Hong Kong (or how to blow the budget)

Our flight from Calcutta was at 12.40am (aka ridiculous o’clock when travelling with children). And in keeping with the chaos of the city the journey to the airport was rather, well, chaotic. A tram had broken down in the middle of a crossroad causing major gridlock. Happily we had left plenty of time so enjoyed the drama without the worry of a missed flight.

 

Check in was also eventful. Our first experience of Air Asia’s dubious fine print and a hefty pay out for onward baggage transfer. Also the algorithm’s of the booking system are idiotic as 3 year old T was allocated a seat on his own. The journey itself was fine and we even managed to (finally) purchase a Lonely Planet for China.


Arrival in Hong Kong was like a dream. So clean, so efficient and so easy. We were certainly dazzled by the bright lights and after checking into our teeny room we made a bee-line for the familiarity of M&S food hall. 

Our guesthouse was in the backpacker destination of Chunking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui. An old tenement block packed with ‘budget’ lodgings. Accommodation in Hong Kong is notoriously expensive and you really don’t get much bang for your buck. Whereas a double room had always been ample for the four of us in India the double bed we were presented with was akin to a large single in a broom cupboard so we shelled out for a (not much) bigger ‘family’ room complete with shower over toilet. But it was comfortable and oh so clean.

 

After five months on the road most of our clothes were falling apart. We were due some serious retail therapy and that is something Hong Kong dishes out in (Gucci emblazoned) bucket loads. We wandered round the many shining shopping malls in open-mouthed wonderment. And we spent. New outfits. New lego. New shoes for the boys. We were the definition of shop ’til you drop. 

We managed to shake free of the consumer trance we were under and venture past the bright lights and shopping malls to see what else Hong Kong had on offer. We visited the Tian Tan Buddha (tallest seated bronze Buddha in the world) and Po Lin monastery at Ngong Ping on Lan Tau  Island. It was a steep climb up to the ‘big Buddha’ and sadly low cloud blocked the apparently stunning views but it was impressive nonetheless.


The weather was kinder to us when we rode the MTR out to the New Territories to follow the Peng Shan Heritage Trail. Where we had a glimpse of pre-colonial Hong Hong with fascinating ancestral halls and walled villages.


The kids enjoyed sampling Hong Kong’s many playgrounds and we enjoyed sitting back watching them play, safe in the knowledge there wouldn’t be a gaping rusty hole in the slide. They loved Disneyland and Ocean Park. I was less enamoured by the latter finding the layout hard to navigate but the aquarium was spectacular.


Temple street night market was a real highlight. We really enjoyed perusing all the wares on offer albeit whilst shielding the boys from some of the more adult stalls. There was a great atmosphere and the fresh seafood (straight from a bucket on the pavement) was delicious.


Hong Kong had us; hook, line and sinker. Our week there flew by in a blur of socialising and fine dining. We loved the ease of the metro and the fun of the Star Ferry. We ate some amazing pan Asian food. We rekindled friendships we’d made long ago and far away with people who now call Hong Kong home. And even had childcare for a night out on the town. 


It was a great place to recharge the batteries (and empty the wallet). And we consumed enough wine and cheese to fortify us through the next chapter of our adventure. Watch out China, the Johnsons are coming. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keralaaaaaa

A three hour bus ride took us from Mysore to Sultan Batheri in the Wayanad district of Kerala. The journey passed very pleasantly marred only by a slight concern that a fellow passenger’s luggage may escape it’s precarious position and land on my head.

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We found a great restaurant and enjoyed a beautifully spiced biryani and set meal. Fully fortified we squeezed into an auto and headed to Spice Garden Farmhouse where we would hang our hats for the next few days.

The farm is set on 15 acres of coffee, rubber and spice plantation, with a stream, swing, tree house and rabbits. It was a really beautiful place to while away the hours. The boys loved having company in the form of Santosh’s daughters and nieces. During our visit we got to pick coffee beans and learnt how to make rubber sheets.

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We arrived on a Sunday followed by a Public holiday and a state-wide strike. Whilst this meant we didn’t get to visit the nearby wildlife reserve it did afford us with plenty of time with Santosh and his wonderful family who were hosting us. Not to mention all the delicious South Indian food we devoured!

