Category Archives: India

Travelogue ISC 6: Surajgarh

SURAJGARH

22 November 2012

Having done all the major sights (7 World Heritage sites in 6 days!), we didn’t really know what more was in store for the last day and a half back to Delhi. Yusef explained that we were headed a little off the beaten track to stay in a merchant’s mansion and do camel rides to a special spot to enjoy the sunset.

We’d gotten quite ‘bus fit’ so the 5 hour ride wasn’t so bad. It helps that there are only 15 of us on a full massive bus, so we have a few rows each to stretch out, spread out our stuff, recline seats and so on. We were double lucky because dumb luck had placed us the furthest back on the bus, so we had the whole back row to stretch out on full length for quality napping. We had cards, books and conversation (with each other and the Aussies) to fill in the rest of the gaps, so it could have been worse.

We arrived at Surajgarh early afternoon and had to walk through the town and up the hill to the fort because the roads in the old town aren’t suitable for busses. The local children were thrilled at all these Westerners and greeted us exuberantly with loud greetings and waving. We must have seemed like royalty to them… And we could see why when we arrived.

Our accommodation was a converted mansion that had belonged to a rich merchant from the area. Their houses are extravagant in every aspect; size, gardens, finishes. We’re told that some of these mansions have up to 200 rooms and 7 courtyards. Sadly, a lot of them are just locked up and abandoned since the families have moved, but they don’t want to sell the properties in case they are perceived to need the money and hence lose face. We were allocated an enormous first floor suite (lucky #7), opening (through a short and wide wooden door with big brass bolt and an old fashioned 22 tumbler lock and key) on a 3 piece lounge with flatscreen tv, in front of a big square bedroom, with king size bed in the middle of the room surround with windows on 2 sides and Arabian arches on the other two. A large enclosed verandah ran the length of the bedroom and lounge, overlooking the big pool below (through weird little windows that were waist-height to knee-height). Completing the suite was a big dressing room with free-standing wardrobe and illuminated mirror, adjacent to a long bathroom with all the usual trimmings.

Yusef had arranged a simple buffet for lunch so, once we’d finished exploring our suite, we headed up to the rooftop terrace to tuck in. Odd combination of fried rice, veg noodles, french fries, onion and potato pakoras, but all very nice. Our camel ride was booked for 4.30 so we’d had every intention of having a swim, but time slipped by while we were chatting to our group mates and soon we were off again for the next excursion.

We met in the fort entryway, where the camels had been corralled and were waiting for us to climb aboard their carts. We split into the requisite groups of 5 and soon were off to parade through the town, as much a spectacle as we were spectators of the surrounds. We were taken to an old Hindu temple and Yusef explained more about the religion, its gods and its practices. All very fascinating – and a lot less complicated than it seemed at first now that the key names are sounding more familiar.

We rounded off the afternoon with a visit to an abandoned fort in town, where we watched the sunset through the arches and turrets on the open-air rooftop terrace. Back at our hotel, Christian and Craig took to the pool, while everyone else was freshening up for dinner, again to be served on the rooftop. The seats had all been arranged in a big U so that we could watch the show (drummer, piper and 2 kids dancing) and very soon it became a mandatory interactive dance lesson, which was quite a laugh.

Finger food snacks were brought around and we were very pleased with the tandoori aloo (potatoes), tikka chicken and barbecue paneer (big blocks of cottage cheese). A buffet followed with the usual assortment of breads, rice and curry, followed by gulab jaman and ice-cream for dessert. We sat up there for hours having beers, laughs and good chats with our tour mates, having a great time. We’re very lucky to have had a fun group.

Yusef joined us at one point for a few drinks and he tells of some of the nightmare groups he has that don’t gel and that just complain about everything. Luckily we’ve had a team of seasoned travellers, all looking to enjoy ourselves and see and do as much as we can.

 

After a last breakfast (the usual omelettes, toast, beans, bananas and juice), we were back on the bus for our last long haul – back to Delhi. Most of the others had a last night in Delhi, with the exception of the Brits who were leaving a bit later than us on the Friday and the Aussie solo traveller who was leaving on Sunday for China. It was a quiet ride all round, with several members of the group licking their wounds from the festivities the night before.

We got to the airport in near perfect time and had no trouble checking in and getting through passport control, with just enough time to grab a McMaharaj (a Big Mac with curried chicken patties) and get to our gate.

Travelogue ISC 5: Jaipur

JAIPUR
20-21 November 2012

Arriving in Jaipur, we wound our way up the mountains through the ‘hotels’ that lined the streets on either side that had welcomed the traders as they arrived with their caravans of wares. The buildings are all in relatively good condition already and are planned for a restoration project that will turn them into proper tourist attractions.

Jaipur, founded by Jai Singh, is known as the Pink City because when the Prince of Wales visited in 1876 the Maharajah Ram Singh painted the entire Old City pink, which is the colour of welcome in India.

Our hotel, Mandawa Haveli, is gorgeous! We have a lovely suite with marble floors and walls, an entire lounge (which it sounds like not everyone has) and a flatscreen tv and satellite decoder on a lazy susan that swivels between the lounge and the bedroom, so you can watch from the couch, 4 poster bed or window seat in the bedroom.

We decided to eat in the hotel since our journey in hinted that there was nothing of interest in the direct neighbourhood. Turned out to be a great decision and we thoroughly enjoyed our starters of tandoori mushrooms (me) and chicken pineapple salad (Christian) and our shared main course of chicken lababdar and lamb, with garlic naans. Double victory for the hotel kitchen since we’d decided well in advance to take a night off curry and have a western dinner!

Shilpe Shastra

9 square miles within the walls, with 9 rectangular grids, length and breadth of roads are multiples of 9 and 9 gates to enter the city, emulating the 9 openings in the human body. Other reasons for the 9 are found in Hindu mythology, Vishnee the Preserver has had 9 incarnations and Durga appears in 9 different forms and so on.

We made a stop to look at the facade of a Palace where the royal ladies used to sit behind the windows and watch the royal processions. While taking pics, we were lured in by a snake charmer and I got to don turban and play the calabash pipe to get the snakes going. Creepy but cool.

We were disheartened to see the long snaking queue at the elephant rides, but it moved quite quickly and soon we were atop an elephant and climbing the hill to Man Singh’s Palace (built in 1592). Man Singh was the maharaja of the Rajastani people and a general in Mughal King Akbar’s army. The entire structure of the palace, much like the rest of Jaipur, is well preserved since the city has never seen war, having strategically aligned with the Mughals. They were generals in the Mughal army and ceded any territories won to the Mughals but brought the bounties home to fund their prosperity.

The entrance quadrangle is large with frescoes painted above all the arches and entryways into the buildings. Frescoes are painted while the plaster is wet, so lasts longer and requires more skill.

The summer palace was constructed with a primitive aircon that drew cool air from the lake on one side of the palace up 3 walls to cool, then through a khuskhus reed curtain with tiny pipes of water spraying on it to give it a light scent and cool it even further. The winter palace was lined with thick curtains that made the areas 5 degrees warmer than outside. The central area had mirrors embedded on the walls, to help the king ‘get in the mood’ when the belly-dancers performed before he was due to make heirs.

