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Captain's Log, Stardate.....

The final frontier

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We’re in the business class lounge in Delhi and the ‘final frontier’ will be at Heathrow airport later today. It‘s hard for us to believe that it’s time to go home. We have realised that returning to the UK will be a culture shock of its own because we have now grown used to a very different way of life. This whole experience has changed us both and it feels like nothing can be the same as it was before, but that’s why we wanted to do this trip in the first place – to shake things up a bit! When we consider some of the things that we’ve done, maybe that shouldn’t surprise us!

Over the last 16 months we have:

walked with penguins / gasped for breath at 5000m / used 14 currencies / visited 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites / swam with dolphins / looked down on a city in the clouds / walked on a causeway built for a Khmer king / slept in hotels, hostels, B & B’s, boats, a floating house, a tent, a prison(now a hotel!), a jungle hut and a camper van / learnt to speak a bit more Spanish / followed parading demons to celebrate Diwali / watched the sun go down over the dormant, water bound dragon of Ha Long Bay / climbed a canyon / counted our blessings / got lost in the corridors, courtyards and towers of Rajasthan forts / bathed in thermal springs in four countries / travelled over 67,000 miles / decided that Asian aubergines are our favourite vegetable / bought petrol in a Bicardi bottle / had our haircut in 8 countries / walked on deserted beaches / played bingo, in Spanish, on a bus at midnight / watched the trading at a floating market /swapped stories with the locals / seen a glimpse of the ever shy Kiwi / eaten the best steak in the world – ever / watched ‘moon bears’ hunt for their honey / learnt to bargain / entered a golden temple floating on its own ‘pool of nectar’ / discovered that Southeast Asians make great sausages / travelled on trains, planes, trucks, buses, bicycles, boats, mopeds, tuk tuks, skis, canoes, horses and an elephant / sampled wine in four countries / kept a look out for saltwater crocodiles / collected ‘too many’ beautiful shells / relaxed into backwater life on a houseboat built for two / travelled the equivalent of 2.7 times round the world / looked into the devil’s mouth / developed an addiction to hotel giveaways / cheered like locals as the gates slammed shut at the border / watched Argentinians dance the ‘vertical expression of horizontal desire’ / fallen in love with tuk tuks /bathed an elephant / been dwarfed by fjords / imagined that Tofino really is the end of the world / asked for the curry to be ‘indian spicey’ / paddled down rivers, rapids and streams and across lakes and reservoirs / taken over two hours to choose a cashmere throw / shared the back of a tuk tuk with a bag of live frogs, ready for the pot / watched as the hidden heat from the earth’s centre made mud boil on the surface / learnt to ride a moped / discovered that a mushroom tikka masala beats the meat version hands down / survived the roads of Vietnam / been 3ft away from a one horned rhino and her calf / realised that the things that makes us happy now are not the same as before / read hundreds of reviews / tried to explain the complexities of the English language to Lao youngsters / taken over 10,000 photos / scared ourselves just enough on the piste / rediscovered the joy of buying food in a market / used 13 bottles of mosquito repellent / wondered if we would make it through the snow storm to catch our ferry / learnt to cook the staple dishes of three Asian countries / marvelled at the intricate designs produced by Laos hand weavers / longed for cheese / seen and heard, up close, of man’s inhumanity to man / traded stories with other travellers / taken the plunge / impressed Nepalese children with our ‘pasta and tomato sauce’ / watched from the steps of the ‘burning ghat’ as the dead began their ‘final journey’ / lost three stone between us / been granted entry to a forbidden city / travelled for 490 days /watched the sunset over a desert / bought lots of presents and wanted to buy more but the rucksack was full / had only one regret – for the places we couldn’t find time to visit / ridden on an elephant at dawn through a deer filled jungle / strolled among the vines of some world famous vineyards / been challenged / waded across a flooded amazon river / been pushed, pummelled and prodded by expert massaging hands / had clothes ‘made to measure’ / battled with Indian bureaucracy / not missed 39 East Park Farm Drive, at all / slept in the blue city / posted home six boxes of goodies / eaten street food with the locals / been welcomed at places of worship sacred to Catholics, Sikhs, Anglicans, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, and Animists / ridden on the world’s longest cable car / been inspired / performed yoga poses - before breakfast / given in to giant balloon sellers / taken a dip in the Mediterranean, Tasman, South China, Andaman and Arabian Seas, in the South Atlantic and South Pacific Oceans and in the Gulf of Thailand / bought too many shawls, scarves and throws – ‘you’ll never wear them all’ / seen the Indian justice system in action / become experts at packing / written 80 blog entries / waited on a platform at dawn and inhaled the smell of a steam train / tried and failed to capture hummingbirds on film / been stunned into silence by the world’s greatest monument to love ………………..

but we never did learn how to play backgammon!

