Monday, July 27, 2009

Varanasi... Part 2

As I sit here and write this post several days after returing from Varanasi there is a torrential downpour going on outside. The sky is dark and is frequently lit by bright flashes of lightening. The little area outside our guest house is ankle deep in water and slowly rising; thankfully our room is two steps up off the ground. It has been raining for an hour or so now and frankly I am surprised there is still power.

It is Monday night which is pasta night (we skip bitter gourd night) and we had a cosy dinner in the staff kitchen grateful not to have to wander the 70 or so metres through the rain to the dinner area... not that the kids would mind, they spent half an hour or so playing in the rain when the storm first started.

Ok... Varanasi. Our second full day in Varanasi was spent in full tourist mode. We started the day in Sarnath the place Buddha gave his first sermon to his five key followers. Apparently, it is one of the four most important sites on the buddhist circuit. It was quite interesting and I learnt a lot... but really... not my thing. After Sarnath we headed back to the Ganges and wandered through the little lane-ways browsing in some of the little shops before we had lunch on the rooftop terrace of the Sita Guesthouse. I would highly recommend it as a cheap and cheerful place to stay. You can eat a meal for $3 and enjoy the most amazing view of life on the Ganges. We saw people bathing and washing their buffalos and others resting by the river in the heat of the day. It was so quiet and peaceful compared to the busy chaos of the mornings and evenings.

Afterwards we wandered through the alleyways perusing the all the little shops with their oh so cheap clothes... no need to negotiate here. I picked up some much needed cool clothes to wear back at the ashram. 2 skirts, 2 pairs of pants, 3 tops and a dress... all for less than $30! it.

Later in the afternoon we hoped back on the tourist path. First stop was to see the hand woven silk fabrics which Varanasi is famous for. We were taken into a dark house where several looms where set up in a dark room. Apparently much of the silk in Varanasi is woven by hand due to the unreliable power supply... I would suggest worse than Gurgaon. I definitely would not call Varanasi silk a fair trade item. Young boys as young as 11 are recruited to learn the skill while there hands are still young and nimble. It takes 7-8 years to become a master and by that time there eyes are fading from working long days in dark rooms. After seeing the work being done we were taken into a showroom and the pressure was on to purchase. First item was a silk bedspread... as lovely as they were they are just not my style and they were insisting that several hundred dollars was a wholesale price...I don't think so. So rather, we looked at simple silk scarves... though there was hundreds of designs... so overwhelming. We settled on a simple scarf and Ray negotiated the price down but in my opinion we still paid through the nose... I would not have bought anything at all after seeing the work conditions but I felt obliged after they unfolded about 50 quilts and even more scarves which they were going to have to refold once we left.

After seeing the silks we headed back to the Ganges for an evening row boat ride up to the cremation ghats. It was a lovely evening and such a scenic journey as there where several ceremonies being conducted on the banks on the Ganges. With the kids in tow it was probably best that we viewed the cremation ghats in partial darkness as it can be quite graphic. At the main cremation area several fires were burning and a few bodies were being brought into the river for their last wash and last drink from the mother Ganges before the bodies are cremated and the pelvis of the woman and breast bone of the man are thrown into the river.

Our guide explained in detail about the ceremony and why it is how it is.

Apparently there are five people who are not cremated: the holy man, the pregnant woman, the child, the leper and the cobra bitten man. The first three are not cremated because they are already holy, the leper is not cremated as his burning body will disperse the disease into the air... and I cannot remember the rational for not cremating the cobra bitten man... I will have to google it.

So what happens to their bodies I here you ask..?.. Well they are taken out into the middle of the Ganges thrown overboard and weighted down. The middle the Ganges is surprisingly deep and I can't imagine how many thousands of skeletons there are down there.

Afterwards we headed back up river taking in the ceremonies with hundreds of other people watching from their row boats.

