India. The country bursting at the seems with people and traffic carrying a population of 1.1 billion people.
We had finally made it, and stepping off the plane it was like every sense was assaulted at once.
India immediately was like no other country I had visited before.
Sensing our energy, a young lady ahead of us turned around and asked if this was our first time to her country and when we in unison replied with a resounding ‘yes’ she laughed and said “well welcome to my country and I promise you will get used to the smell”.
I have to say though, before we go on this adventure of words through India through my eyes, this country was one neither Morgan nor I ever had on our ‘ to visit’ list. In fact Morgan had told me since our travelling begun back in 2007 that India was somewhere he would never visit. So I actually loved our beautiful friends Mary and Jacob did decided to get married here otherwise we would have never gotten to experience what we have the last 10 days. I only look upon the whole experience with a deep gratitude and bursting heart of love – because of WHY we were there.
And that is really where my own journey started. I came with the biggest open heart and open mind considering here I was in a country I had never necessarily dreamed of coming to, with 30 of our closest friends a few of which who had been a couple of times who were absolutely in love with it.
The bride and groom to be had organised the most incredible 7 day wedding itinerary for us all where tours, places of interest, trains and every detail in between was planned out so we literally had to just pack and arrive. And as I write this, sitting in a small town in beautiful Jaipur, with the warm sun but chilly air all around me, I can say it was fundamentally the best thing they could have done as it helped us see India through their eyes and kept us all together for the week. We had the experience of all experiences, and being surrounded by 30 odd of literally your best friends, is something I will truly cherish forever.
Being rebels with a cause though, and needing to see some more of this country by ourselves, Morgan and I booked 3 nights in Varanasi before the wedding week to have an experience by ourselves.
Why Varanasi you might ask?
Well, since I was a little girl if you said India I would say; Ganges River.
It has always, to me, been the main thing I was attracted to in India. Taj Mahal sure, but it didn’t procure the same emotion or curiosity that the Ganges did, so when looking in to what town we could explore for 3 days by ourselves, I immediately looked in to the best city for the Ganges and time and time again landed on Varanasi.
Touching down in Varanasi, I knew we weren’t in Kansas City anymore.
From the stares to the noise to the smell it truly was like nothing I had experienced in any other city or country I had travelled to before.
We organised our pre paid taxi (a big tip if you’re ever in India, always book pre paid taxi’s at the airport, much safer and cheaper) and ventured out in to the warm afternoon Indian sun.
The trip to our hotel was about 20km drive and it was 20km of culture shock.
I have experienced 3rd world before, one of my favourite places in the world is Bali (3rd world) and I have also been to Manila (Philippines – also 3rd world), but this, this was different. This was looking at humanity from a perspective (in my opinion and mine only) of over population and poverty and the affects that can have.
We drove past tiny mini ‘towns’ on the way in to the main city area of Varanasi with 8 – 11 people crammed in one room ‘homes’ where I could see dirty mats (not mattresses, just mats) or slightly raised ‘beds’ that were simply hessian bags and metal poles. That was the only sleeping place for the whole family, or for whomever lived in these tiny one-room homes.
I saw people going to the toilet (I’m not just talking about number one’s either) on the side of the road and dirt and dust and rubbish absolutely everywhere.
Arriving at our hotel, I honestly felt guilty, that whilst we got to go in to our warm bed and eat a plentiful meal that night and have the luxuries that coming from a Western 1st world country can afford you, there were literally homeless and poverty stricken men and women metres from our hotel.
That first night, I’m just going to be completely honest with you…. I cried.
I was overwhelmed and exhausted from just one afternoon of experiencing what I was seeing and hearing and smelling.
I cried because I wanted to do more though. Not at all from pity or sadness. It just felt almost wrong being in their country affording what we could and not being able to help everyone. Morgan through my tears gently reminded me though “baby, I understand your pain, but you didn’t come here to start a revolution, you came here for a wedding”. He was of course right (although I still believe I may go back to start a revolution) and that night as I climbed in to bed my nightly rituals of gratitude’s was pages and pages and pages long.
The next morning was the Ganges River tour we had booked and we were in the taxi driving the short drive by 6am. Having experienced Varanasi during the day, late afternoon and evening, to then experiencing it at 6am I have to say it felt like two different cities. The roads were empty, there was no one absolutely anywhere except the few homeless huddled around fires they’d lit on the side of the road and there was an energy I couldn’t put my finger on. A really surreal one.
Arriving to our destination we met our guide Baba (his real name was Deepak but he’d been given the nickname Baba as he was so knowledgeable) who was an amazing man with fantastic English and a huge smile.
