Mumbai, menopause and madam – Bikaner

Mum shows rat cunning

“Not much to do here,” the teen announced.

She sounded hopeful. As I’d promised, we wouldn’t visit every fort and every palace in every town we’d stopped. So a morning of no forts, nor palaces, in Bikaner surely meant a morning in the hotel Facebooking her mates.

“Oh yes there is darling. We’re off to the temple of rats!”

About 30kms out of Bikaner is the Temple of Deshnok. Legend has it that the Hindu-born sage, Karni Mata, who was an incarnation of Durga, the goddess of power and victory, implored the god of death Yama to revive the son of one of her clansmen who had drowned in a water tank. Yama refused, but relented when Karni agreed to all her tribesmen being reincarnated as rats until they could be born back into the clan. (Remember, with Hinduism death is just the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, and you go through a cycle of transition until you are reborn.)

So, currently at the Temple Deshnok, built in Karni’s honour, there are about 20,000 black rats hanging about waiting, and hoping I guess, to be reborn.

The teen meanwhile was hoping to be anywhere else but outside this temple.

More than 20,000 rats were inside.

More than 20,000 rats were inside.

Her apprehension turned to dismay when told we had to take off our shoes.
“Of course you do,” she grumbled.
“But it’s considered good luck if they run across your feet!” said perhaps a little too enthusiastically, judging by the look she threw me in return.
And sure enough, there they were. Little furry rodents scampering everywhere or poking their heads out of numerous holes.

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They are revered and if you accidentally tread on one and kill it you are expected to replace it with the rat’s weight in gold – a cause for concern as I watched the teen hopping about in her socks. (I was relieved to discover they now sell little gold and silver replacements to cover for any unfortunate mishaps.)

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“Things good be worse,” (my favourite mantra) “you could be sleeping among them!”

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Any food you give which is nibbled on is considered an honour, but even better is the blessing you receive if you eat food or water that has been sampled by the rat.
NO! Even I drew the line at that one.
Another blessing is to see a white rat as they’re believed to be the manifestations of Karni Mata or her family. Sadly, we didn’t see one.

The rats are fed around the clock to prevent them from leaving the temple. They are fed milk. Lots of milk. Buffalo milk in fact.

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And afterwards, like all of us after a big meal, they enjoy a nap.

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Not a bad life for a rat in the Temple of Deshnok.

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Mumbai, menopause and madam – Jaipur

Monkey business

Next stop after a perfect day at the Taj, was a visit to the Monkey Temple just outside of Jaipur. After all, who couldn’t help but full in love with the stars of the National Geographic television series Monkey Thieves. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ic9fYB_WYg0

We arrived at the temple after a long journey from Agra, stopping at the ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri on the way, only to be mercilessly hounded by relentless touts. One, selling necklaces, wouldn’t give up, sticking his hand through the window of the bus, and persisting until the bus began to pull out.

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We were hot and tired, but hey, after battling the touts, what could a few hundred Rhesus Macaques throw at us that we couldn’t handle? The monkeys shared the ruins of the Temple Galtaji with holy priests and natural springs, the water collected in seven tanks. Thousands of Hindus make the pilgrimage every year to bathe in the water, while the monkeys are attracting more and more tourists.

Natural springs, stunning architecture and monkeys, a perfect way to end our day.

We bought some peanuts and were escorted to the gates by a couple of pushy cows, who only stopped short of asking for money.

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But sure enough, that came inside the gate when we were asked for a camera fee.
I looked around. Okay, we’re here… you can come out now, monkeys.
But none appeared, except for one very tired looking looking fella to our right who, clearly as the only representative of his tribe, had been so stuffed full of peanuts he couldn’t be bothered to ask for more. In front of us surrounding the rubbish-strewn courtyard was an array of rundown buildings, a couple of dogs and a group of men, one of whom told us to take of our shoes and follow.

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Aaaaah, I thought, he’s taking us to the monkeys.
Nup. This Sadhu, holy man, took us instead into a closet-sized dimly-lit temple where he beckoned us to sit down. The teen grabbed my hand practically sitting on top of me she was so freaked out.

