Goodbye India

Our last month in India took us on a whistle stop tour of Tamil Nadu and to ultimate relaxation in the Andaman Islands.

 Our final hours in Kerala were spent in between trains in Trivandrum and rather than carry our packs about in the heat we retreated to the cool of a cinema. The film was not really suitable for the boys (Tomas remarked that he “wouldn’t let his Nana watch it!”) and we couldn’t follow the whole plot not understanding the Tamil dialogue but it was a great experience to be caught up in the enthusiasm of the audience who cheered each time, the star, Ajith Kumar appeared on screen.

 Our next stop was Kanyakumari, the Southern tip of India. Whilst geographically satisfying to stand at this point there was little else to recommend it. Unless you like your hotel rooms decorated in the style of early ’90s teenage boy; black, grey and red colour scheme complete with Spider-Man ceiling fans.

We took a straightforward night bus to Kodaikanal in the Western Ghats where we revelled long walks in the cool mountain air and enjoyed the many playgrounds and town’s quirky tourist attractions. As well as the local street food specialities of roasted corn and bread omlettes.

Next stop Madurai. Home to the huge and fascinating Meenakshi temple and tastiest curry we’d had in a long time.

We spent a happy few days pottering around Pondicherry. From our fantastic guesthouse in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram we strolled along the seafront, explored the different markets and learnt about the beautiful Kollom that decorate the pavements here. Not to mention stuffing ourselves on the French delicacies this ex-colonial town has to offer.

 Chennai was pretty forgettable save for the fantastic food we found in a canteen near our dingy hotel. It was so good Nick had two breakfasts.

 An early morning flight took us to the Andaman Islands. Where we downed devices and savoured the lack of wifi. We chilled on the gorgeous beaches of Havelock and made our own fun with washed up paraphernalia. We walked through rich jungle and I got the pure pleasure of taking George snorkelling above a coral reef for the first time.

Next we shifted down another gear and cycled our way round idyllic Neil Island. G and T got up to mischief with the two resident boys whilst Nick and I enjoyed the company of other adults. Our highlight was a boat trip to a nearby island to snorkel and fish (and in G’s case jump off the prow of the boat into the deep water).

 For our wildlife fanatic’s fifth birthday we went hunting for snakes at Wandor on South Andaman. Much to his delight (and our relief) we found a particularly venomous one with the help of a serendipitous meeting with a reptile expert from Madrid Zoo. Our accommodation at Wandor was superb; peaceful and serene.

 Calcutta came as a bit of a shock. Full throttle, high volume India. The most unhelpful people we had encountered and the most frustrating bureaucracy. Plus I got a night time visit from a small rodent.

 Despite all this we really enjoyed our time there. The boys got to ‘play Holi’ with neighbourhood children. We soaked up the atmosphere across the city as we walked around the flower market and ghats. The boys particularly enjoyed Khalif Street pet market with its multitude of birds and fish.

We visited the marble palace, Victoria Memorial and Kalighat Temple. We marvelled at the Calctta traffic Police’s white uniform and had a great evening catching up with friends we had made earlier in the trip.

 So there we have it. The final leg of our Indian adventure. We got round a lot of the country in our 131 days. We slept in 22 hotels, 9 guesthouses, 3 night buses, 3 homestays, 2 beach huts, 1 sleeper train, 1 ashram and a desert.

 We learnt a little bit of Hindi and made a lot of friends. We got through several pairs of shoes and several more pairs of sunglasses. The boys had their cheeks pinched approximately 900 times. We ate a lot of curry. And we fell in love with India. Watch this space I’m sure we’ll be back.

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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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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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’.

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

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 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.

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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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