Walking the short distance through the sleepy streets to arrive at the Ganges is something I truly will never ever, ever forget. It was an energy, a feeling and a magic that I will never be able to properly articulate and that first sight of ‘her’ before the sun had even risen, with a misty fog covering her entirety listening to the prayer calls all around us is truly something I am going to remember until my last breathe. And I have no doubt in to my next life.
I will say this though…
You have to be ready for the Ganges. I do believe that. It’s a cultural experience like no other – why I say that is that river is their everything, it is their life. And with life, comes death, and you see a lot of that on the Ganges in the form of cremations. I knew that going, and it was something I actually was ready and curiously willing to experience, but it is such a rich and important part of their culture so if you aren’t necessarily ready to see a constant flow of dead bodies wrapped in cloth on bamboo stretches having their last bath, or drying out on the steps, or burning – Varanasi isn’t the city for you.
We had booked a private boat (you can do that through your hotel), and I have to say, being out on Mama Ganga, with just Morgan and myself, Baba and the lovely guy who rowed it, was extra special as it felt like ‘just us’.
Rowing silently down the river, seeing the locals come to life – bathing, praying, meditating and washing their clothes was like nothing I had ever experienced in my life. Even writing these words right now, there is a feeling in my chest of what I felt that morning and I trust and believe it will stay with me forever.
The energy, the energy the energy – everything is energy and energy is everything and on that river that morning I experienced an energy like nothing I had ever felt before. Morgan, who is still both slightly but very Mr sceptic when I talk so much about energy said over and over and over again “do you feel that?” “Are you feeling this?” which only made the whole experience even richer because I knew we both would walk away from that morning with that feeling connecting us until we were old and grey.
Baba warned us before we got to the cremation site (there are 2 main areas where they cremate their dead) and said how much of a spiritual thing it was for their culture and people and how much respect we need to show it. No cameras, no phones, no nothing. He said something I so loved and respected – “this is not the cinemas, this is real life and I need you to respect that”. You NEVER have to tell us twice whilst travelling to respect certain aspects of that countries culture so we actually just put our phones off and away before he had even told us that (Note; I don’t think people even should have to be told to not film or take photos of such a sacred site but you would be surprised and disgusted – I was anyway – at how some tourists were still filming or taking photos. Baba tut tutted at them and turned to us disappointed and said ‘karma will get them).
We arrived right in front of the cremation site via Mama Ganga herself – and seeing the flames from the boat was an incredibly humbling indescribable feeling. I don’t think I would have done that particular area if I weren’t with a well-respected guide as he was able to take us through the whole experience and ensured we followed rules and rituals. I love travel, and I truly believe it IS the only thing you can buy, that makes you richer, and standing on those steps, learning about the life and death of Indian culture, I did feel all the richer for it.
The first dead body that was marched less than half a metre from me was absolutely a jolt to my system, just being totally honest, and I did think that maybe this was maybe too much. Maybe I wasn’t ready to experience more of this. I decided though, very quickly that this was a big reason why I was here and I wasn’t going to run from it. With life, does come death and this was an experience to live in to that like no other.
As they all brought the bodies to the cremation site they would chant in their local language something that translated to “god is true”, and body after body, you would hear ‘god is true’.
Once at the sight, they walk down the stairs to the river where they give the bodies ‘one last bath in the Ganges’. After that, the bodies are left to ‘dry’ with their feet facing the river propped up (they are still completely covered at this stage). At that stage the men all go to take a bath together in the Ganges (elsewhere to the cremation sight), and all must have their heads and beards shaved off, which is done to represent cleanliness. That really was an experience unto it’s self when walking the Ganges elsewhere to the cremation site, seeing families of men, all sitting along the ghat having their heads and beards completely shaved off.
Once that part of the ritual is complete, and all men are bathed in the Ganges, and cleanly shaven, they go back to the site to start the burning of the families body, Baba also told us, by this stage they believe the body is almost dry from it’s final bath.
We learned, it takes 300kg of wood to burn a body, they use butter to help the burning along (critical part baba said) and the body takes a few hours to burn. At this stage of standing right there amongst it all, we were seeing countless bodies taken off the bamboo stretches (always by the oldest son or if oldest son wasn’t possible, the next first male of the family) and wrapped in metres of white cotton. Then, the family placed the body on the 300kg of wood they have constructed (in a grave like structure) and once the body is on top, more wood is placed on top of it again. The oldest son (or male) then lights the fire, and they all go and stand and watch it burn for the next few hours.
