As we left Mumbai, I was so excited about our trip to Varanasi. I wanted to experience the spirituality, the colour, the noise and the smells. I wanted to embrace the chaos, witness death and feel life. I wanted my children to see the real India, not the glossy version. This is a big ask for any place but was I disappointed?  Absolutely not. Varanasi has to be one of the most incredble experiences of my life. Everything was there in plain sight, no secrets, no lies, nothing hidden. Death, chaos, noise, dirt are interspersed with peace, beauty, life, colour, music.

From the moment we arrived in Varanasi, we weren’t disappointed. After about a half hour taxi ride from the airport, we were dropped off by the side of a very busy road and told that the taxi could not fit in the laneways and that we would have to walk to our guesthouse. As we piled out of our taxi, people were beginning to gather around us. The flurry of activity was gaining momentum as tours, accommodation, rickshaws were all being offered at a “discount rate.” Within seconds, the crowds around us dispersed as we were greeted by a number of men from our guesthouse who instantly took charge, grabbed our luggage as they proceeded to march us through winding alleyways to Ganpati Guest House. We were immediately in sensory overload as we weaved in and out of the laneways, dodging cows, goats, dogs, motorbikes and of course people. Hubby and I loved every minute of it. The kids were mesmerised as they had never experienced anything like it. I knew in my heart that we were in for an amazing experience.

 

After traipsing through a maze of laneways, we arrived at Ganpati Guest House, a simple but very clean and spacious guesthouse on the ghats of the Ganges. We had two adjoining rooms with balconies overlooking the Ganges River. Life doesn’t get better than that, I thought to myself. Once we checked in, we headed down the steps onto the ghats towards the Ganges River. It was surreal.

The sun was shining and within seconds of leaving Ganpati Guest House, we were transported to a different world.  As we walked along, we passed beggars, lepers, swamis meditating, women washing their clothes, tourists snapping photos, families strolling, people bathing in the river, children playing cricket on the ghats. We stopped at the burning ghats and witnessed bodies being cremated and ceremonies being conducted in full public view. At first it felt a bit voyeuristic watching a personal event such as a funeral but at the same time, it felt open and free and celebratory.

As dusk approached, we claimed our spot for the Hindu ceremony. People from all walks of life and all parts of the country and the world were gathered together to pray in what has to be the most joyous religious celebration we have ever taken part in. The candles created a beautiful atmosphere, the singing, the bells, the music, the dance, the Ganges glistening in the moonlight were sights that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

We spent the next few days wandering around, watching the celebration of life and death at the burning ghats. Bodies were joyously carried through the alleyways of Varanasi. The cows roamed freely in the lanes. The beep of the motorbikes as we dodged them in the alleys did not break the peace but was simply a part of life in Varanasi.

We went on a canoe on the Ganges River and watched the scenes unfold on the Ghats as we drifted peacefully on the River. Even the kids fell under the meditative spell of the Ganges. We ate simple food such as dahl and roti, drank the most creamy heavenly lassis and of course endless cups of milky sugary chai. It was perfect. Just the way life is meant to be.

It was an incredible time to spend together as a family, one that we will always treasure forever. It is not often that you go on holiday and feed your soul.  Varanasi was that place

From the moment we arrived in Mumbai, the contrast between the sleepy beaches of Goa and the bustling streets of Mumbai was a shock to the system.  The cars were bumper to bumper as we snaked our way across the freeway, watching the colorful street scenes with curiosity and fascination.  It was a feast for the eyes.

Over the next 3 days, we learned to weave in and out of traffic with incredible skill and dexterity.  The sheer number of people was incredible to witness. What I found hard, however was to reconcile the poverty with the extreme opulence and wealth on display.

We particularly enjoyed seeing the Gateway of India, which is a monument built during the British Raj in 1924. It is majestic and imposing and a grand entrance to India, on the Arabian Sea. It is a relaxing setting for enjoying Mumbai Harbour.

From the gateway, we took a ferry to Elephanta Caves on Elephanta Island, approximately 10 kilometres from the harbour.  The ferry ride takes about an hour one way and the scenery of Mumbai harbour is spectacular, especially the views of the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.  Once we reached Elephanta caves, we made our way up the 120 steps to the impressive caves.  These caves date back  between the 5th and 8th century AD and contain rock cut stone sculptures.  They are grand and majestic.

 

 

One of the highlights of Mumbai was going to Imagica Theme Park, which prides itself on being India’s only international standard theme park. My sons, who are thrill seekers, along with their sisters, pleaded to go there. Over the years, I have discovered that sometimes it is good to let the children decide what they want to do as they have different ideas of fun to adults. I must admit that going to an amusement park in India would not normally be on my priority list as I think there are so many cultural and historical sites to visit.  But from a child’s perspective, they can get bored with the incredible number of temples, palaces, forts, museums that it can be a blessing to take a break from those types of activities.  I was also a bit nervous about taking the kids to a theme park in India as I wasn’t sure how safe and reliable the rides would be.

Imagica is located about an 1-2 hours outside Mumbai. We hired a car and driver for the day so it was an easy way to get there and back.  But apparently the park will arrange to pick you up and drop you off.  There is also going to be a hotel built next to the park.  This will enable people to spend a couple of days not only visiting the theme park but also the water park which has recently opened.

