Serendipity – Ayubowan Sri Lanka


After leaving London with heavy hearts, we headed for Colombo, where we had planned to go earlier in the year, but cancelled after the devastating Easter Sunday terror attacks. Sondra had arranged for us to stay with her sister, Sonia while in Colombo, so we caught a car to her house in Dehiwala. On arrival we were greeted by two elderly people who were the gardener and the cook. There was another lady as well, and between them they insisted on carrying our heavy bags to our room.
Sonia then greeted us from her room, and was helped out into the sitting area by her carer. Sonia had polio as a child, and as a result has limited mobility, and now as she is getting older, she needs a device similar to a CPAP machine to help with her breathing 24/7.
The house she lives in with her sister in law and niece, along with the 3 servants and carer, is a lovely rambling tropics open style house with a beautiful garden full of flowers, butterflies and birds. It’s an oasis. You can sit on the verandah and look out into the garden, while Puppy, the dog flops on your feet.

Puppy


It was a little strange staying in a house with servants, always looking after you and responding to your every need. They would appear with tea and cake, or water etc without you even asking. On our second day there we had lunch in the lovely dining room, decorated with many of Sondra’s paintings. Wow, such amazing food. The curries and all the accompaniments were wonderful, so fresh and beautifully prepared, it was the best food we have had all the time we have been away. Each day we were treated to a lovely breakfast, different things each day; stringhoppers, roti, sambols, curry, as well as fruit and toast. We are so grateful to have been able to spend a few days at Sonia’s house, it was lovely.


One of the evenings we went down to Galle Face Green and watched the families out flying kites, it’s always such an amazing sight, and a simple way to have fun with your family. We then headed into the famous Galle Face Hotel for a drink on the terrace, however it was Poya day (full moon holiday) and no alcohol allowed, so we had mocktails; almost as good as a G&T, but not quite .


While in Colombo, we also caught up with Neil’s auntie Dorothy, over lunch at the historic Mount Lavinia hotel. We enjoyed a Sri Lankan buffet with everything you could want and sitting out on the terrace overlooking the sea, it was lovely, and so good to catch up with Dorothy, always full of laughs, she is an amazing woman.


After Colombo, we decided to head south for some beach time. First we went to Bentota and stayed in a large resort on the beach, however, it was school holidays, and the place was full of families with kids, so the pool was always full, the restaurant was busy, the buffet breakfast was crazy, so it didn’t really suit us. The sea was really angry and rough and the beach was closed for swimming, but anyway, on day 2 the weather improved and we had a cooling dip in the ocean, somewhat battered by the waves, but it was fun, and not crowded.
We went for a boat trip along the lagoon to the mangroves, which was enjoyable.

Next we decided to go to Yala, and found a small ‘glamping’ resort just out of Tissa, by the lake.
On the way we stopped for lunch at a great little spot with lots of ladies cooking up all sorts of yummy food, roti, vadai, thosa, pittu, curry puffs etc. All freshly prepared and cooked before your eyes, and so cheap. LOVE these kind of places.
Then to our glamping resort. Wow! It couldn’t be more different from the previous hotel. The Yala Adventure, is set in lovely gardens with tented rooms spread out around the grounds, with an infinity pool overlooking the picturesque Tissa lake, and not a kid in sight. (I do like kids, just not hundreds of them in the pool with me)
The artificial lake is thought to have been constructed in the 3rd century bc for irrigation and water supply.
This place is a real gem, they cooked us lovely Sri Lankan food, most of the vegetables grown in their own garden, which is also a haven for birds and butterflies.


Day 2 here we set out on our full day safari, 6am start, ugh. Our jeep arrived and took us to the national park, where we drove around and around, seeing many amazing birds, buffalo, crocodiles, deer and monkeys. If you have ever been on a safari , you will know about the crazy circus that ensues when one jeep makes a sighting of something of interest – your driver gets a call, then suddenly turns into some kind of jeep racing lunatic, speeding down bumpy dirt tracks to arrive at the spot, where 20 other jeeps are already jostling for a good spot; it’s chaos. Rumours run through the group, then suddenly you’re off again. So it was with us when somebody thought they saw a bear, we all race to the spot, then drive between the other cars, already blocking the road, So you end up with a colossal jeep jam, and quite a bit of drivers yelling at each other – not really conducive to seeing wild animals. Needless to say, we didn’t see a bear.
We all stopped for lunch near the beach, the site of significant destruction from the Boxing Day tsunami. There is a 2hour break between the morning and afternoon session, so all the jeeps have to wait until 2pm before we can head out again, a good time for an afternoon nap in the back of the jeep.


In the afternoon we managed to see a few elephants, then along one stretch of track, when we were alone, we spotted the leopard sitting on the side of the road up ahead. We stopped and quietly took some photos before it walked into the jungle. So beautiful, and we felt so privileged to see it.


Then our driver took off in a big hurry and drove around to a nearby waterhole where he believed the leopard was headed. He then called other drivers and the mad race was on again. Now our driver was the hero, because he had seen the leopard, so he made sure he bragged to all the others. It was pretty funny to watch his transformation. There were two places about 500 metres apart where the leopard might go, so all the jeeps were jostling back and forward between the two. At one stage our driver was weaving at speed, in reverse gear between other jeeps, across a narrow causeway while talking on the phone and looking for the leopard; talk about multitasking! The leopard, of course, did not reappear with all that commotion going on.
It was a long and tiring day, but well worth it, and we returned to our resort with stories to tell.

safari madness

We had a refreshing swim before enjoying a cold beer and another wonderful dinner and an early night.
The next day we relaxed at the resort, took a tuk tuk into town in the evening in search of somewhere different to eat, found a place but the food was disappointing, should have stayed and eaten at the resort.
The following day our driver arrived and drove us to Galle. Galle was settled by the Portuguese in the 16th century, then the Dutch came in the 17th century and built the fort, which was eventually taken over by the British, so it’s a kind of microcosm of Sri Lankan colonial history, and is now a UNESCO World heritage site. Our hotel is a heritage building initially built by the Dutch, then expanded by the British, and was once a printer’s shop, hence the name Fort Printers. It is a lovely building with a central courtyard, which now houses the pool.


We went for a wander around the fort in the evening, you can walk along the top of the wall for most of the way around this rocky peninsula, and with a storm approaching the sea was very rough, making a spectacular sight, with waves crashing on the rocks and the walls of the fort.
We sat in an upstairs bar with a beer and watched the storm roll in from the sea, then made a dash home between heavy showers.


Later we wandered around looking for somewhere to have dinner; there are many restaurants here but the place is a bit of a tourist trap, with high prices and strange menus that try to cater to all tastes. Many places served pizza, burgers and rice and curry. I can’t help feeling that restaurants here could be so much better, given the amazing availability of beautiful fresh ingredients and Sri Lankan flavours, but they seem to just try and copy the West.
We found a place in the old Dutch hospital which was quite good.
Next day we went for a walk outside the fort area into the main town of Galle, which is a bit less touristy. The humidity was extreme after the rain overnight, so we were quickly exhausted and caught a tuk tuk back to our hotel.
We had a lovely lunch of hoppers with chicken and prawn curry at Hoppa, just near our hotel. We also had prawn wadai which were excellent. In the evening we headed out for dinner to the Dutch hospital again, and sat upstairs overlooking the ocean, and enjoyed a meal of stringhopper pilau (Neil) and Penne pasta (me), both were good, surprisingly.

