A few photos from Nainital

Not much to tell about Nainital really, it is a resort town/hill station built mostly by the British and set around a volcanic lake. A nice place to relax. Cold.

We’ve eaten well, paddled a boat around the lake and taken a horse ride. Tomorrow we’re off back to the big smoke and on our way home shortly after that, the end has come so soon! This has been a nice way to end the trip, it feels like a weekend away from India.

See you all soon!

Nainital lake, from our hotel room

The Himilayas from the lookout above the town. We were lucky to get a clear day!

Dana trying her hand at rowing. She didn't get the hang of sculling with the oars that crossed over and left the rowing to her able boyfriend.

Dana lookin' pretty, pretty touristy... It took us ages to convince the boat guy to let us have it on our own, even though this is perfectly normal. I think he was afraid of missing out on his fee. He conned us out of a few dollars anyway.

Me working hard enough to take off my coat and jumper, exposing dorky thermals and shirt.

Some Tibetan guys cooking up the best dumplings and chow mein in the world. More than you can eat for less than a dollar and very popular with the Indian tourists. Free Tibet!

A wicket falls in a local cricket match, played in picturesque surrounds in front of the local mosque. Full value for your shots in this outfield!

A short stop on our horse ride to check out some unmelted snow.

At the peak above the town, halfway through our horse ride, trying not to fall backwards to our deaths.

On our trusty white steeds, and a ubiquitous pile of rubbish. Queue lord of the rings music.

*Please note: it is about 5 degrees here so please excuse Bohdana looking like a mega-dork in all of these photos. Mum (Gabrielle) I caught sight of myself in the mirror the other day and jumped out of my skin because I thought you’d come to visit! Not that that is a bad thing…


Nainital, Faizabad and Ayodhya

From Varanasi we headed back west towards Delhi to a small town called Ayodhya, significant because it is the birthplace of Ram and one of the seven holy sites of Hinduism. We stayed in the adjacent town of Faizabad to get a better hotel. Like Allahabad, the other town we visited that gets almost no foreign tourists, this turned out to be a very hassle free and pretty relaxing stop on our journey. We decided to just take it easy, eat well and get some rest.

We did visit the temples in Ayodhya though, which was pretty cool to see. This is the only place in India where Ram, the original big God in Hinduism in my scratchy understanding, is worshipped. There is also an awesome temple to Hanuman, the monkey-soldier god that helped Rama defeat some enemies in the epic Rama story Ramayana and there were heaps of worshippers there making food offerings.

The security around the main Ram temple is amazing. It is so strict and time-consuming that we didn’t bother going in, especially as we had heard that the temple inside is simply a tent, a makeshift solution owing to the dispute that has raged over the spot between Hindus and Muslims for years. To get in, we would have had to check our belongings, show our passports and pass through several aggressive body searches and scans. There was a massive line to do so and it would have taken an hour to get in. We didn’t take any photos for fear of attracting the attention from all the extremely serious machine-gun toting guards.

In a nutshell, the dispute is this. In the Mughal period (when this part of India was ruled by Muslims that had invaded from Afghanistan and Iran), Hindus claim that one of the rulers destroyed an ancient temple dedicated to Ram and erected a mosque on the exact site. Amazingly, since then both religions had worshiped in the same building until 1992 when 150 000 rioting Hindus pulled down the mosque and stuck up their tent, all they have been allowed to do so far by the courts and government. There has since been a terrorist attack on the site too, hence the machine-gun guys. So there you go!

This was about the most interesting thing we had done in the last few days, up till the point when we semi-deliberately crashed a wedding, but Dana had written a post on that.

We spent the last twenty four hours getting from there to here, the beautiful and quiet hill station called Nainital, up towards Nepal a bit. We made a mistake when booking our tickets a few days ago and booked a ticket for just after midnight on the 19th, not realising that we needed top book the 20th. Biting the bullet, we got a wait list ticket ( not valid to hop on the train with) as the train was full and decided to have a go at bribing the ticket collector to find us a seat.

Our offer of 500 rupees was useless in the end, there simply wasn’t room in the air conditioned sleeper coaches. We instead managed to get two berths in the ordinary sleeper carriages, where the windows don’t fully shut  and they don’t hand out blankets and sheets. We were heading into a much colder part of the world now and I had the coldest night of half-sleep I have ever had, bar none. We had a bedsheet each and put on all the clothes we could but it was useless against the breezes and the frequently open door.

