The city of Udaipur is known as Rajasthan’s “most romantic city.” Home to 500,000 people, it is relatively busy, but with several beautiful lakes, mountains and fields in the surrounding areas. It was founded in 1559 by Maharana Udai Sing, and boasts beautiful temples, as well as the second largest palace in all of India.
Our tour today started at Jagdish temple with Mr.Singh, our guide. We first admired the architecture outside of the building, made in a traditionally Hindu fashion, with layers of patterns, figures and animals. Mr.Sing explained to us that all Hindu temples are built in similar ways. The bottom layers are simple, symbolic of our birth and childhood before we have learned anything. The second section of layers depicts demons, dancers and animals to show the adult stage of life, when we are tied to cravings of worldly possessions, and also when we become educated. The third section up is for the retirement stage of life, with a focus on family, and the final stage of life is focused on prayer and meditation as one prepares to die and return to the universal energy above. This is why the temples come to a point, as one’s life ends and one moves upwards towards heaven. The temples are built facing East, as it is the Hindu belief that with the direction of the rising sun, positive energy also flows from East to West. The word “temple” otherwise known as “mandir” literally means “place of the inner self,” and so the goal in prayer is to become closer to one’s inner self, and to the energy that connects the inner self with the universe. We walked through the temple with the cool marble floor beneath our bare feet, to the sound of chanting and bells as people clapped and brought in beautiful pink and yellow flowers as offerings inside. It was a space full of energy and love.
After we left Jagdish temple, we went for a tour of the City Palace. The palace was absolutely massive; full of courtyards, gardens, banquet halls and galleries. We looked at original paintings and photos hung on the walls, and admired the incredible view of the city and Lake Pichola, with the Lake Palace in the centre (where the Maharana would go for the summers). Looking across the lake, we could also see the mountain with the Monsoon Palace on top, where the Maharana would go during monsoon season to escape the heavy rainfall.
The inside of the City Palace was full of silver, ivory and marble. Photography was prohibited in several areas, but believe me when I say that it was beautiful and luxurious.
After walking through the city a bit, we went for a boat ride around Lake Pichola to get a view of the Lake Palace, which today serves as a hotel starting at over a thousand dollars a night (just a bit out of our price range). We stopped briefly at the island of Jag Mandir, admiring the view of the lake and the ghats from which we came. The boat ride back felt beautiful, with a breeze that was just enough to take away the suffocating feeling of the sun that had been on us all day.
When we arrived back on dry land, we visited the Crystal Gallery, that houses thousands of custom made crystal items including a bed, chairs, tables and chandeliers. These crystal items were ordered custom from Birmingham, England by the Maharana. Unfortunately, most of the items arrives 22 years later, and the Maharana who had ordered them had already long passed. In memory of the great ruler, the crystal collection is now on display and has still never been used to this day. Imagining the wealth of the rulers during these times is truly mind boggling to me. I will never get over the incredible quantities of money that went into each of the palaces we’ve visited. The crystal alone had to have been worth tens of millions of dollars, and that doesn’t take into account the beautiful solid marble rooms in which they are now held. It’s beyond me.
As we walked through the bazaar in the city we asked Mr.Singh why we hadn’t seen many turbans. He told us that today, everything in India has become more modern, and turbans aren’t seen as often as regular hats nowadays, but he explained to us a few of the benefits to wearing a turban, each of which we had been previously unaware. Apparently, while protecting one’s head from the scorching heat of the sun, a turban was also commonly used as a pillow if one needed to rest, and offered protection from falling objects, like a helmet. Most interesting though was its use in getting water, as men would take off their turbans when they reached a well, and would hang them down into the water. They would then pull up the cloth and squeeze out the water to drink. It was quite impressive to hear these uses, especially since I used to think that turbans were basically just fancy hats with pretty colours. Who knew!?
Before heading back to the car, we stopped by a small gallery in the city. Here, traditional Indian paintings were produced on rice paper and camel bone using natural colours from ground stones and metals. The paintings were small and intricate, almost too delicate to touch, with some of the faces so small and precise that a single hair from a squirrel tail was used to paint them. We watched a master at work, as his young apprentice explained the process to us. There is such a connection between the artists here and the materials they use that I really hope to try to find when I get back home to my canvases. Grinding rocks to mix with glue and trapping animals for small pieces of hair for brushes before letting them go are certainly not practises I have had experience with, but the paintings in the end were made with such care that it was impossible to ignore the work behind each different colour.
After a hot day in Udaipur, Jo and I went for a nice swim in the hotel and tried some new and exciting Indian food for dinner. Tomorrow morning is our last full day of touring before Jo heads home, so we are resting up before getting up early to head a bit farther South to the hustle and bustle of Mumbai!
Today we drove away from the pink city of Jaipur, and headed towards the picturesque city of Udaipur. Ashok picked us up from the hotel at 8am, and it took until 4:30pm for us to reach Udaipur, with about an hour of breaks total. It was a long drive, but I actually really enjoyed it.
We talked to Ashok for most of the drive, who was chipper as always, and who replied the same way he does every morning when we asked him how his night was, saying, “Rest is best, madam!” He was always saying little rhymes and riddles as he drove us, and loved to crack jokes. Whenever we went over speed bumps (which in India feels more like driving over building rubbel), Ashok would yell, “free massage!” while we bounced around in the car. We got to know a little more about him over the course of the day, and about India. He pointed out different things as we drove by them, particularly in the marble mining areas. For literally an hour of our drive, on both sides of the road, were soccer field sized lawns in front of marble shops just covered in marble slabs of different shapes and sizes. Some areas had sculptures and different decorative items, but most were simply counter top slabs. It was incredible to see such large quantities of the stone polished and sitting out in the open on the sides of the main highway, and with donkeys and dogs and water buffalo meandering right through the same area. It was really quite a strange sight.
Naturally, over the course of an 8 and a half hour drive, several bathroom stops were made, though we tried to minimize them as much as possible because public washrooms in India aren’t exactly the most pleasant places, to put it lightly. First, you pay whoever owns the shop/gas station you stop at, and then you enter a stall with a squat toilet, typical of India. Squat toilets are basically holes in the ground. They reek, are almost never cleaned, are absolutely full of flies, cannot be flushed, and have no toilet paper. They’re not air conditioned, and with the level of heat and humidity here, they basically feel like saunas full of poop. (Sorry for the visual.) Sometimes they have a sink (with soap if you’re really lucky) but not often. If I only had the luxury of man parts I don’t think I would have ever used a washroom at all. Of course I knew what I had signed up for when I came to India and had accepted a long time ago that unless I planned on not leaving the hotels, this was going to be a part of the experience, so I brought lots of Purell and packs of Kleenex (which have probably been the most appreciated items in my luggage since arriving). Generally speaking, the washrooms outside of the hotels haven’t been fun, but I think its safe to say that I won’t be complaining again about squatting in the grass while camping!
At one of the rest stops today, Jo and I sat and enjoyed one of the best cups of tea we’ve had since we’ve been here. It was masala chai, with a bit of milk and sugar, and I literally have never had such an intoxicatingly delicious drink in my life. I bought the spice the other day to bring home, and I can only hope that I’ll be able to make it just as good when I’m back. If you haven’t tried masala chai before, it contains cardamom, saffron, cloves, cinnamon, black pepper, and a few other seasonings, made with milk or cream and traditionally served with a bit of sugar. It is spicy and sweet and creamy all at the same time, and it is the most delicious tea I’ve ever had in my life, hands down.
Driving through the countryside we passed hundreds of trucks full of marble slabs, hay stacks and people, and motorcycles with 2-4 (yes, four) people piled on. Usually one or two of the passengers were women in bright coloured saris that blew in the wind behind them like a scene from a movie. As we got closer to Udaipur, the view out the windows shifted from flat roads and fields to the Aravalli Mountains and valleys, with winding roads and incredible views of Udaipur’s three manmade lakes. We passed by cliffs covered in goats as well as monkeys, and Ashok told us that he’s even spotted tigers in this area in the past.
After a long day in the car, Jo and I watched the sun set from quite possibly the nicest swimming pool I’ve ever been in, and ordered food to the room for dinner. It was the perfect way to end the day. Our hotel is beautiful, as all of the hotels are here in Udaipur, the “city of romance”, and we can hardly wait to see more of this incredible place tomorrow.
Day 21 we woke up bright and early after possibly the worst nights sleep of our lives. The “Durga Pooja” festival has recently begun, which celebrates 9 goddesses for 9 days, during which each participant fasts (or eats less than usual), and apparently listens to extremely loud music for most of the day and night. Our windows were not even close to being thick enough to hold back the sound of the Hindu music. It wasn’t so bad when we first arrived, but at 2am after about 10 hours of hearing it in our room, even over the tv, it became less endearing.
Tired and a little bit cranky we met our guide Joshi and headed to Agra Fort. Joshi explained on the way that almost all of the monuments in Agra are Muslim, made by the Mughal dynasty. The Mughals invaded this area from Uzbekistan without much effort, because of their possession of gunpowder, and fell in love with the land. Seeing its beauty and fertility they decided to stay, and quickly became famous for their monuments and their love for the art of building.
The first 6 Mughal rulers of this time were known as the “Great Rulers” and they were, for the most part, very liberal. They were loved and respected by all of the people, including Hindus. They helped their people, and created beautiful monuments which all of the people admired. Akbar the Great was the 3rd Mughal ruler, and the one responsible for the construction of most of what we would see today at the magnificent Amber fort. Akbar was a very liberal man, who had great respect for each major religion. He had 3 wives: a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian, each with their own bedroom and a separate place of worship, (naturally).
Later, after Agbar and his wives moved out of Agra Fort, Shah Jahan (the 5th Mughal ruler) took over, and added most of the decorated marble palaces within the fort. Here it is said that in the market one day he saw Mum Taj, who he thought was the most beautiful girl in all the land. He was instantly in love, but waited many years before he married her. Together, they lived at Agra fort where they had 14 children. Sadly, during the birth of their last child, Mum Taj died, and wished before she died that Shah Jahan would build her a beautiful tomb. Today, this tomb is known as the Taj Mahal.
After the death of lady Taj, one of her sons named Aurangzeb imprisoned Shah Jahan (his own father) for 8 years, and killed his brothers. He was the 6th and final “Great Ruler” of the Mughals, though he was not loved or respected half as much as those who came before him. Eventually, Shah Jahan passed away and instead of being placed in his own tomb, (whose building plans were destroyed by Aurangzeb, but included a proposed twin to the Taj Mahal on the opposite side of the Yamuna River) he was placed immediately next to his beloved, in the Taj Mahal.
Agra fort was an incredible sight. It was absolutely massive, built of primarily red sandstone with marble palaces inside, boasting beautiful inlays of stones such as cornelius, lapis lazuly and jasper. The inlays had been made with such care and precision that most of them had remained perfectly intact. The designs and inlays were all symmetrical, in true Islamic fashion, and were all made by hand, a fact that I can still hardly believe after witnessing such precision and intricacy.
