The Quiet and the Crowd

It had been a long and dirty day, and it was only 9 am.

We were standing on the first-class platform at Agra station in a sea of coated porters, chai sellers, pickpockets and families larger than the trains they were travelling in.

Already the serenity of yesterdays visit to the Taj Mahal with its flowing lines and perfect reflection was sinking to the depths of the reality of India. Life here is hard.

As foreigners we had afforded ourselves the luxury of a sleeper carriage for the 8-hour journey from Agra to Varanasi. At little over £30 the accommodations are nothing luxurious with a simple bunk, a small washbasin and a large window, but I was happy to escape the heat and the crowds and keen to be at ease.

Train travel in India is not only one of the great legacies left by the British Raj. It is an essential vein, vital to the livelihood of those who use it.

People layer themselves across dilapidated bunks, hanging through windows and sharing seats with strangers as they traverse miles and miles of dry Indian soil to build a better life.

For most of the train it was a day spent rotating the coveted door space and the precious fresh air.

I was travelling with two of my closest friends. They had never met and both now live abroad, yet as with all things real these things seldom matter.

Soon the romance of rail gave way to the gentle clicking of the tracks and a sense of home that only days like this can bring.© Natalie Dent

Station after station passed and before long we were out in the open farms and villages.

This is an India seldom seen in the books and the brochures.

There are no monuments, no crowds and no big cities.

The dust is tangible.

The children are younger than they appear.

© Natalie Dent © Natalie Dent

Hour after hour the world is filled with people going about their day. Shops are made from empty crates. Restaurateurs serve curries from little metal pots on the floor. Sacred cows roam the streets as equals. Men carry out their ablutions off the sides of the track.

© Natalie Dent © Natalie Dent

At each stop, food sellers are allowed to board the train as those at the doors jostle themselves around to accommodate the newcomers. Introductions are made, heads are wiggled and everyone smiles. The conversation flows like a stream through the chatter and the stories, and the sellers leave before they are accidentally swept up and carried away.

From time to time the calls of “Chai!” echo through the comfort of our cabin. Chai is a thick and sickly sweet tea made from milk, masala and spice. It’s served in tiny paper cups and warms me to the bones.

Rajesh, the chai seller, travels the route from Agra to Varanasi every day, only to board the next train and come back again. He has sold his 3p chai on this route for 27 years.

“Suffering,” he said through an unwavering smile, “suffering gives us life.”

Daylight faded quickly to rounds of fresh chai, delicious food in little foil containers, and the never-ending hum of the chatter in third class. I began to feel left out.

Despite the company of Andrew and Rebecca it had been a lonely day. Whilst we had sat in our little cocoon of wealth and privilege, those in the real world had shared their food with strangers as only the Indians can do. They had swapped their stories, grown close, slept along side one another and drank chai from little paper cups.

My rush to secure comfort by throwing money at the problem had sold me short. I had missed out on the opportunity to share my life with those around me, and have theirs shared with me.

We arrived into Varanasi five hours late and just in time to meet our guide Varun who immediately wanted to know all about us. How had we enjoyed the train?

“Nothing was as expected,” we laughed, “and we had to entertain ourselves the whole way,” my friends confessed as we stepped through the crowds of the homeless and the battered seeking shelter from the night in the station.

As we drove away I looked out through the open window.

I looked out across the sprawls of people, across the poverty and the broken, across the piles of cow dung. the cheap solutions and the big problems, and I couldn’t help but smile.

The people of India, through their simple joys and shared existence, are happy in ways that those of us who buy security can never be.

We are constantly moving from place to place seeking solitude, stillness and quiet, yet here, in this vast and dusty place of poverty there is contentment in the kindness we ignore.

In the chaos, there is calm.

South Australia: Where Nature Wines and Dines

The wooded, pungent smells of cheese, vine ripened tomatoes and “bum burner sausages” hit me like a breath of fresh air as I stroll through Adelaide Central Market tasting the hand made nibbles, chatting to Mark Gleeson, a market connoisseur and personalised tour guide.

“South Australia is a true foodie wonderland,” he says.

Days here seem to melt into large wine glasses on the beach and luxury restaurants aplenty, and after a few prime cuts of steak it’s time to move on to the lesser visited Flinders Ranges 366km north of Adelaide.

