A Travellerspoint blog

Tibet in Exile - Dharamsala

sunny 28 °C

I survived India!

I’m currently at Amritsar Airport (which is packed with Indians with British accents – perhaps Sikh’s visiting the Golden Temple?) waiting to board my flight to Kathmandu via Delhi, so unless anything goes horribly wrong in the next 2 and a half hours, I can safely say I conquered India. My experience has been…interesting, and definitely worthwhile. Towards the end I definitely began to experience some homesickness, and every day I continue to endure culture shock, but all in all it’s been a fabulous journey and I’ve learnt so much. It’s such a big country that I’m sure I’ll come back and explore more, as this place is nothing short of amazing. They don’t call it Incredible India for nothing!

My next stop is Nepal, where I will be volunteering again, this time teaching English in a monastery. I’ve been told that the monastery is in Kavre, which google maps shows to be about an hour and a half from Kathmandu, but I can’t find much else on the area, so I guess we’ll have to wait and see what that has in store. I also plan to go to Pokhara, possibly do a yoga and meditation retreat, maybe do a trek, and do a jungle safari in Chitwan. But, I haven’t really made any plans so I guess we’ll have to wait and see!

The past three days I had spent in Mcleod Gang (near Dharamsala) with Elena, which was amazing. I can’t believe we almost left it off our itinerary. It is an ENTIRELY different India in the Himalayan region.

Dharamsala is where the Dalai Lama was moved to when he became exiled from Tibet, and has since become a very popular destination to receive refugees who have fled Tibet. As such, the entire town is completely devoted to the cause of freeing Tibet, and everywhere you look there are signs, stickers, and paintings advocating it. There are a number of NGOs there too who work with refugees to help them learn English and skills to join the workforce. It is also very touristy, however all the tourists there are typically vegetarian dreadlock-clad hippie backpackers, who are all very friendly and chilled out, and interested in Tibetan culture. As you walk down the street there are probably about 30% Tibetan market-stallholders, 30% monks, 30% tourists and 10% Indians! It has a very unique vibe to anywhere else I’ve seen in India.

As we were driving up the mountains, both Elena and I could feel this vibe immediately. She looked very solemn and pensive, overwhelmed by the change, and I couldn’t keep the giddy smile off my face. We were both ridiculously glad to be here. For about a week before Elena had really felt she’d had enough of India, and I’d begun to feel the same a few days later (hence we indulged so much in Delhi!), but once we arrived to Dharamsala we both felt we could stay another month! Elena’s even considering coming back soon, and personally it’s made me very excited for Nepal.

When we arrived at about 10.30am, Titu took us to the Pink House, top rated guesthouse on TripAdvisor. It was a bit of a splurge at almost $7/night each, but it was for two of our last nights in India and Elena was keen for a bit of luxury. It had amazing views across the mountains and even hot water in the showers! Something I definitely haven’t experienced in a while. While we waited for our room we had some breakfast and met a lovely couple from LA, Michael and Malorie, who had just arrived also, and swapped Indian travel war stories. After we were settled, we decided to take a walk around town. It was quite cold and a bit rainy, but my spirits weren’t dampened as I actually quite miss the cold. A walk through the streets revealed many little bakeries and market stalls, and on virtually every wall or shop window were advertisements for activities going on around town, such as movie nights and discussions, run by local NGOs aimed at educating foreigners on the Tibetan situation. There were smiling people everywhere – a stark contrast from drab Amritsar. It was also an amazing feeling every time I looked up and realised I was enveloped by the overwhelming Himalayan Mountains all around me.

By lunch time we decided to go to a Japanese restaurant we’d heard about during our walk which had spectacular views of the mountains. We then continued our walk away from the town and discovered a path in some bushes, where a temple and monastery resided. Everywhere you looked the bushes or poles or shrines were covered in beautiful Tibetan prayer flags, and through them magnificent views of the cloudy sunset could be seen. It was the afternoon, and several monks and Tibetan Buddhists were walking there, as it was clearly a place of worship. I’m not sure how or why the practice exists, but there are cylinders lined against the walls and larger ones under shelters that the Buddhists walk past and turn. I think I’d also seen this in Myanmar. They also carried and twisted their rosaries (I find it interesting that Buddhists also call their female monks nuns and carry rosaries), and walked around and through poles muttering prayers. I don’t understand the practice at all but it was quite interesting to see. The path continued and we eventually got back to a place we’d been in the morning, so we made our way back to the hotel.

That evening we decided to go down to Oasis, a café run by the Tibet Hope Centre – one of the many NGOs I’d mentioned that are around town dedicated to the Tibetan cause. That evening they were doing a discussion on the issue, which was very enlightening. The guy who runs it (I forget his name) spoke a bit about their charity, which does all sorts of things, and then told us about the history of Tibet and the current situation there with China. He also highlighted the importance of awareness – I agree that the Free Tibet campaign has become somewhat unnoticed despite the fact that it’s a current and horrid issue. As such, I’m going to write a separate article dedicated to what I’ve learnt about Tibet since I’ve been here in Dharamsala. There are events like this on all over the town every night which are great, as the spreading of information is surprisingly powerful, and each of these tourists has a Facebook with hundreds of friends on it who they can then share the message with.

After the talk we were invited to ‘Dance meditation yoga’ or something at Oasis the next night – described to me as ‘letting your body move to the freeing music while you close your eyes then stopping and seeing what position you’re in’, but personally that sounds a bit too hippy for me and I outgrew musical statues a few years ago. Elena and I were pretty tired and decided to head back to the hotel and hang out on the roof for a while with chai and soup to heat us up, until the chilly weather got the best of me and I headed down to bed (in our delightfully comfy bed with lots of doonas!)

The next day we got up bright and early for some breakfast on the roof – the sun was out and the fogs had cleared, so there was a magnificent view of the snow-covered mountains that seemed almost close enough to touch. The day before we’d signed up for Tibetan language classes at Lha, another NGO for the Tibetan cause, which teaches massage, language and cooking courses. We went there at about 9 for an hour long class – man that’s a tough language! I can pretty much only remember ‘Tashi Delek’ now (hello/goodluck) but I’ll post my findings with my separate Tibetan post!

After class Elena and I split up and she went for a walk to search out the waterfalls we’d heard about, and also just because this is a great place to walk. Unfortunately I woke up with a really horribly sore ankle, I’m not sure why, but I was wearing the hiking boots Dutch Sasha had left me in Jaipur to try to keep my ankle straight, and I decided putting more strain on it wasn’t a good idea. So, instead I headed to Oasis again. Funnily, I saw a bunch of people we’d seen in Amritsar who shared out Pakistani border taxi – I guess we all do the same route.

At 11-12.30 a conversation class is run next door at Tibet Hope Centre (the group who run the café), where basically volunteers come to practice English with Tibetans who are trying to learn, allowing them greater job opportunities in the industries in Dharamsala or greater India – apparently some are even working globally now. Volunteers are welcome to drop-in, so I offered my time that morning and it was lots of fun. I was given a group of about four students, with vastly ranging skills in English, and each group was given a scenario that they then had to act out and be questioned on – unfortunately I think I picked the short straw by getting a scene involving aliens, meaning I had to explain what aliens were and then explain the fact that they were mythical – one of my students found that particularly difficult and I think she was beginning to fear the green flesh-eating creature from Mars I was describing to her. At the end of the class the various groups acted their scenes, and it was actually pretty funny. It’s great how there are activities like this foreigners can drop-in on and volunteer their time with. I know there are a few longer term volunteers, and you can work in the café there too (that’s their main source of financing the project), which I think is pretty cool.

