Friday, 20 March 2015

R & R

Unfortunately, we have to return to Delhi and take 2 flights in order to fly to our final stop. Our first taste of a domestic flight (Air India ) - no frills, but bearable as short.

Easier than we expected in Delhi airport - Hannah had been warned of nightmare cancellations. Just a bit of a delay. Sat next to a lovely fourteen year old Indian girl called Neeshtha, returning to her school in the Himalayas after spending Holi with her family in Mumbai. She was delightful - friendly and full of questions, we had a right old chat. After asking if I was married and me telling her I was a widow, she asked ' Was it a love marriage or an arranged marriage ?' She told me she loved romance and wanted to know my "love story of when you met your husband" - so sweet. Her parents were in a 'love marriage' and she said she wanted that too. She was reading a book of love stories (in English but by Indian writers) She let me have a quick look at it. Found it highly amusing - it was the Indian equivalent of Judy Blume's 'Forever' that Hannah read illicitly once and  though really quite tame, contained a couple of quite risqué titles and she said she'd never let her mother see her reading it. She told me lots about her school which sounded a very prestigious one and super strict - no mobile phones allowed ! The conversation made the journey speed by.

Then we land and head separate ways. Our last 5 days. Some R&R. The bit we'd being looking forward to probably the most. Ananda spa. High, high up. Our winding upward journey took us past masses of the monkeys we'd heard about.  To begin with, after all the build up, our first impressions were coloured by the dramatic dip in temperature and grim weather ( a storm was brewing) and a few things that were disappointing. It is a most definitely a spa, not a hotel and we had to adjust massively. Some slightly weird things formed our first impression-  like bagpipes being played at dusk ( the time we arrived) and the panelled reception area feeling like something from colonial days - all a bit odd and no one really explained the concept of our stay. For the first 24 hours we didn't particularly take to it and thought about reducing the length of our stay. Hannah made some choice comments to someone senior that got passed them on to the GM who was most anxious we didn't leave and from then on  staff bent over to please. Had lots of extras thrown in. One to one yoga especially.

Day 2 we have our dosha type assessed by one of the Ayurvedic doctors and that's when it starts to make some sense. Meals in the restaurant can be chosen to take account of our dosha type.  I'm Vata - of the air, needing lots of warmth and warming (!!!) and need to avoid a lot of the things that form my staple diet. No raw fruits or vegetables. No meat in the evening.etc etc.  Hannah's Pitta ( Fire) and needs cooling down. Salads, raw things are good for her, so we're pretty incompatible. The food, whatever you choose, feels super healthy but is inventive and delicious. It is recommended we take sips of a spice tea made for our dosha type. Mine is cinammon, It isn't Chablis but it tastes okay. This and the outdoor, one to one yoga makes us feel on the road to what we'd come for. Even the white kurta pyjamas you leave on all day are growing on us. What's more the sun is out, the sky is blue and it is beautiful.

After the initial blip, we thaw and adapt to healthy routines. The weather is warm but not hot. It suits us both. Peacocks adorn the grounds. Monkeys entertain - though after a monkey escapade on a previous holiday, we keep a cautious distance.

We trek up the mountain where, in the distance, we see the snow -capped peaks of the Himalayas. The guide lets slip a few secrets about Charles and Camilla who stayed at Ananda last year - but nothing very front page. Ruby Wax did the same trek apparently, but not the royals. Perhaps they just had colonics. It is quite a gruelling climb as there isn't a proper path. We wind our way up through a little settlement, miles from anywhere up the mountain. Nothing  of the 21st century has arrived here. An almost naked man is taking his ablutions outside. A family sits outside one of the makeshift 'houses' perched on the mountainside, they look to have nothing but there's a serenity about them. One of our yoga teachers later told us about his super fit 98 year old grandmother who lives somewhere up this mountain. She climbs the 328 steps up to the temple to lay offerings every day.

The view at the top makes it all worthwhile - a panorama beyond words. A tiny temple at the summit beckons, you ring the bell outside and go in two by two. A young priest blesses us with prayers, gives us rice and red and yellow strings are tied to our wrists. Normally I feel 'templed out' but this is different. Just us. It all feels quite spiritual. I might never take my blessing bracelet off.

We take a trip to Rishikesh and soak in its hippie vibe. It is buzzing and  colourful, full of westerners. By the looks of some, they'd never left from the 60s. We wander about, and once again the jewel colours draw us and we buy more clothes ( Eek on the excess baggage count.) Then a little late in setting off, we're taken across the river, sharing a boat with the hordes going to see the Aaarti, the daily Hindu ceremony being performed where ritual lamps are passed around. Incense is burnt, songs are sung it feels like one big noisy, hot, atmospheric party.