The rowboats are larger than your average rowboat and hold 10 or more people yet one small man manages to row them up river against the current. Ray had a turn at rowing our boat and managed to make a nice circle, before handing the helm back to out oarsman :)

The next day we had planned to head out and experience the last of the Varanasi sites including the temples and the university museum, but instead we decided to absorb the creature comforts of the hotel before we headed back to Delhi. Ah well... just left something for us to see next time.

One other thing I have to say about Varanasi is that I have never seen so many backpackers with dreadlocks in all my life... I reckon in Varanasi there is more dreadlocks per capita than any other city in the world!

I have some amazing photos and footage from our time in Varanasi... I will try and upload it all soon.

Please email us a note if you have a chance... we love contact form home...

Until next time


Saturday, July 25, 2009

Varanasi...Part 1

On Tuesday morning we headed from Sewa Ashram to the airport, we had a lovely taxi driver from Narela. He was quite chatty and explained to us such things that all leaves including tea leaves contain tobacco? thus we should only eat seeds... He also helped Ray put his seat belt on in a rather odd manner; he put it on the seat and then pulled the top sash over Ray's head so there was nothing around his waist... not sure of the logic there. Then he texted his son, who called him back to have a chat with Ray and wants to meet up with him next week.

I think the highlight of the trip though was when the boot of the little hatch back flew open and I literally grabbed Sam's backpack by a seam before it fell out onto the road.

We arrived at the domestic airport in one piece. Our flight left from the new terminal.... v nice compared to the old one. We flew spice-jet (low cost airline similar to jetstar) all the planes are named after spices... we flew on Fenugreek, one of my favorite spices. The plane next to ours was Mustard... I love it.

The flight was delayed but otherwise uneventful until the landing which was hard and unusually fast... I am thinking rookie pilot who came in too low too quick and only just caught the beginning of the runway. I thought we were going to hit the terminal it took so long to brake.

Varanasi airport is not what I expected, for such a busy tourist city the terminal is a tin shed which seams to have a black out every five minutes which stops the one rickety old and too short baggage carousel.

Varanasi itself is quite rural with lots of agriculture; mainly rice and sugarcane. Once again it is like no other city in India and it is odd that the city itself sits only on one side of the Ganges. The western bank is very crowded and very built up while the east bank is completely clear. Varanasi is said to be one of the oldest cities in the world dating back over 2000 years but very few of the buildings are more than a couple of hundred years old.

On Wednesday morning we got up at 4:30 am to get a taxi at 5 am to the Ganges. You cannot drive to the banks of the Ganges itself, rather the roads end about 200 metres from the banks with a maze of little narrow galis (lane ways) leading through the old city to the Ghats (flight of steps leading down to the river). It was already very busy when we arrived at the ghat at 5.30 am hundreds of people where bathing in the Ganges and others meditating whilst many a tourist was boarding the little wooden boats for a sunrise cruise... I think we will have another early morning tomorrow.

We found a place to sit on the Ghat close down to the bank of the Ganges and waited for the moon to cover the sun. There were a few pair of eclipse glasses floating around which we had a look through. With the odd smattering of cloud covering the sun we were able to take a few quick glances and photos without glasses.

We were very fortunate with the weather as cloud cover was predicted due to the light monsoon. There were a few clouds about but not enough to obscure the event. A few minutes before the eclipse is total the light and the colour of the sky turns an odd and eerie shade. It is not like sunrise or sunset but a light that is unique to a solar eclipse. 10 seconds before totality a cheer went up as the last of the suns light disappeared like a light being switched out. Sam and Hunter where both in awe of the black ball that hung in the sky with a hint of the suns corona radiating out and a few planets lit up in the night sky. We were able to soak up the experience for three and a half minutes. This was the longest solar eclipse the earth will see until 2132 and what an amazing place and atmosphere to experience it, honestly there are no words.

We have taken some great photos and footage but it cannot convey what it is like to see a black sun. Further west of us the sun actually rose totally eclipsed I wonder what that was like...

After the diamond ring appeared in the sky when the sun first reappears the experience is all but over. Even though the sun is still partially eclipsed for another hour the magic is gone.

