Monday, November 19, 2012

Homeward Bound

Waiting, waiting, waiting - the scourge of travel, the airport, a necessary evil.  Got my Optiontown seats - 3 seats to myself all the way home! Back in Melbourne early Monday morning, am strangely looking forward to it. Until the next India trip, Namaste!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Oh Calcutta

What a wonderful city. It reminds me a little of Bombay with its British Raj legacy, but has its own character, system and soul. The city of Kali, and a recent festival and puja in her name, everywhere I turn I see my tattoo!

What I really love about this city is the transport, efficient metro and particularly the shared fixed price autos, and despite not using its trams and human pulled rickshaws, these too add to the flavour. I am part horrified, part intrigued by the human rickshaws, though I would never make some poor, and predominately what looks like old men, pull me down the streets of this town. Last night I saw a person being pulled along, with their goods on top as well, a washing machine no less - now that is a abuse of human rights if ever I saw one. Fine to have yourself carted around town, it's another thing to do that.

The people too seem very charming (maybe not the washing machine man), perhaps more refined, and seemingly more educated than their counterparts in other large Indian cities. Everyone is eager to point you in the right direction, help with directions or say hello. As for the sights, we have done few instead just walking around the city to get a feel. We did visit the Royal Calcutta Golf Club, the second oldest club in the world, right after St. Andrew's in Scotland, the home of golf. It was very old world Raj, and the course looked lovely, a real oasis in the burbs of this city.

We had thoughts of visiting the Black Hole, though this dungeon is now below the GPO, and the memorial in a church in town. Our kooky hotel, the Fairlawn, kind of makes up for it as stepping into our room is like stepping into a black hole, well at least til we find the lights. Once lit we are graced with an expanse with a huge picture of HRH Betty Windsor on the wall, and a smaller one of a maharaja, just to remind you of where you really are, as this hotel, a leftover from the Raj but on LSD is adorned in pictures of the Royal family and kitch paraphernalia, some common rooms like scaled down version of a Buckingham palace royal room. One amusing aspect is that not only is breakfast included as part of the daily rate, but afternoon tea too!

Well today is our last day in India, as we are bound for KL this afternoon, and home late tomorrow evening. As always it seems we have been away much longer, which always happens in India as it is a sensory overload at the best of times with so much to do, see and experience. And as always I have learnt much about myself, and am leaving with as much love for this country, and a desire to return again my previous six visits. Thanks beautiful India.

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Location:Calcutta India

Friday, November 16, 2012

New Horizons

I'm on the train hurtling towards Calcutta after some long days spent travelling and visiting the sights between here and Delhi. This is the final leg of the India trip and my first time to Calcutta. Although only a brief visit to the old British India capital, I hope it will provide a foundation for a future visit, perhaps as a prelude to Nepal and a Himalayan trek.
The past few days have been busy. Since leaving Jaipur we headed for Delhi where we traipsed the old bazaars, shopped, visited Haus Kaus, and many other bits and pieces. I am amazed how much I did last time on my own, solo travel is much more economical with time. I did however have a much needed day off to myself, and I have realised this trip that I am not a group traveller. On my solo Sunday I visited the Delhi Golf Club, and then Khan Market for some shopping, although no purchases were made. I then walked on to Lodi Gardens, a place I have long wanted to visit, and it didn't disappoint. It is a lovely green oasis of old trees and vast lawns, and being a Sunday there were loads of families picnicking in the sun. But best of all are the lovely old ruins most dating back to around 1469 or there abouts, the old mosque being my favorite, with elaborate relief carvings of the Koran everywhere. I then headed in town to meet up with my travel companion who was on a hoho city tour seeing the sights. Whilst waiting at Connaught Place I was hassled then stalked by a street kid who proceeded to sniff glue and act offensively in front of me. This is a rare thing I must say in India, I have seldom been hustled in all of my trips here. I retreated to Coffee Day which I was hoping to avoid as I have not had a coffee since Kuala Lumpar. So I was therefore forced to eat cake, oh well, with my glue sniffing stalker keeping vigil outside and giving me the evil eye. Of course he eventually disappeared, possibly setting his sights on another western cash cow!
On Monday morning we boarded the Taj Express from H Nizamuddin to Agra on out Taj odyssey but not before boot camp session up and down the platform, as I messed the number of the carriage up, resulting in us running up and down carrying our ever expanding, extremely heavy packs.
We arrived in Agra and did the sights with a guide in tow who part amused, part annoyed us - "look in front of your eyes........", much to our amusement. I must say this is my third trip to the Taj and it still is a building of amazement and delight.
Onward to Varanasi, an over night train, and then the onslaught, more so because of Diwali. The Ganga Aarti at sunset was as lovely as I remembered, with thousands of extra pilgrims in the holy city for Diwali, and the dawn boat on the Ganga still a wonderful spectacular, providing a birds eye view of the devotion of the Hindu masses.
And now onward to Calcutta, a new adventure awaits as we search for the infamous Black Hole!

