Boys’ Tour

It would be an understatement to say Mrs J was not overly amused when I informed her that, while she was returning to Blighty for two weeks, the Boys and I were heading to Borneo. The flight confirmation had barely arrived in my inbox before they’d dutifully learned the basic rule of all boys’ tours; what happens on them, stays on them. This did little to placate Mrs J, of course.

Fast forward three or four weeks. Time to say our goodbyes to Sam at Kuala Lumpur airport and, perhaps more importantly, time to outline some further ground rules about boys’ tours. Namely disregard for conventional house rules about fizzy drinks and chocolate, brushing teeth religiously, limited TV and not playing rough and tumble at bedtime! And so, with their bottles of fizzy pop and duty free Hot Wheels, we flew to Borneo in search of its unique wildlife and the adventure of a lifetime.

 

There were many highlights and moments that I’ll cherish and no doubt share again with the boys in years to come. But there are two things in particular that I think defined my experience of our short time together without Sam.

The first was seeing the amazing wildlife with George. Or, more accurately, watching George see all the wildlife. After all, this was always going to be more George’s bailiwick than Tom’s. Anyway, we’re scarcely a week in to our tour and we’ve already seen Orangutang in Semenggoh Nature Reserve and visited the Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre that, as the name suggests, looks after all manner of animals including hundreds (perhaps an over estimate) of crocodiles. We’d also seen sea otters, monitor lizards, Bornean bearded pigs and mud skippers. So far, so good.

Yet it was one animal sighting in particular that stands out more than any other for me. We were being led on a night walking safari in Bako National Park. It was sweltering hot, humid and pitch black, save for the lights on our head torches. There was the constant ringing in our ears of crickets and cicadas, frogs and the occasional owl. Suddenly, George jumped off the boardwalk into dense woodland having just spotted a large scorpion glowing under the beam of his UV torch. Aside from seeing a real live dinosaur, which even my 5 year old knows isn’t going to happen, I cannot imagine seeing him more excited! I, on the other hand, nearly had heart failure and so too our guide, who jumped into the bush after him! Tomas, meanwhile, missed most of the excitement of that evening, including sightings of a tarantula, Pit Vipers, more scorpions, poisonous tree frogs, giant ants and millipedes, because he fell asleep on my back. George on the other hand could not stop smiling for days and promised to tell Steve Backshall (his hero) all about it when he gets home.

It’s also worth mentioning at this juncture that by the end of our first week on tour it had become apparent that to some the appearance of a single man with two children was a curiosity not to be missed. And so it was that on numerous occasions I was asked to explain, firstly, the whereabouts of “their Mother” and, secondly, my relation to the Boys! I obliged, naturally, and explained that “their Mother” (who by happy coincidence happens to be my Wife) had returned home for a family wedding and that our family unit would be soon be reunited in Singapore. But it nevertheless struck me as a peculiar thing to ask a stranger. Especially given the lack of other preliminary pleasantries, such as “hi, where are you from?”, which was often the case.

Now for second most memorable moment of my time with the boys. Put simply it was our playtime, of which there was lots. The most popular game we invented was named ‘Animal Theatre’ and entailed the Boys hiding behind a curtain whilst I did a “Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls….” type introduction, before they’d emerge from their hiding place and proceed to the other side of the bedroom whilst mimicking their chosen animal. I’d have to guess which animal they were. You get the idea, I hope. Tomas was in his element, throwing his heart and soul into his performances – a sign of things to come perhaps? George similarly got stuck in, although there’s only so many times I can see a T-Rex impression in the confined space of a hostel bedroom. If Animal Theatre was the main act of an evening, some rough and tumble was the encore. With Tomas and me pitted against George in a Sumo style wrestling match. Happily, our neighbours in adjacent rooms didn’t complain (or so I’m aware) and our matches were only curtailed by one of us either shouting our safe word, “bananas!”, or urgently needing to use the toilet before an accident ensued.

 

And so, dear reader, much of the detail of what happened on tour has stayed on tour. And rightly so. However, I hope you get the gist of what we got up to. We met some wonderful people on our trip; notably a family from Queensland and an expat family in Singapore. Plus we had a lovely time chilling out in Melaka (which is a bit like Camden, only warmer). We even managed to squeeze in Jurassic Park and Singapore Zoo and wash down a few pints of Guinness in a pub. Lastly, I successfully managed to hand our children back to ‘their Mother’ still in one piece!

