The Best Of Southern India | Week 1

(4-11th April 2015)

Having spent three weeks in the north with my Dad, I then flew South to the state of Kerala and the city of Kochi. Before arriving in India I was really nervous about the people, food… and pretty much everything else. I wanted to see some of the south, but was too scared to do it alone so I booked onto a tour.

I flew from Calcutta to Mumbai and from there down to Kochi. I arrived into Kochi mid afternoon, and had arranged a pickup from my hostel. Once I’d collected my bag I headed outside to find a man holding my name up. I followed him to the taxi and he said to me “Chameleon”. No, that’s not right… I booked a place called Sandcastle. So I said this to him, and he did the funny little head wobble which almost all Indians do. It’s highly confusing as can mean yes or no, but I love it all the same.

We drove for about an hour through incredibly lush and green countryside. Very wet, very fertile. Hundreds of palm trees, coconuts, bananas, mangoes and pineapples all growing locally. Lots of fresh water rivers and lakes. We eventually pulled up to “Chameleon” which was a beach lodge, and nowhere near Fort Kochi.

The german/indian owner came out and told me that I’d booked a hammock on the roof (funny kind of dorm!) in his other hostel (Sandcastle), and there had been storms for the last few nights, plus there were no other customers there, so he’d moved me to this one and put me in a private room for no extra charge. Nice! While I was at it I asked him where we actually were, because I thought I’d booked a hostel in the city, and this was very rural and on the coast. He told me that we were on Vypin Island, about 40 minutes bus and then a short ferry ride to Kochi.

I enjoyed my time there reading, writing and relaxing to the sound of the waves. I went for a walk, met some of the local kids and got some nice pictures. I sat on the beach for a while, enjoying the breeze, the warmth and the sea. I love beaches! In the evening the hostel served up to the two other customers (a Russian couple working with computers in Hyderabad) and I some lovely local dishes – one a pineapple curry which I particularly enjoyed!

Day 1

After a relaxed morning walking round the area of the hostel, the owner drove me to the main road, where I caught a local bus to the ferry port, about forty minutes drive. There were no seats free in the bus and I had no idea what to do with my bag, so I kept it on. It’s not easy to keep your balance on an Indian bus on Indian roads, while standing with 18kg on your back!! Someone gestured for me to take it off – what a clever idea – and so I did, and a seat became free soon after. The boat from the southern tip of Vypin Island only took about 5 minutes across to Fort Kochi. The journey from the hostel to the town cost 16 rupees (roughly 16p), and I was then stupid enough to pay 50 for a tuktuk (the driver seemed to have no idea where to go…) to take me to my hotel which was about 200 metres away. Never mind, it’s easy to fall into traps like those when you arrive somewhere new and you don’t have your bearings yet!

Arriving at the hotel I was greeted by two men, one working at the hotel and the other our guide for the next two weeks. G Adventures (the tour company) call their guides CEOs (Chief Experience Officers), and ours was called Sanjay. It was lucky I didn’t arrive any later than I did, because I had about twenty minutes to settle into my room and then we had our introduction meeting, where we’d find out all about our trip and meet the other people.

There were eleven in the group (myself included), from many different countries and from all sorts of backgrounds. It was a good mix. I’ve never really done a tour before, so didn’t know what kind of people would be on it.

We started off by taking a walk down to the Chinese fishing nets and to the beach to watch the sunset. The beach was really busy, full of families relaxing on the sand, some eating ice cream, a few in the water, and many flying kites. From the beach we went to a restaurant where we all ate. I had a really nice fish dish called peera, which was fish crumbs mixed with coconut, ginger, lemongrass and some other spices – really REALLY nice. It wasn’t too big or filling, which was what I needed because I was STILL recovering from my food poisoning. It was one of the girl’s birthdays and Sanjay had bought her a cake and had her name written on as a surprise.

Day 2

The next day we had a walking tour of the city. We went back to the Chinese fishing nets, where we helped pulling in the nets. We visited the first European church in Kerala, which was also the first burial sight of explorer Vasco de Gama, a traditional laundry house where clothes are washed and ironed the traditional way, the Dutch Palace and the Jewish Quarter. Once we were in the Jewish Quarter we had some free time, so we all stopped for a fresh lime and ginger soda in this incredible antique shop, which looked a medium size from the street, but had about six or seven more rooms at the back by the river full to the brim of antiques (or what they said were antiques).

In the evening we went to see a performance of traditional Keralan dancing. First of all we saw the dancer having his (traditionally all the smackers are male in this type of dance) face painted and then the show began. It was amusing all the facial expressions they make in the dance. There was a voice over which talked us through the different faces and gestures they made. I had no idea you could dance with only your eyes!!

We gave our bags that night to our bus driver, who would meet us the next day from the train. This was how it worked for the rest of the trip, the bags travelled in the bus the days we were on the train to save us carrying them.

Day 3

Wayanad is in the Western Gatz, a range of mountains in the state of Kerala. We didn’t spend much time in the town itself, but we did have two nights there exploring the surrounding areas.

We’d travelled for three or four hours by train that morning, and about the same by bus in the afternoon, but eventually we made it. The trains were different from the ones I travelled on with my Dad in the north. Theses ones were just seats, and not seats that turned into beds.

The first evening by the time we got there it was dark. Our hotel was nice, with our room mate we shared a little studio, with our own rooms within the studio. We headed out for dinner soon after.

Day 4

The next day we started off by driving to a bamboo factory where they use bamboo to make all sorts of things. On the way we stopped at a wetland and saw some big stork type birds and nice water flowers. There was a strike on this day, but we did get to see bamboo blinds being made using a type of loom, and some lampshades being made too. Also in the factory they make sculptures, mats for the floor, key hooks for hanging on the wall, sculptures, mobiles and bowls. They were all really pretty and I was tempted to buy something, but in reality whatever I bought would have driven me mad to carry around for so long before finally finding a post office, so I scribbled down their website so that in years to come and I want a bamboo bowl (as if) I know where to find one!

