Thursday, April 10, 2014

Welcome to Sri Lanka and victims of a scam.

Arrived in Sri Lanka at some ungodly hour of the morning. Made more tedious by the fact that I was still feeling unwell and had transposed 2 numbers on my visa application when filling InPassport details.  After many minutes of scrutinising immigration  sent me back to an office where I sat with other similarly blighted souls. Eventually I was told Id have to submit a new application and take it to the counter. This all took an extra half hour by which time Mick and Bern had collected all the luggage fortunately. At last released from the clutches of the airport we met our guide, Janaka.

A couple of hours rest, lunch in the dining room of our hotel which overlooked the harbour and time to venture out into this new country.

I suppose it had to happen at some stage.

Sunday afternoon in Colombo.   The place pretty much shuts down so it was pretty quiet. And hot. We were appreciating that the street was quiet and that it was actually clean with no open drains, no smell of stale urine and actually a footpath. We were standing on a corner debating which way to go, waving away tuk tuk drivers who were very persistent; probably the most we've been pestered all trip when a gent came over to us, asked if he could help. He offered some suggestions where we could go for sightseeing.  He talked about gemstones and how he knew a place that had good ones and they were having an exhibition and it was worth going. We thanked him politely and told him we weren't interested and he went on his way.

We kept walking and not long after another guy approached  and asked us if we were staying at the Oriental Grand.  "Don't you remember me? I was on the front desk."  We didn't but not surprising as we had been exhausted after a sleepless night.

He said there was a nice park nearby and he was going in that direction anyway.  He'd show us and set off at a clip.  He was a bit ahead of us and was talking to Bernadette telling her he had relatives in Australia. I missed chunks of the conversation so didn't pick up on everything. Next thing there was a tuk tuk and they were getting in.  I was a bit suspicious but said nothing. After showing us a Buddhist temple and asking us to put 1000 rupee in the donation box (still suspicious but the donation box was genuine and it was a Buddhist temple, he began telling us about this gemstone exhibition alarm bells were ringing.
We went there and yes, the jewellery was stunning (and expensive) as we got the hard sell. It all fell on stones ground and we left them no better off financially than when we arrived.after that our "helpful" friend lost interest in us and dropped us off near our hotel.  Then demanded 4,000 rupees for their trouble! That's between 30 and 40$ no way!  For the distance 500 would have been generous.  I told him I want paying test much. Our guide expressed outrage that theis price was being rejected and the driver feigned anger. "  $40. Not paying that"

"Madam, this is Sri Lanka. Rupees not $"
Still the same amount though and I wasn't paying it.
As it happens the QE2 is here filled to the gunwhales with well heeled passengers who may have thought $40 was nothing. By this time I was very cross that not only had we been scammed but they wanted so much money for not very much service which we hadn't wanted anyway. And told these two that there might be some rich QE2 tourists about but we weren't among them and just because we were visiting their country didn't mean we had wads of cash to throw around. In the end Bernadette face them 2000 rupees, about half they were demanding. And they went off probably happy. I wasn't though.  Told her she had  been generous. Bern said it was worth it just to be rid of them. I'd probably gave continued to haggle these scam artists. I'm convinced though that we'd been tagg teamed and that the first helpful gent who went merrily on hiis way will get a cut.

As for Tony who claimed to work here. I mused out loud whether to report him to the hotel but the others vetoed this saying his mates might work here and we didn't want our possessions interfered with.  We check out today and begin our tour with our guide who is a lovely man whose none begins with a J which none of us can remember.  If I see "Tony" on duty though there may be words said.

In the end, it's all part of the experience.  It only cost us $20. Or at least Bernadette $20. If it was up to me, I may well have been still standing in the street haggling over the cost of their scam.

It's Groundhog Day in hell

Ok. Here's the thing. India is insane and it makes travellers insane too.
We had a 6.35 flight from Goa. If we thought the system there was confusing it was nothing compared to Mumbai International departures.

