Do you hear the people sing?

SPOILER ALERT – Don’t read this if you don’t want to know any plot details of the film.

I’ve just been to see Les Miserables, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so moved by a film before in my life. I got home over an hour ago, it’s past midnight, I’ve got to get up early, and yet I’m sitting here writing this because I just can’t stop thinking about it. I think it resonated so much with me because of all of the Christian imagery and themes running through it, it is a rare thing to see a film that captures so many aspects of my faith.

Firstly, there is the transformation of Jean Valjean; he has stolen silver from a priest who had given him food and shelter, but instead of seeking to punish him, the priest shows Valjean mercy by denying the charges against him, telling the police that the silver was a gift. Not only does he forgive him, he also insists that Jean Valjean takes more silver – two candlesticks that are worth far more. This over-the-top gift reminded me of my own salvation; not only did God forgive me when I didn’t deserve to be forgiven, but he has also given me the extravagant free gift of a life spent in relationship with him, learning more every day about the wonders of his love. It is the extravagant gift of the silver that inspires Jean Valjean to turn his life around and start afresh. In awe of the grace he receives, he makes it his mission to show that grace to others.

Then there is the contrast between Jean Valjean and Javert, which so obviously echoes the issue of grace vs legalism – a continual theme in the New Testament of the Bible. Javert cannot see that Valjean is a changed man, nor does he believe that people can ever change, he is unsympathetic to the plight of other characters in the film, and relentlessly pursues Jean Valjean in the belief that he deserves to be punished. On the other hand Jean Valjean knows that he is a new man, and that people are more than the situation that they find themselves in. He shows compassion to everyone that he comes across, even Javert, who would never consider showing him any such mercy. Legalism is trying to please God, or reach his standard, by following the law or by your own good deeds. Like Javert, it has no grace for anyone who falls short of this. But the bible says that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight”, but “all who believe (will receive) the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ… For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:20-24) The bible makes it very clear that in Jesus everyone’s slates are wiped completely clean, and that nothing “in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God.”(Romans 8:39)

Another scene that really struck a chord with me was little Cosette, wandering in the woods at night time, alone and frightened, until she is rescued by Jean Valjean. He adopts her and becomes the loving “Papa” she’s always dreamed of. Cosette in the woods reminds me so much of myself before I came to know God; lost and lonely, uncertain about the future, and wondering if there really was any point to my life, wishing for something more. But now I have been adopted as God’s child, I know him as my Father. He is my protector when I am afraid, my comforter when I am sad, and my reassurance for the future. He has made my life meaningful. It is a wonderful feeling to be able to rest in the love of my heavenly father.

Finally I would like to share this quote from Mike Cosner, of the Gospel Coalition:

“This story resonates for two reasons. First, the audience can identify with a world of tragedy and disappointment. We all feel that sense of grinding sorrow, and wonder if there’s any hope for those who are sick, who suffer injustice, and who long to start anew. We’re all discouraged by the constant onslaught of bad news, and we dream dreams of places where hope is high, life is worth living, and God is merciful.

Second, Les Miserable answers those doubts with hope for redemption. There is a way to start afresh. There is a grace that surpasses, that sets us free from the burdens of our past, and that leads us home to God.”

The most emotional part of the film for me (although I wept throughout) is Fantine appearing to Jean Valjean at the end of his life, to reassure him that he is going to be with God. To know that she is coming from a place where she can offer those reassurances, that she has finally found peace with God, was a picture to me of the hope on which I live my life. The final song, sung by all those who have died, sums it up for me really:

Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise

They will live again in freedom in the garden of the lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare
They will put away the sword
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward! 

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes! 

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Return to Russ

The main reason for my trip to India was to visit the Russ Foundation children’s home. I had the privilege of visiting and fundraising for them while I was at Sixth-Form College, it was such a wonderful experience for me, so when my old teacher emailed me about a return trip she was running for ex-students I jumped at the chance!

The Russ Foundation  is a brilliant charity located in and around Madurai, a city in South India, that runs a number of projects including HIV intervention programmes amongst sex workers, HIV care and support in the community, Health Clinics, and so much more (details of which can be found  on their website http://www.russfoundation.in). In this post, however, I want to talk about my visit to the children’s home.

