Monday, December 31, 2007

Bonne Annee de Pondicherry

Well friends, here in Pondicherry it is 2008, while most of you are still living in 2007 (although not my family in Newfoundland, they are just a little ahead of everyone else in North America).

Last night we celebrated the New Year early. At 6:45 we heard sounds which we first interpreted as noise from the bar next door to us, but after it had gone on too long we realized we must investigate. We headed out, dressed for the evening and walked over to the seaside promenade where we were in time to see the last few of a 15 minute salvo of fireworks.

Everyone was out celebrating it seemed. There were thousands on the street and on the promenade and when we got down to the Gandhi statue we discovered a live band playing their loudest for us. There were few other tourist faces in sight, this was a show for the locals obviously and they were enjoying the music too. There was a ferris wheel in the background going around at far too fast a pace I thought, but then I find merry-go-rounds fast too, even playground ones. It was the first time the ferris wheel had been in operation so it felt like that much more a celebration of the new year.

We spent at least a half hour watching the large band perform and sing their Hindi Bollywood songs (the band leader said they were!), and then wandered into the streets to find our last dinner of 2007. We found it at Le Rendezvous, a nice roof top place where we were seated right next the stairway and me opposite the waiters so I got lots of entertainment watching them do very little. One of them was a dead ringer for a very young Clark Gable, with the moustache and the sideburns of Gone With the Wind, except for his very dark skin - yes, even his facial features were Clark Gableish.

Dinner was seafood - Geordie had the Silver Pomfret, a whole fish, that looked just a little like a find from the aquarium, while I had Tiger Prawns grilled in garlic butter sauce. We could have had turkey, but somehow I felt that having turkey in India would not be a substitute for turkey at home - I didn't want to risk it.

We enjoyed our meal with a couple of beers, not exactly champagne but it was bubbly - a local Kingfisher for me and an Australian Foster's for Geordie. They were just fine! I even had dessert - a rather vapid chocolate mousse, but it was only 60 rupees, what's to lose?

After our celebratory dinner we went back to our apartment. I know, I know, why weren't we going back to the seawall for the fireworks, the party, the fun, fun, fun? Well, we have read that it is not always wise to hang out with the locals when they are in a party mood, and after our walk this morning I think it may have been wise. Mind you last night just after we arrived we were witness to the arrival of about 50 policemen, armed with their ever-present lathi sticks, a nice bamboo weapon which I would not enjoy raining down on my back (I'm always good, so it wouldn't happen, don't worry.) This morning when we went for our lovely after breakfast walk we discovered that the poor mosquito thingy had taken quite a beating - it's proboscis was no longer in place, and its sides were now bare of their plaster. Something happened to it last night and I guess we might have found out if we had been there for the fireworks.

An explanation of the opening picture is in order now. The decoration you see was created freehand, probably by a local woman who uses first white salt to outline the design she plans and then coloured salts to fill it in. The designs are all over the streets - they seem to be a welcome to guests who arrive at your doorstep and are often painted on the street itself, just as the one illustrating this blog entry is. We saw others being made today, and it was amazing to watch the women creating the complex designs so effortlessly.

Finally, a couple of pictures of Geordie and I which I though you might enjoy seeing. I thought it was a good time to show them off since the camera was still connected to this computer. The first is with Geordie, me and our tour guide Rudy at the Taj Mahal. It was sent by one of our group in England and I couldn't resist including it, but then when the camera was already connected I thought I should include the second one which shows the Taj much more clearly. In both pictures we are seated on what has been labelled Lady Diana's Bench since it was here that she sat for her portrait when she visited the Taj some years ago. As you can imagine it is now a very popular place to be photographed by everyone.

So there you are, friends, our Happy New Year 2008 greeting to all of you. We wish you the best in this new year that is before us. Happy trails, happy days. We hope the New Year brings you all joy and peace. Our thoughts are with all of you while we travel in far flung climes. Thank you all for your greetings and wishes now and in the past year. We are so happy to have friends like you in our world.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Bonjour de Pondicherry

We arrived at this French conclave yesterday after a lovely morning drive along roads green with new rice shoots filling the rice paddies. The traffic was very low compared to other trips we have taken and we made it the 98 km in only an hour and a half - that's an average speed of 60 km an hour which is a record I'm sure. The edge of town and through the centre is just like any Indian town, people, traffic, animals, shops, crazy-town, but once we hit the Beach Road, everything had changed.

Here where we are now the streets are wide, the buildings old French colonial style and in their way quite lovely, if moldering quietly in the heat. There are also very few people around the neighbourhood during the day - we have to head across town to find the hordes. Last evening though when we went for a walk on the seawall we were surprised to see how many people had made their way down to the area to walk - just like the passegiata in Spain or Portugal. Or should that be Le Passee in Nice?

French is on many of the signs, the area was only ceded back to India in the late 50's I think, (that's the 1950's) and is now called the Union Territory of Pondicherry. And the restaurants show the French influence with croissants, French bread, dark bitter coffee, and cane furniture (well, maybe that's French-Indian). That's good for us - I do like chocolate croissants and a good cup of coffee.

We are booked for a week here - it's going to be a challenge - since our "hotel" is actually a guest house with four apartments, no common area and no resident staff. The people who run the place are across the street in an antique furniture shop. The four aparments are all rented out, but we've only seen one other couple who are staying here and that's because they walked into our place yesterday afternoon, lookking to book a room. At that point we weren't even sure how things worked so we could only point them off to the shop across the street.

We had dinner at a Pizza place with a wood burning oven - they made a valiant effort and in fact the pizza was close to the real Italian style, except that the cheese was not quite mozzarella and the flavour of Italian herbs was missing too. But the crust was thin and the topping was tomatoes and mushrooms. Breakfast this morning was at a place recommended in Lonely Planet that didn't quite live up to its potential. The food was fine but the odd woman trailing red scarves and bumming smokes from one of the customers was a little off-putting - she walked by at least five times, once carrying her toothbrush, once her comb - which she did not seem to have put to good use and then plonked herself at a table to finish the cigarette she'd cadged. The good news is that we did get a generous amount of toasted baguette with our omelet which is what I was hoping for.

On another tack totally unrelated, we got a message from one of our fellow travellers this morning, Joanna from Australia, to let us and the whole group know that her illness, which started while she was on our trip was in fact Dengue Fever. We are fine, honest and if we had contracted dengue we would have known it by now. It runs its course in about two to three weeks, and since we have been just fine it's obvious we have not contracted it too.

Mind you, right on the beach there is a big humonguous insect-like thing that is displaying information about another disease which is obviously of concern. It is Filiariasis and the display is promoting the drugs which one can take to combat it. I am thinking we need to go in and see if we are at risk and to see if they are passing out the three pills required to keep the disease at bay. We do have insect repellent and there are good fans in our place, as well as an insect repellent electrical thing that puts repellent into the air - but, there was a mosquito or two, let's hope they didn't land on us last night.

Oh, one final note which is a correction. I got updated by friend Terry in Calgary that the planet I saw on Christmas Eve was Mars not Jupiter. I suppose for posterity I have to go in and correct the information in my post, so I will, later. In the meantime, I can explain that what I remember from the newspaper was that the planets Jupiter and Mars were aligned with Earth, or the moon, so I got the wrong planet up there in the sky. I didn't want to leave everyone with the wrong info. And has justice would have it, Terry learned the correct information from The Times of India when he googled for the facts.

Nuff for now. Hugs to all as we count down to New Year's.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas India

Last night was Christmas Eve and we ate at a restaurant on the beach. The moon was full and Jupiter was hanging high above it - I know that because it was described in the paper yesterday. The meal was nothing like a Christmas meal at home - Geordie ordered grilled red snapper and I had Tandoori prawns, two big ones that cost twice as much as Geordie's whole fish. With that we were served a large plate of vegetable fried rice and a large plate of "finger chips" (French fries to the uninitiated), as well as two of the huge beers on offer here. The breeze of the Andaman Sea (or the Bay of Bengal as it says in some guide book or other) was fresh - fresh enough to cool the rice and french fries quickly. The fish was delicious but the prawns were over-flavoured with the tandoori paste and spicy hot, so the sweet taste that might have been was overwhelmed. No matter. We enjoyed our evening on the beach.

Today we are going to go for a walk on the beach again. We'll wander along enjoying the sight of the waves and the bawling of the cows who are hanging out there too. It sounds like the right thing to do here in Mamallapuram. We discovered a couple of days ago that once one gets past the edge of town along the beach, going north, the beach gets much cleaner. There's also a very fancy hotel up there which is probably far beyond our budget. But maybe we'll drop in for a coffee, or a cool drink on our walk. This morning we had coffee at the nice place we discovered earlier this week - I thought you might appreciate its name - "The Freshly and Hot Cafe".