The harem had 12 apartments for the king’s 12 wives. The king had so many wives because of matrimonial alliances with neighbours to prevent fighting. The king would use a secret passage that ran behind the apartments to access them so as to prevent squabbling between the wives. Only women were allowed in this area – not even their sons could visit after a certain age. Children fathered through concubines or servants were either passed off as belonging to deceased soldiers or murdered.

Then the shopping started.

With a jewellery shop.

Not only was inner magpie on high alert, but they also greeted us with samoosas (pyramid shaped veg ones) and *cold* Cokes, so we were done for! They displayed the beautiful ruby Star of India stones that the country is famous for. The salespeople had done a good job of piquing interest by ushering us all into a darkened office and spotlighting the stones, but the chap holding the stone made the faux pas of glimmering the reflection ‘star’ toward himself so the rest of the group was quite underwhelmed. Having a solid education in such things, I picked up another stone and showed our little huddle the star and there was much ooo and aaah’ing from everyone.

Block painting fabric. The patterns are made from a series of stamps. The first lays the outline and then ensuing stamps colour in their part of the picture with a single colour. Once all the stamps are overlaid, the pattern is completely coloured in. Traditionally all the colourants are sourced from nature – green from mango leaves, red from cane, yellow from turmeric, black from gooseberries, grey from onion leaves and, least of which because of cost prohibitiveness, orange from saffron (“golden flower”).

We were also shown the process of carpet making and the millions of knots per centimetre that make up the better grade carpets. While reassuring that they’re washable and fire retardant (they went at it with a blowtorch and then just brushed it clean), the opening price of R10k for a small mat was enough to make an easy decision. But we did accept their offer of a Kingfisher, so as not to offend and headed into their shop where their hospitality was rewarded with Christian buying half a dozen silk ties.

Pooped from shopping, we all welcomed lunch, which doubled as a trip to the Turban Museum. We had a delicious Mutton Shahi Korma (I was delighted that their korma doesn’t have nuts as normally I can’t have it because of the cashews), paneer stuffed tandoori potatoes and a garlic and an onion naan.

Jai Singh was a great astrologer and mathematician, so established an awesome open-air observatory at Jantar Mantar, with a great big sundial (the Vrihat Samrat Yantra) and smaller dials that measure time with accuracy up to 2 seconds, astrological charts and monsoon forecasting. We had a lovely wander round, finished off with a visit to the Art hall, where we were demonstrated the art of miniature painting. This is a painstaking technique that requires the artist to use a very thin brush (sometimes a single squirrel hair!) in order to create the finest of outlines and smoothest smear of colours. The paintings can be quite elaborate, painted on gold leaf with embedded jewels.

The artists included craftsmen of wooden items, inlaying trinket boxes by hand with brass wire to make intricate patterns or crushing semi-precious gems to adhere the dust onto glass that turned over reveals a beautiful pastel artwork, which is inlaid into the top of a wooden box. We bought a few items, but held back as the plan for the remainder of the afternoon and evening was a visit to the markets.

This turned out to be a chaotic affair. We were dumped rather unceremoniously roadside (the bus wasn’t allowed to formally pull over for fear of fines) and had to make our way back to the shops and market. This wasn’t what we expected at all. Rows of shops the size of a single garage lining either side of the road, with owners hovering in the doorway luring people to come buy their merchandise. The problem was that their wares weren’t what we wanted to buy. They were all home goods and rolls of textiles, hardware items and PEP style clothing stores.

After being given poor advice by seeming Samaritans, who really just wanted to take us to their shop no matter how ill-fitting the category, we (us and the Aussies) decided to suck it up and high-tail back to the fist bus stop we’d made in the morning (where I’d charmed snakes). Fortunately, it was quicker to get there on foot than it had been in the bus – but that’s not to say it was a pleasant walk!

Nonetheless, we found it… And with it an entire road of stalls with the tourist stuff (tees, crafts, parasols, sarees and tunics etc) that we’d all been looking for. We spent a few hours looking at everyone’s stuff and walked away with surprisingly little. Really just tees for the kids, a smattering of gifts, one or two odds and sods for us and (my coup de gras) a lovely leather laptop bag for me.

Getting home was another story. We (by now just Christian and me) walked and walked. We hadn’t realised how far we’d wandered, after the high-tailing which had only begun outside the Old City, within which we were staying. It wasn’t the distance that was the problem, but the darkness from the power failure, hawker-obscured pavements, maverick bikers, garbage everywhere, incessant hooting, puddles and filth. Still, we got back to the hotel quicker than if we’d caught any mode of transport – and we were very grateful to be back in the clean sanctum that was our home for the night.

We’d decided to eat in, and to eat ‘international’. Christian ordered a garlic chicken and noodles dish and I ordered a spag bol, then we also ordered ‘exotic veg au gratin’ to share, mostly because we were curious to see how exotic the veg actually was.

As it turns out, the spag bol was the most exotic! It was a stewy gravy with lumps of mutton (or goat?) served moat-like around a mountain of spaghetti. Not in the slightest bit tomatoey, garlicky, thick and saucy. I suppose we should have predicted that. The exotic veg turned out to be cauliflower, carrots, peas and green beans, which wasn’t really exotic (to us), but was delicious in the creamy cheese sauce with crunchy baked breadcrumbs on top.

Fed and watered, we hit the sack so we’d be rested for the next day’s trek.

Travelogue ISC 4: Agra

AGRA

19-20 November 2012

After a 4 hour bus ride, as we arrived in Agra, we crossed the bridge over Yamuna River, the western most tributary of the river Ganges. Cows and buffaloes were wallowing in it and Yusef told that they are like homing pigeons – they go off for the day and return to their owners (in the crush of the dusty dirty town centre) in the evening to get fed and milked. The land is barren and their owners are poor, so there is little food for them bar what little they are given. The water buffalo are revered because they produce more fatty milk than cows, preferred by the Indians, and the cows are holy, said to stem from their role as surrogates providing rich milk for babies who lost their mothers in childbirth, which used to be a frequent occurrence.

The river doesn’t flow as deep as it once did, so there are numerous sand banks. Washerpeople stand knee-deep in the water around these and thrash the washing, then spread it out on the sand to dry.

Agra was established as a more central (than Delhi) dispatch area for Indian troops around the country. There are still big army bases in the city, which even as a smaller city still claims a population of 2,6 million people.

We stopped at a garden restaurant for lunch. They had some kids in traditional dress entertaining with drums, singing and puppet shows with marionettes in elaborate traditional outfits.

Christian wasn’t feeling 100% (churny belly, inevitable Delhi fall-out) so he had a vegetable curry to up the veg content without losing out on the house speciality entirely. I was feeling aces so had Masala Gost (mutton curry with egg) and garlic naan.

Yusef had offered the group the option to alter our itinerary slightly, moving the Red Fort tour to the next morning so as to allow more time at Taj Mahal, but also meaning we could linger over lunch and have a leisurely stop while checking into our hotel, the Raj Mahal (where we were greeted with marigold garlands). It worked beautifully – and meant we could have a few hours at Taj to include sunset so we could see the subtle change in the colour of the marble.

The monument was built by Shah Janah for his favourite wife, who he’d named Mum Taj Mahal (“Chosen Crown Palace”), as her final resting place after she’d died giving birth to their 14th child. The designed was inspired by the description of the Gardens of Paradise and House of Allah in the Qu’ran and it took 20,000 people 22 years day and night to build it. It is perfectly symmetrical, in that it looks exactly the same from all 4 sides; the only deviation from this is the placement of the Shah’s body in the mausoleum, to the left of his wife’s, which is the exact epicentre.