Russ is home to around thirty-five children. (I won’t mention any of their names or post any pictures of them on this blog but if you’re friends with me on facebook you can see the photo album that I posted on there.) All of them come from troubled backgrounds, their parents have either died or are unable to look after them, and some of their back-stories are unbearably tragic. It is amazing though to see how living at Russ has transformed these children’s lives, they are all so happy, bright and cheerful! I really would say that Russ is one of the happiest places on earth, and such a wonderful place for children to grow up. The campus is located outside of the city and is full of all sorts of trees, from coconut, to banana to mango (they grow their own crops), which make it green, lush and leafy, and provide much-needed cool under their shade, where peacocks could often be spotted roaming around. They have all sorts of animals there; a large rabbit enclosure filled with lots of bunnies for the children to play with, and a bird enclosure holding chickens, geese, ducks and turkeys. They also have a donkey that the children love feeding their banana skins, and even a running dairy farm, as well as a playground complete with swings, climbing frames and a playhouse that we built on my first trip there! In all of my diary entries while I was at Russ I am gushing about how wonderful it is there and how I am having such a great time.

 

It was so good for me to see all of the children that I had met three years earlier again, they had all grown up so much! They also all remembered me from last time, which made me very happy, and I was told that my pen-pal from college days had been getting very excited and telling everyone that her friend Mary was coming back! There were eighteen of us on the Return to Russ trip and while we were there we had a lot of fun organising craft activities and playing games with the kids. One of their favourites was hide and seek, they were all cheaters though and kept changing their hiding places! We also spent a lot of time working on making a fun reading room/library for them and listening to them read to help them with their English, we were all so impressed by how good they were at it! Twilight has managed to make it’s way to India (most of the girls are Team Edward) and I was amazed at how easily some of the older girls read it. The younger ones obviously couldn’t speak English so well but they loved showing off what they could do, especially counting! The girls also loved drawing on each other and us with henna, we bought tubes of it really cheaply at the market and some of the older girls were fantastic at it, drawing really intricate and beautiful designs on our hands and feet. The younger ones were not quite so good – you didn’t ever really want any of their “artwork” on your body (it lasts a couple of weeks), but their little faces were so sweet when they asked you that you couldn’t really say no! The trick was to wash it off quickly before it had a chance to dry.

We celebrated New Year while we were there. There were lots of fireworks on New Year’s Eve (with no health and safety of course), the older children were allowed to set off the fountains and we all (including the little ones) played with sparklers that sent sparks flying everywhere and burned right down to the end. It was all good fun though and no one got hurt. I went to church with some of the girls to see in the New Year and it was just like a traditional Anglican church over here, except for the fact that it was all in Tamil! I couldn’t really understand what was going on most of the time but I had brought my bible with me so one of the girls showed me what bit we were looking at. Then on New Year’s day we had a big party, starting with a delicious meal and then team challenges like assault courses, scavenger hunts and craft. We were also set the challenge of learning Tamil phrases to earn extra points for our team – “un paya Mary” means “my name is Mary” and undu, urendu, moondu, naandu and eindu are the numbers 1-5 (spelt phonetically!). We also played parachute games which the kids absolutely loved!

The children all love dancing and one evening  they treated us to performances of many different routines that they had been working on, they are all so talented. There was traditional Indian dances as well as dances to Indian pop songs. I got to listen to a bit more of that when I was watching a very strange Tamil film with the girls and they flicked to the music channels during the adverts (just like me and my sisters do!), I was very excited to find a link to a music video from their “favourite hero” on youtube when I got home – apparently he is telling the girl that she is more beautiful than the moon:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=og-dIbwqqb0&list=FLEcn5SKF1p3syhbMS0FFxIg&index=1&feature=plpp_video

Another treat came when we had a typical South-Indian ‘Tali’ meal prepared for us, served on a banana leaf and eaten with your (right) hand, it was delicious!

We also got the opportunity to visit the primary school that Russ runs for local village children. The littlest Russ kids were very proud that we were their friends as all of the children there were so excited to meet us! It was very cute. They all absolutely loved having their photos taken and were all fighting over whose turn it was to have a go with my camera. We gave them some books and got them to read to us. They were all so obedient and respectful to their teachers, but when they left to have a meeting with some of the teachers from our group things got a bit crazy! It was really great to see one of the Russ girls who has been to university working as a teacher in the school – that’s another benefit that the children at Russ get, they are always encouraged to be the best they can be and get a great education.

Some nights we were there we took our sleeping bags and roll mats up to the roof and slept underneath the stars, it was so beautiful. The moon was like a spotlight lighting up the night (we didn’t need our torches) and we could gaze up at hundreds of stars, constellations and planets as we fell asleep.