Off to bed amid another downpour of rain, which threatened to flood the courtyard outside our room, with torrents of water pouring from the spouting into overflowing drains. This happened twice throughout the night and we also had some dripping from our ceiling onto our heads on bed, so turned tail and put the pillows at the other end to sleep. Ah, the tropics, perfect one minute, torrential rain the next.

Today now is our last day in Sri Lanka, and feeling a little sad to be leaving, although also keen to get home. We went for a tuk tuk ride into town and wandered around the market, then noticed there was a big commotion going on near the cricket ground, and up in the sky there were hundreds of kites flying. We walked over to where it all seemed to be happening, and saw many hundreds of people gathered along the fort wall as well as down on a large lawn area, where people were out flying their amazing kites. There were huge elaborate kites and tiny little kids with basic kites and everything in between. It was great to see so many people of different ages and complexities of kites all playing together. Many of those flying kites were teenagers, which seemed like a lovely pass time for kids of that age group. There were also jumpy castles, fairy floss sellers, music and food and drink vendors as well. such a lovely carnival atmosphere around such a simple activity as kite flying. Lovely.

Sri Lanka has been kind to us once again and we have had a lovely time, if only a short trip this time. The country is really suffering after the terror attacks because tourist numbers have plummeted and many small operators of restaurants, hotels, tours, drivers etc, are doing it tough. Not only did those terrorists kill hundreds of innocent people and cause such incalculable harm to the people directly impacted, but they have crippled the economy for most Sri Lankans, because tourism is a major money earner here, and if those involved in tourism are doing it hard, so are the other industries they rely on, so the flow on effect is enormous. We found that whilst there is a noticeable police presence, and security in hotels is quite high, in general everything is operating as normal here. So I would encourage anyone reading this who is thinking of coming to Sri Lanka, just do it. Right now you can get good deals on hotels and tours and places are not as crowded as normal, and you will be helping restore normality to this beautiful island. If you want to book tours or accommodation, our friend Lisa (Sonia’s neice) would be pleased to help you. She works for Pan Lanka and can be contacted at lisa@panlanka.com. Check out their website http://www.panlanka.com If you book through a local company you are providing jobs for local people, rather than using aggregator sites like booking.com

Ayubowan .

Stuthi, Sri Lanka.

Life’s departure lounge, touring southern England and a sad farewell

Little boy kneels at the foot of the bed,

Droops on little hands little gold head.

Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!

Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

A.A Milne

Chris and Sondra 1969, photo taken by Chris’s father, Wilfred.

We came to the UK to visit Neil’s uncle Chris after learning he has terminal cancer. It was with some trepidation that we came, not knowing what to expect or if we could be of any help.
Some time back I read some of Clive James’ articles where he coined the phrase ‘life’s departure lounge’ which perfectly captures the poignant absurdity of finding out you have a terminal illness and waiting for the inevitable. This is where Chris is now, in life’s departure lounge, although for him the metaphor might be better described as the ‘final lap’, because Chris has been a motorcycle racer all of his adult life.

Background

Chris (Christopher) was born in what was then known as Ceylon, to Marjory and Wilfred Pereira; he was named after Christopher Robin, from his father’s favourite books by A.A Milne. He already had an older sister, Rosemary (Neil’s mother) and would also later have a younger sister, Jennifer. Motorcycle racing has been part of his life for over 60 years, racing in Ceylon, then the UK and across Europe at tracks including Hockenheim, Isle of Man, Donnington, Silverstone and many others.

In his later years he competed in classic motorcycle events including hill climbs. After moving to the UK, he met and married the other love of his life, Sondra, his wife and friend, she has accompanied him to hundreds of races and now lovingly cares for him. His last race was at age 80, a hill climb in Austria which ended in tragedy, when he crashed and a spectator was killed. Chris was badly injured breaking several bones including both arms and life has been a struggle for him ever since, both physically and emotionally.

Chris has written three books about motorcycle racing covering the 1960s to the early 2000’s, and is working on another chronicling his travels with his father.

Motorcycle racing has provided him with many lifelong friends, some of whom are visiting him daily in these, his last weeks. It is sad to see someone who always lived life to the full, being unable to do anything for himself. Despite his physical weakness, his mind is as a keen as ever, as was evident as we all watched the MotoGP together last week, and he knew all the riders and details of their previous wins and times.

Devon, Cornwall and Wiltshire

Whilst in the UK we took a break and headed down the coast, driving our rental car and discovering that there are some extremely narrow roads in England.
First stop was for lunch at the Beckford Arms in Fonthill Gifford, which had a lovely outdoor terrace and excellent food.

Fisherman’s lunch at the Beckford Arms

Onward from there we spent our first night at Paignton. This town is obviously a seaside holiday town, with a pier, complete with amusement arcade. Fish and chip shops, video games, traditional arcade games and all sorts of games of chance and skill. It was quite mind boggling, to see so many of these machines lined up along the length of the pier. I couldn’t help but think that this is grooming kids for gambling. So many of these games had cash prizes. There were also multiple ‘casinos’ throughout the town, all geared at children. We stayed in a BnB in town and had dinner at the Inn on the Green along the main street, standard pub fare.

On our way to our next destination, we diverted via the Lizard for lunch. Here we found a a fantastic little cafe, purported to be Britain’s most southerly, nestled on the cliffs overlooking the rugged coastline. The food was fabulous and the views extraordinary, and such a sunny day, it was just lovely.

On to Penzance and another quaint BnB, a pleasant walk along the seafront and dinner at a pub serving Italian fare, which was a nice change.
The next day we drove to St Ives, foolishly driving all the way down to the waterfront, where the streets are extremely narrow, filled with holiday making pedestrians and parking is at a premium, still we found a place to park on the pier, paid a ridiculously expensive parking fee, and headed for a walk along the crowded foreshore. This is a very pretty place but at this time of year, filled with tourists. We also watched people swimming in the chilly water, jumping off the pier and saw a seal swimming by. There was such a holiday atmosphere , it was almost contagious.

Next stop was Padstow, our primary reason for coming to Cornwall, to have lunch at one of Rick Stein’s restaurants. Of course, without a booking in peak season we were obviously just dreaming, so after a lovely walk around town, we settled on Cally Oyster Bar restaurant which was lovely; great seafood.
No amusement arcades here though, clearly there’s a class structure around holiday destinations here, Padstow is restaurants, upmarket souvenir shops and art galleries.
As there was no available accommodation around here (we hadn’t booked ahead) nor at nearby New Quay, due to the Boardmasters festival (later cancelled due to bad weather), we looked for something out of town, and found a gem. A farmhouse near Bude, called Higher Tresmorn farm BnB. This place was just beautiful, set up on rolling hills above the Atlantic coast, the views were amazing, the farmhouse was lovely and Emma was an excellent host, serving a sumptuous English breakfast in the conservatory with views of the sea. So peaceful, watching the sunset over the ocean as a flock of wild geese flew in and landed on the dam, and whilst watching and photographing this, I was also occupied by constantly throwing a ball for the resident dog to fetch. Bliss. I would highly recommend this BnB if you are out that way.