And that, all happens over and over and over and over again, hundreds of times a day, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The smoke can sometimes feel or be overwhelming and I have to say what some might be thinking, the smell isn’t as bad as you might think. It is more just the smell of burning wood and ash. I will say though, I did feel like even after I had showered a few times, and washed our clothes, I could still smell the distinctive smell.
Once I felt I had had enough, we moved on to go for a walk through the labyrinth of ‘streets’ (they were more like ally ways) in the city of Varanasi with Baba leading the way. Truth be told I did ask him to not show us ‘tourist’ Varanasi and to show us how he see’s it. And see it we did.
Walking through these tiny ally ways, seeing the real life of Varanasi people was another culture shock. The smells. The sights. The sounds. I ensured I was covered literally head to toe, and even wore a scarf around my head, but being in those secluded ally ways, being a ‘white skinned girl’ still attracted a lot of attention.
We had the TRUE Varanasi experience in one day – how is that even possible you may ask? Well from 5am to 9pm we were out and about and exploring this beautiful but overwhelming city. We walked as many inner ally ways as possible, visited a traditional (and I have to say amazing) aroma therapist, the oldest and biggest pashmina and sari making building in the whole of Varanasi and even visited a guru healer (where by my reading was truly incredibly accurate).
Later that night, after spending 12 hours with Baba already, we went back out on our private boat to see the cremation site in the evening and to also witness the evening ceremony – all from the comfort and safety of our boat.
Going home on night 2 I did still feel heaviness I am not sure I can explain to you properly.
Getting back to our hotel Morgan looked at me and sensing my quietness and emotion suggested we grab a bottle of red and de brief from our day. We sat and debated, talked, laughed and chatted about all that we had seen and experienced and again, when I went through my evening rituals of gratitude writing, this time, the pages were even longer.
The next day was spent exploring the city by ourselves and I have to say, the best thing we did was exploring the city first with a guide, as going out the 3rd day we had so much more confidence and knew where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do. To be honest though, most of our day was spent sitting on the Ghats of the Ganges taking in the daily life of the Indian people of Varanasi.
Departing Varanasi the next day I was so ready. Ready to see more of India. Ready to leave some of the heaviness behind. Ready to see all of our beautiful best friends and start the whole reason WHY we were there, which was Mary & Jacobs wedding.
We flew in to Delhi early afternoon and taxi’d it to our hotel amongst the crazy traffic of the capital of India (which by the way, is insane – but funnily enough, with barely if any road rules, really actually works!).
I won’t go in to the next week moment by moment, as I truly would be writing a novel. Why? Because it was the most deeply experiential week of our lives, and why wouldn’t it be? Hanging out in a country where Morgan and I still didn’t fully understand, but alongside our best friends, with a sole purpose of love and adventure, is the kind of week we will never ever forget it.
Over the next 6 days though (the 7th day being the day of all days, the leaf wedding!!) we experienced a visit to a Sikh temple, Humayun’s Tomb, lunch at the Taj Hotel, train ride to Agra, visiting the Taj Mahal, exploring Red Fort, we watched our lovers play in a 20/20 match of cricket whilst we learned Bollywood dancing alongside them and shopped some more for Indian treasures. We explored Amber Fort (in Jaipur), had the Vedic readings of ALL-Vedic readings (the most accurate and life changing reading I will ever and have ever had in my life) and dined at an old palace under the stars.
A memory from the above I will treasure forever is when a group of us got up at 6am in Jaipur to go and walk the river across from our hotel. Some of us were friends who’d we have known and loved for years, others, we had just met. But off we set to go and capture the sun rising and get some exercise in. Walking home from the morning walk and sunrise (which was absolutely beautiful) we were stopped by a complete stranger who spoke in extremely broken local language and English teaching us 4 lessons of life! He told us:
Eat half of what you think (as in what you think you should).
Drink twice as what you think (as in what you think you should).
Exercise 3 times as much as what you think (as in what you think you should).
And always, ALWAYS laugh.
When he said laugh, he proceeded to laugh louder than I have EVER heard anyone belly laugh. The belly laugh of all belly laughs. Leaning backwards with a red face – which of course made us all collapse in to laughter as well.
It really was one of those pinch me moments and I turned to everyone and said – “and THAT is why you should always be up before the sun rises, and should ALWAYS leave your hotel” and it’s true!! You can truly never know what adventure and incredible experience awaits.