 

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Vietnam part II

We’d heard many good things about Hoi An and, happily, it lived up to expectations. Beautiful architecture, in particular the lanes of the Old Town and its riverside setting; the vibrant paddy fields; and a gorgeous stretch of beach (An Bang). To boot, Hoi An boasts some of the best eateries and best food we’d had in Vietnam. Unsurprisingly, therefore, our stay of initially a few nights was extended by a further week so we could enjoy exploring the many delights of this fine city.  We were also reunited with our Kiwi friends who had, coincidentally, rented a house on the edge of town and invited us to stay for a while. Happy days.

Of the many highlights from that week, though, Sam and my ‘afternoon date’ enjoying a wonderful walking street food tour was the best.  As our friends kindly minded the children, we gorged our way around the city, stuffing ourselves silly on some nine courses of local foods, including White rose, Waterfern cake, Cao Lau and supposedly the best banh mi in Vietnam. I should point out too that despite our adventurousness, we politely declined the fertilised egg containing a duck embryo (Balut) on grounds that it sounded disgusting.  As we walked around between courses, Sam was also afforded plenty of time to window-shop and indeed coveted many dresses and shoes en route. Not so silently, she vowed to return to Hoi An one day with an empty suitcase and her credit card. She did manage to have a couple of dresses made in the time we were there, citing an upcoming family wedding as reasonable justification!

We eventually dragged ourselves away from Hoi An and commenced the Northern leg of our Vietnam tour. Next stop, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park – home to the oldest karst mountains in Asia and some of the largest and deepest cave systems in the World.

After a day of relaxing (well, I say relaxing, but I had us cycle 20 ish km round the old village of Phong Nha in 35+ degree heat), we headed off on motorbikes in pursuit of The Dark Cave and afterwards Paradise Cave. Whilst the latter provided the classic cathedral-like splendour of a giant cave (all 31 kilometres of it) set in stunning forrest clad karsts, it was the former cave that provided us with the fun and laughter. The Dark Cave and the complex surrounding it was packed with enough surprises to keep us amused for several hours, including zip wire rides into the river (George showed his Mother how to do it!), river kayaking and, the best of all, a cave room with a mud bath so thick, even I was able to float! Once everyone was semi-submerged, we held the childrens’ hands as the head torches were switched off and absolute darkness was enjoyed. The sensation was incredible and brought out the child in everyone!

The following evening, with mud still soaked into our swimmers, we boarded another sleeper bus, this one bound for Hanoi. The inglorious details of this trip have already been provided, so I shall spare them here. Suffice to say, however, we were very pleased and relieved to eventually arrive at our next hostel in the capital. Our arrival was made even more pleasurable by not one but two warm welcomes. The first by Alice, the very friendly manager of our new home, and the second by The Brooks family, who we’d met through an online forum and had arranged to put faces to names and have a fun evening together before they departed the following morning.

Having been on the road for many months now, the childrens’ current appetite and enthusiasm for all things cultural – museums, temples and the like – is not exactly at an all-time high. So, when I suggested we visit Hanoi’s Museum of Ethnology, a large collection of tribal art and artefacts, my expectations were that we’d be in and out within an hour, with the children wholly unimpressed. Fortunately, I was wrong. In fact, we were so enthralled by the exhibits (George included), we managed to lose Tomas momentarily. Once his screams were answered by some helpful Indian tourists on the floor beneath us, we were reunited and learned that he was playing hide and seek – albeit on his own, poor boy!

With a week left in Vietnam, we decided to visit Cat Ba Island & Cat Ba National Park. It was from there we would also be able to explore the famous limestone islands of Halong Bay.


Like other places we’ve visited in Vietnam, Phong Nha, Mui Ne to name but two, Cat Ba is a boom town, which has unapologetically and unsympathetically developed in order to cater for the recent influx of tourists. That said, the surrounding countryside, including the national park, and the several hundred islands peppering the gulf remain the star attractions and rightly so. So whilst the food and the hotels weren’t the finest Vietnam had to offer, the scenery certainly was and we enjoyed several days venturing round the island and exploring the bays.  Unfortunately, our stay was accompanied by the arrival of Typoon Kujira, which aside from shutting the island down for day, reeked only minimal damage and relative normality was restored the following day. The highlight of our time on Cat Ba was the day long boat trip where we swam, kayaked and I hurled myself off a cliff into the bay.