  We are both loving the yoga, especially doing it surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery, to the sounds of water and birdsong. It doesn't get better than this. Even the early start is bearable. Our yoga Nidra and
Ayurvedic sessions are sublime. We have Reiki. By the end of the stay we feel noticeably rejuvenated. From being such cynics at the start, we might now continue with some of the Ayurvedic principles once we get back.

Coffee count 0
Alcohol count 0

The days speed by.

Day 5. Friday.
Early yoga - a different teacher- the best session of them all. He can bend his body like no other and has a strong presence. We do the same postures as before and salute the sun for one last time.

It is hard to prise ourselves away.

But we do, Delhi bound for one last night, sad the party's nearly over.

Holi, Holi, Holi.

6 a.m. It is pitch dark as we leave Royal Heritage Havelli. They have packed us a picnic breakfast which may come in handy as a 7 hour train journey looms. We drive through half deserted streets only just coming alive. It is a shock to be up at this hour, the earliest yet of the entire trip. The station is a baptism of fire . People who have slept there all night are strewn everywhere. We sidestep piles of excrement and, at this point, question the wisdom of what we have let ourselves in for. The signage is terrible. At first we think our train to Udaipur is one where people are piling into a carriage meant for half as many. We are told go to an incorrect platform which is over the bridge and then have to go back. Beginning to panic then that we might miss the train when we should have had plenty of time. Eventually we make it. Our train has air con of a kind but it is delapidated.

A tedious journey. We daren't eat or drink anything as there is no way we are using the toilet so distract ourselves by watching downloads. Me - Jewel In The Crown which is set in a similar region to where we're going. Sadly, the train windows are so dirty, we have to peer to see out. Felt like nipping outside with my Marigolds and a cloth at a station stop, but resisted.

Eventually, we are transported into another universe. In the station forecourt there are dozens of taxis and auto rickshaws waiting for fares. Our beautifully be-turbanned and uniformed driver is holding our names up - stands out like a sore thumb . We are whisked to a jetty in a BMW, our luggage taken on and then take the hotel boat across the lake. It is bizarrely more like a European picture postcard lake, with the addition of several Indian palaces , some actually on the lake. 

We dock at the Oberoi and our welcome involves flower petals and a blessing. We are given the full 5*  arrival treatment - it feels like the perfect antidote to the train.

Because our stay coincides with Holi, we just have a few hours before we have to go to the ( Holika eve of Holi ) celebration at the Royal Palace. It is like a scene from a film with a lots of pomp and ceremony surrounding the arrival of the marahana of Udaipur then the lighting of the bonfire - we have brilliant seats. It is a pretty impressive event, we weren't going to stay for the food, but it looks so appetising we do.

On the way back to the hotel, the taxi driver has to navigate streets closed off everywhere for Holika bonfires. We see one at almost every street corner. There is an amazing buzz about  
the build up to Holi. Next morning the hotel lays on a tame, but fun version of Holi in the grounds with lots of coloured dyes and water being thrown. 

The staff are amazing, the hotel is like heaven on earth, we can barely  tear ourselves away and mainly lie about in the sun but we do accept an afternoon tea on the hotel boat, set with crisp white table cloth, flowers, gluten free canapes. We feel like royalty.


It is a long and unevenly surfaced road from Agra to the pink city, Jaipur.  Even on what they call motorways, you meet vehicles on the wrong side of the road and, of course, cows roam and rule. 

Armed with our special little toilet kit (of which surgical gloves form a part !) the one stop on the 5 hour journey is bearable.

Our Delhi driver knows Jaipur a bit, but not where we are going and has no sat nav. Hannah ably navigates him to Royal Heritage Havelli where we’re staying, which is a bit of a way out. Praise the iPhone !

Initially, the hotel is a bit of a come down after 5* luxe. The ‘Royal' part seems to come from Angelique, the owner, who has royal connections.  It is an old shooting lodge and nice enough but nothing as glamorous as the website professes it to be. Once again, Hannah uses her powers of mediation to get us a better room than the characterless one we’re initially allocated.

Once settled in, the evening redeems itself. We sit with a drink outside around a blazing wood fire- most welcome as it is chilly- and getting chatting to a journalist from Paris who has been staying there since January. She turns out to be a mine of useful Jaipur tips and we have a good chat. It is sobering to hear her talk about how difficult it was for her to learn of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity away from home and being a journalist too, it had hit her hard.  Round the fire, we chat to Bron, from near Harrogate who has just arrived and seems easy company.  She’s been doing yoga in Kerala and is about to tour Rhajastan on her own. People talk more  in smaller hotels. A relaxed evening follows with food that is refreshingly simple.

The next day our driver and new (female) guide are lined up early to take us around Jaipur. Unfortunately, poor Hannah is rough and we have to delay things until the ‘drugs’ (mainly ayurvedic ones) kick in. She’s gutted (literally!) as Jaipur is shopping mecca.

