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India Part 2- Terrific photos! Experience the Taj Mahal and Ganges with Gerry Feehan

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India Part 2- Terrific photos help you experience the Taj Mahal and Ganges. This is the second in a four-part series on India

The Taj Mahal in Agra, India was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal. Constructed of ivory marble inlaid with semi-precious stones, the Taj Mahal is described as the world’s most perfect building. The Taj does not disappoint.

the Taj Mahal is described as the world’s most perfect building

The grand mausoleum is best viewed in the early morning light, but some important foreign politico was in town so the grounds were closed to us plebeians. We had to view the edifice from Agra Fort, which lies across the Yamuna River.

sharing the Taj Mahal with friendly locals

Still, the ancient site in the hazy distance was stunning, with its four tall minarets framing the gigantic domed tomb. In 1658, after a succession battle, Shah Jahan’s son had his father imprisoned in the Fort. The elder Shah was forced to live out his existence with a distant, tantalizing, maddening view of his beloved wife’s final resting place.

cows come first in India

a boy selling funerary votives

The Taj Mahal grounds re-opened to the great unwashed later that afternoon – affording us the opportunity to avoid the morning crowd. As the sun set, we were able to quietly enjoy this architectural wonder with an intimate gathering of… about 10,000 souls. Did I mention India has a lot of people? (see Part 1 of the series.)

“India? Are you nuts? Join Gerry for part 1 of his series on India.

 

What’s the scoop Anoop?

Every morning, before he could open his mouth to explain where we were going and what we’d see, eat and do that day, we’d greet our guide Anoop Singhal with a preemptive, “What’s the scoop, Anoop?” Then he’d regale us with the remarkable things we were to consume – visually and gastronomically – that day.

A family happily camped in the streets of Varanasi.

And throughout the adventure, with ceremonial kirpan rattling by his side, driver Devinder Singh navigated us safely through the byways of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, his horn a constant presence, firmly announcing our arrival in every hamlet, village and town.

Varanasi Pilgrims

When we flew to Varanasi to visit the sacred waters of the Ganges, Singh Ji drove through the night, met us at the airport and safely delivered us to our luxurious accommodation.

It was on the short drive into Varanasi that we saw our first corpse.

Supplicants bathe in the sacred GangesIt is the desire of every devout Hindu to be cremated along the banks of the Ganges River, ashes then spread into the sacred water. Such a fortuitous departure from life enhances the deceased’s opportunity to be transported to heaven and escape the cycle of reincarnation, rebirth.

What we had seen on the way into town was a body, brightly wrapped in funerary attire, drawn in an open cart and bound for a wooden funeral pyre.

Funeral Pyres on the banks of the Ganges

Late that afternoon, after navigating Varanasi’s warren-like alleyways and descending the stone steps of Manikarnika Ghat to the riverbank, we rowed quietly out into the soft Ganges current. Orange flames danced from a score of burning pyres, each mimicking the brilliant Indian sunset.

an offering for the river gods

Downstream, supplicants released floating offerings of lit candles set in yellow marigolds, while men and women – pilgrims from all over India – stepped into the water to cleanse themselves and sip the holy elixir.

garlands of marigolds

Despite encouragement from the locals we did not partake in the ritual of drinking directly from the blessed Ganges. A Canadian doctor I met on a scenic point overlooking the river warned that to do so was to invite, “the 30 day, 30 pound diet.”

As darkness descended we drifted silently, watching a growing multitude of funerary blazes illuminate the shore. The effect was ethereal, apocalyptic.

In the morning the mood at breakfast was somber. Our time with Mr. Singh and our wonderful guide Anoop was over. We were headed to Mumbai to begin the next leg of our journey. Before we left for the airport, Anoop Ji surprised us with a private yoga session in the garden of the Taj Gateway, our fabulous Varanasi hotel.

a colourful scene on the Ganges

 

end of along day

After a lot of “ohms”, some deep breathing and much stretching, the yogi insisted we finish the session with a laugh – literally. So, we all forced a grin that morphed to a chuckle and eventually became a contagious guffaw. Soon the whole group was howling with a genuine, fall on your yoga mat, belly laugh.

The mood had swung and we were all smiles as we boarded the plane for Mumbai.

