A Travellerspoint blog

Coching in Cochin

Taking it easy in Northern Kerala...the dry, sweaty leg!

This weeks' account of Keralan events is about relaxing, detoxing after the excesses of Varkala and houseboating and generally coching in Cochin.

Cochin is made up of a gaggle of islands and peninsulas, including mainland Ernakulam, where we arrived into after our departure from Alleppey; the islands of Willingdon, Bolgatty and Gundu in the harbour; Fort Cochin and Matancherry on the Southern peninsula; and Vypeen and Vallarpadam Islands; north of Fort Cochin. Cochin remains a living homage to its varied colonial past: giant fishing nets influenced by Chinese merchants, a sixteenth century synagogue, ancient mosques, Portugese houses built half a millennia ago and the crumbling residuum of the British Raj. The result is an unlikely blend of medieval Portugal, Holland and an English country village grafted onto the tropical Malabar coast. It's proved to be an interesting a delightful place to spend some time, soak in the history, experience the rich cultural arts and dance scene and practice some yoga, for the first time!

We stayed in Ernakulam, the busy, hot, traffic-ridden town that acts as a central point for transport routes to the north and south, for one night, before heading off to Fort Cochin where we stayed for the majority of our time in the area. We found a home-stay to reside in for a few nights, which was literally a room in a house of a family of four. The father and the only one who we could communicate with, Mukesh Anthony, was a kind and hospitable man, obviously keen to ensure we were content with his service at all times. This did become a slightly claustrophobic and harassing element to our stay however, as as soon as he knew we were awake he would be knocking at the door, asking if we wanted breakfast, dinner, washing, air conditioning, a trip to watch Kathakali dancing... You name it, he asked whether we wanted it (Crude jokes may be added here). All the while he would be vigorously wagging his head from side to side - the most characteristic of Indian gestures and one that can mean one of many things: Yes, I agree with you, I would like that, I understand... A truly universal expression that makes me smile every time someone uses it for my purpose. And he would prance about from foot to foot as if engaging in some kind of folkish dance at our door, his dutiful wifey standing at his side smiling rigidly and clearly not understanding a word we were saying! Quite bizarre!

Fort Cochin boasts many spectacular churches, basilicas, museums and cemeteries, all regaling the tales of its' extensive colonial past. Because of its' harbour, Fort Cochin has historically been the landing and settling point for people from many different nationalities and origins. Settlers from the Middle East and Far East came in the 1300's, before the Portugese stumbled across the gem in 1500, setting up their headquarters in Fort Cochin itself. The establishment of their base was possible on account of the understanding between them and the local Lords and Rajah's of Cochin. Dissimilar to the imperialist state in Kolkata, in Cochin everyone benefited from the trading of spices. Sally and I spent the first days in F.C. meandering around the town, absorbing the main sights of interest and enjoying the occasional breeze down at the waterfront. Majestic, towering Chinese fishing nets line the murky, green edge of the water, their nets swooping down like bowing net capes, honouring the sea as they levitate above the rippling liquid. The nets are lowered into the water and then lifted to reveal their bounty of squirming, bulbous bodies. Fisherman sit in their bamboo and leaved shacks, patiently waiting for their time to pounce. Men stand below the huts, gathering the reams of fishing nets, preparing for the next attack. There must have been about ten nets in total along the waterfront, standing in line like dancers ready for a performance across the sea, posed in their stances of graceful grandiosity. We walked to the eastern side of Fort Cochin, in the relentlessly heavy and sweaty heat that prevails in this part of the world, and to Jew Town and the synagogue that lies in the centre. The walk there was full of brow-mopping, the narrow streets were thick with the smell of the past. Jew Town is the centre of the Cochin spice trade and the surrounding areas reflect the popular trade that exudes from the area. Scores of small firms huddle together in the old, dilapidated buildings and the air is filled with the biting aromas of ginger, cardamom, cumin, turmeric, and cloves. Sacks of chillies, onions, garlic and spices pile high to the ceilings of the various tiny shops, with a handful of men sitting at a table guarding the shop, authoritatively tapping away on calculators and meticulously sifting through their valuable wares. Men lug their loads onto carts, ready for removal to another part of town. Goats wander through the quiet streets, nibbling on barely-opened sacks, standing idly as rickshaws occasionally zoom past, dodging precariously to avoid the bleeting blighters. All this activity takes place under the watch of the colonial Portuguese architecture - quaint houses painted vibrant blues and yellows, the slatted wooden windows open to allow the precious sporadic breeze in; haggard buildings lying in disrepair, boarded up and left to rot after devoted tenants have departed; antiquated bicycles leaning against faded painted walls. A fascinating place that keeps the eyes darting despite the stream of sweat pouring into them!

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Whilst in Fort Cochin we had to indulge in watching some Kathakali, and also in meeting one of the Kathakali actors, Reghu, who a friend of mine and Sally's parents know. Seems like a tenuous link but it was actually really lovely having a tiny little remnant of home in our Indian reality. Fortunately the night on which we wanted to attend the performance was the night that Reghu was carrying out all the demonstrations before the real show began, which he was also acting in. Ideal! So, to explain, Kathakali is a dramatised presentation of a play, usually based on the Hindu epics. Drummers and singers with small cymbals accompany the actors, who tell the story through their precise movements, particularly mudras (hand gestures) and facial expressions. Preparation for the performance is lengthy and disciplined. Paint, spectacular costumes, highly decorated headpieces and meditation transform the actors both physically and mentally into the gods, heroes and demons they are about to play. We saw the entire process, as at this Kathakali centre the actors paint their faces on the stage prior to the demonstration and the performance. The paints they use are all derived from natural ingredients, stones and plants. The colours were vivid red, green, yellow, black and white. Reghu, whom we'd briefly met the day before, came on to the stage to work on his make-up and sat for a second, blessing the materials with which he was about to use and holding the mirror to his chest, praying before he embarked on his transformation. Kathakali is a spiritual and holistic art form, the men who participate in it must learn and train for several years, at each of the roles: drumming, singing or acting. Throughout the performance and prior to it, there are many prayers and blessings made, creating, for me, an even more powerful and significant aura around what can be and was a humorous show. Sally and I, with our love of face painting at festivals and beyond, were intrigued and amazed by the make up that thickly coated the four actors' faces. Sharp lines of black and white cut into the red, green and yellow canvases. Contorted and grimacing expressions were generated, even when their faces were blank, the expression would be one of fury, disgust or tyranny. Another man entered the stage at one point and sat with an actor at a time, carefully placing glue in areas and lines on the bright facade and then intricately and expertly sticking white card on to the glue, which he rapidly snipped and chopped to the right size. When the masterpiece was complete the actor stood from his horizontal position to reveal a convex shape, jagged at the tips, contrasting vividly with the bright red of his make-up and framing his face in a bizarre and entrancing manner. Amazing!