Next we headed North towards Cheltenham, staying the night in the historic town of Broadway, at Abbott’s Grange, a 14th century building set in beautiful gardens right in the centre of town. This place is so picture postcard, old stone buildings wherever you look. Our room was on the first floor, complete with 4 poster bed. We had a lovely meal at the Swan gastro pub across the road, and then a quiet port by the outdoor fire before retiring.

After leaving Broadway we headed back to Bracknell to spend a few more days with Chris and Sondra, but stopped along the way in Oxford. Many of the larger towns and cities in England have park and ride facilities, and we made use of the one outside Oxford, parking our car on the outskirts and taking a bus into the centre. We visited the historic covered market and had a pie for lunch, then went to the Science museum, which showcased scientific equipment across the ages; very interesting.

Back in Bracknell, we checked into our apartment near town centre and spent the next few days taking the bus to and from Chris and Sondra’s house, just hanging out, chatting, watching tv, looking at old photos. The love of motorcycles has been a binding force between him and Neil; the shared brotherhood that only motorcyclists understand.

It was with great sadness and many tears that we said our goodbyes knowing it is unlikely we will see him again, but hoping that we brought a little bit of happiness to his last days, by just being there, watching some motor cycling together, and Neil cooking him a creme brulee, to try and tempt his ailing appetite, and to provide some moral support for Sondra at this very difficult time. I know that these few days have been meaningful for Neil and I hope also for Chris.

Post script: Saturday 24th August

Sadly, Chris passed away today. So sad, but glad we were able to see him and spend some time with him. RIP.

A bitter sweet last minute trip to UK

Recently we found out that Neil’s uncle who lives in the UK has terminal cancer, so we decided at the last minute to pop over and see him for the last time.

We hurriedly booked flights and hopped on a plane within two days and are now in transit at Colombo (flying Sri Lankan airlines) with a stopover in SL on our way home. So we get to go on the visit we missed after India, even if only for 7 days.

More to come over the next two weeks.

Flying into Colombo last night, sorry it’s a bit blurry.

Last day in Hong Kong – one chapter closes

Hong Kong have a great service where you can take your luggage and check it in for your flight at the MTR station. This is available at Hong Kong station and Kowloon station, so you go there and they have airline check in desks, and you show your boarding pass and they send your luggage off to the airport. It’s brilliant, especially if you have to check out of your hotel long before your flight. Then you can wander around unencumbered, and catch the Airport express train to the terminal later.

So, after checking our luggage in, we spent the rest of our last day in Hong Kong with Neil’s cousin Rod and his wife Bles, and they took us out to Stanley on the island where we wandered around the shops, and had some lunch on the waterfront, and also saw some dragon boat racing. It was a lovely day and such a nice way to finish our holiday.

The start
The finish line
The disappointment

Out of the plane window, on our way home I noticed Venus had risen just before dawn as we crossed central Australia. Managed to take this very freaky looking shot using my iPhone zoom, no filters.

Now we are home, the house feels strange, it seems bigger, perhaps because we have been living in hotel rooms for almost two months. The next chapter begins. Time to face the reality that I am unemployed; so perhaps there is another blog to come…the experiences of an older person after redundancy, trying to carve out a new career and find their creative side. Lol. 🙂 We’ll see. Until then, au revoir.

Hong Kong – get thee to a nunnery

We arrived in Hong Kong early in the morning. We had arranged to take a shuttle to our hotel, so headed to the desk and were promptly stickered and shepherded to sit and wait. Some half an hour later we were walked to our shuttle bus, a considerable distance from the terminal. As we drove from the airport my first impression (first time in Hong Kong) was amazement at the sheer size of everything. The apartment buildings, the bridges everything seems vast. I had always pictured Hong Kong to be a small tightly packed place, so did not realise how many different parts of it there are. As you head from the airport you can see some of the New Territories to the west of Hong Kong proper, and the huge bridges connecting the islands are breathtaking.

We arrived at out hotel in Mong Kok, The Cordis, and were sent up to the 36th floor for check in at the club lounge. As it was so early on the morning, we though perhaps we would not get a room for a while, but we were offered breakfast while they prepared our room, which was nice. We had a shower and a nap, then headed out to look for a laundry to get our washing done.

Side note on laundry while travelling: whenever you travel for more than a couple of weeks, you need to get laundry done. The way to do this differs in different parts of the world. Generally, we avoid using the hotel laundry service as it is invariably about twice the price of a local laundry. They send the laundry out to the same places but add their own mark-up. In Europe we have frequently used laundromats, which are readily available in most cities and work very well, they are also great places to meet people. In Asia, and other countries where labour is cheap, there are usually laundries which will wash, dry, fold and iron for reasonable prices. This was variable in India, quite expensive in Shimla, where the laundry sent the washing down to Siliguri (3 hour drive) to be done, but everywhere else it was reasonable and usually same day service. We check the hotel price list, then we know that anything less than that is a bonus. Here in Hong Kong, the hotel list showed to wash a T shirt cost $80 HK and jeans $100 HK each. That’s pretty expensive by any measure. We Googled nearby laundries and found one about 200 metres away, so took our bags of clothes to see how much it would cost. The lady weighed our washing, about 9 kgs all up. Cost for the lot was $140 HK; we dropped off it at about lunchtime and it was ready for pickup by 9pm. Great service, and so much cheaper than the hotel, all it took was a little bit of research and a little bit of effort carrying our washing to the place.

Hong Kong has a great metro service, the MTR, so we went to get ourselves an Octopus card which you load with credit and use for each trip. (I have since learned that there is a special one day pass for tourists for $65HK.) We bought our cards $150HK each, ready to explore. You can use the card on MTR, buses, ferries and public mini buses across the city, so it’s quite versatile. The MTR service is excellent, with trains running every couple of minutes; the trains are clean and airconditioned, the stations are clean and well sign posted, though complex in that they have exits in various directions, so making sure you know which one you need avoids unnecessary walking. You can walk underground here for kilometres, and also there are many overhead walkways with loads of escalators and travelators.