Next time: the slums of Mumbai.

If you go: Explore India from Vancouver B.C., www.exploreindia.ca, capably and professionally handled all aspects of our private month-long tour – air and land travel, hotels, meals, guides, drivers, entrance fees and activities – for one all-inclusive price.

“India? Are you nuts?” Join Gerry for Part 1 of his series on India.

Thanks to Rod Kennedy and Kennedy Wealth Management and Ing and McKee Insurance for helping to make this series possible.  Please support them.

 

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Sailing the Nile – Parts 1 and 2

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Sailing the Nile

This is the second in a two-part series “Sailing the Nile”.

There were only 15 guests on board the Malouka: nine polite Americans and our group of six raucous Canadians. We were on a six-day sail up the Nile River. The vessel was a traditional double-masted dahabiya, part of the Nour el Nil fleet https://www.nourelnil.com/

Dahabiyas have been plying the waters of the Nile for millennia. But this was a cleverly-constructed, modern, luxurious craft for us clever, modern, luxuriant folk.

Egypt: Sailing the Nile by Gerry Feehan

 

In addition to the crew – who outnumbered the guests – we were graced with the presence of Jean-Pierre, a gentle man with a charming Parisian accent whose only responsibility aboard ship (from what we could glean) was to hop from boat to boat, entertaining the guests with his relaxed septuagenarian spirit – and to act as self-appointed ‘bodyguard’ to Eleanor, one of the fleet’s owners. Eleanor, an elegant French lady, maintained her sumptuous quarters on the Malouka’s sister ship, the Meroe.

Every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner, was served in style, on deck, in the open air. The food was amazing. We were waited on like Pharaohs and Queens: fresh-netted Nile perch, crisp fried falafel and baba ghanouj; straight-from–the-oven flatbread to scoop up the tahini, hummus and yogurt sauces. Each afternoon, we were offered the refreshing juice of some exotic fruit. After dinner, often just a simple desert of dates and figs.

After feeding the guests, the crew enjoys lunch on the lower deck

We quickly bonded with the crew. Where English/Arabic language issues arose, the occasional knowing nod, some common courtesy and a mutual admiration for the beauty of the Nile, sufficed. The Egyptian crew was polite and attentive. And even the most hardened of these river seamen displayed a boyish sense of humour.

Each time we neared shore to dock for an excursion, the captain – whom the staff had inexplicably nicknamed Humpty Dumpty – commenced a routine of alarmed shouts directed at the bow crew—while simultaneously engaging in a frantic arm-waving ceremony toward the helmsman. As we neared Edfu, and before he could start this inevitable daily performance, I jumped into his station at the bow and began gesticulating and yelling in my best pidgin Arabic.

Humpty looked at me in astonishment. The crew was momentarily dumfounded. Then one-by-one they burst into hysterical laughter. The cook, abandoning the galley, fell to the floor, pounding his fists on the deck with unrestrained glee.

I looked at the captain apologetically and said, “Asif.” But I wasn’t really sorry—and Humpty was laughing just as hard as the others.

The sun began to redden over the Nile. The barge passed fertile fields of cotton and sugar cane; lush orchards of pomegranates and figs. Galabiya-clad shepherds looked up from their flocks. Women washed clothes in the fading light. Children leapt into the clear warm water. A startled grey heron squawked. A young boy astride a thin donkey waived hello. Everything was fun and games. Then the squall hit.

The sudden gale propelled the dahabiya sideways. We were headed for an inevitable collision with shore. All hands were on deck as the bow slowly crushed into a thick grove of papyrus. I looked at the captain. He was not laughing. Orders were shouted. Two crewmen jumped overboard with tie-lines in hand, frantically swimming through the thick reeds. On shore they pounded grounding stakes into the hard bank. Then the entire team, from first mate to cook, hauled fast the lines.

When you are a ship’s captain you are on duty 24/7 and can never break, even if your name is Humpty.

As quickly as it started the squall ebbed and all was well again.

