Sunday, January 25, 2009

Liam was born, Barack Obama, the first black President of the United States, was sworn to office, a windy week in Spain and other things.

Barack Obama solemnly swore on Abraham Lincoln's bible to be the new President of the United states, the one the eyes of the world will be watching closely to see how he "rebuilds" America
Hi again,

We’ve now been back from India for nearly two weeks and a lot has happened since then.

Something very important happened in our family as the first great grand child was born. Liam, the son of Alvaro and Bea was born in León on 15th January just after our return from India. Alvaro is the son of Alejandro who is Eladio’s brother and the 4th offspring of 6 that their Mother, Ernestina, and Father, Antonio, raised in their beloved village, Montrondo. Antonio is no longer with us but Ernestina is now, thanks to Liam, a proud great grandmother. Liam does not only make Ernestina a great grandmother, he also makes Alvaro a father and Alejandro a grandfather. Furthermore he also makes Eladio a great uncle and believe it or not that means that I am now a great aunt!!! Wow Liam what have you done?

Alejandro, who is not the most expressive of the brothers, had just returned from his very first trip abroad which was to Havana to see their cousin Rosi and her family. You will remember that Rosi visited Spain and our family very recently. José Antonio picked him up from the airport and they came here to fetch his car and only then, and quite by accident, did we find out that Lian had been born during his absence in Cuba.

And yesterday, finally, we got to “see” Liam in the multimedia message Alejandro sent Eladio and I and which is posted here.
Liam, the first great grandchild in the Freijo family
And this week the world witnessed the swearing in of Barack Obama as the first black President of the United States. The world was glued to the television and internet on Tuesday 20th January 2009 to follow the inauguration events. The ceremony was identical to that of his 43 predecessors but could well have been the coldest as it was -10ºc when he addressed the nation and the world.
Over a million people witnessed the inauguration ceremony at Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.
Like most of the world I am a fan of Obama but wonder whether the machinery around him will let him make the changes he wants to. I ask myself, why both sides seem to love him, well perhaps not the Israelis, and come up with the reasons that attract me to him personally.

Basically it’s because he’s charismatic – what a marvellous orator he is. It’s also because he’s black – except that he’s only half black. And it’s definitely because he signifies the end of George Bush, that most unpopular of American Presidents. And finally, he means hope for the global crisis. I just wonder how much will really come of his “Yes we can” promise which has become the catch phrase of the moment.
George Bush, leaving the Presidency
I was disappointed to see that the cost of the inauguration festivities was the same or more as his predecessors. I was, perhaps naively, hoping the money would be spent on the needy in these times of crisis. But that was not to be. I’m also hoping those in charge will let him continue using his blackberry, so vital for him to keep in touch with the world beyond the bubble he will be living in from now on.
Security, part of the bubble Obama will be living in.
The first measure he has taken since becoming President on Tuesday is to close Guantanamo, that most frightening detention centre for supposed terrorists. This measure was accompanied by a ban on torture and a review on military trials, all making a very good start. What is not good is that it’s going to take a year to close Guantanamo. Why I ask myself?

This last week was the first full week home after our trip to India which is still very much in our minds. I took the time to post 2 albums on Facebook, one of our visit to the Taj Mahal and the other of our dressing up in local costumes in Udaipur in Rajasthan.

This week I had meetings with my press and events agencies. The former was to close 2008 and compare our results with 2007. From the evidence gathered it is obvious we have done a really good job.

I also met Phillip P from my Nokia Network days for a quick coffee at the Corté Inglés on Tuesday. He was here on business. We hadn’t seen each other for a while and enjoyed an hour catching up on how life has treated us since we left Nokia. Phillip is doing fine, living in Austria and GM of a local network company there. He got married and they have a lovely little boy called Jamie.

Later in the week I also met up with Elena, my neighbour and friend and ex colleague in the telecoms market. I think I spent the whole hour telling her about our trip to India and I hope I didn’t bore her.

At the weekend we went to the cinema and out to dinner which is what we like to do best. On Friday we went to see Australia, a film I was keen to see with Nicole Kidman in her home territory. The film is very long and the beginning rather silly. However it gets more entertaining as it goes on. I was most captivated by the young aborigine, Nullah, played by Brandon Walters. He was superb and brought out all my most motherly instincts as he did Nicole Kidman’s.
12 year old Nullah, captivating in Australia.

Yesterday, Saturday, was a lazy day spent at home with the family. I made lacón con grelos (cooked ham with “turnip grass”) a typical delicacy from the Galicia region. Judging by the favourable comments from the family, I will be repeating the recipe soon.
After lacón con grelos, we had a siesta, that most famous of Spanish “sports”, then a quick Jacuzzi (rather than a leisurely one as time back home, is now a problem – I often think there are not enough hours in the day to do everything I want to). This was followed by an outing with the girls to the cinema, again.

This time we went to see Revolutionary Road. I was attracted to seeing Kate Winslet and Leonardo Dicaprio together for the first time since Titanic. Funnily enough the Director was Sam Mendes, Kate Winslet’s husband! Eladio and the girls loved the film but I was somewhat disappointed. The plot just didn’t interest me. The idea is similar to American Beauty or even Desperate Housewives and it portrays the lie of the American dream, or the sham of the supposed perfect life and perfect marriage, something I cannot ever relate to, probably because I myself am very happily married. I was not really convinced by “Jack and Rose’s” histrionic shouting matches andjust didn’t believe what they were saying. For me, they will always be Jack and Rose and the epitome of true love, not a jaded American way of life couple.

After Revolutionary Road, the girls had plans and Eladio and I returned to our "scene of the crime", i.e. our all time favourite restaurant, La Alpargateria. It's like walking into your home when you go in and I even got the feeling the staff had possibly missed us. We didn't get our favourite table, number 7, though due to some mix up. It's just not the same having dinner at a different table but it was nice to be back.

This weekend has brought with it terrible winds. Our walks have been so windy they have been actually unpleasant. My father braved them and I wonder he didn’t get blown over. Big branches from a tree fell into the driveway. Other parts of Spain were much harder hit and there have been fatal consequences, the most notable of which was the death of 4 young children when the roof of a sports centre caved in on them in Sant Boi in Cataluña. In some parts of the country the winds reached over 160km/h!

Coinciding this week with Obama’s swearing in as the new President of the United States, I got news from there too, news which took us back in time at least 23 or 24 years. The news was from Rosa. Recently I had found Angel, her husband on LinkedIn and we had exchanged emails summarising our lives of the last 20 odd years. Well this week I got an email from Rosa.

Rosa, of Cuban origin but brought up in the US, was a colleague in my first job. In fact we both started at Defex together, that company I sometimes admit I worked for which exported “defence material” to the third world. Yes, I worked in the arms industry for 8 years in the early 80’s. And so did Rosa.

