Day #272 in lockdown in Mumbai, India hotel…Part 1…Christmas wishes…Chanukah wishes (belated)…Kwanzaa wishes…Boxing day wishes!..

We were thrilled with our excellent seats on a balcony in this photo, prepared to watch the Hindu ceremonies on the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. What an experience! We wished all of our family, readers and friends, a very happy holiday season.

Today’s photos were posted on February 20, 2020, which happened to be my birthday, creating an incredibly spiritual and cultural experience in Varanasi, India, at night on the Ganges River, which proved to be one of our highlights in India experience. For the story and more photos from this post, please click here.

Over the next several days during the Christmas season, we will be sharing some photos of us and sightseeing venues, as we savored unique and fascinating experiences while on our planned initially two-month tour of India, cut short weeks early due to Covid-19.

The priests were primarily young and agile, performing the ritual perfectly synchronized and with grace and ease.

It’s ironic how over the past nine months in lockdown, we have spent little time rejoicing over the exquisite Indian treasures we observed during the tour. Now is the time to do so. Once the lockdown began, it seemed our focus had been getting out of confinement and moving on in our world travels. It’s been a long and arduous challenge.

Last night, Tom and I discussed how grateful we are to have weathered this challenge, getting along so beautifully, overall staying upbeat, and avoiding feeling hopeless or depressed. Many of our readers have written and asked why we’ve been able to get through this unscathed, but the answer isn’t as straightforward as one might think.

Smoke from the fire rituals wafted through the air.

Amid all this Covid-19 madness, my dear sister Susan passed away in August, with three members of my immediate family falling prey to the virus, each eventually recovering. Another stress-inducing situation was the design and development of our new website. Day after day, over many months, we experienced frustrating interruptions preventing our site from being “alive” and functioning as usual.

Fortunately, we worked with a beautiful, knowledgeable Indian company, SEO Company (based in the USA with operations in India), who was quick to respond and address the complicated issues as they appeared. Part of our service with Kate and Mital, our two tech people, is to provide a complimentary first year’s service to change and adjust aspects of our site as needed.

A well-lit boat on the Ganges River.

A few days ago, they added a vital “plug-in,” an app that prevents us from seeing or receiving spam comments. We were getting no less than 10 of these each day, primarily pornographic spam, which required me to handle each one separately. Now, they are gone permanently, thanks to their assistance.

Of course, during this period, we’ve been concerned about a visa extension for India. But, finally, according to the country’s immigration website, visas for foreign nationals will be automatically extended up to and including 30 days after the international airport re-opens. That has not happened yet but may transpire by the end of the year.

The young priests are highly skilled in presenting this ceremony every evening.

How did we get booked on an Emirates flight to South Africa for January 12, 2021? Some airlines and countries had special arrangements to be able to fly in and out of India. The option for South Africa didn’t appear until recently. We could have left a week earlier, but, in light of Covid-19, we chose not to travel so close to New Year’s, which undoubtedly would result in larger crowds at the airports and on flights.

Again, ironically, it was exactly nine months ago today that we had a flight booked to South Africa and were turned away at the Mumbai airport in the middle of the night, ending up returning to our original Mumbai hotel, which closed a few days later, leaving us without a place to stay.

The crowds filtered into the area earlier in the evening as many boats moved closer to the ceremonies.

The stress of those 24 hours until we worked out details to stay here at the Courtyard By Marriott Mumbai International Airport for this duration. During the first three months or so, every day, we worried that the hotel would be forced to close with the lack of customers or Covid-19 restrictions, and once again, we’d be left with nowhere to stay. As the months rolled on, we finally were able to relax.

So, yes, we are grateful this holiday season and extend our warmest, heartfelt wishes to all of our family/friends/readers, regardless of a spiritual/religious affiliation or not, to embrace this time to reflect, refresh and renew as we make our way into a New Year, in only days to come.

Chanting and music bellowed from this historic temple.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and embrace gratefulness.

Photo from one year ago today, December 20, 2019:

On this date in 2013, we spotted this white mass in a tree hanging over the pool, only 15 feet, 4.5 meters from where we sit each day, waiting for visitors. It turned out to be a tree frog’s nest, which magically appeared overnight. For the year-ago story, please click here.