Mamallapuram has put on the dog for Christmas mind you. Our little resort has a tree out front decorated with little presents wrapped in shiny foil paper - I noticed that one of the children of the resort had unwrapped one this morning - I'm afraid she was quite disappointed. Last night outside the Seashore Restaurant where we ate our Christmas Eve dinner there was a large tree in the sand with lights draping it as well as red tinsel garland. And on top a large three dimensional star - there are lots of these around town decorating many of the shops and restaurants.

On the streets themselves there are lovely chalk decorations; some of these are made by rolling a tube of chalk across the pavement or sidewalk leaving an intricate design; the tubes are for sale. Others appear to be labours of love, drawn in coloured chalk in entrance ways and on the sidewalks in front of people's businesses. These beautiful designs lend an exotic air that makes them for us the Indian spirit of Christmas.

One sad note that should not be forgotten - I wished the manager of our hotel a Merry Christmas this morning and he replied that the pleasure of Christmas was destroyed for him by the tsunami of 2004. He was not morose about it, but obviously for the people who live here, it is a painful memory that is brought back every year by the tourists celebrating Christmas while the locals live with their pain.

It's obvious that Mamallapuram has bounced back from the disaster and it is certainly now thriving again as a tourist haunt; we hear many voices from foreign climes, many of them European, German, Norse or Swedish, French, but few English voices, and there may be other Canadians here but if so they don't stick out. We have heard few people with the accents of home, and the locals who ask where we are from guess more that we are Australian or English than that we are from North America.

We are planning our onward trip now. Geordie has been on the Internet several times, attempting to make reservations for trains beyond Pondicherry which we head to on the 27th of December. He managed to reserve an overnight train to the tip of India from Trichy which is inland, but wasn't able to get us from Pondicherry to Trichy by train, so it looks like we may finally have to figure out how the buses work. I don't think a car from Pondicherry to Trichy is reasonable so we will have to work it out. Two of our fellow travellers on our Rajahstan tour wrote that they had taken buses on the second leg of their tour and that it wasn't so bad, so we are going to do our research and make our way to Trichy by hook or by crook since we do need to make that train.

It's beaching time for us now. We've enjoyed our week here in Mamallapuram, with sea breezes to cool our food, the pleasure of not being hassled continuously as we walk the streets, the relative calm of the streets, the amazing rock carvings which are within a stone's throw of town. After inland Trichy which will be hot and steamy we imagine, we will be keeping to the coast as much as possible. Unlike Rajahstan there's no need for a scarf here to keep the ears warm so those sea breezes will be essential.

So it's Merry Christmas to all. We have enjoyed the Christmas wishes we have recieved from folks and wish you all the pleasure of the season, whether you are at home with family, on the beach in Mexico or Hawaii or anywhere else in the world you have chosen for this holiday time. Now is the countdown to 2008 - get yourselves ready for a Happy New Year. Love and peace from Geordie and Nigel.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Mamallapuram - Stoned at the Beach

We seem to be travelling just ahead of trouble as I've already said. And so it continues. Because of the potential for traffic disruptions from the Maoists in Kolkata and because our guide book said it took two hours to get to the Kolkata Airport (affectionately? known as DumDum because it's where the British developed the DumDum bullet), we left our hotel by taxi at 10:00 am three days ago.

The trip took all of 45 minutes (the people from the guide book must have been travelling by human powered rickshaw, of which there are lots in Kolkata) so there we were, over 8 hours ahead of boarding time of our plane - in an airport that didn't look that friendly to waiting passengers, noisy, not many places to sit down, and very few places to get any sustenance.

Geordie sent me off to find out what might be done, and I finally talked to the check-in counter for our airline, Deccan Air, who, after consultation told me I might be able to get into the fancy first class lounge. I was guided there and found out to my joy that because I have a Gold MasterCard, I qualified to hang out with the hoi polloi. What a pleasure it was - I wasn't there too long when I began to feel like a rich person, annoyed when someone left the door of the lounge open to let in the gabble of noise outside. (How snooty!)

Really though it was a little bit of heaven for our 8 hour wait. I must remember this again when I am at foreign airports, and maybe I should check my credit card plans more closely. We got lovely cappuchino's, free food (pizza would you believe and ginger cookies), comfortable seating, peace and quiet, all because of a little plastic. Just to pass the time we actually dared go out into the airport a few times just to mingle.

Our flight left exactly on time to Chennai and we passed from the turbulent north of India to the more relaxed south. Like Kolkata, we have really not been hassled over much at all, there are few beggars, we have found a place that does a wonderful expresso right across the street from our "resort", and we are quite happy being here over Christmas.

Arriving was a bit of an adventure though. Our flight got in at 9:40 pm and we were met outside the airport by our driver whom we requested to get us to the Resort here in Mamallapuram. We are so thankful for that. It felt so much more comfortable to know that our driver knew where he was going and we could leave the worry to him.

But it was raining and there was construction on the road we took to get out of Chennai - it took a half hour just to get away from the incredible traffic tie up - here it was, 10:00 pm and from the airport we had a half four of four-lane, bumper to bumper traffic. Incredible. And it was another hour in pouring rain to Mammalla.. When we arrived the rain was coming down even harder and we were shown to our room by flashlight since there was no power. The kind guys who led us there did light a candle for us, and got us a bunch of the sweetest small bananas and two bottles of water to slake our hunger and thirst.

The beds were a little clammy too, but we managed to fall asleep, to be awakened about 3 am by the most incredibly noisy thunder and brilliant lightning. If it's true that you count seconds between lightning and thunder to find out how many miles away the storm is, we were in the midst of it, because they were nearly simultaneous. It didn't last too long though, and we did get back to sleep, even if we were awakened again when the power came on with all the lights that had been left with the switches in the on position.

This morning we discovered from the paper that this unseasonable weather (monsoon weather) has caused much grief in the state of Tamil Nadhu. Thousands of hectares of ready-to-be-harvested crops are underwater, hundreds of homes have flooded and many people in the state are without a place to live - a little Hurricane Katrina-like since they have been placed in schools and gymnasiums to wait out the relief efforts. We are fine, there is little concern here although we did pass by a house today in an alley that had indeed been flooded, as we were making our way to the ruins of Mamma... We had to backtrack at one point because we couldn't wade the street of water without getting our feet soaked. It must be very difficult for the people of the state although it does sound like relief efforts are taking place. By the way, this area was also damaged by the 2004 tsunami with much loss of life, so I'm sure they don't need more trouble.

The reason for our trek through the partially flooded streets under the midday sun, was to see the ruins of some fine sculpted temples here in Mamma... This is a world heritage site and with good reason. Check out the pictures on this website to get a good idea of what we have seen or will see tomorrow when we go off again.

The first site is called the Shore Temples and I would have great pictures if my batteries had not decided to die after I took two photos. And it was a one time visit only ticket of course which cost 250 rupees for foreigners like us. You can content yourselves with knowing that someone has already done the work of recording the sites in the website I mentioned and I don't have to spend ages uploading photos for you. (I must do this more often, really - I know you don't get to see pictures of the two of us that way, but you at least get the flavour of the place.) I did buy new batteries to continue on to the second site included in our day ticket, so I do have good photos of that area.

The giant elephant was my favourite carving. From what we can gather, these monuments were carved from the living rock, so have not been moved here (which would have been a monumental task in itself.) So that fine elephant used to be just a boulder and the huge temples were other even bigger boulders. These carvings were carved sometime in the 600 to 700 AD period I think, so the work must have been a long time in the making.

The whole area is still alive with stone carvers although now they are more aimed at the tourist trade. There are still some big carvings done of course, including a wondeful hippopotamus we saw at one shop that must weigh half a ton - we decided it would not fit in the back pack to be brought back to delight our hippo loving friend Midge in Kamloops - she'll have to be content with the photo when its downloaded to send to her.

We are staying in Mamma.. for a week - we will explore more of the carved ruins tomorrow and maybe I'll be able to post a picture or two later. Again, these old fashioned computers have the USB ports at the back. I may do a little searching to see if I can find another place where they are more up to date. The speed is fine though so I'm not complaining.

What we won't be doing much of it I think, is walking along the beach or swimming in the Indian sea. The waves are quite rough for one thing and the beach leaves a lot to be desired in the cleanliness category. What a wonderful world it would be if someone had not invented the plastic bag or any other disposable plastic object. The beach is littered with the stuff and we imagine it comes from garbage being tossed or even deliberately disposed of into the sea. It makes one feel the need to begin ta campaign to eliminate the plastic bag. I think we should do our part here and refuse any bag we are offered. It's easy enough and I've certainly done it, but here it is brought home with such force, that it becomes essential to be part of the solution.

Nuff for now, I'm climbing down off my podium and finishing off this message. Christmas is a-coming, and no doubt many of you will be enjoying your Christmas turkey soon. We'll miss it, which is always one of the saddest things for me about our being away at this time of year - so we must remember to have a nice Christmas feast when we get back in March. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, turnip, gravy, Christmas pud with my mother's recipe, oh my, I'm missing it.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Frosty the Snowman (in Kolkata?)

