A Travellerspoint blog

Agra and the Magnificent Taj Mahal

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One can’t see everything and I had to make the decision to cut Khajuraho and its fascinating ‘Kama Sutra’ temples and Bodhgaya, the place of Buddha’s enlightenment, from my list. I am heading west to Rajasthan and they are both in the opposite direction. There is one place, however, that I would never miss and that is Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.

I took another night train, twelve hours, to Agra. Being woken up at 5.00AM by people talking, singing, playing music on their mobiles and <em>Chai-wallahs </em>shouting at the top of their voices, was very annoying especially since I’d had a bad night sleep courtesy of four nails poking out of the wall one end of my bunk and into my feet.

Our arrival into Agra and its outskirts was heralded by defecators lining either side of the train tracks. It is very curious that the strict modesty code does not reach toilet habits and Indians (mainly male) although, apparently, reluctant to be seen naked by their spouses, have no compunction about squatting in full view of the general public.

I had been warned by many people that Agra is filthy so the quiet tree-lined boulevards leading up to Taj Ganj (where Taj Mahal is) came as a pleasant surprise, actually Varanasi is much worse. Exploring Agra I found I liked it, away from the annoying touts and hawkers I found some really lovely market streets where no-one bothered me at all.

After dumping my bags at the hotel, with growing anticipation I raced to the South Gate entrance hoping to miss the huge throngs of people the guide books warn about. I paid my Rs750 (the price for foreigners entrance, compared to Rs20 for Indians), collected my little, white shoe covers, was thoroughly frisked and searched and I was in – no queue at all. I held my breath for my first view of probably the most famous and arguably most beautiful building (sarcophagus) in the world.

The Taj does not disappoint. I overheard an American say to his wife “Now I can die happy, knowing I’ve seen the Taj Mahal.” I understood what he meant, it being a big tick off my list.

Perfectly symmetrical from all sides and exquisitely beautiful and intricate, it <em>is</em> awe inspiring. I am sure anyone who has ever seen it could never forget just how stunning it is. I spent time just sitting in the shade, looking at it and wandering around the grounds soaking up the peaceful atmosphere. Apart from the magnificence, it has to be the cleanest place in all India. Certainly one of the few places that actually has bins - I was quite distracted by them almost stopping to take photos of these strange installations.

My favourite view of the Taj was at sunset. I went down by the river and watched the sun sink behind it, turning the sky orange and pink and silhouetting the domes and minarets perfectly. Far from being a dirty, hectic cess-pit for me Agra and the Taj Mahal has been one of the most serene places I have visited.

Posted by saraintrep 07:41 Archived in India Tagged women Comments (0)

Varanasi

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My Southern adventure has come to an end which means that I only have about two months left in India. Heading north but not wanting to face a thirty-eight hour train journey from Chennai to Varanasi, I took the twelve hour sleeper train to Hyderabad. I had one day there to see some cultural sight and eat meat for the last time before dicing with the culinary perils of north India. I found <em>Laad </em>Bazaar, where, channelling my friend Karen, I spent too much money on sparkly bangles (Butler &amp; Wilson pales in comparison).

The landscape changed from luscious paddy fields and swaying palm trees to forests and shrub land. The air became cooler, notably marked by the men sporting fluffy, glittery wool jumpers in a variety of loud colours. More dirty faced, bright-eyed children appeared at each stop begging for food or money.

With growing anticipation I arrived into Varanasi station. Having been unable to book a room in advance I enlisted the help of the Tourist Counter at the station. Armed with a list of possible hotels and accompanied by, an apparently honest, rickshaw driver – I headed into town giddy with excitement.

At 6.00pm every night the <em>puja (</em>offering or prayers<em>;)</em> takes place at the main <em>Ghat (</em>steps leading down to the river<em>;)</em>. An elaboratre ceremony of fire and chanting to honour the holy of holies <em>Ganga </em>River <em>( </em>The Ganges<em>;)</em>. Little girls selling flowers and candles to be floated on the river, hound you at every turn as do boat touts and silk merchants. I bought a candle for Rs10 but as I was bending down to float it carefully on the water, not loose my camera or get robbed, I managed to up-end it so instead of a neat little boat gliding away like everyone else’s, mine was a trail of flowers, petals, a candle and an empty container. I dropped my purse into the Ganga, but as I was able to retrieve it, I decided it was good luck.