When we eventually set off, our guide is full of all sorts of chat and tells us loads about herself. She’s 28, unmarried and talks about that. Her (liberal sounding) father has told her to live the life she wants before settling into (an arranged) marriage. She starts off light heartedly with mention of the dreaded Indian mother in law but it is not long before a more serious note creeps in -she makes it sound as life might be over when she marries and discloses that she had discovered a diary her mother had written full of dark secrets. One that on the day of her parents’ wedding extra dowry was demanded by her grandmother. As it couldn’t be raised- (loans had already been taken out), guests were told to leave, and the grandmother said the wedding was off.  Honourably, the bridegroom stood up to his mother and refused to cancel the wedding. In the early days of her marriage the new bride(our guide’s mum) was horribly abused by the mother in law and fed only two chapattis a day which she rationed out over the day, hiding them in the toilet. Even when pregnant she was made to work her fingers to the bone and accused of attention seeking when feeling faint. All these years on the grandmother still lives with the family and is revered and well looked after. She does not acknowledge her grandchildren. No one, apart from our guide’s  brother knows she found the diary. She won’t ever tell her parents she knows the truth. It is such a heart rending story I find tears streaming down my face as I sit listening in the back of the car. 

Lovely lunch in a very western style cafe resonant of the Bottle Kiln. Even though we’re loving Indian food, it is a bit of a relief to have more familiar food choices. We bump into Bron from our hotel who is celebrating her birthday. She fears she might have fallen into buying overpriced jewellery. We agree to link up for dinner.

That evening we chat to Angelique, the owner of the hotel. She is a big personality and used to a life of grandeur. The hotel featured in one of the scenes of the second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and she regales us with stories of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith visiting. Apparently, Rick Stein also stayed there and Angelique was in one episode of the BBC programme. But she is a bit of a name dropper and constantly refers to her royal connections and shows us Hello type magazine photos on her phone - the opulent events she’s recently attended. It all seems a bit obscene after some of the sights we’ve seen during the day. 

Last day in Jaipur and we cram quite a lot in. First stop Amber Fort where the main mode of transport is atop a gaily painted elephant. An experience and a half (if you put aside the fact that it isn’t ethical) as it is a very steep and winding track. It is a real tourist spot and we are targetted by hawkers and offers of photos of us on the elephant but nothing is offensive , just persistent - and at the top we marvel at the beauty of the exquisitely decorated panels, glass mosaics and ornamented pillars. The artistry includes both Hindu and Muslim - very different styles from one another. On the way down we  overlook a royal garden  by the lake with its star shaped flower beds. The perfect symmetry of everything is resonant of the Taj Mahal. 

We are starving and have a blow out lunch in Taj Rambagh Palace which has a beautiful setting, then hit the bazaars, haggling like crazy to kit ourselves up with white kurta outfits cheap enough to throw away, in readiness for Holi. Colourful bangles tempt us badly, there is a whole street just of bangle shops. Jewel colours are everywhere, especially the ones selling Holi powders. Last stop is getting our henna done - an experience and a half. Surrounded by traffic fumes, ear splitting noise and bazaar craziness, we perch on little stools while two young men apply henna to our our feet. It is quite intricate and time- consuming. At the end Hannah needs to summon our driver who is streets away as we can’t put our flip flops back on till it dries. Her spanking new iPhone 6 is passed from pillar to post in the crowd around the stall until someone can fathom out directions for him. Of course, it comes back.

Back to the hotel to finish packing and room service dinner as we have obscene early start to catch the early morning train to Jaipur.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Departing Delhi.

5 nights have sped by, and the baptism of fire is over. Delhi is the stuff of both dreams and nightmares and will be in my head forever.

Wasn't confident to begin with that I'd find my 'sea legs' - Hannah being out of the equation for the initial part and me being 'under orders ' not to be too intrepid. Am really pleased I rebelled slightly and managed to inhale its atmosphere.

Day One set the tone of the duality of Delhi.
Bonus whistlestop trip with Hannah to Khan Market (in all the guide books.) Felt quite pleased with myself that I stayed on when Hannah returned to the hotel for a meeting. Actually felt reasonably tame compared to some other places. But nothing in India is straight forward, even simple things like withdrawing cash from an ATM, getting taxis, finding food and drinking water from safe sources all present challenges for the 'newbie', not to mention escaping the hawkers and learning to haggle like you've never haggled before. 

The initiation began in the taxi when beggar after beggar began tapping on the windows. Because the passenger window was down felt really vulnerable. Now after four days of it, I know how common place some of the sights are, but on Wednesday, I found my heart thumping, saying ' OMG' out loud  (in full obviously ) and on repeat,  seeing abject poverty displayed  centimetres from my face. One sight was so hideous I can't even write it down. The instinct is to be compassionate,  to go against the golden rule not to give to beggars. Actually found it really distressing, knowing I had to toughen up and show a stony face. Kept saying ' Sorrry, sorry' .