After the eclipse we went for a stroll along the Ganges walking from ghat to ghat the further we walked the busier it got more and more people were bathing, washing their laundry and praying. At one point we passed a place which must be the public toilet. It was a paved area between ghats by which we walked which was dotted with hundreds of human poohs. Needless to say it stunk; but what I wan to know is whose job is it to clean that up.

Once we got to the main ghat the number of people was oppressive. If a traffic jam is bad a human jam is worse. We pushed out way up the stairs and out of the ghat into a market the led to the galis. The market was also human traffic jam, stepping over people changing into their dry clothes after there morning dip, people selling their fruits and vegetables, people begging for rice and others selling it to people to give to the poor. At one point as we pushed past the market stalls I grabbed Sam who was in front of me as he was about to step right in the path of a man with his cobra slithering in front of him. Needless to say Sam got the shock of his life and we tried out best to give it a wide berth. Only a month or two ago someone who lives by the ashram was bitten by a cobra and died.

We finally made it back into the less crowded galis and weaved our way parallel to the Ganges back from where we came. The galis are so interesting... so much to see and so much cow pooh to avoid. Ray the pooh magnet stepped in some slushy stuff and our guide said not to worry it is holy. When we got back to the ghat where we watched the eclipse Ray ducked down to the water to wash his feet but he could not wash his thongs... shoes are not allowed in the Ganges.

We then headed back through a crowded galis to the car and back to our hotel. We had planned to eat breakfast at a guest house overlooking the Ganges but on such a day it was too crowded. Maybe tomorrow.

(I have just added two posts so make sure you don't miss the one below this)

Ashram days...

Ok...well my last post was a little shorter than I had planned as things got so busy leading up to this impromptu jaunt to Varanasi. So... what's been happening over the past few days? Well for us the daily ashram life has been particularly busy... it seems to take longer than normal just to do simple daily tasks... such as the washing. Sam and I managed to dye a bunch of clothes pink yesterday after a new pair of red pants was mixed into the load... Ray now had a bunch of mottled pink t-shirts... koi bhat nahi (doesn't matter), I will take them to the dying wallah and have them fixed.

Last night was Kaye and Christa's last night at the ashram so we has a special pizza and pasta night with the colourful ashram lanterns decorating the area outside the guest houses. Making pasta and pizza takes longer than usual here as we have one stove we can use and we have to make the pasta fresh and last night the fire wood was damp and it took longer than usual to heat up mud pizza oven. With some foresight I bought a few packs of long-life parmesan cheese with me which was a good thing as parmesan is $45 per kilo here.

On a sadder note, Rikah (the woman I wrote about in one of my first posts) died on Sunday. Last week Sharlene went to visit her again and convinced her to get treatment in hospital. Shar said that even in the few days since we last saw her she had deteriorated and her hair had literally gone grey overnight.

The hospital called us on Sunday afternoon to inform us that she had died. That night after dinner Ray,Sam, Hunter and I along with one of the ashram staff went to her slum to inform her husband. He was not there so we spoke to some residents and asked then to get him to contact us. I have to say I was a little uncomfortable with the crowd we drew. Not long after we returned to the ashram the husband showed up looking a little forlorn, even so I struggled to feel sympathy for him remembering the bruises around Rikah's neck.

I was reading in a past newsletter that there seems to be on average of one death per week and I doubt it is much less than that now. One thing that I have been contemplating is... when do you let nature take its course and when do you intervene. For example if Kalu (the patient that died last week) was in Australia he would have been rushed to hospital and resuscitated....but not here. In India he was considered too far gone, and frankly if he had lived he would have had a very poor quality of life. I wonder... do we try too hard to save lives in Australia sometimes, striving to maintain life even if there will be no quality to it and perhaps no dignity either?

Monday, July 20, 2009

quick update


Well everyone has recovered and life is back to normal.

