Archive for the ‘India’ Category


15th August

The yoghurt smothered banana left my spoon and arched a smooth trajectory towards my mother, where it landed on her top. We glared at each other surprised as well as furious. The argument, as all good arguments are, was a petty one.


I gathered my things (P.D.Q. I can tell you) and stalked across the terrace and down the steps to the small garden below where I paced, breathing deeply. After a good ten minutes I returned to our breakfast table over looking Udaipur’s picturesque Lake Pichola. We muttered apologies to one another and we both giggled – the day was underway.


Jamil was taking us on ‘The City Tour’. I would never normally do the city tour but it was probably a good way to take in all the necessary Udaipuri sights without exhausting Mum (now bespattered) too much. As it turns out it was a waste of time and money (in my opinion, for the opinion of the other members of the tour you will have to ask her).


Our first stop was the spice market, which rankled a little as I knew where this was having spent most of my last visit to Udaipur there and would have preferred to visit under our own steam. We were taken to the edge of the veg. market and given time to wonder around and the opportunity to buy spices from Jamil’s friend. I declined this offer knowing that the really good spices were much deeper inside the warren of market streets.



We made our way to the market where beautiful vegetables in a rainbow of colours are laid out on burlap sacks and the noisy bartering and weighing on old-fashioned hand held scales takes place. We were soon centre of attention and the market women wanted to have their photo taken.


This is common place in India, wherever you go people of all ages implore “please madam, one photo” and then stand stiffly to attention for the photograph. I snapped a couple of the women who then insisted that mum went to join them for the pictures.


The fat, jolly lady pulled up a plastic crate for mum to sit on and patted it. Quick as a flash, however, the adjacent veg. seller and owner of the bright orange crate pulled it back, “NO” mum could not sit on her crate. The first lady then rattled off some rapid Hindi and the crate was pulled back for mum.


This continued for about a minute until our lady triumphed and secured the crate and indicated that mum take her seat for the photo. Almost in slow motion, as mum started to sit down the crate-owner pulled it out from under her. Mum was suddenly up-turtled, legs in the air! The entire market was in hysterics and once I realised that there was no saving mum from her fate I started rattling off photos to capture the comedy.


After such auspicious beginnings the tour continued. We saw some mausoleums, king ones. They were alright, bit over grown and covered in pigeons and their effluent – fun when you have to remove ones shoes out of respect! Then we drove to see the statue of a famous horse, a warrior horse whose name was Chutak. He was loyal to his Kingly master and bravely defended him and then died in battle.


Most importantly, lunch was an incredible thali.


After which we went to the Princess gardens where we were supposed to admire the fountains. Instead we found ourselves inside the onsite Science Museum, in the loosest sense of the term, you understand. The officious man in charge pounced on us when we entered the room – his next victims had arrived. He was delighted when he found out that I was a teacher too. Being a teacher is usually the easiest lie to tell about ones employment and education status in India, being as it is an honourable profession. He led us around his museum which contained such strange exhibits as a pile of labelled local rocks, fun-fair mirrors, a magic (how did we do it?) tap and a large free standing pulley.


“Madam, Madam. Come” he ordered us from one display to another. “Look Madam!” “oh! yes” we politely nodded. “Here, Madam. Here!” “Touch the Peacock” he bodily moved me and then mum towards a plaster peacock. We both touched the peacock. We managed, but only just, to keep straight faces when he showed us riding a bike, Benny Hill style, standing up against a vertical mirror. I was then made, yes MADE to do the same. This continued around the mercifully small ‘museum’.


If either mum or I tried to skip an exhibit or didn’t pay enough attention to the wonders of an exhibit, we were admonished and physically returned to the exhibit to appreciate the marvels within. The last item was a camera obscura and Mum was told to “SIT” and “look” which she obediently did. We managed to escape at last and made it out into the pouring rain where we stood next to the giggling school girls under shelter. Suddenly he was back, he looked at mum and said “I had to say goodbye to my English girlfriend” I let out an ill-disguised guffaw. Mum gave me a steely look, “let’s go now before he tries to make me his wife.”