Our next destination was Fort Cochin (read about the fun we had getting there here). We enjoyed having a go on the Chinese fishing nets, seeing a crab sculpture made from waste plastic and wandering through the back alleys admiring Indian antiques and the beautiful architecture. Other than that it was hot, expensive and full of mosquitos. We were quick to move on.

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A chance conversation lead us to Mararikulum. A beautiful and wild stretch of beach on the Keralan coast near to Alleppy. Think postcard perfect; white sand, palm trees and few people.

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We turned up and schlepped down the beach with our backpacks looking for a place to stay. Happily we found a great guest house with a lovely garden, hammocks and lots of friends for the boys to play with. One of whom invited us to visit her school, which is memorable not least for Nick’s basketball demonstration during break time.

Our next stop was another homestay. This time in the backwaters of Kerala.

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I was really looking forward to this part of the trip and it more than exceeded expectations. We were taken on an afternoon tour by canoe through the waterways around Munroe Island and Ashtamundi lake. It was very peaceful and we enjoyed close encounters with many bird species and a beautiful sunset.

The following day our host Vijeesh took us out on a walk round the village. He is very funny and was great at engaging the boys. He told us about many of the plants including a hydrophobic leaf that has been used to model technical waterproofs, an exploding seed pod and he showed us what happens when you slap a fern leaf against your skin.

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(we haven’t been able to it ourselves so will need to find out the trick!)

We also popped into the village kindergarten where we experienced an uncomfortable silence until Nick burst into song, which at least made me laugh, if none of the children.

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We also visited the ladies working hard sorting nuts in the cashew production factory, and some others spinning cotton. The boys cooled off with a dip in the river.

Kerala is a beautiful state; the spice covered hills, the golden sands and the palm fringed back waters. The pace of life seems slower than elsewhere in India, and the food is some of the best we’ve had. It is with happy hearts and happy tummies that we head into Tamil Nadu.

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Trains, planes and auto rickshaws

The plan was simple. Travel by bus from Wayanad in Northern Kerala to Kochi on the coast, changing in Calicut. But you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men.

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The first leg passed smoothly enough. We’d gotten an auto from our farm stay to the bus stand in Sultan Bathery and boarded the Kerala State Transport Corporation bus. The scenery was beautiful as we passed through plantations of rubber, coffee, banana and tea. And even the 9 hairpin bends coming downhill didn’t phase us (it was nothing compared to a certain bus journey in Nepal).

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We arrived in Calicut and, after having brought some provisions for the journey, sought the next bus. We were shepherded onboard by a conductor assuring us his was heading for Kochi.

We got comfortable (well as comfortable as we could squeezed into two seats) and settled in for the ride. I promptly fell asleep. Sometime later I woke to the sound of the boys bickering and my frazzled husband trying to mediate. Nick saw I was awake and casually mentioned that he didn’t think we were going the right way.

I dug out our now well-thumbed Lonely Planet and checked the map. We had indeed been going the wrong way. For two hours. We made our enquiries with the conductor who found our situation most amusing. Nick and I did not. Let’s just say we are not proud of our behaviour in the ensuing minutes as the bus stopped and we rather unceremoniously disembarked.

We found ourselves at the side of a dusty road in a small town somewhere. As we gathered ourselves (and apologised to the children for setting a bad example) we checked our belongings. Bugger. George’s backpack was still on the bus hurtling away from us at high speed.

Nick quickly persuaded a nearby motorcyclist to give chase. George and Tomas were upset about the loss of said backpack it’s contents being their books, toys and headphones. I tried to comfort them as I worked out where we were.

Meanwhile the motorbike was speeding down the road weaving in and out of traffic in hot pursuit of the bus. Nick didn’t hold much hope of catching up given the bus driver’s need for speed. Luckily the rider that Nick was clinging onto for dear life recognised our bus at a petrol station about 30km from where we had jumped off.

The boys were hot, bothered and fighting as I tried to work out how we were going to continue our journey. My stress levels were rising and just as I was beginning to fret about Nick’s whereabouts he returned, triumphant, with George’s backpack. What a hero! We tried to give the guy some money to show our appreciation but he was just happy to have helped.