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Location:The Vibhuti Express bound for Calcutta

Friday, November 9, 2012

More Good Friends

Our last day in Bhuj was busy, and for me began waking with what felt like a sore throat - Marie's flu/cold was threatening me.  So I headed down the bazaar - main drag in search or a coconut, pomegranate, some citrus and garlic, all to no avail so settled for a chai.  Not a morning place, well not my hours at least, an hour or so later I got all, and spent the remainder of the day chewing on raw garlic and chowing down the rest of the natural remedies.  
We spent most of the morning shopping of course, through the bazaar, and then finishing at Jay's - Amrat Silversmiths to collect my necklace.  Made so beautifully by the family, and then Jay took us to lunch - a hidden Bhuj gem, off the main bazaar, a locals establishment, but total gold. The most amazing Gujarati thali in a great setting, obvious from the stares that they don't get much tourist traffic.  Best of all good to catch up with people like Jay, small interactions, chai and chats can turn into great friendships.
Soon it was time to leave, Bharat took us to the station, and we were soon on our way to Abu Road, bound for Mt Abu. It was going to be a long trip - apparent when about 40 pubescent kids got on at Gandigaram also bound for school camp in Mt Abu. It was a little crazy but nothing too unusual, I must admit there is definitely more interaction with the carriage occupants when I travel solo.
We arrived at Abu Road about 12.45am, it was freezing and thankfully our driver was there to collect us, and we were soon in a warm car on the way up the mountain to stay at Bikener House - Palace Hotel, the hill station residence of the Maharaja of Bikener. We arrived and had to wake the gateman, and the desk boy, but we're finally led to our room, and what a room!  It was huge with a expansive marble floor, a bathroom nearly the size of my house, and very tasteful furnishings.  Best of all there was a mini bar, and as tired as we were we sat up in bed and laughed uncontrollably whilst sipping on our gin mixed with the minibar sodas, the flavor not a concern for us at all.  Lights out soon occurred as we had to be up for breakfast and out by 11am.
We made the most of the gardens in the morning, taking a "turn" around the expansive green space.  Our driver arrived by 11 and we headed to the Jain temple as it is one of the two most beautiful, the other being Ranakpur, which I visited on my previous trip.  And lovely it was, intricately carved marble, a real sight to behold.
After a few hours we were in Udaipur, how I never tire of this city, it is absolutely beautiful with lovely people, and now quite a few nice friends.  We settled in for a much needed lunch at our hotel, Mewar Haveli, ordering my staple, Dal Fry with rice.  My good friend Manish soon joined us - great to see him and hear all about his new baby girl, born only a few days earlier.  He invited us to lunch in a few days to meet her, his wife and mother, an offer I wasn't going to refuse. After lunch we visited my jewellers, Silver Gallery, Bharat and Promod sitting out front as we walked up, happy to see me, why wouldn't they be, I'm a good customer. They made my wedding ring, and I talked to them about remodeling it, and also redipping the diamond trio.  And best of all my earrings were still there, my previous trip I had a hard time deciding between two pairs, the other mewari type ones winning ever so slightly over then gold hoops with the ruby drops.  But now they were to be mine, all mine.
The next few days were spent being tour guide, seeing the sights, shopping, and eating - all the best food and view establishments ticked off the travel box.  The best meals though were the two Rajasthani thalis.  The first in Manish's home prepared by his mother, which was out of this world delicious, though only a side line to visiting Diya, his new baby girl of ten days. The second with Bharat my jewellers to the Garden Hotel where we were stuffed with second and third helpings, a fantastic thalis I will definitely add to my eating experiences for future Udaipur visits.  This followed a walk around the park with Bharat seeing the library and the lively congregation of elderly discussing politics and issues in the evening air.  I do think we should have eaten first and walked later, as I had so much food in my belly, with an overnight train trip to Jaipur to end the evening and our lovely visit to Udaipur.

