When I travelled through Rajasthan with girlfriends about ten years ago, we visited a lot of temples and palaces. LIKE, A LOT. I learned that I enjoy these things in moderation, but after a while they got a bit meh for me. You’ve seen one … Continue reading Monasteries of Ladakh. Part Three.
I have never quite managed to travel along a windy road without throwing up. I started at age 3 and have remained consistent ever since. My road trips bring back fantastic memories including my ex-husband holding back my hair while I vomited across Mpumalanga, a … Continue reading Leh to Pangong Lake, Ladakh. Part Two.
Our flight from Delhi to Leh, gateway to Ladakh and The Himalaya, was initially cancelled due to bad weather. Sadly, this meant one more day in my not-most-favourite city in the world, Delhi, which was in fact fab because the shopping was good and I … Continue reading Delhi to Leh, Ladakh. Part One.
Delhi has never been my favourite city. I’ve been twice before. The first time I was with six friends, we stayed in a smart and very western chain hotel in a shitty area, and spent a lot of time getting lost. My memory was of … Continue reading Delhi
I’ve had a bit of anxiety of late . First, my doc told me I had high cholesterol. I was so shocked that I developed body pains everywhere. I decided I was having a heart attack; my doctor assured me I was not. Okay fine, … Continue reading Anxiety, spontaneity, a good heart
I used to be a travel blogger. For years I had fourteen fabulous followers, thirteen of whom were my friends. I’m not sure who the fourteenth was except I really dug his loyalty. Anyway, I was kind of erratic with my blog and when I quit I don’t think anyone actually noticed.
This week I went back to travel blogging. And realised how much I love it.
And now I am conflicted.
Sex or travel?
I could write about the man I just stood behind in the Checkers queue who was wearing a flannel shirt, had great stubble, was drop dead gorgeous and asked for my number.
Or I could write about Varanasi, which was the last leg of our Indian trip.
And really, I want to write about Varanasi.
But I can’t!
Because it is the most impossible city to describe. It’s that place where you walk in silence because words don’t fit. It’s where life and death are one, where everything melds together, where nothing but everything makes sense.
And it’s somehow surprisingly grounding.
In Varanasi there are no secrets. Women bathe in their saris in the Ganges. Holy men dip, naked, in the Ganges. Pilgrims pray and meditate. Bodies burn. Dogs, goats and cows amble alongside the bodies. Kids swim. And play cricket. Women do laundry. Everyone’s calm. They seek. They wander. And they die.
People come to Varanasi to die. To wash away their sins. They come for liberation. They’re at the Ghats, in droves. You’re aware of them. They’re not aware of you.
We spent our days walking, slowly because of the heat but also slowly because there’s a lot to take in. Oddly, between Ghats, we found the best apple pie and ice-cream, little book stores, and the loveliest hand carved goddesses. As well as silk, sweet tea and an endless supply of Kama Sutras.
On our last night we made our way to Keshari, one of Varanasi’s oldest restaurants. Made our way is perhaps the wrong description. We walked, we got lost, we wandered along narrow alleyways, we dodged cows, we dodged cow poo, we walked with the bulls, we got run over, we almost got sold and then – we found a table for two in this very famous restaurant.
It was 44 degrees. There were fans all over the ceiling. The menus were taped to the table; the food was not. We’d ordered a Thali, a large plate with lots of small bowls of Indian offerings. Dal Fry, Baby Corn Masala, Cauliflower Sabzi, Palak Paneer, Steamed Rice, Roti, Naan and Papad.
Papad is a crisp bread, kind of like a papadum. It’s light. The force of the ceiling fan was so strong that our papads went flying. The roti followed. Rice landed in our neighbor’s hair. So did pickles. The serviettes were airborne.
And the food was really hot, like vindaloo on fire hot, and we were both mopping our foreheads, sweating and crying.
We got the giggles.
And the waiters, in their Indian fashion, stood nearby, dead pan, and watched.
It was the funniest, most chaotic meal we’ve had. We ate, tears dripping down our cheeks, everything leaving a trail of destruction around us.
And still not a waiter blinked an eye. When we signalled for the bill, after what was the most insanely haphazard meal, that flew away too. Still no reaction. We left a pile of rupees whirling around the restaurant, grabbed our things and ran out.
We looked for a tuk-tuk. Couldn’t find one. Or a taxi. Or a rickshaw.
Our meal was just like Varanasi.
Tasty. Wild. And totally uncontrollable.
They say people either love or hate the city.
We found it to be just perfect.
