Saturday, March 15, 2014

Today was Golden Temple day. We saw it last night lit up and today in the sunshine. While the temple perhaps isn't as spectacular during the day, the colours are. Sikh men wear the most vividly coloured turbans and are very handsome. Especially the young men. Clear skin, beards and the most beautiful liquid brown eyes and the women wear gorgeous colours. Loose fitting tops and comfortable long pants. Eminently sensible in hot weather. It made me wonder why on earth Australian women are inflicted with clinging short tops and fitted garments in the summer.

We also saw behind the scenes. The philosophy at the Golden Temple is one of service. They will feed anyone and everyone for free without discrimination. This is done by volunteers. Our guide, Shiv told us on an average day they serve 50,000 meals; more on weekends and holidays. You can imagine the industrial scale needed to achieve this. We saw a chapatti making machine. The dough fed into a vat which somehow breaks them into chunks ( think scones) Then along a conveyer belt through a series of rollers which result in the end product, a flat round cooked chapatti. They also make them by hand on fire heated griddles. We were given a turn in cooking some. Well sort of. Didn't actually get to see one through from go to whoa. We saw huge cauldrons of vegetable curry, dhal and one cauldron of chai. They are served on metal plates and the clatter of these plates when being handled in such quantities is staggering. I've been to quieter rock concerts.

Before that though there was a visit to the monument at Jallianwala Bagh. You see the word Bagh a lot in place names. It means garden which in many cases is historical and/or is merely a patch of open unused land. This commemorates the scene of an infamous massacre in 1919 when many unarmed men. Women and children died after Brig. Gen. Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to open fire and shoot to kill. Depending on which account you read between 300 and 1500 lost their lives that day. In some places you can still see the bullet holes in the buildings. There is more to the story which is a fascinating one but I don't have time to recount it here. It is worth looking up though.

One other thing. We are often stopped by total strangers and asked if they can take photos with us. Our guide informed us that while westerners do visit it's not in numbers so great that we aren't a source of interest for some. There seems to be no particular group who does this. Young, old, male female, it makes no difference. The strangest one was an older lady with few teeth accompanied by some younger women and a couple of kids. We duly lined up with them. "No'" Said the guide they don't have a camera they just want you to take a photo." He shrugged as puzzled as we were by this. He duly took the photo and we showed it to them and they trooped off happy!

I think I love these puzzling little occurrences as much as the colour and sights of India.

It was back to the hotel for a couple of hours before heading off to Wagah which is the border with Pakistan. Every night they have the oddest border closing ceremony. The crowd is exuberant and noisy, hundreds and hundreds of them. Singing, chanting and dancing. Then formalities begin. Much posturing. Think the minister for silly walks run rampant on a military parade. Funniest thing I've seen in a long time, these impeccably turned out men and women, all chosen for their height it appears goose stepping and stamping all over the place.  

There is also a man in a dazzling white track suit and black cowboy hat who seemed to be emcee/cheerleader and microphone holder for the soldier whose job it was to stand stiffly to attention and emit a long loud noise at intervals. The best description of this comes from Mick who reckons he sounded like someone had his nuts in a squirrel grip. He seems to have been chosen for this role by the length of time he can sustain this noise without taking a breath, which alas wasn't as impressive as his counterpart on the other side of the border. This mutual serenade was synchronised. Almost like I can hold my breath longer than you contest.

Upon our return we decided it was time to eat. Now we'd been to the main restaurant the night before and we didn't fancy a big meal so headed to the rooftop bar and swimming pool. This pool appears to never be used but it doesn't prevent it bring the source of full time employment for several souls.  

We took our seats and a rather scared looking young man diffidently approached us with a menu. This made a change because we had the distinct impression that when guests do turn up to avail themselves of these facilities the 3 or 4 guys employed to take care of them seem to be at a loss what to do. The diffident young man took our drinks orders and sloped off only to return shortly after with older man with little English who informed us that we couldn't have drinks or anything else. Something about dancing was mentioned but as the only other patrons in the place were two 40 something turbaned Sikhs we couldn't for the life of us work out who was going to take part in this bacchanalian orgy of dancing.

So down to the dimly out "sports bar". When I say dimly I'm not exaggerating this windowless hidey hole is so dimly lit that one has to peer very closely at the menu. Another slightly disconcerting aspect of this venue is that the scatter cousins all have faces of what we presume to be sports people which was the cause of some amused speculation as to whose face each of us was sitting on.

