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.

Last post with Varanasi photos…Visit to a textile company…King of Brocade Weaving Centre…

                           Exquisite handmade silk brocade made on-site at Tiwari International.

We are experiencing awful Wi-Fi issues at the Ramada Hotel in Khajuraho, India. The town is considerably smaller than many we’ve visited over the past three weeks and without a doubt, this is the worse signal we’ve experienced.
The quality of the work is evident in every piece.

For the past several hours, I have been trying, off and on, to complete and upload today’s post about a fantastic silk-weaving facility we visited on our last day in Varanasi.

Neatly arranged shelves with countless fabrics in varying designs and colors.

From time to time, over the past seven-plus years we’ve been traveling, we’ve had an opportunity to describe and subsequently promote a small business we encounter along the way. 

Whether it is a barbershop, gift shop, street vendor, or luxury shop as we describe today, we’ve always enjoyed sharing details with our many worldwide readers.

Shelves are lined with stunning fabrics suitable for the wardrobe for Indian women and men, tourists, and many household goods such as draperies, furniture, bedspreads, pillows, etc.

Should any of you decide to visit Varanasi in the future, the stunning shop is worth a visit. I drooled over the gorgeous Pashmina shawls and scarves and only wished I’d had room in my luggage for one or two.

The staff was busy working with customers.

Unfortunately, after recently paying the airlines for overweight baggage, there was no way I could purchase even the lightest item and have it make sense. Plus, I cannot wear scarves often when I attempt to keep my clothing accessories to a minimum.

But, as we travel throughout India, we find most women, Indians, and tourists wearing scarves and shawls. Once women arrive in India from other countries, they immediately adopt the scarf concept to blend in with the population.

The shop also offered a wide array of ready-made clothing, including scarves and Pashmina shawls.

On the Maharajas Express, we all received no less than eight scarves as gifts at various stations as welcome gifts. I will have no choice but to give them away along the way. No doubt they contributed to my bag being overweight when some of them were pretty heavy.

But, few travelers have the same issue of “traveling light,” and many tourists come to India for shopping which is exceptionally exciting in this land of diversity and color.

The owner escorted us to the fabricating area, where a diligent weaver was hard at work.

Tiwari International appears to be a family-owned business. With the shop so busy when we arrived, we had little time to speak to the owner/manager Keshav Tiwari who was extremely kind and welcoming, even knowing we were “lookers,” not “shoppers.”

He was excited to share that actress Goldie Hawn had recently visited the shop, as he pointed to the framed photo on the wall as shown here in our photo. They were so proud to have a celebrity visit but equally enthused to welcome us.

This photo of actress Goldie Hawn hung on the wall in the shop. The staff was proud she’d come to visit and purchase several products.

We told Keshav about our visit to India and our site and promised him a story with today’s photos as a thank you for showing us around. He couldn’t have been more pleased, as were we.

The quality of their products is breathtaking, and we reveled in every category of cloth he showed us. Of course, we were in awe of the artistry he showed us by one of his workers, diligently at work on a loom. 

The finest of detail went into this lovely brocade, almost completed.

When he explained how time-consuming and deliberate the work is, we were all the more in awe of his massive inventory. Prices are reasonable, and support staff is available to assist in selections.

From their website, the following:

“Banarasi Brocades, as the world knows it, is called by the name kinkab in Varanasi. A high-quality weaving is done using gold and silver threads. Silk Threads are also used as well. The most common motifs include scroll patterns and butidars designs. The other designs are Jewelry designs, birds, animals, flowers, creepers, paisley motifs. Hindu religious and Mughal motifs also influenced brocade designs. When a Gold embellishment is done on a silver background, it is called Ganga-Jamuna in the local language.
This elderly weaver spent long days working at these looms.

The designs are first drawn on paper. The person who draws the layout is called Naqshbandi. The main weaver is assisted by a helper. This design is then woven on a small wooden frame to form a grid of warp and weft. 

The process is slow and painstaking, requiring intense concentration and expertise.

The requisite number of warp threads and the extra weft threads are woven on the loom. The famous tissue sari of Varanasi is unbelievably delicate, combining the use of gold and silver metallic threads.”

It was fascinating to observe the complicated and time-consuming process.
Finally, attention from Keshav was required, and we bid him thanks and good day with a typical Indian hands-together-bow, and we were on our way back out into the crazy traffic of Varanasi.
We had an opportunity to handle this finest of silk made by worms and of great value.

It was delightful, as always, to see how local products are made, adding even more substance and interest to sightseeing outings.

That’s it for today. Now, the challenge of uploading this post. Tomorrow, we’re embarking on an exciting road trip which begins at 8:30 am, taking us to one of our most sought-after adventures in India…eight days of safari in two distinct national parks where we’ll live in camps. Yeah!

Artistic design, coupled with great skill, produces such fine works as this.

Thanks to all of you for the many birthday wishes. Your kindness means the world to me!

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.