So the odyssey comes to an end. We already have a list of places we want to visit next time!

See you on the ice.

Safe travels!
Carlos and Lisa

Posted by CarlosandLisa 19:30 Archived in India Comments (0)

Delhi

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From Agra we made the three hour journey to Delhi by train. We treated ourselves to 3 days in the rather plush Lalit Hotel near Connaught Place and caught up on our sleep in the cosy king sized bed, watching films on the plasma telly and swimming in the 25m rooftop pool.

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We have learnt on our travels that carrying your own loo roll is a good idea and a thing to look after. However, putting it in the hotel safe seems a bit over the top! Maybe it’s a sign that it’s time to go home!

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We did venture out to do some window shopping in Connaught Place which seems to be under- going lots of building work, to battle our way down Chandni Chowk and to visit the Red Fort. Disappointingly this seems in real need of some TLC. It looks uncared for and since I was here six years ago the state of the buildings has deteriorated considerably. We also found Delhi a bit hard work – everyone seems to be on the take and being ripped off is a constant possibility. We didn’t take to Delhi in the same way as Mumbai but maybe it’s just because we’re tired and about to go home.

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Posted by CarlosandLisa 19:01 Archived in India Comments (0)

Agra and the Taj Mahal

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We caught an overnight train from Varanasi to Delhi and I have to say at this point we were feeling pretty ‘cream crackered’. We weren’t sure if it was three weeks of lentils and rice, being near the end of the trip or that we had a very busy last week but our energy levels were definitely flagging. So when we arrived in Agra at 7.30 am, we had a few hours sleep in the hotel and then headed for the Taj after lunch.
You enter the Taj through one of four gates and then from this inner courtyard you pass through a very impressive red sandstone gateway inscribed with versus from the Quran.

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At this point you get your first glimpse of the Taj and it is breath taking. It is impressive in its scale – the people around it look like ants and because of the translucent quality of the marble – it looks like a huge polished pearl. It stands on a raised platform behind beautifully landscaped water gardens and its raised position means its backdrop is only blue sky.

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There are four decorative minarets at each corner of the platform that are 40m high and their perfect structure and stone work make you appreciate the craftsmanship that built the whole thing. Around 20,000 people from India and Central Asia worked on the building and specialists were brought in from as far away as Europe to produce the marble screens and pietra dura. The Taj was built by Shah Jahan in memorial for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal who died after giving birth to their 14th child in 1631. Construction of the Taj began the following year and although the main building is thought to have been built in eight years, the whole complex was not finished until 1653. Soon after it was finished Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son and imprisoned in Agra Fort where, for the rest of his life he could only gaze at his creation through a window. After his death in 1666 he was buried here alongside his wife. The Taj looks as immaculate today as it did when it was built – it underwent a huge restoration project in the early 1900s and in 2002 it was spruced up with an ancient face-pack called multani mitti – a blend of soil, milk and lime once used by Indian women to cleanse their skin.

The central Taj is made of semi translucent white marble carved with flowers and inlaid with thousands of semi -precious stones. The four identical faces of the Taj have impressive vaulted arches decorated with pietra dura and angled carving that reflects the light, there are also quotations from the Quran in a style of calligraphy using inlaid jasper. The whole structure is topped off by for small domes surrounding the famous bulbous dome which represents the vault of heaven, in contrast to the material world, represented by the square shape of the main structure.

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Below the main dome are the cenotaphs of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan. These are elaborate false tombs -the real ones are in a locked vault in the basement. The two beautifully decorated tombs are surrounded by intricately carved marble screens (carved from one piece of marble) inlaid with dozens of different semi-precious stones. Light enters the mausoleum through more perfectly cut marble screens. No photos are allowed here – you’ll just have to take our word for how beautiful it is!