It turned out to be a good preparation for Nainital though, which is very beautiful but very cold! Our quite expensive hotel room is not heated and we don’t think any of the ones in the town are. With the temperature already well below freezing we are in for a cuddly night!


On the balcony of our hotel in Nainital. We decided to splurge a bit so are paying about $30 a night but the room has a bath and a beautiful view of the lake. You can see here my wonderful fuzzy hat I bought for Ben but then stole off him. He says it suits me and my polish background. I am wearing every layer of clothing I have and am thankful for my two great macpac jumpers that are ridiculously warm.

Wedding Crashers in Faizabad

We travelled from Varanasi to Faizabad, about 4 hours away. Ben is writing about our time there now but I wanted to tell you about our evening adventures.

After visiting Ayodhya during the day we retired to our hotel room for room service and kindle reading for the evening, we were feeling pretty exhausted. We noticed outside our hotel window was a big tent with fairy lights and decorations all around it and discovered it was a wedding.

The wedding venue

Later after dinner we wondered why there were so many car horns beeping, as it was a fairly quiet town. Looking out the window we saw a HUGE line of cars (all parking in the middle of the road, hence the beeping). The wedding had started! We went down for a sticky beak and took some photos, there was music and fireworks and dancing. Ben then wanted to get changed into something a bit fancier ‘just in case’ we were invited in.

When we went back down we were doing some more photos and filming when the brother-in-law of the groom spotted us and made us join in the procession, dancing and drumming it’s way towards the venue up the road. He invited us in and made us eat all kinds of delicious curries, deserts, fruit, icecream (all this after we’d already had our dinner!).  We didn’t have to eat again until the following afternoon we stuffed ourselves so badly- it was obviously important to them that we tasted everything, so we did!

Without the bride and groom present, we were the main attractions and there were dozens of people unashamedly staring at us while we ate, but in a friendly way. There are now about a dozen Indian boys with photos of Bohdana in their phones, taken either with permission or without!

It was interesting to see, there were about 1000 people there but many people were coming and going. On the edge of the tent was a big buffet so everyone was stuffing their face (this was at about 10pm) and chatting. After eating as much as we could we sat down and at about 11.45pm the groom came out and sat on the couch on the middle of the stage. Then about 10 minutes later the bride came out. It was weird because everyone was talking and chatting and no-one was really paying attention to the bride and groom. They swapped flower garlands and that was that part of the ceremony done!

The bride and groom.

We were then told the next two hours were photographs, almost everyone at the event wanted a photo with the bride and groom. We chatted for a while then headed back to our hotel room. So that was our Indian wedding crashers experience!

Ben and I looking fancy at the Indian Wedding

Finally, some photos!

Although this photo looks fake, it is indeed real. Ben and I on the River Ganga on our morning boat ride in Varanasi.

Sunrise over the Ganges. One great thing about all the smog and pollution in India is these fantastic sunrises.

The view of Varanasi from our boat

People doing their morning 'puja' in the Ganges.

At a mothers meeting (Mata Batek) facilitated by UNICEF. The woman in black is Shamin and is the community coordinator for this community. Here she is using the picture flipbook to describe symptoms of different diseases to the mothers.

Children on the opposite roof-top at the mother's meeting. You'll notice one in the corner doing a poo on the rooftop and the rubbish in the adjacent lot- this is as the CMC is describing the importance of sanitation and hygiene to protect against disease.

At the community meeting in another area. All the children in this area went to school and it was also in this area that the mosque did regular announcements on polio immunisation days.

This is Domeshwrir and her 3 year old daughter Ragindra who live at a brick kiln site. Her daughter was vaccinated against polio by heath workers who visit this high risk site.

This is Domshwrir's home where she lives with her husband and two children for 4-5 months of the year. It was about 2.5 metres by 3 metres. There was a whole row of these huts with 64 families living like this and working in the kiln.

Another mother's group all living around the weaving looms. This was a mixture of women with children, pregnant women, grandparents and young women. The agenda covered everything from safe pregnancy, institutional delivery, breastfeeding, diarrhoea management and the importance of vaccinating children against polio. The women asked lots of questions and one girl told me that everything she learnt at these meetings she then went home and told her family and friends. Good stuff!