After this we told Jamil that yes it had been a wonderful tour but now we would like to go back to our hotel. My recommendation is that if you ever have the luck to visit beautiful Udaipur that you do not do the tour.


The rest of our time was more purposefully spent. We took an art class. This I loved, not just because I really enjoy the intricate, delicate work of Indian Miniature Painting but because it was such a fun thing for mum and me to do together.



Mum has fallen in love with Nandi. Nandi is the vehicle of the Hindu God Shiva and he is a bull and the reason why the cow is sacred in India. You will find a Nandi at every temple entrance and he is the subject of her painting.


The teacher was intrigued by her choice saying that in all his years no student had ever requested a Nandi. I chose the national bird of India: the peacock.


We took a cooking class. It was my second lesson with the same teacher so we took a more advanced class. We learned paneer butter masala, dal fry, pumpkin curry and veg. biryani. Our classmates, a married couple from Leeds were soon exchanging surreptitious glances and clearly thought that this mother/daughter duo were more than slightly unhinged. I am not sure exactly what we did but after eating they dived into their room and we could hear uncontrolled fits of giggles.



We had impromptu Hindi lessons over cold beer at the bar by the bridge, we watched Ian Fleming’s ‘Octopussy’ play out against its real life backdrop – minus Roger Moore’s quizzically arched eyebrow of course.



We looked after a 21 year old Scottish boy who was lonely, saw a traditional dance recital and weaved our way amongst the many bovine inhabitants – who just collapse wherever they deem fit. Looked through piles of pashminas and declined to buy any, we watched the women washing their clothes on the ghats from our beautiful room and had a romantic dinner in a posh restaurant with an amazing view of Udaipur city palace lit up like a fairy castle at night.


We also had to eat part of said dinner in the drizzling rain but like the good Brits that we are we pretended not to notice. And on our last day at breakfast a very lovely gentleman leaned over and said “I have noticed you around and have to tell you, you are the best dressed ladies in Udaipur!”



Quitting whilst we were ahead, we decided, we had better leave Udaipur. Our quarry was still Jaisalmer where we want to do the camel safari and sleep in the Great Thar desert under the stars.





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10th August.


We leapt out of bed the following day, with a spring in our step, eager to attack all that Mumbai had to offer. We strolled down to the ‘Gateway to India’, the scene of my panic attack on my second day in Mumbai, all those months before.


Our plan was to take the trip out to Elephanta Island to see the Unesco World Heritage temples there, but we were way-laid. We were cunningly sold a city tour – encompassing the slums, the laundry, the two hotels where the bombers were (?), Jain temples and Gandhi Ji’s house.


Mum had great fun with her new camera – my old Canon G10. My G10 took me faithfully around five countries and through, literally, thousands of photos. Our love affair is over, however, as I am now the proud new owner of a Canon 550d so expect more photos, hopefully markedly better ones.


We saw the sights, heard the tour guides broken English commentary and declined to buy anything in the obligatory tourist shop at the end. We were dropped off at a fab little thali place that was conveniently located just next to our fabric shop where the day before we had purchased our new salwars. We popped in to see if they were ready before a quick trip to the internet to book train tickets for our next destination, then we were to catch the last boat to Elephanta.


However, the clothes were not ready and I mistakenly booked us waitlisted tickets on the train to Udaipur the following day. We rushed back to the Gateway to catch the boat – which we missed. Dejected and blaming each other we made our way to another internet cafe.


On the way a very wily young boy tried to sell us a map. We did not need or want his map or his children’s books, but after hearing his story about how he is a good student and that he doesn’t like to beg for money, he artfully suggested that we might like to buy him some rice. A very reasonable suggestion and we concurred. He told us he would take us to the rice shop and then show us a good internet cafe. We had envisioned buying him a plate of rice for him to get his skinny bones around, but he had much more grandiose plans than that. He proposed that we buy him 5kgs of rice, thus feeding his whole family for one month.


This ‘tiny’ bag of rice would set us back Rs500 (and although not a huge sum by Sainsbury’s standards, you must understand that Rs500 is my daily budget and I wouldn’t even pay for a hotel at that price). He stood there with his cheeky little face and categorically denied that he was begging. We negotiated with him and it was finally decided he would, in fact, accept Rs10 to take home to his mother.


