I can finally contemplate my return to India at the end of 2022 – it will be three years that I have been away, the longest in 20 years. I have missed the instant transition of being in India mode, alive and alert as soon as I hit Delhi airport. I always feel as though I have to hit the ground running with my senses in full throttle, as I leave Delhi and begin negotiating and navigating my way to the next destination – usually Dharamsala. The plane trip is very scenic and once I hit the tarmac it feels as though I am home again. I still regard it as my second home, even now that I have returned to Australia to live.
The first thing I am looking forward to is the sight of the mountains, a constant presence from the moment the aircraft lands on the short tarmac. I look forward to being reunited with my two dogs Billy and Maddie, who are being cared for by Kalpana and her two children. It goes without saying that I am looking forward to seeing my friends and their families, including Vikas and Shiv. Whilst we see each other often on Zoom, it will be an added bonus to see them in person with a class of chai in our hands.
Who could forget the shopkeepers of Dharamsala, who always comment on my return, ‘Long time away, Madam’. I’m always astonished that they remember how long I’ve been away for. I wonder what they will say after this long stint away. – Sharon (founder of Ekno Travels)
As a photographic tour leader for Luminous Journeys, a provider in world class photo tour adventures, I lead groups of photographers around various countries in South Asia, including India, where I have the pleasure of teaming up with Vikas and Ekno Travels. They are ground handlers for our India tours and make them run comfortably and smoothly. I created our Incredible India Photo Tour Workshop alongside Vikas in 2017, after we researched the best destinations for landscape, people and culture photography. We worked together to create the best itinerary we could for a photo tour that was both original and rich in photographic opportunities. We had fun doing it too, and in working with Vikas I appreciated how lucky I was to have the best guide anyone could hope for, who is both professional and very personable. I miss working together, but in 2022 I believe it will be possible once again to travel throughout India, and that is an exciting prospect.
After a lot of research and brainstorming, Vikas, myself and Bennett Stevens from Luminous Journeys ultimately created the perfect 15-day photography tour in the north of India. We picked the best rock to stand on for a sunrise shot of the impressive Mehrangarh Fort overlooking the blue city of Jodhpur. We worked out how to shoot the Taj Mahal from the nearby Mehtab Bagh (literally ‘Moonlight Garden’) while including a human subject in the shot. We organised photographing a Saddhu (holy man) on a wooden boat on the River Ganges in Varanasi at sunrise, as well as bringing camels and dancers into the Thar Desert near Jaisalmer for both sunset and sunrise shoots while arranging for guests to have the opportunity to camp and spend a night on the sand dunes with musical entertainment and delicious Rajasthani food. Not to mention researching the best places to be during the Holi festival of colours for the most action-packed and exciting shots, and how to protect expensive cameras while being in the heart of the powder throwing action.
We’ve conducted our India photo tour three times since its creation, and we were so fortunate to still do the 2020 tour in February/March, just before the Covid pandemic impacted the world. During this early 2020 tour news of the virus was starting to get some buzz, and the Delhi international airport staff were taking everyone’s temperature on arrival while asking us if we felt any fever at all. But no one could have predicted what would soon follow – an almost two-year end to world travel in Asia, especially to India.
As an Australian living in Brisbane, I am excited that there is talk of the borders opening again this year, meaning India tours in 2022 will be possible again. And I can’t wait to return to this land that elicits so much emotion and excitement in me. I first travelled to India in 2004 for six weeks, and I then met Ekno’s founder, Sharon, in Nepal. I since continued returning to India and will do so throughout my life, learning a little bit more about it each time I go, exploring new places and aiming to take even better photographs than the previous time.
Our next India photo tour that we have scheduled to run with Vikas and Ekno Travels is ‘Luminous Ladakh’ on July 6 2022 – a newly researched tour that covers the Himalayan north of India. Our ‘Incredible India’ tour is slated to run in February 2023, and will include the Jaisalmer Desert Festival and photographing wild tigers in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve.
In March 2020, as I was touring Dharamsala, local tourist attractions were literally starting to close around me. While I had an inkling things were getting serious, it wasn’t until I got the official text from DFAT telling everyone it was time to get home, that I realised the seriousness of the situation. And as I stood in Delhi Airport, with more people than you can begin to fathom, never would I have imagined that 19 months later we would still not be able to travel.
I will never again take for granted the hustle, bustle and madness of the streets of an Indian city. The incessant tooting of horns, the endless stream of traffic. The sensory overload of so many smells and colours. The people going about their business here, there and everywhere, winding between vehicles, animals and other people.