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After the make up, the singer and speaker introduced the Kathakali, its' roots, the accompaniment, and also introduced Reghu. Reghu proceeded to demonstrate all the finger movements and facial expressions, their meanings and their significance. His face was fantastically fluid and elastic, his eyes jolted and swiveled in their sockets, at times so fast I thought they were sure to pop right out of his head! The finger gestures, or mudras, and larger arm movements that were demonstrated next symbolise and communicate all types of meanings, and they compose, along with the facial expressions the communication and language of the play. And so, the performance began, the hauntingly beautiful tones of the singers' voice drifting over the hypnotic and staccato drumming, becoming more and more energetic and tense as a multi-coloured sheet was brought out onto stage, shrouding the first, fearsome actor to enter the stage: Dussasana. The movements, both upper body and facial, were bewitching, especially Dussasana's who had silver, pointy fingertip jewellery adorning one of his hands, so whenever he moved his fingers a dazzle of silver would flash across the space.

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The costumes were unbelievable! Huge hooped skirts covered in reams of vibrant material and glittered with silver and gold trimming. The legs underneath the enormous skirts were covered in tight trousers, and the bare feet curled inwards slightly, stamping and prancing depending on the mood of the moment. The tops were cuffed up the arms with gold bands, chunky and glistening in the stage lights. The arm pieces that Dusassana had were huge, purple, fluffy bits of material, closely imitating some kind of exotic sleeping animal! Dusassana also wore enormous white fluffy pompoms that hung down from strips of material at the waist band of his skirt. The actor would vigorously and humorously lift and shake them around during the performance to convey a feeling or emotion. I found it hilarious! The head-dresses were another story altogether - heavily decorated, brightly coloured, ornate and undoubtedly heavy beasts stood upon each actor's head (apart from Reghu - the lucky one!), a massive disc protruding upright on the back, making it a wonder how they kept their heads up, let alone how they pranced and danced around in them. I suppose that's the years of training coming into play! The finale of the performance was one actor, Bhima, whose face was painted in a permanent horrific gurn, eating the entrails and heart and drinking the blood of the evil Dusassana. Bhima's hugely expressive, contorted face was utterly gruesome covered in blood (red paint) that glistened in the light, with red strips of material (human entrails!) seeping out of his mouth. It really made me cringe, even though it was so ridiculously surreal! All in all, a fantastic and breathtaking performance- an entire and thorough introduction to Kathakali that I would recommend to anyone!

So, now...to the beach! Away from the dryness and into the sea! Gokarna, Hampi and Goa are the next stops on our magical mystery tour...Gokarna first for some yoga, swimming and cheap thali! Yum! Love to you all xxx

Highlights since last blog:
- Wandering the streets of Fort Cochin, taking in the history and the beauty
- Witnessing the amazing Kathakali performance
- Finding familiar faces in amongst the Cochin crowds

Posted by Anna Rowl 22:29 Comments (0)

The Beach Edition

Warning: This blog entry may induce unsightly green tinge in readers stuck in rainy, chillier climes!!!

Aaaah, beach. God love the beach! Kerala, the South Western state, 'Gods Own Country', in which we have been happily residing, has certainly offered up some tasty treats for the Taylor and I over the past two weeks. We've indulged in fresh fish wrapped in banana leaves, curling waves, towering palms, soft-sand beaches, swimming in temp-perfect seas, and the all-important tan topping! Idyllic doesn't come close. This really is such a varied and beautifully diverse country: from being in the thick of the sweaty city, the hustle bustle of daily life speeding you on at sprinting pace, and then literally, sitting on the train into Kerala capital Trivandrum, feeling the gears drop down a level, feeling the calm start to set in, as the pace of life slows and reduces to a comfortable leisurely stroll! It has been a much needed transition.

The view from our trundling mechanical mule as we arrived into Kerala displayed a terrain that was altogether different to the North. A sunnier, palm tree fluttering, colourful bugalow-littered scene whizzed past my grateful eyes as I counted down the hours that we'd been on the train (18 in total!). Watching the Keralan countryside fly by in all its' lush and vibrant glory filled me with a new lease of motivation for the trip - a sensation that reoccurs every time we turn the page to the next exciting chapter of our travels. For the first time since we arrived in India, we stepped off the train and walked, unhassled and sans-stress, out of the train station and into the town proper. Only one man asked us if we wanted a rickshaw, and I was so overjoyed at this situation that I chatted away with him regardless of the fact we had no interest in his services. "Refreshing" doesn't come close! I even received a handful of beaming white smiles from lovely Keralan ladies donned in dazzlingly bright saris! It's good to be in Kerala!

Trivandrum, the unprententious capital of Kerala and our first port of call is, well...hum drum. Apart from the enormously appreciated welcome, that we later realised, is typical of this sunny Southern state, the place didn;t inspire us too deeply. Although the cool breeze that meandered around our sweaty, ramshackled forms was like the breath of Gods on our skin (compared to the unmoving, thick, soup-like air that surrounded us in Kolkata), we were unimpressed with the familiar tones of the relentlessly honking horns, the gusts of polluting smoke bellowing out of the rear ends of buses, and the endless streams of moisture dripping down our backs. We needed and fervently desired one thing, and one thing only.... THE BEACH!!!

The first glimpse of the tantalising sand and magnificent sea that we were treated to was in a small, tourist-fuelled beach town called Kovalam, a half hour bus journey south of Trivandrum. We emerged from our hot and sweaty bus at about 5 in the afternoon and, on clapping our eyes on the beach and feeling the sea breeze on our eager faces, we literally bounded down to the beach front and onto the paved terra cotta promenade, the doomish weight of the packs on our backs melting from our awareness as feverish excitement truly set in. We "eeked" and "squeaked" our way along the front, laughing hysterically and uncontrollably at the sights that met our thankful widening eyes: women in clothes that didn't cover up every centimetre of their skin, and...wait for it....bikinis! Actual bikinis were adorning the array of ladies' bodies that we saw. Sheer joy to my eyes after being smothered in an armour of protective clothing for the past two months! Fresh fish - along the front, a plethora of restaurants flouting the catch of the day, promoting the slimiest, plumpest, most gormless wares a girl could hope for! The gleaming jewels, trinkets and materials that resided in the many shops lining the sandy walkway induced even more deafening squeaks from our gaping mouths, much to the bemusement of the over-friendly shop keepers who couldn't seem to understand how two girls could make so much noisy fuss over their goods, but continue to stumble past! We spent that first evening sitting at one of the many restaurants on the beach front, listening to the waves crash perpetually on the shore, and treating our taste buds to some deliciously divine fresh fish. Heaven!

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The beaches in Kovalam are home to a gamut of fishing activities. Lunghi-ed men scatter about the black sand beaches from early morning to late afternoon, their heads protected from the fiercely beating sun with an assortment of coloured headscarves and towels. Noisily and energetically they work together, carrying hundreds of metres of fishing nets and lines, busily chattering as they collectively and steadily progress with their laborious daily tasks in their nonchalant but skillfully executed manner. While we watched, a hoard of men were heaving in a catch via a thick, resilient rope. The end of the rope was beneath the turbulent sea, out of sight to my eyes, and the load appeared extremely cumbersome, by the account strained out on the faces of the lugging and tugging fishermen. Like a team of ants they dragged the rope, each man reaching the back of the line and handing their piece of rope to the man who had the less strenuous job of curling the rope into a perfectly formed heap. From the back they would march again to the front and resume their tug on the fraying cable, all the while enthusiastically singing a chorus of delightful song, to keep up their momentum, or perhaps to distract themselves from the toil. The rhythmic pull of the rope synchronised beautifully with the tempo of their jovial tune, appearing to make a heavy job much lighter. Simultaneously, at another spot on the beach, another troop of men were shouting and heaving as they attempted to push a fishing boat out into the sea. The sea was fiercely animated, the waves crashing and storming onto the shore with such velocity that I wondered whether their task was not only impossible but slightly insane! But, as sure as the sky is blue, the bustling figures succeeded in slowly but surely forcing the huge wooden vessel into the boisterous walls of water, fought back at moments but essentially conquering the challenges to finally reach past the levels and glide into the vast ocean.

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The second day on Kovalam Beach we were busily sweating it out on our sarongs when we saw two Indian men swimming in the sea with masks on. At one point one of the men emerged from the sea pulling a squirming, shining sting ray. The ray was caught on a hook and the diver, with his jet-black skin and comparatively gleaming white lunghi, expertly held the ray down as it lashed violently with its' tail, eventually stepping on the poisonous tail and pulling the four-inch sting out with his barehands. It was all very impressive until he flipped it on it's back, not putting it out of its misery but instead leaving it to slowly die, gasping its last breaths from its crescent-shaped mouth whilst frying in the boiling sun. Almost immediately afterwards the second diver brought an even larger sting ray in from the sea. This one was not pleased at all. The tail was larger and far more violent in its' thrashing and whipping. This one was destined for the same fate as its' smaller companion, and I couldn't help but wonder if they were mother and baby and she had been caught trying to protect her little one. Quite a strangely upsetting scene to witness as we stood there on the beach with the other onlookers.

From Kovalam, we journeyed further north to Varkala. We had been reliably informed that this beach was one of the best in Kerala and we were not disappointed. The main stretch of white sand is nestled underneath a ridge of towering cliffs, hosting a vast array of trinket shops, Ayurvedic treatment centres, restaurants and quirky bars. The sand is soft and smooth between your toes and the sea is incredibly inviting, especially in the heat of the midday burn. On some days the waves are mellow and you can just lie effortlessly, floating and bobbing in the cool, sparkling water. On other days the waves will crash like an excitable, energetic dog onto the shore, playfully bowling you over as many times as your legs can bear! From the beach, a steep stone staircase leads up to the top of the cliff, palm trees swaying and teetering over the edge precariously. The length of cliff and beach are truly perfect partners and so picturesque, a serene dream to my city-filled, hectic soul. Time to really relax and reflect.

Another fantastic element to our Varkala experience was meeting five brilliant ladies with whom we spent many a drunken dancing eve in the misdt of the night-life Varkala has to offer. Yes, that's right... for the first time, I got to dance to good, loud music in an open space without being harrassed or stared at. Yeah! Every night we met with the girls after a hard day on the beach together (!!!) and enjoyed dinner and drinks. One night we settled on the beach after-hours, with a few beers and our trusty speakers, underneath the most amazing canopy of twinkling stars. I have never seen a shooting star and, much to their dismay, admitted this to my company. After everyone else seeing about twenty each and me still darting my head around uselessly, lo and behold, a shooting star flashed before my eyes, very low to the horizon, as if the sky was beckoning me with all its' might to see it. And, according to the others, it was a "big one"! It's shining tail whizzed behind the moving body of light and past my vision with such speed and beauty, I wished it would slow down. Amazing.

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We knew we had a good thing going with the group we'd formed in Varkala and all agreed it would be shame to let it end there. As a result, we decided to get on a world famous houseboat together, from Alleppey - a town a little further north from Varkala. Riding a houseboat through the Keralan backwaters is listed in the "Things to Do Before You Die". It's big time. It's huge. It's....meant to be really good, basically. So off we trotted, the seven of us, the Indian Force, to Alleppey, to find and conquer our houseboat. We managed to get one for a good price and on Friday morning we hopped on, stocked up on booze, bikinis, sun cream, snacks and supplies. In true female fashion, we had enough "stuff" to, well...sink a houseboat! (Don't worry, we didn't sink it!). The package entails 22 hours on the boat, three absolutely delicious Keralan meals, snacks of banana fry and tea or coffee, bedrooms with en suites, and the most stunning views of the backwaters and village life you can imagine. Deal.

The boat itself is like a converted rice barge, with wooden and leaved exterior. A beautiful-looking vessel. The interior was really plush - we had a dining room which was open-walled to take in the panoramic views as you eat. We had an upstairs area which we used for sunbathing and, later on, party time! The backwaters are quite wide waterways, lined with swaying palms and hosting all types of village and animal life. They are home to a whole array of water-based transport, from tiny wooden canoes carrying enormous bundles of vegetation or crops and men with scarves wrapped tightly around their heads strenously punting them along; to grand, palatial, motorised mansions housing the tourist of the day, the tall walls of the vessel shadowing over as it plunges through the gently rippling water. As the seven of us sunbathed, on our backwater Dream Boat, we passed an assortment of daily scenes - women washing clothes and cooking utensils in the water; men lathering their limbs for a wash; younger women carrying little ones and encouraging a wave to the passersby; teenagers and older children playing and running along the ridges between the abundance of vibrantly green rice paddies; hypnotic, melodious late-afternoon prayers belting out from church loudspeakers into the dusky haze. As the sun set, we emerged from a narrow waterway into the open mass of sea, and watched as we, along with the countless other houseboats flowed in and around each other, like strange beasts engaging in a majestic sunset waltz, dodging and moving gracefully and positioning themselves for the moment the sun hit the horizon. We watched the light fade, glimmering pink and orange through the jagged palms before us, down and down into its' backwater bed. And then the night came! The drink started flowing and the food was divine...we spent the evening laughing cacaphonously into the hazy darkness, glittering our faces, supping vodka cocktails, playing drinking games, and generally having a Dream Boat Ball. It was definitely one of the highlights of the trip so far.

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And so, we keep heading up up and away...towards Goa where we will be residing for Christmas and New Year. At the moment, we are in Fort Cochin and another blog will be coming your way telling the tales of this, the second, non-beach leg of our Kerala adventure. For now I will say ta ta for now and love to all of you stuck in rainy England. I wish you were all here!! xxx

Highlights since my last blog
- The Dream Boat houseboat
- Seeing my first shooting star
- Discovering the wonders of Skype!
- The amazing curry puns from Brown et al - "Tikka Chance", "Poppadom Preach", "King Prawn Masala drinks are free"...to name but a few.

Posted by Anna Rowl 02:31 Comments (0)

Kolkata: the paradoxical city

Calcutta, or Kolkata as it has recently been renamed, is the change that Sally and I both needed. After our very quiet 2 weeks in Darjeeling, Kolkata couldn't have been more different! The most noticeable change to our bodies is the climate...we went from the chilliest hilly climes to the sweatiest, closest and hottest temperatures I have experienced yet. Every night is like sleeping in a sweat box, even with the fan turned up high, you still get hot and bothered! No number of showers can truly cleanse the skin of the clamminess that prevails in this heat. But enough of the weather chat...god, I'm so bloody English!!!

So Kolkata, it's a truly fascinating city and one of many paradoxes and contrasts. It's a city of luxuriant wealth and of extreme poverty. One that is at once noble and squalid, cultured and desperate. One that whispers of the colonial British past and one that shouts out the Bengali soul that has succeeded it. One that offers up extravagant feasts and elegant confectionery in shiny-faced restaurants flouting chandeliered wealth, and one that boasts ramshackled side-street stalls offering equally delicious fare for a fraction of the price. One with wide, tree-lined, smoothly cemented roads with bright yellow bumblebee taxis buzzing along, and one in which human men act as beasts of burden, hurriedly hauling passengers through the streets on raggedy, creaking, metal rickshaws (this trade is perhaps to be banned, much to the dismay and protest of the rickshaw-wallahs themselves). So yes, an interesting city to absorb and even more so, in my opinion, because so much of the sprawling metropolis has been created, influenced, and in many ways, thwarted by my British ancestors. As stated in the Queen Victoria Memorial Museum: "No other Indian city benefited in quite the same way from British rule, but no Indian city had to pay as high a price either." Because of my studies and general interest in British imperialism over the years, Kolkata has been the ultimate example of our historically imperialist tendencies.

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I have found the antiquated, dilapidated, unmaintained British buildings and remanants of the past Raj days one of, if not the most, fascinating and eye-catching parts about Kolkata. The typically British structures look so misplaced in the swelteringly hot, smog-ridden chaos of the city. They are in such disrepair that many look like something out of a horror film - vines clambering all around, windows shattered and brickwork crumbling like pieces of stale biscuit. Perhaps a symbol of the disregard with which the Bengali's perceive their former British superiors - a rejection so palpable you can see it oozing through the moulded facades. Indeed the Indian stamp is indelibly and unmistakably marked on this, the former capital of British India. Nowhere is this more tangible than in Park Street Cemetery. Park Street is one of Kolkata's top commercial avenues but when it was built in the 1760s, it was a simple causeway across uninhabited marshlands, built for mourners to access the then-new cemetery. The cemetery is hidden from the road, with high walls built around it, successfully disguising what lies inside. Walking inside the gates feels like you've been transported in some kind of time machine to the Raj-era, to a calm and shady oasis, a million miles away from the bustling mayhem that lies on the other side of the gates. The cemetery seemed to me a deathly summation of the colonial past: the largest, grandest, almost palatial graves and moss-covered memorials lay before our eyes. Pyramid statues, 10 feet high towered above, marking the death of some British army Captain or wealthy merchant. Extravagant rotundas and pillared structures jostled for space inside the lightly manicured jungle. Such opulence even in death, perfectly mirroring the British styles in life, in those far-off days. And surprisingly, there were no graves for Indians inside the cemetery, but there were Indians working within the grounds. Like the crumbling, decaying buildings in the city outside, inside the graveyard the incoherent image was conveyed...the Indian context gradually overcoming the Britishness...the luscious exoticism, the cricket symphonies in the air, the hot heavy atmosphere...all contributing to the bizarre essence of the dramatically spooky and ostentatious scene.