The next stop was a highlight of the trip (for some – not me). We went to visit a local pottery village where we saw a man making clay urns for carrying water/cooking rice/…and many other uses. He first used a manually spun potter wheel to make the general shape, and then took the half made pot from the wheel and batted the bottom using a small paddle shaped instrument, to make the bottom rounded. I happened to mention that I’d always wanted a try on a pottery wheel, and so once he’d shown us a couple of demos, up I went. On the way to the wheel, my foot knocked against one of the newly made pots. It was still wet, so it didn’t smash, but it DID deform it rather nastily to which I was totally mortified and felt so so bad for this poor man. It had only taken him five/ten minutes to make, but that wasn’t the point. Of course, everyone found it hilarious and it was an ongoing joke for the rest of the trip! The first couple of days it was embarrassing, after that I joined in and we all joked about it for the rest of the time.

From there we went on a nature walk through tea plantations, coffee plantations and different spice forests. It smelt so lovely and was so green and calm. We met some people who lived in this area, in their modest little hut of a house. They were so welcoming and sat and posed for photos – obviously they have a fair number of tourists come and look at them.

Day 5

Our first stop that day were the Eddakal Caves. We knew it would be a bit of hike and I was feeling lazy, I almost stayed on the bus with one the girls who wasn’t walking because of a bad knee. I did go in the end and it was worth it.

We climbed roughly a kilometre on a steep concrete path before then climbing 335 steps through a lower cave first and then out at the top! The steps were mixed, some metal, some rock. The view from the top was well worth it. We could see for miles and miles. Inside the cave we met a guide, who talked far too fast and we all struggled to keep up with anything that he was saying. What I did understand was the caves were discovered in 1894 by a police officer from the Malabar estate called Fred Fawcett. The carvings are from different time periods between 3000 and 6000 years ago. There is some writing among the pictures which I am told says (in Old Sanscrit) “Man who killed a lot of tigers” and “A glorious king Vishnu Varma lived in this cave”.

Our driving on this day took us through miles and miles of tea plantations, and then into forested areas where we were told to keep an eye out for wildlife. At first we saw the odd deer, and then BINGO! Wild elephant, just next to the road. How lovely. It didn’t seem that the feelings were mutual through as it flapped its ears and stomped off into the jungle, in a true Colonel Hathi style.

Our hotel consisted of lots of little bungalows, which has beautiful views towards a mountain. In the early evening we did a tiger safari in Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. We saw more elephants, various types of deer, bison, wild boars, but no tigers!

After our buffet dinner we sat out by the campfire and had a few drinks. Sanjay joked about staying in our rooms if we heard noise outside. He wasn’t kidding, apparently he had been walking back from dinner one night and there was an elephant just beyond his room. They aren’t friendly creatures when they are wild. Most people had gone to bed and there were three or four of us just relaxing with our drinks and chatting. The dogs that were at this hostel suddenly all got spooked, hackles up, growling. We were only a bit alarmed until they ran off into the forest barking!! Where was Sanjay when we needed him? He came back soon after and called over some hotel staff – they suspected it was either a leopard or an elephant. Nothing to be too scared of then! The hotel staff had a big spotlight torch and when we shone it into the trees we could see HUNDREDS of eyes. It turned out just to be a great big herd of spotted deer. After all the excitement we called it a night.

Day 6

In the morning we set off for Mysore, passing again through the tiger reserve and again seeing elephants and deer, but no tigers. We crossed from Kerala into Karnataka state and travelled through another reserve which I didn’t take note of the name and now can’t remember! Once we’d left the reserve we moved into a very green and fertile area where we saw cotton, green chillies, sugar cane, tomatoes, bananas, papayas and eggplants all growing in fields near the road.

Our first stop was the incredible Mysore Palace. It was completed in 1912, replacing the original wooden one which had burnt down 15 years before. My favourite room was called the Peacock room, and had many pillars, with a circle in the centre, which on the ceiling above was a stained glass window with peacocks on. It was absolutely beautiful but we weren’t allowed to take photos. It’s only ever used for maharaja’s weddings now.

After a banana leaf thali lunch we drove up to Chamundi Hill to see a temple for Parvati- Lord Shiva’s wife. The sanctum can only be accessed by the priest, and only Brahmin caste can go as close as the font near the sanctum.

Our last stop of the day was the second biggest monolithic statues of Nandi (Shiva’s bull) in India, made from one piece of granite and standing 17ft high.

The end of this day was seen out in squeals and laughter as two of the girls has put the kettle on before going out for dinner, it had boiled dry while we were out, so when they unplugged it the whole hotel lost power. Sanjay came to try it out and it happened again. I wonder where we’d have stayed if the hotel had burnt down? Not sure that’s in my insurance!

Day 7

Half way through the tour already! It was quite a sad and sobering thought when we all realised it. Most of us chose to skip breakfast and find some fruit at the market.

We took tuktuks (or auto-rickshaws as they’re called in India, though I never got my head round that after so long in SE Asia) to the other side of Mysore to a big market called Devaraja market, where were left to our own devices for the morning. We all split off in our own little groups of two or three. I was with Becky. We found a whole street of bananas, and had some for breakfast. Even I had some and enjoyed them, not normally being much of a banana fan! The market was lovely – so much for every sense to discover. Loads of fruits and vegetables, Indian kitchenware (chapati pans etc), dye stalls with colourful mounds of dye, insense, perfume oils (we spent a while smelling them and hearing about the famous perfumes they are made into, I got a couple in the end- the guy showed us how to make insense sticks too), bangles, and miles and miles of flowers of every colour possible! We explored for two or three hours, then decided to sneakily head back and go for a KFC. Becky had been volunteering in a school in the Delhi slums for a month, and I’d been in India almost that long too, so we decided that to avoid judgement from the rest of the group we’d say we had a thali… They’d all only been there for a few days, bar one other. That was until we found out they’d all been to subway for lunch!

In the afternoon we took a train right across India, from Mysore to Chennai. It took around seven and half hours. It only stopped once, in Bangalore. Having only one stop meant that we didn’t have a constant supply of chai coming round – disaster!

Once in Chennai we didn’t stop there. We drove for another couple of hours to Mamallapuram (also know as Mahabalipuram). We arrived around midnight and all went straight to bed!

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Sorry I’m taking so long keeping this up to date! I will write at the top of each post when the events actually happened, so that you know how much further I might have travelled since then.

Love to you all xxx

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Family Past and Future Hope in Calcutta

Kolkata (Calcutta) was me and my Dad’s seventh and final stop together.

