Yak to the Future

PRIOR WARNING!: DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU HAVE SEVERAL HOURS TO KILL

Just in case you are wondering, Danny suggested the title for this latest post. Around two weeks ago, we began planning for a little excursion to the Hunza valley in the mountains of northern Pakistan. The plan was to end the trip with a yak safari – unfortunately no yaks or alternative bovines were forthcoming, so this post is in honour of them.

Our flight up to Gilgit where we were to begin our journey was scheduled for Friday 22nd June. We had lots to do on the Thursday before. Danny’s solution to this was to write down everything that we had to do or buy, whilst muttering excitedly “let’s make a list!” every so often. By the end of the day, with all necessary goods and services purchased, we headed over to a new art museum that was having its grand opening. Apparently, this wasn’t just any museum, this was, as the email promised, “BREATHTAKING. SUCH A PAKISTANI TREASURE THAT HAS BEEN BUILT THAT IS GOING UNNOTICED” [sic]. Well with that glowing review, how could one resist the sheer artistic allure?

On arrival we were informed that the museum was only operating on a ‘sneak preview’ basis. You had to be special, nay worthy to gain entry. We were bustled into the executive’s office to await our fate where we amused ourselves among his personal effects, including an autobiographical book entitled “My Heartrendingly Tragic Story” until he waltzed in half an hour later to tell us it had closed half an hour before.

With that we left, and push starting Danny’s geriatric car went home. Later that evening we went to dinner at a Korean restaurant where the conversation returned to the lately popular topic of cannibalism, and more specifically whether we would eat each other if our plane crashed in the Andes ( or somewhere else where you might encounter such a dilemma). I wouldn’t, he would. I had a nice introduction to Korean food minus some weird stuff that tasted like sauerkraut although also tempting was the ‘Mange juice’ and ‘American’ available at the vending machine outside for only 15r apiece.

Recent flights having been cancelled, we weren’t too sure of the status of our flight to Gilgit. Luckily the skies were clear and we took off without incident. The small passenger plane does not fly above cloud level, so we had spectacular views of surrounding mountains, valleys and lakes. At one point to our left you could see the magnificent River Indus and to the right arresting views of Nanga Parbat, the 9th highest mountain in the world. Flying below the heights of large mountains, you could see why clear weather was such an imperative for flying conditions.

I had secretly been dreading finding transport at the other end and moreover the prospect of taking a wagon and having to sheath myself in fabric once again. My prayers were answered quite creatively when we met Lucy, a girl from the Czech Republic who had hired a jeep to Duikar, just beyond where we were headed. A photographer, we stopped regularly to take pictures, and she would not let us give her anything at the end, so we saved quite substantially. The route to Karimabad is on the Karakoram highway, and follows one of the paths of the ancient Silk Route. The highest international highway in the world, it took twenty years to build (mostly by blowing sides of the mountain away with dynamite) and claimed almost 900 lives.

The feat of engineering is incomprehensible. It takes you up through traditional villages to the arid, inhospitable mountainous regions. That being said, an intricate maze of irrigation channels have been meticulously constructed to create arable pasture from the challenging surroundings. There are messages written in stones on the mountainside that read “Nice to see you” and “Welcome to the royal couple” which we assumed were directed at our stately arrival, and later regretfully discovered were meant for the Aga Khan (the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims – so almost!).

When we arrived in Karimabad we found a room at the Mulberry hotel and set our stuff down so we could go and explore. We went for a late lunch at a little café called the Hidden Paradise where we tried the local food – chap schuro – a sort of flatbread stuffed with minced meat and garma – a mix of spinach, potatoes and a secret blend of herbs – all washed down with fresh apricot juice. There is abundance of apricots and walnuts in the area and every last bit is used to some end to make apricot oil, flour, juice and walnut chapatti, bread and cake etc. When the bill came it said VIP guests (handwritten) at the top which fuelled our delusions of grandeur and general regality.

