INDIA IN A WORD: OVERWHELMING!

INDIA BLOG 11

Monday March 31, 2015

We’re home now, settling back into normality (whatever that’s supposed to be). Hard to believe that, just seven days ago, we were still in India. Hard to believe that we did all that we did, saw all that we saw, experienced all that we experienced. And hard to know how to answer the question we’ve been asked by friends as we’ve caught up: “So what do you make of India?”

The truth is, of course, we were only in the country for three short weeks – barely enough time to do more than just scratch the surface. But, for what it’s worth, here’s how Robyn and I might sum-up India in a word:

OVERWHELMING!

  • The crowds were overwhelming … wall-to-wall people in city after city, even the smallest of which seemed to boast populations in the mind-bending millions.
  • The traffic was overwhelming … a horn-tooting outpouring of cars, taxis, packed-to-the-roofline buses, gaudily-painted trucks, motorscooters-made-for-four, clapped-out pushbikes, ancient wooden carts powered by tired bony men, and swarms of colourful buzzing tuk-tuks (just hop aboard and hold on to your hat!) … all going in all directions at once, whilst somehow dodging sacred cows (that have the right-of-way) and ducking/diving pedestrians (that don’t).
  • The rubbish was overwhelming, especially in the north … untidy piles of garbage spread along a thousand roadsides … gazillions of discarded plastic bags clinging to fences, hedges and trees … landscapes littered with half-built structures and the kind of debris you get after an earthquake.
  • The poverty was overwhelming (although we were spared the worst) … slum-like shantytowns right next-door to posh hotels, families in rags living under bits of cardboard, rusty iron sheets, and tangled electric wiring that doubled as clotheslines … and equally overwhelming: the satellite dishes sprouting from the most unlikely looking roofs!
  • The hawkers were overwhelming … like flies around meat at every touristy site … and even harder to handle: the beggars, especially those with bent bodies, absent limbs or limp babies (although we didn’t see many beggars, to be honest).
  • The heat was overwhelming, especially in the tropical south … energy-sapping temperatures plus sky-high humidity that caused Kiwis who never normally perspire to leak like sieves.

A rather unattractive report so far – right? Makes you wonder why anyone would choose to go there – right?

But here’s what’s weird: despite this depressing list (and we could add to it, I’m sure) … INDIA IS STILL MASSIVELY ATTRACTIVE … and there’s an even longer list of MUCH MORE POSITIVE OVERWHELMINGS!

  • The history, culture and religious mix is overwhelming … Rajputs, Moguls, Maharajahs, Emperors, Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, Jaines, Jews, Christians, high-caste, low-caste, and who-knows-what … a wonderful melting pot (once a British colony) where people who seem to believe bits of everything (one god or a million different gods, take your pick) manage somehow to get along.
  • The grandeur, wealth and opulence is overwhelming … palaces rising like a mirage from glassy lakes, forts and towers and ramparts on a scale that blows your mind, mausoleums and memorials to rival anything anywhere, and overwhelmingest-of-all: the Taj Mahal.
  • The food is overwhelming … tasty, flavourful, spicy … colourful and interesting (not remotely bland) … as-hot-as-you-want (and even hotter) … with plenty of European options for those who hate curry.
  • The scenery is overwhelming … where wheat-fields meet distant horizons in Rajasthan’s north, where green tea and spice-groves carpet southern hills, where food crops and rice paddies cover central plains, where gently-flowing backwaters criss-cross swampy land with palm-fringed canals, and where frothy surf from the Arabian Sea washes white sandy beaches.
  • The wildlife is overwhelming … the giant, intelligent elephants that let us eyeball them, touch them, sit on them, ride them … and the huge, elusive, gorgeously-striped tiger that chose the right moment to saunter past our open-topped jeep, leaving us silent and gob-smacked.
  • The people are overwhelming … their smiles are overwhelming … their welcomes are overwhelming … and The Best Exotic Marigold Garlands that beautiful young girls kept draping around our necks were overwhelming. The staff we met at every turn (on the train, in hotels, our tour guides, bus drivers, you-name-it) were open, helpful and warm-hearted – and the Indian shopkeepers, stall-owners and strangers we met on the streets were as interesting and interested as people anywhere. Especially when they knew we were Kiwis … who were willing to talk about cricket!

INDIA OVERWHELMS YOU, pummels you, and leaves you reeling. You want more, but you’re not sure how more you can take. You reach the point where you wish a referee would call time-out – and that’s where those final two-and-a-half days in that peaceful Ayurveda resort provided such a good ending for us.

Our Mad Midlife group coped remarkably well. A few rumbly tummies, an occasional bad hair day, but no raging Delhi Belly – in fact none of the dreaded complaints that make people reluctant to risk travelling to India.

