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.

Aloha nui loa!

Where ever I lay my lei, that’s my home.

First impressions of Honolulu is a crazy mix of Las Vegas glitz, Bondi chill and romantic Hawaiian Hollywood history. We skipped straight off the plane into our fresh flower leis and bikinis and onto the smooth as silk sandy shores and aquamarine waters of famous Waikiki. Long waves breaking over the reef with scattered surfers and paddle-borders silhouetted against the landmark Diamond Head comprises our first glimpse of this little paradise we will call home for just under a month.

Along Dukes Lane where we ducked to avoid Made in China ‘hand carved’ signs such as ‘Welcome to the Tiki Bar’, tons of shells adornments and super-synthetic Aloha shirts, we arrived at The White Sands Hotel – our fabulous two-star 1950s hideaway just two blocks from the beach. Here Ben welcomed me with a bottle of Sailor Jerry spiced rum and for Paloma a bag of buckets and spades for the beach.

On the far side of Diamond Head, Hanauma Bay nestles in the crater of a long extinct volcano that is, with good reason, heritage protected. It is a nature reserve teeming with gorgeous tropical fish and a huge coral reef and seems eons away from bustling Waikiki. Without a wink of sleep since leaving the plane, I dived down to the bottom where fish swam through my hair and watched a school of convict fish glide past wearing black striped pajamas.

Paloma is now walking, practically running in fact, and does exactly that as soon as she hits the sand. We spend hours in the sea and sun with tall spindly palms swaying their green Mohawks above us till our tummies rumble.

A few gems of information were passed down to us as ‘must do’s’ in Hawaii. The Rainbow Drive-in for Teriyaki burgers, Leonard’s for marsalamas. Fast food has never been our thing but both of these are yum and fun. Hawaii, like every other American state, seems afflicted by the restaurant chain and every block in town seems identical for that reason. But the Asian flavours are easy to find and is especially abundant in Chinatown, of course, where spicy and fishy scents permeate the air.

Walking down the main drag of Waikiki to the beach on day two and we’re stopped by a film shoot, which is rather annoying until we realise that we’re listening to Georgie Parker delivering lines for ‘Home and Away’. Not only is Waikiki’s sand imported from Australia, but our soap operas shot in Hawaii too it seems. For a moment we feel like we’ve never left home.

Ben has had a week up on us, diligently sampling the various Mai Tai in order to provide us with the best one at sunset. We sit by the sand at the grand old Moana Hotel where Mark Twain once stayed and drink the second best Mai Tai Waikiki has to offer.

Paloma runs among the cocktail set, meeting and greeting the guests with her latest additions to her vocabulary ‘birdie’, ‘bubby’ and… ‘turtle.’ Well yes, there are birdies and babies but we have yet to see a live turtle, but that is the aim. Paloma has a head start with her own kind – local white doves – and lets them feed out of her hand under the coconut palms.

The sky turns cotton candy pink, lemon-sherbet yellow, tangerine dream and swirled violet before dripping like Neapolitan ice cream into the ocean. A glowing golden orb sinks below the waiting horizon as another perfect Hawaiian day turns to night.