Sunday, August 9, 2020

Visiting the birth of Buddhism and the Holy City of Varanasi in India

This is the last post on my trip to India in the winter of 2007. 

Wednesday, January 31st -    It was absolute chaos at the Varanasi train station upon our arrival after our overnight trip from Agra but we managed to get through the throngs of people to our bus which dropped us at our hotel, the Vaibhav. We had brunch (coffee, omelet and toast)  then headed out to Sarnath (13 km out of town) which is where Buddha gave his first sermon.   We visited Mulgandha Kuti which is on the site where Buddha meditated. 

Above is the Dhamekh Stupa which is a Buddhist shrine dating from 500 CE.  As you can imagine this place is very special for Buddhists.   After my visit to India I got interested in meditation which I studied for a few years as well as Buddhism.  Somehow I slipped away from it but I still think a return visit here would be a good idea as it would mean so much more to me.  It is definitely a must-see if you are in Varanasi. 

There was a museum on-site with artifacts that were very interesting.   Some Chinese monks (I had asked one where they were from) went through security and had to give up their cell phones and digital cameras. They were all giggling like naughty schoolchildren.  One lone monk had to sit outside guarding their ‘stash’.  It was hilarious as you don’t think of monks as being that technologically advanced and their cheerful giggles made me laugh too.  (remember this was back in 2007 - I don't  remember if I even had a flip phone then!) 
One of our party getting lots of attention on the grounds of Sarnath!!  (the advantage of being a blonde I guess!) 
I was distracted by the many street dogs that live here.  This girl captured my heart...one of the prettiest dogs I've seen. (besides my own of course).  Her eyes were gorgeous!  

Then it was back to the hotel for dinner and an early night after the previous night of broken sleep. 

Thursday, February 1st -   We were up early and out by 6 a.m. to have our early morning boat ride on the Ganges.  Amazing!!!  People come to the Ganges (known as the Ganga in India) to purify themselves as it is a holy river.  We Westerners can go on about how dirty the river is and how can they stand it but it was very humbling to see them bathing themselves and see the joy they felt at being there.  From a distance we saw a cremation as well -  it is said you will go right to Nirvana if you die in Varanasi and your ashes go into the Ganges. Dare I add that on the down to earth side we saw dogs hanging around the area due to the smell of roasting meat. At first we thought they were family dogs and then we realized they were hungry street dogs....(ok sorry if you were grossed out at that...just consider it all part of the Indian experience!) 

It was such a humbling experience to be here.  The sunrise was beautiful and we were given flowers to put in the Ganges to remember departed loved ones.  Very special. Again on the practical gross side I didn't want to look too closely at the water as I'd read of people seeing dead bodies floating.  (more on why that happens later)
As you can see the Ghats (steps) of Varanasi are very colourful and very busy!!! 

On the left side of the picture you can see smoke - that is a cremation.  Of course out of respect for the dead and their family you don't take close up photos.  This trip got me over my fear and revulsion of death which is a common trait of westerners.  Let's face it, at the end of the day we are all just a pile of meat.  Where we go or IF we go somewhere is all up to our own interpretation - whatever brings you peace and comfort.   My motto is to live your life as you want while you're here because who knows what really happens after.  

We got off the boat and walked to the Gold Temple - it is in the area with a very well protected mosque - there have been bombs in the past so we had to go through security.  Once again a clash between Muslims & Hindus. Oh religion.... We could not go into the temple as you have to be Hindu to go into that particular one. I have no photos of the outside and I honestly can't remember why but it must have been due to the increased security.  We walked through very narrow lanes filled with people, cows & motorbikes back to our minibus.  

Watch out for cows and dead bodies (draped in beautiful silk) being carried to the ghats to be cremated!  We ran into a few of both!  

