India Adventure: Varanasi Walks This Way


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Why just visit when you can EXPERIENCE?? Varanasi Walks: An Intimate Experience in the Holy City of Varanasi, India.


If you've been following along with my India Adventures, and I hope you have, you'll already know I had a travel bucket list of things I wanted to see and do. I wanted to visit Varanasi, cited to be the oldest living city in the world. To the see the Ganges River and to experience what the city is very well known for: cremation. 


"Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together." - Mark Twain

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While the cremation aspect may sound kind of morbid, it's truly not in the sense that every Hindu in India wants to be cremated in the Holy City of Varanasi as it's the way to attain eternal salvation. But of course, I wanted to treat this aspect of everyday life in Varanasi with the utmost respect, so I set up 4 walking tours with the eco-friendly Varanasi Walks, who, by the way, are rated #5 of 62 tours in Varanasi by users of TripAdvisor (October 2017).

Let me start of by saying, these guys are great. The walking tours were a completely interactive experience with no, repeat, NO stops for shopping. How refreshing! I really don't like getting shuffled into 'recommended' stores when that's not why I go on tours. Unless they're designated shopping tours, then I'm all over it ;)

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I had initially planned to take the train from Delhi to Varanasi, but for the sake of maximizing my time in this unique destination, I flew with Air India. As a solo woman traveler, I also thought about exploring Varanasi by myself, but thankfully I didn't attempt this on my own as for me, it would have been so easy to get lost in the snake-like cobblestone streets of the Old City. And in fact, I did not see ONE other tourist during my first 3-hour walking tour. Not one. So that would have been a bit uncomfortable for me, had I done otherwise. 

My first guide, Laotse (a local and full-time organic baker during the off-season - how cool is that??!), took me on the City of Light, Sunrise Boat Trip, and the Death and Rebirth Night walks. Absolutely amazing. Laotse was so knowledgeable and proud of his heritage, I could just feel it with every insight he offered me. It was lucky that all of my tours ended up being one-on-one personal walking tours, where I really got a feel for everyday life in Varanasi. 


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I was free to ask any questions along the way, and there were no off limits topics. We discussed different religions, saw the beautiful Ganges at sunrise, and laughed when I told him my tuk tuk driver kept falling asleep on the way back to my hotel. Not really funny, obviously, but it was all the same. Laotse knew all the best photo ops - and also took some photos of me, so I'd be in some of the shots as well. Such a nice guy! I even got a quick chance to meet his daughter, just adorable. 

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My second guide, Micheal, (a former Quebecer and fellow Canadian) who holds a Master of Arts Degree in Indian Philosophy, was incredibly smart. Like super smart. He took me on their brand new Devi Walk, which was fascinating. Micheal explained the basics of visiting temples, which includes removing your shoes and touching the threshold before entering, followed by paying your respects. 

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We visited multiple intricate temples where we observed, made offerings of fresh flowers or coins, examined the architecture - and even a very well behaved (and adorable!) goat who had a piece of his ear removed as part of a sacrificial ritual. I have no idea of why I was so drawn to this goat, but he was so cute. And a survivor, just like myself. In one temple we gave an offering and in return, it was a great honour when the priest gave us flower leis and blessed fruit, which meant he was essentially giving us God, as the fruit given to us by him was now Holy. There was a marble bull statue, who just may grant your wish if you whisper into his ear, and a workshop where artisans were constructing statues of Durga, in preparation for the 9-day goddess festival.

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Michael spoke of mudras (hand postures) whereby the 5 great elements of life (pancha mahabhuta) are represented in your hands: thumb (fire); index finger (air); middle finger (space); ring finger (earth); and pink finger (water). I hope I got these right! And the way you only use certain fingers when giving an offering, and rituals such as cleansing/splashing oneself with water 5 times. 

