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 magic and Paloma and I set out through the floating 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.

How not to catch an Indian train

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.

On it and over it.

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.

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’.

Bombay Royale

Romance is entrenched in the colonial era buildings festooned with long gangly vines and cushioned by ancient fig trees. The neutral colour palette is highlighted by dusty fronds in faded green crawling over buildings and bougainvillea blooming in the new spring light. The air is heavy with humidity and the sweet, familiar scent of pollution.

Hectic, rambling, electric, this country never sleeps and Bombay seems to be the epicentre of Indian life. We visit our old haunts; bazaars and streets we know, stealing kisses in the opulent horse and carriage we take past hordes of Indians heading down Marine Drive to India Gate. Bombay was the first Indian city I fell in love with, and her charms still play on me.

My obsession with the handmade is satiated in the home wares. We also love the vibrancy and bustle of fruit and vegetable markets. But first, we head to our favourite Mangal Das bazaar – the cloth market – to pick up some unique fabrics and see our old tailors for a new wardrobe fit-out.

As we are here for a week we aim to find Paloma some fun. We discover a park with horse rides where we bargain for the best horse, or, should I say, the least ratty-looking. Paloma canters off around and around, asking to go faster and laughing with glee at the bumpy ride.

Many new cafes have sprung up all over the city. Our favourite, Theobroma, offers every delectable French patisserie and we indulge in many a treat here. The temperature is rising every day since our time in Jaipur when we wore blankets to breakfast. Bombay ice cream is de rigeur and our new favourite flavour is Kesar Pista; vanilla with cardomon and pistachio, a delicious Bombay special I highly recommend.

Octopussies

There is nothing quite like coming upon a glittering lake set in one of the prettiest cities in India, after many hours and a day traveling through a desert. Udaipur is the glistening gem in the crown jewels of India. Steep alley ways wind down the hill towards Lake Pichola, lined with shops spilling their gorgeous textiles, antiques, embroideries, jewels and every objet trouve for the curious eye. Walls along the way are painted with scenes from the Ramayana or bright yellow Indian tigers. The whole town is enclosed in the craggy arms of the Arvali Mountains and atop the eastern shore sits the gleaming City Palace where the Maharaja of Udaipur and his family still reside. From behind the walls of his private gardens, mustachioed guards – and occasionally his personal band – will emerge for a brief drum roll.

But it’s the Taj Lake Palace we are enamoured by. Ben in particular, has always been obsessed with it ever since it was put on the map by that James Bond film Octopussy. How I wish too I could play on the cushioned swing inside the Maharani’s suite… We spend long hours on the rooftop of our hotel, admiring the mysterious and alluring Lake Palace from afar, watching small boats ferrying those few lucky guests who can afford to stay there.

Ben has surprised me with the Pink Room in the beautiful Kankara Hotel. Settled into our day bed window seat with scalloped carved arches we look our to the scene of beauty unfolding in front of us.

Days are filled with boat rides, visits to the Maharaja’s Vintage car collection, escapes to the bazaar and delicious dinners atop our favorite restaurant. As we watch the dip-dyed sky blink with stars and the buildings opposite us turn from a burnt rose to silhouettes like paper cutouts, we say goodbye to this beautiful place and head to the train station for the overnight express to Bombay.

 

Barefoot College

The Barefoot College happened to be near our next destination, Ajmer. As we’d recently seen a very inspiring TED talk by founder Bunker Roy, we decided to visit and see for ourselves the great work done by this NGO, training remote village lay-people in skills traditionally reserved for university graduates.

Our contact, Miss Bata Bhurji who grew up in the village and runs courses as well as making documentaries about the community, took us to see their facilities. Every year they run two workshops for women who fly in from small villages in countries as far away as Mali, Afghanistan, Sudan & South America. These women leave their own communities, children and families for six months to learn about making Solar Home Lighting systems, from scratch. Most have never left their village let alone their country before.  Once they have mastered these skills, they return home, and await a shipment of donated solar equipment, which they install for their remote communities.

