Home again and to Melaka

Wed July 3, 2013rd

Today our short trip to Singapore must end. We fly back to KL this afternoon, but we have a morning to squander which Phil and Andy dedicate to shopping along Orchard Road (read Oxford Street squared) and Sue and David dedicate to the Singapore National Museum.  I am more and more impressed by the cunning / stunning presentation techniques that museums use these days.  Long gone are glass cases filled with dusty and meticulously labelled artefacts associated with a place or event.  Audio guides, personalised tours, Ipads on neckstaps are de-riguer for the visitor. Movie, Computer generated graphics, audio, tableaux are the minimum necessary descriptors for the exhibits.  The sum of it all is usually quite amazing and this museum fits the bill very well.  The history of Singapore is depicted from ancient man through European conquest, to Raffles deal, through the growth of trade to the foundation of the city.  The war years are brilliantly done – not through the eyes of the Generals, the politicians or the historians, but through the experiences of individuals, their personal records and testimonies.

It was a brilliant experience.

We regroup and after a leisurely lunch take the metro back to Changi Airport and home to KL,  By the time we tumble into bed it is late and we sleep the travellers’ sleep.

Thu July 4th

Today is a down day. Recovery, rest, washing of clothes are required so we slob about Andy’s house in the morning and read and research Vietnam.  In the late afternoon we visit a local night market and take the ritual cold drinks made from crushed iced and flavourings.  We meet yet another charming niece and are invited to her and her husband’s brand new house to inspect and admire it.  (You know what girlies and house furnishings are!).  The chaps set about a slab of Tiger beers and before long we are all bosom pals.  You cannot visit a Malaysian Chinese family without food being offered.  Even though we are pigged out on endless street nibbles (we thought that was it for the day), we are sandbagged to a nearby, very grand food court and required to participate in another Chinese meal + beers. We are becoming very adept with chopsticks and those little Chinese table shovels!

Fri July 5th, 2013

Our kind friends with the spanking new house are up for a day out and own a 6 seater car.  They offer to take us to Melaka, (NB modern spelling) on the west coast of Malaysia.  It is a 2 hour trip and we gather early in the day to assemble our party.  Malaysia is a prosperous country and its highways are grand and well maintained and, like most countries, in a seemingly endless programme of improvement.  (Did anyone ever fly to an airport that was completed?)   We pass the journey discussing jobs, children, ambitions, travel (recent and forthcoming) and get to know our hosts a little better.  Melaka is a charming bustling town – much given to feting tourists and has the usual array of shops selling tourist souvenirs.  How is it that tourist tat is the same miserable, gaudy, poor quality rubbish the world over?   We ignore it all and explore the streets and  harbour-side vistas.  The Portugese were the first to Europeans to settle this place and build a rather grand church on the highest hill which is a tourist must.  We climb hundreds of steps hewn from the volcanic stone of which this part of Malaysia is made (The rest – including the capital city – seems to rest on sand.)  At the top we are informed that the Dutch, when they invaded and drove out the Portugese enlarged said church and rededicated it to the protestant cause.  Then they build a new one lower down the hill and abandoned the grand one.  (why would they do that?) The Brits, when they arrived deconsecrated the whole thing (fearing a Dutch led insurrections) built a tower onto it with a lighthouse on the top of that and a grand flag pole for the Union flag.  Now that sounds much more practical.  Furthermore, a neat Governors’ residence (low-rise Palladian style. white painted balustrade, ornamental canons, etc) was built next door to it on the same high hill.  Very pukka, just the job.

We gaze out to sea towards Sumatra, the long Indonesian island that cuddles up to the western shores of Malaysia.  It is about 30 miles away but shrouded in a smoky haze from the deforestation fires that have been so much in the recent news.  (The smoke from these fires was reputed to have obliterated Singapore so we arrived bearing filtration masks as per FCO advice. What a waste of effort and money that was.  One rain shower and it was all washed away!)

