Travel Momentos: The Woman With The Inquisitive Eyes

I still remember the feeling as we stepped onto the train that night. We’d arrived to a train station just outside of Varanasi, in the North of India earlier that evening. It was dark already, the air sticky with humidity, the station lit with faint orange lights.

We shuffled through the throngs of people to the platform we thought might be ours. Stretched out in front of us was a patchwork quilt of families strewn across the platform. Each group huddled together on their own blanket with flasks of hot water for tea, various deep fried delicacies and carefully crafted boxes of rice and curry.

They were here for the long haul.

To one side, we spotted a solitary bench with one available seat, perched between two families. Laura sat down, squeezing between the two families and their haul of bags and boxes. I stood in front of her, and smiled at each of the families either side. They stared back relentlessly, a classic Indian mix of inquisition and intrigue. We’d grown accustomed to the staring by now, and I revelled in competing to see who could hold eye contact the longest between myself and a random family member.

I lost every time

I glanced up to the board to my left, the information board showing a train due to leave at 2pm. It was 10pm now and there was still no sign of it.

8 hours late I thought, this could be a very long night.

After a while of staring, I took a wander around the station. By now whatever food stands had been there were long closed, the remnants of food being hungrily eating by the biggest rats I’ve ever seen.

Suddenly there was a commotion, as a heave of people swarmed towards another platform. I watched as whole families hurriedly gathered up their belongings and headed to the platform. There had been no announcement as far as I could tell, and the information board was blank. Yet in the darkness, along the tracks, were two bright lights getting closer.

Someone’s train was arriving, but where was it going?

I moved closer to glean any info I could on what was happening. Suddenly through the noise and smells of the station, I heard two words above it all:

New Jalpaiguri

This was our destination! I bolted back around the corner where Laura was sitting patiently. I didn’t say anything, one look at my face and she was up and grabbing the bags. We bolted back around to the other platform.

Was this our train? There were no announcements, no signs, no one on the station platform.

We peered inside the carriages in front of us, a brightly lit space with wooden seats and a hundred Indian faces stared back.

This might be our train, but this was not our carriage. We moved down the platform at some pace, looking for the sleeper carriages. A conductor in a hat appeared from one of the carriages, took one look at us and motioned us forward a few more carriages and onto the train.

“New Jalpaiguri?”, I blurted. “Yes my friend!” He replied.

Incredibly, our train was on time.

We scrambled through the dark sleeper carriages until we found our bunks, a middle and upper bunk in a grouping of 6. I took the top and Laura the middle, as others slept soundly on the opposite bunks.

The relief was incredible. Our train was on time, we had our bunks, and we were on our way!

I slept soundly that night, waking around 7am with a jolt. I peered out of my top bunk to the bunk below, where Laura was still cocooned in her sheet and blanket, arms linked through her small backpack with valuables.

It was at this moment that I became aware of 6 pairs of eyes gazing intently from across the compartment.

A family of 6 were already awake, had folded away the middle bunk, and were now all sitting in a row on the bottom bunk, all eyes fixed intently on me in the top bunk.Good train etiquette means folding up the middle bunk so that people on the top and bottom bunk can sit up on the bottom bunk. Wary of this, I clambered down and woke Laura. She was not for getting up, so she clambered up to the top bunk for more sleep while I folded up the middle bunk and sat down on the bottom bunk, its inhabitant had seemingly already left.

I took a breath and looked up. I was now sitting at the same level as the family, on the seat facing opposite, about a metre across from me. All 6 of them squeezed on the bottom bunk, all in a row, gazing intently at me, analysing my features, my hair, my clothes.

Five members of the family, the husband, kids and one grandparent gazed and grinned from ear to ear at me. But there was one woman, I assumed the mother, who gazed intently at me, her face completely expressionless.

After much travelling across the world, if there’s one thing we’ve learnt, it’s that even the smallest attempt at interacting in the local language, or adopting a local expression can go a long way.

After a few weeks in India, we’d learnt how to say hello, please, thank you, goodbye. But one expression that unlocked doors and resolved so many situations was the head wobble.

If you’re unsure what I’m talking about, just google it and more knowledgeable people can tell you all about it. What we learnt, from our experience, was that it can mean yes, no, maybe. It can mean almost anything, and that’s kind of the point.

So as I sat, gazing back at the family of six, I focused my attention on the woman with the inquisitive eyes, and ever so slightly, wobbled my head left and right, whilst staring at her.

Her reaction was one of the most incredible bursts of expression I’ve witnessed.

Her face suddenly burst into life. Her eyes widened so that the whites of her eyes were clear, a beaming smile burst onto her face, her hands came out towards me, palms to the ceiling, and then she began talking, the words and questions tumbling from her mouth as fast as she possibly could:

What is your name?
Where are you from?
Why are you in India?
What do you think of India?
Are you married?
Where is your wife?
Is that your wife?
Where are your children?
Why do you not have children?

All of these questions came from her mouth in the space of 30 seconds, after which she stopped and waited for my responses. For the next 2 hours, we talked, shared food between ourselves, showed the family pictures of our life in Scotland, some of our wedding photos. I even think I let them take a photo of our wedding photo on my phone so that they could show their friends.

Although only a tiny moment in our travels, I still remember it with fond memories. It’s these micro moments that can stay with you longer than even the grandest of adventures.

The ‘Travel Moments’ Series

‘Travel Moments’ is a brand new feature here at WorldlyNomads.Com! As much as we LOVE sharing our favourite photos and most exciting travel adventures, sometimes it’s the little unique moments that affect us the most.

Whether it was a fleeting but special interaction with a local, getting lost and discovering something we didn’t plan to, or a random experience we never imagined, these are the moments that will linger in our memories long after returning home and unpacking the bag packs.