Humpty at the helm

This motley crew was not much help during the squall

After the calm we resumed our drift. Near the Temple of Horemheb we tied up for the night, went ashore and visited a small village. We popped in for shai (tea) at what can only be described as the neighbourhood pub, although no alcohol was served. The place smelled of desert grime seasoned with stale tobacco smoke. In the dim murky light an animated group of men were huddled around a table, taking turns smashing domino tiles down upon the battered old piece of furniture. They offered us shai and thick, sweet Turkish coffee, then invited us to join the game and share shisha—a water pipe. The local tobacco is flavoured with fruit and the taste is very mild. Even a deep inhale doesn’t burn the lungs. Or so I’m told.

It was evident that the people here were desperately poor. And yet they welcomed us politely, with expressions of sincere gratitude for our visit to their country. Proffered payment for the shai, coffee, shisha—and our domino debts—were all firmly refused.

Young and old, Nile folk were friendly and welcoming

Egypt needs visitors. Tourism has been hard hit by an unfortunate series of events: 9/11, middle-east concerns, terrorist threats – both real and imagined. The 2010 ‘Arab Spring’ democratic uprising was, ironically, particularly devastating. Tourist numbers plummeted to near zero, but are now recovering. Still, only about 150 of the 350 tour boats that formerly plied this section of the Nile are operating.

We left the village and climbed to a high vantage point overlooking the mighty river. It began to rain. Soon we were all soaked to the skin. Sawi, Alberto and Mahmoud (our on-board waiters and off-board protectors) danced gleefully in the desert downpour. This part of Egypt had not seen rain for four years.

In the morning, docked below the high dam at Aswan, we enjoyed a solemn breakfast while watching a last sunrise over the Nile. Our toast was served with marmalade and melancholy. Our time aboard the Melouka was over. Jean-Pierre and Eleanor came to bid us adieu. All of the crew were emotional. Mahmoud’s eyes were glued to the floor. You know I hate to see a grown man cry… so I avoided looking in the mirror.

We walked the gangplank off the dahabiya. A van awaited us dockside. There we were introduced to Sayed Mansour, from Exodus Travel, who would be our guide for the rest of our Egyptian adventure. He hurried us into the van. A plane awaited us. We were bound for the ancient temple of Abu Simbel on Lake Nasser.

Exodus Travel skillfully handled every detail of our Egypt adventure: www.exodustravels.com/‎

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence now live in Kimberley, BC!

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management and Ing and McKee Insurance for sponsoring this series.  Click on their ads and learn more about these long-term local businesses.

Click to read more travel stories.

 

8 miles off the coast of Ireland Gerry Feehan’s “Buddy-Hike” discovers the Skellig Islands

 

 

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Egypt: Sailing the Nile Part 1 by Gerry Feehan

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Sure, there’s no travel now, but one day, when the world opens up, we will travel again. In the meantime, enjoy the first in a two-part series “Sailing the Nile”

The Nile River is a mind-boggling 6853 km long. It is the longest river in the world. Mind you we were only sailing about 200 km of it, from Luxor to Aswan, on an Egyptian dahabiya. But since we were relying on the prevailing north wind to carry us upstream—to the south—even that took nearly a week.

Dahabiyas are shallow-bottomed, barge-like vessels. These two-masted craft have been plying the waters of the Nile, in one form or another, for thousands of years. We were on the Malouka, a 45-meter long beauty, part of the four-boat Nour el Nil fleet. For the entire voyage, all four boats sailed together in a colourful flotilla. https://www.nourelnil.com/

Our captain was Humpty Dumpty (the crew had given each other very entertaining nicknames). Humpty was a musical fellow. When he wasn’t shouting orders he was humming quietly to himself. As my travels have repeatedly confirmed, music is the world’s great unifier. Thus, on our second evening aboard, I uncased my ever-present ukulele and began strumming a few tunes. Soon, the captain and a few other crewmembers wandered up from below deck, listening appreciatively, attentively—and patiently.

Abandoning our eggs, we all scrambled from the table and donned bathing attire.

Then it was their turn. In moments the entire crew had gathered on deck, instruments in hand. They began clapping as the captain sang out an Arabic folk song. The loud thumping of the cook’s doumbec filled the Nile valley with contagious percussion. The floorboards reverberated as every soul on board bounced wildly in unison. Our quiet jam session on a soft Egyptian night had quickly evolved into a raucous international jamboree. It was magical.