Rosa and Angel were part of our beginnings in Madrid when Eladio and I “lived in sin” in Saconia, that trendy part of Madrid for intellectuals or left wingers at the time. Angel taught maths at the Autónomo University and they had 2 children at around the same time as us. Very soon they decided to return to the US and set up life there. I was very upset to lose them and as time went by we lost touch. In those days there was no email or mobile phones and keeping in touch was much more difficult. Well now we have found them 20 odd years later and with the wonderful communications tools available today, we shall continue our relationship where it left off. Hopefully too we will see each other this summer in Alicante where Angel’s family is from.

And that’s it for this week.

Cheers as always, Masha.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Home again, settling down, back to work, yet part of me still in India.

The girls in their new Indian outfits a bit crumpled after being used as pyjamas!
Hi again,

The last time I wrote was from our hotel room in Delhi on the last day of our trip. We both fell ill and in the end spent practically the whole of our last day in bed. We were still feeling awful when we drove to the airport and the whole trip back was quite a nightmare. Luckily we got a two seat row from the KLM hostess who took pity on us at check in, bless her. Somehow we endured the return journey. We left at nearly 2 in the morning, local time (21.30h Standard European time) and arrived at Amsterdam Schipol airport at about 06 am, just on time to catch the nearly empty 07 am flight to Madrid. We arrived on time in Madrid at 09.30 to be greeted by a below zero temperature and a missing hold all. Unfortunately our main bag of Indian goodies had got lost on the way. It was retrieved later and we received it at home the next day.

Our Indian trip had been amazing but we now really wanted to return home. We were looking forward to seeing “the girls” (as they are often known at home) and my Father and to returning to our home comforts. Going away is great, but returning is even better sometimes. There are no bed, nor pillow better than yours at home. And that is always the case.

We were received with open arms and with much love. What a wonderful family we have. The house was in a good state and I certainly could not notice there had been any parties; although I’m sure there were. Only one washing machine load had been put on in our absence, no ironing took place and the Christmas decorations were still up. Apart from that, everything was ok.

As soon as we arrived we opened our suitcases in the lounge to give out the goodies we had in them, as the others were in the hold all in lost luggage.

It seems our choices were ok as everything was received with good grace and happy smiles. We had brought back Indian costumes, newspapers, incense, bangles, shawls, baggy trousers, calendars, ornaments, all of which have been put to full use.

We also brought back lots of miniature paintings on silk and a set of Hindu God posters to put on the walls of one of the staircases as well Indian and Nepalese music and films; for example the famous trilogy, Fire, Earth and Water by the Indian woman Director, Deepa Mehta. I had seen Water which I adored and now will see the rest of this trilogy which focuses on some taboo and sensitive subjects in Indian society, such as widows in rural India, homosexuality, arranged marriages and the religious problems that brought about the separation of Pakistan from India.
An image from the wonderful film, Water.
It took a while to get adjusted again and I think we are still adjusting. We keep talking about our time in India, much more than when we come back from our other trips. But it was lovely to come back to our home comforts. Olivia asked us what we had missed most. Obviously we had missed our family most as well as the Christmas period the journey cheated us of and most certainly our modus vivendi, one of the main parts being our walks and food. In India we were not able to go for long walks like we do here and we were in dire need of exercise.

We enjoyed the food in India, to a point. I have always been a curry fan but then of course I had only eaten curry outside India. It is stronger there and the meat is less tender and nearly always has bones. I love spicy food but every day for 17 days got a bit much. So it was wonderful to be able to eat pork, beef and fish again, as well as fresh and non spiced vegetables.

Apart from general fatigue and a bad stomach, I also brought back a nasty cold I must have caught from Mr. Lama in Nepal. Thus I needed a bit more time to recover before returning full speed to work. Luckily I had brought back some tiger balm for my niece Marta and had kept one pot for myself. It is a great oriental remedy for pain but also for a stuffy nose. I now wish I had brought back much more. It is a bit like Vips Vapour rub but stronger. Excellent stuff.
Tiger Balm (no tiger in it by the way!
The week went past quickly but was very intense. My return coincided with my company Yoigo hitting 1 million customers. I had arranged the staff celebrations but could not be there and had to content myself with the photographs. A big surprise was prepared the night before when the whole building was papered inside and out with A4 black and white copies with 1 million printed in big letters. The ground floor was filled with air balloons and at each desk station a celebration mug and balloon were placed. Shortly after the staff arrived they went to the cafeteria where they made a toast with Spanish “cava” and were served “chocolate con churros”. Then they all went outside and let the air balloons fly into the sky above the office, making a very pretty and spectacular picture, specially as it was snowing at the same time. It must have been a very magical moment. You can see some of the photos here on Facebook.
Balloons flying in the sky above our office in Alcobendas.
The next day I had lunch with my PR team and we celebrated the successes of 2008 as well as the 1 million customers. Thanks Gustavo, Carlos, Ludy and Blanca!!

Last week there was also time for some shopping in the sales. Ironically I bought myself a new camera which I should have done for the trip to India. I got the Canon Ixus 970 IS which I hope will live up to my expectations. It has 10 megapixels, but more importantly a 5x optical zoon. Soon you will see as I will be posting photos taken with the new camera here on my blog.

Soon it was the weekend and time for preparing family lunches and dong household chores. On Sunday afternoon I got very inspired and spent 3 hours clearing out and tidying my walk in closet. I don’t quite know what I am going to do with the stuff I have removed; either for the poor or when I get younger or slimmer!!

On Saturday night we took “the girls” out for dinner to celebrate our return. I would have “killed” to go to La Alpargatería but not all agreed. We ended up going to Mood in Majadahonda and a good time was had by all.

We also went out yesterday with our dear friends Roberto and Mari Carmen. First we went to the cinema to see the film, “Entre les murs” (The Class) by Laurent Cantet. It got the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and is France’s entry for best foreign film for the Oscars. It is about the difficulties of being a school teacher today in difficult areas and the culture clashes from immigrant pupils. I do not recommend it as it is rather long and repetitive and totally lacks a good plot.
An image from the film, The Class
We went to dinner afterwards to the only place nearby that was open, Hollywood. There was no choice but I must admit that onion rings and a brownie totally satisfied by craving for junk food after 17 days in India.

We have been home nearly a week now and it is a wonderful place to be but part of me is still in India. We keep saying, “this time last week we were …..” and soon it will be longer. I have been following Lou and Paul’s continued travels there and marvel at Lou’s experience with elephants in Chitwan National Park in Nepal where she rode one in the river and lay on its back. Oh to be young again and do something like that!
Lou on the elephant, what an amazing picture.
This week was also my best friend Fátima’s birthday but it was also the week my dearest friend Anne left Nokia after 12 years. She has opted out of the rat race to work as the marketing manager for her home town Salo. Anne I wish you all the luck and happiness in the world in this new stage of your life.

