Monthly Archives: January 2018

The Ellora Caves

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The Ellora Caves are a series of 34 caves, temples and monasteries carved out of pure basalt stone on the hillside in the area of Aurangabad. They represent a combination of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain faiths and imagining the work involved and how long it took to build them was simply too overwhelming to process. We would look at one small corner of one room, on one floor, of one cave, on one hillside, at one site (there are multiple sites) and marvel at the carvings. Trying to wrap our heads around the enormity of all of the caves was mind-boggling. But the Hindu temple, Kailash, is Ellora’s crowning glory, and to call it a ‘cave’ is a gross understatement. Like the other ‘caves’, it was hewn from pure stone and pictures could not begin to do it justice We happened to go to Ellora on a national holiday and it took a fertile imagination to envisage orange clad monks winding their way down the rough walkways (fortunately, we both have fertile imaginations). Nevertheless, we managed to find some quiet caves and basked in them. Overall, we have seen remarkably few non-Indian tourists so far.

We have gone to other castles, monuments and forts; all ancient, all breathtaking and now we are off on another bus and train to continue our journey southward. We are fervently hoping that the agent from Delhi who sold us the prepaid 2nd class seat assigned train sleepers (at an exorbitant rate) comes through with the tickets. He hasn’t been reliable so far. We bought the package in Delhi when, fresh off the plane and jet lagged, we were whisked away to his office like lambs to the slaughter. Live and learn. So far we have taken a combination of train and bus (and one plane) and with the exception of one train ride, we have travelled in 2nd class sleeper seats all the way (India has 8 classes of train travel). When we booked our own ticket, requesting 2nd class, we unknowingly weren’t given a seat assignment and ended up crouched in a corner of the carriageway between first class and cattle class. We survived the 8 hour ride unscathed with the exception of a good sized rat running across our feet. Our screeching and prancing caused quite a stir but provided much entertainment for the 8 or so men jammed in with us. Stories of the two old white ladies with the backpacks and the rat will likely be the topic of many a lively campfire conversation.

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Jaisalmer and our Camel Safari

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Jaipur (the pink city) isn’t pink anymore and we only stayed a couple of nights before heading to Jaisalmer in the the far western corner of India. Getting there was a 14 hour overnight train ride. We had sleeper seats and our romantic notion of a great sleep lulled by the soothing chug of the engine and the lonesome whistle as we rolled through the night was shattered under the crush of noise. Long shrill whistles, Indian music, food vendors shouting, babies crying, multitudes of people and luggage coming and going all the way through. What on earth were we thinking! While we are revelling in the unparalleled experience that is India, the general cacophony of sound and mayhem are also taking their toll. We have both lost multiple nights of sleep and are sick with sore throats, coughs and colds. But so far, touch wood, no diarrhea. We eat street food which is generally delicious; usually some form of vegetable curry surrounded by a pastry/dough that is deep fried. Our favourite so far is something they have for breakfast – a very thin circle of dough, deep fried and then covered with Dahl sauce (lentils/onion/spice boiled down) and then sprinkled with lemon, onion, parsley, cilantro, tomato, and chillies. Amazing flavours.

Jaisalmer (the golden city) is the quintessential desert town with golden sand coloured buildings and exquisite architecture. It looks like a scene right out of the Arabian Nights and we are loving it. In the heart of the town lies a massive sandstone fort surrounding a Jain temple full of intricate carvings that was built in the 12th century. The king allowed the families who worked for him to live within the fort and from that time on it has been passed down from generation to generation to the eldest son. Today, the descendants of those families are the only ones still allowed to live and sell their wares within the fort. Buying and selling the houses are not allowed as, technically, the king still owns the land. Our sandstone guest house ($9.00 a night) is within the fort walls and a stones throw from the temple. It all feels very exotic.

We went on a desert camel safari almost to the Pakistani border and have arrived back ‘home’ to Jaisalmer dusty, stinky, tired, and (in my case) somewhat sore in the nether regions, but happy with the experience. It took me some time to get into the flow of riding a camel. I would almost topple off when she stood up and knelt down but eventually my body relaxed and I was able to move with her. Our camel drivers cooked amazing food over open fires and the cooking lessons were an added bonus. (Sambhu taught me how to make chapati and I taught him how to write his name). Using a mixture of cumin, chilli powder, curry, fresh cilantro, coriander seeds, garlic, lentils, chick pea flour, and a variety of vegetables with rice, we ate well. We (quasi) slept without tents, under a crescent moon in the cold desert night (me paying to sleep rough is a bizarre concept) with a sky full of stars and completely different looking constellations.

Travelling as ‘unaccompanied’ females has its drawbacks. While we always keep our arms and legs covered (and usually our provocative hair), sometimes we still get too much unwanted male attention but we have never felt unsafe. People have been kind to us (with the exception of a lady who kicked me in the Delhi train station). In fact, in Jaipur, after exploring side streets and alleyways on foot for hours (I was exploring solo as Huggie had hired a tuk tuk and taken a tour) I finally emerged onto a main street with cars and asked a bellboy at a fancy hotel how to walk back to my guesthouse. He insisted that it was too far and too complicated. He tried to flag down a tuk tuk to take me but none would go the distance (it was over 16 kilometres). He snapped his fingers and a real bellboy appeared producing two helmets. Turns out he owned the hotel. He said that he was Rajput, who are kings of the Rajasthan men, and that I reminded him of his mother. He drove me back to my guest house on his motorcycle (that was an experience). It was a lot of fun but it made me feel ancient.