After class Elena met me at the café and we went and got some lunch at a restaurant near our hotel, as it also offered beautiful views, where we tried our first momo! Momo is a traditional Tibetan food, and is like a dumpling type thing – we tried spinach and cheese which was pretty good, and then followed that by a walk to one of the many bakeries and bought the most amazing ‘chocolate rough cake’ ever – it was sort of like a cake mixed with an undercooked walnut brownie, which we devoured at a cute tea house across the street.

That afternoon I’d planned to go to a Tibetan cooking class to learn how to make momo and other fancy traditional treats, but I’d gotten my times wrong, and eventually decided to give up and just learn in Nepal instead. We rested at the hotel for a few hours before going for a walk just before sunset in search of the Dalai Lama’s monastery. Or at least I think it’s his – sneakily he’s off speaking in Honolulu I believe so I’ll have to let that slide for now.

We walked around the monastery for a while watching the sunset and people meditating or performing yoga – funnily it was more often Westerners than Tibetans. We also entered the shrine room itself (I’m not familiar with the formal name) and it turns out the Dalai Lama loves Nutella too..! At each of the cabinets containing statues of gods or images of the Dalai Lama there were offerings laid around it – typically a jar of Nutella, some biscuits, Mars bars, crackers, money, etc. We also saw some cute Tibetan children with their mothers at the monastery, and Elena tried to kick a ball to one of the little ones and instead knocked the ball right into his wee little head! It was pretty funny, and his mum mustn’t have minded too much as they offered us some delicious vanilla wafers!

After we’d had our fill of monastery we headed to another organisation down near Oasis café, who was doing a Tibetan pizza (strange spinachy-cheesiness, but nice) and movie night. We saw two films about the situation in Tibet, which was once again both enlightening and frightening. One film was by a British man who returned to Tibet to try to get the perspectives of local Tibetans and see what the situation was truly like. The second was by a Tibetan man who wanted to ask local Tibetans about how they felt about the Beijing Olympics and whether it was something to celebrate. Both risked their lives by doing so – the latter was arrested and hasn’t been seen since. As I mentioned earlier, I plan to write a specific article on Tibet, so I will put some facts from these films in there too.

After the film I grabbed ANOTHER piece of rough chocolate cake – delish, and headed to bed.

Yesterday morning Elena and I grabbed some breakfast on the roof, enjoying our last morning of sweeping mountain views, and then headed to the Tibetan museum, which is in the same complex as the monastery but had been closed at the time we went before. It was quite interesting and there was a lot to read about, and it was very striking to see images of those who had walked from Tibet all the way to Nepal, often suffering frostbite and malnutrition – if they survived at all. It also provided some information about Tibetan Buddhism, and a message from the Dalai Lama. There was a book at the end where many people had signed their names and wishes for Tibet, which was filled with some truly inspirational messages. I wrote a short message and we left shortly after.

We then went for our last walk through all the markets and shops, and picked up a Free Tibet t-shirt, some stickers, and prayer flags. I debated heavily whether to get a bag, but decided I needed to keep the money for when we go back to Amritsar – though I wish now that I had. I guess I can make one when I get back home – it’s all just about spreading awareness of the Tibetan cause wherever you can.

We stopped for lunch at a nice rooftop café, where people were playing instruments and chilling out. Elena and I got some juice and shared a plate of chicken momo. It took FOREVER, and we ended up having to rush the waiter… which later proved later to be a bad move. As we walked out of the restaurant we saw our driver, Titu, waiting for us, and we quickly grabbed our bags (it was NOT fun walking my billions of bags up that enormous flight of stairs) and jumped into the car, regretfully leaving the relaxing sanctuary of Dharamsala.

It wasn’t too long after that I had to stop – and up came the momo, all over the floor of some squat toilet at a petrol station. I had been feeling shocking, and felt a bit better once it all came up, but turns out that wasn’t the last of it. For the whole five hour journey home along the Pakistani border, I was stopping and puking out the side of the car. The annoying thing was, there wasn’t anything in my stomach, but it was like I was just having spasms in my throat and stomach. Titu was freaking out and wanted me to go to a hospital or something, but after assuring him I was fine I eventually ended up back in our hotel.

I’d remembered that yesterday was the anniversary of the Amritsar massacre, which coincided with a harvest festival (I forget the specific name of it) so there were even more people on the streets heading to the Golden Temple, and some fireworks too, but I didn’t have enough energy to participate in much of the festivity.

Elena went to get some dinner and I fell asleep, woken next to the sound of her leaving for her 4.30am train. It’s so strange not to be travelling with her anymore after six weeks side-by-side, but her having left in the midst of my slumber meant that the goodbye was quite easy. I thought I’d like the idea of travelling alone again, but Elena and I are very compatible travel partners and I’m going to miss her lots. Plus I’m jealous of her getting to meet up with Dutch Sasha again and spend a few days in a luxury hotel above the mall in Delhi!

Anyway, I got up pretty early this morning and organised a rickshaw to the airport. I must say it’s one of the strangest airports ever…I got there but wasn’t allowed in until 8am because I had to get my ticket printed from an office which was outside the airport. So I waited on the curb of a rather quiet airport and eventually made my way in, went through some strange security, and am now just waiting for my plane to board. I’m still completely exhausted, and don’t want to arrive to Nepal like this, so I’m downing some coffee and Snickers – thankfully my stomach is feeling fine for now.

Anyway – I guess I’ll speak to you from Nepal!


Posted by georgiaellen 17:50 Archived in India Comments (0)


semi-overcast 25 °C


As I’m writing to you I’m surrounded by an India I am very much not used to – it’s cold, wet, green and quiet! We decided after a day in Amritsar that we didn’t want to stay long at all, and thanks to Elena’s amazingly kind father, we’re now making our way up to Dharamsala/Mcleod Ganj in the Himalayan region with private driver (ooh la la) Tuti – though he does not measure up to G-Singh or Zakir in any measure of charisma. We’ve still got two hours or so to go but the contrast in landscape is truly amazing. I feel like I could be driving through the countryside anywhere in the world, especially as we left in the dark of the night at 5am, and woke up in the car surrounded by fog and greenery. I kept trying to trick myself into thinking I could be driving somewhere near the mountains in Sydney, and then contrasted that with the thought that we’re moving along in a little car parallel to the border of Pakistan. Crazy!

Also – I realised yesterday that this is the furthest north I’ve ever been in the world. Completely crazy for Spanish-born Elena to comprehend considering India is very south for her. I find these funny little thoughts very entertaining.