Got back to our fancy pancy palace of a hotel with its heady scent of exotic flowers, gold and silver opulently displayed, its reassuring / nerve wracking levels of high security, feeling I was on the other side of the world but also glad of sanctuary. Headed straight out to an uber smart place for an Indian dinner with Hannah's sweet Indian colleagues. My eyes were  'out on stalks' at the lavish jewel - encrusted saris being worn, Hannah had to pull me back from staring.

Day Two.

Met with our guide, Mr Prem, in the lobby. Seemed very sweet, very Hindu but worryingly an 'old school' formal Indian and quite elderly -  he expressed obvious reluctance at a plan to climb the steps up a famous minaret. His English not that great. Being on my own, could be a challenge - he didn't pick up on some important things like me needing the occasional clean toilet. 

However, spent action packed day seeing many of recommended sights, thanks more to Lonely Planet than the guide - saving some to see with Hannah when she becomes free. Loved in equal measure the first and last stops :- Hazrat Nizam din Dargh, a mosque within a tangle of ancient narrow streets flanked by rainbow - coloured stalls and filled with the heady scent of rose petals but also the exceedingly chaotic, almost medieval Chandni Chowk bazaar. Kind of felt I tapped into the city's under belly. Never have I  experienced such a sensory assault : wonderful and awful sights in equal measure,  a cacophony of noise, sneeze- inducing pungency. One minute it feels as if your heart  is breaking from seeing so much suffering, the next you see something that enthrals and exhilarates. No wonder people say India does things to your head.

Was out of the hotel about 9 hours - Hannah close to sending out a search party :-) Came back to my, not so little, 'cocoon' absolutely filthy, tired and on complete overload. Some self preservation needed and Hannah out for business dinner anyway, so ran amazing bath with nose high bubbles and room service. Definitely time to chill. Discover instead of the Gideon bible, in bedside drawer is Bhagavad-gita.

Day Three

Lazy,lazy day.
Felt totally wiped out from yestreday & didn't venture out till tea time. Booked ayurvedic massage and it was to die for. The best spa treatments I have ever had. Loved the warm oil being poured on my head.

Out to Dilli Haat a place of regional crafts and  food in the evening with Hannah & same colleagues - . Great to have them with us as bartering can get a bit out of control. Went out to a bar afterwards in a 'cool' area of the city. Very Western. You could well have been anywhere in Europe - even the food was mainly Mediterranean. Tried to ignore the fact that I was the oldest person there by a long chalk. 

Day Four.

Back to having Mr Prem as a guide with his driver and ticking off the remaining 'Must See' places of interest. The tricky bit of the day ( and what hung like a bit of a cloud, until it was done ) was having to break the news that we were cancelling further accompanied days we'd arranged and the serene Hindu turned a bit bolshie and the driver worse. Hannah did really well to get us out of it  though we did have to pay some compensation because we were too kind to tell the truth which was that Mr Prem's best days of being effective as a guide for English speaking travellers were over or, more likely, had never even started. Sweet though he was, when we asked what bird we could hear in the grounds of a famous tomb, he thought we asked if we could buy a hearing aid from a stall there. 

Some well earned  retail therapy needed by the end of the altercation. Again the two world of Delhi revealed in all its glory. The shopping mall was pretty much like any anywhere ( maybe a bit more Grimsby, Freshney Place than Westfield as a building) but lots of designer labels, recognisable global chains and people with obvious disposable income. It is hard to conceive there is this 21st century world going on at the same time as the squalor and suffering outside.

Day Five
It is raining ! Today we head to Agra and sod's law, it is pissing down. Never mind thinking of our Taj Mahal photo outfits, we might need kagouls. Eek. 

As we'd been warned, Agra's centre is not a pretty sight. Cows, Buffaloes and goats litter your route and scary looking monkeys are colonised there. The streets are filthy and ugly . It isn't a 'city' you'd feel comfortable to venture in, we drove by several men 'off their heads' on something like yabbah. It seems primitive.

Then we glimpse the reason for coming, what shines out in contrast to the rest of Agra :- the exquisite Taj Mahal. We can see it in all its glory from our hotel. From every room you get a view and we are giddy from getting an upgrade to one with a perfect vantage point and a balcony. It is spectacular. 

The only slight blot on the landscape is the weather. We toy with the idea of going twice, for both sunset and sunrise but decide against this because of rain. We steel ourselves for a dawn start. The hotel arrangements are reassuring - going large is sometimes the only way. Every detail of our early morning visit is organised by the hotel, down to umbrellas, in case of rain. 

Day Six.

