Sunday, December 13, 2015


Bathing ghats are a big attraction in this
 ancient city of pilgrimage. People flock here in large numbers every day to bathe early in the am, and worship in the temples built beside the river bank.  We got up early and hired a large row boat to float down the Ganga at sunrise and watch this tradition of offering puja to the rising sun.  It is bustling early with the faithful  and people have their favorite ghats. Men usually strip down to white wraps, but  most women go in fully clothed. One must submerse totally and over and over to do it correctly.

There are also groups of a certain caste doing laundry in the river and laying the sheets and towels out on the cement banks of the river  to dry. This has been going on for hundreds of years, and surprisngly the items come out very clean.
 We sat and watched a school of young boys learning "sankrit". These boys are picked by their families to become Hindu Priests. We docked here and walked up to the steps of their school to watch their instruction. Then we walked all over the alleys and little winding areas above the ghats.  This was not the  tourist spots, but where locals shop and take care of business when in Varanasi. I bought a very cool camel bone necklace of "skulls" from a vendor whose family makes all his products.  He explained to me it was a "tantric" necklace used to protect the good from the evil forces always trying to take guess I am good to go now!

Friday, December 11, 2015


Aarti is a Hindu religious ritual of worship, in which light soaked in ghee or camphor is offered to one or more deities. This ritual is performed EVERY night at sunset on the shores of the Ganga. Tonight, we decided to go see this. It is  performed in more than one spot on the shore,but it is  the exact same ritual, so the shores of the Ganga are alive with rhythmic chants, clanging cymbals and lots of flaming lights.
There is something else flaming in the night and that is the cremation of so many bodies. We had to pass by many cremations on our way to one of the bigger Aarti displays. It is the wish of every Hindu to die in Varanasi and be cremated by their loved ones on the shore of the Ganga.  That doesn't always happen, but it is the desire of most. It is also why many many people come to Varanasi and literally sleep on the sidewalks at night, feeling if they die, they will be cremated in this holiest of spots and make a better passage to heaven.  We thought they were just homeless bums, but not necessarily...just very devout,whom feel their time is approaching. We wanted to be respectful as we passed these pyres, so I took pictures while in a boat a bit away from the shore.
There were many boats floating across the shore from the Aarti. We joined them, and as the young hawkers were stepping from boat to boat trying to sell chai, I tried to get into the groove. It was very loud! Very smokey from bodies burning and all the wicks.  The pilgrims just flock in great numbers to this version of what we might call a church service. I kept thinking of what we were told over and over.....Hinduism is NOT an religion, but a Lifestyle.  People rarely convert "TO" Hinduism, because it is hard to understand all the do's and mostly DONT's. Lives of Hindus are ruled by excessive rules attached to everything. Everything! It Is fascinating and puzzling to an outsider like me.
I Really enjoyed our sunset float down the Ganga.  It was real. And alive, amongst all the dead. Hard to explain.

Thursday, December 10, 2015


Since this was a mystical tour and involved many religiously important areas, we were now in one of  Buddhisms holiest sights, Saranth. After achieving enlightenment, the Buddha delivered his FIRST SERMON and founded the first Buddhist Monastery in   6th century BCE. This sight draws pilgrims from all over the world, yet is was uncrowded and serene at the time of our visit. Of course, the Hindus believe  the Buddha was the 12th reincarnation of Their Hindu god, and Buddhism was founded and started in India. We had a peaceful morning touring the stupa...observation...the real and only stupa is supposed to  have the relics of the actual Buddha, but there are many many many fake "stupas" in the world to confuse a person. Well, we saw this original Stupa. We also went to the Saranth Museum to see a superb collection of Buddhist artifacts from the evacuation of this area, which was totally covered in water and mud, for centuries. 


We finally make it to the end of the journey and appropriately it is Varanasi, the ancient and holy city on the Ganga, where the devout want to die as it is closer to heaven. It Is one of the Oldest living cities in the world, where Mark Twain said it was "older than history, older than tradition, older than even legend, and twice as old as all of them put together"
There was so much to see a do here. After our long day of travel we enjoyed the peace of the hotel and got ready for some more adventures. The locals call Varanasi : Benaras. One sees that name on all signs, etc. Even more local vernacular calls it Kashi ( like our cereal). That is what I preferred.

I may have mentioned that this trip to India coincided with the "wedding season". In India, weddings are on steroids. They coincide with the lunar calendar, because of all the mumbo jumbo astrological beliefs of the Hindus. They are full blown garish affairs where everyone is excited and titillated to watch the bride and groom meet for the first time. Guest are invited in great numbers by the groom's family who usually pays for the rooms in the biggest nicest hotels in the cities. Guess where we were staying? The night we arrived at our hotel, there were 2 major wedding planned. Music is loud, pageantry is over the top. People are dressed in the fanciest clothes, and the groom is lead in by a wedding coach pulled by horses all decked out. Did I say it was noisy?. Did I say I Happened to have a room directly facing the festivities? Did I say these wedding were virtually at every hotel we stayed at? All were elaborate. All were very colorful. All were noisy and used gigantic sound systems. We enjoyed them....up to a point...and then it was,oh  no...another wild wedding where the bride and groom have never met! Titter titter. Indians are extremely hospitable and we were actually welcomed to the weddings if we walked around to see the decor. We even crashed a few, and it was wonderful. We were a novelty, dressed in our exploring clothes and smiling a lot.