We (well Louise anyway) are very excited about our impromptu trip to Varanasi. We are leaving on Tuesaday morning in order to get there before the total solar eclipse on Wednesday. This is meant to be one of the best eclipses the world will ever see for the next 100 years. It will last for 3.5 minutes in Varanasi and as long as 6 minutes in some athols off the coast. The last eclipse I saw in desert Australia only lasted 25 seconds. It is such a treat to be in the the right country at the right time... I know what you are thinking solar eclipse big deal... but until you experience one you cannot understand just how awesome and eerie they are. I will no doubt describe the experience in graphic detail on my next post. I plan to photograph/video the moon crossing the rising sun over the Ganges.

Yesterday afternoon I went into Narela to pick up some clothes I had dyed. I found a really nice top that had bleach marks on it so I had it dyed black for 80cents... While I was waiting for the guy in the shop to find my order an Indian family inquisitively asked if I lived in Narela... to which I replied yes...It must be odd to see someone like me going about life in such a remote little village.

When Sharlene heard I was going into Narela she asked if I could drop some blood off to pathology... Blood testing is nothing like Australia. She drew the blood with a syringe, capped the needle, stuck a bit of tape on it with the patients first name on it and on a scrap piece of paper listed the tests. Sam had a blood test the other day... his results came back with his name "Sam" (no date of birth and contact details). His FBC (full blood count) results and negative for Malaria.

Sorry its brief... so busy... lots of news for next time

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


What a shocker...

When it rains it pours... literally as well as metaphorically.

So, both the kids have been sick, started with an ear infection, probably from the pool, then Hunter has had vomiting and diarrhoea and temperatures. Thankfully she seems to be finally on the mend; though Ray is at the doctor with her now just to get her ears checked. Sam also had an ear infection and then last night moved onto vomiting and diarrhoea, he had a terrible fever today which made him quite delirious (not uncommon for him) Ray is taking him to the pediatrician to get him checked over. So while Ray was in Delhi today I ran around the ashram doing washing (while the power is on) and hanging it out to dry between downpours all while running the kids back and forth to the bathroom and trying to keep them hydrated in the heat. I reckon I have walked a couple of kilometres today.

Added to this day... one of the patients dies last night. His name was Kalu and he arrived at the ashram about a week ago. He was an unusually tall guy, I would say well over six foot. He was missing lots of teeth and his face was very gaunt. Apparently he was a rickshaw driver. He had HIV and on arrival was diagnosed with pneumonia. He seemed to be improving throughout the week, eating more, becoming more interactive. Yesterday he called me over and I saw there was blood dripping everywhere from his cannula... not what you want from someone with HIV. Sharlene quickly cleaned him up and we gave him some water and he seemed ok. I went to bed early last night as I was so tired and knew I was going to be up a bit with Hunter so I was very surprised to learn in the morning that he went into respiratory distress late last night and died.

When I walked passed the mundeer (temple) this morning his body was there wrapped in a white sheet with a few flowers placed on his body. He didn't look so big anymore. It's funny even though he wasn't here for very long it still feels like someone is missing, probably because he was such a big imposing figure and spent his days lying in a prominent spot by the clinic.

Here's hoping for a better day tomorrow with great stories to tell.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


We are all well and are keeping warm :)

It is amazing how fast the days pass here at the ashram. I think its because there are still so many new experiences everyday. Today Sam and I bathed a man in the TB ward. He has been sitting in his bed for 2 months waiting for a hip operation. About half way between his knee and ankle he has a large spike going through his leg and attached to that spike is a rope and attached to that rope is a brick! This same man also has a broken left arm in a cast from his hand to his shoulder and he is blind in his left eye. Because he is in the TB ward Sam and I wore masks as we bathed his body with warm soapy water. Afterwards we got some of the Indian staff to help change his sheet which had not been changed in goodness know how long. He barely gets any sleep as he needs to sit up because his lungs are affected by the TB. You can see the muscles in his chest working over time. His bed has now been propped up and I think he is much more comfortable. I would like to take a photo of this man to show you how uncomfortable and lonely his day to day life must be, but I am hesitant to photograph him as I don't think I would like the world to see me in such as state.