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We arrived into Howrah Station in the morning, and took an Ambassador taxi to our hotel. I’ve done a lot of travelling now, but I still don’t think I’ve ever seen traffic like in Calcutta! We were merging with a queue of traffic and a tram came round the corner and whacked into the side of us!

Going to Calcutta was part of the purpose of our trip to India. You see, his Dad is buried there.

Rewind to the time of the British occupancy in India. My grandfather (Dad’s father) was in the army in Calcutta, and waiting to go and fight in Burma. My Granny was living in Lahore in the west (now Pakistan) and was pregnant with my Dad, so when she was contacted to say her husband (my grandfather) had contracted polio and was seriously ill she couldn’t travel the hundreds of miles across northern India to see him. It was just too difficult at the time of the war to travel that distance – it wouldn’t have been safe either. Of course she didn’t know that by the time she heard of his illness he was very close to dying, if not passed already. She couldn’t travel to Calcutta for the funeral, or to see the grave. It must have been horrible for her – twenty three, pregnant and widowed at the other side of the country.

She has never made it to the grave which I think is really sad, but Dad has been quite a few times and now was my turn to go.

We took a taxi to the graveyard which had civilian graves in it as well as the war graves. The corner of the graveyard that has the war graves is shady, green and peaceful. The groundskeeper (if that’s the right word for him) had been told to expect us and was very smily, friendly and helpful. He picked some flowers for us to lay beside the grave. Coincidentally, my Dad had found some shells from Barra (a special place for his Dad’s family, and now ours) in his backpack, and so we put those in front of the grave too. We took some photos at the grave – I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to smile in them or not, but because it’s been something we’ve talked about visiting for years I think it was.

The hotel we were staying in was quite bizarre. It was an old colonial era hotel with the walls covered in old family photos. Unfortunately the menu was clearly last updated with the decor and so we didn’t really enjoy anything on it – especially when you ask for something not spicy and it blows your head off, and when you ask if something has no meat in it and they say ‘no meat, just vegetables and egg’ and then it has chicken and prawns right through it!

The following morning we made a decision that it was time for me to find a doctor. There was one recommended in the guide book, which we cross checked with the hotel manager and she agreed it was a good one. At the doctors we waited for fifteen or twenty minutes until I was seen. Once I was in the consultation room the doctor spent at least five minutes on the phone before talking to me. Apparently he has studies in London at at hospital in Hammersmith. He made a quick diagnosis of an abdominal infection, and was shocked that I’d waited for six days before seeking help. He prescribed me a list of drugs and sent me on my way.

In the afternoon of that day we visited a fantastic NGO called Future Hope. Future Hope takes street children, gives them a home, an education and a life. Some children travel from nearby slums to attend the school there, and others live there as they have nowhere else. It was started in 1987 by a guy (Tim) then working for HSBC, and we heard from one of the volunteers that it began by children breaking into his car. He saw how unwell they were so offered to get them medical help, and let them stay in his nice flat. It grew from there – the next day kids turned up at his flat asking to see a doctor. Now they have over 300 children, seven different homes for the children across the city, and one school from the age of five, though many of the children don’t know how old they are because of their backgrounds. Children can start at the right level for them, meaning a ten year old coming in from living in the street can end up in the lowest grade having had no education before. It also goes the other way too. Children in India do not tend to leave home until they’re married, and so man come back after university to help within the school and the homes. Future Hope will pay for them to attend university, and also aims to start some vocational courses too, for the non academic children. It was such an honour to see round this place briefly and meet the guy who started it all. If we’d had more time I would have stayed and volunteered, though they have a huge waiting list for volunteers so it may not have been possible.

We met one guy, Jehangir, who works at Future Hope now. He was interested in how we knew about it, and where we were staying. When we told him our hotel was on Sudder Street he said he feels different each time he goes there as he began life in the Salvation Army right on that street. We also met two guys who were best friends, and home from their jobs in London and Mumbai for just a few days. They had grown up together in the home there and look at Tim like their own Dad. They seemed such well rounded happy guys, and it’s so hard to think of the many other children who just don’t get the chance to develop into people like this.

Click here to look at the website for Future Hope for more details about fundraising and donations.

http://www.futurehope.net

Unfortunately my Dad got sick the next day, and so the final two days of our three weeks together were very low key and relaxed.

We did, however, make it over to the Botanical Gardens where we saw The Giant Banyan Tree. It’s a type of a fig tree that climbs on other trees and wraps around them until the suffocate, and so they die. The Banyan Tree then hangs down roots which then turn into trunks. This one tree now has 3618 trunks, and covers 450 square metres. The original tree died off 250 years ago.

And that was our last day of our journey together! Three weeks, seven places, buses, trains, taxis and planes, it all came to an end the following morning at Calcutta airport.

We had used a lovely taxi driver called Hari for the past couple of days. He was desperate for his son to go to Canada. As soon as he heard that we were from the UK he wanted us to tell him all about Canada. Yes, we were just as confused as you are right now!

He took us to the airport early the final morning where we checked in for our different flights, Dad, to Bangalore, to see an old colleague from the Botanics, and me to Kochi, via Mumbai, to join a tour of the South!

Varanasi And The Ganges River

Our overnight train pulled into Mughal Sarai an hour and forty minutes late. We were met on the platform right outside our carriage by a man employed by the hotel to collect us, with Dad’s name held up for us to see.

I felt a bit better by this point, but really still not great. I sat in the front of the car as we drove toward Varanasi. We crossed over the River Ganges on a huge big bridge, then followed some poorly made up roads into the city.

The taxi man stopped and said that he couldn’t drive any closer but that he’d help us with our bags. From the road it was about ten minutes walk through narrow alleys full of cows, shrines, temples, people, bicycles, litter and cowpats to our hotel. As we walked up the slightly sloped final alley to our hotel the Ganges came into view, and our hotel looked right out over it.

Our bedroom was big, bright and cool, with a balcony over looking the Ganges. The balcony had wire netting enclosing it, and we couldn’t quite understand what it would be for until later some monkeys came swinging past. Nobody wants a monkey in their room!! From the balcony I could see boats ferrying people to the sand on the other side of the river, boats taking people up and down the river, children playing marble in the dirt by the hotel, buffalo being brought down to the river, and right below the hotel I could see a group of buffalo soaking in the water as if it were a nice hot bath. They looked so happy and content, some of them just had their heads above the surface of the river.