While at Russ I was lucky enough to be able to go with Faith (my college teacher) to visit her friend Ganapathy and her family. It was such a great experience to visit a typical middle-class Indian family. Ganapathy, her husband, children and grandchildren were excellent hosts and so welcoming. They cooked us a delicious Tali meal (probably the best meal that I had the whole time I was in India) and showed us how they prepared and cooked their food and gave us a demonstration of how they made clothes on their state of the art sewing machine, which they went on to sell.

I only spent about two weeks at Russ, and it certainly wasn’t long enough. I had such a wonderful time there and I am already thinking about the next time I will be able to go back and visit!

 

 

 

Delhi Days

On Boxing Day we got the train up to Delhi, it was a lot more crowded than the last sleeper train we were on, and so cold that I had to get in my sleeping bag! Once there we stayed in another Nirvana hostel, but it wasn’t as nice as the other two that we had stayed in, a bit cold and dingy, it was OK though and there were a lot of friendly backpackers there.

Delhi is a huge and extremely busy city, it made all of the other cities that I visited seem quite calm! There are just so many people everywhere, the streets in the centre are literally heaving, and the traffic is incredible! It is also very Westernised in a lot of places, on the afternoon that we arrived we went to a very posh shopping mall selling a lot of familiar brands. It had a very nice food court upstairs, I had pizza and it made me very happy! The Metro in Delhi is also very modern, much nicer than the London Underground. There are strict no littering and no spitting rules (spitting in the street is acceptable in India) so it is really clean, and security is tight; you have to queue to go through metal detectors at every station and as always there are separate queues for men and women. The women’s queue was always much shorter but this wasn’t a good thing for me as I always had to wait for my travelling companion, Rob, on the other side! There were also women-only carriages, this seemed a bit strange while we were there as all the men had to cram into one end of the carriage while the women’s section was virtually empty, but I heard afterwards that they had a big problem of women being molested on the crowded trains, so I think it is a very good idea now! However my experience in India was that almost all of the men that I met were very chivalrous, I don’t think that I was in any more or less danger than I would have been in London or any other big city.

We had one full day of sight-seeing in Delhi, the first attraction that we went to see was the Red Fort. Another Mughal fort, the Red Fort was beautiful but I think I would have liked it more if I’d seen in before I’d seen the forts in Agra and Jaipur because it just wasn’t as impressive as them. I felt that it had the potential to be stunning if it was kept better, but it was just a little bit run-down. It was interesting though to see the British architecture alongside the Mughal architecture, as the Red Fort was the headquarters of British Indian Army for some time.

After that we walked to the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, which was very impressive.

 

 

I was given a robe to wear over my clothes on the way in.

We ate yummy street food and then headed to the Ba’hai Lotus temple in the afternoon, one of only a very few Ba’hai temples in the world. I really loved this temple, the architecture was just so beautiful. As you can see from the photos the temple was literally shaped like a lotus, unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photos inside but it was very beautiful in there too, especially the ceiling!

We did a little bit of souvenir shopping after that and then were taken home by the craziest rickshaw driver ever – he drove soo fast! He was overtaking everyone and I was being thrown around a lot in the back, it felt kind of like being on a roller-coaster, but a lot less safe!

Here’s a picture of me at a fruit juice stand near our hostel (the tinfoil keeps the flies out), there were juice stands everywhere in India selling what we would describe as smoothies – just puréed fruit as they couldn’t add water – they were delicious!

That night at the hostel I had fun playing Risk with some other backpackers, and also tried a Sheesha pipe. It was nice, a lot cooler and lighter than smoking cigarettes, and it tasted like strawberries! However I don’t think I will be keen to try it again as the next morning I had a wonderful experience of Delhi Belly! I was sick on the plane (of all places!) down to Madurai, and all I could taste was the strawberry Sheesha, it was very unpleasant and puking in a sick bag on the plane whilst it was landing is not an experience that I want to repeat! I think the culprit was the cold rice provided to us by the hostel (I should’ve known better), but I think that really every tourist visiting India needs a Delhi Belly story to tell, and from some of the noises I heard coming from the bathrooms of the hostels at night I think I got off quite lightly!