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The Sadhu daubed our foreheads with vermilion and pointing to the pictures of his God started an animated sermon in English speaking so fast we didn’t understand a word. But it was when he pulled out a cluster of peacock feathers and started thwacking the teen on the head with them that I began to get the giggles.

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I think you’re being blessed,” I whispered.
“I don’t like it” she hissed while trying to remain polite.
“Just go with the flow… or the feather,” I snorted trying to stifle my mirth.
After he worked me over with the peacock feathers, more incoherent rambling was spewed forth as he proceeded to tie a piece of string around our wrists. Then he snatched our camera and took our photo.

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A long silence followed. Until I realised he was staring pointedly at a dish containing money. I dropped 50 rupees in. He asked for more, but as far as I was concerned we’d been hijacked, and no more money was warranted. I refused and there was no misunderstanding of the grumblings in Hindu aimed at our backs as we squeezed out of his tiny alcove and into the daylight. Had the distinct impression our blessings had been revoked and replaced by some ancient curse.

We put on our shoes and returned to the courtyard to climb some stairs and pass some stagnant filthy pools we could only assume were the natural springs.

Stagnant pool

Stagnant pool

Still no monkeys.

We passed people sleeping….

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A pig….

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A dog….

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A pigeon….

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And a bra in a branch….

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But no monkeys.

We looked ahead and up a hill where a pink building lay. So that was the Temple of Galtaji.

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“We’re not going up there mum.”
I was about to agree, but then I saw it through the zoom lens of my camera. A lone monkey sitting on the wall. Way up there.
“Nooooooo.”
Yep, the teen actually wailed.
Oh yes. We were going up. I was damned if I was going to leave without seeing those wretched monkeys. I’d bought peanuts after all.
So up we went, the teen moaning with every step, until I pointed out that things could be worse and she could be walking up the hill with a suitcase on her head.

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And as we neared the crown of the hill, they started to appear. Out came my monkeys.

Monkey business

They weren’t aggressive, rather gentle in fact, waiting politely to receive a nut or tugging gently on our shirts. A couple jumped on Micky and it was hard to ignore the plaintive cries of the babies who were clearly adept at begging.

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But they were worth every rotten step.
We spent nearly an hour with them among the stunning cliff tops overlooking the city of Jaipur. And then we walked back down with grins from ear to ear, ignoring the rubbish, the stagnant pools and the beggars. We’d seen our monkeys, we’d been truly blessed.

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Mumbai,menopause and madam – Delhi-by-bike

Pedal Power – potholes puddles and poo.

As I watched the teen pick up her pushbike to carry it across the railway tracks I had a split second of the most horrific “what if”.
What if the train came right now? What would I do?
I wasn’t comforted by the site of half a dozen Indians dotted around the tracks picking through the garbage to fill their sacks with trash and on-sell for recycling. That was their normality. Watching my daughter carry her bicycle across a working railway track certainly wasn’t mine. But this was India, and things were done differently.
So, I did what I always do when my daughter and I were pushed brutally out of our comfort zones, I made her laugh.
“Don’t do this at home darling!”
I scrambled down the rubble-strewn slope after her, picked up my own bike and followed her across the railway tracks, my head swivelling from left-to-right, as I urged her to “move it”!

We were in Nizamuddin, a Delhi neighbourhood bordered by a lively market dominated by Muslim vendors and an upper-class residential area. We had joined a group of tourists from America, England, New Zealand, Australia and Holland on a tour called Delhi By Cycle. We had already cycled down the railway platform, where I instinctively warned the teen to keep behind the yellow line, a warning which died on my lips as I saw our group leader continue off the platform, down the slope and proceed to cross the tracks. Just like thousands of Indians do every day. Every year 15,000 of those people die.

Our driver Prakash had picked us up at 6am to meet up with the group at the police station. It was pitch black and the teen wasn’t happy. I imagined there would have been a thousand places she would have preferred to be than standing on the side of a busy Delhi Rd outside a police station surrounded by shadowy figures wrapped in blankets, or indeed lying at her feet.