After leaving Agra Fort, we took a short drive to Itmad Ud Daula, otherwise known as the “Petite Taj”. Built in 1622, this tomb is believed to be the original inspiration for the design of the Taj Mahal. It was built by Queen Nur Jahan, for her father (and later the rest of her family), and was perfectly symmetrical on all sides. The four gardens outside and 3 false entranceways to match the real entrance were also constructed symmetrically, in true Islamic fashion. The patterned stone inlays on the marble walls followed suit, absolutely perfectly precise, delicate and colourful. I could only imagine the money and patience required in the construction process of such a beautiful place. This tomb is said to be the “perfect” tomb, and a representation of heaven. It was truly perfection.
Our final stop of the day was the finest marble shop in Agra, where stone inlaid marble items were made and sold by the ancestors of the original builders of the Taj Mahal. We were given a demonstration of the shaping and inlaying of stones into marble all done by hand, using family secrets that even the business owner did not know, because it was only for the family of the original builders of the Taj Mahal.
After seeing the Petite Taj and knowing we were headed to the Taj Mahal the next day, it really put into perspective how much time and resources had been put into the buildings, seeing the handmade works at such a small scale in comparison. We went to the shop, where we saw the finished works, and it truly took our breath away. Every surface was covered in different patterned marble inlay tables, including 10-foot long dining room tables, at $45 thousand dollars and above. After watching the amount of time it took to make one small inlay and guessing at the amount of time (years) that went into the tables, we weren’t even surprised at the price. I told the owner that if I ever sold paintings at the same price as these tables that I would come back and buy one. He gave me his business card and I laughed as I took it, knowing that in my life I would likely never see that kind of money. Of course that is something that I’d love to be proven wrong about, but I’ll probably have a better shot at winning the lottery.
We headed back to the hotel after a day full of gasping and ogling, and rested for the evening knowing that at 5am we would be up with the sun to see the one and only Taj Mahal.
Day 22 began with my heart beating so loud I could hear it in my sleep, literally bursting with excitement knowing that in less than an hour we would be standing inside the incredible Taj Mahal. We drove through Agra as the sun rose, and stood in a long line for the security check before we entered through the main gates to the Taj Mahal. We couldn’t see even the top of the Taj because of our position, which only made the view more spectacular when we turned the corner and looked through the gate.
It was stunning. It is said to be the largest monument built for love, but I’d have to say that it was the most beautiful monument built, ever. Unlike the Petite Taj, this was not a “perfect tomb” only because it faced the river (which for us was dry land after a dry monsoon season) and was not perfectly symmetrical on all 4 sides. For me, this only added to the beauty. Because of the materials used: solid marble with stone inlays of cornelius, lapis lazuly and jasper, (to name a few) the structure reflected the colour of the rising sun, glowing orange and slowly becoming a cooler shade of white as the sun rose higher above us.
To think that this building was made for Mum Taj Mahal, a single human being, was mind boggling. After seeing a $45 thousand dollar table the night before, we guessed that today it would have cost billions in stones and marble to build the monument. It took 22 years to build, and it was absolutely surreal to see in person. I still haven’t fully processed that we were there as I look through my pictures. It was one of those experiences that you know was real, but that felt like such a dream that you don’t believe it when you look back.
We walked around the inside and outside of the monument, took some photos, stood by the gate for one last look at one of the wonders of the world, and after a deep breath we turned around and walked away. Getting into the car, it still hadn’t hit us. Maybe it’s one of those things that never will.
We drove for about an hour afterwards, heading towards Rajasthan until we reached Fatehpur Sikri, the abandoned capital of the Mughal Empire between 1570-1586. Akbar the Great built this city (after building Agra Fort and palace) in celebration of the pregnancy of his Hindu wife (he was the ruler with 3 wives: a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian). He was a great builder, who once again built a separate room and place of worship for each of his wives. The palace was built by a small lake which would soon dry up, forcing the ruler and his wives to leave after little over a decade.
After leaving Fatehpur Sikri, we said goodbye to our guide and new friend Joshi, and joined Ashok in the van, where we settled in for the long ride to Jaipur. We drove for another 3 hours or so, until we reached the famous Pink City of Jaipur. We made sure to tell Ashok, “Ap bohut acha” meaning “you are very good” as he drove us through the hectic streets of the city. He said that, “a man only needs 3 things to be a good driver in India: a good horn, good brakes, and good luck!”
We arrived at our hotel and were told not to tip anyone during our stay, but to leave a tip at the front desk on our way out if we wished. Now this may not sound like exciting news to anyone who has never been to India, until you understand just how much money you can spend on tipping alone. Everywhere you go, someone helps you with your bags (even if you say no) and then stands and waits for a tip. Every time you get a guide for the day, you tip. Every driver at the end of each day, you tip. As if that wasn’t enough, every bathroom outside of a hotel either costs money to use, or has a worker inside who turns on the tap for you, puts soap on your hands, and hands you paper towel before you even realize what is happening, and then stands and rubs their fingers together for a tip. Not only that, but every temple in which you can’t wear shoes, you leave your shoes with a man outside who you have to tip, and sometimes someone will walk up to you (even if you have a guide) and tell you something about the space, and then rub their fingers together for a tip. Now incase I have yet to get my message across, here’s the kicker: women in beautiful saris, men dressed up in elaborate outfits, children who are dancing or singing, snake charmers or street performers as well as people who jump out of nowhere and put a big red blob of a bindi on your forehead… ALL stop what they are doing, and ask for a tip if youve taken a picture, which anyone passing by with a camera would naturally do. Literally every person I’ve taken a picture of has asked for money. Outside of tipping, beggars knock on the car window at every stop asking for money. I do understand that as a tourist, I may look like I’m made of money, and that surely these people don’t make as much as I do back home, but as heartbreaking as that is I simply do not have the finances to tip or help everyone. We tip our drivers, guides and people who help us with our bags or watch our shoes, but generally not anyone else, and we’ve gotten much more firm about carrying our own bags, which is really hard to tell someone as they pull it out of your hands the second you enter a hotel. I don’t mean to complain, but If I had tipped everyone who asked at this point, even just a dollar, I would have given away over a thousand by now and I am not even exaggerating. So, as I was saying, it was nice to hear that tips were not expected in this hotel for meals, room service or bellmen.
After settling in at our hotel, Ashok agreed to meet us to take us for a camel ride in the evening. We went for a ride down the main road on our camel “Bubbly”, who was rather bony and awkward as all camels are. It was very exciting for me especially, since I don’t even remember ever riding more than a horse or pony at a fair when I was younger. We tipped our camel driver, and the guy who took pictures of us with my camera (after pulling it out of Ashok’s hands) and said goodbye to Bubbly. After a brief photo shoot with a man who turned his motorcycle around and parked just to get a picture with us (this trend still hasn’t stopped, and I average probably 5-10 people per day stopping for pictures), we hopped back into the van and went to a spice market. We smelled hundreds of teas and spices. It was a really neat experience to hear about each tea and each intended use, medicinal, sexual or otherwise. We passed on the “winter tonic” a spice intended for better stamina, and headed back to the hotel, bellies full of tea, in a bit of disbelief at how eventful our day was. I never thought in my life that I would see the Taj Mahal, and there it was, now on the long list of things that I’ve been utterly blessed to see in my lifetime. I feel like the luckiest girl on the planet.
Day 23 we met our guide for the day, Arun, and he told us that our first stop was for an elephant ride! We were extremely excited, and hardly listened to him as he told us that there would be 200 boys standing outside the car trying to sell us things when we arrived. He wasn’t joking. In fact, I think he underestimated the amount. Every step until we walked up the stairs and sat on an elephant, we literally had hundreds of different items being shoved in our faces and voices shouting at us to buy the items for however many rupees. We were glad we learned the work “nahi” meaning “no”, but it didn’t stop anyone from trying. When our elephant named “Ronnie” started moving, we could not be happier to get away from the bombarding, but 10 feet away was another group, and then another, who followed us as we rode through the jungle trying to enjoy our elephant ride, shouting about what a great deal they had for us. For about 10 minutes we had some peace, in between the groups of salesmen, which were lovely. We walked slowly through the hillside, trees all around us, watching peacocks casually walk by, and we even heard the loud roaring of a tiger not too far away. We couldn’t see it, but the elephant “driver” said that in the past he had seem many tigers that circled the elephants and scared them. Luckily the tiger this time was not close enough to spot. After our ride, a man tried to sell us printed pictures of ourselves, which we had to actually yell at him to get him to understand that we had our own pictures with a good camera and we did not want his pictures. He followed us right to the car telling us a lower and lower price with each step until we slammed the door in his face. The guide told us we did a good job, even though we felt like we had been cruel, but it is so overwhelming and frustrating that you are given no other choice than to be angry to get someone to stop trying to sell you things.
Relieved to drive away, we looked at the beautiful walls surrounding the original city of Jaipur, known as Amber Fort. Inside was Jagmandir palace. Jaipur is known as “textile city”, “jewel city” and most famously “pink city”, which made sense as we walked through the fort which was a 15km long wall surrounding the old city, that was pinkish orange in colour. It looked beautiful against the blue sky and greenery.
This palace was where king Akbar’s wife lived, sister to Maharaja Man Singh, before they were married. It was partly because of Akbar and his 3 wives of different faiths that the city was the first city in India where Hindus, Muslims and Christians lived in true peace side by side. The chief architect of Amber Fort (a Hindu man) also became the commander of the Muslim army, which further helped to create a peaceful environment.
Amber Fort and Jagmandir were built similarly to the other forts and palaces we had seen, with Islamic architecture, royal bedrooms, and an open audience (for the general population to hold court) and a private audience (for wives or other important people to hold court). What separated this palace from the others was the housing situation. Arun tells us that the 12 houses around the private audience area were for each of Maharaja Man Singh’s 12 official wives, and next to those were houses for his other 350 unofficial wives. Arun then says “I don’t know how he did it, that’s 362 wives, so he would only have 3 days off a year!” We laughed but were truly blown away. I couldn’t imagine that kind of life. Even more impressive was the fact that his 12 official wives were apparently transported in wheelchairs, because each one was decorated with over 33kgs of jewellery… a little excessive if you ask me.
After the fort and palace we visited the Jaipur Handicrafts shop and production, where I got to try my hand at wood block printing on cotton, and we watched as experts made carpets from wool and silk, an extensive process that is taught and passed on through generations. It was incredible to watch, and made the finished product all the more impressive, knowing that a large floor rug of silk would take two experts over 2 years to finish.
We left the shop, sadly without the finances or luggage space to purchase a new rug, and headed to Hawa Mahal, the palace of winds for a photo. This is a sight that Jaipur is famous for, a bright pink facade with hundreds of small windows for royal ladies to watch the grand processions on the main street below.
We then stopped to see the production of hand polished stones at the largest stone manufacturing company in all of India, and largest coloured stone exporter worldwide. Again we were impressed at the time and effort put into each small piece of jewellery. After trying on a $100 thousand dollar necklace, we decided that we would be looking at, not buying the jewellery here, though it was all beautiful.
We went for a short visit in the afternoon to the City Palace, a textile and household item gallery of Jaipur, and Jantar Mantar, the old observatory in the city, home to the largest sundial in the world which still works perfectly today, telling time down to the second.
After a busy day we headed back to the hotel, where we packed up and got ready to leave in the morning for a long drive with Ashok to Udaipur.
It has been a hectic, full and overwhelming week, and it feels like we’ve been in India for months by now. I am missing home, while keeping in mind that the longer I am away, the more stories I will be able to bring back with me.