Both of us slightly grumpy to begin with. It is an obscenely early start and it seems we were told to go down to meet our guide earlier than was necessary. It is only half light. Outside it is at least dry. The hotel sourced guide, Devesh, turns out to be a real asset. He is real pro and knows the protocols, the history, even the best photo spots at the Taj Mahal.  He's a dab hand with an iPhone and an iPad which earns him lots of Brownie points. Genuinely passionate about his subject, he thoroughly engages our interest. Thankfully, at this unearthly hour, it isn't particularly crowded. We're both captivated by the Taj's breath -taking beauty and the sad romantic  behind its construction. The feat of engineering that went into building something like this (by hand) is truly impressive. We come away two hours later, not wanting to go to the other Agra sights as our visit to the Taj Mahal had exceeded all our expectations.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Well D Day has arrived and today I go to India.

When I think of all the travelling I have done, especially recently, I don't know why I'm emotional before I even get there. I suppose it is because  my imagination has been filled with it from being in Mrs Bruce's class, aged 9 and being drawn to the magic of India by photos from National Geographic magazines. On top of that there is all the literature I've read and films and dramas I've seen ( been re- watching the fabulous Jewel In The Crown.) And last, but not least, Indian food. Madhur Jaffrey has lived in my kitchen for about 30 years. 
So thoughts of India have long been in my head and I've always been captivated by the idea of it. I just want to love it as much in reality, but know I might not.  So feel excited and nervous, in equal measure, not helped by there being whole lists of Dos and Don'ts.  Just as I was writing these words, an e mail popped up with that very title, forwarded from Hannah's Indian colleague, giving us some concerned last minute advice. " Make sure water is opened in front of you" etc etc. We're going to be there while they celebrate Holi too which carries its own set of rules for travellers. " Take old clothes, in bright colours."

On one hand, you just want to go with the flow, but you also need to orchestrate the experience more than for a normal holiday. I don't want to replicate the experience of a very well -travelled Louth friend, who came back traumatised, loathing India. So we are staying in carefully chosen hotels, having a car and driver for some of the trip. Hannah's banned me from going solo in Delhi on the days she is working. May or may not take notice, depending how I feel.

So lucky to be going with Hannah and being 'on the same page' - neither of us wants our trip to be a totally cocooned experience or why would we be going ?  We hope to take the 7 hour dawn train from Jaipur to Udaipur, the day before Holi on which sanitation could be a bit of a hurdle. We have packed a number of specialist items to assist us (well probably more me ) with that (The least said, the better!) 

About to set off. Watch this space !

Monday, 2 February 2015

Busy, busy, busy.

Call it a clog - too many full days to write a blog. Last few a bit of a route march.


Tues p.m. Lovely guide in Bagan took me just where I hoped she would as I told her in the politest possible way,  I'd quickly become 'pagoda ed out.' Took me to 2 local 'schools'. One simply  a monk, three children with the national newspaper sitting round a table. ' Education' for village children whose families couldn't afford the small fee for local school. Serene and lovely monk. Monastery provides clean water ( because children were drinking river water) food and a kind of learning. Received a warm welcome and singing. Very shaken by it. We have too much. They have nothing and drink up what they do have. Put my hand in my pocket, what else ? A drop in the ocean. Bitterly regret not taking a whole pack of paper, coloured pencils really basic kit that would be like jewels.

'Proper' school was next door but so basic. Novice monks and village children in serried rows. Imperfect English written in chalk (!) on the blackboard. Again all students intent on learning. My visit regarded as a novelty. I stood at the front and spoke in English to the class. 

Wednesday  / Thursday

Yangon airport domestic arrivals, a crazy hub for dozens of different  tours setting off, and not the easiest of places to locate my group. Took a while.

Most of the party , part of a longer Intrepid trip had just flown in -  some of the original lot had departed elsewhere -myself and another Brit joined it  today. 

Then there were 10 :- 2couples. 2 female friends travelling together and 6 single female travellers and 4 nationalities. Most very seasoned travellers.
An age span I'm guessing of at least 20 years between us  -but no young backpacker types - there's even a hint of other flash packers. Everyone really welcoming to the 2 new 'girls'. 

Transport it turns out is in small, quite ancient but perfectly adequate coach, complete with curtains. If the roads weren't so awful, would be as comfortable as you get here.  Our guide, Aung, is a young local man with a Physics degree but with no hope of a job to use it. Very sweet. English not perfect but he really tries hard and you have to make huge allowances. Nothing is ever going to be slick here. How can we expect that ?

Our journey was long ( about 5 hours) but made bearable by several interludes : comfort breaks ( thankfully !) a lunch stop and provision of little snacks which involved the guide making some roadside purchases of bunches of bananas, piles of oranges and something called Chinese potato that looked like turnip and that we were invited to try. Tasted like a sweet water chestnut.

Eventually, leaving our bus and main bags behind at the foot of the mountain to make our ascent on one of the many big open top trucks. It seemed that there were thousands and thousands of others making their way to the mountain top too -crammed on bench seats with more genuine pilgrims equipped with warm clothes and bedding so they could spend all night in the open. After a steep and slightly 
hair -raising climb of  about 45 minutes we reached the top where a party spirit prevailed. Stalls, noise, a degree of tackiness alongside so much reverence for the Rock and its significance to Buddha, they had to have a sleep over. Slightly disappointing first impression. Like Blackpool meets Mecca and distinctly lacking in the peace and spiritual atmosphere I'd expected from the Trip Notes.  Managed a few 'snaps' but, being dusk, quite disappointing.

Hotel was quite basic just  as we'd been warned -  but clean and bearable. Unfortunately long before dawn, the racket  began. A cacophony of sounds rose up from the road outside from before 4 a.m. that wouldn't be going away. By 5 I decided I'd go out to see the dawn. No - one else in the group doing this but figured if I was awake, might as well. Still dark as I went down the hotel path hailed by a dark figure through the hedge. Thinking he was a hawker I politely dismissed him ( later found out from Aung this was a hermit monk, clad very differently from his saffron robed fellow monks. He'd come down from remote hills to beg. Felt awful afterwards. Then was approached by a couple of little girls selling  sweet fried breakfast treats. Initially declined but realised monks  lining my path collecting offerings and bought some so I had something to give. Next thing I knew I was surrounded by a whole load of them handing me even more bags of the same treats. Gave them to the monk. Being really naive, thought that they were being  generous. Then got harangued by a pack and the 'ringleader' got quite hostile saying they want more money for each bag. (4 in total) - ended loudly shushing and using my best teacher voice at them. Gave them one more note but these were savvy seasoned tourist trapping beggars and wasn't going to be duped. The monk issued them a quiet bollocking.

Compared to yesterday, the dawn atmosphere at the summit felt very different. Less tack, more reverence. The hordes making their way downhill looked as if they'd spent a cold night outside and sacrificed comfort in the interest of devotion. Certainly felt very chilly to me. Before the sun came up, my bare and filthy feet were freezing.

Lots of offerings were being made to the various processions of monks and at the Rock.  Mountains of food and notes donated. Lots of praying. Was taken by a group of novice female monks garbed in pink. Hundreds and hundreds  of people there  but only saw one couple who looked Western. Felt privileged to be there.Stopped to listen to group of teenage boys , one with a guitar, all having a dawn sing song. A really  lovely sound. When I clapped  at the end,  they came over and were really friendly and asked if I wanted a photo of them. So sweet. 

Went back for a hot shower to warm up, feeling very pleased I'd joined the pilgrims at dawn. The monastic breakfast even felt apt.

Thursday stopped off at another temple, a palace and the WW 2 Commonwealth War cemetery. Was a bit templed out and though the palace was an ancient centre from the 13th century, soon lost interest because of the dusty presentation and midday heat. But the war graves were something else. The cemetery, a tastefully landscaped space dotted with frangipani was full of reminders of the ravages of war.  Tens of thousands of sailors, soldiers and airmen died. Casualties of several nationalities. So many soldiers only in their twenties.  Some graves unnamed, bearing ' Known Unto God' as the inscription. Really moving.

Thursday night - back to Yangon and reasonable civilisation. Out again with the group for dinner. Really good company and various  entertaining anecdotes being told round the table, one by one of the hilarious Irish women about a failed attempt  to poison her ex husband. 

Another early start. Bags outside the door for 7.30 a.m. and out by 8. Eek this goes against the grain but managing it.
It took 8 bumpy hours to get to the beach, the finale of this trip. En route we entered moreof a challenge and more remote territory. Finding comfort break stops , with Western suitable toilets or coffee started to be difficult - for  the former we 'crossed our legs' though some of us hedged our bets and had a drink at a local cafe, causing quite a stir. One little boy came  close and and grabbed our wrists to peer closely, captivated by mine and someone else's watch 

From the lofty glimpses of the  coach, villages seem to be getting poorer and poorer and lives more challenging. Houses are rickety and made of bamboo.Most seem to have just one room, no matter the size of the family. Mats for beds. Washing draped outside to dry ( on the way people were washing clothes in the river.) Pigs and dogs roam in and out of the houses. 

Conditions are incredibly basic and any form of work gruelling in these temperatures managing with only primitive tools. You see a lot of young women,  as well as men, working like dogs on the fields, the rice paddies, repairing  the many pot holes in the roads. The arduous process of production of rubber at the plantation involved numerous stages, all for 1$ a sheet. Though this country produces a lot of rubber, it can't compete with Malaysia and Thailand , who mechanise more. 

And yet there is that strange juxtaposition between old and new, East and West.  Some houses are patched with metal sheets gleaned from hoardings, advertising beer and soft drinks. The landscape is strewn with man made litter, especially plastic bottles. Lots of local temples in villages blast out ear - splitting religious music and announcements over loudspeakers. You even see  a few mobile phones. We passed what looked like a wedding, but it was  actually the ceremonial opening of a Western style petrol station, cause for celebration when what it replaces are roadside pop bottles of gasoline. Mainly there is no power ( or rationed power), no running water in most villages and heart - wrenching poverty. 