I will never again take for granted the peace and tranquility of an Indian village, with its open space and smells of earth, nature and smoky fires. I will even welcome the discreet stares, and the sometimes not so discreet stares, of the locals.
I will never again take for granted the opportunity to spend time with the people I have come to know and care about during my Indian travels over the past few years. Yes, technology is great! And we can Zoom, Skype and WhatsApp but NOTHING will ever replace sitting down to a meal of dahl, rice and roti or a steaming hot chai with your friends, chatting about what’s going on, how the kids are going and having a laugh together.
I have booked a return ticket for the end of June. I’ll be there, savouring every sound, sight, smell and whatever else India throws my way.
Danielle has two tours planned for 2022:
Supporters of Samadhan Delhi Tour: 15-21 October 2022, Jaipur add-on tour: 23-25 October 2022 Dharamshala immersion tour: 27 October-4 November 2022
It has been good news this past week with both India and Australia Governments announcing that dates for international borders to open.
The Indian Government has issued a directive that they will be issuing 30 day tourist visas from 15 November 2021 (people arriving on charter flights a month earlier). The first 500,000 visas will be issued free of charge. This means that people from countries where there is no travel restrictions will be able to visit – if they are double vaccinated.
For Australians wanting to travel, a definite date has not been announced. The press are reporting that people will be able to leave from mid November but the devil is in the detail. Everyone will have to wait a little longer to find out exactly what leaving Australia and returning will mean.
Just wanting to let our clients and friends that are open for business. The India office, which will now be our headquarters is still operating with Vikas in charge of tours and Shiv in charge of the operational side and Sharon is in Australia.
Please be assured we are navigating of all the new terms and conditions in an opened up COVID world. We will ensure that travel to the India and the subcontinent – Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan will be a safe and wonderful experience.
We are in the process of updating our website and can’t wait till we are doing what we all love – travelling.
While on a visit to Jodphur, India last year, a mystery was uncovered. The significance of turbans worn by Rajasthani men and how to wrap and tie one.
Turbans are an important part of their attire and are referred to as the Pagari. They vary in style, colour and size and indicate the person’s caste, region and the occasion it is being worn for. The wearer starts out with a length of material usually 9-10 meters long and in some cases can be up to 15 meters long too.
Single colour turbans are worn by farmers and shepherds, these are big in size and tied loose to adjust to the heat of the desert region. Colorful turbans are worn by the elite or indicates festival, wedding or a special occasions.
Turbans are known by different names in Hindi like Paag, Safa and Pagri and there is a saying in Rajasthan that every 15 km you travel the style changes. Theh prominent ones being Pencha, Sela and Safa.
I loved seeing the men wearing their turbans as I travelled throughout the rural areas of Rajasthan,and now understand the significance of the Pagari (turbans). You may get a chance to wear one like my travelling companion Brooke and I did in a small village just outside of Jodphur. I loved the experience and am confident you will too.
Indrahar Pass is part of the spectacular Dhauladhar range from the global hill station of McLeod Ganj in northern India. The Dhauladhar are a dramatic example of the geological forces that shape the Himalayas. Formed as the Indian plate juts under the Eurasian plate, they rise to 5,639m at their peak, towering over the Indian plains, their jagged rock peaks pointing skywards.
The Indrahar trek follows the ancient Gaddi herding routes to Indrahar Pass (4,300m) winding through thick pine forests and rock formations. Vikas Kumar, our inhouse resident Tour Manager recently went on this adventure and is happy to share this video of the geographic and cultural history of the area. Check out the video.
We invite you to join us on a trek into these spectacular mountains.
Indrahar Pass is at a high altitude it is imperative that a high fitness level required for an enjoyable experience, see our itinerary.
Suzanne Holden runs a successful travel and trekking company in Toowoomba, Australia.
She started her working life as a tea lady, a job she took way too seriously (trust us, tea is something of an obsession with her), she wins the gold star for giving everything a go. As a former police officer, Suzanne, joined the ICON team with not only a can-do attitude but also a bloody-well-will-do attitude too. If she’s in charge of a tour or helping to organise independent travel , rest-assured it is like her tea, done to the highest and most meticulous standard.
Tammie Day is an Australian-based Social Worker, Yoga, Mindfulness and Nia dance teacher, Retreat Facilitator, Trainer and Travel Guide. She is the founder of Vibrant Women Travel which takes people around the world on retreats and inspirational journeys. A job that enables her to pursue everything that makes her heart sing.
