My first overnight train Journey in India

“Madam! Tea? Tea? Breakfast?”

Still half asleep, I agreed to everything the young man in uniform was offering. With speed and agility, a steaming cup of tea was poured and placed beside me on my bunk. I had no idea what the time was but I seemed to be the last one up.

“Breakfast coming, madam!” said the man, who disappeared as quickly as he came.

I took in my surroundings. For the rail enthusiasts out there, the train I was travelling on was the 12436 New Delhi – Dibrugrh Town Rajdhani Express, in a 2A carriage. Couples and families were sitting up in their bunks, laughing and chatting over the first cuppa of the day. A scrum of people jostled to brush their teeth at the communal sinks. Out of the window, rural communities were already hard at work in the fields. I looked for my watch. It was 6 o’clock in the morning – I’d slept for 3 hours.

The night had been fraught. Pacing up and down the platform at Varanasi Junction, refusing to sit down because of the sheer volume of rats, we finally boarded the Rajdhani Express at 22:35. The horror of the rats deserves a special mention here. I was surprised by the lack of rat sightings during my stay in Varanasi but it turns out they were all at the train station. It was the first thing I saw as I descended the steps onto the platform and practically all I could focus on for the hour we had to wait there. Rats playing in the drinking fountains; rats running in and out of tea shacks, offices and waiting rooms; rats racing along the edges of the platform; rats on the train tracks, darting in and out of their burrows; rats splashing in puddles and falling over each other. Some were as big as cats, black and sleek, others were smaller and long-bodied, twitchy, brown and greasy. The high-pitched sounds they made in their dirty play revelry, the way they bounced as though gravity didn’t apply to them . . .

Finally on the train, I laid down under the itchy complimentary blanket in my bunk. Rats of all shapes and sizes danced through my mind. I couldn’t count sheep to help me sleep because a tidal wave of rats had savaged all the bleaters. Could a rat get on the train? There were so many on the tracks, one could just hop on . . .

I wanted so desperately to sleep but my rat anxiety and the nocturnal activities of the other passengers were not helping. All that separated me from the rest of the aisle was a flimsy curtain that failed to fully conceal my bunk. Several people had already peered in. I was right by the door which clattered noisily every time someone got up to go to the toilet. The carriage was alive with the sound of snoring, farting, burping, and men talking ridiculously loudly on their mobile phones. I put my earphones in and selected the Best of Seal on the MP3 player, hoping that his smooth voice would relax me as it had done once before on an overnight bus journey from hell a few years back (Haridwar to Agra). It did the trick eventually. Rats floated away from my sub-conscious mind and sleep came . . .

. . . and then the tea-wallah woke me. I sat up in my bunk, bleary-eyed, with the mug of chai cradled firmly in my grip. In that moment of quiet contemplation, gazing out of the window, I was suddenly reminded of a certain aspect of Indian life; the daily trip to the edge of the village to carry out one’s toilet ritual. For mile upon mile, the fields of corn, wheat and sunflowers were punctuated with squatting gents. It was barely 7 am and I’d already seen well over a hundred arses. Some would call that a productive morning, but not I.

My appetite was, unsurprisingly, not particularly strong that morning but I accepted a vegetarian breakfast tray anyway and began to pick at the contents. It was actually very nice and consisted of potato, chilli and carrot filled croquettes which were bursting with flavour, and some bread, which I wrapped the croquettes in to make a tasty breakfast sandwich. It turned out to be the only decent meal served on the journey. Other dishes that came my way included a thin tomato broth, likely from a packet mix; cold and chewy rotis; a bland, rubbery paneer curry; and an insipid, watery dal that resembled something panned from the Ganges.

Despite the dodgy catering and night-time anxieties, it was a pleasant journey that afforded plenty of time to watch a couple of Bollywood films, read vast swathes of my book, and to watch the landscape change from the farmlands and flat plains of Bihar to the leafy hills and valleys of verdant Assam. The next stop was Guwahati . . .

