7-Bullet Sunday: day 443

7-Bullet Sunday: day 443

What’s it been like being me for the last 7 days? 

1.  This week has all been about exploring Rajasthan.  They say: “A northern Indian state bordering Pakistan.  Its palaces and forts are reminders of the many kingdoms that historically vied for the region.”  We say it’s the land of Kings, colour, and one of the most stunning states I’ve ever had the privilege of experiencing.  A new music style, new foods, a different kind of people, the palaces and the forts, the madness and the heritage all combine to make a heady mix that continues to surprise and delight.  

2.  All aboard the Ajmer Express, we leave Jaipur and head east destined for Pushkar.  All of us still slightly stained with hints of the Holi rainbow on our skin, hair and anecdotes, we embark and sharpen our elbows to battle our way on to the General Seating carriage (read: sitting on luggage racks and perching on edges).  

As that familiar sound and rocking motion of the clickety clack clickety clack clickety clack sets in I can’t help but be rocked into snooze mode.  As my head is gently rocked from side to side I ruminate that this is where the idiosyncratic Indian head wobble originated from, or at the very least this is the best platform to practice it. 

3.  Pushkar, or KarPush as it’s become affectionately mis-coined by my Yankee Doodle Dandy Hannah, is a welcomed change of pace from Jaipur.   Higgledy piggledy streets, cafes and treasure trove shops hidden above steep stairs and behind secret doorways, one could very easily lose themselves, their minds and their shopping budgets in Pushkar, how wonderful.  A place of evening madness, falafel, frolicking monkeys, cruising cows, sunsets from Temple tops and over sacred lakes, it’s the kind of place where you just want to say Yes.  

4.  Peak Decisions:  Spending quality time with Clay and Naomi (off’ve India circuit 2016), I feel so lucky to get the rare chance to reconnect with those good eggs twice in my adventure.  Talk turns to conquering Everest Base Camp in Nepal – a once in a lifetime opportunity and 17k ft – a decision that demands a healthy respect before undertaking it.  

As Winston Churchill once said: “we must not lose our faculty to dare“, so I say Yes!  and book my flight to Kathmandu.  Team Everest Base Camp is confirmed for April 2nd: Clay, Naomi, Jess, Hannah and a delightfully exciting surprise last minute entry, Natalie!!! from Kranti Yoga (and Stockport, c/o Singapore, Perth, the World).

5.  We take a local bus from Pushkar to Jodphur as the Rajasthan adventure continues.  The landscape getting more and more sparse and distinctly more desert’y as we head even further east.  A bone rattling 5 hours later we arrive in the Blue City, and an instant feeling of calm descends.  Our hostel, HostelLaVie, is an astonishingly cheap 450 roops per night given we’re situated in the heart of the ancient city, with the Mehrangarh Fort towering over us from our stunning rooftop view. Oh Rajasthan, you’ve done it again.

Tiffin and sweets
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6.  Food glorious food!:  with new Rajasthani dishes on the menu and eager appetites, we excitedly sample the delights of dishes like Ker Sangri, a dish made from ker berries and sangri beans from the desert, and Gatte Curry made with dumplings.   The tantalisingly novel flavours inspire us to take a home schooled Indian cooking course, Cooking with Aastha, helpfully arranged by our friend Vicky from Ravlas.  4 hours of learning to make the perfect masala chai, malai paneer, okra and potatoes, gatte curry, chapati, paratha and lassi for 6 people with our wonderful Indian Didi, Aastha, cooked modestly and effortlessly with minimal utensils, mess or wastage – a far cry from the bomb that usually goes off in our kitchens amidst several gadgets/brand names.  Both humbling and educational, we sit to eat the fruits of our labours, where else but on a double bed! cross legged with the children and Grandma staring on.  

All you need is Cumin Seeds, Mustard Seeds, Spicy Paprika, Tumeric, Coriander, Garamasala, Garlic and Chai

7.  Bordering Pakistan:  heading further east we arrive in Jaisalmer, the golden city, and I find myself once again near the border with Pakistan (the last time being in Kashmir 12 months hence).  Jaisalmer is an instant hit, with its Golden city, Turbans, and the promise of camels and desert safaris.  We tour the Jaisalmer Fort as the sun sets, a much more alive space than previous forts we’ve visited, home to families, restaurants, cafes and Wallahs of all kinds.  We spend time slowly and intuitively treading it’s windy, bustling narrow streets, taking chai and talking shop, dodging motorbikes, letting the wind blow us whichever way she chooses, and celebrating beautiful friendships from her rooftops.    

