Varanasi

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.

It’s overwhelming.

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.

We walked.

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.

 

Bookings:  KateGryphon6@gmail.com

Violet and the Dalai Lama

‘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.

Pure enchantment.

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.

http://www.norbulingka.org/chonor-house.html.

Book with Kate Carlyle, at kategryphon6@gmail.com

Critical in Kashmir

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?

They’re astonishing.

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.

Many 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.

Sorry.

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Top ten:-
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.

Bottom ten:-
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.

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Beautified in India

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.

They did.

Wow, India really agrees with you.
A stunner.
Love your hair.
You look fab.
How do you stay looking so young?
So jealous…

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.

Imperfect. Frantic.

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.

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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!

Kategryphon6@gmail.com.

7 am on 7th.

Morning Mammie. Morning Madam. Good morning Gogo.

Hey, G’morning, I say, to each person who wanders by me.

It’s early on a Sunday. Melville. There are few people on the streets. It’s chilly but the sun is shining, the magnolias are in bloom, and there just a few empty beer bottles on the pavements.

I turn the corner and walk past Nuno’s, one of my local hang outs. The waitresses are outside, waiting for the owner to open up.

He’s always late. They are always on time. Or maybe they’re just early. They have a long way to travel.

Hey Violet, Morning Violet, Enjoy your coffee Violet.

I wave, I shout from the other side of the road, I say good morning. And I continue on my walk to De La Creme, to get my morning fix.

It’s a ritual. I’ve been known to do it in my pyjamas.

But I do wear nice pyjamas.

I see the old man dressed in blue. He’s the shouter of the neighbourhood. Unbalanced. Mad. A meth drinker. Wrinkled, scarred and always in trouble. He wanders the streets day and night. A lunatic.

Yet there he is, like clockwork, sweeping 7th Street. He sweeps, every morning, starting at 7 am. The shop owners pay him collectively.

It keeps him in meths. And warm.

I pretend I don’t see him. It’s complicated and I find it easier to pretend he isn’t there. I know, I know, it isn’t very nice of me.

I carry on. G’morning, hi, have a groovy Sunday.

There’s the homeless Ethiopian. He sits in the doorway of a charity shop. It may be where he sleeps too. The walls of the shop are pink. Today he’s wearing a pink shirt.

He blends in.

I always say good morning to him. He always gives me a filthy look. I think he too is slightly unbalanced.

Maybe I also am?

I wish I’d bought my camera. There’s a young woman leaning out a window. She’s wearing a magnificent brightly coloured African headdress. And there’s another woman coming out a doorway. She’s opening up, Bread and Roses Bistro, her dreadlocks flying in the wind.

It’s picture perfect.

I get my coffee. Resist the croissants. Have a chat with one of the locals about our kids and how we wish they’d eat more fruit. He buys six fresh out the oven almond croissants.

What the hell, I may as well buy one. Ugh, two. And a baguette.

I walk home, sipping my coffee. I admire the gorgeous clothing through the window of the vintage shop. I’m going to come back and try that little black dress on.

A neighbour stops and gives me a few avocados off her tree. They’re fat and ripe. I promise to drop granadillas off at her later. We talk about the neighbourhood. Our community.

The streets are getting busier now. Cyclists, joggers and a few early morning moms with their babes. The newspaper sellers are out and the car guards have taken up position.

The last person I see before I turn on to my road is Joe. You can tell he was once a good looking man. He has piercing blue eyes, steel grey hair, and a great tan. He’s tanned because he too lives on the streets. I always hear stories about him. He was a writer. A poet. An academic.

Something about Joe has always made me uncomfortable. I don’t know what it is. I think because he could be me. I could be him. He could be any of us.

I usually avoid his stare. This morning I chose not to. I looked him in the eye and said Hi.

He looked at me and lifted one hand to his head. A bit like a salute. Then both hands, palms out, in front of him. One hand towards me, before both hands coming together.

It was a greeting. Sign language.

Sign language for Hello, What is your name?

Oh my gosh.

Hello.

I had no idea Joe was deaf.

I’m not even sure if his name is Joe.

melville

Gaslighting

You know when you have a lightbulb moment, when you read something, spit out your coffee and suddenly go WHAT THE FUCK, WHAT, THIS IS EXACTLY LIKE READING ABOUT MYSELF!

Well, I just spat out my coffee as I read about Gaslighting.

And it made me wonder where I’ve been all this time.

How come I didn’t know what Gaslighting was?

How did I ever allow it to happen to me?

And also, that even though my experience happened a long time ago, the scars are still there.

The article took me back to a fairly long term relationship that I had. A not good one. And as I read, all the emotionally abusive things this guy used to say came flooding back to me.  The things that made me feel bad. Things that I knew were not true. But that I somehow started believing and that I allowed to eat away at me, break me up, bit by bit.

Until there was not that much more to break.

Things like:-

You’re selfish, Violet. You make everything about you.

You can’t do anything on our own can you Violet.

And you’re not very bright are you, Violet. Silly. Silly Silly Violet.

He would say these things, I would get upset, he would take them back. And even when he took them back, I was the one left feeling guilty. Ashamed. And stupid. Like I had done something wrong.

He would then make up for his words by saying:-

But you know I’m kidding, Violet.

You’ve done so well, Violet, I’m really proud of you.

You’re gorgeous, bright, sexy, I’m so lucky to have you.

But the damage had already been done. I felt bad. And I felt like I was going mad.

Seeds of self doubt. Planted in me by a master manipulator.

Years later I can see just how manipulated I was. And I think, thank goodness I got out of that relationship. And got help.

Except that as I type I realise I am not totally over it or okay and my self esteem and confidence took a huge knock.

So when I read the article on Gaslighting alarm bells started ringing.

I remembered that I still had a lot of work to do, on me.  And that my journey is far from over.

Also, that there are many women out there who suffer a similar type of emotional abuse.

And I wanted to say this:

Girlfriends. You are not crazy. You are not mad. You are most definitely not stupid.

Trust your feelings. Trust your emotions.

And get out. Now.

It is never too late.

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http://www.elephantjournal.com/2015/08/gaslighting-the-mind-game-everyone-should-know-about/

Scarlet

My dog Scarlet is thirteen. I walk her almost daily at Emmarentia Dam and she’s always a little nervous and a lot unpredictable.

Odd, my friends call her.

Intriguing is what I say.

She never goes near the water. And lately her arthritis has been really bad, leaving me to wonder how much longer she has.

Today we went walking with friends.

And for some insane, crazy, who knows why and I’ll never get it reason, Scarlet plunged head first into the water.

Whoosh splash, she was gone.

Surrounded by ducks, geese and a huge body of cool sparkling water.

It was fabulous, this dog who has never swum before. Whichever way the ducks went, she went too.  Swimming like a pro dog Olympic doggy paddle champion of the world.

Unbelievable. Hilarious. Brilliant.

Until we realised she wasn’t coming back.

We were standing on the edge, yelling for her. And she never once turned to look at us. She was a dog on a mission.

Except this old dog was getting deeper, further and more and more distant.

I panicked. She would have a heart attack. She was going to drown. She would disappear under the water and that would be the end.

There was no-one around to help.

‘You’ve gotta go in, Violet,’ said my friend. ‘Go. Go.’

I was hesitant. I’m not a strong swimmer.

But I threw off my clothes. And I plunged in too.  It was warm and delicious, except I wasn’t feeling warm or delicious. I was terrified.

I didn’t get anywhere close. She swam left, she swam right, she ducked, she dived, she became one of the bloody ducks.

And she ignored me completely.

I had to turn back or I would’ve got into trouble.

It had been an hour. We yelled some more, one of us naked, one not. And then I threw my clothes back on and ran for help.

I found a couple of cyclists who under normal circumstances I may have flirted with, except I hate cyclists.  Now, tears streaming down my face,  I begged them to rescue my dog.

Except she did not want to be rescued. She was having the swim of her life.

And then, just like that, TWO HOURS LATER, she swam in. Shook herself off, grinned, I swear she grinned, jumped into my arms, licked me all over and we went back home.

I thought she would die from exhaustion in the afternoon. I thought her heart would just stop beating while she slept.

She hasn’t died. She doesn’t even seem tired. She’s happy and content and clearly has a doggy bucket list of things she wants to do.

I’m the one who’s shattered.

But if I think about it, it was very nice skinny dipping in Johannesburg.

And so we’re planning another activity.

Today the ducks in Emmarentia, tomorrow the dolphins in Mozambique.  Who knows what adventure awaits.

Scarlet.  She is an intriguing dog.

  • with thanks to Lesley Cowling for the doggie bucket list inspiration.

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