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15th August

The yoghurt smothered banana left my spoon and arched a smooth trajectory towards my mother, where it landed on her top. We glared at each other surprised as well as furious. The argument, as all good arguments are, was a petty one.

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I gathered my things (P.D.Q. I can tell you) and stalked across the terrace and down the steps to the small garden below where I paced, breathing deeply. After a good ten minutes I returned to our breakfast table over looking Udaipur’s picturesque Lake Pichola. We muttered apologies to one another and we both giggled – the day was underway.

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Jamil was taking us on ‘The City Tour’. I would never normally do the city tour but it was probably a good way to take in all the necessary Udaipuri sights without exhausting Mum (now bespattered) too much. As it turns out it was a waste of time and money (in my opinion, for the opinion of the other members of the tour you will have to ask her).

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Our first stop was the spice market, which rankled a little as I knew where this was having spent most of my last visit to Udaipur there and would have preferred to visit under our own steam. We were taken to the edge of the veg. market and given time to wonder around and the opportunity to buy spices from Jamil’s friend. I declined this offer knowing that the really good spices were much deeper inside the warren of market streets.

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We made our way to the market where beautiful vegetables in a rainbow of colours are laid out on burlap sacks and the noisy bartering and weighing on old-fashioned hand held scales takes place. We were soon centre of attention and the market women wanted to have their photo taken.

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This is common place in India, wherever you go people of all ages implore “please madam, one photo” and then stand stiffly to attention for the photograph. I snapped a couple of the women who then insisted that mum went to join them for the pictures.

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The fat, jolly lady pulled up a plastic crate for mum to sit on and patted it. Quick as a flash, however, the adjacent veg. seller and owner of the bright orange crate pulled it back, “NO” mum could not sit on her crate. The first lady then rattled off some rapid Hindi and the crate was pulled back for mum.

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This continued for about a minute until our lady triumphed and secured the crate and indicated that mum take her seat for the photo. Almost in slow motion, as mum started to sit down the crate-owner pulled it out from under her. Mum was suddenly up-turtled, legs in the air! The entire market was in hysterics and once I realised that there was no saving mum from her fate I started rattling off photos to capture the comedy.

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After such auspicious beginnings the tour continued. We saw some mausoleums, king ones. They were alright, bit over grown and covered in pigeons and their effluent – fun when you have to remove ones shoes out of respect! Then we drove to see the statue of a famous horse, a warrior horse whose name was Chutak. He was loyal to his Kingly master and bravely defended him and then died in battle.

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Most importantly, lunch was an incredible thali.

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After which we went to the Princess gardens where we were supposed to admire the fountains. Instead we found ourselves inside the onsite Science Museum, in the loosest sense of the term, you understand. The officious man in charge pounced on us when we entered the room – his next victims had arrived. He was delighted when he found out that I was a teacher too. Being a teacher is usually the easiest lie to tell about ones employment and education status in India, being as it is an honourable profession. He led us around his museum which contained such strange exhibits as a pile of labelled local rocks, fun-fair mirrors, a magic (how did we do it?) tap and a large free standing pulley.

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“Madam, Madam. Come” he ordered us from one display to another. “Look Madam!” “oh! yes” we politely nodded. “Here, Madam. Here!” “Touch the Peacock” he bodily moved me and then mum towards a plaster peacock. We both touched the peacock. We managed, but only just, to keep straight faces when he showed us riding a bike, Benny Hill style, standing up against a vertical mirror. I was then made, yes MADE to do the same. This continued around the mercifully small ‘museum’.

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If either mum or I tried to skip an exhibit or didn’t pay enough attention to the wonders of an exhibit, we were admonished and physically returned to the exhibit to appreciate the marvels within. The last item was a camera obscura and Mum was told to “SIT” and “look” which she obediently did. We managed to escape at last and made it out into the pouring rain where we stood next to the giggling school girls under shelter. Suddenly he was back, he looked at mum and said “I had to say goodbye to my English girlfriend” I let out an ill-disguised guffaw. Mum gave me a steely look, “let’s go now before he tries to make me his wife.”

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After this we told Jamil that yes it had been a wonderful tour but now we would like to go back to our hotel. My recommendation is that if you ever have the luck to visit beautiful Udaipur that you do not do the tour.

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The rest of our time was more purposefully spent. We took an art class. This I loved, not just because I really enjoy the intricate, delicate work of Indian Miniature Painting but because it was such a fun thing for mum and me to do together.

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Mum has fallen in love with Nandi. Nandi is the vehicle of the Hindu God Shiva and he is a bull and the reason why the cow is sacred in India. You will find a Nandi at every temple entrance and he is the subject of her painting.

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The teacher was intrigued by her choice saying that in all his years no student had ever requested a Nandi. I chose the national bird of India: the peacock.