The beach resort is attractive. We find out that the villagers have been cleared off this stretch of coast to make way for tourism. There are several similar hotels but, like ours, all seem to have low occupancy. It is high season but the beach is empty most of the time. Occasionally, locals make their way past, keeping to the water's edge usually on horseback or on decrepit looking motorbikes. Women walk by carrying goods on their heads, going about their business. No hawkers. No hassle. 

It is perfect peace. Just the sound of the sea and the cooling breeze. Worth the arduous journey, tolerating the rationed hot water and air con arrangement and the most feeble internet of the entire trip.

Two full days of nothing but early morning walks on the deserted beach, sitting under an umbrella sipping fresh coconut, chatting and reading. Bliss !

Am getting in the swing of the group concept. Wasn't sure how it worked, but seems a good balance. In the day people generally  go their separate ways the habit is to link up for dinner, always supporting local restaurants, which the guide sources and never the hotel. We're quite an eclectic mix but some people especially nice. Works for me this mix of company / privacy.

But it is nearly over. 

Have found my sea legs to stay on and re- scheduled my flight back to Bangkok to see just a bit more. Will be heading off tomorrow when the tour finishes for a few extra days. Going solo for a few more days, hoped to go to Inke Lake but that is looking unlikely now as booking domestic flights and accommodation is tricky at the best of times. Nothing arranged because of the rubbish internet. Will explore Yangon if I don't make it.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Beautiful Bagan

What an amazing day ! 

I love this place.

Had to be up before dawn which felt like torture. Other Brits at the hotel were on the balloon trip too and kind of let me integrate. Slightly jealous of the group bonhomie they had, but then also think my way of doing this is very different and I'm not so cocooned. Think going down a dusty, dimly lit track to the Lonely Planet recommended restaurant last night was a million times better than playing it safe, hotel food with accompanying samey touristy music. Though less comfortable, it was worth every bit of discomfort in the old and bumpy taxi ride to see the look on the very young  driver's face ( 21 he said ???) when I gave him a generous tip. He'd had to pay to access the airport and initially refused my offer to reimburse him. On our shared journeys  - two separate trips in one day - I learned that he lives in a monastery ( with 80 other young men accommodated by the monks) and gets up at 5.30 a.m. to pray before breakfast every day before trying to make a meagre living from taxi driving. It allowed me a whole different experience to being driven in a much smarter, air conditioned hotel commissioned taxi or tour group luxury coach ( several came and went at the hotel) You learn so much more. He waited for me twice and barely factored that into the price.

Won't gush on about the balloon trip. Did start  off feeling really apprehensive ' What on earth am I doing ?' In my head and then when all the other tourists were donned in British weather walking gear ( fleeces and sensible shoes) and I was just in long sleeved cotton shirt and flip flops, felt a bit of a novice. But they were wrong, it was perfectly warm .The company had said ' wear cotton' I thought because of the hot climate but not so, if things go wrong, you set on fire more readily  if wearing synthetics !  OMG not what  I wanted to hear at 5.30a.m. A very impressive outfit ran the trip and our pilot earned complete confidence instantly. It wasn't until later I found out he was a Yorkshire man ( from Harrogate) Lived just down the road from Andy & Jill.

Once in the air, it wasn't a tiny bit scary - very serene in fact. I could have stayed there for hours. Thousands of temples and dozens of other hot air balloons made it a photo opportunity of a lifetime so inevitably everyone was crazily taking snaps - mainly on little cameras ( there were quite a lot of sedate looking seniors) Think possibly mine was the only ipad. Would like to do a duplicate trip where I didn't take photos ( nor did my fellow passengers). and just took it all in. Maybe they need to do a camera - free basket ????

Another highlight of today was going to a place the pilot's wife told me about this morning - an Action Aid  run shop selling hand made crafts and clothes ( all lovely. The charity supports and trains hundreds of women in poor villages so that they can become more independent.  Spoke to a fantastic French woman aid worker who talked about how her feminism drove her to this and how hopeful she was for a new way in this country with changing attitudes amongst the young.

Unfortunately by Burmese standards, I'm morbidly obese, so can't fit into anything. If I'd  had more time, they did do 'made to measure.' 

This is such a poor country, I just felt so overwhelmed by the enormity of what needs to be done to help and how little a contribution my small purchases seemed. Want to do more when I get home. It puts a lot into perspective.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Big girl now !

Last night I dreamed I went to Mandalay.

Different spelling, I know but then I woke up and realised it was true. The stabilisers are off, after all these years of being spoon- fed by two people who had Masters degrees in travel planning,  I'm on my own two feet for the first time. 

Credit to Hannah, she's left me to it completely, apart from the odd bit of photocopying travel documents and helping me rationalise a massive pile of clothes into something manageable that fitted into the minutest of hold-alls.  Other than that, she's not checked up on what I've organised. I'm sure she's had to bite her tongue / sit on her hands a number of times. 

So far have only had a brief taste of Mynamar. Having had a whole month in Thailand I've acclimatised to Asia, albeit a very different one, and that helps. The day before yesterday I was in Central Embassy, Bangkok's newest shopping mall with every designer label and international food outlet ( there's a Harrods cafe and  a Laduree if you want a French macaron. ) You can get anything (at a price ).

Now Mynamar seems another world, yet geographically it's only a stone's throw away from Bangkok. It feels on the cusp of being fully developed as a tourist destination. Hoping there won't be a KFC, Starbucks or Macdonalds in sight.  A long wait at Mandalay airport and a domestic flight out of it, yesterday, was a taster into how things are going to be. No Departure board  - you have to second guess where to be and when. Flights can change times, on a whim. Duty Free consists of a small room with few brands of booze and fags. Toilet hand wash is pictured - no towels. Check in and security clearance was ramshackle by other airport standards. Transfer from plane to airport building was dramatic as the ancient bus carrying U.S. had a tyre blowout, just as we halted.  But there's  a charm to it being less sophisticated and without Thai bling and fakery - so far every person has been delightful and happy :- in the airport staff sang while they worked.

I'm loving the longhi men and women alike wear. Might have to get one - you don't show your bare arms or legs in this culture - wore a linen cardi yesterday to show respect for this (even though it was boiling) - air con only seems to  be on spasmodically - power shuts down in the afternoon quite regularly, apparently, but never on an evening when football is being aired on TV!  This a country still run in a dubious and corrupt way. 

It was love at first sight when I approached Bagan at sunset, a landscape punctuated with thousands of ancient pagodas. Haven't ventured out in daylight yet but can see several of them from my hotel verandah and this morning was woken by the gentle Buddhist pre- dawn call to prayer. Those who know me know I'm not an early riser, but I was very forgiving. It seems magical. 

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Dec 22nd D Day is here.

What a day.

1) The shower chooses to seize up. Great start !

2) Am subjected to the third degree at the new  cattery - ( and was just beginning to think I'd passed with flying colours on chosen Mastermind specialist subject - Dora, my cat ) even managed not saying ' Hurry it up, I've got a plane to catch' until the question about cremation or freezer ? Well I lost it. Had to borrow handfuls of paper towels meant for cats' bottoms to mop up the meltdown. Felt so stupid - reduced to full blown sobbing. I wouldn't mind but she's only there for one week. Was that level of detail needed ?
Cat lady tried her best to console me but she wasn't that adept.  Said, " 3 months ? I couldn't ever think of leaving mine for that long." 'Parental'  guilt on a monumental scale kicks in and I blub all the way home, need my own personal windscreen wipers and end up albino - eyed.

3) Realise I can't actually carry my luggage, that the big suitcase ( containing the medium sized decent case ) has dodgy wheels and has to be mainly dragged. Linda (who has very kindly driven me to the station ) lugs the big case because I foolishly bought coffee and now this is more like being on a game show, trying to juggle it all.  Board the train, wondering how I am going to get off at King's Cross, never mind get all the way to Bangkok.

4) At airport security both my bags are pulled out. Liquids show up on the X Ray. Eeek - now realise I have no  idea what is actually in some of the Christmas present packages and the entrails of my perfectly packed suitcase are sprawled for all the world to see. Beautifully wrapped presents are torn open. Should have guessed about perfume being in that box so beautifully and uniformly wrapped. Amazingly I get it back.  Seemed like a good idea at the time to put the new set of underwear in carry on ( in case your luggage gets lost tip ) and now  the world knows I've got a navy bra and matching pants. 

But the worst thing about getting the Maid of Marschapel (Yes really) to help me pack my cases with military precision when I was in Louth was that all the stuff just wouldn't go back in. In front of the holidaying hordes, I had to decant the excess into separate carriers and so now instead of traveller chic, I now am bag lady. The sophisticated look not enhanced by cross terrain trainers ( yes I did succumb ) on my feet as they just would not play the last minute game of trying to squeeze things into little caverns and gullies in my case. Looking down, I feel as though I have morphed into someone else.

5) Then finally I board. No turning left so full of longing and regret now.
I knew it was a mistake. What signifies the difference ?
Well in Premium Economy you do get a welcome refresher of sorts - a bottle of water hidden on your seat that you promptly sit on. And a scratchy blanket. And about 2 inches more leg room. But no cloth napkins, no real glasses, no table cloth.
Utility is the theme here.
As I'm eating the plasticky airline meal, I dislodge a crown. Perhaps a metaphor for what lies ahead !