Central Australia Work

Alice Springs March 2017 part 1

I’m sitting in row 24 in the Qantas jet about 30 minutes from arriving at Alice Springs Airport.
I’m sitting beside Jennifer who is completing a difficult jigsaw on her iPad and listening to Adele wi- fried from her iPad mini. I’m listening to music too; Elgar’s glorious Cello Concerto. I skipped lunch and had a red wine instead, as I am very aware of the importance of maintaining fluids on flights. We have flown over lake Torrens; its salt base swirled into wild patterns, all in dreamy white sediments. Lake Eyre is pink, the water is saturated with shrimp; all it needs is flamingos to dramatise this splash of colour. As high as we are, I cannot see the Pelicans which will be there, feeding, fishing, nesting and totally unaware of how desperate the final push will be for their last nestlings as the water evaporates away. Up north, I have seen the white grey bones protruding out of dried carcasses of those pelicans who were too late to flee east or west away from a dying lake.
We will be met at the airport by a taxi organised by Aeromed. Aeromed is the aviation arm of Central Health. Aeromed liaises with the Flying Doctor Service for our transport to remote communities, helps plan the air borne retrieval of sick patients and does the mundane taxi bookings for such as us who arrive in Alice Springs. We have stayed at number 6 recently, but have stayed at other flats in the same set of units. It’s on two levels, hopefully clean and tidy but last time we had ants trailing through the kitchen on the ground level and the bathroom on the second level, hunting for water. The merest trickle or even the scent of water drives them on. The rooms and lounge are dark unless interior lights are on, much of the window light shielded by heavy curtains. However, even when the curtains are opened wide, the entering sunlight is attenuated by buildings adjacent and the gum trees outside with plenty of lusty cockatoos and galahs sitting on the branches. This shade is not a problem as Alice Springs at this time of the year is still hot and the showers of the wet season are long passed.
It’s 7:30 am Tuesday morning, we are sitting in our donga after breakfast, here in Lake Nash. A donga is a prefabricated steel clad box with a steel roof above with a definite air gap. It is a box which sits on several stubby concrete pillars. A truck and crane are used to bring them here and then carefully lower them into position. As a place to stay, it’s comfortable with excellent air conditioning and a basic kitchen and mini lounge set up. We arrived yesterday morning by RFDS. The plane which carried all of us is a turboprop called a Pilatus. The flight took 90 minutes to cover the 700km between Alice Springs and Lake Nash. The plane was crowded with people and luggage, on its maximum weight short a bare 1 kilogram. Some of the Aboriginals coming back from hospital in Alice Springs were loaded up with shopping, pillows and bed linen. It’s a problem as the car drive is well over 20 hours to get to Alice via Mt ISA.The flight is noisy so as always I used my noise cancelling headphones and enjoyed some videos. The country beneath is much drier than when we were here last in Central Australia. It looks green in patches but there is no mistaking the desolation the sun produces here. The ridges of worn down mountains resemble giant unarticulated spines of ancient dinosaurs as they gently begin to swirl in the landscape.
Lake Nash is very flat. It is a vast flood plain divided by the Sandover Highway. Unfortunately every time it is graded, it drops a bit lower relative to the surrounding plain, so now any time there is fair drop of rain, instant 400 km canal! It takes weeks to dry out and even when we walked along it this morning it was still slippery and slick in parts from rains weeks ago.
The clinic is situated beside the community store. The clinic is a building made of steel and concrete to resist the termites which promptly destroy any timber structure. The layout us a bit odd with clinical rooms sprouting off from odd parts of the original design. These are the necessities of bush life, you take what you have and adapt it to your needs as they evolve. There is not the money or personnel to rebuild a more useful clinic. The staff are terrific. Bev is in charge, she is friendly, busy and oozes competence. Kirri is an old friend from Ali Curung who is now working here in Lake Nash. There is Angelique, Lorraine and some Aboriginal fellows who help with cleaning and driving – Clarence and Clifford. All of them are very friendly.