From our hotel lobby, we can walk across an elevated enclosed walkway to the Langham centre, which is a huge shopping centre, that sits above the Mong Kok MTR station. The whole complex is mind boggling complicated with escalators going in all directions, but if you follow the signs with the MTR symbol, you can easily find the station. It is all quite accessible by escalators as well as stairs and lifts. (I don’t think I have spent so much time on escalators in my whole life, as I have here in a few days in Hong Kong – they are everywhere in multitudes)

This brings me to make some comparisons between Hong Kong and India around queuing etiquette and general public social behaviour. These are only my observations and not intended to draw any conclusions about Indian or Hong Kong Chinese people. It seems to me that people in Hong Kong are more compliant with rules and social norms. There are signs with rules for where to stand for the train, where to walk on the pavement etc, and people largely obey these rules. People form orderly queues, and wait for passengers to disembark before getting on the train; it’s all quite ordered and polite.  In India, queueing etiquette seems non-existent, getting into trains or lifts is a free for all, you have to fight your way to get anywhere, and frankly lane markings on roads in India are a waste of paint; no-one stays in their lane, it’s as if they don’t exist at all. It feels like rules in India are made to be broken, and that only policing keeps people from breaking them. For example, in India in places where there are long queues, there are security people with whistles and sticks to keep everyone in line, any attempt at queue jumping is pounced upon by these fellows who wildly blow their whistles and wave their big sticks around, in one place the guy had a shotgun. No such controls are needed here in Hong Kong, people just queue politely without anyone telling them to do so. Interestingly, though, in India on crowded transport I was offered a seat by young men on several occasions, however that hasn’t happened here in Hong Kong. We took the bus up to the peak as the tram service is not running at present, and the bus was packed, so we had to stand up. It was difficult standing and hanging on as the bus went around sharp corners and stopped and started, yet no-one offered us a seat, and we were the oldest people on the bus by a long shot. At one point a man in the seat beside me got up to get off the bus, so I thought, here’s my chance for a seat, but I was not quick enough, a young woman almost bowled me over and jumped into the seat barely before the man had moved.

We visited the Nan Lian garden and the Chi Lin Nunnery, which was a peaceful place with lots of what I would call giant bonsai trees, they were cut and controlled like bonsai, but were almost normal sized. The nunnery is a retreat for Buddhist nuns and is built entirely from wood without the use of nails, apparently. (though I did see some screws)

We caught up with Neil’s cousin Roderick, who lives here, for lunch at a pub that sells Moondog beer, which was nice, and he showed us around a few places and gave some ideas on what to visit.

Shopping: this seems like it’s a national pastime here, I have never seen so many shops…everywhere you look there are shops, and so many shopping malls with all the big name international brands as well as local markets and small shops along the streets. I heard someone say “there used to be a temple here, but now it’s a shopping mall” and thought, you could say that for most of Hong Kong. When we went up to the peak, at the top there is a shopping centre, with souvenir shops, restaurants, even jewellery and sunglasses all available as you head up to the viewing terrace, via multiple escalators (which costs you $55) where there are professional photographers set up trying to get your business. Plenty of people were happy to fork out for professional photos of themselves with Hong Kong in the background. We stayed here for a while mostly people watching, ever incredulous at the degree of narcissism of people so busy taking pictures of themselves, they are oblivious to what’s going on around them, and oblivious to me taking their pictures. 😊 We did witness two marriage proposals while we were there; I assume this is a regular occurrence here.

Hong Kong from The Peak
Panorama shot

Whilst here we visited the Temple street market and had dinner at a street restaurant selling spicy crabs and other delicacies. We had some spicy prawns and spicy beans which were good. As the restaurant was busy, two Korean men shared our table, they ordered their food and a beer, then one took a flask out of his pocket and poured some clear spirit into his and his companion’s glass before topping up with beer. He saw us watching and offered Neil some of what turned out to be Korean Saki, apparently is was quite good. They smiled and bowed as we left. Sometimes when travelling you have little encounters like this that make things all the more interesting.

We also took a ferry out to Cheung Chau island and walked around to the beach there and had some lunch at a seafood restaurant on the waterfront, which was a bit of a tourist trap, average food for high prices, but the ferry ride was good and gave excellent views of the city from the water.

Here are some street market pictures, check out the guy at the pork butcher with no shirt.

One evening we headed down to the harbour, in front of the cultural centre to watch the evening light show. The video was taken with my phone, not sure why the lights are flaring.

Tomorrow is our last day here, then we fly out to Melbourne and back home. It’s been an interesting time in Hong Kong, the weather has been a little dull, although it was sunny today. It’s a very different place to anything in India or even Australia. Hong Kong feels like a 21st Century city; so modern and fast paced, excellent public transport and shiny shopping malls, bright city lights and tall skyscrapers every where you look. At night I can almost imagine I will see flying cars from the Jetson’s zooming around the buildings. There is a lot to do here, and I think we could definitely return another time. Thanks Hong Kong, till we meet again.

Delhi luxury and Shimla – last days in India

Having reluctantly cancelled our Sri Lanka trip, we had to reschedule our onward flights, which turned out to be much more difficult than expected, but the result was that we ended up with 5 extra days in India before we fly out to Hong Kong.

We spent one night in Delhi, at the Taj Palace (we got a good last minute deal and then were upgraded to a club room). The hotel is luxurious with marble and chandeliers and staff galore. Our room was lovely, a glamourous bathroom and the fluffiest bathrobe I have ever seen, yet still only a spot for one suitcase – what is that about?  We decided to have dinner in one of the five restaurants at the hotel. One of these, The Orient Express sounded pretty amazing, decorated like its namesake and offering European food including 3 types of caviar, lobster and other delicacies shipped in from around the world. We couldn’t eat there however, as it had a semi formal dress code, and we had no such clothes. So, we opted for the Spicy Duck Chinese restaurant, billed as one of the best in Delhi. The décor was opulent with booths around circular tables, with what can only be described as a huge fibre optic chandelier over each table. We had to climb up a step into the booth and the seating design meant you needed a cushion behind you so you could reach the table. Ok. Our waiter smiled and gave us the menu. We ordered two glasses of French wine at ludicrous prices, but we were there and went with the flow. The food menu was extensive with many choices of meats and seafood the likes of which we had not seen in India; Canadian scallops, Chilean fish, pork dishes and plenty more with serious food miles. We enjoyed our meal of BBQ pork buns, a duck dish and Kung Poo chicken with steamed rice, though they were nothing special and I have enjoyed similar at far less salubrious establishments, at a tenth of the price.  To give you an idea of the prices here, a small bowl of steamed rice cost 800 rupees or $16 AUD. We ate everything on the plate, as we didn’t want to waste a speck of this gold, then waited over 40 minutes with dirty dishes in front of us, in the end we had to ask the waiter to clear the plates. (Alert – customer service rant coming)

Why is it that people think smiling is customer service? Ok, smiling is good, I like people to smile at me, but what I really want is for people to DO THEIR DAMN JOB PROPERLY. While we were waiting for our plates to be cleared away, several waiters were clearing and resetting tables where patrons had already left. While doing this they focussed on things like flinging the napkin in a flourish as they cleared them away- what? Get the basics right first people, then you can be fancy.

We then waited 15 minutes after asking for the bill twice. When we complained to the obsequious maître de, he just smiled and bowed like an idiot, then offered us complimentary ice cream. We declined and left in disgust.

We weren’t sure what to do with the extra days, but decided that 41 degrees in Delhi was too much to bear, so we headed for the hills again, this time to Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. We organised a driver through Mr Sharma and off we went to Shimla.