Day 19 started with what felt like my 100th time in an airport this past week. Jo and I flew from Varanasi to Khajuraho, (luckily a short flight) where we were picked up by our guide Denish, and our driver Jagdish. (Incase you were wondering, most Indian words and names are pronounced just about how you’d expect them to be, with more rolling in the r’s and a little less h in “sh” than there would be in the English pronunciation.) Khajuraho was 36’C on the day we arrived, and we quickly picked up the phrase “bohut garmit,” meaning “very hot”. We’ve been trying to pick up a bit of Hindi here and there, but of course in this heat it’s hard to retain much. It is mostly our way of entertaining our guides, who laugh at us as we attempt to speak their language.
We were dropped off at our hotel, with only an hour until we were to be picked up by our guide for the day, Anoop. As we drove through the city of Khajuraho, it became overwhelmingly apparent that we were not in Varanasi anymore. Here lived a population of about 15 thousand people. The driving was much quieter and less stressful than in Varanasi, and to be quite honest there seemed to be more cows, water buffalo, dogs and goats on the road than there were people. This is because Khajuraho is mainly a farming community. In contrast to the rows upon rows of houses and shops in Varanasi, here it was hard to find any building more than two stories high. Small farms with wide landscapes behind them stretched along the main road, with certain areas that had more shops and housing, but nothing close to what we had seen the day before. It hardly smelled, and when it did it was the farm-like smell of cows and trees. There was also a lot less garbage. It was much more comparable to litter found in a place like Toronto, still a problem but you are able to look out the window without seeing a heap every 5 blocks.
As we drove down the main street, (me with my head and camera hanging out the window in my usual fashion), children ran out onto the street beside us, waving and yelling, “Hello! Hello!” To which we waved and yelled back. You’d think we were a limo full of Kardashians the way people smiled and jumped up and down when we waved back. It’s still bizarre to me, being looked at as “different”. I have learned that Indians absolutely love Canadians, and just about everyone we meet says, “you are American?” To which we reply “Canadian!” This is when they smile big and say “Oh Canada! I love Canada! It is cold there!” I don’t think anyone believes us when we say that our summers include a couple months of 20-30’C. They also don’t believe us when we say our winters are as low as -20’C to -30’C. They say, “Wow, you must need a lot of clothes! I feel cold when it is 10’C here!” We laugh because at 10’C most Canadians are running around in shorts and t-shirts in anticipation of summer.
After a short drive, we arrive at the largest group of Hindu temples in India, located here in Khajuraho. A UNESCO world heritage site, this group of temples was created in the 10th C, AD, by the Chandela Dynasty. Because of their remote location as well as durability (made of sandstone), these temples were unharmed by the Muslim invaders in India. The temples are absolutely covered in carvings of the world famous Kama Sutra, every inch with either a pattern or picture. From far away, each separate temple was an architectural masterpiece, even on its own. Up close the details of even the smallest surface held an entirely different beauty. Most of the images were of either elephants or people. The people were in different sexual positions, and the elephants were shown either crushing someone (a common punishment during these times) or peeking over at the people having sex. Anoop tells us, “elephants are dirty too!” and that if you are having sex you must first always check if there is an “elephant in the room”. I’m not entirely sure that this is the origin of the phrase, but what a great story! Anoop then explains that the Kama Sutra was the first “dirty” book ever written, and was a celebration of love and sex. He then points out that all the girls in the carvings have tiny waists and absolutely huge breasts and says, “men had unrealistic expectations even a thousand years ago! Who do you think carved these? Men!” We laughed at this funny truth. He then pointed out an image of a woman with her hands wrapped around a man as she looks over at a monkey beside her. Anoop said that this is what they call “monkey business” because the man is smiling at the monkey who was bothering the woman and making her run into the man’s arms. The entire group of temples was beautiful, and was looked at in what seemed like such a peaceful and lighthearted fashion. It was a great place to be.
After these temples, we visited a group of Jain temples, slightly different in nature, but very similar stylistically. Again, these temples has remained unharmed since the time of the Muslim invaders. It is said that the temples in Khajuraho represent life in heaven, and as the sun set behind us shedding light across the temples and greenery it was not hard to see why.
After the temple visit, we made a trip to visit some of Khajuraho’s finest jewellers, and we may or may not have helped support the locals by each purchasing a beautiful silver ring. Incase you were wondering, I’ve gotten great at bargaining by now. I say there’s no way it is even close to my price point, and once they get closer I pause, think, and say “no, it is so beautiful but I just really don’t think I can spend any money.” Then, the price is cut yet again, and I reconsider if it’s reasonable. Usually I end up getting at least 30-40% off of the original price. It is much more fun than fixed price tags. That being said I’ve still spent far too much money on souvenirs, but what are the chances I’ll come back to this place again in my lifetime? I tell myself “never” in order to justify my money spending, but in truth I hope that I’ll be back at least once again.
This evening we went to a dance hall to watch a performance of song and dance. The dancers were beautiful and in the most colourful and detailed costumed I had ever seen. We had front row seats, and I smiled from ear to ear until the performance was over. What a perfect way to end the day.
Day 20 we met Denish early in the morning for a safari jeep tour. We hopped up in the back of the open vehicle and held on tight as we drove down the bumpy roads. At a few stops, children ran up to us asking for shampoo and chocolate. I found it a bizarre request, that of course we were unable to fulfill. This happened several times. We still don’t know why these two items popped up so much. It was hard to see so many people in poverty here and to think of how much we have back home in comparison. Watching children beg for shampoo and chocolate was humbling and it really helped me realize how lucky I am that I would hardly have to lift a finger for access to a box of chocolates and a bottle of shampoo back home, a lesson we forget all to often in the midst of our busy days.
We drove through a forested area, passing an antelope on the way, until we reached the beautiful Ranir Falls, which was more rocks than water. Our guide showed us pictures of the falls only a few years before, with water up to just about where we were standing. Now, after a dry monsoon season, we looked down a few hundred feet to the river below. It was incredibly beautiful, and surrounded by some of the most interesting trees we had seen yet. First was a gum tree, with light blue and orange bark and massive leaves, and right next to it was a teak tree, whose bright green leaves when rubbed together release a blood red liquid. I watched as Jo rubbed the leaves in her hand, and the red literally made me cringe. It truly looked like she was rubbing her fingers raw because the red was so bright. We took some photos of this hidden gem of a place, and headed back to the jeep. We were slowed down more times than we could count as we drove right through the middle of several herds of water buffalo.
Our next stop was a small home inside the village, where a friend of Denish welcomed us into her home, a typical farm-based self-sustaining (mostly) home. She had a small brick open house that was more the size of a garage, and a large field area out back where she grew lentils, corn, papaya, bananas, ginger, okra, potatoes, peanuts and wheat (and even some more that we couldn’t see). She showed us how to churn butter, which she had been doing before we arrived, and then she ground flour and made us a small chipati (like a pita) in the fire outside. We spread fresh gee (clarified butter) onto the bread, and had a taste. It was authentic and plain, a staple part of any local diet. We were amazed at the work that went into even the simplest of meals. After thanking her for letting us into her home, she lead us out. This trip had been beyond enlightening for me. Similar to the feeling I had in Israel at the open spice market, my love and respect for food grew enormously after seeing the work that went into a meal.
We left the village, and headed back to the hotel where we traded our jeep for a van and drove 3.5 hours to Orchha, literally meaning “hidden place”. Just outside of Jhansi, this palace was hidden on somewhat of an island by the rivers surrounding it. The palace was built for a ruler over the course of 22 years, and contained both Hindu and Muslim architecture as well as paintings and some remaining tilework on the outside of the building in lapis lazuly and turquoise. The most incredible thing about this place however was not its architecture, nor was it the paintings, it was the fact that after 22 years of grueling work, the palace was used only for ONE night, and was afterwards gifted to a friend of the ruler. The friend had no use for such a palace, and since re-gifting is highly frowned upon, the palace has remained abandoned almost entirely ever since, with the exception of a few monkeys. Lucky for us, a few of the original fresco paintings were still intact and open to be viewed by the public. The paintings mainly depicted the 9 incarnations of Vishnu, and had been pretty well preserved.
After asking our guide about some of the Hindu gods, we were taught that the Hindus believe in over 300 million gods and goddesses, and that even a devote Hindu would likely not even know half of these gods, but the importance is in understanding where they come from. All of the gods and goddesses in Hinduism are synonymous with all of the species of each living thing; people, plants or animals. The gods are not so much “gods” as they are the “parts” of the one eternal energy that is within all forms of life. To me, this was perhaps the most beautiful lesson in Hinduism to date, that when Hindus speak of so many gods and goddesses, that they are worshipping the energy that connects us all and is within us all, much more than they are worshipping a specific plant or animal, or “god” as most people would imagine one praying to. In truth, our guide tells us, the statues of gods and goddesses are present in temples mostly just to help those who have a hard time praying/meditating without something to focus on. The important part of prayer for Hindus is to focus on connecting with the universal energy, and to become closer with that energy through our connection with all living things; something that Hindu or not, we could all undoubtedly learn from. We left Orchha and drove another 45 minutes to Jhansi, where we waited for our train that would take us to Agra. As we waited, hundreds of people flooded through the station, coming and going from all directions. We even saw a cow, just relaxing on a platform by the tracks. As the trains came and went, Jo and I looked at each other with fear in our eyes. The trains were old and had holes rather than glass windows, with small bars across them, and just enough light inside to see the hundreds of people cramped into such an unbelievably small space. Of course, when our train arrived it was much less intimidating, and we each had a seat to ourselves. It certainly wasn’t fancy, but it got us to Agra, and after everything that I’ve been through at airports by now I was not going to complain one bit. We arrived safely in Agra where we were picked up by our driver Ashok, who had been each of our drivers when he picked us each up at the airport (separately) only a week ago. Of course I didn’t remember him because I had been such a mess by the time I arrived in Delhi, but he certainly remembered me! He said that I had tipped him ten dollars on that trip! I laughed so hard and hardly believed him. I had absolutely no recollection of the transaction, and told him not to expect that kind of money regularly because I was quite sure I was sleep-tipping in Delhi. He laughed and said “I don’t mind!” I could hardly believe I couldn’t remember it at all, but after everything I had been through it was a small price to pay to arrive finally in India. Today marks the halfway point of my journey, and its hard to believe because it feel like its been months. Ive seen and done so much already, I can only imagine what is yet to come.
Day 16 began with a flight (yes, another flight) to Varanasi, or Banares as it is called here in India (sometimes also referred to by its oldest name, Kashi). The city 16 x 5km approximately, and is home to over 2.5 million people. Our Varanasi guide Kamesh tells us that people travel everywhere else in the world to live, but that here they come to die. This is because Varanasi, the oldest living city (according to most historians) is the holiest city for all Hindus. Home to the river Ganges, or Ganga as it is called here, the city is a site for many pilgrims who wish to wash away their sins in the Ganga. It is also believed that if you die in Varanasi and are cremated by the river, your soul will be free of sin and you will be freed from the cycle of death and reincarnation (thus achieving Moksha). The Ghats (steps leading to the river) at Ganges are most holy in Varanasi, because this is the only place where the river has turned and runs North (the direction of heaven), where before and after turning at Varanasi, the river runs South.