Once the last member of our tour joined us the rules were explained, such as they were. Our guide Shashi said we were to follow him, when he put his hand out to go left or right we followed. We were to toot our bells (pathetic little tinkles against the might of the Delhi driver’s horn) and we were not allowed to talk on our mobiles while we pedalled. Of course we weren’t.

Off we went. And when I say off, I mean off. Right into the traffic. I hadn’t banked cycling across four-lane highways in the paths of trucks, buses and hundreds of those wretched tuk tuks. Traffic in Delhi at 6.30am is a little like traffic on Sydney’s Pacific Highway at 8am on a weekday. You don’t want to be in it!

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I followed behind the teen after telling her to ignore every safety rule she had ever been taught and to just keep going, stopping for nothing or no one. I watched her keeping close to Shashi but turning around often to make sure I was right behind. And I was. The others in the group knew not to overtake and come between us, they understood our need to be tight.

Cycling through the narrow alleyways of the slums was another challenge. The teen couldnt get through quickly enough but it was torture for me to ride past when there was so much to take in. So much to absorb. I could only snatch glimpses of the lives I was pedalling past, feeling conflicted with every thrust of the pedal. Was I some faceless voyeur to these families? Was this something I needed to see to feel?

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We cycled through rows of washing, wet jeans and shirts slapping our faces, we passed people eating, children discoloured from dirt laughing and playing ball, men ironing clothes with huge rustic irons heated from coal. We pedalled over potholes, puddles and poo. Lots of poo from who knew what. We dodged dozens of dogs lying across our paths and refusing to move, goats tethered to doors and a cow so at ease with its sacred status I’m sure it laughed when I nearly came off trying to avoid it.

After 15kms our bums were sore and our legs were like jelly. But we felt good. We had learned so much more about each other and how far we could be pushed. I learned to step back and trust her, while she learned that sometimes rules were meant to be broken and common sense had to relied upon in huge doses. The teen showed lots of it that day, managing in the process to eliminate a couple of those rotten “what ifs” from that enormous list which embedded itself in my brian from the moment she was born. I know now that if a train had come hurtling down the track she would have moved a hell of a lot faster than her mother.

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Mumbai, menopause and madam – Delhi

A bright hotel dimmed by the outside

Okay so at 1am in the morning our first impression of The Hotel Bright wasn’t too well, er, bright.

Our driver Prakash helped us out with the bags, and the three of us stared at the narrow staircase leading who knew where.

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At least we have Prakash and the car I thought.

Prakash was at Delhi airport to meet us, a clean-cut looking gentleman, with gold and ruby earrings in his ears. No turban, nor beard, a relief for the nervous tween who related more to bling than beards. Both of us followed blindly behind him as he marched off with our luggage trolley, until we noticed where we were. We were in the middle of the kerbside lane, the airport traffic weaving around us. We jumped up onto the kerb, stalking Prakash from the side, who still as happy as a clam, continued to storm the traffic until he found a sloping access point to the kerb and pushed the trolley up into the car park. We had a four-wheel drive, clean and comfortable, and made our way to our hotel at Connaught Place.

Prakash got us to our street, but couldn’t find the hotel. This is of course is when you start to doubt the hotel even exists, especially when you have booked it over the net. He eventually stopped the car and got out to ask someone.

That’s precisely the moment when the teen had her first raw experience of India. An old woman dressed in a ragged old sari tapped on her window, frightening the life out of her. Clutched in her gnarled, withered hand was a cluster of sagging balloons, she pointed to her mouth with her other hand.
“What does she want mummy?”
Funny, but my immediate thought was that the teen hadn’t called me “mummy” for what seemed years. Clearly, this was a “mummy” moment.
“Food darling, she wants you to buy a balloon so she’ll have money for food. But you know we are not giving it to her.”
I had already explained to the teen that we would be ignoring all pleas from beggars.
“It will be a never ending trauma if we don’t,” I said. “You smile, say no thank you, and look straight ahead.”

The teen followed procedure, but I could tell her peripheral vision was working overtime, as the woman continued her tapping and pointing to her mouth.
Prakash returned to the car.
“No problem madam, your hotel is just back up the road.”