We did then go and spend another torturous hour or so in the internet cafe where we tried every which way to get straight from Mumbai to Jaisalmer (it cannot be done) and finally decided to take a risk and hope that we got seats on the train the following day. We would be going from Mumbai to Udaipur, a hop at only eighteen hours. And although you don’t know it because I never published the blog, Udaipur is the last city that I went to in India the first time round. It is beautiful and romantic and perhaps my most favourite city in all India that I visited. It is hustling and bustling and I did cooking classes and art classes and I loved it. Maybe one day I really should publish that blog……hmmm, we’ll see.


The wise words of GhandiJi.

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9th August.

I am back!


The flight to Mumbai went without a hitch. Jet Airways once again surpassed themselves, it is comfortable, the food is excellent and the in-flight entertainment is…well… entertaining.

As we (we being, one intrepid traveller and one very intrepid mother, on a five week sojourn to (in my opinion) the best country in the world, ever) touched down in Mumbai, I began the series of warnings, preparing my mother for the onslaught ahead. The scram for taxis, people trying helpfully to grab our bags, the heat, the noise. India. But as India is always surprising, none of this happened. We sailed through immigration (having sensibly filled in our immigration cards – unlike some other Goa-bound travellers I could mention!), baggage claim was a breeze and despite the only ATM machine at the airport not working, we managed to change up enough Rupees for our taxi ride into town.

Once having secured our very own black and yellow cab we commenced the forty-five minute journey. Retracing my exact first steps in India some nine and a half months previous. Then the taxi driver decided to take some elaborate detour and we ended up driving around for well over an hour. Finally we reached our destination: YWCA Colaba. Downtown Mumbai, don’t you know! I favour this hotel because aside from its central location, it is fairly reasonably priced, spotlessly clean, they provide towels, soap and hot water, have A/C and TV’s in the rooms and give you free breakfast and dinner – what more could a girl want?

Our first day in Mumbai was spent shopping. Mummy needed ‘appropriate’ attire and in my book that means (as I am sure you are aware) Salwar Kameez. There were two ways to achieve this goal either off the peg or a visit to a tailor. To purchase your tailor-made Salwar Kameez you must first buy the cloth. This will come in colour coordinated packages containing the material for the trousers (salwar) the contrasting yet matching material for the dress (kameez) and accompanying scarf (dupatta). The dupatta is artfully draped across the chest with the tails hanging down the back and although is very attractive its main function is to preserve one’s modesty by covering the breasts. This bundle is then taken to the tailor and he will measure and design, to your specification, and return within about 24-48 hours one ‘suit’.

We didn’t have 24 hours as Mum needed clothes now, so we made our way to ‘Cotton Cottage’ and ‘Fab India’ where we had great fun mixing and matching colours to create an outfit. Here the method is slightly different as everything is readymade but not coordinated so first one chooses the kameez and then the other pieces to match.

Kitted out with her new clothes we made our way to the perfume shop. But on our way the monsoon stopped us in our tracks and with water dripping down our necks and swirling round our ankles we dashed into the nearest restaurant. We feasted on Dal Makhani, veg Biryani and Paneer Butter Masala. Once the rains had abated we braved the streets once again and managed to find the perfume shop that has eluded me each and every time I have been to Mumbai.


We sat on the padded sofas as ornate decanter after ornate cut-glass bottle was proffered. The perfumier handed us the stoppers so we could smell the rich oils. Every now and then he would sneakily manage to spread some on us. A little Kashmeri Rose on my left sleeve, a smear of White Musk on my dupatta, Opium on the back of my right hand and Jasmine over the other side of my dupatta. As the heady smells were starting to make my head spin and I was sure I was starting to smell like an Arabian brothel (I have no actual frame of reference for this and it was purely conjecture on my part). Mum and decided we better hurry up, choose and get out. Our final choices were Kashmeri Rose, Frangipani, Lemongrass and the mysterious Ice Burg!