Later we took a stroll to the Baltit fort, and then settled down for an early night in preparation for a little expedition the next day. Unfortunately my body had other ideas so we reverted to plan B next day which was eat and nap. We ate cherries, delicious walnut cake at the fantastic Café de Hunza (accompanied by real Lavazza cappuccino – this guy knows how to make a mint), and later BBQ chicken and local cheese. We read, and snoozed. We revisited the fort and took the tour following a 60-strong bunch of schoolkids who quite possibly hadn’t been introduced to the wonders of deodorant just yet.

That afternoon, we went to find Kate, a friend of Danny’s who lives in nearby Altit. We gatecrashed a meeting at the Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan (AKCSP) and were given somewhat cryptic clues as to how to find her. We needn’t have bothered because after a picturesque walk past waterfalls and greenery we arrived at the village, our enquiries met with joyful faces. It seemed everyone knew Kate. We were guided to a derelict hotel which, it appeared had never had paying guests. It takes a brave person to live alone in a deserted hotel but it seems Kate is our girl. We suggested that she starts sub-letting the other rooms for a bit of residual income!

On Sunday morning, we finally set off for Ultar Meadow, with the plan to stay the night and come back down the next day. We took stashes of raisins, nuts and plenty of chocolate and water. The first part of the walk was through a labyrinthine network of houses and fields, through a waterfall and up a steep hill to the start of the trail. Then we got to Danny’s ‘favourite part’ because it made his heart go really fast in a good kind of way. Or something. The path, which is less than a yard wide in several places follows a water channel carved into the rock to your left. To your right there is a sheer drop of…hmm…about 50,000ft. My powers of estimation are not great, but when you get past a few hundred feet it doesn’t really matter how big the drop is you know? It still gives you mental pictures of dying a really long horrific death if you’re me. What can I say? I’m morbid, and I see death in everything and am always looking for new and exciting ways I could feasibly (but not statistically) die.

The view was amazing, but I still held Danny’s hand for that part because he’s a lot more surefooted than me (read: if I go down he’s comin’ with me!). The next part involved scrambling up some rocks (there’s nothing like the sound of falling scree to inspire confidence in an amateur hiker such as myself!), and then it levelled out a bit before a final scramble to the top. On the way, we came across several optimistic/sadistic signs that claimed it was only 40 minutes or so until we reached our destination. These have obviously been put there by locals who have been using the trail since they were five to train for marathons. Forty minutes turned out to be around two hours, but we reached the meadow in four hours, which the guide book suggests is good time. However when we purchased Cokes at extortionate prices from Ladyfinger restaurant (ie. a man with a crate of Cokes) he didn’t seem very impressed, screwing his face up and muttering ‘very slow’ and ‘problem’ or words to that effect.

Sipping our drinks, we encountered several bemused goats (They always have that huh, what’s going on here? look about them), one of whom we christened Anila the goat. She (I hope – we didn’t check) had brown curly hair which bore a striking resemblance to my own but I think that’s where the similarities end.

Ultar meadow (at 10,730ft) is beautiful. You are hemmed in by snow-capped mountains on three sides including Ultar peak, the razor blade-like Ladyfinger (which Danny suggests be renamed ‘Sabre of Death’) and Ultar glacier. Ultar peak is supposedly the highest unscaled mountain in the world, but although there haven’t been any recent attempts, a couple of Japanese expeditions made the summit in the early nineties. There were fatalities on the way down however, and the climbers’ graves are nearby.

We found a level spot to camp and no sooner had we laid out our sleeping mats, we spotted a huge avalanche in the distance to our left. You can hear constant rumbling of distant snowfalls so we were amazed to actually see one and we stood there mouths open for the full duration…

The next morning we woke to find curious goats nibbling on my boots which are clearly a delicacy in these parts. We found a stream to wash in and refilled our water bottles ready for the descent. My feet were blistered and Danny’s knee was playing up so together we were the walking wounded. I slipped about three or four times but I didn’t die so it’s okay. About halfway down, Danny suggested we took another route by a separate water channel which to me looked like it abruptly culminated at about 50,000ft. His words were “We would be the stronger for it, if not deader”, assuring me it would be character building. I assured him it would be friendship breakdown-ing.