Cheers, Fátima, Anne and all my friends. Till next week,


Monday, January 12, 2009

Getting out of Nepal, a cat and a mouse, thick fog, goodbye Nepal and India, the end of our journey, till we come again.

Lord Shiva, so important in the Hindu religion

I am writing from our hotel room in New Delhi, the Palace Heights on Connaught Place, which was the same hotel we stayed at when we started our tour of North India.

As I said then the hotel is neither a palace nor is it high. It is, however, a clean and comfortable little place with everything you would need, the only draw back being its very tiny rooms.

It is in the very heart of Delhi, in Connaught Place which deserves a mention. Connaught Place was built and designed by Robert Russel and W.H. Nichollas in 1932 and is typical Georgian architecture which was modelled on the Royal Crescent in Bath, UK. It is instantly recognisable on the map of Delhi as one big circle in the middle of the town with lots or roads, like wheel spokes, leading off it. It was probably beautiful in 1932 but today it is in vital need of renovation. However it brims with activity and here is where you will find the top brand shops alongside typical street vendors. A walk around the circle is a very pleasant and interesting activity.
Connaught Place, the heart of New Delhi
However we may not be able to take that walk as we are stuck in the hotel room as Eladio is not feeling well and neither am I really. Last night we went to the Chor Bizarre restaurant in Delhi. It was recommended by the Globetrotter guide book and also by Kuldeep, the representative from our travel agency Real Incredible India. We liked the decoration and the service was great but we were rather disappointed with the food as the meat was really tough. And this morning Eladio woke up feeling sick. We were planning to visit some of the places we hadn’t seen at the beginning of our trip but I think we won’t be doing that now. Our flight is tonight, well actually tomorrow as it’s at past midnight at 01.40. If he gets better we may well take a stroll round Connaught Place.

Meanwhile, this is the perfect opportunity for me to round up my travelogue on our trip to India and Nepal which has been fascinating and has contained some of the most everlasting travel impressions we have ever had. Of note these are, the Indian and Nepalese way of life and culture themselves, the Taj Mahal, the Ganges at Varanasi and, of course, the flight over the Himalayas and the bird’s eye view of Mt. Everest.

Yesterday was our last morning in Kathmandu and as we had to leave at noon to be at the airport 3 hours (yes 3 hours!) before our flight to Delhi, we decided to spend it in our lovely hotel, The Dwarika, a haven of peace and beauty.
Eladio strolling through one of the courtyards in the Dwarika hotel yesterday morning.
We said goodbye to Rajan Tuladhar from the travel agency ACE Hotels and Resorts who had done an excellent job and were then picked up by our wonderful driver, Mr. Lama to whom we bid farewell at the airport.

And here at Kathmandu international airport we were to go through the longest and most bureaucratic check in, customs and security process we have ever experienced in all our travelling life. Now I understood whey we were required to check in 3 hours in advance! The process is amazing. It started with porters outside the airport fighting for our services to carry the luggage to the airport door, then to 2 more porters fighting to carry it into the airport and to take us through the first security check (both luggage and body). Of course all these people have to be given a tip and if they think you haven’t paid them enough they don’t hesitate to ask for more! Once past this first security check, the 2 porters took us to pay the airport tax which was to be the equivalent of 20 euros each and a lot of form filling in to the bargain. From the bank we were taken to check in which took place quite normally. From check in we went to emigration where we had to fill out a departure card and show it with our passports. Once past emigration we thought all the procedures were over but they weren’t.

We were in what we thought was the departure lounge and here we made our last purchases in Nepal, the odd calendar and Hindu God posters (!).

I went to the loo and found the usual ladies inside waiting for me to give them a tip but this time I walked in saying I had no money on me!! As we were sitting down in the lounge we saw a cat walking around and it eventually came to sleep on a seat next to us. I have never seen a stray cat in any airport in the world and the sight was most unusual. But then, Nepal is an unusual country.
The cat in the departure lounge of the International terminal at Kathmandu Airport

Then we saw another queue and realised there was yet another security check. So we joined the queues, one for men and one for women which is quite common in both India and Nepal. Here our baggage was checked and our bodies searched. Once through this security, amazingly enough there was another manual baggage check after which they stamped your boarding pass. From here we went to board the Jet Airways plane (India’s second largest airline). And here on the actual steps to the aircraft we had to go through another baggage check and body search. I can understand the need for security, what I cannot understand is the need to repeat this procedure 3 times. It is a total waste of time and an enormous nuisance to passengers.

Finally we took off and were lucky enough to be on the side of the plane from we were to view for the 3rd time the highest range of mountains in the world. Our flight followed the Himalayas until the mountains turned to hills and to slopes and then we slept until we arrived at the Indira Gandhi International airport of New Delhi. My first impressions of that airport when we arrived 16 days ago were awful but somehow this time I thought it was quite ok. And it was ok, except for the mouse I saw running from under the immigration officer’s desk and the sleeping toilet lady in the arrival’s lounge. The photo is quite something.
The toilet lady asleep!
A smiling and welcoming Kuldeep was waiting for us as was our new driver, Mr. Rawat with his Tata Indigo car, the same model we had travelled round Rajasthan with our previous driver, Rajendra (Rajesh). Actually we would recommend anyone travelling through India to use a jeep as the bumpy and hole filled roads, often unpaved, of India can be very tiring in a saloon car.

Once again we were greeted in Delhi with thick fog and it was late afternoon. Our whole holiday has been affected by this fog which apparently happens always in January and February in this part of the world. We did not know about this before we came and no guide book seems to mention it. It is however worth noting before deciding to come at this time of year. Also this is considered high season and prices are at their very highest, something else we were not really aware of. Apart from the fog we have had good weather, always warm and only cool at night and in the mornings. For instance it was 18ºc yesterday when we arrived in Delhi. In the hotter months in some parts it can reach just under 50ºc which was the main reason we didn’t come in the summer.

And so our journey is coming to an end and it is time for my last reflections and observations.

We have learned a bit about the religions of this area and have come to the conclusion that the most popularly worshipped God is Shiva, or Lord Shiva as he is known. Nearly all temples seem to be devoted to this God. We have also come to understand that there are many different types of Hinduism or worshippers and many doctrines. Nothing is black and white as nothing is black and white here, apart from the holy women and men or widows!

I was happy to read in the Globe Trotter guide that Sikhs reject the caste system, promote equality between men and women and interested to read that they only worship one god. It seems their religion is somewhere between Hindu and Moslem but I know no more so am only guessing.

The Indians, be they Hindus, Jains or Sikhs, are extremely religious but very tolerant of other beliefs. Also in Nepal where 10% of the population is Buddhist, they live in total harmony, respecting each other’s beliefs. They seem to be an example to the world. Maybe a deeper analysis would prove me wrong, as, after all, India is divided into 3 countries, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, precisely because of the differences between Hindus and Moslems.