Morgan and I awoke on our 7th Day at the final hotel (having arrived the day before to a band drumming us a welcome and traditional welcome ceremony) with huge smiles on our faces. Today was the day, the day we got to witness some of our best friends promise their forever to each other. I have to say as well, awaking in the hotel we were staying in, which was the Samode Palace Garden Hotel, was pretty magical and spectacular.
We all had breakfast together (the bride and groom were at the Samode Palace Hotel getting ready already) and laughed our way through breakfast. EVERYTHING was a surprise for us. So we had no idea where the actual wedding was, we just knew we all had to be ready by 2pm and in the front area of the hotel to be bus’d to the location. So breakfast was also a time of great fun speculation!
2pm rolled around and true to respecting how big a day this was – we all were ready and assembled (and my god dolled up) for the big event. We were bus’d to a beautiful old Palace that had been converted to a Hotel, and were greeted by a band, camels and even a friendly elephant!! The day had begun! Moments later the party begun. Jacob and his gorgeous groomsmen arrived in a beautiful old car surrounded by a loud incredible band and we were motioned to follow them. Walking in to the palace, with music playing, flowers being thrown over us, an elephant in sight view, we all knew this was going to be a wedding like we had never experienced in our lives – and probably will never again!
The rest of the day went by like a literal dream. Where they promised their forevers was in a room like nothing I had ever seen. Floor to wall paintings, flowers covering every inch of every surface, candles, and magic surrounded us. And then, well and then the bride herself arrived. I don’t think I have ever seen a group of guests gasp more than when we saw our beautiful Mary arrive to walk to her prince. Her dress, designed by one of our closest friends and superstar designers Steph Audino was literally the most beautiful dress I had ever seen (no cameras allowed which I love – so our phones were largely off!)
The rest, as they say is history. And when I say history, I mean history. This wedding was the kind that goes down in the history books. From the location, to the dress, to the firework displays, to the surprise of moving locations (via camels may I add!!!!!!!!) to a then dessert rave type party for the reception where we all raged on to the very very wee hours of the night.
The wedding truly was and always will be remembered as one of ALL of the greatest nights of our lives, topped only by our own wedding of course.
I left India the next day with a full heart of gratitude for the experience Mary & Jacob had gifted us by saying I do in India, but also a heart of deep understanding and respect due to a newfound level of gratitude. Granted, I needn’t have travelled the 30 hour trip to be grateful, but you cannot help leaving India without a deeper and greater respect FOR gratitude.
Landing home, truth be told, I actually got quite emotional (I started this piece in India, and am finishing this now a short hour after I have arrived home) I turned to Morgan with tears in my eyes saying I had never ever been so grateful to be home.
I was grateful I got to be the truest, deepest, biggest expression of myself instead of needing to be invisible as a woman in the Indian streets.
I was grateful for clean water. Being able to brush my teeth with the tap water, to being allowed to open my mouth in the shower, to drinking straight from the tap.
I was grateful to be able to wear what I wanted to wear!!!!! Shorts and a singlet if I wanted to, bikini’s if I wanted to, I was able to express myself fully and authentically through what I wore.
I was grateful for being served and acknowledged as a woman no matter what town or shop I went too.
I was grateful for the clean streets and clean air. Taking several huge and deep breathes as I exited the plane again I was overcome with emotion.
But above all, I was grateful I got to be grateful.
I thought I was grateful before, but I now realise I truly was not. Gratitude is our strongest miracle in our lives, and yet I realised how much I actually wasn’t conscious of in my life.
Running Water. Fresh Air. Clean Streets!! Having a voice, but no truly – having a voice. You being able to tell someone no or being served or not served because of your sex. Now being greeted with a smile everywhere I go and being asked what would I like (instead of all questions being directed to Morgan) I am deeply deeply grateful.
So as much as this post is about sharing our Indian experience through my eyes, with all the truth but deep love in my heart – it’s also a post about deep gratitude. And waking you up to take a look at how much you are truly practicing gratitude in your life.
Before India, I did my gratitude’s each morning and each night, but since coming home, I have vowed to do them throughout my day every day. When I pour myself a glass of clean water. When I take breathes of fresh air. When I am respected because I am simply a human, not because of the gender I was born. When I can step outside in whatever I want to wear. When I get to speak my voice no matter what.
So to India, thank you. So very much, for being a country of extreme contrasts, whilst being a country with deep spiritual meaning. For gifting me the most incredible week ever surrounded by all my best friends to witness the greatest gift of all – love, with our friends committing their lives to one another, and above all else, thank you for teaching me the greatest gift of all – gratitude.