Going Off The Grid on Gili Air

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If Ubud is the place you go to join an ashram for five months to find yourself, then the Gili islands are where you go to leave the real world behind and step into an alternate reality where time is but a human construct of no importance.

There are three Gili islands: Gili Trewangan (also known as Gili T), Gili Air, and Gili Meno. Gili T is the most popular island, known for full moon parties full of backpacking bros in highlighter yellow sunglasses and sleeveless vests. Gili Meno is ‘The Honeymoon Island,’ where people go to lie on the sand and read their beach lit… partly because there is nothing else to do there. Gili Air is the piggy-in-the-middle lovechild of the two. It has the relaxed vibe of Gili Meno, with enough of the restaurants and bars of Gili T to keep things interesting.

And of course, plenty of mushroom shakes.

 

 

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We traveled straight to Gili Air with a brief pause in the middle of the sea brought on by getting something tangled in one of the propellors. Apparently this happens often enough that it warranted a laminated explanation in the pocket of the seat in front of us, so we were forewarned but thoroughly unprepared by how quickly the lack of a simple breeze (or any air conditioning) would turn us into melting human popsicles. Five minutes after the engines had been shut off, we were dripping into puddles on the leather seats with alarming speed. In a misguided but desperate effort to escape the microwave formerly known as the cabin, we climbed up a set of rungs to the roof of the boat, where I promptly bashed my head hard against a steel bar and lay panting in the equatorial sun until the engines started up again.

By the time we reached Gili Air, my two driving forces were 1. shade and 2. water, and they basically propelled me and my rolling case onto the beach and up the dusty unpaved road without pause. This despite the fact that my rolling suitcase does not possess the sort of all-terrain wheels you would hope for when traversing a remote sandy island in the Bali Sea. Upon reaching our rented bungalow I flopped on the bed like a dying fish, mouth open, trying to suck the moisture out of the air around me. A smiling lady with a slender build knocked on the door to welcome us with pineapple, orange, and banana juice. I drank it down like a shot, waited for her to leave, and then peeled off my clothes to stand, hyperventilating, on the coldest flagstone.

It is HOT on Gili Air.

In Ubud the air was heavy and the weather was warm, but it was nothing compared to Gili Air. Gili Air had an oppressive heat that seemed to congeal the blood in your body until your legs felt too heavy to lift. Late nights were almost impossible, since by that time the sun had scorched away any energy, leaving us warm and heavy and sometimes burned. The island was full of yoga retreats and organic food places and scuba schools, giving employment to a wide range of lean, tanned humans who looked like they had been stretched and starved for a prolonged period of time. They all had gleaming white teeth, sun-bleached hair, and that slighly manic look in their eyes that suggests they would struggle to slot themselves back into the regimented timetable of normal society.

There are no cars or scooters or motorbikes on Gili Air. People travel by foot, or by bicycle, or by horse and cart. It takes about two hours to walk the circumference of the island, leaving time for compulsory photos of the sunset and necessary submergences in the sea. The east of the island is littered with restaurants and bars, and the west side of the island is quieter, but starting to catch up. The sunsets are vivid and beautiful – apparently even more so after one of the proferred magic mushroom shakes – and if you think the temperatures will drop after dark, you’re wrong. The temperatures do not drop; they stay threateningly high, trapped by the humidity in the air, and can only be defeated by the judicious use of air conditioning.

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The water around the island is clear. The reef looks bleached and unhealthy from years of dynamite fishing, but the fish living there are bright-eyed and flashy. Every morning I would grab my fins and wade out into the sea for a look around this world that wasn’t my own. If I was lucky, I would turn slowly to find a large sea turtle eyeing me languidly, large flippers of its own slowly scything through the water. We would swim side by side, my eyes the size of saucers (his distinctly less impressed), until my new turtle friend decided to dive down to depths beyond my abilities. I examined clams, skirted sea urchins, and followed a mantis shrimp marching imperiously over rocks and coral until he disappeared under a slab of concrete.

I emerged from the water only long enough to dry off before my next swim.