We see ships, not the odd one, but dozens of ships all standing still, presumably at anchor and all pointing south.  They are bound for the port of Singapore to load up with containers full of who knows what to bring to bring to India and Europe.  I can’t help trotting out such lines as I can recall from Masefield’s poem “Cargoes”.  We amuse ourselves trying to complete the recollection but fail.  We have to make our way down for a cooling iced tea (it is very humid today) and then home. We fear that we shall (we do) hit the KL Friday night rush hour on our journey.

More talk of shopping.  David sleeps.  We say our thank yous and depart for Sze Towers at a late hour.  Tomorrow the second phase of our adventure begins and we fly to Vietnam.

Singapore: Arrows and Slings

Tue July 2, 2013nd

Today it is overcast and the sky is threatening.  We breakfast at a local diner – cornflakes, eggs, fruit, toast and tea, and make a plan.  We shall walk to the Singapore River which the city bestrides and take a boat tour from the harbour.  As we buy our tickets the heavens open and we are treated to a spectacular tropical storm: thunder and lightning and the largest heaviest raindrops that I can recall.  Within minutes the streets have changed from paved walking areas to individual rivers.  The drain gutters in this city are typically two feet deep (with slotted lids) to cope with torrents such as this. Clad as we are in light clothes and shirtsleeves, we take refuge in a waterside cafe and wait. I would guess that 50mm of rain fell in just a few minutes. Mercifully another characteristic of tropical rain is its brevity.  In a short while the clouds have emptied, the sun is out, the surface water is steaming off and all is back to normal.  We step aboard our boat and are treated to a canned commentary with the most florid description of the old waterside warehouses, the “down-town” cityscape, the Government buildings (always very grand) and so on.  After an hour we are much acquainted with how Sir Stamford Raffles laid out the city and why.

Having “done” China town last evening we visit the other ethnic hub called Little India.  It too is a collection of shops, offices, restaurants and markets but this time with a distinct curry flavour.  It would be hard to distinguish it from Delhi or Bombay. We lunch and decamp to the little island of Sentosa. This small island, formerly called Blackang Mati, sits at the southern tip of Singapore and was the last British fortification. It is now something of a theme park though it contains a very good museum of the war time history of  Singapore, including a delightful tableau called “The room of the two surrenders”. The Japanese invaded in 1942 by creeping south down the Malayan peninsula through its primeval jungle and conquered Singapore, much to irritation of the British whose guns were pointing south, out to sea. For three years the yellow peril gave everyone a hard time until President Truman gave a “new weapons technology” demo to the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at which point the invaders threw in the towel and surrendered Singapore back again. The British ruled it until in 1959 it was granted independence along with the creation of the Malaysian state.

Sated the while with Asian political history we repair to the Long Bar in Raffles hotel for a sundowner.  Raffles is a period piece rather like the gentlemen’s clubs of Pall Mall; all dark polished wood and an array of oscillating punka fans to cool one.  Ground nuts are laid out in bowls on the tables and drinkers, by local custom, drop the shells on the floor.  We crunch our way in and fortify ourselves with a Gin Sling, being the only drink to drink in this temple of colonial splendour. This cocktail is a serious blend of alcoholic components and has been known to cripple a fully grown adult liver within three sips.  A couple of these puts us all in a very good mood.  We dine across the road in the courtyard restaurant in the garden of a defrocked convent. The air temperature has dropped to 30C and it is comfortable and pleasant.

 

To Singapore

Mon July 1, 2013

Arise at 0400 (Ugh! Aren’t airport journeys unfriendly) and take car and bus to KL’s smaller airport where we catch Air Asia (sort or Ryan Air with slit eyes) first flight of the day to Singapore.  Even though it is still inky black pre-dawn dark, the temperature hovers around 30C.  Today is cloudy and humid.  As we travel the hour journey from our house we see numerous lightning flashes illuminating the sky.  Cloud to cloud lightning is more or less a permanent feature of the tropical sky.

