy city
Varanasi: Insanity. Quite the irony, some would say, as the holiest of the holy city is constantly visited by people from around the country who wish to incinerate their relatives or drop their ashes in the waters of the Ganges, therefore avoiding reincarnation or rebirth. It’s exactly this holy character that makes Varanasi an insane place. The old town is covered in narrow labyrinths where barefoot pilgrims try to make their way from temple to temple through cows, vendors, police officers, tourists and bikes, among the rubbish, urinals (or just the side wall!), colourful flowers, beads and dozens of other offerings and souvenirs. It’s full of colours, textures, sounds and scents (not often good ones!). Along the Ganges, locals bathe, wash their clothes and incinerate their families at some of the 80 ghats. Boats tempt tourists and pilgrims for a ride on the holy waters.
Sitting in the rooftop restaurant at my accommodation, I could see daily life on Varanasi’s rooftops: kids playing, parents lying out the washing, neighbours chatting away, monkeys playing with bamboo sticks and even the sacrificial lamb (well, I supposed it was going to be sacrificed one way or another at some point…). There were also hundreds of flying kites getting ready for the kite festival, some so high it was practically impossible to identify their owners.
A somewhat peculiar experience was to send a package by mail… All packages need to be wrapped in a white piece of cloth which is then perfectly and tightly sewed before having the stitches sealed with red wax. So after a visit at a local silk merchant who took care of sewing my package, I headed to the post office on a cycle rickshaw. I was sitting very high on my rickshaw and felt very… white! The street was pure chaos, crazily busy with pedestrians, rickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles, the odd car and the ‘odd’ cows beeping, shouting and mooing away! Not too many tourists about!
I made an unsuccessful attempt to visiting the Golden temple… I made it through the first security screening which involved leaving everything back at the hotel and being body screened by a woman who grabbed and pinched my boobs thoroughly to make sure I wasn’t hiding a gun or something (or maybe she was just jealous of my boobs! :)). To get through the second security and in the temple, I was told I had to show my passport… which I had left at my hotel! I could see the queue of locals inside which would have gone for hours. Too bad! I’ve seen my share of temples anyway!
Agra, the grandiose Taj
After a 7-hour delay on the overnight train, I finally reached Agra where I was going to meet the grandiose, the beautiful, the majestic Taj Mahal. She’s never been on my bucket list, but maybe she should have been… What a masterpiece! Imposing yet delicate. Pure yet cruel. Impressive resources went into building this finely carved marble symbol of love by Maharaja Shah Jahan for his deceased wife – 20,000 workers, 22 years and no doubt, much of the region’s richness… The white giant made herself shy behind a curtain of haze for my 7am start, but as I got closer and the sun raised higher, I discovered all her intricacies. She’s elegant, beautiful, detailed, perfect from all angles.
Another tourist site well worth exploring was Agra Fort (Shah Jahan also had a hand in the building of this masterpiece, yet he ironically was imprisoned in one of its tours by his son later on!). Thick red walls, temples, white structures resembling the Taj, beautiful rooms full of marble, colourful glass, sculptures and so on… It is huge and nice and I took plenty of photos to prove it!
Pushkar, home of Brahma
Pushkar is a small town in the state of Rajasthan which is reached by train to Ajmer and then a 30-minute bus. The bus drove through the mountains (or should I say hills… After the Himalayas, my perception of ‘mountains’ has changed slightly!) which were surreal in style: rocky and sandy with cactus, desert-like. A reminder that the Thar Desert is prominent in Rajasthan (and so are camels!). Pushkar sits on a small lake surrounded by ghats and 1,000 small shrines to venerate the various Hindu gods (Shiva, Hanuman, Brahma and the likes). The town is known as home of the Brahma temple, which I visited. The small streets are packed with colourful tourist shops. Once a year, the town welcomes the camel fair and millions of people migrate for the festivities. I walked up a neighbouring mountain for a magnificent view over the region.
I met a 20-year old local by the name of Babu who showed me around town and took me to a neighbouring village where ‘Aloo Babar’ (‘potato homeless guru’) lives in his potato temple. Aloo Babar is an old man with a beard who decided to abandon any family to live the life of a ‘babar’. And his name is ‘Potato’ because he only eats potatoes… Interesting! I’ll have more to say about all this, but will keep it for face-to-face conversations! Babu invited me and another tourist from Israel for a local feast of Dhal Bati (local specialty which includes lentil with a grilled then fried dough). He had invited me to watch the whole preparation and cooking process, but that part got lost in translation…! 😦
Udaipur, Venice in India
South of Rajasthan, Udaipur was described to me by a local as ‘Venice in India’. Not that I’ve been to Venice, but I can certainly get the charming and romantic vibe with the city’s white and beautiful architecture including the City Palace which, with a facade of 244m, is quite impressive. The city is on lake Pichola, which has two islands where a palace-like hotel and gardens were built. Jagdish temple is another beautiful building with sculptures of elephants, horses and goddesses all around. So there was plenty of sightseeing to be done in town!
I also did some shopping as I met a lovely couple, both artists, whose miniature and contemporary paintings I simply could not resist. So much talent and when you actually get to meet the artists, the art takes a whole new dimension!
I attended an Indian dance and puppet performance, which was vibrant in colours and sounds. Great to see! Of course, I also pursued my tradition started in my first visited country, Vietnam, and had my final cooking class at a local restaurant… more fabulous food to cook for all! 😉
Mumbai, capital of Bollywood
Final destination of my final country: Mumbai. Being the capital of Bollywood, I obviously had to go see a Bollywood movie! I didn’t understand a word (it was in Hindi), but I think I got the gist of the story and it was interesting to see.
I visited Elephanta island, an Unesco listed site with 7 caves from the 6th century. It was quite interesting and always surprising to see how they could build and sculpt the way they did without today’s tools and technology…
I also did plenty of walking around, looking at the beautiful buildings and went to a ghat where most of Mumbai’s washing is done. There are hundreds of ‘baths’ made of concrete where locals wash their clothes. Indians have a peculiar way of washing clothes which involves bashing them away with a cricket bat-like piece of wood (cricket fans at work and play those Indians!). I’m not sure how that cleans anything (actually, it doesn’t… I had washing done in Varanasi and it came back as stained as before!).
Last but not least, I went to meet with a truly inspiring 23-year old, someone my friend Querida had met during her visit to India three years ago (thanks Q for putting me in touch with her… she’s amazing!). If you’re curious and want to know why Ritika is such a wonderful woman (you should be! ;)), read my latest blog post: Inspiring Ritika.
That’s it for me. I’m now heading to Mumbai airport where I will say goodbye to this beautiful journey I have lived over the past 18 weeks… and welcome to a brand new horizon full of brilliant possibilities!
I have absolutely loved writing my blog Lead Challenge Inspire and I’ve received so many awesome comments and emails about it. So it’s only the beginning… I will keep writing more posts as I learn valuable lessons, set some new challenges and meet more inspiring people. So stay tuned!
Til next time… 😉