It's hard to think about snow when we are in Kolkata, although lots of the men around here wrap scarves around their heads and necks to keep warm in the cool temperatures of the area. What, about 20 degrees Celsius at the coolest? They obviously find it cold. I even saw a pair of wool gloves today at a department store we wandered around in.

However, we have been reminded of snow and Christmas today with a message from our daughter Holli and Grandson Devan. First we have a picture drawn by Devan showing the three of us, (Gramps Facey, Poppy Pottle and Devan) at the Taj Mahal. It's a work of art and it's nice to know we are thought of.

Art by Devan

And then there is snow. Seems it did a little of that in Vancouver early in the month and Devan got to do a little playing around. Think of this as our Christmas card. The last photo is of some mini snowmen with carrot noses that Devan made. Wow, an artist and a sculptor!

Please note the hat Devan is wearing. It's the skull hat I made for his birthday and I'm glad to see it's come in useful in snow. (It's a skull hat because Devan's birthday celebration had a pirate theme.)

Meanwhile in Kolkata:

Kolkata or Calcutta as we have known it has obviously gotten a bad rap. I'd been dreading it for some time because of that and the fact that we have had less than wonderful experiences in the other cities we have visited. The beggars, the touts, the crowds, the cow dung, nothing is like home! However the area we are in Kolkata is definitely not like the horrifying images we saw in the film City of Joy. Instead it has been one of the most hassle free places we've been so far.

We are staying in the Sudder Street area which is a bit of backpacker central, and as you know, we moved hotels after our first day here. But even on Sudder
Street the hassle's are few and I have yet to see a cow anywhere. It's funny though to see the goats and sheep being herded across busy intersections where the humans take their lives in their hands - that's one big problem - the pedestrian is definitely low on the totem pole here. Unlike places like Bangkok or Rome, the drivers make no effort to give way to pedestrians. In those other places you can do a dance with the drivers and get across the street by making eye contact and moving from lane to lane watching around you. Here the drivers just honk their horns to get you out of the way. They have all the right of way there is.

But otherwise, this is almost a sane city, with busy people on their way to work, or working on the streets. There's very little begging - a few women with children asking for money for "milk for babee". I had two rupee coins in my pocket which I gave to one of them, but she didn't think it was enough and kept begging. However, if we gave money to every begger who asked we'd be penniless soon enough. The other annoyance is the touting at the New Market. It's a big market and looks very interesting - an architectural point of interest, but the touts won't leave you alone outside the building. As new blood they latch on to keep telling us that there are craft shops inside. If we went in, they would get a commission so they are really aggressive and don't take lightly to "NO", so we have yet to venture inside because it's so annoying.

We went off to the Victoria Memorial today. Seems we weren't the only ones with that idea. We walked which took at least 45 minutes (we went the long way around the building to find the entrance) and when we got to the front door we were faced with a huge line up - all local, all looking less than prosperous. Their entry fee was 4 rupees, we got to pay 150 rupees each! We waited diligently in line while it snaked to the front door (there have to have been a thousand people ahead of us) until we were almost at the steps when one of the guards told us we could jump the line - 150 rupees has its privileges it seems.

Inside was a zoo of course - everyone stayed in line, snaking around looking at the exhibits, but at speed, so it was difficult to stay and admire. We did our best. The Memorial was started in 1906 to celebrate the reign of Queen Victoria. As a very appropriate aside, we read today in the paper, that as of tomorrow, Queen Elizabeth the Second surpasses Victoria and becomes the oldest reigning British Monarch! Not bad, Betty!

We are hazarding a guess that most of the people at the monument are in Kolkata because of the big demonstration planned for tomorrow by a group of Maoists who want a separate state for Assam. We ran into some of them yesterday when we were navigating the Maidan, the huge green space along the river and train tracks. They are marching under their hammer and sickle flags. It seems incongruous for them to hang out at the Vicky Memorial. Another big story in the paper today talked about a group of the Maoists who occupied a train heading to Kolkata, displacing all of the 500 fare-paying passengers who had booked the train. These folks mean business.

Tomorrow we are heading to the airport to fly to Chennai and on to Mamallapuram where we are going to spend our Christmas hols! We may go early since the paper said that the area near us would be jammed with the demonstrators by noon and would cause havoc in the traffic patterns. Our flight is not till 7:30 pm, but we are advised to leave for the airport two hours ahead of when we want to be there if we do it during the day. It only takes an hour at night!

I'm sure we'll make it as usual. We are keeping ahead of the troubles quite well so far. Until the beach...

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Oh Kolkata!

We made it. No bombs, no accidents, no unusual events or unexpected things happened on our trip from Bodhgaya to Kolkata. We left the hotel by a great funky, private car to drive to Gaya - our least favorite town in the world this week. Why does driving at 60 km an hour feel like hurtling? My leg was so tired from braking as we did the trip and Geordie says his eyes were closed most of the time. Of course compared to the speed of a bicycle we were hurtling and the trucks are limited to 40 km an hour - honest!

In Gaya we had 12 hours before our train, so we got a hotel room - a different hotel this time. It was called the Hotel Akash and was little different from the other one we took except a little further away from the Hindu temple (which didn't make any noise anyway). The generators were going full tilt of course - turns out that the state of Bihar is one of the poorest in the country and the electricity grid is very poor. The town of Gaya is actually suffering because they get electricity only about four hours a day and two of those are in the middle of the night. Factories are closing down, throwing people out of work because they cannot run their generators enough to support the required power needs.

Bihar is a Dalit state - Dalits are the untouchables and they are definitely the lowest on the totem pole. As well as being poor, they are also the lowest caste of course, and they get very little support from central government - hence the major problems.

Gaya was redeemed by one thing though - we found a hotel with a really good restaurant - the rooms were too expensive for Geordie but the food was cheap. They even had half orders of everything so we didn't waste it. Everything was delicious and the maitre d' (yes, there was sort of one, he was the manager) was very proud of the food he was serving. He gave us very personal attention since we were the only guests. I worried for a bit that our little bill was going to be all they made that evening, but another group came in later, so I felt better.

We left for the train station at 4 in the morning (train scheduled for 4:30), and had to wake the guys at the front desk to unlock the gate for us. They did it graciously and waved goodbye. The train station was full of people - it felt like a homeless shelter, there were so many people wrapped in blankets lying on the floor asleep. We felt a little nervous on the platform while we waited for the train, since we were being eyed by several guys who did not look too trustworthy. We had had experience with a gang of guys who were attempting to steal things while we were on our tour, so we know to keep a close eye and hand on everything. Two of the guys who had been eyeing us got onto a stopped train, and got off again two minutes later, and took off across the tracks in the darkness. We couldn't tell if they had more after they got off than when they got on.

The train was only an hour late - not bad, since we met a guy who told us his train was scheduled for 11:30 pm and had not yet arrived at 5:00 am. We got on and snuggled down pretty quickly although I only got about two hours sleep, Geordie less. The trip was over six hours and included breakfast and a free newspaper, so that was a bonus. In the news was an article about India testing a surface to air missile - it was named the Akash - same as our hotel the night before!

As I said, we had no troubles but during the morning we did go through one station which was all aflutter with Maoist or communist banners and flags. Maybe they were in the neighbourhood of the problems. The train did not stop at the station, either deliberately or inadvertently. We arrived an hour late too, and had to work our way through a mob of taxi touts to get to the prepaid taxi service which was no doubt cheaper than we would have been able to negotiate on our own. The taxi got us through town to the backpacker area pretty efficiently - I have a feeling that's because it's Sunday today.

We went to a hotel recommended in Lonely Planet as a mid-range hotel, which sounded good. I sent Geordie off to check out a room, and after he went back the second time to see if it had a bathroom, we took it. He was tired and wanted to go to the bathroom which explains why he took the place which was just a little over the level of our Gaya hotels. No matter. We did a walk around in the afternoon, and found another hotel which is a lot better (and three times as much money of course) but it will be worth it, not to have to look at the dirty walls and we won't have to avoid taking a shower. The hotel even has a lift - now that's class.

We move tomorrow, although for a minute it sounded like a good idea to just add the price of today's room to the bill and just get out right away, but our economic side took over. Can't waste good money. That done we went off exploring and found the first cup of coffee that was not made from a jar since we arrived in the country. All those flash hotels we have been staying in on the tour offer instant coffee with lots of hot milk (the redeeming feature), so getting a caffe americano was a real treat even if it was strong enough to put hair on our chests. Then we even found a nice bookstore, called the Oxford of all things, and had a good look around - I'll probably go back tomorrow and have a good long look and maybe even buy something - had to leave because the bathroom was calling.