After a while my Dad went for a walk to scope out a place he’d heard took people on the river for a reasonable price, while I showered and then had a very broken Skype conversation with my Mum and nephews.

It turned out that this nice German bakery and cafe’s boat rides were quite expensive and so we went through the hotel for a little less. We met a guy down in the reception area of our hotel at half five, and he lead us down the steps to the river and a small wooden rowing boat. There was an old man there too. The younger guy didn’t even try to help the older guy as he struggled to paddle our boat upstream, nor did her alert him when there was a boat coming toward us. Neither of them spoke any English at all, so we didn’t learn much about the Ganges, the ghats (buildings, steps and platforms leading down to the river) or events that were going on at the side of the river.

We saw the burning ghat where bodies are cremated, and we saw a ceremony of some sort, which had clearly once been a ritual for something but is now just a big show for tourists. The two boat men couldn’t explain anything and as many questions we asked they just kept saying “ceremony” and pointing.

We did put some floating candles into the water and watched them float away, although there were too many boats around so we didn’t really see them go far.

We felt pretty disappointed with our boat trip, and decided that the morning’s boat trip would have to have an English speaking guide of some kind, or it would be a waste of a trip.

Success! At the crack of dawn there was a loud banging on the hotel door. It was our guide. He lead us down to the same boat, but with a different rower, and off we went. It was a very hazy morning and so the sunrise wasn’t so much a sunRISE as the place just got a bit brighter.

He explained that the burning ghat is used to cremate Hindus, but they must only have been dead for three or four hours. The wood is carefully weighed for each body and the people doing the burning know exactly how much wood is needed to burn the body completely. There are five types of body that they will not cremate here: died from a snakebite, died from leprosy, a pregnant woman, a child under twelve and… I’m sure he only told us four – unless the body dead longer than three or four hours counts as the fifth. Those five (or four) get wrapped in straw, taken out to the middle of the river by boat and dropped into the water.

There used to be hostels beside the burning that’s where older people who knew they were going to die soon would come and wait for their own death, so they could be close to the cremation site – but not anymore. It’s the aim of every Hindu for their ashes to go into the Ganges river, especially at Varanasi. If they live too far away then their ashes will be kept until a time when their family can go together to Varanasi and the oldest son will throw the ashes backwards into the river. He can not look back again – that is the final separation and when the spirit will move on to the next life.

Later in the morning, we took a walk along the ghats, just having a look and seeing what was happening. There are many miles of small alleys like a maze leading down to the river and we spent some time finding this baker/ cafe where Dad had visited the day before.

Once we found it we had some lunch. I was still feeling pretty horrible after my food poisoning so didn’t eat it all. Luckily the cafe had take away boxes and so I took the rest of my dinner for the train that afternoon. The train ride was set to be a long one at over fourteen hours, so it was lucky I didn’t feel as bad as I had a few days before or it could’ve been a lot worse!

AGRA-vation In My Tum

We arrived into Agra late at night – we arrived ten minutes earlier than schedule even though the train had left Sawai Madhopur quite late. It was funny getting off the train and seeing so many more tourists than anywhere else we’d been so far, but then again Agra undoubtedly the most visited place in India for the Taj Mahal. We headed out of the station and took a prepaid taxi into the city. I found it quite exciting seeing all the road signs to the Taj Mahal and its different gates, and when we arrived at the hotel our room was at the side of the rooftop restaurant, which had a fantastic view of the Taj itself! Unfortunately for me it wasn’t floodlit and we could just see the silhouette. Like a kid on Christmas Eve I’d have to wait till the morning for my first sight of it.

After lots of consecutive very early mornings we decided that morning was going to be a no-alarm morning, though our room being at the side of the rooftop restaurant we woke pretty early from the noise, not just of the diners having breakfast but also of the mosques and the call to prayer at 5am. Dad thought putting the aircon on would cover the noise, it didn’t and I lay there shivering!

When we finally rose, I opened the curtains and said “There it is!”. The Taj Mahal was gleaming in the sunshine so close to us and I was desperate to go. We had decided that we’d visit at sunrise, a real bucket list thing to do, so that day was too late as the sun had already risen, the next day was a Friday and the Taj Mahal would be closed as it is also a mosque, so we set our sunrise visit for the Saturday.

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Neither of us were particularly happy with our room at the hotel, it was too hot, too noisy, and we could get something quite a bit better for only a little extra, so Dad went looking at some other hotels and came back successful. We were checked into another place, just as close to the Taj Mahal but with a view from a different angle.

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It was that evening that my belly started to misbehave, and I was back and forward to the loo ALL. NIGHT. LONG.

The following morning, having hardly slept and feeling pretty horrible, I was less than keen to get up early and sit in a car for an hour to visit an old Mughal city called Fatehpur Sikri. I tried to be optimistic thinking the feeling would just wear off and having taken a ton of Imodium I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be an incident!

I sat in the front seat of the car on the way to Fatephur Sikri and dozed, really not feeling great at all. I had to stop the car once feeling really unwell, and on arrival at our destination’s car park I got out of the car and burst into tears. I felt really horrible and the thought of walking round in the sun all day feeling like that was more than I could bear the thought of. In the end, Dad stayed there and the car took me all the way back to the hotel in Agra.

We both thought that by the time he got back early afternoon I would have slept it off and be fine. We were both wrong. When Dad got back I had been sleeping solidly for over 4 hours, and went back to sleep afterwards. He woke me in the evening to try something to eat down in the restaurant, but walking down three floors of stairs and sitting up for more than two minutes was far more than I could manage. The heat, and the noise of the restaurant all closed in around me, I went sheet white and started shaking. I’ve fainted before and that’s how it begun. Somehow, having not eaten for almost twenty four hours and feeling very weak I managed to climb the stairs back to my bed on the third floor, where I slept until the morning.

The morning I talk of was the special early morning we had planned. The alarm went off bright and early (well, not so bright – it was before sunrise). Going to the Taj Mahal at sunrise has been something I’ve wanted to do for years, and sadly, it didn’t happen. I couldn’t sit up for more than a couple of minutes at a time, never mind stand. I was never going to manage to walk the ten minutes there and spend an hour or so looking round. Such a fantastic opportunity missed and I couldn’t do it. My Dad left me at the hotel and went himself to see the sunrise. I’m bitterly jealous and not afraid to admit it.