We were blown away by the determination of these women who have to overcome so many barriers in order to learn this new skill and bring power and light to their villages, something we take for granted in our society. The whole process looked so complicated to me, so technical, and yet I have a school education many of these women don’t. The Barefoot Village has admirably created an opportunity for these women to improve the lives of their people, and empowers them too in such a positive way. The ladies were all very excited as in less than five days they were set to return home and were understandably looking forward to going. Paloma received plenty of cuddles from the Sudanese ladies who were all missing their little ones. In another part of the Village, Indian women were making huge solar powered discs for stoves which villagers in very distant parts of the county use. From the very first stages of cutting, welding and bending metal rods, to cutting and placing hundreds of mirrors at the precise angle, these was a strange beauty in these objects as well as a very worthwhile function.

We left inspired, reminding ourselves that knowledge should never be the exclusive domain of the wealthy and privileged, but provided especially to those who may benefit from it most.

Desert Escape

The desert enraptures me. The low lying hills fading to the horizon, sand-tinted mud dwellings beside hand-thatched cylindrical grass huts, are almost camouflaged were it not for the handsome villagers in enormous fluoro turbans and gold pirate earrings and the ladies in neon twinkling saris. Some are sitting in neat little courtyards tending their fires as we steal by. At night we are spell bound by the Milky Way and strange un-earthly noises echoing through the darkness.

Rajasthan is laden with hidden palaces, forts and ruins. Some have been restored to their former glory like the Samode Palace, others are now museums and when traipsing the shiny halls of the Amber Fort or exploring the alcoves of the Wind Palace, I imagine the countless stories these walls must hold.

Paloma loves the tiny shuttered ‘eye of the camel’ doors, perfect size for a girl her age. And there are windows here small enough for spying on lovers and friends. Inspiration is found in every painted wall, each manicured geometrical garden, every old iron lock and handcrafted surface.

The rusty white Ambassador taxis of Rajasthan look a little like our 1954 Chrysler Plymouth back in Sydney that we log ago named ‘Coco’. It’s no surprise then Paloma calls out ‘Coco!’ at the top of her voice whenever she sees one pass. Much to her joy, we take our very own Indian ‘Coco’ bumping along the dusty roads towards Pushkar. Even in the deserts of this country, boredom is never an option. There’s always some theatre going on outside the window, and a game of eye-spy can last forever.

Sitting beside placid waters of Pushkar Lake sipping fresh lime soda, we watch pilgrims bathe and pray. Dreadlocked travelers stumble past, high on bhang lassis. Magicians and sadhus wander by too, and cows chew their cud as the sun sets on this wonderful little town that still evokes the vibe of the hippie trail. Patchwork quilts, embroideries and fur from Kashmir, jewellery from the Kutch and Raj antiques are all rather enticing, adding to the allure.

Pushkar certainly is a place one can get lost in for days and we soak it up. As for Paloma, India is a child’s dream, a riot of colour and noise, not to mention the menagerie of animals climbing the walls, traipsing through the alleys or sleeping smack bang in the middle of main roads. The camels of our caravan through the surrounding desert are resplendent in beaded fringe, carpets, bells and humps. And we see not a soul but for the turbaned musicians who sing for us alone in the dunes.

Heavenly Heritage

Hand carved stone vessels, filled to the brim with scented waters and decorated with flower mandalas, have been placed auspiciously to guide our journey through ancient sandstone halls. I dip my head under carved arches and enter a courtyard of rambling bougainvillea in bloom ascending balconies of shuttered windows. I’m in the centre of a giant treasure chest. Climbing stairs to the grand entrance, I turn and survey what I’ve left behind; a spectacle of preserved history, secrets held in rooms and walls, mirrors striated with patina holding memories of ages and faces long gone.

Lilting and melodic Rajasthani music is playing in the main courtyard. We linger here only for a moment before we are swept into a private alcove and refreshed with lime soda and presented with the heavy brass key to the Maharajas Suite, an upgrade, courtesy of the owner, the Maharaja of Samode himself, His Royal Highness Yadavendra Singh with whom we’re conducting an interview. It’s also an excuse, of course, to taste the fabulous life of Maharajas!

There are no lifts in this stunning heritage hotel, and the porters carry our luggage on their heads up narrow stone stairwells, higher and higher, until we are settled in our magnificent room overlooking the dusky, sun drenched Aravalli Range. Eagles circle high above us, and flocks of rock pigeons swoop in formation around the grounds before settling back on the roof above our room at the highest point Samode Palace.