A job that enables her to pursue everything that makes her heart sing. She is addicted to travel, ice-cream and coffee. Lover of massages, sleeping in, sunsets, sarongs, sweet musings, star gazing, day dreaming, aromatherapy, nature and belly laughs. She believes in giving back and meaningful interactions. She is committed to supporting women to stay Vibrant in a world that can sometimes feel as though it is dulling your sparkle.
During the time of COVID we have had the time to look at our own backyard and to show you what it looks like where we are based in northern India.
Most people who have been to India or imagine what its like tend to think of noise, colour, pollution and crowds. We want to show you something different.
In this video Ashish, one of our inhouse tour leaders, shows us around his village of Ballah near Palampur. Is is a small local village where people live simple lives and care for its environs. They live as a community – knowing each other for most of their lives.
Ashish lives in a joint family with his father (who spends most of his time away working) and his sister and her children. The large house is also shared with a couple of his father’s brothers, their wives and children and now wives and children. They live in houses – more like duplexes, cook and eat separately but still are there for each other in times of need. The community spirit is very strong in India where the family unit and familial ties remain strong as they have for generations with loyalty and interderdependence at its heart. A very different life for us bought up in western culture.
When Ashish is not tour guiding, he works in our office, is a wizz on accounts and is now teaching Hindi online while studying for a Masters of English.
The road is dusty, the dirt is red, and the flies are thick. The heat is stifling, the rain is sparse, and did I mention, the flies are thick? This is summer in Australia.There is no escape, for six long months each year.
Did you know there is a place that is the complete opposite to all I have mentioned above?Green fields, snow-capped mountains, crystal clear streams and rivers.
Did you know that you can jump on a plane and leave the dust, heat and flies behind?
At the end of the last long hot summer, Ijumped on a plane in search of a piece of paradise –in a place that is the complete opposite to all I know.
Welcome to Dharamsala, India. Dharamsala is in Himachal Pradesh,northern India in the foothills of the Himalayas and is home to the Dalai Lama.
I love India. The colours, the chaos, the people, the energy.But I ama nature loving, country girl at heart so this is a complete contradiction.My previous trips to India have involved busy places– Delhi, Mumbai, Varanasi, Agra, Jaipur and Udaipur. To be flying into Dharamsala was a new thing for me. And, wow! What a sight to behold, flying alongside the snow-capped mountains as we descended to Kangra, the local airport for Dharamsala. I am not sure what is considered an excessive use of a single word, but I think the word ‘wow’ made up half of my vocabulary during my four days exploring Dharamsala and its surrounds.
I live in rural Western Australia. It is flat, dry and very brown. The mountains of Himachal Pradesh arethe absolute opposite and it was completely overwhelming for me. I have seen snow and mountains (if you could call them that) twice in my life but nothing compared to the incredible sight of the mighty snow-capped Himalayas.
I arrived in March this year, and the weather was almost perfect. Cool enough to need a warm jacket, sunny enough to warm up if you were walking or exploring.
During the first part of my trip there was the ever-growing concern of COVID-19. The spread of the virus was starting to impact on the freedom to travel in India by the time I reached Dharamsala. I was lucky enough to be one step in front of each new COVID-19 enforced regulation so I still got to see most of the things I wanted to. Well, maybe half a step!
If it is spirituality you are seeking, Dharamsala might be the place for you. Home to the Dalai Lama, it is also home to the largest Tibetan temple outside Tibet. Dharamshala literally translates to ‘rest house for pilgrims’. Originally it was a small rest house near a temple,for anyone travelling on a pilgrimage who needed a place to rest up at along the way. To this day, nearly all temples in India have a dharamshala associated with it for people to use.
In the 1840s the British relocated their Gurkha Light Infantry to a position on the slopes of the Dhauladhur Hills, near the site of a Hindu dharamshala. From that time on the area became known as Dharamsala.
There are plenty of temples to visit–colourful, old, peaceful, big, small, intricate and ornate. There is also plenty of opportunity for spiritual enlightenment with the Dalai Lama having his home and monastery at the edge of town. The town exudes spirituality with the Dalai Lama’s fellow Tibetans swinging prayer wheels a constant presence in the town.
For me though, spiritual enlightenment is more nature based. The impacts of COVID-19 meant that any plans were
fast changing and day by day places were shutting down to visitors and crowds, with temples being the first to be hit.While discussing the shutdowns with my local guide Vikas, he said ‘But nature never shuts down, Danielle.’So my tour became a lot more nature based, which suited me fine!
