Another yatra in India – travelling solo you’ll love it or loathe it it seems

Salt Plains, Gujarat

About ten years ago, the author Christopher Kremer, who, at a book festival I helped organise in Christchurch, New Zealand, signed his book (Inhaling the Mahatma) by saying ‘To Heather, with best wishes on your yatra!’  Christopher, September 06′.

That was just before my first trip to India, and now with my fourth starting soon, I wondered what is it that attracts me to the country – after all, I have family members who find India too intense, too difficult.  Why do people love it or loathe it? Why am I different? And why do people always ask : is it safe to travel alone?’

Yatra means journey and, as a travel writer, for me a journey is not just the places I go – it is also the trip my emotions take – and India takes you on many journeys of the emotions – the highs and the lows.

the author in Haridwar

I loved it, I hated it, I laughed at it, I laughed with it, and I cried about it – confused and sad but ultimately optimistic about this huge country,  an intensely vivid country – the colours, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the sights (and sites) – which assaults all your senses for good and for bad: and that’s just in the first hour of course.

It continues the whole time you are there.  When you are travelling on your own, such as I usually do, you get 100% of the pain, and of course, a hundred percent of the pleasure.  What you don’t get, is bored.

photo of Narenda Modi
I breakfast with Narenda Modi (then Gujarat’s Chief Minister)

Of course, there is also pollution, and rubbish, nearly everywhere, as well as people desperate to sell you something.  Poverty and richness live side-by-side and it’s devastating to see and hear the beggars.

While I usually don’t give to beggars, I travel sustainably and support small businesses and responsible tourism – instead of waiting for money to ‘trickle down’, wherever possible I spend with small traders – and certainly not with international companies.

On my first trip I travelled from Haridwar, Uttarakhand, in the north then south to Ernakulam in Kerala and of course, Maheshwar on the banks of wonderful Narmada River.  My other Indian yatra have been in Gujarat, home of Gandhi, and which has few tourists – I recommend you go there.  Search on any of these names in my blog and find stories and photos about each of those places.

Let me make a list of just some of the reasons I’m returning on yet another yatra:

  • the people, the food, and the feast of colours, sights and sounds
  • 2000 years of sacred buildings; Buddhist, Hindu, Islāmic, to name just a few
  • Interesting festivals throughout the year
  • There are nine or ten religions in India, and about 33 million gods – I’m bound to stumble over at least one!
  • And maybe, just maybe, when they know I’ve been an extra in the Bollywood movie The Italian Job they may make me a star – or, knowing what happened, they may not!

 

Haridwar – pilgrims get blessings in the Ganges
Navratri festival in Maheshwar
Another beautiful Indian (Gujarat) woman

 

Meditation on the banks of the holy Narmada River, Maheshwar.

 

 

 

 

 

Off to Malaysia Lah.

Hibiscus nat flower malaysiaweb 020_16A
Hibiscus. National flower, Malaysia

Yes, today I’m off to Malaysia Lah – and, as I said in my book – Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad,– it’s my favourite Asian country!

So why “lah” and why “favourite”?

To lah or not to lah that is the question. Many Malaysians add this ‘non-word’ to sentences, peppering it around , flavouring their words just as you do with the spice.

For explanations of all the meanings attributed to the word see here.

Some include these

Coaxing: Come on, lah; don’t be like that-lah; please-lah
Forceful: Shut up-lah! Get out-lah!
Apologetic: Sorry-lah
Fed up: Enough-lah!
Definite: Of course-lah; sure-lah
Agreeable: Okay-lah

We Kiwi also add a sort of non-word to many sentences – ours is ‘eh’ pronounced ‘ay’, like the letter ‘a’ and it’s used to tag question or emphasise a statement – not nearly as versatile as the Malaysian Lah!

However, my parents, clear-speaking Christchurch folk, were horrified when their North Island born grandchildren moved south with the casual ‘eh’ added to their comments and queries alike – they considered it very ‘lower-class’. It was ‘regional’ but it has slowly moved to the South Island but it’s still not so common there – and many people throughout NZ still consider it a sign of a lack of education and or money.