Another great patient here is Jagadish. He is the most smiley guy you have ever seen despite his life and injuries. He arrived at the ashram a year ago today. He came to the ashram from a hospital after both his legs and one arm was amputated after an incident with a train. For the first several months he was like a vegetable, he was very depressed and angry and did not want to live. But overtime with love and encouragement his demeanor suggests he is happy despite his life. Unfortunately some days he can be overlooked; when we are short staffed and he may be left to lie in his bed for days at a time. This afternoon the kids and I found him tied into his wheelchair outside the clinic (he has to be tied in as his leg stumps are too short to be able to balance), so we took him for a walk around the ashram and played ball until the afternoon storm finished brewing and decided to bucket down.

I just ran through the rain to our room to make sure the windows were closed... they were but one of our windows is missing a pane of glass and even with plastic the water has run down the wall and formed a nice big puddle on the concrete floor. ahh well.

All the kids came around today for a swim in the pool. They were so cute they all walked holding each others shoulders in a sort of conga line with their new inflatable nemo and mickey mouse floaties. I have some great pics which I will upload in the next day or two

The playground construction is well underway now. The slide was installed today and soon the merry-go-round thingy will be installed.

The dinner bell just rang so I will leave it at that for now...

Would love to hear your news.... please drop us a line!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Feeling Hot Hot Hot

Hunter and I have been at the ashram for a week now and are finally settling into a routine. The kids are starting to look at their school work to get a feel for distance education before the holidays end.

Our typical day starts with breakfast at 8am. Breakfast varies from day to day with dishes such as; porridge with banana, chow mien, rice noodles in sweetened/spiced milk, lentils and rice or jam sandwiches and boiled eggs. This morning we had porridge and Sharlene commented on one of the patients quantities of extra sugar. He had a centimeter thick layer covering his plate (not bowl) of porridge. He couldn't understand why it was a problem and Shar said it was because it would rot his teeth. Amit was dumfounded never in his life had he heard that sugar rots your teeth. Astounding!

After breakfast Hunter and I head to the meeting room. Hunter reads or does some school work while I do my work. We sit in the meeting room with the doors and windows open and the ceiling fan on full. It is a balancing act of keeping cool and stopping paperwork from swirling around the room. Whenever I need to make phone calls I have to turn the fan off and sit in the sweltering heat. Today we had an extra special treat as the sewerage pit was pumped and the aroma wafted in through the window. haha

At 1pm we have lunch which is always a variation of lentils and rice... my favorite meal of the day. Some days this is accompanied with a salad of cucumber, tomato and spanish onion.

Dinner is not until 8pm which means a 7 hour break between meals with only a cup of hot chai at 4pm...way too long without food. So we snack on mangos or moong dal which tastes like potato chips.

Dinner is some kind of curry with chapati (flat bread) Most nights it is great except Monday night when bitter gourd is on the menu. We are going to make pasta on Monday nights.

Last night after dinner I hung out in the clinic... You see all sort of things in the clinic. One man.. Om Prakash has throat and tongue cancer and each day his throat swells up with lumps the size of golf balls which are full of pus these are drained each night if they don't explode during the day. I have never seen so much pus in all my life it pours out like water from a tap.

At the moment I am sitting in the Mundeer (temple) and the kids are scooting around on their ripsticks, it is a great place to learn as their are trees and poles all around the perimeter to hold onto. Suraj, one of the kids who had spinal TB and lost the use of his legs sits on the ripstick and manages to scoot around. Even Rasheed with his twisted and rigid body has a go...They are really inspiring boys. I will upload some footage onto YouTube soon.

Well my battery is dying and the mosquitos are biting, must go get repellent... I will write again soon

Friday, July 3, 2009

Driving in Delhi

Yesterday the NZ family had their day off and invited us to spend the day with them in the air conditioned comfort of the Delhi shopping malls. All nine of us bundled into the Sewa ambulance with Ray behind the wheel and headed for our old neighbourhood of Gurgaon. Not long into the trip we were flagged down by a 4 wheel drive claiming to be the highway toll collector. Some casually dressed Indians approached us and said we had to pay 300 rupees ($10) in toll... Obviously they saw a car load of white people and thought they would have a crack... We quickly dismissed them as it was not a toll road and ambulances are exempt from tolls.