It’s now nearly 2pm. In a few minutes power will be off for one or two hours. There have been long standing problems with power here and this is the time arranged to fix it. I wish them luck. It’s about 40 degrees outside. This morning was quite busy. I see mostly men and Jennifer mostly women. I am impressed by how well their chronic diseases are being looked after and how well the senior staff here know the patients and their circumstances. I emphasise changes in diet and exercise in both early and established diseases such as diabetes and kidney failure. The problems with this westernised healthy lifestyle thing are: firstly, no refrigerators in the homes so food is bought daily and too often pre cooked at the shop, fresh verges and fruit are frequently unavailable and always expensive when delivered and finally, the expertise to cook in healthy ways is limited by past poor education. These are part of what we call Social determinants of disease. Before we consider diseases there are these basic barriers to achieving good lifestyles, it’s difficult. Throw in the language difficulties which include poor facility in English, having to translate from English to their own language in real time, the differences in meanings of words due to different cultural experiences, and you have lots of good excuses for poor health outcomes in Aboriginal society. Amazingly, the benefits of patience on both sides, the continuity of health carers over years, and having limited but prioritised goals to avoid overwhelming them, is improving the situation here. Roughly 50% of diabetics in Lake Nash now have taken ownership of their illness and are self motivated to take their medications and attend reviews with little prompting from clinic staff. This is a wonderful achievement. It is about communicating and sharing goals. It’s not having a one sided information flow from health staff to patients. The information flows both ways and that can only happen with intelligence and good will on both sides. The power is now out and the room is starting to warm up, I need to find somewhere cool now!
It’s Wednesday morning. Jennifer and I went for an early morning walk, and on the way we met Jayne who is the visiting nurse audiologist. We all walked together west along the Sandover Highway. The sunrise behind us. Jayne has worked in Central Australia for forty years. She has seen everything and everybody, and mentioned people who we knew as well having worked in remote communities. We talked about all sorts of things as walked along the sandy road. The sound of a truck made me turn back, a 4WD was travelling along a road parallel to the highway, inside the Lake Nash station, It’s lights and dust silhouetted against the early dawn light.
I asked her about education as we passed the local school a few minutes before. For example, Were there Aboriginal audiologists in Australia? In fact Jayne’s boss is an audiologist and an Aboriginal. Jayne has a young friend who is a teacher in Alice Springs. This is a lass she has known from childhood., a close friend of her daughter. She went to university, and then worked in Ballarat. What really struck here, she told Jayne, was the much higher standard of education for children and teenagers compared to Central Australia. So she decided to work and help people here in Central Australia, and has done so for many years, teaching in Alice Springs. Here in Lake Nash, there is a community school with a sign that boasts 120 happy students. But where do they go to acquiring a trade or profession or just more senior studies? Yilara College is run by the Finke Mission on the outskirts of Alice Springs and provides excellent education for the senior secondary Aboriginal students. It is very affordable and there are many scholarships to help with board and educational costs. Jayne in her capacity in testing the kids hearing, has asked many of the students what they want to do with their lives. She said only two had aspirations to anything more than go just go back to their communities. However, I think if you asked most Australian teenagers about their plans for the future most adults would be less than impressed by their lack of ideas. One student at Yilara, a girl wanted to be a hairdresser but could not see herself doing that back in her community because no one would pay her. She believes they would expect her to do it for free because she is family. Everyone is a cousin or an auntie in these communities. The plus in Aboriginal community is the strong sense of real community but the minus is that businesses which would be supported just by a community rather than government money, could struggle with cash flow. The community shops have got around this by being absolutely definite about no credit and supplies have to be paid for. Perhaps the young lass, needs to just toughen up and make the same rules for her own business. A hairdresser would improve hair care, educate people about hygiene and provide a really good service. I recall an Aboriginal doctor in Utopia who went broke because he folded to constant humbugging because of what he felt were his valid cultural commitments, dishing out money to “family” on request. I think you have to be tough as his attitude earned him no respect in his community.
