Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Sunday 11th - Final Fix of Retail

We are still on IST, waking up at 5 a.m. and hearing the call to prayer somewhere outside. We have our fifth consective meal containing hummus and pitta, then take the Red line Metro for the 35 minute trip to Ibn Battuta, passing the Marina of previous stays on the way. The views from the rear of the train are spectacular, including the Burj Khalifa, and the bill is about 80p each.

As we walk from the Metro to the Ibn Battuta mall we spot a couple of hoopoes, R's totally favourite bird. We won't have chance to visit the flamongos at the bird reserve this time so this sighting is a bit of a bonus.

We start with a coffee and wifi before a leisurely stroll round the Geant supermarket. The range of Indian food available is fabulous and starts to put even Emirates' generous luggage allowance at risk. Chana Daal, dried broad beans, coriander, dhosa mix, nutmeg and DIY gulab jamuns make the cut - the 5kg bag of basmati rice for £7 dips out.

R is still in shopping mode and treats herself to a sea blue spangly kaftan, having decided against an abaya. We will never make real India heads - it is so comforting to see a price on the shelf and to be able to check it at the bar code reader.

After an Iranian wrap lunch (Iranians taste a bit like goat) and a final wander around the air conditioned splendour of the arcades we head back to base. Livingston is missing this retail trick by several miles. Last time we were at Almondvale there wasn't a single palm tree although there was a Debenham's and a Boots' just like in Dubai.

Siesta time was upon us and after that we needed to pack - another good reason for not bringing so much. We had a few dirhams left on our travel cards so we headed up to the creek and took the waterbus again, having a sunset cruise down the water all to ourselves. So kind of the Dubai authorities tio lay this on for us.

We had enjoyed yesterday's lunch so much that we repeated it for supper with the addition of koftas, a sort of kebab shaped like a sausage. For a change we sat indoors but it wasn't as exciting as watching the creek go by. A lesson learned, as was the fact that Turkish coffee is not as nice as mint tea. A stroll through the streets found us a green line metro back to our local station, Al Fahidi. Balance remaining on travel cards nil - a perfect result. Early night tonight as we have a call booked for 4.30 a.m.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Saturday 10th - Up the Creek

We wake up in daylight and get up when R's phone says that it is 8 a.m. In fact it is 6.30 because she hasn't moved the time on from India. We breakfast on pitta, hummus and banana and R successfully makes tea using the microwave. Today's plan is to visit the Souq and have lunch on the waterfront at the restaurant whose name we can never remember. All that will be missing is Tim & Shelagh.

First step is to head to Lonely Planet's banker internet cafe, quite close and next to an alternative metro station. The cafe is there but has clearly ceased trading and had its furniture repossessed. Armed with our Nol cards we take the Green Line metro, a new opening since last year and with some quite elaborate features in its stations. At Union we get off and walk down to the riverbus stop. It is very bright and sunny but there is a gusty wind and we nearly lose our hats a couple of times.

There are plenty of tourists about, quite a few of them Scots as well as a lot of Americans. The riverbus trip is a very pleasant (and cheap) way to get around and we take in the view. The Old Souq landing stage is right in the middle of the bazaar area which seems very clean and orderly after India although the salesmen have the same persistence. It seems strange to walk down a row of stalls without having to dodge motorbikes and cycle rickshaws.

After a good look round, and the successful purchase of an adaptor that will allow us to use our Indian laptop lead both here and back home, we head for lunch just as the restaurant is opening and get seats in pole position at the water's edge. Last year D wasn't very well when we ate here and didn't enjoy it too much. This time he is able to tuck in to all of our Middle Eastern favourites - hummus, fatoush, falafels and fabulous lemon and mint drinks.

During our meal there is some excitement as a girl dressed in a black abaya throws herself off an abra into the water where she floats face down. Several western men dive in after her and forcibly furn her face up. She doesn't half shriek at this. She is soon hauled back onto the abra and will appear in many tourist videos. We finish off with a pot of mint tea and as we leave there is a queue for tables.