Scooter Tetris

Writing this from the window seat of HostelLaVie Jaisalmer, with an hour to go until we leave for our overnight Desert Safari, camels, and a night under the stars, sending lots of love, light and hugs to my Dearest most incredible Ma on Mothers Day.  If Rajasthan has showed us anything thus far, this promises to be a night of wonders where anything is possible (but not always available).

Namaste. 

I return to India 

I return to India 

Gratefully, I was once again inhaling the blessed air of India as I stepped out the doors of Mumbai airport.  The chaos immediate, and the “fit” palpable.  My first mission was to sort out a taxi to my Mumbai welcoming party, and Peruvian Ayahuasca family, Pooja and Rishit, weathering the storm of willing volunteers for the job to choose from, of course. 

Once arranged, my driver saw something in me and offered to read my energies for free, as it should be done, so our departure was delayed as he did so, from the back of the cab.  Turns out he was an ex-employee of the Osho Ashram in Pune!

OH INDIA, YOU’LL ALWAYS BE MY LOVE AFFAIR

This, my first taste of a familiar and beloved land, a reminder of all I loved about India, and a foretaste of what might be to come over the 6 months ahead.  It’s why I felt compelled to return East almost exactly 12 months to the day, same packaging but much changed contents, this time with a renewed sense of purpose.

Two days before I had been in Medellin, Colombia, with a freshly squeezed shiny and new 6 month Indian visa stuck in my passport – the ink barely dry.  Now, here I was, in the madness and melee of India – it was an amazing feeling to be back, made all the more surreal because I’d been in suspended animation from travelling for about 4 days to get there, taking 2 buses (Salento-Bogota, Bogota-Medellin), a last minute passport pick-up in Bogota, 4 flights (Medellin-Fort Lauderdale-Chicago-Abu Dhabi-Mumbai), 3 connections, a 12 hour time difference to get the better of, 2 taxis, 1 whatsapp blunder that almost blew the whole surprise, and finally a 5am arrival at my hotel in Pune.  Great anecdotes are a numbers game. 

There’s only one thing that could have prepared me for such ridiculous mileage and endurance, all for a good cause… ah Dumball… 

For the last 10 years I’ve been involved in the Dumball, a “fancy dress on wheels” charity rally that brings a rather splendid kind of people together, where we drive bangers for ridiculous amounts of miles on challenging routes all across Europe, Morocco and India to raise money for Teenage Cancer Trust.  It’s not only given me the most incredible experiences in the name of a good cause, but also a family of friends of a distinct and different calibre – the kind you know inside out, from red mist to purple haze, the kind you can trust to come running if ever the sh*t hit the fan,  probably to laugh and take photos, but there for you till the end.

The Dumball returned to India for the second time in January 2017, which was to be the first rally I’d miss since 2007.  FOMO is one thing, but knowing that all your favourite people are all together in a country you love and you have the chance to see all of them at once after 12 months absence, PLUS you can surprise them all too, is an entirely different thing.  Then, the question really isn’t Why? but Why the hell not!      

So I did, and it was glorious.  

Stood at a non descript bus stop on the side of the road in Pune at 8.30 in the morning after a few hours kip, a convoy of dusty, sweaty, colourful Mahindra Jeeps rounded the corner towards me.  Knowing each car was filled with friendly souls that I’d soon be able to touch and squeeze in real life meant I could barely contain myself, and local pedestrians passed me by, ackowledging my huge grin with intrigue.  As the infamous Blue Squadron slowly came to a halt, each car pulling over no doubt with some confusion inside as to the ad hoc stop in the middle of nowhere, I searched for those all too familiar faces, beaten only by the glare of the early morning sunshine on the windows.  As the news slowly spread down the line suddenly my wait was over – I had dear friends running towards me, and the best group hug anyone could possibly wish for.  



UNEXPECTED TURNS

With that, I gate-crashed Dumball 2017 on the final leg, and hitched a ride to Goa.  Not a bad start.  My friend James told me, “India has a way of doing with You what she will”, and as it turns out She had a little unexpected surprise in store for me, involving a little puppy we like to call Mr. Biscuits.  

Some of you may have read my recent blog Steve Appreciation Society so you’ll know precisely how stray dogs or “Steves” have been a consistent and integral part of my travels in Asia, Central America and South America over the past year.  