A walk at sunrise took me along to the, Harishchandra Ghat, the smaller of the burning Ghats. A man and about seven children were sitting by a fire; I was invited down to warm myself by the fire – that fire being an almost burned-out funeral pyre! He explained the ceremonial rituals to me. The pyres are attended by low caste or outcast people. Five types of people are not cremated on the Ghats: Priests and holy men, pregnant women, children under 15, lepers and those unlucky enough to be bitten by a cobra. These people are shrouded and attached to a large rock; they are then taken out into the middle of the Ganga and thrown overboard. Animals are also not allowed to be burned.

If you don’t fall into these categories your family will have your body shrouded, they will then go to the barber and have their hair and moustaches shaved off. The body is then washed in the Ganga before buying a carefully weighed amount of wood, sandalwood being the most expensive, to ensure full cremation of the body, which usually takes about three hours. Ghee and oher holy powders can be bought to douse over the body. The fire is taken from a ‘Shiva’ flame that has been burning continuously for 15,000 years. The eldest son lights the pyre. Women are not allowed to attend the ceremony for two reasons: to prevent <em>Sati</em>, where grieving widows throw themselves on to the pyre and because Hindus believe that crying prevents the soul from resting peacefully and women cannot be trusted upon not to cry.

Varanasi is incredibly intense. It is both chaotic and peaceful. Its narrow streets are incredibly filthy and I cannot understand how this most holy of cities is used as a latrine, spittoon and rubbish dump. I also cannot reconcile the apparent spirituality with the uncommon human and animal cruelty that I witnessed here. Although unsure whether I liked Varanasi or not, I am pleased I went not least because I met up with a friend from Gokarna and had a wild night out on Varanasi tiles. A group of us commissioned a boat and we glided along the Ganga. I also got attacked by a huge bull that gouged at my arm with his big horns – these cows are nothing like their southern cousins who are smaller and much sweeter in temperament. Varanasi cows take up entire lanes and the Indians found it hilarious that I was too scared to shoo them and pass by.

However, Varanasi is not to be missed and apparently lures travellers back time and time again – the boat ride at sunset was stunning and a peaceful haze had settled over the river adding to the mystic charm of this most ancient city.

Posted by saraintrep 00:36 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Underwater Wonders; Diving the Andamans

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I am very lucky to have learnt to scuba dive when just a fresh-faced teenager. At seventeen I learnt in Cyprus and after gaining my ‘P.A.D.I Advanced Open Water Divers Certificate’, I went on a fabulous diving holiday in Hurghada, Egypt – The Red Sea, don’t you know? However, diving is an expensive hobby and I have not been since; selling my fins and mask a long time ago.

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Andaman Islands just happen to have some really incredible dive sites, several schools begging to take you diving and loads of enthusiastic divers regaling you with their “I saw dolphins/turtles/manta ray” stories – less about them later. I found a latent passion being awoken. However, I was nervous after all I hadn’t dived for years and there is a lot to remember about breathing, mask clearing and not dying under water.

I set about finding the right dive-school for me. In the end I selected the one who didn’t think that I needed to go through an expensive hour-long refresher course before hand. I was fitted for fins, mask and a wet suit and once I had signed away my right to any kind of compensation or the right to sue, my name went up on the board – I was going diving. I then spent the whole day prior mugging up from a diving manual. Remembering how to not explode my lungs when ascending on a dive, the correct way to take off a weight belt and how to properly throw up under the water.

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Sitting on the boat, listening to the Divemaster go through safety procedures and the specific hand signals we would be using to communicate with one another under the water, I was feeling trepidation. The dive was a ‘reef dive’ and we would be going to a depth of no more than 18m, perfect for my first foray back to the murky depths. Visibility (the furthest distance you can see) would be 15-18m – so not murky at all. We would be making a line descent – this is where a rope reaches from the surface down to the sea bed and you literally make your way down the rope to the correct depth. Entry into the water would backwards off the boat.

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Totally kitted out in wetsuit, scuba tanks, fins, scuba jacket, 7kgs of weights on my belt and a mask. Having checked my air was working and that my tanks were full, I was ready to enter the water. I sat on the edge of the boat and the crew did my last safety checks. On three I was supposed to roll backwards off the edge of the boat, whilst holding my mask and mouthpiece (regulator) in place. “One, two,.. Three”. I looked up at the guy; he looked down at me, with a quizzical expression that seemed to say “What are you still doing here?”

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“Ok” he said “on three?” I nodded; yes I was ready this time. I psyched myself up, took a deep breath, I was ready this time – this time I would go. After all flinging myself backwards off a boat, whilst laden down with a hideous amount of cumbersome equipment is practically second nature to me. “One, two, THREE!” As I had made no attempt to leave the boat and was still looking blankly at him, he gave my shoulder a huge shove and I somersaulted backwards off the boat, landing in the water with a large splash. I was in!