After breakfast back at the hotel four of us took rickshaws back to the Ghats and walked along observing local life.  It was especially interesting seeing the Sadhus - Hindu holy men who travel from one religious site to another.  They coat their faces with ash, are naked (though maybe that depends on the weather!) and rely on the kindness of strangers for food.  We saw the beginnings of a cremation - firewood is very expensive in India so you have to be quite wealthy to be cremated.  Sometimes there is not enough firewood to burn the entire body before it is released into the water.  Children are considered pure so are released into the Ganga without being cremated.  
Here is a Sadhu.  
A herd of cows is heading towards the water...
Laundry being done! 
Photo bomb!!  
Doing the laundry. 
This little girl was selling the same kind of flowers we had released in the Ganges that morning.  We each gave her money but told her to keep the flowers.  She happily posed for a photo for us.  What a little sweetheart she was. It is heartbreaking to think she was out doing this when she should have been in school learning.  Thirteen years later, I wonder what she is doing...

Back via rickshaw to the hotel where I had a quiet evening in resting. The others were going to a festival on the Ganges where they had a great time.  My tummy was burning and I decided that going on a small boat (ahem...no facilities) and negotiating a big crowd probably wasn't such a good idea.  That's the only time in India I felt "not quite right" and that was minor.  

Friday February 2 -  After breakfast, we took off in tuk-tuks to do some shopping.  We wandered around but it was so chaotic that we just gave up - we never did find any tourist type shops.  We did see the local market which was interesting but not what we wanted at this point.  I think we were all feeling a bit overwhelmed by Varanasi at this point - everything is so busy and noisy that it is very exhausting to even walk along the street.
This was a much quieter side street - complete with token cow! 

Eyes in the back of your head would definitely be a bonus in India - especially for motorbikes that seem to be everywhere and go everywhere! (which is a common thing in Asia)  We took a tuk-tuk out to the local university which was lovely - all green and quiet - we couldn’t get over the fact that we were in the same city!! 

We had dinner at the hotel then took a bus to the train station for our return to Delhi.  Poor Ann Marie was very sick - she had eaten something dodgy the night before. It wasn't meat as she was vegetarian but we're thinking the paneer (cheese) that she was very fond of.  Luckily it was the end of our trip so she didn’t miss much. While the trip was horrid for Ann Marie I slept much better on this journey.  

Saturday February 3 - While the train trip was better than the last one it was still a relief to reach Delhi.  After breakfast the five of us got into a tuk-tuk to go to Connaught Place - the main "posh" shopping area.  The driver gave us a great deal - we soon found out why.  We got out at what we thought was Connaught Place only to find he had taken us to a tourist shop where he got a kickback.   So we got into another tuk-tuk and when Michael went to sit in the front seat with the driver - something he’d been doing all along - the driver said he would charge us another 20 Rupees.  Definitely back in the big city!!!  Michael told the driver “You’re in dreamland mate” and crammed into the back seat with us.  Ha, I still laugh about that! 
Scotiabank (the bank I've been with for over 40 years) in Delhi - who knew? 
I honestly can't remember what this was about. 
You can carry anything on a bike or tuk-tuk if you want to!!!  
Muslims going to pray at the nearest mosque. 

Finally, we got to Connaught Place - Judy and Shanna hit the shops and after a foray into a bookshop where we both bought Indian cookbooks (I haven't even used mine; don't even know if I still have it!) Michael and I went to a yuppie coffee shop where we observed how the rich young people in Delhi live.  It was quite an interesting contrast after the poverty we had witnessed over the past two weeks.  We then boarded the metro (very clean) and both burst out laughing when we were informed by a taped recording to “mind the gap”. We got lost getting out of the metro station but asking people (who were very helpful) did the trick and we were soon back at the Hotel Florence. I was able to go into a regular carriage as I was with a man; if I was on my own I would have gone into a "female only" carriage so as not to get groped. (in my dreams - JOKING..)  Ann Marie was feeling better so she was able to join the group for our last meal together.  This was my final Indian meal - boohoo.  I had a potato and cheese dish and a vegetable curry. (as I mentioned earlier I wasn't vegetarian but avoided meat for the most part just to be on the safe side) I absolutely loved the Indian food and I still rate it the best food I've had on any trip.  The Oz mother and daughter team grumbled throughout their meal and left early  - yay - so the rest of us were able to sit, relax and visit for a bit.  Then it was back to the hotel and time to say goodbye.  That is always the sad bit.  We planned to have one last breakfast together the next morning though but I am so glad we said our goodbyes then...  