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We made our way to the nearest train station, Mahe, which by happy coincidence was about 5 minutes away. There was a train in half an hour that would take us to Kochi. On the platform we chatted to Ansar, a book salesman from Calicut and he let the boys look at his wares whilst we waited. And I had a random conversation in French with a teacher from a nearby Alliance Française.

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We had naively thought getting the train would be straightforward. We anticipated it being busy and prepped the kids. However, when the train pulled into the station it was longer than everyone had expected and we were therefore stood in the wrong place. By the time we had rushed down the platform the train was pulling out and I had my second sense of humour breakdown of the day. We said goodbye to Ansar who had also failed to get on the train and headed back to the bus stop.

We fought our way onto a packed bus and headed back to Calicut. Where we blew the budget by checking into a nice hotel and chalked the eventful day up to experience as we went in search of a much needed beer.

Don’t worry be Hampi

As we approached Hampi we were greeted by an incredible landscape. Paddy fields and banana plantations interspersed with surreal giant boulders sitting on top of each other at improbable angles (I still have no idea how they came to be here and need to pick my Geologist Uncle’s brain).

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We’d heard a lot of positive things about Hampi but spent the first day feeling somewhat underwhelmed. Hampi Bazar is the kind of traveller enclave that offers respite from the onslaught of Mother India. However after a month of easy living on the beaches of South Goa we were over the same same but different chill-out vibe.

We had breakfast at the rooftop restaurant of our guest house and loved seeing all the beautiful birds including parakeets and kingfishers as we looked out on the river.

We had a wander round the nearby sites on our first day, giving us time to recover from the sleeper bus journey. We visited the Virupaksha Temple. With its troop of resident monkeys and Lakshmi the temple elephant this was lots of fun for the children.

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In the afternoon I had a spontaneous haircut looking out over the Tungabhadra river. It may not be the best style but it is definitely the best view I’ve ever had during a haircut.

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The next morning George and I wandered down to the ghats to catch Lakshmi the elephant have her morning bath. We were told she would be there about 8.30 but in fact arrived nearer 10. It was worth the wait. She seemed to really enjoy her bath and George loved feeding her bananas and having a smooch (blessing). I really enjoyed the one to one time with my boy as we shared bananas and chai and watched the world go by.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon touring the ruins in an Auto Rickshaw. This is when I fell in love with Hampi. Trying to imagine life in its hey day when it was a bustling commerce hub and home to 500,000 people. The boys had fun running around playing hide and seek and being explorers. George got a driving lesson from Sadiq our tuktuk driver.

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The sites in Hampi are spread over 36 square kilometers so it is easy to explore in relative solitude, unusual for India where tourist attractions are often overwhelming with the number of people. The grand elephant stables were a highlight for the boys. We stumbled on an art class at the Vittala Temple, it was really lovely to see all of their watercolour paintings of the impressive stone chariot.

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We had fun over the river in Anegundi. It shares the remarkable landscape and ruins of Hampi but remains a sleepy village. The boat across the river squeezes on motorbikes with the passengers and one wonders how it can possibly stay afloat.

We had a fab thali and the boys played with the cafe owner’s daughter. After lunch we explored the ruins of army barracks and elephant stables. I enjoyed seeing the contrast between these stables and the ornate ones across the river that housed the royal elephants and the boys enjoyed chasing lizards.

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It was great fun to be the only people around, scrambling over boulders, humming the Indiana Jones theme tune as we went. A couple of local boys tried to sell us baby birds but we declined, it wouldn’t be a very jolly life for them in our backpack!

The streets of Hampi Bazar are car free. There are rickshaws and the odd motorbike but the kids could play and make friends without us worrying they were going to get run over.

I’m happy to say that after a couple of days exploring the ruins we really enjoyed our time in Hampi. And would definitely recommend it as a great place to go with children.

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And just like that Christmas is over

I haven’t missed all the Christmas hype at home in England. It begins sometime in October and builds momentum until the children are in complete frenzy come December 25th.