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We took a cooking class. It was my second lesson with the same teacher so we took a more advanced class. We learned paneer butter masala, dal fry, pumpkin curry and veg. biryani. Our classmates, a married couple from Leeds were soon exchanging surreptitious glances and clearly thought that this mother/daughter duo were more than slightly unhinged. I am not sure exactly what we did but after eating they dived into their room and we could hear uncontrolled fits of giggles.

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We had impromptu Hindi lessons over cold beer at the bar by the bridge, we watched Ian Fleming’s ‘Octopussy’ play out against its real life backdrop – minus Roger Moore’s quizzically arched eyebrow of course.

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We looked after a 21 year old Scottish boy who was lonely, saw a traditional dance recital and weaved our way amongst the many bovine inhabitants – who just collapse wherever they deem fit. Looked through piles of pashminas and declined to buy any, we watched the women washing their clothes on the ghats from our beautiful room and had a romantic dinner in a posh restaurant with an amazing view of Udaipur city palace lit up like a fairy castle at night.

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We also had to eat part of said dinner in the drizzling rain but like the good Brits that we are we pretended not to notice. And on our last day at breakfast a very lovely gentleman leaned over and said “I have noticed you around and have to tell you, you are the best dressed ladies in Udaipur!”

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Quitting whilst we were ahead, we decided, we had better leave Udaipur. Our quarry was still Jaisalmer where we want to do the camel safari and sleep in the Great Thar desert under the stars.

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My Southern adventure has come to an end which means that I only have about two months left in India. Heading north but not wanting to face a thirty-eight hour train journey from Chennai to Varanasi, I took the twelve hour sleeper train to Hyderabad. I had one day there to see some cultural sight and eat meat for the last time before dicing with the culinary perils of north India. I found Laad Bazaar, where, channelling my friend Karen, I spent too much money on sparkly bangles (Butler & Wilson pales in comparison).

The landscape changed from luscious paddy fields and swaying palm trees to forests and shrub land. The air became cooler, notably marked by the men sporting fluffy, glittery wool jumpers in a variety of loud colours. More dirty faced, bright-eyed children appeared at each stop begging for food or money.

With growing anticipation I arrived into Varanasi station. Having been unable to book a room in advance I enlisted the help of the Tourist Counter at the station. Armed with a list of possible hotels and accompanied by, an apparently honest, rickshaw driver – I headed into town giddy with excitement.

At 6.00pm every night the puja (offering or prayers) takes place at the main Ghat (steps leading down to the river). An elaboratre ceremony of fire and chanting to honour the holy of holies Ganga River ( The Ganges). Little girls selling flowers and candles to be floated on the river, hound you at every turn as do boat touts and silk merchants. I bought a candle for Rs10 but as I was bending down to float it carefully on the water, not loose my camera or get robbed, I managed to up-end it so instead of a neat little boat gliding away like everyone else’s, mine was a trail of flowers, petals, a candle and an empty container. I dropped my purse into the Ganga, but as I was able to retrieve it, I decided it was good luck.

A walk at sunrise took me along to the, Harishchandra Ghat, the smaller of the  burning Ghats. A man and about seven children were sitting by a fire; I was invited down to warm myself by the fire – that fire being an almost burned-out funeral pyre! He explained the ceremonial rituals to me. The pyres are attended by low caste or outcast people. Five types of people are not cremated on the Ghats: Priests and holy men, pregnant women, children under 15, lepers and those unlucky enough to be bitten by a cobra. These people are shrouded and attached to a large rock; they are then taken out into the middle of the Ganga and thrown overboard. Animals are also not allowed to be burned.

If you don’t fall into these categories your family will have your body shrouded, they will then go to the barber and have their hair and moustaches shaved off. The body is then washed in the Ganga before buying a carefully weighed amount of wood, sandalwood being the most expensive, to ensure full cremation of the body, which usually takes about three hours. Ghee and oher holy powders can be bought to douse over the body. The fire is taken from a ‘Shiva’ flame that has been burning continuously for 15,000 years. The eldest son lights the pyre. Women are not allowed to attend the ceremony for two reasons: to prevent Sati, where grieving widows throw themselves on to the pyre and because Hindus believe that crying prevents the soul from resting peacefully and women cannot be trusted upon not to cry.

Varanasi is incredibly intense. It is both chaotic and peaceful. Its narrow streets are incredibly filthy and I cannot understand how this most holy of cities is used as a latrine, spittoon and rubbish dump. I also cannot reconcile the apparent spirituality with the uncommon human and animal cruelty that I witnessed here. Although unsure whether I liked Varanasi or not, I am pleased I went not least because I met up with a friend from Gokarna and had a wild night out on Varanasi tiles. A group of us commissioned a boat and we glided along the Ganga. I also got attacked by a huge bull that gouged at my arm with his big horns – these cows are nothing like their southern cousins who are smaller and much sweeter in temperament. Varanasi cows take up entire lanes and the Indians found it hilarious that I was too scared to shoo them and pass by.

However, Varanasi is not to be missed and apparently lures travellers back time and time again – the boat ride at sunset was stunning and a peaceful haze had settled over the river adding to the mystic charm of this most ancient city.

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