In another area of Varanasi, community workers go door-to-door to visit families with young children or expectant mothers. In this family they discovered a new born baby only a month old. He didn't have a name yet and hadn't been vaccinated. But the mother knew that there was vaccinations tomorrow and will take him to be vaccinated then. Her other two children are completely vaccinated.

UNICEF Community mobilisation coordinators. On the left is Vidhya who has been working as a CMC for 6 years in this area.

On the right in the green is Sunni. She is in 2nd grade at school and her favourite subjects are maths, followed by Hindi, Urdu and English. When she grows up she wants to be a doctor. This family are nomads, living in an unused lot which they will have to vacate when the owner turns up. They have made the dwelling you see in the background with bricks (no mortar), mud and some plastic sheeting for a roof.

Another group at high risk of polio is people living in the cities slums. Here CMC's visit a mother (on the right) and check her child has had all his vaccinations. The mother was well aware of the importance of vaccinating her child and of the follow up vaccinations.

These are the living conditions in this slum. On the plus side there was a communal toilet, so no open defecation. This was the first well we had seen in use though- most places have hand pumps that gt water from much deeper underground and are therefore much safer. Quite a bit of that dirty water on the ground is probably flowing straight back into the well.

My wonderful UNICEF hosts. Manoj Singh (left) and Sadek Raza (right), who are district coordinators of UNICEFs polio work in the Varanasi area.

Last but by no means least, Bens majestic beard.

Last day in Varanasi

Yesterday we spent another four hours going around with UNICEF having a look at their programs in some of the especially vulnerable areas in Varanasi. The day before we had seen the rural areas but yesterday we went round the urban parts, visiting a hospital, a slum, a poor area where textiles are made on clattering looms and a nomad family squatting in an abandoned lot. Those in charge here worry about Varanasi because of the population, the poverty, the poor sanitation and amount of people visiting from nearby countries where polio and other diseases are still endemic. There are also thousands of visitors every week from within India, making perfect conditions for the spread of disease.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the development work that is going on here is the record keeping. Looking at an average street in India I found it hard to believe that all of these people, especially the children, could all be accounted for or even registered somewhere. UNICEF and the government seem to be right onto it though, at least as far as polio and education go. The community workers, each given around five hundred families to work with, had drawn accurate maps of the slums and streets themselves and penciled in the families with small children, pregnant women or those resistant to vaccination. It was all very practical no-nonsense stuff, obviously done on a tiny budget. The  map we saw was drawn on the back of framed photo of the white house-  I initially couldn’t work out why the young lady was walking around with it and her UNICEF kit.

The community workers at the local level are all chosen because they come from the community themselves and therefore have more influence and know the area inside out. I don’t think it could be done any other way. Most are young women who find it easier to gain the confidence of the household and the mothers themselves. They have an amazing success rate and walking around you realise just how important this side of development work is. Half the battle is raising awareness of things like sanitation and vaccination and simply making sure everyone is reached.

Dana took some photos of the UNICEF offices too, the local government has given them a room in an old government building that overlooks the train tracks. We’ll upload a photo later.

We then went for a delicious lunch at a local restaurant before heading to the train station. We have been treated to some real Indian hospitality over the past couple of days- yesterday we were stuffed with sweets and chai at three consecutive places and could barely stomach dinner. The locals here have a specialty that is made from cane sugar juice called Jaggery. They reduce the juice until it forms a block that tastes like golden syrup and then eat it like that or make obscenely sweet treats with it. I think I ate about half  kilo of it yesterday! Indians must be close to the greatest consumers of sugar on earth I reckon.

I was also made to try the local chewing tobacco which was actually kind of nice. Here they mix some lime (the kind you use to make concrete) with some tobacco and a kind of root or rhizome I’ve never seen and wrap the whole thing in a betel leaf. You stick the thing in your mouth and chew, suck and spit as you like. It has a tannin effect on your tongue like strong black tea without milk and tastes like you’ve eaten an incense stick or some exotic perfumy soap. The walls in India, even indoors, are all covered in fragrant red spit from this habit.  Someone has spent a long time at this computer spitting tobacco juice against the walls of the desk. Varanasi is the first place we’ve seen the betel leaves though, in other parts the tobacco comes in little sachets that litter the streets everywhere. It makes for some hilarious interactions with shopkeepers and the like who try and communicate with grunts and nods while they hold tobacco in their mouths. Not recommended by dentists either, I’ll bet!