Lastly, it was back to Hanoi for a few days before our departure for Thailand.  It has become customary for us, when we’re preparing to leave a country, to spend this time decluttering our backpacks, replenishing the missing stationery and Lego, completing some much overdue “home” admin and sending a postcard to my nieces in Sydney.  Hanoi was no exception.  Naturally, too, we do retrospective of our last few weeks and, in truth, whilst we enjoyed the last two months in Vietnam, we were definitely ready to leave. It was easy to get around logistically, but I would be lying if I said it was the friendliest place we’ve visited. The occasional touching by locals of young children’s private parts (in order to determine their sex, apparently) was a particularly unpleasant cultural trait of which any travelling parent should be wary. Nevertheless, resounding memories of Vietnam are George and I bouncing down the zip wire together before plunging into the river, a mud bath with the family and Tomas and George showing the Hipsters how to tear up a dance floor in a club in Hanoi!

Good evening, Vietnam. Thailand, we’re on our way back.

Cruising the Yangzi River

After many planes, trains and various forms of automobile, we decided it was time to slow the pace down for a few days and book ourselves onto a cruise up China’s longest and most beautiful river, the Yangzi.

 

For the first time in a while, arguably since we left the Himalayas in December, this was to be a trip where the destination was irrelevant compared to the journey itself. 

 

Despite a jittery start involving a bus driver refusing to drive the bus, an occupational hazard some might suggest, we were eventually transported from Yichang to Maoping Port, home of the immense Three Gorges Dam, where we boarded our new home for the coming three nights. 

 

The word cruise may conjure up scenes of opulence, we were however on a bog standard Chinese tourist boat. Our “luxury” cabin, in estate agents’ parlance, was compact and bijoux, comprising of two single beds, a desk and a shower over a poorly plumbed toilet. But we soon settled down as the ship set sail westward up the vast river.

 

We were, unsurprisingly, the only Westerners on board and, for some of our fellow passengers at least, we were as much of an attraction as the Three Gorges themselves. I say we, but of course I mean the Boys who have been the subject  matter of more photos with strangers than we’ve managed to capture of them. I had hoped quietly that the novelty of their presence would wear off after day one. Alas their appeal proved timeless, to the point where our cohorts were still mega-pixelating their way into our cabin (uninvited, but still welcome) on the final evening. Some were still perplexed, if not bemused, at Tomas’s attire, or lack thereof. Yes, despite the cooler weather in China he still insists on being underdressed for every occasion. 

  

Apart from one young boy the average age of our fellow passenger was somewhere in the mid sixties. The men smoked, drank and played cards whilst the women sat around in small groups setting the world to rights. Everyone was friendly enough but our lack of Mandarin did exclude us somewhat from life onboard. 

 

As we sailed our merry way up the Yangzi, we enjoyed the scenery and the occasional opportunity to stretch our legs on shore visits. These being rarer than we’d anticipated as the itinerary we were sold was entirely different to that of the boat. I’d wax lyrical about the temples we visited if only the English translations about them had made any sense. Nevertheless Sam and I enjoyed the architecture whilst the boys were more interested in perusing the souvenir stalls.

 

Happily we did at least get to see the gorges. The most imposing of which were the Qutang Gorge and the Wu Gorge. So impressive is the former that the Chinese have even featured it on their ¥10 bill. A cheesy photo opportunity if ever there was one! 

  

Dining on the boat was a eclectic mix of the familiar: fruit, various Chinese dishes and the occasional peanut butter sandwich; to the less familiar (and slightly peculiar): sausage meat with sweetcorn and fish scented boiled eggs. The latter ended up being binned on the grounds that they were insanely disgusting.

 

On the final night, with the Boys sound asleep and Sam continuing her recent winning streak at Scrabble, we docked in our final port, Chongqing. A dazzling skyline by night, unfortunately dismal by day, when we finally disembarked. 