We are quite intrigued by Hindi Lane, mentioned in the LP, and set off to try to find it. Eventually we stumble across it by accident as we walk out of the rear exit of an Indian supermarket. This is a narrow alley containing various small shops selling devotional items as well as a Hindu temple and a Sikh gurdwara. All very colourful but nowhere near as chaotic as Old Delhi or Kolkata's New Market. R buys incense which she had kept forgetting to do in India.

Next we take an abra across the creek to the Spice Souq in Deira. We weren't really buying, just looking, but R expresses interest in smoked lemons and suddenly finds herself the owner of £3 worth. No doubt we will be having some fascinating culinary experiments in the coming weeks. Although it is not as hot as Mumbai we decide that it is time to dodge the sun for a while so we take the Green Line back to home via Spinney's supermarket, where we stock up for this evening.

We weren't feeling too adventurous this evening so we opted for an hour's internet and a quick trip to the Old Vic pub, part of the Ramada hotel and offering their usual value for money. A pint was over £5!

Friday 9th - Leaving India

This isn't the view from our room but it will be an abiding memory of our stay in Mumbai. We wake up before the alarm and are waiting for the restaurant door to open. The breakfast is a bit ordinary but apart from that the Mirage has been OK - especially when their car turns up promptly and delivers us to the international terminal at the airport. There appears to be an enormous queue but we soon realise that for everybody travelling there are at least six people to say goodbye. Mums, dads, brothers, sisters, aunties, grandmas etc. Only travellers are allowed into the terminal which is not busy - indeed many of the businesses haven't opened yet. We see an offer of free wifi and register only to discover that we need to send a text from our Indian mobile number and we can't get a signal. We finally solve this by swapping the card to R's phone and get to catch up a bit on the news etc.

There is an old Rolling Stones track called Flight 505, one of D's faves. Our flight is EK505 and we are soon on board watching old episodes of the Simpsons and D discovers the Big Bang Theory. He only ever starts watching new TV shows on flights and then has to catch up on obscure cable channels at home.R informd him that this is not a new show. The flight is a bit late to take off (Indian time?) and by the time the in flight breakfast gets to us it is almost midday. The bar service also arrives at the same time and we are upgraded to double double gins, just nice with an omelette. R is worried about her reputation.

Disembarkation at Dubai is a smooth process until we decide to get some currency. R takes her travellers cheques to the desk where the bureaucracy makes Indian railways look like a 21st century ideal business model. This done we move on to the taxi rank where we are ushered towards a pink "Lady taxi" with a lady driver. No jokes here but she didn't know where our hotel was and eventually dropped us at the wrong one - the Jormand Suites, not the Jormand Apartments. There were a lot of taxis about but no drivers as they were all round the corner at the mosque. Eventually we find one with a driver who knows where our hotel is - about half a mile away.

The hotel is not in the Intercontinental league and lacks the charm of the Durg Niwas but it will do for 3 nights. It does have a kitchenette and R has been missing the chance to cook for the last month however much she denies it. We are a ten minute walk from a metro station and by the standards that we have got used to it is not too hot here yet. We take the metro down to the Dubai mall where there is a Waitrose - somewhere. This takes quite a bit of finding but we get there in the end and treat ourselves to some salads as well as attempting to comply with that excellent piece of advice - Drink Canada Dry. By the time we get back to the room we have just about enough energy to eat and turn in.

Thursday 8th - Holi

Today is one of the big Hindu festivals. We get up before the sun has risen to walk a mile or so to Charlotte Lake where we hope to see some birds. After half an hour we have seen nothing and turn back when we meet two Indian guys who are clearly serious ornitholigists. They explain that we are a bit early - the birds prefer a bit of warmth and that the best place to see them is the far end of the lake. While we talk a small bird is seen on a nearby earth bank and identified as a Sulphur Bellied Warbler. So that made it worth getting up in the dark. On the way back we got lost but did see some quite imposing mansions in various states of decay.

After breakfast we packed and deposited our bags at reception. Lord's has been a great place for a relaxing break - even R appears to approve of their standards. Today there are actually clouds in the sky and it is definitely cooler. Bank holiday weather strikes again.We take a final wander along the main street which is noticeably much busier than it has been. D takes the chance to explore the reverse loop at Matheran station - this line has everything that a railway modeller could possibly want.

We weren't sure what to expect of Holi. Some reports say that it is not safe to go on the streets for fear of being powder bombed or sprayed with dye. In Mumbai we had seen lots of street stalls selling water pistols and cones of coloured powder. We put on our most expendable clothes just in case but it looks like Matheran has a low key approach to Holi. We see one chap who has clearly been powder bombed and seems quite cross about it but apart from that we see nothing. the town is certainly busier than it has been and the crowds seem to be in party mood.

All too soon it is time to return to Lord's for our bags. They have a tame rickshaw man who sets a cracking pace and does a lot more work for his Rs150 than any of the idle scroungers at the railway stations. He gets a decent tip. The train is waiting so we get our luggage on board and then have to fend off a goat that believes it is entitled to first class travel. By departure time the coach is almost full and our luggage has to block a door but nobody seems to mind. A chap swaps seats so R can look at the birds out of the window. We see one eagle and another unidentified large raptor that flies alongside the train for a few seconds.

At Neral the promised minivan awaits and we set off. As we get closer to the airport the driver's style gets more aggressive. We see some evidence of Holi. A white coach has splashes of colour all over and four youths on motorbikes are covered in purple dye or paint. The Mirage is OK with a nice enough room and wifi at a reasonable price. Even more amazingly they offer a choice of beer brands. This photo is specially selected for Mike Burrows of WOSG who claimed that our last India blog must have been sponsored by Kingfisher.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Wednesday 7th - We go native.

Today is our 32nd wedding anniversary and we have both remembered to bring cards. Enough of the soppy stuff. At first light we head out to see if we can spot some of our feathered friends. There are plenty around making lots of noise but the canopy is quite a long way above us and it is difficult to spot any birds. One unusual cry is pinned down to a palm squirrel. Eventually we see a couple of red whiskered bulbuls which seem to be very common around here.

The monkeys are having a field day on the tin roof as bed tea is served but by now we are prepared and they don't get a sniff. After brekker we take a walk into the village as the stalls and the small market are just opening up. We keep going all the way along the main street and out at the far end where the scene is more like the Wild West than an Indian hill station. There are horses everywhere, being ridden and used as beasts of burden, because Matheran is entirely closed to mechanical transport apart from the railway. There are not even any bicycles - just horses and hand pulled rickshaws. This makes the place much more pleasant to walk around in although the horses do raise a lot of red dust - just like in the westerns.

After walking for hour or so we meet the railway below the town and, taking our cue from everybody else, we walk back into town along the track. This is a regular route for porters carrying luggage and goods in from the car park about 2 miles outside the village. The surface is much better and there is less dust than the other track so it is no wonder everybody uses it. We soon find ourselves outside the Divadkar with a bit of a thirst. The same waiter recognises us and clearly has R's number. She orders a Sprite which arrives accompanied by a large vodka. Fortunately he is persuaded that this is not required at 11 a.m.

We head back to the hotel for a pre-lunch swim followed by another massive lunch and a siesta. The pool man at the hotel has a great job. In the morning he tops up the water with a hose and fishes out a few leaves etc. For the rest of the day he sits in the shade, catapult at the ready, chasing away monkeys that come too close. D resolves to buy a catapult and practice in case the position becomes vacant. Everybody working here seems to sing as they work - it really does seem to be a happy place.

In honour of our anniversary we plan to get dressed up in our new Indian clothes. When R opens up here salwar kamise she discovers that our little man in Kolkata has let her down. The sleeves have not been sewn in as requested. We had seen a tailor's shop in the market so we headed there to see if he could help. One hour and Rs 30/- was the answer - that's about 45p. In order to kill an hour we had to go for a beer at the Divadkar. Our pal the waiter suggested that R might like to try the strong beer tonight.