The Indian culture is very different to what we know in the West.  Here, street dogs are tolerated but are also considered vermin, kicked, shunned, and so they live a very different life compared to our pampered pooches – but that’s the way things work here, and you just have to accept it through some Western gritted teeth.   

All that being said, I have a very special Steve story to tell.

THE TAIL OF MR. BISCUITS 

On a dusty road in the middle of nowhere, somewhere between Pune and Goa, I found an abandoned and near starved to death 2 month old puppy, all skin and bones, severely dehydrated and malnourished.  Standing not much higher than mid calf on some very unsteady and skinny pins with a protruding rib cage, stomach entirely concave, hip bones visible, sores on his fur but with the most gorgeous eyes, I beckoned the little dude towards me.  

At first he shied away fully expecting a kick, but with a little encouragement he wagged his bony tail, dipped his head, licked his lips and came towards me, and without hesitation I bundled him up in my arms and into my heart.  

With little supplies on board, the only thing we could offer him was biscuits.  As he wolfed them down, the nickname “Mr. Biscuits” was coined, and stuck immediately.  

On the Dumball time is precious, so all too soon we were ready for The Off, so I had to make a decision, and I decided to save Mr. Biscuits – at the very least to get him the hell outta there, feed him back to strength and deliver him to a rescue centre somewhere in Goa:  I had the time to do this, and I knew from past experience that street dogs on the beaches have pretty much the best life in India, which had to be better than leaving him by the side of that road to an uncertain fate.

TWO HITCH-HIKERS TOGETHER 

So, just like me, Mr. Biscuits gate-crashed a Dumball, hitched a ride to Goa, and into the arms of 130 (give or take) sympathetic Dumballers who showered him with love.  

As time passed, Mr. Biscuits became less street-dog and more loved, to the point of no return frankly (who couldn’t fall in love with those eyes), and I had to make the ultimate decision. 

Street dogs, or Desis, like Biscuit are ownerless scavengers who have been free-living these continents for 1,000’s of years. An abundant and fertile population leads to abundant breeding – many secure a safe territory to survive, but plenty become abandoned, alone, malnourished, sick or injured from attacks by other dogs or traffic accidents. 

The charitable infrastructure to help those animals is meagre, but growing and needs support. The Indian culture is also very different to what we know in the West, so rehoming or adoption was highly unlikely.  At best, I had to find a hostel or restaurant owner who wouldn’t mind “keeping an eye out for him”, and I grew uncomfortable with that uncertainty.

So I made a choice: to save one, to give him a better chance at life, safety, security and love on a permanent basis – now, he needs your help to start a new life the UK. 

To do that I need to raise ~£2.5k to cover the vets bills and various bits of paperwork and administration.  If by some miracle I smash my target, I’ll donate the extra funds to the Animal Rescue Centre here in Goa. 

Click here for the Crowdfunding Website

It’s been 42 days since that fateful day, and I have much to update you on… till next time! 

You can follow his journey on 

instagram: @thetailofmrbiscuits

twitter: @mrbiscuitstail & 

Facebook: https://facebook.com/thetailofmrbiscuits

 

Is there Life on Mars?

Is there Life on Mars?

“Hello! You are from England?”

“Yes! You speak English?!”

“Yes! I learned it!”

“Fantastic! Where did you learn it?”

“Yes!”

“….” 

My basic get-you-through Hindi has been coming along nicely, but since Kashmiri, Dogri, Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi are all spoken here, the language barrier is a little tougher – cue lots of sign language, patience and smiles, which thankfully the people of Jammu & Kashmir have in spades. 

The overnight night train from Delhi pulled into Jammu just over a week ago, and it’s like we landed in a completely different country.  A lot of Kashmir looks like a war zone, exacerbated by the omnipresent Indian Army/Military Police that punctuate the highways (there’s still a bit of a spat with Pakistan), but a great deal more looks utterly spectacular.

After nearly 10 years clocking up 100’s of driving hours on some challenging roads, Dumball made me match-fit for the drives that were to come: 

1. The drive from Jammu to Srinagar:  like driving in the mountains/on the roads of Albania, Hungary, Monte Negro and the Western Ghats all combined.  