 

 

 

 

We saw Mysore

‘If you haven’t been to Mysore, you haven’t seen South India’, so says the Lonely Planet. If rather conceited, it is certainly no overstatement. With its glittering royal palace, bustling bazaars and relatively relaxed pace of life, Mysore was indeed well worth the twelve hour sleeper train journey from Hospet.

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We enjoyed our four night stay in a budget hotel just off Gandhi Square, from which we explored the city’s highlights including: Mysore Palace, a stunning and opulent royal residence of the former maharaja (rebuilt by a Brit in 1912 after the original building was gutted by fire in 1897); Chamundi Hill and the Sri Chamundeswari Temple, the Hindu temple that sits at the 1062m summit of the hill; and the obligatory trip to Mysore Zoo and the Museum of Natural History. Alas, we we didn’t get to visit the Sand Museum! Shame, I know.

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Our trip to Mysore was made all the more pleasurable by the arrival of our friends, who we’d first met in Goa a few weeks earlier. Bridie (4), her Mum and Aunty joined us for a few days and, whilst the children enjoyed playing Mr & Mrs Dolphin (it made sense to them at least), the grown ups were afforded some time for retail therapy at the Silk markets and Sam and I took up their generous offer to babysit and enjoyed our first Date Night since departing Brighton. We all enjoyed squeezing four adults and three children into various rickshaws to see the sights.

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Finally, this short post on Mysore wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the camera-shy yellow cows and, without question, the finest Indian breakfast I’ve ever eaten. The former, we were informed, was due to Makara Sankrati, the festival of harvest held a week prior to our visit. We only discovered their camera shy nature when Sam and Tomas were charged by Daisy, much to George’s and my amusement.

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Whilst the latter came about by a chance recommendation by a local gentlemen who pointed us in the general direction. After 15 minutes wandering the back allies of Mysore, we were soon tucking into wonderful Masala Dosa and Vada.

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On being Intrepid

For me being intrepid meant being active, adventurous, outdoors and seeking the next thrill. Indeed, one of the main reasons for leaving the nine-to-five (more like seven-to-eight) was to take my family on an adventure around the world and broaden their, and my horizons. We wanted to leave the fish bowl and explore what’s outside. And, as is clear from our previous blog posts, we’ve clocked up many miles (and spent many pounds) actively being intrepid.

So, I must confess, sitting still on a beach in Goa and just being present in the moment was not really on my agenda. Sitting still does not come naturally to me, as some of you know.

Having been here for a few weeks, however, I’ve realised that being intrepid doesn’t always have to be huge, tiring strides up mountains or hours spent on expeditions. My two sons have shown me repeatedly that being intrepid can be as simple as learning to jump off rocks into the sea and swim back to shore again. Or taking off your armbands for the first time and wading into the sea alone and free.

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Or having the confidence to walk up to other children on the beach and then build such a bond that we enjoy their company for a few fun-filled precious days. They flourish and continue to stretch themselves in ways that I hadn’t anticipated before we arrived in Goa – and stood still – and it’s been beautiful to watch.

But as I watched my sons being themselves, being intrepid, I realised that something still wasn’t right. What was wrong, I wondered. Then, within a few days of our arrival, it struck me. It was Christmas Day, the sun was setting and I was watching my boys mess around in the waves. That was it; I was only watching them and not being and playing with them. It’s very difficult to admit, but sometimes being a dad is bloody hard and I don’t know what to do for the best. “Leave them be, they’re playing well on their own”, although sometimes that’s perfectly true and appropriate, it can easily become a default setting, a comfortable place with limited risk but filled with missed opportunities. There was only one thing for it. I dived in, joined the boys and I enjoyed the best Christmas Day of my life. The sunset wasn’t bad either!

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So as the boys are relishing being intrepid still, I’m enjoying learning from them and just being still. As one of my best friends said recently before we left; somethings are just more important than others. So perhaps putting less emphasis on being intrepid and more on being with the Johnsons is more important.

Happy New Year!