Varanasi is a city dedicated to lord Shiva the destroyer. It is he who decides, according to one’s karma, if your soul will be freed, or moved up or down in the caste system in your next life. The caste system originally was decided by one’s occupation, but since one’s last name was originally determined by their occupation, and since blood determines one’s status according to their father’s status, the caste system is now determined by one’s last name. Today, this basically means that if you were born into a family with the last name meaning “soldier” or “teacher”, this will determine your caste and your status in religious context, but you are still allowed to pursue any occupation (though some traditional families stick to their caste name), and you can still be upper class economically and likely will move up in the caste system in your next life, according to your karma. Lord Shiva is the one who takes life, or removes the soul, from one body and who places it in another. So if you were born with the last name meaning “cleaner” and had good karma, your soul in the next life would maybe be assigned to a body born into a family name “thinker”. If one achieves Moksha, which is guaranteed if one dies at the Ganges, then the soul is free from the cycle of death and reincarnation. This is why Hindus pray to lord Shiva primarily, and not so much to Brahma (the original creator of all things) or Vishnu (the preserver of life).
When hindus pray to GOD, they pray to G (Generator/creator, Brahma), O (Observer/preserver, Vishnu), D (Destroyer/giver of new life, Shiva.
The Hindu belief is that the three Gods are not actually the ultimate supreme being, but that they all come from one original creator. This creator is referred to by some as “God”, by some as “She” and by others as “Ether”. The 5 elements according to the Hindu beliefs are fire, water, air, earth and ether/space. This ether is God, or the presence of God, but most easily understood as being the energy from which all things come, to which all things will return, and through which all things are connected. It is something that science has yet to understand, and even Einstein could not explain, though he was aware of there being something “else” at play. Something more. The story in Hindu tradition is that “She” created Brahma for a husband, but that he would not marry her because she was his creator/mother, and so she created Vishnu, though his answer was the same. She destroyed them both and created Shiva. Shiva said that he would marry her but only if she brought back his two brothers, and gave him a third eye, an eye of this “energy” that “she” is. She agreed, but when she brought back Brahma and Vishnu and gave Shiva a third eye, Shiva refused to marry her. Since he didn’t hold up his end of the deal, she created three incarnations of herself, married all of the brothers, and gave them the jobs as being the three gods. After Kamesh’s lesson on Hinduism, it was time to head to Deer Park to learn about Buddhism. Buddha was a man named Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in an upper class family with a wife, a family and wealth. He realized that these things did not make him happy, and so he left everything he knew behind, in search of the truth about the meaning of life and happiness. He joined 5 Hindus, who became his friends, and together they fasted for 49 days, until a woman offered Siddhartha some food. Starving and near death, Siddhartha realized that religion such as Hinduism did not give him happiness and that the worshipping of a god and praying in a temple with a priest did not bring him happiness, but it helped only the temple and priest to gain followers, and in turn money and power. Fasting also had proven to not bring him happiness, and so he accepted the food offering. His friends left him, and he sat under a fig tree, known as the “bodhi” tree, and meditated. He found that both his life in riches and his life with nothing did not bring him happiness, and saw that there was a middle way between the two, where one may live and take, but without craving and desire for more than what is necessary. Siddhartha had now become the Buddha (literally meaning “enlightened one”) as we know him today. When Buddha had found nirvana/enlightenment, he heard that his friends were not far away in Banares, and so he went to Deer Park, where he delivered his first sermon to his disciples. It was not long until he had many followers. From here, his followers spread out to tell everyone about the middle way, the one true path to enlightenment.
Since this time, Hindus have adopted many practices of the Buddha, and have added stories of his childhood, birth and life. They worship him as a god, though Buddha did not believe in the idea of worship. In this way, many Hindus are also Buddhists, but true Buddhists are never Hindus. This is also the reason why the Buddhist population in India is almost non-existent, because in truth Buddhism is very popular, but most of those practicing in India are Hindu first.
After learning about the teachings of the Buddha, Kamesh took us for a walk through the crowded streets leading up to the ghats in Varanasi, absolutely overflowing with people, cows, wold dogs and garbage. We boarded a small row boat, and watched the sunset from the river as the Aarti ceremony took place. Each night, Hindus perform this ritual of song, dance and fire along the side of the Ganges river as their way of thanking mother Ganga. The ceremony was incredible to watch, and thousands of people spread along the ghats for a view. Also along the river, we were able to see the two cremation pyres which burn 24/7.
It is believed that in cremation a body is returned to its natural 5 elements. The body burns in fire, releases smoke in air, becomes dust for the land, and in the final releasing of the ashes into the water, the “ether” or soul is freed and the body has achieved Moksha. Only a few exceptions exist to the belief of cremation purifying the soul; the first being babies and pregnant women, who are believed to be pure already. Next are those who have been bitten by snakes, as it has often happened that a person was not actually dead, but paralyzed in a coma, so they are not cremated to prevent them from being burned alive. Lastly are those whose job it is to deal with the dead (untouchables), and those with smallpox, as it is believed that disease cannot spread in the holy water, and so these people, along with babies, pregnant women, and the snake-bitten are released directly into the water without cremation, but also achieving moksha.
After a long day full of information, we headed back to our hotel and thought about everything we saw today. As an artist, my work deals primarily with the subject of life and death, body and soul. Learning about these beliefs and rituals has truly left me feeling closer to understanding what it is that we are, and what it really means to be alive. Kamesh said it best when he told us, “There is some kind of energy out there that we cannot understand, that is more than all of this. Religions are all different paths that people walk on in the hope of understanding one truth.”
Day 17 we left the hotel at 5am to return to the river and witness the morning rituals. We once again boarded a row boat and rode down the river to watch as people bathed in the Ganga at sunrise to wash away their sins, and to offer their prayers to the rising sun. We didn’t go in the water ourselves, though we got dripped on by a few ropes hanging overhead, which I think was enough Ganga water for me.
After our boat ride, we returned to the city for a tour of the Banares Hindu University, the largest residential university in Asia, known for its population of over 60,000 residents including teachers and families. The university is referred to as a city within a city, and is home to a beautiful and spacious Hindu temple for students and non-residents alike. Within the temple we saw several statues depicting different gods and goddesses, as well as a few recurring symbols. One of the symbols was a swastika, which we naturally had to know more about.
Kamesh told us that the swastika is an ancient Aryan symbol that was adopted by Hindus long before the second world war and the time of Hitler. The clockwise swastica is a symbol of the cycle of death and reincarnation, and the freedom from the cycle through Moksha. It is said that when Hitler first saw the symbol it was in a mirror, and that is why his swastica is counter-clockwise, though this direction swastica was also a symbol used by Hindus, but in ancient tribes known as “Tantric”, who practiced live sacrifices of women, and the spilling of blood. The two sides to the swastica together are a demonstration of all things coming from both a positive and a negative energy. Today, the Tantric rituals still exist, though are much less common, and performed primarily using coconuts as the “sacrifice”, as it resembles a skull, and contains “flesh”.
The second symbol prevalent in the temple was the Om symbol (looking like a fancy number 3 with some doodles above it). Kamesh told us that this symbol is the symbol of “She”, and is the sound of the vibration or energy of the universe. He then got out a pen, and showed us that broken down into parts, the Om was made up of symbols from all of the major religions. The star of David was on top, representing Judaism, just above a crescent moon facing upwards, symbolizing Islam. The 3 with a line, if turned right 90 degrees resembled a trident, the symbol of Hinduism, and if the two outer points were straightened to each side, the trident would become a cross, symbolizing Christianity. Kamesh reminds us again that each religion is a path, leading to one truth, that the Hindus refer to as “She”, symbolized often by the Om.
After our visit at the temple, we went to the Mehta Silk production, where we watched old masters use looms to weave intricate patterned cloths. The process is an art that is dying, as mass production using more efficient techniques takes over, and only 7 masters remain in this particular “brand”. Each master has spent their life working on a single pattern that they have memorized and learned to create on the loom by hand. It is hard to explain the process, which I myself still don’t fully understand, but each pattern is created slowly over several days, only at a rate off a few inches per day, and once these masters pass away, the Mehta Silk production will be left to the card system, a different loom system which can create patterns efficiently, but not the unique signature works of each artist. This is because it takes years to perfect one design, and no one wants to learn this art anymore, so it will soon become extinct. It was beautiful and also sad to see the elders make the patterns slowly and without ever looking at a book for reference. The process was like watching a flower bloom, almost too slow to notice the progress, until it is finished and the masterpiece that has been created is revealed. I suppose that the best things in life are worth the wait.
Day 18 was short but hot. It was 32-35’c and 80-90% humidity. Even Kamesh was uncomfortably hot. We visited Ramnagar Fort this morning, a museum that was once home to the Maharaja of Banares, Balwant Singh in the 18th century. The fort is located on the opposite side of the Ganges to the side that we had previously visited, and is full of weapons, cars and household items adorned with ivory and silver.
After a tour of the museum we headed back to the hotel, picking up a few snacks from a local grocery store on the way. Kamesh helped us pick out some fun new things to try. Jo and I enjoyed them far too much. At the hotel we relaxed and regrouped in preparation for the days to come. It is hard to believe that we’ve only been on the tour for 4 days, already having learned so much, and with so much still ahead to look forward to.
Day 15 at 10am, only 4 hours after my arrival in India, Jo and I began our tour in Delhi. Our guide Yogi and our driver Sansar picked us up and we headed first to the Lotus temple in New Delhi, a Baha’i house of worship. Delhi is supposedly a little less hectic than other areas in India when it comes to driving. Even so, our car ride was terrifying. When they said that Indians don’t have rules of the road I imagined people cutting each other off and honking. This was not the case. The roads are small and narrow, usually one or two lanes going in each direction in which the lines separating each are completely invisible to drivers, rickshaws, people on motorcycles/bicycles, and cows alike. Cars drive literally directly towards one another in order to avoid obstacles, only to swerve in opposite directions seconds before impact. Jo and I stared out the window in horror and looked at each other as if to say, “it was nice knowing ya!” as we clutched our armrests and tried not to watch.
It felt like nothing short of a miracle when we arrived at our first stop. The Lotus temple was surrounded by gardens and pools of water, and the petals were made of Greek marble, perfectly strong and symmetrical on all sides. The Baha’i lucky number is 9, and for this reason the lotus flower is an important symbol, with 9 petals in each of the 3 layers. 9 is also the highest single digit, and symbolizes unity and oneness. As with many temples in India, no cameras were allowed inside. The Baha’i faith is centered around the belief that all religions are equal, and that within a house of worship one may pray to whomever they choose, and however they choose. There are no lectures or rituals allowed within the walls. This temple surpasses even the Taj Mahal in visitors per year due to its free entrance and openness to those of all faiths. Sitting on a bench inside the temple, knowing that to your left and right were people praying to separate gods in separate ways all under the same roof was something that I wish there was more of in this world. It was nice to know that while some people pray separately from one another and are consciously looking at the differences between their beliefs and the beliefs of others, that here they were all the same. They were all just humans praying to something bigger than themselves, and this unity was a beautiful thing to witness.