And, now, why ‘favourite country’? Well, my first visit to Asia, and Malaysia was in the late-90s, landing in Singapore, on my way to Thailand where I was keen to see the gold temples and Buddha’s. Malaysia was really just a two-week route north. I thought it would be ‘just another colonised country’ and gosh was I wrong!

As a Kiwi (New Zealander)I got a 3-month visa as I crossed the border, bused to Malacca and promptly fell in love with the country, the food and the people: Think Assam Pedas a spicy-sour fish for breakfast, sweet-corn ice-cream, great sights, history,  friendly people of different ethnicities and religions, and of course  their “Open Homes”.

These open homes are a truly Malaysian way of celebrating all festivals or celebrations including religious and ancient events, when everyone is invited to someone’s home for a great meal.  Staying in Malacca for ten days meant I was there for the Hari Raya celebrations (end of Ramadan) and much to my surprise was welcomed into the home of the Deputy Health Minister.

I tell much more about my time in Malaysia in my book, but to finish this blog, I can tell you I finally had to make a rush to the Malay-Thai border on the last day of that 3-month visa, hating leaving, and knowing I would return.

I’ve been back a couple of times but this is my first visit to East Malaysia (Sarawak & Sabah on Borneo) and for the next 2 months I’m looking forward to seeing both the differences and what’s similar – follow my adventures here and on social media.

Heather Hapeta: the kiwi travel writer

See here for my social media links – so you can choose how to follow my travels, the food, the creatures, and the nature of this tropical island 🙂

Street & travel photography – I learn from Cartier-Bresson

Awaiting to launch the waka again (Waitangi, Northland, NZ)

Street photography & Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson always had his camera with him “even when I don’t plan to take photos” he is reported to have said.  I love authentic street photography – candid, life as it is, interesting,  real.

I know many like to ‘photo-shop’ or  use some other digital technology to manipulate, or enhance their photos in some way to make them more pleasing to their eye. I prefer to show you exactly what I see – including dull skies, power-lines, and other unwanted objects. I want to portray what’s in front of me – as a travel writer I believe that’s my duty: to tell you the truth about what I see and experience so when you go there, you will not be surprised.

So like Cartier-Bresson (but without his skills) I love to ‘walk and shoot.’  This sometimes means I will wait for someone to walk into a frame .. most people don’t know I have taken the photo even though I get as close to the action as possible. When it’s not possible, telephoto lens are wonderful for those candid, unnoticed pics.

So carry your camera, be observant, be patient, and recognise the decisive moment to push the shutter – after all, in photography the smallest thing can be a great subject.  No wonder I’m excited to be traveling to somewhere new soon (Borneo) – where I’ll have lots of new, not posed,  candid subjects to photograph – and no electronic manipulation.

As my tagline says,” real travel, real stories, real photos”

Maa Amba – the mother goddess – celebrated during Navratri

Goddesses have been revered for years in India and include deities of earth, speech, and wisdom. Number-one goddess is Maa Ambathe mother goddess.

In Gujarat, the Navratri festival is devoted to festival to her, Maa Amba, the Goddess of Shakti (power) and temples have a constant stream of visitors.  No wonder they call it Vibrant Gujarat The most popular form of celebration is the performance of Gujarat’s folk-dances, the garba and dandia-ras, and beautiful chaniya cholis swirl and glitter as the women wearing them twirl in a fantastic fusion of dance and devotion for the nine nights of Navratri.

Happy Navratri to all my Gujarati friends as you celebrate this year.

Hindu gods and goddesses confuse me with their many names and manifestations – however it seems, Shakti is the divine manifestation of Lord Shiva, and Navratri is dedicated to the three main goddesses of Hinduism – Parvati, Lakshmi and Sarasvati. The first three nights are dedicated to the goddess of action and energy when her different manifestations – Kumari, Parvati and Kali are worshipped. They represent the virgin girl, auspicious wife or mother, and the angry old hag: the different aspects of our nature.

The festival is a non-stop ‘circle of ecstasy’ with millions swaying in a colourful fusion of dance and devotion. Claimed as the longest-dance-in-the-world, it is said Gujarat does not sleep during this time and people dress-up and dance until the wee hours: I am about to find out when I attend the inaugural night held in Gandhinagar, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad.