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Nightbus to Pokhara

Hitherto we have failed in our relatively short quest to spot wild Bengali Tigers on safari. But as one swallow doesn’t make a Summer, an hour and a half spent seated in the back of a travelling jeep in Ranthambhore hardly means we have put our backs into the pursuit either. To remedy this, we decided to try again. This time we headed to Bardia National Park, which the Lonely Planet informed us ‘has excellent wildlife-watching opportunities’. We were sure to have more success than in India.

But before I disclose that we still haven’t seen a tiger, I’d like to share the more unforeseen, yet unforgettable, experiences we had during the circa 28 hours spent on the bus rides bookending our trip to and from Bardia. I should point out that we were advised by guide books and local press not to take the public buses overnight, we nonetheless decided to take the public buses, which, by happy coincidence, travelled overnight. What could possibly go wrong, we thought.

Below is a snapshot of just some of highlights (or lowlights, depending on how you look at these things!) of our two journeys:

1. The drivers’ delighting us with their playlists. Comprising chiefly of Indian dance music, which to the more unaccustomed ear sounded like the same female vocalist on every track; the drivers played their banging tunes at full blast and throughout the night. Not terribly conducive to sleeping or, for the children, listening to audiobooks! I had hoped that our Roy Oberson look-a-like driver would have had a more varied taste in music. Alas, I was wrong. The odd moments of respite from the noise came with the hourly stops, in the milddle of nowhere and for no apparent or obvious reason.

2. The unique air-conditioning / climate control system. Whilst we had to a certain extent prepared for the cold temperatures, with hats, fleeces and the like. We had not foreseen missing windows, fellow passengers smoking or vomiting out of windows and, on the outbound trip to Bardia, a minor incident involving our bus which resulted in the windscreen being completely disintegrated. The near zero degree temperature quickly dropped to sub-zero and the driver – full credit to him – drove on, albeit with a duvet wrapped round him for warmth.

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3. My emergency comfort break at 3am and the bus driving away before I’d completed business. Enough said and all better now, thanks!

4. Our fellow passengers. From the squawking hen who at some ungodly hour sought (but failed) to make a run for it from her overhead compartment seat; to the inebriated party of gentlemen who’d plainly enjoyed a long and liquid lunch before embarking. For some of them, the booze helped them slunk into their seats and into a deep sleep for most of the way back to pokhara. For others, however, they continued to party; singing and dancing along to the Bhangra beats. Also their chosen digestive comprised of chewing tobacco – a usually discrete, if not cancerous, pastime. But, and you can take it from me personally, being showered by half masticated tobacco as they sought (and failed) to spit the toxic substance out of a moving bus, is far from discrete. Despite of my lack of Nepali, I am confident I conveyed my disgust to the particular gentleman concerned.

5. Musical chairs of a different nature. With all good public transport routes anywhere in the World, the Brighton to London commute included, there is little, if any, correlation between the number of tickets sold to the space actually available on the carriage. The bus route to and from Bardia was, happily, no exception; our buses at times were heaving with passengers (and poultry) and their many possessions. What was more ingenious was, despite the crammed conditions, the contortionists among them still managed to rest themselves in the tightest of spaces. One enterprising individual lay down with a blanket in the aisle and slept the whole journey. I just had George to contend with, which was ample for me.

In summary, the guide books and local press, in my humble opinion, have it wrong; a trip on a public night bus is an experience not to be missed. I won’t go so far as to say it was enjoyable, but that’s not the point. By boarding them, you’re afforded a genuine glimpse at real life, which at times can be as entertaining and funny as it can be horrifying. To some extent, my experience was no different to a night bus journeys I’ve had in London – the aroma of vomit, and pissed passengers enjoying a kebab, or a cuddle or a even sleep, but, for the vast majority of the time, all just wanted to get home.

Ps. As I eluded to above, we alas didn’t see any Tigers, but I’ll leave my wife to fill you in about our time searching for them at Bardia.

North India

The final leg of our adventures in India was, for me, the most enjoyable. Whilst Rajasthan, with its well documented Golden Triangle route, was a feast for the senses (not necessarily a good thing, at times) we headed North, to the mountains, for the cleaner air, fewer crowds and Tibetan food.

This part of the trip had us awestruck at not just one, but two, spiritual homes; watch a grown man mummify himself in toilet paper before setting himself alight; gatecrash lunchtime at a school; take a night bus with a blow-up T-Rex; enjoy a full(ish) English breakfast in Kipling’s favourite resort, Shimla; and take a toy train (literally) to a rock garden (literally, also).

The first of the spiritual encounters came in Amritsar, the Punjabi capital and, more specifically, home of Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple.

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With heads covered and secured by knots (as well as with bribes of chocolate for keeping said heads covered throughout our visit) we respectfully bathed our feet and entered one of India’s most serene and humbling sights. Despite the many hundreds making pilgrimages, there were times you could almost hear a pin drop. We walked barefoot on the white marble walkway around the Amrit Sarovar (Pool of Nectar), from which Amritsar takes its name. The boys enjoying carp spotting en route.

The Golden Temple itself, floating at the end of a long causeway, adorned with flowers and animal motifs was a true highlight of our trip thus far. The whole complex had an air of spirituality and even the boys were calm.

Our second spiritual encounter came some days later with our chance meeting with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama at Tsuglagkhang Complex, McLeod Ganj.

The more organised and prepared visitors – worshippers and tourists alike – had in advance researched HH dates in residence, arranged their security passes, made adequate arrangements for sitting on the cold, polished concrete floor for many hours and tuned in to FM92 for live translations of HH’s public teachings. This teaching was a three-day event hosted at the request of Korean Buddhists, who are otherwise unable for various reasons to see their spiritual leader in their home country.

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For us, however, it was an absolute fluke. Being, to put it simply, in the right place at the right time. Suffice to say, both Sam and I were highly excited at the prospect of hearing him teach and, ultimately, were not disappointed.

McLeod Ganj, provided three further treats during our short stay there. One evening we decided to see what was billed as a ‘cultural event, of dance and music’. In fairness, it was all three of those things; and more. His stage name was Lionman (derived, one might imagine, from his long mane) and when he wasn’t throwing himself bare-chested at the walls, electrocuting himself and jumping out of the windows, he was crawling all over the bemused crowd and, as mentioned above, demonstrating the flammable properties of tissue paper. Please don’t try this at home, kids!

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The next day, we thought it would be good for the children to see, well, other children. It was respite for us also. So we made a few subtle enquiries and were told of a local infants school, which coincidently was Lionman’s chosen venue the previous night.

Happily however the charred remains of Lionman’s hair and the tissue paper had been removed and, alas, little people were sitting on the floor enjoying noodles for lunch in the sunshine. We were then invited, by a teacher, to join them and for the proceeding two hours or more we played with the children and shared ‘Children’s Day’ with them – a day where the teachers did very little, whilst students were allowed a free rein to play! It was a win-win!

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Lastly, we headed to Bhagsunag Waterfall. A short trek, not surprisingly, upwards from our guest house and a welcome change from the thoroughfare of McLeod Ganj. We all enjoyed a cold paddle in the falls, whilst the Indian tourists looked on in horror as two fair skinned Brightonian boys stripped off to their pants and made the most of the cooling water.

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Our next destination was the hill town, Shimla, former capital of the British Raj during the hot summer months, now capital city of Eastern Himachal Pradesh and a seven-hour night bus ride south from Dharamsala.

Our journey was made all the less enjoyable by the addition of a blow-up T-Rex, which a fellow passenger (with the best will in the world) had kindly given to Tomas as a ‘cuddlie’ for the night. He eventually tired of it, as well as the days events, and fell asleep. The next morning, after a brief nap in our hotel, we enjoyed a stroll along the Mall, a horse ride for the boys, and a hearty English breakfast near Scandal Point (we never did find out what precisely was the scandal from which the place derived its name?).

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We had intended staying in Shimla for two days. Somewhere along the way however we miscalculated our time available – specifically we had managed to lose a day. Accordingly, we hotfooted it the next morning to the station to board a Toy train to Kalka, with a connection to Chandigarh. The train was, as the name suggests, a jolly experience with a scenic, winding decent from the mountains, passing 103 tunnels On the way (the boys lost count, or rather got bored counting them, after 7).

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The next day, we visited Chandigarh’s Nek Chand Rock Garden. A surreal sculpture garden, which is like something from Alice in Wonderland. A weird and wonderful place created by Nek Chang out of concrete and recycled junk, including broken bathroom sinks and bicycle frames! It was superb.