As a person of British origin I am curious to know what is left of the British influence in this part of the world and also to know what the Indians think of the British. You would think that if they were once dominated by the latter they could be negative towards England. But on the contrary, to whomever I asked this question I was told they greatly respected England and the British and they even ventured to say that some people in India said life was better under the British. I surely disagree with that, as did Gandhi, that great Indian hero and universal man who gained independence for India passively.

I think some of the respect comes from the fact that the British left India passively and peacefully and continued the good relations under the Commonwealth. But what did India inherit from its time under the British Raj? Apart from some infrastructure, the trains and architecture such as Connaught Place, the most important inheritance has been the English language. Nearly everyone speaks English and even some Indians speak it together. Then, as I have written before, there is sport, Cricket mainly, the English suit, worn quite a lot by men and newspapers to mention some. The Times of India is a huge institution here and owes its origins to the days of the Raj. I shall be bringing back today’s copy for my Father to read, together with the Kathmandu Post.

The cost of living in India is also a subject that interests me. India is a developing country where, at least for a tourist, some things are incredibly cheap and others are extortionate. Having your laundry washed at hotels costs very little but India’s top hotels, like the Taj or the Oberoi have prohibitive prices, some costing over 500 euros per night!

A cup of tea in the street, “cha” costs 6 rupees which is too low to convert into euro cents. Meals can be very cheap even at the best restaurants. Petrol costs about half of what it does in Spain and is 31 rupees per litre.

But how much do people earn? I got this information from our guide in Varanasi and I don’t know how reliable it is. We were talking about education and teachers. I have seen many schools and gathered education was taken seriously. I later learned that the good schools are the private ones which, like anywhere, are very expensive. I was told the state schools, although able to cater for all children for free were not very good because of rife teacher absenteeism. This I later read in The Economist special report on India.

So I asked how much does a secondary school teacher earn per month? Apparently they earn a meagre 15.000 rupees, less than 250 euros. So no wonder they don’t turn up. Our driver told us he earned 1.800 rupees, less than 30 euros. I wonder how they live? Doctors and lawyers earn up to 25 or 30.000 which is between 400 and 500 euros which is not very much either. I wonder how much the lower professions earn?

India is very obviously developing though. Internet and mobile phone infrascture are witness to this. I had no problem connecting, either through my data card or the hotel connection and mobile phones work everywhere. Service is also great. Indians are extremely punctual and things like laundry service, the best I have seen in the world.

Security is a big thing in India and has obviously been tightened up after the terrible Bombay gun blasts. At nearly all the hotels we went to, there were police checks and even bomb detectors. The security I liked best was the security we found at the cash machines, or ATMs as they are known here. Often they are guarded by an un-uniformed man usually bearing a gun. They looked like hunting rifles to Eladio but I don’t know. But the greatest security was at the airports for which we were grateful, not so the bureaucratic kind found at Kathmandu airport!

Whilst here the biggest news items were the aftermath of the Bombay blastings, India’s 9/11 and the financial scandal of its huge IT emporium, Satyam, a sort of Indian Madoff. Certainly tourism has been hard hit by the former. We were a bit worried about coming here when the blasts happened but not so much as to cancel our trip. But many other tourists did as we have noticed from places like the Taj Mahal which should have been much fuller during this high season. Indians though also travel extensively and we coincided on our tour with many Indian tourists too.

Finally a note on the people and how we have been treated. Apart from the money making guides and beggars who are inevitable – there are many beggars in India – a large percentage of the population of Delhi are beggars! – we have encountered some really lovely people and have been treated with great respect. I think “respect” is a word inherent to the Indian people. They seem to respect all living creatures, both animal and human. The word “gee” is a suffix of respect, the most obvious example being to their sacred river, the Ganga or Gangees. Now I understand why they called Gandhi, Gandhi Gee. They also called him Baphu, which means Father.

We want to come back to India, to get to know it better, to delve deeper into the Hindu culture and, of course, to see more of its geography and towns. We have heard of magical places such as Goa, Kashmir, Kerala, …

We also want to return to Nepal which left a deep impression on us. It is not unsimilar to India but has Chinese influence too. After all it is in between the two countries. We definitely want to go back to do trekking and stay again at the wonderful Dwarika hotel, a reason in itself for returning.

So did our trip live up to its expectations? I think more so actually. India is mind blowing, different in every way. It is only partly what you expect. I knew we were going to find poverty and dirt which of course we did, often more than we had expected but we also found what we were looking for; new experiences, and a totally different culture. Now I understand why they call it “Incredible India!”

Until we come again. Namaste!

Ok corrected the comment on the number of beggars in Delhi.  Thanks!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Bhaktapur City, the dictionary episode and life on the street in Nepal, Nagarkot and the end of our trip to the roof of the world, Namaste!

View of Bhaktapur

Hi again

Today, Saturday 10th Jan, was our last full day in Kathmandu. Tomorrow we are returning to Delhi and on Monday night we are flying back home. Half of me wants to stay and the other half is looking forward to going home. But I know I want to come back to this part of the world again.

This morning Mr. Lama was duly waiting for us to show us more of Nepal. We drove to the beautiful town of Bhaktapur. It is the 3rd largest town in the Kathmandu valley and was once the capital of Nepal in the 15th century. Known as the town of “devotees” it is well known for its traditional art and architecture, historical buildings, wood carvings and of course, its temples. I read that it had been partially restored by a German NGO and definitely it is very clean, apart from the dust that comes from the pottery making.
Eladio and I in one of the squares of Bhaktapur. They are all very similar.
Eladio on a rooftop café in Bhaktapur
It is full of squares, one being Durbar, of course and in these squares you find the typical pagoda temples and monuments all built by the traditional red brick. The woodwork is magnificent. I was specially struck by this 15th century “peacock” window. It is a true work of art.
15th century carved wood window with a peacock in the middle.
There were also excellent souvenir shops and stands all over the town and we shopped happily for things that seemed authentic or at least we hadn’t seen elsewhere. It’s a pleasure to see so little globalisation. Here we bought some wood carvings for our walls at home, one of a dragon which apparently will help to protect our house. The other was of Om the sacred symbol in Hinduism for Brahman, the unknowable, and which has its origin in the Sanskrit language, the mother of the Hindu languages.
The Om symbol
Me in Bhaktapur in front of a marvellous wooden carved door and 2 magnificent lion statues
But apart from monuments, Bhaktapur was a window of Nepalese town life for me. Here I snapped happily at the street markets everywhere at the people washing clothes and washing themselves for all to see in the street and at lovely little corner shops that seem timeless. There are no supermarkets here. We felt as if we were in a film, floating on clouds.
A chemist shop in Bhaktapur, isn't it just something? I took this for my pharmacist friend in Madrid, Mari Carmen.
People washing themselves in public in Bhaktapur
People washing clothes in the street in Bhaktapur, a very common scene.
We were constantly harangued by people to buy bric-a-brac which we did at times. Then I was joined on our walk through the town by 2 little boys aged 11 and 12. They were brothers. One was called Vijay and I can’t remember the name of the other. They were eager to practise their English and I was quite impressed. They told me London was a lovely town. So I agreed. Then Eladio was joined by another little boy and we all engaged in conversation. I was expecting them to ask for money but this time was different.