The usual marshalling and inspection process happens.  No one frets about how much toothpaste or aftershave I have.  My pocket knife (Victorinox, nail scissors, 3cm Samaurai blade, deadly only if swallowed) passes along unnoticed.  I don’t mind conforming to personal limitations in the name of safety, but I do wish airports would be consistent.  It seems that the further one gets from Europe and the USA, the lower the level of official paranoia. “Because they can” seems to be the only logical explanation for the ill treatment of passengers in Europe.  Perhaps something good will come of it.  Only now, thirty? years since Leila Khaled invented the sport of hijacking aircraft for the PLO,  can we be certain that our baggage is pretty certain to  arrive at the same destination and the same time as ourselves  Perhaps in a few years time some hitherto unforeseen benefit will accrue from all these liquid limit shenanigans? Perhaps a new toilet bag of goodies  presented on arrival?  In the mean time, I can only sympathise with the Cruise ship afficionados whose delight is to park the car, embark at Southampton docks and be blowed to all this indignity.

One hour of squashed tedium later we are at Changi Airport.  Singapore must be the world’s template for good organisation.  Why don’t we send some of our politicians here for a lesson or two.  The local metro goes right into the middle of the airport. All floors are linked by escalators that work. Signage is simple, accurate and designed to direct the ignorant traveller to where he needs to be. Tickets / travel cards are cheap.  Trains are frequent, clean, air-conditioned and comfortable etc. etc. Perhaps it is tiresome to live there, but we see no evidence of it and all works in favour of the visitor.

Singapore, formerly Tamasek (Sea Town) has been fought over for centuries. It was an unloved and unlovely mosquito-ridden swamp at the foot of the Malayan peninsula since forever. The Siamese and the Javans quarrelled over control of the Malay peninisula.  The sultan of Malacca (round the corner on the left) owned it until the Portugese whacked him in 1511.  They decolonised it and left it to rot. Malacca was the principle port for ships bound from the South China Sea to India and the west. Such ships had to pass this swamp on their way round Malaya and up the Malaccan Strait, passing Sumatra on the left.

A cute chap by the name of  Sir Stamford Raffles, of the East India company,  knowing that the Dutch had sewn up the spice islands to Europe maritime spice trade and controlled the sea lane from Malacca, looked at the map and decided to take a lease on this swampy bottom bit of Malaya in 1819.  He figured that if he created a free port there, then the natural laws of business would drive shipping companies to use its port facilities, buy timber for repairs, take on fresh water, and bring trade there rather than pay Dutch tariffs in Malacca.  He didn’t even ask his bosses for permission to go ahead. He used his initiative.  This tax free zone has been the foundation of  prosperity and the fortunes of this place ever since. Good idea that – low taxes.  Wonder why our lot haven’t tumbled that?  Anyway, Mr. Raffles was deemed a thoroughly good chap and most things of any significance in Singapore are named for him – districts, roads, a rather nice hotel and so on. Nowadays all stuff carried by ships is in containers.  Singapore is the largest container port in the world and queues of ships from east and west attend its round the clock box shifting cranes.

We check into the Carlton Hotel (next to Mr. Raffles’s hotel) and regroup. In developing Singapore, colonies of workers from China and India joined the Malays and the place is a fusion of three cultures – overlaid with a very British business class.  From the word go, the British administration established Indian, Malay and Chinese districts and encouraged their cultures and places of worship to comingle and interact.  Today they are a truly integrated community and celebrate their Singapore nationality as one nation. None of this multi-cultural twaddle.