Once we crossed the border into Gurgaon I took over the driving so Ray could try and direct us with the impossible street directory to the office where our excess baggage has been stored for the past 3 months. After asking rickshaw drivers and making several calls we finally found the office.
My first driving experience went well... It will take me a while to get used to the multiple lane roundabouts where there are no rules just push your way in and cut across the best you can... U turns at a round about are different too, rather than going around the circle you just do a u turn around the median strip. No need to indicate when changing lanes either... in fact the lines on the road should be considered fluid and largely irrelevant.

Today the weather is hotting up again... It was 33 degrees at 8am this morning and the sun is out... its going to be a scorcher...

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Second Impressions

The title of my very first blog was first impressions, so I thought it appropriate to call this one second impressions.

So, Hunter and I arrived in India on the 1st of July after a good flight and a fun stopover in Singapore. There was a bit of violent turbulence as we crossed the Bay of Bengal, which was not fun, but all in all a good flight. Hunter and I really pushed our baggage limits and even with an extra ten kilos each we were way over, but thankfully the woman who checked us in let it slide. Though having all this extra weight was a bit of a challenge for me... I had a great time trying to lug 30kg + off the baggage carousel.

As soon as we stepped off the plane we felt the heat and inhaled the familiar smell of India (not a bad smell). After going through customs, a health check, baggage claim and a random luggage scan we entered the arrivals hall and were so excited to finally see Ray, Sam and one of the boys from the ashram. It was so great to see them again!

After an unusually long drive back to the ashram Hunter and I gratefully climbed into bed under our mosquito nets and with our ceiling fan on cyclonic speed.

First thing the following morning I went for a wander around the ashram... A lot has changed but it is still so familiar and feels as though I never left. It was great to see the staff and patients again and be welcomed so warmly. The kids were very excited to see Hunter again.

Our first meal was a very normal toasted omelet sandwich, a nice way to ease back into Indian cuisine.

I spent most of the first day setting up our rooms... Needless to say Ray and Sam's room looked like a bomb site... but its all sorted now :) Its not entirely their fault as they drag there mattresses out to the temple to sleep each night as it is cooler with the breeze.

It seems that Hunter and I arrived at the right time... The rains have come and the temperature is a very comfortable 33ish degrees... though it is a bit sticky now with the humidity. I am amazed at how well Ray and Sam have coped over the past few weeks....even the Indians have been telling me how hot this summer has been. One of the woman from kids house was saying that in 2002 it was unbearably hot... but this summer was hotter!

There is the breakfast bell... I wonder what we are having today... be right back!

I am back... breakfast was some kind of pea (similar to a chickpea) soupy thing with chapati and chai. I am really enjoying the ashram food. Yesterday for lunch we had a delicious lentil curry with rice and for dinner last night a chickpea and potato curry. Hunter is enjoying the food as well.

Yesterday afternoon I went with Sharlene, Sharin and Prakash to visit a woman named Rikah who lives in a kind of slum. She is very sick with TB and is regularly abused by her 'husband'. She lives in one room and sleeps on a mat on the floor. Her body is emaciated and I would estimate that she would not weigh much more than 40kgs. She had bruising on her neck and chest where her husband has tried to strangle her. The ashram has arranged a place for her in a women's hospital where she can be treated properly for her TB and gain some much needed weight. But she does not want to go as she knows her husband will find someone else and she feels she will have no one. She is about 24 years old and has 2 children that live with her parents; her family will have nothing to do with her. She recently lost her last pregnancy, not surprising considering her health. It is a wonder that she is unable to even conceive. It is a frustrating situation... how can we just forget her now. She will die, if not from the TB at the hands of her husband.

Welcome to the real world...