A Travellerspoint blog

Kerala

sunny 27 °C

Nightswimming, as REM said, deserves a quiet night. We have come to Kerala in part to spend a day pottering around the canals and backwaters on an old converted fishing boat, and we have (finally) found peace and serenity in spades. Our boat is moored in the middle of a largeish lake, just big enough to see the uneven necklace of house lights around the circumference but inky black now an hour after dusk. We slip into the water and it's delightfully warm, noticeably less buoyant than the sea water we are used to splashing around in but studded with clumps of floating water lillies. It's very calming doing a couple of slow laps around the boat as the prerecorded pandit at the lakeside temple echoes his chants across the waters.

This is a hard-fought peace. We have fought our way (almost literally) tooth and claw up and down Kerala, battling the incompetent travel agent we have ended up on a tour with (for long and convoluted reasons), lazy drivers and breathtakingly rude hotel staff. It hasn't been a fun experience, not in the slightest. But maybe, hopefully, this is the tipping point. As we sit here the next morning doing nothing other than watch the lake slowly brighten as the sun slips above the treeline, I can just about believe it. Fingers crossed.

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Posted by pendleton 20:43 Archived in India Comments (0)

Rajasthan

sunny 22 °C

All the stories are true. Every gold-plated, diamond-studded story of palatial excess, unbridled greed and unbelievable luxury. Every salacious story of football teams of wives and hordes of concubines really happened, and most of them here in Rajasthan.

Rajasthan is a land of palaces and forts, built by different feuding rajas in different styles, but for the most part exceptionally well preserved (they don't make them like they used to, etc etc).

We saw the Taj Mahal (of course); an unbelievable, blinding, bright milky-white pile of marble from afar, resolving into stunningly romantic carving and detail as you draw closer, and gradually shifting tone as the sun moved across the horizon: we were blown away, so much so that the Agra Fort got rather short shrift as it seemed a little pedestrian afterwards.
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We spent a couple of days in Jaipur; the Pink City is (still) a perfectly preserved labyrinth of wide boulevards, identically sized shops dotted with beautiful palaces and monuments, all built from the same pink sandstone which glows beautifully in the sunlight. We saw the world's biggest watch (an enormous stone sundial some 27m high) and a collection of other huge stone and metal astrological and astronomical calculation devices at Jantar Mantar; this excited our inner geeks possibly even more than the clocks at Greenwich. Lastly we went to the Amber Fort, another stunning hilltop 'fort'/pleasure palace in yellow stone, smooth stucco mirrored interiors and beautiful painted arches.

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From Jaipur we went to Pushkar, a very important Hindu pilgrimage town with one of the only temples to Brahma in the world, now unfortunately overrun with travellers of the scuzziest, beardiest, soap-shyest sort along with their accompanying touts, pay-per-view holy men and dressed up animals. We were led through a completely unauthentic puja by the waterside and then almost came to blows with our 'priests' when they tried to extort money from us, leaving a horrible taste in our mouths about the whole place. We couldn't leave fast enough.

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Our final stop was Udaipur, city of white marble, still lakes and stunning palaces. Here we stayed at the Lake Palace (yes, that one), which was.... unbelievable. From the moment we arrived to a maharana's welcome of rose petals scattered from the roof we were spoiled beyond belief – it was wonderful. The room was perfect, looking right over to the City Palace; the food was great – a lovely change to have a perfectly executed brasserie lunch with a glass of champers – and a Maharaja's feast for dinner and the service was impeccable. The palace itself is just as seen in Octopussy: sumptuous but tasteful rooms (we even had a pillow menu), beautiful open spaces full of green life, flower petals, the tinkle of moving water and heavy with the smell of jasmine. Almost worth mortgaging one's year abroad for, in fact.... Many thanks to those who contributed to our travelling fund to make this possible (you know who you are!).

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Posted by pendleton 20:39 Archived in India Comments (0)

The Wedding Crashers

sunny 18 °C

“Please, come and dance sir”

“No, no, really, I can't”

“Please.”

“Nononononono i'm ok really. Thank you.”

“Please, it will be good luck for us if you come and dance with us...”

“err... umm... arrg”

This is wedding crashing, Indian style. We broke into one huge celebration at 9pm one night during a long drive home, simply because we were hungry and couldn't find anywhere that looked like it was serving good food (note to the cynic: it is actually a proscribed part of the wedding that you cannot turn away any chancers; indeed we had a couple of random extra mouths turn up at our Hindu wedding on 09/08/08; this, however, doesn't stop you getting a fair few curious looks). But this time we were driven out of our compound in Gwalior by the insistent desi-ton rhythms pounding out of the mobile discos night after night. When we spotted a huge ceremony being setup not 20 yards from our door it was too good an opportunity for people-watching to pass up. So we wandered out after having eaten a sizable dinner at home already, dressed in our scrubbiest home clothes, with the simple intention of watching the procession, the band and the dancing and taking a couple of pictures.