The Varanasi streets were full of honking tuk tuks, taxis, vans, motorcycles and even sacred cows. Did I mention the cows?? Michael also told me to wear my sunglasses when ever I was attempting to cross any busy street so as to make drivers slow down for me, as they couldn't tell where I was looking while wearing glasses. I learned to just bravely step up, step out and extend my arm and hand into a stop motion. Definitely worked, but still, definitely unnerving at times ;) And yes, I got, uhmm, nudged? by a cow. Twice. The first was a horn into my backpack, and the other was a horn to my backside, which gave a little extra spring to my step and a pretty colourful bruise as my trip went on. Live and learn.

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My last Varanasi Walks tour was a nighttime trek along the ghats of the Ganges with Laotse, where we ended up covering about 5 km in total. Though I had some knowledge of the Indian caste system from our Intrepid tour guide, Laotse explained about the dedicated lives of the lowest caste known as the Scheduled caste (formerly referred to as the Untouchables, now a derogatory term outlawed in the late 1940s), who are born into and will always work in the crematoriums. Depending on your means to pay, a cremation can be free, or can range from 200 to 10,000 rupees.


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At the main Manikarnika ghat, a man approached Laotse with the story of his sister who was being cremated in front of us. My initial thought was that I was disrespecting him - or the entire cremation process just by being there - but he wanted to express his happiness that even though his sister was hit by a bus (!), he was so extremely grateful that she was being cremated in the Holy City of Varanasi. 


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There were stacks of wood all around the crematorium ghats, and as the bodies burned near the river's edge, more room was needed so additional fires were lit on terraces higher above. Female bodies wrapped in red and males in white, to reflect their wedding day color, are placed upon the carefully stacked wood. The male head of the family will walk around the body 5 times (re. the 5 elements of life). The cloth cloaks and any trinkets are removed before the bodies are slathered in purified butter (ghee). More wood is then placed on top of the body. A sacred flame will be brought from a nearby burning shrine to the Hindu God Shiva, which then sets the funeral pyre alight and burns for about 4 hours. The Varanasi cremation ghats run 24/7, 365 days per year, and typically a body is cremated within 8-12 hours of death. The ghats were an incredible site to see, and I was humbled to be able to witness this most intimate of experiences along this most sacred of places.


The smell of the wood was intoxicating, like being drawn to a morbid campfire, and every now and then, larger pieces of ash would come raining down, as if they were reminders of death, and the infinite significance of what I was witnessing. 

And even though general Indian society places little or no value on the Schedule caste, both Laotse and Micheal expressed their sincere respect for their hard and most honourable work. I agree.

I'm so glad I visited Varanasi in this most unique way with Laotse and Michael. I couldn't have asked for any better tour guides, I'm so impressed! Varanasi Walks is a top-notch eco-tour company that I highly recommend to anyone visiting the city, plus it was such great exercise! And as I said, Laotse and Michael were excellent in every way - thanks so much to both of you for absolutely amazing walking experiences. And experience we did!

For more information or to make your reservations, visit: Varanasi Walks.

And be sure to read my entire India Adventure travel series:


   
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India Adventure: Before You Travel Next, You Need to Buy This.

Travel Writer Review: Brave Era Silk Travel Sheet

I hate to admit it, but I'm more picky about my hotel rooms than I am with my own home. Sure, I know who that piece of fluff or that stray dog hair belongs to at home, but in a hotel? No way in hell. I'm paying good money and I want it clean. Just sayin.

The first thing I do in a new hotel room is inspect. I look at the carpet, the bathroom, the shower stall, and on and on, until finally, my last and worst feared placed to look of all: the actual bed where I'm going to lay my entire body down to sleep for at least 8 hours. Okay, maybe 7 hours. Or 6. 
Anyway, nothing, absolutely nothing creeps me out faster than a dirty bed. Eeeek!!! When I was in Costa Rica a few years ago, I actually cried myself to sleep on top of a bed that was utterly disgusting to me. I was more than a little upset... :(

So when Brave Era came along with a chance to test out their 100% silk travel sheet, I was all over it. Or in it. Whatever. Here's what I think: 

Brave Era saved my entire backpacking experience in India.