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In the afternoon, we boarded a dragon-shaped pedaloe and floated for an hour on another of Nek Chang’s creations, Suhna Lake. In short, we had a wonderful day in Chandigarh, playing in the garden and lake and thanks Steve Barnes for the recommendation! We loved it.

Lastly, it was back to the mayhem of Delhi to catch our flight to Nepal.

In sum, through luck rather than design, we saved the best of India until last and left the subcontinent (albeit, temporarily) on a high note.

Rajasthan Part 1 – Delhi to Udaipur

Our second week saw us swap the capital of India for the chaotic capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur. With its colourful bazaars, Pink City and the marvellous Amber Fort, Jaipiur was certainly a feast for the eyes.

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Rajasthan, more generally, is regarded as the Land of the Kings as the much fabled realms of the Maharaja with their majestic forts and lavish palaces certainly left their mark on the State.

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The Children’s senses, on the other hand, we’re more enlightened by the sight of many rats scurrying around the place and the taste sensation of Bounce biscuits! Akin to chocolate custard creams, they’re the new must-have in their worldly adventures.

Afterwards, we set off to Ranthambhore National Park in search of Tigers. Alas, after a few hours of bouncing along on the back of a safari jeep, which were not doing any of our stomachs any good at all, we called it an afternoon and returned to our hostel without a single sighting.

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Later I learned that there are only around 38 tigers roaming a reserve of some 1334 sq km. The odds were firmly stacked against us. Over dinner we met a couple amateur wildlife photographers from Mumbai who had enjoyed a couple of close encounters with the elusive tigers. They said their first couple of trips were unsuccessful, leaving us with the feeling that it was indeed a numbers game depending on the number of rupees!

Next we headed to the pastel hued pilgrimage (hippy) town of Pushkar.
Our arrival, happily, coincided with the month of Karkita, which, to the uninitiated, is the eighth lunar month in the Hindu calendar (and one of the holiest) and is marked faithfully by the arrival of around 200,000 people from across India (and East Sussex) for the Pushkar Fair. A week long Indian style county fair. But instead of cows and sheep on show, camels and horses were this fair’s fodder. It was , to put it mildly, quite an experience.

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Pushkar lake is surrounded by temples and ghats where the pilgrims bathe. Add to the mix, many cafés that wouldn’t be out of place in Amsterdam and a wonderful street bazaar, this was a real highlight and a must-see for anyone thinking of travelling this state.

Last up, after a day on the road we arrived in what is purportedly the most romantic city in Rajasthan, Udaipur (or ‘You-da-poor’, as Tomas would say it innocently!). Famed for its lake vistas and labyrinthine palace and bazaars, Udaipur was indeed stunning.

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The flip side though was that any romance that one might have indulged in was rudely interrupted by near-death experiences of being ran over many times by the many hundreds of horn blowing (no romantic pun intended) motor cyclists zipping through the lanes in all directions.

Highlights & lowlights this week:

G: Bounce biscuits the TV commercial; bounce biscuits the real thing. He has at last cottoned on to charging people IR10.00 to have their photo with him. This translates to more bounce biscuits! On a less positive note, however, he’s realised that tracking and seeing tigers in the wild is actually quite difficult, time consuming and often uncomfortable and unrewarding. Hats off to the BBC Natural History department; and he learned that trapping his fingers in the door of a cable car is a most unpleasant experience.

T: riding an elephant and getting a new purple dress with elephants printed on it; followed closely by bounce biscuits! Lowlight, laundry days since both his purple skirt and new dress went off to be cleaned and he was left with shorts and t-shirt. What mean parents that boy has!

Mrs J: loving the sights and sounds of Rajasthan. Especially enjoyed the laid back vibe of Pushkar. The pace of travel isn’t working for me as think whole family (boys in particular) are struggling with lack of downtime.

Me: Dad dancing with the boys to MTV India at every opportunity; I’m loving the spicy food and the occasional cold Kingfisher! ok, the bounce biscuits are nice too; and discovering peaceful parks and play areas for the children to run around in. Lowlights, rescuing said children from said play area as there’s typically a gaping hole on the side and one of the boys has fallen through it it got stuck !

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