Posted by CarlosandLisa 14:45 Archived in India Comments (1)

Varanasi

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In the Lonely Planet guide to India, the entry for Varanasi begins with two words – ‘Brace yourself ’. It’s good advice – this is the most chaotic, colourful and indiscreet place we have visited on this trip. It is an amazing place but not for the faint hearted – the sights, sounds and smells are at times overwhelming. Varanasi is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world and is regarded as one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities. Pilgrims come to the ghats (over 80 long steep stretches of steps leading down to the Ganges) to wash away a life-time of sins in the sacred waters or to cremate their loved ones. It’s a particularly auspicious place to die as it releases the person from ‘moksha’ (the cycle of birth and death).

The old city is on the western bank of the Ganges and extends back from the ghats in a warren of alleys called galis that are too narrow for traffic. It would be easy to get lost but fortunately the main hotels and restaurants have signs painted on the walls. You can also walk all the way along the ghats, all of which are labelled and most of which are used for bathing, offering blessings, selling flowers, playing cricket, and washing buffalo!

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At dawn pilgrims perform puja (making offerings or prayers) to the rising sun and at sunset at Dasaswamedh Ghat ‘ganga aarti’ (river worship ceremony) is performed which we watched on our second night here.

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Manikarnika Ghat is the main burning ghat and up to 200 cremations take place each day - it is the most auspicious place for a Hindu to be cremated. Dead bodies are handled by outcasts called ’doms’ and are processed through the alleyways of the old city to the Ganges on a bamboo stretcher covered in rich brocade cloth – we had to step aside a few times on our wanderings as one passed by. The corpse is then lowered into the Ganges briefly before cremation, which also happened while we were there. The ghat is covered with huge piles of wood and close to the water, smouldering heaps of ash. Each log is carefully weighed on giant scales so that the price of cremation can be calculated. Every type of wood has its price, sandalwood being the most expensive because it has a delicate perfume. The majority of cremations use banyan wood with some sandal wood on top for the scent. On average it takes 3 hours for a body to burn and then the remains will be scattered into the Ganges. Priests, pregnant women and children under 10 are not cremated as they are considered holy. Their bodies are wrapped in cloth and then taken by boat and put into the river.

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Posted by CarlosandLisa 14:40 Archived in India Comments (0)

Chitwan National Park

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Having finished our placement at the children’s home, we spent two days in the nearby Chitwan National Park. On the first day we went down the Rapti River in a wooden canoe for an hour, where we saw Marsh Mugger and Gharial crocodiles basking in the sun. We then spent two hours walking through the jungle. We were told that if we saw a One Horned Rhino, we would probably need to run in a zig zag fashion, throwing any of our belongings behind us and if possible finding a tree to climb! We didn’t see a rhino so our tree climbing abilities were not put to the test but we did see a wild bull elephant, monkeys and deer.

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The next day we were up early to take an elephant ride through the jungle. This was a real highlight of our stay – the jungle was so peaceful so early in the morning and it was great be able to spot so many animals in the wild. The elephant waded across the mist covered river and then we headed into the jungle where we saw lots of spotted deer, kingfishers, crocodiles and monkeys. Then we got really lucky – the eagle eyed mahout spotted a female rhino and her calf feeding under a bush. We managed to get within 3ft (they don’t react the same way to elephants as they do to humans) of them so we could easily see their fantastically thick skin.

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On the way back we went down to the river to bathe the elephants and got absolutely soaked!

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In the afternoon we went to the Biodiversity Centre which is a fascinating little museum filled with local species pickled in tanks of formaldehyde – things like a rhino foetus, a gharial crocodile and in case you ever needed to know, an example of the reproductive organ of a One Horned Rhino!

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We made our way back to Kathmandu for two by bus – a long and bumpy 7 hour journey to travel about 200km. If you are into trekking, mountaineering or walking then Kathmandu is a shopper’s paradise. You can kit yourself out from head to toe with all the necessary gear and equipment for a fraction of the price in the UK. So that’s what we did- hats, gloves, jackets, socks , shoes and a new pair of ski trousers for me (all that daal bhat means my old ones will be too big – result!!!) were all purchased. There are also shops selling lots of lovely cashmere so I bought a very fine poncho and a very soft scarf. The Nepalese also make lovely things from felt such as handbags, beads and toys so we indulged ourselves here too and I wished I knew someone who knitted as the range of wool for sale was amazing.

