An 80 year old “Boy” and Us.

18 March 2015

Well, that’s not quite true. There is also “Brutus” (as we’ve named him), a battle-scarred old dog who seems to enjoy our plantation home’s wide verandahs to escape the sun.

Brutus

We ¬†sadly said “bon voyage” to our French enclave in South East India, and flew over the Bay of Bengal to my second home, Sri Lanka. I worked out we’ve now visited the island known as Serindib, the tear drop at the bottom of India, eight times. I never grow weary of visiting this island. In fact, driving from the airport, I felt a wave of familiarity, nostalgia and a warm comforting sensation.

After the crazy that is India, the Sri Lankan roads seem so civilised. I had almost forgot that those zebra lines across the road have a meaning; that a red stop light is not a suggestion; and those flashing orange lights on either side of the front and rear of an automobile actually have an engineered purpose. Our driver even used his indicator as he sped past the pedestrians, bicycles, motorbikes, tuk tuks, buses and trucks that were hindering our journey to paradise!

Our temporary home is Comilla Bungalow, an old British Planters residence about an hour from the coast and tucked away in a coconut plantation. We truly feel we are in the middle of nowhere. The bungalow’s gardens are surrounded by walls varying between shades of green jungle on one side, and the ordered rows of swaying palms on the other.

Comilla Bungalow

Sitting in the dining room, looking across the infinity pool, my attention is constantly distracted by flashes of fluorescent blue – the resident Kingfisher who is taking stolen baths in the pool – or glimpses of cardinal red – the woodpecker is DIYing a home in the coconut palm in the garden.

Comilla Bungalow Pool

Don’t worry, I’m not going to turn all ornithologist on you. Crazy hair, with a pair of binoculars bouncing off my chest, and smelling like bird poo is not my thing.

Colonial Verandahs 2The 140-year old bungalow is a long building of lime-washed plaster, terracotta roof tiles, towering teak ceilings and a mixture of teak and polished concrete floors. Every room is surrounded by shuttered French doors that open onto the deeply shaded verandahs. The only sounds are the chirps, calls and songs of birds; the whir of the ceiling fan and, well … nothing.

Almost nothing; there is the slap of Mr Marthil’s thongs as he crosses the verandah. Mr Marthil is our houseboy. I know that sounds very superior and Raj-era British – but seriously, the person (usually a man) who runs the engine that is the kitchen, brings us tea, changes the sheets, makes the bed, scoops the pool clean and locks up the house at night is usually referred to as the “Boy”, no matter what age they are. My elderly relatives who live in the hill city of Kandy have a “Boy” who is older than them and must be in his late eighties.

So that’s us in our colonial sanctuary with the company of old Brutus, who looks like he once took on a tiger and barely lived to tell the tale. Two contented travellers, and Mr Marthil, who barely speaks a word of English.

PS > We had stars in our bedroom last night. Fireflies that twinkled us to sleep.

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Le mielleur de Pondichery.

17 March 2015

As we depart Pondichery/ Pondicherry/ Puducherry (depending on which language you choose to name it), we are left with its many highlights; there were no low-lights ūüôā

  • Our wonderful temporary home at La Closerie … Bay of Bengal in the French quarter. Stylishly decorated and warmly hosted by Annie and her sari-clad team.

La Closerie

  • Promenading on the esplanade at sunset with the locals.

Evening Promenade

  • Wandering past a local version of “India’s Got Talent“, complete with sitar and tabla drums. Seven-thirty at night, our sunglass-wearing compere with greased-back hair, open shirt and assortment of gold chains had the audience eating out of his hand.

India's Got Talent 1

  • Stumbling upon a Gendarme Marching Band; although, due to the heat, they were more of a Gendarme Sitting Band. The clash of brass and drums was faintly reminiscent of my school band at assembly. Like listening to a car crash: the slow, awful sound of metal clashing together.

Gendarme Sitting Band

  • Attending a contemporary theatre production (in heavily French-accented English) by a young troupe in a theatre lit by a hundred oil burning lamps. Very hot, very atmospheric, and perhaps the reason the theatre burnt down several years ago.