The surrounding mountains look like Mordor so you feel as though you are in a fantasy film, and the rabbit warren-like village at the bottom add to the quest experience. We made it back to Karimabad in around 3 ½ hours and following a burger (more like spot-the-burger as it was only 3mm thick) we headed north to Gulmit.

There we found the Hunza Marco Polo Inn where we were quoted 1500r for a room. The guy assured us there was hot water. This is a familiar experience in Pakistan. “YES! Garam pani! 24hrs a day – you can check!” We checked and it was cold. We bargained a ‘special price’ of 350r. We then discovered there was no electric either. Not to be discouraged we went to the garden and placed our dinner order. Unable to compromise, we attempted the elimination method. Danny told me a somewhat morbid story of a butcher treated at his parents hospital who had caught is fingers in the mincer and subsequently sold the batch of ground ‘beef’ fingers and all. Qeema being hastily struck of the list we went with chicken biryani. When it arrived it smelled suspiciously of rotting bodies and after one bite we concluded that the electricity had probably been off for some time. It later made a brief appearance that evening when we read/washed by strobe lighting on account of the sporadic generator.

The next morning, our festering chicken experience was redeemed by yummy Hunza bread and honey. Our tummies full, we set off for another mini-adventure. Just another day in the life of the Dannyanilamobile! Our journey took us on a steep climb to Kamaris village and onto Borit lake. As soon as we started, I felt a vague wave of malnoia (see previous post) as I realized that my blisters were still providing me much discomfort. Danny complained of pain in his hip flexors (what the?). It was time to pray. Miraculously, some white van men appeared along the deserted road and offered us a lift. We hitched a ride to the village as Danny wearily asked me what I would be praying for next (manna or maybe cake from heaven maybe?). The climb would have added at least 2hrs to our journey time.

We tried to find our way in the village, but couldn’t seem to find anyone over the age of five. Mind you they were all tri-lingual (Wakhi, Urdu, English – ‘hello, one picture?) which is pretty cool if you’re five I reckon. Later, we thought better than to seek direction from infants and consulted a 12 year old who was offering his services as a guide. Thinking we could use the help of a local we agreed. He took us to his house. Swaggering in, he barked something to his mother in Wakhi, which roughly translated I imagine meant “White people. Make chai.”

She was a lovely laid back lady who offered us genuine hospitality. She spoke little English, yet she chuckled as she served us ‘organic’ (her words!) chapattis. Wakhi households consist of a pillared quadrangle with a small sunken area in the middle for dining and lighting a stove in winter. Light is provided through a central skylight. Traditionally there are few inner walls or doors, giving a communal, cosy feel. We sat on the floor to take tea and then set of at breakneck speed with her older son, headed for Gulkin glacier.

After about 15 minutes our guide Nazir-u-din relieved me of my pack, but even so he appeared to be moving at a running pace and I struggled to keep up. When we reached the glacier we realised how insane it would have been to not take a guide. It looks other-worldly, like a Martian surface or the earth as it might have been in prehistory. In fact, I doubt much has changed for many years indeed. The sheer size is imposing – the route across is not at all obvious and I am sure would daunt even the most experienced walkers.

You feel miniscule as you try to negotiate the ridges. At the top of each crest there are large boulders poised to fall and split your head open and die (I told you I’m morbid – but some were falling so I felt it was a realistically envisaged fatal scenario). I scraped myself once on the hand to prevent one such rock taking my foot out. The irony was that I could have done with some ice and just below the dirt underfoot was a huge packed icy mass.