You could be forgiven for the big day passing you by entirely here in South Goa. There were some children on the beach trying to sell us their handmade cards (the snowmen seemed particularly incongruous). The boys helped decorate the tree at our guesthouse. There are a few detailed nativity scenes around complete with

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living grass and flowers. And a few restaurants even offered roast turkey dinners but that’s about it.

The boys slept until 7.45. A lay-in by any standard and completely unheard of on Christmas Day! (being woken around 5am by my niece running in to our room yelling “It’s Christmas!!” will remain one of my favourite festive memories).

As soon as his eyes were open Tomas asked “has Santa been?!” and after checking whether Rudolph had eaten the carrot we’d left out for him the boys had a jolly few minutes opening their stockings containing a couple of trinkets and some sweets.

They were delighted with their presents of Shreddies (for Tomas who has asked for them everyday since we left Brighton) and a snorkel (for George who wrote a beautiful letter requesting one upon our arrival in Goa). The usual chaos of mountains of gifts and tantrums over wanting more presents to open happily passed us by (mind you there were tears over both boys wanting the chameleon toy which went missing later that day sparing us from further dispute).

We did miss our family and friends and a paper hat would have been nice as we ate our seafood dinner (and did the quiz) with an old friend but we have all become accustomed to living with fewer possessions and I hope we remember the beauty of this Christmas without ‘stuff’.

Christmas Quiz

We have a family tradition (that started 7 years ago when Nick and I had our first Christmas together) – a Christmas quiz that we send to family all over the world. The idea being that whoever is with them for Christmas will join in round the table and then we get to speak with family members as they phone in the results.

Please find the quiz below – should you wish to join in. Answers below – no cheating! Let us know how you got on!

We wish you a wonderful day!

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By the way the winner sets the questions the following year so these are curtesy of my step dad Jim!

1) the Bing Crosby song White Christmas originally came from which 1942 film?

2) which year was the first Band Aid ‘do they know it’s Christmas’ song made?

3) who is Aladdin’s mum ? (Oh no it isn’t !)

4) the season before Easter is known as Lent….but what is the season before Christmas known as?

5) Boxing Day is also known as which Saints feast day? Is it
St Mark…St Nicholas or St Stephen?

6) who composed the music for the Nutcracker?

7) Christmas Island is the territory of which country?

8) What colour underwear do Mexicans wear on New Years Eve to bring good luck for the coming year?

9) What are traditionally the names of the Three Kings/Wise Men/Magi who brought gifts to the baby Jesus ? ….a point for each name and a bonus point if you know the ‘fourth kings name’ in literature.

10) in which country (the world’s seventh largest) is Christmas known as Bada Din or ‘Big Day’?

11) what year was the film ‘Zulu’ released?

12) Father Christmas’ home in the North Pole is in which Ocean?

13) St Nicholas’ birthplace is in which country?
Turkey, Germany or Russia

14) Nadolig Llawen is Merry Christmas in which Western European language?

15) which year was the first King’s Speech broadcast by radio?

16) In the 1946 film ‘It’s a wonderful life’ what is the name of George Bailey’s guardian angel?

17) What was the occupation of the inventor of the Christmas Cracker?
Butcher, Baker or Lawyer?

18) Viscum Album is the technical name for…. Mistletoe , Holly or Poinsettia ?

19) In the carol ‘ the twelve days of Christmas’ how many pipers were piping?
Bonus point to anyone who can sing the whole carol without looking up the words (performance must be videod )

20) The famous song ‘O Christmas Tree’ was originally sung in which language? (Bonus point for knowing which socialist song is set to the same tune).

Scroll down for answers…

……..

Answers…

1. Holiday Inn

2. 1984

3. Widow Twankey (oh yes it is!)

4. Advent

5. St Stephen

6. Tchaikovsky

7. Australia

8. Red

9. Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar (One Point for each) And a bonus point for ‘Artaban’ the fourth king in Henry van Dyke’s book in 1895.

10. India……bonus point for actually being in India!

11. 1964……they had a ‘premiere’ showing earlier this year to mark the fiftieth anniversary.