When it comes to snorkeling – or, I guess, whatever you call snorkeling without a tube – I am a water baby. I get in, and I never want to come out. Under the water I never feel like my eyes are large enough to take in everything there is to see. I never feel like I am moving fast enough to find every area I want to explore. I can’t hold my breath for long enough to keep myself anchored in the underwater world, and it both frustrates and elates me. I stay in the water until my chest is heaving with exertion from my amateur free diving, jump out and dry off while rehydrating with a smoothie, then run back in for more.

We spent six days on Gili Air. I swam with three large sea turtles. I traipsed through coconut farms and yoga retreats. I followed unsuspecting shoals of fish, and drank countless banana lassis. I enjoyed myself immensely, and for a week I completely forgot about the real world, what time was, or why it was necessary.

The only thing I didn’t do was try a mushroom shake.

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Being Thankful in Bali, Indonesia

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In the early hours of the morning, if you walk the streets of Ubud, you will find people sitting on the stoops of their houses or stores, nimbly weaving dried palm leaves together into little containers.  The first day I saw this, I watched them do it and wondered about their silent, skilled work. These containers were then set in front of their places of work, in front of their shrines, in front of their houses, and filled with different items. I asked a local about these and she smiled, nodding.

“Yes. Canang sari.”

“Are they for a festival?” I asked, eyeing the brightly coloured little baskets.

“No, no. Daily offering.”

“I’m sorry, did you say daily? Like, every day?” I said, incredulously.

“Yes. Daily offering. Every morning!” She replied, cheerfully.

I looked at them in a different light after that, these little ritualised baskets of colour. Set out with such care in the morning, those that lined the footpath were often trampled underfoot, leaving them bruised and sorry looking by the end of the day.

From what I understand, these are meant to be offerings of gratitude for peace to the Hindu gods, as well as a way to keep evil spirits at bay. These beautiful baskets brought me a sense of peace at the same time that they unsettled me; after all, who has time to do that every day? Every day! Imagine having to set them out every day, and sweep them away every night. Imagine the commitment and effort and time and dedication to detail involved. These are physical prayers, pleated by familiar fingers.

I like to feel for common threads between different religions. The Muslim call to prayer reminds me of the ringing bells of the churches near my home, while Hindu mala beads are similar to rosary beads. I can’t think of a Christian equivalent for these canang sari, however. There is nothing that I do every day to give thanks for everything that I have. There is nothing that I can think of in Catholicism that is physical in nature – unless lighting a candle counts? – with such ritual meaning.

I like the idea of doing something each day to show gratitude. I probably won’t start weaving palm leaves together anytime soon, but I might use the memory of the offerings as a reminder to be thankful. I might try to keep it in the front of my mind a little more often. I know the news these days can get a bit bleak, and the saying “no news is good news” is really coming into its own lately, but there’s a lot to be thankful for. There really is.

Sometimes, I could do with a daily reminder of my own.

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Thanks to the distractions of sun, sea, sand and patchy internet, I have been on an impromptu blog pause while I’ve been traipsing in and around Bali. I photographed monkeys and ate nasi goreng and read books and swam with sea turtles and watched sun sets and pet stray cats and drank banana lassis and spent a lot of time with my toes dug deep into the sand, feeling extremely lucky.

There are awful things happening back home in Europe. I can feel the ripple of fear from half a world away, however hard we try to mask it. When will it stop? How can we put an end to attacks that are seemingly so random? It feels frustrating. It feels like something nestling close to despair.

Then I grab my mask and I dive underwater, where all I can hear is the sound of bubbles leaving my mouth. I kick my fins and swim into a shoal of silvery fish, who scatter wide-eyed as if I’ve interrupted a secret meeting. A large blue starfish with arms the size and shape of bananas drapes itself over a rock. A moray eel bobs out from under a rock to stare at me, his trademark slackjawed grin making me feel like an amusing bit of entertainment he’ll tell his friends about later.

I watch a batfish waft with the current, cleverly concealed next to a submerged piece of rope. I kick to propel myself down deeper and feel the cold undercurrent close over me as I follow a mantis shrimp hurriedly scurrying across the coral.

I think about how insulated we are under the water. I feel totally removed from real life. It’s just me and my fins and my breath, visiting this blue world that doesn’t know or care about wifi or worries or world news. I stay in the water until my skin has softened and wrinkled in protest. I stay until my lungs burn from holding my breath.

