Temples, ruins, holy water and a bit of cricket...
It's 11am, the sun is shining and I'm surrounded by people taking selfies in front of a field with the Indian flag painted on their cheeks. We're in Chandigarh watching the third Test between India and England, and while I can in fact grasp the basic rules of cricket, I figured an entire day watching it would be a good time to write about the last few weeks.
During our last week at the farm, the callouses on our hands grew thicker as our daily projects went from taking seeds off corn and making pots to digging holes and landscaping. A few new animals arrived, others managed to escape sending everyone on a rescued dog chase, and one cow even gave birth. On the last day, we had the job of washing a dog with mange in a cubicle we ourselves would later be using for a bucket shower. I've never scrubbed a floor so hard before showering on it. I've also never known my opinion of dogs to change so many times in such a short time. One dog in particular, named Chombey after the bus stop where he was found, went between favourite and worst behaved at least ten times. One day, he'd be perfect on the morning stroll, the next he'd be fighting wild dogs and biting through his lead. In the end I think my favourite was Cheeky, who'd actually been released from the farm a long time ago, but enjoyed it too much to go far and still joined us for morning walks. Unfortunately he didn't get the message that his invitation wasn't 'plus one', and he often brought along a wild friend who always succeeded in riling up the others.
After leaving the farm, we re-entered civilisation which in the current climate means a daily struggle to find working ATMs and get cash. In an effort to stop the dealing of black money, the prime minister has decided to invalidate all 500 and 1000 rupee notes, leaving no legal currency between £1.20 and £25. There's a daily ATM limit of £25 and a multiple hour queue outside any open and working ATM. At the current rate of manufacturing, it will be six months before all of the invalidated cash is replaced. Let's hope this chaos causing plan works.
Our first destination was back to Punjab to see the Golden Temple in Amritsar. We happened to arrive on the night of an important Sikh festival and though we missed the fireworks, the temple was specially decorated with thousands of lights. While the temple itself is stunning, another reason for going was because they provide free accommodation and food to over 80,000 people each day. Running on 5000 volunteers a day, every Sikh is expected to volunteer there at some point in their life. It's a pretty spectacular operation to witness, and we were able to join some volunteers and peel tiny cloves of garlic for a couple of hours. (There really must be a more efficient way of cooking garlic - I'm pretty sure Jamie Oliver doesn't even bother peeling it anyway.) We also spent an evening at the Pakistan border, watching the bizarre daily ceremony involving soldiers in uniform, high kicks and slamming of gates. Funnily enough, the Indian side seemed to be far more chaotic and unorganised.
From Amritsar, we headed to Orchha and discovered along the way that you can definitely befriend someone too early on a 22 hour train. A small town famous for scattered ruins and temples built hundreds of years ago, it was a perfect place to wander, chase sunsets and see monkeys doing yoga positions. Living on a tight budget meant we experienced squeezing ten people into a rickshaw (plus the driver), and stayed two nights in a hostel where flushing the toilet lead to liquid gushing out the back pipe onto the floor towards a door which couldn't be closed.
We then should have had our shortest train journey yet, but alas, 3 hours turned into 7 before we touched down in Khajuraho. There, we had a free private yoga lesson and I had my back cracked for the first time, we rented bikes and cycled to some nearby mountains, and we saw truly explicit and raunchy carvings on the sides of some very old temples. Built in the 9th and 10th Centuries, they're well preserved and stunningly intricate, but not for the prudish type.
Next stop, the assault on the senses that is Varanasi (probably the craziest place we've been since Barnala). After arriving on an overnight train, we walked to our hostel through a series of alleyways, dodging the buffalos, cows, dogs and accumulation of all their excrement. While it seems £3 will get you a room resembling a prison cell, it also includes the highest rooftop terrace in Varanasi and a free boat ride. It's difficult to grumble at that, despite the rather questionable shared bathroom. Unfortunately, our stomachs were grumbling as our food still hadn't arrived after two hours of waiting. It was 2:30pm and we hadn't yet eaten. Complaining about the shoddy service, we left in a hangry mood and within seconds arrived at the burning ghat where around ten people were being cremated. The speed of restaurant service quickly paled into significance.
While the city and roads of Varanasi might have you believing that peace doesn't exist in the city, the ghats are a different affair. Although equally vibrant and sometimes shocking, the riverside feels much calmer. Next to the burning ghat, there are buffalos bathing in the water. Further along, there are hotel bed sheets being washed in the river and laid out to dry under the falling ash from another burning ghat (explaining the burnt holes in our own sheets). Next to those are people bathing and praying, and next to those are people drinking this holy river water. We were told that as long as you believe in the Ganga (Ganges), you won't get sick. There are countless kites in the sky and discarded snapped kite strings on the ground, tripping up those who aren't concentrating. From the hostel rooftop, we could also hear a man whistling and making strange noises while a flock of pigeons weaved in between the sea of kites. After a bit of research, it turns out the man was practising the ancient sport of Kabootar Bazi (pigeon racing).
One of the creature comforts we had in Barnala but now lack is TV. Watching English channels in India meant we were limited to a few options: world news, India news, Bear Grylls or the occasional film. If you're in the mood for people shouting over each other and arguing how to 'take down Pak (Pakistan)', then India news is the one. If you want swear words bleeped out, including the word 'beef' (as cows are sacred), films are a good option. For us, Bear Grylls happened to be on every night as we sat down for dinner, so as he drank his own urine to survive, we were tucking in to a feast of curry, dahl and chapattis.
Based on the cheering around me, I'm guessing India are playing better cricket than the English. The day also seems to be coming to a close, so it must be time to catch a train back to Delhi to begin our last three weeks in India...