As we left the shop we spotted a cloth shop displaying beautiful salwar kameez in the windows and we dived in. After the shop assistants had pulled out over forty different colourful packages we made our choices: mine an olive green number and mum a baby pink and white ensemble. ‘Master’ was then summoned to measure us and we spent a happy half hour giving instructions as to neck shape front and back, sleeve length, dress length, salwar size and other intricate measurements as well. With assurances that we could collect them on the morrow we jounced back out on to the busy Mumbai streets.

Ducking past the street stalls selling everything from magnified watches to gaudy plastic, sparkly Ganeshes, from “very good price” pashminas to “it’s free for looking” silky bags. The sing-song of their wares ringing in our ears we decided to end the day in “Leopold’s Cafe”. A Mumbai institution and watering hole since 1871, Leopold’s is also famous for its Shantaram connection and one of the places the terrorists attacked during their raid on Mumbai in 2008. The bullet holes in the wall a sombre reminder. We had fresh grape juice and I had a large kingfisher all to myself.

We barely shuffled our way back down the street and flopped into our hard but clean beds for a well deserved sleep. And thus ended our very first day together in India – so far, ten points to the mother for getting stuck in!

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Dear Patient Blog Readers,

I am very sorry for the terrible gap since my last blog. Firstly, thank you to everyone who emailed me and if I couldn’t reply to every one I am also sorry.

Since nearly getting myself arrested in Malaysia much has happened and although I have not been able to blog about it, I did upload the photos from Indonesia – so please feel free to trawl through them whenever you have a spare 18 hours. (My Flickr Photos)

Indonesia was infinitely preferable to Malaysia and I spent many an hour in my hammock sewing and reading. I also was able to fulfil a life-long ambition and make myself very proud of myself by completing a three day jungle trek to see Orangutans. They were, of course, adorable and majestic in equal measures and I only wish I could jump back into the photos and be there again.

After the jungle I decided to reward my exertions by taking much deserved R & R by the beautiful waters of Lake Toba. It was here that I met Denise. A girl who shared not only my passion for India but loved it in (unnervingly) exactly the same way. From fresh lime sodas to the virtues of sleeper class, we waxed lyrical to one another, boring the very socks off anyone in ear shot. After two days of intense reminiscing, I made the best decision that I ever made since deciding to go to India the first time – I decided to go back. To end my trip of a lifetime in the place that bought me such joy and happiness. I will return to India for the last three months of my journey, visiting those places that I was unable to get to the first time: Calcutta, Khajuraho, Bodhgaya to name a few. The lull that was starting to pervade my trip has lifted; my excitement is very much renewed.

There will be one slight difference, however. Well I say slight – that is perhaps downplaying the enormity of the situation, for this time, yes this time I shall have in tow: one mother – mine. That should definitely spice the blog up somewhat, so if you haven’t already, subscribe to the blog now because hopefully they will be coming thick and fast and juicy.

Goodnight with lots and lots of love,

Sara (intrepidly returning to somewhere she has already been and apparently cannot stay away from) xxxxx

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I am flying to Thailand. No longer in India, but in the air with two delicious glasses of wine inside me and having eaten my last curry. I have no reservation for tonight and no Lonely Planet. I am going solo, turning-up the intrepid, because lets face it – it has all become a little too easy. I came for adventure and I truly hope to find it in SEA (South East Asia folks, keep up).


My last night in India was a journey back to the beginning. I stayed at the Y. WCA that is and from there, took a taxi, metered of course, and I returned to the start. To Kemps Corner. The only way to know how far I have come was to go back. The area felt like it had had a million dollars worth of redevelopment. I noticed all these really posh shops that I just hadn’t seen before, because the first time, six months ago, what stood out were the ladies selling carrots and bananas by the edge of the road, the posh bathroom shops faded into insignificance.


My first hotel in India (Hotel Royal Castle)

The dirty, scary, residential area I now realise was actually a really nice neighbourhood with an important hospital and up-market hotels and shops. No-one stared at me, noticed me. Or maybe I wasn’t looking at or noticing them. Kemps Corner is actually a fairly quiet (by Indian standards) quarter of the city.

I had three objectives:

1. Buy new flip flops.


I had bought these cheap flip-flops when I was there before for wearing in the shower, except they turned out to be more comfortable and easier to walk in than my TEVAs which cost £60. I knew that the shop would still stock my spongy, not-flat, good-for-walking-up-rocky-mountain shoes and I was right. Mission accomplished. Rs95.