I took my time descending making sure I was safe and comfortable. I probably spent the first fifteen minutes getting used to the equipment and the strange phenomenon of being able to breathe underwater. Only after that did I start to notice the fish.

The water was warm, clear translucent blue. The many different species of fish and corals made the scene almost unreal, like a computer screensaver. Huge Parrotfish coloured blue, pink, green and purple glided heavily through the water, smaller Angelfish, Sweetlips and Needle fish move purposefully in shoals and tiny bright neon ones flit around the corals. My favourite was the small Boxfish. All dressed up for Mardi-Gras, he is box-shaped with lips, fins and a tail, to finish the look he is bright lemon yellow with black polka-dots – I’m picturing a handbag!. There was an anemone with three Nemo fish (AKA Clownfish), which made me very excited and frustrated that I cannot talk underwater – to share the experience, not communicate with Nemo! The corals were stunning, multi- coloured and fascinating to drift over watching the lives of the inhabitants. It was wonderful to be able to dip back in to this ocean world so easily.

We went to “The Wall” and “Dixon’s Wreck”. I much preferred The Wall. Literally a wall of coral that you can peruse at your leisure or until the air runs out. There are hundreds of fish flitting in all different directions so it’s a great site for snorkeling too. The wreck was ugly and dull, having sunk during the Tsunami it hasn’t developed a proper reef yet. However, right beside it was a very pretty reef that made up for it.

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Two more dives logged and although the lure of night dives, sharks and turtles was quite strong I chose to save my scuba pounds for the promise of outstanding diving in Indonesia. That’s right folks I have added Indonesia to the itinerary, be very excited - starting ..........one, two,..THREE!

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Posted by saraintrep 23:48 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Rescue Dog?

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The <em>many</em> dogs of Havelock seemed to intuit that I was a soft touch. Just walking from the room to the beach I would somehow gather a pack of them. They would wait dutifully at the shore as I swam, sometimes even venturing into the water with me. It was less charming, however, when they took it upon themselves to ‘protect’ me from any Indian fisherman who dared venture within 30 meters of me.

When the tiny, brown, skinny puppy came bounding up to me as I lay in my hammock, I scooped him up and went into full rescue mode. His ribs and pelvis stuck out in sharp relief under his scabby skin and he had a horrible ‘rope lead’ tied round his neck that had worn away a patch of fur. I marched him straight down to the sea and gave him a sand and salt water bath. If they learn to go in the water at a young age, the salt water is fantastic for keeping fleas, ticks and especially mange away. Once dry, I fed and de-ticked him and let him sleep in my room for a while. He relished the attention.

<em>Pellicon </em>has a beautiful guard Doberman called Spike and a small white puppy (whom I named Rosie) that had been rescued by another traveller and adopted by the owners of the guesthouse. I had high hopes that the new puppy might find a home there too. Knowing that I couldn’t keep him in the room, I let him out to play with Rosie and Spike – if he was clever, he would stay put.

A while later, he had disappeared. I had to go and look for him, worried that he might get run over by a rickshaw or a jeep on the main road. He was found - in someone else’s garden, a young girl standing over him looking cross. He was no longer the clean, pristine puppy I had last seen, but covered in a green slime and unable to open one eye. With an apologetic glance towards the girl he was grabbed and quickly removed from the garden and retuned to my hut, where I set about washing him all over again. He was very much subdued and whimpering.

Soon there was a knock at the door. The woman who ran <em>Pellicon </em>was at the door accompanied by the little girl and her mother – they both looked very stern! They pointed at the puppy. I tried to explain that the puppy wasn’t mine and I wasn’t responsible for its actions. I quickly shut the door and tended to the puppy’s eye. I wrapped him up all cosy in a coverture of silk and puppy was given one nights grace - he could sleep in my hut.

The next day, however, and he was put back in the garden with Spike and Rosie. After playing for about twenty minutes he, once again, disappeared and I went off for breakfast. On my way back from breakfast the stern mother glared at me from the roadside, pointed and said “small dog”. I wasn’t having any of it. I raised my hands and shrugged my shoulders. “Gone” I said “not my puppy.”

That was end of that....

Except, of course, that it wasn’t. Two hours later, I am once again in my hammock, cross-stitching a row of elephants, when the <em>Pellicon </em>woman appeared. Where was the puppy? I explained that I had let him go that morning. She looked a little concerned. “The little girl wants to feed him”. I looked at her blankly. “They want him back now”. Slowly, very slowly, I started to realise what she was saying.