When he returned two hours later I was still fast asleep. In fact, I select most of that day sleeping too. I managed some toast at lunch but otherwise just slept.

I’d missed any chance of seeing the Taj Mahal at sunrise but had to TRY and see it at any time before we left Agra- that evening.

Late afternoon I struggled out of bed and downstairs. We took a cycle rickshaw to get our tickets for the Taj Mahal and he then took us to the East Gate. I felt horrific. Once inside, before the big main gate, I had to sit down for almost ten minutes. I only managed to walk for five minutes at a time before sitting down, exhausted. In the end I spent most of the time there hovering round the toilets. I didn’t even make it to the building itself. I didn’t even stand in the middle and take a picture of the reflection. I didn’t even get to feel the cold marble under my feet, and I’m totally gutted. I didn’t even have the energy to leave on my own two feet, and had to be taken back to the East Gate in a wheelchair.

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Late at night we took a car for an hour to a station outside Agra called Tundla. It was a really dirty, smelly station, full of homeless people, rats and litter. We had a while to wait there, luckily I slept on my bag waiting for our sleeper train to Varanasi.

My time in Agra DID NOT go to plan. I am thoroughly disappointed that I didn’t experience the Taj Mahal properly. I feel annoyed at Agra, and particularly at the hotel for giving me food poisoning and spoiling my time there. Who knows if I’ll have a chance to go back to the Taj Mahal again? No one can tell.

The Tiger’s Roar Of Ranthambhore

The next stop on our train tour of northern India was a small town in Rajasthan called Sawai Madhopur. Sawai Madhopur is a very small, dusty and dirty town which attracts huge numbers of tourists each year – not for the pigs eating from the open sewers, not for the funny faces the camels pull when they pull their carts along, or for the terrible driving and road conditions. Tourists travel from around the world to Sawai Madhopur for one thing and one thing only… Ranthambhore National Park.

Ranthambhore National Park is world famous for its tigers. Royal Bengal Tigers to be precise. I saw a documentary about it a few years ago, and when we decided we were coming to Rajasthan, I just knew we had to go!

Ranthambhore is a huge park of 1,400km2, with only 392km2 open to the public. It has 59 tigers including cubs, which roam between the ten safari zones and outside into the rest of the park.

We arrived at the station in the late afternoon, and were met by several tuktuk drivers claiming to be the collection for our hotel. After deciding which one was most likely (and we were right), we followed him to the tuktuk. He didn’t seem very impressed about anything, or help with the bags or anything, which most tuktuk drivers usually do. There were loads of grubby street children outside the station – and they kept squeezing the cushion I have on the outside of my backpack. Eventually I managed to make them stop begging for ten rupees and go away.

Our evening at the hotel was nothing exciting and we had an early night as the next two mornings we would be up with the sun before six.

The following morning we were in the dining room having a cup of tea by quarter past six, ready for our collection between half six and seven. At about twenty to seven our gypsy arrived. A gypsy in this sense is a 4×4 Subaru roofless jeep – perfect for off road driving in the national park. It has two rows in the back, suitable for three people in each row. There were an Italian couple in the back row and an American couple in the front – went in the front and my Dad in the back, and off we went!

I have to admit I had very high hopes for seeing a tiger and didn’t quite realise how difficult they are to find, so in entrance to the park I thought I’d see one within a few minutes. Every time we saw another gypsy stopped and looking at something. Heart least with excitement. Can you imagine how I felt when we saw six or seven gypsies one after another and drivers calling between one and other “mother and cub, mother and cub”? I will tell you – bloody excited, that’s how!!

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Nawalgarh, Shekhawati – Camel Humps, Henna And A Hindu Festival

Leaving Jaipur by bus, we travelled north-west to a region within Rajasthan called Shekhawati, and more specifically to a town called Nawalgarh.

The bus took three and a hailf hours, stopping in a few places to let people on and off. At a big place, we checked to make sure the bus was turning off to Nawalgarh, and a lovely lady helped us and told us it was. For the next hour she chatted to us about how she has been working in Mumbai, but is travelling back to her hometown to get married. I didn’t feel it was any of my business to ask whether or not she knew her husband-to-be, though mostly here they have met only three or four times before the big day itself. Interestingly, arranged marriages are much more successful in the long term than love matches seem to be.

On arrival in Nawalgarh we struggled to find a tuktuk. A few drove past us without anyone in them – a complete change from Delhi and Jaipur where you have to fight off tuktuk drivers looking for jobs! Eventually we found one and headed up to out accommodation.

Apani Dhani (means my home in the local dialect) Eco lodge is really lovely, peaceful and a great respite from the past week of cities. You enter through an arch into a courtyard with a circular thatched hut in the middle with chairs for relaxing. Around the courtyard are little huts, made from brick and earth and painted a terracotta type colour with mandalas in the wall. The roofs are thatched with pampas grass, apparently widely used in India for thatching, furniture making and many other things. The huts and central living area are surrounded by bright pink flowering trees (bougainvilleas) which are filled with little birds which are sweet in the day and hellishly noisy at night!!

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We only had one complete day there which was one of the best days of this trip yet.

Rising out of our beds early in morning, just after sunrise, we had a light breakfast and waiting for the word. When we were told, we went to the gate for our ride. Our ride on a CAMEL CART!!

My Dad gave my foot a push up on to the cart, which had some cushions on it to make it a bit more comfy, then hopped up himself. There were two men with the camel, one was the camel man and the other a guide and the son of our host at the lodge. He told us that the camel was an eight year old girl and works pulling carts more than working in the fields as tractors are become more common in these rural parts.

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We were taken through some villages, across common grazing grounds for caravans of camels travelling down from Afghanistan and on the Silk Road, and down small country lanes. We saw and learnt about the crops growing in the fields, local wildlife, and birds in India. I’m not usually a bird fan, but the birds here are really pretty and colourful so I took some photos of them. We also saw nilgai, the largest type of Asian antelope. We saw the male and female ones separately because the herds don’t mix.