Anyway, back to where we left off on Monday! When we arrived in Amritsar it was well past midnight. True to reputation, our train was about three and a half hours late, stopping randomly for an hour about five minutes before the station. We’d met a man on the train, who we’ll just call Mr Singh (it’s a pretty safe bet, especially in Punjab as it’s an incredibly common Sikh name).Due to their religion, the nature of Sikh people is to be very hospitable, and simply on the train we learnt this was very true. Even at midnight, Mr Singh called his brother to make sure there could be accommodation, called a guesthouse for us, told us about accommodation in the Golden Temple, and offered to arrange a taxi for us.

When we arrived at the station all five of us got into a rickshaw – they’re much bigger out here – with our luggage on top, and made our way to the Golden Temple. The temple offers free or cheap accommodation to pilgrims (representative of their hospitality), so we went to see if there would be anything available at about 1am. As we drove through town it was completely dead and kind of eerie, until we got to the temple where people were coming and going. Sasha and Lian went to have a look at the dormitories that were available for free, but they said the ones they saw were feral and disgusting and so we went to look for a guesthouse. We met some Americans later who were staying in the temple and they described it quite differently so I think perhaps the girls saw the wrong part or something.

Anyway, the driver took us to a hotel we’d seen a street back, and as we were negotiating prices about four young guys ran past trying to hassle us, but one said that he had a hotel. Sasha was amazingly angry and there was a bit of an altercation (after we left the police were involved trying to get rid of the guys) but we just ended up sharing a room in Lucky Hotel. It’s nice and clean, a bit pricier than we’re used to, but because we all squashed in and I slept on the floor we got the room for about 200Rs each ($4).

We hadn’t got to sleep until about 2am, so the next morning I had my longest sleep in in India and woke up at about 9.30. The floor mattress had been surprisingly comfortable. As we left to get breakfast around the corner, I discovered how insanely different Amritsar is during the day; as we were right near the Golden Temple it was very busy, with people and rickshaws everywhere – though cars aren’t allowed in that area during the main hours of the day as it’s quite a tight squeeze. It’s also quite different to the rest of India that I’ve seen as well in the sense of dress. Women wear the traditional Punjabi suits, which is like a kurta, loose pants and a scarf, and being a predominantly Sikh area, most of the men have turbans and long beards, so the streets becoming filled with brightly coloured turbans bobbing up and down as the men cycle along on the rickshaws.

We got some breakfast (first time I’ve had muesli in so long, yum!) but Elsbeth was feeling really sick so she went back to the hotel while the four of us went to search for the bus station. Our walk to the bus station confirmed the fact that what everyone said about Amritsar is true – four days is way too long to be here. It is not a pretty city at all, and people very rarely smile back at you, which surprised me a lot given the amazing kindness I’d received from Sikh people during my travels. At the bus station the girls asked about cheap buses to Dharamsala, and we asked about any place we could go away from Amritsar, the main contenders being Dharamsala and Chandigarh, a city that apparently looks ‘just like Paris’ and is the cleanest city in India. Of course as you already know, we decided upon Dharamsala and due to Elena’s fathers kind generosity we’re on our way up there right now!

After we sorted out the driver stuff with a guy from the hotel we went to visit the Goden Temple, the main attraction of Amritsar. The temple is the epitome of Sikh worship, and people travel from all over the globe! We met a family who had been living in England and Kenya who came for a trip here. It’s an enormous complex of white buildings, with a large pool/lake and the Golden Temple situated in the middle of it. We walked around for a long time, taking photos of things and people – proud parents love thrusting their children upon us for a photo (and I love it too – kids always make good photos). People bathe in the pool, similar to the Ganges, as well as people taking their children like a sort of christening ceremony. Outside there is a big hall where you can get a meal for free, and many volunteers sitting around chopping vegetables and washing dishes.

After we were done visiting the temple we got a quick bite to eat and then went to the hotel to wait for a car to take us to the Wagah Border – another of the main attractions in Amritsar. The Wagah Border is the crossing where India meets Pakistan at Lahore, and every evening they have a ceremony to close the border – which I must say is one of the strangest and most wonderful things I’ve seen in India. More than a hundred people go to the border playing music, singing, dancing and cheering, as some sort of patriotic act. The Pakistani side attempts to do the same but the sheer amount of Indians there means that there’s no comparison in the competition of whose ceremony is louder or more exciting. When we arrived we showed our passports to security and were directed to the foreigners section, where I was instantly amazed. People in grandstands were shouting and cheering and waving Indian flags, and below many women were dancing excitedly. I went over to take some photos of them and was instantly grabbed and twirled, every Indian woman seeming to want to dance with me. There was also a conga line! It was hilarious and embarrassing and I loved it. Then Jai Ho came on! That’s when things really got mental.

After the music stopped and I was able to catch my breath, the ceremony was about to begin. At first, a very tall man dressed in all white was running around cheering the crowd – it was as if we were at a sports match or something and he was the host. He’d chase people around and bounce up and down with his microphone, leading the cheers which all the Indians in the crowd mimicked in the direction of Pakistan. It wasn’t rude or provocative cheering but rather like friendly banter. Then Indian soldiers came out, about two women and a bunch of men, doing funny high kicks and salutes up and down the main path towards Pakistan. After a bit of this the gate actually opened, and you could see the Pakistani soldiers dressed all in black doing a similar ritual. The flags then crossed and were lowered, and the gate closed and locked again.

After the ceremony was done we made our way back out to our death trap of a van, which had been an hour late to pick us up and was taking its time to take us back – the speedo was broken and stuck on 4km/h the whole way home! Elena and I grabbed a bite to eat and got to bed pretty early as we knew we’d be leaving in the wee hours of the morning.

At about 2am Amritsar revealed its eerie side again, as a storm began with violent lightning, then causing power to go out and an electric wire to spark flames. All five of us ran to the window and you could see people marching up and down the streets to and from the Golden Temple making strange noises. It’s hard to describe but it is just a bit of an eerie town at night. Very weird.

Anyway, I got an hour or two more sleep and then here we are! Next stop: Dharamsala. By the looks of the greenery and drop in temperature so far, I really cannot wait.

Posted by georgiaellen 04:45 Archived in India Comments (0)

Delhi; a surprising relief

sunny 29 °C


I’m currently on the train from New Delhi to Amritsar, absolutely freezing my tatas off! I’m travelling in AC 3-Tier for the first time which is similar to sleeper but with air condition – far too much air conditioning actually! Oh well, I guess I should relish it for the moment as it’s always way too hot outside.

I must say – I loved Delhi! And I want to go back…though I spent far far too much money. The past few days have made me a bit homesick – I think having met Sonia and Saachi, which reminded me of life in Sydney with my mum, as well as the fact that Elena and my other friends are going home soon, is making me think about life back home too. Regardless, I know I don’t want to be in Sydney, and I should definitely be cherishing my time in India, but I’ve just been in a bit of a funk in general and thus have been indulging myself in some retail therapy. Retail therapy in India is actually quite a cost-effective way of stress release if you’re shopping in the markets as everything is SO CHEAP and there’s so much great stuff, but we also spent quite a bit of time in the mall – a recent craze in India. I didn’t buy anything at the malls because that is seriously expensive, but I did indulge in Western food which ended up costing me a fortune. Still, I’m so glad I did.