Then I swim back towards the shore and come to the surface just in time to hear the familiar strains of reggae music.

Don’t worry … about a thing.

Every little thing … is gonna be alright….”

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I’ll be back on Monday.

unplanned paramedicine in Paris France when do i get the manual

Unplanned Paramedicine in Paris, France

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We had just stumbled out of the Parisian bar Le Comptoir Général when it happened.

As I reached the bank of the canal to join my friends, I went to glance back at the bar and turned just in time to watch a little hatchback brake suddenly, sending a pizza delivery guy smashing straight into the back of him. The scooter and the pizzas skidded sideways across the road. The driver was flung up in the air. Everything slowed for an instant and then sped up.

He hit the ground like a sack of potatoes.

Half-drunk and without thinking, I immediately ran over to the unconscious figure sprawled across the tarmac and when I reached Pizzaman, I leaned over him with my hands on my thighs, cocked my head and said, “Hey! Are you okay?!”

Obviously, Pizzaman was not in a position to answer.

A stocky passer-by with grey hair and a glorious moustache joined us. Without a word, he bent double with an audible wheeze and started fiddling with the helmet clasp under Pizzaman’s chin. My brain, struggling to process this abrupt turn of events after having spent the past five or six hours marinating happily in vodka cocktails, slowly chugged to life. It half-heartedly scrabbled around for some useful information.

What would Sunscreen advise?

I blinked blankly before sending my brain back to look for something a little more helpful; even Sunscreen has its limitations. Emergency first aid is one of them.

What would Scrubs do?

I pulled at the loopy, lazy string of thoughts in my head until it pulled tight into a somewhat coherent plan:

  1. Don’t move Pizzaman.
  2. Call an ambulance.
  3. If there is a wound, apply pressure and wait for paramedics.

I made a garbled noise of indignation at the man tugging at Pizzaman’s helmet and told him to stop what he was doing, but by now Pizzaman had regained consciousness and was pushing at the helmet with weak but frantic motions. The middle-aged man with the moustache looked at me smugly as if to say, ‘You see?‘ and pulled the helmet off without so much as a second thought.

I mean, I say he looked at me smugly but he was French, so that could just have been his face.

I calmly accepted the fact that the first bulletpoint on my plan had gone to the dogs, and pulled out my phone. I dialled 112 and knelt on the ground next to Pizzaman as it rang. I asked him if he was hurt. He gave a tiny shake of his head (good sign, I thought, at least he hasn’t broken his neck) and lay there, gasping like a fish, staring straight up at the sky.

I searched his body for any sign of injuries. A remote part of my brain wondered if I would have to shimmy under a car to locate a runaway finger.

  • Head – check.
  • Torso – check.
  • Arms – check.
  • Hands – check.
  • Pelvis – check.
  • Thighs – check.

And then I realised what had been disguised by the darkness; his jeans were slick with blood, and there was a glistening whiteness jutting proudly out of his lower leg, ready for its fifteen minutes of fame.

It was a …………….. *drumroll please* ………………. surprise appearance from his tibia!

Excellent.

As my brain fumbled drunkenly from uh oh, blood! to uh oh, bone! to finally just a general UH OH! the emergency call operator finally answered the phone.

In French.

Which is when I conveniently remembered that I do not, in fact, speak French.

I looked up to find a ring of curious onlookers keeping their distance. Exasperated, I held my phone out to them as if these 2am stragglers were my personal secretaries, and waggled it impatiently in the air until someone stepped forward and took it from me.

“AM-BU-LANCE” I said, loudly and clearly. Then I thought for a second, and added, “AM-BU-LAN-CIA” just in case Spanish was somehow their second language. I watched, gimlet-eyed, as this stranger put my phone to his ear. Once I was satisfied he had understood the brief and was taking of business, I turned my attention back to Pizzaman, who still looked like he was floating through another dimension on waves of pure shock.

Having successfully checked the second bulletpoint off my list, I turned to bulletpoint three and felt the warm blood coat my bare hands as they came into contact with his leg. I tried to make the gaping hole smaller before pressing both hands over the bone and leaning heavily on his leg to stem the bleeding. I crouched there and turned to Pizzaman, who was gazing at me with glassy eyes.

“Do you speak English?”

“Little.”

“How do you feel?”

“Okay.”