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We visited a brick works at the side of a farm and learnt about how the farmer makes bricks and sells them at the market. First, he puts the clay into a mould, the. Leaves them to dry in the sun for a month. Once the bricks are dry he makes a pyramid with four bricks and puts cold and wood underneath. He then makes a very thin layer of coal and sticks on top and puts more bricks, and so on until he has a dome about four metres high, leaving some small holes to light the fire in. The fire burns between each layer of bricks and gets very hot, creating a kiln like effect. The fire burns for 15 days to which the bricks are then cold, hard and strong. He sells them for 4 rupees each at the market – about 4p.

We also visited a farm for tea. We sat in the shade of a tree on a charpoy (string bed) drinking chai while the camel was tied up to the same tree and chewed the cud. The farm was owned by the camel guy’s uncle. After our chai we had a tour of the farm, seeing the food which they grow for the animals and the fuel which they make with cow dung and food waste and dry in the sun before storing it for burning suing the monsoon. There was a cow in the middle of the yard which was heavily pregnant and seemed to be in the early stages of labour by the heavy breathing sounds it was doing.

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And so we made our way back through the lanes of the Nawalgarh countryside towards our lodge. On the way we passed motorbikes, tuktuks, cars and people walking. We passed two ladies in a narrow country lane who were carrying some green plants on their head. As they passed us the camel leant over and took a mouthful out of the ladies green stuff! Cheeky!

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After a shower (or more like a jug and bucket) to rid myself of all the camel hair which had stuck itself to my suncream, and a light lunch I got both the palm of both hands hennaed by a lovely lady called Guyatri, the daughter in law of the lender of the lodge. The henna is homemade using the leaves of a henna hedge they have there. First the leaves are picked, then dried in the sun, then ground up and crushed into a paste with water.I had to wait for an hour for it to dry before I could scrape it off with a knife.

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In the afternoon we were met by a hugely enthusiastic young guy called Dinesh who boasted the he was from one of the highest castes in India and that he was very clever and educated. Actually he was pretty funny and charming, just a bit over confident. He took us on a tour of the havelis in Nawalgarh town.

A haveli is a painted building, and there are many in Shekhawati region. The houses are usually owned, or had been owned by rich businessman working in textiles and other areas. The paintings depict vehicles, Hindu gods and people and are around two hundred years old. One building had 555 frescoes. The paintings are done using natural colours as paint: indigo for blue, turmeric for yellow and others. These materials aren’t as readily available as they used to be, meaning that the havelis can’t be restored to their former beauty.

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The lady who did my henna had been late back from town because she’d been at a festival. It turned out the festival was Gungour, a festival celebrated in Rajasthan. It’s one of the most important festivals of people in Rajasthan. It celebrates the union between Lord Shiva and the goddess Parvati, which gives young girls and boys the chance to interact with each other. Newly married woman fast for the whole eighteen days of the festival and even unmarried women will only eat one meal a day in the hope of finding a good husband. We came across the final day of the festival in the middle of town during our Haveli walk. Dad and I climbed up some stairs onto a rooftop of a shop which looked right out across the whole thing. There was noon else up there but occasionally someone would look up and wave and smile. Everyone was very happy. Lots of music came from a man with a dinky little keyboard attached and another with some drums hooked up to a speaker system. Ladies and young girls were flooding toward one point in this square where there were two large dolls, one of Shiva and one of Parvati. There were so many beautiful colours and patterns of saris. I could’ve stayed there all day watching but eventually after quite a long time, the music got repetitive, and we couldn’t really see what was going on around the dolls, except that ladies and young girls were going up in turn to them. I think they were giving necklaces of flowers as an offering.

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Elsewhere on our tour of the havelis we saw some huge water wells which were over 100 meters deep but completely dried up now. Water wells in Rajasthan (and maybe elsewhere in India, I don’t know) have four minarets around them so that they are obvious for people looking for water. We saw a Krishna temple and some more painted houses, a MASSIVE red and yellow wasp which will give you a fever if it stings you, and some cows fighting in the yard of the temple – a street dog got quite excited and bounced over but realised it was way out of its depth so bounced off again in the opposite direction.

Shekhawati region has so far been the most relaxing place we’ve visited, and better yet? We saw no other tourists!

Connection issues

Dear family, friends and other readers of Adventures of Ruth,

I’m struggling to find good enough wifi signal to post detailed accounts of my travels. 

I AM writing them offline so will share (with photos of Internet allows) as and when I have a long lasting connection.

India is incredible, I struggle to find words to describe how wrong I was with all my preceptions, such a fantastic country.

I’m safe, well, struggling with the heat slightly, but otherwise having a fantastic time. 

Here is the view from my room to keep you going for now.

Ruth 

 

The Buildings, Patterns, People and Animals of Jaipur

After my first Indian train journey (will write a whole separate post about train journeys), we arrived in Jaipur an hour later than scheduled, but our hotel man was still waiting for us, under the Ghandi statue as promised. He took us to our hotel, which in first impressions didn’t look so nice, but once upstairs and on our floor it looked really pretty, slightly Arabic (?) styled arches along a corridor, open on one side, with chairs for relaxing/eating in, and our room at the end. We didn’t do anything after we arrived, just relaxed and read on the seats outside our room.

20150321-161117-58277739.jpg The following morning after my first decent shower since arriving in India, we headed into the Old City. Jaipur’s nickname is The Pink City because in 1876 Maharaja Ram Singh ordered the whole city to be painted pink (traditionally the colour of hospitality) to welcome the Prince of Wales. Now, it is the law that all residents of the old city paint their property pink (personally I would call it coral)!

20150321-161337-58417957.jpg Our guide book showed a walking tour, so we decided that it would be a good way to get to know the city. We walked through a huge gate into the city and followed a road up, which was said to be a bazaar. Unfortunately none of the shops were open, except for some stunning shoes, which didn’t fit my wide feet, and some fabrics. I find it hard to choose when it comes to fabric things, and hate being pressurised by shop keepers, as is the way here. But he laid out a range of wall hangings and there were two which I loved- and went well together to hang on a wall (one day, when I have a wall to call mine!). They gave us a cup of yummy masala chai, which I could get used to. I left the shop feeling very happy with my purchase, two hand made and embroidered wall hangings more than a metre long and about 30cm wide, together cost just over ten pounds. Happy!

20150321-161537-58537428.jpg We followed the tour in the book, occasionally going off track down alleyways to look into real life India, not just what is laid on for tourists.