 

Green Park and Haus Khas Village, New Delhi

Green Park is a leafy, well-to-do suburb of India’s capital and it became my home for two months whilst I interned at Katha, a renowned publishing house in New Delhi. Western giants Costa Coffee and Dominoes rub shoulders with indigenous businesses such as Evergreen Sweet House and A2B serving proper Indian delicacies, and stalls selling momos and fresh fruit juice.

image

Being alone and a long way from Bury St. Edmunds, I found myself searching for similarities with my beloved home town. Stepping out of my house one morning I came across the first one. Back home we have a shop named Thing – me – bobs which sells a cheap and cheerful selection of homewares. In Green Park, the entire contents of said shop can be seen peddling through the residential streets on a single push bike. A wallah nestled amongst the buckets and brooms calls out, “Araaaaaaay!” to attract the attention of housewives and servants who might be interested in purchasing one of his scrubbers.

image

A short walk through the heavily polluted streets of Green Park Extension and Safdarjung Enclave took me to the deer park; a beautiful green space teaming with wildlife, families having picnics, amorous couples, and breakdancing youths. I came across this brilliant notice . . .

image

Some male individuals were taking the advice of the sign a little too literally in the rustling bushes. Moving swiftly past the leering hedgerows, I found the lake and ancient ruins, highly reminiscent of the Abbey Gardens back home.

image

image

On the other side of the park lies Haus Khas,  an arty enclave that feels very western for Delhi. It’s like Shoreditch but with an Indian twist if you can imagine that.

image

One of its most endearing features is the street art adorning the hotchpotch buildings. Here’s a small selection . . .

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

Eating decent Indian food thrice daily is a great pleasure but sometimes, all I wanted was a plate of fish and chips, a pizza or an enormous slice of cake. Elma’s Bakery provided me with all of the western indulgences I possibly could wish for, including a  proper cup of coffee.

image

image

image

The cakes at Elma’s were the best I’ve ever had and I rushed back every weekend to work my way through their tantalising selection.

Despite my desire to find the the familiar in my new surroundings, there were plenty of uncanny occurrences happening every day just to remind me where I actually was. The carnivalesque spectacle of a wedding procession, men ironing garments and sharpening knives on the streets and, very occasionally, a stark naked Jain man with a crowd of devoted followers – all slices of life in this charming little enclave of Delhi.

image

Reflections on a Lake

If you can’t live without electrical gadgets and wifi then I don’t expect you to be rushing over to Pangong Tso (Tso = Lake) anytime soon, but more fool you. This remote expanse of water that straddles both India and China happens to be the highest salt water lake in the world (at an altitude of 4,350 m) and arguably the most beautiful. Fans of the film ‘3 Idiots’ will undoubtedly recognise it from the final scenes.

 

263960_10151203901440552_1157938641_n

 

The only reason to come here is to sit in a strategically placed chair overlooking the water and watch, mesmerized as the shades of blue continually change. You can go for a stroll of course, but you’ll soon be out of breath owing to the thinness of air. Better just to sit down and relax.

 

183311_10151203901585552_338777787_n (1)

 

There is nothing but the lake. It commands your attention.

 

304622_10151203894905552_724317530_n (1)

 

We stayed by the water’s edge on a campsite with fancy tents, and by fancy I mean, each tent boasted an enormous bed covered in multiple thick duvets and blankets (much needed!) and an attached bathroom with a Western style crapper. Unadulterated luxury if ever I saw it.

 

545615_10151203893830552_1815658382_n (1)

 

 

Two rather unenthusiastic guys were running the show.  It was apparent that sparkling wit and insightful anecdotes about Pangong were not on the menu but the indifferent duo could make a glorious cup of chai when persuaded.

The generator was cranked up at 7pm and a rather uninspiring dinner of sloppy bland dal was served at half past.

 

60251_10151203901300552_1713370764_n

 

 

Like a Brownie pack holiday, it was lights out at 9:30pm (or at least that’s when the generator shut down). Everything plunged into darkness, the silence was deafening but once over the initial disorientation, I realised how fantastic it was to be in one of the remotest places on Earth.

Living the high life in Leh

At an altitude of 3505 meters, arriving in Leh by plane from the flatlands of Delhi is quite a challenge. The best way to acclimatise yourself is by doing the road trip over a few days but this wasn’t possible for us; that exciting escapade was reserved for the way out of Leh.

 

389857_10151203759485552_25925496_n
Touching down at the tiny airport, I could feel the thin-ness of air immediately. A short taxi ride took us to Kidar Guest House, a tranquil little plot on the edge of the main town. It was beautiful. Surrounded by abundant vegetable plots, sweet smelling herbs and vivacious flowers; it was the picture of self suffiency.

 

304513_10151203759265552_2060686660_n (1)

 

Our room was on the first floor and climbing the small flight of stairs proved to be a struggle with the smothering effects of altitude sickness which would rule out anything interesting for the first couple of days. Most travellers, including my partner, opt to take the drug Diamox to ease altitude sickness. I decided to experiment with a herbal remedy but unfortunately (and it pains me to say this), it didn’t work out and intense headaches and breathing problems, particularly in the night, were an unpleasant experience to deal with. I’ll pack the Diamox next time!

 

383978_10151203767340552_1240118702_n

 

After a few days of rest, recuperation, bucket loads of ginger tea and some bloody good Tibetan food, we left the warm embrace of Kidar and ventured into the small, bustling town of Leh.

 

390398_10151203760595552_487823859_n (1)

 

250384_10151203769085552_1097788654_n

 

Leh is busy with locals and tourists alike, but in no way does it feel hurried, which is just as well because there’s so much to take in. Brightly coloured flowers buzzing with pollen-thirsty bees, lazy dogs basking in the sun, buddhist monks, ageing hippies and roaming cows and donkeys can be seen on every street. The Tibetan markets dotted around the town provide even more colour and probably the best shopping opportunities to be had, bartering with the friendliest of faces.

 

539321_10151203767575552_1953567745_n

 

A fabulous range of eateries is on offer and by far the best food that we had was of the Tibetan variety, and in particular, the steamed momos and accompanying soup. It provided a light alternative to the sometimes heavy north Indian cuisine. Speaking of heavy, why not try the deep pan heart attack, commonly known as the yak cheese pizza, which you’ll find on offer in some establishments. Your arteries will never forgive you but it’s great comfort food.

 

Staying on the subject of food, what could be more important than the daily bread? A wander round the back of the large mosque (behind the bazaar) reveals an alley way of bread makers who supply shops, hotels and families all over town. As with the rest of the world, traditional methods are still used to achieve the finest tasting loaves. Apricot jam is a bit of an institution out here and perfect to spread on this leavened loveliness.

 

530416_10151203770020552_641063710_n

 

310521_10151203770160552_2014173834_n (1)

 

 

 

Portugal’s Capital in Pictures

220031_10150233695895552_6473229_o

The famous yellow trams are a tourist favourite and save weary legs on journeys up the steep hills of Lisbon. Tickets are a little pricey but worth it for the experience and the opportunity to take in the sights of crumbling grandeur lining the narrow streets.

220374_10150233703400552_5028810_o

220374_10150233703405552_6386107_o

220263_10150233710170552_5123119_o

209633_10150233717780552_1677549_o

220263_10150233710145552_1652140_o

Above is the rather Gothic looking Elevador de Santa Justa. The view from the top is glorious.

Belém

219175_10150233730645552_4327458_o

 

This area is famous for being the launch pad for many voyages of discovery back in the day. These days it’s home to some interesting monuments including the Torre de Belém, Praça do Império (beautiful public gardens in the heart of Belém), and the striking Padrão dos Descobrimentos, which can be seen above. Belém is also the home of the Berardo Collection; a modern and contemporary art museum housing an exciting assortment of work.

204671_10150233733660552_5309701_o

Ponte 25 de Abril – often compared to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge although it is much smaller.

 

Parque das Nações

This futuristic looking area by the waterfront is a wide open space built for leisure and a showcase for bold and beautiful architecture. There are green spaces for lazing about, open air restaurants to enjoy and a wealth of indoor shopping at the Vasco de Gama Mall. The Parque das Nações also boasts a cable car rides and the world’s second largest Oceanarium.


220297_10150233752560552_819836_o

 

 

220297_10150233752565552_5402764_o

 

219104_10150233764715552_8006824_o

 

219104_10150233764735552_4390662_o

Postcards from the Algarve

210469_10150232856115552_7210649_o

 

 

209291_10150232840975552_407165_o

 

 

210469_10150232856130552_7104794_o

 

 

 

209291_10150232840970552_3568761_o

 

 

210469_10150232856110552_5211803_o

 

 

209291_10150232840955552_4886551_o

 

 

220282_10150232860570552_7417074_o

 

 

209605_10150232886425552_7988530_o

 

 

209811_10150232870355552_906108_o

 

 

210494_10150233584600552_5358469_o

 

 

219108_10150233596100552_2630002_o

 

 

209495_10150232875690552_1182836_o

 

 

209495_10150232875695552_1423220_o

 

 

209605_10150232886440552_3744493_o