Vijay shyly asked me whether I would buy him and his brother a book for school. At first I resisted but not for long. He took us to a bookshop and pointed at a Nepalese English dictionary. How could I resist? Eladio couldn’t either and so there on the spot we bought two very good quality hard backed dictionaries, one for the two brothers and one for the other boy. They could hardly believe their luck and we were delighted too. As they thanked us, I asked them to study hard with the aim of one day going to England to study. We probably behaved like proud well off people happy to do a good deed but that wasn’t my objective. I took a photo too of the boys, perhaps to remember my good deed but actually to remember their thirst for knowledge which I thought was admirable in their very humble circumstances. How many 12 year old European children would ask for a bilingual dictionary? Not many I guess.
The three boys in Bhaktapur with their new dictionaries.
From the charming town of Bhaktapur we took the road into the mountains which would take us to Nagarkot, a small town from where, fog and clouds permitting, we would get a glimpse of some of the highest peaks in the world. Nagarkot is about 35km from Kathmandu and is renowned for its wonderful views of the Himalayas. It stands at 2.195 metres and the road to it is beautiful with views of pine tree filled hills and sloped terrace cultivation of what must be wheat. We were not unlucky today as the visibility was acceptable and so we were able to clearly see some of the peaks, namely Mt. Langtang which is 7.234m high!
Eladio in Nagarkot with the Himalayan mountains behind, very impressive.
We had tea and something to eat at the Club Himalaya Nagarkot resort and then drove back to Kathmandu to relax at the lovely Dwarika hotel.

Tonight we celebrated our last evening here by going to a Nepalese folk restaurant called Bhojan Griha which apparently means House of Food. But it is much more than that. The restaurant is housed in an old Nepalese building and the dinner, all very ethnic is served on low tables with the same sort of ceremony we found on the first night at Krishnarpan here at the Dwarika hotel. Here we were served amongst other things, bara, lovely cakes made with black lentils and momo, sort of ravioli or meat dumplings. There was entertainment too with typical Newari and Nepalese dancing and music. It was an interesting evening.
Dinner at Bhojan Griha
Tomorrow we will be leaving this charming hotel and wonderful hospitable country to which we would dearly love to return. Here, as in India, we will put our hands together in the praying mode, nod our heads and say “Namaste”. Taken literally it means I bow to you. And so as I bow to the wonderful people I have met in Nepal and say thank you for everything.



Friday, January 09, 2009

Varanasi to Kathmandu, Santosh’s story, the subject of toilets, Nepal, the Dwarika Hotel, Mr. Lama, flight over Everest and getting to know Kathmandu.

Mountain flight over Everest this morning
Hi again,

This post covers Thursday and Friday 8th and 9th January, the 13th and 14th day of our fascinating tour.

Yesterday we had a luxury late wake up at the Radisson hotel in Varanasi. You could tell it was a Radisson but truth to tell it was a bit run down with rather old upholstery. We had a good hearty breakfast to last the day. On this trip we usually have a good breakfast and good dinner but more or less skip lunch or just have some fruit so as not to lose time during the day or eat too much. We travel such a lot by car that we are not exercising enough and are missing our one hour daily walk back home.

We were leaving for the final part of our trip, 3 nights in the remote and exotic country of Nepal, the roof of the world and the home of the highest mountain in the world, Mt. Everest.

We were picked up by Santosh our driver. I had a good long talk to him as I guessed he needed some mothering and I am always game for talking to the locals and finding out more about the country. Santosh who is a delightful, well mannered and well groomed young man has a difficult life and I felt for him. He is good at his job and has a great attitude, not like some of the guides we have met. He has so much talent and yet is in a catch 22 situation. He is from a humble village and had to leave school at the age of 10 when his Father died, to work and keep his Mother and fellow siblings. He would love to study but cannot afford it as his salary is very low (1.800 rupees per month (less than 40 euros per month!) and he has to keep his wife and children who live over 250km away and in order to get on in his job, he needs qualifications which, of course, he cannot get. It was very frustrating to hear. Furthermore he said he only sees his family once every few months because it costs 200 rupees to get to his village and 200 to get back. We went on to talking about mobile phones and cars, Indians’ favourite topics and he asked whether we had a BMW. I felt ashamed to tell him that not only do we have a BMW but that we actually have 4 cars! I promised to send him a mobile phone when I got back and only hope it will get to him. We gave him a tip to more than cover a journey back to his village and when we parted at the airport he had tears in his eyes, bless him. I wish I could help you more Santosh, you and many more people I have met in India.
At the tiny airport of Varanasi we were met by hundreds of porters offering to carry our luggage. I made my way to a small kiosk outside to try and buy some chewing gum. I asked how much a tiny pack of Happydent cost and I was told 50 rupees but I must have been cheated blatantly as when I gave them a note of 100 they had no change. The same happened the day before in Varanasi when we bought a gaudy cheap calendar with the image of my favourite God, Ganesha. They charged 25 rupees and again had no change for 100.

The airport terminal was acceptable, not so the bureaucracy of the check in procedure, security and customs. Everything seems to be done more than twice. To top it all at customs we were told we could not take notes of more than 100 rupees (1.5 euros). We ended up having to change 18.000 into dirty and brittle 100 rupee notes and stuffing them into Eladio’s travel bag. They took up so much room! By the by we paid 720 rupees in commission. You get the feeling that wherever you go in India they try and make money out of you.

I must mention at this point, the subject of toilets as the experience at Varanasi airport is definitely worth mentioning. At the toilets you usually get given some very thin paper from someone standing outside, you go in, do what you have to do and then pay that person. Sometimes you even pay twice, the person outside and another one inside. At Varanasi airport there were 3 barefooted ladies in a tiny dirty loo. One offered to “clean” the loo seat I was supposed to use. She did so with the dirtiest looking cloth I have ever seen. And I was expected to pay her for this service!! Varanasi is meant to be the cultural capital of India. I think they have to introduce the culture of cleanliness. There is an English expression my Father used to tell me when I was a child and it is: “cleanliness is next to Godliness! It could be of great use in India but most turn a blind eye. I can’t. I can understand poverty but I cannot understand the extreme lack of hygiene.
The loo at Varanasi airport
Throughout our trip we have tried to go to the best toilets possible but that is not always easy. Thus you go to the best you can find or the only one. Most of the latter are quite dirty but tolerable. Often they are the stand up type which I hate and at the airport in Nepal today I even came across the stand up type which are open and are in a row. An Irish girl I met said she had seen many. I hadn’t so I took a photo. In fact Lou gave me the idea of starting to do “loo photography” on my travels and then put the photos in our bathrooms at home! I’m going to take her up on that and started the photography today as you can see. Nice eh? Apparently it’s hilarious when women are using them because you get to see 3 bottoms’ up!!
The open stand up loos, 3 in a row - Kathmandu airport!
Our flight on Air India was delightful, mainly because we were in Business Class. We weren’t expecting it; maybe the flight was nearly full when the travel agency made the reservation. We got a lovely Indian meal but best of all we got a glimpse of the Himalayan range of mountains including Mount Everest. So yes, we knew now that we had reached the roof of the earth and the top of the world, Nepal.