The joint was really jumpin last night all of 6 of us at one time. The lone bloke on the bar stool. The two bespectacled middle aged men sporting large 70/s pimp spectacles ( or if you prefer spects and goggles as one shop sign calls it.). This put the staff to customer ratio at about 1:1)

Drinks came with the ubiquitous peanuts and yummy chilli pappadams. We have discovered that if we take our time with drinks and chow down on the nibbles they will be replaced. In our case last night we devoured 3 plates of yummy pappadams before taking Pity on the ever hovering staff member and ordering food. Sometimes it's fun to order something when you have no idea what it really is ("quotient of spiced chicken" in Paris springs to mind). In our case crispy dragon chicken sounded too exotic to pass up. Alas as is often the case the reality didn't live up to the fantasy. it was basically crumbed and deep fried chicken strips and the delightfully red looking sauce was tomato. Never mind it was tasty enough. As were the marinated veggies cooked in tandoor oven.

Today we return to New Delhi We have the morning free before returning on the Shatbadi Experess. The thing is our hotel is in what is basically a business area on a busy road which we were advised by our guide not to attempt to cross. Perhaps we will avail ourselves of the travel desk. Mind you if the English of that person is the same as the guy manning the icecream counter in the hotel foyer then we're in trouble. I was intrigued by the "swiss exotics" flavour and pointed to it. "What flavour is that?" I enquired.
"Icecream." He replied helpfully.
" yes, but what flavour?

"Icecream." Clearly proud of his achievement at bring able answer a question in English.

I smiled faintly and thanked him. I know when I'm beaten.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Golden temple at night and hassling hotel housekeeping.

Right. We're back from visiting the famous Golden Temple. What a beautiful thing at night. Covered in gold leaf and lit up. Our guide is a very personable young man named Shiv. Well his name is longer than that but he said, " call me Shiv."

Shiv used to work in call centres but left that to be a tour guide which he enjoys much more because "In this job people actually want to listen to what I say"

To enter the temple compound you first have to remove your shoes and socks and put on a head scarf. Then wash your hands and finally walk through a shallow pool. Amritsar is like Mecca for Sikhs and it is a welcoming place. How rare in this day and age to visit a place like this and not have to endure lines for bag checks and/or scans.its all taken on trust which is very refreshing. Sorry but going through my mind was the thought I hope the previous wearer of this scarf didn't have nits and how often do they wash these things anyway?

Shiv is knowledgeable and articulate and knew all the best vantage points to take photos. The mysterious ceremony was the putting to bed of the holy book. Every night they remove it from the temple in a gold palanquin and carry it to another building amid much chanting accompanied by blasts of a large curly horn which my googling tells me is a narsingha; a war horn. The palanquin is festooned with garlands of flowers and carried to its sleeping place to be put to bed. Literally. Where it's kept looks like a room containing a bed and they even tuck it in with a white sheet and cover it with a cloth.

We spent some time after that wandering around the complex taking photos and even having our photos taken. We were approached by a man either a wife and little girl and asked if we would have our photos taken with them. No idea why, another of India's unexplained mysteries. Finally. We are exotic.

Upon return we discovered that Bernadette's bed still hadn't turned up. So off to reception. They duly installed it promptly. However we are concerned. We may get kicked out. Bernadette has developed this unhealthy compulsion to ring housekeeping for towels, coffee mugs and extra tea and coffee. After she hung up, she realised that there were 3 towels in the room and guiltily stashed it under our bed. So to sum up, the count is standing at 6 towels, 2 big coffee mugs and 3 tea cups along with 2 coffee sachets,5 tea bags, more creamers than you could poke a stick at and a partridge in a pear tree. Ok so I made that last bit up up. Oh and let's not forget her request for fresh milk earlier as well.

We don't have an early start tomorrow. Shiv isn't meeting us until 11 so we can have a lie in, take our time with showers and have a leisurely breakfast. Bernadette is pathetically keen for us to take showers, the more the better I suspect in order to assuage her guilty conscience over the surfeit of towels in our room.

Off On my way! to gave a cup of tea and another of those lovely cookies which were waiting for us in our room. Which is lovely by the way.