‘Are you sure you’re going to make it up the hill? Shouldn’t we maybe wait for the cow to move out the way. Oh oh watch the dog, and listen man we don’t mind if you drop us here, we’ll walk, SHIT don’t hit the monk, careful, the monk, there’s a fucking monk, stop stop…’
We held very tightly on to our seats and each other while the driver ignored us. This is what he does, of course. Fly along narrow roads, around hairpin bends and up steep mountain passes while trucks, cars, busses, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, herds of goats and a million people come straight at him.
He grinned when we got to the top, removed his Raybans, said ‘Here girls, Chonor House’, and helped us with our bags. We both stood still, a little shellshocked. Not so much from the mad wild drive because well that’s just India, but from the absolute magic that is Mcleod Ganj.
McLeod Ganj in the state of Himachel Pradesh, is a higgledy piggledy village where India meets Tibet. The Dalai Lama lives here and Chonor House where we stayed is directly opposite his Temple. Set at the top of a very steep hill, Chonor is a sanctuary, run by Tibetans, ridiculously quiet yet surrounded by teeny alleyways, hippie bars, rooftop restaurants, internet cafes, yoga studios, nuns, monks, the cutest little baby monks, food markets, barber shops, cake shops, flippin’ Kashmiri shops, bare skinned people, barefoot people and mostly, Buddhist people.
And a man named Mahindra.
We settled into the unbelievable Tree Flower Room, sipped lemon ginger mint tea on the balcony, looked out over the mountains, listened to the chanting, meditated for like a second then headed out into the streets.
My travel friend immediately found the beautiful Tibetan silver jewellery.
And I found Mahindra.
Not being able to resist a good massage I followed him into his studio. Within five minutes my clothes were off, I was on the floor, he was on top of me in that massage kind of way, singing bowls were singing, oil was dripping, he was rubbing, and oh my god it was amazing.
Which is exactly how Mcleod Ganj is. It’s like everything is open, just waiting for you to come in.
We spent four days here and could’ve spent four months. Time takes on a lazy magic. We’d be woken early by the chanting of the monks and wander across to Temple. Prayer flags and prayer wheels dot the path and lead you inside. It’s the most beautiful way to start a day, listen to chanting, chant too, meditate with monks, and nuns, sip sweet tea, pray a little, and then – eat, wander and explore.
The area is like a traveller hangout paradise. We walked a lot and our favourite day was walking from Mcleod to the little villages dotted amongst the mountains – Bhagzu and Dharamkot being the two we most fell in love with. The paths are steep so you walk, breathe, stop at a tea station, drink, walk a little more, find a hippie restaurant, laze against the cushions, eat the most delicious food, watch rooftop jugglers, do not smoke dope inside because the signs say please do not smoke dope inside, and just – fall in love.
All the time.
Including with the Dalai Lama. On our last day he happened to be in Temple. Just like that, we were ten feet away from the Dalai Lama. And honestly, genuinely, he looked at us – And he smiled. A gentle, loving magnificent smile that left us feeling peaceful.
Spiritual. Open. Delicious. Divine.
And totally content.
India has a weird way of doing that to you. McLeod Ganj in particular.
I’m going back next year. But for longer.
Book with Kate Carlyle, at firstname.lastname@example.org
It is possible that I am a terrible person but I’m just gonna have a go at Kashmir. Like a bitchy one. I mean, it is picture perfect with a mystical lake, snow capped mountains, fairy tale castles, ancient mosques, fields of saffron, cardamom tea, romantic houseboats, all that stuff, blah blah beautiful.
But I’m gonna bitch about it anyway.
Because everyone you meet in Kashmir has a sob story.
And sob stories get tiresome.
Kashmir is a controlled state. India owns it. Pakistan wants it. And Kashmir would kinda like to keep it for themselves. It’s a state in limbo. And still at war.
And with war comes disdain.
Bloody Indians, say the Kashmiris.
Bloody Kashmiris, say the Indians.
And I don’t know what the Pakistanis say because they are not really allowed inside. Also, everyone calls them Paks.
As South Africans, we were kind of stuck in the middle.
And yet the Kashmiris were fabulous hosts. And there were several times when we almost tripped over yaks and fell headfirst into the lake because of the beauty. And the gorgeous men. Their beards, stature, strong hands, dark eyes, delicious sexiness and did I mention – strong hands?
But also very bloody manipulative.
As Salam Alaykom, good morning, hello, they would say.
And then, without waiting for an answer…
My son missed out on school. I really need to get him an education.
My daughter had to marry at sixteen. I want very much to help her.
I work three jobs and only sleep two hours a night.
Buy this ring, it’s the only way I can bless my wife.
My own carpets are threadbare…
I had to let go of my goat…
It felt like everything was about money. You almost had to pay for a hello. Or for directions. And if you buy one thing, it isn’t enough. You have to buy two. Three. Four.