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Kolkata is locally regarded as the intellectual and cultural capital of the nation. We were lucky enough to be in Kolkata on the week of the International Film Festival that happened to be taking place in the city. Students, film buffs, critics and enthusiasts alike flocked to watch selections of the many flicks that were screening over the week period. The festival was classically and hilariously Indian in its' organisation. Trying to obtain a ticket or a pass was a rollercoaster ride of emotions! We attempted 5 times to succeed in getting in to purchase tickets at different entrances, all of which were heavily staffed and all of which our bags were meticulously searched and our cameras forbidden. We repeatedly remonstrated with each gate guard for a good five minutes: Yes, but we are not watching the film today, we just want to buy tickets!" after which we would be directed back out of the gate, back into the surging stream of people on the street, and moved with the current to the next entrance, where the same thing would happen all over again! We finally reached out ticket-seller goal and bought away, the films being picked at absolute random, according to how intriguing the name sounded! Landscape No. 2, a Slovenian film, and Black, a French film, were those chosen films and both were very entertaining and thought-provoking watches. Both included healthy doses of violence and sexual-content (i.e. boob shots), which appeared to be the only aspects of the films that truly silenced the otherwise chattering, fidgeting and mobile-phone fiddling audience!

Kolkata has also thrown up some other "cultural" delights, though perhaps more Western cultural delights...that of drinking beer and socialising into the early hours of the morning! We seemed to strike lucky with our hotel as our week has been crammed full of meeting lots of other travellers. In this sense, our week this week couldn't have been more different to Darjeeling and made for a refreshing change. We have spent almost every night chatting, listening to music (Eddie- the speakers have been golden and much appreciated by the masses!), and sharing stories and experiences of our respective travels. A great talking point has been the purchase of mine and Sally's favourite condiment...spread...the taste explosion of joy that is... MARMITE! We had been craving it and searching high and low for the black stuff, and finally, we prevailed. The poor guy who sold it to use looked positively terrified of the manically ecstatic expressions on our faces when he informed us that he did possess the jar of joy in his tiny little shop! We just couldn't stifle our excitement! The other travellers we have met (not English ones, of course) have seemed equally as confused by our obsession with this odd-looking substance, especially as we can only really describe it as "black, yeasty tar"!! One American girl that we befriended over the week became our breakfast buddy and so Kolkata mornings became a ritual of buttery toast, poached eggs and their best mate, Marmite. Lush! She was a true convert to the Marmite ways by the time we parted company!

Our last day in Kolkata was spent attempting to visit a temple dedicated to the Goddess Kali. As in any other cosmopolitan Indian city, there are a plethora of temples, shrines, churches, mosques, synagogues and any other religious place of worship you can imagine, dotted around the place. We unknowingly decided to visit this temple on a holy day, Sunday, and on a day when the entire temple and its' surrounding area was flooded with people. A "live" temple as our American friend Galen termed it. Kali is a fearsome Goddess who wears human skulls around her neck and dances on corpses. Hindu's give offerings to all their Gods and Goddesses, so that health, prosperity and happiness are afforded to them at all the various points throughout their lives. A favoured offering for Kali is a slaughtered goat. Families will save up all their pennies so that they can slaughter their family goat and give it as an offering to Kali. As we unsteadily meandered our way around the bustling temple, people were shouting and pushing around, trying to get into the temple to pray, and waiting for their goats to be slaughtered in a square pit, covered in bright flower garlands and with close-eyed men chanting prayers and blessings. There were vibrant yellow, red, orange wreaths of flowers being sold, bought and littering the floor like colourful confetti. There were muscle-ridden men in lunghi's butchering goat meat with cleavers and bloodied knives. A whole shimmering pile of goat intestines, stomachs and other vital organs were on display, glistening and squirming on the cold stone ground like deformed, beached jellyfish. There were small boys having their heads roughly shaved, the hair being offered to Kali for the hope of good health and prosperity for the youngun', before he was ceremoniously dunked in the bathing ghat, bald head and all, by his proud and beaming father. It truly was a "live" temple, the atmosphere and activity hit you round the face with it's vibrancy and volume. I had never witnessed anything quite like it!

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And so, Kolkata is another chapter we must now close...the golden sands and crystal seas of the Keralan coast are well and truly calling us! My god, I can't wait to get onto a beach and into the sea, especially after the amount of sweat that's been exerted in these busy city streets...water must be replenished! I will update in Kerala and apologies in advance if my words make some of you lovely people stuck in wintery English climes an envious shade of green...

Love and missings as always.

Highlights since my last blog entry
- Drinking cold(ish) beer on the roof top of our hotel with some like-minded travelling folk.
- Finding out the amazing Edward has booked his ticket to come and see me in South America - whoop whoop!!
- Wandering around the fascinating museum at Victoria Memorial and learning about British imperialism in this, Mother India.
- Finding my mate, Marmite. The most delicious taste of home EVER.

Posted by Anna Rowl 08:07 Comments (0)

Tea, trains and all things Darjeeling!

Living the rather Raj life in Darjeeling...

Darjeeling is beautiful. Cold, sometimes ruddy freezing, but very very beautiful. The place couldn't be more different to Varanasi - our last stop on the magical, musical merry-go-round that is this trip. Varanasi was hot, hectic, traditional, mad and sensually flabbergasting! Darjeeling is sensually flabbergasting but in a much calmer, more Westernised, less chaotic, and chillier way!

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Darjeeling is a hill-station in the North East of India. It is draped over a steep mountain ridge and surrounded by tea plantations, an aspect of the town that brings with it significant fame and high economic activity. The place is backed by a beautiful Himalayan panorama so the mountain views are reminiscent of the visual delights we were treated to in Pokhara and on our trekking in Nepal....the white-tipped mountain scapes on a clear day hit you right between the eyes! The main drag of road that inhabits hoards and hoards of fuming jeeps is busy every day, but there is very little traffic in the small steep roads that wind around the town, connecting the main sites of interest like pumping arteries, making wandering around a tranquil and enjoyable but often tiring experience! Oh yes, the hills! The hills have certainly kept Sally and I on our toes! And with the sickness that we both suffered in our first week, the hills have mostly been resentfully endured rather than relished! Indeed, we both became quite ill, in different ways, after our epic and unsanitary journey from Varanasi to Darjeeling. On the plus side, Darjeeling has proved to be an ideal place to just relax and get better in...it holds many similarities to home- people don't stare (as much!), the climate is similar to England, and there are plenty of pharmacy shops with Western comforts (i.e Dairy Milk...but still no marmite can be found. Boo!).

People wander aimlessly around everywhere. Tourism, along with the tea trade, is Darjeeling's most prominent trade, and as result, the streets are bustling with human traffic. Many Indian families frequent the chilly hills, filling the pathways with their amusing winter wear, filling the restaurants with their enormous family congregations, and filling the jeeps - another brilliantly manic Indian transport mode! Taking a jeep ride here, suprisingly enough, is unlike any other jeep ride you will have experienced before! Jeeps are the favoured vehicle in the mountains - they can climb steep hills, conquer rocky terrain, and they're spacious. Spacious enough, apparently, to squeeze 12+ people into. Well, that's if Sally is sat on my lap and someone is hanging off the back of the moving jeep as it bundles along! Transport never fails to amuse in India!

One of the first things Sally and I made sure we did was drink High Tea at the poshest, fanciest, most Raj-inspired and colonial hotel we could find - The Elgin (Well, I say High tea, but it was actually more like a pot of tea and a shortcake - High Tea was a little out of our price range!). Oh how British we felt amongst the grand colonial architecture, supping our Darjeeling tea leaves from the shining silver pot, served by a gentleman in the traditional pyjama suit, gazing out over the tea-strewn hills! It was exactly how I'd imagined it! And apart form anything else, the toilet was so heavenly clean and equipped with soap, towels and...wait for it...toilet paper (!!!) I simply had to use it twice. Getting your money's worth and all that! Not that I want to get into toilet talk but when you're travelling, finding a toilet that isn't heaped with waste matter, doesn't stink to high heaven, and actually provides toilet paper, is a joy that I cannot put into words!

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The next quintessentially Darjeeling activity we indulged in was the Toy Train, or the Joy Ride, as it is affectionally known. After a less than affectionate, but more than familiar elbow-jostling hustle to acquire tickets, we boarded the tiny, antiquated, three-carriage train on a sunny Sunday morning. The train puffed from its' bellows a steady stream of thick steam, fuelled by a singular blue-uniformed gent who frantically shovelled coal into the yawning fiery mouth of the locomotive. We chugged noisily away from Darjeeling station, the beautiful blue-sky day lighting the landscape up in fantastic vivid constrasting colours. The hills of these mountain habitations are scattered, and in the case of Darjeeling, blanketed, with towering, teetering buildings that boast unrivalled views of the stunning landscape, but look unnervingly unstable, and in some cases, leaning towards the precipice of the valley below. The Tibetan presence and influence in Darjeeling and in the mountainous North East of India generally is prominent. Beautiful, vibrant, kaleidoscopic colours of Buddhist Monasteries and Gompas dot the hills, drawing your eye to the sites like moths to a flame. They bring such an atmosphere of vivacity and happiness to the region, along with the bright fluttering prayer flags that can be seen tied to any post, any sign, anywhere. The mountains were so clear on the horizon that day, more than any other day we'd been in India. It felt as if you could reach out and touch them. And very different to the view in Pokhara, where there was a handful of enormous peaks. Here, the white mounts stand in a long line, of roughly equal stature, like shining princes standing ready for some grand battle. The exceptionally noisy train induced ear-blocking gestures for numerous passers-by as the train driver liberally released the hefty, blaring horn for no apparent reason. The train track runs alongside the narrow winding main road for the majority of the 20 minute journey, and the train is undoubtedly the King of the Road! Hollering its' enormous shout, it ensures that its' meager competitors - the cars and motorbikes - are left quivering with their comparatively meager horns silenced in its' ferocious wake. Small children waved animatedly at the passing carriages, gazing in wonderment at the massive, noisy beast that passed their eye line, and hoping for a reciprocal greeting from a passenger. Arriving at our midway stop in Ghoom, we hopped off and were admitted into a small museum, displaying the history and achievements of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. The museum stated that the railway has served as the economic backbone for the myriad trades that have flourished along its' route. Having gained World Heritage status from U.N.E.S.C.O., the railway is undoubtedly a point of pride and economic prosperity for Darjeeling and the surrounding areas.

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After 6 days of Darjeeling wanderings, to relieve ourselves of what had become our usual surroundings, Sally and I took ourselves off on a 2 day trek. The walk started roughly 30 km out of Darjeeling and ascended to 3070 feet, at a little place called Tonglu. The first day is the start of the Singalila Ridge Trek, which takes 5 days in total, but we didn't fancy another arduous and time-consuming walk. Nepal had fulfilled the quota. The drawback of just walking one day up and one day down is that it is extremely steep going up and knee-creakingly jerky on the descent! The 12km struggle up the hill was conquered and we emerged sweating, panting and heavy-limbed at Tonglu, and ahead of time. The day had been cold and the wind was howling around us on the ascent, and when we arrived at our destination, halting our warm-bodied exercise, at 2ish in the afternoon it was already freezing. Actually freezing. No number of steaming cups of sugary tea and chocolate biscuit treats were helping thaw my extremities, so we resorted to bundling ourselves up, in our breezy ice-box wooden dorm room, in as many blankets and clothes as we could lay our frozen fingertips on! We went to such extents, we ended up looking like strange, bulbous, michelin caterpillars, moving from our huddled bed position as little as possible to conserve body heat!

The place we were staying at looked odd in its' mountainous surroundings. It was a quaint slate-roof house that you'd expect to find in the middle of the English countryside, with fauna flowering all around, a pond to the front, with large bright windows. All the action happened in the kitchen, which was situated outside the main house. There seemed to be one woman running the show, the busy backbone of the outfit, cleaning, washing, milking, feeding and tending to the guests that frequented her lodgings. What a woman! She spoke very little English so communcation was, unfortunately, limited but, my god, could she cook! We ventured from our freezer room when our stomachs started growling hugrily, into the kitchen hive where, surrounded by local guides, guests, and an array of animals trying to warm themselves next to the stove fire, she cooked up the most delicious dinner of dahl, rice, veg curry, omlette and poppadoms. My grateful tummy fell in love with her that night! I get stressed out cooking in our kitchen at home in Dorset, with all the mod cons and devoid of distractions. Much respect to that Lady from Tonglu!
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We awoke for sunrise at 5.30am, after an extremely disturbed night thanks to the noisest and most inconsiderate Indian family I have ever had to endure. I nearly went insane on that freezing night in the mountains! Rest assured when Sally and I rose at our early hour we made as much noise as humanly possible! Petty? Yes. Satisfying? Absolutely! The sunrise was so stunning and we snapped away happily at the gradual lighting of the towering mountain Khanchendzonga and his allies. The valleys below were like sleeping giants, blanketed by a mossy shroud, almost palpably breathing in their dawn slumber, watched over by their looming shining protectors. It was magnificent, and a very different experience to our Nepali Poon Hill sunrise. It made the sweat, chill and sleepless night all worth while!
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So after almost 2 weeks in our Darjeeling retreat, after exhausting all the activities listed in our Bible (the Lonely Planet), and after enduring my lovely boyfriends' day of birth, away from said boyfriend, and with a severe lack of distractions (alcohol, partying opportunities past 10pm, etc etc!) from said event, we are certainly ready to leave our lofty hillstation home. It has been beautiful and enormously relaxing but it is safe to say we are ready for a change - bring on the warmth, the city, the chaos and the vibrancy of our next stop - Calcutta. Love to you all, as always.

Highlights since my last blog entry:
- Chugging along the towering hills of Darjeeling in the noisiest and grandest of rides.
- Soaking up the magnificent colours of Buddhist monuments on the way back down from Tonglu - the bluest of sunny days
- Opening morning presents with Eddie on his birthday. It may have been a telephonic opening but the love and presence were in the presents, and I hope felt by the birthday boy. xxx

Posted by Anna Rowl 21:30 Comments (0)

The start of the India leg: Pokhara to Varanasi

Soaking up the sights of one of the most sacred places on earth

I write this blog in the chilly climes of Darjeeling...I'm hoping that the words that I type about the hot hectic heat of Varanasi will emanate some warmth from the keyboard into my fingers, and down to my icy toes! A girl can hope I suppose...!

Our last days in Nepal were spent relaxing and enjoying the energetic vibes of Diwali, The Festival of Lights, in Pokhara. The Saturday and Sunday night on the main Lakeside strip was like walking through a series of school dance performances. Young people, from ages 5 to 18, were performing Nepali dances in traditional dress on every street corner; excitable children were running around singing songs at restaurant and shop doors in hope of small donations; older kids strutted about looking exceptionally "cool" with their leather jackets and motorbikes; huge speakers were lugged from one available power point to another, and once plugged and ready blasted out music that can only be described as Nepali trance!!! A beautiful abundance of candles, fairy lights and street lamps shone from all nooks and crannies, lighting up restaurant, shop and hotel entrances all over Pokhara. The lights are for Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, who over Diwali Festival will visit and grant prosperity for the year to the places that are sufficiently lit. To further lure Lakshmi's blessing into an establishment, a thick line of vibrant colour is painted from the entrance of the shop with a circle shape at the end (imagine a thermometer painted onto the street), and offerings are laid out for the goddess within the circle. Flowers, candles and sweets are placed down so that Lakshmi can find her way. Pokhara was certainly a beautiful place to experience Diwali.

Our day of travelling to India turned out to be longer and more hectic than we'd anticipated, but we did manage to cut out staying in dead-end towns for no reason on the way. Bonus. We rushed over the border to India and onto our bus to Gorakhpur and, in true India fashion, waited on the sweltering vehicle for an hour before it departed!!! Something we are starting to get familiar with: waiting! We sprinted off to Gorakhpur once the bus was sufficiently packed with passengers, luggage and livestock, and accompanied by a television blaring out noisy and energetic Bollywood music videos! The bus hurtled down the poker straight road from the border, often coming within inches of collisions with over-taking and oncoming traffic. Quite a toe-curling experience to say the least! Nostalgia from my last trip to India 5 years ago came flooding over me in shocking but warmly familiar waves! Ridiculous as it may sound, the landscape and general atmosphere was different even a few miles over the border from Nepal. The kamikaze buses were noisier, the streets seemed busier, the faces distinctively North Indian, the womens' saris more colourful, and there were miles upon miles of rice padi fields stretching out before my eyes and into the roaring red setting sun. The Diwali celebrations were also going strong over the Indian border but, typical of the country I was now inhabiting, the partying was on a much louder and bigger scale! Here, there were hefty trucks with enormous speakers mounted on them, pumping out the loudest, most distorted Indian dance music, whilst riding slowly along the roads. Indian boys atop the trucks, next to the speakers, and trailing along behind were dancing like the Bollywood actors do...arms flailing, legs shaking, meaningful looks on their faces, and singing away like they were auditioning for Indian X-Factor!

On arrival in hot, sticky and polluted Gorakhpur we decided we didn't want to hang around and so tracked down the ticket reservation office. On entering the building, we were greeted with about a hundred Indian eyes burning into us...it felt like the whole place went from being as noisy as hell to being so quiet you could hear a pin drop! It was hilariously awkward...I wanted to do a crazy little dance and shout "White girl show has arrived guys!!" Really give them something to stare at. But I resisted. And so, the queue for our tickets commenced along with my elbow-war with an Indian lady who tried to push infront of me. I don't think so love...us English invented the queue and I'll be damned if I'm allowing queue jumpers! (Oh god, I sound so sad...what has India done to me!?). Ticket bought, mission complete, so off we went for food and a well-deserved cold beer in the seediest bar imaginable. Literally, there were life-size photos on all the walls of semi-naked white girls. No wonder Indian men can't stop staring if that's what they expect from us! We boarded our train at 11.30ish and luckily managed to get ourselves into a separate 2-person cabin, so the leering men in our carriage were literally locked out. Exactly what we needed in our tender and tired states!

And so, over 24 hours after leaving Pokhara we arrived in Varanasi...exhausted, smelly and bleary-eyed. The two wild women of Borneo emerging from the train carriage I'm sure gave the locals even more reason to stare at us! As soon as we stepped off the train, the pestering and swindling began... "Where you go Madam", "You want rickshaw", "Come this way", "Come with me". It's a real test of patience when you've had next to no sleep, you've been travelling for 24 hours, it's 7 in the morning, it's boiling hot, you've got your home weighing on your back, and there are twenty Indians all shouting at you about rickshaws. Thank god I had Sally T's face to look at at that point! I don't know how we managed it, but through the storm we achieved calm and got ourselves onto a cycle rickshaw, for only 30 rupees, to the hotel we actually wanted to go to, and without causing any bodily harm. It's a miracle!