After leaving the temple I experienced something that I had heard of, but hadn’t truly believed until it happened. I was asked if I would mind if someone took a picture of me. Because of my blonde hair, light eyes and fair skin I stick out like a sore thumb here. There are far fewer tourists here than I imagined, and with the population so high in India, tourists really seemed few and far between in comparison to locals even in areas that are big tourist attractions. When I agreed to be in a photograph, the young man shook my hand as the photo was taken by his friend, and then they switched spots so that they would both have a photo with me. It was a truly bizarre feeling. In Canada, I am just a girl with the typical “all American” or “girl next door” look, which is not unique, especially in a society full of white people and hair dye. Really, having light features is no more a defining feature than being female. Here it was so different. I think that they honestly thought I must have been a movie star from Hollywood, the way they thanked me so much for allowing me to be in a photo. This happened with 3 additional groups of people throughout the first day, and one of them was a mother asking me to pose with her children, like I was a saint. I cannot express enough how utterly bizarre it felt. I had heard that it would happen, but as I said, I really didn’t believe it until I experienced it myself.
Next, we headed to the Red Fort for some photos from outside, and then to Chandi Chowk, one of the oldest and busiest bazaars in the city. The narrow roads through the bazaar were packed full of people, rickshaws, and wheelbarrows full of product. Everything here was sold in bulk, and was purchased mainly by locals at low prices. In some of the back alleys we could see right into people’s homes, which were small and half-decomposed. To me, seeing the poverty and understanding how little these people have was comparable to the way I have thought about rich people in Canada or other developed countries. When I picture someone with 100 million dollars, it is the same as when I picture someone with 100 billion dollars. They are such massive amounts of money that they all sound the same. It felt the same to see poverty here. There were so many poor people with so little, that the lines between average, poor and poorer were blurred until it all just looked the same and felt less shocking because there was nothing around to compare it to.
After the bazaar, we visited the Raj Ghat, Mahatma Gandhi’s serene and modest cremation site. There were a few trees, flowers and fields surrounding the site, and a small eternal flame lit in the center as a reminder of Gandhi’s life and presence even after death.
We later went to the Jama Masjid (where I was unable to bring my camera) which is one of the largest mosques worldwide. It was made of marble and sandstone, and every surface was planned meticulously when it was made, and has been more than cared for ever since. As in all traditional mosques, there were no idols or depictions of gods present, but only the written Arabic of the Koran. I have fallen in love with written Arabic and Hebrew throughout my trip, as it feels like there is much more of a love for the art of writing in these cultures than anywhere else I have ever been in my life. Each word is a work of art, and is proudly carved into old buildings.
Our final stop on our tour of Delhi was the Qutb Minar, the largest minaret in the world, and in history. A minaret is a victory tower that marks a Muslim mosque. While most were build modestly throughout history, and were simply tall towers for the practical reason of being able to spot a mosque’s location from a distance, others were built much more for pride’s sake. The Qutb Minar is a primary example of the latter. It was built very much as a symbol of pride. Surrounded by an elaborate complex built using the ruins of the old Hindi temples before it, it stands tall and proud. The Mosque remains surrounding the tower appear fragile, as each pillar holding up a roof is composed of small chunks of rocks from the remains of the Hindu temple before it. In reusing the materials, the Muslims defaced all idols and figures from the Hindu temple, so that it would be okay to include in the mosque, but the detailed bodies and faceless carvings from the temple were still visible and present, sometimes even placed upside-down by accident. This gave the mosque an undeniable uniqueness. Even more impressive was the fact that no cements or bonding materials were used in the making of the mosque, only the shapes of stones working together to defy gravity and survive for over a thousand years.
Beside the mosque and minaret, stood a much less impressive tower, half-finished. Yogi tells us that this tower was built by another ruler, who was jealous of the Qutb Minar, and who wanted to impress everyone in the land by building an even larger victory tower. Unfortunately, his jealousy and greed got the best of him, and he became ill, and passed away when the tower was still in early stages of construction. With no successors or loved ones, the tower was never completed, and is now referred to as the tower of jealousy. The story is a reminder to all that jealousy and greed do not make a happy life, but are toxic to our goal of happiness in what we have, a lesson that I hope never to forget.
Jo and I went back to the hotel, both exhausted and excited after our first day of touring in India, and looking forward to the long road ahead.
Day 13 I was up bright and early to catch a flight from Eilat to Tel Aviv. I arrived at the airport at around 5am, and safely made it to the Tel Aviv airport at around 9am. From Tel Aviv, I was scheduled to fly at 12:45pm Israel time (Sept 18) to Jordan (with Royal Joardanian Airlines), and then from there to Qatar (with Qatar Airlines), and finally to Delhi (also with Qatar Airlines). I would arrive in Delhi at 3am on Sept 19, and on sept 20 at 10am, I would meet my friend Joanne and our 14 day tour would start in Delhi. As I said, I arrived in Tel Aviv at the airport at 9am, which meant I had 3 hours and 45 minutes to get onto my flight. I was right on schedule, and everything was going just according to plan… until it wasn’t.
I was one of maybe 20-30 people on the entire floor of the initial security screening in terminal 3 when I arrived, and I was approached by two airport workers who informed me kindly that there had been a strike at the airport, and that they did not have any other information for me at this time other than the fact that no one would be passing through the initial security screening until the strike had ended. I looked at the clock, and figured I had lots of time, and thought to myself, “how long could it possibly last, anyways? People need to go where they need to go, and if nobody can get on their flight, surely the empty plane would have to wait.” Not long after, the rows on nearly every flight board read “DELAYED”, which was comforting to me, knowing that while I was stuck (with the other passengers) on this side of the security, our flight was not leaving without us. At this time, I looked at my itinerary and saw that in Amman, Jordan (my first stop), I had a 3 hour layover. So I knew that as long as my flight left with less than a 2.5 hour delay, I should still be able to catch my connecting flight. It was still only 10am so I had lots of time. I had lots of time.
I had lots of time…
As I waited near the front of the line, other passengers for separate flights began to arrive. By around 12pm the floor was full. Hundreds of people were sitting and lying down on their luggage, and no one could move. I waited patiently, but of course was nervous. It was starting to get to a point where if I waited much longer, then it wouldn’t matter if this flight waited for me, because the connecting flight through a separate airline company would still leave on time regardless. A man I was standing next to, possibly the most patient man I had seen in the entire crowd, could see how stressed I was and began to chat with me. It helped a lot actually, just being able to talk to someone about life and work and things that didn’t involve the thoughts in my head, which, of course at this time were, “I AM GOING TO MISS MY FLIGHT!” He flew a lot for business, and had been through this airport more times than me, and he assured me that the flights always wait when things like this happened in the past, and not to worry. I believed him. He also bought me a diet coke, which somehow in that moment was quite possibly the most elated I had felt in several days. I literally almost cried when he handed it to me. (Sometimes it’s the little things in life that make us feel like everything is going to be okay).
Soon after, the strike was nearly over, and the workers began to call forward the passengers from a few flights one at a time. Watching people go through the line was nerve racking. I could see the other side, and had been right by the front for hours. All I wanted was to get past the few blue ribbons that divided the lines, and stood between me and my flight. I was so close, and yet so far away.
All of a sudden, every entrance to the ribbon-marked area was opened by the workers, and it was every man for himself. I would guess that nearly 150 people had gotten ahead of me by the time we reached the new line-ups for the security check. By now, it was 12:45 and I was freaking out a little. When I got to the front of the line, I was questioned (interrogated) about my intentions on this trip, my profession, the places I visited in Israel, and why I was travelling alone. Even after all of the line-ups, I knew that the best way to get through an airport is with a smile, and manners…but I don’t think anyone had ever told any of the workers that.
I was literally flat out asked if I was carrying a package containing a bomb from Gaza, which I almost laughed at because I never expected such a question. I answered kindly that I had never been to Gaza, would never go to Gaza, and was here simply to travel. I was asked several trick questions. and asked the same questions several times, just to ensure that I was telling the truth, or at least had my story straight.
Before I continue I just wanted to note that I really do understand how airports work. I knew throughout this entire process that they were thorough with me be because they were thorough with everyone (especially because of recent events in Israel), and that it was part of the process to ensure a safe flight for everyone, which I do truly appreciate. I was not mad at anyone other than whoever was responsible for the strike happening (and even that, I’m sure was for a good reason, but it was unfortunate that it had to be before my flight). Again, I just want to express my true appreciation for the thorough steps taken at the airport to ensure the safety of every passenger, and I knew that I had nothing to hide, and that I was just being put through the same process as anyone else would be whether they were an 84 year old grandmother in a wheelchair delivering cookies, or a single male travelling with no luggage who had recently been to Gaza. It was in some ways comforting that even a 22 year old Canadian girl was no exception to the rules.
Regardless of who was to blame for my predicament, I was still in trouble for time, and I was starting to sweat. When I passed through the initial security screening, I was pointed towards the line up for the more thorough screening (personal items, etc.), with a sticker on my passport that I could only assume meant that I was to be looked at with extra measures because of my status as a lone traveller. I was set to the side and asked to wait, again, while I once again watched people who had arrived hours after I had, pass through the security line, and head to their flight. When I finally spoke up, starting to cry a little as I asked what I could do to get through faster, because I was going to miss my flight, a female security worker took pity on me and pulled me forward to begin my check. Because of my insulin pump, I was screened even MORE thoroughly than anticipated. Every piece of every item in every pocket of every bag I owned was taken apart, examined, swabbed for chemical analyzing, and handed back to me. Afterwards, I was examined. Every seam, every button, every zipper of every fold in every layer of clothing was thoroughly checked by a woman in a private room, right down to my underwear. I was crying nearly the entire time (trying not to, and apologizing as I did) while being assured that I would not miss my flight. The airline would wait for me. at 2:45 (after almost 2 hours of checking) I was cleared. My flight had been delayed until 1:30, but after being assured that it would wait, I was confident that I would run through the gate with moments to spare, and the crowds would cheer as I boarded the flight. Instead of crowds, I sprinted to my gate only to find a worker shaking his head, as he told me that the flight had left after waiting one hour for me (only 20 minutes before). I had been the only one not to make it, and they even walked through security to find me and rush me through, but since I was in a private screening room they couldn’t find me, and I was marked as a no-show.
I was devastated. I sobbed as I asked them what to do from here, where to go and who to talk to about transferring tickets to a new flight. They had no answers. They said that they waited for me and that there was nothing else they could do. Then they said that since my flight from Jordan was with Qatar airlines, that they couldn’t arrange for anything to be done about my missed connecting flight, because Qatar has no representatives in the Tel Aviv airport. I was hopeless, lost, and stuck. I felt like Tom Hanks in The Terminal. The female worker at the counter finally walked with me and explained my predicament, and where to go from here. She said that my luggage was taken off the flight, and before anything else, I would have to get it from the arrivals area. Here, I was assigned a worker to stay with me and help me locate my luggage. His name was Danny and he didn’t stop smiling from the moment he walked up, even as I sobbed like a baby. He said, “Look at you! You’re okay! Everything is going to be okay. You will get your luggage, and you will get to India.” He bought me about 5 chocolate bars as he laughed and handed them to me, calling me out when I smiled. Thank goodness for Danny. Even though he didn’t do much, I finally saw kindness in someone’s eyes, which up until then I hadn’t seen much of. After several hours, Danny did some investigating and found out that my luggage had been removed and held for safe keeping, and that in a few MORE hours, I’d be able to get it. In the meantime, we went to ticketing, where I was able to use the airport phone to call Expedia, the site that I booked through, which was my only hope at settling the whole Qatar Airline dilemma. I was put on hold, and the man working at the counter cut my call off and told me that it was not a personal line. I asked if there was a help desk I could call from. There was nothing. Finally I was able to get through on my cell phone, and I was able to get most of my money refunded for the 3 flights I had missed. I then booked a new flight (about 300 dollars more) that would leave at 10:30pm that evening. I would have a 20 hour layover in Amman, and make it to Delhi at 5am on Sept 20th. I didn’t care anymore, as long as I made it there. After getting my new ticket, I was put back at the initial security screening line, where people saw me, absolutely covered in sweat and tears, and told me to go ahead to the front of the line. I could not have been more grateful. I was once again interrogated, checked, and finally put through. I made it on my flight, and on Sept 19 at midnight I arrived in Amman, Jordan.