Travel day…We’ve arrived in Khajuraho…The evening Hindu ritual at the Ganges River…Great news to celebrate my birthday today!…

The nine umbrellas represent the nine planets. Hindus value every aspect of the earth and the universe.

Wow! What a fantastic surprise last night when the email came in from the law firm notifying us that our visa waiver had been approved. No longer are we “undesirables” in South Africa for overstaying our visa by three months while I was recovering from open-heart surgery. We can’t stop smiling.

Also, today is my 72nd birthday. It became significant as the best birthday gift I could receive when material items didn’t fit into our bags, and thus, we didn’t purchase gifts for one another.
One of the seven of the priest stations celebrating with fire.

We just arrived at the beautiful Ramada Khajuraho. We found our room impeccable and luxurious, on the first floor with a stunning view of the flower gardens surrounding the gated property. What a relief from our last less-than-desirable hotel in Varanasi that is behind us now.

The flight from Varanasi to Khajuraho was quick and uneventful on pleasant India Airlines. However, we boarded a half-hour later than anticipated and didn’t know the gate number until moments before boarding. Otherwise, everything was smooth.

The priests are young and agile, performing the ritual perfectly synchronized and with grace and ease.

It feels good to be in somewhat of a remote area for the next 48 hours, and then we’re on the move again. However, for now, we have two stories to share with photos of Varanasi before we detail our visit here.

For today, we’re posting the photos from the nightly celebration on the Ganges River after we’d experienced the sunrise ritual earlier in the day. With little time remaining until we head out for dinner to celebrate my birthday, which by the way, is on 02 20 2020 (that will never happen again), I am forced to rush through some of the details of the nightly Aarti celebration as I include these photos.
From the balcony where we were seated, we had a bird’s eye view.

The experience was breathtaking. By luck or planning by our tour guide Avi, we ended up watching the entire spectacle from a balcony above the crowd. As we looked around, we realized we had the “best seats in the house.”

There were thousands of people in attendance, many standing, seated in plastic chairs lined up row after row for the early attendees. It was quite a crowd. Many were tourists, but the majority appeared as locals and other Indian people who’d traveled from all over India for this important pilgrimage.

This is a view of all seven priests during the ceremony.

This celebration was unique from the border ceremony we’d posted a few days ago. The crowd was respectfully quiet and in awe of the several priests serving the ritual from a designated station, decorated with flowers, incense, and fire. It was quite a spectacle, especially with bells and cymbals clanging and loud music wafting from a massive speaker system.

Here are some details about the ritual from this site:

“Ganga Aarti is one of the most beautiful experiences in India. The spiritually uplifting ceremony is performed daily to honor the River Goddess Ganga. Every day, as dusk descends on the Earth, the ghats of the River Ganga witnesses a spectacular ceremony. Hundreds of divas, mantras, the aroma of incense, flowers, and musical instruments created an ambiance of divine bliss.
Smoke from the fire rituals wafted through the air.

The Aarti ritual is of high religious significance. Fire is used as an offering to the river. You need to witness the event to comprehend its grandiose. In this blog, we will provide a complete guide for Ganga Aarti.

Aarti is a Hindu religious ritual of worship, a part of the Puja. This ceremony includes fire, songs sung to praise the worshiped, flowers, incense, music, etc. The purpose of Aarti is to show humility and gratitude to God’s divine form.

The priest in the center of the seven had a more elaborate station.

Ganga Aarti is a holy offering to the River Goddess. Lit lamps and flowers are floated down the river. This offering is made to the Goddess Ganga, also affectionately referred to as Maa, the Mother Goddess of the holiest river in India.

The Ganga Aarti is performed on the banks of River Ganga. The spiritual ceremony happens every evening in different cities of India, after the sun sets, be it rain, hail, or shine! The most popular Aarti ceremonies are held in the towns of Varanasi, Haridwar, and Rishikesh. It is an event one must attend once in their lifetime. However, the tradition is very different in each of these places.

VIP seating for dignitaries and officials.

Varanasi Ganga Aarti is one of the most beautiful religious ceremonies in the world. It takes place every sunset at the holy Dashaswamedh Ghat, near Kashi Vishwanath Temple. This divine ritual is a highly choreographed ceremony. The Aarti is performed on a stage on the river banks. A group of young Pandits, all draped in saffron-colored robes, raise huge brass lamps in honor of the River Goddess. The extravaganza is fantastic, and you will certainly want more of it.