Nepal is a remote landlocked country in between India and China. In fact its capital, Kathmandu is 300km from the Indian border and 120km from the Chinese border (Tibet). It has a population of 29 million, the capital having 1.5m inhabitants. It is multi religious with over 80% being Hindus, over 10% Buddhists and the rest Moslems and Christians. Nepal is one of the poorer underdeveloped countries and ranks only 96 in the world. We noticed too that the light goes out frequently and there are great problems with running water.

Nepal now has a Moaist government but not so long ago it was a monarchy. However in 2001 the whole family was assassinated by one of the family members. Since then monarchy has been abolished in Nepal. Well I suppose there is no one left to carry on the succession!!

A silly observation of mine is that the Nepalese flag is the only non square flag in the world. Funny eh?

India is definitely a richer country than Nepal. However we were soon to notice that Nepal is slightly cleaner and that there is somewhat less misery here. The time difference is weird. It is 15 minutes ahead of India! It is obviously Winter now in Kathmandu but it was 18ºc at mid afternoon when we arrived. It gets cooler in the evenings and mornings when it is about 1ºc. Mt. Everest, though is 18º-c which is quite a difference.

We were met by Mr. Rajan Tuladhar from the travel agency and by Mr. Titendra Lama who was to be our driver of quite an old Toyota. We have ended up calling him Mr. Lama. He told us he was Buddhist and we asked him if he was related to the Dalai Lama which of course he wasn’t.

Mr. Lama told us that the village he was from stands at over 2000m2 and that it used to take 10 hours to walk to the nearest point of public transport. Today it takes a 5 hour bus ride and 2 hours on foot. While we were in Kathmandu his wife and 2 of his children were going there. He also told us his wife cannot read or write and nor does she want to! He excuses her by saying she is a "village girl". I told him this was no excuse at all. As we got to know him a bit more we asked him another burning question we had which was about arranged marriages. He admitted his was an arranged one and that today, at least in the cities, it was going out of fashion. I asked him whether he had been happy with his parents choosing his wife and he said "no". I asked no further questions.
Mr. Lama's wife
They drove us to the nearby Dwarika’s hotel and we soon realised we could not have made a better choice. We were given a very warm welcome with the offering of the Buddhist scarf, the "kata" which was put around our necks.

The Dwarika hotel is something special in Nepal, a garden or oasis with a cluster of traditional Newari (area of the Kathmandu valley) ethnic buildings separated by brick courtyards. Everything from the furniture to the atmosphere breathes peace, quiet, elegance and even romance. The rooms are decorated in the same style and absolutely everything has been made in Nepal.
A partial view of the Dwarika hotel
Ours is lovely, big, spacious, light and we adore the Newari style of stone floor, carved wooden furniture, ethnic cushions and low tables. The bathroom is big and similarly decorated with a sunken bath and wonderful kimono type bathrobe I shall be buying to take home. If anyone reading this is coming out to Nepal, then again I would urge them to come here. You won’t be disappointed. This place is absolutely authentic.
Our lovely room at the Hotel Dwarika
After settling in and as soon as we had freshened up, Mr. Lama drove us to the Tamel tourist district, a great place for shopping. First, however, we went with him to park the car near where he lived, just off the Tamel district. Here we met his wife and children who were playing in the street. They were very friendly and posed for pictures very spontaneously. I even got them to say “cheese”.
Mr. Lama, some of his children and their friends
The Nepalese look part Indian and part Chinese and this is certainly so of Mr. Lama. We actually think he looks like Mr. Tenzing, Edmund Hillary’s famous Sherpa. Mr. Lama is a very positive happy sort of person and extremely willing to please. I apologised for being late once and his answer was: “it’s my duty”. He meant, of course, it was his duty or part of his job to wait.

Mr. Lama took us shopping and not once did he take us anywhere he was going to get a commission and that was so refreshing. With him we enjoyed shopping for tiger balm against headaches for my niece Marta and I, for silver bracelets for the girls and for even more baggy trousers. We also got some lovely incense holders which I know we will enjoy back home.
Mr.Lama and Eladio buying tiger balm and other Nepalese things such as tea and curry.

In the evening we had dinner at the hotel but the dinner wasn’t just any dinner. It was really special. We went to the Nepalese restaurant called Krishnarpan. It has been frequented by the likes of Jimmy Carter and Hillary Clinton and really is the best you can find here. The whole experience was very enriching. First you walk in and you take your shoes off, then they wash your hands and afterwards you are lead into the dining room by a beautiful Nepalese lady in ethnic dress. You are lead to a very low and wide table and somehow get yourself into the chair. Next another beautiful Nepalese waitress puts a huge white bib around you and then the gastronomic feast begins. We went for the smallest menu of 6 Nepalese traditional dishes. You could have anything from 6 to 22 believe it or not. With the first dish you were supposed to take some food from you plate and leave it for the Gods! I happily removed the piece of egg I wasn’t interested in eating. The food was laced with rice licquer, a sort of saki. I loved it. The food was served on century old plates and bowls and beautifully served. It was one of the best dinners of our trip and again I highly recommend the Krishnarpan restaurant.
Eladio enjoying the Nepalese dinner experience on the first night.
This morning we were up really early at 6 to catch the 8 o’clock mountain flight over the Himalayan mountain range. We were worried the fog would be an obstacle and had heard from a Spanish couple in Varanasi that they hadn’t been able to fly. We were not sure ourselves until the very last minute. The plane was delayed for more than an hour but then finally we took off with “Buddha Air”. It was a 16 seater with each person having a window seat. There were actually quite a few flights, at least 9, going up at the same time. They were full of tourists like us and that was where we met Lou and Paul, a lovely couple who have been teaching English in China for the last year and who have been travelling extensively in India and roughing it from what I understood in our exchange of experiences. Lou is from Waterford in Ireland and Paul is actually from Sheffield. If you read this, hi, guys, it was good to meet you.

We finally took off on this very exciting flight and we were soon to see all the main peaks of the Himalayan range in Nepal, on the Nepalese side that is. Everest is best seen from China but we could not enter Chinese air space. Not only were we able to view the peaks from the window but each and every one of the passengers was also able to go up to the cock pit twice and take photographs close up. The one illustrating this post proves I saw Everest. As the certificate they gave us on completion of the flight says: “I did not climb Everest but I touched it with my heart”. The experience was one of the best of the trip so far, and was probably the third most exciting highlight together with the Taj Mahal and the Ganges at Varanasi. Wow is the best way to describe it.