12. The Arctic Ocean

13. Turkey

14. Danish …………Naaaaa Only joking..It’s Welsh…

15. 1932

16. Clarence

17. Baker

18. Mistletoe

19. Eleven

20. German (O Tannenbaum)…….and ‘the Red Flag’ is the socialist song for a last bonus.

Bardia National Park

We were met by a jeep where the bus set us down at the turn off to Bardia. We huddled under a blanket as we bumped along the dirt track. It was still dark and very cold. Every bit of me wanted to sleep but the boys had slept well on the ‘party bus’. It was going to be a long day.

We were staying at Forest Hideaway lodge. A series of ‘cottages’ based on the traditional Tharu mud and thatch dwellings but with ensuite Western bathrooms. These are set around picturesque gardens with tables and hammocks dotted around.

We chucked our gear in our room and with a longing look at the bed went for breakfast. Our guide, Santos, introduced himself and we discussed our programme for the next few days. People usually want to rest when they first arrive but we had no chance of that with two young boys bouncing off the walls, so we agreed on going into the park on a jeep safari.

We spent an enjoyable day roaming round the park. Bardia covers an area the size of London and we explored the equivalent of the West End in the jeep. During the course of the day we saw spotted deer, wild boar, monkeys (Macaque & Langur) crocodiles, lots different birds, and (very exciting for G and his current fascination with snakes) a python.

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Santos and Manu, our driver, tracked tiger prints and spoor and at various places we would pull up and follow these signs on foot. The boys were happy to spot spiders, bugs and butterflies. Towards the end of the day we swung by a look out point, there were a handful of other tourists with binoculars and big cameras focused on an area of bush across a small river. They were extremely quiet so we decided not to spoil the party with our noisy children.

We called it a day and visited the crocodile breeding centre and the blind rhino that resides at the entrance to the park. This being the

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highlight of the day for the boys. Whilst there Santos got a call that another group from our hotel had seen a tiger at the look out point we had just left. We’d missed the bloody thing by 20 minutes!

We had a lovely dal bhat dinner and enjoyed hearing from the lucky folk who had seen the tiger. Then we headed for bed. A firm mattress and soft pillow was a welcome combination and we all had a great night’s sleep!

The following day we were up and out early for an elephant safari. There was a beautiful sunrise and as the morning mist cleared we enjoyed the ride through the sun dappled forest. The mahout had a machete to hack off low hanging branches and Nick kept a keen eye out for webs containing massive spiders; he’s not a fan!

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It was a very evocative experience, such a peaceful way to explore the forest and even the boys were quiet (apart from giggling at elephant farts!) During the ride we saw another python as well as spotted deer and monkeys.

The elephant*, Santi, seemed to bulldoze its way through the forest but the vegetation sprang back up behind us hiding its passage. I found it fascinating how something so large could walk through dense forest leaving little trace.

The rest of the day was to be spent on foot. Santos and another guide, Nanu, lead the way. Walking through the thick elephant grass, listening for any sound, I had butterflies tickling my tummy with a familiar feeling of anticipation. The excitement I felt at the possibility of seeing animals in the wild stirred memories of safari trips in Uganda with my Dad and Sister. My mind wandered and I caught myself laughing out loud at the bad jokes – ‘look a crocodile, keep a straight face’ ‘ahh an elephant, and by the size of its ears I deduce that it is an African elephant’ and animal impersonations (if you know Catherine get her to do her buffalo – it’s uncanny).

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Walking along a dry riverbed with tall elephant grass on either side we had to be particularly quiet as to not startle the wildlife as there would be no means of escape from a charging animal. Santos had regaled us with stories of being chased by tigers and elephants and we understood the danger and importance of not drawing attention to ourselves. Happily George stayed quiet and Tomas was fast asleep on my back. In fact his snores were mistaken for a noise in the bush at one point which raised a giggle from me and Nick.

We passed the place the tiger had been spotted the previous day then continued, across a river onto an island. We stopped for a couple of hours for lunch at a lovely spot overlooking a river. We didn’t see any animals there but the children were happy playing in the sand and Nick dosed in sun whilst I kept watch with binoculars.

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I’m not sure if my memory is playing tricks on me but I can’t recall all this waiting around from my trips to Queen Elizabeth National Park. Mind you I used to nod off in the jeep safe in the knowledge I’d be woken if anything exciting happened.

