Helen and Randall on the road

A bit about our adventures 2011-2012

Thursday 29th March – Sunday 1st April: Jim Corbett National Park

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This is our beautiful lodge accommodation at Jim’s Jungle Retreat, Daleep’s lodge in Corbett National Park. The lodge accommodation is upstairs, with the downstairs sections being ‘researcher accommodation’ or in some cases not yet developed. You can just about spot the solar water heaters on the roof – they take their eco-credentials pretty seriously.

Inside, the rooms are beautifully furnished  and decorated…

…with beautiful fabrics and textiles designed by Daleep’s twin sister, and lovely touches like this funky antique phone (that worked of course) and photos, either wildlife ones (mostly taken by Inder, Daleep’s dad) or historical ones related to the park.

Why send your trophies home for taxidermy?

The seating area on our verandah – perfect for sundowners.

Steve Irwin reincarnated?

Tamsin posing on one of the winding paths around the property.

When they started building the property it was all cultivated fields, so they consulted a naturalist and a botanist to get the right mix of plants and trees for the grounds. The result is a series of shady pathways with the odd hammock slung between trees; not too manicured but very pretty.

We woke up early on our second day for the dawn jeep safari to Jhirna, the nearest reserve area in the park, we left before dawn which meant we saw the beautiful sunrise over the forest as we were entering the reserve.

Our guide was fantastic, particularly once he realised that – unlike many of the visitors to Corbett – we weren’t only obsessed with seeing a tiger. After that he went out of his way to point out all the other wildlife, including some amazing birdlife. We saw a kingfisher dive from midair for a fish – incredible. He was also good at identifying sounds – we heard a leopard calling to another across a dry river – and spotting animal sign:

Recent tiger prints!

This astonishing tree on the way to Jhirna from the lodge had over 60 bees’ nests in it.

Langur being, well, languorous .

Spotted deer. We also saw barking deer and sambar.

One of the hides managed by the forest reserve staff (a bit ricketty!)

Trying to spot (ha ha) the leopard we could hear.

The reserve closes to visitors at 10am (opening again later) so we were driven back to Jungle Jim’s in time for breakfast and a little light nap before leaving for our sunset safari to Bijrani reserve, this time a half-hour drive from the lodge with only our driver from Jim’s, as we were to pick up a forest reserve guide at the entrance to the reserve (them’s the rules).

This sign amused us on the way:

Here we are looking intrepid:

On this safari our guide was less interested in other wildlife and definitely a tiger-hunter. We still spotted plenty of cool birds including a jungle owlet and a brown fish owl, plus a mongoose, loads of deer and monkeys – both langurs and the ubiquitous rhesus macaques. The highlight was being only a few metres away from two tigers – we couldn’t see them as they were in a dry river bed not visible through the undergrowth from the road, but we listened to them growling for about half an hour. It was eerie; after the warning calls from the langurs and barking deer the entire area of forest went completely silent except for the tigers.

When we arrived back at the exit of the reserve we spotted a jungle cat too, which was beautiful (apparently they have been cross-breeding with the local domestic-type moggies) but a couple of the other people waiting there showed us a photo of the tiger we had been listening to shortly before we arrived – it crossed the road right in front of them…eek!

When we were almost back at the lodge we saw a couple of jeeps had stopped at the side of the road – it turned out that a herd of wild elephants was feeding just a few metres into the forest; a small tusker plus the matriarchal group, a couple of young and two nursing babies…SO CUTE!

Don’t mess…

The next day was a bonus extra  – we’d been planning to head to Delhi but we were invited to stay another night as we hadn’t really had time to catch up with our hosts. We spent the day doing some really hardcore relaxing:

Evening G&T on the verandah, before Inder summoned us to pre-dinner drinks with him by banging two bottles together. How well he had got to know us in such a short time!

After a lovely evening chatting, eating and drinking around the pool we retired as we had another early morning safari – this one a walking safari in the area around the park. We didn’t see anything big – plenty of deer, monkeys and birds though, and it was a glorious morning walk and sunrise.

Finally it was time to pack, have breakfast, and then head for Delhi by car.

The rest of the photos are here:


Monday 26th – Thursday 29th March: Dehra Dun

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A return to Dehra Dun after our last visit in 1996 and after living in the nearby village of Salangaon for months in 1994 was always going to be a bit emotional. We were very fortunate to have been invited by the lovely Daleep to stay in his family home, a beautiful turn-of-last-century house that they are in the process of converting to a high-end guest house/homestay. When it is up and running I HIGHLY recommend it!

When we arrived on Sunday night we were the only guests (although of course the full complement of cook, bearers, sweepers etc were installed) but the next few days were akin to a house party from Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward as people dropped in and out for meals, overnights, and the partaking of gin and tonics/scotch and sodas.

The beautiful home, built by a great-grandfather early 1900s.

View from the back

Our suite – four-postered bed, small sitting room and huge bathroom.

Breakfast on the verandah, back of the house

The back of the house – the central roof terrace courtyard around which the upstairs rooms are arranged can just be seen.

The next morning we headed into Dehra Dun itself to drop off some clothes mending, pick up some phone credit, and have fresh lime soda at the Hotel President (one for Charlie:)

Fresh Lime Soda in Presidents. Menu open to Veg Sizzlers.

When we got back, Dilsher (another house guest and old friend of the family) had arrived. By coincidence, he is the son of Mady Martyn who set up the John Martyn Memorial Trust and started the village school where Charlie and I volunteered in memory of her second husband and Dilsher’s stepfather, John Martyn. As a result Dilsher is one of the board members of the trust and very familiar with the school, so he was only too happy to volunteer to take us for a visit the next day.

Later on Daleep and his father Inder arrived, bringing Daleep’s new puppy – a 6 week old golden cocker spaniel – with them. We spent a happy evening on the rooftop courtyard drinking wine, chatting and playing with the puppy before dinner was served. The food was great and Inder had a brass bell on the table for summoning the servants, to our great delight. Tamsin asked to have a go – Inder said she was very welcome provided she paid the servants for the day too!

Randall is in love.

The next day were were out and about with Dilsher – first we called into the Forest Research Institute, The building is astonishing (possibly the largest brick structure in the world?) and both Dilsher’s father and Daleep’s grandfather were involved in the construction, as chief engineer and contractor respectively.