 

Christmas in India

On Christmas eve “we making very big Christmas celebration” in our hostel! It was a lot of fun but also very strange, a random group of people from all over the world just thrown together! We were served a lovely Indian meal and then we had dancing, at first to some Western Christmas music that we found on Youtube and then to Indian music, then a mixture of the two! Aunty was teaching us all of her best moves. Then the Swedish girls taught us a traditional Swedish dance around the Christmas tree, while singing a song that was apparently about the poor little frog – he has no ears, he has no tail – then you had to jump around the Christmas tree pretending to be a frog and making frog noises! Apparently everyone in Sweden does this at Christmas time! It was a lot of fun and we laughed a lot. After that Aunty and one of the young men who worked in the hostel taught us a bit of yoga, it was certainly different from any Christmas I’d ever had before!

(The lady in the yellow is Aunty)

Christmas day didn’t turn out to be very Christmassy at all. We got up late and caught a bus into the city hoping to be able to wander around the bazaars, but unfortunately as it was Sunday a lot of things were closed. As we were walking down the street we struck up a conversation with a man who wanted help writing a letter in English to his “dearest love” who lives in England. He was very grateful for our help and wanted to re-pay us, so he took us to his shop where he made us each a bracelet. I do wonder now whether the whole letter writing thing was a ploy to get us to his shop, I hope not but looking back it probably was, because  we did have to look at lots of different jewellery while we were there!

After that he took us across town to a factory shop where we were supposedly going to see women dying cloth, it was Sunday though so nobody was there. But we did get shown around the empty factory by a very friendly young man named ‘Alex’ who took a definite shine to me! He kept inviting me to come to a party that night; at first I thought he meant a big Indian party that we could bring friends from the hostel to, so I was quite keen, but it turned out that he was thinking more along the lines of a party for two! He was selling me a Sari, and as he was doing so he was very persistent in telling me that I was beautiful and that he liked me. He even at one point said that he wanted to marry me, I said that he didn’t even know me, to which he replied that he could get to know me! I told him that in England you date for a very long time to get to know each other before you get married, but this didn’t deter him. He also tried to get me to share a smoke with him, I told him it was bad for your health and he responded by offering me his bicep to feel how healthy he was! I declined. He had promised me a very good discount on a Sari because I was “so beautiful”, and I did kind of want to make the most of it, which is why I put up with his flirting, shallow I know. Writing about it now I do feel a bit creeped out by it all, I think I was a bit naive in this situation and really I shouldn’t have stayed there. Especially when I found out that he had told his friends to keep Rob away from me and they were quite threatening towards him, and there was me on the other side of the shop naively thinking they were showing him cushion covers!

In the end I did buy a beautiful red and gold silk sari, and left after giving him a deposit with the promise that he would deliver the finished product to our hostel later, at this point he was still hoping I would party with him afterwards. We went back to the hostel and had another lovely big Christmas meal with all our new friends. I waited for hours for my Sari to be delivered and had pretty much given up hope of it coming, assuming that he had just stolen my deposit. Alex did turn up in the end though, bringing with him two friends that seemed only to have come to oggle me. It was a very weird and uncomfortable situation, but luckily Aunty was there so he had to be on best behaviour! Thankfully he didn’t persist in the party idea but the compliments just kept on coming. This is something that quite a lot of female backpackers in India experience though, there were a lot of other girls that we met in the hostels with similar stories to tell!

So, an interesting and slightly creepy Christmas, but oh well it’s all an experience! And I did get a very beautiful Sari out of it, I had Aunty inspect it before paying for it and she was very impressed by the quality and price, she even took Alex’s business card!

Jaipur, part two.

The only downside to our hostel was that it was quite out of town, rickshaws there were pretty pricey so we had to get a bus into the city centre – much cheaper but much more confusing! There was a big group of us from the hostel all heading the same way though so we stuck together! The buses were very crowded and busy, but everyone was friendly and the men were always very keen to give up their seats for us!

Our first tourist stop was the Hawa Mahal, a small but beautiful palace in the city centre:

While we were there we bumped into a German girl named Susan, who had been staying in the same hostel as us in Agra. We decided to stick together for the rest of the afternoon. We went exploring around the city, going down lots of back streets where we got to sample a lot of different Indian snacks and sweets. It was much better out of the touristy area because none of the shop-keepers pestered you to “only look” at their wares. The locals were curious about us, but they were friendly and didn’t harass us. They were very keen to let us taste the different things they were selling and didn’t try to charge us to take photos of them, although one shopkeeper allowed us to take a photo only on the condition that he could take one of us on his phone. They stocked their food in big piles either on the ground or in sacks, and served it by hand – I am certain that no one in India has been on a food hygiene course! You just kind of get used to it though, and learn to push all thoughts of germs to the back of your mind. Besides most of the street food we bought was fried in a serious amount of oil so I convinced myself that would kill off anything gross!