Saturday, December 5, 2015


Guess it was too good to be true...staying well in India. At The Taj Mahal, I
felt a scratchy throat coming on. The next am I was feeling pretty bad. Chills, slight temp, headache, lethargic, and sore! The problem was this was a major travel day and I had to jump on board. My memories of this day were just blurring trying to get thru it. Thank goodness for Jill and Denise who took care of a lot of things for me.
We started out early for a 5 hour bus trip to Dehli Airport, where we waited a couple of hours for a flt to Varanasi. We stopped at a Chinese resturant, and I am not sure why, but I only ate some soup. Then we flew to Varanasi and had to take another bus to the hotel. It was 12 hours of waiting and traveling, and as soon as I got to my room, I hit the sack. No pictures of my miserable self. I slept well but in the am had a full blown cold. But I Had brought a trusty medicine pouch with me, so started doctoring myself and tried to go on a couple sights, but couldnt quite do it.
Varanasi, or Kashi as the locals call it, is Hindu's Holiest city and center of learning,civilization and religion since time immemorial.  It lacks ancient fortresses, palaces, and important architecture, but  exudes an allure and mystique unlike any other Indian City, thanks to its sacred place of pilgrimage. We had a lot planned and I was determined not to miss this city on the Ganges.


Along the way we met some beautiful Indian women who wanted their husbands to take pictures of us with them! So funny. Namaste.

We drove into town to take an Indian cooking lesson from woman in her private home. Very fun. She and her husband, who is a famous art collector, enjoy entertaining visitors from other countries, and showing us their property in the middle of Agra. It was a beautiful home filled with antiques and historical art and jewelry. I noticed many "famous and important dignitaries"  in many of the pictures. They were well educated and Brahmin.
She showed us how to make Paneer, Pootie bread, and cottage cheese. Then we were served home made luncheon from their house. We've been seeing so many poor, and now we saw the other side, but as far as middle class in India.....not too many.

Friday, December 4, 2015


I will say that we all enjoyed the respite from bumpy roads and big cities at Dera Village retreat. After our afternoon fun with Cricket and Henna we climbed up on the trusty camel carts once more and headed to the real village. There the people welcomed us with a couple traditional dances and showed us how they lived. The women really didnt want their pictures taken, even the small girls could say "no pictures".  But the boys were all for it, even haming it up for us. Densie captured their hearts by showing pictures of her kids on her iphone. They were memsmerized. Camels are really very important to India, especially in the agricultural areas. They do everything. We really enjoyed this part. Returning back our cabins, we sat out on our deck and shared a bottle of wine. Soon, the bar opened and the dancers and musicians from the village arrived and put on a show. They are very colorful and elaborate in the costumes. I for once, did not have my camera! Cant beleive it. But I danced and swirled the veil they gave me! 
It was hard to leave this quiet place in the am. I wished we could have stayed longer. But we were on our way back on the bumpy trail and ending up in Agra the next day for many sites, including the TajMahal.

Thursday, December 3, 2015


Before we got to our quaint Village Retreat, we had one thing to do and that was visit a local school. Our tour group decided to support this school and every time a group shows up, they offer something to the kids at the school. Our offering was "underwear" . We passed out tshirts and pants and it didn't matter to who or to what age, each child was eager ((sometimes TOO) eager to receive anything. There is only one teacher with kids of all different ages, but they get a "hot meal" each day they attend school, and for some that is a godsend. Odysseys Group is working on infrastructure for lighting and outdoor pit toilets. Here, people just walk to the fields to relieve them, a "place" to go over and over for this bodily function Is entirely foreign, so there is much work to be done in changing thinking, let alone doing it.
Finally , we got to Dera Village Retreat. Our rooms were sparse AND comfortable and a nice change from the bustling cities.  We each had a porch to sit on in this quiet area, but we were on the go. i could have  stayed here many more days. All the staff and helpers were from the local village and this lodge has given them an income like never before. We had a simple lunch and no spicy surprises. Then we got on camel carts to travel down the dirt roads to the village. Before that trek we were shown how to play "Cricket" by the staff. Jill volunteered to man a team with some others from the group. The rest of us elected to have "henna" designs put on our hands or anywhere else by some local tribal women. Somehow,the henna on our white bodies, just didn't cut it for me, but I did it anyway.
Our henna ladies.


We left our National Park visit this am and headed out into even more rural areas. We stopped at a cooperative near the park where the villagers were learning skills to use instead of Tiger killing or leading poachers on a kill. After buying a lot pf nicely handmade items, we kept going to "Chand Baori" about 45 min drive. This is one of the oldest "Stepwells" and probbaly one of the biggest in the world. Ever since I saw articles on Stepwells in National Geographic, I have wanted to see them in India. This one is over 13 stories tall and provided a dependable water source for centuries before modern water delivery systems were introduced.  Up until about 20 years ago, people were coming and taking the ancient articfacts and the local residents would have parties in the wells. No tourist even came because they are hard to get to. Now, they are guarded and cleaned and mostly Indian people come to see them.I Found   them  facinating. Our guide knew quite a bit about the idols found around the stepwells.
After the Stepwells, we wandered across the street of this poor town and saw a potter who makes "disposable " glasses for tea out of clay. People order tea in them and then just throw them away and they made into cups again! He invited anyone to try his primitive potters wheel, and Denise volunteered.