Would we go back? For most of us, probably not – but not because we didn’t like it. There are some places you only have time to see once in your life. (Although a British couple we talked with had holidayed there 45 times!) But we’re SO GLAD we went. And we wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

We’ve seen things most Kiwis never see (except on TV) and encountered things we’ll never forget. And we’ve made friends with some truly lovely Indians – gracious, courteous, talented, funny, rightfully proud of their fascinating country, and ever so nice.

So thank you India … from all of us!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

PS: Enjoy these final random photos – snapped by myself and my best friend/wife/photographic assistant. Thanks Rob …

ONCE UPON A WEEK IN KERALA

INDIA BLOG 10

Sunday March 22, 2015

Exactly one week ago we waved goodbye to our mobile railroad home, the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels … took a bus to Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport … and flew down the map to the greener, cleaner, more scenic state of Kerala in India’s south-western corner. Like New Zealand, Kerala is hailed as ‘God’s Own Country!’ It was once a supply centre on the ancient Spice Road used by Romans, Greeks, Arabs and sundry others. It has a population these days of 39 million souls (give or take a million or two). It is rated in the top three tourist destinations by the World Travel & Tourism Council – and it featured in National Geographic Traveller’s ‘50 greatest places of a lifetime’.

In short, our expectations were high – and we were not disappointed!

Accompanied by the delightful, intelligent, ever-helpful Vijesh (we called him VJ) we Kiwis enjoyed five quite different stopovers in this quite different corner of India – and I’m gonna attempt to cover the lot in this blog. So fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentle persons …

  1. COCHIN (also known as Kochi) is a vibrant seaside city of three million located on India’s southernmost coast. It was a British colony for 150 years, and unlike the rest of India where the majority are Hindus, the majority in Cochin are Christians – so the place is riddled with churches. We were treated to
  • a theme-dinner, featuring some weird, incredibly costumed Kathakali dancers …
  • a local laundry, India-style, where skinny men were beating the heck out of hotel bed-linen, and other equally skinny men were ironing them with coconut-husk-fired irons …
  • the Santa Cruz Basilica (built by the Portuguese in 1557), burial place of explorer Vasco da Gama …
  • some monster cantilevered fishing nets originating with the Chinese (we even got to lower one down and haul it back up, no fish though, sorry) …
  • and a tiny Jewish synagogue in the heart of ‘Jew Town’.
  1. MUNNAR, 150km up an ever-winding road, is a popular hill-resort surrounded by thick forests, panoramic views, and the highest tea plantations in the world (150 metres above sea level). Imagine valley after valley, mountainside after mountainside, smothered in row-upon-row of ground-hugging tea bushes. From a distance it looked like a beautiful moss-green patchwork quilt – broken only by occasional rocks and trees and clusters of tea-pickers, intent on collecting just the top green tips.

A day or two later we toured a real live tea plantation, watched the precious leaves being processed (into black tea, green tea and most-expensive white tea), drank some of the tasty brew ourselves, and snapped our women (promptly nicknamed “The Tea Bags”) wearing the required face-masks and caps!

  1. PERIYAR, our next stop, is set high in mountains at the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu – and a visit to one of the local spice plantations is a must for anyone who cares about taste and flavours. We did just that, and came away with a better understanding of how spices are grown, harvested and processed – before they find their way to our supermarkets. We also came away with truckloads of those same yummy spices which will, hopefully, be cleared by NZ Customs upon our return to Auckland International Airport! (Check out our women – renamed “The Spice Girls”!

Remember our elephant-ride last week? Well, we enjoyed another one here in Periyar – a leisurely stroll atop half a dozen well-behaved jumbos, uplifted by the lush spice-forest below, and refreshed by the gentle breeze. Magic!

That same afternoon we bounced off on a three-hour jeep safari through the rich farmlands that lie just over the border – learning about various crops and fruits, and interacting with the toothless watchman in a local vineyard. Then, in the evening, we sat in a dimly lit theatre and watched a fiery demonstration of Kalaripayattu – the oldest and most scientific self-defence system in the world.

  1. ALLEPPEY gave us all a special treat – a lazy afternoon-plus-overnight canal-cruise on a fair-dinkum thatch-roofed houseboat! The backwaters of Kerala are a complex network of lagoons, and the best way to experience them is the way we did it: drifting slowly along the fertile shoreline, past ripe-yellow rice fields, coconut groves, and the occasional temple or church … stretched out on the back deck with a refreshing drink in our hands … while the onboard chef served up delicious Kerala-style dishes.

Our flotilla of houseboats came in different sizes, mostly three bedrooms with ensuites, and comfortably furnished with open lounges and dining areas. And our Mad Midlifers had more fun than they were legally entitled to!