Just one more Miss. Please. My child…
When you don’t buy anything, ooh Allah Yufaquk Yufaquk, shoulders slump and faces get sulky.
We felt a bit bullied. And bullshitted. And we’re both good travellers and know when to say no or fuck off, but the Kashmiris are master trader bullshitters.
We had been warned. But I gotta say, it kinda spoils the beauty. And the beauty is a little – OH GOD ALLAH SORRY STRIKE ME DOWN NOW – chocolate box beauty. The painted shikaras, the very quaint overly carpeted houseboats. It’s all gorgeous, but kinda, contrived.
Except for the macaroons!!! And the French pastry shop. The flower sellers weren’t bad either. And some of the moustaches were just perfect. There are gems that, when you do manage to wander around alone without being hassled, surprise and astonish. The rose gardens are magnificent, the early morning calls to prayer echo through the whole town and over the lake, and I loved the wild barking of dogs as they prepare for their nightly roaming.
I did love it. I’m cynical and just a little unfair, I know that. And we were so well cared for. We were brought tea in bed, treated like queens and also offered marijuana and most importantly, husbands.
Maybe we were too spoiled.
But maybe we were also just a little bit too controlled.
Whatever it was, Kashmir didn’t quite do it for me.
Dal Lake, old city of Srinagar, Khanqha Shah Hamdam Mosque, Kashmiri tea, Kashmiri moustaches, macaroons, honey, The Himalayas, shikaras and houseboys oops sorry I meant houseboats.
Six security checks on arrival. Seven checks on departure. Phones blocked from arrival until departure. One million heavily armed Indian soldiers dressed in camouflage with branches still hanging from their heads. Baksheesh.
And where, oh where, are all the women? Because we saw very very few.
G’nite, I would call out sleepily. See you in the morning.
G’nite, my insomniac travel friend would reply. Sweet dreams.
And she would switch off the light.
We’d both be quiet for maybe two minutes and then our evening ritual would begin.
Throw off the covers because it was too hot. Take off our pyjamas because it was too hot. Make tea. Admire our shopping. Moisturise. Sit outside a little. Climb back into bed. Stretch, yawn, go to sleep and then –
Not really go to sleep.
Because she’s an insomniac and so am I and we’d just have to talk some more. And laugh and giggle and go over all the amazing things that we’d seen. The gorgeous men. The smooth men. The salesmen. And the colours, smells, spices, everything that was just astonishing.
Because astonishing things happen every day in India. Overwhelming magnificent extraordinary astonishing things.
One night, while we were not sleeping, my friend lay on her bed reading while I lay on mine looking at photographs.
Men with turbans lazing on rickshaws. Colourful women sweeping colourful courtyards. A young girl peering out a train window. A monk carrying an umbrella. Five people and a monkey on a motorbike. Giant buddhas. Kids playing cricket. Bodies burning on the River Ganges. Overloaded trucks. Decorated trucks. Truck drivers. Holy men. Limbless men. Gorgeous men.
And two magnificent women.
Us. In action. Hiking in the foothills of the Himalayas. Cruising in a shikara. Riding on motorbikes. And doing yoga.
Each one very beautiful.
Until I noticed my neck.
OH MY GOD MY NECK.
‘Jesus Christ, I said, leaping out of bed. I had no idea I had so many wrinkles.’
Luckily, insomniacs always says the right thing.
‘Your neck is really not bad. But still, try this App. Everyone uses it. It smoothes out the teeny lines.’
I downloaded the App. I learned what I could do with it. I became obsessed. I never slept again.
I could make myself smoother. Younger. Prettier. Slimmer. Taller. More bright eyed. More blue eyed. Blonder.
And very very beautiful.
I beauty-apped myself. I looked good. I posted a pic. I waited for the comments to fly in.
Wow, India really agrees with you.
Love your hair.
You look fab.
How do you stay looking so young?
And I felt instantly guilty.
Because I was smooth, but really, not.
India is anything but smooth. It is the most chaotic, overwhelming, dramatic, uncontrolled, colourful and unrelenting country.
There is no photoshopping. There are no touch ups.
And there is no beauty app.
What you see is what you get.
Wild and natural.
And very very real.
And as I reflect on my travels, I realise that is one of the many things I got out of India.
That to be real is the prize.
Sorry then for my neck, my bra straps and my sheen from the forty degree heat, but I gotta reveal everything.
And I’m not really sorry at all.
Here we are. The Insomniac. And Ms Violet Online.
N.B. You can ask Kate Carlysle to help with bookings. She is in Cape Town and knows all these gorgeous extraordinary hotels / ashrams / galleries / dogs / people and oh my god Indian boutiques!