Mumbai: It was full of beeping horns, throngs of people strolling beachside, disco horse carts, a lot of cricket, crumbling art deco buildings, late nite chaat stands, impromptu Bollywood moves and one mind boggling outdoor laundry system. Oddly, it was also the most organized place I’ve been in this country yet. #IncredibleIndia!
Camels, smog, and hot toddies (for me). Can’t think of a better way to celebrate India!
And…the magic chai float. Obviously.
This is what I’m thinking about pretty much anytime I eat anything in India that I haven’t cooked myself. The aftermath is inevitable. YOBAGOYA!
Varanasi. Whew! I survived. In and out in less than 24 hours, which was the perfect amount of time for me. Oh sure, you could easily spend a few days there, or weeks if you were making a pilgrimage or checking in to an ashram. But less than 24 hours was still enough to completely overload my sensory system and leave me yearning for the relative calm of life in Delhi with two screaming toddlers.
If India is a feast for the senses, Varanasi is a late-night bender: everything is amplified, more crowded, more frenetic, more colorful, more pungent. I have never seen so much shit in the streets – cow shit mostly, and dog shit, and surely some human shit, too. But there’s beauty to be found in the garbage and decay and crush of people waiting to bathe in the Ganges. There’s a strange calm as you float on the river at sundown, votives drifting through the boats gathered at the shore as pandits chant and clang cymbals.
I’m so happy I got to see it. I’m grateful to our guide, who answered so many questions and went out of his way to show us a piece of his faith. But man was I ready to get home and take a shower.
Where to stay:
We booked last minute, but enjoyed where we ended up: at a guesthouse right on the water in Old Varanasi called the Shiva Ganges View. Not luxurious by any means, but big rooms and bathrooms, all with river views. Nice rooftop terrace – although I was warned to take a stick with me up there to fend off monkeys. The guesthouse manager hooked us up with a wonderful guide, Vivek, and arranged a ride to and from the airport. Be warned: it was a looooong ride, spent mostly sitting in rickshaw/cow traffic.
Where to eat:
We didn’t venture out any further than the Lotus Lounge because it was next to our hotel and the narrow alleys of Old Varanasi were too confusing to navigate alone. Food was good, the terrace seating overlooking the river was better.
What to see:
Definitely get a guide, and definitely do a sunset boat ride to see the burning ghats and the Ganga aarti ceremony. We also did a 6am sunrise boat ride, then walked along the ghats to see some of the morning prayer rituals. Totally worth it. Afterwards, Vivek took us to a few temples, and was great about explaining everything that was going on inside – and there was a lot going on!
Don’t take photos at the burning ghats. It’s tempting, because it really is a spectacular scene – but it’s also someone’s funeral. Would you want Indian tourists streaming through the graveyard, taking photos at your burial? Photos inside the temples are also forbidden.
I’m lying. Yesterday was cold and rainy and generally inhospitable to any parade goers. But since we had a secret spot to watch the festivities just a few blocks from home, we braved the elements to see just what this epic Republic Day parade was all about.
They’ve been prepping here in Delhi for months, doing full dress rehearsals and closing down roads and setting up flags and fences. Tanks have been parked around India Gate for weeks, and workers were out straightening street signs and painting curbs up until the last minute. This happens every year in the lead up to India’s national celebration – not just when Obama visits.
So it was definitely a bummer that after all that work, the weather did not cooperate. There were barely any spectators, and I heard they canceled the elephants because it was too wet and cold out. But that’s ok – we got front row seats for the spectacular marching bands and camel brigade!
Cletus waited patiently for the camels (and refused to wear a dang raincoat).
Yes, that is a guy playing a tuba on a camel.
That’s not the best part though: After the camels, the marching bands abruptly stopped in the road, put down their tubas and drums and walked over to the sidewalk for a snack. Parade half-time, I guess.
We took that as a sign to walk home. On the way, we were stopped about 500 times to take photos with the other spectators. Next year we might have to just put Cletus and The Babe on their own float.
And this is who greeted us at our gate: one of the street dogs who lives out front, dressed to the nines for the big event.
Last weekend we took advantage of the cold, foggy, smoggy weather and headed to the National Rail Museum. I’d heard that it finally reopened after a lengthy renovation, and we needed somewhere to let the kids burn off some energy. Unfortunately, when we arrived we discovered that the Rail Museum is mostly outdoors, thus, still smoggy. And it is still very much under construction even though officially open.
But all was forgiven when Cletus and The Babe discovered that our entry fee included a ride on a cute little minature train that circled the grounds.
We hopped on with a bunch of school kids on a field trip (kids have school on Saturdays here) and chugged our way around all the historic locomotives and old passenger cars. It was adorable. Except for the stinky camp fires. In the middle of the museum.
I had to send a package to France today. Just a small gift for a friend, nothing crazy. My housekeeper convinced me that the regular Indian post would take an eternity, and ultimately might not be the most reliable choice. So I went with my driver to the local courier. In my mind I was thinking “courier” was just local speak for UPS or FedEx. In reality, it was a ramshackle kiosk on the side of a busy road, which by all indications seemed to specialize in cell phone plans. Or batteries. We walked up, pushing aside the other customers waving rupees at the man behind the counter. After a brief back and forth, my driver tells me it will take 72 hours for delivery. I say that’s fine, and without further ado the guy behind the counter waves down a passing motorcyclist. Motorcyle guy runs over, takes a peek at the mailing address, and starts punching numbers into his phone. Before I can voice any concerns about this stranger taking over delivery duty, motorcycle guy takes off to the shops across the street. A few minutes later, another guy comes back with the shipping rates and a shipping receipt – I pay and sign on the dotted line and pray to the god of international mail delivery that my package actually arrives in Europe. I’ll keep you posted!
**UPDATE** The package arrived, a couple days late. But someone on the other end (not te recpient) signed for it…and it’s MIA. WhaaWhaaaaaaaaaaa (sad trombone)