Sangam – Summoned by bells (and gongs, and flags)

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I was not a good Girl Guide. Even when I managed to earn a badge I had usually lost it before I got the time to sew it on. So it’s unlikely that, under my own steam, I’d ever have been invited to Sangam – one of international guiding’s World Centres, in Pune, India.

But Paul is the Deputy Director of Fundraising at Wagggs (that’s the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts for the unitiated – and those who didn’t listen enough at Guides, like me). He’s taking a sabbatical for the next year, but his last work commitment was the Free Being Me festival held at Sangam.

Pune, it turns out, is not a standard tourist destination. Every time we mentioned we were going there, puzzled Indians would raise an eyebrow. But it turns out to be prosperous (a major IT centre), welcoming, and a whole lot calmer than anywhere we’d experienced in India up to that point.

We arrived on a 23 hour train journey – our longest so far. Thanks to the wonder of Travelkhana – an internet app that allows you to order food and have it delivered to your train carriage, we were all well fed and still friends when we arrived. The girls sleep well on a train, and in the meantime we played cards, and they even did some school work.

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I think we’d all describe the 23 hour journey as well worth it. Sangam is not only beautiful, particularly with its brand new swimming pool, but also full of friendly girl guides and volunteers who are happy to play with the girls.

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The Free Being Me festival focussed on body confidence (it’s a worldwide project that Paul has been helping to run, set up by Wagggs and skincare brand Dove), so the girls, and nearly a hundred guides and scouts from around the world, got to go into a local school to see the project being run there and to help deliver body confidence activities.

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“Is it a tour?” Daisy asked world-wearily. “I’m not going on any more of those”. Perhaps we’ve overdone the sightseeing a little in the last week or so.

Instead, the girls lived at Sangam for the week, revelling in the good food, wonderful hospitality (special thanks to Cate who gave up half of her house and her gin to us weary travellers) and the swimming pool. I even got some work done while the girls were babysat by filmwatching or poolguarding volunteers.

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Sangam is easy India, in a way Varanasi and Agra will never be. We went shopping, and weren’t pestered in the market. We tried out mehendi, or henna tattooing, which made my hand look like those of an eighty year old, and Clover and Daisy’s look like they’d scribbled all up their arms, which is precisely what they had done. Paul worked, I wrote some features, and we all bought some lovely Indian clothes.

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How quickly girl guiding comes back to one! I was surprised to discover that I can salute with the best of them, not to mention sing “Taps”. The girls wore their brownie and rainbow uniforms for a welcome ceremony that involved a ghee lamp, prasad (a blessing of coconut and sugar) and a photo that lined us all up in height order, which took ages. Clover had some massive tantrums about not wanting to go to Flag (the morning ceremony) and I continually forgot that Guides shake with their left hand – even in India where you aren’t even supposed to eat with it (a continual problem for a lefty like me).

What else to say? A week is a long time to cover in one blog post. The girls helped with a synchronised swimming routine to open the pool, and followed Sangam boss Jen and Wagggs chair Nicola around like shadows (fortunately both were wonderful about it).

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They all looked after us so well that we became infantilised surprisingly quickly – I’m surprised I didn’t start salivating every time they hit the dinner gong, while they even provided a laminated card to with the address on to give to the rickshaw drivers (plus a video on how to hail and use a rickshaw!). All in all, it was a marvellous rest for us and the girls, even though Paul, in particular, was working quite hard.

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Finally, on Sunday morning, the volunteers got up to sing us off – “Go well and safely, may Sangam be ever with you”, and we left to catch an epic 27 hour train down to Kerala. Pity, when we arrived at Mumbai station, that we discovered that it was already three hours delayed. But more on that later.

Daisy says she’s going to work at Sangam when she grows up, and they’ve both been singing the Sangam song ‘ “Leave behind the barriers of culture, race and creed” ever since we left.

If that’s the thing they take home from their week in Sangam, we’ve all got to be grateful for that. Thanks so much, Girl Guiding.

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Agra: Zoo of the New

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Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.

I want to fill it with colour and ducks,

The zoo of the new

Whose name you meditate —

April snowdrop, Indian pipe,

Little

Stalk without wrinkle,

Pool in which images

Should be grand and classical

Not this troublous

Wringing of hands, this dark

Ceiling without a star.