We stayed in a heritage hotel, Clarkes, which was built in 1898 and is located on the Mall. What we didn’t realise is that you can only bring a car to the ‘downside’ and reception and the hotel entrance is on the ‘upside’. ( These amusing expressions, along with frontside and backside are common across India) The way to get from the downside to the upside of the hotel is to climb a steep flight of about 50 stairs, which felt more like a million, as the air is thinner up here, so breathing was hard. By about halfway the Wise One and I were huffing and puffing terribly.  We looked back to see the porter carrying both our suitcases hanging from his head, Sherpa style, up the same stairs. Sherpas are remarkable in what they can carry on their head using a sort of head band. I saw one man carrying two large gas cylinders this way, but the cord was around his neck, and across his shoulders, with the cylinders hanging on his back; I have no idea how he could breathe, let alone walk and carry that load.

Neil felt pretty bad for a couple of hours afterwards, probably due to the altitude. I was ok, but had already walked at a similar altitude when we were in Tumling, so I may have already acclimatised. What we did discover is that Shimla has a lift, from downside where the road is to upside on the pedestrian mall about 100 metres from our hotel, so thereafter whenever we drove anywhere, we had our driver drop us at the lift; 10 rupees per person, well worth every razoo.

Shimla is very picturesque set high up in the mountains, like Darjeeling, but cleaner. The traffic here is insane, with really only one narrow road in and cars haphazardly parked on the side of the road, it’s chaos. The mall and the ridge which are the top section of the town are all off limits to cars and motorbikes, except for emergency vehicles, so parking is at a premium, with large multistorey parking garages and costly parking places which are packed. You hear the constant whistling of the parking attendants guiding cars into and out of tight parking spots. (not sure if I have mentioned the whistles before, but it’s a thing here. Parking attendants in restaurant and hotel carparks, especially, have a whistle, which they blow to help customers park…continuous short whistles mean keep going, slowly; sharp single whistle means stop, now.) When you have to park cars so close that you need to fold the mirrors, it helps to have someone guiding you; it’s a system that works.

While here we visited, the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, with beautiful gardens. It was built by Lord Dufferin as the Viceroy lodge. This building happens to be the place where the decision to carve up Pakistan and India into two countries (partition) was made. It later became the Indian Institute of Advanced studies. The building is quite imposing and the gardens very peaceful, with views across the valleys to the mountains beyond and lots of cheeky monkeys.

Similar to Darjeeling, Shimla has a pedestrian mall and an area called the ridge, which is an open square right on the ridge of the mountain, so you can see views in both directions. Lots of people congregate here, especially in the evenings to view the sunset. There are stalls and horse rides as well. Adjacent to the square is the Christ Church, built in 1857 for the English Christians; it is a landmark which can be seen from all over Shimla.

High up on the hill above the church you can see the pink statue on Jakhoo hill, which is of Hanuman (the monkey god) and temple. This can be reached by walking up the very steep hill, or you can take a cable car, known as the Jakhu ropeway, which suited us much better.

We had been told that the toy train ride that runs from Kalka up to Shimla was worth doing, particularly for the lovely views along the way. The trip from Kalka to Shimla takes about five hours, which seemed a bit long, so we went to the station in Shimla to try and work out how we might buy a ticket for part of the journey, then have our driver pick us up. We were advised that the train from Shimla was fully booked, and that we could wait for a chance to buy last minute unreserved seats, but our driver Yasvinder, though perhaps we could drive down the line and catch the train back to Shimla, where he would meet us. So we went to a station called Kathleeghat, and the station master sold us two tickets for 20 rupees, total about 40 cents AUD. (that should have been the clue). After being delayed nearly two hours, during which we had some lunch at a nearby restaurant, the train finally pulled into the station. To say it was packed, would be failing to adequately describe the way the people were jammed into this train. Now, had we been sensible people, given we had a driver waiting for us in an air con car, we would have just decided against the train, however, sensible we are not. So, on the train we climb into a carriage that quite a few people got down from, so we assumed that meant there would be some space; ha, little did we know those people were just getting out to stretch their legs, and promptly got back on the train. We were the only tourists on the train that was literally packed to the rafters; seats designed to hold two people, held four or five; all floor space was filled with standing people up close and personal; and others were sitting up on the ledges that were the backs of the chairs. As the train took off one of the young lads offered me a seat; well, actually there was only enough room for me to get one bum cheek on, but I was grateful for that. After staring at us for a while they gathered up courage to ask us where we were from, and then decided they needed selfies with us, one would take one, then another would want one, and so it went on. They were very funny, all quite young men, and as we found out after talking to them throughout the one and a half hour trip, they were mostly army recruits going to the camp for basic training. Most of them were about 17 or 18, and were probably away from home for the first time, they were just big kids, jumping around, climbing out of the train windows when we stopped at stations, and climbing back in the same way as the train started moving. They screamed and shouted whenever we went through a tunnel, sometimes turning out the lights, and when Neil took out his big camera to try and take some pictures of the view, that we could barely see because of the crowd, they all oohed and ahhed, and wanted to check out the pictures, and try taking pictures themselves, and swapping Whats App addresses with us so we could send them through. It was quite an experience, and despite being physically uncomfortable, it was a lot of fun.

Shimla Toy train

The next day we left Shimla for our last night in India, to stay at a place called Chail, about 45 klms from Shimla, but less developed, and with a palace that Yasvinder said we should see. There was also another temple built for Hanuman on the way, built right on the summit of a hill, which had some amazing 360 degree views. We did have to walk up about 1 klm to reach the top as the road was being repaired. I took a panorama. Not easy to see, but there were snowed capped Himalayan peaks way out in the distance.

We also went to see the highest cricket ground in the world, built in 1893 at Chail, however, it is now used by the army, and we were not allowed to go onto the ground, some soldiers were playing basket ball there and told us off. It was disappointing that this is billed as a tourist attraction, and that India had played Australia here back in the 1970’s, but the army is not to be argued with. So here is a picture of the sign. 🙂

We stayed the night in a hotel on the top of a hill, some way out of town, got ourselves packed up ready to head for Delhi in the morning to catch our flight to Hong Kong.

The road trip from Chail to Delhi is about 8 to 9 hours, so we left in the morning, spending a couple of hours just getting out of the mountains, and navigating the endless roadworks on the major highway through the mountains that they are in the process of duplicating. It is a mammoth project with hug cuttings into the mountainside and massive retaining walls to control erosion, especially during the wet season when rainfall here can be intense (average annual rainfall here can be up to 1500 mm). Along the way we also saw our first yaks. We headed down to Delhi, and said goodbye to Yasvinder and goodbye to India.

It has been an amazing trip over the past five weeks and we have had an awesome time, lots of fun, some great food, a few frustrations, but on the whole a rewarding experience. India has been everything I expected and more. I have been in awe of the women here, many of whom do extraordinarily hard physical work; we saw many on the rock breaking crews along the roadworks, heaving picks and shovels with the men, carrying loads of stones in baskets on their heads, and at the brick-works, in the fields on farms; they are just amazing and always beautiful in their colourful saris. And of course, kids. Kids are great wherever you go, I just love watching them play, or heading off to school so neat in their uniforms, or helping their parents, or just clowning around, they are always a source of delight.

India is crazy, noisy, dirty, busy, crowded, smelly, colourful, vibrant, poignant, quiet, beautiful, sad, surprising and wonderful. Thank you India. Namaste.

I will write one more post from Hong Kong, and will also add some more photos to the India gallery page once I sort them out. If you have been reading this blog along the way, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. Please post comments at the bottom of the page.

