The trials and tribulations of a life of leisure...


Friday, December 21, 2007

India Part 5 - Agra

We were picked up by our driver at just before 9 a.m. for our onward journey to Agra. The road again was not good, still being under construction in many places. Despite this we were pleased we were not flying between our destinations as we got to see so much more of 'real life'.

We never sussed out what the school hours were, but all morning there was a steady flow of children in school uniforms walking on the roadside to/from the villages. At one point there was a large group of them who decided to play chicken with our car. Our driver ended up having to stop, and I am guessing some choice Hindustani was shouted at them through the window...

We are not sure quite what was happening regarded our scheduled stop at Fatehpur Sikri on the way in to Agra - there was a sequence of phone calls to our driver. He then asked us whether we wanted to stop at a bird sanctuary as we were ahead of schedule -okay. We pulled in at the Keoladeo Ghana National Park. We had an hour. We hired a bicycle rickshaw and a guide, but with only an hour to spare we couldn't get far into the park. We did get to see an eagle owl and a few water birds. We then had to insist that we needed to get back to the car. As it was we were about an hour and a quarter. We then asked our guide/rickshaw man how much, and got the very annoying 'whatever you want' response. We paid them for 2 hours but they were obviously hoping for more...

We carried on to Fatehpur Sikri. We actually picked up our guide a little way out and drove to the car park, and then had to walk a little way to where we were supposed to get an eco bus to the actual site. We had been waiting quite a while and no sign of a bus. It was getting a little late by now so our guide decided we should walk to the main road and take a tuktuk, which we did. There then appeared to be a bit of an argument between our guide and the ticket desk - I guess they were saying it was too late for us to get in but eventually they relented.

However, our tour around was relatively rushed and by the time we got to Jami Masjid it was starting to get dark.

By the time we got back to our car it was very dark. The rest of the journey to Agra was a little scary. Visibility was dreadful with either smog or dust, and there were still a lot of unlit bicycles, scooters and carts on the road.

It appeared to be a very popular day for weddings - we were held up in several towns where the wedding appeared to be using the road for its guest overspill. We were actually getting very good at spotting weddings by the time we got to our hotel, the Clark Shiraz, in Agra - band, loud speakers and groom on a horse.

We ate in the hotel and got an early night.

We were up before the crack of dawn the next morning to go to see the sun rise over the Taj Mahal. Our guide rather spoiled the 'wow' moment for me of seeing it for the first time as you walked through the gates, by rushing us on up to his favoured viewing spot.

The sunrise was a little disappointing as it was a bit smoggy so it was hard to tell when sunrise had actually happened.

The good thing about going so early was that there were not too many other tourists there at that time.

Although the decorative panels and calligraphy are very impressive, we thought it was most beautiful when viewed from a distance.

I didn't quite manage the full reflection in this classic view, but I was vying with other tourists by this time.

Back to the hotel and breakfast before setting out again for our city tour. Agra Fort was well worth the visit.

We then had great fun crossing the river, against most other traffic coming towards us. There is a new bridge a little further up which we used to get back which was a lot better - dual-carriage way that appeared to be adhered to.

We went on to Itimad-ud-Daulah's Tomb, set in well maintained gardens.

This was very beautiful, with lovely mosaics, marble screens and the very impressive dome-shaped roof/ceiling of the tomb chamber itself.

And then onto a demonstration of the inlaid marble work (Pietra dura/pachikari). It was actually quite fascinating to see how it was done, but then we were inevitably ushered in to the attached shop. There were some beautiful pieces but they were not cheap, and we were all shopped out by this point. Unfortunately I have too good taste and was not prepared to pay the price for it or settle on something cheaper...

Back to the hotel. Our driver took us out to a couple more shops in the late afternoon, but again we did not succumb.

We ate in the hotel again in the evening. Paul was getting blase, and had some spicy soup. This was a big mistake - half-way through the main course and he had to make a hasty trip to the loo.
We were picked up the next morning after breakfast (Paul sticking to cereal) to go back to Delhi. We had decided to cancel our rearranged Old Delhi trip - we were tired and had seen enough forts and tombs. We arrived back at the Connaught mid-afternoon. We had thought about going to the Railway Museum, but decided it was a little late and Paul was still feeling a little dodgy. We did venture down to the coffee shop late afternoon but this set Paul off again shortly afterwards. Fruit and buscuits had appeared in our room when we got back upstairs, and this sustained me until we were picked up late in the evening for our transfer to the airport.