This OCD carried through to every element and the gardens are mirrored on either side, the fountains elevate water to exactly the same height (requiring some quite sophisticated engineering for those times) and there was a mosque sitting to the West of the building that he had mirrored with a perfect replica on the East side (that was used to house visiting dignitaries).

There is conjecture about the Shah ordering the chopping off hands of the workmen when the building was completed so they couldn’t make another Taj, but Yusef claims this is just scandalous rumour and that the king had made extra effort to ensure that the reputation of the building was flawless to maintain his wife’s honour. He was apparently quite shrewd in some of his gestures, like clearing the site by offering the building material leftovers to the people – quite some feat with the high ramps it must have taken to complete the highest sections – and everything was gone in 2 days, when it would have taken months of waged employees to clear it!

Stories aside, it was clearly built to last, having been completed in 1653 and still requiring no restoration, just a river sand mask that peels off all the dirt to give it a clean every few years. It’s just a pity that the Shah didn’t get to complete his dream, which was to build an exact replica (but made from black marble) across the river to be his mausoleum, with a bridge connecting the two. His plan was thwarted when his son put him under house-arrest for the last 8 years of his life, meaning he never got to start the project.

Over time the opposite bank had become home to factories and plants, but the government has closed these down since they posed threat to the Taj not only from pollutants, but from their effect on the river flow. The Taj was built intended to be indestructible to an earthquake up to 8 on the Richter scale (even including details like angling the minarets ever so slightly outward so that in event of earthquake they fall away from the mausoleum, minimising damage), but this all rests in the firm foundation which is from rubble and bamboo. Affecting the river could mean that the bamboo dries up and the Taj could sink and become vulnerable and unstable.

That would be a real shame. It’s such a prolific icon. At least the authorities are protecting it adequately, with very stringent security checks on entry that even disallow cigarettes and chewing gum – to the point that there are x-rays machines, bag checks and confiscation. Good for them though; looking at the rest of India that we’ve seen so far, it’d be just another big dustbin if left to the hygiene compass of the common people. And there are lots and lots of common people at the Taj. As with at the other sites, there are discounted tickets for locals, but they have to queue for entry into the mausoleum where “high value ticket holders” are ushered in (by gun-wielding police guards) straight from the front of the queue.

 

After an hour’s repose at the hotel, we were bussed to yet another restaurant for dinner. We were put off by the curry all being on the bone, so opted for a radical change and went Chinese. Every menu has had an entire Chinese section, but we hadn’t even considered before. Very glad we did tonight though – we had the most gorgeous lamb with mushroom and garlic in a rich thick brown gravy as well as a chicken and pineapple in creamy lemon sauce. Both were incredible… And now we’ll have to try Chinese somewhere else to see if it was just that restaurant or if Indians are better at Chinese than SA – and possibly better at Chinese than Indian!

 

The next morning kicked off with a visit to Red Fort. The great mughals lived there and the country was governed from there, including the treasury and mint. The mughals were descended from Mongolian mothers and Turkish fathers, hence had oriental eyes and lighter skin from their maternal side and were Muslim from their patronage. Over generations their facial features evolved and their skin darkened as they inter-married with Indians.

Although the Red Fort has stood in one form or another since 11th century (first written reference was 1060), the rebuild to its current red sandstone form only started in 1560, upgrading it to include additional safety features like the double moat – one with tigers and one with water – and 2 gates at right angles to retard possible charging elephant rams. Above the enormous wooden entrance gates are also windows they could throw stones and boiling oil out of; it’s no wonder nobody ever tried to force entry!

Inside the royal section, where the emperor and his most important harem members lived, was where the illicit goings-on and more indulgent lifestyle happened (opiates and wine, which are forbidden by the Qu’ran but excused in the Palace because of royal status). One of the wives attempted growing grapes to make wine, so an elaborate garden was dug, 10 feet deep with brick dividers to keep the different grapes separated. Of course, the climate wasn’t conducive, so a more conventional, although far from ordinary, garden was made from it, with a thick carpet effect delineated by the swirling brickwork dividers.

Shah Jahan’s prison is adjacent to the gardens. Not the usual jail, made from marble with floral designs inlaid with jasper, turquoise, malachite, onyx and cornellian (called fire stone because it glows when light is shone on it). The torturous part really was that he had a perfect view of his best creation, the Taj Mahal, from his prison… But he couldn’t go there. That, and being imprisoned by his own son of course. Quite a story really since it was Shah Jahan’s 3rd and 4th sons that colluded to murder the 1st and 2nd sons so they’d be first in line for the throne. Then the 3rd son (Aurangzeb) murdered the 4th son to take out the competition. But since there were only daughters remaining, the 3rd son imprisoned his dad and seized the throne. He reigned for 59 years and wasn’t the usual money-grabber, living a simple(r) life and not taking money from the treasury. But it was him that started driving the wedge between the Muslims and the Hindus.

Back to the bus and off to the marble factory. Different merchandise (to the gemstone factory shop in Bangkok, ‘handicrap’ factory in Viet Nam, carpets in Turkey etc etc), but same hard sell. “No obligation to purchase”, but a salesman breathing down your neck showing equally unattractive pieces at escalating prices – clearly showing pieces that make more sense to his target than our tastes. It’s a pity because the craftsmanship is painstaking (we were demonstrated the process and had a chance to try the various stages of manufacture) and it really is a fine art that would be far more enjoyable to be able to absorb the showroom like a gallery, appreciating the patience and effort it takes to conceptualise the design, shape the stones and mould the marble to fit – irrespective of how flowery the design and how unlikely it is to ever feature in our lounge (even if it weren’t hundreds of Pounds). But we were more focused on out-running our adversary and responding with vague and polite answers and glazed smiles.

 

Sikri is the village next to Agra that comes from the Arabic word for ‘thank you’, and was built by Akbar, considered to be the greatest of the Moghals. He ruled from the age of 14, so traded education for his royal duties and was virtually illiterate. He was generally very tolerant and was the first Muslim king to marry a Hindu – even allowing her to continue to practice her religion and build a place to worship and store her religious books in the Red Fort. He also allowed a Portuguese christian missionary to build a church in the fort in Sikri.

The Palace seems a bit excessive for just the emperor and his wives until you consider that his harem was about 2000 women. There are the wives (Islam allows 4), the contract wives (marriage for a limited defined period to save widows’ virtue when their husband, lest she be turned to prostitution to support herself), concubines (on a good day used as human pieces in a life-size pachisi board in the recreation courtyard) and slaves.

The Palace at Sikri was short-lived; it took 6 years to complete, but was only lived in for 15 years, including construction time. Akbar had no male heirs so nominated one of his sufi’s (priest / mystic) sons and moved to where the sufi was in order to carry on the moghal line. Unfortunately there was no river here, so he built a dam, but it wasn’t sustainable as a water source so they moved back to Agra.

We left Sikri for the long bus ride to Jaipur, stopping at a restaurant for a buffet lunch, with tandoori and mustard chicken as the stars. We’d been passing through farmlands and Yusef had explained that India theoretically should be the self-sufficient from a food production point of view, being among the top producers of wheat, rice, tea, potatoes and tomatoes. They also produce vast quantities of mustard, ergo the local mustard chicken dish on the buffet.

Chicken is generally a winner as a pretty safe choice. Most of the time when you order beef, it’s likely to be water buffalo, reason being that the God of Death rides a water buffalo so they’re not sacred like cows. Similarly, the mutton is often goat meat. Add to this the fact that almost all curries are described as a combination of tomato/onion/capsicum/thick/rich/pungent/aromatic (or better still, where it is from with no clues to the ingredients), the menu is just the vaguest of guidelines as to what to expect! Today’s lunch was included, expressly for the purpose of having us taste the water buffalo.

India is such a dichotomy. So much pride taken in some things and so much blatant disregard for others. For example, most big trucks are gaily painted (permanent) and decorated with garlands of flowers (possibly just for Diwali), while the shop stalls are dusty little hovels lining streets strewn with litter. At least the cow pats are recycled, being dried and made into methane cakes for fires (we were assured that they don’t smell once dried or burnt), but India really could use more dustbins and a good “zap it in the Zeebie” campaign!

With the dirty dusty state of things, the unconventional (compared to Western) way these towns seem to operate and the vast expanses between towns, I’m very glad we got an organised tour for this part of the trip instead of fashioning our own itinerary online as we usually do. Looking at the conditions and locations of some of these self-proclaimed “resorts”, I doubt we could have come right with all our choices based on the very one-dimensional views our usual websites present – and I’d have hated to end up in dodgy accommodation in the middle of nowhere spending time and money getting to the sights these places claim to be close to. It has been a pleasure being guided and informed on a luxury bus between the great iconic treasures that this part of the country holds, with convenient and clean hotel rooms guaranteed each night, and a double bonus that this kind of tour is better priced for us South Africans (at ZAR 4000 a person) than our Aussie counterparts (AUS $2000 per person).

 

Travelogue ISC 3: Delhi

DELHI

17-18 November 2012

We had to laugh when we disembarked from the plane in Delhi and were herded to a bus that would take us to the terminal. That wouldn’t be funny, except we were directly across the roadway from it, so we alighted the bus only to literally make a U-turn and get off at the other side of the road!

The airport’s a bit more inspiring than Mumbai’s. Newer, cleaner, more modern. And it was a blessing to be met by our tour driver so we didn’t have to think or negotiate transfers. The traffic in Delhi is just as chaotic, although the roads seems to be wider and better maintained in general. There’s still no adherence to road markings and cars, vans and rickshaws straddling the white line is quite common. More of the bike-riders don helmets (very rare in our experiences so far) and there are lots of “don’t drink and drive” billboards; maybe the two are connected. Also hootinghootinghooting, but with requests for hooting painted on the back of most trucks, one shouldn’t expect any less and clearly it’s seen as serving to warn of approach, not signal aggression.

Our hotel is great; nothing short of amazing as compared with the others we’ve stayed in so far! Weirdly, it has no windows because it’s wedged in the middle of a block with neighbours on all sides except the narrow slit of an entrance. I bright-sided that this should make for a good sleep, based on my experience of the inside cabin on the South East Asia cruise and how the pitchest of pitch black made for coma sleep. The hotel is well positioned and mercifully stocked with tourist street maps, so we were soon sent on our merry way to go and explore.

We caught a Metro from a block down to Karol Bagh (8 Rupees each, just over R1,30), which is a shopping district. We been briefed by the hotel concierge that we were to ask for discount in the formal shops and bargain with the stalls for as much as 70% off. We didn’t end up doing any shopping though because what we weren’t prepared for was the chaos – cars hooting their way through hordes of shoppers, not helped by the double- and triple-parked lurkers on either side; dirty with litter everywhere; spitting seemingly culturally acceptable, but entirely disgusting. We ratified the trip with a chicken Momo plate from a street vendor, who served the 6 little dumplings with a searingly hot red chilli relish. Burning aside, it was a great snack (and a bargain at R5).

Then it was back on the Metro to Connaught Place, which had been recommended to us by a chap at the shack as being civilised concentric circles of shops and entertainment. It was exactly that, big fancy shops and recognisable brand name stores (both Indian and international) – with the usual cloud of cars and spray of street vendors.

Wearied by our ‘shopping’, we accepted an invite into Knight’s, a restaurant and lounge upstairs overlooking the hubbub. Cold Kingfishers welcomed, with the sting of double the price being counter-balanced by the 2-for-1 happy hour (from midday to 8.30p m). One turned to several and soon we’d (been) befriended (by) a soldier originally from Goa now stationed up North, who spoke little to no English. Made for laboured conversation, but we persevered. We were also in high demand to be in pictures and posed here and there with anyone who asked; all quite bizarre, but easy to comply. Got carried away a bit and ended up missing dinner entirely (fortunately we’d been compulsively eating for 4 days so were hardly likely to starve). We were well in time for the last train though, but got hopelessly lost returning to the hotel from the Metro station (losing bearings from having mistakenly taken the opposite platform to the one on the way out, meaning we were on the block across the line from where we were supposed to be), so it ended up being quite a late night.

Breakfast was adequate with a meagre buffet of chaffing dishes offering boiled eggs, baked beans, some traditional creamy corn thing, french toast and a flat bread of sorts, as well as the usual fruits, cereals, toast and juice. Was nice enough… But what we really needed was a good old greasy fry-up to get us going!

8.30 we met our tour guide, Yusuf, and the rest of our group. There are 15 people on our tour (mostly Saffas, with 3 Aussies and 2 Brits). We have a full sized bus (luxury, aircon, with a glass door partitioning us from the driver to maintain the temperature) so there’s lots of room to stretch out. Probably the least populated part of this city with its 20 million people!

The tour started in Old Delhi at the Red Fort – Captain Obvious’ly named because it’s made from red sandstone so the building is red in colour. New Delhi was built by the British, but the ‘new’ is a bit of an oversell since a large portion of the buildings were built a hundred years ago. The fort initiates with a high roofed tunnel in the fort walls housing a Chhatta Chowk (covered bazaar), which is apparently unusual in Delhi. The fort complex contains several buildings, including the Court, Rang Mahal (Palace of Colours, mahal means palace), and Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of VIPs) with its hand-made floral art made from precious stone inlays and the famous inscription “if there is paradise on Earth, it is this, it is this, it is this” (clearly this person had never been to Goa). It’s reassuring to see that most of these buildings are still all original materials in very good nick, even though tourists can walk into most parts of most buildings and through the expansive gardens.

We caught bicycle rickshaws outside the fort which took us past the mosques and temples and through some of the narrow shopping streets (grungy and dirty with electricity lines webbing between buildings), and deposited us at the main Mosque. It technically holds 20,000 people, but exceeds this on Fridays. It’s 360 years old still with all the original parts, the only difference being water piped to the central fountain for hands and feet washing, which used to be manually brought bucket by bucket from the river.

According to our guide, contrary to what I’d imagine global trend to be, religion is expanding in India. People can only be a Hindu or Muslim by birth and the population is expanding; uncertain times have people clinging to religion because they’re scared of world aggression and poverty and need something positive to believe in. Hard work though this Islam story, with it’s five prayer times every day!

We then moved on to Gandhi’s final resting place, a mausoleum where his ashes are accompanied by an eternal flame and orange floral wreaths atop a plain grey marble housing, with Gandhi’s final words inlaid in bronze (2 words, ‘her ram’ which means ‘my God’ in hindi). Suitably simple structure for a fella who got by on a bowl of rice and a safety pin, with lovely surrounding gardens that speak to his quest for peace and serenity when he was alive.