Now here we were at the bottom of a very dodgy looking stairwell. Well, there’s no way but up from here, I quietly rationalised. With my new very best friend Prakash following behind we made our way up two flights of narrow stairs to arrive on a landing sporting a sofa encrusted with dirt and cratered with huge holes. Graffiti adorned the walls, until we looked closer and realised it was actually the address of the hotel scrawled across the wall. Either way, It was not looking good, and the already very stressed teen was starting to panic.

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Was the landing our room? The sofa our bed? Funny the things that pop into your head at 1am in a hotel in Delhi you booked over the Internet.

We saw a door ahead, stepped through and our despair turned to hope. Inside was a simple, but clean foyer, where a sleepy attendant stood to his feet and called the boss. An officious looking man and a porter bustled in and after filling in our paperwork and arranging to meet Prakash at 10am the next morning we followed the porter to our room and it was delightful. The first thing the teen noted was the”normal toilet”, the second that there was free wi-fi. I noticed the shower and the toiletries. My gamble on the net had paid off.
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We fell into bed, but sleep was elusive as I contemplated the huge challenge ahead.

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Mumbai, menopause and madam – Tears and fears

A reluctant passage to India
It hit me like a ton of bricks. As I watched my daughter cling to her grandfather, I wondered if this time I had had bitten off more than I could chew.

We were at Sydney airport ready to catch our flight to India and the teen was having a major meltdown . She didn’t want to go, it was as simple as that. And that’s when it hit me. In all my years of travelling and sometimes taking absurd risks, I had never been responsible for someone else. And here I was taking a 14 year-old girl to a country I had never visited but predicted would be challenging and confronting, a sensory overload for both of us. Was I mad?

Grandpa’s face was torn as he looked over the sobbing teen straight at me. He wasn’t reproachful, just powerless to help her. I hugged my friend Susan who’d been with me on some of my previous adventures and whispered in her ear.
“Is this the stupidest thing I’ve ever done?”
“Possibly, but it’s a very Wendy thing to do. And there’s no turning back now, just go do it.”

The teen cried her way through the queue to immigration and it was while I was putting our documents back in my bag that I realised I’d left our Delhi hotel vouchers behind. I couldn’t believe it. I’d been obsessive about sorting the paperwork the day before, but I’d also been distracted by a weeping, sullen teen who’d terrified herself with research about terrorist attacks, poverty and crime. She was convinced we would never come home. As for the vouchers I had planted copies of my vouchers and passport pages everywhere throughout our luggage, it was no major setback, just a reminder to be more focused.

Travelling through duty free to our boarding gate the teen perked up considerably. Mainly because her friends were there every step of the way to Gate 61 encoursging her and supporting her. A constant stream of messages of poured onto her iPod. Anyone would think she was going into battle. i guess in her eyes she was.
Her friends joined us again in Singapore during our one-hour stopover, the teen’s face a picture of delight as soon as she connected with the free wifi. One by one there they popped up on the social network like meerkats on patrol, the teen joining in their conversation thousands of miles away with gusto.

Clearly her goofy mates weren’t missing out on their passage to India .. they were coming with us.
Next stop Delhi.

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First-date sex no substitute for love

Having sex after one or two dates is okay apparently.

Good luck with trying to explain that to your hormonally charged teenage daughter surrounded by boys too cute to ignore.

According to a panel on Channel Ten’s A Can of Worms, first-date sex is fine. Model Jennifer Hawkins showed a little more restraint in a magazine interview, stretching the romance to two dates being enough before having sex with a new partner. ‘’For self-respect and for the relationship to move forward,’’ she said.

Move forward to where?  Learning he can’t hold a conversation and that his idea of fun is pulling wings off small insects? And how does keeping a lid on the libido for just two dates empower a teenage girl with self respect when she’s flitting and giggling with undeveloped instincts from one boy crush to another?

I understand sex among teenagers today has become more of an inevitability than a liability, but I do wonder about the random sex some young girls are having with multiple partners before they’ve even left school.