(Sylvia Plath)

Poor, poor Sylvia Plath – stuck in her flat just outside Regents Park Zoo with her baby son and without her absent husband – wanting so much to show her child the best, but feeling she could only give her worst. Two weeks after she wrote these words, she killed herself.

Don’t panic: this isn’t a cry for help. But I love this poem because I sympathise (or perhaps empathise really) with her desire to fill the pool of her son’s eyes with “images that should be grand and classical”. That is exactly what I’ve wanted to do with my own girls. It’s one of the reasons we’re taking this trip – we want our girls to see big, and dream big.

Like Plath, how miserably I often feel I fail at parenting. But I found myself recalling these words as we stood outside the Taj Mahal at dawn, gazing on one of the greatest wonders of the world. “All for love” explains our latest guide as we gaze at the Taj, reflected in the (admittedly somewhat dried up) pools around it.

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If you don’t know the story behind the Taj Mahal, here goes. Shah Jehan, an immensely rich Mughal emperor in 1631, was grief stricken when his wife Mumtaz Mahal died. She’d borne him 14 children and asked him to build her a mausoleum on death. The Taj is the result.

Poet Rabindranath Tagore described it as “a teardrop on the face of eternity”, and Princess Diana – at the height of the whole ‘tragic princess’ thing – made front pages around the world when she sat alone in front of this monument to love. The royal divorce was announced months later. The Taj is, as they say, iconic.

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Things the guides tend to gloss over; the fact that Mumtaz was one of three wives, and the number of workers and elephants that must have been killed during the construction.

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Not sure Daisy really saw the point of a monument to love. “Is there a picture of Mumtaz here?” she asked. “Surely that would have been a better thing for him to remember her by?” The guide was a bit surprised. Children ask the best questions.

Undeniably the Taj is beautiful, one of Plath’s “grand and classical” images that I want to stay with the children forever. It’s also the only thing in Agra people really come to see. The result? Agra is touristed beyond belief, and full of guides who would also like you to see their uncle’s marble factory and lots of shops while you’re there.

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We didn’t bother. Nor did we see the ‘Baby Taj’, Agra Fort, or any of the other things the guides were so keen to show us. There’s only so much “grand and classical” the children can take, so in our two days in Agra we scandalised our driver and guide by going a bit off piste.

Day one: sloth bears and elephants with Wildlife SOS – not yet firmly on the tourist trail, but fabulous all the same.

Wildlife SOS, as the name suggests, is an animal charity – focused on rescuing mistreated animals throughout India. Almost singlehandedly, the charity has wiped out the ‘dancing bear’ industry in India that has been illegal but tolerated since 1972.

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The charity showed us a somewhat uncompromising documentary explaining how the sloth bears (funny-looking beasts) are captured as cubs and then have their muzzles pierced with a red hot metal ring. A rope is passed through the wound. When the bear owner tugs it the bear has no option but to dance, and if the owner is lucky the money flows.

Wildlife SOS has wiped out the bear industry by incentivising the gypsy tribe that traditionally owns the bears to hand them over in return for jobs (often at the sanctuary itself) and some cash. The problems of the bears and of the marginalized tribe – which has been left behind by progress – are intertwined, the charity’s education head explains. Solve one, and you solve the other.

The charity has rounded up every dancing bear, but can’t release them into the wild as they have no natural instincts. Instead they live in Agra, whiling away their days with an assortment of rescued dogs and langars (a type of primate). The poor bears, who are so funny to look at, exhibit classic behaviour for traumatised animals, pacing and shaking their heads habitually: the longer they’ve been dancing, the more likely they are to continue to exhibit the behavior.

As there are no more dancing bears in India to capture, the sanctuary looks to be a victim of its own success. The bears will grow old and die here but there should be no more new additions. Like Great Aunt Lucy’s home for Retired Bears, I guess. We didn’t bring any marmalade, but apparently they prefer honey anyway.

Sadly there’s no such happy ending for India’s elephants, for whom the charity runs a sanctuary down the road. Blind elephants, lame elephants, elephants from circuses and temples and elephants who were begging with humans on the roadside are brought here when there is enough evidence that they’ve been tortured.