On Saturday morning the girls and I all decided we wanted to go to Rajghat, the Mahatma Ghandi memorial. We’d tried to go with Sonia the day before but it was closed for Good Friday (btw, Happy Easter everybody!) so we found it this morning. The memorial to Mahatma is quite small and decorated in bright yellow flowers and incense, surrounded by manicured lawns and paths that people can walk through to pay their respects. However this small memorial is set within enormous gardens, very similar to the Royal Botanic Gardens, with lots of flowers and a small lake and beautiful manicured lawns (though security guards with rifles may come up to you if you do not walk on the path!) We walked around these gardens for an hour or two, visiting the various memorial sites all around which were dedicated to the many significant members of the Ghandi family, including Indira herself. It was so nice to see some green – I can’t even begin to explain. I’m not even a nature person at home at all, but I’m really looking forward to seeing some nature in Nepal. Elena and I sat at one point for some rest and a woman with a child came up to us for a photo, which was fine – then suddenly we were surrounded by literally 10-20 people, all taking photos of us or getting in line to have one with us. It was pretty funny, though Elena got over it pretty quickly.

After a lengthy walk we went in search for the Mahatma Ghandi museum. It was tucked away and quite difficult to find, which is surprising considering how much work you can tell was put into it. The museum was AMAZINGLY extensive. I read everything in one room, thinking he must be assassinated soon – then realised there were another four rooms to go until the end of the story! This guy seriously did a lot. We must have spent an hour or so there, and I didn’t even finish. Eventually we gave up and Elsbeth, Sasha and I decided to go in search for Dilli Haat, which Sonia had told me about.

Dilli Haat was this craft market time thing which is supposed to exhibits things from every state in India. I was keen to see it – however our driver was clearly a major losty and had no idea, dropping us at entirely the wrong markets. I bought some bindis and henna, and the shopkeeper gave me some free earrings, but they were pretty crappy, so we decided to go to the mall.

Oh god I’m in love.

We got a rickshaw to Saket, which is a complex with FIVE shopping malls. That’s right – five. And one in construction. Many of them even have the same stores, but I guess they’ve gone a bit mall-crazy lately. Regardless, I LOVED it. It was a complete Western haven. Everybody in there was clearly loaded, no one really stared at us too much, and they were all dressed in Western clothes (though probably more conservative than all the booty-short-clad 12 year olds you see strutting around Miranda Westfield these days). They even had a Hard Rock Café! Sasha loves Hard Rock and Elsbeth had never been, so we decided to have lunch there – regardless of how pricey it was. I think I’m going to try to visit all the Hard Rocks at cities I go to. I don’t even love it that much generally (only I do now because I miss Western food) so I probably won’t be as attracted to it in Europe, but I still think it’s a funny little thing to do.

We walked around and relished the air conditioned haven for a while, looking at Zara and Forever New and Lush and various chain stores I’ve missed. Eventually we regretfully returned home to our suddenly very sad-looking hotel room, stopping on the way to look at some cute little jewellery stores in the bazaar.

When we got back Elena was hanging out at the hotel, and I could tell she was feeling pretty homesick, so I decided it was time I tried to get us drunk in Delhi. I’d seen a bar in the street that had cheap beer, so we went there – and man it has never tasted so sweet. We’d had it once in Jaisalmer but for some reason this was much better, maybe because it was adorned with the taste of freedom to do what we like, which we hadn’t really had while living in the volunteer house. I then decided to take the plunge and return to my regular order – “A shot of vodka – the cheapest one you have. Cheap cheap”. When it came to our table I stared at it for a while, a bit apprehensive as it’s been so long. Eventually, I manned up and downed it – so much better than I remember! That was followed by another three or four – which can’t be helped when they’re less than $1 each. Elena and I certainly weren’t drunk but we agreed it was so fun to have that buzz back – I can’t wait to visit her in Barcelona!

While we were at the bar we hadn’t spoken to many people as it was mainly full Indian men who stared at us like meat as we walked to the bathroom, but I could see Elena giggling at a couple behind me – which is when we met David and Depinder. David is a 50-something life-loving painter from San Francisco, and Depinder is a Sikh law student from Delhi. We spoke with them about all sorts of things for a long time, but left some time before 11 – the street was completely dead and Depinder said it’s pretty late, which makes me think nightlife must be quite a bit different in India. I haven’t been much of a partier all this trip – even in South East Asia which is like a young Australian’s party paradise, but I just have not been in the mood. Still, it was really nice for a bit of a change – and I’m excited to go check out Europe!

On Sunday morning we were all a bit worried as we had plans to meet up with Lian, who was getting the bus from Udaipur and didn’t have a phone. After a while of trying to decide what to do to find her, we chose to go get some breakfast and by some stroke of luck she was downstairs at the hotel reception!

After breakfast the other girls decided to go visit India Gate and Lotus Temple, but Elena and I were both pretty homesick so another trip to the mall was on the agenda for us! Some may view it as a bit of a waste of time in Delhi, but we’d already seen so many forts and to be honest I’ve found it so interesting to see a completely different socio-economic group of Indians – plus I like the indulgence! We got lunch once again at Hard Rock Café…sooo good, and then went to the Haagendaas Ice Cream shop for Brownie Sundae indulgence. There was WiFi there too, which meant I could Skype mum – but I got teary for the first time on this trip! My adorable little cousins Jessica and James were there and I think I’ve been a bit emotional, but anyway - up and on. I think now I’m probably going to come home for Christmas so I can earn some more money with the baubles, and then I’ll head to Vancouver!

In the evening Elena and I went shopping in the bazaar and we saw David painting in the street, being a regular cool cat as he is. Later that night when we were chilling in our room Depinder also called and visited our hotel – but we really weren’t up for going out and Elena was very sick (…) so we told him we couldn’t come party. He then told me that he’d got some information for us for Amritsar – which he’d typed and printed (adorable!!) and then left the note at our hotel reception with some medication for Elena’s stomach! He also sent her a get well message! It was the most hilarious awkward/funny situation and we can’t stop laughing about it but it’s so sweet!

This morning Elena and I went to get breakfast at a buffet place we’d seen – it was actually pretty good and we met a man from LA who looks exactly like Dumbledore!

We then packed everything up and went to give Elena’s stuff to Sonia, who was taking care of it for her while in Amritsar. While we were waiting we found a dog behind us with an enormous litter of puppies – I’m talking fresh from the oven babies. They were soooo cute! We then got in a rickshaw to take us to Old Delhi, just to check it out, but as I’d suspected it was pretty much closed on Mondays (all the markets and stuff), so we just drove through it to check it out. We stopped by a tourist office so check out options for Amritsar – we’re thinking of spending a night or two in Dharamsala or Chandigarh or something, but we’re just going to see what’s available tomorrow when we arrive. Our driver then told us about some markets but when we got there it was plain to see it was just some commission touristy shops, not a real bazaar, so we just went back home. I bought some dresses and tops that I’d seen, completing my retail therapy for Delhi (I think I’m up to one skirt, two tops, three dresses, three leather handbags, seven pairs of earrings and six necklaces – all for somewhere around $70). I hadn’t really planned to buy anything while travelling – especially because I have to carry it all around, but these markets were way too good and I can offload it to mum in Abu Dhabi soon!