We continued for hours along rutted rural back roads, and once again got a sense of what the REAL India is like. Our little travel band was not exactly sure where we were, but it was NOT close to any cities. We would pass many small villages, farms, cow patties, camel carts, people carrying everything on their heads, or carts. Finally, our bus could go no further. We transferred to small beat up jeeps with young boy drivers and we continued on for miles on dusty roads. We were in an area of Rajastan near a lake which is only a lake during the monsoons. This area is inhabited by a local tribe of people called Meena. They Are very poor, but vivacious and colorful, and have a intricate social system rooted in the caste system and deeply male dominated. In fact, the boys readily asked for their pictures to be taken, but the girls refused.  When the jeeps could go no further, we transferred to camel cart went to visit their village.

Monday, November 30, 2015


India has one of the best Tiger preserves in the world. This perserve of almost 100,000 acres used to be the private hunting grounds of the Majarajas of Jaipur.  We saw the actual blinds where they would kill the tigers. Even Queen Elizabeth shot and killed one before this was outlawed. The Bengal Tiger is making a comeback thanks to India's Project Tiger. There are many beautiful bird species and other animals in this National Park, including Leopards, but everyone wants to spot the Tigers which can be very elusive. After a nice lunch at the lodge we boarded these huge oversized jeeps and took off on a late afternoon drive.  It was so bumpy, we had to hang on and so dusty too. We stayed out until dark and it got cold, but we didnt spot a tiger. We were accompanied by a great naturalist who certainly had a passion for his work.  He knew all the tigers and stories about one that has killed 4 men in opportunistic encounters. The lodge does not guarantee tiger spotings, but we got up very early the next am, ready to try again.
Big Bats hanging in the trees.

We had some quick coffee and took off in the cold am light. We drove around in our assigned area andnothing was  spotted. Finally The coffee took its toll and we went to a building where the women could use a squatty potty and the guys used "a loo with a view" , which it is called in the forest. Guys have it easy. Just as the last woman was in the toilet, our guide started calling us all excitedly back...hurry, hurry, hurry...they had heard roaring in a certain area, and we were going to be hot on the trail. The Guide asked us if we could "REALLY hang on for dear life", and we assured him we could. Good thing we had all just peed, or we would have all been wet! That driver put the petal to the metal and we had quite the ride careening around sharp turns and rocky patches, and it was thrilling but rough! very rough.  We got to the roar area to find a few smaller jeeps had beat us. We saw one large male and a female and they were mating. Then the male would follow the female and try again, and again, and again........
It was all worth that bumpy ride. We got back to the lodge late and ate breakfast about 11:00am. Dirty as heck, but so pumped we had seen this. We had one more ride schedualed in the late afternoon, so no one took a shower...we just grubbed around waiting to go again. Lo and behold we sighted a young Tigress before it got dark. She was marking territory and also trying to hunt.  She paid no attention to us. 
We all felt so lucky and happy that we scored 2 out of three and a mating,which we were told is a rare sight. It was a blast, and a thrill of a lifetime to see these animals in their natural environment.

Saturday, November 28, 2015


We left Jaipur for Ranthambhore and a small boutique style lodge on the edge of the Nation Forest. We traveled thru the rural India that most visitors don't see. Many many small villages and tribal areas. Women in bright saris working out in the fields. Many camels pulling carts and plowing apparatuses. Small markets of fruit, and the life that almost 70% of all Indians live.  Very rural, very poor, but the rhythm of life was very evident. The roads were awful! Bumpy and rutted, but not as much traffic as in the cites. Still, crazy drivers and much car dodging. If I only knew what it was preparing  us for later.
We arrived at our comfortable lodge about lunch time and it was a peaceful oasis in a bustling village that had literally grown up around this park.  These were our rooms. Very spacious and comfortable. The lodge grew all their own vegetables. And the food was the best we have had so far on the trip, with a different regional flavors. A bit spicy, but absolutely fresh and wonderful.
Of course, we traveled all this way to see the Bengal Tigers in this area. The village people used to kill them, and be killed by them. Poachers,of course used to be a big problem. India  has made a huge progress in Ranthambhore to protect these magnificent animals, and it has worked. They have almost completely eliminated poaching, and also hired the villagers as guards, guides, craftsmen, and that has  eliminated   the need for guides for the poachers.  In fact, ALL tigers in India are FREE. Not in zoos or private homes like in America. Completely free to do what tigers do. They do not interfere with males killing cubs, or anything of the natural order. We spent two days with the most wonderful Naturalist on "drives". We were bounced, jostled, dirty and exhausted, but successful and happy.  It was a lifetime thrill and a totally different "India" than many see.