So here we are, three nights in Kolkata and then we head for the beach in South India. As we said, we are skipping Chennai - flying there and taking a taxi directly to the beach town which is called Mamallapuram - if you want to search it in your atlas. It's actually got ruins, so if you do a google search you will find very interesting pictures of the things in the area. We are going to spend 8 days there, and will be celebrating Christmas there too. (I wonder what that will be like in Hindu India? This is not the Christian area after all.)

Now to look for a nice place for dinner. Geordie says he's hungry and there's a really nice looking place called the Zurich in the area which is rated highly for backpackers in the Lonely Planet Bible. (It did look very nice - clean even!, although it doesn't have any Swiss food - Indian, Continental, Thai, and Chinese. Maybe a little Italian. And definitely Banana Pancakes!!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Peace with the Buddha

We have finally found a place where it's almost peaceful. Getting here was half the fun. We took a train that left Varanasi at 5:40 pm, an hour and a half late, and arrived in Gaya only an hour late, at 10:30 pm. Of course it was night so we didn't want to move on and decided to pick the nicest looking of the hotels in the neighbourhood.

Big mistake? This was the hotel you all think we stay in. After we were shown a room on the very noisy side of the building (a Hindu temple in full swing and about five generators to provide electricity in the alley), we asked for one on the other side. We were shown one right opposite, which in fact was also opposite the hole that had been chiseled into the wall for a window which someone had obviously forgotten to order. It also had one of the hotel staff in it, enjoying television. Yes, we took it anyway, and then had the bellboy? change the linens on Geordie's bed. His new sheet looked a little better, but mine, although clean, was dingy browny grey. I slept under it anyway and the heavy blanket, which was welcome, but Geordie slept in his clothes because he didn't want to have the smelly blanket on him.

There were no vermin we could see, but the toilet floor was wet from a leak so a nighttime visit to the bathroom meant putting on our shoes. And the clanging cymbals and the loud singing at the nearby temple went on until 3:00 am. I slept through it. Geordie says he only got three hours sleep.

The food in the restaurant was terrible too. I don't even want to describe the chop suey, and the "eggroll" was served in a pool of oil with a fine black patina. Ugh.

We left as soon as possible the next morning - took a taxi which cost almost as much as our room and took a hotel in Bodhgaya which is luxurious in comparison, even if they didn't make the room today and it's cold. It has decent bed linens and only a slight leak from the toilet...

But really, Bodhgaya is peaceful. I wasn't kidding there. This is the holiest Buddhist site in the world, where Buddha found enlightenment under the bodhi tree whose relative now grows on the same spot. The place is full of monks and nuns from all over the Buddhist world with a few Caucasian monks thrown in for good measure. Our hotel in fact seems to have Buddhist monks from Tibet as guests, and us. There is even a wonderful exhibit in the basement of the temple of artifacts from a Buddhist temple which is now in South India, but was of course moved from Tibet. The small bronzes are about 8 centuries old and very lovely. The finale was even better though. The young monk who showed us the photos and talked about his monastery, also took us in to see a sand mandala which had been created by four monks of the monasteray. It took them a week, and is an amazing work of art and religiosity. And after the exhibit is over at the end of January, it will be swept away. We couldn't take pictures of the bronzes but he encouraged me to take photos of the mandala, including pulling up a chair so I could take a photo from above. (Not illustrated here, lol. Old computers again.)

The Mahabodi temple area is a respite though there are no vehicles including bicycles and the upper area is where the devout walk around, clockwise, saying their beads, or in the case of one very elderly man, prostrating himself as he makes his way around. In the lower temple complex there are hundreds of monks and nuns, many of them prostrating themselves too, but in place rather than moving. The monks in some areas are chanting, there is incense, some teaching happening on the grassy areas, and all in all a very peaceful sense of well-being.

Around the area are also many Buddhist temples - Thai, Bhutanese, Chinese, Japanese, Burmese - some of them very beautiful examples of their architecture. The Bhutanese temple is lovely, and the Thai temple is exactly like a wat in Bangkok. The Japanese temple was closed for lunch when we walked by, so we don't know what the interior is like, however someone was ringing one of those huge bells often found in a temple complex. A lovely sound.

We did a bit of a walkaround yesterday and today, and in the afternoon yesterday I even took my pants to a tailor for repair. My Armani pants (really) had the worst sewing job imaginable. But they are nice and sturdy now, and it cost me 20 rupees, about 50 cents. There is also a Tibetan Refugee Market nearby which we explored, but it is full of clothing, warm clothing and not a tourist market at all. I did buy a Tibetan singing bowl from a young boy this morning when we went for our walk to the temples. I paid 250 rupees (from 350) which is about six dollars.

We have another full day here and part of another. We still have to have apple pie at one of the tent restaurants near the Refugee market too. We head for Kolkata in the wee hours of Dec 16 (4:30 am or whenever the train arrives) which means another visit to Gaya. We understand there are railway retiring rooms at the station which one can hire so we are hoping to get one of them, so we can avoid any of the terrible hotels. Sitting on the floor, or sleeping there as many locals seems to do, doesn't appeal quite as much.

A little note of fear here: We read today in a newspaper that the train line that we are going to take was bombed by Maoists yesterday morning. No trains were on the line, but they were held up for about 7 hours while it was repaired. Let's hope they have it out of their systems by now. It was in retaliation for some men who were sentenced for murder of policemen recently. We will presume everything is great.

We've also made a slight change in plans. We are going to Kolkata for the three nights we planned, and then flying to Chennai (Madras). However, instead of staying in Chennai for another three nights we have asked the hotel in the beach town we head to next if they have room for us. If so, we can be picked up by the hotel at the airport and delivered to the hotel without worry. That would make our lives a little easier, and maybe eight nights at the Greenwoods Resort will be what we need to decompress a little from the wild travels. No doubt we'll have an adventure or two to talk about before that. There's lots more to come.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Do You Know the Way to San Jose?

We have been travelling and finding our way around haphazardly I think. Agra and the Taj Mahal was easy - we had a tour guide then and the hotel was only a few minutes away from the site. And unlike the modern temple in DElhi where we took an hour through security to get in, the security here was simple - just a frisk and a promise not to bring anything on the list of banned objects.

The Taj Mahal was a marvellous site - we arrived in the very early morning with the sun not yet up and the mist from the Yamuna River creating mysterious light everywhere. We waited for the sun before heading in to explore it in detail. The building is a beauty, although how it survives the smog is beyond me. Right now one cannot drive closer than about five minutes away from whence we are whisked to the entrance by electric vehicles - but how that can prevent the smog from all the nearby vehicles, the everpresent smoky fires and heaven knows what else that causes the thick smoggy air is beyond me.

We didn't get the full package either - there was no water in the reflecting pools - under repair, so our photos don't have that unique effect. Not to worry, it was still a great visit. We spent about an hour and a half at the site, marvelling at the marble inlaid with semiprecious stones, taking photos, enjoying the light as the sun slowly rose turning the tomb golden for awhile and then that pearlescent white which marble can have. Lovely. The two temples on either side of the Taj in REd Sandstone and marble are perfect complements to the perfection of the tomb.

The Taj was our last stop on our official tour - lots of sad good byes as we bid adieu to our travel companions - the two of us and two others were heading back to Delhi while the rest of the group continued on to Varanasi. We were getting to Varanasi on our own.

We have one really good pointer from our tour - when you want to know where to stand for the poorly marked train cars, hire a porter. For 50 rupees a bag he will carry them, (on his head), and then put you exactly where you want to be. It worked in Agra where we had help but it also worked in Delhi when we took our first train ride with no help from anyone else. In Delhi, the porter put us under a sign saying B1 even though there was a sign for A1 (our car number) much further up the platform. And the train stopped with A1 right in front of us.

On our trip to Delhi, we had sit up seats, and were two hours late arriving - we got to bed about 1:30 pm after the trip to our hotel from the train station. The trip to Varanasi was only an hour late, but was overnight so we had a sleeper car. We had booked the side berths, up and down, but there were lots of empty places so Geordie got us moved to two lowers side by side with no other companions - except the vermin.

I saw my first cockroaches when I went to get rid of some garbage - they had colonized the sink area, and while we were sitting in our side seats a few more made their presence known. Then a huge one went by scurrying under the curtain - I was awed by its size. Then another, and another and I finally realized that the huge buggers weren't cockroaches, they were mice. You can imagine how much fun it was thinking about whether they could climb and where we would put our shoes when we went to sleep. Luckily there was a nice pouch which was a perfect storage spot and since it was up where we were sleeping, it felt safer. I don't know if any creatures climbed over me in the night but I slept the night through.

In Varanasi we were met by someone from our Guesthouse. A good thing since I can't imagine how we would have found it otherwise. Seems the best way to find anything is to walk along the ghats which are the steps along the holy Ganges where people bathe. The good thing about them is that there's little hassling - a huge contrast to the life in the cities we have been in.