The integration of our two cultures is problematic but can be solved by goodwill, mutual respect and communication. As regards education, there are generous scholarships to do all sorts of study at secondary and tertiary level for remote Aboriginals.Scholarships to schools in Alice, Sydney, Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne can provide first rate levels of education. Sport based scholarships are widely available in Soccer, football and for other sports that include education as well as an opportunity to enter elite sport as a career. As a professional and an advocate for education, I feel disappointed if other people don’t share my passion for what I see as self improvement, utilising all your abilities in a profession or a job, I see it as a loss of potential, a waste. But is this my western, elitist view of things, measuring other people by my standards and not theirs? Less face it, only a minority of people have the opportunity to study a profession but most people can get a job. In remote communities there can be a problem with getting work. There are not the big employers, factories, department stores and so on here in remote Australia. However, there are solutions which have worked. Jayne gave us an example as she walked along under the ghost gums; Canteen Creek was founded by four elders disaffected with how their original community was being run. In Canteen Creek, the elders negotiated land use with the Australian Army in a trade off not for money but community services. These services include a dental clinic run by the army as well building sport centres and other facilities which provide work and activities. Canteen Creek has regular Thursday Emu day, where all the litter is collected through the whole community. It was Canteen Creek which has a spectacular Christmas light display. The army engineers came and taught the women of Canteen Creek how to do arc welding so they could make sturdy bed bases for themselves and the old people in the community. I think it’s an example of how clever Aboriginal communities can be when they have the chance to make decisions for themselves. The top down approach to deciding what communities will get and when, is not the solution that works. I think there could be plenty of work if the elders in each community can be given encouragement and opportunity to develop solutions. Work could include; ranging ( caring for the land, animals and flora), art ( new forms of art including video, sculpture), local businesses like hairdressing, electrical repairer, carpenter, builders, maintaining local water and power, in short, all the services and trades that presently come out of Alice Springs with enormous costs and delays.
One of the potential problems for established businesses often cited in Alice Springs is that most Aborigines take their family and ceremony commitments very seriously and this could mean weeks or even months away from work. But does this actually happen? Is it one of those self evident “facts” ? Do we assume they won’t be able to work? Are we making excuses for not employing Aborigines? Certainly here in Lake Nash most of the men I have met are working and they often have such severe health problems that I think the the government would issue them with a pension if they asked. Most of the very old men, the Elders I have met in most communities, have had long work careers of which they are rightfully very proud. The level of unemployment varies with communities, the well functioning communities with minimal internal conflicts do reasonably well in finding work and setting up programs so men and women can work. The men particularly like outdoor work and land care here in Lake Nash. I would not work in bright sunshine in 44 degrees but they do, only grabbing some shade to enjoy a yarn when sitting together on their few breaks.
It’s Thursday evening and I’m lying in bed after cleaning up the floors of the donga. As each doctor leaves its required to get the linen washed, kitchen and amenities clean and floor washed. The places are usually small so it does not take long. It’s been a busy week at work but not with emergencies for a change but with sorting out issues in people’s health, reassuring and encouraging. I like doing this part of medicine. I saw one young man twice, he’s profoundly deaf and he came in complaining of headache. I could find nothing wrong and then he admitted he was frightened as some one he knew had died from a bleed into his brain. He was very frightened at the thought he might die too. Once I knew this I could really reassure him that he was fine and that headaches are common and are rarely a danger. He seemed to have a weight lift off his shoulder as he understood he was going to be okay. Medicine here is less about tablets and more about talking with and understandings people’s fears and concerns.