I hadn’t rescued this puppy – I had kidnapped him! Right from under their noses. Had marched into <em>their</em> garden, picked up <em>their</em> puppy and walked off with him. Proceeded to shut the door on them when they came to ask for him back and then shrugged nonchalantly when the mother asked where her puppy was! They had apparently decided to indulge the crazy English lady and let me keep him for one night, not expecting that I would turf him out and lose him the next morning.

Of course I felt really terrible, but couldn’t help but see the funny side, despite the evil looks that the entire extended family kept shooting at me every time they saw me. Besides which, he had been in such a sorry state that there was no indication that this was an ‘owned’ puppy.

The matter was resolved two days later. Upon venturing out of my hut first thing there he was, sleeping in a ball outside my hut. He was frog-marched back home much to the delight of the little girl.

Noah (as he later became known) visited me about once a week from then on, each time being taken down to the sea for a bath and a swim. He came the day before I left. He was a much fatter, healthier looking puppy, the sore on his neck was healing, he only had one or two ticks and he was full of bounce. Hopefully he will stay that way.

Posted by saraintrep 00:34 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Fish, Festivals and fun in Havelock, Andaman and Nicobar Isl

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There is very little to do on Havelock, so I didn’t. For the first five days there was a festival celebrating ‘Subhash’, a man who did something special enough to warrant a five day festival, but I have still not been able to ascertain what exactly that was; something to do with fighting the British I think. There were bright lights and music, bangles and bindis, food and entertainment. The food was actually some of the best on the Island, which was otherwise uninspiring and or expensive. I was very excited to see the dance competition, which did not disappoint. There were boys who managed to combine smashing glass bottles and fluorescent tube lights over their heads with Micheal Jackson moves. Michael Jackson featured quite heavily throughout the evening, red leather Jackets and spangled gloves making several appearances.

I also had an opportunity to try paan for the first time. A small(ish) parcel of chopped betel nut, chewing tobacco, fennel seeds, lime paste and various other ingredients all wrapped up in a leaf. The parcel is then inserted into the mouth and chewed, sucked and left in the mouth for as long as possible. The initial flavour is quite refreshing, but even though I had asked for a ‘lady’ sized one, it was impossible to hold in my mouth for very long and I felt like a small child with an enormous gobstopper. I quickly spat it out, but as everyone spits, all the time, no-one noticed. I should have ticked it off my ‘List of cultural things to try’ and left it there.

On the last night of the festival I was offered paan again and not wanting to offend, I accepted. I decided to give it a proper chance this time and dutifully chewed and chewed, decorously spitting out the desiccated remains. Betel nut is of the same family as nutmeg, which, you might be aware, has hallucinogenic properties when consumed in enough quantities. I was feeling slightly strange and unsettled as I was leaving the festival but nothing had quite prepared me projectile vomiting that ensued through the night and well into the next morning. So, India finally got me in the end. Having managed to stay healthy my entire trip – no Delhi Belly or travellers tummy at all, I now have my own story to tell round the campfire.

Recovery was swift however and I moved from Beach 7. Although stunning during the day it dies a death every night, there being absolutely nothing to do nor the possibility of getting anywhere where there was. After doing serious research into where I would go, I finally chose, the imaginatively named, Beach 3 and Pellicon (sic) resort. Coco beach huts and views of the aqua sea – it was seemingly perfect.

The first morning I rushed down to the beach to go swimming – to discover that the beaches are disappointingly filthy at times. The tide brings in plastic wrappers, glass bottles and scum. After the glories of Beach 7 where the water is clear as glass I was very disenchanted. I was just about to stomp back to the hut when I noticed a big fish floundering high up on the beach, gasping for breath and slowly dying in the already baking sun. The tide had bought him in and left him meters from the shoreline. He was about 60cm long x 30cm wide and on closer inspection covered in sharp spines. I grabbed it by its tail fins and dragged it down the beach to the shore. As soon as the water touched his scales he became too slimy to hold and I couldn’t manoeuvre him anymore. Pushing sand from underneath the fish to push it towards the water, and to protect myself from those very dangerous looking spines, I was able to direct him towards the water. Suddenly, the fish puffed up, being as he was, a Puffer Fish. He was transformed into a very beautiful, strange thing with a cute face – it was like my very own ‘Blue Planet’ episode. Then using a fallen coconut frond I pushed him further out to sea. He lay upside down on the surface of the water, gasping for breath, for about two minutes. Then, without so much as a fin wave of gratitude, he de-puffed and disappeared.

Posted by saraintrep 00:33 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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