I’d better leave it here. Today we are in the town of Faizabad next to Ayodhya, supposed birthplace of Rama. We are about to head off to see the temples and watch a performance of some stories involving Rama this afternoon, should be good!


Morning boat ride along the ghats, Varanasi

Big day today! This morning Dana and I dragged ourselves out of bed once again before dawn, this time to take a boat ride down the Ganges. I hardly slept last night with the noise from the road outside our window so it was especially tough to kick off the sheets. It was well worth the effort though with Varanasi proving very peaceful and photogenic in the morning light. We saw the cremation ghats and a lot more besides, but I’ll let the pictures do the talking. I would like to upload a few photos now but unfortunately the pen drive I am using has 948 viruses and counting according to the virus scan that I am doing! Must have been the last computer I used up the road.

After breakfast and a change of hotel we contacted the local UNICEF workers who offered to take us out and show us some of the initiatives they have going on here to vaccinate the children, especially against polio. It’s been around a year since India’s last case of polio and the country is about to be declared non-endemic, a fantastic achievement. It’s been about four years since a polio case in Varanasi. We drove out of town to a couple of rural areas and attended some education meetings organised around the immunisation round about to happen here.

Update on the virtual viruses, 1164 at the end of the innings and I think I just deleted the photos. I’ll try again tomorrow.

The first was a mother’s group on a rooftop (no balustrades here!) where a young UNICEF community worker gave a talk on hygiene, baby care and the importance of vaccination. She used a flip chart with diagrams to help the illiterate women in the group understand. The women were active and interested, asking questions the whole time, which was great to see. Some of the illustrations were tragicomic after three weeks here. One for proper baby care included the men playing cards and drinking tea in the background while the women cooked and the babies played in the dirt.  Obviously the advice from the UNICEF worker would be to get the men to pick the babies up while the women cooked, but I don’t remember seeing this happen here much yet. Usually the street is populated entirely by men, with very few women around until the evening when a few families come out to do the shopping or eat a meal. Different culture I guess.

The second was a community meeting a few kilometres away which was much the same, though our UNICEF guides pointed out that this was a community meeting, not a mother’s group, though there were no men present. The men were all crowded around a local two-man circus we passed on the walk in, but it did look pretty interesting in their defense!  Bohdana is going to take over from here, I’m going to get a chai.

What can I say. Ben has pretty much covered it all! It was great to see some of UNICEF’s community work in polio immunisation here, particularly interesting because in a few weeks time India should be take off the list of endemic polio countries (leaving just three left – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria).  It’s incredible to think that just two years ago (2009) India had 741 cases of polio; last year there was just one.

Varanasi is in the state of Utter Pradesh which is a particularly high-risk area for polio, especially in Agra and Varanasi, areas with poor sanitation and hygiene awareness. Around 400,000 children are born here every month, and some amazing work is done by these community volunteers (community mobilisation coordinators if you want to get UNICEF technical-CMCs if you want the acronym!) to educate mothers on the importance of immunisation as well as keeping meticulous records of families, how many children they have, whether they’ve been vaccinated or why they weren’t vaccinated (sick, not at home, refused, etc).

After seeing the community meeting we meet the Imam from the local Mosque who does bi-monthly community announcements in his mosque on the importance of polio immunisation and when the next immunisation round is. A lot of vaccination resistance comes from the Muslim community who believe that immunisation can cause impotence and bad side effects. Thanks to the engagement of local community leaders, all children in this community had been immunised and none had missed out at the last round, an improvement on the thirty or so missed the previous time.

On our way back we stopped at the local brick kiln. Around 64 families lived at this one brick kiln and they are a group at particularly high risk of polio- because the work is seasonal and they are transient, they slip through the cracks. UNICEF (and when I say UNICEF, we also work with WHO, Rotary and the Gov Dept of Health) also organises vaccinators to visit these kilns to ensure these children don’t miss out. Here I met Rekhrm and Domeshwrir who have two children including 3 year old Ragindra. They are from Chattisgar and live here for 4-5 months of the year and then in the summer and monsoon season return home. Domeshwrir showed me her house and explained that a health worker had come and spoken to her on the importance of vaccinating children against polio so both of her children had been immunised.