My trip was now down to simple pleasures such as a nice relaxing walk up a winding mountain road, to find a coffee shop randomly tucked away in the middle of absolutely nowhere.Vikas, Kamlesh (my expert driver who safely navigated those narrow mountain roads) and I were the only people apart from a village man and his mulesand awoman walking up the narrow road. As we sat at the coffee shop I discovered that this little road was travelled by many peopleas they carriedtheir supplies further up the mountain to their homes tucked away on the sides of the mountains.
Far below the melted snow turns into streams and rivers that take on many formations. From raging and roaring rivers to just a tiny trickle, the water is always crystal clear and freezing cold. For a full sensory experience I took my shoes off and stood in the water. That was, by far, the coldest water experience I have ever had!I kept my shoes onthe next time asI thought of how cold the water would be. This was the incentive as I triedto be agile, like a mountain goat jumping from rock to rock in an attempt to not fall in.
Walking up a mountainside, sharing it with goats, donkeys and a handful of people, is not something you would generally associate with India. But as I walked up yet another mountainside (yes, lucky nature never shuts down, Vikas! And thanks COVID-19 for the itinerary changes!) I looked up and couldn’t help but think that the snow-capped mountain just in front of me might be the closest thing on earth to heaven and the gods.
With Himalayan griffons soaring high between the mountain peaks, goats grazing atground level nearby, it was overwhelming: incredible and remarkably peaceful.
Everywhere we drove, walked and sat I could see snow capped mountains.From walking the streets of McLeod Ganj (which were now closed), to visiting temples and sitting on my hotel balcony, the mountains were omnipresent.
Only one word – ‘wow’can describe my four days exploring Dharamsala and its surrounds. I’m sure you get the picture.When the world opens up and we can travel again, make the opportunity to visit Himachal Pradesh.You will thank yourself and I can guarantee,the ‘wow’factor will be part of your experience.
Thanks to Danielle Harvey for her contribution (pictured in the sunglasses above). She travelled to Dharamsala, India with Ekno Travels in March 2020. www.eknotravels.com.au
At the start of the year I was lucky enough to travel to India for the tenth time. Even though I hadn’t been there for many years it didn’t take long until I felt right at home.But India is the kind of place that surprises with hidden gems and unique experiences, no matter how many times you visit.
On my latest trip I found that my travel expectations had changed. Being a single parent in my late 30s meant that I didn’t want to backpack this time. Travelling with the Ekno team meant that I was able to have those unique insider experiences and also travel in safety and comfort. This time I left India with fantastic memories and great friends.
Here are my top ten ultimate Indian experiences:
Learning the language. Although English is widely spoken and understood in India, learning a few local words really helps to break down barriers when you travel. If you are in the north Hindi is the main language whereas in the south it is Tamil. I was in the north on my latest trip and knowing a few phrases in Hindihelped me to have more unique experiences, whether I was at the local market, visiting a local or travelling on the trains. I also learnt a few simple words in Tibetan for when I was in McLeod Ganj and a few words in Urdu for when I was in Rajasthan. You can try to learn a few of the basics before you travel and if you want to know more once you are in India you can ask your guide or take a lesson with a local teacher.
Visiting places of worship.
India is known for being deeply spiritual with a multitude of faiths. This is one of my favourite things about spending time in India, and embracing the diverse spiritual practices feels both comforting and welcoming to me. I like to start and end my tripsto India with a visit to an auspicious place of worship. In January I flew into Amritsar, home to Sikhism’s holiest site, the Golden Temple.I visited the gurdwara at night, and even though it was freezing it still buzzed with people. A highlight was visiting the langar, the free community kitchen, where I learnt to make chapati with the volunteers before enjoying a meal with the pilgrims in the community dining hall. It was a magical way to start my journey in India.
Over the next two weeks I visited many Buddhist monasteries and nunneries in Himachal Pradesh, including the Namgyal Monastery,also known as the Dalai Lama’s temple. A highlight was walkingthe kora, following the sacred path around the monasteryand turning the many prayer wheels that line the path. In Rajasthan I listened to the call to prayer as it rang out from the mosques and across the sky. On one of my last nights in India I came across a tiny temple near my guesthouse. Inside there were three elderly women and a few children. A teenage girl was chanting into a microphone and one of the women was playing a hand drum. I was welcomed into the temple and it turned out to be a beautiful moment that needed no translation.
