India 1998. Part 1.

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Following a successful and eventful trip to New York in 1997, Husband [though not Husband at that time] and I must have decided we could endure one another’s company for long enough to make a substantial visit to India. Pre he-who-was-to-become Husband’s entry into my life I’d been planning to visit a friend who had taken a teaching job in Indonesia, but it wasn’t going to work out for dates over the summer, so we plunged into booking two, back-to-back tours in India with the travel company, ‘Explore’.

We chose a ‘golden triangle’ tour [Delhi/Jaipur/Agra] followed by a trekking exploration of Ladakh, in the north.

On this occasion I did not keep a travel journal, so my memories must rely on photographic prompts, but at the time I was in the habit of collecting all manner of holiday-related items such as tickets, labels, maps and menus and constructing elaborate albums on my return that included all this collected junk. Nowadays of course photo albums have become virtual and keepsakes have shrunk to one sought after artefact per trip for our naff shelf [of which I have written].

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I can see that we flew out from Heathrow to Bahrain, initially and then on to Delhi. I also have the itinerary for the first tour, called ‘Moghul Highlights’. This time, rather than blundering along following our own, hopelessly inadequate plans, we’d have the benefits of a tour guide and all planned ahead. This is a regime that many people enjoy, but experience has demonstrated [as it did on this occasion] that tour guides can be double-edged swords. We were to discover the drawbacks quite early in the adventure.

We arrived into Delhi early on a Saturday morning, feeling the effects of time differences compounded by long flights, together with that shock of heat and fumes that you get when stepping out of a plane into a hot climate. Then we were gathered up as a group and ushered on to a tour bus to our hotel. By the time we arrived we were in need of first, rehydration and second, sleep, neither of which was forthcoming! We had a few minutes to deposit bags and must assemble for a lecture, followed by a day’s sightseeing.

Too feeble to protest we duly gathered for the talk, delivered by our guide, a proud Indian lady who was champing at the bit, wanting to get started on showing us her city. So, no water, no sleep, no time to waste-and no currency either, as I’d hoped; we could have sneaked a purchase of a bottle or two en route.

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In retrospect it was madness to comply. We should have collectively protested. We’d all had long, dehydrating flights and were now embarking on a day’s sightseeing in unaccustomed, searing heat. The guide was lucky that none of us needed to be hospitalised!

Despite the deprivations of that first day I was able to follow, listen, look and photograph as we took in the major sights of Delhi, the huge Jami Mosque, the Red Fort, the Ghandi Memorial and cremation site. At this early point in the tour we did not yet realise that our guide’s insistence on strict adherence to discipline was to become a problem but it was not too long before a minor rebellion in the ranks began to germinate…

Flight. A Dubious Pleasure.

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Once we’ve returned home from the Italian lakes in our camper van there’s barely a week to go before we are off again-this time by air. A week is just enough time to tackle the mountain of laundry we’ve brought back, scrub the van until it’s spotless, host a modest family gathering and even undertake a basic garden tidy-up, before we think about what we will need in our next destination: visiting friends in beautiful Norway.

Although our flights are booked, we’ve not opted to check in any suitcases, thinking that with the budget airline we’re using we’ll try and make do with hand luggage. In effect, however this is impossible-there are medicines and basics in sponge bags to take. Whatever do other people do? We suck it up, compromise and pay for one checked in case.

Due to my health shortcomings we are unable to travel to Gatwick early in the morning so I book us into an on-airport hotel for the night which means a rail trip or two, but it all goes smoothly except that my small, ancient cabin bag chooses now to foul up by having its handle stuck out. Then I’m compelled to buy a new one from the bag-wrap man at Gatwick. Once we’re installed in the hotel we can relax in the bar with its outstanding view of the short-stay, multi-story car park.

So far so good-and dinner is acceptable. But the room’s air-con will not sink below 20 degrees and the squidgy bed has a hugely thick quilt, which all makes for a hot and uncomfortable night.

Next morning we cross the road to the terminal and get the dinky shuttle to the south terminal, where the check in queue is mercifully short.

We do the security thing. Queue in the pen, unload everything into trays, walk through the door-frame, collect the trays, repack everything, wait for Husband. Husband, being special, has a personalised scan due to his pacemaker. At last, reunited at the repacking bay, we can trundle past all the ‘duty-free’ outlets for an outrageously expensive coffee, which has not deterred the massed swarms of people in transit, judging by the lack of empty tables.