Other than one dash to the loo while we were queuing to get through security Paul was okay. I spent our last remaining rupees on coffee and biscuits. Our flight was on time, 3.25 a.m., and we slept most of the way home.

It was as much a shock returning home to around zero temperatures as it had been the reverse on our way out. The airport parking firm we used was very good, and our car was waiting for us when we got off the transfer bus. We got home just after midday to find our boiler had broken down - the house was freezing. We got the dogs back in the afternoon. The electric fire was kept on full in the lounge and we put the dogs coats on at night until the boiler was fixed a couple of days later. Hot water bottles are wonderful things...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

India Part 4 - Ranthambore

The journey took longer than we thought, as when we turned off the main highway towards Ranthambore the road was still under construction on and off. This meant frequent stretches where we had to come off the road onto the parallel dirt track. We eventually arrived at our destination, the Tiger Den resort, at just gone 2 p.m. without a care in the world.

We were met at the car and told to hurry up and take our bags to our chalet - we were meant to be doing a safari that afternoon. Not to worry about checking in, we could do that when we got back. This was all news to us - we thought we had the whole day free. Still, we did as we were told. As we got back to the reception area we were told we had enough time to get some lunch. We were staying on a 'Jungle package' basis (I guess everyone was) - all meals included, which were buffets in a large communal room next to reception.

It was probably closer to 3 p.m. when we were called to go. The safaris were conducted in large open-top jeeps (about twenty people per jeep) with a guide. We were the last people to be picked up by ours, and thus took a seat near the back. Our companions were all American.

Our resort was quite close to the park entrance, where the jeeps had to stop to find out which of the five areas of the park they were going to do. Our guide picked area 4 from the lottery ticket system - I guess at the start of the day they have a preallocated number of tickets for each area. The Americans seemed pleased - they hadn't done this area before. We headed into the park. A short way in we stopped again for the guide to sign in at the entrance to our area. This bird (which turned out to be very tame and common but I can't remember what it is) was perched in a tree right next to our jeep.

It turned out to be quite a tortuous route, with lots of slow climbs through jungly terrain. We eventually emerged into more open country and headed towards a lake. We then turned round and headed back again - I think because we had been so late setting out and all jeeps had to be out of the park by 6 p.m.

We did see quite a lot of deer (spotted deer and sambar) and monkeys, heard alarm calls at one point so we stopped, all peering intently in the direction that they came from, but not much else happened.

When we got back we checked in, unpacked and unwound before heading over for dinner. We were surprised at how many Germans we encountered here - I think their holiday firms must use this resort as standard as they provided a German-speaking rep.

We got an early night as we were due off again for a 6.30 a.m. safari the next morning.

Bleary-eyed we went and got a coffee while waiting for our jeep. We met two lovely ladies, Aldyth (a Jamaican now living in Canada) and Sarala (an Indian living in Canada), also waiting for the jeep, which eventually arrived after 7 a.m. This time we got area 5.

We spotted a kingfisher on our way in. Some of our neighbours have seen them on the Whiteadder, but we never have.

Where we stopped to check in there were a lot of monkeys and parakeets (and pigeons) - seed had been put out for them.

Once into our area our guide was convinced that there was a tiger nearby but we couldn't see it. We kept returning to the same spot, but no joy. We saw more deer...

We had breakfast with Aldyth and Sarala when we got back, and then chilled out/warmed up with our books sitting on the veranda of our chalet before lunch and the afternoon safari.

This time our jeep turned up empty and we were the first pickup, so we got seats at the front where we could hear the guide.

Our guide picked Area 3.

This was our most enjoyable safari so far.

The route was much more pleasant, being mainly over open ground. The presence of many small lakes meant we saw a much greater variety of wildlife, as well as the good old favourites - more deer.

Boars, crocodiles and a lot of water birds, including herons and egrets, to add to our list. There are a lot of wild peacocks in the reserve, but none of our guides seemed to think it was worth stopping to photograph them.

There are apparently two varieties of parakeets in the park, this one being a lot less common than the ones being fed at the entrance to area 4.

On our way back out we even had a very fleeting glance of the back end of a tiger as it disappeared into the undergrowth. On trying to track round to where it was heading our guide pointed out a small owl in one of the trees. We never re-found the tiger...