The very first night, I was booked into a somewhat questionable hotel but it was late, I was exhausted and I truly didn't care. But the problem was that I did care. And after examining the bed, pulling off a few things here and there, I was totally grossed out, and worried about bugs, mosquitos, and whatever else I could conjure up in my own head. Or in reality!

So, I happily took out my new Brave Era silk travel sheet. I threw back the bedding, put the protective sheet up and over the pillow, slid into the comfort, the safety and fell asleep. Just like that. I never do that in a hotel room, I'm always tossing, turning and feeling things, another eeeek!!

The Brave Era silk travel sheet was my little slice of heaven at the end of the day!

Seriously. Throughout most of my Indian travel adventure, I was never completely sure who I'd be sharing my bed with that night. There were critters, and those pesky mozzies, plus a few geckos, some flippin huge black ants following a very well set out trail, and who knows what else. And the cows. They're just everywhere!!  And that poor stuffed leopard thingie also freaked me out and it wasn't even in my room. Some of the hotel beds were iffy at best. But I didn't have to worry! All I did was slip into my silk sheet and I didn't have a care in the world. It was utterly fantastic, especially with having adventurous days that really needed restful nights.

Then in the morning, I would just fold it up and slide it back into the carry case. It weighs next to nothing and barely takes up any room, even in my well crammed 40L Deuter Futura Pro 40 backpack. If you're planning a vacation that involves a hotel stay anywhere, I highly, highly recommend you get a Brave Era mulberry silk travel sheet before you go!!

As an FYI: I have hugely sensitive skin!! I'm one of those people who has to use fragrance free everything and sometimes laundry detergents, especially unfamiliar ones in hotel rooms, just don't agree with me! The Brave Era silk travel sheet is 100% hypoallergenic. I even hand washed mine a few times during the trip and this thing air dries in no time!

So what are you waiting for??! Grab your Brave Era silk travel sheet today, so you can have a restful sleep tonight in your hotel. 

And you know what else??


You don't have to be backpacking or even staying a hotel to use this awesome travel accessory! 


Think: staying over at a friends, sleeping on someone else's sofa, and of course, not just international vacation destinations but domestic ones as well! You never know when you could use that peace of mind at night. Plus, when you're ordering for yourself, grab another for a friend. They're well worth every penny. Plus, the holidays, or a birthday, or whatever-days are fast approaching!


I absolutely love, Love, LOVE my Brave Era silk travel sheet!


And I will never, ever travel anywhere without it again. I can't believe I've subjected myself to nasty hotel beds all these years, eeeek!! Be sure to check out my other reviews about my adventure to INDIA 🕌



And my Brave Era: Adventurous Days in India Deserve Peaceful Nights video! 




Cheers,
Connie


   

India Adventure: Kingdom of Dreams

When I knew I was visiting India, I had a travel bucket list of things I wanted to cross off including going on a tiger safari, riding on a local train, seeing the Taj (and yes, once you've visited, you earn the privilege of being able to call it the Taj) and seeing a live Bollywood performance. 


So, thanks to Kumbha #34, TourRadar and Miss Anajali Singh of Intrepid Travel, for the first three! And then onto Arun Kataria, Quality Assurance Executive with Kingdom of Dreams, for making my Bollywood dreams come true.


Let me start off by saying Kingdom of Dreams is impressive, to say the least. In fact, it's ranked as TripAdvisors' #2 attraction when you're in Gurugram (formerly and still locally known as Gurgaon). What a fun experience! I went to a matinee show and the theatre was completely packed with people. I then followed it up with another matinee performance the following day, because it was...just. that. good.


The theatrical productions of both shows were first class. Zangoora, a tale about a gypsy prince, offers an combination of stunning sets, aerial choreography and special effects, and has been playing at Kingdom of Dreams since 2010. Since 2015, Beyond Bollywood, a typical Bollywood love story jam packed with dancing, features main characters Shaily and Raghav.