Santos got a call that we’d missed a tiger again by about half an hour. I was beginning to think, that whilst there were trying hard to be quiet, the boys’ noise was scaring off all the wildlife.

Then as we started to make our way back we saw it. A one-horned rhino. It was a safe distance away (I wouldn’t want to be up close) and we had an excellent view through our binoculars. It was wading in river eating algae. It was a wonderful feeling to see this rare creature in its natural habitat. I cursed the Indian dust that has buggered the shutter on my SLR camera and took a feeble shot with my iPhone.

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After watching a while we walked back to where everyone except us had spotted the tiger. Lots people were waiting there. By this time it was hard to keep the children quiet. Nick and I took turns entertaining them with snake hunts and tree climbing but it was obvious our day had run it’s course. As we walked back we saw a Barking deer and shared a laugh with Nick and thought how dad would have made some joke about it being a long way from home!**

When we got back the boys played with some children outside the lodge. I was happy to see them running around roaring after having to be still and quiet for so long. I was less happy about them joining in a game of chase with a dead rat.

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The next day was to be spent rafting on the Geruwa river. Santos asked if his family could join us. We figured the more the merrier and thought the boys would enjoy some young company. We collected his wife and two children (a boy, 6 and girl 2) from their home near the lodge and headed to our put in point at Chisopani. Our other guide for the day (whose name escapes me) was Santos’ brother-in-law so it was a real family outing!

It was a sunny morning with an icy cold wind. The boys attracted the usual attention of local children whilst Santos inflated the raft. We also garnered disapproving looks from the grown ups at Tom’s (as ever) underdressed state.

The water was crystal clear and happily the wind was behind us so it was pleasant to drift along the river. George has a deep affinity with water, (I’m sure he was a sea creature in a previous life) and he was desperate to get in. It reminded me of a time we visited a friend on her boat and instead of getting to meet her new baby I spent the time keeping G from flinging himself into the freezing water at Brighton Marina. He is older and wiser now and understood to wait until later in the day when it would be warmer.

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I enjoyed spending time with Santos’ family. Whilst his wife didn’t speak much English we were able to communicate a little. I delighted at her 2 year old daughters insistence on nursing and the ease with which she slept at the breast. It would definitely be a useful tool to still have up my sleeve (or top!) We also talked about the joys of a family bed and sibling squabbles over the duvet. Santos’ son was very quiet and still – the polar opposite of our own boys.

We stopped for lunch on a sand bar where rivers would join in the monsoon. Lovely peaceful spot, we still needed to be wary of wild animals and we saw plenty of footprints to demonstrate their existence but apart from a lone horned deer there was nothing about. The children played in the sand and Nick dosed in the sun whilst I watched the bush with binoculars (I see a theme emerging).

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The rest of the afternoon was fairly uneventful. George finally got his dip in the chilly water and was joined by Tom and Nick but they didn’t stay in long. We enjoyed the thrill of rushing through some rapids (very mild ones that probably don’t even get on the white water scale). In other places the water level was very low and a couple of times Nick and the guides jumped out to give us a push. Santos said that they’d manage one more raft trip the next day and that would be it until the spring snow melts swell the river again.

We saw elephants on the river bank (and from the size of their ears I deduced that they were Asian elephants) but they turned out to be domestic elephants in the park to graze. We also saw lots of birds including kingfisher, osprey and vulture.

When we stopped for the day the boys’ shoes were nowhere to be found. We seem to be getting through shoes at an alarming rate. In two months we have lost 1 croc, 1 Birkenstock, 1 pair of flip flops and now two pairs of sandals.

That evening we were entertained by a cultural dance. I tend to steer clear of this kind of thing at hotels but this was in fact a load of local teens having fun. Nick, Tomas and I joined in as well as the handful of other guests. George however was more interested in his desert.

We were due to leave the next afternoon so in the morning we wandered down to the local market to find shoes for the boys. It was a pleasant walk through a traditional Tharu village. The houses are made from a mixture of mud and dung spread over a wooden frame. Many houses had chickens, goats or buffalo and there were pumpkin patches on the roofs of the cowsheds.