We fumbled out way through Goa and got on the right plane by sheer good luck I think. We landed in Mumbai where luckily we didn't have to check our bags. They're going right through. We hope.  So off the plane and into a line for international transfers. It moved slowly as hand luggage had to be screened before getting onto the transfer bus.  Then a jolly 20 minute ride through Mumbai. Feeling rather smug right now because after all we had plenty of time. We hadn't eaten since about 8 am but once through customs, security and immigration we had time to spare.
The bus deposited us in the road outside the terminal which had us wondering about the point of security screening before getting on the bus.

Mumbai international is an impressive building but that's about the only thing that is.  We couldn't see any signage so we asked.  That way said helpful lady on information desk.  We trudged over to security where a very chatty lass patted us down and waved us through. Right we thought plenty of time we'll have a quick look at duty free and time to eat. That was nearly 2 1/2 hours ago. We still haven't eaten.

What's the problem?immigration that's what.  We rocked up after a brisk 15 minutes in a glacier like speeding queue. Only to be told our flight isn't in the system yet.  Come back at  10. Only 10 minutes away. What the hell.we got back in line at the end of the queue again. Flight not in system. I was told 11. Bernadette told midnight. We waited some more. Then a man in airline uniform assured our flight Was in the system .back in queue once more. Flight not in system. 3 times now.  We talked to 2 English girls whose flight was apparently about to board who weren't allowed through because flight not in system.

So here we sit in no mans land between security and immigration. We can't go forward and we are told we can't go back out either. There are no toilets in this airport twilight zone hell and we are starving. We are debating whether to get back into the ever increasingly long line.  Oh . And there is no way of finding out if your flight is in the system unless you get in line.  So do we get in line for the 4th time and hope like hell that by the time we get to the front our flight will be there or do we wait until midnight and hope likehell that we don't miss our flight because it's taken so long in line.  It's beginning to feel like Groundhog Day. This way lies insanity.

Update. We got through on 4th go in the line. Even then Bernadette and I went through and the bloke Mick copped tried to tell him flight not in system. Mick muttered something about how many times he'd been in the line and pointed to us waiting on the other side. Man left his booth without explanation while I watched steam come out of Micks ears. Then he came back and stamped his passport. At last. Goodbye India. Leaving the country proved to be more frustrating then getting the visa to go there. And that's saying something.

Oh and the squits returned last night. Siiigh

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Sleeping (or not) on a train and swimming pools in Goa

The overnight train from Mumbai to Goa was uneventful.  Sleeping on a train if you're not paying an arm and a leg is never going to be particularly restful, but when you have a little man going up and down saying "coffee, coffee" at regular intervals it becomes almost impossible.  By the time the sun came up I was ready to murder him.

We alighted around 9am hot and tired and boarded a bus for our hotel.   At this point in time all anyone wanted was to get to the hotel and rest. But it was not to be yet.  It was a fairly long drive punctuated by a visit to a local fish market and a vegie market. After several weeks we arrived at our hotel and flopped down in chairs for the usual ritual of handing out of keys.  Rooms, refreshing showers and beds would soon be ours.  But no.  This hotel didn't do things that way. We had to check in one by one, fill out forms and give our passport details. After several months we finally got to our rooms.  A demonstration cooking Goan fish curry for lunch. Not sure how enthused everyone was about this. Tiredness had taken its toll.

 After a short walk to the beach it was decided  to hit the swimming pool as the sand was so hot you felt your feet cooking.  There was also a little bit of an undertow.  Never has a pool been more welcome.
Evening meal came with entertainment. 3 African acrobats.  Given the limitations of space and budget they were very impressive.

The pool was the main attraction of this stay, interrupted the next day by a visit to a couple of Old Goan Churches with a guide whose English was almost incomprehensible.  He gave us facts and figures I suppose but as we couldn't understand a word he said we have no idea what they might be. We just nodded from time to time.

A visit to a spice garden was considerably more informative. The young woman walked us around the exhibition garden.  We learned that the apple part of the cashew nut is made into alcohol named Feni (or fenny as our hotel cocktail menu called it.). A tasty lunch and back to the main attraction: the pool!

That evening we had our farewell dinner, followed by cocktails at one of the beach bars
 With Ravi keeping us all entertained with stories.  It had been a fun two weeks with wonderful travelling companions.  A very harmonious group who were missed on the next leg of our trip.

Early morning starts and high tea in Mumbai

What can be said about early morning starts? 5 am should not be allowed to exist.  We had a flight to Mumbai.  The hotel had thoughtfully supplied breakfast in a brown paper bag. It consisted of 2 hard boiled eggs, a very  sugary fruit drink and a cheese sandwich.

A word about cheese and the Indian subcontinent. Apart from curd and paneer they don't really do cheese.  So forget about vintage cheddars, camembert or a nice stilton, in this part of the world cheese means that shiny bland plastic wrapped cheese slice found in kids' lunch boxes.

The flight was uneventful, thanks we suspect in large part to Ravi who we came to realise was swanlike in his endeavours.  Calm on the surface but paddling furiously underneath where no one could see.

Mumbai. Largest city in India with a population roughly the size of Australia's.  If we thought Delhi was noisy , it had nothing on the horn honking of Mumbai.   Melbourne taxi drivers of Indian extraction have my respect if they ever drove a taxi in Mumbai.  Melbourne must be a doddle in comparison. Nerves of steel, the reflexes of a cat and the ability to practically make conversation with a car horn are all essentials for taxi driving in Mumbai.

The thing that makes Mumbai a bit easier for tourists than New Delhi is that the streets are wider and are all named.  We will remember Mumbai for a couple of institutions; both involving food and drink.  The first is Leopolds cafe.  It's decorated in a rather quirky 50s style.  Apparently it has been around since the 1890s.  The other is the hotel The Taj Palace which shot to world fame as being the site  of that infamous terrorist attack a few years ago.  This is a pity because it truly is magnificent and apparently the owner has a policy of admitting just about everyone regardless of scruffiness because he himself was once refused admission to an upmarket hotel, which is how we came to be enjoying that most British of Institutions; a high tea.  The room overlooked another famous Mumbai landmark, the India Gate and the Water.   When you think of high tea it calls to mind cucumber sandwiches, scones, jam and cream and perhaps a couple of cakes. There was that.....then the buffet. Never seen so much food. Decisions, decisions.  We made such pigs of ourselves that we disappointed Ravi somewhat that evening by barely touching the food he had ordered at the kebab place he took us to. It looked nothing special. Very basic indeed but we were told from 11.30 pm or so you could see Bollywood stars roll up in their fancy cars and order meals to go.

Another specialty of the place is goat brains. This didn't really appeal. The texture rather than the flavour as it was sort of mashed and rather gelatinous in texture.  I have never seen someone shovel down a dish with as much gusto as Ravi.  Funnily enough he made little effort to persuade us to try  this dish and once one plate was consumed he would order us another which he would then eat.  Good to see a man enjoying his grub  even if it us spiced mooshed up goat brains.

Back to the hotel for a late night departure on the train to Goa.  But oh no.  Dan had bought a painting. Admittedly not a very expensive one but he had left it at the kebab place.  Much drama ensued as a taxi driver was despatched to retrieve it. But alas despite a phone call to explain the situation the cafe  people wouldn't give it to the driver so Dan and Emma set off in the taxi to retrieve it.  I don't know what the whole exercise cost him but it must have added significantly to the cost of the painting.  This became something of an albatross around his neck as for the rest of the trip he was constantly asked by group members if he had rembered his painting.

Henna, retail therapy and a pool!

Our stay in Udaipur was one of the most atmospheric to date. Our hotel overlooked the lake and the rooftop swimming pool also with a lake view was brilliant.

We did a vegetable market walk with the bloke who was to conduct our cooking class the next day. He swaggered around the market ordering this and that,taking samples for us to try at will and had his assistant, a tiny man who must have been all of 5 foot in his shoes racing about after him.  Our cook had a little book. It was a child's cardboard picture book with photos of vegetables in it with their names in English.  But it was his little Igor- like assistant who caught our imagination. Whatever the cook paid this little man it probably wasn't enough. One can only hope that one day the little man will have a kitchen of his own to work in.

When you travel you do tend to get a bit jaundiced and cynical about things with labels like "cultural show" so despite Ravi's assurances that this was very good, there weren't really  any high hopes for this night's offering but it was truly spectacular.

Women in brightly coloured outfits with swirling skirts danced and spun about creating a wonderful feast for the eyes. There was a little puppet show with a great deal of humour that needed no language, but the star of the night was a rather stout matronly woman who did a stunning line in balancing pots on her head. Just when you thought she couldn't add more pots she did.  If you ever visit Udaipur don't pass up the opportunity to see this cultural show it is worth every rupee of the inexpensive admission cost.

Next day was a visit to the City Palace. As spectacular as these are, after a while they do all tend to blend into one another.  This one contained silverware and antiques.
Then it was tine for our cooking class. Unlike the other classes, this time we had to participate.  Despite trying to break a cup Bernadette acquitted herself pretty well as did the rest of us.

Lunch consumed, there were decisions to be made. Bern decided she wanted to do a trip to the monsoon palace. She was the only one who did, so it was with some trepidation that we awaited the promised taxi that the guy who accosted us in the street had ordered. We were on the verge of giving up on its appearance when it turned up.   With horror stories about rip offs and dire happenings to lone female travellers in that part of the world we stuck around and made a note if the number plate. We were slightly reassured by the tourist sticker on the door though as we had seen those before.

Bern thus despatched to parts unknown it was time for some retail therapy.  The purchase of a couple of pairs of loose cotton trousers for the princely sum of about $8 each proved a wise one. I've practically lived in the beige ones ever since. They are light, comfy and easy to wash and dry quickly. Why can't we get clothing like this at home instead of tight clingy stuff that showcases every bit of fat a woman has?

The afternoon was rounded off with a henna tattoo.  Alas now long since washed off. Heading back to our hotel who should we see but Bern, returned safe and sound in one piece.

The evening brought a boat ride on the lake followed by dinner in a rooftop restaurant.  The best way to dine it has to be said.

We all enjoyed Udaipur so much that we were reluctant to say goodbye.

A Night ( not a knight) in a castle

Next stop: a night at a heritage hotel in a Rajistan  village.  Ghanerao Royal Castle has seen better days.  In need of a coat of paint, real estate agents might call it a renovators delight but you can still see remnants of what it used to be and in its heyday must have been truly magnificent. Every room was different. Some had murals on the wall and all had big old furniture.

The rooftop terrace was like an open garret with cushions to sit on. how the maharajahs must have lived.

On the way to the castle we stopped at the village of Ranakpur, home to one of India's most impressive Jain temples.  It had hundreds of columns.  Jains have something in common with Sikhs in that they will feed all comers.  The thing is though that it's considered very bad form not to eat everything you are given so you have to judge when you've had enough and refuse any extra servings.

Upon arrival at the castle we had a walk through the village where we were mobbed by kids wanting us to take their photos, they also clamoured asking for pencils which appears to be a standard form of payment for photos. They were eventually shooed away by some local grown ups but not before a local trader profited greatly from us buying boxes of pencils for the kids.

In the evening we had another cooking demonstration.  And one of the few meat dishes we encountered to date.

Dinner was in the dining hall where we were informed the maharajah used to eat.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


Another 6 hour drive to Jodhpur and Ravi thoughtfully bought some deep fried post-brekky Snacky things: kachoris and jalebis. Not great when you feel like death warmed up.  Even the smell made me feel ill. Only two people ate them. Dan and Bern of the cast iron stomachs, and Ravi of course.
Jodhpur is known as the Blue city because some of the houses in the Old City are painted Blue. It's a mixture of lime and indigo and is said to repel insects.  An audio tour of the mehrangarh Fort followed.  Afraid to say I didn't follow the tour of the 30 something stops.  Just skipped to the end and wished for death.  
Mick was very happy there as he said it contained a lot of sharp  pointy things. I'll take his word for it.

Our accommodation was lovely. The Polo Heritage recalls the days of the British Raj. Walls decorated with polo trophies and teams of days gone by.  Theresa and I dibbed out of the Old Town market walk. She was coming down with a sore throat and my digestive woes continued.  I'm told the market was good and Mick retuned bearing packets of spice mixes, crowing about the lhassi and food. I noddded weakly and probably turned green.  The tuk tuk ride back was a hair raiser. It's one thing to experience traffic from a bus, even a small one. Another entirely to have a truck bearing down on you in a little tuk tuk.

Dinner for me was tea and toast.  Late start next day, but a little revived I managed an early morning swim.