His eyes rolled skyward again. I chewed the inside of my cheek. It’s hard to be conversational when you don’t speak the language and you’re casually leaning on their legbone.

“Is there anybody you want me to call?”

His eyes tracked back to my face slowly. He stared.

“Phone? Should I phone anybody? On the telephone? On the mobile?”

He stared.

My nose itched. I wondered should I try sound effects. Or sign language. Or Spanish?

The silence stretched as his brain, which had clearly been concussed into scrambled egg, deciphered my question. After a pause that felt about ten minutes long, he mumbled, “Oui, oui.” I looked up, searching for my emergency P.A. and found him standing awkwardly by, staring at my hands, my phone dangling from his fingertips. My eyes narrowed.

“YOU!” His head snapped back. “Do you speak English?”

“Yez, yez,” he said, nodding vigorously. “Yez.”

“Okay, can you find his phone and call someone please? Maybe home, or a recently dialled contact, or ‘mama’ or someone.”

“Yez, oui, of courze.” He stood dumbly for another moment.

“It’s probably in his pocket or in his bag?” I prompted.

He jumped into action then and located Pizzaman’s mobile, which had somehow managed to stay in his pocket despite his earlier aerial somersault.

Now, I am not an organised person. I am crap at delegating. I like to do things myself, and I tend to do them in such a haphazard manner that if I even tried to delegate it would be a total shambles. With this in mind, it was somewhat of a surprise to discover that the injudicious application of alcohol turns me into a tiny Miranda Priestly.

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I kept one suspicious eye on the man calling Pizzaman’s mother, and one wary eye on Pizzaman himself who was starting to look a little grey.

“Do you feel pain?” I asked.

“Non, non” he mumbled. My eyes flickered to his leg where the white of his bone was still visible between my fingers. My hands were wrist-deep in blood. I smiled at him.

“Great! Everything is fine! Just relax. The ambulance is coming.”

“Oui,” he mumbled. His head lolled.

We stayed like that for another ten minutes. I peppered the air with cheerful, meaningless phrases like, “Everything is going to be okay!” and “Don’t worry!” and “You’re going to be just fine!” Pizzaman gazed blankly at the stars while making small noises every so often to show he was at least hearing me, if not understanding me. The moustachioed meddler had disappeared, leaving the helmet on the kerb, and my emergency P.A. was absent-mindedly pacing in tight circles. He had the phone pressed against one ear as he spoke to Pizzaman’s mother, and one finger pressed against the other ear to block out the music from the club.

Finally, both the ambulance and the police arrived.

One of the paramedics tapped my elbow and gave me the nod. Relieved, I lifted my hands and watched the tibia bob back up through the blood like a skinny iceberg. The paramedic took over from me then, his large white gloves looking far more competent than my gnome-sized hands, and I stumbled to my feet as the EMTs put Pizzaman in a neckbrace.

“Is he going to be okay? Will he be okay?”

One of the EMTs looked at me and smiled reassuringly. “Yez, he will be fine. Don’t worry.”

A tall policeman crooked his finger at me and I dutifully walked over, my hands held stiffly out at my sides so as not to drip blood all over my clothes. He asked something, and I blinked at him. I looked around, searching for my P.A. who immediately appeared at my side as if by silent summons.

“He iz azking eef you saw what haz heppened?” He helpfully translated.

“Yeah, yeah!” I turned to him and explained, quickly and incoherently, everything I had seen. He obediently translated, and the policeman looked from his face to mine with a barely disguised expression of martyr-like forbearance.

Although, he was French, so again, that might just have been his face.

When he was done jotting down notes in his tiny notepad with his tiny pen, he gave us a sharp nod and walked away. I turned to my P.A. and thanked him. He gave me a shy smile, offering me my phone back, and I held up my bloody hands, looking like I’d just murdered somebody in cold blood. “Can you put it in my pocket please?”

He flushed, nodded, and hurriedly tucked it into the pocket of my jeans. I thanked him again and he muttered, “No problem,” before turning on his heel and disappearing into the dark.