The rest of the day was spent exploring Kathmandu and here we soon realised it was the temple centre of the world. First Mr. Lama took us to see the Boudhanath, one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Nepal. It is one of the most visited monuments in Nepal and a tourist landmark. It has the biggest spherical “stupa” in Nepal. I first came across this word at Sarnath in Varanasi and here it was again. It is, I think, a round structure which often holds religious relics. It is, of course, Buddhist.
The Stupa at Boudhanath
Here I also came across “praying wheels” for the first time and they are everywhere in all sizes, from hand held to any size. They are used to spread spiritual blessings and well being and are filled with rolls of many copies of the mantra (prayer) Om Mani Padme Hum. They are really beautiful and tomorrow I know I will buy one to take home and remember the Buddhist temples I have seen here.
Buddhist praying wheels.
From here we went to see the famous Hindu temple of Pashupatinath Temple on the shores of the sacred Bagmati river. Not surprisingly it is dedicated to Shiva as most Hindu temples seem to be. Here Hindus come at least once in their lives to purify themselves. Only Hindus can enter.
The Pashupatinath temple we couldn't go inside.
The river is sacred and flows into the Ganges. Here too cremations take place on the Arya Ghat and people bathe. We talked extensively to Mr. Lama and to a guide and heard that women, as in India, used to throw themselves on their husband's funeral pire in an act known as sati. Apparently they could not bear life without their husband but I think they probably could not envisage life as a widow as widows in Hindu society are somewhat shunned, can no longer marry and have to wear black and white all their lives. Thankfully these practises are disappearing.

We also heard that the mountain people of the villages in the Himalayas often cannot cremate their deceased because there is no wood and they cannot bury them because the ground is frozen. In this case the bodies are cut into pieces and thrown to the nearby vultures!! This we found difficult to stomach.

Here we also saw and visited a Social welfare centre for old and infirm people and went to meet the oldest inhabitant, a woman of 102 who was unfortunately asleep. I walked out feeling humbled once again.
Cremation on the Bagmati river
Afterwards we visited the Durbar Squares at Patan and Kathmandu and saw even more temples. Durbar apparently means "palace" and it seems there is a palace square in every village in Nepal.
Eladio on the Durbar Square of Patan
Durbar Square in Kathmandu
At the former we saw the famous Golden Temple and at the latter we actually saw the Kumari, a living goddess who is 3 years old. She is from the higher Nepalese caste and lives in the Kumari Ghar until puberty. Then she is no longer a Goddess and another one is chosen. She is worshipped by Hindus and Buddhists in the Kathmandu Valley.
She looks out of the window only once a day and we were lucky enough to be there when she did. Quite extraordinary is all I can say. Judge for yourself.
The Kumari, the living goddess
Our last visit of the day was to Swyambhunath, an ancient religious complex on the top of a hill in Kathmandu. It is also known as the monkey temple as there are plenty of them guarding it. We heard earlier from a guide at Boudha Nath that in the Hindu religion there are 4 holy or sacred animals. I only knew about the cow but apparently monkeys, bulls, dogs and snakes are also holy. I thought bulls and cows were in the same category and am surprised about the dogs as they seem like the lowest of the low to me. This was new to me.
What I have noticed today is that, although very similar to India, there is slightly less dirt, people tend to use western dress a bit more and that the streets are marginally less noisy. The architecture in Nepal has a Chinese look about it, specially the tiered roofed temples in the Durbar Squares. Contrary to the one low and flat houses you see in India, here they are all made of red brick and have 4 or 5 floors. There is always a terrace at the top which seems to take the place of a garden.

Funnily enough the Nepalese play football, unlike the Indians, although they do play cricket too. Nepal was not part of the British Raj, I think, but was given its independence in 1923. The Nepalese fought with the British Army in the area and are very famous for their tough, hard and resilient Ghurka soldiers.

On the subject of sport or play, Nepal is another great kite flying country like India and Afghanistan. It is also an "early to bed" country to quote the Lonely Planet Guide. And this we experienced as were not able to book a table for dinner past 19.30h.

I like what I have seen of Nepal so far and feel really at home here. I just wish we had more time to go and see Pokhora and to do some trekking. We do have one full day tomorrow though and Mr. Lama will be taking us to see Bhaktapur City and Nagarkot from where we hope to glimpse the Himalayas up close from the ground, although according to Mr. Lama it would take 15 days to walk there. Well, we won’t be doing that.

More tomorrow, from Kathamandu, Masha.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

From Agra to Varanasi and the Ganges, the holy city and holy river of India, a humbling experience

Cremating by the Ganges, my most prized photo of India
Hello again,

Today is Tuesday 7th January and day 12 of our fascinating journey in India. Yesterday we left Agra early in the morning to catch the 14.30 plane from Delhi to Varanasi. Our journey was not uneventful as we woke up to intense fog, the pea soup type that used to happen in London. It seems to be a very foggy time here, at least in the North of India and we are fearing it also in Nepal where it will be a real obstacle for seeing Mount Everest I imagine.

It took our driver over an hour to leave Agra, you just could not see further than your nose which is dangerous everywhere but even more so in India because of the traffic and variety of vehicles.

Agra to Delhi is about 300km and our driver said it would take 5 hours. It actually ended up taking nearly 7 as I think he had forgotten to warn us that crossing Delhi would take at least another hour, due, again to its chaotic traffic. Luckily our plane was delayed but had we known that we would have been a lot less worried during our stressful journey. In fact we didn’t leave Indira Ghandi airport until 17.30 and arrived in Varanasi one hour later. Add the hassle of getting your luggage, finding your new driver and getting to the hotel, this meant we didn’t check into the civilized Radisson until past 19h. All we did then yesterday was travel and wind down in our hotel room.

In general our hotels are like a haven from the heavy experience of the noisy and dirty streets where you take refuge to bask in civilisation until you are ready for the outside world again.

I must add here that the terminal we waited at was in a perfectly clean and orderly state, not like the one we flew into. Also I should mention that it was here that we said goodbye to our driver Rajesh who had been with us for 10 days. We were very happy with his services and I was most happy with all I learned from him. Needless to say we gave him a heavy tip.

So we were fresh and ready to visit Varanasi this morning. To help us there was Arthur from the travel agency, Santosh our young and delightful driver and Tariq our Muslim, dark haired and blue eyed guide who was to be my next teacher on things Indian after Rajesh. I learned a lot from Tariq but this knowledge will be the subject of a separate post later.