Sunday February 4 -  I was up early and after breakfast I headed down to the lobby and the car to take me to the airport was there early.  I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to the others which upset me - the five of us got along so well and it was sad to realize I would probably never see them again. Mr. Hotty had suggested we leave for the airport early but I got there way too soon and my Virgin Atlantic flight hadn’t even opened up yet. The airport was under renovation and I had to sit in a very boring area divided from the check-in desks by plywood walls! Finally after a boring hour or so I was able to check in and go to the departures area.  I spent the rest of my rupees on tea and ceramic elephant coasters. (is that a surprise?)  Then it was time to say goodbye to India and board my Virgin Atlantic flight back to London.  London seemed soooo quiet after India!  I laugh just thinking about it as central London is NOT quiet but compared to the honking cars in India it sure is. 

Any regrets?  Yes, that I didn't spend more time in Delhi.  I didn't see Old Delhi which I have heard is worth visiting.  I flew in and out - don't ask me why as I was on a five week trip with plenty of time.  

I really think Varanasi should be on everybody's itinerary of India.  It can be disturbing and overwhelming but so very interesting and beautiful. I would love to go back and spend a few days there.  

I have never felt so alive as I did in India. What can I say about India; amazing, enchanting, disturbing, eye-opening, humbling and life-changing. 


Saturday, August 1, 2020

Sunday Funday in London Town - a parade, street art and Coal Drops Yard

Sundays are fun days for me in London.  It starts with pancakes - well more like crepes really.  Thin pancakes that I slather with nutella, roll up and devour.  I limit myself to four. (or try to!) This is the only time I eat Nutella because I just don't want to go down that road...I have enough bad habits when it comes to chocolate! Claudia made normal pancakes for a short while but as I'm not a big pancake fan normally I was so happy she went back to the "crepe style".   

On this particular Sunday (June 30th) with my tummy happy (for now...I don't try to eat too much before a trip to Brick Lane so definitely not more than four that morning!) I set off via train and tube to Brick Lane.  Sunday is market day on Brick Lane which is in the east end of London.  After climbing the steps out of the Aldgate East tube station I headed half a block to Brick Lane and walked down - noting that there was security around.  Hmmm...what was that about.  In the meantime I started taking photos of the street art Brick Lane which the East End is noted for (besides Jack the Ripper and the Kray Brothers that is!). 








While you can see a bit of the street art on Brick Lane you usually have to walk down an alley or side street to see most of them.  A lot is just stickers with painting but there are some great ones too.  


No shortage of Trump street art! 



This is one of the nicer side streets off Brick Lane. There are beautiful houses here that were once occupied by the Huguenots.  The French Huguenot people adhered to the Calvinist tradition of Protestantism.  To make a long story short they were persecuted and murdered in predominately Catholic France.  Ah religion....don't get me started or I will never stop. (especially after I've had a bit to drink) They were told to either convert to Catholicism or leave the country. They fled to Britain (can't blame them) and were actually the first known refugees to Britain in the 17th and early 18th century.  





There are all sorts of markets on (and slightly off) Brick Lane.  You can buy somebody's old tat  sorry....used items or lovely handmade items at the Upmarket or nearby Spitalfields market. 



After an hour or so of wandering Brick Lane, it was time for my traditional momo lunch - momos are delicious dumplings that originate in Tibet.  Kind of like perogies with spicy innards.  They are heaven - pure heaven!!  

I always go to the same vendors - a family that came over from Tibet to settle in London. 


I always order a variety - chicken, lamb, pork veggie, prawn....they are all YUM!!! (and they kindly threw in an extra!)  



I should be more adventurous but I always go for the momos - there are loads of food vendors in this building and it all looks wonderful!  That's it... I guess I need to go to Brick Lane every Sunday I am in London and get out of my "momo rut". 



Belly really full now, I staggered out and back onto the street.  I heard music and then to my startled eyes - a parade!!!  I literally BUMPED into it!  What beautiful colour and music!  Such a privilege to be able to see this.  


This parade marched through the East end ending up at Weavers Fields.  This culminates in the largest Asian festival in Europe.  Boishakhi Mela is a Bengali festival celebrating the Bangladesh New Year and the parade represents the rivers of Bangladesh.  It was truly a special event to witness. 










I always have to pop in here and have a snoop.  