  1. KOVALAM, on the shores of the azure Arabian Sea, is known for its white sandy beaches (separated by rocky outcrops plus a lighthouse or two), its frothy surf, its elegant coconut palms and its sleepy holiday-mood township. And this is where we’ve just spent the past two days – accommodated (appropriately) in what was once the site of a Royal Palace – the Travancore Heritage Resort, set amongst lush gardens and shady groves on a cliff-edge overlooking the beach below.

I’m not sure I should tell you this, but we’ve been flat-out doing as little as possible – roaming the beach, watching local fishermen haul up their longboats, shopping in the town, getting oiled and greased and massaged in the  Ayurveda health spa, and cooling off in the lovely pool. (Temperatures here in the tropics have been in the very high 30s!)

Let’s face it: we’ve earned it, we’ve worked for it, and we feel a lot better for it! So eat your heart out!

PEOPLE NEWS: It’s never too late to earn one of our Yellow Quacky Ducks – and people are rushing to lodge their last-minute nominations:

  • Bruce got the “Caught in the Shower with Mary” Award – for a hilarious something that happened aboard their houseboat. However, if you want to know more, you’ll have to ask Bruce or Mary – because, once again, our lips are sealed!
  • Gail got the “Technologically Challenged” Award – for not knowing how to make the air-conditioning work in the hotel room she shared with Sherrol. They spent the first day and night sweating it out in unbearable heat – and finally called a hotel staff member who showed Gail how to push the “on” button. Duh!

FINAL BLOG: A wrap-up. A futile attempt to ‘summarise India’. And some hindsight-reflections about this truly remarkable tour.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief. And if you want to receive future blogs hot-off-the-press in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription!

THE INCOMPARABLE TAJ MAHAL

INDIA BLOG 09

Thursday March 19, 2015

Travelling abroad wouldn’t be half as much fun if it wasn’t for dead people. If long-ago emperors, rulers, princes and pharaohs hadn’t built themselves massive tombs, monuments and burial sites, we would’ve had far fewer touristy things to point our cameras at.

But the mother-of-all-tombs has gotta be the one we saw on our final sightseeing day aboard the Royal Rajasthan

By way of introduction to the city of Agra (home of a mere 4.5 million people), our escort from the train, the ever-smiling Mr Singh, quipped, “I can’t call Agra beautiful because it’s not beautiful. In fact, if we could move the Taj Mahal somewhere else, we wouldn’t come to Agra!”

Be that as it may, we drove through the city’s chaotic streets and stopped first at the sprawling Agra Fort. This immense complex was the seat of power for four generations of Moghul (Muslim) emperors – and has been described as “a perfect fusion of military might and lavish beauty”.

But what came next was what we’d been waiting for …

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Following our excellent local guide through an elaborate gateway, we caught our first glimpse of the most extravagant monument that has ever been built for love. An Indian poet (whose name is hard to pronounce) described the Taj Mahal as “a teardrop on the cheek of eternity …” and the squillion visitors who pass through these same gates each year all say, “Ohh, yes! Look at that, George! Isn’t it GORRR-GEOUS!”

The story (short version) goes like this: On the death (during childbirth) of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, broken-hearted Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan built her the Taj Mahal – which was no small achievement. More than 20,000 men laboured for 22 years to create this masterpiece in white marble … inlaid with semi-precious stones creating an art-style known today as Pietra Dura … and designed to be perfectly symmetrical, with each side a mirror-image of the other. Later, with his wife duly honoured, the Shah’s family turned a bit nasty and his career went a bit pear-shaped. But when he died in 1666, he was buried next to Mumtaz in this monument to eternal love.

We climbed the many steps … fought our way through jam-packed crowds to catch a glimpse of the darkened interior … and wandered the ornamental gardens, taking pretty much the same photos of pretty much the same things.

And how did we feel? Well, pretty much the same as pretty much everyone else: STUNNED!

In her wonderful book, “Heaven Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga” (which most of us have read, are reading, or intend to read) novelist Sarah-Kate Lynch describes the reaction of her character Annie like this:

“As she got closer and closer to the arched opening, the blur of silvery white on the other side started to come into focus. She stepped through and there it was, just as she’d seen it in the pictures, only a thousand times more magnificent: a glorious white-domed palace perched at the end of a long lake like a crown, small yews lining the lawn all the way, throwing their reflections into the pale green water to form a necklace at the throat of this astonishing monument.

“Annie opened her mouth to say something, but the words just weren’t there. Instead, she cried. It was so beautiful, so perfect, so unbelievably special – and she was there, in the flesh, looking at it, for real. She, Annie Jordan, boring old suburban housewife, was there at the Palace of Love, the Taj Mahal, in Agra. In India!