This is the ONLY way to reach Srinagar by road, so that makes it their M1 and main supply artery.  Chuck in A LOT of Trucks, traffic, herds of goats, horses, shepherds, all competing for the road (in both directions), a few landslides to dodge, hair pin bends, pot holes, dramatic drops, gridlock, men at work, assertive aggressive overtaking (on blind corners, obvs), military police presence, a toll booth! (fifa) with opportunistic tradesmen taking full advantage by trying to sell us Cricket bats (for reals), boxes of cherries, strawberries, pashminas… You know, all the things you need 6 hours into a 12 hour journey – this is the life force of India that just never goes away, and I love her more for it. 

   
  

2. The drive from Gagangir to Leh.  Just six little words.  Looks like an awfully small affair doesn’t it?  Completely belies the spectacular 12 hour/350km journey that climbs and crosses the Himalayan Zoji La Mountain up and over into Ledakh – a road that grunts and grinds, climbs and zig-zags relentlessly, sometimes slicing through the glaciers and snow drifts.

The narrow passes, perilous drops and occasional (often) bad condition of the road means there ain’t too much room for two way traffic, so you have to wait at the bottom in a somewhat orderly queue with no real idea of what’s going on until the last of the descending group of traffic has passed by the Traffic Officials, indicating your turn to make the ascent. 

The condition of the road elicited some squeaky-bum-time considering I was in a Jeep that was fit for purpose, and then an idiosyncratic massive Indian truck hurtles past in the opposite direction, it’s customised metallic decoration glinting in the sun like its throwing a metaphoric “fuck you”, all guns blazing, not giving a shit and showing us all how it’s done – how the bejesus did that thing even fit up here?!  

   

We watched the vast, enormous landscape change and grow from the dirty back seat windows of our very bouncy Mahindra jeep, being thrown left and right, both hands on the Jesus handles.  

The peak of the pass is at 11,650ft, and surrounded by Himalayan snow capped mountains.  No sooner had we hurtled past that than the landscape changed up again to mountain ranges of epic Tolkien-esque proportions with Mars and Lunar-like terrain, and it just didn’t stop either.

   
  
  

The drive to Leh was one of the most challenging, varied, awe inspiring roads I’ve ever had the pleasure to survive/drive on, with the most phenomenal, uninterrupted mountain landscapes I’ve ever seen.  I’m out of superlatives.  There’s almost nothing in between except for an abundance of Tibetan prayer flags adorning various stupas, flapping in the wind to remind you in which direction you’re headed, and to give a bit of moral support.  Not much hope of a wee stop around these parts. 

 

*before you say it, I know it’s upside down – I can’t fix it
 
  

Cows Cows Cows, Alleys Alleys Alleys, Temples Temples Temples

The title of this blog doesn’t even begin to describe the sheer amount of activity and life crammed in to the magical streets of Varanasi, THE holiest of the seven holy cities in India and the oldest city in the world, still standing strong on the banks of the Ganges after 3000+ years: a melting pot, where both life and death come together.  Devout Hindus come here to cremate their dead, and believe they can wash away their sins by bathing here – I’ll pass on that, respectfully, for now.

“Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, And looks twice as old as all of them put together”  Mark Twain

On day one, as I navigated/u-turned my way towards the Ganges River through the narrow alleys of the rabbit warren, I was met with fervent locals, Steves, Goats, motorbikes, mopeds, bicycles, countless sacred Cows/Bulls lolling on past (giving each a touch of respect), cheeky monkeys looking down and making mischief, Men with shrouded loved ones aloft their shoulders on bamboo stretchers, headed towards the Ganga Ghats (river front stairs) to be cremated, or covered in ash (erm, it’s human ash) returning – all sharing the alleys, and sometimes all at once.

Until today I couldn’t say I’d seen a dead body, let alone 9 being cremated at once.  I didn’t know how I’d react but I was strangely enamoured.  Varanasi has its own flavour of magic, play, illusion, intensity, over crowding and esoteric party atmosphere (considering), yet somehow it’s peaceful, I like it.  Who knows what tonight/tomorrow brings… 

 

Hello Dave
Cremations at Manikarnika Ghat

   

I’d recommend staying at Shiva Guest House – a little hard to find but inexpensive, a/c, helpful staff, and puts you right amongst it.  For some good cheap grub, I’d also recommend hitting the Dosa Cafe

My favourite tactic whenever I arrive anywhere new is to get high up from street level, get my bearings as well as a healthy dose of horizon. Tonight’s venue is the Dolphin Roof Top restaurant – a perfect spot to soak up the cocohophany of Varanasi by night and watch the sun go down over the Ganges.  