We found a glacial pond which was only several metres wide but incredibly deep according to our guide who repeatedly urged us not to swim and threw in boulders in a rather theatrical manner in order to prove his point. When we reached the uppermost point, we began our descent using a ‘controlled slide’ technique down the sandy/rocky mountainside. Danny felt this was an opportune moment to make useful comments like ‘It’s like an escalator – you get more for each step’ and ‘Is now a bad time to ask you if you want a piggy back?”. At last we reached Borit lake. Last year, Danny’s friend Grant gave this place the double thumbs-down. If Ben, the Japanese guy we met earlier (see first posts) were to have seen it he would have probably given us his best unimpressed face. He said Macchu Picchu was ‘a bit rubbish – not old enough’ which cracked me up. Having said that, just the sight of water after being enclosed by sinister red rock on all sides was a relief. On closer inspection, I discovered the water was inhabited by large clumps of weed. Past experience with wild underwater plants combined with a brisk breeze were enough to put me off going swimming. Swimming through reeds feels like a thousand hands reaching out to touch you. It’s creepy. Danny (among others) likes to remind me that I find pretty much everything creepy. I protest the untruth of this.

Undeterred, Danny took to the waters and we briefly tried to take out a rowing boat, until we realised the wind was steering us into a particularly ominous looking patch of weedy mulsh. After much gentle insistence on Danny’s part and strong resistance on mine, we took dinner (a successful biryani – woohoo!) and retired to the room. It had a homestyle feel about it like many of our previous rented abodes replete with fake wooden beams and carpeted floors. All the same it wasn’t particularly homely, but who can argue for 150r a night?

The following morning, we walked down to the KKH and attempted to hitchhike. This was slightly problematic given that the highway was devoid of any traffic whatsoever. Luckily though, the second car that passed through gave us a life to Sost for only 70r each. We reached Sost after 45 minutes, I changed into something more…respectable (a Punjabi suit) and we located the jeep that was bound for our next destination… the Chapursun valley. While we were waiting we were invited to take tea with a guy named Hassan. Initially I thought his baseball cap, high waist jeans and faintly southern tone derived from a long-held adulation for all things American. We discovered however that he was an ex-proprietor of a grocery store and would-be jeweller who regularly resides in Birmingham Alabama. I feel I should be less cynical in future.

Our jeep, when it finally took off had less than thirty but definitely more than twenty people inside. We sensibly decided to ride on the roof. Three dusty hours later after much ducking cliff overhangs and dodging tree branches, we made it to our destination of Zood Khun in one piece (two pieces if you include the boy).

This small village does not have any guesthouses as such, but is inhabited by one Alum Jan whose reputation precedes his actual being. We were directed to his house and welcomed with some warm Hunza bread by his wife only to find that the legend himself was back in Islamabad collecting a party of hikers. We discovered that a journey by yak would require collection of said animals from their residences further north and that that would take around ten days so unfortunately our safari plans were scuppered. Those of you who read my Indian Summer blog will recall the um…abrasion induced by a camel safari so I can’t say as if I was that devastated. Danny on the other hand found a corner and rocked back and forth sobbing, at least that’s what he would have done if he hadn’t contained his emotions so well.

To aid the grieving process we took a stroll in the village, encountering a somewhat curious lamb and its rather possessive mother. Later that evening, we met a Quiet Frenchman and a Loud Swiss who were also staying at the same place. The Frenchman entertained us with his fervent views on tomato ketchup. Adding it to spaghetti is abhorrent (take note Suzy!) if you’re cultured apparently. Oh how I love the French’s views on cuisine. French dude, who shall be known only as Monsieur Dupont (should Sarkozy be reading this) revealed that for the past 8 years he has bee living off €400 per month only they haven’t realised that for the duration he has failed to check in each week (much like Jobseekers where you have to prove weekly you’re still jobless). The crazy thing is there is nothing at all illegal about it. Monsieur Dupont also taught me a new French word though I haven’t decided whether he is just playing on my gullibility. He claims they use the same word (sac à la viande) for body bag as well as sleeping bag liner. Hmm…if anyone could confirm or dispel this notion it would be much appreciated
Settling down to bed later that evening, we found we were sharing our ‘room’ (the quad) with an overexcited mouse/shrew who Danny claimed was “super-soft – I stroked him!!”

The following morning we awoke to the sound of the Loud Swiss talking to the Quiet Frenchman. In actual fact, I imagine he was talking at the Frenchman whilst Monsieur Dupont politely nodded at acceptable intervals. In fact, such were Loud Swiss’s monologues, he probably wouldn’t notice if Monsieur Dupont/his audience were dead.

After some greasy parathas for breakfast we donned our hiking gear and went out to explore. We crossed the river on a dodgy suspension bridge and a little while later found Jhui Sam, a place the guidebook said was interspersed with arcadian foliage and crystal lakes. The lake we found seemed sulphuric, and far from crystal clear. However our initial disappointment turned to wonder as we ventured far back and found dreamy scenes that looked like they were straight out of a fantasy computer game. Those familiar with the likes of Myst or Riven (my sister Rhea, brother Aaron) will know what I mean.

After lunch during which we were joined by some rather friendly, overenthusiastic, yet still thoroughly bemused goats we walked up a nearby mountain, and to the land beyond which the guidebook ever-animatedly described as the Garden of Eden. Well, Danny and I joked that the author should re-consult his Bible as it was maybe too favourable a description. That being said, in all honesty I had expected cascading chocolate waterfalls and lemon bonbon trees so maybe I should go back to Sunday school too…

Still it was very beautiful and we spent the good part of a day exploring, finally returning home after six hours. We met Bert from Holland and his wife Maria from Bolivia who were travelling in the region. We swapped travel tales and I was pleased to find that Maria too shared my morbid fear of sheer drops (in fact I believe she had a more extreme version of the phobia). I realise that my phobia is somewhat irrational as it is not a fear of heights per se, but a fear of instability and more specifically sheer drops. If anyone could supply me with the Latin for ‘sheer’ and ‘drop’ I’d be most thankful because I’d be halfway to making it sound like a legitimate fear.

The next morning we had a jeep to catch at 5am which meant waking at 4.45am. And to think this was meant to be a holiday! Luckily we had a mere 13 or so in the jeep and it was raining so riding atop the vehicle was not so much of an option. Passengers included a young mum and her baby who was being breastfed and sicking up his own babyweight in turn, and a spritely sexagenarian a.k.a. SuperGrandaddy! who jumped out when required to throw stones in flooded streams to aid our crossing.

Our taxi (a Toyota Corolla) from Sost to Karimabad was positively luxurious by comparison. The opulence was short-lived however, as we came up to a roadblock and noticed mud gushing from the side of the mountain. Close up we found a sizeable landslide that was not even negotiable on foot. A local guy said it would take 2 weeks to clear and the policemen said we couldn’t get through. We soldiered on nevertheless (stiff upper lip and all that). We ventured down to the river towards a bridge ahead where we could see some guys making a temporary bridge across part of the river that was quite narrow. What was slightly worrying was that it appeared to be constructed from old girders that had broken off another older, broken-er bridge. Soon though we got across and pioneering a trend, others followed.

Once across, we met a bunch of students from Punjab University who were on a roadtrip up north for the first time. They were quite excited like us by the adventure they were experiencing. They were blatantly like Londoners heading to the Lake District or the highlands for the first time. Or anywhere ending in –shire for that matter! They took photos with us – their looking rather chuffed to have made friends so quickly (“You got stuck in a landslide? Ohhh, we have so much in common!”) and us with somewhat more bewildered, goat-like expressions on our faces.

Then they crammed all 20 of them into a small wagon and took off. Five minutes later they reversed and offered us a lift. Or rather issued us a challenge – if we could fit we could come. Well of course we could. It’s at times like these that I am not so thankful that God blessed me with height!

Lots of singing of Hindi movie soundtracks and performing of really bad magic tricks involving a napkin ensued and around 30 squished minutes later we arrived in Karimabad. Refusing several offers of chai we headed to our favourite Hunza haunt – the café de hunza – for some well-deserved revitalising cafetiere coffee and walnut cake.