Of train trips, senior singalong and mobile ringtones

Today was our first (I suspect of many) train trips the Shatbadi Express to Amritsar.   6 hours. So about the same length of time it took in the now infamous sardine tin.  Only roomier.  We were told by the bloke at hotel reception in Hotel Sunstar Grand that the Shatbadi Express is one of the best trains in India.  It was, shall we say characterful.  A slightly scruffy grande dame who has seen better days but fairly comfortable.  The window alas was so grimy that it was like looking at the world through a thick fly screen. Never mind.

Our adventure into the wider world commenced at  5.30 am when Bernadette's mobile alarm went off, and off and off. She had it on snooze and couldn't be bothered turning off.   Mick asked if she could please stuff it under her pillow. He was heard to make snarling noises.

Downstairs to be met by taxi driver who drove us through the quiet early morning traffic.  Street people setting up for the day, doing their ablutions, dogs stirring themselves. An Ox  at the intersection pulling a very large cart of...what?  Perhaps calling the early morning traffic quiet is a misnomer because it is anything but.  The car horn isn't merely a manifestation of anger in India, it is a form of self expression. Everything from get out of my way, to hello, I am here can you see me.
Delhi railway station us a bit of a traffic bun fight vehicles from all directions converging into a
bottleneck all trying to get as close to the station as possible.

Upon getting out the driver asked us when we were returning and vowed to be at the ATM in front of the station to pick us up.  We waited for him to put his hand out for the fee but he didn't.  This nonplussed us somewhat.  Did he get paid on the return journey or was this a complimentary service provided by the hotel.? This will be the first of many puzzlements I suspect and if you thought that
was confusing you ain't heard nuffin yet

We strolled into the entrance and began perusing the arrival and departure boards looking for our train when a tall youngish man brisked up to us.  "Where are you going? " Amritsar we chorused. He asked to see our ticket and then with ticket in Hand began briskly walking away with the words
"follow me"  we scuttled after him struggling to keep up as this was a man with a purpose and frivolities such as looking back to see if we were still behind didn't figure in his thinking.  He took us to the right spot on the right platform then announced we had a Long wait. Listen buster we spent an hour and a half on the Tarmac in the sardine tin. 20 Minutes is nothing to us. We sneer at 20 minutes. For some reason Mr Brisk decided Bernadette was our pack leader, either that it or he fancied her because he asked if she liked tea. " yes," replied our fearless non appointed leader  then he was off again leaving us with no choice but to dash after him because he still had our
 tickets! So at the other end of the platform is the canteen.   He pushed his way in and re emerged
with 3 paper cups of foamy chai.  And what chai it was. It was superb.  We had no idea how much they were and what payment he might have been expecting. He handed over the teas ushered us to seats said goodbye and he was gone leaving us wondering who the hell he was.  About 10 minutes later he re- materialised and said "come to the train". And once More we were off and racing. He came on board with us, saw us to our seats, shook us each by the hand and raced off on his next urgent mission. Who was that unmasked man ? We spent quite some time speculating but we never did find out. Best guess Is perhaps he is employed to assist bemused looking western tourists.

So the train trip began.
 the men from Doon's (presumably the catering company with the contract to feed travellers on the "air conditioned chair carriage") distributed large bottles of water. Then Came morning tea:hot water, tea bags and two Mini Marie biscuits in a sealed bag followed about an hour later by breakfast.  Two
spiced veggie patties of some kind, two slices of bread in a sealed bag., butter and jam.

This duly consumed we settled down the read our complimentary copies of the Times Of India.  This has to rate as one of our favourite newspapers ever.  A peculiar mix of formal English and slang. I ask you, how many of papers can you think of that would use the eord "tizzy" in a headline. It read "unclaimed bag throws cops into a tizzy".  How can you not love a publication like that?  In a story
about school bullying it breathlessly informed us that the boys "were hurling.  the choicest of abuses" never has a newspaper kept us so entertained for so long.

We  also had the singalong seniors. This merry little band, while we were waiting outside a station for goodness know why decided it was time to sing. Led by a jolly man in a flat cap they sang and clapped numerous songs in Hindi.  After we started moving again flat cap gave way to pleasant looking man in a hideous green plaid blazer who earnestly began telling a story of some kind. We

heard the names Queen Victoria and Elizabeth mentioned.  Was he a professor giving a history talk to a school for seniors? He was so serious, but no it was a joke. Hilarious at that because most of the carriage was laughing except us, the only westerners in the joint. We smiled uncomprehendingly  and wished we could speak Hindi because judging by the reaction, the joke must have been a doozy.