Singapore city is a vast collection of Lego block towers inhabited by banks and insurance companies, but there are some charming oases of quietude and one of those is the Botanic Gardens.  Andy, the financial executive of his extended family, has banking obligations to discharge at some grand Singapore bank. Phil elects to accompany him so Sue and I take the Metro to Botanic Gardens and wander in. This place is the Singapore version of Kew Gardens and has beds filled with tropical flowers such as Heliconias (bright “cor blimey” red and orange flowers like Birds of Paradise) and unusual trees such as the Cauliflower tree from which new leaves dangle like lilac coloured tassles and whose brilliant orange flowers grow straight from its trunk like crazy cauliflowers.  The highlight of the gardens is the National Orchid Collection containing over 50,000 plants, dozens of species all growing in their natural habitats.  It is a feast for the eye.

We return by local bus, rest awhile and eat dinner in China Town, a vast sprawling, colourful collection of streets dedicated to the sale of all stuff Chinese – especially food. It is, of course, patronised totally by the local Chinese community as we Europeans stick out like spare parts. We are pounced on verbally by every vendor, offering wares, food, drink, foot massage, medical consultation, head massage and so on. The heady mixture of sights, smells, sounds and tastes is quite an assault on our senses. Andy chooses a restaurant and we dine well (don’t ask me what we ate) and drink Tiger beer.  We totter slowly back to base and sleep the sleep of the traveller.

Light Duties & Steamboat

Sun June 30, 2013

 

Light duties. Hooray.  We take Andy to Ikea to spend some of his money on plates, bowls, cups and glasses etc. for his shiny house.  Gosh it is hot outside (38C).  The populace of KL take shelter in air-conditioned shopping malls which is presumably good for trade.  A bit more comestible shopping is necessary and we relax in the garden snoozing off the jet lag.

That evening we take his parents to a “Steamboat” Chinese meal.  Like a fondue, the food arrives raw on a vast plate.  In the table centre is a large vessel bubbling with chicken stock into which we toss our carefully prepared food elements and leave them to stew.    Andy, as host, dispenses bowlfuls of assorted fish, meat and vegetable preparations, all now cooked and steaming hot onto the usual bed of steamed  rice surrounded by spicy dips and we eat.  Just when I have had about enough, our server brings another tray of ingredients and we start all over again. That’s the trouble with Chinese meals.  They have no beginning or end, they just continue until you give up or explode.  Why are all the Chinese so thin?

At a relatively civilised hour we return and pack a subset of our belongings into small rucksacks – student style, for tomorrow we are off to Singapore.

Suu & KK Leung are married

Sat June 29, 2013

Today is the Wedding day – or so we are to believe.  In reality the “legal” side of this union was arranged a few days ago at the city hall and duly signed and notarised.  Today is party day when, as is customary the world over, family friends and useful allies are assembled and feted to witness, support and assure the newly married couple.  (I am always reminded of the utterances of the chap already swimming in the cold sea or pool calling out “Come on in, its lovely”).  Being a great fan of the matrimonial estate, I am among the loudest of callers. ”

The party starts at the brides house (again) with breakfast of rice cakes, noodles and spicy meat (for breakfast! -fortunately we are pre fortified with Weetabix), tea, cakes and so on in an endless procession of hospitality.  The bride is currently out of sight glamming up with the help of a cohort of her maids all bedecked in scarlet, tight fitting “cheong sam” dresses with cute little mandarin collars.  With their long hair they look like tailless mermaids.  Red is of course a propitious colour for the Chinese signifying good fortune.  The groom arrives, booted and suited, with his party of half a dozen groomsmen in more casual regalia and a game (ritual?) ensues in which the latter seek to gain access to the blushing bride and are stiff armed by the mermaids amid singing of songs and reading of poems (the bride is still in hiding).  The groomsmen are given ordeals to complete involving minor athletics, a forfeit with a banana tied loosely around the waist – don’t ask – amid shrieks of girlish giggling.

At last access is gained and we are invited to watch the groom on bended knee, clutching a bunch of red roses, reciting the Chinese version of “will you marry me” followed by a doe-eyed response and a ritual snog.  All good fun.  The party decamps to the grooms’ parents’ house presumably for more of the same.

We are now released for the remainder of the day until the evening’s hooley.  We sleep off some more jet lag and get scrubbed up for the latter.