In the morning we were enjoying a reflective, leisurely breakfast when someone shouted, ‘There’s a woman floating in the river!’ The lady casually waved as she drifted by. It was Eleanor, one of Nour el Nil’s owners. Eleanor’s cabin was on the Malouka’s sister ship, the Meroe. We were invited to join Eleanor in the water. I had no idea that swimming in the Nile was safe—or part of the agenda.

Abandoning our eggs, we all scrambled from the table and donned bathing attire. The procedure was simple: walk a few hundred meters upstream, jump in and simply go with the flow. Drift down to the dahabiya, swim to shore and… repeat. This unexpected treat—and respite from the hot Egyptian sun—quickly became a daily ritual. Surprisingly, the Nile River is not overly wide. But it has a subtle incessant strength. A dip in this great watercourse reveals its unmistakable power. Each of us tried futilely to buck the current and swim upstream. None made any headway, all eventually succumbing to the Nile’s deep, relentless, perpetual force.

Ancient Egyptians relied on this coincidence of opposing wind and current to build the greatest civilization the world had ever known. It is what enabled the construction of the pyramids 4500 years ago. Vast blocks of granite and sandstone were quarried and, during the annual flood, floated downstream and unloaded. Then the barges were sailed back upstream and loaded anew. The Great Pyramid of Cheops near Cairo contains over two million blocks, each weighing in excess of a tonne, every stone stacked in place by hand. That’s a lot of barging—not to mention the heavy lifting.

There is no more luxurious—or relaxing way—to see Egypt and appreciate its spectacular ancient tombs and temples, than to embark on a quiet sail up the Nile on a dahabiya. Muslim rulers in the middle ages ostentatiously gilded these barges the colour of the sun. The name is thus derived from the Arabic word for gold.

Each day we moved a little further south. We’d dock, disembark and, after enduring a gauntlet of incessant, tenacious, persistent street hawkers, we’d be in the portal of one of ancient Egypt’s incredible monuments. All these sites are located just a short walk from shore, above the high-water mark of the historical Nile flood. First we visited Esna, then Al-Kab, then Edfu and Horemheb. Our final stop was Kom-Ombo and its Crocodile Museum, where 3000 year-old mummified reptiles stared at us, teeth bared, looking malevolently alive. The Pharaohs venerated these beasts, preserving them for their mutual journey to the afterlife.

Temple guard

Kom-Ombo

At each stop we were met on shore by Adele, a young Egyptologist, who guided us through the complex history of these wonders. He patiently explained the ancient hieroglyphs that adorned the sandstone walls—but only after our group gave him our complete attention. Any noisy transgressors received a stony stare until they were embarrassed into silence. Then in a quiet but commanding baritone the lesson would begin. And god forbid you were caught snapping a photo of a frieze from the middle kingdom during one of his talks. Another cold glare would ensue, together with the admonition, “Time for pictures later.”

Adele explaining a cartouche

On the hike to Al-Kab, I noticed Adele fidgeting with something in his hands. “Why the worry beads?” I asked. “Prayer beads,” he corrected. He didn’t look like the devout type. “I’m trying to quit smoking,” he explained sheepishly.

Inside the tomb, Adele was showing us how to read a 30-century-old cartouche carved into the stone, pointing out a few of the multitude of gods worshiped by the early Egyptians. Osiris, god of the dead, Horus, with his falcon head and Isis, Horus’s mother. We all stood, obediently quiet in the dim sweltering closeness of the crypt. Then with a flashlight he pointed out some additional markings in the rock: ‘John Edwards 1819.’ We looked closer and saw many other similar autographs. British soldiers had clumsily scratched graffiti into these magnificent ancient works 200 years ago.

Kilroy, it seems, has been just about everywhere.

Next time: Part 2: Sailing the Nile on a Dahabiya.

Exodus Travel skillfully handled every detail of our Egypt adventure: www.exodustravels.com/

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence now live in Kimberley, BC!

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management and Ing and McKee Insurance for sponsoring this series.  Click on their ads and learn more about these long-term local businesses.

Click to read more travel stories.

We will travel again but in the meantime, enjoy Gerry’s ‘Buddy Trip to Ireland’

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