A waiter from the lodge had come with us to point us in the right direction and he delighted in introducing us to his extended family along the way. At one point we terrified a poor toddler who had never seen a Westerner before. We happily greeted some of the dancers from the previous evening as we passed them on their way to school.

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On the way back we stopped to watch the women of the village working in the river. The water level was low and by making a series of dams they had pushed fish, eels and crabs along and then caught them in big nets. The boys were fascinated and we spent a long time there whilst they helped sort the catch into different buckets. Which were then shared amongst the women. George was given a fish and was most upset that we wouldn’t let him keep it to play with on the 14 hour bus ride.

And with that our visit to Bardia was over and we braced ourselves for all the fun of the nightbus back to Pokhara. We may still have not seen a Bengal tiger but we really enjoyed our time exploring the park. It was peaceful, beautiful and a wonderful way to spend a few days.

*Santi appeared well treated and low visitor numbers at Bardia mean she is not over worked but I have since learned more about how elephants are trained and am left feeling deeply uncomfortable.

**Barking is an area of East London

Rajasthan Part 2 – Jodphur to Bikener (AKA The one about the camel safari)

The next leg of our Rajasthani tour took us from Udaipur to Jodphur. The winding mountain roads led us first to the oldest Jain temple in India at Ranakpur.

The buildings were beautiful and it was a good opportunity for the boys to run around looking for wildlife including a sunbathing lizard and the resident monkeys. Unfortunately our timing was poor and our visit coincided with prayer time so we were unable to see inside the temples.

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Later in the day we got caught up in a diversion as the main road to Jodphur was closed for a festival. A comedy of errors ensued that saw a tractor crash into a Rickshaw, and the car in front get stuck in the sand until the driver turfed all his passengers out to lighten the load.

Jodphur’s Mehrangarh fort was the definite highlight of our time in the blue city. The boys were tired and cranky but they soon got into the swing of things climbing over cannons and checking out the impressive weaponry on display. The fort also afforded us with stunning views over the city’s skyline.

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On the road to Jaisalmer we passed through sparse scrubland along the edge of the desert. As we sped through the rural landscape the boys pointed out the occasional herd of sheep or cattle and working camels pulling carts. Whilst N and I marvelled at women in beautiful coloured sarees and tractors all bearing improbably heavy loads.

Jaisalmer was welcomingly quiet after the noise and bustle of Jodphur. We visited the impressive sandstone fort and several beautiful Havelis but really we were just going through the motions to pass the time to our much anticipated camel safari.

As we headed to the meeting point we met charismatic Rhoza Khan, owner of our camel trek company. With his pukka Ray Bans and perfect teeth it was like he’d ridden his Royal Enfield motorbike off a movie set. Having admired his bike Rhoza invited N for a spin and they sped off down the road. We caught them up in the car and the boys took it in turns to go for a ride (whilst I had my heart in my mouth!).

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We eventually pulled up to the meeting point and were met by Amil, our camel man. After ensuring we had sufficient water we got onto our camels (named by the boys as Andy and Twinkle) and headed off towards the dunes.

As we made our way into the dunes we paused at a small village to procure a chicken for dinner. Much amusement ensued as several men and children chased the chicken around before it’s capture.

We plodded along taking in the scenery and as the movement of the camel took its toll on my undercarriage I hoped we weren’t going far.

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Happily we soon stopped to set up camp. And as the sun set the boys played together, sliding down sand dunes, finding sand beetles, and writing in the sand. Nick and I relaxed and enjoyed the happiness of our offspring.

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The moon rose and we sat around the campfire, drinking chai. Amil made a delicious dinner from said chicken which the boys witnessed being dispatched to the giant coop in the sky.

Rhoza brought his children out to the desert to meet us in his large swanky 4×4. Bearing biscuits and juice for the boys to fuel their sand dune adventures. With happy hearts we eventually drifted off to sleep under the stars.

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We woke early and watched sunrise over the Thar Desert. G made us all laugh by saying “We’re real explorers now, aren’t we Dad?!”. Amil made more chai and we packed up camp before Andy and Twinkle took us back to the roadside meeting point.