 Later that evening

On the outskirts of KL lies Mr Lee’s famous Wedding Feast Restaurant and eating house.  We foregather at the bride’s parents’ house (again) and are divided up between the vehicles of random family members and driven in a long, high speed motorcade thereto.

A gathering of about 700 is expected.  We are introduced as honoured guests to seemingly hundreds of polished people and are eventually seated  near the bridal party in a room the size of a small aircraft hangar.  The Bridal party process in and we enjoy a grand Chinese Menu G ++ with  lashings of Tiger beer and Chivas Regal whisky.  There are no formal speeches but we are treated to a simultaneous live cabaret on the stage behind the top table, with much Chinese singing and a rolling slide show of posed bride and groom shots by streams, waterfalls and other propitious settings.  There is to be no honeymoon.  The pair will be back at their desks in the Insurance / Brewing industries respectively on Monday morning sharp.  On the stroke of midnight the place empties and our motorcade weaves its way home at a rather more seemly pace.

Family visits and shopping

Fri June 28, 2013(for we have lost a day in travel)

Awakened by the roar of air conditioning and the light shining through the curtains (+ the moans of  “tea please” from Sue on my left).  The small courtyard garden of  “”Sze Towers is a neat Chinese garden with an Astroturf lawn (now there’s a good idea.  You don’t mow it, you hose it down and Hoover it), elegant pots with bonsai trees and neatly painted tile pillars.  All V cute and maintained by his ma and pa who live locally.  They pitch up from time to time with nail scissors and a dustpan and brush to “do” the garden. In one corner stands an imposing brick shed with bars to its front.  Herein dwells a fierce dog called “Didi” whose mission appears to be to bark at anyone in his  perview who is not the householder or  his guests.  We feel rather sorry for Didi as he appears to live in a very modest style and is woefully short of exercise space, but we are assured that this is the Malaysian custom and Didi’s habitat is adequate to his status.  Apparently he is occasionally allowed the run of the garden and is fed and watered daily as well as hosed down to keep him cool.  Didi already recognises us as friends of the householder and we may come and go without notice.

Andy’s “spare” Mercedes Benz saloon sits neatly and shinyly in the drive awaiting our use around KL.  We have family visits to make, for one of Andy’s many nieces is to be married and today is the pre-wedding day family party.   We are chauffeured by Andy to the apartment block where his parents live and park underneath it. Apartment living is the norm of this city and even in the suburbs, tower blocks dominate the dwelling options.

In the street outside are various modest looking fruit a vegetable stalls which in true Chinese fashion are open all hours and are owned by Andy’s uncle (the father of the bride-to-be).  Malaysia is mix of Malay, Indian and Chinese peoples + a smattering of other South East Asian folk – Philipinos, Indonesians + some Koreans and Thais. It is a vigorous trading nation and one of the claws of the so called “tiger economies” of Asia.  It is evident that much of the cash economy is in the capable hands of the Malay Chinese, Andy’s family typify them. We remove our shoes, leave them outside with dozens of other pairs and enter Mr and Mrs Sze’s first floor apartment.  Much bowing, smiling and hand shaking occurs.  They speak no English but we have met them before when they visited England and inspected our house.  Our spoken Chinese is limited to “hello” and “thank you”, but it takes you some way to ingratiating yourself . They are profuse in their welcome and offer us Chinese tea and cakes.  The household is brisk with the womenfolk of the family (including the bride and other nieces) who are preparing food for tonight’s party. The youngsters are mainly professionals of one sort or another and all speak English.  They are variously engaged in culinary duties (amid much noisy female ordering and counter ordering), preening themselves for tonight or, in the manner of seemingly all of their generation, tapping i-phone screens.