After washing my hands in the bar’s unisex bathroom (and completely clearing it out in the process), I rejoined my friends and spent the next two hours wandering from crêperie to crêperie, explaining that we should get free crêpes because I was practically a national hero. It was 3am so most places were shut, but we did manage to score at least one free crêpe, and one place that had closed the kitchen decided we had earned ourselves multiple shots of alcohol and unlimited crêpe toppings, which we (perhaps unwisely) took them up on.

After clearing them out of their stash of mini Smarties, we stumbled home through the Paris streets, keeping a watchful eye out for unpredictable hatchbacks.

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Hello! Just a note to say if anybody wants to enter the giveaway, all you need to do is leave a comment below. Giveaway entry closes when I publish a new post on Monday, and if you win you’ll have to be okay with e-mailing me your address! I promise not to show up on your doorstep. It’s open internationally, and I’ll just number the comments and use one of those random number generators to pick a winner. Don’t get too excited, I’m not giving away any iPads, but it will be a fun little box of stuff so if you’re interested, you know what to do!

NOTE: I’m only joking about French people – they’re lovely. Especially that guy with the crêpe stall on that street that let me make my own crêpe that one time. He’s especially lovely and his crêpes are delicious.

Joining in in Jaipur, India

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After the maelstrom of Delhi, Scrubs and I were glad to escape to the relative serenity of Jaipur. The famously pink buildings seemed to glow a warm welcome in the sun as we dragged our battered and dusty bags through the streets of the city. We had finally arrived after a long train journey and, despite feeling a little rough around the edges, I was unspeakably relieved to be out of the capital. From the moment we set foot inside its walls, Jaipur felt utterly different. My shoulders lowered themselves from their protective position up around my ears and I relaxed for the first time in days. If Delhi had felt like a strangling, knotted tangle of a city, Jaipur felt like a long, fluttering length of ribbon. I had a long list of places I wanted to see – The Amer Fort, the Hawa Mahal, Jantar Mantar, Galtaji – and I kept the list clutched in my fist like a prayer.

The first couple of days flew by as we checked places off the list. The Taj Mahal – despite its fame – had left me cold, but I was moved by the intricate beauty, majesty, and ingenuity of the Amer Fort. It had spectacular views, carefully tended courtyards, a glittering hall of mirrors, and a stream of water designed to run through the palace to cool the rooms. Really it had everything you could want and more from a palace built in 1592. Jantar Mantar and the Hawa Mahal deserve posts all of their own, but I’ll have to write about those another day, because this piece is not about them; this is about Galtaji, or as it’s more commonly known to tourists, The Monkey Temple.

Now, I could call myself an animal lover, but that really doesn’t begin to cover it. If I said that, you might infer that I enjoy playing fetch with my dog and finding cat memes online. I mean, I do, don’t get me wrong… but my love of animals extends much further than Grumpy Cat, my black labrador Lia, and Lia’s deep and abiding passion for tennis balls. For lack of a better word, I am enthusiastic about animals. Not just cute animals, but all animals. Where others might recoil in disgust, I lean in with unabashed interest.

Maybe this lively preoccupation stems from the lack of exciting wildlife in Ireland; the glimpse of a red fox is about as exciting as it gets, and the damage they can do is more or less limited to tipping over wheelie bins in their search for food. In Ireland there are no bears, no wolves, and (allegedly thanks to St. Patrick), no snakes. Not only that, but unless you’re a masochist of the highest order, you’re unlikely to set foot in the sea. Even if you are a masochist and choose to embrace the feeling of icy water stripping you of every nerve ending you possess, you’re unlikely to catch a glimpse of anything too thrilling in the murky water.

A seal, maybe.

A confused seal wondering why there’s a human visiting their icy home.

Anyway, with this in mind, you can imagine how much I was enjoying Jaipur. There were camels and cows and elephants and donkeys and stray dogs on practically every street. Days exploring the city turned to evenings eating delicious dinners at the Peacock Rooftop Restaurant, and then we would roll home, stuffed to the gills, ready for a good night of sleep at the Vinayak Guesthouse.

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Even before we had left for India, Galtaji was high on my list of places to go. I had read articles describing it as an abandoned temple teeming with monkeys, and the reviews on Tripadvisor definitely seemed to back this up. People had written sentences like, ‘It reminded me of a lost city found in a clearing of a long lost jungle’ and, ‘Please be aware that not many people know about this place,’ and honestly, to me this sounded magical. In my mind, the temple was a deserted ruin with monkeys on every available surface, and I intended to spend an entire afternoon observing and photographing them in quiet tranquility.