Monday, November 5, 2012

My Kutch Friends

We have just spent two and a half action packed days in Kutch, and the principal town of Bhuj. Being my third trip here, the absolute highlights for me were visiting those I met on my previous trips, but particularly those from the last. As I knew I was returning I printed some photos of my previous trip, and all of those from the Jat village, but a few others, mainly of my chai friend Jay, a silversmith from Bhuj, his father and sister working in their shop. On our first evening I dropped into the silversmith shop and was met with great enthusiasm by his father, with Jay arriving soon. They are such a nice family, I used to see Jay every morning around 7am at the chai stall where I frequented after practice, alway having a brief chat over the delicious chai. I bought several pairs of earrings last trip and this time got them to make me a necklace, which would be ready the day of our departure.

I was also delighted to meet with my young embroidery teacher Ganga and her father, who also seemed genuinely happy to see me. It was a shame the rest of the family were not home, and although we were running late, I still convinced Bharat that we must stay for tea as Jemal, Ganga's dad seemed disappointed when I said we couldn't stay. It was a lovely if quick visit, but again made me so happy to see them. I had taken and printed lots of photos of the family last trip, and I was most disappointed Bharat had not passed them on. Two years have passed so he got in big trouble from me, and I think Jemal was a little miffed too.

The following day we went to the Jat village - it is a long way off the beaten track, but I was really keen to go back. It really stuck in my mind from my last trip to the region, mostly as the people here had so much spirit and so little material wealth, and I suspect food is hard come by. I took many photos here on that trip, and one in particular is my all time favorite, I call it "Jat Man". But all the photos were great and I was determined to bring them back and give them to the people if we could find them. Bharat looked at the photos and knew where to find one of the ladies who was the subject of quite a few, and from whom I bought some embroidery. As we rounded the corner, there she was as she was three years previous, sitting in the same spot, in nearly the same clothes, and doing her embroidery work. I approached her, took out the photos and handed them to her. The joy in her eyes was a delight, and we were soon joined by quite a few other women, looking at the photos, laughing and chatting, pointing and naming the subjects of the snaps. One young woman came to look, and I recognised her from another photo. But most importantly I asked Bharat to enquire about Jat Man, and he told me that they knew him and where he lived. We walked down a neighbouring dusty lane and into another family compound, Bharat calling his name. A man looking perplexed appeared in the doorway of a modest little house, and as he moved from the dark surrounds I could see it was him. I was so excited to see him, he on the other hand looked confused at me handing him some papers, until he saw his face in the top picture. He too looked so delighted, but not as much as me. He invited us to have some tea, again these people have little but are willing to share. I met his brothers and his son soon appeared, he too in some of the snaps I had given over, looking quite a lot older than those earlier ones where he was very young, nestled against his father. Again I took lots of photos but I know despite his striking, handsome features, I could never replicate or improve upon my first "Jat Man" photo. An outstanding day with so many highlights, none more than seeing my Jat Man.