Besides the food in the hall where I got the momos there are loads of kiosks along the northern end of Brick Lane.  I've only ever tried the masala chai (spicy tea) as my belly is always too full from momos.  I really must come here more than once on a trip!!!  The variety of food is amazing. 

I then wandered down a side street over to Bishopgate and the Spitalfields market.  This is a wonderful market that sells beautiful handcrafted items - and they also have food stalls although nothing like Brick Lane.  I came away empty-handed from both markets except for a bamboo toothbrush!  The purpose of this visit was to buy gifts for family and friends and I failed miserably.  I am not really a shopper so I have to be in the right mood. 



I think they were going to telecast sports - probably Wimbledon.  Sports..meh....I parked my butt on a nearby bench to rest and I even resisted the Pimms!!  


I always have to pay my respects to this goat that stands alongside the Spitalfields market building.  It is called "I Goat" and is a memorial to the many immigrants (including the Huguenots I mentioned earlier) and their persecution and sacrifice.  Also it might be a nod to the 17th century when Spitalfields market traded in all sorts - probably including goats.  


Sadly I had to head in the direction of "no roast" - that belly full of momos would definitely have rebelled!!! 

I headed over to Liverpool Street Station as I wasn't entirely sure what I would get up to next.  I sat in the lobby and thought about where to go next...I had a friend join me...


This poor guy was missing a foot!  I felt so badly that 1)  I had no food to share with him and 2) I couldn't take him home with me as my pet to protect and care for (don't think Claudia would have liked that in her guest house!!!)  Then I remembered the cooing.....I had pigeons living on my balcony once or twice.  Not fun.  But I do like their attitude - they don't take sh*t from anyone.  I left the station feeling very sad....though maybe that pigeon is on to a great gig living in Liverpool St station with all those WH Smith sandwich crumbs around and playing up to soppy animal lovers like me. (not a shortage of those in Britain!)

I got on the bus to Kings Cross station and followed the crowd to Coal Drops Yard which is a new shopping and entertainment area just behind the station.  What used to be a hang out for drug addicts/dealers and other people you don't want to meet on a dark night is now being rejuvenated.  My friend Loraine had told me about this place so I knew I had to go.  Honestly, anyone who gets bored in London needs their head examined - or they are just plain boring themselves!!!!  You should see my list for the next time I am over (please...please...don't let it be too long!!). 



What the heck is Coal Drops Yard you might ask?  This was the site of two huge coal sheds that were used to receive coal from South Yorkshire and send it onto the adjacent Regents Canal on canal boats (pulled by horses on the canal paths in earlier days) or onto carts to be dispursed around London.  Coal was used to heat and light the buildings and homes of London and eight million tons a year came through these sheds.  Some coal was also converted to coal gas in the round gasworks structure below. As there are a few of these abandoned lonely structures around London it was so cool to see that condo units have been built inside this structure. 


There were quite a few shops but they were all too high scale for me.  


There was a water play area that was a hit with kiddies of all ages. 


There was also a free movie - I can't remember what it was but it didn't tempt me.  I assume this was a weekend-only thing but I could be wrong.  (And look at all those people - sitting way too close aren't they???  It is going to seem so strange when we can all sit together again.)  


Of course I had to pop in here...


and pay my respects to the proprietor!!! 


I had a browse but nothing took my fancy.  I certainly would have been a cheap date today!!!  

I decided to go back through the tunnel to Kings Cross which was lit in a rainbow for Pride month.  (and nice and cool which was relief on this hot day) 



Then back to Streatham tired and happy - what a great day!!!  

I highly recommend visiting the East End markets on a Sunday.  The markets generally don't start until 10 a.m.  If you want to see the street art I recommend going to the Aldgate East tube station and turn left out of the station for half a block and turn left at the first street - that is Brick Lane. It starts out fairly ordinary with a high number of Indian restaurants but as you walk further along the street art begins and then the markets. 

Coal Drops yard is behind Kings Cross Rail tube/rail station and the train is well marked (or follow the herd if it's the weekend) 






Visiting the birth of Buddhism and the Holy City of Varanasi in India

This is the last post on my trip to India in the winter of 2007.  Wednesday, January 31 st  -      It was absolute chaos at the Varanasi tra...