3. Going to markets and bazaars.
On my first day in India I headed straight to the local fabric market. This is a highlight for many reasons – markets are great for people watching, for trying delicious local delicacies and of course, for shopping. On my first day I was able to pick some material that I then took to a local tailor. Having Indian clothes made is a great way to experience the culture and to feel comfortable when you are travelling around. Visiting the bazaars in each place that you travel to is also a great way to get your bearings, meet locals and discover some of the unique specialties of that region.
Attending a big fat Indian wedding. Now that you are all dressed up you need somewhere to go– an Indian wedding! In January I was truly lucky to be invited to a family wedding by Shiv, Ekno’s office manager. The wedding was a fascinating and exciting glimpse into Indian culture, traditions and family life. With the Ekno team of Shiv, Vikas, Ashish and Sharon by my side I was able to take part in this memorable and unique experience. If you are ever invited to an Indian wedding – go! Even if you aren’t planning on going to a wedding, travelling during the wedding season means that you will probably get a glimpse of a wedding party, as a lot of the festivities play out on the streets. You might even find yourself joining in and dancing to Bollywood tunes with the revelers!
Getting festive. Attending a festival in India is an experience not to be missed. In the past I have experienced Diwali, Holi, Shivaratri, Teej, Eid, Losar and countless other smaller festivals. When I arrived in Amritsar this year there was a kite flying festival and the sky was a blaze of colourful kites as people celebrated on their roof terraces. At the end of my trip we went to a different kind of festival – the Jaipur Literature Festival – but it still had all the culture, colour, pomp and music that you would expect from an Indian festival. If you are planning a trip to India it is worth finding out what festivals occur at that time of year.
Sharing a meal with locals.
Indian culture is welcoming and family focused, meaning that you will probably be invited to visit people at their home to share a meal. In January I visited Vikas and his family and shared a delicious home cooked meal as we sat around the fire. It was a wonderful experience and I felt very welcomed by his extended family. Even if you are travelling with a group, you canstill visit people at home. In Rajasthan we enjoyed a jeep safari and then a home cooked lunch at Chhotaram’s Homestay. All over India you will find cooking classes that take place in people’s homes, and if you don’t have time for that there is always the offer of sitting down for a chat with someone over a cup of chai (tea).
Travelling like a local.
Home to over a billion people, India is constantly busy with people on the move. From the famed Indian Railways to rickshaws,motorbikes, iconic ambassador taxis and everything in between, the journey is just as important as the destination in India. Train travel is the ultimate for people watching whereas autorickshaws and motorbikes are great fun for covering short distances.Travelling by car is a great way of seeing life on the road and is comfortable as well. One Sunday, Ekno’s founder Sharon took me on a drive through the villages of Himachal Pradesh, meaning we could stop along the way to admire the magnificent mountain views. The day after, we departed for the plains and boarded an overnight train for Rajasthan, meaning that we could sit back and watch the world pass as by.
Getting entertained by Bollywood. Going to the cinema in India is an experience. There will be cheering, there will be singing, there might even be people dancing in the aisles. Get swept away by all the excitement and make sure you find the time to enjoy a samosa or a cup of chai while you’re at it. If the movie doesn’t have English subtitles you will still be able to follow the basic storyline. In January Sharon and I went to see a historical movie with a local family and were entertained by the lavish costumes, song and dance numbers and beautiful cinematography. It is a must do cultural experience!
Taking a walk. Walking in India is a great way to get out amongst people and make unique discoveries. From
early morning heritage walks in Rajasthan to strolls through markets or going on a trek, walking is the perfect way to take things at your own pace and get off the beaten path. Even just taking a stroll in the streets around your hotel can result in wonderful experiences. In Himachal Pradesh Sharon and I would go on early morning walks through the surrounding villages and fields, taking in the stunning views of the snow-capped mountains that surrounded us. It was a fantastic way to start the day.
Relaxing with a therapeutic treatment. In India you can pick from yoga, meditation, Ayurveda and massage to name just a few.After the hustle of the streets and strain of long-distance travel, relaxing with a massage or Ayurvedic treatment is good for the body and soul. I indulged in an Ayurvedic massage at the Kayakalp centre in Palampur, near Dharamsala and I left feeling rejuvenated and full of energy.India is also the perfect place to practice or learn a form of yoga or meditation. In January I was lucky enough to be taught by Sharon’s friend and yoga teacher Hari, who came to Sharon’s house for our private lessons. No matter where you go in India, the opportunity to try one of these treatments of practices is easily organised and well worth the experience.
Even though we don’t know when it will be safe to travel again, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important to remember all the wonderful experiences that we have had through travel. I’m looking forward to the day when I can return to India again.
