“If there is one place on the face of the earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India.”
It’s very difficult to explain how the filthiest, smelliest and supposedly the oldest city on the planet has such a powerful force that draws visitors from all over the world. The city is consumed by death. Hindus make the conscious decision to go to Varanasi to breathe their last breath, and after a few dips and sips from the Ganges, their wish will come true soon enough. In return for their efforts, they are rewarded with ‘moksha’ – liberation from the cycle of life and death. The bodies are immediately prepared to be burned, and the ashes are returned to Mother Ganga as part of a well-oiled process that happens to thousands of bodies departing the world on these banks. Not all bodies share this fate. If you were lucky enough to be a Sadhu, a pregnant woman, or a leper, your body will be lozzed into the river to bob along gently, for all to see, as I learned on my last visit to Varanasi 3 years ago.
I suppose the possibility of seeing all of this, raw, up close and personal is what gives Varanasi its international appeal and as the holiest Hindu city it has little trouble attracting Indians. The intensity of the streets is sometimes breathtaking and always amazing. The atmosphere was particularly intense during this visit as a bomb that had killed a one year old baby girl and injured more than 30 others was detonated the day before we arrived at the nightly religious ceremony or “puja”, a ceremony attended by a huge number of tourists.
The city observed a three day mourning period and the ceremonies ceased. The first ceremony was then received with huge interest. News teams were crawling in every space and flitting to any remotely famous attendee, like flies to poo.
Due to the aura of celebrity that exudes from every pore of my body (and even more so from Chelsea’s) we sampled life as Indian celebrities. Photos were taken, hands were shaken, and most significantly, Chelsea was interviewed by the Indian reporters. Her answers may not have been the most eloquent, but she was put on the spot and she could have told them to f*ck off and danced the Macarena and they would still have been eating out of the palm of her hands. As the melee subsided, we walked back, and the interest quickly ceased. I felt dejected, cheap, and desperate for more attention.
The rest of out time in Varanasi passed in a blur of bodies, broken kites, desperate hunts for both McDonalds and an old school car horn (both successfully located!) before making the long 48 hour journey to Mumbai by train.
I love long train journeys. They feature regularly in my travels but journeys now seem to be marred by ‘interesting’ cabin mates (see blog on Tibet). This journey’s contestant hailed from India, and travelled with a servant whose tasks included fetching food and water and regular clearing of the gentleman’s hole in his neck through which he breathed and talked. Daytime dealings were acceptable, but late night blowing, spluttering, choking and croaking were off putting to say the least.
Nevertheless, we arrived safely in Mumbai, and Chelsea’s birthday treat began with a surprise, our names plastered on a brass plaque held by a crisp white uniformed driver sent from the Taj Mahal Palace. All the staff had been prepped for Miss Bradbury’s arrival and she must have been wished many happy returns about 8 thousand times.
After weeks of terrible food, we made up for it in Mumbai. Chinese food in the Taj (scene of the shootings a few years back) was better than what I ate in China, and breakfast was actually ridiculous. Smoked salmon flowed from the buffet like the Ganges and it was the first time we had been presented with real life cheese for what seemed like a lifetime. 1.7kg of Port Salut later I was wheeled to a luxury sun lounger, and left to rot there all day.
The level of service at the Taj Mahal was unsurpassable. At breakfast two men were assigned to the task of hiding Chelsea’s freshly poached eggs from the birds (“Just in case, Sire”). The plate landed back on the table the exact moment Chelsea’s bum landed back on her chair.
Subsequent accommodation wasn’t quite the same although there was something homely about the soiled sheets of the Gulf Hotel.
I also made my Bollywood debut in Mumbai. You should check out the film “READY” with Salman Khan to see me in action!
The final train journey of my travels whisked me to Goa. A province of many contrasts, it seemed we struck lucky and found exactly what we wanted from the off. A beautiful beach, sea, sun and not much else. Agonda was the perfect antidote to the arduous 4 month 10,000 mile journey we had undertaken overland from Moscow to this very beach.
A midway accommodation switch to the fantastic Shanti Beach Huts left me wanting for nothing. The food was great, as were the people. Especially the people who taught me how to make the food myself. A masterclass with Bobby and Shalu, Goa’s fiercest and friendliest couple, provided me with skills to cook up a right feast. Give me the raw materials and you can enjoy Paneer Tikka Masala, Onion Bhaji, Aloo Paratha and Masala Papads, tasty enough to rival that of any Indian housewife worth her salt.
A visit from my baby sister Lucy, gave me a much-needed kick up the arse to explore the area. We enjoyed deserted beaches, spice farms, sweet water lagoons and crazy markets and also began an education in classical Indian yoga and meditation.
In stark contrast to the paradise I found myself in, a 15 minute drive landed me in Palolem. The Benidorm of India. My first sight there was of a lobster-red-pot-bellied-englishman nursing a Heineken and taking an afternoon nap on a lilo ‘neath his novelty sombrero. This set the tone for the whole town.
Some events brought home that behind the scenes this utopia wasn’t all it seemed. One afternoon we witnessed the fate of a poor fisherman who had not paid his rent. The landlord came along and razed his house to the ground, along with all of his worldly possessions. The real India was never far from the dream like existence on the beach.
A fantastic Christmas with the Barnett family was very special, and I am grateful for their generosity, tales and abundance of laughter they provided. Another fantastic stay with the one and only Carol Bradbury of international fashion fame was the most perfect way to finish the trip on an absolute high.
IN PURSUIT OF ADVENTURE…
Leaving Blighty with nothing but a ticket to Moscow and a handful of hard-to-come-by visas, allowed me to experience my most exciting adventure to date. I saw things that most people will never see, and that I myself will never see again. Siberia, Mongolia, North Korea, Tibet and Nepal all lived up to their emotive and mystical images that their names conjure up, and the memories will stay with me forever.
But the adventure doesn’t end here. I write this entry from the shores of the Levant. Israel, the Holy Land will be my home for the next 6 months, where I hope to develop my Hebrew, finally gain some professional photography experience and further explore this incredible country that I feel so passionately about.
So until next time, for reading by blog… SPASIBO, BAYARLALAA, XIE XIE, KAMSAHAMNIDA, TWECHEE, DHANYABAD, DEV BOREM KORUM, THANKYOU and TODA, SHALOM, U’LHITRAOT.