“She felt blessed …” writes Sarah-Kate Lynch, summing it up for all of us.

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PEOPLE NEWS: We’ve run out of Wonky Donkeys – so we’re now giving out Yellow Quacky Ducks:

  • Margie got the “Gold Card” Award – for celebrating a very special birthday and shouting everyone a slice of yummy cake. (Which birthday, you ask? We refuse to say. Our lips are sealed!)

NEXT BLOG: We’re in another world, another planet almost, another quite different part of India – the cleaner, greener, tropical state of Kerala (in the bottom left-hand corner of the map). It ain’t over yet, folks – far from it!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief. And if you want to receive future blogs hot-off-the-press in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription!

A TALE OF FOUR CITIES

INDIA BLOG 08

Tuesday March 17, 2015

Amongst the many different stops we made while we clack-clack-clacked our way around India aboard the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels were several stand-out cities which deserve special mention.

The first that comes to mind is the Blue City of JODHPUR. Ringed by a high stone wall with seven gates and numerous bastions, Jodhpur is the second largest city of Rajasthan. Founded in 1459 by Rao Jodha (a Rajput king), its highlights today are the larger-than-life Mehrangarh Fort (which got a mention earlier in this blog) and the grand palaces within. And near the fort complex lies Jaswant Thada, with a bunch of royal cenotaphs made of white marble.

But here’s the thing: the ‘Blue City’ really is BLUE – thanks to the untold painted houses that glow with that colour. We know, because we saw it – from a high lookout on the fort walls. And inside the Old Town is a tangle of winding medieval streets, strewn with shops and bazaars selling (along with everything else) the famous breeches (jodhpurs) this city’s known for and horsey-people love to wear.

Two days later, after a late breakfast on the train, we found ourselves in a different colour-scheme: the Pink City of JAIPUR – known as such because of the terra-cotta-coloured lime plaster that coats the old part of the city’s walls, buildings and temples. Our main highlight that day was the super-impressive Amber Fort – which we entered (like royalty) on the backs of elephants. But en route we also got to see the intricately-carved ‘Palace of Winds’, otherwise known as Hawa Mahal. It’s really an elaborate facade behind which the ladies of the court used to watch the daily goings on in the street below. And, in a word, it was stunning!

A further two afternoons later, we caught a boat-ride along India’s most famous waterway, the sacred Ganges, to a temple-strewn section of riverbank that’s famous for (I kid you not) its cremations: the city of VARANASI.

You’ve probably seen pictures or TV documentaries about it. We had, too. But the real thing is even MORE colourful and MORE noisy and MORE mind-boggling!

At sunrise, the Hindu faithful flock to the bathing ghats (steps leading down to the water) where they seek to cleanse themselves of their sins. But the endless activity continues 24 hours a day on the cremation ghats. You see, to die in Varanasi is to end the Hindu cycle of re-birth, and this riverbank is a very popular place to say goodbye to loved ones who have just passed away.

We Kiwis got a bird’s-eye view from our wooden longboat. There were numerous cremation fires already burning up and down this vast terraced area – and we watched as new bodies, draped in brightly coloured cloth, were carried down the steps by family members, lovingly unwrapped and washed, then laid on top of carefully constructed woodpiles. Flames soon leapt high, turning Grandma (or whoever) into the ashes that would, later, be sprinkled over the sacred waters.

It was strange … moving … and pinch-me-please-I-can’t-really-be-seeing-this-with-my-own-eyes!  

As the Indian sun began to set, the ghats became even more crowded, with locals and tourists thronging to witness the regular evening aarti ceremony (a Hindu ritual involving young priests, singing and dancing, flowers, incense and lit candles or lamps).

Our Mad Midlifers went ashore where grandstand seats had been arranged so we wouldn’t miss a thing. And later, back on the boat, we all lit tiny make-a-wish candles and watched as they floated away on the surface of the Ganges.

PEOPLE NEWS: Another Wonky-Donkey has been claimed by a new nominee:

  • Helen got the “Border Patrol” Award – for leading hubby John on a wild goose-chase this morning. A walk through the Periyar township turned into a marathon trek when the two of them got lost – and, with Helen playing Camp Mother and marching on ahead, they ended up walking right through the town to the border between Kerala and the neighbouring state of Tamilnadu. (Okay, not as far as it sounds, but far enough!)

NEXT BLOG: There’s a fourth city (remember?) that I ran out of room for here – a city that was made famous by a love story etched in stone. But it’s coming, folks, so don’t change channels …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief. And if you want to receive future blogs hot-off-the-press in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription!