The Great Ghatsby

Varanasi, or its ancient name Benares, is India’s holiest city. As we step off the train we are caught in a melee of pilgrims, families, sadhus and a thousand other people from all walks of life. We are hustled through the station and into the 45 degree heat of the day by our sweet-talking rickshaw driver.

Varanasi is Mecca for Hindus, and unlike the millions of Indians who wish to draw their final breath here, the last time I was here I did think I was doing to die, having been so sick with gastroenteritis. But that was 12 years ago. Now I am here in a new phase of my life with my favourite travel companion, Paloma.

My recollections of this ancient city are still some of my favourite travel memories, as Ben and I were on our first adventure together and so in love. Could a city as ancient as this have changed much in this tiny drop of time?

Our rickshaw driver Ranjit thinks he knows the hotel I’ve been describing to him, one right on the ghats, the steps, which look over the Ganga and are alive with ritual and daily life.

My old diaries are buried somewhere in my collection of things too deep to unearth. But I think I remember where our sweet octagonal room was in the hotel high above the river. Ranjit leads me through many winding alleyways to many out-of-the-way hotels, claiming they have a view of the river. Well, yes, through the bathroom window. Meanwhile, Lisa waits in the rickshaw sweating and entertaining the kids while I play the scout. After too long I put my foot down and demand to be taken to the hotel we asked to go to an hour before. It’s a carnival of errors from here on in. Now grumpy, he drops us off on the side of the road with the kids and all our luggage. We have to take a bicycle rickshaw into the heart of the old city as the laneways are big enough only for two rows of pilgrims to pass one another. ‘You are like sister to me, not tourist…this is my life’s work, my karma…’ are his parting words before asking for more rupees than initially agreed on.

We load ourselves with guilt onto a bicycle rickshaw. Our cyclist, an old man, is already sweating heavily in the mid-morning sun. He pulls the four of us and our luggage through the masses of people. Out of thin air another man appears then, literally hanging onto the bike and running along side us yelling that he has the best hotel on the ghats. He is reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s character in ‘Midnight Cowboy’. We later find out he is a heroin addict like so many other young guys here. Foolishly, I let him lead me through the labyrinthine old city to yet another awful hole in the wall hotel with no view. Concerned I will never see Lisa and the kids again I ask him to navigate our way back, more rupees are handed over, again with a line about his spiritual mission to help others. In a place so full of spirituality and all about escaping the material world there seems to be a frightful lot of wheeling and dealing and money being exchanged…

I give up on finding a hotel and we make ourselves at home in the beautiful Brown Bread Bakery. The kids run wild jumping on all the pretty embroidered cushions and Lisa and I sip on ice cold fruit juices and recline against the painted walls.

The Sunrise guest house is as cheap as you can get, so cheap in fact that we can have separate rooms, all for under $14 a night combined. Paloma and I take the smaller room with a little enclosed sunroom looking onto the swirling river and the dusky sand-land on the other side of the Ganga. Far in the distance we watch a convoy of black buffalo being led to the shore for a  drink. In the midday heat there is not a soul out on the water. We lie under the ceiling fan draped in a wet sheet and fall into a dreamless sleep.

Every evening on the main Ghat, a puja, a religious ritual, is performed to Ma Ganga and the goddess Durga. Each sunset hundreds flock to sit on the red sandstone steps to watch and listen to the vespers, entranced by the beauty these age-old rituals symbolise.

During the night I am awoken, drenched in sweat and have to soak our bed sheet in water again and again, cocooning us from the intense heat. Paloma and I wake up at 6am and are called to the river by the sounds of the pilgrims singing outside our window as they make their way down the wide, worn steps to perform the morning ablutions in the filthy, yet holy waters. It seems confusing that on one hand the river is considered sacred, but on the other hand so many people are willing to throw their rubbish into it. But I read a heartening article in the local paper about a women’s group protesting the government’s lack of action and have created a ‘Clean Up the Ganges Varanasi Campaign’

Barindra, a boatman, beckons us to his pretty wooden paddleboat. I know I should wait for Lisa and Otis but the morning light is so pretty and Paloma and I set out through the bottles, rubbish and swimming pilgrims to the center of the river. Another boatman rows to our side, his boat laden with flower garlands and palm leaf pressed bowls full of roses, marigolds and sweets to offer into the river. We purchase two and make up our own ritual sending prayers to Ben in Afghanistan and our families at home. The pretty offerings sail away on the eddies and flow of the river. Women in saris line the Ghats, standing in the river up to their waists, colour swirls in the reflections. Boys swim and splash each other with huge empty water drums tied to their back with rope, floatie style. Sadhus in that alluring saffron drape themselves around the ghats. Action is everywhere. Varanasi teems with life, and death, always.

Lisa and Otis emerge and we have another boat ride and Barindra shows us his houseboat and his other rowboats. He is from a long line of Banaras Boatmen and his sons are in training already. Paloma and Otie love rocking the boat, there is no way to keep them still, they adore the ride.

In search of breakfast I slip down the shit-caked steps with Paloma on my back in the ergo…ouch…and arrive at The Ganpatti Guest House. It is the haven we have been looking for. Realising early on that our Sunrise Lodge is was but a desperate option and not so sunny, we move out. Instead, at Ganpatti, lush green foliage canopies a beautiful cool courtyard set inside traditional Havelli walls of this red sandstone guesthouse. Every doorway is painted and hung with sparkling Indian embroideries. The rooms have ice-cold air-con and a fountain bubbles enticingly in the courtyard. No rooms are free until the next day so we put our names down and finally settle into our new home. The kids are in raptures as the owners have a son and all his toys are there for the taking. Clothes are ripped off, fountains are splashed in and bodies are painted.

After the heat of the midday subsides we slither into the alleys to explore, getting jostled and pushed, constantly amazed at the number of people passing through this small city daily. We get lost and found; more treasures and trinkets are haggled over to take home with us. Cows poo is everywhere and great plumes of flies buzz around our heads. Lisa takes a series of photos of sleeping men and the children take up the cry ‘He’s not dead, he’s sleeping!’ We are always laughing. Lisa has a way with people and stallholders, waiters and strangers are in fits of laughter when she’s around, claiming her as the newest member of their family.

When we return to our boatman, he takes us to Kali Ghat, the main burning ghat where 200 plus people are cremated each day. Surrounding this ghat are crumbling hospices where hundreds come to die while we sleep. Barindra pushes our boat to the ‘front row’ the flames warm our faces as six fires burn at different stages up the hill. Cows wander among the layers of rubbish, ash, corpses, rotting flower garlands and old wood. Who knows how many thousands of trees are needed each year to burn the people desperate to leave the cycle of life that only death in Varanasi can bring? A charming man steps onto our boat, Barindra looks away as he waxes lyrical about the wood, bodies and how much this all costs, for our own good karma can we spare a few hundred of rupees? Well since everyone is asking for our money, why not!

As I retell my experience of Varanasi to Lisa, Otie overhears me mentioning something about a burning leg flying up out of the fire. ‘Why does the dead leg fly up, what are there sparkles?’ Here our children are getting an up-close and vibrant view of life and death. Another body draped in shining silver fabrics is heaved up and onto the ready pyre. We all stare transfixed by the beauty of this spectacle only a place like India shares so openly.

Barindra rows us from the pyre, the tiny lights of the puja candles on the water merge with the reflections of the flames and the stars in the night sky.

Published in: on September 19, 2012 at 5:51 PM  Comments (3)  
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How not to catch an Indian train.

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Most seasoned travellers would never be racing through peak hour traffic yelling at their driver ‘Chello! Chello! Dhanyavaad!’ (Faster! Faster! Thank you!) while the nice man drives as fast as he can, attempting to weave through the notoriously crazy Delhi traffic… with no horn. Yes, the only taxi in India without a horn, right when we need one with a horn.

We accidentally mixed up our station of departure to Varanasi. I thought it was the railway station up the road, but the station in question was, in fact, 40 minutes away.  And now our train was leaving in 30 minutes. We were going to miss it. Lisa looked at me like I was mad, which I am, but she isn’t, thank goodness.

Still in island time from our Andaman Paradise trip, we are never-the-less keen to get to Varanasi, India’s holiest city. Right now Delhi is the last place we want to stay in.

We screech to a halt outside Delhi Anand Vihar Train Station at 6:05pm. The train is set to leave at 6:10. Lisa is half carrying and half dragging Otie who has fallen asleep in her arms while we lug two bags into the terminal. The guard rushes us through security not bothering to check for the grenades in our luggage. We burst out laughing when we see the massive set of stairs in front of us and start to race up them.

In India, there is always someone to help you, whether you want it or not. Today we want it and a good Samaritan has come to our rescue. He whips our suitcase onto his head, grabs our ticket races us down the platform and installs us in our carriage with 1 minute to spare. We offer him a tip but he puts his hand on his heart and shakes his head, backing out of the carriage, never to be seen again.

We can’t believe we’re on the train. But we don’t have time to marvel at this because soon we find ourselves battling through the compartment to our berth with the sweat dripping from us. We are surprised to find the berth is over-capacity already. There are eight people here instead of four. Now, one can’t get mad because one has to spend the next 15 hours with these new friends. So we calmly negotiate with them that at least two people leave so we can sit down.

Soon I notice a steady stream of people flowing down the aisle and coming back with bedding. In 2nd class AC sleeper you arrive to a berth with only four bunks and the bedding wrapped nicely in brown paper at the end of your bed. We could only manage 3rd class AC Sleeper and here you have to get it yourself. I motion to the people and our new friend Ravi says ‘Run! Run!’ I join the masses with Paloma on my front in the ergo carrier. I didn’t realize I would have to fight for my life, well my child’s life to be precise, just to acquire this little package of linen.

We head into the small hallway connecting the two carriages and immediately get squished on both sides from others desperate for bedding too. I squirm my way to the tiny counter and thrust forward a 50 rupee note, as everyone else seems to be doing. But the pillow wallah dealing in sheets and blankets seems oblivious. At least 50 people are surrounding us and pushing in harder and harder. Paloma is asking nicely ‘Please, Mummy, can we go?’ and then after a while ‘MUMMY!!!! HELLLLPPPPP!’ and screaming at the top of her lungs. ‘Batcha! Batcha!’ (‘Baby! Baby!) I yell at them motioning to her as the temperature rises and she is pulled in all directions. A woman turns her squashed face to me, sandwiched between three other peoples shoulders. ‘Will you control your child!’ ‘Are YOU serious?’ I exclaim. She then softens for some reason and goes nuts, ordering the men to provide me with my bedding ASAP! I reach out to grab at the enormous pile being handed to me but it disappears down the hall on a sea of hands. It is gone. Then all hell breaks loose. The lady who is now my defender starts hitting the crowd, yelling at the pillow walla who yells at me and I yell at him and Paloma yells at everyone. I grab sheets and pillows, abandoning the blankets, offer a quick thanks to my guardian goddess and turn to leave. On my way out of the melee I face the crowd who have been pushing me into a ball from behind for the last five minutes. A passage parts like the Nile.

Ravi, our fellow passenger, questions me as to where my blankets are. And don’t I know there is a blanket racket going on? They turn the AC up so high we freeze, so people buy more blankets, he says. But then at midnight they turn it off so we will all sweat. Luckily I abandoned the blankets.

Before we retire the kids race up and down the carriage loving the adventure of travel. Paloma disappears for 20 minutes and I find her entertaining a berth of Indian gentlemen with her stories and telling them all her name. I love having so many child minders on hand…and all for free! Otis loves the ‘Train Hotel’ and we make cubby houses out of sheets once the old men on the bottom bunks let us go to bed, that is the curse of having the middle bunks.

These bunks feel like they have shrunk since last month when I shared one with Paloma. She hogs the remainder of the space we have. After a crazy afternoon we are finally all cosy and snug and fall asleep to the rock and rhythm of the train.

Magic Beach

I am tipetoeing along the beach as all the little shells are moving. Each time I pick one up for my collection a crab comes out and tickles my fingers.

Waking up at 3 am is a killer. We have to be at the airport by 5 am for a 6 hour flight to Port Blair, then a very hot 3 hour ride in a rusty ferry with no fans. By the time we arrive at our destination we are hot, sweaty and dishevelled.

We leave our luggage in the beautiful hand thatched bungalow, throw on our swimming costumes and head to the beach. The view is slightly obscured by enormous mangrove trees hanging into the sand and coconut palms swaying in the breeze. We are startled by the beauty set out before us. The clear lavender blue sky falls into the aquamarine ocean, there is almost no distinction between sea and sky. We submerge ourselves in the bath warm waters of Havelock Island on the deserted beach outside our rustic guest house, The Emerald Gecko. Paloma and Otie are in heaven splashing in their blow up animals. We let them float away out to sea and let the tide bring them back.

The Andaman Islands conjure up images of pirates, explorations, tropical Islands, ship wrecks and savage tribes from the days of old. The modern day reality is complete peace, serenity and beauty.

Havelock Island is small, but there are much smaller islands in the Andamans. It consists of a bazzar, a pharmacy, a hand ful of  identical shops selling identical goods and beach balls, a tiny round-about which every one drives around the wrong way and one of the worlds most beautiful beaches. And an Elephant that swims.

Coconut palm groves line the bumpy road leading to The Emerld Gecko, shiny black curly horned buffalo are tied up ourside thatched houses, licking their nostrils in a zen like manner as we whizz by in the rickshaw. The air is thick with moisture and clings to our skin, pressing on to you like a lover. If you feel claustrophobic, just lean on a coconut tree and wait for the breeze.

Days pass and Paloma and Otis have become wild, feral animals. Their hair has sprung into curly blonde mops and they rip off all their clothes not allowing us to dress them at all. Every day they wake up and race into the water, running amock with the dogs and local kids, searching for treasure in the shimmering pools. Paloma has been waiting to get to Magic Beach with Aunty Lili and Otie for months and she excitedly recites the lines from her favourite book, Magic Beach by

‘Wild white horses are thundering past,

Waiting to get to the land.

Plunging and prancing and tossing their heads,

then fading away on the sand.’

And then throws herself in the sea yelling out more lines she loves.

The Calypso life is my kind of life. A simple hand woven bamboo and palm thatched hut to call home, fresh fruit and roast coconut pancakes for breakfast ,mango salsa prawns for supper with lime spritzed cold beers and nothing to do but think, dream and gaze at the delicious blue, blue, blue. Oh, and did I mention two crazy kids?

Paloma and Otis act more like brother and sister than cousins as they have spent almost every week of their life together. Amidst the cute conversations of calling each other ‘Kitty-Cat’ and ‘Meow Meow’ or ‘Batman’ and ‘Robin’, they kick, push and irritate each other, and us. But when they are good they are very very good. And when they are bad we throw them in the sea!

In search of the promised Elephant we leave the perfection of our home and cross the island to another version of perfection through paddys, past road side temples, and a cremation. We watch vignettes of island life out the window of the rickshaw on our way to Beach Number 7. It has been listed as the second most beautiful beach in the world.

No matter how many times we come to visit him the elephant remains a mystery. Not even a foot print is discovered. We are told that when the British came to the Andamans they saw it was filled with timber and to transport it from one side of the island to the port they trained the elephants to swim the timber around. This is the last remaining swimming elephant. Our disappointment is rewarded with the view. Pure white sand is lapped by emerald green ocean waves, big enough to body surf on and big enough to nearly drown Paloma and I. Splashing about happily one day I don’t see the huge wave sneaking up on us. As it breaks almost in front of us we are thrown under the water, rolling round and round, I clutch her slippery body with all my might and loose my favourite sun glasses in the fray. Lucky she had her floaties on!  We come out of the water gasping for breath. ‘Wasn’t that fun?!?’ I splutter and she nodes her head in agreement. After that it seems any fears she had of the ocean have dissapeared and she races into the waves, falling down and coming out yelling ‘I went under! Under the sea!’ Otie follows her and  they race back in giggling their heads off to do it again.

When you are in ‘Paradise’ you are aware how easily it can turn into hell. The Emerald Gecko looks surprisingly similar to the guest house Ben and I stayed at on Boxing Day 2004 when the Tsunami hit and we ran for our lives. A week before we arrived in The Andamans a tsunami warning had been sent out. I am always on the look out for the highest hill and the most sturdy building, just in case. We didn’t experience any Tsunami but everyone seems to be struck by some sickness. Otis has a mysterious vomiting bug. Paloma looks like a pirate with conjunctivitis in both eyes. I lose my voice and the only one holding it together is Lisa.

After we have eaten dinner and the kids have terrorised the dogs, entertained the other travellers and then turn on each other we creep through the palm forest. We stop and look up at the milky way twinkling above us through the fronds. We all pile into the double bed under the mosquito net and the fan, which sounds like a helicopter about to take off, and fall asleep in a tangle of limbs all finding their spot like pieces in a puzzle.

Geckos chirrup, the children have re named all the dogs, black butterflies dance in the sun, we lose days and find others. Making friends with the local fisher men the children are rewarded with pet fish. And they teach the kids all about life and death. Paloma is ecstatic when she is given a small silvery fish to play with, it flips and flaps around in her hands until they teach her how to hold it properly. Soon it stoops flapping and she is even happier that she can now carry it round for a few hours…eeeew!

We return to the Magic Beach in the last hopeful attempt at having a ride on the elephant. He is still a no show. We return to our favourite coconut seller witht he filthy tee shirt and select two huge coconuts to take home with us. We entree on the delicious coconut meat as we ride back to The Emerald Gecko for our Last Supper in the rickshaw. The sky shows off with a spectacular swirling psychedelic affair over the green mountain, fields and groves. Fire flies flicker in the trees and a new moon hangs silvery in the sky. We send our love to dad who is in Afghanistan by wishing on the biggest brightest star in the sky we have now re named Paloma star.

Published in: on May 11, 2012 at 11:08 PM  Comments (1)  

ABOUT


ABOUT KASPIA’S CARAVAN

I’m Kaspia, a stylist and traveller from Sydney, Australia.

Before I could crawl, I travelled. My parents carried me. They camped with me. They crossed borders with me. I still like Spaghetti from a tin. But I also developed a very early appetite for adventure, discovery and learning about other ways of living.

Before my husband Benjamin and I had our daughter, we embarked on many exciting travels, from motorbike journeys through Indian deserts, to tribal escapades on the Pakistani frontier. Now we are happy to say our little girl Paloma, only 2 years old, has a dozen stamps peppering the pages of her own passport.

This travel blog is part diary, part letter home, and part encouragement to those who hesitate to travel with a child so young. To inspire you and to show that not only is it possible, but truly marvelous and one of the greatest gifts you can give them.

Kaspia
kaspiascaravan@gmail.com

OUR TOP 10 TIPS FOR TRAVELLING WITH A CHILD

  1. Keep mobile. Prams can be a hassle even in European nations like France and Italy (think cobble stones!) and a waste of time in places without proper footpaths/sidewalks and heaving crowds. We use an Ergo carrier, but you might prefer a sling. Get your baby used to sleeping in this from an early age if you intend traveling with them.
  2. Be flexible. While you may stick to ‘routines’ when at home (dinner, sleep times etc), when on the road you need an ability to adapt and to be flexible. You can always go back to routines when you return.
  3. Bring play-things/entertainment. Our daughter has her own bag with things she can play with. Sheets of little stickers keep her going for hours. Every kid has a different preference. Some might like heaps of videos or learning tools uploaded onto iPhones or iPads. While away, find things to do that they like, too. Not many kids get into adult art galleries, I’m afraid. Find fairs, circuses, parks and shows.
  4. Keep onto food and drink. Snacks are vital. Always have a snack supply! Nuts, muesli bars, whatever. In many countries the food can be a bit full-on for kids (masala etc) so have a back-up. Things were really easy while breastfeeding. I didn’t have to think about baby food at all! On that note, be careful not to flash boobs in ultra conservative countries!
  5. Get them sleeping rough. No, only kidding! We use a ‘Port-a-cot’, preferably a very light one (Bill&Ted’s T2 is popular and the lightest on the market). Be prepared for your child to end up sleeping in your bed, though. Ah, whatever, we’ll be back home soon! If your child relies on milk to sleep and is no longer breast-feeding, remember almost everywhere in the world has fresh milk (often only available in the mornings though) and if not, Tetra Paks are a back-up if you really have to. Can you share a room? We do, but depends on how well your child sleeps with noise. Our daughter, once down, will not wake up if we’re watching a movie on our laptop full-volume on our bed next to her cot, which is lucky.
  6. Tolerating lower hygiene. Nappy-wipes or wet-ones are good to have with you always, of course. Handwashing wherever possible is best. But dirt on their hands is unavoidable in some countries (India, for one!). Expect your child to put the filthiest things you can imagine into their mouths while on your travels. They’ll probably survive this. Kids need to build their immunity through exposure. So in a sense, you are doing them a favour by not locking them indoors all day. There is every chance in some locations they will develop a bout of mild gastro. Keep them well hydrated during this, and seek urgent medical aid if it goes on more than 48 hours, if they develop a raging temperature or if they start acting weird/lethargic etc.
  7. Share your child. Well to a degree, otherwise you’ll have a terrible time. Traveling with a baby or child as a ‘Westerner’ in many Asian nations, for example, is such a novelty to the locals. Everyone wants their picture taken with your child, especially at touristy sites. They’ll kiss, pinch, pat, cuddle and sometimes simply take your baby/child from your arms. Try not to freak out too much. Freaking out rarely helps. If things get full-on, politely decline and walk away quickly and keep moving. Unless you are willing to let your child develop their social skills by interacting with locals in way-out places, don’t bother traveling in the first place.
  8. Be sensible but not obsessively stupid about safety. Travel with a child is simply not advisable for parents who are risk-averse. This is a very contentious point. Here we will use one very obvious example that will bring this fact home; child seats for cars. Outside of ‘developed nations’ there is near-to-zero use of the ‘baby seat’ for private cars, let alone taxis. Now, we’re not advocating taking your whole family on a motorbike through central Calcutta. But, you will almost certainly be catching a taxi or rickshaw in places like this. Bearing this in mind, we believe it is up to the parents as to what level of risk they are willing to expose their kids to (within reasonable limits and the law, of course!) It is a very personal thing. But just be aware of this before you book your flight to Delhi. Even if you bring your own baby seat to places like this, chances are they won’t have the right fittings.
  9. Bath time with Iodine. Yes, some places just don’t have clean enough water for your baby or child to splash about in. We use hotel-supplied buckets, fill them up with water from the tap, add Iodine solution and wait ten minutes. Sweet!
  10. Plan and co-ordinate. Oh, those great days of free-wheeling as backpackers! How fun and crazy! Now with our child we’re just a little more organised (not too much, though, that would be boring). We book ahead occasionally nowadays; hotels, flights, trains. It’s so easy with the internet to ‘kind of’ know what you’re going to get (the occasionl nasty surprise is part ‘n parcel). We plan long car journeys to coincide for round about our child’s sleep time and so on.

Well, that’s about it. Please feel free to write and tell me your stories or give me your own tips!

Bon voyage to you all.

Kaspia

(with some help from Dr. Husbando!)

Sisters are doing it for themselves!

My fabulous sister Lisa has arrived in Delhi with my nephew Otis. We cover them in marigold garlands and annoint them with the red pigment sindu as soon as they burst from the departure gates and into our arms. As we bounce along the highway Paloma and Otis, are ecstatic to see each other and kiss and cuddle in the back of the Ambassador taxi into Delhi. Who knows how long that will last!

Ben is heading to Afghanistan for a ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure and I thought it would be great to visit the south of India on a ‘Girl’s own’ adventure with Lisa. And the kids, of course! We are sad our other wonderful sister Ainsley can’t join us, but hopefully she can next time with more kids in tow. Lisa is writing a blog about her foodie finds through the USA, Mexico and Europe and is on the first leg of her 5 month family sabbatical. Matt, her husbando, is on a Caravan of Comics (hyperlink) traveling through the USA.

Sisters are doing it for themselves! We wonder if we are mad, taking two under three year olds through India with us, probably but you have to give it go, right?

Our days are spent buzzing round dirty Delhi, feasting on Mughali food at famous Karims and exploring Old Delhi, getting mobbed by everyone for photos of our blondies at the Jama Masjid and relaxing in the lovers quarters of the Lodi gardens.

Before Ben leaves he takes the kids for one night while Lisa and I run through the streets and markets, shopping and getting our hands and feet hennad. The kids love our weird and kooky hotel Anoop and are fast becoming friends with the boys who live in the hotel, these boys break their backs to give you a hand with anything you need. The Indian service is second to none. After a few days in Delhi I can already see that Lisa is a natural, taking India in her stride.

The Taj Mahal is the seventh wonder of the world and as horrible as Agra is, being filled with dodgy touts, dirty streets and tourist walahs begging for your rupees, it all contrasts starkly with the beauty of this magnificent building. I still believe that no trip to India is complete without seeing the Taj Mahal. After a 3 hour drive from Delhi to Agra we have a dip in the pool at our hotel and head to the Taj for sunset.

The Taj Mahal building is as stunning as always, surrounded by lush manicured gardens and flanked on each side by identical red sandstone mosques. Lisa and I are love with it and can imagine it in its former glory. It was originally built is a mausoleum in 1632 by emperor Shah Jahan in the memory of his third wife Mumtaz Mahal. She demanded he build the most magnificent tomb for her, as every wife deserves.

One would think that by being surrounded by all this splendour and tranquility; the gardens, the white marble made soft over time by the millions of hands and feet seeking meaning in this ‘ode to love’, that the place would be peaceful and calm. On this occasion however the experience was a little more challenging than last time; with 38 degree heat and non-stop requests by Indian Tourists wanting ‘snaps’ of Paloma and Otis. We were stopped at every carved flower, at each minaret all around the tomb . One or two ‘snaps’  is ok. But the people wanted more and more. We stop for one and a crowd soon forms and everyone then is asking for a photo with our children as if they are celebrities!

The children have their own ways of declining these offers. Even when Otis is ‘blasting’ them with his ‘rocket powered arm and Paloma is rolling on the ground flashing her nappy, they still don’t get ‘NO!’ Otie is very vocal in his dislike of ‘snaps’ and Paloma loves pulling silly faces at them when they beg for a smile. Somehow we manage 2 minutes on our own to absorb a brief lull of peace and love and then we are out of there and head back to dusty Delhi.

Our itinerary had originally been to travel to Kerala for our adventure, but we are told it is scorching hot down there already and would be too much for the kids. At the last minute we decide to change our plans. Instead we decide to visit a place that turns out to be ‘paradise on earth’.

Published in: on May 8, 2012 at 10:44 PM  Comments (7)  
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The Disappearing Sea

The Aral Sea was once an aquamarine body of water teeming with marinelife and filled with fishing boats bobbing and hauling in their catch. Moynaq, the main fishing port, is still perched on the edge of this sea that has now disappeared. As a result, Moynaq is a near ghost town. As for the spectacle awaiting us after an 8 hour drive, it was incredible.

Listed long ago as one of the largest lakes in the word at 68,000 kms squared, the Aral Sea is now a desert. Leaving the car we walk to where the port once was and look down the 500 metre drop into the dry wasteland. A row of rusted fishing boats remain on the sea bed floor, forlorn and vulnerable in the face of this human-made disaster. It is the worst kind of spectacle. A surreal and wild scene , it’s as if Fellini just left the set. We climb down into the desert and clamber over the rusty hulks which have been graffitied with hearts and initials of local youngsters since the 1970’s. Sea shells are still visable under scraggy bushes, souveneers of a time long gone.

From the early 1970s silly Soviet irrigation projects, largely for the growing of cotton, sucked the sea dry. There is now only 5% of sea left and the 100,000 people who’s lives depended on this sea life are near destitute. To see a human-made natural disaster chills you to the bone even more than a naural disaster does. You have to wonder what kind of government would allow this to happen. Was the money worth it? At the site there are huge photographs documenting the shrinking lake over the years and a board ‘explaning’ this phenomenon politely avoids the truth.

In a tiny museum in the abandoned heart of town, a stern lady opens it up for us with a key, we find log books filled with black and white photos of the busy workers who once canned fish, piling them up for export.

Disintergrating taxidermied birds and animals stare at us with pleading eyes. Old fishing ropes hang with out purpose on the wall. Beautiful paintings depicting the sea life and the thriving community are now nostalgic pieces of evidence of what once was. Just like so many unexplained things in this strange country Uzbekistan we feel we are being looked at with suspicion and are soon ushered out once again, the door locked behind us.

Our train trip to Tashkent takes 2 days and there is not a dull moment on our carriage. Paloma and I read, draw and annoy the other passengers with Play School songs and laughter. She bolts up and down the compartment singing and telling everyone her name. An Uzbek grannie takes us under her wing and offers us some greasy Plov for dinner, giving us her dirty teacups to drink from.

Back in our lovely Tashkent guest house Gulnara, we repack our bags and reflect on this adventure. It has been wonderful but I am relieved when the wheels of the airoplane hit the tarmac in India, a place we truly feel we belong in.

Published in: on May 5, 2012 at 4:31 PM  Comments (1)  
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Khiva to Ayaz-Kala

‘Sunshine of Your Love’ is filling my mind and heart with wonderful images as the music of Jimi Hendrix accompanies us into the desert after our lovely stay in the immaculately preserved old city of Khiva. Ben literally had to drag me away from here after I didn’t want to leave the Tosh-Hovli Palace and it’s tile and gaunch work. To enter the palace one has to duck through a beautifully hand-carved wooden door and walk through a dark passage way. Coming into the light again one is stunned by the many rooms either side of a courtyard, each with an open front and covered from wall to floor with individually hand-painted tiles. Each of the rooms is decorated completley differently. The celing is propped-up with a gigantic intricately-carved wooden column, not unlike the forest of colums one can walk through in the Jama Masjid. They are bulbous at the base and rise heavenward to a fine tapered end.

As Uzbekistan is not high on many tourists’ travel lists (apart from the French, for whom Uzbekistan oddly seems at the top) the travellers we have met have been the most intersting people we have spent time with anywhere in a long while. From the Frenchman Bastian traveling overland from Paris to Thailand, Jonas the Norweigan bloke trekking throughout Central Asia and Ray the vulcanologist from Spain and his partner Stephanie, a dutch chef, on a 12 month adventure across the world, all with inspiring tales to tell. Our paths keep crossing along the way and we trade tips and tricks on working out the quirk that Uzbekistan is.

Out side the taxi window the desert stretches unbroken to the horizon. Then suddenly out of nowhere the ancient Ayaz-Kala fort (4-2nd Century BC) is immense and crumbling before our eyes. We race up the dirt path and survey the ruins of what was once obviously a thriving city. One can still see the foundations of the streets and houses all made from mud-packed earthe and hay, blowing away with the desert wind. Ben, the keen amateur archeologist starts an illegal dig in the wall but comes up with nothing. It doesn’t look as if it has ever been touched.

It could be the psychedelic music we are listening to, or the fact that we are under the middday sun, but everything is kind of surreal here. Or maybe it is just the deliciously fresh desert air. After driving for three hours in this barren landscape we are glad to reach our yurt not far from Ayaz-Kala Fort. Set up on a hill over looking the nothingness and with a lone camel sitting near the door we feel we are home. Paloma is ecstatic and is practically jumping on the camel for a ride. Ben and Paloma mount the bad-tempered camel and disappear over a dune. They come back a while later with Paloma excitedly telling me ‘It was a baddy camel, he went up and down and up and down all bumpy over the desert!’ Ben tells me the camel stood up and sat and stood up again, over and over, then refused to move in the middle or nowhere. If you’ve ever been on a camel you will know that lurching feeling of almost catapulting off each time the camel gets up.

Inside the yurt the softest beds have been laid out on the floor. There are thick layers of handmade felt surrounding the outside of the yurt and beautiful horse hair ropes are decorating the bamboo structure. A feast of chicken soup and fresh vegetables, salad, bread and meat has been laid out for us, and the Uzbek tea which accompanies every meal. Gayrat (yes, indeed) our driver joins us and we demolish the food in no time. It is the best we have eaten our whole trip.

We are told we must see ‘the lake’ and we trek through the dunes and the thorny bushes for an hour to find the fabled lake. On our way I spot a turtle running across a dune. Whoever said turtles are slow has never met one. On arrival ‘the lake’ is more like a stagnant pond. We head back with Paloma trailing through the dust like a little nomad.

As twilight falls we sit outside our yurt watching the stars come out. Our favourite star, the first star we now call our Paloma Star is buring bright. The moon is full but not yet up and as the darkness descends the milky way lights up as only it can to it’s full glory with not one city light to diminish its glow. We watch shooting stars glide across the sky, satelites blink from afar. Our al fresco dinner becomes lively with a bottle of Uzbek vodak which is lovely and sweet. Then the turbaned Uzbek ladies with gold teeth glinting in the firelight bring more delicious food to our low table.

A huge bonfire is lit and some local musicians who have walked hours from some distant village are sitting on stools. A traditional Uzberk dancer is spinning round the fire. Her movements are eccentric and like nothing I have seen before. The few people who are staying here are all up and dancing round the bonfire with Paloma. She loves it and we dance for hours.

Fun Park Without Screams

One of our many obsessions when we travel is to find magicians, circuses and old fun parks. In 2001 I performed my ‘Knife Dance’ on stage to an audience of more than a thousand people at Jadugar Samrat Shankar’s magic show in Amritsar, India. He had a troupe of teenage gogo girls and boys who danced, acted, were sawed in half and did whatever else was required of them. The art direction was amazing and in an interview later he told us he designed all the costumes, sets and back drops. They were of the surreal kind with huge eyes spinning into space, strange melting clocks and lots of geometric patterns. When I queried him as to his inspirations and if he had heard of Dali he said ‘No’. A highlight of the show for me was being taken up on stage, being hypnotized and then floating up into the air. Ben questioned me for days as to how it was done, but I had been under Shankars spell and had no idea!

We haven’t found any magic shows in Uzbekistan, but we have found another quirk. The Fun Parks. We have frequented every single colourful, ramshackle and broken down Fun Park from Tashkent to Khiva. The best of them are in the capital, Tashkent. After spying one outside the car window Paloma is now constantly asking to be taken to ‘The Park’. I must admit her patience has been amazing; a two and a bit year old being dragged from Mosque to museum, medrassa to market, middle of nowhere to mad cities by us for two months. Now it is her turn for some fun.

And so we indulge her every whim and in every Uzbek city we stop in we find the parks and go on almost every ride offered. Most rides cost just 500 cym which is equal to about 30 cents. We are like millionaires and carry around wads of cash. In Tashkent, the park was set out around a lake on which one can peddle a pastel-painted boat and eat ice cream.

There was a pirate ship flying straight up and into the sky with no slow build up. My thrill-seeker friend Gypsy would have loved it. And we saw the biggest jumping castle quite possibly in the world. Cartoon characters were painted with sinister looking eyes and happy smiles and looked all the more strange staring out from the sides of abandoned merry go rounds overgrown with weeds. All of this is accompanied by Uzbek techno music blaring from speakers serenading young lovers holding hands and eating puffs of pink fairy floss on benches in tree-lined avenues.

We are apprehensive about some of the rusty Soviet-era attractions, some even held together by rope and paint alone. But that doesn’t stop us from risking all going on them. My favourite is the Ferris Wheel, of course. Here, one has to hop on the constantly moving and creaking wheel, throwing your child on first, then jumping on yourself and hoping not to fall out. The sides of the steel baskets are usually open, the security chain without a catch and the seats broken. Ferris wheels are normally so safe and dull, says Ben. But in Uzbekistan they’re frightening.

We love how a Ferris Wheel takes us up over the park, showing us the trees below with big shaggy nests in their branches and hundreds of black birds circling. In Tashkent the snow-capped mountains are also a spectacular part of the view. While in Bukhara we see billowing black smoke fires and a thick industrial haze lingering over the countryside. In Khiva the Ferris Wheel stands alone in an abandoned field, so old we are hanging on for dear life while precariously gazing out and over the mud-walled old city at the blue minaret’s domes.

Paloma can spot all her favourite rides now. We know she is a dare devil, but we never imagined to this extent. In the Bukhara fun park she comes across a harmless-looking ride. But only her parents were fooled. In Uzbekistan, a country of so many rules and regulations, why are they forgotten in their fun parks? There is no mininum age for even the scariest of rides. So this one started off like most, in a slow spin, but before long the axis tilted at a crazy angle and we started to undulate as we rose higher and higher to almost vertical. Ben and I were screaming our heads off, I felt like throwing up. But Paloma just spun round and round at enormous speed, quietly smiling to herself.

When we eventually got off, a crowd had gathered down below to watch us stagger away. It is odd, but here in the Uzbek funparks no one screams on the scary rides. Even the teenagers and children are purse-lipped. All one hears are the motors of the rides churning, but no screams or shouts of laughter. On the other hand, I am very good at screaming. After collapsing on a park bench I hear Paloma start jumping up and down. ‘Can we go again Dad, PLEASE!!! Again!!!’ I look on as Ben, himself unsteady, braves the hideous ride again.

Published in: on May 1, 2012 at 12:56 AM  Comments (1)  
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Fabled Cities

Samarkand. Even the sound of the name conjures up all sorts of wonderful imaginings in me. Standing in the main square of the Registan among the enormous stunning medrassas (schools of Islamic learning) is truly breathtaking.

They are some of the oldest on earth, and the Ulugbek Medressa is thought to be the largest and most important centre of mathematics and astronomy in the world during the 15th Century. Glowing in the late afternoon light, the facades and minarets of an enormous tiled mosque to the right of this medrassa, are azure and yellow.

After escaping any sickness in India, we are surprised to be briefly struck by gastro in Uzbekistan. The result of this ends up all over me, thanks to Paloma, as we sweat it out in an old Russian train from Samarkand to Bukhara. When enquiring as to why the air con wasn’t on despite the 30-degree heat inside the carriage and locked windows, we are simply told ‘It is turned on in May’. Rules and regulations govern the peoples of this country to the point of incomprehensibility. There are policemen on every corner, even when the streets are practically deserted. No wonder people here seem slow to smile. These are simple reminders to never take for granted even the smallest freedoms we have in Australia.

The further west we go the more desolate the countryside becomes. Rural life here is evidently very hard. The earth is dry after a particularly bitter winter and many farmers are toiling under the sun to ready the fields for planting. It’s a joy finally reaching the city of Bukhara, the centre of which is free from cars and pollution. The town is small enough for us to walk everywhere and we take to the back streets for a glimpse of local life.

Relaxing under the mulberry trees by the pretty Lyabi-Hauz pool, Paloma is entertained by stray cats and crazy Scottish gents studying Islamic architecture who beg us to let them babysit her. Paloma rides on Mullah Nasruddin’s donkey as he imparts his ‘wise fool’ Sufi wisdom to her.

Bukhara is home to many beautifully preserved mosques, minaret’s and medressas, and a maze of mud-brick alleyways to get happily lost in. Dome-covered bazaars display beautiful suzanis, the hand-embroidered silk textiles that were once bride’s dowrie pieces. They are usually made by several women at a time and take months to finish depending on the size. I am quite obsessed by them, and search for the older vintage pieces. Many of the antique suzanis sourced here are sold for thousands of dollars overseas, pushing up prices here to something ridiculous. We still leave with some bargains for our collection.

The fastest and only way to get from Bukhara to Khiva is by taxi. Driven at high speeds across a road pocked with pot holes, slippery with sand drifts and nothingness stretching to the horizon on either side of you. Stocked with a few provisions, drawing books, and an ipod full of the ABC’s children’s traveling songs, we launch into the 8-hour drive. Travel is in Paloma’s blood now and she loves to look out the window with me for hours into the dusty desertscape, thrown out like a dirty table cloth before us, trying to spot a lone bird or donkey. Out on the horizon, the billowing black fires of burning crops bloom randomly against the sky.

Welcome to Kitschistan

On our Uzbekistan Airways flight from Delhi to Tashkent, with hands clenched in prayer, the lady in the aisle opposite murmurs under her breath and occasionally turns to the priest sitting on my right wearing a questioning look. He nods with closed eyes. The old Uzbek gypsy ladies continue shuffling their goods from aisle to overhead locker as we take-off. The couple in front of me have their seats in the recline position. After hellish turbulence for the duration of the flight and steep left and right banks much like a fighter jet, the plane suddenly lands without any announcement or other warning or instruction for people to return to their seats. Even Ben looks pale.

White spring blossom trees sway in the empty streets of Tashkent at six am. Gentle rain casts a grey sky over the avenues of post-Soviet housing blocks. The scene is a stark contrast to the noise, colour and vibrancy of India. But with the scent of a new land and adventure in our minds, we set off to Chorsu Bazzar in search of fox fur jackets and traditional Uzbek food.

Chorsu Bazaar is covered by a huge blue-tiled dome, the trading aisles filled with every type of nut, raisin, spice, herb and, of all things, the hugely popular cheese ball. In fact, there are aisles and aisles of cheese balls. Ladies swish about in Evita fashions of old; double breasted suits and skirts. Vendors call to us from all sides offering free samples. Handmade kitchen utensils, breadbaskets, brooms, wooden babies cradles are stacked up neatly on the ground. Everything seems to be on offer here.

Escaping the last of winter’s chill, we speed across the country in a Euro Star-style fast train towards the city of Samarkand. Rolling green hills are dotted with flocks of wooly sheep feeding on the grassy slopes. Shepherds sit on their haunches under bare trees looking on, cracking sunflower nuts between their teeth. Towards the east, snow peaked mountains followed our train.

Ben and I have long been fascinated by the ancient Silk Route, once populated by traders and travelers and conquerors  from the 6th Century until the 13th Century. To roam the roads carved across Central Asia towards China, India and Persia has always been a dream of ours. Some days I think I was born in the wrong century and the wish to venture across these desert lands in a slow caravan of camels, collecting stories and fabulous finds along the way in a traditional manner will one day be realized, although I’m aware of just how hard travel in those days truly was. We are lucky our own little family caravan can travel vast distances in the comfort of taxis, trains and planes, no matter how unsettling the latter in Uzbekistan really is. Despite these luxuries, we still insist on the occasional camel.

 

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