On our flight we were accompanied by many Buddhist monks and learned that the Dalai Lama was due to be in Varanasi on an official visit from 8th to 14th January. We also learned that Varanasi is not only a pilgrim city for Hindus but also for Buddhists but for another reason. The Buddhists come here to visit Sarnath where Buddha made his first preaching.

Often referred to as Benares, Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world. Mark Twain apparently wrote: "Benaras is older than history” which is now a favourite quote of its inhabitants. The name Varanasi, has its origin possibly from the names of two rivers of its rivers Varuna and Assi, although ironically it is most famous for the river Ganges, or Ganga as it is called in Hindu.

It is also the city of Shiva and has 2 million inhabitants made up of 40% Hindu, 30% Muslim, the rest being Jainists, Buddhists and other religions. It is considered to be the cultural capital of India and houses India’s most important University, some say the most important in Asia; the Banaras Hindu University founded by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya in 1916. It is also famous for mango, silk fabric and classical music. We were told that the famous sitar maestro, Pandit Ravi Shankar was born here too.

Our guide first showed us the remains of the Buddhist town of Sarnath and here we saw the Dhamek Stupa where Buddha preached his first sermon to his five disciples. His tomb is here too and this is where many Buddhist pilgrims come. Today of course there were many more because of the Dalai Lama’s visit. Because of the separatism problem of Tibet he now lives in the north of India permanently and many Tibetans have moved there too. We saw quite a few of them today.
A very nice Indian couple from London we met - with Eladio by the Stupa.
From Sarnath our guide took us to see the Moghol (Muslim) part of the city where the artisans make the silk Varanasi is so famous for. This was not a very “nice” area to see but fascinating in its own way, with filthy dark streets and barefoot children begging.
A dark, narrow, dirty and sinister street of Varanasi
I hate to admit that we actually saw a small child defecate in the street. His Mother was 10 feet away preparing their food! Often the artisans were working in the dark as electricity often goes out suddenly here. It actually goes out everywhere in India. Afterwards our guide tried to take us to a few tourist trap selling places where we refused to take the bait.
A typical square or street in Varanassi, not very nice.
From here we went to visit the University which although famous was not particularly interesting. We did see the Shiva temple there but did not find it very different to the many we have already seen during this trip.

It seemed the time to visit the Ganges would never come. Varanasi is most famous, of course for the holy river Ganges for people coming to bathe here and for the cremations that take part here and this is what had attracted us in the first place. There was a boat trip planned for us at 17h but we insisted on going before. Our guide was reluctant but finally gave in and so we drove as near to one of the main ghats as was possible. The rest had to be on foot through filthy dark streets and sinister tunnels. But we made it.

All Indians we learned have 4 mothers; their birth mother, the mother cow, mother India and the Ganges. If you are cremated by the Ganges you go directly to Nibbana or paradise and it seems it is all Hindus’ dream to die or be cremated in Varanasi. In fact many old people in the 90's and 100's come to live by the Ganges to await their death. Soon we were to find out how the cremation takes place.

For me there are a handful of rivers that hold a special attraction and they are the Yangzte in China, the Nile in Egypt, the Mississippi in the United States and the Ganges in India. For me it is a mythological river but for most Indians it is holy and means the eternity of life. Some Hindus also believe life is incomplete without bathing in the Ganga at least once in one's lifetime.

We walked down the steep and long steps of one of the ghats towards the river and took in the picture, a picture that will remain in our heads for a long time. It is difficult to describe. Yes it is dirty, yes it is chaotic with cows, goats and dogs wondering around, the water is filthy, there is no green whatsoever, just a soil shore but yet it touches you. We watched some people bathe in that water and then we walked towards the fires, knowing we were walking towards people being cremated on wood fires.
People bathing in the river Ganges. They must have a lot of faith because I wouldn't bathe there for all the tea in China!
We got closer and closer and became mesmerized. Again, like the visit to the Taj Mahal, I was deeply moved. I shed some tears and watched and watched. Someone gently asked us to move to another spot as apparently we were with the family of one of the deceased. So we moved to a spot where other people were watching. I realised I was the only woman within a very big radius. The Hindu men made way for us to watch the many cremations taking place and we were lucky enough to be able to talk to the man next to us who was there to see his father-in-law cremated. We were not supposed to take photos but this man said that it was alright to do so. So I took the most amazing photo (the one illustrating this post)the most important of our trip to India.

From what we watched and what we were told we found out that the very poor people burn their deceased through burning by electricity and the rest do so with wood at one of the ghats. The wood is expensive, some 200 rupees for 1 kg and 300 kgs are needed. Each fire burns for some 3 hours (poor people take 45 minutes with electricity). The wood is expensive because it comes from some special tree and there is no smell of flesh burning. We, at least, did not smell it.
The cremations - the building with the 2 chimneys (where the electric cremation takes place) houses some of the old people who come here to await their death.
The bodies are prepared and covered with a shroud on a bamboo bed and carried by the family men to the river to be bathed first. Women are not allowed. Our friend told us this was because women were too “soft”! He also told us that when people die the close male members of the family shave their hair and the close female members of the family cut their nails from both their toes and their fingers. Also the funeral proceedings take some 13 days.

After bathing the bodies on the bamboo beds, they are returned to the shore by the ghat and the fire is prepared just like a bonfire. The body placed on it and then it is lit. Then the closest male member of the deceased leads the rest of the mourners round the body 5 times to free the 5 elements from the body so that the soul can go free to Nibbana. The elements are the ones we know; fire, water, air and earth as well as ether (soul?). This closest male member wears a special white cloth. Once the body has burned, he takes water from the Ganges to put out the fire. What does not burn, it seems, is the man’s chest and the woman’s pelvis (the strongest part of their bodies) and these bones are thrown into the river together with the ashes. I think the mourners touch the ashes first.

The only people who cannot be cremated are holy men who are considered already purified in life, children under 12 and pregnant women because of children’s innocence and lepers and people who have been bitten by a cobra snake. The explanation for the latter is too long to go into here. These people, except the ones bitten by the cobra, are sunk in the river with a stone.

As we watched this extraordinary ritual that has been taking place through history, I felt humbled. It is Dantesque but it is not barbaric. It is perfectly understandable and carried out with deep belief and great love.

Later we took our boat ride just before sunset. A young boy sold us flowers with a candle for us to make a wish and leave floating in the river. My wish was to come back to India.
The boy who sold us the flowers to throw in the Ganges
Eladio and I on the boat on the Ganges with our flowers
On our boat ride we saw more ghats and a bigger cremating area. We also witnessed the Ganga Aarti ceremony that takes place every day at 18h to make flower boat offerings and wash away ones’ sins. We learned that cremations take place 24 hours a day and that the fire never goes out in Varanasi.
The Ganga Aarti ceremony
How could the fire go out of such an amazing city and place? It has certainly left a mark on us and we will never forget our experience here.

And tomorrow we leave this amazing city for Kathmandu, another fascinating destination.

Until tomorrow.