Anyway, it’s back to Alice Springs tomorrow morning. The weather forecast is for cooler temperatures in NT, WHICH WILL suit this Tasmanian very nicely, indeed! I just hope the ride won’t be too bumpy.

Ps I referred him to be assessed for a hearing aid. No one should be trapped or isolated in a disability.IMG_3108


Day 25 last day in India

We are sitting in the shade beside the hotel pool, it is just after 1 pm and it is beautiful sunny yet cool day with a delicious breeze in the streets and here nestled behind the hotel. Both of us have had a freshly poured glass of chilled glass of Sula Sauvignon Blanc, which is a very good domestic wine.

Last night we walked into Connaught place and went to Zaffran, the restaurant in the Palace Heights Hotel. We had a Murgh sagwala ( chicken and spinach ) and a Aloo dormeer ( steamed cauliflower) as well as roti and butter nan. It was a fabulous meal. The steamed cauliflower, steamed in a clay pot was the highlight.the chicken was the most tender we have had in India; as they generally tend to be a little tough if flavoursome.
This morning after breakfast we hired a taxi to go to Qutb Minar. This mosque, minaret and tomb complex was built over the twelfth century by early muslim kings of Delhi. The minaret is reminiscent of a Saturn five rocket, its covered in Arabic text, and would provide a wonderful view of Delhi.
However, there is no longer any access into and up the minaret, as a few years ago there was a terrible disaster when a power failure caused a loss of lighting and then a panic amongst school children – 45 died.

The complex contains ruins of the oldest mosque still extant in India, the famous iron pillar which is thousands of years old but had never rusted in all that time, there are ancient tombs. There are well maintained gardens and trees, with brahmany kites and green parrots circling or perching on branches or the sandstone masonry of the ruins. A beautiful last outing.

We had planned another to the Mughal Gardens, but there was some function on and it was too crowded and complicated to bother going in. So we walked the two kilometres from there to the hotel, crossing the busy streets. Pedestrian crossings do not mean any car or vehicle actually stops, they are more suggestions to walkers about the best opportunity to cross the road. It still takes time and a judicious burst of speed to get across. Yet i think it is only a matter if time before one of us will get hit by something.

So we are sitting by the pool, relaxing.IMG_2925IMG_2926IMG_2933IMG_2934IMG_2935IMG_2939IMG_2944IMG_2991IMG_2998

India, Travel

Day 24 exploring Delhi with a sore tummy

I am lying in bed in The Park Hotel, with a case of Delhi Belly. None the less Jennifer and I did some very interesting activities between visiting the toilet.

We met Ray at the Delhi Agrasen ki Baoli. This is a step well that was used to collect monsoon rainfall in a secure area, and the collection of water merely involved walking down to the water. It is very different to the ancient one at Abhaneri . That one is far more open and steps along each wall. The one in Delhi is very interesting, with one staircase to the water, and walls on the remaining sides. Bats roost above the lower most reservoir of the step well, their chattering in the dark recesses above us and their droppings below.

We walked to Oxford Bookstore for Chai. Ray has two Mango smoothies and a yummy cucumber sandwich, while we had chais. The glasses were supported in steel monkeys, and piping hot. The bookshop had little in the way of history books so we did not linger long. We dropped Ray off at the Rajiv Chowk Metro, said our goodbyes, then caught a tuk tuk to the museum.

This museum is great!!! It has the best display in the world of Harappan artefacts, including ancient toys, the famous bronze called the dancing girl, lots of patterned pots, some fabulous gold jewellery, and lots of reading. This early River civilisation based on the now lost Sarasvati River was vast in area, sophisticated in town planning, and the ancient origin of Vedic Hinduism. There were other wonderful exhibits of Guptan sculpture, this was the golden age of Indian figurative sculpture, then Hindu sculpture, and then Indian jewellery from Indus times to the present. The emeralds and diamonds and rubies are enormous! We admired the Mughal art, delicate miniatures of brilliant colour and precise execution. The early emperors were all fine artists and poets in their own right and strongly supported painting and architecture of a very high standard. By now, I was getting a big sore, so we left, taking a tuk tuk back to the hotel. We have cancelled tomorrow’s booked tour and I will rest up.IMG_2950IMG_2952IMG_2953IMG_2959

India, Travel

Day 23 return to Delhi

It is now 9:41 pm and we are in room 623 of the Park, 11 Parliament street, New Delhi. We opted to leave the Hotel Perfect, forgoing the cold showers, the dog chorus, and the truly average meals for something a little more upmarket.