We absent ourselves shortly for we have some serious in-town shopping to do and we are clearly de-trop right now.  We take a monorail over-street train into the middle of KL and visit the Telecoms shop (to replace a household Internet Modem) and an electronics emporium the size of Selfridges to get a Nokia phone repaired while-you-wait.  We take lunch in yet another food court – this one in the basement of the mall with a seating area about the size of a football pitch and served by scores of boutique food suppliers offering comestibles from every corner of Asia.  A substantial lunch sets us back about £2 each – including iced drinks. We retrace our journey to collect the car and return for a brief afternoon nap, for have yet to synchronise our circadian rhythms with the Malaysian day.

Its party night. We arrive dressed to kill (well maim perhaps, in long trousers & shirt or dress at least) and discover hundreds of shoes outside the apartment door.  God knows what will happen if they have to leave in a hurry.  It is a huge family gathering.  Mrs Sze is one of thirteen siblings, Andy has four brothers and sisters.  They are (nearly) all on parade with spouses, babies and so on. Andy has what appear to be dozens of nieces. They are the same girls we met this morning in their jeans and t shirts, but now augmented in number as a cohort of elegant Chinese stunners with 14” waists, long, long legs and jet black hair to their waists.  We have already forgotten their names so smile inanely while accepting dish after dish of real Chinese food and numerous Tiger beers.  As food and drink are consumed, the noise level rises exponentially and Andy (bless him, a teetotaller) chauffeurs us home by midnight.  Didi the guard dog must be short sighted because he barks furiously as we enter.

We are off to Kuala Lumpur 2013

Many who have visited the Rossells will know (or know of) our neighbours, Phil and Andy.  Phil is English, Andy is a Malasian Chinese whose family live in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia where he owns a house. Phil and Andy own a couple of cats and ever since we have known them have prevailed on us to mind and feed their feline friends when they take holidays to Asia, using Andy’s KL pad as a springboard to points east.  As one wise pet owner puts it: “Dogs have owners. Cats have staff”.  The Cheylesmore cats have now appointed David and Sue to their staff and claim right of access, if not abode of our house. Andy works in catering and has also on occasion left the UK to work temporarily in Malaysia helping his family set up various catering businesses.  We have teased them many times asking when is our turn to visit Malaysia and other lands nearby.  Well this year Phil called our bluff saying Vietnam was their chosen destination and would we like to accompany them.  Is the Pope a Catholic? So we arranged a simple Itinerary to visit Malaysia (well KL), Singapore and Vietnam.  This diary records the events of those visits.

Wed June 26

The problem of  “Cuis Felix curant” (I think that means who minds the cats) having been solved, Phil, Andy, David & Sue set off to board a shiny new Airbus A380 from London to Kuala Lumpur.

It takes about 12 hours to get there and crosses 7 time zones going east so the journey ends 19 hours after it starts.  Phil and Andy, being frequent fliers, have upgraded to business class and in spite of David’s pleadings to sit next to our friends we are condemned to row 350 of this vast aircraft.  At least we get to sit upstairs on the third floor (1= cargo and wheels, 2 = some passengers, 3 = some more passengers + driver). By 10pm we are airborne and settled in for our fight with deep vein thrombosis. An A380 double decker is a great beast of the sky carrying 497 passengers + crew + dinners.  It resembles Harrods when viewed from the outside.  How ever does it fly?  But at least it has 4 engines (An air traffic controller friend of ours, who presumably reads the trade magazines about airborne dramas advised us most strongly not to fly over oceans in anything that has only 2 engines). We are off.  There is very little sensation of movement except the refilling of glasses until we get to the right hand edge of India. Here the  driver commands the crew to strap in (not a good sign) and we are seriously bounced about for approx 1 hour.  This is the most wobbly flight I have been on, ever. There are dismaying thuds as the machine hits “pockets” of rapidly and randomly moving air.  Great big strato-cumulus clouds rise well above our plane’s cruising height of 38,000 feet (11,500m).  Our moving map display shows a sharp detour to the east (towards land?)  I really don’t like this roller coaster experience and keep wondering about the design limitations of aluminium spars. I content myself with my faith in the skills of Europe’s finest aircraft engineers or the expectation of a quick death. I am assured (after it has calmed down and the crew are wandering about again), that this was a mild dose of turbulence and it is commonly far worse than that over the Bay of Bengal.  Bodes well for the trip home doesn’t it?  Welcome to tropical high altitude weather David.  We land, 4 hours later at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, one big showpiece and shopping mall. Its not quite in Dubai Airport’s league but then nothing is.  Airports are the cathedrals of our age.  Vast, imposing monuments to the glory of – not God, but international travel and trade – and impressing the inbound unwashed traveller.  Here you can buy tax free goods on the way in. Very sensible that.  Why fly bottles of Gin around the planet when they could go by ship?  No one seems to care much about inspecting baggage and after another stamp on the passports we wander in to Malasia.

We take a taxi to KL (30km north of KLIA) and we get to Andy Sze’s rather grand house in the suburbs of KL. All mahogany banisters and stairs, cool marble floors, elegant fitments and, of course, air conditioning without which life in KL would be unbearable.  The air temperature as we alight from the plane is 30C in the early evening.  It is 38C in the heat of the day and drops to 30C at night.  Fortunately it not humid and so you don’t get too sweaty.  All the same it is not running around weather.  No sign of the much foretold smoke and dust from Indonesian forest fires.  We have bought a couple of fine particle filtration masks – which more or less guarantees we won’t need them. This suburb of KL is a clean well ordered bustling place.  Smart houses and cars, gates at the end of the road (Why? A bloke opens them without question when we approach so they aren’t much good for security).

After we unpack and shower, Phil, Andy and we stroll down to their village square to a food court (the standard restaurant experience in this land) and partake of noodles and various spicy additions + a couple of iced teas.  Most refreshing.  The bill for 4 of us comes to about £9.  It appears from the constant exodus of clients with carrier bags full of food containers that this place serves not only seated clients (us) but also the vast majority of residents their evening meals.   A quick chase round the little supermarket for breakfast provisions and we tuck up to sleep off the jet lag.  No idea what time it is or should be.

Our 2013 trip to South East Asia

I don’t write blogs very often.  The last one was about our trip to India in 2010.  We haven’t made an epic trip since then but having advised friends of our forthcoming visit, I was asked if I would blog it, so here goes.  It might take a while to add pictures as I am dependent on the bandwidth of internet connections, so please be patient and be prepared to look back.

The structure of this blog is that the most recent posting is on the top.  Enjoy!

What to make of it all?

We have travelled extensively in this continent – for India is a continent, not only a country.  From North to South and from East to West its people, its customs and the county are different.  India is as vast as it is overcrowded. It is as luxurious as it is squalid. Its food can be as terrible as it can be magnificent.  Its transport is as exhilarating as it can be uncomfortable. Nothing in India is ever quite what you expect it to be and herein lies its charm.  Travelling in India – even with the most elaborate of preparations as we have had – can be infinitely frustrating.  Its bureaucracy can be utterly maddening. It would try the patience if even a Hindu Saint. There are probably few countries on the planet that offer India’s varieties and like it or loath it, it somehow gets in your blood.  

Our route

 

In the 20 odd years since last we were here, India has progressed enormously.  Telecommunications are better, cars are better, hotel service standards are better, trains and planes are better – or indeed exist where they didn’t before.  The poverty is still grinding and instills feelings of pity – even guilt – just to see it, the lack of maintenance for its infrastructure and its buildings is infuriating, the propensity of all tradesmen to bid up the price – especially to anyone with a white skin is as irritating as it is predictable for it makes any and all transactions take five times longer than they need to.    

India, however, is what you make of it and in many respects is what you want it to be. If you want temples, there are hundreds of them with enough styles and types to confuse the most assiduous scholar, if you want history – there are oodles of forts, abandoned cities, ruins, battlefields and monuments, plus the Raj has plenty of tales to tell, if you want beaches and seaside, there is enough of it to satisfy the most devoted of sun worshipper.  If you simply want to meet the real India, no problem, you come face to face with it all the time.  As our Lonely Planet Guide puts it: “India can never be a place you just clinically “see”, it is a total experience, an assault on all the senses and a place that you can never forget.” 

We came here this time for a multiplicity of reasons: Rotary project work, to see and to learn, a revisit to interesting places, a visit to new places, family visits and reunions, a tropical break from the European winter, a holiday by the sea and not least the companionship of John and Chris who have worked tirelessly to make this trip happen for them and for us. We feel that we have, with their help,  achieved all of those things. Will we come again?  Oh Yes!

Mahabalipurum – 2

Saturday  20th Feb 2010 

Mending the nets for tonight's fishing trip

 

This morning we decide to rest from sun-bathing and explore Mahabalipurum.  We wander along the seashore for the 3 km it takes to reach the village. The fishermen are using the morning to mend their nets and re-stow them in their small fishing smacks.  We note that one or two of the latter are painted as being donations after the Tsunami of 2004 which wrought some havoc on this coast also 

Mahabalipurum on sea

 

Mahabalipurum exists as a settlement because millions of years ago volcanic intrusions left behind several large granite laccoliths or granite blobs to you and me. They are miniature Ayers Rocks and rise about 50m from ground (and sea) level. These smooth hard rocks were exploited by the Pallavas. They were the  first Tamil dynasty from the  5th to 8th century AD. I wonder if they are the origin of “What a Pallava?” and how that might have come to be. Suggestions please. Anyway, they set about these granite lumps with hammers and chisels and created some very grand rock temples all illustrated with Hindu mythology as well as scenes of everyday lifein relief. They are very impressive in their scale and their detail.  Meanwhile in Europe the Roman Empire had just collapsed and the Saxons had invaded Britian. Our locals had gone back to living in thatched huts and these Pallava guys were producing this wonderful stuff.  It makes you realise how advanced Indian civilization was. No wonder they invented mathematics and now play cricket so well.  

Stone cutter sitting on the job

 

Stone carving is still very much of a living craft in Mahabalipurum.  The town has a school of sculpture where wannabe stonemasons can do a four year course.  They work their tickets by slaving away under rather dreary working conditions in tourist souvenir shops and, in consequence, the stuff on sale here is really rather a cut above the usual tourist tat. The town awakes every day to the sound of stone chipping. These people specialise in huge images of Hindu Gods and supply temples and shrines (and grand hotels) all over the Hindu world.  We are tempted by a 6 ft Vishnu, but fear the excess baggage charges and the wrath of our neighbours. 

There are the usual charges to see some of these temples, which are now UNESCO world heritage sites and are claimed to be the most photographed temples in India. (How do they know that? No one asked me if I photographed one). We are a little disquieted at the pricing differentials. It is 10 Rp for Indian nationals and  250 Rp for other tourists. Tenty five times as much!  Imagine if we did that at the Tower of London, £12 for white men and £300 for muslims. There would be howls of Racism! Come to think of it, it would keep the riff raff out wouldn’t it? 

Looks like a good party

 

We duly crawl all over these fascinating sites and are suitably impressed, but by heck it is hot in the Sun (>45 o C ) and we retire to the cool of an A/C bar for a cold Limca.  Back to our Hotel for some rest and a few more wave jumping exercises in the oh so warm Ocean.  We are now aware that our trip is of finite duration and our thoughts are beginning to turning to residual currency stocks, departure details, taxis, flight times and so on.  Sue awaits the delivery of her silk masterpiece from the local tailoring guru and David is busy completing this diary.  It seems quaint to be sitting under a beach shade with a laptop on his lap, but he has done stranger things. 

We plan to dine at the finest restaurant in town tonight to celebrate what has been a fabulous visit. Tomorrow is dedicate to travel – large quantities of it and it might not 

Temple on the rock

 

merit a diary entry.   And so…………..