Just me and the monkeys.

Well, just me and Scrubs and the monkeys, but I had a feeling he wouldn’t be as enthralled by the idea of monkey-mayhem for hours on end. Still, I was undeterred. In preparation for our visit I had bought a large hand of bananas. I felt well prepared. Jane Goodall would have nothing on me!

The day we had planned to visit the temple finally arrived. We hopped into an auto rickshaw and asked the driver in garbled, phrasebook Hindi to take us to Galtaji. Since neither of us actually speak Hindi, this was not at all helpful and our driver only understood where we wanted to go after a combined effort to find it on his trusty paper map. A mercifully short (but bracingly death-defying) hurtle through the streets later, he stopped the rickshaw in the middle of a side road and gestured roughly to the left.

“Up there?” I asked, dreading the answer.

He nodded.

We looked at each other. Scrubs’s eyebrows lifted so much they almost disappeared. We paid the man and hopped out. Clutching at the straps of my backpack, I examined the path that cut a sharp zig-zag up the side of an extremely large hill. It looked suspiciously busy for a path that supposedly led to an abandoned temple.

“Are we sure this is it?” Scrubs asked sceptically. “It’s very… populated.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. We might as well go up and have a look,” I said, anxious to see what I had now come to think of as ‘my monkeys’.

Unsure but optimistic, we set off up the hill. We quickly overtook a group of women in traditional saris, laughing and chattering to each other. They smiled at us as we passed, and we nodded and smiled in reply. Our comparitively drab clothing made us stand out against their bright flowing fabrics, and as we caught up with more Indians walking the same way we began to feel self-conscious. Where were these people going?

The first surprise lay just around the bend.

Scarves of different shades and hues lined both sides of the path. I stared at them out of the corner of my eye, trying not to look fazed. There was something scattered on them – seeds, maybe? – and every so often people walking up the path would throw some more on the scarves as they walked by. Since I had only bananas in my backpack, we continued on, confused. I hadn’t thought to bring seeds.

Around the next bend, things only got more confusing.

On this stretch, a cow lay on one of the scarves. An extremely fancy blanket covered its rump, and its wet eyes gazed placidly at us with an air of resigned boredom. As we walked past, I noticed with some surprise that a fifth leg dangled uselessly from the cow’s back.

I say ‘some surprise’ but what I really mean is that I tugged on Scrubs’ sleeve and, practically bug-eyed with astonishment, hissed, “Look! Look! A fifth leg! Did you see that? That cow had a LEG coming out of its SPINE!”

We continued up the hill, and as we walked we met with more lavishly decorated, curiously configured cows. Cows with six legs, cows with seven legs, cows with two tails, or three ears. After a while it started to seem almost normal. It got to the point where it would have felt strange to see a four-legged, two-eared, one-tailed, regular cow. Not only that, but as we got closer to the top, we met more and more people all walking in the same direction.

We still hadn’t seen a single monkey.

I was starting to think we must be in the wrong place. Scrubs and I discussed theories about the sacred, slightly irregular cows as we traipsed along. We passed more scarves, more seeds, and more cows until, after what felt like a climb up the steep side of Kilimanjaro, we made it to the top of the hill. I was expecting to see the temple laid out before me, but instead there was just a small clearing with people milling about, taking a break. Then I looked over my shoulder and there, sitting in the shade of a tree, was a monkey.

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In a move so smooth you would think I’d practiced it, I swung my bag off my back and pulled out both my camera and a banana with one hand. The gimlet-eyed monkey approached me with a swagger befitting a thirteen year old boy with something to prove, and waited with an air of indulgence as I peeled it. I offered him half the banana and he eyed it with scorn, flicking a knowing glance at my bag. Slowly, as if he was doing me a favour, he took the piece of banana from my outstretched hand and began pulling it apart with his long, slender fingers. I walked around and found a few more monkeys. They indulged me by posing for some photos, and I paid them in banana pieces. It was a fair trade. I had almost forgotten about the temple by the time Scrubs tapped my elbow to get my attention.

“Will we keep going?” He asked.

“Oh. I suppose so,” I said, somewhat reluctantly.

