Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Home sweet home!

Well I’m in my new home for the next 6 weeks! The family is really lovely, with two kids (both boys, aged 9 and 6 and both balls of fun energy) and two dogs. I have a room/house mate called Bianca who is from Australia and has just finished her midwifery placement.
I started my placement at Kalutara General Hospital yesterday. Everyone is very nice but I find it hard working in such heat!  At the moment I’m in Paediatrics but I will also visit General Medicine, Surgery and Obstetrics.
Most days I just work in the mornings so I spent the past two days sunbathing, once at a pool at a local hotel and once at the beach in Kalutara. Sea was a bit rough for swimming so we “paddled and dunked”!
Not much time to say more. It is a 3 day weekend coming up so Bianca and I have planned a long trip to Sirigya and Dambulla, Kandy and Adam’s Peak. We leave right after lunch on Friday and get back on Monday. Just been sorting out all our hotels etc!
The town is full of shops and markets and the public transport is frequent, if not all that easy to negotiate sometimes! It’s very hot here, the fact that the house doesn’t have hot water is almost a blessing…who would have thought I’d enjoy a cold shower!

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Here's to Mum!

This post goes out to my super, incredible, lovely Mum. We have had an AMAZING 10 days together, discovering new things and having a very good time. It was so nice to be able to spend some Mummy-daughter time in a new environment where we never got even a little bit sick of each other ;) We relaxed, had lots of laughs and made some great memories.

Mum was ill so had to stay and miss her flight so we didn't get to say goodbye how we'd hoped to. She got a plane today instead. It was a shame that our trip together ended like that but the great time we had will be the bit that is remembered. So, thank you so much Mum, I will see you in 6 weeks!

I have safely arrived in Sri Lanka, and spent this morning trying to catch up on last night's sleep. A quick stroll to the sea showed me that it is MUCH hotter here than in India... May take some getting used to but bring it on!

Saturday, 26 January 2013


Yesterday morning Mum and I got up early once again and made our way to the Gateway of India where we bought return tickets on a launch to Elephanta Island. It is 10km away and the journey is 1hr each way. We had meant to be on the 9 o'clock boat but I had an hour or so of not feeling well after breakfast and we thought better than get the boat then! All recovered, we got a boat just before 10. It was a very murky day in Mumbai (pollution is pretty bad right now) so there was very little to see from the boat...I therefore slept! On arriving at Elephanta, we had a reasonable walk to the bottom of the hill, with lots of signs telling us to "Keep your Elephanta clean" and "Do not annoy the monkeys...they will attack you." The hill was steep, long, busy, slippery and lined with stalls wanting to sell to us. Finally we arrived at the top, huffing a little, and paid our entrance fee to the site. Interestingly, it was 10 rupees for an Indian to enter and 250 for a foreigner...

The caves were created in the 5th Century AD, entirely using hammers and chisels. We saw 5 in total, with 2 of them being temples and 3 just caves (I say just loosely because for caves they were pretty amazing. The first is by far the largest and Mum and I, along with two Australian-Indian girls, took advantage of one of the free Government guides. The temple is dedicated to Shiva and she explained to us in great detail the stories and meanings behind the many different statues which displayed many different forms of Shiva (e.g. Shiva as half man half woman, Shiva the dancer, Shiva the destroyer of evil...)

We visited the other caves by ourselves, being stalked by adventurous little monkeys the whole time! It was absolutely boiling but really interesting.
The island itself is fascinating, quite tropical and very untouched for the most part (excluding the site which is very touristy).

On the way down the hill we stopped at a couple of stalls where I bought a little Ganesha statue and Mum bought a marble plate. We skipped the little train that you could take back to the jetty (it was just a tad crowded!) and walked instead, having to walk on the railway tracks at one point!
On the boat to go home (I hope you're not thinking of luxury here, they are basic to say the least and no form of health and safety is in sight!) the bottom was incredibly crowded so we forked out 10 rupees each to sit on the top deck. Wise decision, the wind was a necessity in cooling us off and it was nice to have the sun on us as we traveled and to have plenty of room.
We had a Heritage Tour of the hotel that afternoon, led by a man called Viren, whom my Dad knows. He is quite the character. He managed to make the 1.5 hour tour captivating whilst also being a major flirt!
After that we went out to dinner with Mehli and Mehru at a lovely modern Indian restaurant called the Copper Chimney.

Today we had a lovely lazy day, laying by the pool and swimming. We had lunch with Viren, a fun, lively hour or so where he requested that the song "Lady In Red" be played for me...oh dear! This afternoon Mum and I indulged in massages and I had a hair treatment (where they also cut my hair which I DIDN'T want them to do but oh well...) We are getting a car to the airport at 2230 tonight (one hours time) and I will be sad to leave this amazing place... All I can say is I'll talk to you from Sri Lanka!