This is only about half the size of the building – on either side of the cupolas there is another huge wing, and it goes back the same distance.

The institute is set in formal grounds obviously planted with lots of trees, and with the various arboreta, nurseries and research areas (into insects, plant diseases etc) set around the edges. It is a real oasis of calm away from the traffic noise of Dehra Dun – it must be a delightful place to study, particularly if you get the opportunity to live onsite.

There are many research areas:

As well as a fantastic if idiosyncratic insect museum, and a huge slice of 704 year old Deodar tree with historical events marked on it.

We also visited the Doon School next door, where Charlie and I visited our Doon School friends in 1994 several times, and whose estate we learned had been the original site of the FRI before it was moved to the current building. The estate was then purchased and the Doon School was started, later becoming a member of the Round Square Conference (see also: Round Square) founded at Gordonstoun, hence my link with Doon and subsequently with the John Martyn School. The campus is quite beautiful with a number of new buildings since we were there last including a new swimming pool and a fantastic art school.

Then after lunch we all headed off to Salangoan village to the John Martyn School, where Charlie and I lived and taught English in 1994:

.John Martyn Memorial School main building, 1994

John Martyn Memorial School main building, 2012

This is me on the verandah where I used to teach my classes.

Here is me in 1994 teaching class on the verandah!

From the verandah looking into Charlie’s old classroom

In Charlie’s old classroom, now the library!

I brought copies of photos taken back in 1994 – they caused quite a stir, particularly this one:

The little girl on the right, Himani, is now the teacher in the middle of the photo above (the one with her hand to her mouth in embarrassment!)

Tamsin, Helen, Dilsher, and Asha. Asha was the school helper/dinner lady/cleaner in our day and now takes classroom assistant duties, kindergarten classes etc.

A second floor has been built onto the old classroom block.

Evidence of previous Round Square involvement.

Inside the new extension/top floor – a creative space used for the kindergarten and early primary activities.

Our old house! This building was new when we arrived. We had the flat on the bottom right.

Our old doorway. The two ground floor flats are now teachers’ accommodation, and the top floor is, of all things, the computer suite!

Where we used to hang our laundry and bury our rubbish there is now new play equipment.

With Asha. She was very emotional as I had brought her a photo of her with her sister Shashi, our friend too, who died shortly after we came home.

Asha in 1994 with her children Nitin (far left), Rekha (now a policewoman) and Amit.

Nitin now!

The school staff and me. The new headmistress is Ms Savitri and is an absolute star. She has all kinds of plans including adult education classes.

That concluded our visit to the school – I was very sad that Charlie wasn’t with us; even more so the next day as we planned to go rafting. We only had a day so we planned a half day trip (not the full 7 days on the Bhagirathi and Ganga that we did back then!) but still…

Dilsher kindly arranged for us to go to a rafting camp run by friends of his – Himalayan River Runners – as we had been trying to find a good outfit after being told how many camps are on the river now. We left Dehra Dun around 10 with Daleep’s driver taking us up to the camp some 17km above Rishikesh, and arrived in time for lunch:

This was the glorious riverine beach on which the HRR camp is based. It’s next to the spot where Shaukat had his camp back in 1994 (note for Charlie!).

The view downriver. It’s a residential camp and runs hiking trips etc as well as rafting, and seemed really well managed.

Lunch under canopies as the sun was beating down (it was 36 degrees!).

With our raft guide and one of the owners.

Helen and Tamsin, kitted up and ready to go.

Go Team!

Safety Kayaker

Happy Tamsin!

Happy Helen and Randall!

On one of the flat bits, Tamsin braved the (very chilly, despite the heat) waters of the Ganges, and is thus apparently cleansed of all sins and going straight to heaven/nirvana. Or something.

Jump rock! The green and red thing in mid-air is Randall.

View back up river – safety kayaker grabbing a couple of our ‘swimmers’ who turned out not to be!

It was all over way too soon – just before Lakshman Jhula we got out of the river, changed our clothes in the handy (changing tent) brought down by the HRR crew, and drove off with Daleep’s driver who had come down to meet us, waving a happy farewell to the rest of the crew who were busy packing the raft and kit into their own jeep.

By the time we got back to Dehra Dun and got warm and clean it was time for evening drinks and chats, this time in the drawing room where we admired the beautiful interior decor by Christopher Moore (who had also been a house guest for the last few days) and played with the puppy some more:

 Both flat out!

 Finally on Thursday morning after another wonderful breakfast on the verandah it was time to head off to Jim Corbett National Park, to once again be hosted by Daleep and family.

Byeee Everyone!

The rest of the photos are here:

Thursday 22nd – Sunday 25th March: Shimla

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The drive to Shimla from Dharamsala, although it took the estimated 7-8 hours, was a revelation compared to the previous car journey, partly due to a competent driver and partly to the brand new Toyota Innova belonging to the Pink House.

As we arrived late we booked into a guest house of which we will not speak as it was horrible – have duly slated it (with photos) on Tripadvisor! Luckily we only had to sleep there, so in the morning after a middlingly successful breakfast at a hotel on Mall Road and a complete failure to find somewhere to do our laundry (more on this later) we summoned a driver from our next port of call, the Cecil Oberoi:

The atrium around which the hotel is set, with a piano bar/lounge.

Detail of the bar, with grand piano tinkled every second evening as entertainment.

Pool area – we had it to ourselves as no-one else seemed to be interested. Lucky us!

Sunny lounging by the pool.

The sitting room of our suite.

Randall and I were upgraded to a suite for free again (after I complained about some minor communications issues regarding our arrival) – that makes us two for two on the 5* hotels of this trip because we were upgraded in the Taj Lake Palace too…so it’s down to the Imperial in Delhi at the end of the month to make it three for three!

Because we had loads of washing and hadn’t found anywhere to leave it we availed ourselves of the (horribly expensive) hotel service. It was *almost* worth the expense to see our scruffy t-shirts, socks and pants returned folded into tissue paper and placed gently inside two beautiful wicker hampers.

The chocolate pudding at dinner. Worthy of a photo, we thought.

The next morning I felt a bit rough so sent Randall and Tamsin off to climb up to the Jakhu / Jackoo temple (a temple to the monkey god Hanuman).

It’s a short but very steep climb – apparently the hotel was horrified that they were going to attempt it and tried to insist on sending them in a car with driver. In the end they were furnished with a couple of stout sticks (necessary monkey-proofing) and allowed to proceed as planned.

Lots of teeny George W. Bushes

Randall at the start of the walk.

Short pause

Ringing the bell of the temple at the top.

Shoes must be removed to enter the temple, so imagine Tamsin and Randall’s delight when some monkeys stole one shoe each of a couple who had decided not to make use of the proper storage facilities.

Annoyed monkey.

The shape of things to come?

Tamsin peering up Hanuman’s skirt.

Huge Hanuman statue on top of the hill.

Classic upskirt shot. Perez Hilton would be proud.

Written by helenbcn

March 25, 2012 at 10:10 pm

Friday 16th – Thursday 22nd March: Dharamsala

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We had a very cunning plan that involved an early flight from Bombay to Delhi, meeting Tamsin from her international flight (from London via Doha) and then taking a connecting flight to Dharamsala. Sadly it was not to be as our connecting flight was with the ailing Kingfisher airlines (yes THAT Kingfisher). Around 45 minutes before take-off the flight was cancelled so we booked ourselves into a car at the airport pre-paid taxi booth for the supposedly 10 hour journey. This turned into a 13-hour marathon that included a blown tyre, changing the wheel in the dark (by the light of our various head torches!), a short detour to the driver’s village to pick up a new spare, arguments with state border officials about ‘taxes’, a stop at a roadside dhaba where our driver ate dinner and Tamsin threatened (from afar, thankfully) the cook with tearing off his hat and ‘throwing it in the wee patch’ if he gave our driver another chapati, with a final exhausted arrival in Mcleod Ganj after midnight. We’d been in phone contact with the hostel though so they kindly sent people to carry our bags down the steep set of steps (in the dark) to The Pink House. In the morning we got to see it:

Indeed, tis VERY pink!

REALLY pink.

Heath Robinson plumbing, everywhere in Dharamsala.

We liked this sign.

After a full day of recovery on Friday we walked to Bhagsu Falls on Saturday. Bhagsu was a tiny hamlet with a temple 16 years ago, but now is full of hotels and Indian tourists with attendant psycho taxi drivers and appalling litter problem. McLeod Ganj itself was much bigger and more built up than we remembered; there were very few buildings over one story 16 years ago, and now everything is built up. The little lawn and garden next to our old guest house now has a huge hotel built on it.

View across the valley. You can just about see our very pink guest house.

The bottom of the Bhagsu falls where 16 years ago we saw monks sunbathing in their pants. No monks in pants this time although they *were* drying their robes.

 The short hike up to Bhagsu falls is now a wide footpath with railings and a tea stall every few metres, but the walk and the views are still so pretty. Once again it was a shame about the tourists dropping rubbish where they stood; even the tea shop owners were getting mad about it.

The falls – tea shops abound

View up to the falls

Presumably unintentionally humorous sign.

Beers on the roof terrace of the McLlo

Tamsin and I decided to learn how to make momos – at this point Randall was very grateful of Tamsin’s presence as it meant he was let off a cooking class.

Rather pleasingly all the boring bits (chopping and such) had been done for us. A bit like on Blue Peter:

Our cooking teacher was Llamo, and he was VERY strict!:

Tamsin’s mixing skills were up to scratch

Kneading the dough was also performed suitably.

Once the dough was ready we had to practice making the momo casings without filling, and this is where the whip was truly cracked, as our first few offerings were deemed unworthy and were brutally scrunched back into dough-balls.

Finally we got proficient enough to be allowed to use fillings in our momos with the following results:

After 15 minutes of steaming we happily ate the results although we did save a few for Randall.

This was the view from the steps to our hostel when we returned from the class:

The next day we took a walk to the Dal Lake a few km out of town. The supposedly ‘holy’ lake was surrounded by concrete walls and the inevitable rubbish, but that said the view wasn’t bad:

We spent another couple of days mooching, eating and doing some gentle walking, and found Tushita, the monastery and meditation centre where Charlie, Tamsin and I took an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism course back in 1996. It was a long time ago, so the things we remembered most about it were the VERY steep walk up the hill each morning to get there, gentle farting in the meditation sessions, and teasing the westerners who were there on ‘silent retreat’. Very spiritual, us.

On our last full day we did the ‘big hike’ to Triund, 9km in distance and 1km in height away from McLeod Ganj:

The first hour, a gentle climb through pine forests

Some time into the second hour we came across the first patch of snow.

Hour 3 – time for a tea and chocolate stop:

The last hour of the hike was a steep climb up through the snow:

It was at this point that we met a party of young Koreans, many of whom were hiking in Crocs or flip flops, and one of whom was carrying a guitar.

The incredible views from the top:

The Koreans got there first and were having a sing song when we arrived.

We made it! Four and a half hours up!

Stretching at the top

Drinks and noodles in the inevitable tea stall.

Back through the snow on the way down

The long and winding road

Tea stop on the way down (another 4 hours of walking)

The yellow bag behind me in this photo is significant – a local action group Mountain Cleaners (started by a Brit) give them out so that hikers and the stall owners can collect the plastic rubbish that gets generated. The Mountain Cleaners then collect them and send the sorted contents for recycling. All kudos to Jodie ‘Garbage Girl’ Underhill for setting this up.

Randall on the terrace of Kunga Guest House where Charlie, Tamsin and I stayed in 1996 for a few days. It now has a second block and a huge outdoor terrace (Nick’s Italian Kitchen).

The other hostel we stayed in during our 1996 is no longer a hostel, and the little garden that surrounded it is now built up with bigger hotels. We popped in on the off chance though, and found Champa, one of the couple who ran the place back then. We had printed some photos of him, his wife and their little boy from 1996. Unfortunately we missed the latter two, but Champa was so pleased with the photos, and he gave us a loaf of his fabulous sourdough bread in return.

Tamsin and Champa 2012

Champa 1996 – making Tibetan bread.

The rest of the photos are here.

Written by helenbcn

March 22, 2012 at 7:17 pm

Saturday 10th – Thursday 15th March: Bombay / Mumbai

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From Sula we took the train back to Bombay – we had to take ‘sleeper class’ on a regular train as *horrors* all the AC Chair Cars, 2 and 3 – tier A/C  seats were sold out. Given that it was a 4 hour journey (Tamsin, Charlie and I once spent 52 hour travelling from Delhi to Kerala in sleeper class) this wasn’t an issue and actually pretty civilised – we sat opposite a couple who were travelling for a conference, and they shared their rather lovely home-made sweets with us (after asking all the usual personal questions such as ‘where are your children’ and ‘why aren’t you married’, of course).

We got back hungry so headed to Marine Drive where we found ‘Pizza by the Bay’ in an old Art Deco building – a disappointing dining experience but great view, and from where we crossed the road to the Marine Drive promenade that stretches from Nariman Point round to Malabar Hill for a sunset stroll:

Bombay sunset.

Sunset over Malabar Hill, from Marine Drive.

We had originally planned to go to clubbing at Blue Frog but decided against it as we had an early start the next morning for our Bicycle Tour of Old Bombay. This tour had been recommended by Randall’s friend Shikha – a Bombayite – but I was a bit apprehensive knowing what I do about traffic in Indian cities…

We got up at 6 in order to walk to the starting point outside the Woodside Inn at Regal, the top of Colaba Causeway. It was a relief to see that the bikes were all in good condition and there were helmets too! As well as the guide and his colleague from the company, we were six people in total which was about right – the guide Jay said he had had 18 in the group before now, which I suspect would have been a bit hair-raising. As it was, the traffic on the Regal roundabout at 7am on a Sunday morning was pretty sparse, although I still had a minor panic at the realisation that I was navigating a major roundabout in Bombay ON A BICYCLE! ARRRRRRRRGGHHHH! After that we were mainly on quiet roads with little traffic at that time in the morning, with plenty of stops for Jay to give us the historical information:

Gateway to India, early morning cycle ride.

For example, did you know that the Gateway of India was not actually completed in time for the intended royal visit, although the last British administrator to leave India did leave through it?

Right next to the Gateway – vaguely remembered from my brief visit with Neil 18 years ago – is the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, now fully recovered and renovated after the horrendous terrorist attacks in 2008.

Taj Palace Hotel

After a casual ride up Marine Drive and past Churchgate into Kala Ghoda we stopped for a well-earned chai break at this famous Irani bakery in Fort area (near our hostel).

Yazdani Irani bakery

The original owner is quite old now and has Parkinsons and Alzheimers, but still hangs around the bakery with his family and staff taking care of him. He showed us newspaper clippings of him completing the Bombay Marathon fairly recently (with a guide) and photos on the wall of  him in his youth as a professional bodybuilder.

We had ‘brun’ and butter (a crispy, fluffy bread roll) but vowed to return for biscuits as apparently they make good ginger cookies and also:

They were really rather good!

 Next up was ‘VT‘, the St Pancras-esque main station from which we had already travelled to Sula, but where Jay pointed out all the incredible detail; carvings of all kinds of animals and faces that you wouldn’t notice at first glance, but once you start looking pop up everywhere.

VT / Victoria Terminus, or to give it its ‘proper’ and current name, Chhitrapati Shivaji Terminus / CST

Bombay Municipal Corporation building, another of the gothick-y buildings, this one opposite VT.

The tour ended back at the Woodside Inn with an incredible breakfast (so good that we went back twice later in the week!) that turned unto brunch and a few beers before we finally wandered back to our hostel for a nap, as later that evening we were meeting Shikha.

We decided to brave the public transport network and take the local train from VT up to Bandra where we were meeting Shikha, and after a couple of false starts managed to procure tickets and get ourselves to the right platform. Despite images of packed local trains with people hanging on to the roof and sides of the train it was actually quite civilised, although I suppose that if you are coming into town from the suburbs during rush hour it might be a different prospect.

Dr Grumpypants waiting for a train.

 We met Shikha (and her driver) at Bandra and went for a drive through her old haunts as it was where she grew up before stopping for drinks at Toto’s Garage and then a nearby late night place that actually did the full-on shutter-down lock in experience. This is also where, to my great amusement, Randall and Shikha got into an actual scrap about who paid the bill, that involved a tug of war over the bill wallet and spillage of beer:

As a result of the late night beers we failed to get up and go to Sassoon Dock in time for dawn, but I did manage to find a place to have a swim (the outdoor pool of the 5 Fitness Club. Not recommended until they find a way to stop the local birds roosting over it, and the attendant issues that result!) and we had a huge hangover breakfast in the Woodside Inn instead, before Randall worthily took the train to meet Shikha again for the Dharavi Slum Tour (see separate post) while I took a taxi and went to an upscale neighbourhood to visit a tailor for some dressmaking. Make of our choices what you will! We all met in Bandra later after I had finished with my tailoring and done battle with the train reservations system to get ‘tourist quota’ tickets for overbooked trains and went for ‘chaat‘ (Indian street-food) in a local restaurant:

Shikha dropped ups off at Bandra Fort, a popular sunset spot overlooking the Sea Link road bridge linking Bandra with Worli nearer to where we were staying:

Sunset at Bandra Fort

We took a taxi back and had him drive over the Sea Link for the amazing view of the lit-up night-time skyline.

The following morning we went to Woodside for breakfast again (well they had free wifi!) then I tried a different swimming club nearby in Mantralaya (much nicer). At midday it was time to meet up with Vijay, another ex work colleague of Randall’s, for brunch at Cafe Mondegar before heading to Elephanta Island to visit the caves:

Cafe Mondegar with its Mario Miranda murals on the walls. Great fun and good food.

The ferry to Elephanta

Inside the caves at Elephanta

Sunset boat trip back from Elephanta

Sunset over the sea

Sunset over the city

On arrival back on the mainland we stopped for coffee and cake before walking across the city to Marine Drive from where we took a taxi up to Worli to the Four Seasons hotel to visit their rooftop bar.

The Haji Ali Mosque – quite beautiful so we stopped to take photos on the way.

The AER 34th floor rooftop lounge of the Four Seasons  was a fantastic place for drinks but at £15 for a double G&T not really in our ‘backpacker’ price range! Still, really recommended – professional staff, beautiful decor and great views.

The next morning we finally managed to get up and go to Sassoon Dock, the main fish market of Bombay. The boats come in and the fish gets sold to the wholesalers as it comes off the boat, lots of yelling and jostling for position, with similar hecticness as the coolies (mostly women with large baskets on their heads) shuttle orders back and forward either to trucks or to ‘retailers’ with stalls/spots in the marketplace. Photography is supposedly not permitted so here are some google images:

After dawn had well and truly broken we walked back up the length of Colaba Causeway and had breakfast in the legendary Cafe Leopold before heading our respective ways – me to pick up my tailoring and Randall to pick up his fixed iPhone – then meeting back at the hostel to pack up bits and pieces to send home.

Posting things in India is always an experience – I remember Charlie and I being advised to always watch the stamps being franked as otherwise people would steal them. Posting parcels is fun as you have to get them stitched into a lined bag by the handy fellows who set up stalls outside the post office:

Here’s hoping these parcels make it!

Monday March 12th – Dharavi Slum Tour

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Guest post by Randall:

After a leisurely breakfast I set off for my ‘Spirit of Dharavi’ tour, i.e. slum tourism. Photos are not allowed so I can only paint for you dear reader, a mental picture. Helen was originally going to come but I left her at the main station (commonly known as Victoria Terminus or VT) looking for train alternatives to our now defunct Kingfisher flights before she went to the tailor for some changes to yet more clothes, and went to my platform. From the boards I knew that the next train was not the one I needed but that the one after was a likely north-bound candidate. I therefore choose a space on the platform and settled down to wait. The platform filled and emptied as the first train arrived and departed and I took a call from Helen. I was thus distracted at the point when my train came in and it was only a vague feeling of being even more conspicuously taller than everybody than usual that prompted me to notice I was standing in a huge crowd of women. Unaccustomed as I am to being mobbed by women it dawned on me these frequent travellers were clued-in to where the women only carriage would stop and I was on a loser. Later the same day Helen told me that a man on her train had actually got on the women only carriage and had found it necessary to apologise profusely despite getting off again before departure, so I feel I had a lucky escape.

I arrived at Mahim station which used to be the end of the metropolitan line before the ‘new’ suburbs were built even further north. I met my old friend from Gib, Shikha, and the tour guide outside the station. The guide was a smart and enthusiastic university student who hailed from Dharavi and did this regularly as a holiday job. He provided the first 2 challenges to my preconceptions before we had set foot in the place. First, the schools in the slum educate 80% of the children to the level of basic numeracy and literacy (probably higher than the national average of 74%), and many children to the level where they could go to university. Second, he was one of very few who actually go on to university because most of those with higher qualifications see plenty of entrepreneurial opportunity staying in the slum. With these thoughts in mind we headed in by crossing the railway Bifrost.
Dharavi slum started in the 1840s and is therefore roughly as old as ‘modern’ Bombay. It usually has the title of being the biggest (most crowded) in all Asia but several other Mumbai slums are now snapping at it’s down-at-heels. The slum is bounded east and west by the 2 major railways into central Mumbai (Bombay). These give rise to the images you might have seen of people living crammed along the edges of the railway lines. The south is bounded by the edge of what had previously been the outermost suburb. The north is kept in check by police boundary which ensures a clear stretch of wooded land before the ‘new’ suburb boundary. The whole area is 0.67 square miles (1.7 km2) and home to 1 million people – it’s crowded.

As the tour progressed I asked lots of questions and Shikha had to asked the question again, in English, because the guide had difficulty understanding me. Out of these answers and the general tour info I gleaned that the early days of Dharavi had probably fitted my mental image of a slum; water from the same river that was used for sewerage, no electricity or power, huts made from tin sheets and rubbish, chaos and abject poverty, etc., etc. The slum we toured was still holding up the image in that it was crowded, dirty, smelly and chaotically busy but frankly these qualities generally describe the urban landscape in India outside the 5 star hotels and members only clubs.

Our tour covered the recycling industry area, the leather industry area, the textiles area, the ceramics area and one of the residential areas. Estimates vary but the yearly turnover of Dharavi industries is approximately $500 million (half a billion dollar! – where there’s muck there’s brass). It’s location in between 2 railways, near a port, 2 airports and (now) a major freeway helps enormously in it’s impressive annual turnover. I never did understand how the town planning was managed for this city-within-a-city but it seems cooperation and common sense had a lot to do with it. It is worth mentioning the river which still is polluted sludge-black and spontaneously bubbles methane and other noxious gases from the reacting chemical effluents – it’s name is Sweetwater.
All industry within Dharavi is based on a large workforce of very cheap labour. Plastics recycling had started with just collecting the rubbish from Bombay’s streets and sorting it into types. Developing this industry along the supply chain required machinery and machinery requires reliable, high power electricity. Where there is a will there’s a way and now that basic utilities are in place there are different workshops for: shredding the plastic, washing, drying and bagging the shreds, colouring and melting the plastic, then extruding it into long threads, cooling and chopping the threads into small ‘pellets’, and finally bagging and labeling the pellets ready for reuse. Huge shipments of recycled pellets go out from Dharavi to manufacturers all over the world every day.

Aluminum cans also are collected from the streets, washed and stripped of their plastic coating and shredded. The shreds are then smelted into ingots for shipment. Some ingots however are used in Dharavi in another workshop for pressing machine parts.

Cardboard boxes are recycled by removing the stickers, scrubbing off the writing and trimming the edges. The box nets are shipped out to manufacturers who can recoat and print on the cardboard ready for reassembly and reuse. This approach saves on cost and energy over recycling via the pulp stage.

Used wire is collected and the plastic coating stripped from the copper by hand. Both are then recycled and shipped out.

What really struck me was how did they get these huge machines positioned into ramshackle building in the middle of this crowded and tortuously alley-riddled maze? Our guide was uncharacteristically uninformed about this because, apparently, it all happened before he was born. This lead to 2 revelations: 1) that there are very few records of anything in Dharavi (it’s not classed as a slum for nothing), and 2) the maintenance of all machinery is done in-house. Not only maintenance it turns out but there are now workshops that produce Dharavi-ready industrial machinery – suitable sized components for transporting, no fussy safety features to override, and built-to-last motors and blades etc. No built-in obsolescence here!
Machines built in Dharavi are used extensively in the leather industry which is so famous that the leather goods made outside but from Dharavi leather are bought back in again to be sold to tourists in small shops around the leather workshop area. The actual ‘tanning’ cannot be done in Dharavi by order of the government because it is so polluting and very, very smelly, so the hides are send out to the tannery. The guide seemed to feel this was a harsh constraint on free enterprise. The hides are then brought back for further working (I never knew there were so many process steps in making leather). I had to ask in case you were wondering – the sacred cow of India is never used so the leather is either goat, sheep, or buffalo.
Just around the corner from this we passed the extensive bakery area which bakes and packs baked goods for several supermarkets. We had free samples which would have been easier to eat had the guide had one too. Turns out they are delicious.

The textile industry is fabulously varied. In different workshops we saw sequin encrusted diaphanous shawls being labour-intensively crafted (including by children) and computer-controlled banks of machines doing embroidery (I kid you not) on denim wear. We also experienced the wax printing workshop at lunchtime and were photographed as celebrities. I fear that when they show their photos to their friends they will be mightily disappointed.

The ceramics area was an oasis of calm in comparison. Large brick kilns in regular rows with small workshops set along both sides. The whole area structured to support the supply chain from raw clay to finished product and packaging for shipment. There is much cooperation and collaboration and according to our guide, little friction. Shikha has become something of an expert on pottery since we were in Gibraltar so I was treated to a in-depth treatise on the complex artisanship of pot making from the two of them – genuinely fascinating.
Much of the industry is based on migrant expertise and is therefore divided regionally. The close collaboration of industries, however means that regional (and religious) tolerance and indeed harmony are a commercial necessity. People work together and live together. The industrial areas are as arranged around wide boulevards compared to the residential areas. I was grateful we didn’t dally as the alleys were busy but so narrow I couldn’t get my shoulders through. They followed the lines of the, thankfully covered, sewers as no building over the sewers is allowed (or indeed possible). Electric cables hang low from every support and offer garroting and electrocution as a two-for-one.

There are no toilet facilities inside the houses but public washroom dotted all-too-rarely about the residential area. I asked about why no facilities inside houses and the top answer was no room – people live typically in family units of 6-8 people and a typical house is 10-15 square metres; basically one room. It is beyond me that so many people stay and indeed raise another generation there even when they could afford to go elsewhere.

In general the buildings in Dharavi are unique with a flavour of assault-course obstacle about them. They are mostly made from recycled bits (what else?) and just barely good enough to house the relevant occupant. The tour has definite Indiana Jones feel as you traverse treacherous terrain and outsmart lurking bear-traps in order to uncover unlikely chambers of ingenious industry. The whole place is a riot of sensory input and the tour took us onto the roof of one particularly tall workshop (I trod very gingerly with my great weight) to take in the view from above.
We finished with a walk through the market where our guide pointed-out the mobile stalls blocking the roads that were occasionally cleared in a police raid if somebody had failed to pay the relevant bribes. It is an impressive place and countered my casual preconceived notions of a slum but I still found myself recounting my happy tales to Helen (after we’d met her from the station) whilst eating lunch in a suburban restaurant.

Ed note: more information and photos can be found here:

Written by helenbcn

March 12, 2012 at 8:36 pm

March 8th – 10th: Sula Vineyards

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Back in January we heard about the Indian wine revolution when we decided to  risk ordering a bottle of local wine from a  hotel restaurant. We were impressed by the Sula sparkling so decided to find out a bit more about it, the outcome of which was a two-night stay in the ‘Beyond‘ resort in Nashik, home of India’s grape-growing industry and the Sula Vineyard.

The beautiful Beyond resort.

The pool over-looking vineyards, lake and mountains . Unheated but I did brave it.

Gorgeous wet-room bathroom with plants growing in it!

Water feature in the open plan reception/garden area.

In the reception/lobby area there were some examples of old kit from their early days.

The pool at night.

Beyond from the driveway.

To get to the Sula vineyard, a couple of kilometres away, we borrowed slightly ricketty but basically functional bicycles from Beyond. Their friendly on-site mechanic sorted out various things with a bit of percussive maintenance (that is, he hit things until they were satisfactory).

The short journey was interesting as  neither of us had any gears and we were sharing the narrow, winding road with the odd packed truck driving at speed. Still, we got encouraging cheers and the odd jeer from small children at the side of the road (the red, puffing foreigners were clearly the most amusing thing they had seen for ages) and three-to-a-moped young men.

Arriving was quite a relief as we cycled up the long driveway through vineyards, parked the bikes, and headed in for a cool glass of water in the bar.

The view from the terrace bar, Sula.

We did the basic wine tour and tasting, which was interesting although not as detailed as the ones we had done in Australia and New Zealand, and was also slightly marred by the noisy families with ill-disciplined children who had inexplicably thought this would be a great day out for toddlers. Misanthropic – moi?

Wine. Lots of Wine.

LOTS of wine.

The new bottling process.

A bottle of Sula Brut and some cheese and salami on the terrace of the bar,

Written by helenbcn

March 10, 2012 at 10:21 pm

Friday 2nd – Monday 5th March: Panaji, Goa

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We had an overnight train journey to Goa:

Our 2nd class AC carriage, Ernakalum Jn (Kerala) to Margaon (Goa) overnight. We are on the ‘side’ bunks; on the other side of the corridor are two sets of upper and lower bunks facing each other. This repeats for the length of the carriage, with only curtains as partitions. The seats on the side bunks slide down to make a lower bunk for the night. Not much space for baggage except for under the seats, so luckily (and after a good 45 minutes of doing battle with Indian Bureaucracy) we managed to book our big bags into the luggage van. We were a bit concerned over their safety but they magically appeared at the parcel office in Margaon (we didn’t even have to carry them over the footbridge!) so we’ll be doing that again!

Enjoying morning Nescafe (one can get used to anything, apparently!)

Post-breakfast doze.

Our hotel in Goa’s state capital Panaji was simple but clean and central

It had an entertaining collection of cats and kittens to play with and be amused by:

The owner had been close friends with Mario Miranda, a Goan cartoonist and artist who died only in December 2011, and the hotel was full of murals and mosaics by Mario:

We decided to visit the ‘Mario Gallery’ in a small town outside Panaji but it turned out to be closed ‘because of the elections’ (state elections taking place – the reason for everything from shops and banks being shut to not being able to get a beer for 3 days!) so we visited the next door Houses of Goa museum which was fantastic, curated by a local architect Gerard de Cunha and housed in an astonishing building designed by him, as were several of the nearby buildings which we admired and which turned out to be school buildings.

As we were contentedly wandering around the museum learning about the history of Goan architecture while admiring the inside of a new splendid piece of Goan architecture the receptionist called up to us that the Mario Gallery had opened and if we hurried we could go, so we scampered off to see it. It turned out to be a part of the architectural studio space of Gerard de Cunha – he was a friend of Mario and now curates the gallery/museum as well as managing his practice. He had actually opened his studio and not the gallery as he had some guests that were visiting him to talk about his architecture, specifically about the sustainability aspects of it. We listened to their conversation as we wandered around the gallery and inevitably eventually got into conversation with them. As a result we were able to tag on to the private tour of the de Cunha-designed school buildings next door by the architect himself!

Gates to the school.

View of the school buildings from the museum over the road. On the far right is the top of the little theatre, with walls made from recycled glass bottles, bottom facing inward to make a flat surface and tops facing outward to give it a spiky appearance.

Inside the school, light and airy spaces. On the right you can see the recycled bedsteads being used as window guards. Apparently lots of materials were donated by local people and incorporated into the design.

There is more information about the school here.

Next we hopped on a local bus and went to nearby Old Goa, the old capital of the state that apparently once had a population greater than London or Lisbon but is now mostly historical churches.

Archaelogical museum housed in an old church/monastery.

We went to the ‘archaeological museum’ which was a bit rubbish – just bits of rock and old sculpture without much in the way of context. Old Goa was, on the other hand, notable for me having my first Thums Up of the trip:

Sadly it is now made by CocaCola although Charlie will be pleased to note that it still seems to contain the vast amounts of sugar and caffeine that the original did.

No smoking, no spitting, but lots of flowers on the bus back from Old Goa to Panaji.

We saw more Mario murals in the Panaji central market where we went to get the zip on my backpack fixed (most things can be fixed in India!):

Randall in the Panaji central market.

We managed to see a bit of Panaji by night, although no cold beers as there were two ‘dry days’ because of the elections (the day before and the day of). Still, there was a great cake shop which made up for it:

We managed some more sightseeing including the old/Latin quarter that feels very mediterranean:

Church of the Immaculate Conception

Randall NOT ringing the church bell.

Portuguese-style azulejos tiles

Pretty residential street.

Could be Andalucia?

After three days it was time to leave this bustling but laid-back little city for the beach at Calangute. On the way out of town we spotted this alarming sign:

Note the ‘with creosote’. Lovely.

Written by helenbcn

March 6, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Wednesday 22nd Feb – Thursday 1st March: Kerala

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Arriving in Trivandrum station after a fairly comfortable 16 hour overnight journey in First Class AC (not as glamorous as it sounds, although we did get the only 2-berth compartment on the train) we were greeted by the sight of the Indian Coffee House building, one of the few things I remember from my last visit there 16 years ago with Tamsin and Charlie.

The other thing I remember is having a low-blood-sugar meltdown and being marched into a restaurant by my dear friends, and in that restaurant (name lost in the mists of time) I discovered one of my favourite dishes, Dal Makhani.

This is the tea shop next to our hotel:

Our hotel was convenient for the train station but otherwise very average, however this amused us:

After a day in Trivandrum mainly using the free wifi, drinking coffee and eating fab cake in the lovely Cherries and Berries it was off to Kovalam for some chilled out beach time:

Despite having stayed there 16 years ago I was completely disorientated – I thought I would have recognised at least some places, but the only familiar sight was the lighthouse:



After a day or so I realised that EVERYTHING that had been there 16 years ago had simply been knocked down in order to expose another few metres of beach…the current promenade and row of hotels and restaurants are not only new (as I expected) but sat on what had previously been the forest and flat ground behind the beach huts/restaurants on the sea front. Sixteen years ago the few buildings and beach hut restaurants with rooms attached were much closer to the sea than anything is now, so the tiny family-run shack restaurant where Charlie and I nearly suffocated ourselves with an ‘eat-all-you-can’ thali sat on what is now beach, complete with sunbeds and umbrellas. Tempus fugit and all that…

In 1996 this was our room, tucked behind a beach hut restaurant right on the sea front. Now this whole area is just clear sandy beach, the trees have been removed and there is a concrete promenade lines with hotels and restaurants some 10-15 metres further back. Weird.

All these trees have gone now, the beach is much wider and flatter, and the buildings (bars/restaurants) on the little headland in the background have all been removed – it’s just a rocky outcrop now, and there is more beach and a concrete walkway between in and where the first line of restaurants starts.

The (in)famous German Bakery still exists though:

The ‘new’ home of the German Bakery (it’s probably been there for 10 years!)

Kovalam is now a fairly straightforward resort for both Indian and western tourists, pretty laid-back though and still great fresh fish, brought round the restaurants in the mornings after the catch, and served up in the evenings.

Some interesting menu items.

Some alarming (spa) menu items.

We spent a relaxed couple of days in the cafes and restaurants, and I swam in the pool of one of the beach front hotels. All very charming.

Pool at the Sea Face hotel.

Sunset over the beach, from the pool.

Next up was a backwater boat trip – one day and then an overnight taking us from Kollam to Allepey. Kollam was not much to shout about, crappy hotel and nowhere decent to eat (although despite some of the menu items we got a decent veg curry and juice here:)

The houseboat backwater trip was great though:

Our houseboat.

On board.

On board (2)

On board (3)

Brightly coloured fishing boats passing by.

We also passed other houseboats doing the same journey or just taking leisurely tours around the lagoons and canals:

10 bedroom houseboat (ours had 2 – one for us and one for the crew!)

We passed through a lock (marking the change from brackish/salt to fresh water, apparently) where while we waited men were fishing, casting and retrieving nets.

Evening on board was quite beautiful.