River sand has been spread over the ground, a fine green nylon mesh laid over it, and thousands of chairs and couches face the huge stage.  I’m directed to my seat, where I am most misleadingly identified as a ‘Prominent Lady Journalist’.  Exploring the eight themed pavilions and photo-gallery of heritage sites whet my appetite for this, my first trip to India, and although the 150 handicraft stalls are enticing, soon it’s time to return to my front row seat.

The music starts and some seven hundred dancers introduce me to the ancient dances and worship of the female deities. Garba, the traditional dance, ranges from three simple three steps though to complicated routines and I fall in love with the colour and music too. The few hours pass very quickly, the weather stays fine and all too soon an extravagance display of nine simultaneous garba performances signals the finale.

As the music fades, groups of women dressed in pink, move through the hordes handing us all a diya (small earthenware container with a candle inside it) and matches, and as the aarti (blessing) happens, the grounds glow with their flickering, soft yellow lights.

As one of the very few westerners here I am spoken to by many locals as we head for the exits. Again and again I’m told, ‘this makes me feel really nostalgic’ ‘It’s great to see the old traditional garba on the stage’ and ‘This is what Navratri was like in my childhood. I love it.’ So do I.

The next night I join the celebrations and in traditional clothes I too am clapping and trying to dance in the concentric circles. Women and young girls twirl in their glittering chanai-choli while the men, with their traditional clothes and headgear, gracefully keep in step also. Despite laughing, all are tolerant of my clumsy efforts – seemingly enjoying having a westerner join their festivities.

During Navratri, some devotees of Durga observe a fast and prayers are offered for the protection of health and property. A period of introspection and purification, Navratri is traditionally considered an auspicious time for starting new ventures.

Although Gujarat is well-known as a progressive business state and Navratri presents a colourful mix of culture, dance and devotion the state also has a rich tourism potential: exquisite beaches, great birding, enchanting forests, enthralling wildlife, ancient temples, desert, and is the birth-place of Mahatma Gandhi: go there before too many other tourists discover it.

NOTE: I flew to India with the help of Singapore Air and Gujarat Tourism – thank you very much!

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World Buskers Festival.

Organised pandemonium takes over Christchurch, New Zealand, as each January locals and visitors of all ages flock to open-air city malls, the city’s cultural precinct, and out to the seaside suburb of New Brighton to witness the world’s very best busker talent: the World Buskers Festival. Belly laughs, amazement, admiration, and surprise fill their lives for ten days every summer.

This is when artists, from countries as diverse as Portugal, UK, Japan, Australia, Italy, the USA wing their way to Christchurch, the largest city in the South Island, to provide over four-hundred free shows – although, as it’s their livelihood, optional donations are always welcome.

“The festival’s reputation for excellence and our great locations here in the heart of Christchurch’s cultural and heritage  precinct  are  big  drawcards for both international and domestic visitors, as well as for  local  residents,  and  it  has  become  an  icon event for the city” festival director Jodi Wright tells me. Such is the reputation of this event that, sitting in her office under the old university observatory, Jodi is inundated with pleas for an invitation from buskers around the world.

Hub of activities for the dare-devils, outrageous comedians, juggling divas, and other mischievous people here to entertain, is the Art Centre, site of Christchurch’s first university and the first place in the British Empire to admit women.  Some famous alumni are; poet Denis Glover, novelist and playwright Dame Ngaio Marsh, Sir Karl Popper scientist and philosopher, and our celebrated artist, Rita Angus. This university is also where the great 19th century scientist, Sir Ernst Rutherford, had his ‘den’ and where he explored his theories which led to the splitting of the atom.

When plans emerged for the Gothic Revival buildings to be demolished – in the 1970s when the university moved to a new site – Christchurch residents pleaded for its retention. They finally won the arguments and the resulting Arts Centre is now firmly established as the cultural hub of Christchurch and is one of New Zealand’s most significant historical and cultural attractions: a fitting place for the smash hit the World Buskers Festival has become in the Christchurch calendar. Numbers attending the shows have more than doubled since its inception in 1994.