Yesterday we decided to brave the alleys to see if we could find a place called the Bread of Life Cafe. We walked through the narrow spaces, and the kids heading to school in their uniforms and past hundreds of soldiers in Khaki carrying rifles slung over their shoulders. Not modern rifles either - could these be single shot?

We made it to a main street where there was so much traffic it was exhausting being there and after about an hour of walking we decided to give up and go back to the ghats. There we walked and finally rested near a place where some men were having a bath in the river. Note to self, do not swim here - I can't imagine what might be in it, but the locals even drink it - it's holy after all.) We also got to see how the men wear their underwear - they have most unusual underwear which wraps around, ties, then a flap is pulled through the legs tucked in at the front then back betoween the legs and tucked in back. Simple and effective.

After lounging for another half hour we decided to climb back up and look for the restaurant again. We got to the main drag and walked and walked but saw nothing. Finally we decided we would get a cycle rickshaw driver to take us there. Hah! He took us the wrong way and when we got back to near where we had started that morning we paid him off and went to ask at a book store. There we were told it was at least a 20 minute walk back.

This time we hired an auto rickshaw which dropped us at the door - probably about 10 meters from where we had come out earlier, and turned the wrong way. Then after our lunch, we headed back to the ghat - which took less than two minutes and put us right at the spot where we had started our last foray to find the place. Now, can we ever find it again?

We are off to Bodhgaya in a couple of days but tomorrow we may go off to Sarnath where we will see one of Buddhism's most important sites. More later, I'm sure. Now my fingers are tired.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Camels on Parade

Our tour is nearly over, but I have not been near a computer for ages. Our camel tour is done, we have been to Jaisalmer where we had our best tour guide yet - an audio guide which we could turn off if it went on too long - we spent a day touring villages near another fort/palace, took a train journey overnight on three tiered bunks, and this morning we saw the awe inspiring Taj Mahal.

But back to camels. Yes, Geordie didn't ride on one, but Nigel did. We were driven out to the desert just a few kilometers where we met our camels for the first time, and of course their drivers. There was a camel each, although the drivers did ride on some of the camels.

My handsome camel, (they are all male since it would be problematic for females apparenntly, and would interfere with child rearing?), was named Gangu, which, according to Rudy, our guide, means "the stupidest animal in the world). Very unfair since my camel was certainly smarter than any sheep I've met and it certainly obeyed all the commands without complaint.

Gangu wasn't really smelly either. His coat was rough, and he was damned high when I was in the saddle, but he was as charming as a camel could be. I'm sure we bonded by the time the trek was over.

Getting on a camel is not hard, but when the camel rises one is lifted so high above the ground! I feared for my poor osteoportic bones - if I had fallen off I would have broken my hips, my shoulders and my pelvis too, I'm sure of it. And I worried about my pelvis a lot because on the camel I felt spread-eagled. And I still ached from the stretching my ligaments got from the three hour trek.

And one thing I will tell you now that is not mentioned in any of the literature I have read about camel trekking - it hurts. The worst part was the jogging (versus sedate walking by the camel, I mean). Oh god, bouncing up and down continuously, with my camera bouncing against me, my right hand holding the pommel, my left hand holding the back of the saddle. I felt very unbalanced so hung on for dear life.

For the women reading this, apparently it is not quite so bad. Most of them reported almost enjoying the ride and feeling very secure on the camel. Men must be different because the other man in our tour group had to have his saddle adjusted during our rest stop. One of the women told me she even took pictures while she sat looking around. I wish I could have felt so confident.

Along the way we did see one wonder of nature - a baby goat had been born moments before we arrived. When I saw it, it was bleating, struggling to stand on its legs, still wet from the birth and with its umbilical cord still dangling. Out in the desert with just the mother to make sure it survived. There was a shepherd somewhere, but he wasn't with the mother goat - but it was managing quite nicely on its own.

We stopped again not far from our site because the jeep was there. My driver asked me at least twice if I wanted to ride and I stayed the course - I was not going to be the old man who had to drive, which was good because we only had about 15 minutes more of travel (they could have asked earlier, I thought, but I still wouldn't have transferred to the jeep).

At camp we had gaily coloured tents with comfortable camp cots and very warm blankets. After getting the ligaments working again, we got to enjoy the desert with a gin and tonic in hand, and then enjoyed a lovely dinner with five hot dishes rustled up by the cook tent. We even had dessert - a semolina pudding. And we didn't stay up late either. The stars were beautiful, but we were tired and we had to be up by 7:00 am to go back to town, so we snuggled in early and slept the sleep of the just (or the just worn out).

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In the morning we got hot water delivered to our tent, we had a breakfast with freshly made omelets, toast and thank heaven lots of coffee. It was a nice culmination to our trip. Getting into the jeeps to roar back to town was an anti-climax but I was more than glad not to have to do it on a camel.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

My India Diet Program

This is Geordie for a change. We are in Agra today. The Taj this morning at 6:30 was wonderful but no coffee. We leave the group today and go back to Delhi as originally planned. Tomorrow we jump the over night train to Varanasi alone and are a bit apphensive as we go on for 3 more months.

To my diet program. I have not been eating well since I arrived. I got a cold along with everyone else in the group. That took some time and I still have a bad cough. Then Delhi Belly hit for a number of days so no food. I'm surprized I don't look thinner. Yesterday was my first day of food and the meal was a chicken burger combo at the big M. Sorry. Desert was a cone.

Nigel will bring you up-to-date but I must tell you about my ATV desert experience. It was on the second bad day of Delhi Belly. We drove from Jaisalmer into the desert where we met the ATV's with 4 legs. The group mounted their friendly camels and off they went into the distance. I sat in the front of a jeep and was driven to the camp. The boy there rushed to make a bed for me outside in the shade. I fell asleep. Hours later the group arrived saddle sore and weary. Bruises from cameras and the saddle. Many ached days later. I greeted them and went to bed this time in my tent. I did not get up until dawn to have a piece of dry toast. The jeeps picked us up and back to civilization. Considering that I did not really experience anything I enjoyed being there. I did have to find little bushes to squat behind a number of times.

I am still hopeful for my India Diet Program but not in such a drastic way. Maybe just small veg meals.

Things I've noticed:

Food - good and not too spicy
Camels - smelly and fart a lot
Beds - hard
Noise level - unbelievable
Cows - everywhere
Traffic - more unbelievable
Tour group - great
Tour leader - great
Garbage - everywhere
Hawkers - everywhere and so very persistent
Beggers - "
Deformed beggers - oh dear
Forts - big and always up a steep hill (walking)
Palaces - very plush
Desert - very dry

The Tour has been a good introduction to India for us and I guess we are ready to deal with it ourselves. India is a most interesting place to be, certainly never dull. I am looking forward to all the new experiences.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Desert Ho!

This afternoon we are off to the desert on our camels. WE arrived in Jaisalmer yesterday and on the way passed sand dunes, but I'm hoping that the ones we camp on are more distant from highways and cities. Geordie was supposed to write this post - his title would have been "Hot to Trot" probably, but since he is suffering some "trotting" of his own, it is not to be. We hope he can at least climb on and ride the camel for the first half of the journey.

We have been enjoying the Palaces part of our tour a great deal. We have stayed in a couple of hotels with Palace in their name, but they have been hotels. The palaces we have enjoyed are called Rawlas (rowl ahs), and they are wonderful. Both of them have been in the centre of villages with a local market just outside the walls, but inside are those oases of calm one expects in a palace.

As well, when we have stayed it's taken time to see all the rooms because we tour each one. Every room has been unique. In our last hotel in Benswara, the walls were green but stamped with peacock eye feathers all over and with one of those old rugs from my childhood, with two peococks resplendent on it - you may know those gaudy rugs that people might have hung on their walls too. Maybe you even had one. But it's much more appropriate here.

One of the other rooms was kitted out as a harem or bordello we're sure. It had red velvet bedspreads, yellow and red floor mats and cushions in silk and they looked so inviting. It was funny to see us all running around from room to room checking out the features. Some of them even had the ceiling fans painted like the walls, although ours didn't.

At Benswara I also took part in a night safari - in hopes of seeing a leopard. We didn't start until after 8:30 pm and the moon was not yet up. We got to watch it rise about four times as we moved from place to place where the local hills got in the way. The first rising was most spectacular though with the blood red moon glowing over the desert landscape.

We did have sightings, although not of leopard, even though they had been sighted within the last two days. We saw a blue bull - which, despite the name, is a deer, a black buck with delicate spiral horns which was my favorite - a lovely little creature browsing the thorny bushes. There were a few rabbits, and we hounded a fox for a minute or two cruelly chasing it in the jeep until it found a hiding place, and at one point we sat below a craggy hillside and watched a troop of monkeys who looked very alarmed when the driver imitated the sound of the leopard.