So watch this space for many more ‘travel moments’ to come and feel free to share your own in the comment box below!


india video

India

India is a country full of verve, energy and contradictions. It is a challenge to visit, but it leaves an indelible mark on your soul

When we think of India, the mere mention of the place conjures up a deep set of diverse and contradictory images and emotions. On the one hand, India for us is a mystical, magical place full of energy and ambition. It seems the absolute majority of people who actually go to India leave with a sense of connection with this wonderful country, its landscapes and its people. You see, India is a place that gets up in your face and then gets under your skin. It’s brash, abrasive, intrusive, energetic, exciting and heartbreaking all in one.

For all the highs it has to offer, from the landscapes and sights, to the people and their food, there is the inequality and poverty which are inescapable on your journey through this magnificent country. It is these elements that cause many to prejudge India, and as a result, will never even consider visiting. For all its positives, India’s image is a complex and unwieldily beast.

india video

india video

Our time there was full of highs, excitement and challenges. Through it all we were accompanied and caught up in the energy and passion of the people. We fell in love with India, a somewhat unexpected outcome for us. We went there for the challenge, because we thought it would take us way out of our comfort zone. And in some respects it did. People will stare, they will burrow their eyes deep into your soul, they will feel intrusive and uncouth. But below this energetic and pushy exterior lies a deep seated goodness. They’re not being intrusive, they’re simply intrigued by you. By your hair, your clothes, whether you are married, how many kids you have, why you don’t have any kids yet and what you do for jobs. Below it all is a strong sense of pride in their family and their country.

india video

india video

Some travellers say you have never truly travelled until you have visited India. Whilst we don’t agree with the sentiment entirely, we’re absolutely certain that it helps if you have had some experience of travelling before you visit this incredible country. India will shake the will of even the most hardened traveller, and we wouldn’t change that for a moment.

With India it is all or nothing. You either commit or you go home, there are no half measures in this diverse country. We had some fantastic adventures in our time there, some of our favourites you can find here, from camel treks in the desert, to boat trips on the ganges where public cremations take place, India packed quite a punch when it came to adventurous activities! We saw some of the most beautiful places in India in our time there.

Adventures don’t always have to be activities, we found almost every meal to be an adventure of its own. Disclaimer: we were already lovers of the Indian cuisine before we arrived, but nothing prepared us for what we experienced across India. Honesty is the best policy, and not all the activities we chose to do resulted in positive experiences. We didn’t enjoy the Kathakali dance in Kerala, and we explain why in our detailed article above. And then there was the magnificent Puja ceremony in Varanasi, a mystical and enriching evening on the Ganges. Wow, what a place.

India is blessed with some incredible places to visit, places where you just sit and soak it all in. From the world famous Taj Mahal, to the countless towns and cities in Rajasthan, some of our favourite experiences in India were wandering through alleyways and markets, getting lost and seeing what we found. We’ve hand picked some of our favourites above.

INDIAN ADVENTURES

Cruising The Backwaters Of Kerala On A Houseboat

Cruising the beautiful backwaters of Kerala on a houseboat was one of our highlights of all of India. Take a fascinating tour with our photos and story.

Camel Trekking Under The Stars, India

A camel trek into the desert was always something we wanted to do, so we jumped at the chance in Northern India. What followed was a day of bumpy trekking, a night under the stars with only a blanket and a million beetles to keep us company!

holi festival of colours

Holi Festival Of Colors, India

Holi festival in India can be intimidating, but don’t worry, use our tips to ensure you get an authentic and real experience of this celebration!

Life And Death In Varanasi, India

Varanasi was an absolute attack on the senses, and our experiences there will stay with us forever. Public cremations on the banks of the Ganges, processions of shrouded bodies through the narrow streets and sweltering heat all left an indelible mark on us.

The Mystical Puja Ceremony Of Varanasi

Beautiful photos of the mystical Puja Ceremony on the banks of the river Ganges in Varanasi, India.

Travel Momentos: The Woman With The Inquisitive Eyes

This is the story of a wonderful encounter with a family on a train in India. Sometimes it’s the little unique moments that create the best travel memories…

Delicious Indian Food Photos

Oh boy do we like Indian food, and you’ll find some mouthwatering photos of the best food we had in India! Enjoy!

The Blue City In The Desert Of India

Jodhpur is a city famed for its blue buildings, take a tour of this wonderful city in our Blue City India photo essay!

kathakali dance

Traditional Kathakali Dance, Cochin

It’s a must do in Cochin, and a famous tradition, but what should you expect from a Kathakali dance? We left with a headache and a sense of unease.

India’s Jewel – The Taj Mahal In Photos

A photo essay of the Taj Mahal, one of the most impressive sites in all of our travels.

india video

India

Watch our India Video and get inspired! India is a country full of verve, energy and contradictions. See why it left an indelible mark on our soul.


The Blue City In The Desert Of India

Clambering to the top of the fort, finally we were able to truly appreciate the incredible juxtaposition of the blue city of Jodhpur, India.

Stretching out into the distance, a mosaic of vibrant blue buildings punctured the barren orange and red Earth below them. It was quite a sight. We’d been in town for a few days, but this was the first time we’d been able to climb to the top of the fort due to the annual Holi festival of colours which had taken place the day before. For a city that is already vividly colourful, to see it covered in a multitude of other colours made our time there all the more special.

blue city india

The truth of it is, we spent our time in Jodhpur relaxing, wandering the maze of alleyways and markets, bumping into random characters along the way and eating lots of Thali, all with a backdrop of vivid blues. Sometimes the best experiences when travelling are to plan to do nothing, to sit back and watch this new and interesting world pass by around you. Without this attitude, how would we have experienced cows trying to eat out lunch as we hunched on plastic stools on the roadside as various scooters, tuk tuks and cows passed by? Or watching the locals try to scrub the colours from Holi from their buildings and roads?