I shut the door of my hotel room, turning the key to lock it.I walked slowly down the steps onto the busy street. There was noise, lots of it. The street was full of people strolling and shopping, cars beeping their horns and people on bicycles dodging the traffic. It was mid afternoon, India in full throttle. I tried not to pay attention to it and kept my head down. I walked slowly towards the ghats. I was lost in my thoughts, the surrounds distant. This was India after all, where noise is a constant and only stops for a few hours in the early morning. This is a country that sleeps little – the streets are never empty, there is always the odd cow, person, motorbike or car.
As I continued walking,the sound of people talking and shouting grew louder. What started as a low hum of white noise became more distinctive. A man walking slightly ahead of me turned around and shouted‘jaldi,jaldi’ – hurry up. His voice carried over my head and I turned to see if the words had reached their target. One woman looked up, noticing but not paying attention. She half smiled and bowed her head again, still listening to the conversation she was having with an older woman – perhaps her mother or her mother in law. None of the children around paid the slightest bit of notice – did they have any children with them?
Family life in India is sacrosanct and is a microcosm for greater society; moving, shrinking and expanding whenever the need arises. Indians spend most of their time as extended families: living together, visiting each other in distant places, going on holidays and have big fat Indian weddings where the whole family get together to catch up, gossip, drink and dance. Importantly, each family member knows what is expected of them in this unbreakable unit.
I stepped to the side, wondering if the family had brought one of their own loved ones to be cremated. Varanasi is the ultimate place to be cremated or have ashes put in the Ganges.
As I walked, I heard a voice above the rest ‘das rupee’,meaning ten rupees. Street sellers were holding up small offerings for sale. They were made from large green leaves,dried out and cleverly folded using toothpicks. Inside were a few pink rose petals, one single yellow marigold flower and a small handmade tea lamp placed in the middle.
‘You buy, you buy,’ said a young girl as she stepped in front of me.
I looked at her expressionless, casting my eyes down and kept walking. I was determined to focus on my task at hand.
I reached my destination – Sheetla Ghat. I walked down the steps. They were smooth and slippery from wear and
tear. There were many pilgrims at the water’s edge, and I wanted to feel the water, get familiar with it. I put my hand into the water, the mighty Ganges. It was cold and milky, I snapped my hand back. Yuck, how could I swim in that? Soap suds mixed with heavenly water. I gazed out further. I saw water moving, it was cleaner. The self-cleaning current is where dead people’s ashes and partially burnt bodies are thrown in to float down stream to the Bay of Bengal. The Ganges, or Mother Ganga, is Nirvana is the ultimate goal after death for Hindus (and Buddhists) where there is no suffering or desire but a peaceful resting place. I had a sudden flashback of my first visit to Varanasi: of seeing swollen dead bodies, wrapped in a grey cloth which blended in with the body floating past. I wondered if I would have to dodge one of these.
The voices of my friends interrupted my thoughts.
‘Hey Shaz.’My friends came into view, I smiled and waved – relieved and terrified all at once.
Why had I agreed so many months ago that I would swim the Ganges in Varanasi – one of the most polluted rivers on earth for the occasion of my fiftieth birthday. Was I insane?Apparently!
My friends Ant and David walked towards me, smiling. Ant, already in her 70’s, was going to be the other swimmer. She had already completed the swim twice before. David, in his 20’s and a budding photographer, was going to record the event. They had lined up the boatman and we were going to row the other side, so that we would be swimming with the strong current and not against it.
Ant and David chatted with the boatman, finalising the price to row the three of us over to the other side. Ant and I would swim back to where we were standing. David and the boatman would follow beside us. How simple, what could possibly go wrong?
The price fixed, we were ready to go. The boatman held out his hand offering to take our hands as we walked onto the boat. The earlier mist had cleared, churning out a fine mid winter’s afternoon. I looked down at myself, sitting there in my new fisherman’s pants of bright colours and T-shirt. I wouldn’t have them for long. They were bought for the occasion the night before, disposable swimming clothes. India is not a place where you swim in a pair of bathers in public.Covering your body is essential even when swimming the Ganges.
I was quiet throughout the journey over to the other side. I thought about one of the stories I knew about Ganges:that it had an active population of blind dolphins. The dolphins were not completely blind but had a very low level of eyesight. They feed on the plankton that lives just below the water’s surface. While the dolphins are elusive, they have been spotted from time to time. Would I bump into one, the blind leading the blind? I almost wished for it. It would be less confronting than bumping into a floating body.