 

We had heard that Jaipur’s Amber Fort is at its most beautiful at sunset, so Rob and I said goodbye to Susan and caught another local bus there in the late afternoon. A golden palace built high on a hill overlooking a lake, it really was beautiful.

From the outside the Fort stands strong and imposing, yet inside you are impressed more by the intricate but grand decorative architecture, artwork and gardens. I was charmed most by the Hall of Mirrors, with its glittering walls and ceilings covered in mirror mosaics.

But for some of the Indian tourists there, it seemed like the main attraction was not the beautiful Fort, but us! I feel like I can understand what it’s like to be a celebrity now because so many of them wanted to take photos with us! It was funny, they would all approach me saying something along the lines of “Excuse me Mam, one photo please.” Then we’d always have to take about 10 photos so they could each get an individual one that they liked! We also spoke to a very sweet little girl who was keen to practice her English on us, she was very good!

While we were there we also learned just how much the street sellers try to rip the tourists off, it is amazing how much they will lower their prices if you’re not really interested in what they’re selling. One guy was extremely persistent and followed us all the way up the hill begging us to buy paintings from him, he started off trying to sell us 10 paintings for $20 but in the end gave us 4 for 100 rupees – about $2! So there’s a tip for anyone going to India, pretend that you’re not at all interested in what they’re selling you and you’ll get it a lot cheaper!

While we were there we also saw an Indian puppet show and a real life snake charmer! (I like the way the snake charmer wears his turban over his hoodie.) But more excitingly we saw elephants! There was the option for an elephant ride up the hill, but we had heard that the elephants weren’t treated that well so we decided to give that a miss, they did however walk right past us, close enough to touch! They are really beautiful creatures.

A wonderful day was slightly ruined by our journey home. We attempted to get the bus back, which was a bit of a mistake. I think the driver took one look at us and thought that could rip us off, he lied and told us that he was going to Kathipura – our stop – and then dropped us off in completely the wrong place and tried to charge us 100 rupees! We refused and gave him 10 for both of us, which was the correct fare. Luckily for us two really nice Indian men helped us get a good deal on a rickshaw and explained to him in Hindi where we wanted to go. Unfortunately he then got lost. It was night time at this point, and getting very cold; I’m not gonna lie I was starting to panic! Being lost at night in a city you don’t know is a very stressful situation to be in! It was when he had stopped to ask for directions for the millionth time that we eventually saw our hostel down the road, we jumped out very quickly!

After that we began our Christmas celebrations at the hostel – more on that in my next post!

Day One in Jaipur

Another fun train journey took us to Jaipur. I use the word “fun” very sarcastically. It was very early in the morning again and it was absolutely freezing! The train was really, really drafty and we were completely unprepared for that, I only had one thin hoodie with me and that really wasn’t enough. We were only on the train for five hours, but when you are that cold that is such a long time, I felt like it was never going to end! It wasn’t a sleeper train this time, but we did go for the cheapest option again – it was very crowded and very noisy. It’s funny, Indian people don’t seem to have any fear at all when it comes to trains; they don’t care which side of the train they get off from, they’ll just jump down on to the tracks, walk over them and climb up on to the platform on the other side.

Of course there were several rickshaw and taxi drivers waiting outside the station to pounce on tourists, we were caught by two very friendly and flirtatious young men, one was the driver and the other was his wing-man, who was better at English and whose job seemed to be charming us in to going with them! It did work though, they took us to our hostel and then managed to persuade us to use them again later. On the road that day I saw auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws, bikes, motorbikes, buses, coaches, cars, vans, horse and cart, oxen and cart, cow and cart, camel and cart, man and cart, and… an elephant! Indian roads really are crazy; there are no organised lanes, just traffic weaving in and out of each other, trying to get through as quickly as they can by squeezing through gaps they should never attempt, drivers never seem to look when they’re getting on to roundabouts and they are continually cutting each other up very dangerously. The horn is used far more frequently than the brakes, each beep seems to say “I’m ploughing through, whether you like it or not, get out of the way or be mown down!” You get used to that pretty quickly though, it becomes normal, however our driver on that day was particularly terrifying! We had so many near misses in that rickshaw and nearly ran over about ten people,  why wait in traffic when you can just drive down the wrong side of the road?!