In the evening there was a barbecue with local folk music/dancing. We chatted to another English couple who had been jammy enough to see a tiger sleeping right next to the road on their safari! Our Italian chalet neighbours were persuaded up to join in the dancing, but we Brits were firmly glued to our chairs :)

Up again early the next morning. We met up with Aldyth again but Sarala had decided to stay in bed. We were split up, and we got area 4 again. We went further this time but still no tigers. Aldyth didn't see any either.

We did see some more wild boar, closer up this time.

And more deer.

And more monkeys.

And another crocodile.

Our last safari and Paul was invited to select the route ticket - and picked route 4 again...

This time, however, we had more luck. Our guide could hear a tiger roar, and with a little toing and froing we spotted it a little way away. Even more luckily I did manage to get a photo...

zoom in...

Saturday, December 15, 2007

India Part 3 - Delhi/Jaipur

It took over an hour to get out of Delhi and its sprawling suburbs to the highway to Jaipur. The traffic in Delhi was worse than Mumbai in as much as Mumbai has banned tuk-tuks from the city centre and Delhi hasn't. Add to that a lot more carts and scooters and the odd cow/water buffalo to get the picture.

The highway was interesting. It was common for vehicles to be driving on the wrong side of the "dual carriage" way towards us, but as Paul said we only saw a couple of them also being overtaken! The road itself was very good, and unlike here, there were an abundance of large petrol stations all the way along it.

I was fascinated by the pampas grass that grew like weeds all along the roadside. I did notice that around the villages bundles of it had been cut and were drying, possibly to be used as fodder. Another common sight was the cow-patties drying on the tops of walls and then piled high - presumably they are used as fuel.

We went through a lot of towns of varying sizes, and this always meant a traffic snarl up - the degree depending upon the size of the town - probably because the main road actually went through the centre of the towns. None of this namby-pamby slip road nonsense...

The small towns/villages all looked very similar to me. The outskirts generally had a lot of plastic litter. Kiosk type shops lining the roadside - concrete open-fronted cubes. The occasional 'cafe' - a lot of coloured plastic chairs out front, invariably with a few men sitting around. Livestock either tethered to trees or wandering freely. At the start of the journey this was mainly cattle and goats, but as we got closer to Jaipur we started seeing camels. And more and more camels.

As we approached Amber these were joined by the occasional elephant - presumably on its way back from the Amber Fort.

We stopped for lunch at Amber and then continued on into Jaipur.

Driving through Jaipur was an experience - combining all the vehicles, livestock and animal-drawn carts with narrow streets and alley ways as we made our way to our hotel, the Mansingh.

Our driver had arranged to come back in the erly evening to take us shopping - but we were not to tell our guide the next day. This entailed going to a jewellers - it is one of the things Jaipur is known for. Paul escaped this time...

We were not hungry in the evening and ended up in the hotel bar. We got chatting to an Australian and his girlfriend. There were a couple of other girls with them that they had met up with on their travels, one of whom came from Dunbar. It's a small world...

The next day we were up early, leaving the hotel at 6 a.m. for our trip to the Amber Fort. This was to ensure we got our tourist elephant ride up to the fort. We had to queue for an hour or so, fending off the hawkers. At least it was not too hot at that time in the morning.

We got back to the hotel in time for a late breakfast, before we were picked up again for our city tour.

Hawa Mahal - built to allow the ladies of the harem to watch the goings on of the outside world without being observed themselves.

One of Paul's favourite places on this trip was the observatory - Jantar Mantar. This is one of five observatories built by Sawai Jai Singh II, and is the largest and best preserved.

We also were taken around the City Palace Museum. I particularly liked the textiles and costumes gallery.

Then on to the obligatory carpet-making and block-printing demonstration. And on to another jewellers. At least now I had something to compare prices with. We went back to the first shop in the evening...

We ate in the hotel in the evening. Although I had brought a dress with me I had left my sandals back in Delhi. Oh well - the trainers had to do.

We had a leisurely breakfast the next morning before checking out. We had arranged with our driver a 10 a.m. pickup for the onward journey to Ranthambore.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

India Part 2 - Mumbai/Delhi

I am falling way behind on my blogging. This is down to real life catching up with me now. I am currently on a housework binge, having neglected it for God knows how long building up to the WSC. I will make an effort over the next few days to at least complete the India trip.

After the final Paul, Di Dennis and I grabbed a taxi into the city to go shopping in the state emporiums. We stopped off for a beer before walking back to Di's hotel to meet up with a few others to go out for dinner. Ed Martin and his Swedish girlfriend (Karin?), who had just flown in, Shane O'Neill and Greger joined us. We went upstairs in Leopolds to the air-con section where the food was plentiful but the service was nowhere near as good.

When we got back to the Taj Allan and Phil were getting ready to go to the airport - we had given them one of our keycards so they could use our room after they had checked out of theirs. The Maltese contingent were still around - David and Jojo were also flying out that night, but Theresa and her new husband, Geoff, were going on to Goa the next day for their honeymoon. A few other players were also hanging around killing time before going to the airport.

The next morning Paul and I were able to take full advantage of breakfast - theoretically buffet but it was frowned upon to actually help yourself. A waiter asked what you wanted and then brought it to you. After we had finished we briefly joined Robert Lynn, his wife and Philip Nelkon before packing and checking out. We put our bags into the hotel storage and then took a taxi to Fab India for a last shopping spree in Mumbai. We went to an art gallery for lunch before heading back to the hotel to kill time.

We were picked up in the afternoon and transferred to the central railway station for our onward journey to Delhi. There was some confusion as to which coach we were in, but it was eventually sorted out. We were in a 4-berth air-con sleeper. There was one other passenger in our cabin who was only going part way. Our steward brought us fruit juice and English language newspapers. A 3-course dinner arrived later. Our cabin mate departed and was replaced by an elderly couple who were also fed. They looked a little worried until they determined that they were on the lower berths and Paul and I were on the upper. The steward got the berths ready and lights out. I actually slept quite well. Lights back on, beds stowed away and breakfast arrived. We were about an hour late, arriving in Delhi about 10.30 a.m.

We were met at the station and transferred to our hotel, the Connaught. This was a little disappointing - the lobby was quite plush but our room was quite shabby. After a shower and change of clothes we headed out to get our bearings. We had intended to walk to Connaught Place but were waylaid by a tuk-tuk driver. He offered us a deal of taking us on a shopping tour, and if we didn't like/buy anything he would not charge us. The first place was no good but undeterred on to another. We were shown lots of bedspreads and after much haggling we did indeed buy a couple, one of which I will use as a cover for our dining table as it is very hard to get anything that is big enough! We went onto one other up-market store but did not buy, before heading home and paying our man.

In the afternoon we had an organised trip to the Baha'i House of Worship in Delhi, also known as the Lotus Temple. This was very tranquil after the traffic jams through Delhi to reach it.

We did not have to worry about finding somewhere to eat in the evening - we had a complimentary welcome meal in the hotel.

The next day we had a full city tour on the itinerary.

First stop was Rashtrapati Bhavan - the President of India's official residence - designed by Edwin Lutyens. The gates are as impressive as the building. Unfortunately it was extremely hazy - presubably smog again - so the views from here were not very good.

Next onto a Hindu temple - no photographs or shoes allowed.

The next stop was the Qutb Complex. This large complex was built by the Sultans of Delhi, started by Qutbuddin Aibak and added to by later Muslim sultans. It, like many other historical sites we visited, is undergoing restoration.

The Qutb Minar is extremely impressive - a five storey high Victory Tower.

Iltutmish's tomb - who succeeded Qutbuddin Aibak and completed building the Qutb Minar.

I was hoping it was going to be lunch now as I was beginning to need the loo, but no. On to Himayun's tomb. Our guide did not come with us inside and had not appreciated that how fast we could walk. There was no sign of him when we got back so we headed back to the car, assuming he would be there. Our driver let is in and we waited. Eventually our driver rang his mobile to let him know we were waiting in the car - he had gone off to get something to eat!

We were heading back slowly through the traffic jams to a restaurant for lunch - it was now well gone 2 p.m. and I was getting desperate by the time we stopped.

In the afternoon we were supposed to 'do' Old Delhi. The traffic was absolutely awful, and the two routes our driver tried had been closed by the police. We gave up - never knew why the roads had been shut. Our guide said he would try to rearrange the trip for the afternoon before we eventually flew home from Delhi. We headed back to our hotel.

In the evening we ventured out to find DV8 in Connaught Place - a restaurant recommended in our guidebook as serving good value steaks. We found it but it looked as if it had shut down - it certainly was not open. We headed back towards the hotel - we had spotted a small restaurant close by. We were the only tourists in there and had a very good Chinese meal.

The next morning we re-packed, putting one bag of non-essentials into storage - we were returning to the same hotel prior to our flight home. We were picked up by our same car/driver who was to be with us for the rest of our trip, next stop Jaipur.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Garden Report 2007 - 20

I interrupt coverage of India for a garden report.

I admit the garden is not ablaze with colour, but when I wandered around with my camera it was surprising how many plants still had the odd flower.

As expected at this time of year:

Both of my mahonias are in their full glory at the moment

as is my inherited hellebore (Helleborus niger/Christmas Rose).

Only one of the hellebores (Helleborus foetidus) I brought up with me was large enough to flower last year. However, they all appear to have matured well over the year and are now in bud.

We were told we had some very heavy frosts while we were away, and again this morning. This does not seem to have deterred many of the plants from continuing to flower unseasonably.

The lupins are still going strong, and yet another of my new ones has thrown up a flower spike since we got home.

Both my clumps of osteospermums still have a few flowers and buds. The frost does not seem to have initiated any die-back of the foliage as yet.

A few of the roses are also holding out, even if they look a bit scabby...

The autumn heathers which are dotted around the high bank and the long bank are still looking very good.

In the trellis bed one of the chrysanthemums still has a couple of flowers and the achillea is still doing well.

In the pots by the house there is a particularly good show being put on by some self-seeded pansies.

The felicia in another pot, that had been bought as a 'hanging basket annual', but survived last winter still has a few flowers on it now.

Other than these there are still a few flowers on a lot of my aubrietas, and the viburnums are looking strange now that most of the leaves have dropped leaving bare stems with the odd small cluster of flowers.

I can already see signs of the snowdrops and the early crocuses coming through.

The garden really needs a tidy up of all the autumn debris. Ho hum...

Friday, December 07, 2007

WSC Final

I don't intend to go into details of the final games here - these can be seen at the WSC site. I hope to give you an idea of the atmosphere. Also post some of the photos that didn't fit into the previous blog entries...

We had been asked to assemble in the playing area at 9 a.m. wearing our scrabble polo shirts as Mattel were filming a promotional video for the event. This entailed filming both Nigel and Ganesh as winner/runner-up prior to the final itself.

I think Ganesh was auditioning for Bollywood - he had us all killing ourselves with laughter as he leapt up and down in delight at winning, and then shuffling onto the stage with his head down and looking so despondent as the runner-up. Nigel was his normal unconcerned self in both shots.

The hotel provided a cake for the finalists...

It was rather a large cake so we all got to taste it.

There was a delay before the final started, presumably for interviews and getting the cameras set up for the final etc. This provided an opportunity to catch up with more people and take more photos.

Ganesh and Nigel were both very relaxed...

Naween and Harshan, both from Sri Lanka, but representing Australia and England respectively.

I took the opportunity to get all the ladies together for a photo shoot.
Back Row: Joanne Craig (NZ), Lynne Butler (NZ), Wilma Vialli (Aus-TD) Odette Rio (Phi), Di Dennis (Eng), Loretta Alban (Qat)
Front Row: Theresa Camilleri (Malta), me (Eng), Suanne Ong (Mal)

The final eventually got under way, with Nigel taking a 2-0 lead before lunch. The audience reassembled, hoping for a more closely fought game(s) than the first two. The third game was more exciting, but Nigel emerged victorious - the 2007 World Scrabble Champion.

The stage was then prepared for the prize ceremony.

Wilma presented the prizes for 10th to 6th in party mood - bopping about to the music. A couple of the recipients joined in on their way to the stage. The Mattel head of scrabble in India presented 5th and 4th prizes - he looked a bit sheepish when Wilma cajoled him to bop :)

3rd place: Wellington Jighere
This was the first time I had seen him without his hat...
Third place is pretty amazing for a first time competitor. He was unlucky not to be in the final, having had to play Nigel in the last round of the tournament proper for the place.

2nd place: Ganesh
Ganesh was a lot more gracious in defeat than he had been for the pre-final filming.

1st place: Nigel Richards
Nigel was as laid back and underwhelmed as ever.

There was something of a party atmosphere. The hotel produced another cake for the winner. People were milling around as various combinations of players were gathered on the stage for photographs.

Team Malaysia
The most successful team (Suanne 12th, Ganesh 2nd)

Team Thailand
(Komol, Panupol, Gerry, Weera, Charnwit)
I really think that more teams should have a 'uniform'. In day one it was yellow (the King's colour). Day two this very smart navy blue. Gerry said there was nothing for day 3, just try to colour-coordinate their T-shirts :)

The competitors:

Blog Archive