Then we set off for Duikar and the Eagle’s Nest, our last stop in Hunza. Another uphill walk, we were followed by a retinue of 8-9 year olds, who took us on a shortcut. For the last leg, we held on to the back of a jeep that had stopped for us. This is no mean feat with a pack on your back weighing you down so we were relieved to finally get there. When the contents of the jeep spilled out, what do you know, one of the guys had spent 15 years working in South Woodford where I went to school. Small world.

Our room was the nicest so far and had gorgeous views over the valleys that no picture could ever do justice. The ‘welcome’ mountain tea was not so nice. In fact it reminded me of a vile mixture my dad used to give me when I was younger to induce vomiting. That’s nice.

Lunch was hilarious. The English menu offered ‘Alakat Brake Fast’, ‘Form Fresh Eggs Cary Style’ (still wondering who Cary is…) and Buffed lunch. We ordered the Jalfrezi. Over lunch, we couldn’t help overhearing the following words uttered by a rather rotund member of the jeep party we had previously encountered:

Rotund lady quizzing local dude: “In the evening, do you go back to your… village?

Local dude: [silence] *puzzled look followed by answer in the affirmative*

RL: In your village…do they have cows?

LD: [silence]

Disclaimer: These events may have seemed infinitely more amusing at the time of passing.

We showered our dust-ridden selves. After a long-long waited dinner we exited and were struck again by the sheer size of the surrounding mountains. Trust me, as long as you are here, you wake up every day shocked that they are still there and still just as huge. By night, the only parts that are visible are the snow-capped peaks. They look like neon parallelograms in the sky and are ever so slightly creepy. But amazing nonetheless.

Saturday 30th June was Danny’s 25th birthday. To celebrate, we did… nothing. Ah-ha! But zis vas de plan all along! To be honest, he’s getting on in years so I am urging him to take it easy. For the best part of the day, we wallowed in our collective laziness, reading, sleeping and eating chocolate at will. At 4pm we sauntered over to the look-out point slightly further up from the hotel and watched the sunset. In the evening we watched “Voice of India” (like Pop Idol but not) with Indian Jeff Goldblum as we waited for them to buff dinner (they did a buffed dinner as well as buffed lunch). This programme really has to be seen to be believed. It’s car-crash TV. Like, you really shouldn’t watch it but something is compelling you all the same. Wow. The producers really seem to have gone to great lengths to assemble the most ugly people in India and then coaxed them into singing (very few seemed to enjoy the experience). We discovered unsightlyness seemed to be a prerequisite for audience members too when we spotted an Indian Gollum among the masses.

Anyway, that was a bit of an aside! On Sunday, Danny set his alarm ridiculously early to take pictures of the sunrise, and then proceeded to hit snooze a couple more times for good measure. What a sweetie. We later packed up and were looking forward to some exercise after several slothful days. We saw some Americans in the car park and went over to say bye and wish them well (and hint at getting a lift maybe?). Five minutes later they passed us on the downhill slope and offered us a ride. We lazily agreed, and breaking our previous record managed to fit 9 people and 9 large camping bags into a teeny jeep meant for 4. Funnily enough one of the girls had met Danny’s parents at their hospital in Pakistan the summer before. Good times.

Back in Karimabad again, we said thank-yous and goodbyes and killed time shopping which Danny definitely enjoyed thoroughly. I’m glad he was there though because he was able to prise me away from the antique jewellery counters when, presumably, he could see my eyes twinkling with rubies and emeralds.

Amid a dust storm, we took a taxi to Gilgit. Gilgit is a grimy transit town which is best used as a place to stay whilst arranging treks and transport further north. Hunza peoples seem generally more open and friendly than anywhere else I have been in Pakistan. You almost feel in another country because the language is so different (not in the least bit related to Urdu) and even visually there are huge differences (Hunzakuts often having extremely fair skin and hair and blue eyes). Gilgit seemed more hostile by comparison. There has been a recent history of sectarian violence, so there are military checkpoints with men carrying big scary guns. Thankfully, we didn’t look dodgy enough to get stopped.