Sandakphu and Tumling – two days off grid

After leaving Darjeeling, we headed to Chitrey, where we changed cars to a 4WD and entered the Singalila National Park. The narrow road immediately starts to rise steeply and there are many hairpin bends one after the other, where there is not enough room for two cars to pass, so at every corner the driver toots loudly so that any oncoming vehicles know you are coming. The clouds rolled in and visibility reduced down to a few metres, which may have been just as well, given the sheer drops off the side of the road. After a couple of hours of very slow driving, the car never getting out of second gear, we stopped for lunch at a tea house in Tumling; a simple meal of rice, dahl and vegetable curry and of course, tea.

After we finished our lunch we set off for Sandakphu. The driver explained that the road gets worse from here on, as it is not concrete but mostly dirt or paved with rocks. 15 klms of this doesn’t sound like much, but at such a slow rate it took about 2 more hours. The road was so bumpy, we had to hold on in the car to stop bouncing around, and so narrow that at times the driver needed to look out the window at the wheels to make sure they were still on the road, with bottomless looking drops below. This was especially frequent at hairpin bends where the car could barely turn in the space, and these followed one another at very tight intervals. At the 10klm milestone we came across another vehicle stuck in the middle of the road, so we could not pass. There was some mechanical problem under the car that required it to be jacked up, significant head scratching and quite a bit of hammering (?). Our driver and guide got out to help, and eventually the car was declared fixed, and we all took off again. I can’t begin to describe how bumpy it was, driving over those rocks, but after 4 hours of it my neck, sides and back muscles were all aching from the constant jiggling. The road took us through a rainforest of rhododendrons and magnolias in flower; occasionally the fog would lift and we would catch a glimpse of their colours. So strange to see these plants in their natural state in a forest.

When we finally arrived at Sandakphu it was freezing. The clouds rolled in a bring a chill with them, so the coats and scarves we bought were a necessity. We were shown to our room in the place we were staying, the Sunrise Guesthouse. This is very basic accommodation, (there is little else up here) with a bed with multiple quilts to keep out the cold, no heating, an ‘ensuite bathroom’ with no functioning taps, although the drains worked thankfully. The water for washing and flushing the toilet was supplied in a bucket, but there were no towels, soap or toilet paper, (though you could buy this) and of course no hot water. As a side note, two things are in short supply in India; toilet roll and hot water. The ‘dining’ area had a makeshift wood heater that was basically a metal cylinder with a couple of holes in the top and a flue going out through the wall. Bear in mind that it was freezing up there – the wind blows the clouds in the door if left open. I know that sounds crazy but I actually saw a cloud come down the hallway into the room when someone left the back door open. Add to that the smoke belching out of the ‘heater’, which fuelled only by wood shavings, heated up about one square metre immediately around it. People kept opening the door and leaving it open, the room had minimal insulation and so those of us inside sat in a tight circle around this little heater with our coats and scarves still on. Tea was available as always and helped warm us up. These places are little old fashioned guest houses with communal facilities, some dorm rooms and only basic amenities – only solar power which is used for lights in the evening, but runs out during the night.

There was some excitement as the sun was about to set, the clouds cleared a little, so everyone rushed outside with their cameras and and when we had glimpses of snow capped mountains a cheer went up from the small crowd, then the clouds rolled back in and it was gone.

We had a simple dinner of dahl, rice and veggie curry (again) and headed to bed fully clothed with our hot water bottle, with the hope of an early start in the morning to see the mountains at dawn. If the clouds cleared our guide would wake us to catch the view. No such luck, still cloudy as ever the next day. We took a short walk up the hill, when Neil hurt his calf muscle and needed a lift back. We did see two amazing Himalayan Griffins, which look like a kind of vulture; they were absolutely huge and magnificent.

Next we headed back down the bumpy ‘road’ to Tumling. The clouds lifted a bit here and there as we came down the mountain, so we saw some nice views and also how steep the sides of the road were – sometimes not knowing is better. We also passed some loaded up ponies and saw a Hoopoe bird.

We arrived at Tumling where we were staying the night. Here a slightly better room with functioning plumbing but still no hot water, needless to say, at these low temperatures, showers were not had for two days. Pew!. We met two women from Mauritius, one of whom was Australian, the other English and sat around the small open fire chatting about our various travels. Once again a simple dinner, then off to bed for an early night, in the hope of waking early to see the view.

At around 5:30 the next morning there was a knock at the door – the sky has cleared. So we jumped out of bed, threw on some clothes and headed up the road to the viewing point. As the sun was beginning to rise, the mountains appeared before us. Kanchenjunga and the group which forms what is called the ‘sleeping Buddha’. Everyone was outside, with coats over their pyjamas, checking out the view. Hard to get a good photo, it was still very hazy, so have tried to correct this a bit. To the naked eye it was a beautiful sight.

Kanchenjunga (rear)
the sleeping Buddha

After breakfast, I went for a walk with our guide across the hills to the next village, where we had more tea, then headed back to Tumling. After a quick lunch of Maggi noodles (a staple around here), we said goodbye to Tumling and our new friends, and headed down to Siliguri, where we spent the night before catching our flight from Bagdogra to Delhi.

Sri Lanka – on a sad note

It was at this point in our journey where we would have been flying out to Colombo. It was with heavy hearts that we decided to cancel the Sri Lanka leg of our journey due to the ongoing security risk and terror threat. Having spent many days deliberating over this, we felt this was the most sensible course, despite being bitterly disappointed. For us, however, this was merely holiday plans disrupted, and some inconvenience and cost to change all of our flights, but for the people of Sri Lanka this event is devastating in every way and our thoughts and love go out to them.

Darjeeling – 3 days in the mist

We arrived at Sealdah station in Kolkata ready to catch our overnight train, the Padatik Express. We negotiated with a porter to carry our bags and headed for the platform. These guys carry such heavy weights up and down stairs with ease. They earn their 200 rupees ($4) for this. We normally manage our own bags, but Indian railway stations don’t seem to have lifts, so it’s always the stairs, which I’m afraid we are getting a bit old to negotiate with such heavy bags.

The train arrived and we found our carriage. When we booked we had noted a preference for a ‘coupe’ in the 1st class air con carriage. A coupe is a 2 berth compartment. There is no guarantee you will get one, as there are only two on the train, all of the other compartments are four berth, which would have meant we would have to share a sleeping compartment with others, which didn’t really appeal. Luckily we were allocated the coupe, so we were very pleased about this. It was quite spacious, with an upper and lower bunk, which the train assistant came and made up for us with crisp white sheets and pillows and a blanket. The aircon worked well, so we were very comfortable, although the train was fairly noisy, so whilst we got some sleep it was broken a bit by stops and passing trains blowing their horns. There were toilets at the end of the carriages which were kept very clean all night by a janitor with a sign on his shirt that said, ‘no tips please’. Overall it was a good experience, we knew that this service did not provide food, so we bought some potato chips and a packet of Orios and soft drinks for the journey – so healthy. The train departed on time, but somewhere along the way, we lost some time following a goods train and ended up arriving two hours late, oh well, no issue for us.