Both performances offer a lively, entertaining glimpse into the wonderful colors, culture and music of India. And who knew the audience would be so enthusiastic?? It's similar to attending a Bollywood movie at a cinema, or so I've been told. And once the shows are over, you can check out the Las Vegas-style sky dome at Culture Gully, where you can experience shops, bars and restaurants from 14 Indian states all in one place. 


If you're traveling to India, I'd recommend taking in a show at Kingdom of Dreams. Or 2, if you'd like!

And be sure to read more about my Indian adventure: TourRadar & Intrepid Travel 15-Day Classic Rajasthan Tour! 💟 





For more information or to make your online Bollywood show reservation, visit Kingdom of Dreams.









              
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Lemon Tree Premier Leisure Valley 2, Gurugram, India


As a first time visitor to India, I have to admit I was apprehensive about booking my own hotel in Delhi. But after a little research and time crunching as to what I'd really be able to fit into my schedule, I decided to stay at the Lemon Tree Premier Leisure Valley 2 in Gurugram.


Why? First, because this stylish, contemporary hotel is close to Kingdom of Dreams (about a 5-minute walk, once you know where you're going, haha), and secondly because they have an airport shuttle. But mostly because their staff was more than accommodating even before I arrived, especially Mr. Safdar Imam, Executive Assistant Manager of Lemon Tree Premier Leisure Valley 2, whom I met upon arrival at the hotel.

One of my main concerns with traveling to India was dealing with my Celiac Disease (which basically means gluten in the form of wheat/rye/barley/oats is literally toxic to my body). Mr. Imam reassured me the chefs would be able to accommodate my needs, as I chose a hotel package with free Wi-Fi, breakfast and dinner as part of the offer. Talk about convenient.

My room, #215, was more than spacious. It had a modern vibe with everything I could ask for including a flat-screen TV and a living area, plus I had a great view onto a lush greenspace filled with tropical foliage.




After nearly 24 hours of traveling, I was exhausted but still hungry for breakfast. As soon as I arrived at the Citrus Cafe, I was met by Sous Chef, Sanjay Singh Negi. I was so impressed that he had an actual print out of my dietary requirements as per my email (gluten can be hidden in all kinds of things, arghhh), and even more so when he said he could cook my anything I wanted! Wow. As a frequent celiac challenged traveler, these are words I've never heard before.

Chef Negi proceeded to make me my own personal smorgasbord of delectables, for which I felt really bad as I couldn't possibly eat everything he was bringing me. But it was delicious: a crepe-like Indian pancake, freshly squeezed juice, fresh fruit, eggs and hash browns. The pampering continued on into the next day, plus I had a wonderfully prepared roasted chicken dinner in my room the first night. All with no gluten in sight!


So what impressed me the most about Lemon Tree Premier Leisure Valley 2? Their fantastic staff! Mr. Imam took the time to explain that, while they're primarily a business hotel during the week (and wow, were they busy!) they tend to welcome most leisure guests on the weekend. And it's no wonder as the hotel is not too far from Delhi, and they've got a fitness room and a rooftop pool for guests to relax by. He went on to explain that Lemon Tree Hotels is proud to be an equal opportunity employer who realizes the value of workers who face their own challenges, including those with down syndrome, who are happily employed at many of their hotels. I love it!

Lemon Tree has an excellent reputation amongst travellers and locals alike, and as an added bonus you can join their frequent travel reward program, Lemon Tree Smiles. 

Overall, I would highly, highly recommend Lemon Tree Premier Leisure Valley 2 for your business or leisure travel. It's great value for your hard earned dollars plus you'll be taken care of to no end, and isn't that what traveling is all about, just being in the moment without a care in the world? Impressive. Very impressive.

I also stayed at the Red Fox Delhi Airport, which is also part of the Lemon Tree Hotel family, after my most excellent adventure with TourRadar and Anjali Singh of Intrepid Travel. Watch for my upcoming review!

For more information or to make your reservation, please visit: Lemon Tree Premier Leisure Valley 2