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Just chaining them up isn’t enough to prove this, the guides explain, showing the scars on the elephants’ backs. One elephant from the circus lived entirely on steak burgers and had become dangerously obese. She’s lost a thousand pounds since joining the sanctuary and living on a more conventional fruit-and-grass-based diet. Others were hit by cars and trucks walking India’s roads in the middle of the night, as owners tried to move them secretly (a difficult task to conceal an elephant) to avoid paying fees for a permit.

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Owning an elephant means wealth and power in India, but there’s not much pressure to treat them well, despite some of the strongest animal protection legislation in the world. “There’s enough to worry about with people here – why would the courts worry about animals?” Wildlife SOS says. The charity has over 60 more elephants it would love to rehome, but doesn’t have the space.

I know it sounds stupid, but the elephants were bigger than I expected. Immense. We fed them bananas. Clover was terrified – but finally plucked up courage to stroke them on their sensitive trunks. The elephants squeezed their eyes together like Custard the cat when you tickle him under the chin. One of them, the education head told us, cried real tears when his chains were undone after years of abuse. Clover is proud that she finally screwed up her courage to touch the beautiful beasts.

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Our second day in Agra was of course the Taj at dawn. And then, because if there is one thing we’re learning about travelling with children is that you have to cut them a bit (sometimes a lot) of slack, we went to the nearest five star hotel and paid to use their pool. A fantastic decision, it turned out. Four hours of swimming, beef (!) burgers and afternoon tea later and the girls were significantly happier little people. And just about ready for a 23-hour train journey.

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I do sometimes wonder what the girls will remember as the best bits about this trip – the big ‘set pieces’ (the Taj, the temples) – or the snatched moments as we played together in a hotel pool, taking time together as a family (which we could have done just as easily in the South of France to be honest). Will they consider the travelling worth it, all things considered?

Still wanting to fill their clear eyes with colour and ducks, we move on. Pune is the next stop – for a Girl Guide festival with a difference. It’s alright – I’ve packed the Brownie uniforms and Paul’s got his woggle. Onwards and upwards.

Varanasi: Narrow and Puzzled Alleys with Mr Groovy Tours

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Varanasi. the Hindu holy city on the banks of the Ganges. OK, I knew it wasn’t Peppa Pig world, but nothing really prepares you for this particular assault upon the senses.

We arrived, 8am, in Lord Shiva’s city, in Lord Shiva’s holy month. This, it turns out, is a big deal, and the city is even more crazy than usual. Cows wander the streets, monkeys leap over the powerlines.

Added to the crowd of rickshaws, tuktuks and optimistic LandRovers (are they really going to get through that gap?) is a stream of people wearing orange and carrying offerings for Shiva. They run through the crowds shouting the equivalent for “you can do it!”

The girls are, predictably, mute, as they are led by the man from our guesthouse (thank heavens we were picked up!) through what the guide we’ve booked for our trip charmingly called the ‘Narrow and Puzzled Alleys” of the city. Think Moroccan souk times ten, accessorised with farmyard animals (watch those cowpats) and the occasional body being carried past on a stretcher.

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Varanasi, you see, is the City of Good Death. Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges (and in particular this holy stretch of it) is good for the soul. Having your body, or ashes, cast in to it helps to achieve the ultimate Hindu aim of oneness with everything else (instead of reincarnation). As a result people come to Varanasi to burn their dead relatives, to live out their final days, and to be blessed by Lord Shiva – one of the three main Hindu deities.

On the ghats (riverside steps) beside the Ganges, the cremation pyres burn day and night, but that doesn’t mean you’ll see nothing but ash. As well as the five categories of people – including young children and the very holy – who don’t have to be cremated before they are thrown in the river, there are always those whose families can’t afford enough wood to cremate them properly – so charred body parts crop up in the river all the time.

As I said, not exactly Peppa Pig world, and baffling at first. We’re so grateful to Amrit, from Groovy Tours (who we managed not to keep calling ‘Mr Groovy’ most of the time) for his crash course in Hinduism, and Varanasi itself. That’s not to say it wasn’t hard going, and I don’t think the girls are going to add Varanasi to their list of top ten places to visit any time soon.