It was really interesting and eye-opening to see just the small fraction of work that is being done here just on polio eradication, but amazing to think of the achievements in such a small time frame. Tomorrow Ben and I are heading out again to see some more and I’ll upload photos shortly. When we were at the mothers group meeting Ben took a photo of some children on the rooftop opposite and as we reviewed them we noticed one the kids was doing a big poo, just as the woman was explaining the importance of hygiene.

Ah India.

A few photos of Varanasi

Sunset from the train to Varanasi. The pollution in India makes for some beautiful, if apocalyptic, sunsets. You can just make out a power station belching smoke on the skyline

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A view from the roof of a family flying kites. These guys had just cut the string of their neighbour's kite and are celebrating loudly, calling out across the rooftops.

A man giving rice and lentils to the beggars on one of the bathing ghats. Most of the beggars have much darker skin than those giving food- a little-discussed aspect of the caste system I think. I could be wrong.


Varanasi (Benares)

We arrived last night in Varanasi after a really interesting train trip spent chatting to a young Indian student doing his masters in medical research. It was fascinating to talk about our experiences and desires- he was especially curious to hear about our relationship, as most Indians are.

At least once a day we are asked if we are married to which we sometimes answer yes, simply because it instantly earns us more respect; especially at hotels or with anyone over about 25. Girlfriend or partner simply aren’t in the Indian vocabulary, and if we say we are not married the next question is ‘friends?’ so that it takes some explaining on our part to sort things out. On many occasions someone has told us that they hope we are married soon and that we come back to India and see them when we are, bringing our children along, which is exactly how our conversation with the student ended.

In India it seems that marriage is much more a joining of families than a joining of individuals, with duties and responsibilities for each family member thrown into the mix. The duty of a son to look after his parents (especially the youngest son) is one that our student was describing. With this in mind, it is a little easier to understand the whole arranged marriage thing, as the duty of a husband towards his wife perhaps makes up for the fact that they might not get along.

I can’t help but think that women are disadvantaged in the process somewhere though, and in the wedding photos Mr Singh showed us in Agra the last photo in the album was the most poignant one. It showed his daughter in tears, probably at a mixture of having to leave her family and the anxiety of instantly joining the household of a husband she had only met for a few hours, probably never in private. Needless to say she had probably never even kissed a boy.

Things are changing though: at Mr Singh’s house there was a family argument in full swing between him , his wife and their son, who had just come back from Australia for an arranged marriage he didn’t want to have. The son had spent a few years in Melbourne as a Chef and had other ideas. The student we chatted to on the train also confirmed that nowadays children have a bit ore say in the whole process, even if they don’t have the final say.

We chatted about lots more besides, but I don’t have time to write it all down! Dana is sick in the hotel room and I promised to be back in fifteen, so I’d better get a move on. Something about Varanasi later, but I’ll see if I can put a few photos up in the meantime.


Sangam in Allahabad

Stopping a cycle rickshaw for the fourth time to ask for directions from someone who is literate and/or speaks English

Dana stopping for a chai and deciding to eat in rather than take away

Some battered cheese on a bun. Mmm mmm mmm mmm it's mac time..."

A Krishna display on the way to Sangham. Pilgrims were stopping here to be blessed before moving down to the ghats.

Pilgrims going for a freezing pre-dawn dip.

A view of the bathers from the bow of our boat at the holiest point in the river, where the streams meet.

Bohdana and our boat guy. The boats in the background are moored to allow pilgrims to bathe right at the confluence. We stopped there and Dana was hustled into a ceremony that almost cost her a lot of money.

Sunrise over the Ganges, and a girl you might know.

More sunrise. There were crowds of bathers on every bank, for as far as we could see.

The view from our boat of pilgrims taking their holy dip. The police and army had set up temporary ghats with bamboo poles and were acting as life guards; few Indians seem to be able to swim.

After taking the holy dip, Hindus give money for good karma. As you walk away from the river there are lines and lines of beggars waiting to take these spare coins. Many were horribly disfigured, a very confronting sight.