The boat slowed, we had reached the other side. This was the moment of reckoning, there was no going back. I jumped out into the cold water, fully clothed. I hit the mud, it squished between my toes.
What had I done?
Then I heard a reckless voice, deep inside me, say ‘go for it honey’.
I lunged forward into the water and put one arm in front of the other. My body was in slow motion. I focused on my breathing. I told myself turn your head to the right, breathe in through your nose, then out of the corner of your mouth, in through your nose, turn your head to the left side, breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth in through your nose. Repeat. My rhythm started. I made a mental note to keep my mouth firmly shut, remembering all those dead bodies floating in the water and not wanting it washing through my mouth.
The water was clear, it gave me more confidence. I imagined I was swimming the English Channel, all lathered up with imaginary Vaseline to keep me warm and mobile. I could feel the clothes dragging against my skin. It was hardly the English Channel but I was enjoying the challenge and the foolishness of it all. Who else gets to swim the Ganges for their fiftieth birthday?
My body started to tire. I stopped and treaded water, looking around to see where Ant was. She was way ahead. I checked for the boat. David waved and I felt a small warmness in the pit of my stomach, someone was there looking out for me. But then I noticed that I was only a third into the swim, and still had a long way to go.
I put my head down and kept going. Stroke after stroke, feelinglike the only thing in the world was to be there; no fear of the soap suds, toxic waste, floating bodies, animal carcasses and excrement that polluted the water I was immersed in.
The flow of the water intensified. I figured I was starting to hit the middle where the tide was the strongest. My arms started to tire and my breathing started to labour. My chest tightened. Oh yes, I had forgotten about the cough which been lingering for the past couple of days.
Could I keep going? I looked up. Ant was nowhere to be seen, she was in front; and the boat was ahead somewhere between her and me. I was getting slower, there was no one to rescue me now so I would have to keep going. I tried to focus – if I just did freestyle slow motion, it would get me there. I started again, breathing in, stroke, breathing out.
I was opening my mouth letting the polluted Ganges water wash in and out of my mouth.How long had I been doing that, god I would surely die now! It was hard to breathe. My limp slow strokes were not enough to keep the force of the current from washing me downstream. I looked up and saw myself moving further away from the boat. I stopped and treaded water. My breath was shallow and kept getting caught in my chest cavity, not going any further. I started to hyperventilate and felt panic rising. Wouldn’t it be good if a blind dolphin came by and helped me to swim, just like the movies. I smiled at the thought, and the panic subsided lightly.
But the current was still strong, and it carried me further downstream. I saw my end point – the large buildings in front of the main ghat. I felt a calmness come over me, all I needed was to tread water and I would drift to the place where there were many people. Someone would see me and rescue me. I drifted on, feeling my arms, legs and torso resting. My mind had the help of massive doses of adrenaline to power on. Survival was key now.
Then a thought: why hadn’t it thought it before, breast stroke! That would keep my head out of the water and save my arms, and I could let my solid legs do all the work. I had power back. I kept going. My hands gliding under the water, legs kicking out, deep breaths in, projecting my body forward then breathing out. I was moving again, the ghat was around 100 meters away. I could see David and the boatman rowing closer.
David came up beside me as I treaded water.
‘Are you ok?’
I nod. I wasn’t and he knew it.
‘Do you want to jump in and come back by boat?’
I felt a power surge, adrenaline kicked in. ‘No thanks, I’ll finish what I started’. I saw the outlines of the pilgrims bathing in this pure water, so close. Nirvana waited with open arms.
In India, travelling with insiders can make all the difference. From finding a porter at a busy train station to helping you to dress like a local and sharing a home cooked meal at a family home; travelling with a local is a unique experience.
For me it started before my plane had even touched Indian soil. In fact it started before I boarded my packed plane to Amritsar. As I waited in the busy airport in Kuala Lumpur it became apparent that I was going to be the only non-Indian on the flight. As I waited to have my boarding pass checked I realised that I was surrounded by great big Indian families – grandparents cradling smiling babies, sleepy eyed children in the arms of parents, teenagers in their holiday best, excited young couples and Sikh men in their traditional turbans. What was amazing to me was the sheer number of family members and generations that were travelling together. This was a glimpse into the beauty of India, where family and community are everything.
As I waited people began chatting to me. They wanted to know if it was my first time in India and why I was travelling to Amritsar. On the plane I was offered advice and introduced to extended family members. Grandkids acted as translators so that I could talk to their grandparents. When we landed, I was shown which way to go and asked if I needed any help. Luckily for me I was being picked up by insider guide Ashish, who was waiting patiently for me in the arrivals lounge.