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Despite Clover’s hatred of flies – as she so frankly put it in her journal ‘ there are hundreds on every step’, they trod stoically through the city, being frequently blessed as they went by passing men and women. We squeezed into rickshaws (and then worried about the rickshaw drivers), and walked what felt like miles as Amrit introduced us to what it means to be a devout Hindu in a Hindu holy city.

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In many ways, I have no words to describe this place. A few snapshots will have to do. Sunset on the Ganges, watching the imam at the local mosque calling the faithful to prayer, minutes after he’d been talking to Clover about the Qu’ran. A Hindu temple lost in the middle of the city where the monkeys and water buffalo reign. The children decked in flower garlands, attracting the attention of passing hungry cows.

And at the heart of it all, the river. Mother Ganges, as the devout call her. Alive at sunrise with women floating candles on her and saffron-clad Sanskrit scholars pouring water from brass bowls. Beautiful at sunset despite a treacherous current, as families send their loved ones on their final journey and parade them through the streets wrapped in tinsel and yellow cloth.

As always, with the children, bathos reigned. We visited an Ashram, filled with those who had become ‘sanyarsi’ (I will have spelt that wrong). Paul and I listened to Amrit’s tale of what it means to reach the ‘fourth stage’ of your life and to reject the world (including children and grandchildren) in favour of possessions amounting to two sticks and a small bowl. “They often ask for the food to be made blander so it is less enjoyable”, Amrit explained. “Sounds like school dinners to me,” muttered Paul. The girls, meanwhile, decided to sing Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ at the top of their voices – no doubt just what you want to hear when you’ve chosen to withdraw from the world.

Clover dubbed the Ganges Sunrise ceremony ‘So BORING’, but was delighted by the monkey showing his bottom on our balcony, and quite pleased with Hanuman’s Monkey Temple. Frequent power cuts meant that I ended up doing the laundry by hand (again) – never hung out our smalls on a prayer flag before.

We were grateful for a guesthouse beside the Ganges that felt like a haven (though I fear we ruined the backpackers’ sense of intrepid adventure by turning up with the children) and did an excellent mango lassi, and for the kindness of so many people who were patient to the girls. While Varanasi was hard work, and the children were pleased to go on, I find myself strangely compelled by it. Kept thinking of those words in TS Eliot’s Journey of the Magi. “I should be glad of another death”.

Delhi II: The Man from Varanasi (sung to the tune of The Girl from Ipanema)

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Tall and tan and young and lovely he may not have been, but it’s not every day you spend your husband’s birthday sleeping with a 63-year old chap from Uttar Pradesh.

Poor Paul. Exciting as it may sound to have your birthday in India rather than Forest Hill, due to the time constraints elsewhere, he had to go to two business meetings on our last day in Delhi. Even Clover’s manic singing of Happy Birthday at breakfast probably didn’t make up for that.

While Paul worked, the girls and I took a ‘slum tour’ with Reality Tours, visiting an area on the edge of the city that has become a centre for the garment industry. It was stiflingly hot, exceptionally muddy, and the girls were utter stars as they were led through the streets and forced to hold hands with the women sorting out scraps of fabric on every corner.

Thanks to lovely Pradeep, our ‘Reality’ guide, we now know that slums are not bad places – the definition merely means that the land is owned by the government and illegally settled – nothing to do with the quality of housing. Though it wasn’t great, I’ve seen worse in Mexico.

They are certainly hives of industry, sorting bags of fabric to sell back to the manufacturers to spin into thread. There was power as well as decent roads (though only running water for half an hour a day). In fact, Okhla was humming with micro-businesses – not to mention goats, cows and pigs.

Daisy took the point I think – I caught her trying to build a slum on Minecraft later – she clearly thinks they are well worth having.

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After the slum, lunch at a chi-chi South Indian restaurant where the children ate mainly dosa, snaffled the guide’s paratha and were delighted to be presented with a plate of fennel seed and sugar for pudding (they left the fennel seed). We also saw India Gate, Lodi Gardens and found out that both of our Indian tour guides could sing Count on Me by Bruno Mars – quite the singalong going on in the back of the car.