We then checked out, got some takeaway sandwiches and made our way to the train station. New Delhi train station is a lot easier to navigate than other stations we’ve been at, but man it’s busy. There are people everywhere, and our train was an hour delayed so we were waiting around for a while. Whenever I’m at train stations I’m always continuously faced with a moral dilemma – giving to beggars. As a general rule I very rarely do it, especially not kids, as I don’t think it’s a productive way to help them by encouraging the practice of begging and I doubt the money really goes to them, however at the train station and in the streets there are often men crawling around on the floor with disabled or amputated limbs. I don’t know if they’ve been injured or born this way (though it’s so common that it makes me think it may be a practice – like the Slumdog Millionaire scene where the child is blinded) but it always makes me question my rule of no-giving. These men seem more helpless to me than the children begging, and there’s no way they’d be able to get work anywhere else in India. Sometimes I’d give, sometimes not, but regardless it’s always heartbreaking.

Anyway, so my laptop is going to die very soon and that’s all I’ve got for now.

Posted by georgiaellen 04:43 Archived in India Comments (0)

I swam with Mother Ganga!

sunny 41 °C

Greetings from New Delhi!

I had meant to write when I was in Varanasi (and I definitely should have – I had plenty of chill time), but I couldn’t be bothered. This morning I arrived in Delhi after our overnight train journey from Varanasi. The last time we met was on my last train journey…from Jaipur to Kanpur, so we’ll start from there.

Kanpur day was a very unique day. We arrived at around 11am after an interesting journey in sleeper class; personally I enjoyed it and am really glad I tried it – I’d be happy to travel India on sleeper class. I never felt unsafe, and it’s just as uncomfortable as most Indian guesthouse beds. However, I was on the top berth and Elena was under me, who said she was constantly woken up by people sitting on her bed while she was sleeping. This appears to be quite common, as people without seats will come and just sit and have a chat next to you while you’re sleeping, or fold out a blanket and sleep on the floor in the small aisles. Anyway, twas as to be expected.

When I woke up I sat down on Elena’s bed and looked out the window for many hours, intrigued by the sights of the rolling landscapes; crops, slums, cities, towns, villages, etc. We also spoke every now and then with the family in the seats near us, who were also getting off at Kanpur – which was very useful as the trains have no indication of what stop you’re at (no voiceover or signs) and they rarely run on time so you can’t base it on the timetable either – this makes me paranoid about missing my stop to no end.

When we arrived in Kanpur it was already stinking hot, around 11.30am, and after a lot of excitement and kafuffle by drivers, we got a weird taxi thing (like a large green rickshaw; I don’t think I’ve noticed them anywhere but Kanpur, where they are in abundance) to go to the mall. Our driver was very cute and tried to point to sites out the window (‘building, tree, fountain!’), though he couldn’t really speak English, his attempt was appreciated. He also bowed his head and put his hands together every time we passed a temple, taking his hands off the wheel for a bit too long for my heart to handle, and urged me to do the same.
Eventually after convincing him that we didn’t need to participate in any more of his ‘useful’ city tour we arrived at our destination; the Mall – capitalised to highlight its glorious, saintly, air-conditioned relief. Malls in India are very strange, and we had to go through intense security screening to get in, even opening up our big backpacks and promising we didn’t have any chewing gum. Once in it was worth it though; we’d planned to spend the next 11 hours until our connecting train in the mall – sounds boring, but I seriously loved it. I MISS WESTFIELD!
We basically just spent the day sitting around, eating, looking at shops, occasionally talking to locals who were very interested in us (I only saw three other foreigners the entire day so I don’t think it’s a common tourist destination). As usual, people blatantly stared and men took photos on their phones with the subtlety of an elephant. A few came and spoke to me which was nice and yeah basically we just waited for the endless 11 hours to pass. However – one exciting thing did occur! – I bought a camera. I’d been eyeing SLRs for a week or so and had hesitated due to the lack of international warranty, however I discovered that Nikon had it so I bought my first camera, ‘entry level’ Nikon D3100. Very exciting and I’m loving taking photos – though I take FAR too many; anyone on my Facebook news feed must dread seeing my name pop up every day.

Eventually 10pm came around and we went to wait at the train station – the biggest ordeal ever! Whenever trying to confirm what platform our train came from we were met with various responses, always conflicting. There was a train of the exact same name and one digit difference coming at the same time on the platform next to us, some people saying it went to Varanasi and some saying it didn’t. Regardless, we eventually found the train; but then got in the luggage carriage (where there are unmarked seats and people packed like sardines everywhere). Luckily we found sleeper class; but then couldn’t find our seats as it turns out our seats had been changed and I hadn’t been told. And then the guard came around to try to charge us an extra fare for our tickets as the fares changed after April 1 (even though I’d purchased and confirmed my tickets mid-March). The same thing happened on this morning’s train and will probably happen to Amritsar, but regardless I wouldn’t pay.

This time we were in 2-Tier AC Class, which is kind of like 2nd class – and very nice! There are curtains, set seats, personal lights, powerpoints etc. It was really nice, but not as entertaining as sleeper. However, we did see a man peeing off the side of the train (literally next to the bathroom that he could have gone in) – Elena thinks he was masturbating but I wasn’t interested enough in looking. THEN, after we were settled in our beds Sasha went to the bathroom and as she was doing her business saw an Indian man looking up at her from the grated vents by the floor. Truly disgusting and pathetic – I don’t know how you can get off on seeing someone pee on an Indian train. Men would also often open our curtain and stare at us sleeping for a few minutes. It’s harmless but creepy – considering how much tourism India has (especially to Varanasi) you’d think they’d be used to seeing white women. However we’re seen as having ‘loose moral character’ and thus are always subject to comments, touching (luckily I haven’t experienced this yet, only seen it happen at the Elephant Festival), and taking photos of us everywhere we go.

Anyway, eventually I got to sleep and had a very short rest before we arrived at Varanasi around 6.30am (though of course I was up earlier, very paranoid about missing our stop and ending up in Kolkata!). When we arrived we got a taxi to take us our guesthouse, and the drive itself was an exciting site to be seen. Within about five minutes I saw a naked man walking down the street; completely starkers just going for a stroll. About ten minutes later our driver pointed out the window to see a funeral procession walking down the street, where I saw the body of a dead man being carried down on a decorated bed and people singing around it. Anyway, after seeing both a naked man and dead man within my first 10 minutes in Varanasi, we asked the driver to take us to The Yogi Lodge, where we booked, but we decided instead to go to Sandhya Guesthouse, which was a bit cheaper and close to Assi ghat. We found rooms for about $3/person and settled our stuff, getting breakfast and resting after the long two-day journey. Eventually in the afternoon we went for a walk to visit the ghats along the Ganges (or Ganga as the Indians refer to it); the main attraction of Varanasi.

Basically, the ghats are the stairs that line the bank along the 2,525km River Ganges, and they are considered the holiest place in Varanasi as the river is seen as the embodiment of goddess Shiva. People live their lives by the ghats (which number over 100), bathing, washing their clothes, fishing, praying, and it’s truly an amazing site to see.