We got to Amritsar on time and were met by "my man in Amritsar" we've begun referring to him as Myman because he didn't introduce himself. So at the hotel a swarm of staff descended upon us divested us of our meagre baggage, ushered us to  a seat, plied us with mango juice and spectacularly tasty cookies while they took our passport details.  We were then ushered up to our room whereupon much consternation came upon the land. We booked a triple room only there was one King sized bed. There was a small settee which we figured had to be a sofa bed but no. An exploration of every nook and cranny failed to reveal the 2nd bed. We asked the porter when he showed up and with his limited
English pointed to the small, glass topped coffee table. wot? Was Bernadette expected to curl up like a cat and sleep on that? Eventually light dawned as the porter explained to these apparently senileuncomprehending  fossils that, no try roulette move the coffee table and install the bed later. ( note: it is 7.20 pm with no sign of the promised bed.  Just as well we are off out soon to see great Goldn Tempke at night and he "ceremony" whatever that is. We've not been told. That's half the fun of here that glorious confusing uncertainty and the entertainment factor of letting our imaginations run wild with speculation.

Food remains amazing. We had wonderful late lunch in thr upmarket restaurant,  starters, rice, two mains, ranit as, bans bread wnd the ubiquitous Kingfisher beer all for about $60. Not each. Total cost of the lot.

One thing we've noticed about India apart from the horn. That's the ever present mobile ring tones. Where ever you go, whatever you do it is to the soundtrack of ringtones. There's no escaping them.

Ipad typing finger tired now. Shall rest and report back on our journey into thenight later

Toodle pip.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

PostScript about the prat.

The prat.  This is the fellow traveller whose obliviousness to others makes life difficult.  The god of airline travel gave me my own personalprat this flight. One on one exclusive service.  I'm sitting in my seat when without warning the seat in front of me whizzed backward at a rate of knots and stayed there the entire flight making it next to impossible for me to lean forward and retrieve my bits and pieces from under the seat. I got pretty adept at hooking my bags with my foot. But it did give  dining a  peculiar challenge and put ne up close and personal with the in flight entertainment system. Of course the prat, a young man of Indian extraction couldn't wait to turn his phone on the second he could.  From his seat emanated a stream of whistling. His hundreds of friends doubtless eager to hear from him.   That annoying dog whistling sound. Of course he's a prat so he would necessarily have chosen sounds that make it hard to suppress homicidsl rage in others.

It's now early morning and we are all luxuriating in thr bliss is being able to stretch out.

Micks cleaning his teeth in te bathroom, which is large in high ceiling end but has properties uncannily like an echo chamber. Unfortunate when dhal has featured heavily.  I haven't had the heart to inform Mick yet who from this day forward is to be known as mr farty pants. This makes me very happy that my extended visit was in thr middle of the night accompanied by Micks snoring.

Oh henceforth Mick is to be addressed as Mr snoring farty pants. Bernadette has just asked me if the beer I consumed has not worn off.

Eternity in a sardine tin.

We're here!  Let the eating commence.

Bernadette said she's never had more uncomfortable flights.  The first leg which commented at 12.45 am was 8.5 hours and while the seats were wide and there was elbow room, they seemed very upright and didn't recline very far and were deeper than some. End result was wrong shape for shorties.  There was no footrest bar and ended up with sore knees.  Hour and a half layover in KL where we wandered around the gate lounges like zombies. Called to our flight.  Looked to be only part full. Oh goodie. perhaps we can spread out a bit more, especially Bernadette who was sat next to a mum and bubs, we waited in our seats,then some people trickled on.  Must be a delayed flight somewhere.  Then some more, then more.

 Turns out a flight from New Zealand was delayed and there were 44 people and 66 pieces of luggage to load.  They wandered up and down the very narrow aisle trying to find spots for their hand luggage.  They sat down, we sat there. Just when we'd think everyone was on board more would come and do the same. Meanwhile the natives were getting restless and they too began perambulating the extremely narrow aisle.  It was like a boulevard. There was stripy man. A young man in jeans and striped tshirt who was so attached to his hand luggage that he felt compelled to visit it every 10 minutes or so and have a rummage. There was also old man Beanie who if he ever had a mouthful of teeth had long since mislaid most of them.  The purpose of his peregrinations were never ascertained.