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After the slum tour, the train journey – which is where our confusion really set in. In India, it turns out, trains have names, trains have numbers, trains have crowds of people, but there’s no-one really there to help. Due to an administrative error, Clover and I ended up in one carriage and Daisy and Paul in another, and it took heck of a kerfuffle to get us on the train at all. Paul’s birthday cake, by this point, had subsidedinto a kind of strawberry sludge at the bottom of its box. Fortunately he saw the funny side.

That’s how I ended up sleeping with a 63 year old from Uttar Pradesh. I know he was 63, because they kindly print your ages on the passenger charts for every train – which I think is a little too much information, but then I am British. Turns out there is no such thing as too much information for Indians – Paul was relentlessly quizzed on how he proposed to me, by the lady travelling to Bihar in the bunk opposite, and I heard all about the two-week tour that Mr Varanasi and his wife (in the top bunk) had taken to Europe last month. A Thomas Cook tour, they told me proudly, 14 days, eleven countries.

London merited a whole two days – including the London Eye, Madame Tussauds and the Tower. They must have been exhausted, I ventured. “Yes” they replied proudly. Their conclusion? Avoid Italy – not worth going to apparently, and full of pickpockets, -even though they had seen both the Coliseum AND the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Switzerland, however, they adored. And the tea is rubbish everywhere in Europe except the UK. Even if I can’t agree with him on Italy, I’ll go with that.

What else do I know about Mr Varanasi? His daughter-in-law cooks excellent okra – I know because they kindly shared their ‘takeaway’- and he was certainly very solicitous for our welfare, and for the safety of our bags. He also snores (we were all of about two foot apart on the bottom sleeper bunks) and likes to get up at six thirty, even though the train was an hour late and we were all just sitting around.

Luckily, Clover agreed that this was the time for getting up – Daisy in the other carriage slumbered on until we had to wake her. She has always found a sleeper train very soporific. I replaced my morning tea with chai – very sweet, but surprisingly refreshing if you don’t think of it as tea – and Clover graciously accepted the free digestive biscuits that came with the chai from everyone else in the vicinity. And their sweets, and their smiles, and a million pats on the head. At 10am we rolled into Varanasi – Lord Shiva’s City of Good Death, and into what felt like a different universe.

Delhi: Sikh and ye shall find/the Ba’hai Life

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Today the children learned an important lesson: sometimes their parents haven’t got a clue what is going on either. Took me years to learn that one myself, so I’m hoping we haven’t permanently damaged them with this startling revelation at such tender ages.

We landed this morning at Delhi airport after a night flight that wasn’t really long enough to get any sleep. We’ve not flown longhaul with the girls since Daisy was two and a half and Clover six months, and I’m pleased to report the experience has got better. Daisy no longer wants to walk up and down the plane shouting, and both of them even ate some of the food.

If I was going to be an ungrateful whinger about travelling with kids, I would point out that I don’t get to watch films very often. My enjoyment of Far From the Madding Crowd (and the eye candy therein) was somewhat dampened by Daisy pointing out the funny bits in the Shaun the Sheep Movie at various crucial moments. But you can’t have everything.

We’ve not planned long in Delhi, as we expected the girls to find it too chaotic, but I’m pleased by how fast they adapt. They like tuktuks – but only if our driver overtakes everyone else’s (“tuktuk race”, Clover shouts excitedly), and are awarding each other points for spotting cows and monkeys in the middle of the city.India 5

Delhi, it turns out, likes them too – it’s hard to feel like a gawping tourist when the locals are as keen to take photos of your daughters as you are of their city streets. One of the perks of travelling with children is instant connection with many of those around you. Quite what these people are going to do with pictures of themselves posing solemnly with Daisy and Clover though, I’m not sure. If you spot them on Facebook, do let me know.

This morning we took a trip to the local Gurdwara, or Sikh house of worship,  a humbling, not to say confusing experience. It is monsoon, so we arrived in sheets of warm rain, completely missed the ‘foreign tourist booth’ and ended up wandering around on our own.

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The girls learned that their own strategy of “watch, and do what everyone else does” works for adults too. We covered our heads, handed our shoes in at the counter, and wandered clockwise around the holy pool at the centre of Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, quite enjoying the feel of the wet marble on our toes.