The other helper on the tour was an expert at making the sound of a baby goat in trouble - hoping to draw the leopard out. We had no luck there, but the sound was so creepy it gave me shivers. However, the leopard was somewhere nearby because at one point as we backtracked in the jeep we found its pawprints in the jeep tracks we had recently made. So close yet so far.

At Benswara we also had an evening of dressup. Several of the women dressed in saris and looked so beautiful. One of the women also dressed as a rajah, or local headman perhaps, with a dhoti (wrap around skirt pulled between the legs and tucked in at the waist band), and a turban which was wound from six meters of cloth - watching the man make it was most interesting since he kept wrapping and adjusting somewhat like winding a ball of yarn on a ball winder.

Anothe highlight a few days ago was from our other Rawla. We took an hour and a half train ride on an old train which still delivers people up and down the line. I was thrilled to see a deer standind watching us at one point and at another saw a large hairy looking animal scuttering through the bracken. I attemtped to describe it to the guide (I was the only one who saw the creatures), and he thought it might have been either a monitor lizard or a mongoose. Neither sounds right since the lizard is hardly hairy and the mongoose is not large - maybe it was a yeti! - oh, wrong country.

The best part of the train trip perhaps was the friendliness of the people. The young kids hanging around the stations all wanted to say hello or goodbye, and the people on the train lay on the uncomfortable benches or hung out the window (which is what this mighty game hunter did too), and people were just lovely. I got a great picture of three of the young women. Mayb the picture will load here although it's a slow connection. (JUst discovered that there are no usb ports where they are supposed to be - so no pictures again. Sorry!)

Must go now and ready myself for my camel. We are only taking an overnight bag, but I bought another wrap for Geordie yesterday so we will both have them to keep us warm in the desert. I will make sure to get photos of us wearing them. I may wear the one I got yesterday - it's more flamboyant in it's pinks and oranges and maybe Geordie would look better in sophisticated red and black.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Pssst, Wanna buy a camel? Cheap?

We've been on the road for several days with little time to write you. We've been through Pushkar, onto an amazing palace hotel in Jojawar, and now in Udaipur. And no, I didn't buy a camel in Pushkar. Sorry, no camel rides when we get home.

Pushkar is an incredible place, with so many temples, bathing ghats, shops, people, holy men, and yes, camels. The lake at Pushkar is very holy - the place where Brahma dropped a lotus flower if my memory is correct, and it is also one of the very few places where there is a temple to him. Apparently his wife found him dallying with fair maids and cursed him so that people would worship him only there.

Our hotel in Pushkar was at the outskirts of the village - a ten minute walk to the lake past camels, cows, shops, travel agents, the bus station and heaven knows what else. Of course the streets were crowded, with so many pilgrims there for the festival. The fair takes place at the week leading up to the full moon.

At the camel grounds one is awarded with the sight of thousands upon thousands of camels, not there to furnish kitschy pictures for the tourists but for trading and selling. Camels are working animals as we saw on our way through Rajahstan where camel carts are more prevalent than horse carts. Many of the camels are caparisoned with jewelled cloths, wear necklaces of large beads and have patterns shaved into their hair. Some of them too have been blackened around the face or neck, no doubt to increase their desirability to the buyers.

And of course with a fair comes fair grounds. There was a ferris wheel, the usual rides, all gaily painted, and people everywhere - even cotton candy for sale. No corn dogs, though. We went into the arena too, to see the activities there. Camel carts hauling loads of tourists wander through, the horses on show are brought out to be seen (splendid horses, real beauties), and there are acrobats and tightrope walkers. There was even a race among the women which had them racing from the starting point, to a line of water jugs which they then carried on their shoulders back to the start. I'm disappointed to tell you that a local Pushkar girl was not the winner - I do believe an English woman took the honours. No Canadians were entered so we don't know what might have happened if...

Around the lake there are, as I said, many Pilgrims, who come to wash their sins in the holy waters of the lake. The lake is completely surrounded by the ghats, steps which lead down, and one wonders where the entry point of the water is. The ashes of the dead are also placed in the lake - Gandhi's ashes were brought here.

We had Puja ceremony on our second night in Pushkar. We sat on the edge of one of the ghats with our feet bare, a plate next to us with salt, rice, rose petals, red and yellow powder and a coconut. The Brahmin priest led us in a recitation to purge us of sins and to bless our friends and family and then used the paste to smear our foreheads, and placed rice there too which stayed until we washed it off later.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Blow Horn, Keep Distends, Wate for Side

We just arrived in Udaipur this afternoon, after a visit our visit to Jaipur, two days in Pushkar at the camel fair and a night in a Maharajah's palace in a small village between there and here. (Oh, it was POSH! - so we must be too.) Pushkar deserves its own blog entry so this is just a taster for you right now.

Today on our way to Udaipur we drove past kilometres and kilometres of marble quarries with so much marble I think they could pave the world in it, or at least Canada. Today in our hotel we discovered that not only the floors in the room and the room are marble, so are the shelves in the closet! And last night the Maharajah's palace was another symphony of marble with a bathroom we could have held a ball in.

But to the blow horn title - not only did we drive past all the marble factories but we also drove by all the trucks that carry the marble, thousands of them, and they all have Blow Horn, or Sound Horn inscribed on the back, while some also have Keep Distance, or Wate for side. And a good thing. Since the roads are only two lanes, passing is an adventure but the drives all help each other do it.

First you pull out to have a look, if things look promising the driver pulls out, blowing his horn of course. Then the truck one is passing falls back a little (Keep distance) and finally the guy riding shot gun on the bus leans out the window and signals to the truck driver when we need to get in. And sometimes we have to get in fast.

However, it all works, and works like magic, since we are still here.

Now I have to go - we are off to dinner at Ambrai - with a view of the Lake Palace all lit up like a birthday cake I bet.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

On Touring - and a brush with Royalty

Our tour started two days ago. First things first - it's a really good group of people. First when we started gathering I was getting a little worried - seemed we were going to be a group of 20 somethings and two old farts (us!). However, we are no longer the only retirees. There are six others, a couple and a single travelling woman, one woman who hopes to retire next year, and two women travelling together one of whom is retired, but does dog grooming, and the other a social worker who has already been in India twice and is repeating many of the same places.

The surprise was to find that there seemed to be a majority of Australians. There are 14 of us, your boys from Canada, two from Switzerland, (not together), two from South Africa, two from England and the rest Aussies, although of those, two are German Aussies, and two are Polish Aussies - sounds very Canadian too, yes?

We got a tour of Delhi our first afternoon, which was not really that exciting. We had already seen some fascinating things so seeing the crowds at India Gate was a little anticlimactic. However it was a chance to meet our fellow travellers in travelling mode, and it looks like we are going to be all nicely compatible - yay!

The next morning we had to haul ourselves out of bed at 4:00 am to get to the train station for the 6:10 to Jaipur. And the train was on time. We were in airplane type seats if not quite so posh, but it was fun - we even got served breakfast - tea (twice), toast, a small plate with some spicy potato croquette things and five french fries with two green beans (well that was my plate, some got fewer french fries and more green beans, but we all got about 12 peas too).

Once we got out of Delhi the landscape turned interesting - in comparison the world suddenly looked clean and inviting - fields of yellow grain, corn stooks, an occasional camel cart going by, people out working in the fields. Looked lovely after the heavy smog and heavy traffic of Delhi. However, Jaipur is no less heavy trafficked, although the air is much more breathable.

We got an afternoon tour too, of the Amber Fort, which included a trip to the top by jeep and a guide who was not such a good guide. She did seem unhappy when we waxed less than enthusiastic about her lacklustre descriptions, we had a difficult time understanding her English and we were tired. Hey, we'd been up since 4 am after all.

We did have lunch first though - Geordie and I walked about a half hour to find a restaurant which we had read about in a National Geographic Traveller. It was good - we both ordered the Thali which came with about five different vegetarian options as well as a sweet yam like dish which we ate as a savoury but which I think was supposed to be dessert. Yogurt too. Walking back was like taking our lives in our hands - the traffic here is mad - chock-a-block with vehicles of every description. (Can you believe that Geordie and I have yet to try out a tuk tuk or cycle rickshaw?)

We were so full that in the evening we skipped dinner - well we went out and bought some cookies which Geordie had as his supper - I didn't bother. I didn't sleep well, had origami dreams, was awakened by a rooster at 5;00, the call to prayer at 5:30, the shrill of birds in the palm trees outside our window at 6:00 - might as well get up. But for breakfast we had our first eggs since leaving Canada - nice.

After breakfast was the City tour of Jaipur - the pink city, although I would call it muddy rose. WE also had a new tour guide - who is also the mayor of a town of 10000 people about 60 km from Jaipur - he was a great improvement on yesterday's guide, charming, entertaining and knowledgeable. The highlights of the tour were the Royal Observatory, a remarkable achievement for the 1700's with one sundial accurate to two minutes and another (the largest in the world according to the Guiness Book of World Records) accurate to two seconds. Honest! And Geordie and I took pictures of each other at our respective zodiac symbols. (No pictures this time though - another sticky keyboard and old computers with the USB port at the back).