7-bullet Sunday – day 108

7-bullet Sunday – day 108

A summary of happenings from the last 7 days…

1. Experiencing Auroville – a planned Utopia built in the dust of N.East Tamil Nadu, about 15km north of Puducherry and inland from the Bay of Bengal.  Auroville is a concept community, built by two visionaries in the 60’s to “help humanity move beyond its present limitations into the next stage of its evolutionary adventure, the supramental consciousness.”  Riiiiiiiight.  This is out there, even for me (given recent events).  Based on really great intentions, Auroville just comes across a little bonkers and cultish.  You must sign up to a waiting list a few days in advance, and the intro video you have to watch before you may enter the Matrimandir is like that bit with Richard Attenborough at the start of Jurassic Park, felt just as prophetic and just makes it feel, all, theme park’y n’that.  Sorry (not sorry).

Access granted, we got to visit the Matrimandir, the “soul of the city”, a giant gold golf ball looking thing with truly beautiful architecture, but lots of rules on how to enjoy it – wholly alien to anything I’ve ever seen in India, or anywhere for that matter, and a bit like a space ship, but utterly magnificent nonetheless.  “The Inner Chamber in the upper hemisphere of the Matrimandir is completely white, with white marble walls and deep, white carpeting. In the centre sits a pure crystal-glass globe which suffuses a ray of electronically guided sunlight that falls on it through an opening at the apex of the sphere.”    Now THAT was a sight to behold, if you look past all the eccentricities, and don’t speak, or touch that, or walk there, and put on the socks, PUT ON THE SOCKS!

the inner chamber
Matrimandir “The Soul of The City”

2. Back to Chennai (Tamil Nadu), where it allllll began just under 4 months ago.  A chance to reminisce on my first impressions of India, and how much has happened since we all drove out those gates of the Leela Palace in convoy – missing my dear friends and family back home, and my fellow Dumballers. 

3. A sweaty and fond farewell to Denso and Jim, aka “Team Ginger”, as Denso leaves India with another soon-to-expire Visa, this time heading to Nepal and the next stage of her journey, in more ways than one. So much to say about the last 100+ days, but she knows it all already.  Bonne chance mon amie!

4. Reaching Hyderabad, (the capital of the southern Indian state of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh) and with it the first low point on my trip.  Suddenly struck with an irrational fear and vulnerability from being alone in a big Hydera-bad city.   The pollution/smell/traffic so bad it gave me a nosebleed!  Pathetic and panic stricken I followed my gut and made a plan to run away, fortunate enough to be able to throw money at the problem – not before I’d had a word with myself:  There I was – a western affluent woman, with a passport, free to explore the world, not burdened with the stress of working, hoovering the stairs, or having to go to Tescos, suddenly rendered inert by my own imagination and concept of “fear”.  Whilst the feeling was real, what do I really know of fear?  Come the f**k on Holliday, chin up and crack on.

5. Quote: “I Am an Old Man and Have Known a Great Many Troubles, But Most of Them Never Happened.” Mark Twain

6. Heading North, I arrived in Kolkata in West Bengal this morning, immediately feeling more comfortable despite the 3am heat.  Yellow Ambassadors queued up neatly outside the airport – a familiar sight and a warm welcome.  Excited to be in one of my Dads favourite cities (when captaining for BA), which makes me feel closer to home, and heaps keen to explore all his recommendations tomorrow. 

  

7. Writing this from Royal Guest House, Kolkatta, watching Life of Pi with a glass of Old Monk in hand – hello old friend!

A Day In The Life…

Bottomless Thali served with effortless beauty on banana leaves and eaten with one hand, the spectacle of watching hot sweet chai brewed by the side of the road, scalding your fingers and throat as you drink it, the call of the lyre bird, the rust bucket scooters, the Hindustani Ambassadors, Kites and Eagles circling overhead, piles of spent coconuts, kids playing cricket, everywhere, cranky air-con fans, ill fitting idiosyncratic mosquito nets, endless negotiation, street dogs running wild and yet always keeping you company, cows in the street, the fervent steamy production of simple delicious fast food, the chaos, the head wobbles, the glint in the eyes…

It’s the small details in India, the ones you don’t think to mention when someone asks during a phone call to home “So how’s it going?” that are so rich in meaning. These are the ones that seduce you, and ultimately make you fall in love.

Click to watch  A Day In the life of India