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Namaste Bombay!

So we are back in Bombay in the comfort and luxury of the Taj once more.

Yesterday morning was spent at Sangam, sitting in the sun and finishing off friendship bracelets, drinking morning Chai with everyone and chatting for ages! (By the way there is nothing quite like Indian Chai tea. You get it everywhere here and it is amazing! Not too too good for you but it only comes in little espresso size cups so you're ok! Basically half whole milk, half tea, mixed with sugar, ginger, cinnamon and any other spices you fancy. Divine, rich, creamy, spicy...I think I'm in love!) After lunch we got the bags ready and headed downstairs to get our rickshaw to the station. Everyone was waiting for us to send us off in their special way. We each received an official Sangam pin badge that you can only receive if you have stayed there. We handed out a few badges that we had for everyone, took photos, hugged and got in the rickshaw. As we pulled away they sang "Go Well and Safely" until we were out of earshot. It was really lovely. Even though we'd only stayed for 3 days (far too short for both of our likings!) we really felt welcome and like part of the Sangam family. It is a wonderful, beautiful place and I really recommend everyone visits if they can!
The train was easy (apart from having to lug our super heavy suitcase across the station, over the foot bridge,up the huge vertical steps onto the train and onto the luggage rack- too much shopping!) and on time once again and at 1930 we arrived at CST in Mumbai. We got a taxi to the Taj where we were greeted with a little welcome that we had not got at 3.00 in the morning when we last arrived. We popped down to the bar by the pool for a snack before settling down for a comfy night's kip.

This morning we got up quite early at 7.15 because we had booked a tour of Mumbai at 9.00. After breakfast we headed down to reception where we were met by our lovely tour guide. She showed us round the city in a car, stopping to get out and look at certain interesting spots. She was really knowledgeable and had some great information and facts about the city for us. Throughout the tour she explained a lot about how Bombay had grown from 7 separate islands, populated by around 10,000 fisherman and no one else to the heaving metropolis that it is today. It was absolutely fascinating!
First stop was the Gateway of India which, although we had seen it quite a few times and wandered round, it turned out we didn't know so much about. She told us about the mix of architecture, the functions that had happened there, why it was built etc. After that we saw CDT (Victoria Terminus- a UNESCO world heritage site), Pune university and high court buildings, a Jain temple (like a very very strict version of Hinduism, although an entirely separate religion), Marine Drive and Chowpatty beach, before coming to Malibar Hill and the Hanging Gardens. This was a very interesting stop for us because it is an area in which many Parsis live (including much of my family) and there are several places that are particularly important to Parsis here. She told us a bit about the history of the Parsis, much of which we knew but had never been able to relate to specific places. We saw the Tower of Silence from a little distance (no one is allowed in except families of the dead and even then they are only allowed so far). Parsis worship fire and the earth so do not bury or cremate their dead. Instead they lay the body in the Tower of Silence (a set of open wells, generally one each for men, women and children) and let the vultures destroy the body. The Hanging Gardens were beautiful. There are no hanging baskets or flowers as I expected. Instead, they are called the Hanging Gardens because they are built on top of a reservoir. There is six feet of soil between the water and you when you are there and so the gardens are "hanging" above the water.
Next we went to Mani Bhavan (Ghandiji's residence when he was in Mumbai). This was a fascinating place. It is a small building but so much about Mahatma Ghandi's life is packed into it. On the top floor is the telling of  his life through a series of scenes of dolls. They are exquisitely decorated, very detailed and a really unique way of showing his life. It was definitely my favourite part. On the floor below was the room which he stayed in, set up as it had been along with several spinning wheels. There was also the telling of different aspects of his life through pictures. This exhibition had pictures of him all throughout his life as well as copies of his letters sent to Hitler and President Roosevelt, a letter regarding him written by Albert Einstein and many others. On the bottom floor is the most extensive library on Mahatma Ghandi in the world.