Plans change however, and within minutes we found ourselves doing the lightbulb dance under a thousand-watt portable flashlight, being filmed for posterity and with a whooping, clearly delighted crowd of revellers gathering around us.

Weddings here are seriously big affairs; huge gatherings of several hundred people with all the food you could imagine (but no booze!), culminating in the groom arriving at the party hall atop a white charger, at the rear of a vast, noisy procession of wildly dancing youths, huge mobile boomboxes and a brass band all playing separate songs. Strangers are garlanded with marigolds and treated like royalty. Fireworks are set off from the middle of the street while cars drive past.

For just a short while we thought that we might have gotten away with a quick shake of the moneymakers but it had only just begun for us. We were decked with flowers and led inside, past the groom and family being welcomed to the hall, into the huge food court. Our protests of being stuffed full to the throat fall on deaf ears and we are escorted to the sweets stands with a solemn promise to try and eat more. We watched the guys deep fry fresh jilebi out of spirals of dough and managed to choke a bit more down.

Then when we were full (well, fuller) we wandered into the main hall to see what was going on. The bride and groom, looking very nervous, were sitting on a pair of decorated chairs on a dais, covered in heaps of flowers and having their pictures taken with all and sundry from the congregation. I wandered up to the front to take some pictures alongside their professional photographers and before I knew it we had been dragged up to the front to have our picture taken with them! Which I unfortunately didn't get a copy of....

So, there you have it. If you're ever hungry and bored of an evening in central India, let your feet take you towards the pumping disco music and the rest will just happen. And best of all – on auspicious days there will be a wedding every couple of hundreds yards along the street!

Posted by pendleton 00:38 Archived in India Comments (0)

Satnarayan Puja

sunny 18 °C

Our cousin Chimoodada, not content with taking us in, driving us around, feeding us, clothing us, arranging our entire India trip and generally spoiling us rotten, also arranged for a Satnarayan Puja ceremony (in our case, something like a blessing for newlyweds) for us, with the Maharaja of Gwalior's priest to take us through the ceremony!

It was a beautiful ceremony, with lots of colour and finishing with a special meal – like all good religious ceremonies. And I got to take some pictures this time, unlike our previous wedding(s). Enjoy (on right)...

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Posted by pendleton 03:39 Archived in India Comments (1)

Kathmandu

sunny 15 °C

Well it would have been nice to stay, being alternately pampered and adrenalinised, in the resort, but we decided we had to move on after a few days so, onwards to Kathmandu it was.

Kathmandu must be one of the most concentrated traveller motherlodes in the world. Thamel, the traveller ghetto, is a weary jumble of stupid traveller clothes shops, trekking supplies, crappy souvenirs, wi-fi cafes and whispering hashish dealers. Pretty horrendous to be honest, but at least you can get a good breakfast (french press and banana pancakes = happy boy!), check email and get sorted for leaving Thamel as soon as possible.

We spent a couple of days wandering around the old parts of town, which are much more interesting. Kathmandu is an old (verging on medieval) place, and it's evident that the new city has just been built in layers over the old ones. Every street corner contains a wee shrine or a small temple, with gods daubed in red kumkum powder and garlanded with burnt orange marigolds. Additionally many of the buildings have beautiful Newari wood carvings decorating doors, windows, and balconies – really stunning craftmanship, now sadly mistreated and left to fend for itself in a lot of decaying buildings.

Slightly out of town we visited the Hindu cremation ghats at Pashupatinath. The bodies are shrouded in fabric and then dashed with red powder; then the mouth is filled with camphor and lit. It takes about 2-3 hours for the body to burn up, and then the ashes are swept into the holy (if jet black and noisome) river. Very powerful to see, especially from quite close range as the people seem quite unconcerned to have tourists there - most of the mourning has already been done and female family members don't usually attend the ceremony.

We also saw a living goddess! The Newari people select several prepubescent girls from a particular caste of goldsmiths and silversmiths, apply a battery of tests, and the girl who passes all the tests is proclaimed the Kumari Devi & venerated as a goddess. She and her family gets put up in a fancy house by Durbar Square (Kathmandu's World Heritage if car-choked square) and given a generous stipend until such time as her menarche, when she becomes a mortal again. Her only duties seem to be to get ooh-ed and aah-ed over by tourists every 10 minutes and leave the house for the occasional parade – it does seem a bit of a limited life for a goddess, to be honest.

Otherwise, we checked out the Tibetan quarter (nice to see Tibetans being left to their own devices without Chinese rule), went to the sadly neglected National Botanical Gardens, and chartered an ex-Gurkha with Parkinson's as our driver for the day (no, really). Well, he claimed it wasn't really Parkinson's, and he did drive pretty well, but it was a bit of a disturbing head twitch anyway.

And... that's Nepal, folks!

Posted by pendleton 06:39 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

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