On the way to lunch we past the India Gate arch, built in 1929 to pay homage to the soldiers fallen in World War 1 (India lost 80,000 men even though they weren’t officially part of the war; each one of these men’s names are inscribed on the inside arch of the monument). There are gardens and lawns surrounding it and, as the tour guide says, anywhere there’s any open space, a game of cricket will start. True to form, there were several games going on.

Way overdue, we were relieved to arrive at our lunch spot – Have More curry house, renowned for it’s award-winning Best Butter Chicken in Delhi status. Of course we had to try it and can confirm that it’s amazing, especially with the boneless tikka chicken they use. We paired it with a mutton saag wala (spinach), which was a bit off-putting being almost black, but what it lacked in appearance it more than made up for in taste. We had sides of garlic naan and garlic and onion kulcha.

We made a turn past the presidential palace (all 380 rooms of it!), but couldn’t stop because of security so it was just a ‘take snaps from the bus’ thing. Then proceeded to have a nap on the bus on the ride over to South Delhi.

We awoke on arrival at the Qutub Archeological complex, which is home to the tallest stone minaret in the world, which is over 800 years old. The minaret was a display of power by the Muslims to demarcate the Eastern edge of the Muslim religion’s reach (with the West being Spain). The minaret has 5 distinctive sections with different shape stones, balconies between sections that use screws (very advanced technology for this time) and extends 72,5 metres into the sky off it’s 14m base… And even that’s less than 3/4 of the height of Taj Mahal! The complex also has a mosque that was abandoned before completion because the Muslims had used stones from a Hindu temple to build it and only realised half way in that this wasn’t going to work because the stones have pictures of humans and animals, which is not allowed in a mosque. You’d think someone would have noticed sooner before the poor humpers had to schlep those heavy stones around the place and the poor Hindus had to lose their temple for nothing! Nonetheless, the arches, carvings, Qu’ran inscriptions and 1600 year old iron flagpole all made for interesting enough gandering.

There is merit in group tour sight-seeing. We usually make our own plans as we go along, but the pre-organisation of the tour company has meant that we didn’t really have to think or queue, which has been a blessing. We haven’t had to manage any ticket buying or handling at any of the sights, as these were all pre-arranged, but I’d imagine they get discounts for group buying. All the sights have had different prices for Indians and for tourists (as much as 25 times more for tourists, with 250 Rupee vs 10), but good on them for making it easy for their people to experience their history and learn about their culture. Someone quoted today that the average Indian has to survive on 200 Rupees a day and I spend that before I’ve left the hotel room on a bottle of water to brush my teeth with!

The group is also a manageable size so there hasn’t been any lingerers holding the group up. Typically, the (South African) Indians all seem to stick together, the Aussies have packed and we have bonded with the Brits, who are really well travelled so it’s nice to swap stories and where to and how to advice.

We had an hour to freshen up and then back in the bus to cross town to an (allegedly) famous restaurant, called Chor Bizarre. The reception is decorated with framed certificates of their awards, so they must have been doing something right. We had a veritable feast served to us plated for starters and desert and mese-style main courses in multiple dishes spread across the length of the table. We had: Popadoms Paneer (cheese) Keema (mince kebab) Tandoori chicken Dahl (lentils) Butter chicken Lamb in yoghurt sauce Paneer in spinach Aloo jeera (potatoes sauteed in onion, garlic, ginger and cumin) Rice Naan Gulab jamun

Well fed and ready for bed, we headed back to the hotel to pack and ready for our departure to Agra bright and early in the morning.

Travelogue ISC 2: Goa

GOA
15-17 November 2012

Thanks to our comfortable double sleeperbus booth and a sleeping tablet each, we got in a decent night’s rest – no thanks to our driver who was constantly swerving and hooting throughout the trip.

We had some trepidation pulling into Goa as it seemed to just be endless rolling hills of palm trees, with pockets of ramshackle shop interspersed roadside. Our fears were fed when the bus stopped at a dusty rank, but fortunately we were steered to another bus and realised that our arrival in Goa was to the North and we had booked to stay South, requiring an extra leg.

Indian cities are all proving to be far larger and more sprawling then we’d imagined and we had another half hour on the bus to get to our destination, Margao… And an aircon taxi ride for another 10 minutes after that to get to Majorda Beach where our hotel is situated.

It’s well worth it though. We were deposited on a quaint narrow lane, lined with shops (mostly jewellery, yay!), accommodation and restaurants. Exactly what you’d expect from a little seaside holiday village.

The Shangri La Beach Palace is basic, but clean and neat and we have hot water! And a street-facing private patio, which am sure is a selling point in this simple little village.

We dumped our stuff down and decided to head to the beach for brunch, finding it to be an easy few hundred metre walk straight down our main road to glorious wide white sand beach and the Arabian Sea stretching for miles and miles in both directions. A backdrop of palm trees, bar and restaurant shacks on the sand and fixed palm frond umbrellas completed the picture of an idyllic paradise that had us frolicking in the surf and sipping on Kingfishers on our loungers rather than eggs on toasting.

Marvelling at our good fortune, we past quite some time enjoying our locale, wading in the little lagoon in front of us (we were allocated the loungers at the very end of our stretch of civilisation so the lagoon felt like it was just ours), I wandered back into the palms to investigate the clothing and jewellery stores… And eventually we lunched. We had to have a Goan fish curry and felt it matched with the 12 Queen prawn dish and of course a garlic naan, not bad for under R100 in total!

Back to the loungers! What a great way to spend an afternoon – reading, chilling, swimming and people-watching. Bliss!

At 4pm we headed back toward town, needing to find an ATM and wanting to be showered, clean and back at the beach for the 6pm sunset for sundowners and dinner.

The walk to the ATM (seemingly in the next village) was hair-raising with the way cars drive all too close and hoot at the sight of absolutely anything and everything, but we made it, got cash and celebrated our success with a litre (the standard serving size at the convenience store) of ice-cold Mirinda before turning around and heading back.

Back at our hotel, we appreciated the small things like hot showers, flushing toilets and toilet paper and were soon clean and fresh and off back to the beach. Having stopped in at almost every shop on our way home, we were greeted by almost every shopkeep on our way back out (they sit outside their shops on the pavement and only turn on lights and aircon inside when punters go in). Majorda Beach is starting to feel a bit like Cheers, except everyone calls us “South Africa” because the inevitable first question is where we are from.

The beach is beautiful at night. All the restaurant shacks spill their tables out onto the sand in front of their shelters, resulting in a generous dotting of candlelit tables down to the water, which laps gently in the background quite hypnotically.

Despite having spent the better part of the walk to the ATM and back discussing dinner, we disregarded our predetermined choices after having walked the full length of our section of beachfront intending to go to Albert’s for palak and butter chicken, but being put off when their only patrons were a single table of noisy Russians and the music – blaring from next door – nondescript and tragic ballads. No harm done, we did the return journey along the water’s edge and had red snapper with prawn and egg rice instead at Mashmir’s (where we had had lunch).

There are lots of beach dogs that just curl up under the tables, are very tame and don’t really interact much, bar a clearly innate sense that every dog should have a human. There’s a cute little thing that the restaurant recently found abandoned in the bushes that gets more than his fair share of attention!

We had a lingering dinner, nightcapped with Kingfishers (quarts, very romantic) and made our way back to the hotel, stopping en route to have a gander at some of the shops since everything was still open. Christian’s slides weren’t made for walking so he bought some slops, I got an Indian cotton tunic top and we did some t-shirt shopping for the nephews. From all I’ve heard of India, seems a bit belated to have only begun shopping on Day Three!

Exhausted from a long day of doing little but eat and recreate, we retired to our hotel room, delighted to find we had not one but two English channels to choose from – amid a choice of 5 cricket channels (seriously), 1 other sport channel, a few news channels, some dubbed series and movies channels and a very disturbing version of MTV that only has Indian pop and Bollywood hits. Interestingly, the English channels are subtitled. In English. Between Star Movies and HBO, we found the third Transformers movie, the perfect sedative to cherry on top a rather sedate day.

Not wanting to get distracted by the call of the lounger and miss two breakfasts in a row, we had scrambled egg on toast with baked beans at the restaurant downstairs from our hotel, King Crab. It’s always interesting to watch the locals, this time emptying their tea into their saucers to let it cool, slurping it up from the saucer and repeating.

Nourished and energised, we took to the beach to embark on the day’s plan – to walk South to the neighbouring fishing village called Colva. The beach makes for a lovely walk. The sea is calm, the sand silky soft and the water warm as a bath. While the sun seems more forgiving here (a full day in the sun yesterday left colour but no stinging redness), we added Factor 30 sunblock anyway seeing as we were walking on the naked beach toward the sun the whole way (probably about 4km).

We were the odd people out for so many reasons, but most notably (as in Mumbai) all the Indians are fully dressed (whether sitting on the sand or swimming) and not pair of shades among them, giving quite a severe reception as they walk toward you, all hiding their eyes under deep frowns and knitted brows to keep the sun out. And that’s just the ladies. The men give the impression that it’s Movember all year round!

Colva was very busy. Starting with a bigger collection of shacks on the beach at the outskirts (although this time on stilts and more square than the rectangular ones on our strip), then dozens of fishing boats moored on the shore (several with fishermen working on their nets) and culminating in a dearth of swimmers bulbing into the sea around the entrance to the town, marked by 2 bridges over a trickling river at the back of the beach.

The town itself starts with a cul-de-sac adjacent to the beach, which acts as a drop-off spot and taxi rank. It is lined with restaurants, mostly selling local and North Indian cuisine. Beyond this is a single road, quite bustling with auto and pedestrian activity, lined with shops on either side. The first few were jewellery shops and I was (very easily) persuaded into a carat and something Golden Topaz, which will make a wonderful ring to match my citrine earrings (last birthday) and pendant (birthday before last) set that Christian has given me.

We managed to navigate the rest of the high street and back without buying anything, although we have formulated a mental giftlist which we intend to fulfil in Delhi.

Resolute that we weren’t going to get any downtime in the throng at Colva Beach (disturbed mostly by the long-sleeved sun-worshippers, the fully dressed swimmers and the lax attitude to throwing litter in the sea), we directed ourselves toward home, with the intention of taking up the first set of loungers that presented themselves. Just beyond the fishing boats, our dreams were realised at Anthony’s First Base Beach Shack.

Before you could say the “Ahtohno Cape” (the Russian version of the name on the cyrillic signboard), we had 2 loungers, 2 Kingfishers Premiums and a litre of water. Well done, Goa!

The meandering aromas from the shack’s kitchen soon had their menu as our preferred reading option du jour and we decided on Shark Ambotik Rice and Crab Curry. The shark was served in a spicy red tomato while the crab was in an aromatic yellow curry sauce. We’re told that the Goan traditional recipes prefer a coconut based sauce. We were a bit disappointed with the pan-fried butter naans which are more like pancakes than the bread that we’re used to. The whole meals was quite messy, so it was jazz-hands to the sea to wash off. We lingered in the water, which was as calm and warm as ever, with just heads bobbing above the water.

We frittered away the afternoon, reading, chilling and napping and made our way back to our neck of the woods when the sun was setting, intent on a sundowner at our local. The beach was busier than the previous night, which we ascribed to Friday being the start of the weekend. Mothers in full regalia, with fancy saris and lots of dingle-dangle jewellery, fathers in collared shirts and slacks, (lots of kids) playing beach games, splashing in the water, chasing each other or drawing in the sand.

From the comfort of (yet another) lounger, we watched the golden topaz sun set behind the water while we plotted and planned, posited and solved the world’s mysteries. We’ve decided that the beach looks so much bigger because it’s so flat. There are no lumps and bumps, nor rocks or coves, so there are no bays or inlets giving contour to the coastline; just an endless view of sun, sea and sand. Glorious.

 

We concluded the Goa chapter with a divine dinner at Pentagon, a more conventional dinner club restaurant featuring a nightly roster of live entertainment that, being a Friday, offered us a diabolical duo playing ‘treasures’ (welcomed by their rendition of “Easy”, done better than Lionel Ritchie’s, but not as good as Faith No More’s).

The food was amazing and we indulged in hot garlic mushrooms and onion bhaji starters and chicken kadai and mutton rogan josh for mains. We were right next to a table of Russians and again marvelled at how differently they do things, based on what they ordered and how they were dressing it with condiments.

 

We made the most of our last morning in Goa, getting up early and heading down to the beach to get in some last lounger time, punctuated only with dips in the sea and breakfast at a table at the shack.

We’d already booked a taxi for 11.30 so made our way back to the hotel at 10.30 to freshen up and pack. The drive to the airport reassured us that we’d had the best slice of paradise and alleviated any concerns we’d had about missing out on other sights around Goa.

We’d asked at the shack how big the airport is and what amenities it offers (planning for lunch, of course). We were told it is medium sized… Which it isn’t really with only 2 boarding gates! No mind, it had a restaurant and lounger, which was all we needed. We had delicious toasties – a Club with egg instead of bacon, and a chicken tikkawich.

The only things I won’t miss about Goa are the relentless demon mosquitoes and the Goan apathy about cooling beverages. With this climate and the lack of ice (due to toxic tap water), ice-cold drinks would be a complete win.

 

 

Travelogue ISC 1: Jo’burg – Mumbai

MUMBAI

13-14 November 2012

 

We had the best plane ever on our journey from home to Dubai. It was spanky new, with all the bells and whistles… And the best of entertainment with 100 new movies to choose from, as well as a host of tv series (full seasons!), whole album CDs and a large selection of radio shows and tv games. The food was de-lish too. A score with beef stroganoff fettucini for lunch and the best pastrami sarmie ever at snack time (it was served with a twin roast veg sarmie, which is weird beyond weird, but am not negative marking for that).

We had a day flight so got in lots of the entertainment, all the meals and a nap before landing in Dubai at midnight. The 3 hour stop-over was laborious (for an airport that size, there’s surprisingly little to do), but they had us up and off with German efficiency, so no real complaints.

We were exhausted seeing it was the wee hours of the morning SA time as we got on the plane. We fell asleep well before take off and in the blink of 40 winks we woke up and realised we’d missed breakfast. That simply wouldn’t do, so I asked the steward to bring us a tray of the full English(ish) option. He said there were only veg breakfasts left… And proceeded to bring us 2 trays that, on lifting the foil on the warm bowl, revealed a chickpea curry for Christian and a chicken curry and rice for me. That steward is my kind of vegetarian.