We ended up at Harischandra ghat, one of the cremation ghats. As Varanasi is considered so holy, many people come from all over to be cremated at her banks – I was even told that George Harrison’s body was brought here two years ago. It’s somewhat remarkable to come within metres of a dead body, as it takes a few minutes to consider the fact that this was once (a few hours ago) a living, breathing, thinking, feeling, mother/father/daughter/sister/brother/husband/uncle/neice etc etc. We met a man by the ghat who told us a bit about it; apparently there are 80-90 bodies burnt every day on the Ganges, round the clock. Within about 72 hours of passing the bodies would have been performed a funeral procession and then brought down to the ghat, where there are a few different places to be cremated, generally depending on how much money you’re willing to pay for the location – the man at the ghat told me that they can cost around $200 for the ‘highest quality’, though I’ve heard different prices from various sources so I’m not sure. Those who can’t afford a cremation are sometimes left in the Ganges unburnt. By the river, the body normally takes about three-four hours to burn, though we were told that after this time normally for the female the hips are left unburnt and for men the chest or something. Virtually anyone may be cremated by the ghats (it’s mainly a Hindu practice, though the bathing ghats are shared by all different religions), however there are certain groups who cannot; children and babies under ten, those killed by cobra bite, pregnant women, the handicapped, people with small pox or leprosy. These people are already considered to be pure and thus don’t need to be cleansed through cremation; they are simply taken out into the Ganges uncremated.

Surrounding the ghat were people standing or sitting around and watching, even small boys playing cricket nearby, and some under the shelter of a building which houses an electric crematory (these burn quicker but aren’t considered as pure). However, you will not see a woman in sight. It is illegal for women to attend these ceremonies due to the action practice of ‘sati’; a remarkable example of the view of women in India. Being a widow is seen to be dishonourable, and so often a wife would commit suicide (either willingly or through coercion), often by jumping on top of her husbands burning funeral pyre. This is seen as the ultimate act of marital devotion for a woman, and would cleanse her of her sins, release her from the cycle of birth and rebirth, and bless the seven generations that followed her. Apparently, this practice is still continued in some rural village areas of India.

After our visit the man we’d met at the ghat took us to see some local silk factories and watch it being made (I saw this in Vietnam and it remains to be highly uninteresting) – although a few times I’ve seen through peoples doors on the street where artists and children paint, decorate and embroider saree fabric which is pretty cool. We ended up at a fabric shop (clearly commissioned) and the owner was actually very cool and hospitable. His products were great but pricey, and I wasn’t interested anyway, but he was great to talk to. He has a shop in Camden, London, has an interest for jazz music, especially blues harmonica, and gave us some great chai. We spoke for an hour or so as he donned Elsbeth in fancy sarees and he told us a few places to see which ended up very useful. Elena and I actually bumped into him on the street the day before we left as well which was cool! Although strangely, he mentioned to us that he was writing a book called ‘Tourists are human too’ or something – “everyone writes books about India FOR tourists, but I’m writing one ABOUT tourist. Visiting India is like taking LSD; it could be a good trip or a bad trip but you’re always taken for a ride’. I know this doesn’t sound too strange, but two days after I was talking to the owner of our guesthouse who also lived in the UK, and he said the EXACT same thing, word for word. Yet they weren’t related or anything. Very very odd.

The next day I set my alarm for the sunrise and woke up early to go on a solo mission along the ghats. I met a young girl named Roshin who gave me a little henna design on my hand, and chatted to a few people here and there as I strolled along the ghats. The ghats really come alive in the mornings as men and women bathe and wash their clothes. It’s a bit strange to consider it as soul-cleaning as the river is filled to the brim with human remains and sewerage – something like 200million litres of untreated sewerage are disposed of into the Ganges every day, which makes it no surprise that it’s considered one of the top five filthiest rivers in the world, and that 80% of illnesses and 1/3 of deaths in India are related to water-borne diseases. Regardless, the river is seen as holy and Indians are renowned for their culture and faith. The riverbanks are littered with women in their drenched sarees (it’s interesting at their lack of self-conciousness here seeing how traditional and conservative dressing was in Rajasthan), incense and offering being made, men laying their clothes in the sun – I had some great photo opportunities for my new camera as so many people here absolutely loved having their photos taken. Once I’d had my fill I went back to the guesthouse to have some breakfast and wait out the heat (41 degrees!!) until the afternoon.


In the evening we decided to get a boat ride to watch the evening ceremony, which I think is at Munshi ghat or just near it (I am really bad at remembering Indian names). We met a lovely boat driver named Shiva just by the ghat at our guesthouse and slowly made our way up the river. Across the other side of the river is a small bank where it looked like there were heaps of people gathered, so we rowed over to check it out – it was a Bollywood film set! They were packing up but it was pretty funny once we realised what was going on, though to be honest we felt like the stars – most places we go we’re followed by guys (and less often women and children) who want to take our photos. Often women will come with their children to shake our hands or have a photo, which I think is really cute. I find it less cute when creepy old men come up for a photo (I’ve been told they use it to tell people you’re their girlfriend). And I find it much less cute when they’re pretending to text and are really quite blatantly following you with their camera phone. You’re constantly bombarded with “Yes Madam. Which country madam? Australia? Ricky Ponting!” At times it’s funny but when I’m in a bad mood I could cut their heads off. Though I must say, the day we were in Kanpur we looked like absolute shit after a 9 hour journey and it was ALMOST flattering haha.

Anyway, we soon got back in the boat (literally having to rush away from three young guys in particular following us begging for photos – one asking if he could come in the boat with us) and went to the other side of the river where a crowd was gathering for the ceremony. As you drift along you can see all the beautiful candles and flowers that are laid as offerings onto the river – it’s really, really pretty. I made friends with a boat of two older Indian couples next door, who invited me onto their boat for a photo. Very cute. We then watched the ceremony, though it went for an hour and was mainly hands signals and candles and brass cups being moved around by five guys dressed in fancy cloth. After I lit and laid my own candle/flower offering into the river, we began to made our way back to our ghat, and went to a restaurant we’d seen next door for some dinner – however there’d been a power outage and a party of about ten people just before we got there so after an hour of waiting we decided to leave (I’m 90% sure they hadn’t yet started our meals). We went back to our rooftop restaurant, got some food and went to bed.

The next day we had quite a lazy day in the hotel as it was ridiculously hot again, and in the afternoon Elena and I decided to go for a walk through the streets rather than the ghats. What a crazy crazy sight. It’s similar to other parts of Asia (ie insane) but having mainly stayed by the calm of the waterside for a few days it was strange to be walking on crazy streets again, dodging cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, autorickshaws, goats, pigs, cows and the latter threes poop. Eventually we decided to hang a right towards the river, though we ended up even more lost in the various narrow alleyways which make Varanasi so interesting. It was honestly like being transported to another century, other than the occasional motorbike squeezing its way along the path. We even passed a man ironing who had hot coals inside his iron, and people sewing with the machines that have foot pedals rather than electricity.

Eventually we made our way to the ghat on which the ceremony we’d seen the night before was performed. It was becoming alive as the ceremony was in an hour so, and markets, locals, tourists and touts were all bustling about. We walked around for a while and went further along the ghat, sitting at one point to watch the candles float by. At this point I heard my best line yet – ‘Excuse me, is you dad a gardener?’ ‘No’ ‘Then why you look like flower?’. Normally you just ignore the ‘hello madam, which country?’ – but I couldn’t help to laugh at this one.

Tired, hot and sweaty, Elena and I strolled back to our guesthouse and I got a coke for dinner as it was too hot to be hungry. I think that coke was a bad idea – it always makes me sick from too much concentrated sugar, and I ended up ill. Anyway, I ended up getting over it and went to bed.

Yesterday morning we all reluctantly woke up early to go for another boat trip with Shiva to watch the sunrise. It was very beautiful, and nice to see the ghats in the morning from a different perspective, but not all that interesting. We got him to drop us off at other end of town where the main cremation ghat is (once again, don’t know its name). We walked around for a little bit and Elena and I decided to get a rickshaw back through the streets, however it was much cheaper to get a cycle rather than a rickshaw. The last time I’d been on one of those was in Bagan, Myanmar, as I always feel so evil making the poor skinny man push my fat Western ass along. Plus, the seats aren’t designed for our fat Western asses either so they’re not all that comfortable.

When we got back we packed all our stuff up and I finally committed to something I’d been debating all week – swimming in the Ganges. It may sound crazy after all the pollution I’d described before (especially to you clean-freak Mum) but I could quell my desire. When you don’t think about its contents it looks like it’d be nice to swim – especially in this heat. I went down to the river to my local ghat where a young boy and an old woman were bathing. I joined them and instantly the woman came back into the water and urged me to swim out with her. I went out a bit but didn’t want to go too far, as I wasn’t willing to put my head underwater – after all I had read an article that morning about a young British guy who had died after swimming in it. Anyway, I had no open wounds and decided to go for it – I’ll let you know if any third nipples emerge in the near future.

I came back to the guesthouse and bathed for about an hour, as well as throwed out my clothes (sadly – I liked that dress!) and then we all went to the roof to spend our last ours in hot steamy Varanasi before boarding the train. Suddenly, the wind went wild and the whole city became hazy in a mysterious sandstorm, which was followed by thunder and rain. An American girl came up to us, freaking out, as she wasn’t used to this weather and I think fears of 2012 may have been rolling around in her head, but of course it was fine. By early evening we were ready to say goodbye to our hotel staff and get in a rickshaw to the crazy Varanasi train station. While waiting for the train we saw a very strange situation in front of us; there was a bald old man who kind of looked Nepalese with his hands tied behind his back with some kind of thick red rope. There were some men with him who appeared to be holding him hostage and did not at all resemble authorities. Sasha thought he might have been autistic and was very shocked. Of course we can never know the circumstances surrounding it but it was pretty mysterious indeed.

Eventually we made it onto the train after dodging station rats and monkeys and shuffling through platforms. Sasha got caught up in the mix of things and we lost her for five minutes getting on the train – really not a nice feeling to have – but it worked out. I slept like a baby virtually the entire ride until about 6am where I waited restlessly for our stop.

We arrived in Delhi this morning at about 8am, and to be honest I really don’t see what all the fuss is about. Yeah, it’s dirty and noisy and busy – but so is everywhere we’ve been in India. Elena suggested that people probably go on about how intense Delhi is because it’s often their first stop in India, whereas we’d been kind of eased into it and hence think it’s tame. We found a room at Namskar Hotel which is in Paharaganj Bazaar – the main tourist district right across from the train station.We then went to search for some food at a rooftop restaurant – nothing like our lovely Varanasi rooftop (and much more expensive) but it’s not bad here.

The rest of today was a wonderful day! Elena’s father is in business with a man from New Delhi, and had arranged for his lovely wife Sonia to take care of us when were first came in. After breakfast I went with Elena to the Qatar office to sort out her flights, then we were picked up by Sonia with her driver – it felt very fancy but I think it’s quite common for the middle class society here to have a lot of house staff. She took us to Janpath, which is a local market that she said she used to shop at when she was our age. It was pretty cool, and I got a nice black maxi skirt for about 100 rupees which I’m really happy with. She then took us for lunch at the Meridien Hotel – oh dear god I think I’m in love! I want to grow up and work for an international company so they fly me business class and house me in fancy hotels! Even the bathrooms were more amazing than anything I’d seen in the past two and a half months – I stole some toilet paper. We learnt a lot about India with Sonia and had some delicious spaghetti and dessert which made me eternally happy. It makes me so guilty that I love indulgences like this because it seems to conflict so strongly with my views on all the poverty that is in such abundant view around me. I feel completely undeserving and guilty about my situation in the world as I simply got lucky with the lottery of life, but at the same time I miss the comforts of home that I’ve been brought up with to see as normal expectations.

(*I think I’ve written about this before, but if not, you should all check out the Lottery of Life campaign by Save the Children if you can find it online – though I don’t think I could access it in Australia).

After lunch we got back in the car and drove through the embassy area of New Delhi, going past their Parliament House and their equivalent of the White House. Interestingly they have both a Prime Minister and President in India, though the President is just a figurehead and doesn’t really do much. Even more interestingly, the PM is female! For such a male dominated society I was pretty amazed to learn about this – in fact India was the first country to ever have a female Prime Minister. …The land of contrasts indeed. We then drove down to India Gate, which is similar to our Anzac memorial, with names of those who passed away in the war inscribed all over it, and a flame which has burned eternally (apparently) since the gates construction.

Sonia then took us to her house to meet her daughter Saachi, who is our age, and see her beautiful home. She lives in a colony, like we did in Jaipur, and I think it’s very common for middle class Indians. Saachi is currently studying for her final board exams, which are a very big deal here as Indian universities are incredibly competitive apparently. We had some tea and convinced Saachi to come with us for a break of study, before we went to see the Qutub complex.

The Qutub complex is a serious of buildings that date from the Slave Dynasty from 1206-1290, and are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The main attraction is the Qutub Minar, which Sonia described as India’s ‘leaning tower of Pisa’ – as it’s a tall 72.5m minaret building with immaculate carvings which has been amazingly preserved. You can’t go in anymore as Sonia told us about a tragedy when people had tried to run out down the stairs and were not able to get out as the door open inwards – people then toppled on top of each other and many died from suffocation. The complex is also home to Quwwut-ul-Islam Mosque, Delhi’s oldest and grandest mosque, which was quite pretty – though now mostly in ruins. There was also some weird pole that Sonia said something about if you could reach your arms around it backwards it meant something about a relation to a God – I clearly wasn’t paying attention but people seemed interested in it. There were lots of Indians and tourists walking around enjoying the gardens and it was generally quite pleasant.

Sonia then took us to the Lotus Temple, as she herself hadn’t been there either. It is a Ba’hai temple which is shaped like – you guessed it – a lotus. We walked up the long gardens and went inside, where you had to be completely silent, but we left pretty shorting. As an attraction there isn’t a whole lot to do but it’s a really really beautiful building and some magnificent architecture – which was especially nice to admire as the sun was setting.

On the way back Sonia pointed out to us some great places which I’m sure we’ll check out in the next few days. It was so nice to meet her and Saachi, and really quite interesting to learn about the life of the middle class in India. Delhi is becoming much more of a cosmopolitan city and it was a really unique side of India to see. Everything we’d seen today has been beautiful, and much more green than I’d imagined – so either Delhi isn’t as crazy as everyone says or we’re in for a rude shock for the next few days when we don’t have a driver in an air-conditioned car and kind locals to show us around. I think in general it probably changed quite a bit after the Commonwealth Games, as the metro came in and India showed their city off to the world.

For the past hour or so we just looked around the shops and markets in the bazaars, and here we are relaxing in bed – might go out again a bit later. Anyway…this is reaching 5,000 words which is nothing short of ridiculous so I must sign off now. I might consider doing dot point form in the future as I’m sure you’re bored of reading and I’m sure bored of writing.


Posted by georgiaellen 04:39 Archived in India Comments (0)

I survived my first sleeper train!

sunny 37 °C

[NB: Sorry, posted late, this is from last week]

So it's 2.20am on Sunday morning and here I am on the Jwh Supafast express train from Jaipur to Kanpur - my first Indian train experience. Everyone says you haven't seen proper India until you've gotten an Indian train - and a sleeper class at that. Sleeper class is the one below third class, with no air conditioning, so naturally I was apprehensive, but at the time of booking there were so many waiting lists we were lucky to even get this. However it's really not that bad. It's quite crowded and I haven't seen any other foreigners yet, but besides the distinct and potent smell of urine it's really quite fun. 

We're on our way to Kanpur, which seems to be a pretty boring city tourist-wise, as it's more a large industrial hub, but we wanted to break up our journey to Varanasi, as the journey to Kanpur is 9 hours as it is and another 7 to our final destination. 

This week has been really quite a good one, though not too eventful and full of goodbyes. On Tuesday after I last wrote I went to school, and afterwards Elena and I decided to go to Anokhi - a western style clothing shop and cafe that many of the girls at the house rave about - for good reason. The shop was nice, though expensive, and Elena fell in love with a dress that she ended up buying. We then went to the cafe, which is the real winner, and got our first proper salad in ages - amazing! I got a feta, olive, fig and onion tapenade and crostini salad which was awesome, and we finished off with cheesecake and chocolate cake. Sooo good. Needless today we ended up going three times in the last five days. 

On our way out we hung out in the bookshop downstairs and then got a rickshaw to Hypercity, where I bought a mud mask and coconut oil for my hair, completing our 'Western day' and feeling quite pampered. At Hypercity I fell in love with an SLR camera which was cheap by Australian standards, but turns out there's no international insurance so I don't think I want to commit to the risk. 

The rest of the week rolled by, with a special event at school on Thursday - a magic show! The French volunteer, Coreo, is a magician by trade, so after class he set up a big show (in the tiny room) with music and juggling and even got Rahul to do an acrobatic stunt! The kids absolutely loved it (as did I).

After I got home, Elena and I visited Anokhi again for dinner, though afterwards we met a very strange rickshaw driver who pulled out an iPhone and expensive camera, saying they were 'gifts' from friends, and he also tried to convince us to hire a taxi instead of train to Varanasi and go to Orchha to visit the Karma Sutra tree. We ended up finding another way home...

On Friday Elena woke up really sick which sucked, and didn't get to go her last day at the orphanage unfortunately. However, it was a very sad day for me too - my last day at school. I'd gotten a little teary cuddling Manisha the day before, and Asha, the teacher at the school, had given Sasha and I friendship bracelets. When we arrived on Friday I gave Asha a letter I'd written her, and to my surprise she gave one to Sasha and I too, saying in broken English that she considered us her best friends and misses us deeply. I really hadn't realised how much I'd effected Asha just by being kind to her, as I think it's difficult for married women here to have friends. But her note really touched me and I burst into tears, making it even harder than I'd thought to leave the school. Due to a kind of bittersweet luck, only four students turned up - Manisha, Sangeeta, Rahul (not the one that looks like Bruno Mars) and Mukesh came and went as he'd hit his head falling off a tree. As much as I would've loved to say bye, I'm glad that the last time I saw them was at the magic show, as I know I'd bawl my eyes out if I'd known I wouldn't see all of them again the next day. I've thought about them so many times already and I guess I hope to come back some day, but kids change so quickly and I doubt I'll be back soon enough. Regardless, I'm glad for the time I got to spend with those beautiful children and I miss and love them with all my heart. I already fear for the many times I'm going to think of them in the future, even Asha and Purni and Zakir - as I am really really unlikely to ever know where they are or what they will be doing. I can't just Facebook stalk them. We really are worlds apart. And that was one of the things I really hadn't properly considered about all the volunteer trips I've planned to do, as I don't think I'll ever stop wondering. 

I don't think much else to report happened, and this morning (Saturday) we had our last day at the house, mainly just packing/watching movies etc as it has become SO FREAKING HOT. Many people had already left that week and others were on weekend trips, so it was nice not to have to do the big emotional goodbyes. Elena, Becca and I went to Anokhi for a farewell dinner which was delightful as usual and then had a nap before finishing off our packing and saying our goodbyes to Becca, Megan, Lian and of course Purnima.

As we were driving off it really hadn't sunk in yet that we wouldn't be back (and it still hasn't), maybe because we'd left the house every weekend to do trips. It was a sad time to leave - a week ago I thought I was ready to go but after spending a full week with the kids and just relaxing at home not doing 'touristy' stuff, I had really felt comfortable in my routine there and wanted to stay. They say it takes three weeks to form a habit so I guess I had come to know the place as my home, but I'm sure in the next day or two I'll be happy to be on the road again.

We arrived at Jaipur Train station at a bit before 1.30am - which is a sight in itself. The road out the front is literally covered with sleeping people - initially I'd thought they were all waiting for trains but I now think it may be were they sleep, as the station is relatively safe compared to the streets, has toilets/water etc. Inside the station it was generally as you might imagine an Indian train station - quite dirty and smelly, and people just sitting around everywhere waiting for trains. Luckily my standards of hygiene have changed dramatically in Sydney otherwise I might have vomited.

And here we are - at around 2 our train arrived and we found our seats with relative ease; my apprehension for the sleeper class quelled very easily, especially now that my bags are all locked up. Not the most comfortable way to sleep but it's fun - though I wish my bed had a window to look out as I'm desperate to see what's gliding past me outside. Hopefully I can get some sleep or read a bit, as we don't arrive to Kanpur until 11am, but I really don't feel like sleeping.

My thoughts keep turning to the past four weeks and the people I've met. They say it takes three weeks to form a habit, and having just reached that point I had begun to feel really comfortable in the house. I don't really feel ready to leave but it's inevitable, and I'm sure it'll be nice to be back on the road again, especially with Elena, Sasha and Elsbeth. I've realised that as I'm rolling away from Jaipur my identity as a foreigner shifts from volunteer/temporary resident to traveller/tourist, as it shall continue to do for the remainder of the year; I'm yet to decide which one I like better. I would definitely recommend volunteering to anyone as it is a really unique way to see a country (particularly India; I'm glad I got grounded here before being unleashed on Varanasi, which I've heard can be incredibly intense).

Anyway, in the time that I have been writing this, I have come to wreak of someone elses piss (I'm not sure how clean these vinyl beds are), so I'm going to wipe some lipbalm under my nostrils and try to get some sleep. Next update will be from Varanasi!


Posted by georgiaellen 23:30 Archived in India Comments (0)

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