Saturday, July 30, 2011

Interlude in India - November 2009

Hi Everyone,
Today our group of nine is in Udaipur and it is the eleventh day of our tour of India.  This is my second trip to India in four months.   I visited only South India on my first trip, which I’m sure I told you before, I found every bit as incredible as the tourist brochures brag.   This time we started our tour in New Delhi - vastly different to the South in many ways.  To begin with the north is more populated with both locals and tourists and jam-packed with astounding and magnificent historic sites, royal cities, colourful and rich cultures. As they are in the south, the Indian people are quick to welcome visitors with their brilliant warm smiles. 
Dressed to visit Jam Masjid - India's largest mosque
A rickshaw ride along Wedding St.
Electrical cables in Old Delhi
Like most first-time tourist to India we followed the golden triangle trail which wanders from Delhi the capital of India, through Agra and Jaipur.  Delhi is a city of fascinating contrasts with architectural relics of British colonialism and monuments dating back centuries past seven older cities that existed here. I particularly enjoyed our rickshaw ride through the narrow streets and laneways of Old Delhi. The ‘wedding street’, a narrow laneway lined with tiny shops displaying the brilliantly coloured and jeweled saris and other festive paraphernalia was mesmerizing.    Most intriguing is how the mish-mashed muddle of overhead and hanging wires ever manages to provide electricity to this area.
 Qutab Minar -70 meter high monument marks the site of the first Muslim Kingdom in Northern India
Typical Old Delhi street
Delhi is presently full of construction sites preparing for the Commonwealth games in Oct 2010.  Will they be ready in time?  That’s the big question here.  Judging by the architectural feats of their ancestors, I certainly will not be a doubting Thomas.
On the train
Locals at the train station
Agra Fort build as a military structure and later a Palace
Inlay work on marble
We travelled from Delhi to Agra and from Bharatpur to Gangapur City by train.  Not my first or my last experience of train travel in India but the last was certainly the most memorable.  Why?  I’ll tell you. Waiting on Bharatpur station we were as usual harassed by many beggars and touts .  We handed out our fruit supplies to the beggars and then John sat down to have his shoes polished.  As is John’s way, out came his ever faithful uke.  Our group joined John singing Aussie songs and in no time at all had gathered a very large audience.   I can’t tell you how touching it was to see the total delight and beaming smiles on the faces of those people as they swayed to the music.  There could be nothing more uplifting in this life than to see a legless man on a trolley with a beaming smile joining in the singing and the poor dirty little kids dressed in rags looking so happy and wondrous as kids should.  Nobody cared how out of tune we may have been, it just made their day and according to Ajay, (our guide) will probably be the highlight of their wretched lives.  At least it was a respite from their seemingly miserable day of begging. 

Agra has the imposing Red Fort and of course the memorial to immortal love, the Taj Mahal which no doubt contributes greatly to the reason this trail in the heart of India is often referred to as India’s ‘Jewel In the Crown’.
Taj Mahal
Watching the sun go down on Taj Mahal
Twenty six kms west of Agra is the red sandstone perfectly preserved deserted and amazing city of Fatehpur Sikri.  This royal city believed to have been abandoned because of the lack of water was once the capital of the great Mughal Emperor ‘Akbar’.   The buildings are blended with both Islamic and Hindu elements.   Definitely not to be missed.

Fatehpur Sikri - The abandoned royal city
Inside our tent at Ramathra Fort
Tent on-suite.  No bad eh?
View of  Ramathra Fort
Ramathra Fort
We spent two nights camping in tents at Ramathra Fort.  Don’t be misled – these were not ordinary old canvass tents by any means - more the luxury kind.    The Fort has a family history going back eleven generations and after being abandoned for many years is presently undergoing a massive renovation and conversion into an exclusive resort.   Led by the fort’s owner we thoroughly enjoyed a leisurely 2 ½ hour stroll through the nearby un-spoilt village and surrounds.  Again we were greeted by smiles and excited children along with many bemused stares.

Cow pads used for fuel

School bus

Village family saying hello
From here we travelled to Rathambore National Park Tiger Reserve. Our magnificent hotel was once the Royal summer palace.  Very royal indeed with the likes of Queen Elizabeth having stayed here before us.  
Thrills of thrills – during our two safaris through the park, one late afternoon and one early morning, every member of our group saw a tiger. It was so exciting and special to spot this elusive royal animal.  Our group of five was accompanied by a very passionate Naturalist who rode shotgun on the jeep and pointed out the wildlife and birdlife in the park.  He also happened to be the most handsome male specimen one could imagine with eyelashes to die for.  As one of the three gals in our jeep remarked – ‘bugger the birds, I’ll just look at him’!   “Ask me anything and I’ll try and satisfy you”, he said. WOW. Unbelievably handsome, 24 and single what more could an old gal ask for?
Our very handsome guide in the Tiger reserve
Beautiful bird life here too.
Onto the ‘Pink City’ – Jaipur, the third corner of the triangle.   Jaipur is the capital city of Rajasthan state. It is a well planned vibrant and colourful city dating back to 1727. I had read much about the beauty of Amber Fort, the Palace of the Winds and the City Palace and they are truly amazing.  I’m running out of descriptive adjectives for the sights of India but suffice to say they all apply.   One of the great experiences was our visit to the astounding Observatory.  If you come here do not miss this amazing place.  Our bulging bags are proof that Jaipur is also a great shopping city.
Elephant ride at Amber Fort
Amber Fort
The palace of the Winds

At City Palace

Our domestic flight from Jaipur to Udaipur on the private airline, Jet Airways, was excellent.  The airports are spotless and extremely efficiently managed.  Security is very tight.  We have a longer flight tomorrow south to Kochi in Kerala.
Feteh Garh Hotel belongs to the Heritage Renaissance School of Heritage Renaissance.This mean the building has been laboriouslyt transplanted stone by stone, pillar by pillar from a heritage structure not far away
Our room at Fateh Garh
Our arrival in Udaipur coincided with an unfortunate turn in the weather.  For two days it has been rather cool and showery.  A real pity as we are staying in a rather new stunning hotel perched on a hilltop with a 270 degree view overlooking Udaipur city, said to be the most romantic city in Rajasthan.  Gazing out my window now, I can only see haze.   This dream hotel was constructed using local stone and antique architectural pieces culled from abandoned historic buildings.  It is a picture perfect get-away.  Have a look – .   On our first morning here, John braved the elements to take a dive into the stunning infinity pool but even he has not ventured back.  The weather has certainly not marred our sightseeing, shopping or dining! 
At the tailors!
Preparing a  delicious 14 course dinner in a simple kitchen with very few appliances.
Dinner is served
Last night we were graciously hosted in the home of a noble family with a cooking demonstration by the lady of the house followed by a delicious 14 course meal and much lively banter.
Ajay our wonderful guide
We have won the lottery with our accompanying ever obliging Indian guide, Ajay.  His knowledge of India is staggering and with endless patience he completely comprehends and goes along with our wacky Aussie sense of humour.  
Every coach driver we have had has been exceptional,  particular on the very rough and rutted country roads avoiding people, dogs, cows, camels, trucks, tractors and every other type of vehicle and movable object imaginable.   ‘Chicken’ is a most suitable description of the driving style here!  
Our time in India has gone too quickly with only four days left on tour. The group is looking forward to visiting the beautiful south and hopefully better weather.  We fly out of Kochi airport to Singapore on 18 November where all but two of the group will stay-over for 3 nights.  More shopping no doubt!
Don’t believe the detractors who tell you India is a dangerous destination and you will get Delhi-belly.  Of course, as is the case when travelling in many countries in the world, one needs to take care to drink only bottled water and select where to eat.   Be brave, come and see for yourself, I’m certain you will not be disappointed. Bye for now.
Jeanette    15.11.2009
 PS – Forgot to tell you I bought another carpet!!

Following is some of my favourite pics of interesting characters we met on this tour.........

Travelling sure is tiring!!!!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Famil to India Sept 2009

Hi Everyone,
Today is day 10 of our 15 day famil of South India with 6 travel agents, an Australian escort and an entertaining Indian guide. The pace of the itinerary compared to many famils has been somewhat kind although this is really the first afternoon we have had 3 hours completely free. Most have chosen to nanny –nap, watch cricket on TV or read and here I am writing to lucky you.
Bay of Bengal -Mahabalipuram just south of Chennai
I am seated under a fan, at a desk in my room in a rather palatial family home on a sprawling rubber plantation. This beautiful property is set deep in the coffee and spice plantations of Keralan midlands on the hills of the Western Ghats. Our host (Alex) and hostess (Ann) are proud Syrian Catholics.

View of plantation from my bedroom window
This morning Alex walked us through their extensive spice garden and into the rubber plantation where we saw the rubber being tapped and processed then onto the logging forest to watch an elephant at work. I felt so sorry for the poor animal lifting and dragging huge logs with his mahout on his back barking orders continually. I’m sure he would rather be a temple Ganesh.
Rubber trees

Rubber wringer


                               Elephant at work
Ann is a fabulous cook, we are so lucky to be sampling the unique and utterly delicious home-style traditional Kerala cuisine. Actually more than ‘sampling, we are being filled to pussy’s bow and then some!! The trick in India is not to eat everything that is served to you. If you do, regardless of protest, a more than generous fresh portion of everything magically materializes on one’s plate. Very difficult when one has been brought up to leave nothing!
Cooking class
We have had two cooking lessons with Ann – so be warned - for our next dinner party – Fish Mola may be on the menu! The cuisine throughout our days here has been varied and so tasty. Not nearly as chilli-hot as one would perhaps expect but spicy flavours to die for…..and we may do just that if we keep eating so much! Either that or we will roll off the plane in Australia like butter-balls.

Fish Mola
Our journey began on the East Coast in a spectacular resort at Mahabalipuram just south of Chennai (Madras) overlooking the Bay of Bengal where the temperature climbed to 35 degrees once or twice. First impression was the chaotic mix of vehicles, people and animals on the roads. 

Note the sign on the truck - 'Sound Horn'
The incessant beeping of horns is disconcerting at first until one realizes they are not used with impatience or aggressiveness but merely a warning that ‘we are here and coming through’. In fact many vehicles have a ‘sound horn’ sign on the back. I am constantly amazed at how the countryside resembles Vietnam and Bali. English is spoken everywhere although the accents can be a little hard to construe sometimes. The other striking feature is colour, bright colour everywhere. Magnificent brilliant saris, buses and trucks with brightly painted decorations and many buildings and homes painted with what we would class as shocking pink, purple, orange, lime green etc.

Gorgeous ladies in colourful saris

Amazing fresh produce

Example of brightly painted house

Most trucks are decorated like this one
Although the homes and yards are kept very clean – even the dirt yards are continually swept, in the east and midlands it is common to see piles of rubbish along the roadside in villages and some cities. 
There is no odour, probably because the cows and goats eat the food scraps but the curse is surely the plastic bags and bottles. The further west we go in the popular tourist area of Kerela the less we see of this., in fact none of it.
A goat enjoys the scraps

Wahing day

Making bricks
A quarter of India’s population live in South India and I’m sure between us we have taken a photo of most of them. Everywhere we have been, the children and women especially love getting in front of the camera particularly in the villages and markets. However unless we manage a candid shot, their brilliant smiles are replaced by a serious face and they almost stand to attention for the photo. Show them the screen on the digital camera and they are absolutely rapt and occasionally disappear with the camera to show their photo around. Few tourists come to some of the areas where we have travelled so we are a bit of a novelty and now very used to being stared at. We just smiled and always got a brilliant smile in response.
Carrying salt