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Location:Bhuj, Kutch

Life is like a Gujarati Thalis

After an eventful flight to Ahmedabhad we had 1.5 crazy days running around, visiting the sights, eating wonderful food, and power shopping like maniacs. The evening we arrived we visited the SEWA store, formerly Banascraft, now called Hansiba, where we shopped up a storm, and I scored the most divine top with Rabari embroidery, and a wonderful pashmina. We gave one of the ladies a rickshaw ride back to our part of town, given we kept her at work longer than she needed. We then ate a quick but delicious bite at The House of MG, in the casual dining area. Dhal was again on my radar and it didn't disappoint. Off to bed then up the next morning to visit a baolis, a step well, where Rob and I had visited many years before. Then off to the Textile Museum for our booked tour, which turned out not so booked - oh well, it's easy to get in somewhere in India if you try hard! So in we went for an enjoyable, if not theatrical tour and presentation - I had to try so hard not to laugh at times given the tour leaders drama and theatrical timing!
On the return trip to town I noticed I had missed a call from Australia and most importantly what looked like the number from where I'd had a job interview the previous week. So it was necessary to find a net cafe to check messages, but also for some railway timetable information I needed to make some changes to an impending journey. There was no communication re the job so I called what would probably be an expensive message retrieval, which also answered no questions, and if anything left me with a cryptic and incomplete message from which to try and comprehend. With that I tried to shift it to the back of my mind, and we headed to lunch at Moti Mahal, one of the cities oldest restaurants, and where I had previously dined and stayed. Again dhal, some veges and a mammoth serve of garlic naan were the choice, the naan I hoped would both keep Marie's cold from me and also speed up her recovery. After lunch we headed back to our hotel via rickshaw in the afternoon traffic mayhem to undertake a walking tour of the old city, only to find it was " under maintenance" and currently not functioning. However with the help of our trusty hotelier, Mr Anis, who fashioned up a map of the area with directions to Manek Chowk, the main bazaar area, we headed off into the mayhem for what proved not only a great adventure but a great shopping expedition, especially for Marie, at Ganthiwala's, famous for their lovely textiles, which Marie had no difficulties taking off their hands. After a few hours we headed back to Hotel Volga where we had been staying and packed for our next leg of the journey, someone's bag distinctly more heavy than when we had arrived. We stored our packed bags, and headed across the river to Mirch Masala for yet some more dhal and naan, mostly to fill in time til our midnight train to Bhuj, but also as this is such a cute little restaurant, the closest thing to a theme establishment that the city has, old school Bollywood as the theme . Marie admired the surroundings and curios that lined the little restaurant while we ate the delicious food, washing it down with fresh lime sodas as Gujarat is a dry state, so no Kingfishers to quench our thirsts. After dinner, yes more shopping, and time wasting before heading back to the hotel and on to the railway station for our overnight train to Bhuj. Once aboard and on our way it soon seemed like everyone was fast asleep and snoring all but me. But I did eventually go to sleep, waking about dawn maybe an hour an a half from Bhuj.

Arriving in Bhuj we were soon on our way to Hotel Gangaram, our lodgings for the next few nights. A quick wash and off for the best chai in town, before starting our sight seeing early at Prag Mahal. This place thankfully is now under repair having been badly damaged in the '92 earthquake. It is one of the strangest, if not quirky places I have ever been. Deb and I came on our trip 4 or 5 years back, when it was in severe disrepair with the tower and the hall, Durbar Hall itself extensively damaged. What struck me then, and amused me again now, was the huge range of taxidermy, some almost decaying and extremely bizarre. We went up the tower, something I couldn't do on my first trip, and hopefully fortuitous, I was shat on by a resident pigeon, right on top of my head - maybe that job will be mine!

On the way to Prag Mahal we passed Bharat, my rickshaw driver and guide from the previous 2 trips. We went off to Aina Mahal the neighboring sight to catch up with Mr Jethi who together with Bharat had organised our next few days around the Kutch region.

So many things to see, it's going to be an action packed few days!

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Location:Ahmedabhad & Kutch - Gujarat