The ceremony commences with blowing a conch shell, which is believed to eliminate all negative energy and heighten your senses. The waving of incense sticks in elaborate patterns and the circling of large flaming lamps follow. The movement of the lights is synchronized to the rhythmic chants of hymns and the music of cymbals. The heady scent of sandalwood thickly permeates the air. The Aarti is not just a ritual. It is a display of complete devotion to the River Ganga.”
A well-lit boat on the river.

The ceremony commenced around 6:30 pm and continued until 7:10 pm, where Avi reappeared to walk us through the narrow alleys to return to our hotel for dinner. 

We made our way back through many alleys and narrow streets, maneuvering our way past cows, dogs, motorbikes, and people. In the dark, the displays we encountered dozens of food vendors, fabric sellers, and trinket shops were mind-boggling. It was unbelievable. We’d never seen anything like it anywhere in the world.
The young priests are highly skilled in presenting this ceremony every evening.

We arrived back at the hotel by 8:00 pm, had a decent dinner, and wandered off the bed by 10:00 pm. We’d been up and about since 5:00 am, and a good night’s sleep was on the agenda.

As the crowds filtered into the area as many boats moved closer to the ceremonies.

The following day we began another tour with details we’ll share in tomorrow’s post. The pace we’re keeping, moving every two to three days, early mornings for flights and tours, but surprisingly, we’re both holding up well.

We were thrilled with our excellent seats on a balcony.

We arrived in India three weeks ago today, and we’re one-third of the way through our 63 days of touring (including seven days on the Maharajas Express). It’s incredible, it’s enlightening, and most of all, it’s unique beyond all of our expectations.

Chanting and music bellowed from this historic temple.

Thanks to everyone for the zillions of birthday wishes! I couldn’t feel more honored and blessed. Whew! What a day! What a life! What an experience!

The morning Hindu ritual during sunrise boat ride on the Ganges River…Cremation…

Sunrise over the Ganges River.

The amount of history and information flooding our minds is astounding. We’ve learned an incredible amount about the culture and history of India than we ever dreamed possible, even on this extended tour.

There were numerous narrow alleys to navigate to arrive at the Ganges River. 

Our guides have been articulate and knowledgeable, accompanied by a passionate sense of pride about their country, its rich history, and its exceptional people.

Many open stalls are located in narrow alleys.

We feel safe here except when walking on the streets with volumes of vehicles trying to make their way around us and us around them. We don’t have a sense of impending doom as we may in some areas of the world with significant populations, but we still proceed with considerable caution.

Having a local as our guide each time we step outside the doors of our hotel provides an added layer of peace of mind as we work our way through one heavily populated area after another.
Walking down these alleys is dangerous when motorbikes come whizzing while honking their horns. Our guide Avi and Tom, kept me safe from being run over.

Varanasi has 3,676,841 people and covers an area of 43.28 square miles which is relatively small compared to many other cities in India, thus, the density of the traffic and people on the streets.

From this site: “Varanasi, also called Benares, Banaras, or Kashi, city, southeastern Uttar Pradesh state, northern India. Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is located on the left bank of the Ganges (Ganga) River and is one of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism. Its early history is that of the first Aryan settlement in the middle Ganges valley. 
Cows are sacred animals in India. Hindu people do not eat any meat. The cow is revered for its milk, for making and other dairy products, and for their dung used to build fires. They are sacred and adored, well-fed, and nurtured well into old age. They often wander the streets during the day, always returning home to their owners at night.
Varanasi was the capital of the kingdom of Kashi during the time of the Buddha (6th century BCE), who gave his first sermon nearby at Sarnath. By the 2nd millennium BCE, Varanasi was a seat of Aryan religion and philosophy. It was also a commercial and industrial center famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture. 
The city remained a center of religious, educational, and artistic activities as attested by the celebrated Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang, who visited it in about 635 CE and said that the city extended for about 3 miles (5 km) along the western bank of the Ganges.”
One of several cremation sites along the Ganges in Varanasi. Women prepare the bodies while men attend the cremation for however many hours it takes. Bodies are cremated within six hours of death when possible. The cremation fee is typically INR 14306.31, US $200, and most families have enough funds to cover the cost. The ashes are pushed into the river. Note the firewood in this scene.