20150321-163908-59948173.jpg The first place where we stopped was a very interesting building called Hawa Mahal. Hawa means ‘wind’ and mahal means ‘palace’ – it’s called this because the building has no foundations (if I understood our guide correctly). Hawa Mahal was a built in 1799 by a maharaja so that ladies of the royal household could watch the goings on outside the palace and processions in the city, without people seeing them watching. There are many beautiful windows and screens in this building. The top floor was for queens, then the floors go down according to how important the ladies were to the maharaja, making the first floor for concubines.

20150321-164637-60397930.jpg From Hawa Mahal we walked toward Jaipur’s Jantar Mantar (see post Delhi- My First Taste of India for description and explanation). On the way we found a stall making samosas and lentil pakora so we grabbed some of those for lunch on the road. This Jantar Mantar is much better preserved that Delhi’s and restoration has been done well and often. The buildings still work as an observatory to this day. Jaipur’s Jantar Mantar is home to the world’s largest sundial. We took the audio tour this time instead of paying for another guide who didn’t know anything (like in Delhi). The audio tour was actually very informative and showed just how complicated and how much detail and attention actually goes into these incredible devices. Well past my level of intelligence! I pretty much cooked while walking round here – out in the sun in the middle of the day, the temperature was high twenties, pretty hot since I haven’t acclimatised yet!

20150321-164835-60515016.jpg From Jantar Mantar we headed to a minaret which is called Isarlat Minar – the heaven piercing minaret, which is 35 metres high. We struggled to find it between car parks, walls and piles of sheet glass, but the climb to the top of the 260 something steps (which weren’t so much steps and more like dips) was well worth the view.

20150321-165035-60635779.jpg After a long and hot walk though bazaars we eventually found the Indian Coffee a house which marked the end of our walk. We had planned to have lunch there, thinking the walk would only take us a couple of hours, or three at most. However, it was lucky we grabbed those samosas on the road as we didn’t make it to the coffee place until five o’clock by which point I was hot, tired and grumpy.image

We had made an arrangement with the driver who had met us from the train station, so the following morning we met him for a tour of a few places. We headed out to the Amber Fort, which is over 400 years old. It housed the maharaja and his wife until the area got too crowded and they moved out. It is something else. Driving along the road, you go round a bend and there it is, on the cliff top in front of you on the other side of a lake, bright yellow and glowing in the sun. People think it’s called Amber fort because of its colour, but actually it’s pronounced Amer, which means heaven. Our driver, Ash, waited at the bottom while we walked up the steps, admiring the views, goats, and monkeys on the way up. We decided against an audio tour or a guide and just looked around without the overload of information. The heat was incredible here, especially for my pasty white skin, I’m going to struggle when we get to Kolkata and it’s 38 degrees!!

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20150321-181143-65503133.jpg We’d originally planned to head from the Amber Fort to Nahargarh, another fort on the mountains over looking Jaipur. After a couple of hours walking round Amber Fort though we were too hot and tired to do anything, so headed back to our hotel via a view point of a beautiful palace in a lake.

20150321-181625-65785832.jpg After a couple hours of rest from the heat we headed up to Nahargarh for the sunset and a drink. It was actually a lot further than I realised. Up, up and up we went. We saw wild peacocks in the dry scrub at the side of the road and a mongoose ran in front of the car too at one point. I hope it was off to fight with a snake! Ash wanted to show us his favourite place and so we stopped at a view point right across the city. It’s a huge city with a population of six million!

20150321-182043-66043163.jpg Once at Nahargarh Ash quickly found us a spot on the top of a wall to watch the sunset over the city, and went off to get us some chairs and some chai. We waited until it was dark then headed back down the road to find a restaurant that he likes to go to.

20150321-182500-66300466.jpg Jaipur was more beautiful than I ever expected. I’ve seen so many beautiful buildings, noticed some amazing patterns and met some really lovely and hospitable people, and animals. It’s the driest place I’ve ever been I think! I’m actually a little sad to be moving on.

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Delhi – My First Taste of India

After a slightly delayed take off from London Heathrow (part of the undercarriage of the plane was missing!) the flight wasn’t too bad.
We had some amazing views of the Himalayas from the flight while crossing over Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India, where I managed to snap some photos out of the window but struggling with the transfer of them from my phone to iPad without internet on my phone.

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After a short rest on arrival my dad and I went for a walk into the centre of Delhi, a circle from which all roads radiate, called Connaught Place. We wanted a cup of tea and to look around but the heavens opened and so we hid in the entrance of a cinema with about 50 other people, mostly stall tenders. We found tea at a super posh hotel where my dad has gone for tea on previous trips called The Imperial. Apparently it has solid marble baths in the bedrooms – bit out of our budget unfortunately, we’re staying in the YMCA.

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On the first full day here we visit Qutb Manar, an extraordinary thin tower made of red sandstone with beautiful details carved into it. It dates back about 900 years. During the British era a solider ordered the Indians TI place a cupola on top in a completely different style, but the Viceroy had it removed. Quite right too, it sits in the corner of the grounds to this day and would look ridiculous on top! Also in the same complex are some tombs and ruins of mosques, all made from red sandstone and marble, and beautifully carved with lotus flowers, lines from the Quran in Arabic and also some Hindi writing. In the square of one of the mosques in the complex there is an iron pillar. It doesn’t look like anything special except for some details at the top, but it is over 2000 years old, long before anything like that had been made.

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Once we had found each other, and had a lunch of veggie samosa and sprite, we took a tuk tuk to India gate. India is proving to be very different from South East Asia, in many small, indescribable ways. In the tuktuk, a small girl (maybe six or seven years old) came up to us trying to sell us flowers. I didn’t buy any, but for some reason she licked two fingers and touched my foot, I’m assuming this was a respectful thing, though I found it kind of strange. Nothing like that’s happened to me before.

India Gate is a huge red sandstone arch build as a memorial for people who died during the First World War. It’s on a road called Rajpath, which simply means King’s Road. It was built in a huge park with many lovely flowers and fountains at one end of Rajpath, and at the other end there are some incredible red sandstone government buildings, all built during the British era. These beautiful buildings were finished in 1941, just six years before the British rule ended. There was a lovely atmosphere there, lots of families taking a walk in the afternoon sun, guys climbing on the fountain, kids running around playing and people selling things. As with any developing country we got pestered something rotten to buy things from sunglasses to roasted chickpeas and personalised bracelets to having our photo taken. It happens quite a lot here, but no more than in Vietnam. I think the people here are slightly more respectful here in that way. No, they have no idea about personal space, but they won’t stick a camera in your face while eating your lunch, they will always ask for a photo, which can still be annoying but is much nicer than looking up with food in your face to find a camera pointing in your direction!!