After the observatory we got to see the City Palace, home of the Maharajah of Jaipur. And while we were there, his car sailed through and we could see him inside, wearing big sunglasses but nodding to the crowds. And if that wasn't enough we also got to see him being wheeled in his wheelchair across a courtyard and into his private residence - so six degrees of separation, people - there is only us between him and you! (Oh, and he was still wearing the sunglasses!)

Tomorrow we are off to Pushkar and the camel fair. I hope I can find a place where I can download some pictures of us on a camel cart or otherwise in compromising positions. I apologize for not taking pictures of us with snake charmers, Maharajah's guards, or the Sadhu (a holy man) who posed for the cameras with his tongue out and touching his nose. I'm sorry, I just didn't take pictures of those things, even though we saw them - can I be forgiven?

Now to rest for tomorrow and the hope that the earplugs I put in tonight will block the sound of the muzzein and the call to prayer tomorrow morning. I will look for opportunities to post photos of us - at the Peacock Gate in Jaipur, or with those camels tomorrow.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Getting There Was Half the Fun

We did brave the Metro today. And survived. In fact I think if I am ever forced to live in India I'm going to spend my time there. It's fast, efficient, cheap, clean and quiet. No tuk-tuk's and taxis and trucks honking there horns, no cows wandering the tracks, no excrement fouling the walkways - it's an amazing contrast to the above ground.

We started our day by attempting to find out what stop to get off at for the Red Fort, but the staff didn't seem too knowledgeable about where we would get off. We finally decided we'd chance it anyway and walked to the nearby stop we had checked out before. It was an easy walk, but the aforementioned excrement was rather too plentiful on the way. However, the metro itself was a model of decorum. Everyone goes through a metal detector and if it beeps gets frisked. We are frisked everytime. I suppose I could take off my belt. I don't have a hip replacement so it can't be that.

We had to transfer lines on our way, but the route is as well signed as one needs. There are also announcements for every stop in Hindi and in English, and also electronic information boards that say the same thing in both scripts. We had no problem getting to our desired location although it was a little disconcerting to come up in Chowndi Chowk with no directional signs, just an alley leading off. We took it anyway and were finally brought out to a broad and very busy roadway, where we reconnoitered and decided that we should walk to the east. Where indeed we found the Red Fort.

More security there, but not like yesterday at the Modern temple where it took almost an hour to get in what with dropping off our stuff at the cloak room (not a single cloak left there I'm sure) and then the wait to be frisked at the real entrance.

The fort is indeed red, or at least it's walls are. It has also been a royal residence so there are marble palaces which were once richly decorated as you can imagine. The Peacock Throne was removed from here and taken to Iran by the Persians. Some of the inlaid tiles are still decorating the marble walls and are very beautiful. (I think the flowers are poppies.)

After wandering, we headed out and stopped at a shop where I bargained for a shawl to ward off the early morning chill. It's red at the ends (about a foot) and the rest is black, but it has an allover woven pattern in Paisleys. Comes from Lahore apparently. I bargained it down from 400 rupees to 250, so paid a princely 6 dollars for it.

Now for confession time. We didn't see any coffee shops, but we did pass a MacDonald's on the way so we went back and had a cappucino there. It cost 60 cents for each one, and we had to wait for it because there was a power outage while we were in there. It came back on in a couple of minutes so we got to enjoy our nice hot coffee. We have seen no other coffee shops yet, (I think the Indian Coffee Shop chain is more South India - I hope we do find them soon, though.) Then horrors, I had a soft serve icecream in a fresh made thin walled waffle cone - delicious and 20 rupees or 50 cents.

Ok, now Geordie thought he should drag me through the crowded streets to the Jama Masjid, the Moslem Temple nearby. That was an adventure as we walked down narrow alleys full of people and cycle rickshaws (the human powered ones), as well as a few goats and sheep and many many stalls. He even dragged me down a narrower side alley which twisted and turned then deposited us back on another street from where we had to get back to the one we needed, Did I mention that we have seen no street signs since we arrived? Seems the only way you know what street you are on is if a business shows its address on its building.

Along the way we passed brick sellers, seems it's their street for a bit, cloth sellers, and we think not a few homes under tarps along the side of a wall. We couldn't visit the Jama until about 1:30 (service at 12:00) so we went looking for a restaurant we had read about in Gourmet magazine. And we found it, after going much too far, turning around and then finding the name of the restaurant gracing many businesses nearby. We were finally directed to the Karim's we were looking for by a guy in a shop who must be used to all the foreigners in the area.

This restaurant may have been mentioned in Gourmet but it's not for the decor. Formica tables and a kid on his haunches cleaning the floor with a rag. But the food was good (Gourmet? I don't think so). We had Chicken Tikka, chunks of chicken with onion and peppers grilled and yes very tasty. Plain Dal (yellow split peas), mutton qorma (a stew with a rich gravy made with yogurt and wonderful freshly made naan - very eggy in flavour which is not the usual, but oh so good. We had one, then as the waiter went by later with a plate of them he offered us another which of course we took - it was better than the first- really piping hot and so fresh. Delicious.

(I took pictures of the Tikka and the naan, but I have yet to see the USB link on the computer -it's at the back and I'm not crawling around on the floor to find it. Sorry bout that.)

There was still 3/4 of an hour before we could officially visit the Jama so we decided to skip it - what would we do during that time - there was no coffee shop after all. So we went walking looking for another metro stop, along a street that first was all paper suppliers, with men carrying reams of the stuff on their backs, every shop with its samples displayed, lots of fancy papers available. Then the street became the place to buy door hardware, many varieties of door handles, knobs and other door paraphernalia, then it was the motorbike repair shops with men filing bushings, selling ball bearings, greasing things with pots of grease. And finally the Metro stop - which by the way is not marked on our map so Geordie is using dead reckoning to find things.

Down into the merciful peace and quiet of the subway. And a guess as to where we might need to go to find the National Museum. We guessed right again, and got off at the end of the line and found the Rajpath above us - a broad swath of greenery where the lovers hang out to get away from family I'm sure. We walked about half its length and found the museum.

Here's a wierd bit - the first display we saw in the museum was a small exhibit of walrus ivory with some lovely NW Coast First Nations designs. Who knew? Then we walked through the pre-Columbian exhibit with Mayan sculpture, a codex facsimile, and some pottery. Not what we had been expecting.

We did finally find the Indian heritage stuff, some great Buddha sculptures. some tetxtiles, a whole display of armour, a room full of Indian miniatures but also full of a gaggle of girls - seems Saturday is the day the schools do the museum tours. The museum was designed to amplify every syllable of every girl's conversation - it was deafening. And in the midst of them we also found two of our fellow hotel guests who will be on our tour with us. They too were trying to find away through the crowds and out.

We'd had enough, our legs were tired, and we were thirsty so we decided to head back to the hotel. Another Metro trip, another transfer of lines and we were back. Easy as pie.

Tomorrow we meet our tour group for the first time. We will find out who our other travellers are and meet our tour guide. Aparently if we get Rudy we will be very lucky. He guided the tour of the people we met the first day and they liked him a lot. You'll get our opinion soon, I'm sure.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Driving Lessons in India

We took a tour today by car to see some of the sights we knew we would not see on the organized tour scheduled for next Monday. Our driver was certainly competent, which was a good thing. Hurtling to a full stop is not my strength but he did it so well. How do the people fit their cars into such tiny slots? With the ubiquitous yellow and green tuk-tuks, the bicycles, the bicycle rickshaws, the paving equipment (yes, driving on the road, not paving it), the buses, the trucks, it's a wonder anyone gets where they are going. But we saw only one minor accident, and as Geordie pointed out, in Vancouver that accident would have created a traffic back up of kilometers where here it just meant we swerved around it.

Apparently the lines on the roads have been painted as decoration. How else to explain the fact that we often drove straddling the line or as happened just a few minutes before we got back, driving on the far side of the yellow line and then taking a right turn before the intersection proper started!

Our tour took in some quite fascinating sights, including the Qutb Minar which is the site of the oldest mosque in India and the site too of it's tallest victory tower, and immense brick structure with Islamic characters around it. Some of the details were borrowed from the Hindu temples which were there first we asume - how else to explain the figures on some of the pillars - Islam does not allow human representation.

We made a pilgrimage to the Bahai Temple which welcomes all faiths for prayer and meditation. There we had to give up our shoes, but luckily the stones we walked on were cool, even in this heat. It's a huge temple designed to resemble a lotus flower, and it does a good job. It is very white - so I used the snow setting on my camera to capture it. I think it adds a blueness to counteract the intensity of the white.