“There’ll be more monkeys,” Scrubs said. “It’s called Monkey Temple for a reason.”

I nodded and we rejoined the string of people heading for the next stretch of the path. There were definitely more people now. Indians of all ages surrounded us as we started down the other side of the hill. On this side there were no cows, but the sunken pathway was narrower and it was easier to lose your footing in the fine gravel.

About twenty minutes later a bottleneck up ahead hindered progress, and in our attempts to see why we had stopped we finally got our first glimpse of where we were going. Nestled in snugly, looking like it had been there for at least as long as the hills themselves, sat the temple complex of Galtaji.

The temple did not look lost. It did not look abandoned. Instead, it was absolutely heaving with activity. As we approached, the path narrowed until it was only wide enough for two people to walk abreast. Steps appeared, carved deep into the hillside to ease the steep descent.  Hands pressed briefly on our backs and shoulders as people steadied themselves. An elderly woman placed a gnarled hand on Scrubs’ shoulder without so much as a word and used Scrubs as a crutch the whole way down the steps. I was hemmed in on all sides by women in beautiful clothes and shining nose piercings. They smiled at us as we pressed together, giggling and talking to each other as they flicked curious glances at us, the only two tourists for miles; conspicuous t-shirt wearers in a sea of saris and robes.

As we reached the bottom of the steps, the cause of the bottleneck was clear; a narrow stile led into the temple, just big enough for one person to squeeze through. The eagerness of the crowd around us waiting to get in led to impatient shoving that was less pragmatic than it was perilous, and as I shimmied between the stone blocks and jumped down to the courtyard on the far side, I recalled the news stories about deadly stampedes during festivals in India. ‘I’m not surprised,‘ I thought. ‘That stile is a health and safety officer’s worst nightmare.’

Once Scrubs had safely joined me on the stone slabs of the courtyard floor, we looked around us in awe. It felt like we had walked straight into a copy of National Geographic. The courtyards were a riot of colour. Hundreds of people milled around, laughing and singing and dancing. A square, sunken pool (kund) was filled with women pouring the alarmingly green water over their topless bodies. A smiling woman missing most of her teeth stopped in front of us and said something we couldn’t understand before dipping her finger in a copper bowl filled with vermilion powder and pressing a tilaka onto each of our foreheads with surprising force. She disappeared into the throng as quickly as she had appeared, and we looked at each other and laughed. A lady pressed a flower into my hand as she swept past in an emerald green sari embroidered with gold thread. We stood there for many minutes, just absorbing the mood around us.

It had been claustrophobically crowded at times in Delhi, and while the multicoloured masses at the temple were not dissimilar in density, the atmosphere was entirely different. In Delhi I had felt intimidated, threatened and sometimes downright scared. People – mostly men – had stared, stony-faced, until it felt like their pupils were scorching my soul. Some had used their phones to video or photograph us as we made our way down the street. A crawling dread had crept over me every time we moved through the crowded city, and it had coloured my opinion of it; instead of my usual keen interest in exploring a new place, I had become emotionally shuttered and focused solely on making myself as invisible as possible.

While the pavilions at this elaborately carved temple complex were packed with people, at no point did I feel intimidated or vulnerable. Nobody stared. Some people threw curious glances our way, but nobody took our photograph. Nobody videoed us. Nobody there was interested in us at all. The many, many people who had made the pilgrimage to Galtaji that day hadn’t made it to stand gawking at two ignorant tourists. They were there to celebrate, and meet with friends and family. They were there to scatter seeds, and bathe in the kunds. Their interaction with us was limited to fleeting moments of warm welcome. The old lady wordlessly leaning on Scrubs as a fellow pilgrim. The tilakas. The flower. The smiles.

Out of respect, I didn’t take a single photo at Galtaji. The time spent at the festival felt too precious and otherworldly to capture with a camera. The colours, the people, and the feeling of standing in that deep nook surrounded by hills will live on only in our memories. As we left to return to our guesthouse, our legs aching, I pulled a couple of the forgotten bananas from my bag and silently handed one to Scrubs, hoping the potassium boost would prevent muscle cramps.

I may not have seen my monkeys, but that no longer mattered. We had seen something better; we had stumbled on an unforgettable experience.