2. Return to Shiv Sagar.


This was where I ate my first meal in India, I had Dhal Tadka and it was delicious and cheap. Except it wasn’t. Well it was still delicious but Dhal Tadka for Rs90? Are you kidding me?

3. Cross a certain road.


I was not going to leave India without knowing if I could do it. I returned to that crazy five way roundabout and intersection. It was still crazy and the traffic was noisy and still sudden-appearing but I want you to know that not only did I do it, but I crossed all five roads, all by my intrepid self.


So I have come full circle. In the last few days about six people have commented on how brave I am to have travelled India alone. When I first arrived, I didn’t feel brave – I didn’t think that what I was doing was particularly brave. But now as I fly away from India and the last six months is flashing before me like a corny movie with terrible sound bites echoing through the distance – I accept. Perhaps it was brave.

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I have taken several trains in India and consider myself quite good at it now. I have taken full advantage of the many ways to procure a ticket: Internet, travel agent, booking office and on two occasions “Tatkal” or Tourist Quota. On every train a percentage of tickets are held back for tourists and released 48 hours before travel meaning convenient last minute bookings. For my train to Amritsar I had booked (Tatkal) a first-class non-AC ticket. A private cabin with locking doors and extra wide beds – luxury.


Well not quite, trains are often dirty nay filthy, but they would have to invent a new word for the ingrained putrescence on this train. Our compartment even came with layers of paan spit halfway up one wall. Luckily I had Tine to share the journey with. I have to say thought it was one of the best night sleep I have had on a train yet. The locked door meant that any worries about the safety of my baggage or person were eradicated.


The Sikh Golden Temple was really beautiful and the setting serene but I didn’t feel as connected to it as I did at the Taj, for example. The ethos is fantastic – everyone is welcome. Tine and I arrived at the temple on the free bus and were directed towards the free accommodation and then given an amazing free breakfast of coconut rice-pudding (the ONLY time I have ever enjoyed rice-pudding) dhal and chapatti.


We were given a small three-bed room just beside the main dorm provided for foreign travellers. Once our stuff was safely locked away in the lockers and quite smug at our good fortune of not being in the main dorm, we went exploring. On our return three young girls and their copious amount of luggage were strewn all over our beds. Our hearts sank. Mine sank even further when they spoke and turned out to be English and posh, public school types on their “gaap Yaar.” Three beds, five girls – someone was moving into the dorm and Tine and I were pretty sure it wasn’t going to be either of us.


However, the problem couldn’t be solved there and then because we were all going to see the closing of the India/Pakistan boarder. Tine and I made our way to the taxi where we had been told to report at 3.45pm. The boring half-hour wait was livened up when a fight broke out suddenly between two middle-aged men. Punches were flying left and right, turbans were unravelling and spinning off, passer-bys seemed to pick a side, jump-in and start throwing punches too. When the, clearly, more aggressive of the two picked up a brick and appeared quite keen to use it, the crowd finally made a genuine attempt to break up the fight. When we realised that the brick-welding manic was supposed to be our taxi driver, we quickly found alternative transport.


The closing of the border is a bizarre affair. After being segregated by sex and searched, the foreigners were then led off to the VIP section. Like many VIP areas it was disappointing and only distinguished as such by a metal bar. Beyond the gates demarking the border were the Pakistani stands, filled to bursting with patriots, flag-waving and chanting at the tops of their voices. They released enormous bunches of green and white balloons into the air that then floated over into India – antagonising, perhaps, but decidedly non-aggressive.


It was like being at a football match, but one where you wished you were supporting the other team. India put on a very poor show in comparison. After much waiting (of course), they invited the Indian girls to come down from the stands and run with the Indian flag up to border gates and back – hardly passion-inflaming. The heat was sweltering and boredom was setting in. The party hotted-up a little when pop songs were blared over the speakers and the women and girls were once again encouraged to participate, which they did with gusto.