Older lady who visited her travelling companions too. And of course there were the loos.
Only at the back of our not very big but very squeezy plane. A word about this . I don't  know what model plane it was but seats were configured 2 rows of 2 seats. With a narrow aisle, this is the type of aisle where if two people want to pass the poor aisle seat passenger is either treated to an eyeful of crotch or someone's bum in their face.  This then was to be our home for the next 22 thousand hours. Ok so it wasn't that long, it just felt like it.  At one point Mick questioned whether the trickling passenger phenomenon was
because there was some hidden back door and they were just passing through. The staff tried to be helpful but they would march up and down the aisle opening and closing overhead lockers looking for spaces for the many, many pieces of carry on. Didn't seem to dawn on them that leaving them open so they could see the contents rather than opening
and closing them all the time in search of increasingly elusive space might be more efficient. After an hour and a half of this we finally took off with a rather testy sounding pilot
exhorting us to "try and enjoy the flight". And we did. Try that is, but we failed.  The food
was pretty good but drink selection was limited to apple juice, orange juice, Pepsi and water.  There was beer and wine but they were only in evidence during meals and even then tucked away.  I decided after a bit to ease up on the juice as, after all we were headed to India and all its implications and compounding potential digestive issues with vast quantities of fruit juice didn't seem the wisest idea in the universe.

So finally on our way. Time to numb the brain with a movie. Off to the latest releases section of in flight entertainment.  Under construction. hUh?  Where's the Desolation of Smaug I had planned to watch this leg? Tried again, nope. And I'd watched all the eps of Big Bang Theory on previous flight.  Most of the rest was Hindi movies which was too much effort for my weary brain which totters towards feebleness at the best of times.  So I contented myself with the flight map as we slowly inched our way to India. Did you know
there's a place called Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh? No I didn't either. Another feature of the
Malaysian airlines in flight map is the compass which tells you where Mecca is in relation to the nearest inhabited town below.  We flew over Burma with its green jungles and almost unpopulated western coastline.  Over Bay of Bengal . No wonder Bangladesh is so prone to catastrophic flooding. The Delta looked like veins and capillaries stretching into the sea.

Bernadette who was wedged in next to mum with bubs did get another seat, next to me. Hurray. Finally we can gave a chat.  As we took off she said, " now is when the wing falls off". I gave her a look. She grinned.between attempts to doze she regaled me with stories airline disasters.  I gave her the glare. That didn't work either. I told her you can go off people rather quickly. That didn't stop her. Even threats of physical violence didn't deter her.  Some day, in some way I shall get my revenge.  After 45 years we landed.   One of the others. Can't remember if it was Mick or Bernadette wondered out loud if  the car and driver engaged to take us to our hotel were still there. They were.

As for Malaysian airlines, well years ago when they were known as MSA the joke was that it stood for Miserable Service again.  Look it wasn't horrible but we have had better flights. And given a choice we would go with someone else.

So what's Delhi like?  Well don't really know yet. The drive from the airport was fun. I volunteered to sit up front with the driver.   They drive on the left here. Well most of the time. The rules seem simple. Bikes give way to cars. Little cars give way to bigger cars who give way to bigger cars who give way to buses who give way to trucks who give way to big ass trucks. Simples.  

Road was busy and congested.  "Wouldn't want to break down in this!"I commented to the driver. Oh this is ok. You should see it peak hour.  Ohh kaaay.

We got to the hotel and haven't ventured out. It's clean and comfy, but not flash. The staff pleasant and attentive and I Love kingfisher beer.  I know this coz I had 3 bottles of it.  It comes in 650 ml bottles which might explain why I woke up at 3 am with a thumping headache.  And can't get back to sleep which is why I'm inflicting this epic tome on the Internet.

Dinner on rooftop.  Dhal, stuffed paranthas, vegie pakoras, afghan chicken, spiced Pilau. Kingfisher beer for 3 total cost about $40.  Not flash but if this is what the food is like the rest of the trip then bring it on!  

In a couple of hours we are off on early morning train to Amritsar.  The bloke from the company we booked the trip with rang us at the hotel.  Turned up when he said get would, was friendly and helpful and Gave us the business card of his company and said "my man in Amritsar will meet you at the station". My man in Amritsar. Can't make up my mind if it feels like a spy movie or if I've been transported back to the British raj. One thing. The Indians know about good customer service.

Ps. The menu items. I know the spelling may seem odd. It's how they were spelled on the menu.