Indians are happy people

Four generations visit a temple
From state to state in South India there is an extraordinary variation in terms of landscape, languages, culture and also people to some extent. It’s a slow, quiet and sweet way of life within communities with strong beliefs. Once we came to cross the Ghats many things changed. The landscape of course is now lush and green with lakes forests, tea estates and rubber plantations, the people in the streets still stare at us but are not quite so quick to smile.
On the whole, the genuine hospitality and friendliness of the people is astounding
The children love having their photo taken
It’s impossible to convey all we have seen - just so much and so varied.
A wonderful meal on a banana leaf to eaten with the fingers
I have almost mastered the art of eating a full meal served on a banana leaf with my fingers; I am resigned to the fact that I will never learn how to pronounce the names of Indian villages, towns etc; I am totally confused by the complex caste system, mainly because along the tract we have had several different versions from local guides; I am completely enthralled by the myths, mysteries and amazing history of South India, it’s as vibrant and quaint as the travel brochures suggest. We can see that education is highly valued here, particularly in Karela and that India is an absolute food-bowl. I’m not even going to attempt to list the masses of different food and spices grown but suffice to say that on this 50 acre property alone they grow rubber trees of course, grows rice, pineapple, cocoa, coconut, coffee plus dozens of spices and maintains a fruit orchard, vegetable and dairy farm which provides the fresh fruits, vegetables and milk.
Working in the field
Our stays have been in a fantastic range of accommodation from a 5 star coastal resort to historic French boutique hotel, a heritage family mansion and a wildlife sanctuary. Another remarkable stay and earth experience was at a Spice Village complex in the Periyar wilderness on the Western Ghats where absolutely everything is natural and the above all the surroundings are protected and nurtured. The cottages are modeled on the jungle dwellings of the local tribal inhabitants but far from primitive. The philosophy being that less is more, luxury lies in simplicity, reality is more enchanting than fantasy and magic lies in what you already have. Now as I said a palatial home on a rubber plantation.
My 5 star room in Kerela

Have we have visited temples? We sure have - big temples, little temples, world heritage temples, splendid temples and simple village temples and today just to add variety we visited a prominent Roman Catholic Church. Religion continues to play an important part in the daily life here. The beliefs and rituals, the Gods and the Cosmos are confusing. My head spins trying to recognize and understand Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesha etc. Depending on whom one choses to believe, Hinduism constitutes around 70% of the population, Muslims 20% and Christians 10%. Many Christians live in Kerela.

We went to the famous Aurobindo Ashram in the former French colony of Pondicherry and have visited artist’s workshops, handmade paper & tile factories, brick works, tailors markets, farmer’s markets, banana markets, we have seen many wondrous rock carvings and visited the Ghandi museum (fascinating).

Snake charmer
Banana market

Have ridden, washed and been showered by elephants, seen crocodiles, snakes, stunning birdlife but sadly tigers are becoming extinct and rarely sighted. Our 2 ½ hr train journey from Villuparam to Trichy was another interesting experience.

St Francis Church Cochin - oldest European church in India

St Marks RC Church

The Indian Virgin Mary

Our 2 ½ hr train journey from Villuparam to Trichy was another interesting experience.  
Waiting for the train

On the train
Most people nap on the train
One visit worthy of note was to Auroville a town with over 1200 residents just north of Pondicherry . This town is an experiment in international living. Men, women and children live here in (supposed) perfect harmony with each other regardless of nationality, creeds and politics, symbolizing universal oneness. The residents are all involved in various specialized fields of work of their choice and are completely self- sustained. I must say we did have a delicious lunch in their restaurant.

I know I am going around in circles a little with this missive – forgive me. There is just too much to relate and I am trying to condense it whilst telling you as much as possible in a very short space.

North India offers the well-known attractions such as the Taj Mahal. The route we have followed on this trip is a perfect ‘second visit’ or supplementary itinerary to visit India. It has been a very gentle and fascinating introduction to South India and the authentic lifestyle of the communities.
A road stall making Chai
Chai - served everywhere & I loved it.

I have taken many photos, so look forward to your invitation to the slide night!!!!
One of my favourite photos. Happy people at work carrying salt
Keep safe,
Cheers, Jeanette 13.9.2009