Eventually, the ceremony proper finally started. A confusing display of strange comedic marching, high-kicking and pompous leaping. The gates were ferociously wrenched open on both sides, corresponding soldiers hoppety-skipped towards one another, shook hands and then slammed the gates on each other. Apparently not content with that, other soldiers then took their turn to practice their best “John Cleese” moves. The Indian crowd by now were chanting and yelling rousing choruses of “Hindustan – Zindabad” roughly translated to mean “Long-live India”. The flags were eventually lowered to more pomp and not quite ceremony; flags were folded and safely stored away for the next day.


The three English girls actually turned out to be very sweet and really quite intrepid themselves. Hannah, Otti and Natalie have been travelling all over India for three months, having passed four A’levels each – with A’s. One of them moved in to the main dorm. The other two managed to effectively cover our room in detritus quicker than even I can. Being 18 they glowed with rude health and enthusiasm that hadn’t quite encompassed all aspects of taking care of themselves. Not mentioning any names, of course, one of them had a birds nest in her hair that only half a bottle of coconut oil and twenty minutes of combing could finally tease out and the other took it very well when I told her that she would have to wash her feet before sharing a bed with me.


But no-time to stop and enjoy the scenery (I will also skip over the fact that I forgot to go inside the temple!) – I have to keep moving if I am to stick to my whistle-stop tour of Northern India. I am leaving soon you see. Have I mentioned that already? So where to next? I am heading to Dharamsala, or more precisely Mcleod Ganj, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile and hopefully a private audience with the Dalai Lama himself. Oh and Christine my friend from Bundi will be there too – Hurrah!

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This is India, where anything is possible. Soon two of the people that I had met in Bundi also wanted to escape the raging heat and head to Rishikesh. This was perfect for me, my last two sleeper trains had seen me in predominantly male carriages and although there were no problems I had still felt uncomfortable. Having travel companions made the experience a much more enjoyable one. Especially the eight hour lay over on Delhi’s famous backpacker boulevard ‘The Paharganj’.


I discovered that Anna & Denis, my lovely Russian friends from Gokarna, were in Rishikesh. I was very excited to see them again and actually it turned out to be God send in more ways than one when they let me stay on their floor because there was no room at any of the inns.


What I hadn’t expected was that whilst thousands upon thousands go to Rishikesh for spiritual enlightenment, yoga, meditation, mind-expansion and of course the Kumba Mela, I went to improve my motorbike passenger skills.


Anna & Denis get around India on their ‘Enfield Bullet’ the motorbike of choice for any self-respecting India traveller. I, however, hate bikes. As Anna was taking Hindi lessons Denis and I would go and meet her after for breakfast – on the bike. I understand the principles of being a passenger: Sit still, shut up and go with the flow. All of which I find difficult enough on terra ferma.

Trying to make your body completely relax whilst feeling abject terror is counterintuitive, to put it mildly. Denis has safely driven him and his wife all over this country and I had to put my faith in him. To take my mind off the situation I tried things like “how many goats can you see?” and “how many varieties of magenta can you count?” I even tried closing my eyes but that didn’t work because when I opened them again we were heading towards a reversing bus. I even managed to internalise my shrieks and squawks, or so I thought, Denis said he could still hear me. I felt as though on a rollercoaster when going down hills and the first time couldn’t brave going over Ram Jhula Bridge. I did in the end though.


My faith was restored in Indian cuisine and I had chicken for the first time since Andaman Islands. I was finally able to make contact with the Ganga River, right by the source in the Himalayas, I bathed my feet and hands in the icy, glacial (clean and disease free) water. I lit anther candle and this time it didn’t fall apart, but floated beautifully away. (Pictures on Anna’s flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/anna_vesna/4459590222/)


I cannot talk about the wonders of the Kumba Mela because I didn’t see any of it. A combination of fatigue, laziness and logistics meant that getting a rickshaw to Haridwar just didn’t happen. I did see some of it on my way to the train station though. Huge campsites set up to house and feed the devoted and the whole town was lit up like a Disney castle, any permanent structure was festooned with colourful, twinkling lights.


However, it is no cooler and the temperatures are reaching late 30’s. It is impossible to go out during the day and time-is-a-ticking, so onwards and upwards or sidewayswards. I have booked myself a first class cabin on the night train to Amritsar…ooooh the luxury!


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