© Natalie Dent

At the heart of the Flinders Ranges, tucked between water eroded gorges and fossils over 555 million years old, lies Wilpena Pound.

Best seen by flight, the natural amphitheater is a geological wonder offering nature lovers and rock enthusiasts spectacular bush walks.

Warmed by a blood red sky and the rust red earth tumbleweeds drift gently through the offbeat homesteads and rugged hills that together form the great Australian Outback.

Towns have names like Laura and Broken Hill.

In the sweltering heat kangaroos and emu think its nirvana.

“We’re constantly working to conserve our natural wildlife,” says Tony Smith, owner of Rawnsley Park Station. “Our eco-villas let travellers experience the outback first-hand.”

© Natalie Dent

The sunset is best viewed atop a hill with sparkling Shiraz and Brie

A night spent in one of 15 luxury tents at Ikara Safari Camp affords the restless a silence so loud it’s audible, and darkness filled with rich, deep sleep.© Natalie Dent

Driving back through the heat of the outback is well rewarded by the lush, green vineyards as the road winds its way into the Barossa.

Cellar doors steeped in history are opened early and visitors to Penfolds can blend their own unique wine, a perfect souvenir.

The Barossa, Clare Valley and Mclaren Vale make up the golden triangle of South Australian wine. Tours here include visits to working wineries and samples of sweet cabernet grapes straight from the vine.

I meet up with Ben Neville, owner of Off Piste Tours, for an off road 4WD excursion across the Fleurieu Peninsula to Cape Jervis. En-route we stop at his families’ farm, where his mum hand produces just 150 crates of wine a year, then drive across the soft sand beach to picnic under a tree.

© Natalie Dent © Natalie Dent

The views are stunning; best enjoyed with a glass of old school wine pressed by the feet of a local.

Our last few days are spent tracking wild koala, walking with seals and visiting Remarkable Rock on Kangaroo Island, a ferry ride from Cape Jervis.

Here, one can find true retreat in the luxury of the Southern Ocean Lodge, or embrace the simple thrills of nature on a quad bike safari in Kingscote.

© Natalie Dent © Natalie Dent

I am surprised by South Australia with her diversity, hospitality and warmth.

Far from the beaten track and not a tourist in sight it’s a well-kept secret known to the lucky few that venture out of Adelaide, follow the kangaroos and unwind in a true Aussie experience.


Home on the River Ganges

A cool breeze echoes amongst the crowd as I walk through the mist to the banks of the mighty Ganges, mindful of the cows.

The poverty here is tangible.

“People come here to die,” my guide Veron casually tells me.

It is barely 5am and already the Ghats are filled with pilgrims going about their daily routine of cleansing sins, washing clothes, selling goods and offering a riverside view of the most intimate rituals of life and death.

© Natalie Dent

I step into my waiting boat and am immediately struck by the silence. All around me seagulls gather.

One Ghat after another I am privy to the lives of those I once perceived as less fortunate, yet here, seeing the yoga masters balancing upside down in their holy sanctuaries it is my own world that comes to question.

Through the pungent smells, life is a privilege. The sun melts the river to a vibrant fire as we reach the burning Ghats.

© Natalie Dent   © Natalie Dent

In the Hindu faith one is led through lifetimes of learning and suffering by the gods. To be burned on the shores of the Ganges is to release the soul. “To die here is to achieve Moksha, freedom from the ongoing cycle of reincarnation,” Veron tells me.

Varanasi holds no secrets.

The ebb and flow of life and death is as consistent as the rising sun, and as we sail through centuries of faith and religion I am conscious of how easy it is to be swept away by the gentle current.

© Natalie Dent © Natalie Dent

I become absorbed by the normality of the rawness found in every day life. For all the chaos that draws in the flocks of tourists who come here to be shocked, this is a quiet place.

To the local people each day holds a promise that they too can be cleansed by the holiness of the river that flows from Gaumukh, home of Lord Shiva, through the heart of India.

With new eyes I purchase a stone-carved elephant from a market boat for 80 rupees, the equivalent of 8p, and head ashore through the piles of firewood, cow dung and enterprising Indians who have learned to balance the spiritual world on the art of survival.

© Natalie Dent

Over a sweet milky chai with new friends the air is thick with life. I am changed.