We all took the overnight train from Varanasi to New Delhi last night. The train only stops at four stations between Varanasi and New Delhi. It also travels a lot faster. I had a top bunk ( of three) and Jennifer was in the top of two bunks opposite me. The train was much cleaner and more comfortable then the local train to Varanasi. Most of the night, I could see nothing out of the windows. In the morning, I shared muffins with Jennifer and Jennifer finished off her noodles from the previous evening. Chai walaws move down the narrow corridor carrying a steel urn and piles of paper cups, bringing along Marsala tea, and a cup is ten rupees. Jennifer had four cups in the morning. I joined her on her bunk reading my iPad, my boots dangling into the corridor. We shared the compartment with two families, that were very friendly if a little too noisy, but that’s how it works, as Api says.

On arrival at New Delhi, we were carried in taxis to Hotel Perfect. From there we went to the Park Hotel. We said good bye to Peter and Anna. This charming Canadian couple have been an absolute delight to be with, friendly, discerning and highly intelligent, and it was a true pleasure to see his paintings of the trip.

At the Park, after some misgiving we took up the offer of a buffet lunch. However, those misgivings were misplaced, the meal consisted of tiny servings of fresh or beautifully cooked meats and vegetables, and some super deserts. Yummy.
After lunch I slept for four hours, then we walked to the Lord of the drinks restaurant. It is only six minutes away and to our delight there is a underpass to avoid the traffic, hurrah! We arrived earlier, and went in to have drinks. We ordered wine and they plopped ice in the glass. No. No. Stop. Don’t do that. We chorused. Fratelli wine is excellent and particularly so without ice. We shared a wonderful meal and conversations with the remaining tour members; Anna, Joanna, Alejandro, Ray and of course Api. Lots of laughs including one about a banana. After dinner, a meal and drinks costing 10,000 rupees for seven of us ( $200), we said our farewells.


Day 22 India trip further exploration of Varanasi

I am sitting in the lobby of the Haifa Hotel not far from Assi Ghat. It’s warm now, the air is barely moving, despite the afternoon breeze in the street. Ray is fast asleep on the sofa chair immediately opposite us.
Last night we took an evening boat cruise. The wind was cool over the Ganges, the river barely moving. I lent down and felt the silky warm water with my fingers. The bridges to north and south are in haze. The river is wide here at Varanasi, and so the many boats do not crowd up as madly as do the roads. In the evening, the boats carry tourists like us, but also pilgrims for the night ceremonies along the shores of the Ganges. At the second, larger Burning Ghat, two furious funeral pyres burnt tall and brightly, sending a long orange reflection toward us. Other lights on the waterfront and far into the distance likewise shimmered on the water, patterns of yellow, red and gold. We stopped in the river not far beyond the Burning Ghats, and each of us launched small cardboard bowls, each with a lit candle and a small flower. Every one a wish. This is the flower ceremony. They seemed to hover in the darkness as they flowed away from the boat, forming small gay flotillas of flickering light until the candles were blown out by the wind and they began their voyage to Bay of Bengal. The boat handler picked up the heavy black steel crank and started the motor, and steered us back the way we had come. We stopped at a large ghat, it was brightly lit, light displays shining iridescence into the crowds on the ghat and into the water. Many, many boats began to cram the space, boat handlers ran along gunwales, securing or pushing, jamming all the boats together. It was dark behind us but in front the white clothed priests sang out, all was light and sound and smells as Bollywood guitars, sitars and tabla supported three singers; these men are dressed in gold and red brocade. They sang and did motions with their arms, a slow ritual dance of the gods, then held up and swung a burning beam of incense, the smoke still pungent even as far away as we were. The performance went on for 40 minutes or more, and concluded after flaming ” candelabras” were held into the air and laid on the ground at their feet.
This same ritual was performed on at least four locations on the Varanasi Ghats. The reason is this; each night the faithful must sing the gods to sleep and in the morning to sing and rouse them awake. Most of the people in the boats, and on the ghats were pilgrims, watching and enjoying one of the great traditions of Hinduism.
In every Hindu home, small temples are used to perform similar ceremonies every morning and night. Each family has favourite gods and saints.
We had dinner at the hotel, then went to bed. At dinner, Alejandro told an amusing story. Alejandro arrived in Delhi too late for the briefing but had checked online to see if there were other single people, especially a girl, on the trip. He discovered that Anna was single. Okay, so far so good. The tour commenced, and Alejandro met Anna. Anna is in her late fifties. Oh well. But then Alejandro was amazed. He hear Anna volunteering to wash Peter’s clothes. Alejandro was impressed, this man is a master. On only the second day of a tour, Peter had so quickly conquered Anna, that she is not only doing his washing, but is happy to be hugged and kissed by him. Wow!!! The truth is that Peter and Anna are well and truly married and that there is a second young Anna, much closer to his own age.