At the Akshardham Temple we were overawed by the amazing carvings of elephants which ring the main temple.They were all so wonderful - and in many different poses, many representing lessons to learn. Surprisingly, this is a very new temple, built as recently as 1969. I knew it had to be when I saw the statues of little boys in short pans wearing belts. Not quite the Indian garb of the distant past.

We finished up at the Humayun's Tomb which is the forerunner of an inspiration for the Taj Mahal and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is built in pink brick so not as powerful a statement perhaps as the Taj, but we will have to wait and see when we tour the Taj later.

All in all an interesting day. We are glad to have survived the traffic and were surprised late in the afternoon when we realized that we could actually see that the sky is blue. In the morning it was white and it was the air that was blue - a blue thick enough to cut with a knife.

I'm sure I will think of something else to say about our tour. I know that I even missed one of the sites we toured, but really, surviving the trip was so much more memorable that any temple. Now we think we may be ready to brave the Metro tomorrow to see the Red Fort in Old Delhi.

(A little note: I have attempted to add some links for you to the sites we saw, but this computer has been hijacked so that all the links take me to an area which is not exactly what I hoped for. So if you want to see more, you might do a google search. I did find the two links that are highlighted but failed to get a link to th Qutb Minar. It's an interesting site, also part of UNESCO's World Heritage sites and you will no doubt have more luck finding it than I have had.)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

I Love a Parade

During our time on the roof today, about 7:00 am, we heard drums and singing so had to go over to look over. Seems we were observing a Hare Krishna parade winding its way through the neighbourhood.

Later in the afternoon, while I was enjoying a coffee by myself on the roof I heard the sound of a marching band so had to go look again. It took awhile for the parade to come into view but when it did it was worth the wait. It was being led by two huge elephants dressed in long cloth that swept the ground - and a place on top where he carried his passengers. They were followed by eight men on white horses, then several carts highly decorated, pulled by more white horses. One of the carts was particularly ornate with a high sweeping overhang.

And following that was not one, but two, marching bands. The first in white with red hats, the second in white with orange hats and orange puttees. The music was a sprightly jazz tune that was jaunty and toetapping - hmmmm, New Delhi or New Orleans.

And just a second ago Geordie popped by to announce that a big white cow had walked by all alone. I guess with that many cows, it's no surprise that yogurt is freely available.

India Here We Are

It was a tight schedule, but we made it to Delhi with no problem. London was the squeeze - we had just about an hour to get from terminal 1 to terminal 4, but we found the fast track and got to our gate as they were loading the plane. It was a two overnighter trip. We left Vancouver at 8:30 pm and left London at 3:30 pm but were quickly flying in the dark.

Our arrival in Delhi was at a rather early 4:45 am, and the moment we touched the ground we could smell the smoke of the fires in the air. The air is thick with smoke - we're guessing cook fires or heating, maybe it's cow dung too- and it was the same all day today.

The trip from the airport to our less than auspicious hotel was almost uneventful - we did have a young man who swerved into the front of our car on his bicycle without bothering to look, but he didn't manage to hit us. Lucky for him, I guess.

At the hotel we were a little early for a room and were sent up to the restaurant on the roof for coffee and a goodly wait of more than two hours before a room was ready. It was at least a chance to update our notebooks, do a little reading and later to meet four people who have just finished the tour we are starting and gave it high marks, including the other hotels on the list - apparently this is the second lowest hotel (and the lowest was because of the noise in Agra), and the other hotels are all very nice.

Mind you, our room is very spacious and the beds are comfortable - we've been sleeping on and off all day. It's 11 and a half hours difference in time zones so while we are going to bed you will all be getting up. Of course our bodies will be on your schedule, so this morning at 3:00 am we will probably be wide awake and doing crossword puzzles. Let's hope the jet lag is not too long.

We did go off on a mini adventure, walking in our neighbourhood this afternoon. It's very close to a market area so we walked through it after shrugging off a few tuk-tuk drivers, a woman who just wanted a "banana for baby" and an elderly man dressed like Mahatma Gandhi who asked for alms too.

The market has a little of everything - a couple of guys sorting nails and screws, a lot of tailors busily sewing, tire repair, naan sellers (the bread looked good) and other food stalls. Too bad the hotel couldn't find someone to clean my shirt of the lovely red wine stain I managed to put on it when I tipped my wine glass over in the confines of the airplane. Note to self:" white wine for planes from now on. I washed it myself in the hotel sink and think I did a reasonable job of getting the colour out.

After walking the length of two streets of the market, we headed back and stopped at a "sweet shop" where we ordered some food - a paratha (bread) stuffed with shredded potato and a little spicy heat, a scoop of potato curry, and a spoonful of yogurt which I was told by one of my knitting buddies is good for Delhi Belly. The paratha was finger burning hot and fresh from the tandoor oven I'm guessing. It was indeed tasty fare - we enjoyed it as well as the milky coffee we ordered to go with it.

Tonight we did a little walk up to the nearest Metro station to see if we could figure out the system - we think so. Looks relatively easy. We may or may not use the system since it is relatively cheap to hire a taxi for the whole day to tour around. We may do that to visit the Red Fort and the market, which are not on our itinerary our first official day with Imaginative Traveller.

So, so far so good. Thanks to the folks who posted notes. It was nice to read them. And I think I know how to post pictures so will no doubt be doing that soon enough. There were few picture opportunities today, although I did take a picture of Geordie's meal. For those of you in the know about my camera woes, my camera did indeed arrive on time from Pennsylvania - at 9:30 am on the day we left for India, so cutting it close.

Our official tour starts in two days so we have to do some looking around here in Delhi, hence the need to think about taxis and metros. We will certainly be looking for more adventures to share tomorrow.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

India Here We Come!

On Tuesday, November 13, 2008 we will be making our long-awaited trip to India. It's a dream come true, although every now and again, like almost constantly, we think maybe it will be a nightmare. No, it won't! India is a place where all the rules may be thrown out the window. We are expecting everything to be hard to do, everything to be confusing, distracting, awe-inspiring, exhausting, wearing, exhilarating, just the perfect Nigel and Geordie trip.

We remind ourselves that we will not be the first to do this. We have been proceeded by thousands, nay, millions before us. Hey, didn't Marco Polo stop off here on his way to China? Oh, probably. There won't be a single new discovery we will make for the world. (As if!)

So this is how it will go... We will leave on Tuesday evening, our bags packed, the little plastic bag with our liquids as deemed appropriate by British Airways, maybe my knitting with the needles already holding the start of a sock to show I'm legitimate, and our passports holding our Visa to India. Now how exciting is that. We spent a morning one day and an afternoon the next sitting in the office of the Consul General of India to first deliver our application and then to pick it up - it was so exciting to hear the man at the counter as he passed us back our passports, visas safely glued in, say, Have a nice vacation. Thank you, we will.

We fly to London first, then after a short stay of four hours or so, we will be off to Delhi on our second overnight flight. We get in at some ungodly hour, but we will be met at the airport by someone from the hotel we have booked, and we will feel safe and sound as we are taken through the presumed maelstrom of traffic to our place of refuge.

We begin with a tour using Imaginative Traveller. Our tour is called Desert, Forts and Palaces.

A tour you say, Nigel and Geordie are doing a tour! What is happening in the world? Well, maybe we're getting smart in our old age. We have decided that to save our sanity, we will let someone else worry about us for the first three weeks and once we are weaned we can strike out on our own. Geordie has been very busy, doing the striking out. After a few false starts he finally managed to book us train reservations on India Railways (they move over a million people a day, so I imagine they can get us to Varanasi), and hotels in Varanasi, Bodhgaya (where the Buddha gained enlightenment and taught his first disciples, and on to Kolkata (you may know it as Calcutta, ma'am).

And he's even booked us a flight from Kolkata to Chennai (the city formerly known as Madras - anyone for some cheap cloth?) So we are well and truly on our way.

It's exciting for us. We are fretting over what to pack, other than that bag of liquids, do we need a warm coverup on the camel tour into the Thar Desert at night? Can we haggle for some cheap sweater we don't mind throwing away when we reach the beaches of the east coast? Oh dear oh, my, Lions and tigers and bears oh my!

There is so much we are expecting from this trip. We will come back enlightened, if not about life then with our weight. We are calling this our spa vacation, we expect to lose weight when we experience our bouts of Delhi Belly, and we will come back waif like and probably ravenous, after attempting to feed ourselves using only our right hand, our left tied behind us to prevent us from making the worst faux pas imaginable in India, eating with the wrong hand.

Can you tell I'm excited? Of course you can. What gave it away?

We think that this is going to be the way we communicate with you and the rest of the world from now on - Blog on! We'll keep you posted as we post our newsy notes and your mailbox will be clogged with nothing but gentle reminders that we have said something new and earthshattering and you must quickly check us out to see the latest news of Nigel and Geordie on Their Trip to India.