When we pick up the SK R hands over a Rs50/- note and the tailor has difficulty in understanding that she doesn't want any change. We change our make our grand entrance to an audience of one rather bemused Dutch lady. She sportingly agrees to take our photo but does admit that without her glasses she cannot really see. It turned out not too bad. As we are leaving two Indian ladies arrive and compliment us on our attire. We are exhausted. Matheran really takes it out of you.

Tuesday - A trial separation.

When we wake up in our new room it has no power either and we can hear the people adjacent changing their minds. We do have a cracking view of the sunrise. Back in our original room we order our bed tea. When it arrives we are a bit slow to close the verandah door and have to fight off a monkey that fancies our toast. The verandah is pretty well monkey proof as long as you remember to shut the door and the monkey spends several minutes failing to get in before D shakes the camera monopod at it.

Breakfast is vadas (like small savoury donuts) with coconut sauce followed by mixed veg omelette. We take a walk along Main Bazaar to try and find the photgraphic shop which sells maps of Matheran and succeed this time. Armed with this we set off for a short walk through a wooded area to the Alexander Point viewing area. We catch glimpses of birds including an eagle (we think) and are passed by a couple of people on horeseback being led by the pony boy. Riding is a big thing here and you can't move for people trying to inveigle you into hiring one. The view is worth the walk, looking out over a deep valley towards a knife edge ridge.

The walk back is very hot and dusty but we do manage to see a couple of birds, a red whiskered bulbul and a braminy starling, both quite eyecatching. Back at the hotel the pool beckons and we do not resist. A cool swim sets us up for lunch after which D will leave on the train to take photographs and have fun! R will do the best she can with a siesta and a lazy afternoon drawing and more swimming (well someone has to!).

Warning - This bit is almost exclusively about trains.

D had booked 2S class tickets for his trip down to Neral and back at a cost each way of Rs 45 - a real extravegance. At the station NDM1 class diesel No 501 waits with the train which was pretty close to full. About a mile along the line, near the stables area, a whole load of people get off the train and D is able to bag a seat next to a door and even better the door itself.

Viewed out of an open door the ride is even more spectacular as it winds back and forth down the face of the mountain. This really is the only way to travel. There is only one problem - it isn't possible to be on both sides of the train at once. At one point on the journey a family break into song, including Mere Sapnon Ki Rane, the DHR song. At another spot a water pipeline has sprung a leak by the track and is spraying a great fountain of water through the coach windows.

As the train pulls in to Neral Junction we pass the engine shed where two steam locos are visible - No 794 ex-DHR built in the US by Baldwins in 1917 and one of the Matheran's own locos - No 738. D regrets that he is ignorant regarding the builder of this loco, and the makers' plates appear to be missing. A member of staff tells D that the locos are never used - what a great shame.

A couple of main line trains call in, packed with people including two milk vendors who unload their empty cans on the non platform side of the train. People cross the line only yards in front of moving trains. Do they expect them to swerve to avoid running them down? D leaves the station to find a taxi office and books a car for Thursday's trip to Mumbai. With time to kill he nips into the railway howff* for a swift beer. Even the State brewery pubs in Carlisle weren't as bleak and cheerless as this one. At least the waiter emptied the glass before pouring in a cold Kingfisher.

Back at the station there was a complicated set of manouevres as the loco for the uphill train is brought out of the shed. This is the same NDM3 class that we had yesterday but it is facing in the wrong direction so has to be turned using the triangle layout. This is supervised by a lady in a lime green sari who changes points, waves flags and even blows a whistle. Eventually the loco is backed onto the front of the train which is then pulled forward and reversed into a siding to collect the brake van which is fully laden with supplies for Matheran.

The trip uphill is fairly uneventful. D has lashed out Rs 210/- (£3) for a whole first class compartment to himself plus a souvenier cardboard ticket. At one point we stop for the driver and assistant to throw rocks at monkeys on the track and at another place to make an offering and ring a shrine bell. The scenery as the sun sets over the hills of Maharastra is spectacular.

Back at Matheran R is waiting outside the station and we retire to the Divadkar Hotel beer garden for a refreshment. At the table next to us twio affluent looking Indian gents decide to argue about the bill. This goes on for quite a while and involves an ever growing cast of characters. The waiter looks grateful when we pay up without quibble and even leave a small tip.

Lord's has only a few diners tonight who enjoy a real treat. The menu is chicken soup, some kind of freshwater fish then chicken curry. The crowning glory was jam roly poly pudding. We waddled back to our room, where some of the lights had now been fixed. Somewhere nearby a full blast disco had started up but a couple of short power cuts soon sorted them out.

* = Low life drinking den

Monday 5th - Mumbai to Matheran

Tempus fugit. It is already time to leave Mumbai. This might be quite a good day to go as the forecast is for 41C. We have enjoyed our stay here in a city that is quite different to the others we have seen in India. They even have bin motors here and as far as we could see they collect rather than deposit rubbish on the streets. One thing that isn't different here is b*^%$ railway porters. The guy who takes our luggage tells us 300 which is pretty outrageous. At the far end of the platform he says 500 - for about 5 minutes work. D has no change and after a bit of a row the porter gives 100 change for a 500. These guys are a menace. D swears never to use a railway porter again.

R is left on Platform 8 while D goes to explore. We are at CST - the place where they film those amazing scenes of people hanging out of moving trains. It is a bit early and the rush hour has not really kicked off yet so D's photos are a bit tame. Our train (12920 Konya Express) comes in nice and early and we are able to get our mountain of luggage on the racks of our pretty basic Chair Class coach. At least the AC is working. When we get moving the train makes good progress out through the suburbs and delivers us to Neral Junction on time.

Neral is the starting point of the Matheran Railway - another narrow gauge line up to one of the Raj era hill stations. The first class coach is a bit of a relic and the only one that we have seen in India with outward opening doors. Thankfully we have a compartment to ourselves - there isn't much luggage space so we have to pile it on the seats. There is no great hurry here and it is ten minutes after scheduled departure before they even couple up a loco - NDM3 class number 603 - the same type of diesel that they use on the Darjeeling line.

The line winds its way up a rather barren mountainside, rapidly gaining height. The permananent way is not as heavily engineered as the Kalka-Shimla but is more substantial than the Darjeeling. A man makes his way along the outside of the moving train selling cans of pop. Part way up we stop at a station to wait for the downhill train to cross. There are more vendors with drinks, ice cream and kola nuts touting for business. Once the other train arrives we are off again, still climbing steeply and rounding some distinctly unprototypical curves. At times we can see stretches of the line on the mountainside below us as the track runs along narrow ledges cut into the mountainside.

After one more stop we arrive at Matheran station where there is a great gaggle of porters, hotel touts, rickshaw men and the like. They all get short shrift. We pay our Rs 25/- admission fee which allows us into the village (good racket this one) and set off along the main street to Lords Central Hotel. It is hot and the bags are heavy but D perseveres and makes it before collapsing. The staff at Lords quickly show us to our room which has views of the valley below and then we are ushered into lunch which is a lavish 3 course affair. We have generally been doing fine on 2 meals per day and have to go and lie down to recover for an hour. We wake up just in time for afternoon tea to be delivered to our verandah.

Lord's is another Raj era throwback with quaint, rather than chic rooms and a list of rules and mealtimes but the people seem friendly enough and there is a pool which we make use of after tea. The pool is by now in total shade and the breeze is on the cool side so it is really a bit of a token effort. Back in the room we realise that one of the rules is Hot Water for Showers is only available 7.30 a.m. until 10 a.m. So cold shower it is.

We take a promenade along the main bazaar to see what there is. The answer is mainly shoe shops and sweetie shops but we do find a hotel with a pleasant beer garden so there isn't much else that we will require. We get back to Lord's as dinner is starting - again 3 courses. We opt for non-veg which is mutton chop and butter chicken - very tasty. After supper we have a game of chess on the giant outdoor board and then return to our room. We have no power and appear to be the only ones in this fix. We are offered another room to sleep in so we move a minimum of kit and get our heads down.