Next on the tour we headed to Churchgate train station to see the Dabbawala. These are the men who run the most amazing lunch system in the world. Most workers in Mumbai travel anywhere from 1-3 hours to get to work each day as they have to live in the suburbs where it is less expensive. Indians are very traditional and their lunch must be cooked on the same day as it is eaten and they always have a cooked lunch (consists of daal, veg curry, chapatti etc). This would mean someone in their house having to get up at around 4am to cook their lunch before they headed to work. This is where the dabbawala step in. They visit the houses of the workers during the mid-morning to pick up the lunchbags that someone at home has just prepared while the workers are already at work. These are then all transported by train to Churchgate station where they are passed on to dabbawala on bikes or with handheld rickshaw trolleys or very large trays on their heads who then take them to the offices and distribute them. They deliver around 200000 lunches a day. What makes it even more amazing is that the majority of dabbawala are illiterate. Writing a name or office address on the boxes would not work. They have a unique coding system that they mark on the bags. No bag ever gets lost. It's absolutely incredible. They all arrive at the station between 11.45 and 12.00 and all lunches are distributed by 13.00. The dabbawala then collect all the boxes and have them back at the workers' houses before they get home! Such a clever system...
Our next stop was quite similar. It was to see another system that has become established in Mumbai and this is the one of the Dhobi. These are the locals who do laundry for residents and local businesses. In Mumbai they work in an area known as Dhobi Ghat which is in a slum area. They take in hundreds of thousands of pieces of linen every day, from hotel towels to precious saris, and wash them using traditional methods of rubbing and hitting them against the stone sinks they use, before returning them the next day, often ironed and starched. Like the dabbawala they are illiterate so have a complex coding system and similarly, linen is never lost or returned to the wrong owner.

After the tour, we were meant to be having lunch with Mehli but as he couldn't make it, we decided to sample the Indian Starbucks. It was fab-although we did have to go through a security check to get in. They had mostly similar drinks, without some of the specials but with some extras such as the green tea lattes. The food was completely different, all Indian in general. Mum had a Chai Tea Latte and a Banana and Coconut Muffin (apparently very yummy) and I had a Shaken Iced Green Tea with syrup. I also bought a Starbucks India mug because it's awesome.

After our coffee stop, we lay by the pool for a bit and had a quick swim before getting picked up to go and see Pesi. Pesi is my Granny's brother-in-law (he is also my Grandpa's first cousin-marrying in the family is common for Parsis!) We had tea at his apartment with him and chatted for a while before meeting his sister. He is 82 and his sister is 87 and they go for a daily walk together along Chowpatty beach! They dropped us back at the Taj as we were going out for dinner at Indigo, a very fancy restaurant.

We had a lovely time at dinner before heading back to the hotel and going to the Harbour Bar where Mum tried their signature cocktail-it came complete with story telling and flames as it was mixed before our eyes!

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Culture=shopping? Fine by me!

This morning, Mum and I embarked on our Laxmi Road cultural tour with Priya and Ana from Sangam. This is something organised by Sangam and everyone had been telling us what good fun we were going to have. Laxmi Road use to be the centre of Pune but as the town has expanded into a bustling city, a new centre has developed. Now, in Laxmi Road are the temples that used to be so central, the Pune Municipal museum, the vegetable market and lots and lots of shops and market stalls.

We started off in the veg market which is absolutely ginormous. I have never seen so much fresh produce in my life and it all looked absolutely amazing! It is all grown locally and brought in fresh each day. There were so many things that I have never seen before and had absolutely no idea what they were. Mum and I were both given a little card with the pronunciation of a product in Hindi and Marathi on it and were given the task of buying as much of the product as we could with 10 rupees. Mine was pronounced adrak in Hindi and aale in Marathi. I tried communicating with the local sellers and soon found out that my product was ginger. Luckily I knew what this was and looked like! I quickly found a seller who had some and found out how much I could get for 10 rupees. I attempted flirting with him to  try and get one more piece but it was lost in translation (or at least that's what I'm telling myself!) Mum had ended up trying to find some white "icicle" radishes. We both managed to buy our produce and it will be donated to the Sangam kitchens...if there are radishes at lunch tomorrow we know where from and the ginger will no doubt be used in the sweet, rich chai tea we get at 11.00 every morning!

After this we went to bangle alley. This is one of many small alleys off Laxmi that hold mini stalls. This particular street had 10s of stalls all filled with beautiful Indian bangles. The first challenge was knowing which one to pick! We ended up choosing one because Priya knew the owner and had started chatting to him! We were quickly brought stalls and served a cup of chai before being shown and trying on all manner of bangles! I ended up buying some turquoise coloured glass ones with beautiful gold glitter on them. Mine were the Indian size. When they saw Mum they all kept saying "Ah, big size, big size!" We had been warned about this beforehand. They are not being rude in any way, they are simply proud to sell bangles which are sized for Western hands which tend to be far larger than Indian hands. Mum chose some deep pinky-purply-red ones similar t mine. The whole time she was choosing the man kept  trying to push her to get green ones and when she didn't he gave them to her for free. It turns out green bangles are what all women in India wear if they are married!

Next was the Pune Municipal Museum which is a small place in a beautiful old building that tells the history of Pune. Most of it was only written in Marathi but there were some very interesting bits in English. We were also excited to see photos of some places we had visited eg Parvati Hill. At the end of the museum was a small shop which sells products that are all handmade by the ladies who work there. It is part of an NGO so all proceeds benefit the women whom the charity helps.