Posted by CarlosandLisa 14:39 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Asna Children's Rehabilitation Home, Rampur, Nepal

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Having stopped over in Delhi for one night, we flew to Kathmandu. For our first night, we stayed at the RDCP headquarters in the outskirts of the city and then at 7.30 the next morning, boarded a tourist bus for the 5 hour journey to Rampur, a small town about an hour from Chitwan National Park. The driving in Nepal is appalling (although tourist buses drive more sensibly)and the roads are badly maintained so it was a bumpy and interesting journey with some stunning scenery on the way.

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We came to the children's home because of the link with Kings International College, the school I was teaching at before we started this trip. Alaistair and Caroline Wright (two teachers from the school) visited here as volunteers in 2008. When Caroline died in 2010 of breast cancer at the age of 35, the school and its community raised over £15,000 through two memeorial walks made in her name. The money has been used to build a study room and to build and kit out a computer room . It was great to be able to help the children use the computers while we were there and they obviously love using them.

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The home opened in 2004 and many of the 23 children have been living here since then. They are either orphans or they come from single parent families who do not have the finances to provide the basics for them. The home is managed by the worldwide RDCP charity organisation and it has made an undertaking to provide a loving home with food, clothing, healthcare and an education until the children have been through university, college or apprenticeship and are able to be self sufficeint. The children are funny, friendly and confident and we had a fantastic time here.

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Life is not easy here, not because it is a children's home but because that's how life is for the majority of Nepalese people. The home is right out in the countryside with a view to the mountains, and the local people survive mostly from subsistance farming. Everyone keeps goats, cows or buffalo, and chickens and grows crops such as maize or rice whch are harvested and tended by hand or with the help buffalo.

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There is no running hot water (so cold showers at 6am!)and the electricity goes off for hours at a time every day (mostly when it would most be needed), fortunately the home has limited solar power for lights when the power goes off. The children get up at 6am six days a week for school (Saturday is the only day off) and get dressed and then have tea and a snack before they do some physical exercises led by one of the older children. At 7am they start two hours of study. We took small groups of children each morning to help them with this and we began to wish we had paid more attention in algebra lessons! At 9am they get into their school uniform - two days a week they wear white shoes and a white skirt or trousers, which makes the hand washing with cold water really hard work! They then have the first of two daily servings of daal bhat - rice with a sort of lentil soup - in the evening it would also be accompanied by vegetable curry. Nepalese people eat a lot of daal bhat and the children loved it, but after a few days of not much else we were fantasising about foods we were missing and I had taken to watching old episodes of 'Nigella' that I had stored on my laptop! We offerred to make pasta and tomato sauce (there was not a wide variety of ingredients available) for the afternoon snack and had to work hard to persuade the children that they might like it, but having had it once they asked us to make it agian. Having eaten their breakfast the children then go off to school by bus or bike and come back again at 3.30pm.

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Once they had gone to school we would often make the 20 minute walk into the tiny local town of Rampur where we could access the internet, get basic shopping and have a coffee at the local bakery. A few times we caught the local bus into the bigger city of Naryanghat, about 11km away. Riding the bus was an experience in itself! It was usually packed to the gunnels with people also riding on the roof rack and the first time we made the journey we had to climb over a dozen sacks of rice to get to two seats at the back, much to the hilarity of the other travellers! This 11km journey usually took anything from 45 minutes to an hour because we made a circuit along the gravel roads to the tiny villages on the way. On the way back we usually got an autorickshaw and this also became an exercise in how many people to cram into a small vechile - the most we managed was 16, with a girl sat on Carlos's knee!

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When they get back from school, the children have another snack before doing their homework for an hour and a half, which we attempted to help them with! They take their education very seriously and know that they have to work hard. They have exams each year and if they do not pass them they cannot move up to the next year but have to retake that year. Sometimes there was time for a game in the yard before dinner at around 6.15pm - more daal bhat! After dinner there was 'free time' but many of the children chose to do more study then. They have a television (which they are allowed to watch after 8pm) but it was being repaired while we were there so Friday and Saturday nights became 'DVD Night' on our laptop - a very popular event with screenings of Jungle Book, Snow White, Power Rangers, TinTin and Son of Sardour! We also had some fun being taught how to play 'Uno' and playing music on our mini speaker. All the children have jobs to do too, from keeping the study room clean to doing the washing up each night after dinner. The older children also help with the laundry - a big job with no machine, no hot water and white uniforms twice a week. They do all this without complaint and without nagging.

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Posted by CarlosandLisa 15:40 Archived in Nepal Tagged rampur asna_child_rehabilitation_home Comments (0)

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