Bohdana enjoying some more chai. The stove in the background has been ingeniously crafted from a metal bucket and some muddy clay. It burns dried cow dung.

The local bathroom. Although Bohdana was desperate at the time she resisted. There were actually some guys walking around with shovels and buckets, obviously employed to clean up after the visitors.

Meeting of the rivers in Allahabad

Ah Allahabad, how we love you.

Calm, quiet Allahabad has been our haven over the past couple of days. We took the overnight train from Agra on Thursday, arriving Friday morning (5am, yay!) in Allahabad. After some small hick ups (the hotel I had reserved over email didn’t have a room for us, despite confirmation), we found a place to stay and slept for a few hours.

Allahabad is one of the main holy cities of Hinduism. It is said the Brahma, Hindu god of creation, landed on earth in Allahabad. About 4km out of town is Sangam, a  pilgrimage point where two rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna, meet  a third mythical river called the Saraswati.

Pilgrims come out here at all times of the year but numbers increase during Magh Mela, a 6 week festival which has 6 ‘holy dip’ dates. One of those turned 0ut to be today, 14 Jan.

On Friday we visited the local museum which had a great collection of ancient sculptures from 2000 years ago, when India was a Buddist empire. It was really interesting as we did not see much of this in Rajasthan where most of the muesums house stuff from the Mughal period and some stuff on the Rajput kingdoms (with a dose of Hindu revisionism thrown in). The museum was inside a huge park near the university and a beautiful old oxford-esque library so there were lots of uni students hanging around studying and some boys and girls discreetly meeting each other on park benches.

After heading back to town we stopped at a lunch place called FRIENDS, cleverly named after the tv show. The gimmick worked, because it was packed. It had a strong 90s vibe and was located underneath a Levis store. There was loud music, hamburgers, mocktails and lots of uni students and couples. This is the elusive rising  Indian middle class we have heard so much about but hadn’t really seen up until now.

We tried to head out to Sangam that evening but there aren’t many auto rickshaws around and the one we found wouldn’t take us out there! The auto rickshaws here are bigger and function like buses, choosing a route and picking up more passengers than they can safely carry. Instead we relaxed, enjoyed a chai and met some local Indian men. It’s quite funny as we seem to always strike up conversation with old Indian men where one man speaks English and translates for the other 5 men. They are always very impressed that Ben is a teacher (there is great respect for teachers in India), although I struggle to convey what I do for work. They LOVE to chat about the cricket and luckily Ben knows his cricket!

Later that evening we stumbled upon our first mall. Very exciting! Perhaps it’s weird but one of the things I love when travelling is visiting the supermarket and seeing what  the difference is. We walked around and bought some juices and nuts. The main difference is the abundance and variety of grains and spices. I don’t think many people would use the supermarket, most veggies you can just get from the veggie-wallah on the street. The other thing we found (Megan, prepare to be excited) is a McDonalds! Again, McDonalds exists everywhere but what they serve is always different. I think Ben will post some photos but I particularly liked the looked of Chicken Maharaja Burger and the McPaneer.No beef of course, or red meat at all in this part of India at least, but there was some chicken creeping it’s way onto the menu.

This morning (Sat) we woke at 4.45am, forced ourselves out of bed and headed down to Sangam to see pilgrims taking their holy dip. There were a lot of people on the street for that time of the morning as we headed down in our cycle-rickshaw (sidenote: I love cycle-rickshaws. They’re 100 times better than auto-rickshaws and the guys riding them are always so much nicer).

Because so many people attended the Magh Mela the police rope off some of the area so we had to walk about 30/40 minutes to get there. It was quite nice to walk in the morning dark as no-one noticed we were foreigners and we were stared at less. It was really amazing to see all these people taking their holy dip, literally thousands and thousands of people. We didn’t take any photos of people jumping in as it seemed a bit rude but we took some from far away. After sitting for a bit  we jumped on a boat and rode out into the middle where the two rivers meet. Benj took lots of pictures here which I think he is putting up now.

Tonight we take the train to Varanasi. I was hoping to visit some UNICEF polio immunisation rounds in Varanasi but have just heard that they’ve been cancelled so will see if there is another way to learn about some of our work over here.

That’s all for now!