Here I met Josmy, a young woman from India who had also missed a flight and who was put in the airport hotel in the room next to me. We talked over dinner, and agreed to meet in the morning for breakfast. I never thought I would appreciate a simple bed and a shower so much in my life. At breakfast Josmy told me she was happy she missed her flight, and that she thinks God planned it so that we would meet. I was so moved, and as she left for her new flight, I was a little sad to leave my new friend. Later that evening, I went to the lobby to check out and head to my flight, when who should I see there other than Josmy! They had mixed up the times, and she was moved to the same flight as me! We sat together, talked, watched a movie, and slept. She laid her head on my shoulder for a few moments and I almost didn’t notice that she was crying. She said “I don’t want to have to miss you!” I told her I felt the same, and we said that hopefully someday we would meet again, and exchanged information. By now, all the pain of missing my flight was gone, and I could see that there was a silver lining. My silver lining was Josmy.
I arrived in Delhi at 5am, and met my friend Jo at the hotel at 6, 4 hours before our guide was scheduled to pick us up for the tour. I laid on the bed, closed my eyes, and could not feel anything other than graditude for the fact that I was out of an airport, and finally in Delhi. It had been 48 hours since I was outside of an airport/plane/airport hotel, and boy was it good to be free. I took a deep breath, hit the reset button, and prepared for my first day in Delhi.
Day 12 was my final day in Eilat, as well as in Israel. I spent the morning at the Underwater Observatory in Eilat, and the afternoon in the city. I went shopping and walked along the beach of the Red Sea where I went for a swim. The Red Sea was salty, but not nearly as salty as the Dead Sea, and the beaches here were made of small red and yellow rocks. It was a bit rough to walk on, much different from the soft sand at the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea in Tel Aviv, and the rough salty bottom of the Dead Sea at Ein Gedi. I didn’t spend as much time in the hotel as I thought I would here. Most of the other people staying were locals on vacation, and almost none of the hotel staff spoke English, and seemed frustrated with my inability to speak Hebrew. Their English was much better than my Hebrew, no doubt, but for a hotel that online seemed to take pride in being a large vacation destination, I was surprised. This hotel was one of the places I was most excited to visit initially, and I wasn’t really impressed with it when I got there. It lacked a certain ambiance that I had found so much everywhere else in Israel. Looking back, I think that some of the things I enjoyed the most during my past 12 days in Israel were the things that I was initially the least excited about, just as the things I was most excited to do were not necessarily the highlights of the trip. It just goes to show that you never know until you try, and that is a lesson I hope to keep reminding myself of for the rest of my trip, and in life.
Day 10 was quiet, so there’s not a whole lot to say. I spent most of the day relaxing and regrouping. The hotel has access to mineral pools, swimming pools, the dead sea itself as well as a Turkish hammam. Naturally, I tried everything. The dead sea was so calm. There is no life in the water (because of its high salt content, hence “dead” sea), and there are no boats on the water (because the salinity would corrode all metal parts). Also, to avoided possible health issues from being in the water too long, people shouldn’t spend more than 15/20 minutes in the water. This in turn means that the beaches are also quiet, as people come and go fairly quickly. The combination of these factors makes this body of water unlike any other I’ve ever seen or been in. It was surreal, to say the very least. The ground leading up to and continuing beneath the water was salt rock. Hard, rough, and slippery. Floating was a very healing experience. Within seconds of entering the water your skin feels different. After, cuts begin to heal quicker and skin blemishes begin to fade. I can only describe it as magic. If only I could have stayed.
Day 11 I left the paradise by the dead sea after a walk through the world famous botanical garden. I headed to the bus stop in the scorching heat, and waited literally in the middle of nowhere with no buildings or cars for as far as I could see. About an hour later I was picked up by the bus headed to Eilat. Almost 4 hours after that, I arrived at the Orchid Resort Village Hotel, on South Beach, Eilat. The view, the room, the food and the pools here are amazing. Tomorrow I’m going to try to have some fun! Eilat is a huge vacation spot, so there are lots of activities to do all along the beach. We’ll see what I can afford to try!
Today, for the first time in 8 days, I slept in! Until 8 that is. The tour has been so full and busy, I’ll have to admit that I’m a little relieved its over. Its been truly amazing, but I’m excited to move on to the next part of my trip now, and to have a few days to do my own thing.
After breakfast I met Philip and Olivia (the young couple from the UK) and we walked to Carmel Market, an open spice market (or shook, in Hebrew) here in Tel Aviv. As soon as we entered the market, a kind lady running one of the stands welcomed us by yelling, “Taste, Taste, Taste!” and handing us pinches of fresh spices from the piles overflowing behind her. It was incredible to me to see the food all out in the open like that; unpacked, in such abundance, and free to touch and taste. Back home I would never even think of tasting food at the grocery store before paying for it at the risk of being kicked out of the store. Here, it is encouraged! Of course, places like this exist back home, just as supermarkets and mass production exist in Israel, but it is so much more common here to buy food from the open market and local farms than it is back home.
My first instinct tells me that this can’t be sanitary. If I was allowed to touch and taste, then who else’s hands have been on the food? And what about the bugs?! After taking a step back I realize that maybe I’m the crazy one. To me, good food is always clean, free of imperfections, wrapped and labelled. It is sterile, free from dirt and bugs. But food comes from the land, which is MADE of dirt and bugs. Maybe the real concern is that I consider food that has been polished, perfected, waxed, frozen, shipped and wrapped in plastic, to be “good” food, and food that has been grown, picked and touched by other people, to somehow be “wrong”. The people here seem so much more connected to the land and to what they buy and consume than I am used to. Everyone smells, feels and even tastes their food before they buy it. Each meal seems so much more appreciated here because it is almost always made fresh, and more often than not comes from right here in Israel (especially when it comes to dairy products and fruits). I think that today, in the age of mass production and over consumption, we spend so much time stuffing ourselves to the brim that we’ve forgotten to appreciate where our food comes from. I’ve decided that when I get home I’m going to try harder to care about what I’m consuming. I think we should all have more respect for our food and where it comes from, and for our bodies and what we put into them. Of course I will do this while still over-indulging from time to time I’m sure, because who doesn’t love a late night pizza run here and there?
After we left the marketplace, Olivia, Philip and myself headed to the beach for one last drink before parting ways. We said cheers to a wonderful 8 day tour of Israel, and reflected on our time together. We all agreed that the most fascinating part of the tour was knowing that we were walking in the same streets and were surrounded by the same walls as Jesus was over two thousand years ago. Also incredible was the fact that these streets and walls were ruled by such famous kings as Herod the Great, even before the times of Jesus. Perhaps the most interesting part to me was learning that so much of the Bible is actually history, and not so dependent on faith. Whether it was from an opinionated atheist such as our first guide Mark, a Jew such as Paulio (our second guide), or a devoted Christan as were Olivia and Philip, the stories of the land were the same. The only thing debated by other religions or non-religious people was whether or not Jesus was the son of God, who performed miracles. As for his life and death and people who lived during the same time as him, it was almost all inarguably history.
For anyone who doesn’t know me, I’m not a particularly religious person, though I do consider myself to be spiritual in many ways. I am very interested in the beliefs of others, and what common threads tie together different belief systems. I used to think that believing any of the stories in the bible meant believing in God and Christianity, but that isn’t entirely true. I have learned so much this past week.
Sad to leave my new friends, I hopped in a cab, took a deep breath, and headed to Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. This bus station is one of the biggest in the world, several stories high, and resembling a mega mall on the inside, absolutely packed with shops and restaurants. It was chaos, and it certainly didn’t help my feeling of panic when I noticed that basically everything was written in Hebrew, with the exception of 3/4 small signs in English. Like a fish swimming against the current, I began to follow the signs that lead me to my bus. Thank goodness I did my research ahead of time and knew at least what platform number I was looking for, and the symbol of the Egged Bus company (the largest in Israel). Before I could even get up the first 5 steps to the next level of the station, a man who didn’t speak a word of english ran to my side, picked up my bags, carried them up the stairs for me and ran off. It was all I could do to yell “Toda! Thank you!” Before he was out of sight. It nearly brought me to tears to see someone help a silly tourits without any obligation or reward, and without even being asked. When I got to the top of the stairs, a young woman walked next to me and asked me where I was from and where I was headed. She pointed me in the direction of the bus I needed to catch, and it wasn’t long from then until I was on my bus heading to Jerusalem.
On the bus i sat next to a young gentleman who was about my age. He asked me about my life, my trip, my art and my home, and I asked him about his. He moved to Israel from Baltimore about 5 years ago, completely on his own. He served nearly two years in the Army, and now works and lives in Jerusalem. In israel, all citizens must join the Israeli Defence Forces for 3 years (2 for girls), upon completion of high school. Orthodox Jews are the only ones exempt from this rule (one of the reasons why other citizens sometimes have tension with them). There are also several other studying and religious programs which allow for the teens to spend less time in the army. The gentleman I was sitting next to told me that it unites a lot of the people here in a very special way, having to give back to their country through the IDF. Its hard to imagine this for me, coming from a place like Canada, where I was born and have the right to stay entirely freely (more or less) without such obligations as joining the army. The way he talks about it sounds beautiful and terrifying at the same time. He told me about his commander who was recently shot in Gaza, along with one of his friends, and how they thankfully both survived. It felt like he was talking about a different country when he talked to me about Gaza, having just been in one of the most beautiful hotels I’ve ever stayed at in Tel Aviv. Israel in this way is very complex. It is a small country with many different faces, some of them only a few miles apart.
When we arrived at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, I said goodbye and headed to my next bus (slightly less panicked this time, and feeling a little less intimidated by the chaos). I arrived at last at the Ein Gedi Kibbutz Hotel, a picturesque hotel built right between the mountains and the Dead Sea, on a hill overlooking the mountains from one side and the sea and Jordan from the other. The hotel features access to mud baths, mineral baths, and the sea itself, as well as one of the most beautiful botanical gardens on earth.
I spent most of my evening reflecting on my past week here, and looking over my plans for the weeks to come. I watched some Hebrew tv, and some English tv with Hebrew subtitles, and listened to music on a Hebrew pop music station… it was actually surprisingly catchy. I may or may not have danced a bit…
I miss home, but am learning so much that I know I’ll take with me forever, and I know that my life will still be waiting for me when I come home.