Here is a picture I took of a road, although it is much calmer than usual:

We did, however, get to our first stop in one piece – the monkey temple! We were slightly apprehensive about this at first, having heard lots of stories about monkey attacks, but we were reassured that these were all red-faced monkeys, the nice kind apparently, and that they were all very tame. Despite this there were some cheeky kids at the bottom of the hill (the temple being at the top) wanting us to pay them 100 rupees to be our “protectors” and walk up the path with us – not a chance! The monkeys did prove to be quite friendly, we bought peanuts which they came and took from our hands!

We did have one scary moment, when I accidentally scared a baby monkey by offering it a nut, it’s mother was not very pleased with me! I ran away from that one pretty quickly. Another scary moment came when we rounded the corner to see what seemed like hundreds of monkeys coming towards us, but it turned out they were just being herded by this guy:

The view from the top was very pretty, we got there in time to see the sun going down over the city.

On our way back we visited the floating palace, which really was very beautiful. We were told that they are planning to turn it in to a restaurant and our driver advised us that if we wanted to go on a romantic date, we should go there.

Of course after that we had to be taken on a detour to the shops that our driver got commission for, but we did visit one that I really liked, it sold goods from a factory that employed widows and poverty-stricken people who could not find work anywhere else. Indian shops are very good at hospitality; they welcome you in, offer you drinks and tell you that they wan’t you to feel at home there, no pressure to buy anything – although of course there is, they’ve just learned to be a bit more subtle about it.

I think possibly the best bit about that day came on the way home though… we got to drive a rickshaw! Our driver took us on to a quieter side street and let me jump in the front next to him, I think that maybe this was an excuse for him to put his arm around me, he had been flirting with both of us throughout the day although when it came to Rob’s turn he got no way near as close, but he was young and vaguely attractive so it wasn’t too creepy… and he was letting me drive his rickshaw so I allowed it! It was very exciting, and not something that tourists usually get to do so it was pretty special. Our friend Faith, who I think has been coming to India for about 30 years, was very impressed when we told her – it’s a big deal!

Our hostel in Jaipur was so much fun, there was such a friendly atmosphere there! It was great to meet and chat to people from all over the world – Americans, Australians, Germans, Brits, Chileans, Swedes – the most interesting were probably two American girls who had been working in Kurdistan with the Peace Corps for two years! They hated it. But they were really nice and I learned a lot from talking to them. The hostel was run by a really friendly Indian family, the boss being a lady who told us to call her Aunty, she enjoyed mothering all the backpackers and she thought I was cute so she loved me! She also thought my name was “Merry”, which she thought was brilliant because my name meant happy – a lot of Indians made that  mistake actually, whenever I introduced myself to anyone they would always say, “Oh Mary, Merry Christmas!” I gave up trying to correct them in the end.

Adventures in Agra

We arrived in Agra at about 5am, it was still dark, cold and very foggy. Even at that time there were taxi drivers waiting on the platform as we got off the train and we were approached straight away; the first guy to approach us worked for the pre-paid taxi booth, the surest way not to get ripped off, and as we were exhausted we decided just to go with him rather than hunt for a bargain. There was a man cleaning the floor of the station with a hose so we had to walk through filthy puddles, which was unpleasant, especially as we were splashed with it as the hose was dragged along, and wet feet only make you colder!

Our taxi driver told us that he knew where our hostel was, he didn’t. He spent ages driving around in the fog, stopping to ask everyone he saw for directions – they all sent us different ways. Eventually, after at least half an hour of this we found it, we had actually driven within about 5 metres from it right at the beginning but the driver had turned around just before we got there thinking it was the wrong way! We basically fell into bed as soon as we got there – after a night of being kept awake by noisy Indian students on the train we were exhausted – and didn’t wake up till 3pm! We then each got to have a very long needed shower – heaven!

We headed into Agra that afternoon and were offered a “tour of Agra” for 10 rupees by a sweet old guy on a cycle rickshaw. It did turn out to be a tour of all the shops he got commission from, but despite that I had a good time. He would sit on his rickshaw and wait for us outside the shops, and even waited outside for us when we went out for dinner, he was probably paid to do this but still I thought it was sweet. He was very friendly and kept asking us questions in broken English. Here’s a picture:

On the way back we went to a marble store – we only stumbled upon it because our driver was lost and had to stop to ask for directions. They showed us how they carved the marble and set precious stones into it – the same technique that was used when building the Taj Mahal and had been passed through their family for generations. Their directions back to our hostel didn’t help though, we were lost for quite a while. It seems that rickshaw/taxi drivers will tell you that they know exactly where you need to go to get you in their rickshaw, but when it comes down to it they have no idea! Indian people are very friendly though, and always keen to offer their help, although more often than not their directions are no help at all!

We paid our driver 50 rupees in the end, it was very sweet to see how pleased he was to get a tip!

Our hostel was great, nice and clean and full of friendly backpackers – mainly from Australia, America and the UK – it was really cool to be able to come back in the evening to relax and chat.

The next morning we visited the Taj Mahal! We were advised not to get there too early because the mist doesn’t clear till about midday, and were also warned that if we got there too late it would be really crowded. In the end we went in the late morning, it was busy but not as bad as everyone had made out, there were of course lots of tourists there – Indian and foreign – but that’s to be expected. The sky was blue and the sun was shining, perfect!

It was amazing just to be at such a famous landmark, we spent a couple of hours wondering around and I took loads of pictures – here’s the Taj, here it is again from a slightly different angle – I guess I was just a bit overwhelmed to be there, I couldn’t stop photographing it!

The Taj was built by the Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial to his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who had died in childbirth. He began building in 1631, the same year that she died, and the entire complex wasn’t completed until 1653, in total about 20,000 people worked on the building. It really is incredibly impressive, I did wonder whether I might be disappointed after the huge build up; I definitely wasn’t! There is just something perfect about it. It is both magnificent and imposing, and beautifully intricate at the same time. The inlaid precious stones and marble carvings are stunning.

Unfortunately for Shah Jahan, pretty soon after the Taj was completed he was overthrown by his son, who imprisoned him in Agra Fort, where he could only gaze at his creation from a window. The Fort was our next stop. We got a cycle rickshaw there as he offered us a cheap price of 30 rupees – 20 less than everyone else was offering. But it seemed that he was really tired or something because he didn’t cycle, instead just pulled us along by foot! It was quite funny but also quite embarrassing – we were going along busy main roads by foot, at one point we even went round a really busy roundabout! I felt like we looked like snobby white people, thinking we were better than everyone else. We were a bit worried that he was perhaps malnourished and poverty-stricken, but the big wad of cash he pulled out at the end proved otherwise! He then had the audacity to try and charge us 150 rupees! Not impressed.

I really liked the Fort, the Mughal architecture was very impressive, although more impressive was the view of the Taj, it was quite romantic to think of Shah Jahan gazing at it from his prison. To be honest his prison was pretty good, I bet most of India at the time would’ve killed to be imprisoned there.

But my favourite part of the Fort wasn’t the beautiful architecture or the views, no it was the man selling grain for us to feed the little ground squirrels by hand! I loved it.

After our visit to the Fort we got ourselves a really cool rickshaw driver, he had used henna to dye his hair bright orange! Although that is not something that is actually too uncommon in India. He took us on a random tour, first to the money changers – located between Costa and Pizza Hut – then to a really posh jewellery store. As we were white they just assumed that we were rich, and showed us loads of really expensive gemstones and jewellery, some of it worth thousands of pounds! Although considering the price that the same jewels would be sold for in England it was actually quite cheap! Rob did buy something, so they loved us and treated us to a Chai and then then took us to their music room where a Sitar player and Indian drummer played for us! It was really beautiful and so great to hear traditional Indian music live! We even got a go on the Sitar!

On the left you can see our amazing driver! He told us that as we were guests in his country he wanted to give us the best deal, nice to not have a driver trying to squeeze as much money out of us as possible! At one point his rickshaw actually broke down and Rob had to get out to help push it to a mechanic, it was pretty funny. Although while we waited there we attracted quite a big crowd of Indian men who would not stop staring – awkward! Yet by the end of the trip I would come to get used to this!

And thus came the end of our two days in Agra! We headed back to the hostel to get an early night in preparation for a very early train the next morning to Jaipur.

A long journey: London-Riyadh-Chennai-Agra

Everyone keeps asking me the same question – how was India? A difficult one to answer properly unless you want me to talk at you for hours; people generally get a reply of “amazing”, or “I had the best time”, because I had so many brilliant experiences that I find it difficult to sort through what I want to say on the spot, and I don’t know which story to tell! So I have decided to start a blog where I will write up my travel diary for people to read through at their leisure!