Off now to Jaipur. Home for the next 2 nights. Long 7 hour bus ride. We stopped on the way at the deserted city of Fatehpur Sikri.

One thing about long day trips you get to know your fellow travellers and see the teeming life of India along the way.

Free afternoon. A walk through a food market. The colours of spices are so much more vivid here. I guess it's because they get them so fresh.

Evening was at "uncle Sam's". Home of a self proclaimed celebrity chef (we'd never heard of him and wondered if he was so famous why he lived in such a modest apartment)
Still the food was delicious so we're not complaining.

On the drive to the amber fort we stopped at looked at the Palace of the Winds. It's lovely but it's just a facade. Makes you wonder why.

Amber Fort next stop. Bit of a climb had us wishing we could make the journey up the hill on elephants, but we were told there was a 45 minute wait. Oh well, the walk did us good.

Lots of touts and hawkers. One little scene saw us witness police come tramping in armed with rattans, shields and helmets to remove them. One lad saw them coming, deftly tucked his postcards under his shirt, turned on his heel and marched briskly out. We thought it was overkill. And one of the Muslin caretakers wasn't impressed either. He raced out,waving his arms about and loudly gave them what for. They then rather sheepishly went back out the gate and removed their boots and re-entered. Somehow they didn't quite have the same authority in their socks.

Moustaches are a bit of a thing in Rajistan and we saw some impressive ones. One old boy Saw Mick's face fungus, nodded approvingly and shook his hand!

After lunch a visit to a place selling jewellery. I refrained . Bern wasn't so strong. Then a textile place. Bern and I had a go at block printing. The professionals have nothing to fear from us.
Spent more,than I'd intended as there were some stunning things there. They offered drinks including rum and coke. We thought they were kidding but not so. Bern got a bit excited over that. There is a photo somewhere called women shopping and it show Mick, Eric and Adam sitting in a row with rums in hand looking rather bored. At least they had the rum to console them and their credit cards.

A Bollywood movie was next. The Raj Mandia cinema has a capacity of 1200 and is rather lavishly decorated in a sort Art Deco revival style. The movie was A comedy. Just enough English words scattered in to give us the gist.

Some of us left at interval in Favour of food. A few dodgy tummies by this stage. I blame the stuffed chilli. I'm not sure,the choice of Dominos was a good idea though.

Agra and worlds most famous building

5am start to the day. What is there to say about them?  Can live without them. On board the train to Agra at 6. Breakfast on the train. We were treated to a new delicacy. Spiced buttermilk. What does it taste like I hear you cry.  Well think of skim milk on the turn flavoured with curry powder.  One of the few things we've had so far that we haven't  liked. (Except for Bernadette but she's from Adelaide!) Resentments have started in the group because those sitting at other end of compartment got Rose lhassi which is my favourite.

Upon arrival we had a visit to the red fort. It is a very impressive construction. Those Moghuls sure knew how to build. The red fort was our first introduction the possibly the most famous and photographed building in the world: The Taj Mahal. We could see it from the fort.

A visit to a carpet place showcased the colours of India. How we wanted to buy one but budget, lack of anywhere suitable and the thought of carting it around for 3 weeks prevailed.

Lunch was tasty as ever. "Snacky lunch," Ravi called it. The phrase has stuck and entered our lexicon as have a few other of his sayings.

Whatever you've heard and read about the Taj Mahal, it is all that and is truly magnificent. I won't even try to describe it. Nothing I can say would do it justice. One thing though, if you visit and decided to go into the tomb for whom the Taj Mahal was built, your time would be better spent elsewhere. The lines are long,even for "high value" visitors. This is basically anyone who Isn't Indian. You pay a much higher entrance fee. Once inside the bottleneck of the door all you can do 
is shuffle around the dimly lit tomb which echoes and amplifies sound accompanied by the sound 
of whistles which are used by security. Someone wanders where they shouldn't or attempts to take a video when you haven't paid the extra fee, they use the whistle. With the numbers of 
people there it can get very noisy.

Sunset at the Taj is wonderful. Followed by a cooking demonstration at a restaurant. Complete with very noisy Japanese tourists who made it difficult to hear the cook