Day 6 We left Jerusalem behind, as well as Mark, our guide. Our driver Muhammad picked up our new guide, Paulio, an older Jewish gentleman. It was nice to have a different guide of a different faith, to see yet another new perspective on the culturally complex country that is Israel. We left the city behind us, and only a few minutes drive later we were once again surrounded by desert as far as the eye could see. Travelling on the highway we passed a checkpoint into the West Bank, where armed Israeli officers boarded our bus before giving us the ok. It is a simple formality, though it was a little intimidating. From here we headed to the Jordan River, where we passed another checkpoint, and dipped our feet in the spot where Jesus was baptized by John. That was quite the experience, looking across the Jordan river, only 20 feet from us, at Jordanian soil.
Next, we headed to Beit Shean National Park, ancient ruins that have been recently discovered and excavated. The ruins were beautiful, but it was so hot and the air was so still that most of us simply couldn’t wait to get back to the bus. The stop afterwards was in Nazareth, a C area (Israelis only). We saw the Bascillica of the Annunciation, and learned about the lives of Mary and Joseph as well as Jesus’ years living in Nazareth until he preached and was thrown out of the city. From Nazareth we drove up to the Golan Heights, in Northern Israel near the border with Syria, and close also to the border with Lebanon. The mountains here are absolutely stunning. Covered in small villages and vineyards for miles and miles, it may be the most serene landscape I’ve ever seen in my life. In the upper Golan Heights We visited former Syrian fortifications, where there were actually known live minefields nearby. Of course we were smart enough not to go gallavanting off of the road and into a minefield. Other than military buildings, the Golan Heights are covered in vineyards, date palms, olive, banana, mango and apple trees, as well as free range dairy farms. There are also several Druze villages here. After a quick stop at the Banias (source of the Jordan River) we finally head to our kibbutz hotel called Kfar Giladi, a lovely hotel full of gardens and lookout points onto the mountains. This is as they say “the land of milk and honey”, and now I can see why.
Day 7 we drove in the morning to Safed, an artists colony in the Golan Heights area. Most of the artists and residents originally fled to this area from Spain. Here we looked at all the beautiful galleries and shops, and visited several synagogues along the way. Safed, which means “to look over”, is approximately 900m above sea level, so needless to say we had quite the view from up top. The synagogues in this area are full of blue, the Abuhav Synagogue in particular. It is the colour of heaven and “the colour that says go away Satan!” as Paulio says. The synagogues here are much more European looking than those in Jerusalem, and they contain paintings of Rachel’s tomb and the Western Wall, which are both far from Safed. After holding up the bus by spending far too long in the galleries in the artists colony, we finally were able to proceed to the Sea of Galilee for a boat ride.
The sea is the lowest body of fresh water in the world, and is the primary source of fresh water for all of Israel. Since the country is primarily desert, Israel uses advances in technology to conserve water resources. They have developed a water drop system, which involves small hoses/pipes that travel underneath literally every tree and plant, releasing water in the exact quantity needed for each species’ survival. It is really very impressive once you realize the amount of land that uses this technology.
Galilee was beautiful, and of course a very Holy place, as it is where several stories in the bible take place, including Jesus walking on water, calming the storm, and feeding the thousands of men with only 3 loaves and two fishes. After the boat ride around the lake, we enjoyed fresh tilapia caught in the sea that very morning. It cant get much better than that.
After lunch we made our way to Capernaum, a small fishing town during the times of Jesus. Jesus preached here often after he was thrown out of Nazareth, because he could preach to many people at a time, as it was a fishing town that also had a synagogue and an olive press, making it a popular place. Here we also visited Capernaum church, built facing the sea of Galilee, though most churches since have been built facing East.
Our final stop of the day was Tiberius which was founded by King Herods son the Jewish ruler of Galilee. By the end of this tour we were absolutely exhausted, and positively drenched in sweat.
Once we got back to the kibbutz we tried some local wine, and got to experience a common occurrence for the locals in the area, a siren sound and instructions to hurry to the lower level of the building which is also a bomb shelter. Apparently it was set off by airwaves, but it is extremely sensitive, and goes off often without any real reason for concern. Every one in the kibbutz told us not to panic, and laughed as they said “welcome to Israel!”
Day 8 was the final day of the tour. We visited the beautiful city of Acco/Acre, where we saw ruins from the Crusaders, and the mosque of Al Jazar. Here we met a friend of Paulio’s who is both Muslim and Christian, and who speaks fluent English, Hebrew, German, as well as Arabic. It is so impressive to me the amount of history in each of these places, and that is carried by each city’s inhabitants.
From Acre we visited the extremely wealthy city of Haifa, home to the Baha’i Shrine. The city invested nearly $250 million into gardens in the area, which are absolutely incredible to see. Haifa is the world centre of the Baha’i Religion, and actually passed a law that states that no one may remove any tree from the city without special permission. We could use more laws like that in the world.
Caesarea was our final stop of the day before heading to the hotel. King Herod built the city to be magnificent in every way. The city had an aqueduct, a port and a trade centre along with palaces, temples, a theatre and a hippodrome. Today the site is nothing but ruins, though even the ruins are magnificent. High gothic arches surround fallen marble pillars, all along the beautiful Mediterranean coast. Today, Caesarea is mostly a vacation destination. It is also home to the Prime Minister of Israel, and it doesn’t take long to understand why.
After a quick tour of Jaffa/Yafo, we head to our hotels in Tel Aviv, the very place we began our tour. After a swim in the Mediterranean with friends, I enjoyed Shabbat dinner alone in the hotel, a meal that was truly fit for a king. As of tomorrow I am on my own once again, as the tour has ended. I have learned so much so far, and cannot wait for the next chapter of this trip.
Where do I begin!? Since my last post it feels like it has been weeks. The days have been long and packed full of different new places to see. I also haven’t had Wi-Fi since the morning after my last post, so I’m going to catch up today hopefully.
Before I get into what exactly it is that I’ve been up to, let me first tell you a bit about Israel to give you a better picture. Israel is mostly desert, and it is hot and sunny literally every day. The mornings sometimes start off hazy but always end with the group hopping back on the bus, absolutely covered in sweat. I have never appreciated air conditioning so much in my life. I’d guess it has been about 40’C the past few days but I haven’t seen any thermometers around… maybe it’s better if I don’t know. The buildings in Israel are a mix of ancient, from the times of Jesus, and modern, in the suburbs. Recent Israeli law states that all new buildings must be constructed using only white limestone, which is what gives Israel (especially Jerusalem) it’s distinctive appearance. Tiny white cubes cover every hillside in cities, like little blocks that you’d think were stacked on top of each other if you didn’t know better.
Of course with everything going on lately in Israel most of you will have heard by now of the West Bank and Gaza. It is easy to say that these areas are Palestinian territory, however there’s a lot more to it than that. The areas are divided into 3 sections: A areas, which are Palestinian only (Israeli passport holders are not allowed to pass the checkpoints), B areas, in which Israeli citizens and Palestinians live together equally, and C areas, in which only Israeli citizens can reside, and no Palestinians are permitted entry. All areas are surrounded by walls and checkpoints. Tourists are able to enter most areas with guides, though special permission is required ahead of time for some areas.
Day 3 I was picked up by my tour guide Mark, a big man with a big personality. He is originally from Holland, but has lived in Israel for several years now in a kibbutz with his family. He is notorious for saying “I don’t want to talk politics, or state my opinion…” and then talking politics and stating his opinion. He took me to the tour bus, where I got to meet the rest of the group. Because of the Israeli/Palestinian situations recently, a lot of people haven’t been travelling, so we actually had 3/4 different groups on the tour with us, which was really fun. Ive met a lot of people from all over the world, with different accents as well as faiths. It has been great getting to know some of my fellow tourists on a more personal level. I am the youngest out of everyone, other than two teenage girls who are here with their family, so almost everyone has had much more travelling experience than me, and it has been great learning new things from each person I’ve met.
Our first stop today was Masada. I wish there were words for the view… desert as far as the eye could see, with a view also of the dead sea. After taking a cable car up the mountain, we explored the ruins of the fortress built by King Herod the “great.” We then got a view of the first cave in which the dead sea scrolls were found. Later, we headed to the dead sea for a float. The water is 33% salt, about 8 times as salty as the Atlantic ocean, and it only takes a drop in your mouth or eyes before you’re running to the showering area. The mud felt so smooth and thick on my skin, and the float was easier than I ever could’ve imagined. It felt like one of those dreams where your body is doing things that your mind knows are impossible. Getting your feet back under your body after floating on your back proved to be a bit of a challenge for a lot of people believe it or not. After the dead sea, we visited Mark’s kibbutz, to see what it was like. It was small and quiet, away from all the hustle and bustle of the city. Then we headed to our hotels in Jerusalem.
Day 4 started off at the Israel Museum where we saw the Shrine of the Book, otherwise known as the dead sea scrolls. The scrolls were written in Hebrew over 2000 years ago, a beautiful language that hasn’t changed at all since the beginning, meaning that even a child today who understood hebrew would be able to read the original scrolls. Of course what we saw was not the original scrolls, which are actually stored several feet beneath the museum in a bunker. The scrolls were found in the caves near Masada, and contain the first full written copy of the Old Testament, an important book for both Christians as well as Jews. After the Israel museum, we headed to Yad Vashem holocaust museum. The memorial was beautiful and incredibly powerful. It was put together very artistically, with many images, drawings, words and videos. An unforgettable experience. We then headed to Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus, where we visited the church of the Nativity. Since Bethlehem is an A area, we had to have a different tour guide for this part of the day because Mark is an Israeli citizen. We enjoyed a traditional Israeli lunch of pita with salads and chicken in Bethlehem (just one of many incredible meals I’ve had since my arrival). In the evening a few of us visited the Western Wall in the old city Jerusalem, and made our way to our hotel only a few minutes from the gate to the old city.
Day 5 was our official day dedicated solely to exploring the old city Jerusalem. We went to mount Scopus and the garden of Gethsemane beside the Church of the Agony/ Church of all Nations, where Jesus was betrayed and later arrested. We wanted to visit the mount of olives but a riot broke out the night before in the area nearby, so we went to a lookout point to see it instead. We then entered the old city and saw the dome of the rock (non-muslims are only allowed in the area early in the morning, and it always has quite the line up, so we didn’t go inside). We then went to the Western Wall, and got to place prayers/wishes written on small pieces of paper within the cracks of the wall. Of course I’ll try anything once, so I jumped at the opportunity to do so. Next to me were several Jews, many orthodox, moving back and forth in prayer at the wall. It was incredible to feel how passionate so many people here are when it comes to prayer. They truly devote their lives to God. Of course if you know me, you’ll know that I don’t necessarily identify with a particular religion or God, though I do consider myself to be very spiritual. I am always interested in other people’s beliefs, and most importantly curious about how we are all connected regardless of our faith.