We did, however, manage to climb to the top of Mehrangarh Fort at the heart of the city, and we were rewarded with panoramic views and some new friends as well. Our time in the fort was very special, not because of the fort itself (although it was impressive) but more for the people we met there. With it being the day after Holi, every person we met was still in high spirits from the celebration. We found people across India to be very friendly with us, but we met so many families in the fort that day all eager to talk to us and have their photo taken.

This was not an uncommon experience for us, but we’ve never had a queue of people waiting to have their photos taken by us. We felt so much love and happiness in the fort that day, every person we met was warm, friendly and engaging with us. A day we’ll never forget, or the people we met.

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

Anyway, enough of the words and more of the photos we hear you say! Enjoy our photo essay around the blue city of Jodhpur, a welcoming and enchanting place we would highly recommend!

The Blue City Of India In Photos

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

Looking for more India inspiration? Click here.


Delicious Indian Food Photos

One of the absolute highlights of arriving in a new country is the inevitable gorging on the local cuisine. There is no doubt that the food we eat on our travels has a major bearing on how much we enjoy a country!

As you probably know by now, one of the main reasons we travel is to try new and exciting foods from across the world. Food really is a major part of the adventure, and there isn’t much we won’t try at least once. Turns out, pretty much everything we ate in India was delicious, and I mean everything. From fresh fish in the South, to heavy and hearty Thalis in the North, every meal passed by with ease and excitement. And the crowning glory of it all? Not once did we get sick in India.

indian food

The simplest piece of advice we give to travellers going to India is to seriously consider being a vegetarian whilst you are there. We are not vegetarians, and didn’t do it out of any moral or philosophical viewpoint. Our theory was by cutting meat from our diet (apart from fish), we would reduce the risk of getting sick in India. That was the theory, and in reality in our whole time in India, we didn’t once get sick, something we are very proud of! Maybe cutting meat had nothing to do with it, but it worked for us.

Going vegetarian had another unexpected advantage. For the first time, we appreciated the vegetables that go into Indian food, and the depth of flavour these options provided. In the past, we would always plump for chicken (Laura) or lamb (Barry), but a good vegetarian curry was always equal, if not better than some of the meat options we’re used to. We still seek out vegetable curry options and we suggest you do the same, like us you may be pleasantly surprised!

Anyway, enough words, let’s have a look at some tasty photos of some of our highlight meals in India! First up, a mouth-watering lassi in Varanasi. Lassi is a yoghurt based drink, great for cooling after a spicy curry, and whilst we’re used to plain and mango lassis, we had no idea of the options available in India. Take this little piece of heaven, a strawberry, chocolate, pomegranate and pistachio lassi. Sensational!

indian food

This delightful spread of dishes was rustled up in one of the smallest kitchens we’ve ever seen, squeezed into the back of our Kerala houseboat. For breakfast, lunch and dinner, an unbelievable feast was presented to us each time. What you’re seeing here is a mixture of vegetarian curries, a pachadi (beetroot yoghurt) and a green bean masala. Mouthwatering.

indian food

indian food

Breakfast on our boat was either a spicy masala omelette (look at those chillis!) or Goan coconut pancakes. Both delicious and washed down with mint tea and orange juice.

indian food

indian food

Another breakfast option in the South were these Kozhukkatta (Steamed Rice dumplings) with coconut filling. Or these pancakes stuffed with curried potatoes and coconut dip, what a way to start the day!

indian food

indian food

indian food

We began our Indian adventure in the south, so this was our first taste of real Indian food, and we were blown away by it. In retrospect, we grew to learn that we prefer the southern Indian food options. The prevalence of coconut and fruits in the food were a big positive for us, and we found the dishes lighter than the North. That’s not to take anything away from the food in the North, it was absolutely delicious, as you will find out. Let’s go North!

indian food

This beautifully presented buffet dish is ‘Thali’ style. Order a lunch or dinner, and you’ll be presented with a number of different curries and sides on your plate, with rice, chapatis or naan to accompany them. We ate so much Thali, but it really is the best way to try a number of dishes for a reasonable price.

indian food

indian food

indian food

indian food

indian food

indian food

Of course, we also treated ourselves to some more expensive (relatively anyway) meals, including some fantastic seafood in the South of India, including Cochin and Varkala. Take for example, this BBQ masala fish with a generous helping of Indian spiced calamari and jumbo prawns. This was in the beach town of Varkala.

indian food

indian food

I mean come on, even the food on the planes was outstanding!

indian food

So there you have it. A sweet (and savoury) tour of our food odyssey through India. We loved our time in India, in particular the people, the sights and the energy all intrigued us, but what sealed the deal for us with India was the food. It sits alongside Vietnamese food at the top of our food table!

Do you like Indian food? If you’ve been to India, what did you think of the food? Let us know in the comments below! For more India inspiration, click here!


The Mystical Puja Ceremony Of Varanasi

The Puja ceremony is a Hindu ritual full of colour, smoke and fire, and takes place on the banks of the river Ganges. It was by far one of the highlights of our time in Varanasi.

Whilst the Puja ceremony may have made the highlights list on its own merit, there is another reason why it was one of my most favourite experiences in Varanasi. One quick photo with some new friends descended quickly into a quite frankly ridiculous impromptu photoshoot, with a queue of women and babies stretching out into the darkness, all keen for a photo with yours truly.

It began, as with most things in India, with a smile and a slight wobble of the head.

puja ceremony

We’d seen the Puja ceremony the night before from the river Ganges, on a small boat as it gently bobbed on the river, and although it was a fantastic spectacle to witness, it had left me wanting more. I wanted to get closer and be right at the heart of it to appreciate it fully.

puja ceremony

I arrived early the next night and picked my spot, to the right of the final podium and just below it. Before long many more people began gathering, taking seats and crates behind the plinths, and the boats began arriving as we had experienced the night before.

It was at this point that three young guys sat down next to me, and in broken English, began the usual series of questions I’d come to expect from locals in India.

“What is your name? Where are you from? Are you married? Do you have any children? What do you think of my country?”

The questions spilled out of the mouths of my new friends in rapid succession, barely giving me a chance to respond and certainly no time to elaborate. Such was the way with many of the new friends we made in India, their line of questioning was inquisitive, friendly and direct. After a while, the conversation turned to that universal language I share with all males (and some females) across the world: football (or soccer if you must use the incorrect term).

Little did I know but these guys would become my bouncers for the evening.

puja ceremony

We talked for a while as the sunset, and as the ceremony was about to begin, they asked for a photo with me. This of course, was no problem, by this point I had grown accustomed to getting photos taken of me in India. They didn’t have their own camera, so they asked one of the professional photographers to take a picture and print it out. We stood up, got the photo, sat down and looked forward to the ceremony. The rest of the crowd, however, had other ideas; that photo opened the floodgates…

Note: There wasn’t a spare copy of the photo, but luckily I managed to get this rough photo of the photo for keepsake.

Barry at Puja Ceremony

Almost instantly after the first photo had been taken, a young boy had clambered over the people in front of me, stood next to me, and motioned to his father down near the water. Oh, I see, I’m getting a photo with you as well. Sure no problem. I sat back down, thinking that might be the end of it.

And then the babies came.

Out of the corner of my eye to my right, a woman had manouvered herself next to my friends, and was holding out her tiny newborn baby for me to hold. I smiled and shook my head (I’m not very good at holding babies), she did the Indian head wobble and smiled, I did the wobble back and all of a sudden I had a baby in my hand. I stood up with the lady and had my photo taken, and all of a sudden I realised that there was a queue of people now lining up to have their photo with me, stretched out into the darkness. Many with babies and young children. I was being papped India style. Sadly I don’t have a copy of any of the photos myself, but I assume there are quite a number of me adorned on the walls of various family homes in India. Perhaps I’m some sort of celebrity now, who knows.

puja ceremony

puja ceremony

I couldn’t help but smile at the scene. People were quite literally queueing up to have their photo taken with me. Where would these photos end up? Pride of place on a mantlepiece? Hanging above a fireplace? I had no idea, but I was a fair target. Secretly I was enjoying the spectacle, it was moments like these that make travelling the world special.

After about 10 minutes of this, I realised the crowd were getting restless. The Puja ceremony had begun already, and due to my impromptu photoshoot, their view was obscured because a) I was standing up, and b) the queue of people lining up to have their photo taken. It was surreal and hilarious, and I couldn’t help but grin at the situation as 1000 Indian eyes peered at me from out of the darkness.

At this point I had to disappoint the remaining people in the queue and sat down, back in the safety of my new friends who had spent the whole time organising the queue and laughing at me. All they needed were some suits and shades and they would have been my entourage and bouncers.

puja ceremony

puja ceremony

We watched the rest of the Puja ceremony in silence, and I beamed from the inside at what had just happened. I had come to watch the Puja ceremony, but as with most things about travel, it was the people whom I had met that had made it a special memory I would never forget.

India is an attack on the senses. It can be brash and direct and uncompromising, but if you can find a way to cope with that, you will be rewarded with interactions with people full of warmth, energy and intrigue. As I walked back to my guesthouse along the orange lit banks of the Ganges, I reflected on how I had probably made their night memorable, as they had for me as well. It was nights like these that reaffirmed why we travel.

puja ceremony

puja ceremony

Looking for more India inspiration? Click here.


Cruising The Backwaters Of Kerala On A Houseboat

It is difficult, but not impossible, to retreat from the frantic pace of life in India. At times it may seem difficult to escape the hustle and bustle, but rest assured it is possible.

We found one such place whilst in the South, where the trees were green and the waterways blue. We are of course, talking about Kerala, a place we spent some time relaxing and reflecting on our time in India.

As it turns out, Kerala is quite simply, beautiful.

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

A lush green paradise sliced apart with rich blue veins of water. It is an age away from the desert forts of the North, and for us was a haven on our travels.

One of the very best ways to experience this part of India is by exploring the backwater waterways of Kerala by boat. Imagine hiring a boat all to yourself, with a couple of crew members to look after you for your cruise, and you start to get an idea of why we enjoyed this part of the world so much.

backwaters kerala

The Backwaters of Kerala

As for the experience, well there isn’t too much to write home about. Not that it was boring or a poor experience, but rather the pleasure is in gently gliding through green waterways, a book in hand, and admiring the scenery. Every now and then we’d float passed a small village where people were busy going about their daily activities, and often a small canoe would float by transporting some crops or people. Occasionally we’d come across a fisherman, but other than that it was a time for reflection and relaxation.

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

We spent most of our time on the top deck, reflecting on all that we had seen and done in India, and all that was to come. It was a perfect place to take stock of our adventure in India. The very best thing about the houseboat? Hands down the incredible food that was delivered to our plates every meal from the tiniest of kitchens in the back of the boat.

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

We were vegetarians for our time in India, not through any moral or philosophical viewpoint, but mostly because we felt avoiding meat would significantly reduce our chances of getting ill. And you know what? It worked for us! In our 7 weeks in India, neither of us were sick once. We’re very proud of that record!

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

As for choosing a houseboat, prices and quality vary dramatically. How many rooms you want and whether you need air con or not are the two main differentiators.

We plumped for a cheaper option (no surprises there) and booked through our guesthouse in advance. You can just wander down and try and book one at the harbour, but we liked what we saw online with our boat and preferred to book through a recommendation.

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

Our boat was one of the most basic we saw, but we did have an upstairs deck to relax on which in retrospect turned out to be a massive advantage and something to look for when making your decision.

By having an upstairs, we had an area all to ourselves away from the crew (and the noise of the engine). We also were afforded much better views of the Keralan backwaters compared to being water level. Just our experience but well worth considering.

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

For a while in Kerala, the hectic pace of life in India slowed to a stroll, and it was a time to be cherished on our adventure through India. If India is an attack on the senses, then Kerala is the quiet spa you retreat too in preparation for your next adventure.

Looking for more India inspiration? Click here.


kathakali dance

Traditional Kathakali Dance, Cochin

We tend to think of ourselves as culturally aware. When we travel to a new country, we embrace the cultural idiosyncrasies that push against our senses, including the good and the bad. These cultural quirks are one of the main reasons we travel, to interact with the culture first hand and learn more about it. Our minds are always open to new and interesting cultural quirks.

Sometimes, however, we encounter something on our adventures that, despite trying our best to enjoy, we simply do not understand. One such instance occurred when we went to a ‘must see’ traditional Kathakali dance in Cochin, India. Not only were we left with two banging headaches, but also a sense of unease at the underlying messages of one of the dances. Perhaps we should explain.

kathakali dance

The Kathakali Dance

It all started innocuously enough. We bought some tickets from our homestay for a show nearby, and arrived early to watch the set up and make up of the Kathakali dance. This was by far the best part of the show.

For those who don’t know, a Kathakali dance is an incredibly detailed, intricate dance drama with elaborate costumes and make up. Traditionally the plays last all night, but we chose to see a reduced (2 -3 hours) excerpt of the overall story. Despite this edited version, it would still prove too much for us.

Firstly, the positives. The preparation and training for a traditional Cochin dance is incredible, and if you arrive early enough (at least an hour before it starts), you can observe the actors preparing themselves on the stage through a long process of make up application and various additions to the face. It is an amazing effort to create the look of the Kathakali dance.

kathakali dance

kathakali dance

Following this, a demonstration by one of the actors takes place which explains the various facial expressions, hand gestures and the meaning behind them. To try and explain them to you would take an inordinate amount of time, but below are a selection of the different expressions available to an actor, with training to reach this stage taking many years before their craft is refined. Even the shaping of their eyes and which they look, combined with a different facial expression and hand gesture creates a different emotion. A truly amazing level of detail.

kathakali dance

kathakali dance

kathakali dance

kathakali dance

kathakali dance

kathakali dance

Sadly the combination of eye movements, hand gestures and facial expressions was lost on us once the performance began, despite being explained in great detail prior. Each actors facial expression changed every few seconds, combined with a different hand gesture, made it almost impossible to keep up with the detailed narrative.

kathakali dance

There was however, a darker undertone to the show we witnessed, with the overarching narrative disconcerting. The story we were shown was between a man and a woman, a woman who constantly spurned the advances of the man. What followed was 2 – 3 hours of the man trying to woo the woman, through various dances, the show becoming increasingly aggressive as the male became more desperate to win the woman. It was strange to watch a man essentially forcing himself onto a woman, the music growing louder and aggressive as he kept making increasingly invasive moves.

kathakali dance

kathakali dance

Perhaps we’re just too uninformed on the intricacies of the dance, perhaps we’re being too sensitive. Although it is a traditional dance in Cochin, and we appreciate the effort the actors go to, we felt growing levels of unease as the show progressed, irrespective of whether it is tradition or not. There was a dark underbelly to the narrative that we didn’t appreciate. We wouldn’t say we enjoyed it either, quite the opposite actually.

The overarching storyline made us uncomfortable, and combined with the constant banging of a drum for 2.5 hours gave us a splitting headache. Perhaps if we understood the intricate movements better it may have helped, but it still wouldn’t change our unease at the overall spectacle.

kathakali dance

kathakali dance

Would we recommend it? Certainly not the part of the story we saw. Perhaps if a different part of the story was staged we would feel different, but based on our experience we would not recommend it. Our advice would be to ask more questions before going. How long is the show? What part of the story will be shown tonight? Are there other types of performance as part of the show? Perhaps then we would reconsider, but our experience of Kathakali left a bitter taste in our mouth, and sore head to match.

Have you been to a Kathakali dance? What did you think?

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India's Jewel - The Taj Mahal In Photos

There isn’t much you can say about the Taj Mahal that hasn’t already been said. The ultimate show of love and exuberance with a sad tale behind it. Although the world is awash with millions of Taj Mahal photos, here are some of our personal favourites from our time wandering around this world famous landmark. Enjoy!

taj mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos

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Camel Trekking Under The Stars, India

There are many romanticisms when it comes to travel. The thrill of arriving in a strange new land, the exotic fruits, or the intriguing new cultures and customs.

There are also times when you wonder what you might be letting yourself in for, whether it be the time we went snorkelling in the Galapagos, bracing for a polar plunge in Antarctica, going on an epic volcanic Rinjani trekking adventure in Indonesia, or a Sapa trekking experience in Vietnam, you never quite know whether the experience you’re about to have fits with the vision you have for it.

jaisalmer india

As we were about to clamber onto our camels in the dusty, hot desert of Northern India, it was becoming clear our expectations might not fit with the reality that lay ahead that day and night.

jaisalmer india

jaisalmer india

jaisalmer india

We’d arrived in Jaisalmer, and settled into our small Haveli, where we could watch the comings and goings of a real life fort. But we’d really come to Jaisalmer to do one thing, take on one of the oldest romantic notions of a camel trek through the desert. Any romantic vision we had for the trek quickly disappeared as the harsh reality of life in the desert became very real.

I suppose, with all stories, the warning signs were there from the beginning.

jaisalmer india

jaisalmer india

jaisalmer india

Packing a small backpack for our overnight trek, we made our way out of our haveli and into the blistering afternoon sun beating down on Jaisalmer. When it was time to leave, we walked down the winding red hot cobblestone streets of the fort to find our ride into the desert. Sitting in the afternoon sun, our battered and tired looking jeep sat proudly on the street, its dust covered frame spluttering as it waited for us, our driver obviously keen to get going.