I stare out to the shimmering desert below, the silence, the solitude, the bliss of it all has captured my spirit. This is where I can dream for hours. A pattering of little feet is heard. A squeal of delight, ‘Look Mummy a bath in the middle of the room!’ In front of our four-poster bed is a huge bathtub with shiny old-fashioned taps and plenty of bubble bath that we enjoy immensely later in the night. Our suite also has a lovely dinner table for eight, a sofa you can snuggle on, a walnut-coloured desk at which one can pen letters or type engaging travel blogs.

The palace was home to Indian royalty less than a century ago, and we still feel taken into the welcome fold of a certain humble luxury by the wonderful staff, most coming from the local medieval village of Samode surrounding the ramparts. Every want and need is catered for and a there is a certain romantic magic that is subtly created here. It truly feels like you have come to visit a long lost friend in their house, albeit one of the grandest in India, rather than an anonymous guest at some five star hotel.

Exploring the Palace, we are startled to find immaculately preserved rooms of hand-painted glory depicting Krishna and his consorts in various stages of frivolity and elegant poise. The Mughal Mahal has secret windows and tiny rooms with walls are covered with scalloped cut mirrors, in our opinion the jewel in the crown of Samode Palace. And down in the lavish Dubar Hall, magnificent chandeliers quiver as they await the next imperial reception, a glorious example of Mughal design and architecture.

In the shine of the late desert sun, we sit beneath trees on striped towels, occasionally taking a dip in the marble mosaic swimming pool and later in the private infinity pool on a high up terrace.

Paloma is in heaven, playing with doves in the cool waters, watching out for cheeky long-tailed monkeys on the rooftops of the village below.

Later, under a little crescent moon we feast on delicious Rajasthani cuisine. Paloma is entertained by a traditional spangled puppet show and leaves clutching a pretty Maharani doll. Entering our suite, the covers on our bed have been folded back, music is playing and the lights are dim. Martini’s await Ben and I and we sip them looking out to a starry sky and muse on the goings on here of Rajputs of the past, dreaming of where our future adventures will take us.

Wandering Rainbows

Nestled into the back of the ambassador taxi we hurtled through the orange dust of an Indian midnight from Delhi airport to Jaipur. Paloma was finally asleep in my lap, after her unfortunate decision to stay awake for most of the flight over. It only took one hour of breathing in the pollution and that unmistakable smell of India for me to feel like I had somehow come home. The holy cows lying hither and thither on the road, the warm air, the jangly coloured trucks with painted messages of ‘Honk Please’ and ‘Blow Horn’ on them – not that Indian drivers need a further invitation for tooting incessantly.

Jaipur, the fabled ‘Pink City’, ancient and crumbling and set in the dusty desert seduced us with her charms even by night. When we woke, we found it’s bazaars filled with treasures, city streets chaotic with wandering Sadhus, incense smoke and flower garlands with which I decorated my family for our immersion into our temporary Indian way of life. Paloma’s new mantra ‘Have no fear’ was evident when she asked to sit in her own seat behind the rickshaw driver who wove through the chaos with the same mantra, speeding between the sleepy cows and wandering pedestrians. Paloma laughed with delight as the rickshaw wallah swerved on the wrong side of the road over bumps and potholes, throwing her up and down, more fun than anything on offer at Birchgrove Park, watching the world swirl by like an natural globetrotter.

Today we are clad in matching pristine white kurta pyjamas ready to revel in the annual festival of colour known as Holi. Young boys race to the side of our bicycle rickshaw, liberally smearing our faces with neon pink, canary yellow and emerald green pigment powders.

Paloma is a hit and as soon as we have stepped from the rickshaw and entered the temple complex she is stolen away and covered with kisses, blessings and clouds of holi powder. She runs with the village children, chasing cheeky temple monkeys and posing for snaps with Indian families. Someone offers her a bag of powder and she delights in annointing everyone with her Holi blessings. We are swallowed by the melee and dance to the temple drums with the frenzied crowd, laughing all the time until our cheeks hurt.

Before long we have become top-to-toe walking rainbows. As we leave the beautiful and ornate Govind Devji temple, more festival-goers shower us with bursts of colour thrown up or pumped into the air with plastic pistols. Our rickshaw driver is getting as much attention as we are and he cycles us away to another part of town where painted elephants trumpet and sparkle in the descending sun outside the Old City walls.