This morning, we said goodbye to George and Grace now on their way back to Canada.

A few of us braved tuk tuks for a trip to the Buddhist temple ruins in Varanasi. This area is one of the four most sacred locations for Buddhists. It was here that Buddha gave his first sermon after his enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. There are ruins of a large Buddhist community, as well as an immense stupa commemorating Buddha. On it are carved letters, flowers and designs. There is a museum with many artefacts of Ashoka and the Gupta kingdoms recovered from Sarnath. The centrepiece at his fine museum was his capital pillar. Ashoka lived in 273BC. SO It is over 2200years old. On top of the huge sculpture, standing on a great wheel are four seated lions. All are symbols of Buddhism. Around the wheel, and below the lions are four smaller wheels, and between each of them is an animal, an elephant, a bullock, a lion, and a Horse. It is sculpted from a light brown marble. The base is an unfolded lotus. There is some damage but it is still an excellent and awe inspiring example of Gupta art and religion.

Th other really notable stone sculpture is a Gupta period Buddha with the most delicate of features, face and hands, and behind it a stone umbrella carved with intricate motifs. Nearby is a Jain temple, and a giant Buddha – 80 feet high.

We were conveyed back to our hotel by the waiting tuk tuks , through god awful traffic. Typical! Then a super lunch at Open Hand cafe. Ray joined us on the tour and lunch. It is now 4pm and in a few hours we board the train to Delhi. We have noodles for Jennifer and muffins for me, to gave on the train.


Day 21 India trip Varanasi

I am lying in my hotel room, Jennifer is checking ATM locations in a wooden chair by the door. We have been in Varanasi less than 24 hours but it has certainly impressed us in that very brief time.
We arrived at the train station after noon, about three hours late. A big part of the delay were police boarding in the middle of the night to investigate a bag that had been stowed, its owner having abruptly left the train at a previous station. The police woke up some of our party, but thank goodness they did not check passports, as Alejandro comes from Colombia!! We were oblivious in the next carriage and slept reasonably well on this overnight train from Agra, me in the top bunk and a Jennifer in the very bottom one. We paused 45 minutes just before the station just to enhance the fatigue of the journey. At this point, Jennifer and I decided to go upmarket on our accomodation in Delhi! We booked the Park Hotel in the centre of Delhi, five star bliss. The morbid thought of the dog chorus at three in the morning was an additional motivation to move upwards.

We are staying at Haifa Hotel in the old quarter, only a short walk from the Ganges and the many ghats which are spread along this side of the river. After a pleasant lunch at the hotel and a freshen up, including a shower and shave, Api and a local man, took us for a walk. We walked along a dusty, rough road, past shops, cows, beggars, holy men all dressed in orange, and other tourists. At the riverbank, there is a wide path to walk along, with steps leading to the sandy beach. On the beach, wooden poles are dug firmly in, and tied them are the many boats that are used for short trips on the Ganges. As I looked north, I could see the guest houses and temples, disappearing into the distance as the city followed the river as it curved to the east upstream. The boats are old, spacious vessels without any shade, their paintwork fading from what must have been brightly coloured when first done. I passed a man standing in a boat high up on the path, his hands covered in pitch to the elbows, and the interior of the boat covered in freshly applied black pitch. The water would be still but for the many boats criss crossing, some are power boats but many are rowed, a single rower somehow managing to row up to 12 tourists!