By the time we’d finished we were in Mumbai. We’d pre-booked accommodation (online) so it was relatively easy to get quotes from the taxi counters to get us where we needed to go. The prepaid taxi service quoted us 1500 Rupees (which sounded like a good deal because we have so far to travel from airport to city centre where we’re staying), but the fleet stall opposite quoted 600 + 80 booking fee (bargain at 6 Rupees to 1 Rand), so we went with them.

It feels like a longer ride than it is, with uneven roads and maverick motorists. Ladies in sari’s riding side-saddle on scooters. Tuk-tuks, kids, people, cars, endless signage with faces and Indian scribble. People and chaos. Chaos and people. Everywhere. Hooting at each other and swerving and veering. No hostility, just painstaking concentration… And no helmets. It’s no wonder that a motorist takes the highway to heaven every 22 minutes in this town (Top Gear factoid, courtesy of Christian).

And the buildings. From the pavement to as far as the eye can see in every direction. Satellites dishes and aircon units on shanties. Almost all buildings in need of a coat of paint, a large number with cranes on top, undoubtedly some evasion of tax on completion story.

We got to our hotel, which is clearly only loosely based on the true story presented in their online ads. Nonetheless, the shower (facing away from the water, as instructed) and tooth-brushing (with bottled water) were welcome – as was the air con in the temperatures already well on their way to the anticipated 33 degree midday high.

The last bit of admin was to book the overnight train to Goa, which we couldn’t do from home because they don’t take online bookings from outside India. We got a few sets of sketchy directions, and managed to find the string of travel agents around the corner from the hotel. Only to find that all trains are sold out already! It took a series of intense ‘short questions, shorter answers’ grillings to get all the info and we decided on an overnight sleeper bus as the best Plan B.

Travel arrangements (sort of) made, we headed out in search of some authentic Indian food for lunch (here they just call it ‘food’ though), ideally somewhere picturesque so we could leisure and idle until sundown. We managed a win with flagging down a tuktuk (which we found out much later are referred to as ‘rickshaws’, hence the futile attempts to figure out the system at the travel agents earlier on) and thought we’d struck a win with a negotiation of 250 Rupees (R60) to get us to Chowpatty.

We thought we were going to Chowpatty Beach, the central beachfront, anticipating promenades and esplanades. What we got was very rustic. Drop-off from the main road (still only single carriageway either side) at a stone entranceway marked “Gorai Beach”. We walked down the dusty road – nice enough with palm trees lining, dotted with (rustic) B&Bs and (simple) eateries and locals ambling in either direction – and found ourselves on wide oily low tide beach.

There were several fisherpeople around, feverishly sorting squirming sea life (everything from small squids to eels to crabs to goldfish-looking things) into baskets. Lots of families sitting in huddles on the rocks on the edge of the beach and wading in the water (women full saried). There were a few spreadbeagled sleeping dogs (which we left lying) and, bizarrely, more than the odd bike/rickshaw/car (not a lowered suspension nor tinted window among them) whizzing past on the sand going from who knows where to who knows where. What there wasn’t was a lounger / brolly / bar / pool deck / live entertainer anywhere insight. Uh-oh. And we were even vaguely tempted to dip or swim in the sea, which the Lonely Planet had described as ‘toxic’.

We were beyond lunchtime, so settled on the terrace (strong word) of a beachside hotel and ordered a veg jalfrezi (Christian), chicken makhani (me), butter chipatis (both) and Cokes (each, soft-drinks-only establishment, serving 600ml buddy bottles only). Gotta say, the food was great. So pleased our first curry was a win! (And a bargain at the princely sum of R40, including tip).

Played some cards to catch our breath and then hit the road again. We struggled with a troupe of rickshaw drivers to get a straight consensus answer out of them as to what we should do and where we need to go, which landed us a short tuktuk ride to the ferry and deposited us ‘on the other side’. Lost again.

We walked up the main drag leading away from the ferry port, thinking it must lead us somewhere notable. It didn’t, so – taking time to ask several people if they spoke any English and finally getting a young couple to try – we confirmed we were in the heart of a very uninteresting residential and business district in Western Mumbai. Marvellous.

We hailed a rickshaw, negotiated a rate and headed to Juhu Beach, which all the Lonely Planets (we’d whipped through at Dubai Airport) spoke of.

It was a hive of activity. Food stalls, kids playing cricket, mini funfair rides at one end, a wall of people ankle-deep in at the waves’ edge. Bizarrely, everyone fully dressed. Not a bare-chested boy nor a girl’s knee, shoulder or belly button in sight!

Everything I’ve heard previously about Mumbai has been about the squalour and poverty, but everything I’ve seen has made *me* feel like the sweaty, sticky, icky thing to their tidy fresh linens and neat and bright saris. Clearly, we’ve been that far off the beaten tourist track that we’ve gone and subjected ourselves to ordinary people. How disappointing. 😀

Not that our less than pristine state stopped us any, mind. With Christian refreshed from the nap in the tuktuk and me in dire need of Western ablutions, we shamelessly sought sanctum at the Citizen Hotel. A very lovely establishment with a beach-facing terrace (that we accessed by lurking at snails’ pace through the air conditioned marble-floored reception) with (too) many starch-collared and neck-tied waiters all too ready to bring us the large bottle of icy still water and chilled Kingfishers that would revive our spirits.

We did lots of people-watching as the sun set. Lots and lots of people-watching. With lots and lots of people to watch since it’s Diwali and everyone’s come out to play. And we’re the only white people here. Not a word of a lie. How weird is that?! We did spot a little Indian boy in a Cheetahs rugby jersey, but just because someone he knows (knows someone who) has been to the Free State, doesn’t make him any less Indian. Sure, we’ve had a share of less-than-subtle stares and little kids wanting to shake our hands, but not the demi-god status that urban legends are made of.

Anyway, we left the hotel terrace, thinking we’d meander through the market and pick up some samoosas and then head to another terrace set-up with better positioning for all the action. “All the action” being the number of neon accented ferris wheels, a pendulum ship and car carousels (all manually cranked!) and the hordes of people. It was not to be. All the samoosas were vegetable, the eateries teetotal and there, incredibly, wasn’t another hotel with tables beach-side (seemingly for tide-consciousness). But, luckily we  found an excellent triple-storey spot across the road, called Bora Bora, which had a lovely roof garden from where we watched all the fireworks and festivities (over a few Kingfishers).

We caught an aircon blue taxi home (top of taxi foodchain in front of non-aircon black taxis and tuktuk rickshaw 3-wheelers). What a first day in Mumbai! We were grateful for the bed and the aircon room and not even the constant banging of crackers and fireworks could keep us awake even a second longer!

 

After a nice sleep-in, we hit the pavement at 10am to initiate our day of sight-seeing. Unable to get a rickshaw driver to understand where we wanted to go (or perhaps willing to take us), we resigned ourselves to commandeering a blue taxi to take us to town for 1000 Rupees. It was a 45 minute journey so along the way we adjusted the deal to 2000 Rupees to be our personal driver for the day (a little over R300). For this he would take us to all the sites, share with us what info he could (I’m broken English) and take us anywhere else we might like to go until we needed to be back at our hotel for our 7pm bus.

We found out that we were fortunate that today, being New Year, is a holiday and therefore a reprieve in the usual gridlock traffic, so we made good time and were soon driving over the Sealink. No busses or rickshaws are allowed on that stretch so it’s fast-moving and a pleasure.

On the way to ‘town’ (Colaba, Fort and Churchgate), we stopped in at Laburnum Road, at the house where Gandhi stayed from 1917 to 1934. Not the to be confused with the Laburnum Road in Durban that Mother and I lived in from 1982 to 1985. The house (Gandhi’s, not ours) is converted into a museum with several artefacts (including a copy of Gandhi’s letter to Hitler and Churchill asking them to prevent War) and dozens of captioned photographs documenting his travels and missions. I suppose I should have known he lived in SA for almost 2 decades, but I didn’t, so the great man seems to have a bit more relevance to me now somehow.

From there, we drove down Marine Drive and saw how the other half live. Wide pavements and roads, with the esplanade we’d expected, but the beach – although wide and golden sandy – still lacking something. There aren’t the restaurants, terraces, cafes and shops that you usually associate with beachfronts, nor the dotted strips of people sun-bathing.

We drove around Colaba and Fort to get a lay of the land and the driver did a stop for us at Gateway To India, a large double-arch positioned in the harbour. The famed Taj Mahal Hotel is across the road and we got snaps of that too.

By this point we were still breakfastless and starving. Lunch at McDonald’s – McSpicy burger combo – more like a KFC Zinger than the spicy chicken at McD’s at home in that it’s a chicken fillet with spicy crumbing, mayo, shredded lettuce and no cheese. A large and a medium combo totalled to about R50. Bargain! I can understand why India would be the first country to have a fully vegetarian McD’s since the menu is practically there already. Burger options include veg, aloo (potato), paneer (cheese) and egg patties and the only meat is chicken, which is listed almost as an after-thought. The happy meals and side-order options include boiled egg options as well. Points for customer centricity, Ronald!

Fed, refuelled and sense of humour restored, we set off on foot to explore what Colaba and Fort had to offer. We plotted a route to take in the major sights and traversed the Prince of Wales Museum, National Modern Art Gallery, the Maidan Oval, Jehangir Art Gallery, David Sassoon Library, Rajabai Tower, University of Mumbai (remarking how inappropriate neo-Gothic architecture is for this climate) to bring us back to McD’s to meet our driver, who was clearly concerned about how long we’d taken and assumed we’d skarpered to avoid paying him.

More annoyed than relieved, he greeted our proposed itinerary (which we’d formulated by popping into a bookstore, consulting a Lonely Planet and jotting notes) on my arm with lucklustre enthusiasm, but perked up a bit when we shared our bottle of moderately cold (seemingly the best they do around here) bottled water with him.

He took us to Mahalaxmi Station, so that we could see Dhobi Ghat – the washing station which does most of the laundry for the city’s hotels and restaurants. Rows of concrete pools that washermen and -women stand in, thrashing the dirty laundry around and slapping it into the water like they’re trying to thrash the evil demon out of it! Rows and rows of washing lines have the washing dried in no time – and count some impressive hotel name uniforms among them! Notably, there are no Ops Managers or clipboards and these workers are brawn managing somehow to differentiate who’s is whose and where it all has to go without the endless stream of paperwork it would take back home.

We were also fortunate enough to see a Dabbawalla bustling his way around making his lunch deliveries. A stack of pots balanced on his head, he was making his way to serve his clients’ lunch, invariably a selection of pre-ordered curry options, each delivered to the right person at the right time, again sans paperwork. The Dabbawalla deliver 200,000 lunches a day across Mumbai, with a 0,04 error rate (Top Gear fact).

Anyway, back in the car (double-parked for our convenience, as always) we asked our driver to take us somewhere we could chill and have a beer… And ended up driving through Bandra (the ‘party’ part as we were told by the previous days’ youths) to Juhu Beach at *exactly* the same spot as the night before!

I thought this was a sign that we were supposed to get the onion bhaji, samoosas and bhel puri I’d wanted the night before from the beachfront food market, so we headed into the thick of it to get some authentic local fare. We’d only read about bhel puri, which is dubbed as a ‘must’ in all the travel books. Not sure why as it appears to be an unattractive fishy ricey thing (from the pictures, we didn’t order one).

Equally disappointing was the samoosa experience where we managed to narrowly escape the cheese samoosas we thought we’d be ordering (lovely crispy triangular pastry with hot drippy yellow cheesy inside), but that were actually pyramid shaped, thick pastried samoosas with fish inside that the shopkeep crushes onto a plate and pours corn all over! Yikes!

Being ‘2 out of 3 is bad’, we saved the onion bhaji for another day and headed to the Romada to soak in their pool (for medicinal purposes, to quell the throbbing mozzie bites all around my ankles). The 650ml Kingfishers were also medicinal of course.

On the way home, our driver showed us Ashwarya Rai’s house (the Bollywood star). We’d seen crowds with candles and crackers outside the driveway the night before, doing a Diwali vigil controlled by Ashwarya’s armed gate guards, but not realised the who or what of the address. Apparently the house is top location and is worth about 100 million Rupees according to our driver. The currency has a complicated escalation pyramid, where 100,000 Rupees equal a ‘lacks’ and 100,000 lacks equal a ‘close’ (sp? Only ever had verbal explanation).

The traffic back to the hotel was worse than in the morning, seeing as we were now in the 5pm throng, but we made it back in plenty of time to catch our bus, so popped across Mira Road for a quick Pizza Hut. Chicken and veg only – amazing how much shorter the menu and easier the decision is! Opted for a combo of 4 personal pizzas so we could try more options. Tikka paneer and spicy chicken masala for authenticity, chicken & corn and spicy chicken sausage with mushroom and onion for variety quotient. All good. I do miss Pizza Hut.

Collected our luggage from the hotel and made it to the travel agent with half an hour to spare. But, it was worth the wait when we discovered to our delight that this sleeper bus is *much* nicer than the ones in South East Asia, in that our berths weren’t 2 plastic-matressed moulded singles one in front of the other like last time, but one double booth with more than enough space for both of us, our carry-on stuff (on a rack at the foot) and to play cards on the mattress between us! Under R500 for both of us and just as comfortable as a hotel bed! A good note to end Mumbai on and a good start to the Goan leg of the journey!

Mumbai Do:
1) take probiotics and Vitamin C supplements up to and through your trip
2) bring insect repellent, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory cream
3) stay in Colaba / Fort / Churchgate area
4) use rickshaws instead of cabs where you can, much cheaperl
5) drink Kingfisher
6) get a city map – the greater city is bigger than you think it is, and very confusing in its layout and perspective. There are no tourist offices and the best maps we found were in hotel lobbies, although these were each for a single area so you still don’t get a sense of where everything is relative to everything else.
7) Get a private driver for the day. The city is sprawling and then you can go where you want, when you want. The tour busses are only 200 Rupees per person, but then you’re stuck with the group, their timings and a tour guide who only narrates in Hindi.

Mumbai Don’t:
1) the water is lethal so don’t have ice in your drinks or eat anything fresh that might have been washed just prior to serving
2) don’t expect a conventional beach holiday. The beaches aren’t great, the people conservative (as presumably tourists are expected to be), nobody speaks English and there aren’t the usual waterfront bars for entertainment, nor the beach shops and peddlars for supplies.
3) don’t show any interest in the wares of peddlars or street children or they’ll never leave you alone (and tend to multiply1)