Imagica is spread over 300 acres with 26 attractions and 5 themed restaurants. As soon as we walked through the gates of Imagica, we were very impressed. It felt like we were in Disneyland and not India. The park was spotless and everything was shiny and new.  The first thing that struck us was the courteous, professional and friendly staff. We decided to purchase the express tickets so we could use the express queue. It was a great decision and we hardly had any wait for the rides enabling us to see the entire park in one day.

There was a huge variety of rides and they were all amazing.  There were family rides, kiddie rides, thrill seeking rides and themed attractions. Many of the rides were extremely creative and imaginative. One of the most spectacular rides was I for India, which provided a bird’s eye view of breathtaking images of India on a large screen. The most reassuring part, however was that the rides were checked at least 2 times if not 3 times to ensure people were strapped in and locked correctly.  Not once did I feel unsafe or fear for the safety of my children.

The food was surprisingly good. After mainly eating Indian food for every meal, the children were in heaven to have some hotdogs, burgers and chips. The day culminated in a fabulous evening street parade with great music and excellent dancers.  The park lights at night were very beautiful and created a festive mood.

I would highly recommend going to Imagica for a day or two with your children. It will create memories of a lifetime and the kids will be thrilled to do something they love!

Sandyx

The entire family was feeling very excited when we set off for our trip to India.  There was no doubt this was going to be a grand adventure for our family, one which we will remember for a very long time.  As we sat in Sydney airport, we looked like one happy family ready for the time of our lives.

After a long day on Air Asia with a few hours in Kuala Lumpur, we arrived at Cochin airport in Kerala.  As we were flying to Goa the next day, we stayed at Flora International Airport Hotel.  We were greeted with a big smile by Suresh who drove us the 100 metres to our hotel.  We were then offered an upgrade to a very comfortable and clean room.  The buffet breakfast was a good mixture of western food and South Indian food.  The staff were very friendly and very hospitable. The rooftop pool was sparkling with great views of the lush countryside.  We would highly recommend this hotel if you are in transit.

When we arrived at the airport the next morning for our Spice Jet flight to Goa, we were told that all Spice Jet flights were cancelled.  Apparently, Spice Jet are having severe financial difficulties and have grounded many of their flights. As we shuffled around the counters of the various airlines looking for an alternative flight, we were told that there were no flights available to Goa until the next day.  It was chaos and many Indians were visibly upset and angry as Spice Jet had given no prior notice to their customers.  We also felt upset as we had planned our itinerary so carefully and didn’t have a lot of room to maneuver.  I was particularly worried that we were only on our first day in India and already our plans were falling apart.  But perhaps, I thought, this was our first test from India.  Perhaps we were to learn our first lesson:  patience. 

 

On the positive side, we met some lovely people who were also in the same position. It is always interesting how people unite in times of crisis.  After searching the internet, we did manage to find some flights to Goa in the evening but it was going to cost us a ridiculous amount of money.  As we only had 3 days in Goa and had already prepaid our accommodation, we decided to spend the extra money. We can only hope that our travel insurance will reimburse us for some of the cost. Despite the inconvenience and the loss of money, we were still determined to enjoy ourselves and not let this slight glitch ruin our high spirits.  I know that there will be many more challenges along the way.  I am also intrigued by the lessons that we will learn along the way.

After a very long day, we eventually arrived at our villa, Kaju Varo in North Goa at 1:30 a.m. The hosts greeted us with cold filtered water and a very warm welcome.  The architecturally designed villa was beautiful and spotless set in a peaceful and serene garden.  We immediately knew that we would be very happy there.  Kaju Varo is a wonderful place to base yourself in North Goa and we would highly recommend it.  The staff are very friendly and extremely attentive.  They live on site and ensure that everything is perfect for your stay.  The food at Kaju Varo is exceptional.  The breakfast is served daily outside in the garden on a long table enabling you to socialise with the other guests.  Breakfast is very large and includes fresh fruit, masala omelets, warm bread with butter and jam and tea and coffee served with hot milk.  It is the perfect breakfast to fill up four very hungry children, at least until lunchtime.  Kaju Varo also provides lunch, dinner or snacks at a reasonable price. We ate dinner there one night and it was exceptional.  We had never had Goan food before and we weren’t disappointed.  It was truly amazing and one of the best Indian meals we have ever had.  

 

The location of Kaju Varo is ideal, a 5 minute walk to Ashem Beach, a quiet and clean beach dotted with hotels with small Hotels, beach shacks, shops and restaurants along the beach front.   The atmosphere is friendly, laid back and very family friendly.  We spent the next couple of days relaxing on Ashvem beach, swimming in the sea, reading our books, getting beach massages.  The girls had a henna treatment and did some shopping.  The boys played beach cricket with the locals.  We could not have been happier.


 

 

One morning before breakfast, we all took a yoga class in a studio right on the beach.  It was an energising class and I could not believe how much the children enjoyed themselves as they had never done yoga before.  The relaxation at the end of the class was beautiful, with the sounds of the waves lapping on the shore, the gentle Indian music and my family next to me. Life does not get better than that.

 

Unfortunately we had such a short time in Goa as we are really on a whirlwind tour of India.  But I know we will return for a longer stay. 

Mumbai is calling next.