These stunning facts resulted in yesterday morning’s enthusiastic visit to the Ganges River. Most of us have heard about the significance of the Ganges River with preconceived notions of what it’s actually like. 

Having the opportunity to take in all the wonder of this mystical place and learn about its history and its people left us reeling with excitement. At precisely 6:00 am, our guide Avi arrived at the hotel to escort us on foot through the meandering narrow alleys and roads, already packed with citizens preparing for their day.

Local workers sift through the ashes in hopes of discovering some treasure they can resell.

That walk to the Ganges River was an experience in itself. We wandered past cows that had to move to let us pass, stray dogs awakening from the night’s sleep atop carts and tables, and goats meandering in the doorways of their places of residence.

There were countless puddles and slippery areas from the residents washing the cobblestone walkways overnight to reduce the dung produced by all the wandering animals. We never saw this much dung while in the bush in Africa.

Centuries ago, maharajas built many fine buildings and palaces along the river, most of which are currently occupied regardless of their condition.

The shopkeepers had begun to set up their various wares, hoping early morning passersby might partake of some of their offerings on the way to the river. Already the smells of incense and spices wafted through the air.

The uneven and sketchy walk transpired over no less than 20 minutes as we carefully observed every footfall along the way. It would have been easy for me to fall when I’m still not as stable as I’d like to be, while Tom hung onto me, so surefooted himself.

The evidence of architectural expertise and creativity remains today. 

We walked up and down no less than 20 total flights of steps. Although I don’t get too out of breath (no more than anyone), my legs aren’t steady especially heading down steps instead of climbing up. 

I felt like a puppet dangling my legs over each step in an attempt to avoid falling while heading down the steep stairs of the ghats. But, I continued with nary a complaint, with Tom and Ari offering a firm hand to guide me along.

The many stairways down to the river are called “ghats” as described here: Ghats in Varanasi are riverfront steps leading to the banks of the River Ganges. The city has 88 ghats. Most ghats are bathing and Puja ceremony ghats, while two ghats are used exclusively as cremation sites. Most Varanasi ghats were rebuilt after 1700 AD, when the city was part of the Maratha Empire. The patrons of current ghats are Marathas, Shindes (Scindias), Holkars, Bhonsles, and Peshwes (Peshwas). Many ghats are associated with legends or mythologies, while many ghats are privately owned. Morning boat rides on the Ganges, across the ghats is a popular visitor attraction.

Once we arrived at the river, getting onto the rowboat was tricky when we had to step from one of the last steps directly onto a little wooden platform that was hardly secure. A molded plastic chair was awaiting me, and we situated ourselves for good photo ops. 

Of course, there were no life jackets on the boat, but we didn’t worry. With so many boats near the bank of the river, should a boat begin to sink, plenty of helping hands would reach out in need of a rescue?
Shiva, the Goddess, and Vishnu the God, of many, are represented in blue on these two structures.

We were on that boat no less than 75 minutes while the boat owner continually rowed. The experience was more significant being in a rowboat as opposed to a fancy motorboat. This was an authentic experience.

As shown in our photos, there was so much to see. It was fascinating to hear how the locals wander to the river each day to bathe. They disrobe enough to maintain a certain level of dignity, but not entirely as we witnessed each bather tugging at their sarongs and other clothing to avoid embarrassment.
We purchased these two offerings to light and placed them into the river with a prayer. The cost was INR 40, US 56 cents for the two. Of course, after the lengthy rowboat ride, we generously tipped the driver.

After the women bathe, there are curtained areas where they can change into dry sarongs and make their way back to their designated city areas for the day. Most street workers and vendors are men, although women are seen in some of the more upscale women’s clothing shops.

The priests were engaged in the ceremonial sunrise rituals, enacted specific decorated areas, which we’ll share in tomorrow’s post about the evening ritual at the river, again a unique and fascinating experience, one we’ll never forget.

Two dogs, most likely siblings, are checking out the scenery. Stray dogs are often fed by the locals. They don’t bark and are gentle around people.