Now it’s bedtime. I dearly wish that it was also ‘quiet time’ but that is just a dream.

India and The Taj Mahal

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The Taj Mahal is more beautiful than I ever imagined. The stunning white marble mausoleum (inlaid with an intricately designed mosaic of jade, sandstone, ruby, etc.) is perfectly balanced. Every single aspect of the grounds, the buildings (which include the mausoleum, a guest house on one side, and a mosque on the other), inside and out, from front to back are mirrored and evenly aligned to the teeniest, tiniest detail. The sarcophagus of Mumtaz Mahal, the third wife of the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, (India’s ruler in the 1600,s) is, literally, at its very centre. But it’s not just the symmetry of it all that makes the Taj so special, it’s also the love story that goes with it.

She was 18 and he was 25. His first two marriages were arranged and bore no children. He married her, his third wife, for love. With his three wives and a multitude of concubines at his disposal, all he wanted was Mumtaz. She died giving birth to their 14th child when she was 36 years years old and he was heartbroken. He built the Mum Taj Mahal (direct translation–beautiful crown castle) in her honour and never married again. It took 25 years and 20,000 labourers working day and night to finish. When it was done he started building a black mausoleum beside it for himself but his son said it was too expensive and threw him in jail (kids). He spent the next twelve years confined to Agra Fort (not a shabby place to live) where his only stipulation was that he could look upon his beloved Mumtaz from his window every day. When he died he was entombed beside her. The Taj Mahal is one of the wonders of the world. Approximately between 40,000 and 50,000 people now visit it every day.

It’s hard to believe that this is only our third day in India. After arriving in Delhi we made our way into the city on the metro and then walked to the main bazar, through a dirty, narrow alleyway system to our guest house, only to find it closed. The one across the way was possibly even more of a rathole but it was a place to lay our head for the night. Unfortunately all I did was lay my head; sleep didn’t come.

We were at the train station by 5:30 am the next morning to catch our train for Agra, home of the Taj. Finding the right train was nerve racking as we have a paid a high premium for pre-purchased tickets for the next 3 weeks. But once we were finally settled on the train, the seats, the privacy and the big window were a pleasant surprise for the 4 hour ride. We were obviously not in the steerage but I’m sure that’s coming.

Last night we lucked into a great rest house with a courtyard garden restaurant and I slept well. The room cost 400 rupees (about $8.00) and my dinner of rice and tomato curry was 205 rupees (about $4.00). The taste was spectacular. We are now heading back to the train station for a four hour ride to Jaipur -The Pink City.

Cheers from London

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Winter arrived this year with teeth bared. My old farmhouse has no insulation and I was glad when it was time to leave for my India adventure. My friend Huggie is with me on this trip and we have spent the last few days in London, en route. The weather has been damp and chilly but it’s a far sight more comfortable than the bitter cold we left behind. Since arriving, we’ve walked countless miles (as my problematic ankles and knee can attest), seen many of the classic London sights, and found great enjoyment in some unexpected places.

Wandering through The National Gallery was an accidental but marvellous pleasure. I am by no means an art aficionado but I could happily have spent far more time there. I was spellbound by so many magnificent works – 25,000 pieces housed there to be exact and with a combined monetary value of £25,000,000,000. That is $40,780,462,592.66. How do you even pronounce that many dollars?

We stopped at a casino where (to my utter despair) Huggie was prepared to gamble away £5.00. With no slot machines available we sat at a ‘£10 minimum’ black jack table. Neither of us had ever sat at a real black jack table before but the dealer was friendly and explained the game. In two seconds flat Huggie had played a game and doubled her money. Whaaat! She passed me her newly won chip and we both played the next game – and won. From then on I was the keeper of the chips. Within minutes, she had played a couple more games and was up £40.00. That’s $65.00! I was flabbergasted! I kept muttering with shocked and happy awe “I can’t believe it, I just can’t believe it”. One would think we had just won the jackpot at a high stakes table. I’m clearly not a gambler but it was a lot of fun. When we left she treated me to a scrumptious authentic fish and chips dinner near Covent Garden with part of her winnings.

We visited the Tower of London, (originally built by William the Conqueror (who just happens to be my 24 great grandfather), the Tower Bridge (it has a glass floor portion on the top walkway over the Thames) , the London Bridge Experience (the haunted tombs beneath the bridge. An entertaining/educational/terrifying maze designed to stop ones heart and damn near succeeded in my case) and a multitude of other London sights. Today, our last day, we saw Buckingham Palace and walked around the Royal Parks where I was happy to breath in some green space.

London has been a blast but I am ready to move on and rest my sore bits in the sunshine. Next stop – India.