Pushkar

7am- lying in bed listening to Dirty Dancing soundtrack, I like this it reminds me of a holiday with friends Nicky, Alli and Amanda in Turkey a few years ago. Allison and I got pissed one night, I got stuck up a tree and Alli still has a scar to show for it!
Anyway not up for any of that this morning. I’ve been coughing all night, have a banging headache and feeling all stuffed up. I will be so glad to get out of here.

Today we are travelling to Pushkar, this is according to Iram a 3 hour journey in the car and we have already booked a guesthouse in advance. So fingers crossed it will be nice and if not nice at least clean. Pushkar is a very holy town, mainly famous for its huge camel festival at the start of November and I have read that many travellers reach here and grind to a halt experimenting with spirituality, facial hair and marijuana.

Just found we have Abba in our music collection hurray! I can’t believe I never realised that- going to get up now and have a little dance around. Abba, 2 paracetamol and a hot shower and I reckon I’ll be well up for it!!

I have enjoyed the drive to Pushkar, the road was really good, the nearest I have seen to a motorway and we hared along. We spent the first hour or so learning more about the Hindu religion. The main manifestations of Brahman, which is eternal, never ending and always been there, are the gods Shiva,Vishnu and Brahma. We spend some time discussing them and then talk about Christianity and the Catholic faith.

The landscape is very flat but as we approach Pushkar we have to cross some mountains called Snake Mountains. Simon has found an expensive hotel with a pool and we call in there on our way to The Whitehouse Hotel. It will cost us 900 rupees (about a tenner) to spend the afternoon swimming there and one look at the pool and we decide to go for it.

Iram then decides to take us to another guesthouse which he insists is very good and cheap and to placate him we agree to go. It turns out to be lovely and fairly cheap but is in an isolated spot and the kids will have to sleep in a thatched hut
We tell him he must take us to our choice and when we get there are completely sold!
It is spotlessly clean with a friendly mum and son team who make us feel very welcome.

We quickly change into swimming gear and Iram takes us back to The Jagat Singh Palace Hotel where we spend the rest of the afternoon by the pool. The kids have a great time and I feel like I am on holiday- it’s absolutely bliss lying on a lounger reading Harrods magazine I have found peace already!

12 Days in India.

Have to say it feels a lot longer than 12 days, not in a bad way. It is just that everything you do in India needs careful planning and execution, just crossing the road here, for example, is a major event. So this makes for tiring days and you quickly lose perception of how time is passing.

3 Cities, 2 overnight train journeys and now 3 days into an 11 day trip around Rajasthan with a car and driver.

Our hotel in Varanasi was the Indian equivalent of ‘Faulty Towers.’ The owner/head chef was a right grumpy old git, food was good but served with sneer. Varanasi was definitely worth the effort to experience, but we were glad to be getting away on the third day. Even though we were heading for another night train, I’ve found it hardest to sleep on the trains. I think that maybe it’s because I’ve half an eye open checking on our bags. We chain them to the bunks, but you know what it’s like check and double check. Have heard some real quality snoring of the highest order, funny Charlotte doesn’t snore like that at home normally(Joking! Joking!).

Arriving in Agra was a little challenging, got off at a different station than we planned and there was no official pre-paid rickshaw booth that we had expected. This is when you are most at mercy to commission touting rickshaw wallahs. We got besieged and headed outside to give ourselves time to take stock. We collected our thoughts and went for it with the 2 that least dodgy looking (This is a bit like grabbing a Cactus to find the bluntest needle!). True to form one suddenly needs petrol, while my driver shows me a book with recommendations about another hotel. Whilst telling me how dirty/bad/closed our choice is. We don’t take any bull off them and head for our choice, arriving we do get shown higher priced rooms than we had expected, but it is good and clean.

Walking upstairs to the rooftop restaurant was ‘cool as you like.’ It has a clear view right across to the Taj Mahal which is no more than a half mile away. We order a couple of drinks, and sit like the other few people there, staring at the view.