Indianostrum Theatre

  • Driving two bumpy hours to visit stone temples and rock carvings from the 6th century. Amazing and memorable. So memorable that on arriving at the granite-hewn monoliths of Mamallapuram, sweat dripping off me in the 38 degree heat (only Ganesh would know the humidity level), I realised I had visited this same historic site twenty-five years ago on an earlier trip to India.

Stone Temple Pilots

Stone Relief

  • La Maison RoseSpecial mention goes to the wonderful French restaurants. Incredible food; I even felt on a few occasions that I was dining in a Parisian brasserie, so authentic was the typical laissez-faire (ie arrogant) ‘style’ of service that some of the waiters exhibited …

A French colony in a style that only the melting pot of French and India cultures could produce.

I’ve just read my Lonely Planet India and it seems there is a Danish colony further down the coast.¬†Sounds intriguing. I’m already picturing The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo done Bollywood style. I do think there is room for a roly-poly blue Ganesh in Hans Christian Anderson. The Indians could take the Tivoli Gardens to a whole different level.

Although I don’t think my stomach is quite prepared to accept curried rollmops.

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Sacre bleu! Ici? Est-ce encore l’Inde? [OMG? Is this still India?]

13 March 2015

After traversing the sub-continent by taxi, air and hired car, I’m now in Pondicherry, or Puducherry as it is now known – the French colony on the southeast coast of India. Have you read “Life of Pi” (or, for those lazy readers, seen the film)? Well, it started at the Zoo in Pondicherry.

Early departure - Kolkata Airport

Early departure – Kolkata Airport

Slap my visage (face) with a poisson (fish) and shove a croissant (really if you don’t know that one, be embarrassed) in my bouche (mouth).¬†This can’t still be India!

The boulevards are tree-lined, the villas lining the streets are French colonial in design, and the ever-present roundabout traffic cop is a gendarme, complete with his whit(ish) gloves and red pillbox hat.

Gendarmes

The attitude is different; our request for wine with our meal is not accompanied by the waiter’s ‘corrupted foreigner’ frown – it’s expected, “But of course”. Even better, alcohol is tax free in this small jurisdiction – still trying to work that one out.

La CloserieWe are staying at “La Closerie Bay of Bengal”, a boutique French white-walled villa surrounding a shaded courtyard and small pool. The wooden French doors (of course they’re French doors!) that open off the quiet street don’t even hint at the cloistered gem beyond. An explosion of fuschia bougainvillea, ferns and gardenias, all shaded by a massive flame tree. The small courtyard that our rooms looks into is a colonnaded oasis of chaise lounges, wicker and teak armchairs, massive stone and brass urns, all cooled by ceiling fans that languidly move the humid air. The tastefully chosen decor of Indian and French antiques is straight from the pages of Belle or Conde Naste magazines.

Those of you who know me will understand. I am in my idea of colonial-design heaven.

Having arisen at 3.30am in Kolkata for the journey to the airport (boy, Kolkata seems like another world, away right now – I couldn’t be in a more polar opposite place), we planned to have an early night. We decided to do as the Franco-Indians do, and take a sunset promenade on the ocean-front esplanade. No longer are we gazing at moss-covered statues paying homage to Lords Dalrymple or Mountbatten, now it is the Marquis Dupleix who lords it over the locals.¬†The French only handed back this outpost to India in 1954. French is all the population has known.

Pondicherry Street

The locals. Well, it was like being in Place de la Concorde, with citizens in their “Sunday best” greeting each other, the monsieurs sitting on the low stone walls huddled and complaining about the youth of today and the madames gossiping about Mademoiselle Chandrasekar, who clearly has a new and quite ostentatious nose ring. We caught snippets of French conversations interspersed with Hindi and Tamil phrases. The haute couture was fine silk and organza saris, with gold brocade, in a brilliant array of peacock blues, emerald greens and startling pinks.

Fairy FlossSo as I sit having my breakfast baguette, we are planning a day of nothing. No traipsing around rocky forts, wandering through dusty city streets, or crossing hectic roads with sweaty palms and frayed nerves due to the constant car horns.

Today is devoted to reading a good book around the piscine (pool) with a cold Chenin Blanc in hand.

Vive la France!

This town has style.