That day, our first day in Varanasi, unashamedly comprised of eating, sleeping and chatting with our fellow travellers in Shanti Guest House. It was gloriously relaxing and full of stories of respective journeys through the sub-continent; tips on where to go and what to do; anecdotes of weird and wonderful travelling experiences; and banana and chocolate pancakes with ice cream. The perfect antidote for a stressful trip! The remaining four days were assigned for exploration of the city.

Varanasi is one of the most spiritual and holy places in the world. It is centered around the River Ganges and the main activity occurs on the many ghats (steps) that line the river and lead down from the main streets to the water. The River Ganges, or Mother Ganga, has huge importance and significance for the Hindu religion. It is an auspicious honour and release from the cycle of reincarnation for Hindu's to die or be cremated at the River Ganges. The ghat nearest to our hotel was Manikarnika Ghat, or the main burning ghat, where corpses are cremated all day and all night. The smell of burning flesh becomes a familiar stench after a few days here, but never a pleasant one! Bodies are burned on varying platform levels according to caste (the system determining social and economic status in India) and all the cremations are lit from the eternal fire- a small, unassuming fire, which is always burning at the centre of the ghat. The eternal fire is pure and ensures that the body will succeed in reaching nirvana. The ashes from the bodies are placed into the river, along with the corpses of those who cannot be burned. These groups of people include pregnant women, babies, people killed by cobra bites, and lepars. These corpses are wrapped in cloth and get dunked into the river, weighed down by rocks. Often corpses can come free from their weights and so as a gruesome result, a few of our friends saw a dead baby floating around on their morning boat ride down the river! If that wasn't enough, there is a horrendous amount of toxic waste pumped into the river upstream from factories, and sewage from the city and the many cities preceding Varanasi is also combined to make a lethal concotion of murky infestation. All of these factors make it even more toe-curling to see people drinking, washing and bathing in the water everyday! But, as was explained to us by a local, (who revelled in the disgusted looks on our faces as he happily swigged down a handful of the liquid), the alternative is not to wash in the river and thus direspect, disregard and diassociate from one of, if not the most, significant and affirming aspects of their religion. This to Hindu's is not an option.

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The highest degree of holiness in Varanasi is surely embodied in the aghori sadhu, a type of holy man that lives around the ghats, and...wait for it...eats the bones of the dead bodies!! Apparently aghori's regularly perform rites to attain the highest level in aghoratva, the enlightenment. The final part of the ritual requires a minimum of one eating putrid human flesh, and also meditating on (sitting on) the dead corpse. They follow the simple rule that the universe resides in them and they try to attain enlightenment by self realization. The aghori at Varansi was a crazy-looking guy, with a completely painted face, dreaded grey hair, lepoard-skin robe, and what looked like a femur-bone flung over his shoulder! I saw him a few times wandering about and oncesitting on the ghats, with another sadhu, smoking a chillum (a type of hash pipe). As I walked past the two holy men, a powerful and serenely respectful moment passed between us...a collision of polar opposites, of the westernised traveller and the men eternally and deeply submerged in their mystical spirituality. The mere two second exchange of glances, from their heavily painted tribal faces to my eyes gazing in fascination and wonderment, and the kind smiles they afforded me, felt like an eternity and I emerged from my dumbfounded trance feeling incredibly fortunate to have experienced such a rare moment with such betwitching beings.

It seems that every week in Varanasi there is some kind of festival or celebration for Shiva, Ganesh, Ganga, World Peace... We heard fireworks and firecrackers going off every evening, with excitable teenage boys usually at the helm. We saw a play re-enacting a story about Hanuman, the Monkey God, taking place on one of the ghats from our aerial view in a rooftop bar. The actors and actresses were shouting, fighting, and proclaiming such grand speeches and were dressed in the brightest costumes imaginable. We saw Puja, a ceremony where Brahmin men (the highest caste) worship the Ganga every evening at various ghats. They use different instruments and utensils such as incense sticks, candelebra's and cow tail brushes to praise the river, Shiva, and world peace. The main festival that was happening when we were there was primarily for Hindu women. Varanasi filled up with vast crowds on Friday, and by Saturday the place was surging with visitors from all over India it seemed. Troops of drummers and men with antiquated trombones and horns paraded down the main streets, the upbeat rhythms pulsing out into the ears, eyes and hearts of hundreds of smiling passers-by. On Saturday evening, the hordes of vibrant, sari-donned ladies flooded down to the waters edge with baskets of plentiful offerings for Mother Ganga. Sugar cane, flowers, sweets, garlands were all on display and the women sat guarding the treasures, ensuring that the Ganga was the only reciprocant. The ladies were not permitted to eat for the entirety of Saturday and then on Sunday morning, with the rising of the sun, the fasting was over. We were lucky enough to be on a boat ride watching in awe as all of this activitiy unravelled. The vivacity and the sheer scale of the teeming crowds along the ghats was astounding... it was impossible to not feel a strange and magical connected to the city, the people, and the energy that swirled around, through the river water and into the astmosphere.

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As if all the action at the ghats wasn't enough to blow your mind, away from the many steps and towards the city there are multitude of maze like alleyways snaking up and down and round and round. It's enough to make you dizzy! And it did make me very dizzy....luckily I had the trusty Sal-Nav by my side (usually infront of me!) so that my eyes were free to gawp at all the sights on display! There are what can only be described as cubby holes lining the narrow streets, with people and animals of all shapes and sizes squeezed into every available nook and cranny. It's a sensory overload just strolling through the alleyways... as it, I'm sure, somewhat of a sensory overload reading this essay of a blog entry! Wow! There is simply too much to write about India! Every day is like packing in ten days of experiences and sights!

But I will leave you for now with my highlights and with my love. Next stop is chilly Darjeeling and plenty of steaming cups of tea!! xxx

Highlights since my last blog entry:
- Feeling the energy seep through me from the crazy, bustling, magical, spiritual wonderland of Varanasi!
- Witnessing little Sally T shout absolute jibberish at an unsuspecting, annoyingly pestering rickshaw-wallah on the main road in Varanasi! Priceless!
- Drinking the finest banana lassi and eating the most delicious masala dosa you can imagine. Yummmmmmy!

Posted by Anna Rowl 01:43 Comments (0)

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