As an outsider you can only get a glimpse of all that India is. With a local guide the road is smoothed, making day to day travel easier. The added bonus is that you will often find that insider guides are able to open hidden doors that offer a tantalising glimpse into life in India. Even as a seasoned traveller to India, I appreciated the wonder and ease of travelling with insiders, who soon become good friends.
There are countless times when travelling with a local made my life easier – from helping me with pre-departure visa requirements to ordering food to suit my dietary requirements or negotiating costs with drivers and porters at busy train stations. But what I really love about travelling with insiders are those experiences that you just wouldn’t have if you were traveling independently.
One of the many highlights of my latest trip to India was attending the wedding of a friend’s brother. I was welcomed by the family as if I was an old friend. Language and cultural barriers melted away and I was embraced by the warmth of an Indian family for the three-day celebration. English speaking locals were on hand to explain the intricacies of the ceremony, a table and chairs and bottled water was provided for the Kangri Dam, or wedding feast; and invitations to dance and try on traditional dress were welcomed. If you find yourself travelling with locals during wedding season (which can vary depending what part of India you are in), you might just find yourself being invited to participate in a big fat Indian wedding.
Whilst in Himachal Pradesh I was lucky enough to experience some other local experiences. In India, like in many other places, I feel that it always easier to travel wearing traditional clothes. Not only is it culturally appropriate, especially in a country like India where it is not acceptable to show a lot of ski; it is also practical, comfortable and helps you to blend in. So on my first day in Amritsar I asked insider guide Ashish if he could help me find some material for a traditional salwar kameez, also known as a ‘suit’. The salwar kameez consists of a long tunic like top with splits up the sides, a pair of paints, either loose and billowing or tighter like leggings, and a shawl, known as a dupatta. Ashish took me straight to the cloth market near the Golden Temple and I was presented with a dizzying array of options. The hardest part was choosing a colour or pattern from the many wonderful options! I settled on two and when we headed up to Himachal Pradesh the next day the boys set about finding me a tailor. I ended up visiting two, one in the main bazaar and another at a local woman’s home. The experience of being measured and then the joy of picking up the outfit a few days later was very special and I enjoyed wearing both of my outfits for the rest of my trip.
After the excitement of the wedding and the serenity of the village setting in Himachal Pradesh, we headed back down to the plains of the Punjab for an 18-hour train trip to the desert state of Rajasthan. Train travel in India is a must do – it is a unique opportunity to meet locals and sit back and watch the world go by from the comfort of a train. There are all kinds of trains and classes in India – we opted for second class sleeper, but many trains have first class or even luxury options. Even waiting for the train and boarding is an experience, made all the easier when Ashish organised a porter who carried our bags and guided us to our carriage.
Once we were on the train it was time to sit back and enjoy the changing scenery. As usual we made plenty of new friends who were happy to share their home cooked food with us as well as good conversations. It is also easy to order drinks, snacks and meals as train employees frequently travel through the carriages taking orders.
In Rajasthan there were yet more insider experiences. Early one morning we woke up early in the blue city of Jodhpur, famed for the iconic Mehrangarh Fort which overlooks the city from its rocky outcrop. As we wandered through the twisting lane ways Ashish organised for a local to guide us up to the best viewpoint. As we climbed higher the area began to unfurl with the dawn and we were offered a peak into people’s homes and morning routines. At the top of the hill we witnessed a beautiful pink sunset against the blue homes of the city that fanned out below us. There was also a temple at the top which I was able to visit before we headed back down to out hotel. On the way our new local friend took us in another direction, asking if we wanted to visit his home. Of course, what a wonderful opportunity. As we entered, we realised that not only did he live in one of the traditional blue home of the city, but that his home backed right onto the fort walls.
On my last night in India, in the pink city of Jaipur, I wanted to visit a Hindu temple. I joined some locals in praying at an altar, and as I did so the temple priest beckoned me closer. In his hand were items that had been offered to the gods that he was now giving back to me as prasad. Prasad, which translates as ‘gracious gift’, is common in both Hinduism and Sikhism. In this temple the priest gave me a gift of fruit, sugar cubes and flowers that had been adorning the gods. What a fitting farewell to this special country.
After returning home it is the memories of these special experiences that have stayed with me – attending a spectacular Gaddi wedding, sharing a meal with new friends, being invited into a temple or shrine – all of which are in the end opportunities to share in community. – Brooke Maddison travelled to India courtesy of Ekno Travels