Everyone at the Gurdwara seemed to be having a grand day out. Whether they were accepting prasad – an edible religious offering- helping in the temple kitchens, or simply reclining around the holy lake at the centre, no-one seemed in an excessive hurry. We loved the guru, resplendent in his air-conditioned box (so glad he has air con – not sure our church leader would be delighted with a similar set up), and the time spent sitting on the floor and people watching.

Most amazing though was our time in the Langar, or communal eating hall. How like us to arrive just in time for lunch. Forget our food banks, the Sikhs have been providing ‘food for free’ as part of a tenet of their faith for centuries, and the Langar in the Bangla Sahib Gurdwara feeds 10,000 people a day. Yes, you read that right.

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It’s movingly democratic and meticulously organised. Men, women, children, rich and poor sitting down together crosslegged on the floor, eating roti, daal and pickles, all served and cooked by volunteers. Surrounded by so many, the children, stunningly and stunned, ate what they were served (and Clover had extra bread).

We couldn’t help noticing the families who took extra plastic bags for a daal takeaway, since this was probably all they had to eat all day. The volunteers asked even us several times whether we needed anything, and whether we wanted to take more.  And they do this Every. Single. Day. Ten thousand people. I don’t think I’ve ever been so moved by breaking bread with anyone.

After our Sikh experience we moved out of the centre to visit the Ba’hai Lotus Temple. If I realised I hadn’t listened much in RE lessons on Sikhism, we didn’t even cover Ba’hai (which appears to be a sort of UN religion, covering almost everything including the need for a universal language – esperanto, anyone?), but the temple, designed with nine entrances (nine is apparently the perfect number), is impressive, in a kind of starship way. Looks like it might take off, doesn’t it?

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Odd fish though, the people running it. The children could go in the temple, but not the information centre (resulting in us feeling very illinformed). They are predictably unimpressed by this, and by the silence in the temple itself. “I liked the Gurdwara, it was more… active”, says Daisy, who won’t be converted to Ba’haism any time soon.

Not surprisingly, after so much newness, the girls craved something familiar this evening. Which is our excuse for an evening of Minecraft and, er, McDonalds after Daisy said with feeling “I just want to eat something that tastes NORMAL”. She was only slightly aghast that they don’t serve beef burgers in Delhi Mcdonalds. “But some Indians are beefatarians,” she fumed. “Not beefatarians, meativores,” Clover corrected her sternly.

I never thought I’d say it, but thank heavens for Chicken Mcnuggets.

Finland II: Breakfast, dinner, snack lunch in the hall…

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Ok, ok, enough with the Monty Python already. It’s our last night in the summer cottage, and we’re all checked in for the night flight to Delhi tomorrow. The girls say they are expecting it to be “hotter, and with more cows”, so I can see they’ve done their geography homework.

Actually, they’ve done no homework at all. The home schooling is going, er, not terribly well. I tried to get them to do some writing the other day and Clover rolled her eyes at me and responded witheringly “this isn’t school, you know”. Well Clover, it kind of is for the next year. At some point we’re going to have to get stricter. But, you know, it’s the holidays.

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So far in Finland, we’ve learned very little about Sibelius (the Finnish composer who would have been the class composer for Daisy this year, and who I’d promised we’d find out about since its his 150th anniversary this month), but quite a lot about fungi. Marja is a foraging expert, but so far I’ve found precisely nothing except what four-year old Leo declared was “an old, bad mushroom” (at least, I hope it was the fungi he was talking about). Even I can find bilberries though, since they’re everywhere, and we’ve picked a fair few wild strawberries and raspberries on our walks as well.

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We’ve eaten beautiful foraged chanterelles, Paul has caught his first fish (a rather aggressive-looking pike), and we’ve all swum in some slightly cold lakes. In the evening the girls (and us too) have emerged pink-cheeked and clean from the sauna (didn’t let the girls have a beer with theirs though). Daisy’s definitely a convert. “Of course I’m naked – I’m in the SAUNA”, she declared in a world-weary fashion earlier… So far, so Finnish.

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The entire of Finland has a population that’s smaller than London, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that we’ve hardly seen a soul in a landscape that is a cross between the Norfolk Broads and Lake Windermere, if either of those places had only two or three boats steaming across at a time. Just glorious – though I can’t believe that in a few months time it will all be covered in snow.