Scary ‘Knock Out’ beer

Even more scary ‘Fruit Drink’.

On arrival in Allepey we had a bit of a problem…we had a hotel booked in Kochi but as there was a general strike no way to get there. It transpired however that  the railways were not part of the strike, so our lovely houseboat staff managed to track down a working rickshaw driver who would take us to the station (presumably as he couldn’t afford to strike, so we made sure to pay him way over the odds for his trouble), and then we paid the princely sum of 10 rupees each for a train ticket to Ernakalum Junction, the nearest station to Fort Kochi.

Train stretching for ages in one direction…

…and in the other direction too.

Welcome to Indian Railways…

unless you are tall:

in which case you will bang your head each time the train moves!

At the station a few minutes of wandering around near-but-not-at the taxi rank mumbling ‘taxi’ under our breath procured a private vehicle to take us to the hotel (who had been supremely unhelpful in finding one for us) so mission accomplished without too much strikebreaking activity. The vehicle was, unfortunately, a Tata Nano, however the enterprising driver managed to squeeze us and our bags into it with only minor discomfort resulting.

Fort Kochi was bigger than I remember it. Our hotel was Koder House, an old merchant family home converted to a boutique (-ish, in my opinion!) hotel.

The huge bed in our suite; note the handy stool for climbing up onto the bed!

Fort Kochi and the surrounding areas (Mattancherry and Jew Town) are pretty, with narrow streets and brightly coloured, low-rise houses the Portuguese colonial influence is still evident. For the first time in a while we had a choice of where to get a decent cup of coffee, including in the ‘Tea pot cafe’:

Randall in the Teapot cafe.

What time is it?

Some sights that made us smile on the streets of Kochi:

Stylish pink car

Ice cream van auto-rickshaw.

Randall and pink-trousered rickshaw driver.

Rickshaw cosy.

OK this one’s a bit childish.

Happily eating Ginger ice cream at Ginger restaurant.

 On our final day we took the public ferry over to Vypeen island to visit Cherai beach:

View from the ferry out of Kochi.

View in the other direction – the Chinese Fishing Nets seen from the ferry.

On the beautiful Cherai beach, Vypeen Island.

The rest of the photos are here.

February 9th – 19th: Andaman Islands

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We had booked a week of diving at Dive India in the Andaman Islands so after two fairly underwhelming days in Kolkata we took the 2 hour flight to Port Blair. Here is the view from the plane of the start of the islands:

We were staying at Island Vinnie’s resort, where our dive centre Dive India is based:

Looking down towards the beach from our cabana – dive centre on the right, full moon cafe on the left.

Our ‘tented cabana’ with veranda and most importantly hammock.

The ‘Full Moon Cafe’ – possibly the only restaurant on the islands where the menu is not 90% fiction.

Full Moon Cafe – the Island Vinnie’s on site restaurant.

The beautiful beach.

More beach.

Trees on the beach. Some of the trees were actually knocked over by the 2004 Tsunami which affected although didn’t devastate the islands.

Dawn at beach No. 5

Dawn at beach No. 5 – starting to load the dive boats.

Loading the dive boats, Dive India, Island Vinnie’s

Off  on the dunghi (traditional Burmese-style fishing boat) for a day’s diving.

Jimmy (one of the other divers) decides to give us an airline-style safety briefing; there are exits here, here, here, here, here etc

The diving was glorious – mainly clear clear water with visibility around 20m and loads and loads of brightly coloured tropical fish and corals. We saw white-tipped sharks and stingrays and an ENORMOUS grouper the size of a small car, and one of the other groups saw dolphins, turtles and manta rays. The only sad thing is that above about 15m the coral is bleached and dead as the water temperature has been rising and it can’t survive at the new temperatures (climate change related). This meant that most of the diving was at 20m depth or below.

On Havelock all the beaches are numbered; No. 7 beach or Radhnagar beach is famously the most beautiful and where the swimming elephant can sometimes be spotted (although not by us). We took a trip there one afternoon – a 20 minute rickshaw ride across to the other side of the island:

This way to the beach!

Forest down to the beach – gorgeous.

Randall wanders down to the beach…

…past the huge piles of plastic rubbish.

There is nowhere to recycle plastic on the islands, and conscious resorts like Island Vinnie’s provide filtered water and tasty natural drinks so you don’t have to buy drinks in plastic bottles, but there is still a huge problem with plastic rubbish. Vinnie’s have a sticker campaign trying to alert people to the problem but sadly there seems to be such a littering culture in India even when visiting beautiful places like the Andaman Islands.

Sunset at beach No. 7. Sadly we didn’t see the swimming elephant, but we did have early dinner and beers at Barefoot.

Next day – off for another day’s diving in gin-clear waters!

As the last ‘specialist’ dive of my PADI Advanced Open Water certification I did the Underwater Photography option. I won’t be selling anything to National Geographic just yet, but here are some of my efforts:

Ravi, my photography buddy.

Coral Cod

Huge starfish

Banner fish swimming between two huge barrel sponges.

Seal-faced puffer fish

Fringed coral with damsel fish

More soft corals

Butterfly fish

Apart from diving, snorkelling, reading in your hammock and eating there is really not much to do. Even the odd walk into the nearest village seems tiring after a morning’s diving though, so maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Still, said walk is worth it for the comedy traffic signs on the way:

After our 6 days of diving we took ourselves off on the ferry to Neil Island (90 mins on the chaotic, ancient ferry) – quieter even than Havelock:

Neil Island

Our Rs 800 beachfront hut at the eccentric Tango Beach Resort

Randall staring moodily at the ocean.

Banded sea snake, spotted on the beach next to our hut. Very poisonous, but apparently they have teeny little mouths so can’t bite you easily. We saw them while snorkelling too, mostly buried in the sand but with about 2 inches sticking upright out of the sand catching food. They reminded me of small, stripey, aquatic meerkats.

We had to call back to Havelock after Neil Island to collect our luggage and wait for the next day’s ferry (none of the transport is coordinated time-wise, obviously!) so took ourselves back off to No. 7 beach for some snorkelling. Here you can see all the awful things that can happen to you while at the beach:

Other awful things that you might see while swimming at beach No. 7!

Written by helenbcn

February 19, 2012 at 4:45 pm