We jumped in the back, grabbed onto whatever we could hold onto, and we were off, hurtling along the dusty and sandy roads outside Jaisalmer and into the desert. Destination unknown.

jaisalmer india

After an hour or so of hanging on for dear life, we arrived at a small brick/mud dwelling in the middle of absolutely nowhere. A young girl carrying her younger sister greeted us, her skin dark and cracked from the searing and unrelenting heat of the desert. Here we sat, and we waited.

jaisalmer india

After a while, in the distance we could make out the faint silhouette of two camels, our view obscured by the heat haze rising from the desert floor. As they approached, we noticed two men walking alongside our camels, evidently our guides for the day and night.

jaisalmer india

jaisalmer india

To see camels up close is still an exciting experience for us, their size overwhelming as we are reminded of the shear scale of these resilient animals. Arriving, they slumped themselves down in front of us, and waited as the saddles were padded out with various rugs, sheets and cooking utensils. After another while, it was time to get going.

jaisalmer india

Anyone who has taken a camel anywhere will know the absolute terror and fear of the camel standing up and sitting down. Laura was to go first, struggling to get into the saddle which was almost as high as her even when the camel was sitting down. As soon as she was on, the camel decided it was time to stand up, jerking forwards and then backwards like a real life, desert buckaroo. She was up, and she was still on the camel. So far so good.

Now it was my turn, I clambered on, grabbed hold of whatever I could, and braced for the launch. A jolt forwards, a bigger jolt backwards, and I was up and still in one piece. It was time to get on our way.

jaisalmer india

The ride was uncomfortable to say the least, constantly shifting in the saddle to allow the blood to return back to our feet as the sun beat down and the sand whipped up around us. After a couple of hours of slow progress, we began climbing sand dunes, hanging on again as the camels ascended. And then we stopped.

We’d arrived at Casa Sand Dune for the evening.

As the camels were liberated of their cargo, we had a chance to really admire them. Camels are some of the most incredible beasts we have had the privilege of getting up close and personal with. For us, it is simply their size that is so intriguing. Their mouths and heads are gigantic, with thick, wiry whiskers and hairs protruding from all areas. The way they sit is fascinating to look at, their legs seemingly contorting and bending in places where we assumed there were no joints.

jaisalmer india

It was at this point that my camel (Papaya) decided to relieve himself, a torrent released from his bladder into the sand dune we were to call home for an evening. Now we had a water feature as well, what’s not to like?

It was at this point that we got a better idea of our sleeping arrangements for the evening, and it was to be even more basic than the time we camped on Antarctica.

Close your eyes for a moment and picture what you imagine a desert accommodation would look like. Perhaps your picturing crisp, square white tents pitched into the sand, a small mattress inside with blankets. Or maybe just a basic tent. No such luck for us.

jaisalmer india

jaisalmer india

It became very clear to us very quickly that the dirty blankets that had been used to pad the saddle up were to double as both our mattress and blanket. The same blanket that had spent the last few hours, most probably the last few weeks rubbing up against the camel was now our bed.

What would you do? In the middle of the desert, the sun setting, there was no choice, we were sleeping rough tonight.

As we sat and watched our camel guides prepare dinner, the desert came alive. Alive with one little black bug to begin with, followed quickly by another, and another, until there were hundreds of them scuttling about in the sand dunes. And they were big. Did I mention we were sleeping out in the open?

jaisalmer india

It was survival time now, and after dinner we settled into our beds. Our strategy was simple, take our jackets, wrap them around our heads, tuck them into our blankets and hope no bugs found their way in. The only orifices available were our eyes, but it was better than nothing.

I’m probably painting a poor picture of our time in the desert, but honesty is the best policy when it comes to these things. This was not a romantic camel trek in the desert, it was an uncomfortable slog into the middle of nowhere with no comforts whatsoever. But this was normal for our guides, whom we assume did this almost every night.

And yet, despite all of this, there is absolutely no way that we can complain. This for us was one night in our entire lives. For the majority of our existence, we will sleep with a roof over our heads, with running water and heat available to us at all times. For those guides whom we met in the desert, and their families, a version of this experience is their life.

jaisalmer india

This is not to patronise our guides. I did feel for them, but I also had huge respect for them as well. They’ve taken the hand dealt to them and done their best, and I always wonder if I had been born into this life, how would I cope? The simple answer is I would just get on with it, just like they do. Sometimes travel teaches you things, sometimes it gives you an experience you’ll never forget, and sometimes it rises up, punches you in the face, and makes you stop and appreciate all that you have, and all that you will ever have.

jaisalmer india

And there were rewards from this experience, oh boy were there rewards.

Away from the light pollution of towns and villages, the stars came out in all their glory, puncturing the night sky with millions of tiny dots of light, many white, some blue, some red. Just looking at one point of the night sky for a few seconds would result in hundreds more becoming obvious to us. It was incredible.

Shooting stars dashed across the sky at regular intervals, and the silence was beautiful. It was an incredible thing to witness, and for most of the time we forgot about the bugs and snakes in the sand dunes, and our minds drifted away into the night sky. Lying down and staring at the stars in a place you will never return to is something everyone should experience once in their lifetime.

jaisalmer india

The rest of the evening passed without incident, we slept in fits and starts, and we were happy to get up early to watch the sunrise over the dunes. It was at this point that we glanced down to the sand dunes around us, shocked by what we saw.

Hundreds, if not thousands of tiny trails had been left in the sand around us, the fruits of the many hundreds of beetles that evidently scuttled around, and on us, throughout the evening. As I clambered out from under my blanket, two crawled out from under me, somehow finding their under me without getting crushed in the process. They’re resourceful little things l’ll give them that.

jaisalmer india

Following sunrise and a basic breakfast of bananas and nuts, it was time to head back to the relative comforts of Jaisalmer. Our guides rounded up the camels, we secured everything back on the saddles, and we made our way back to the mud huts where we’d catch a jeep back into Jaisalmer.