We spent the next day chilling at the hotel pool getting some much needed downtime. Then it was back on the road for quick overnight stop in Bikener and after yet another Rajasthani fort we hit the road for the long drive to Amritsar.

Agra

A few days before we left Delhi we had an overnight jaunt to see the Taj Mahal in Agra. We opted for a car, driver and hotel package. A good trial run for the company taking us round Rajasthan.

Images of Indian life with which we are all familiar unfurled as we watched from the car window; familes of 4 or or 5 on a single motorbike, the babies wedged between adults for safe keeping, brightly coloured lorries blaring their horn; and traffic halting to let cows cross the road. We stopped at a touristy services and much to G’s delight encountered his first snake charmers and their Cobras.

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There were also a number of monkeys in chains, dressed as people and made to dance. This made me extremely uncomfortable so the less said about that the better.

We arrived into Agra and our hotel The Taj Villa (after a minor detour to The Taj Villas round the corner) with a couple of hours to spare before we were to the visit the Taj Mahal for sunset. After five hours cooped up in the car we were all eager to stretch our legs.

We wandered down a little side street to explore. There were many children around all wanting to meet the boys. We felt like the Pied Piper leading a merry procession down the backstreets of Agra.

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We grabbed a wonderful samosa from a street vendor to keep us going until dinner and headed back to the hotel to meet our driver Pal and our guide for the day. Stopping briefly so Nick could help two guys push start their car. Much to their amusement.

Walking towards the entrance I was amazed by how many people there were. Many foreign tourists and hundreds, maybe thousands of Indians. Half of whom sought photo opportunities with the kids.

Heaps of hawkers waving souvenirs in our faces. They were Auto drivers, camel carts and horse & trap rides. All hustling for our business. This was the kind of mele I had expected in Delhi. We declined a ride and walked the short distance to the entrance.

We got our tickets (I was glad of the separate window for foreigners as the main ticket window queue was epic) and queued to pass through security. Nick and the boys passing down the High Value Ticket Holders line whilst I was ushered into the line for women.

As we passed into the outer courtyard our guide Shespal told us lots of information which mainly went over my head as I chaperoned the boys whilst many families wanted to take their photos. Picking Tomas up and pinching his cheeks, much to his bemusement.

The Taj Mahal is such an iconic building I was worried that I’d be underwhelmed and yet it was utterly breath-taking to see it in person. It is easy to see why it is considered the most beautiful building in the world. We paused to take our own photo opportunity in front of the ‘Crown of Palaces’.

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The boys good humour at getting as much attention as the Taj itself eventually wained. They were tired, hungry and grumpy. And nerves were beginning to fray.

We joined the hordes to go inside the central dome of the marble mausoleum. If I’d have known what it was going to be like in there I wouldn’t have bothered. Whilst I pride myself on looking on the brightside this just felt like an ordeal.

There were so many people. It was hot, dark and noisy (the security guards constantly blowing whistles as they herded us through). We were corralled as they let people in and out in blocks. It felt like being kettled.

I was carrying Tomas in my arms and the crush of bodies had him scared. As we were released and carried along in the throng there were raised doorsteps adding a bonus hazard. No place for children, nevermind the newborn infant that was getting squashed next to Nick.

Serves us right for going on a Sunday during the Diwali holiday period.

We were very happy to escape into the comfort of our air conditioned car and be whisked away to a restaurant that had beer. Boy had we earned it.

Our room at Taj Villa was clean and comfortable (bar the serious need of curtains) but was in part still a building site with wires sticking out all over the place. Not ideal, particularly with the children, but excellent leverage for knocking down the price on our Rajasthan tour!

In the morning we visited Agra Fort on the opposite side of the river Yamuna. We missed getting there for sunrise, opting instead to let the children sleep. We enjoyed a wander round the fort in relative peace and the boys were delighted to spot some wildlife. Monkeys, Parrakeets and the friendly squirrels which ate out of their hands.

Emperor Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, was imprisoned by his son at Agra Fort. From here he could gaze across the water to his wife’s tomb. A monument so beautiful that he said it made ‘the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes’* and I’d have to agree with him.

*from Lonely Planet India 2013