There are paintings on the walls to our left, there are paintings of Shiva, Ganesh, bright blue backgrounds and gaily painted gods, with gold and red ornaments in their hair and around their arms. There are paintings by the local white counterculture, not Indian at all, of cannabis smoking men or of Yggdrasil portrayed on a sloping wall. On a long pair of ropes, are many rectangular blue cloths, drying in the air – they form a visually interesting scene against the sandstone of the steps and walls.

The path is not all flat, I have to negotiate steps, avoid cricket games, and frustrate holy men who will bless me then demand money afterwards. Children and women in dirty neglected saris, try to sell small foil cups with a few flowers, to be dropped into the Ganges. Men grasp my hand, and call me friend, Namaste, and I pull my hands back as this is one more scam. Api our ever watchful, always competent guide shoos them off with more politeness than me.

At one spot, at a temple complex on the Ganges, the crowds got thicker, there are more people sitting and standing around, boats are filled with people, really filled, and the susurration of prayers is thick in the air. The smell of burnt sandalwood envelops the shore.
We reach the first of two outdoor crematoria on the Ganges at Varanasi. Before explaining about and describing these areas , I want to talk about the importance of this place in a Hindu’s lifespan. Through life there are many milestones, some unique to certain castes, birth, first haircut, second birth ( peculiar to Brahmins and occurs after much study and acquiring the capacity to read and recall sacred Sanskrit writings), marriage and death; and there us no place holier than Varanasi to perform these rituals. People who live locally or have been living here for at least six months can be cremated on the riverbank or concrete verandahs adjacent to the water. Other Indians are cremated locally then their ashes can be scattered into the Ganges later.

The crematoria are truly weird to a westerner. The process of cremation is not something we see in our culture while here in Varanasi, the experience is vivid and powerful, a sensation of sound ( the changing of the priests and family), of smell ( the burning cedar, sandalwood or teak and the body itself) and sight( the flames and ashes, the massive piles of timber stacked against the blackened temple walls and the untouchables who carry wood and wash down the concrete with huge hoses).

We climbed the narrow winding stairs beside the Burning Ghat, past the stacked timber, past ash rippled walls, and the little the shops selling gaudy, golden relics for the funerals and tourists. We entered tiny lanes, with shops at our elbows, the occasional motorbike braved the pathway but mostly pedestrians walk briskly beside us. We arrived at the Blue Lassi – this cafe provides low seating and on the walls are thousands of photos, all passport sized and stuck to the interior brickwork. The lassi artisan sits in the window, he ladles yoghurt with a steel spoon into a bowl, then adds fruit or seeds or coconut as per the order, to produce delicious lassis. I had banana and pomegranate and Jennifer enjoyed banana and coconut. Each one was served in a single use clay cup. They cost 70 rupees each, which is about 12 cents a cup. After we left there, we visited a fabric shop, I nearly passed out from heat stroke as he piled up blanket after blanket on my legs. No one bought anything, too tired and too late.

We walked through a narrow market that glittered with the local products for sale here, the metal work and jewellery, the lavishly bling infested clothes and bags, and the brightly wrapped spices and foods and into a political rally. The prime Minster of India, Modi, has been campaigning in Varanasi in support of his local BJP candidate for Uttar Pradesh, while Ravi Gandhi arrived later to campaign for the Congress Party. There were crowds supporting both parties in the elections, lots of car horns honking, and an excited populace singing out for their preferred party. Chaos in the flesh, so we walked the opposite way, and caught tuk tuks back to the hotel.

We had dinner at a pizzeria which overlooks the Ganges; during the meal the power went off, and so we ate with candle light; the lights of buildings further upstream were still working and I saw those lights on the water of the Ganges, scattered from vertical lines in the wake of the few remaining boats that still plied offshore.