Our trek into the desert had been a short, uncomfortable one, but on arriving back to our Haveli, the experience had certainly given us a jolt to the system. Yes we had been uncomfortable, yes we worried about the snakes and bugs in the desert, yes everything was dirty, but it was only one day and night.

As we sat having dinner as the sun set over Jaisalmer fort, it was another stark reminder to appreciate all that we have, and all that we will ever see in our lives. Sometimes a memory of an experience fades, but we will never forget lying on the desert floor, looking up at the thousands of stars on display. It was a time we were taken away from Jaisalmer, from India, to a place of reflection, a place where we could truly appreciate all that we have.

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Life And Death In Varanasi, India

It’s difficult to imagine a country with more extreme contrasts than India. It is a place that attacks your senses at every moment, a country full of energy, verve and intrigue.

From the calm, green backwaters of Kerala in the south, through to the all-action cities of Delhi and Mumbai, to the quiet and remote forts and castles in Rajasthan, the contrasts in India are there for all to see. Nowhere is the contrast so obvious and so extreme than in Varanasi, where you come literally face to face with life and death on the banks of the spiritual Ganges river.

varanasi india

varanasi india

You see, many Hindus come to Varanasi to die. It is considered one of the most holy places in all of India, and to be cremated and scattered in the Ganges is the highest honour for Hindus. The cremations are very public and, most of the time, very graphic.

Varanasi is not the prettiest place you will ever witness. It is a complex maze of narrow alleyways, crammed with people, shops, cows and frequently shrouded bodies held on the shoulders of loved ones as they make their way to the Ganges. Varanasi leaves an indelible mark on all that come here, for many it will change them forever.

varanasi india

varanasi india

Whether you are there for the cremation of a loved one, or as a visitor observing the rituals, it is impossible not to contemplate your own mortality, and indeed your own belief system. In the UK, we shy away from discussing the mechanics of death, of cremations and burials, we hide it away and we rarely talk about it. But as we’ve experienced in other cultures, from the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ to the Hindu approach in Varanasi, there are alternative, arguably healthier methods and viewpoints on death, where it can be witnessed and processed by those who choose to do so.

Spiritual Varanasi

For this reason, we consider Varanasi to be the most unique place we have ever visited. Varanasi changed our perspective and relationship with death, made us question the methods by which we deal with it in our home country, and left us with a sense of calm and acceptance of the inevitable cycle of life and death.

varanasi india

Imagine yourself, for a moment, sitting on the banks of the Ganges river on one of the numerous ghats that line it. Directly in front of you, a cow and a bull stand idly chewing on a huge pile of flowers left by worshippers, seemingly free to wander the lanes and ghats of Varanasi.

Behind you, a friendly game of cricket has been interrupted by a group of cows making their way from the Ganges up the ghats. Meanwhile, a woman searches through the trash and sewage that lines the shore of the Ganges, searching for anything of use.

The contrasts are everywhere to be seen.

varanasi india

varanasi india

On the steps down to the Ganges, worshippers strip down to their underwear and wade into the river, dunking their heads under the water 3 times in a ritual full of energy and concentration. Most will complete this ritual every morning at sunrise, before the beating sun and heat become intolerable. Everyone is here, from young children frolicking in the water to elderly couples helping each other into the Ganges. Each individual has their own personal relationship with Ganges, and it is absolutely fascinating to watch.

varanasi india

A group of boys swim nearby, surrounded by a group of 15 cows who have also made their way into the river to escape the intense heat. Some are playing with a ball, others taking turns to launch themselves into the Ganges. It’s a fun activity with a very serious goal.

varanasi india

varanasi india

varanasi india

To our right, open sewers run directly into the Ganges, sending its contents towards the various swimmers and bathers, but nobody cares.

Then the bells start to ring, and the men start to chant.

We glance up the steps leading away from the ghat. A group of men are making their way down the steps, carefully and methodically. On their shoulders rests the body of a loved one, carefully wrapped in yellow, white and red cloths. They bring their delicate swaddling down to the waters of the Ganges, and rest it on the bank.

And then they wait for their turn.

varanasi india

varanasi india

varanasi india

The cremation process on the Ganges is a carefully orchestrated ritual, and very public at that. As the men wait to begin the cremation, locals and foreigners alike begin to congregate near the ghat. Here it is perfectly acceptable to sit and watch, and the rules are simple: be respectful, quiet and do not take any photos or video. Quite frankly why you would want to take photos is beyond me, but people do, we saw them.

varanasi india

varanasi india

A pile of wood is assembled near the river, the type of of wood carefully chosen based on the price. If you’re rich, you can have sandalwood and your own private ghat. If you’re poor, it’s a cheap piece of wood and a shared ghat. Each piece is carefully weighed so that just the right amount of wood is used to completely cremate the body. It was fascinating to watch a process which is normally, in our culture at least, hidden away from us. It was a very calming experience.

varanasi india

varanasi india

As the pyres are assembled, the family take their loved one and immerse them in the Ganges, shroud and all. They are then taken to dry the water off in preparation for the cremation.