After the wall, we saw the Beit Yaakov Synagogue, Via Dolorosa and the stations of the cross, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Dormition Abbey, as well as the “room of the last supper” and “mary’s tomb” (both of these sites are more of estimations as to where the site may be, and are not confirmed spots. The same is true for the location of Jesus’s crucifixion, which Catholics believe is within the walls of the old city, and Protestants believe is just outside. We walked through all four quarters of the old city, the Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian sections that were all separated by walls, and we walked through many bazaars and alleyways. The spices, clothes and food looked and smelled incredible, overwhelming to the senses. We had to be careful of pickpockets, as tight alleys and big crowds are a convenient setting for sneaky hands. We also saw the Golden Gate, where Christians believe Jesus will return, and where Muslims built a graveyard to stop him from doing so. It is so interesting to see how the religions interact with each other. Mostly, each religious group is respectful of the rest, and simply keeps their distance. Sometimes there are conflicts, but most people are truly peaceful. In the end, the old city is filled simply with people who care greatly about their faith, and who live lives of prayer and devotion without really having much of an affect on anyone else. Throughout the old city, walls and streets from the crusader times (before Jesus) are common. It is hard to imagine streets so old still being walked on today.
In the evening I walked through the city alone, surprised only by how friendly people were. I’ve gotten the pronunciation of Shalom (hello), and Toda (thank you) down to an art now, and use them both frequently. The locals smile and nod. Ive learned that the most scary part about walking around in Israel is not crime, which on a personal level appears to be virtually non-existent, but much more I have to worry about spending all my money on incredible jewellery, clothes and souvenirs. The shopkeepers are some of the friendliest people (and best salesmen) I’ve ever spoken to. Of course their first question is “where are you from?” because I tend to stick out a bit with my blonde hair and green eyes. Several men have yelled “beautiful hair!” As I’ve walked by. Like I said, very friendly. Their interest may be that they want me, the young tourist, to spend my money in their shop, but the point is that they are never intimidating or threatening in any way, and even as a young woman walking around after sundown, the streets are filled with friendly people. Few places are truly dangerous for a tourist (outside of Gaza) and any violence or harassment is generally a matter of tourists wearing inappropriate attire in specific neighbourhoods, particularly Orthodox Jewish ones.
I met up with two of my new friends for a drink in a beautiful spot just outside of the Old City gates. This young couple from the UK have gotten to know me quite well, and I’ve learned a lot about their beliefs, life and travels. I have truly enjoyed getting to know each new person on this trip. I guess the irony is that I came here to learn and separate from what im used to, and in doing so I’ve made friends. I guess life is about learning to let go and accepting that all things will pass, but we shouldn’t enjoy them any less because of that.
Day 1, is technically also day 2 I guess because of the amount of time it took to get here and the time zone difference…
Either way, shalom!
I’m in Tel Aviv, Israel right now, and glad to be in bed after a long day of travelling. The good news is that my driver Bruno who picked me up at the airport said that I’m going to love Israel and have an amazing trip! Since I know that Bruno would never do me wrong, I have decided to believe him.
My hotel is stunning. Unfortunately I’m only here for one night, so I decided to make the most of it and I went for a walk along the Mediterranean coast and watched the sunset this evening. The rocky shore was beautiful, it went on forever, only interrupted by the strong waves crashing hard on the rocks to what felt like the rhythm of my breath, filling the air with that slightly sticky sea salt mist.
I don’t think I’ve ever watched a sunset alone before. Company is nice, but there’s a different quality to some things when you watch them without someone next to you.
I enjoyed an amazing dinner for one after watching the sunset and can already tell that the foodie in me is going to love this trip.
I think that the biggest thing I learned over the past day is that when you’re travelling, a smile and manners go a very long way. Airports are busy places full of tired cranky stressed out people and workers who are tired of dealing with the tired cranky stressed out people… sometimes all it takes is a little bit of politeness followed by a smile, and even the most intimidating looking security guard will likely smile back. I think it will be important for me to remember on this trip that we are all human and we are all capable of love and compassion. It doesn’t take much for someone to stop what they’re doing and lend a hand. I’ve already been lent several.
Sending all my love from Israel,
For those of you who didn’t know, in Dec. 2013 I was awarded a grant by the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation. The foundation sent me funding for my proposal, which was a trip to some of the most culturally rich countries in the world, Israel and India.
My goal on this trip is to understand more about the different cultures and religions in our world. What makes them different? More importantly, what do they have in common? My paintings are spiritual in nature as I deal with the subjects of life and death, body and soul. I wish to find out more about the topics of life and death in religious contexts, and humans as both physical and spiritual beings. Below is a day by day itinerary of my trip, and I plan on posting every few days here on my website with updates on where I am and what I’m up to. So stay tuned for future posts!
Here’s my itinerary:
Trip: 40 Days, 13 Flights, 54.5Hrs of flight time.
-Sat Sept 6 - 6:45pm Flight from Toronto to Tel Aviv, Israel Arrives at 3:35pm Israel time (Sun Sept 7) Total 20hr 50min trip (1 stop)
-Sun Sept 7 - Israel Highlights Tour begins. (8 Days, group tour with Noah Tours) Transfer to hotel (Dan Panorama, Tel Aviv).
-Mon Sept 8 - Drive to Masada, ascend by cable car to the fortress. Descend for a float in the Dead Sea. Proceed to Jerusalem for overnight (Dan Panorama, Jerusalem).
-Tues Sept 9 - Drive to Mt. Scopus, view of Jerusalem. Visit the Garden of Gethsemane and Church of the Agony. Continue to Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book. Later to Yad Vashem. Drive to Ein Karem village. Return to hotel in Jerusalem.
-Wed Sept 10 - Walk through the Old City Jerusalem: the Jewish Quarter, the Western Wall, the Temple area, the bazaars; Via Dolorosa and the stations of the cross ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Drive to Mt. Zion and see the tomb of King David, the Room of the Last Supper, and Dormition Abbey. Continue to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity and return to hotel in Jerusalem.
-Thurs Sept 11 - Leave Jerusalem and drive North through Jordan Valley to Beit Shean. Proceed to Tiberias. Drive along the shores of the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum to visit the ruins of the ancient synagogue. Continue to hotel (Kfar Giladi).
-Fri Sept 12 - Drive to the Golan Heights. Visit former Syrian fortifications, Druze villages and Via Banias. Proceed to Safed to visit a syngogue and the artists’ colony. Head to Nazareth to visit the Christian Holy Sites. Return to hotel.
-Sat Sept 13 - Drive west to Acre. Continue to Haifa, tour of Bahai Shrine, Persian Garden, and Mount Carmel for a view of the city and the bay. Proceed to Caesarea. End the day with a short city tour of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.
-Sun Sept 14 - Israel Highlights Tour ends. Transfer to Tel Aviv Central Bus station for bus ride to Ein Gedi. Overnight in Ein Gedi Country Hotel (at the Dead Sea).
-Mon Sept 15 - Ein Gedi hot springs, gardens.
-Tues Sept 16 - Leave Ein Gedi hotel, take bus to Eilat Central Bus Station (Approx 4hr bus ride). Transfer to Orchid Resort Village Hotel, South Beach Eilat (at the Red Sea).
-Wed Sept 17 - Day at the Red Sea.
-Thurs Sept 18 - 7:45am Flight from Eilat, Israel to Tel Aviv, Israel Arrives at 8:25am. Total 40min trip. 12:45pm Flight from Tel Aviv, Israel to Delhi, India. Arrives at 3:00am Delhi time (Fri Sept 19) Total 11hr 45min trip. (2 stops)
-Fri Sept 19 - Transfer to hotel (Crown Plaza Okhla). Joanne meets me at hotel, meet with tour guide. Jewels Of North India tour begins. (14 days, private tour with Indus).
-Sat Sept 20 - Begin in Old Delhi, at the famous Red Fort. Bike rickshaw ride through the alleys off Chandi Chowk bazaar. Visit Raj Ghat (Ghandi’s cremation site) and the Jama Masjid (one of the largest mosques in India). This afternoon visit the Qutb Minar, a 240-foot minaret, the tallest in the world. Return to hotel.
-Sun Sept 21 - 10:30am Flight from Delhi to Varanasi. Arrives at 11:45am. Total 1hr 15min trip. Half day excursion to Sarnath to visit the tranquil Deer Park (where Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. At sunset, cruise the Ganges River to witness the evening Aarti prayer rituals. Go to hotel (Ramada Plaza, Varanasi).
-Mon Sept 22 - Early morning boat ride to see pilgrims gathering on the ghats to bathe in the sacred Ganges, and Hindus performing rituals including cremation ghats. Return to the hotel for breakfast, day in Varanasi. Return to hotel.
-Tues Sept 23 - Visit Ramnagar Fort on the opposite bank of the Ganges. Return to hotel.
-Wed Sept 24 - 12:20pm Flight from Varanasi to Khajuraho. Arrives at 2:45pm. Total 2hr 25min trip. (1 stop). Visit the Eastern and Western Group of temples, a UNESCO World Heritage site, with a scholar. Go to hotel (Ramada Khajuraho).
-Thurs Sept 25 - Morning at leisure. Later drive to Jhansi to board the evening train to Agra. Shatabdi Express Train 6:05pm, 4hr trip. Go to hotel (Jaypee Palace, Agra).
-Fri Sept 26 - Early morning visit the Taj Mahal at sunrise. (May be tomorrow morning instead) After breakfast, visit Agra Fort. Later, cross the Yamuna River to visit Itmad ud Daula mausoleum. Return to Hotel.
-Sat Sept 27 - After Breakfast travel to Jaipur via Train, 5hr trip. Enroute visiting Fatehpur Sikri. Arrive in Jaipur (The Pink City). Go to hotel (Trident, Jaipur).
-Sun Sept 28 - Excursion to Amber Fort. Royal ride on elephant up the hill to Jagmandir. Return to the city to see the grand Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds), City Palace and Jantar Mantar. Return to hotel.
-Mon Sept 29 - Leave Jaipur and head to Udaipur via Train, 7hr trip. Go to hotel (Trident, Udaipur).
-Tues Sept 30 - Begin at City Palace, overlooking Lake Pichola. Inside the complex, see the crystal gallery, and continue to the Jagdish Temple. After, explore the Old City. Early this evening take a sunset cruise on Lake Pichola, sailing past Ghats and palaces, stopping at the island of Jag Mandir. Return to hotel.
-Wed Oct 1 - 7am Flight from Udaipur to Mumbai. Arrives at 8:15am. Total 1hr 15min trip. Half day tour of Mumbai, see the Dhobi Ghat. Then visit the Prince of Wales Museum. Continue to Mani Bhawan, the Gandhi Museum. End on Marine Drive, Mumbai’s most popular promenade and a favourite sunset watching spot. Go to hotel (Kohinoor Continental, Mumbai).
-Tues Oct 2 - Jewels of North India Tour Ends (Joanne leaves Mumbai-Toronto Early morning) 5:45am Flight from Mumbai to Jaipur. Arrives at 7:25am. Total 1hr 40min trip. Head to Country Inn & Suites by Carlson, Jaipur. Overnight in hotel.
-Wed Oct 3 - Leave hotel and head to Dhamma Thali Vipassana Centre, Jaipur. Vipassana Meditation Course, runs 3pm Oct 3- 7am Oct 14. Here’s a link to explain the course a little. https://www.dhamma.org/en/about/code
-Tues Oct 14 - 4:45pm Flight from Jaipur, India, to Toronto. Arrives at 12:35pm Toronto time (Wed Oct 15). Total 29hr 20min trip. Home.