Living out of a backpack, it turns out, is quite stressful with children. I’ve allowed them a massive four changes of clothing each in order to keep the weight down, which would be fine if they didn’t keep changing their clothing on a whim, and scattering it around the area. And covering it all with bilberry juice of course.

Am trying very hard not to scream every time I see them in a different dress, top or yet another pair of socks. A learning curve for all of us. I’ve done a lot of handwashing, but it’s been worth it.

So Delhi, then. Hotter, and with more cows. And more laundries. We can only hope.

Lahti – Cottagers’ Paradise…

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So says the Finnish Tourist Board – which perhaps should have checked its copy through with a native English speaker before posting that gem of a heading on its website.

Finland probably isn’t an obvious first stop for a world tour, but even the longest trip starts with a single flight. In this case it was Heathrow to Helsinki on BA, where the airhostess clearly had some understanding of what it is like to travel with children. “There is wine,” she pointed out anxiously when I requested a cup of tea and a sparkling water. I declined on the basis that it was only noon. Must be growing old.

At Helsinki, the only thing more pleasing than discovering that the airport accessorises its baggage carousels with stuffed beavers was the appearance of Jamie’s friendly face at the airport.

We’ve not visited our friends Jamie and Marja in Finland for ten years- when we travelled here for their wedding. I have (predictably) hazy recollections of snow, husky dogs, saunas on the edge of frozen lakes and quite a lot of vodka.

A decade and six children between us later, it is delightful to visit their ‘summer cottage’ (which they frequently use in winter too, but it’s particularly pleasant at 20 degrees).

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The Finnish tourist board might be oblivious to innuendo, but they were pretty right on the ‘paradise’ issue. The cottage is beautiful in a distinctly fairytale way. Wander too far, and I feel you might find Hansel and Gretel searching for home via a trail of stones. The forest is full of berries and mushrooms – some tasty, and some poisonous and looking like they might be used for a fairy ring and to shelter a couple of Moomins.

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The children have quickly taken to composting loos, foraging and saunas. Clover and Maia spend most of the day picking berries and arranging them into attractive fruit salads (slightly gritty to taste) while Daisy, Helena, Olavi and Leo play pirates in the tree house.

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Olavi is aghast that Paul and the girls have never caught a fish (and I’m scarcely any more experienced) while there’s also the possibility of lake swimming and many healthy walks. And endless opportunities to sing that song from Monty Python, which I should imagine Jamie and Marja find quite irritating.

The girls are in Finland heaven. Delhi is going to be quite a shock.

Blue moons and last suppers

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Blue moon, you saw me standing alone. Well, actually you saw me scrubbing the kitchen floor, but life is so seldom like the old songs, is it?

Last night was our final night in London, and Clover’s sixth birthday, so naturally we made the most of it by finally getting to grips with the house and the packing. A full moon – a blue moon no less- rose over London as I took a romantic walk to the Brockley Family Supermarket to buy yet another 20 bin bags.

I suspect the chap who runs the Brockley Supermarket thinks I’m a mass murderer, since all I have been buying lately are bin bags and kitchen cleaning equipment. Oh and beer – you don’t celebrate your daughter’s sixth birthday every day. Or clean up a crime scene, obviously – but I’m hoping he’s not the suspicious type.

Now everything we think we need for the year is in four rucksacks, and we’re ready to drive to Heathrow in the morning. It doesn’t seem like a lot of stuff for a year, to be honest, but again I don’t think we’d be able to carry any more.

So, final, final farewells. Including a rather fabulous roast beef supper with the family and a day out with dear friends. And that’s all folks…

Sophie Hannah says it better than I ever could

Leaving and Leaving You

When I leave your postcode and your commuting station,
When I leave undone the things that we planned to do,
You may feel you have been left by association,
But there is leaving and there is leaving you.

When I leave your town and the club that you belong to,
When I leave without much warning or much regret,
Remember, there’s doing wrong and there’s doing wrong to
You, which I’ll never do and I haven’t yet,

And when I have gone, remember that in weighing
Everything up, from love to a cheaper rent,
You were all the reasons I thought of staying
And you were none of the reasons why I went

And although I leave your sight and I leave your setting
And our separation is soon to be a fact,
Though you stand beside what I’m leaving and forgetting,
I’m not leaving you, not if motive makes the act.