Booking the car and driver for Rajasthan is an interesting challenge, every agent has the best deal to offer. Not like everyone else, better driver, no hassle’s, go where you like, etc. We plumped for one option having made it clear on our terms. The driver picks us on schedule and we head off to first overnight stop of Jaipur, it soon becomes apparent that we will need to be on our toes. The lunch stop is clearly drivers backhander haunt, and we get stung for a more expensive the usual meal, won’t let that happen again. The ‘recommended’ hotel, as Charlotte has mentioned, was not acceptable so we passed on that. The guide waiting with our driver in our car, when he came to pick us up in the morning, showed that they will keep looking for an opportunity to make the extra cash.

I’ve come close a couple of times to losing my cool with the relentless touting of wares, but we try to remember they are only trying to a living. Sometimes it’s really hard to smile and say a polite ‘No. thanks!’ It does make the peace, when you find it, all the more enjoyable.

We head off to Pushkar later today and a bit less pollution.

Jaipur

I awoke at 6am this morning to the Muslim Call to Prayer. Slept ok, the beds are a bit smelly but comfortable enough.
We have our breakfast in the hotel restaurant which is nice and cheap and check a few emails from home. Have had an email from a Canadian family who are planning a trip like this with their children and its good to hear they are enjoying our website.

We return to our room and I have the best shower since arriving in India, lots of hot water and a good strong flow on the shower. (These things are important now and it’s the first question I ask when arriving at a new place)
I feel better after washing my hair and a bit of pampering. I guess with my hairdryer, straighteners, full range of make up and massive first aid kit we’re not the usual backpackers but then with two kids we’re not that usual anyway.

This hotel is full of backpackers, but we haven’t seen many other Brits and none to speak too. Other travellers have mostly ignored us although we have spoken to a few nice people. At breakfast today I saw someone wearing a Stevie Gerrard shirt but he was Chinese and it is a very different experience to when we holidayed in Goa a few years ago.

Simon then wins a gold star for being brave and sticks his hand down the toilet to unblock it. Oh my god it was completely horrible, the power went off and he was stuck in there with his arm submerged in the dark! Meanwhile me and the kids were outside laughing and encouraging him on and asking him what The black hole of Calcutta really was like.
What a vile experience and I have to hand it to him what a hero!

We spend an hour doing schoolwork, we are alternately doing Literacy, Numeracy and Science and following the curriculum (loosely) Ali and Maisie are tired today though and not very enthusiastic so I choose something I think will be easy.
We practice writing formal letters and they both write a letter of complaint to the owners of the hotel. I give them a B for attainment but only C for effort and they both agree I am mean and tougher than their teachers.
We go to The Amber Fort; we spend a few hours wandering around here and visit the armoury museum, the kids seem to enjoy this although I’m feeling a bit queasy and don’t really have a good time. I have noticed if I don’t take my malaria tablets with food they make me feel really sick and vow not to do that again.

We then visit Hawa Mahal (The Palace of the Winds) this famous palace was built in 1799 for the Royal Ladies so they could watch the comings and goings of Jaipur without being seen from the street. We climbed to the top but as Alister is afraid of heights, we don’t stay up there long.
Following a bit of Christmas shopping in the bazaar for Maisie’s school friends we return to the hotel.

Its 9pm now had our dinner and emailed a few friends, I’m glad to hear they’re missing me and following our website avidly. (Keep it up mates!) Sat in bed watching James Bond (Not the latest to Ali’s disgust but good enough)
Feeling great now, so happy and looking forward to tomorrow. We are leaving for Pushkar at 10am and to be honest I can’t wait, it is a bit rank here and I’m optimistic that Pushkar will have more to offer. Bring it on.

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal has been described as the most extravagant monument ever built for love.
It was built over 22 years for the wife of the Emperor Shah Jahan after she died giving birth to their fourteenth child in 1631.
We found out that originally two buildings were commissioned but the black marble building was never built. Also legend says that the 20,000 workers who built it had their thumbs cut off when it was done so they could never build another.

I woke up at 6.30 feeling really excited, the Taj entrance is a two minute walk from where we are staying. The security at the gate is very strict and we are searched and patted down before being allowed to go through.
Sunrise is the best time to visit the Taj as the light reflects off the white marble, the building glows first golden, then pink and then blue. The visitor numbers are also less as many people visit the Taj in the evening on day trips from Delhi.

There is a huge red sandstone gateway and once you pass through this you see the Taj properly for the first time. It is absolutely beautiful and while I can’t describe it in any way that would do it justice, many people have tried to sum up its beauty calling it a “teardrop on the face of eternity” and “the embodiment of all things pure”.

We take lots of photographs from all angles; the fountains are turned off so the reflection in the water in front is not spoiled. Simon lies on the floor and gets some great shots but when looking back through our pictures later we all agree Alister actually snapped the best picture!

We are allowed to walk onto the mausoleum itself and go inside to view the tomb but not allowed to take photos inside. The marble in here is carved very intricately with flowers and inlaid with semi-precious stones and someone shows us with a torch how the moonlight shines through the translucent soft marble.

As I sit on a bench in front of this wonder of the world built for love, I think of all the people at home who I love and although Maisie gets a little bit tearful when she sees someone who reminds her of Nana Judy we all end up laughing when Simon points out a large American tourists elaborate hairdo that is an equally impressive feat of engineering and would I’m sure, also stand the test of time.

Following breakfast at the hotel Kamal, Simon spends 2 hours teaching the kids science, Ali learns about the states of matter and Maisie learns about the Earth, Sun and Moon. I hope they will at least have kept up with their classmates when we go home, preferably ahead in some things.

In the afternoon we go to Agra Fort, we learn that following the building of the Taj Mahal the Emperor Shah Jahan was imprisoned here for 8 years by his son, who didn’t want him to blast anymore of his inheritance on building another black Taj.
It is also very beautiful but by the middle of the afternoon we are all monumented out and catch a pony and trap back to the hotel where the kids watch Shrek 2 on the telly and we sit down to plan our route over the next 11 days through Rajasthan.

I will be sorry to leave here. At 6 pound 50p per room per night it is a bit more expensive than what we have been paying but hey I guess you have to splash out a bit every now and again and for the last few days experience here, I reckon it’s been worth every penny and then some.

We thought the kids were feeling a bit fed up tonight and asked them if they wanted to go to an expensive hotel for dinner. They said they didn’t but we headed off to a restaurant serving continental food. After ordering their meals we were told that continental food was off the menu tonight!
So on the way back we called in at McDonalds for McFlurries , I was recently laughing at my friend for feeding their son McDonalds for breakfast- how bad are we !!

Agra

We had a 16 hour train journey from Varanasi to Agra. This time second class sleeper although “sleeper” train is slightly misleading as I don’t think any of us got much sleep. Still I enjoyed the journey; we sat next to a man who was a teacher in hand loom textiles and accompanying 10 students on a 20 day tour of India. We spent a couple of hours chatting to him about Indian politics, culture, the divorce rate in the UK and what we usually eat for breakfast.

I then spent an hour practising the guitar; Ali was laughing at me and said I reminded him of Phoebe from Friends! Guess I need a lot more practice but have learnt an Oasis song and going to learn Greenday Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) next Best song!!

The kids did an hour or so of school, we learnt about the life of Mahatma Gandhi and I tested them both on what they had learnt. Pleased to say they both did well in their test and I gave them a house point each. I told them they will get a reward when they get to 10 points.
We had set our alarm for 5.30 as the train attendant told us we were due at Agra at 6am, we finally pulled into Agra station at 9.30, by this time tired, hungry and all feeling generally crappy with sore throats.
I was feeling apprehensive about finding the hotel as we hadn’t reserved a room and didn’t have a pick up arranged from the station, but still after a bit of bartering with the taxi wallahs we set off in 2 rickshaws.

The hotel is absolutely lovely with a pretty courtyard, clean rooms and friendly staff. They tell us our room will be ready soon and point us in the direction of the rooftop restaurant. We climb up a small winding little staircase and out onto the roof to be met by what can only be described as the best breakfast view ever.

The Taj Mahal really is breathtakingly beautiful and all the cliches that have been said about it are true. The kids both agree it’s gorgeous and to see the white marble glistening in the sun, so close to where we are staying is really special.

We decide that we will visit The Taj tomorrow at sunrise when the visitor numbers are less and we are all a bit more with it after a good nights sleep. I spend the next few hours showering, drying and straightening my hair, plucking my eyebrows and generally trying to improve my “been traveling for ages appearance”.
After eating we spend sometime talking to a nice Canadian couple, he turns out to be a maths teacher and we take advantage of this and he helps Simon and Alister with some difficult algebra question. Of course if they had asked me I could have easily given them the answer!

Its 6pm now I’m going to check emails and then off to bed. Feeling completely knackered, this is taking ages to write and have a wonderful day ahead tomorrow. Going to see the Taj Mahal, the most visited monument in India and something I have dreamed of. So excited I just can’t wait.

Arriving in Varanasi…..

This morning was little disconcerting. I wondered, as we waited for our free hotel pick-up to arrive, whether we had taken a step to far to the wild side. Varanasi (or Vara-nasty as it is refered to in some quarters) is awash with touts of the worst kind trying to take you dodgy hovels and collect their commission. We were prepared for this, but still white faces generate a real feeding frenzy, and it can be a little uncomfortable when you are aware that there is a criminal element in this area that looking to not just fleece you, but rob you.

Immediately it is clear that Varanasi is much dirtier than Delhi, which is saying something. Eventually the friendly face of our pick up arrives, carrying a little scrap of paper with “Mr Bowman” written on it. He walks us over to 2 auto rickshaws, Charlotte and Maisie in one and Ali and I in the other. I am slightly worried when the young boy sat in the front of ours turns out to be the driver and not just waiting for dad to get in. As soon as we go to leave the station car park he loses the other rickshaw in the melee. We then proceed to experience what can only be described as extreme rickshaw driving. He drives through the traffic like Ali playing on a Playstation racing game!

Still, we do actually arrive in one piece. How? I may never quite work that out! Arrive meant arrive at the point where the rickshaws could go no further. We then had to walk the rest of the way to the hotel, 2 minutes we are told. Every turn down the dark and dirty alleyways seems to take us further into some scary maze. I am really beginning to wonder if this is too ‘real’ for us, let alone the kids. Just as I am about to lose hope of getting to the hotel, and feeling in my shoulders, we turn a corner to look out over the Ganges glistening in the morning sunlight. From that moment it all seems worth it, the river banks are alive with the day to day comings and goings of Varanasi. “What was I worrying about?”

Varanasi

Respect to Ali and Maisie, after battling trough a very crowded New Delhi train station at dusk with rucksacks that almost weigh the same as we do, I am relieved to get on the Shiv Ganga express train to Varanasi.
We are sat next to a nice couple who explain to us that we will be able to buy whatever snacks we want and that blankets and pillows will appear later. Sure enough within 2 minutes of us sitting down a man appears asking if we want Chai and there is chocolate and crisps to keep us going for a bit.
Maisie and I go and find the toilet, she makes me laugh when she uses the squat toilets like a pro local and announces to the carriage that “these squat toilets are ok aren�t they mom” (what planet is she on, I would barely describe them as ok and that is at the start of our journey but still they do the trick and when in Rome etc) I just thank god I packed wet wipes, alcohol gel for their hands and they had virtually all vaccinations known to man!
After a game of scrabble and a meal of cold curry, we were served last as in third class sleeper, we settle down for the night. I am only slightly disturbed when I see a mouse run over the end of my bunk, I must be toughening up a bit and after the rats in Delhi these mice seem quite cute.

I awake at 6.30 Maisie is leaning over the bunk whispering that she needs the loo, the poor thing has woken up with a streaming cold and a good going dose of the shits.
Still it makes her laugh when she realises that her squat toilet empties straight onto the track and I am relieved that she can find humour in anything as she does kook a bit pale.

Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in India, I have read that it is the spiritual centre of the Hindu’s universe and Hindu’s come to wash away their sins in the Great Mother (Ganges River), Varanasi is also a city of the dead, to die here and be cremated on the banks of the Ganges on one of the burning ghats is very good and releases Hindu’s from the cycle of rebirth.

Several hours later and we have arrived at the Scindhia Guest House, we have some banana porridge and chocolate pancakes for breakfast. After a bit of excitement when Maisie got locked in the loo for 15 minutes we go for a walk on the famous ghats.
It is absolutely boiling here, much hotter than Delhi and I think we will need a few days to get used to the heat so we make our way back.

Alister has been trying to teach me to play the guitar on and off for the last year and although I’m no good and haven’t really got the patience to practice enough, I am hoping to learn simple stuff whilst we are away (Just enough to get me by when I have had a few beers) and we spend a few hours sat in a tiny room with the fan whirring away listening to Ali playing.

At 5.30 we go on a boat trip up the Ganges, there is a festival on one of the ghats and we are going to watch. Firstly though we stop at Manikarnika ghat this is the most auspicious ghat to be cremated on and we count 15 fires, the logs are piled all around and there are 3 bodies on the steps waiting.
Tiny candles on little baskets of reeds and flowers are being floated up the river and it looks beautiful, I’m not sure what the significance of these are but as I float mine I make a wish anyway and cross my fingers just in case.
We didn’t take any photographs out of respect but watching the funeral pyres in the dark from a small rowing boat on the river was really indescribable and something I will never forget.

Mental note to self!

“Always check spare batteries are charged!”

On our last day in Delhi we chose to visit the Indira Gandhi Museum and Humayun’s tomb. After a couple of picture’s at one of the lesser, but nonetheless stunning, tombs at this world heritage site. The batteries ran out in the camera, no problem I thought, I inserted the spares. Which turned out to be dead as well you know. dead! There was nowhere to be seen in the vicinity to get any batteries, what a nightmare! Then boss-man at the gate sends one of the guards off to get me a new set. 10 minutes later he returns with new set of local ‘everready’ batteries. Unfortunately these don’t have the power to even turn the camera on. OK no problem we’ve seen plenty of fantastic buildings already and are sure going to clock up a few more by the end of the trip.

So we continue on around the tomb complex and through an arched gateway to be confronted with what can only be described as a breathtaking view. Ali nearly collapse’s on the floor laughing as he says “Wow, this would make a great picture!” To think that this building only gave the inspiration to the Taj Mahal, sharpens even further the excitement for what is yet to come.

Humayun’s Tomb

I woke up this morning to Simon playing Elvis, Heartbreak Hotel to us, listening to familiar music reminds me of home (all those drunken evenings at mums!) the choice of music was very apt as this place is a bit of a dump, the walls are the colour of nicotine and it does remind me a bit of the smoking room at the hospital.

We set off for the second time to find The Indira Gandhi Museum and I’m glad we make it there to day as it is very interesting, also quite sad to think that Mrs Gandhi was assassinated by the people who she trusted to protect her, I can remember this happening when I was younger and it is quite moving standing at the spot where she died and seeing her bloodstained sari.

We then went onto Humayun’s Tomb, this is A World Heritage Site and the architecture is amazing and very beautiful, the kids are also very impressed with it and when I say to them that I am surprised they like it so much as I wouldn’t have appreciated it at their age Maisie says to me “but we’re travellers not tourists mum” yeh that’s my girl!! Unfortunately the batteries ran out on the camera at this point so we don’t have any photo’s – Good planning !!

How to deal with the huge numbers of people who ask for money is still a difficult one, we have alternately not given anything, given small change and bought people food, I don’t know what is the right or wrong thing to do and we think maybe on leaving India donating a sum of money to a recognised charity would be a good idea, but still, walking past people who appear to have so little seems tough and you would have to be heartless to ignore them.

We are leaving Delhi tonight on the 6.30 train to Varanasi, I am looking forward to moving on but Delhi has been an amazing place to start our trip and I have loved it here, the pollution has literally made us sick and the noise levels are something else.
Despite what horror stories we have read and heard we have so far found everyone to be very friendly and helpful, we have kept our wits about us and subsequently have had a fantastic time.

“Heartbreak Hotel”

Just woken the family up on our last day in Delhi with a bit Elvis, which as you can imagine was a bit of a shock wake up.

Coming to the end of our 4 days here I can confirm that on the surface it does conform to most of things said about it. It is dirty, smelly, busy, full of touts and so on. However if you are prepared to accept and even indulge these things you will find there is a lot more to found and experienced. There are some beautiful clean and calm places like the Lodi Gardens, with some wonderful old tombs in the middle of bustling city. A lot of time the smells, as you push, squeeze and dodge your way through the bazaars, are enticing aromas of fresh baked coconut biscuits, sweet snacks or spices. At other times the smells are so ‘well’ less than enticing that you can almost feel your nose recoiling. Touts are touts the same as anywhere, just a few more of them, they just want to get their commission. If, however, you are well informed and ready for the yarns they are going to spin you then you can just give them the brush off and avoid the hassles.

Delhi has been an intriguing city with lots to offer. We’ve seen some great sites, eaten some new foods and watched a lot of day to day Delhi life pass by.