While this first-date-let’s-bonk formula may prove satisfactory for older women a little more savvy and confident about the opposite sex, I doubt it works well for vulnerable teenage girls. Sure, it’s more acceptable these days for even ‘’nice’’ girls to ‘’put out’’, and pregnancy can be prevented, but as a result the pressure for girls as young as 12 to be sexually active has increased dramatically.  Then there’s the issue of our girls feeling compelled to compete with the boys at every level. Along with drinking, swearing and fighting, they believe having casual sex with as many partners as they like is simply their right of passage. What’s always been acceptable for the gander has now become the norm for the goose.

Yet, interestingly, if you gather a group of girls in a room together and ask them how many sexual partners they’ve had, they’re more than likely to halve their answer. Why? Because no matter how much they believe they can match the boys, when it comes to the mating game they know full well the rules are still set in prehistoric stone. Yes our girls can become bankers, engineers and astronauts and have babies along the way, but they’ve gained no street cred when it comes to sexual promiscuity. Sleeping around is still only seen as impressive by the studs in the boys’ club, it doesn’t equate to the girls.

But how do we explain these double standards to our young daughters when other high profile young women, often seen as role models, tell them sex is so unimportant it’s okay to do the doona dance after a couple of movies or shakes at McDonalds? Forget the kiss at the door to say goodnight, go the whole way straight away. It’s empowering!

What these girls are failing to understand or learn is that their real power lies in saying no to every Tom, Dick or Harry who takes them on a first date. In an age when sex has become almost an expectation it’s vital we teach our girls how to harness and develop this power instead of behaving like a goose and giving it and their self-respect away.

Are our teenage girls enjoying too much sexual freedom? 

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Relief Not Shared In Squat Toilets

 

Ok, so maybe there were a few things about the marvelous spirit of adventure I was recapturing last week that I’d forgotten. Squat toilets would be one of them.

Although I remembered well the offensives on the nostrils and the eyes, my knees appeared to have forgotten the flexibility required to use them.

I was in the Vietnamese coastal resort town of Nha Trang about to go out to sea on a converted fishing boat which I suspected had little restroom comfort on offer. So, I jostled my way through the masses to the WC, a squat protected by a rickety wooden door. Not the flashest of loos I’ve come across, and it was certainly under a lot of pressure catering to a weekend crowd, but what the hell, I’d hunched down over worse.

I plunged in, swinging the door behind me, only to have it swung wide open again by a furiously squawking toilet attendant demanding money. Another thing I’d forgotten, a pee needs payment and it didn’t take much imagination to understand the tirade aimed at me when she thrust a sheet of toilet paper in my hand and snatched my money with the other.

I swung the door closed again, catching a glimpse of the crowd outside, this was going to have to be quick.  No problem, once a backpacker always a backpacker, I was a pro at peeing into a hole. Get down low, low enough to aim sure and straight, maintain position and fire, avoiding your shoes and the cuffs of your pants. Easy peasy. I didn’t think twice about it, until I started to bend.

What the …? Had they dug these holes deeper into the ground? Was I taller? Because instead of my bum hovering just centimeters  above the hole, it was suspended in animation only half way down. My obstinate knees were refusing to assist its journey any further south.

Reality hit me as ferociously as the rant from the toilet attendant. My knees were 30 years older and there was no way they were going to squat on demand, toilet emergency or not. They clearly had their limitations and weren’t going to cooperate.

I was in trouble. Peeing from a height of 30 centimeters wasn’t an attractive option, nor was sticking one’s hand out to offer balance on the ground, as anyone who’s used a squat can imagine. To add to my dilemma my rabid toilet attendant started screeching at me again through the door. The queue was building, time was money, and this dodgy westerner was taking too much of it.

But I was physically stuck. In a jam with no apparent solution. That is until toilet attendant woman started banging on the door with increasing fury. With visions of her bursting in Rambo style and exposing me with my pants half mast in a pathetic semi squat to the gathering crowd sheer fear triggered a surge of adrenalin  and ignoring the protests from my knees I fell into position. Yelling out ok I answered the call of nature.

Oh, one more thing I’d forgotten, never wear flowing pants on a squat. But, if you do, walk tall, and ignore the smirk of the woman who’s staring at your cuffs.

What’s your funniest experience overseas?

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