On arrival at Jaipalguri station, we were once again confronted with the porters wanting to carry our bags, and dozens of taxi drivers. We found a taxi and off we headed for Darjeeling, a two and half hour drive from the station, up winding hills and steep hairpins, passing villages and tea plantations.

Darjeeling is a town perched at the top and steep sides of a mountain about 2500 metres above sea level. This of course, is tea country. The people here are quite different, and seem to speak another language. Many look like they may be of Tibetan or Nepalese origin, there are also many more people with Chinese features here too. There are many shops selling what are purported to be Tibetan handicrafts and antiques, and you see Buddhist prayer flags and many monks around the streets.

We found our hotel, which you enter from the road above, and wind down the side of the hill to the room. It has a lovely view of the valley below, I think, as when we arrived it was shrouded in mist. The hotel is very old style, teak timber and again that old English club décor and furnishings, with a lovely sitting room dedicated to Sherpa Tensing and climbing memorabilia, as well as teak bookcases and chesterfield couches.

We wandered towards the Mall, which is a street here and a square where everything seems to happen. There are stalls everywhere selling mostly clothes, and trinkets. There are even pony rides and in the evening lots of food vendors set up their stalls. This place sees many tourists, mostly from other parts of India. We had some great street food, enough to fill us for under $3.

The sweet corn ladies
Pony rides

Two things about Darjeeling; one – you can get an amazing view of the Himalayas from the lookout point along a walk into town, in particular Mount Kanchenjunga; two – Tea. We did not luck out on the view, because since we have been here it has been very foggy and misty with some rain. We have however enjoyed the tea, and also the food here, which is a bit different from other parts of India. We have had momos and various fried breads and savouries; there are quite a few Chinese restaurants as well as tea houses with nice cakes and pastries. I like the feel of Darjeeling, and the temperature is a pleasant 18 degrees during the day, cool and foggy, but a nice change after the heat and humidity of Kolkata and the South. (We had to buy coats)

View of Darjeeling from our hotel

We visited a travel company to decide what to do over the next couple of days, and booked a two day excursion up to Sandakphu, (elevation 3600 metres) and the Singalila National Park, which is right on the Nepalese border. From here, on a clear day (who knows if we will get one) you can see Mt Everest and many other mountains of the Himalaya. We will be heading up via 4wd to stay in a tea house, and then do a walk in the National Park, in the hope of seeing red pandas and cloud leopards as well as rhododendron forests in bloom. We will be off grid while up there, as there is no internet or phone service in the area. Should be fun.

Kolkata – original East India Company trading port

We landed in Kolkata to find multiple messages and missed calls on our phones. Our children had been trying to contact us, because news of the dreadful Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka had just come through. I struggle to understand why anyone could do such a terrible thing, but what’s most important is that we don’t allow these things to divide us. The world must stand together as one and try to find unity after such tragedies. These events are so disturbing and worrying too, for our relatives in Colombo who we knew would be attending church services on Easter Sunday, and also because we are planning to go there in 2 weeks time. We managed to contact Neil’s Auntie and Uncle and we were relieved to find they were safe. As yet, we have not decided whether we will continue with our plans to go to Sri Lanka; on the one hand it seems like it is unsafe, but on the other hand, if we don’t go, then these bastards win. I feel very conflicted about this, especially as everyone in Sri Lanka still need to go about their lives, it seems unfair of us to choose to stay away. Our thoughts are with the victims and their families and friends, so devastated by this atrocity, and the beautiful people of Sri Lanka having to live with this fear.

Once we settled in our hotel, we went for a walk around the nearby streets. There were many stalls set up along the footpath, reminding me of Bangkok, the way they all have a tarpaulin over them and you walk along through a kind of tunnel of lean-to shops.

This city is really hard to get a handle on, a bit of an enigma. Kolkata is where the East India Company first started its trading post in the late 17th century. On the banks of the Hooghly river they set up a major trading port and this became the capital under the British Raj until the early 20th century. It has so many different facets, historical colonial buildings, modern skyscrapers, huge disparities in people’s living standards, which is much the same as everywhere else I guess, but here it seems more obvious and the demographics seem more mixed. Slums and makeshift dwellings along streets with more affluent houses as well. Fancy modern shops and tarpaulin lean-to stalls outside, especially in the new market area which is just a crazy mix of everything.

For the first day we didn’t do much as the Wise One was unwell (his turn for the dreaded TD), so mostly we hung around the hotel, with a short foray out to the Victoria memorial and gardens, but he was feeling pretty bad so we headed back. Once again I featured in many selfies with young people, mostly students. I asked one fellow why he wanted a photo with me, he said so that he could tell his friends ‘this is me with my Australian friend” …ok, whatever.

The next day we decided to visit Eden Gardens stadium to see if we could get tickets to the IPL game. Well, turns out you have to buy them online, then take your barcode to the ticket window to collect your tickets. Ok, so far so good. The ticket windows were a hole cut in a fence, with a person on the other side with a scanner and printer. Ok, that’s weird. There was a long queue of women of various ages  standing around waiting in line to buy tickets but then they were sold out, so some mounted police came up and chased them away with their horses, shouting and charging at the crowd, very scary. We think the women were just queue spot holders for scalpers. Anyway, the process of getting a ticket took us across two days and much frustration and waiting, looking into the hole in the wall, and eventually we got our tickets. What a process!

After this we headed down to walk along the Hooghly River at sunset, then found ourselves a bar and had a couple of beers, as we were hot and exhausted.

Next day we went to New Market and Park street shopping areas. Hard to describe, endless stalls and shops selling everything imaginable. Whitegoods, jewellery, clothes of all types, shoes, selfie sticks, stuffed toys, cameras, watches, and everything in between were on display and their owners shouting and competing to get your attention. In the middle of all this we stumbled across a noisy crowd, only to discover that the cricketers were about to leave the hotel and a huge mob had gathered trying to get a picture. The police were pushing everybody back, blowing their whistles and waving their sticks. The frenzy about seeing the players was crazy; what it must be like to be mobbed everywhere you go if you are a cricket celebrity.

On our last day in Kolkata, we had a midday checkout, but weren’t catching our train until 11:20pm, so we had a lot of day to fill. We decided to visit the India Museum. The building is an imposing neoclassical white building with a grand courtyard with colonnades, built in 1814 and designed by Walter Granville, it is still the largest museum in India. The exhibits are a mixture of archaeological, geological and zoological specimens housed in timber and glass cabinets from a bygone era. There were also some sections with large dioramas, depicting animals in their ‘natural’ habitat. The whole place smelled of mothballs and it felt like you were stepping back in time to when museums like this were in vogue.

After finishing there, we were feeling hungry and wandered down Park street (an area we learnt had shops and good restaurants around the corner from New Market) looking for somewhere to eat. We stumbled upon an establishment that felt like it came from the same era as the museum. The restaurant, named Kwality, has been there since 1952. It has an old world ambience with an abundance of waiters wearing bow ties, and a clientele of gentlemen and ladies enjoying silver service food and an alcoholic beverage or two. It was all very civilised in a ‘gentleman’s club’ kind of way. The food was tasty and the beer was cold and not too pricey despite appearances.

We returned to the hotel to collect our suitcases and meet our driver for the evening. We needed to explain to him that we required him to take us to Eden Gardens for the IPL cricket match, then pick us up afterwards to take us to the Sealdah station to catch our overnight train to Jaipalguri (headed for Darjeeling). After much discussion, it seemed he understood, but then there was some confusion about where he would be able to park while we were at the cricket. He found a parking spot in an area that was a fair way from the ground and we needed to walk along a dark path to get there, so he walked with us to make sure we were safe and then told us to call him when we were ready to leave. We entered the ground and found our seats. It was an interesting experience, so loud and crazy, but the Indian fans were just having a great time. Sitting next to us was a young man we had met in the queue when buying the tickets, so we chatted to him a bit. Neil was also interviewed by some Indian reporters asking what he thought of the cricket and some questions about the Australian team ‘sand paper’ scandal. They also took our photo, so who knows if we will end up in the Indian press tomorrow. They seemed pretty interested to find Australians watching the IPL in India. It was time to leave, so we called our driver and started walking back to the car, there he was, walking along to meet us, to keep us safe. Drivers here often take a very protective role, ensuring your safety and security, its very reassuring.

Eden Gardens stadium (panorama)

He took us to the station with plenty of time to meet our train, the Padatik Express. We thanked him profusely and gave him a good tip for his trouble. Time to say goodbye to Kolkata, an interesting city that was beginning to grow on us, once we began to understand it.

Pondicherry – a little bit French

We stayed in an airport hotel near Trivandum airport as we had an early flight to Chennai. The area around the airport had police everywhere and there were police in the hotel lobby. It turns out that Rahul Gandhi had been in the city that day giving speeches in the lead up to the election, so there was lots of security. This may explain the bizarre level of security we encountered at the airport check in, although he had already left town by then.

We were advised by the hotel to arrive 2 hours prior to our flight because our Air India flight runs from the International terminal, even though it is a domestic flight. So, up at 4 am, we wearily headed to the airport; we had already checked in online, so had our digital boarding passes. First our bags were scanned before dropping of to baggage.

Waiting in the queue for about 45 minutes when we finally arrived at the counter, our boarding passes were checked then printed out for us. Ok, defeats the purpose of having digital ones, but whatever. These boarding passes were then checked, stamped, scanned and rechecked no less that 6 times as we headed for the plane, and at each point there were two people designated to check them. This must be great for employment, though not a good customer experience. Then there was security…we dutifully removed our laptops and tablets from our bags as usual. These were scanned, then we could see they were taken aside from the belt, uh oh. The lady checking the bags brought my backpack over and advised “electronic items and metal in the bag”. Ok, yes, camera and some bits and pieces including my watch. I’ve never had to remove these before, anywhere in the world.  I was asked to remove everything from the backpack, each item was looked at and turned over, then the empty backpack re scanned, to make sure they hadn’t missed anything. Then the same drill with my handbag and Neil’s camera bag. The woman had such an officious and unpleasant manner, although I wasn’t treated as badly as the Indian woman next to me, who had a box full of jewellery she was taking to a wedding, she was treated to a right dressing down, finger wagging and told to be quiet in no uncertain terms. Surely, the guy next to me with a sewing machine and heaps of potato chips in his cabin bag must have been more suspicious. By the time we reached the boarding gate, the plane was already half boarded, so it was clear why we needed to be there two hours before. What a performance. (I know, it’s about keeping us safe, but there is no need for the attitude.) Weirdly also, when we arrived in Chennai, our boarding passes were again asked for and checked as we left the airport and we had another security scan of our bags and ourselves on leaving.

Our driver was waiting for us outside and off we headed for Pondicherry. We asked him to stop for some breakfast and he took us to this great little restaurant where we had awesome, crunchy masala dosa and very tasty fresh vadai, followed by local coffee, which comes in two cups. It’s hot and sweet, and you are supposed to pour the coffee from one cup to the other to cool it down, nifty. (The kind man at the next table showed us what to do, while giving his little one-year old grandson a cup of coffee)

We arrived at Pondy in the afternoon and settled into our hotel, then headed out for a walk. This place is strange because it was at one time a French colony and so there is still a lot of French influence here. The city is quite small and is made up of the French quarter ( or White town), the Tamil quarter, the Muslim quarter. (Only 3 quarters as far as I can tell, should they be thirds?)

 So across the city area there are churches and cathedrals, mosques and Hindu temples. There are also French restaurants and waffle shops, bakeries with croissants and baguettes, as well as some creole eateries. It’s a crazy mix of cultures, cuisines and architecture.

We walked down to the Promenade along rock beach and saw the Gandhi statue, then headed through a pleasant park. In the evening we went for another walk and I bought some Indian clothes then we went across to the grand bazaar. Wow! This was so busy, so crazily noisy and crowded and bustling it’s almost impossible to describe. Walking along the road was terrifying with motor bikes, tuk tuks and cars all tooting and jostling for position, no footpath, so as a pedestrian you are in the thick of it. 

Standing on a street corner near the market

There was everything you could want on sale, from pots and dishes to underwear, fruit and vegetables but not meat or fish which is in the morning, so we bought some nice mangoes and headed home, exhausted by the frenzy. When almost at our hotel we came across a restaurant which had a tandoor, pizza oven and chickens on the rotisserie all out the front; it was very busy so we decided to give it a try for dinner. We went inside and sat down, feeling a bit conspicuous with most people looking at us, as there were no other foreigners there. We ordered some spicy bbq chicken and roti and naan, all of which were fabulous, and we had our fill of great food for under $10 for both of us. I frequently find that I am the only white person in places, and I am somewhat of a curiosity especially for children who stare and smile and whisper things to each other, probably best that I don’t know what they’re saying. 😊

We ate again at this place, this time biriyani which was also great and so cheap. Highly recommend this restaurant.

Most people are genuinely interested in where you are from, where in India you have been and how you like it. They are keen to say hello and introduce themselves and even have their photo taken with us. Overall, I have found people here to be helpful, friendly and welcoming and extremely proud of their country. (apart from officials, who seem to get off on their small amount of power)

 The elections here are underway as voting is staggered across the country due to the huge number of people needing to get to the polls. During election time it seems there are restrictions on alcohol sales and consumption, who knew? Our hotel had to close the bar for two days until voting is over. I ask you; how is one supposed to survive electioneering speeches and propaganda without imbibing a few stiff drinks?

The remainder of our stay in Pondy was mostly walking around the streets and sampling the food. We found a popular bakery called Baker Street, which had lots of French pastries, and chocolates.

We decided to have a nice dinner at the Hotel De L’Orient restaurant, Chez Francis, which is renown for its creole food. We were the only patrons and enjoyed a lovely meal, starting with stuffed aubergine fritters, then creole crevette (prawns) and curry crusted fish, with a salad of vegetables with pomegranate and orange dressing, and finished with a chocolate mousse. We also enjoyed small bottle of Sula Rose (Indian) with the meal.

Next stop Kolkata, for street food, maybe an IPL match and a possible side trip to the Sundarbans.