I wander the shopping outlets, the activity the airport has summoned us early for, picking up a bottle of water and some wet wipes. We get another coffee.

It is time to go to ‘gate’. Our departure gate lies at the outermost extent of the airport’s appendages, which requires us to trundle along lengthy corridors punctuated by travelators. The wheelie case grumbles along the moving pavement like an angry bee. There is another wait and we are finally summoned to the queue for seats in the poky cylinder in which we are to spend our next two hours.

The flight is busier than I expected and we must share our row of three seats with another, but we all smile politely and greet in our British way as the cabin staff do their demo and check that we’re strapped in while the plane rolls along in its own queue towards the runway. From the porthole I spot the assorted planes in front and behind us as we wait our turn; then we are in position, breath-holding until the engines roar and we are hurtling along, that brief momentary flutter of panic that we may not rise before the end of the tarmac but we are up, up and away.

On this two hour flight there is no trolley service [unless you buy it], no small bag of nibbles and a drink, no warm tissue, no screens. We settle down to read until the aircraft begins its descent into Oslo, where we are to change for the onward flight, and have to undergo security again despite going through the transfer corridor. What are we supposed to have procured en route? The rigorous security man confiscates the unopened water I’ve bought at Gatwick and tips the water out of my reusable one. Wonderful.

Later we are high above the snowy peaks along Norway’s west coast and then descending into Aalesund. Looking down on the stunning landscape is enough to make me forget all the hassle of flying.

But the last time we came was by van. Drive to the port, check in, show passports, queue for 45 minutes [enough time to brew up a coffee] and drive on to the ferry. Read, have breakfast, drive off. No contest!

 

Sacrilege

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We travelled to New Zealand in the autumn of 2011 when the Rugby World Cup was scheduled to be held there. This was to be our retirement treat-a three month stonker of a trip that also encompassed Australia [where I have cousins] and a small add-on of a stay in Hong Kong on the way home.

The thrill of such an enormous piece of travel was tempered, initially by having our flight from Heathrow cancelled by Quantas for no reason we could discern. This meant that our onward flights from Brisbane were scuppered, messing up our arrival to Christchurch, New Zealand and losing us a night of accommodation.

2011 was also the year of Christchurch’s catastrophic earthquake, which was heartbreaking in itself, besides disrupting the Rugby matches and venues involved.

After a tortuous and exhausting series of flights we arrived to Christchurch’s small airport. In the arrivals hall we staggered to the information desk and were directed out into the sunshine of the afternoon, where a kindly driver took our bags and we slumped into the back of his car to be taken to the hotel. I felt I’d stepped into a warm bath.

Even in my almost comatose state I was thrilled to see the verges and green spaces which were lined with nodding daffodils-a novelty for we northern hemisphere-ites in autumn.

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Although our hotel was a forest of steel ceiling supports and those roads that had not been blocked off were cracked with fissures the hotel staff welcomed us in.

Having slept we explored our area, Hagley Park and looked at the quake-damaged centre of town. The park hosted an exhibition of the proposed rebuilding of Christchurch.

A couple of days later we collected our rental camper-van, which was exquisitely equipped and set off to explore beautiful, pristine South Island on a gentle, meandering road that followed the railway track and took us through small communities, past stunning scenery and into wonderful camp sites.

Throughout this time I don’t think I ever stopped smiling. People were unerringly kind, the ease of travel unprecedented. In spite of the terrible earthquake we were welcomed. Even the creatures were friendly.

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The rugby games were like huge, joyous parties with dancing displays, music, dressing up and buzzing atmosphere. I lost count of the number of times we engaged with those around us, laughing, conversing and getting hugged.

In between matches we went sightseeing-following the beautiful, wild south coast road to stunning Milford Sound, viewing penguins and snow-capped mountains and scoffing New Zealand pies and scones from the dairies. Then we turned north via Kaikoura, went whale-watching and walked in glorious Abel Tasman National Park before taking the ferry to North Island.

In Wellington the camp site was full so the local rugby club accommodated us, throwing open their showers and their clubroom and even offering us a curry sauce to go with the chicken we’d bought to cook. We visited the amazing hot springs and geysers at Rotarua, 90 Mile Beach, Coromandel, the gigantic Kauri pines.

The trip remains, to this day my favourite to date. If asked I don’t hesitate to say that New Zealand is my favourite of all the destinations we’ve visited for the reasons I’ve detailed and so much more.

What has happened there is heart-breaking. This most beautiful and idyllic of countries has been sullied for it’s innocent beauty.

If you peddle hate posts on social media; if you keep recycling jingoistic, populist, right-wing propaganda; if you keep screeching about ‘taking back control’ and closing borders, building walls to keep people out and showing hate to other races and religions you are perpetuating acts of violence and terrorism.

Enough said.

 

 

 

Bajan Escape [part 2]

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[To continue…]

After a few days it’s clear why Tom and Francine have holidayed here in this hotel in Barbados for 45 years. It’s Tom’s kingdom, his empire. He knows everyone and everything. He spends his days wandering the grounds and pool, chatting to anyone he comes across and teasing the housekeeping staff. When she arrives to their room with a mop and bucket he tells Harriet, ‘Here-let me show you how to do it’. They all adore him. ‘I’m nearly 80!’ he says, grinning and rubbing his bare chest, ‘People think I dye my hair’.

One afternoon we go to Oistins, which boasts an extensive fish market, for a walk to the southern tip of the island. A parade of rocks has been eroded underneath by repeated waves so that they seem to hover above the foam, each wave producing a booming sound as it pounds in and back on itself in a tall plume of spray.

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On Friday nights Oistins Fish Market turns into a huge party with live music and nowhere to sit at the trestle tables that host diners every evening for freshly grilled fish-marlin, lobster tails, shrimp and a plethora of other sea produce. We choose a different night to sample the menu at ‘Uncle George’s’ [recommended by our neighbour, Mike] and we are not disappointed. We also get to chat to 2 young Canadians on a Caribbean tour away from their busy hospital jobs.

In the evenings we stroll to our local ‘KT’s’ bar or a little further into St Lawrence Gap-a magnet for revellers, cocktail seekers and diners, many who’ve hotfooted straight from the cricket ground where England has trounced the West Indies. The tiny bay is lined with bars and restaurants of any and every cuisine and all busy.

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The flight home draws closer. We conquer the mysteries of the public transport system and board a bus to ‘Sam Lord’s Castle’ on the Eastern coast. It is a bone-shaking ride up and across plains, through villages, past the airport; some homes are traditional, single-storey cottages in paint-box hues, others grand mansions in the making, ever more ambitious as we near our destination. There is some confusion when we alight as ‘Sam Lord’s Castle’ is neither a castle nor is it indicated in any way. This is because it is a bus stop, and the driver has not seen fit to tell us we have arrived, with the result that we must travel a few stops back.

Down a narrow road and through a passageway we access the sea at last, the Atlantic crashing against limestone outcrops in mountainous plumes, booming as it ploughs a relentless furrow under each knobbly spur. This is Shark Hole-mentioned in guide books but without a café, a bar, a gift shop or so much as a sign to advertise its thrilling allure, hence the complete absence of human life except for ourselves and a lone fisherman.

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There is little shade as we walk along the rugged coast, needing to cut in at intervals to avoid trespassing over manicured lawns. Fearful of the searing heat and of missing the bus back we return to the shade of ‘Sam Lord’s Castle’ [the bus shelter] where we wait 40 minutes to be rewarded by the appearance of one.

Our water supply was running low when we stepped off the bus outside KT’s bar, where cold beers and washrooms are both very welcome!

Later it’s down to Sharkey’s at St Lawrence Gap for the last supper-coconut prawns at a long table where we’ve been squeezed in between cricket fans and 2 ladies having an earnest conversation about relationships. We wait for our meals [Husband has opted for West Indian curry] and watch plates of wings and bottles of beer go past and I think there could hardly be a better place to holiday in February-unless you know better, Reader, perhaps?

 

Bajan Escape

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The elderly [even to us] occupants 0f the rooms either side of ours are happy enough with the hotel, modest though it is. Mike and Linda [to the left on our ground floor terrace] are heavy smokers-a surprise given that they are liberal, forward thinking Canadians-as are most of the residents. Mike, squat, chunky and clad in long shorts and vest, cups his cigarette angled towards his palm and almost hidden behind his back in apologetic discomforture.

They are all enthusiastic advice givers and we the [relatively] younger newcomers. On our right, Tom and Francine express shock at our nine-hour flight.

By morning the rigours and frustrations of the long flight have dissipated, erased by solid sleep uninterrupted even by the Canadians’ loud, evening conversations and coughing. The walls are thin though and when I wake during the hours of darkness I’m treated to all manner of sounds; the vibrant chirping of miniscule tree frogs that punctuates Bajan nights, trickling water from surrounding rooms, vague traffic hum and exuberant taxi horns.

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We wake to sun, cloud, a garden view of palms and flowers. Either the room smells less musty or we’ve grown used to it already. The steady breeze blows warm as we sit on the tiny patio to drink the coffee that Husband has managed to coax from a machine in our tiny kitchenette. We are equipped with the basics, [though not a kettle] giving us options to concoct, re-heat, eat out or get take-out.

Since our arrival in the early evening we’ve found 3 ATM machines, 2 supermarkets, an express shop, several bars and the nearest beach, which held an alluring promise in the warm, balmy darkness-a small, palm-fringed bay overlooking moored fishing boats and dotted with pastel bungalows, bars and modest apartments. There is nothing high-rise here in Worthing-no gargantuan piles of corporate resorts.

We set off to the larger supermarket, Massy’s, where Waitrose products at inflated prices nestle smugly amongst the local stock. We are spoilt for choice and select chicken and salad for our evening meal, corned beef in a tin with a key! [a throwback to my childhood] and ‘Banks’ beers. The corned beef is welcome after the lacklustre hotel breakfast offering-a couple of pieces of watermelon plus 2 miniature slices of toast and some rough coffee.

Later we wander along to the beach with towels and books to while away a few hours beneath a palm tree while Henny-Penny and her two small chicks scratch in the sand around and beneath the sun loungers.

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A cockney middle-aged couple manhandle a wheelchair across the white sand, its passenger a very elderly woman, in all likelihood an aged parent. They settle next to a geriatric gent carrying a portable oxygen tank from which a tube leads to his nostrils. Nevertheless he gamely sets up his towel and prepares for some sun. Maybe Husband and I are not so infirm after all…

Francine’s brother, Bruce has a room a few doors along from ours. He is a small, neat, dapper man in pristine shirt and gabardine shorts-slow to smile or respond, unlike brother-in-law Tom, whose large, blousy exterior matches his expansive personality. Tom tells us his brother-in-law was widowed only a year ago and has the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease. A flimsy bamboo screen separates our tiny patio from theirs, making eavesdropping inevitable. Tom asks Bruce what arrangements he’s made for his funeral; ‘where does he want to be interred?’

‘They can do what they want with me!’ Bruce spits back. ‘Throw me in the lake!’ The reply is inaudible. Later, as I lie waiting for sleep I hear Francine making placatory noises as Bruce’s voice is raised, ‘I worked hard all my life-gave it 100%!’ His sister murmurs, ‘Shut up Bruce, shut up’…

Bajan escape continues next week.

When the High Tide of Expectation Drops to a Catastrophic Low

The research took some time. It was tricky finding a suitable date, near enough to the actual big day plus an itinerary that would be acceptable. It had been impossible to find a Rhine cruise that allowed us to drive overland to the embarkation point, so I’d had to select flights then change them [at a cost] because they were at some obscene hour of the morning like 6.30am. A 6.30am flight, as I pointed out to the lady on the phone hardly constituted a birthday treat, especially as airports these days require you to be there two hours before take-off. This would be 4.30am. 4.30am!
Then there was the complimentary taxi to the airport, which would need to collect us at 2.30am. 2.30am! How would anyone manage this? Would you sleep beforehand, retiring at a ridiculous hour then getting up at 1.30? Or would you stay up and be almost comatose for the first couple of days of the trip?
No. I changed the flights. I reserved a room at the Heathrow Hilton. The taxi would take us to Heathrow at a respectable hour of the afternoon, we’d check in to the hotel and enjoy a leisurely meal, get a decent night’s sleep and be at terminal 5 at around 8.30am for a 10.30am flight. Sorted.
Husband had chosen a Rhine cruise as his birthday treat. These days there is precious little ‘stuff’ that he wants or needs, and being a man, if he wants or needs something he gets it. As regular readers know, Husband, that character who features in many posts, had a particular milestone birthday two weeks ago and as a result had an entire post written about him…
I’d been startled by his choice of a cruise, as we are great avoiders of such holidays [this, reader has also been much documented on Anecdotage], but river cruises are as unlike sea cruises as cycling is to motor bikes. The boats are not vast, floating monstrosities and passengers must not endure days and days at sea getting stuffed with gargantuan meals, enduring endless, tedious cabarets, ‘dressing’ for dinners and making small talk with those with whom they are incarcerated. The modest cruise boat makes frequent stops at places you can walk around and the ambience is casual. There would always be something to see, even from the cabin. We’d have begun at Amsterdam and finished at Basle. I was frustrated that we’d had to fly such a short distance [Amsterdam is a city that can be driven to in a day from Dunkirk] but when the detailed itinerary arrived in the post it looked thrilling. We’d be stopping each day at beautiful, historic places and get walking tours, as well as travelling through the beautiful Rhine gorge and seeing the Lorelei rock.

I bought new suitcases [ours hailing from a bygone era], bought shoes, organised, laundered, ironed, primed the neighbours.

‘You should see this’ Husband informed me as I returned from shopping. It was an email from the river cruise holiday company to the effect that they were changing the itinerary to mostly coach travel. This was due to a lack of water in the Rhine. He [and I] never at any point wished to embark on a coach tour. I cancelled.

I must admit to feeling slightly nauseous [yes, yes I realise it is a ‘first world’ issue].

We packed our camper van and drove off to the beautiful Isle of Purbeck, 30 miles away from our home and parked in the sunshine overlooking the hillside at Corfe Castle. We strode out over the hills and enjoyed the breath-taking views of our lovely Dorset coast. I stopped feeling bereaved.

Out in the van, we are never disappointed. Yes, there are sometimes challenges or difficulties. Yes, we must make the odd meal, wash up, empty various tanks. But we are not dependent on flights, hotels, plans others have made.

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Next week Fiction Month begins! Check in to Anecdotage for fresh, new fiction…

Flights of Fancy [not]

To fly anywhere these days requires surrendering yourself to a surreal experience in which you are engulfed in a dystopian world and required to submit to various practices which never occur in your normal, day-to-day life.

First you must access the airport. If you drive there you must take your vehicle to one of countless, vast car parks marked with ‘bays’. Your vehicle is spookily ‘recognised’ and allowed in. You wait in a remote shelter for a shuttle bus, which exists solely for the purpose of car park to airport, airport to car park.

If you arrive by public transport you may stay in an airport hotel. They are strange, anonymous tower blocks accommodating all nationalities, everyone staying for just one night, the hospitality focused on food, drink and sleep-with TV and WIFI thrown in and, of course a shuttle bus to the terminal. In your room, which has a view over the access road, the car park or a petrol station you may be prey to gabbling in foreign tongues as they impregnate the thin walls separating you from next door. There are rumblings as suitcases are trundled along the carpeted corridors and feverish key card insertions. Your dreams are punctuated by strange roars and muffled voices.

Next morning you rise up, shower in your en-suite [serviceable], down a quick cup of tea and trundle your own case to the lift, where you descend to the lobby. Others pulling cases may join you. It is early. Almost everyone is silent, save for the bus driver, who greets with an almost indecent jollity. There is a diverse assortment of luggage, from gargantuan, shiny designer to old, battered, market-for-peanuts [ours]. The bus rattles around the hotels collecting travellers then on to the terminal to spew you all out.

You claw your case from the rack and traipse with it and everyone else, following the yellow arrows to ‘departures’. You locate your ‘check-in’ from the screen [what did they do before screens?]. You join a long, meandering queue penned in with webbing, in which you shuffle and shuffle, shifting your wheelie case a few inches at a time towards the check-in desk.

At last you gain the desk and an unsmiling, efficient check-in clerk who scrutinises your paperwork in a brusque way and affixes labels to your case, now lolling on the scales before you bid it goodbye-praying that you may meet again at your destination.

Lightened of your burden, you join the next queue for another shuffle to be relieved of your belt, your shoes and your dignity as you are scanned and deemed non-threatening enough to fly. You are then released into the cavernous shopping outlet that is the departures lounge and set about filling the hours until the flight leaves in the most painless fashion achievable. For some this means an early start in the ‘English pub’. For others a swoop into the retail outlets.

You are called to the ‘gate’. You travel endless corridors on a moving belt. Your documents get another perusal. You wait for your seat number to be called. You walk down a ramp, along another corridor, through a hatchway into the metal tube that is your conveyance. You are greeted by the handmaidens and handmen who are to minister to you. You locate the seat and shoehorn yourself into it, fasten the belt, plug in to the entertainment, eat everything they give you, sleep a bit, get stiff, hot, yawn a lot.

You arrive. Has it been worth it? Actually yes-we are in Barbados!