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On the way back to the YMCA (still can’t say it without singing it) the tuktuk driver said he couldn’t go any further because there were protests happening on the road we needed to go up. He dropped us there so we tried to walk up it but it seemed quite an angry protest (something to do with farmers… Not sure what exactly) with lots of police and TV vans, so we went back to the roundabout where we were dropped to walk up a parallel road, which also had police blocks and riot vans, PLUS a loony man who was dancing around and started shouting at us when he saw us. About turn and up the next road we arrived at the YMCA.

In the evening we headed out for dinner and a walk round the centre circle of Connaught Place. We found a place from the guide book to eat called Kwality – an Indian restaurant that’s been open since 1940. My Dad has been to a similar one in Kolkata, which we assumed was another branch, but it’s actually a close relation, not the same company – whatever that means! I ate a really hot mutton curry, which was described as mild and yogurty in the menu, but was anything but that. It was just a little bit too hot to enjoy it so I didn’t really eat much. For dessert I had something which had the word ‘mango’ in it, so I automatically assumed it would be delicious. Kolfi mango Parsi it was called! Well, I couldn’t really taste the mango. It tasted like some weird Scandinavian cheese I once tried/ evaporated milk, and was brown and came in a slice looking a bit like an old bit of pineapple. We had a short walk after dinner, but I was pretty tired, so we headed back shortly after for another early night.

On our final day in Delhi we went to the Red Fort. We couldn’t have gone the day before, because it’s closed on a Monday. We took a tuktuk up to the northern part of Delhi where the Red Fort is. It’s huge. The Red Fort is an 18m high wall containing around 110 acres of land. It was built by Sha Jahan in the 1600s, and has housed his son, emperors and armies since then. The barracks inside the fort where inhabited by the Indian army until 2003. The is a market inside the main gate (Lahori Gate, because it faces Lahore) called Chatta Chowk where people sold food and things that the palaces and other inhabitants would need if the fort was under attack. They also grew some crops inside the walls. The emperor had his own entrance to the fort from the river, by boat. the river is now diverted to a few kilometres away, presumably because Delhi takes up so much room, that a river is just something that gets in the way! The river was just one side of the octagon that is the Red Fort, the other 7 sides were made out of red sandstone and stood behind a moat filled with crocodiles and alligators!!

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Inside the walls are some beautiful gardens, with monsoon houses, for the emperor and family to enjoy the gardens even during the rainy seasons. One monsoon house for July, and one for August, because the rain comes in different directions each month. The rain collected in the roofs of these houses and poured down into a gulley in the middle, which then ran over the edge filled with plants, into a long pool running between the two houses, creating a waterfall effect.

Other buildings included a harem, barracks, a courthouse, meeting houses and a bathhouse which had furnaces rooms underneath to heat the copper pipes. The copper pipes went directly underneath the marble baths in these solid marble buildings heating the water. There were also piping hot baths, saunas, cold baths and fragranced baths. I’d like something like this in my garden too!

We walked down the main street called Chandni Chowk leading directly down from the fort to find lunch. There were several places recommended in the guide book but we don’t know if the one we found was one of them or not. We found it by spotting lots of frying pans being used to cook poori and different breads in at the entrance to a small street cafe. We had a delicious but spicy thali, THREE chapattis and a dessert called gulab jamun, which is like a maple syrup sponge pudding, but made from semolina – very nice!! I’ll be looking out for it in the future.

In the afternoon we walked from the YMCA along to this curious place called Jantar Mantar which is this strange, strange selection of bizarrely shaped buildings, built around 300 years ago by Jai Singh II to observe and calculate astronomical events. We paid a guide to show us round, though he couldn’t really answer our questions. He could tell us what the buildings were FOR (such as a giant international sundial) but he couldn’t tell us how they were used (such as the main building which was supposedly used to calculate eclipses). The guide seemed in a hurry to tell us everything and then leave, pretty keen to get the next customer I guess. We wondered around taking in the relaxed atmosphere (in the grounds- the park next door was a camp for people protesting!) taking photos before heading further into town for a coffee.

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On the way into the centre we were told by two separate, very chatty men about a place where we should shop, a government shopping mall where we can get handicrafts cheaply and duty free – no hassling and they could get us a tuktuk straight away if we wanted. This happened at least twice more during our time in town that afternoon! They must have all been on a scavenger hunt for tourists. We also had two or three people telling us about the government tourist office that we should de finally go to and not to be scammed by other people – like them then?!

We walked full circle of Connaught place, buying a few tiny little bits and bobs, like some local soaps then went to look for dinner.

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Dosas were our food of choice. For those of you who haven’t had the delight of eating them they are thin savoury crepes from southern India and soooo good. We found a place with the name Hotel Saravana Bhavan, so assumed it was a hotel. It wasn’t. It was a little downstairs canteeny type place. I had a masala dosa, so a dosa stuffed with potato and spices, with different sauces to dip it into. Really, REALLY good! I had gulab jamun for pudding again, but they had out some sort of herb or spice in it and put me off. That was a short lived addiction!

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Only a few days in Delhi, and my first few in India! I’ve been massively surprised at how welcoming and kind the Indians are. I don’t feel in danger though still keeping my things safe and next to me at all times. So many people told me stories about how dangerous it would be that I had got to the point of not really being excited. They were all wrong!!

Enough Home For Now

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my visit home was a flying visit to see family and friends around the UK. Some I’ve managed to have a good catch up with, though some not as much as I’d have liked. 

Since moving to Vietnam in August, my Dad has moved away from Edinburgh and into the hills a couple of hours north. It’s beautiful up here it really is, though not so easy to walk up the road to meet a friend for coffee or get things in town. Everything needs to be pre- planned and I have to get a bus into the city this time, rather than the old ten minute walk up the hill!

I’m currently sitting in my plane on Edinburgh’s runway! I’m flying to Heathrow and then Delhi overnight. 

Updates to follow x