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The Onion that is Kolkata.

10 March 2015

We have just done a walking tour of Kolkata.

Crazy, right? Most people thought we were crazy to come to this city full stop, let alone wander the slums by foot.

Now I’m normally like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: no product placement or mention of private companies. However, “Kolkata Story Trails” provided the best tour I have ever done in India – perhaps even anywhere (big call!). A tour tailored just for us, designed to reflect the experiences that interested us, using public transport, a guide who answered any and all questions we had, and who could take us deep into the Kolkata that only a local knows.

We started at 10am. First, our guide Kaushik checked whether we liked walking…

Kolkata Story Trails

Kaushik and Richard on the streets of Kolkata

I’m sure that later on at 7.30pm, standing on the banks of the Hoogly (Ganges), having walked 17.64 kilometres, he was regretting having asked that question.

Marigolds

FitBit 2015031017.64 km. That’s 24,575 steps. I received a FitBit for my recent birthday and it records all my exercise, so I’m not making these figures up!

But do you know, I could have still walked another couple of kilometres of this amazing city. By the end of the day, we had ridden trams, learned about Kolkata’s famous citizens, marvelled at the scale of the flower market, smelled the streets’ fragrances – both sweet and, well, I’m sure you can imagine Kolkata’s opposite to sweet!

We even took a ferry across the Ganges, on a vessel that was so overcrowded that when we approached the jetty, with most passengers crowded to one side to disembark (the side where I was leaning on the railing), the ferry’s Titanic-like tilt became quite alarming. My lean quickly became a white-knuckled grip. Then I saw the hundred or so people on the dock who were already jumping the gap onto the SS Calcutta’s deck.

Ferry Queue

I wasn’t thinking Leonardo di Caprio’s “King of the World”; I was telling myself “don’t inhale the water if I end up overboard”!

SS Calcutta

All the commerce, cooking, bathing, prayer, sleeping and living happens on these dusty streets. Everything is for sale: a safe-making district, perfume market, brothels, wholesale shoe area, watch bazaar and colourful fabric shops. Everything is carried by trucks belching black smoke, carts powered by foot, or bulging sacks balanced on sweaty heads.

Manual Transport

Commodities essential to Indian life. Goods destined from these Kolkata wholesale markets to shops and stalls in cities and towns across the breadth of the sub-continent.

Clay Idols 2We experienced “White Kolkata”, “Grey Kolkata” and “Black Kolkata”. Black Kolkata, that’s the scary slum part. But even as we stepped through the twisting passages of the pottery idol-making district, I felt nothing but awe for the people and city.

Sadhu

As Kaushik aptly explained, “Kolkata is like an onion; with each layer you peel away, it can make you cry with sadness, but also with joy.” After all, Calcutta is the City of Joy.

On the Ganges

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I’ve Dipped My Toes in Kolkata.

9 March 2015

We landed in Kolkata at midday, flying from “Darj” (after four days in Darjeeling, we’re referring to it like locals now) into this smoggy metropolis of 14.4 million people, the 18th largest city in the world.

Makes your own city seem like a sleepy backwater, doesn’t it.

We finally got to travel in the famous Hindustan Ambassador taxi. A car straight from the 1950s, resembling an Oxford Morris Minor. The amazing thing is this bright yellow cab hasn’t changed its design since then. The Indians have taken the saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” to extremes. No A/C, radio, shock absorbers, electric windows … but now fitted with indicators, and of course the must-have horn.

Ambassadors

Unfortunately, our backpacks wouldn’t fit in the boot; the boot was slammed down, only to bounce back up. My look of concern was greeted by the ubiquitous head wobble of the taxi driver and we were off. In defence of our non-English speaking driver, he did stop repeatedly at traffic lights and get out to check that our bags were still intact. Only Krishna knows what he would have done if he found the rusted out cavity of his trunk empty.

In this city of 1900 square kilometres, he did manage to find our hotel, oh, and several other hotels along the way that he thought we should be staying in.

My first impression as our battered yellow Ambassador taxi took a shortcut through a labyrinth of lanes, was, if for some reason we were dropped on the street, it may take me years to find my way out, if ever!

Kolkata Lanes

We dipped our toes into Kolkata straight away, with a one block walk to the nearest five star shopping mall. I know it wasn’t a daring move, but even that five minute walk involved being almost run over by a speeding truck and stepping over dead rats, dog caca and the usual street-stained sleeping bodies.

Feeling slightly reassured and braver after this short foray into the chaos of Kolkata, we then attempted a several kilometre walk to another shopping mall along the streets – literally. Footpaths are hit and miss in this city; sometimes accessible, at other times covered in pop-up tea shops and food stalls. It was peak hour and Kolkata was throwing all that she had at us. Like the streetwise and brave men we are, we made each terrifying street crossing in the shadow of some old lady or mother with child (they cross at a slower pace and are less likely to take unnecessary risks). We never found that mall; Park Street Circus, with its steady stream of trucks, buses, tuk tuks, bicycle rickshaws, Amassador taxis, scooters and motorbikes all converging on a single roundabout with its six entry and exit points was too much, and we admitted defeat.

We did, however, find The Maidan and took sanction in the green of the park with its hundreds of different cricket matches taking place.

I was starting to think that Kolkata wasn’t such a great idea; dipping my toes in this city might result in losing my whole foot.

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Crow’s Nest.

8 March 2015

Look up. Look way up, to the "Crow's Nest"

Look up. Look way up, to the “Crow’s Nest”

As the mist rises to meet dusk from the valley 2000 metres below, we’re sitting in “The Crow’s Nest”, as I’ve dubbed our room in the Dekeling Hotel. Although I doubt any crow would be panting as much as I am when I finally sink into the comfortable wicker chair of our hotel room. No, I’m not unfit … the air is thin in the Himalayas. Well, that’s my excuse; not the biriyanis, tandoori chicken or Kingfisher beer my stomach is lugging up the 103 steps to our crow’s nest perch over Darjeeling township.

This morning’s start was too early and way too cold.¬†4.30am¬†is not my idea of a holiday starting time. It was one of those “get up before sunrise, drive 30 minutes in the dark, hike through the mist and marvel at the sunrise” experiences. I’ve done these tourist traps before, and 50% of the time you wish you were still in bed when the sun actually fails to rise due to cloud, rain or both.¬†And at 1C, I was realising that my jeans, t-shirt, jacket and baseball cap were clearly not enough; I wanted to jump right back under my hotel’s sheet, doona, polarfleece blanket and wool bedcover.¬†

Tiger Hill Moonset

Well, it was worth it. This was demonstrated by the applause of approximately a few thousand Indian tourists who had also broken their sleep. How often does a sunrise get a standing ovation? Perhaps it was the sun reflecting off the Himalayas that did it. 

Okay, it might not sound interesting, but picture the mist clearing as the sun suddenly warms the air. Initially, the big red ball of the sun above the clouds, then the reflections off the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas.

Tiger Hill Sunrise

The world’s highest mountains miraculously revealed as the sun warms daybreak. ¬†The snowy peaks of the Himalayas suddenly pink in hue. ¬†It was a only a vista for a minute, before the cold of the morning took hold and the Himalayas were once again engulfed in cloud.

Himalayan Panorama

We haven’t explored our mountain locale only by foot. Yesterday we took the DHR (Darjeeling Himalayan Railway) – a steam train named “Mountaineer” that toured us around the edge of the mountains to an adjacent hilltop town called Ghum. A bit of a touristy thing to do, but the ‘technical’ delay of one hour whet my appetite. The engine was a doppelg√§nger for Thomas The Tank Engine, right down to Thomas’ blue ¬†and polished brass. The resemblance stops there. ¬†Our Fat Controller was not top hat and tails, more stained, with a fag hanging from his mouth, and an ability to expel quite a lot of phlegm.¬†

All aboard the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway "Toy Train"

All aboard the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway “Toy Train”

Oh, we did the Zoo as well. Apparently the best Zoo in India, according to Trip Advisor. It was good. Tigers, snow leopards and red pandas (high in the cute stakes!).

Apparently Red Pandas spend a lot of time sleeping...

Apparently Red Pandas spend a lot of time sleeping…

The Zoo also featured The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Darjeeling is the home of Tenzing Norgay. Remember him? He was the Sherpa who was first to climb Mount Everest. He resided in Darjeeling and in fact, this is where that history-making climb began.

Tenzing Norgay

As is fitting, Sir Edmund Hillary is supporting cast in this town. Barely cracks a mention in the exhibits. But then, who do you think did most of the hard yards: the Sherpa, or the Sir?

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Happy Holi!

6 March 2015

Today we experience India’s Hindu Holi festival. A chance to celebrate the beginning of spring and new life. A chance to greet family and friends by smearing vibrantly coloured powder on friends, family and stranger’s faces and wish them “Happy Holi!”.

By afternoon, the party phase is in full swing. Men with faces, hands and clothes covered in splashes of colours dance through the streets, now throwing (rather than gently smearing!) vibrant Holi powders, ambushing both friends and strangers with fists full fuschia pink, vermillion green and Yves Klein blue. Add water pistols and the streets turn into riots of colour.

Happy Holi 1

Happy Holi 2

We were lucky enough to experience this as guests at a palace party in Jaipur several years ago. We have such great memories that we were  reluctant to alter those images.

Buddhist Awakening

However, it was the Buddhists who got the first word in today in Darjeeling, a major Buddhist centre. Whilst trying to sleep through the constant barking competitions that the street dogs waged all night, the first rays of morning sunshine were accompanied by a group of Buddhist monks, resplendent in their burgundy robes, blowing ancient horns and hitting tambourines (or something similar) on the roof terrace of the building opposite to us.

A good start to a religious day of sorts. We’ve wandered through the maze of streets that hug the mountain. Paths that lead you from Monastery to Temple, with day-to-day life in-between.

Bhutia Busty Gompa Tibetan Buddhist Monastery

Bhutia Busti Gompa Tibetan Buddhist Monastery

Ghostly Prayer Flags

Prayer flags at the shared Buddhist/ Hindu temple site on Observatory Hill

Darjeeling is a strange town. The people are Nepalese in appearance. The population associates more with Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim than India. The houses are a mixture of British Raj – wooden cottages with bay windows, lead lights features and rose gardens – to Art Deco curved cement buildings, stone municipal buildings built in the Victorian era, and local small wooden structures painted in fuschia, lime green and cornflower blue.

Rhododendrom TreesThey all hug the mountainside, higgledy-piggledy on narrow winding paths, with not enough room for a car. The gardens are filled with Japanese Cedars, blooming cherry trees, and giant Rhododendron trees abundant with blood red and pale pink flowers.

Not to mention the monkeys swinging from branch-to-branch. I still don’t like, or trust, monkeys, even if I am in the home of Hanuman, the monkey deity.

As you might understand by now, we’re loving Darjeeling and our attic room Himalayan sanctuary (even if it does take 103 steps to get to – I counted).

It’s dusk, the temperature has dropped, fires are being lit, and the clouds are closing in.

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Darjeeling. Tea, Clouds and the Himalayas.

5 March 2015

From the dusty plains of central India to the cloudy heights of Darjeeling, via New Delhi’s Indira Ghandi International Airport.

Now I wasn’t jaded with Hyderabad. It just wasn’t the India I love. The moment I stepped off our Jet Airways flight at Bagdogra, I knew my memory hadn’t been fogged by too much sandalwood incense and tandoori chicken.

This was small town crazy. Tuk tuk drivers who never take their hand off the horn; cows wandering the streets; khaki-clad officers of the law directing traffic; the call of the crow (I had actually been missing this mournful sound); Hindi music blaring from every shopfront; dogs sunning themselves on the road’s edge; men who seem to have time to stand around smoking and discussing the day’s news while their women pick tea or sweep the streets. This is more like it.

We glimpsed¬†a hint of the Himalayas as we descended out of the sky and onto the airport tarmac. Reality hit as we drove across the dusty plains and started to climb into the mountains that just seemed to grow out of the red dirt. Thank god we opted to book the large vehicle; these roads were steep, and the constant switchbacks needed some grunt. Which in fact was almost like the sound I made (with a slightly higher pitch and more breath inhalation) as I viewed the fall below on every hairpin bend. This bottomless drop was all the more frightening as we slowly negotiated past large trucks on a road designed for one vehicle. Maybe selecting the “large” vehicle wasn’t that safe an idea after all.

However, our driver was a legend, and my first-born will now be called Raju for getting us here safely. (Sorry Mum and Dad, we could always make Raju a new family name.)

Darjeeling

You know you’re high up when you are embraced by the clouds. Darjeeling as you probably know is home to the high mountain tea. A place where British Raj memsabs went to escape India’s heat. A town of Victorian guest houses, a few boarding schools and home to a mostly Nepalese community. The Nepalese border is only a short distance away; in fact, at one time, Darjeeling was part of Nepal. The view of the Himalayas from our hotel window is a good reminder of how close to the snow-capped peaks we are. Actually, when we open the window, we feel just how cold Mount Everest is! (Excuse me while I close my stained glass portal; frostbite can be so unattractive, and I understand balance is very difficult without toes.)

It's a dog day afternoon in Chowrasta, Darjeeling.

It’s a dog day afternoon in Chowrasta, Darjeeling.

So now, closing the window to our wood-paneled attic room, it just might be time to be reacquainted with the feeling in my extremities and sit around the fire in the hotel library.

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Hyderabad? Why Hyderabad?

4 March 2015

Hyderabad? Why Hyderabad?

A good question, and one asked numerous times prior to my departure, usually followed by a question as to its location.

I initially thought, “Well, it’s home to the famous Hyderabad biryanis and the wealthy Nizams of Hyderabad.”

I promptly committed myself and travelling buddy to the flights – and then did the research.

[By the way: Hyderabad’s location. On the map of India, it’s kind of in the middle and down a bit.]

My research came up blank. No tourist hotels, and no real tourist website either. Hyderabad is a commercial capital. Not really designed for the happy-go-lucky tourist.

“Oh well”, I exclaimed to my companion, “We can sit around the pool, rest from our longish flight and drink gin and tonics.”

Although he seemed slightly convinced, he did point out several concerns. Firstly, “sitting around a pool” really isn’t our thing; Secondly, Hyderabad is a Muslim-dominated city and might limit our access to G&Ts. And, most significantly, the last time I organised a rest and relax in India, it was in a vegetarian-only alcohol-free holy city (refer Pushka entry!). Clearly, he still hasn’t recovered from that holiday paradise.

However, we were committed and ready for what morsels Hyderabad threw our way.

Admittedly … I’m writing this entry while sunning myself around the pool at the Radisson, with an icy Kingfisher beer in my hand (while my gluten free other half savours his lime juice… still waiting for that G&T…).

We are Day Two into the eight centuries of history Hyderabad has to offer. The highlights being … (I promise there aren’t many, so don’t even think about diverting your attention…):

Charminar. Hyderabad’s nod to the Arc de Triomphe. The innovative Indians came up with the idea of putting a mosque on top. However, as Charminar was built several hundred years prior to Paris’ centrepiece it would seem the French are not all that original.

Chowmallah. Now this is a palace, in fact FOUR palaces within the Nizam family compound, each reflecting the Nizam of the times’ taste. Starting with one that was built to out-do the Shah of Iran’s domicile (the Nizams having originated in Iran). A carved marble edifice, complete with coloured Venetian chandeliers, and a throne that appeared to be built for ten royal posteriors (either that or the Nizam had quite a large bottom – a diet of biryani will do that to you). The most recently-added palace also a marble behemoth, but strangely with an interior straight from Downton Abbey.

Chowmallah

This family got around in style, with a collection of vehicles to protect their silk-slippered feet ranging from horse-drawn liveried carriages to a limited edition canary yellow Rolls Royce designed especially by Mr Royce for the Nizam of Hyderabad. Commissioned in 1911, it has only 365 miles on its odometer…

Golkonda Fort. This is an impressive fort built in the 16th century that now lies ruined and abandoned. Massive blocks of red granite underpin this forted city that is spread over 11 square kilometres, leading up to a lofty palace resting on a rocky peak that is the highest point in the region. A city for 3,000 (married) people (the singles slummed it outside the main gates), all there to protect, pamper, administrate and entertain the extensive royal family.

Golconda Fort

Not saying that this was one paranoid Shah (King) … but he cleverly designed a sonic feature for his highly polished white domed chambers and meeting halls throughout the city, an acoustic marvel where every sound echoed around the finely-polished walls and curved ceilings. He could hear whatever was said; every conspirator’s whisper, the rustle of a concealed weapon being unsheathed, and every courtesan’s indiscretion.

So, so far it’s been lots of walking around Palaces, Mosques and Forts. Which is a good thing as our biriyani consumption is out of control.

Architecturally, Hyderabad is influenced by the Persian style; or, to describe it on a more basic level, “I Dream of Jeannie” style. [I acknowledge that not everyone is an Architecteophile such as myself. Like that word? Don’t bother to Google it, I just made it up.]

We covered all of the major sights in Hyderabad, finishing off our visit with a walk around Lake Hussain Sagar with its giant Buddha floating in the middle, an Indian Statue of Liberty. Judging by the garbage bobbing in the scarily green water, I’m sure Buddha was pleased he had a podium to protect his white marble robes. It was a short visit to the lake due to the brazen way the rats failed to react to us, and because of the CMP Communist Rally consisting of thousands of ‘red shirts’ that we seemed to be caught in the middle of.

image

After some monumental walks around Hyderabad, covered in exhaust fumes, building dust, and general pollution, I would have to say, personally, I’m not a Hyderabad fan.

But then what would I know? The Times of India reported today that Hyderabad beat Mumbai and Delhi in the liveable city stakes. Hyderabad came in at #138 of the most liveable cities in the world. I don’t think you need to get too nervous, Zurich or Vancouver.

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India. Round Three.

2 March 2015

I’m back. My third time taking on the madness that is India.

I’m not going to bore you with the initial travel details; needless to say, these include the usual longish flights, killing time in Bangkok airport and wandering aimlessly from duty free shop to duty free shop.

India is the main event – and my entry experience didn’t disappoint me.

The Australian and Indian governments have recently cemented ties between our two countries, thus permitting Australian residents to use a “Visa on Arrival” program. No longer would I have a pre-departure taste of Indian bureaucracy in my own country, queuing for visas and praying our passports would be returned prior to our travel date. Now our visas would be issued via a simple “online” facility, with the promise of breezing through the immigration process on arrival into India.

Wrong.

After being directed into a long queue, I worked my way to the front where I was informed I would need to join the queue at the desk next door, where I was directed to the adjoining queue and then directed to another desk, and then yet another area. Finally, the “Visa on Arrival” queue. India at its best.

Meanwhile two other flights had disgorged themselves, and their occupants were already on their way to hotels and home. So much for the promised efficiencies of visa on arrival.

I wasn’t angry or short tempered. This is India. Like its roads, it doesn’t make sense, but it seems to work.

My friendly immigration officer took me through the process, finishing with the collection of my biometric details on a fingerprint recognition machine. A machine that he constantly cleaned with a dirty rag. A machine that was sensitive to sweat and grease. Not ideal in a hot country that processes long lines of sweaty travellers.

As instructed, I placed the required digit on the glass screen to have its imprint recorded. I was directed to “leave it, leave it”. My immigration officer became quite agitated as I acquiesced and kept my digits in place. It was then I discovered the instruction ” leave it, leave it” actually meant “remove it, remove it”.

Stupid tourist.

India’s machinations flooded back as we entered the Arrival Hall, clutching our pre-paid taxi voucher in my hand, only to be pestered with offers of assistance by competing cab companies who informed us we were paying too much. Ah, everyone has an angle!

Our 2am journey through the Hyderabad freeway system was a re-anointment of the thrills and chills of travelling in India. Our taxi traversed to a raised freeway, racing along at 140 kilometres per hour. We were sailing above the sleeping city, and I do mean sailing – we were airborne on numerous occasions. Our taxi had an ingenious device that monitored speed. Every 30 seconds of our 45 minute drive, our driver was informed in a clipped British female accent to “Please slow down, you are crossing the speed limit“. Our driver drowned these instructions out with distorted Hindi music, horn honking and calls on his mobile.

This experience brought a nostalgic smile to my face.

I was back. India hadn’t missed me, she was doing fine.

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