This morning some of us were up to meet the boat owner to take us on a cruise. We climbed into his boat, taking seats along the ledge below the gunwales. The trip was slow and beautiful, the diesel motor was not obtrusive. We passed the ghats and the buildings above them, the air is clear, reflections rich and dark in the water, and we pass swimmers below us, their heads above the surface. Others are standing on the lowermost steps of the ghats washing themselves and letting the water run down their bodies, repeating the action again and again, then suddenly dive forwards to immerse themselves fully, while most splash out a few meters, there are some hardier souls who risk the boats going up and down the river. The Ganges is a magnificent river. On the other bank there are no buildings visible but there is a group of people, singing as the sun rises above them.
We met Api for breakfast at the Open Hand Cafe. A terrific venue with western style coffee, muesli and breakfasts. We chatted with Ray and Api over breakfast. Api told us about the situation with Indian women, they are still frustrated with the slow progress they are permitted to achieve by men. Intrepid is actively trying to develop women as tour guides.
After breakfast, we have decided to have a chill-out morning and afternoon before the cruise and flower ceremony tonight.

India, Travel

Day 20 Varanasi by train

We are sitting together in carriage B2, seats 29 and 30. Above me is the top bunk where I slept last night, and behind me, now folded against the wall, is the bunk below me, and I am sitting on the bottom bunk. Yes, a three tier system, on either side of our small compartment. Six of the tour group are here, George, Grace, Peter, Anna, and Jennifer and I.
We left Agra station about an hour late, the platform crowded with people even though it was 9:30 at night. When the ancient diesel train pulled in, we trundled along the platform and bustled our way in, negotiating the narrow corridors and people dealing with bags and boxes. We found our berth which is about midway along the carriage and shoved our bags under the bottom bunk. We have learnt to pack our bags flatter and it easy to slide them out of the way. We pulled out the bag chains and secured them to metal rings under the bunk.

I clambered up to the top bunk, nearly clobbering a very forgiving lady in the opposite side bunks with my boots. I needed a final shove and I was up. It was comfortable as far as bunks go, but the head end was a bit trapped and I woke up with a neck headache. Luckily getting down is a lot easier than getting up. Now to face the train lavatory, any “stuff” goes straight down and onto the tracks – this is a problem when at a station. It all adds to the aromas of India. Enough said!
Outside the window, I can see mostly farms, green fields extending to the next line of trees, and I see a farmer and his family hunkered down on the ground, cutting the wheat with small curved knives, then tying the stalks together into small bundles, which they lie on the ground. The houses are of brick, plastered with mud and a roof composed of thatch. Smoke drifts and slowly twirls up from their small campfires near their front doors. At railway crossings, motorbikes mounted by dhoti wearing farmers, and agricultural trucks, all wait patiently. The boom gates are large branches, not the processed painted, timber ones we see in Australia.
On the edge of the road are sellers, there is one selling nuts and dried fruit under a canopy suspended over his cart.
We pass small villages, some of the houses are bare brick, some were painted blue at one time but now the paint has faded, washed away by the blisteringly hot summer sun and the humid monsoon rain, leaving a mottled blue and white mosaic of colour. The rooftops are used, it’s now 10am and the men have left for the fields or shops, and only washing can be seen suspended from lines above the irregular brickwork. There is no sign of any building code, precious little sanitation, and electricity if it is available, is cobbled from the nearest node without any actual electrician or metering involved.

I think all of us are getting tired. The bubbly enthusiasm of the younger crowd is not as apparent. Alejandro had a brief bout of Gastroenteritis, Johanna badly sprained her ankle, Anna ( Banana) has had troublesome urticaria. Us older ones are just getting tired. Sleep is a resource that can be in short supply, with noise an all too common part of the Indian evening. The dog chorus in Delhi, the dog fight and howling in the villages, the Hindu weddings that go on for days without getting any quieter and the noise of traffic that thankfully drifts away by midnight.

The bustle, crowds, hawking, scamming, fields of rubbish, the sorry toilets, negotiating prices, and tipping, all test this traveller. However all these things are India or at least they are for the foreign traveller. On the other hand, I have the company of our fellow group members and leader who are truly delightful to be with, I have met many friendly Indian people especially being photographed with them in group hugs, the exotic history, the stunning food, the locales including the forts, the palaces, the bazaars, the mosques, the temples and mausoleums especially the Taj Mahal are fascinating and occasionally awe inspiring. The pluses definitely outweigh the negatives but just don’t ask me about India after a bumpy night on the Agra to Varanasi train.