Christchurch was New Zealand’s first city (by royal charter in 1856); is lauded for its gardens, and sits on a large plain between the Southern Alps and the Pacific Ocean. It could easily be called festival city: as well as the buskers, festivals celebrating the arts, writers, jazz, and floral themes are just a few of the others. Known as ‘The Garden City’, it has won many national and international horticultural awards and these show the importance locals place in having a beautiful city in which to live, work, and play: there are maps of great drives and walks around the city available from the information centre in ‘the Square’ – the original centre of Christchurch.

The Christchurch Botanic Gardens, founded in 1863 and acknowledged as possessing the finest collection of exotic and indigenous plants in New Zealand, is co-opted as the setting for the children’s part of the Buskers Festival. Witches, magic, and juggling create fear and fun with the kids: parents love the acts too.

Each evening the Busker Comedy Club, a cabaret-style, outdoor variety show in the Arts Centre grounds, is packed with people, many of who arrive  an hour or so early with rugs and cushions to sit on. Others have booked one of the tables which are well-supplied with tasty nibbles and drinks to enjoy as they laugh at the adult-only entertainment.

Over the lunch hour, under the gaze of an old statue of one of the city fathers and alongside modern sculpture and the cathedral that dominates the skyline of Cathedral Square, I watch a Canadian as he flouts the rules of physics. Using his engineering degree he tests the quantum theory by impaling a cabbage on a spike on his head and tells us he is proud of his pasty, lanky look and ability to out-talk a senior citizen. Known by his stage name – the Comedy Engineer – he also says that ‘comedy has been waiting a long time for an engineer.’

The crowd remains when he finishes and soon Mario, Queen of the Circus, takes over the pitch. Winner of awards in Germany, Switzerland and France, he is a master of impeccable timing and phenomenal juggling skills: this is showmanship at its best and I loved every minute of it.

Recalling his show, a word of warning seems appropriate. Some performers, like this queen of the circus, may ask you to volunteer as a participant in their show. However, as the festival programme says: ‘please feel free to decline their request (for any reason) and use common sense and caution at all times’.

Nevertheless, the only injury I witnessed was to a friend’s ego when she was surprised by one of the roving acts – at the airport! Just off the plane, she was welcomed to festival city by The Crowd Maintenance Crew when they popped out from behind a wall and dusted her down with their feather duster ‘just making sure you are in tip top condition’ they tell her.

Other roving acts this past January included a pavement artist, living statues, and two local women – The Chick Taylors – who are the personification of improvisation with a range of characters from the Paranoid French or German through to Retro English Geeks: they are up for anything and it’s great to see locals in such a high-calibre extravaganza such as this festival.

Featured on the Discovery Channel programme, “Fantastic Festivals of the World,” this one-of-a-kind event extends out the beach suburb of New Brighton which sits on the long sweep of Pegasus Bay and the Pacific.

It was a hot sunny, beach-suburb-appropriate day when I caught one of the very popular shows by the Blackstreet Boys. Discovered by festival organiser Jodi Wright as she explored Venice Beach, California, these young men are irreverent, light on their feet, full of mischief and the crowd and I loved their performance. I hear that when they are not on the streets of LA they teach and choreograph would-be artists – this has included MC Hammer.

Locals claim the Christchurch cultural precinct is the finest in the southern hemisphere. Planned by the city founders – some 150 years ago – to create a cultural heart for the province (Canterbury) it is still a wonderful backdrop to many of the arts and heritage activities of Christchurch.

‘I’ll meet you at the Arts Centre’ or ‘let’s have coffee, dinner, or supper – before or after the show,’ can be overheard wherever locals gather. The old university, with over forty galleries, studios, theatres, cinemas, cafes, restaurants, shops, bars, weekly arts market, fabulous bead shop, and ethnic food stalls, this vibrant place is the perfect backdrop for the World Buskers Festival.

Park your car as this  an easy area to explore by foot or tram, and most of the activities are free, and include places such as; New Zealand’s only remaining Provincial Chamber buildings, Our City O-Tautahi with its changing exhibitions, the fabulous glass fronted Christchurch Art Gallery, the Canterbury Museum, and the Centre of Contemporary Art. So when you are exhausted from laughing at the class buskers acts that are spread around the city, complete your stay in Christchurch by enriching your senses with food, fun and culture in this very public heart of a great city. See you there!

for other world festivals check out 2camels website.

©Heather Hapeta 2008