The final stop on our tour was Kurti's shop where they sell all manner of Sarees and Punjabis. When inside you take your shoes off, sit on padded mats and are treated like royalty as your are shown all the different products. I chose a cheap Sari that will be good to wear in Sri Lanka (It cost 170 rupees, just under 2 pounds) and Mum chose one similar and one very fancy Sari, decorated with jewels and made of silk. The sarees come with an extra bit of fabric that is used to make the traditional blouse so when we returned to Sangam, we were measured up by their tailor. She will have them ready by lunchtime tomorrow!

In the afternoon Mum and I went to the Aga Khan Palace. This is also known as . It is where Gandhi was held after he was arrested in Bombay and it is where his ashes are kept along with Samdhi's to his wife and secretary who both died at the palace. It was a very interesting visit with lots to think about. It was a very peaceful, beautiful place in lovely grounds and gardens. It seems a fitting resting place for such an inspiration.

Monday, 21 January 2013

In and around Pune

Mum and I had taken a look at the big map in the dining room here at Sangam which shows all of the attractions nearby as well as the best restaurants, cafes etc. After looking at them we both decided that one thing we really wanted to do was go to Parvati Hill. This is the highest hill in Pune and on top of it are several temples. From the top you can get 360 views of Pune.

We set off this morning at around 9.30 and got a rickshaw which took just over 20 minutes. We walked under a big arch which took us onto a very steep path with a few steps. We huffed and puffed our way to the top and had a look around. There are about 5 different temples up there, varying in degrees of beauty and extravagance. You had to take your shoes off to go in all of them. Some of them had lots of pictures, paintings and information in them while others were just left to explain themselves. All had extravagant and beautiful statues of the gods and spirits that they worshipped. We walked around them all before coming to the last one. In this one it is possible to pay 5 rupees to go up onto the terrace (which has no railing) and from there you can get the best view possible of Pune. It was amazing. It was quite hazy because of all the smog that is around but it definitely showed us the scale of the city. By this point it had also gotten very hot and we enjoyed walking around in the sun for a bit before heading back down the hill. It was a slightly strange place because it is right in the middle of the city (the entrance is on a main road) but as soon as you start climbing the hill it becomes very peaceful, calm and quiet. It was a very serene morning and a lovely trip.

After lunch we were taken on a neighbourhood tour by Sayali, a staff member here who lives in the neighbourhood. We walked around seeing some temples, schools and homes. We were shocked that in this community of around 200 families there were Hindu temples, a buddhist temple, a mosque and a church. It is a very diverse place. We saw both legal and illegal slums before heading to Sayali's house where we met her mother who greeted us by marking our foreheads with turmeric and vermillion and giving us some little Indian sweets. We also got to see Sayali's cat's 3 day old kittens. They were adorable but so small they almost didn't seem like cats!

It was a very enjoyable day where we discovered a lot about Pune and local families.

I finally worked out a way to transfer my pictures over to the computer here only to discover that Flickr has a monthly limit on photo uploading so I couldn't add any more! I started adding them on photobucket instead but it was an incredibly slow process (the internet here is iffy) and not all of them have uploaded. Still, you can see them here:

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Safe in Sangam

Well, we have arrived in Sangam! There is internet, but only on their computers so I cannot upload any pictures.

The train journey here was a fun experience. We left the hotel at 0600 in a taxi and arrived at the station with masses of time. The info boards were all in Marathi but we managed to locate our platform. We had prebooked seats and they were easy enough to find. All in all, the train was much nicer than I had been picturing. Sure, it was old and rusty and appeared to be made of tin, but we had reasonably comfy fake leather seats, some air conditioning and some lovely fellow passengers-I was sat next to a lovely lady from a town just outside Pune and we had a nice chat. The train left exactly on time so it was doing better than a lot of trains in the UK! I spent the 4 hour journey sleeping, knitting and looking out of the pink-tinted windows which was slightly odd! Men walk up and down the aisles constantly, selling all sorts from Chai coffee and tea, to biscuits to idli to tomato soup. Best not to try any of that though the Chai smelt rather appetising! The "wildest" part of the journey was going to the loo and even that wasn't as bad as I'd been expecting. Yes, it was a hole in the ground that had to be used while the train was moving but it was a pretty clean hole in the ground so what more can you ask for?

When we got off the train in Pune we followed the crowds. Initially we took the shortcut out of the station which wouldn't have been a problem if we weren't meeting someone fom Sangam at the main entrance. We soon found her and all headed towards one of the motorised rickshaws: