Sunday, 4 August 2013

An account of my trip - my reflections will come later

After the last hectic month at work, I was more than ready for a change of scene. And change is what I got!

The flight with Qatar airways was uneventful. While the airport in Doha was unimpressive, I cannot say the same for IGA – Indira Gandhi Airport – in Delhi. The efficiency was mind-boggling, with pleasant immigration officials and affordable food. In an airport? You bet. I headed straight to WH Smith and picked up four juicy novels. (White Tiger, The God of Small Things, among others) Holidays are my time to binge read. For a mere twenty dollars I had four weighty novels in hand. I ignored the Cadbury’s Peppermint Crisp (a favourite) and settled for bottled water and a little box of Tropicana fruit juice. The juice was a dollar and the water fifty cents. In an airport, this is almost unheard of. I have decided to use airport food prices as a measurement of civility. Iran and India, in my mind, are civilized because they do not try to gauge the traveler. I had a two-hour wait before boarding a domestic flight to Chandigarh; the transition from international to domestic could not have been any smoother. The airport has been voted second best in the world for its passenger capacity and I think it is a title well deserved.

The flight to Chandigarh was a just a short hop – and hour or so – and I was at the doorway to the Himalayan foothills. The modern airport was a total surprise and the wide, empty streets even more of a surprise. This city was designed by the designer of the Eiffel Tower, including the art gallery. So, of course, I was determined to make a visit there. This, of course, did not fail to impress. Though I was more than impressed by the Thai fusion cuisine in the Hotel Icon restaurant where I hung my hat for the night. The price was a little steep, by Indian standards, but I was determined to splurge for my first night. With my exhaustion, and the immune system working full-steam because of air travel and air-conditioned airports, I am always a little nervous after a long journey. This caution paid off, and I enjoyed a great first day in India. A bicycle rickshaw to my hotel cost 25 cents; I couldn’t accept it, especially when I saw how the little rider was sweating to carry this big boy along the four kilometer stretch. I gave him double; 50 cents.

After settling down in the hotel, I wanted to be proactive and ensure a ride on the narrow guage steam train into the mountain city of Shimla – a six-hour journey to the former summer capital of the Brits when once they ruled the country. No luck. All the tickets were sold old and I had to look for an alternative; I decided to take a local bus – the type you see in movies – gaudy, sitting high, lop-sided, packed to the gills. Oh what fun. Halfway there, all the passengers were forced to get out and get into another bus; no discussion, no refund. By late afternoon, I arrived in Shimla, shrouded in mist, nestled on the steep mountains covered in white pine trees. A beautiful city, indeed. I spent three days here before heading to the Hotel Hot Springs (Tattapani) – the Indian word literally means Hot Water. Once again, I splurged for two nights at the spa resort, indulging in great food and hospitality for a fairly reasonable price. The drive to Tattapani was a dream with the pouring rain, the treacherous roads with hairpin bends, weaving their way through the mountains. Tattapani, unlike Shimla, was warm and I even had to use the air conditioner in the evenings. The owner of the hotel is married to an Italian woman, and her touch can be seen and felt in the aesthetic of the place; so, it was a surprise.

Leaving Tattapani, I got my first shock on my holiday. What looked fairly do-able on google turned into a nightmare. Google maps do not show the gradients of mountain roads. Let’s just say that my heart sat in the throat for a goodly portion on the journey as the bus negotiated the treacherous tracks, now slippery from the rains and since the road could only accommodate one vehicle at a time, there was constant negotiating when a vehicle came from the opposite direction. I now know what the high pressured horns with ear-splitting vehemence are an absolute necessity. I was very impressed at the ease and politeness with which right of way was given; the more endangered driver was always (always) given the opportunity to proceed, regardless of who had ‘arrived’ at the bend first!  More than once, we reversed downhill! Keep in mind that we were riding at altitudes exceeding 3000 metres! (These are the Himalayan foothills!) I had my camera ready, but I took very few photos because I was breathing too deeply. I have a new respect for the drivers and the buses. Frankly, I did not believe that the bus would carry us up and along those mountains. A six-hour ride for two dollars all the way to the town of Mani. From Mani, I got another bus all the way to Manali. Once again, the mountain views along the River Beal were more than spectacular. Waterfall after waterfall, the road hugging the river bank for most of the journey. It was a thrill to know that I had left the dirt of Kampala and I was feeling blessed for having made a decision to drive into the mountains. Indeed, it was exactly what I needed.

On reaching the entrance to Drifter’s Inn, I was met by Nishant, the owner, with a smile, a hug, and air of concern because it was already 8 p.m. I had spent the entire day traveling. One Kingfisher later (local Himalayan beer) and a plate fiull of yummy garlic-chilli fries later, I knew I had come to the right place. I was only supposed to stay for 3 days, but I extended it by five days. Need  I explain? Perhaps the walks through apple orchards, or the apricots plucked fresh from the tree. Or, the hot mineral water springs, the snow-capped mountains, the yak cheese, the baked goods at the German bakery? The snake charmers, the weaver busy on looms, the local tribal women escorting their yaks or cows to pasture, the Swiss-style lodges hugging the misted mountains? The thrill of paragliding for thirty minutes in the Himalayan foothills? The affordable full body ayurvedic massages? Let’s just say it was difficult to say goodbye to Nishant and the staff at Drifter’s. They treated me like part of family; all for 1100 rupees a night; read that as 20 dollars! Yes, holidays in India are affordable. So, does that explain the huge influx of Israeli’s? Or is that because of easy access to weed?! Methinks the latter, considering the number of times I was propositioned by stoned cute Israeli girls! LOL So, with great reluctance, I took an overnight bus to Delhi. Heeding Nishant’s advice, I purchased the seat beside me, so I was able to stretch and sleep with ease. The air-conditioned coach is as good as any Greyhound back home.

Early morning found me in Delhi, just in time to witness the vagrants sleeping on the streets, sidewalks, medians, underpasses. You name a place, there were people in various states of repose or sleep. A sight to behold. The Delhi of pictures often shown for effect; but, as always, every city has two faces. In India, this is as true as ever, certainly from what I was able to see in just over five weeks. As a tourist, I have the luxury of editing my experience, and choosing to see and experience only what I desire. My desire in Delhi? Glad you asked. Comfort, new glasses, a trip to the Taj Mahal. A small order! Comfort I got a-plenty at the plush Park Delhi Hotel, conveniently located in colonial Connaught Place. The next day, I made my way to the Taj Mahal in Agra and returned to find my new glasses ready. I love India! The glasses were more expensive than those I got in Iran, but still just a fraction of what they would cost back home; that came with a free eye check to get my new prescription. For 300 dollars I have two new pairs of specs with transition multifocal lenses. Yippee. My left eye is especially happy for the new lens! With new glasses on head, I boarded the sparkling new metro/subway and arrived at IGA – Indira Gandhi Airport in less than 30 hassle-free minutes, ready to fly to the south of India.

Everyone I met in the north told me that I would be surprised by the difference between south and north. The biggest difference? You would never guess. In the north, people thought I am Indian. Perhaps from Goa?! In the south, they were pretty confident that I was a visiting tourist! Ok, there were other differences. The food, to begin. After an unexpected overnighter in Bangalore – due to the monsoon rains which delayed my flight, causing me to lose my connection to Kochi in Kerala – I finally arrived at the Fort House Hotel in Fort Kochi. Here, the weather is decidedly sub-tropical and, despite the rain, the climate is temperate with coconut palms all over the place. Reminded me a little of Thailand. The hotel was magnificent; beautifully appointed, with the happy marriage of black granite and terracotta, and tasteful sculptures in spot lit niches. A very comfortable place where I was very happy to stay for three nights, despite the relatively steep price tag of $40 per night! J While there, I had a chance to visit the backwaters of Allepey. A first for me, exploring a watery environment. A different world where people live around and on water. Impressive. I have never seen so many coconut plantations. In fact, green is the order of the day. India is much greener than I expected.

From Kochi, I headed into Tamil Nadu. Lots of churches; the same in Kerala. The presence of the church cannot be ignored.  Even saw a Shanmugam street downtown...that's Fr Reggie's last name! And the South Indian food seemed a lot like the Indian food I know. As expected, I ate lots of seafood, crab curry, jumbo tiger prawns, and puttu! Yes, puttu! Now what is puttu?  you may ask.  OK, so puttu is made steamed rice flour and coconut, steamed in a special puttu maker (check google images), and it turns out to be a crumbly carbohydrate staple enjoyed in Kerala. Now, back in Uganda, I am kicking myself for not purchasing a puttu maker. I was reluctant to carry the darn thing in my baggage (You see, maybe I have changed a little!), and refused to buy one, even though it was all of 260 rupees - 5 dollars! Foolishly thought I would find one in Uganda, given the large number of Indians here. No luck. 
In the mountains of Tamil Nadu (the Tamils supposedly have their origins in Africa when the continents split...they look it, I must say), I took a toy train - narrow gauge steam train on a six hour ride in some of the most stunning mountain scenery, passing stations called Runneymede and other recognizable English names, the mountains covered in tea plantations and other super green vegetation. Truly stunning. From, there, I finally made it to the beach in Kovalam and parked by bum for eight days, cutting out a trip to the spice forests of Wayanad. I was a little tired of buses and trains. The large city close by, formerly called Trivandrum, now Thiruvananthpuram. It has some stunning colonial architecture. In fact, I was continuously astounded by the British legacy and the presence of the Christian Church, both Orthodox and Catholic. (Thomas, one of the Apostles, took Christianity to India, even before it got into Europe...and Christ, when he disappeared in the 'desert' is thought to have gone into the Himalayan mountain area...there are many legends and stories here...I digress) So, Saint Thomas is a biggie here.
I also got a chance to take a train to Kanyakumari, the tip of India, where the Indian Ocean meets the currents from the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. It is stunning beyond belief.

Finally, I ended my stay in Bombay - everyone still calls it that...instead of Mumbai. And the Victoria Terminus (train station) is an architectural masterpiece...and testament to the station building philosophy of the time. Of course, it also has a new name, but don't bother using it because everyone calls it VT!  I wished I had planned a longer stay in Mumbai - I was afraid that it would just be a big city! No, it is an amazing city and I enjoyed the short time there, rain notwithstanding.

All in all, it was an amazing summer vacation - and I would do it again if I had the opportunity! Wish I had a better camera - even with my bad eyes, I can see that the quality of my pics has deteriorated.

I have been back in Kampala for a week. Spent four days attending a Pan African Music Educators Conference. Great opportunity. Met musicians from the African continent and had some good networking opportunities. This afternoon, I met with an artist friend, Ronex, to discuss and design the poster and publicity flyer for "Mango Roses" - a musical which I am directing at the National Theatre at the end of October. Sponsored by KADS (Kampala Amateur Dramatic Society), I am enlisting the expertise of Maryann Ivan (my friend from Broadway New York) to create an original musical based on a local story. I spent a good chunk of yesterday working on that...apart from getting ready to fly to Kigali (Rwanda) tomorrow. I have a job interview at Green Hills Academy in Kigali...a prospect for next year. I plan to stay until Thursday, just to enjoy a clean, green city - unlike Kampala!

School starts in a week. It's hard to believe that I have been away for one year!

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