When the time is right, the body is placed in the wood pile and is set alight. Very quickly the cremation becomes graphic, the shrouds and materials wrapping the body quickly burn away, revealing the loved one through the flames. As the wood burns, the various men tasked with managing the cremation make various ‘adjustments’ to the body with sticks and pincers, to ensure full cremation. It was a graphic scene, but it’s amazing how quickly one can become accustomed to the sight.

varanasi india

For those who live and work in Varanasi, cremations are a 24 hour event, and over time it is obvious that people become accustomed to, and comfortable with the event. Of course if it is a loved one of your own I’m sure it would be a very different matter, but for the majority of the time, it is simply another shrouded body beginning the next stage of their Hindu existence.

varanasi india

We knew we would see burning bodies in Varanasi, and the first time we did it was a shock, a slow realisation that what we were looking at was not a stick of wood pointing out from the fire, but part of a person. I’ll never forget my reaction. As I realised what it was, I didn’t turn away, I didn’t feel sick, I became intrigued, inquisitive almost as my mind tried to process what it was I was looking at. After a few moments, a sense of calm came over me, and I began to think about who that person was, had they been happy? Did they have a good life? I felt sad for them, then I felt happy for them, then sad again.

varanasi india

varanasi india

varanasi india

As for the family of the loved one, the men stood on the ghats and watched with the other observers, all stood, arms folded, watching and waiting. There was a functionality about it, a purpose to what was happening and that they were achieving something. Just behind them, a man was selling ice creams to local children playing – talk about contrasts.

varanasi india
Nevertheless, as the children played in the waters metres away, and the bathers soaked away their sins, the pyres continued to burn. In a country full of contrasts, Varanasi amply demonstrated the incredible juxtaposition of life and death along the banks of the Holy Ganges. It is not often that we can say an experience or place changed us, but as we sat on the banks of the Ganges and watched all that took place, it is hard not to believe that those impressions, those indelible marks have been left on our consciousness.

What do we take away from our time in Varanasi? Life is short, or rather, the times when you are fit and healthy and free of worry are precious, so grab hold of them with both hands and take action. Whether it be grand plans to see the world, or learn a new skill, or try a new food, Varanasi provided us with the ultimate lesson in contrasts. Those shrouded loved ones we watched on the pyres reminded us that the time to take action is now.

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holi festival of colours

Holi Festival Of Colors, India

As the sun set and darkness fell on the blue city, it was time for a very special celebration. Throughout the narrow alleyways and streets that make up the city of Jodhpur, people were excitedly milling around and smiling.

On the cobblestone streets, pieces of wood were being piled high; flowers and colourful powders were being delicately placed along the streets. As we stood on our rooftop, we surveyed the beautiful scene. From the darkness of the alleyways came light. Small orange glows began to pop up across the city, growing as the Holika bonfires were lit in the alleyways to signal the beginning of the Holi celebrations.

holi india
The Holi festival is an ancient Hindu spring celebration also known as the festival of love, or more appropriately, the festival of colours. And it was only just beginning.

Morning came, and it was time to enter the fray. Staying in a predominantly residential area away from the main square, whatever experience I was likely to have would be genuine. I made my way down the steps of the haveli and into the streets.

holi india

Almost instantly, a group of young boys, resplendent in a cacophony of colours spotted me. I was a prize target, clearly a tourist with blond hair and my completely clean appearance made me all the more alluring. Instantly I was set on, 10 pairs of hands rubbing the multitude of colours into my face, my hair, my back, arms and legs. Their excitement grew and the noise levels rose, attracting more boys to the fray to add their own imprint on me.

holi india

Before I could react, I was dragged along the street by my hands and around the corner to a dead end alleyway. I will never forget the scene in front of me.

Hanging 8 feet above the alleyway was a series of make shift plastic pipes, arranged into a grid like system. Crude holes had been punched into the pipes, creating a number of shower like spouts from above. Underneath, around 20 boys and girls were dancing under the showers, the music pumping out of a nearby window.

The entire alleyway was a blitz of colour.

And then the group spotted me. 40 Indian eyes fixed a delighted stare on me, the whites of their eyes and teeth grinning at me through the colours etched into their faces. The group erupted, launching themselves towards me with hands filled with yellow, red and green powder, and once again I was engulfed in the group. It was exciting and innocent fun, and the group delighted in coating me in yet another layer.

holi india

After a few moments, the original boys dragged me under the shower to rinse off, the colours streaming into my eyes and clothes. Now I was soaking wet, blind and covered in paint. Great.

A older man took pity on me and motioned for me to come to him, where he wiped the colours from my eyes with a damp cloth and told the group to give me a break, I needed it! After a few moments, I noticed a small boy sitting next to him, quietly and intently staring at me with inquisitive eyes. I could see he wanted to add his own impression on me, and motioned for him to come over. Carefully, he took two scoops of yellow powder from his bag, and gently brushed them across my cheeks; happy Holi, he whispered. It was the calm within the storm.

holi india

holi india

For a moment, I had zoned out of the party, but very quickly I was back into it, in the middle of 20 young boys and girls, all covered head to toe in colours and soaking through from the water from above. Apparently it was time to dance.

Those who know me personally know I have some choice dance moves, and it was time India was introduced to them. For the next 15 minutes it must have looked like the strangest dance off ever witnessed on planet Earth. On one side, a white, blond man from the UK, soaked through, stands under a make shift shower in an alleyway in Rajasthan, covered in various colours of paint. On the other side, 20 young Indians were in a state of hyperactivity, baying for some new dance moves. I duly obliged, pulling out some of my finest moves to the delight (I think) of the group.

holi india

holi india

holi india

Either way it didn’t matter, this group had made my first Holi experience spectacular and real, and I’m thankful for the memories. For many people, Holi can be an intimidating and overwhelming experience, and many choose not to participate for fear of the unknown. My advice to you is to avoid the large gatherings in the centre of towns and cities, and seek out an authentic experience in a neighbourhood nearby.

If you can find a place where families and children are playing, you get the authentic real experience of Holi, rather than a mass organised, tourist focussed celebration. Take the time to research and seek out these smaller, intimate gatherings.

In a country as energetic as India is, Holi seems to magically increase those energy levels to fever pitch, whole towns and cities dancing and celebrating to an unseen beat. To see Holi is to witness India in all its glory.

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