 

We flew out from Heathrow on the morning of the 18th December. Here I am reading the Lonely Planet (backpackers bible) at Riyadh airport in Saudi Arabia, where we stopped for a good few hours before getting our connecting flight to Chennai. The airport in Saudi Arabia was just like any other airport, except with less to do – only a few small shops for entertainment. There was a Costa though. I was impressed with Saudi Arabian airlines – good food an a good movie selection, although they did cut out any kiss scenes! The only thing a little bit different about them is that they read out a ‘supplication made by the prophet Muhammed’ whenever he travelled before we flew, and the female stewardesses wore headdresses.

The real excitement started in Chennai though. We arrived on Monday morning after hours and hours of waiting, and sitting, and queuing, and waiting, and sitting, and queuing. Feeling slightly groggy, we freshened up in the not-so-clean toilets at the airport before heading out into the city. The heat hit me immediately, intensified as I struggled with my ridiculously heavy rucksack – I only packed essentials!  As we walked from the airport to the metro station across the road we were approached continuously by taxi and rickshaw drivers, no doubt wanting to rip off the naive, fresh off the plane tourists. We were far too savvy for them, though. The metro cost us about 10p for a 20 minute or so journey into the city centre.

In this picture I’m waiting  for a train. Incidentally, they use the same logo as the London Underground to mark their stations. Once on the train we were lucky to be able to squeeze on to one of the narrow benches on either side of the wide metal carriage, there were several handles hanging from the ceiling but I was of course too short for them! We had got on early but it soon filled up with a wide variety of people; women in colourful sarees with fresh flowers in their hair, or wearing just a simple shirt and jeans, and men wearing anything from smart business suits to barefoot in the traditional lunghi (basically a sarong!)

Once in the city centre we left our luggage at Chennai Central Station and headed in to the city to explore. Chennai is a very hot, very busy, very loud city. Wherever you go you cannot escape the constant din of traffic; loud engines and honking horns of cars, rickshaws motorbikes and buses. We of course saw cows wondering the street, sharing their dinner with stray dogs amongst the rubbish. A tiny old man, barefoot, pulled a cart about 10 times his size along the bumpy road. The smell changed as you walked, from the delicious scent of spices and cooking curries, to the awful stench of open sewers and rotting rubbish. We walked past a small shanty town where women sat cooking in groups outside their shacks, while their children played naked in the dust beside them.

They say the best way to discover a city is to get lost in it, however in this case I wouldn’t agree; the only thing I discovered was sore feet, tired legs and a sunburnt neck. We were lost for most of the day, trying to find the beach. You’d think it would be easy – just walk West – but no. We walked alongside the it for quite a way but there was no possible to get to it! Finally, when the sun had set, and we had given up all hope of finding the beach, we turned a random corner and there it was! Although the sea was so far out, and it was so dark that we couldn’t really see any of it, it was nice to be able to sit down and enjoy the cool breeze after a long, hot day of walking.

I wasn’t really too sad to leave Chennai. We boarded our train at about 10pm and began our 31 hour journey up to Agra! We were travelling sleeper class -the cheapest you could possibly travel, it cost less than a tenner – in a carriage made up of lots of compartments of 8 bunks. It wasn’t clean nor was it particularly dirty, although there were a few cockroaches scurrying around. They didn’t really phase me though and pretty much as soon as we got on the train I climbed up to my Side Upper bunk (having to use the ladder of the opposite bunk as mine had none) and snuggled into my sleeping bag, pulling my hood up to avoid a cockroach-in-the-ear situation. The bunks are cushioned blue plastic and actually really comfy, if not a little cramped with your rucksack up there too, and the swaying of the train rocked me to sleep. Throughout the day and night there are people walking up and down the carriage selling snacks, curries, fruit, chai, drinks and papers, shouting or singing their wares as they walk past. I think there were only one or two other girls in our carriage, we were definitely the only white people. We shared our compartment with a group of students from Chennai who were going travelling in the North. 31 hours actually went by quite quickly, and the only problem I had with travelling Sleeper was the toilet – a hole in the floor of the train – not so easy to negotiate while the train is moving! Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos, should have done, but if you want to see what it looks like Google “Sleeper Class.”

That’s all for my first post, I had a lot of fun reminiscing. Next stop Agra!

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