But, there we were, sitting in a small rowboat scouring the shores of the Varanasi side of the Ganges River, where people were bathing, priests were chanting, deceased bodies were being cremated, and the sun was rising on the horizon. 

Tom looked at me as he often did with a wide grin and said, “Who would have thunk?”

Yes, and in my usual manner, I said, “Pinch me. Is this happening?”

Tom and the sunrise over the Ganges River.

We smiled at one another, knowing in our hearts that continuing on our journey to see the world was what we were meant to do. And, there’s so much more yet to come. Please stay with us as we share India with all of you through our eyes, through our hearts, and our minds.

Varanasi…Adaptation, once again…

Yesterday we met this lovely Indian couple at the airport.

In a perfect world, of which there is no such thing, every travel day, every tour, and every hotel would be to our liking. But, as we so well know, the world is an imperfect place, and our world travels are no different.

Last night we checked into a hotel, Ganges Grand Hotel, located in midtown Varanasi, that wasn’t of the caliber of the hotels we’ve stayed in during the first ten days following the Maharajas Express week-long train excursion.

When we arrived at the hotel by our assigned driver Ojuh, the hotel staff met us a few blocks away to collect our bags. No parking or stopping was allowed in the direct vicinity of the hotel. 
Last night during dinner, we noticed this cow entering a dress shop.

Fortunately, we only had a five-minute walk through the excessive honking of horns from tuk-tuks, cars, trucks, and motorbikes as we darted in and out of the traffic on uneven ground in an attempt to avoid getting hit or tripping and falling. This was the most traffic we’d seen in India thus far.
Finally, we reached the hotel to climb a steep set of uneven stairs to enter the lobby. The small reception area reminded me of “motels” from many decades ago when I traveled across the country with my parents as a child. 

We were welcomed and handed the box from Amazon India containing my new laptop, which had arrived earlier in the day. I am preparing today’s post using it, and so far, I’m pretty impressed. 

We were escorted to our room on the second floor. As soon as the door was opened, our hearts sank. This couldn’t hold a candle to the other hotel rooms of days (or years) past.

Lanterns and fabrics were carried on the heads of locals in preparation for a wedding.

The bed is hard as a rock; the room shows considerable wear and tear; the bathroom and shower are all-in-ones. In other words, the bathroom sink is in the same spot as the shower. 

Water covers the floor and doesn’t drain well, leaving the bathroom a slippery danger zone with the potential for falling on the marble floor. We asked for extra towels to cover the bottom to prevent falls while in the bathroom and when stepping outside the bathroom. 

After getting settled as best as possible in the room, we headed to the dining room for dinner. We hadn’t eaten a thing in over 12 hours. We giggled when we commented that it felt as if we were in a movie centered around international intrigue and espionage in the 1930s.

In our situation, I must be able to get food befitting my way of eating. There was nothing on the menu I could order. I asked for the chef (cook), and he kindly prepared a roast chicken and vegetable dish that met my criteria and tasted fine. 

Bleary-eyed and tired from a long travel day, we shared a few beers (no wine available). Since alcohol isn’t allowed in many Indian cities, this restaurant covers its beers with tin foil. Go figure.

Once again, Tom had chicken and egg-fried rice. It looks like we’ll repeat these same items over the next two nights until we leave for our following location that online appears to be more suitable for our desires and expectations.

Yes, I know, this is India, and yes, we’re adaptable and accepting of cultural differences, but we paid a lot of money for this tour and didn’t expect to stay in this particular type of hotel.

We looked up all the hotels booked over the next few weeks, and it appears this particular hotel was out of character for our 55-night tour of India. We breathed a sigh of relief and settled back into the reality we so often pursue, “love the one you’re with.” We’ll be fine.

I suppose our tour guide selected this hotel due to its convenient location to the Ganges River and other points of interest. This morning at 6:00 am, we met with our Varanasi tour guide, Avi, and proceeded on a tour of one of the most exciting and unusual tours we’ve done to date… a rowboat ride on the Ganges River at sunrise.

Need I say, we have some stunning photos to share tomorrow while today, in the short time we have left until our next outing, to continue to set up my new laptop with all the apps and files I typically use.

We’ll be back with more tomorrow. Have a peaceful day and evening.