We had planned to stay where the Americans were but there was no room at the Inn so we found a bed at the Madina guesthouse. On Monday morning we went to confirm our flight tickets which has to be done in person 24hrs before. It was grey and rainy and we were told one flight was delayed and several cancelled on previous days. We tried to forget about the possibility of going by road (20hrs!!). With little to do, we amused ourselves reading the daily papers over lunch. Under Marriage Bureau one can only guess what some of the descriptions were euphemisms for: tall male, sharp features, foreign nationality holder, fair-complexioned, eastern values, professionally educated (doctor, engineers, MBA) [sic]. None of your fancy arts degrees will do here…These two here particularly cracked me up. Again, I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions:

‘Urdu speaking 5.8” handsome exec post in multinational company seeks fair, good-looking, smart graduate 5.3”-5.4” aged 30-35 domestic chores expert unmarried girl.’

’38, Sunni conservative Muslim male, short, 5’4”, bald, dark skin, Bengali origin, residing currently in NE U.S. divorced with one child, gainfully employed.’

As you can tell we were rather bored by this point. Then, Danny had the genius idea of going to the Serena and spending the rest of the evening in the grounds there. It was a sterling idea. Readers of this blog will know our fondness for staying at run-down dirt-cheap holes and hanging out in expensive hotels. For some reason the Serena has had a particularly powerful appeal, so we decided to make it a hat trick.

We got there early evening, perused pricey Persian carpets and jewels and took a walk in the gardens. The pikey extravaganza continued as we made our way to the restaurant for an expensive buffet dinner. To put it in perspective, we worked out that the dinner cost 4 times as much as we were paying for our hotel room. But it was worth it for the yummy food. We had to suspend our disbelief at the automatic doors though because it would not have looked particularly refined and might have resulted in pompous cries of “I daresay old boy, how terribly uncouth!” The only question that remains is… which Serena is to undergo the chav treatment next? Danny suggests we conquer either Kabul or Zanzibar…

On Tuesday, we awoke at 6am to head for the airport. I woke up long before though, thinking about the 20hr ordeal we might face if the flight didn’t go. I couldn’t bear to even open the curtains and check the weather. When we left it was partly cloudy. When we arrived at the airport we heard that the outbound flight hadn’t even left Islamabad. Thank God, about half an hour later it left so we checked in and waited. About an hour and a half late we finally took off. We were flying PIA (Pakistan International Airways). There are various other… less motivational interpretations of the acronym (Pilot Is Asleep, Parachute Is Advisable, Panic In the Air, Perhaps I’ll Arrive, Please Inform Allah etc) so we were thankful to finally land in Islamabad an hour later after a smooth flight.

To celebrate we dined at Mcdonalds (what?! It has to be done) and then moved our stuff to Pam and Peter’s house. These are two ex-pat friends of Danny’s who asked him to housesit for a while. They have a fabulously lovely house embellished with items from each country they have lived in, which from my reckoning seems to be everywhere. It is very sumptuous especially in comparison with Danny’s characterful flat. Haha.

They have lovely AC, cable TV and Internet which is why I have finally been able to write this short novel. As you might expect, we have spent much of our time since Tuesday watching DVDs, going online, eating and sleeping. This is the life.

On Thursday Danny got up at 5am (gargh) and went climbing and then we went shopping ALL DAY (a threat I had vowed to carry out – Danny lured me to Pakistan with promises of new shoes). An initially unsuccessful trip was made good in the end with 3 consecutive purchases in three shops. Problem is, there is a lot of tat to sift through to find stuff and before you know it the proprietor has whipped out 478 leopard print shawls and it’s all too much. I never did get any new shoes from the boy. We spent Thursday evening at the Rasmussens who invited a large gathering for dinner. Yesterday, we didn’t even leave the house til around 7.30pm to go for another delectable feast at Anna’s. It’s so nice to have people cook for you!

Today I haven’t done much apart from write this epic post. I’m not even ready. Like I said, this is the life. You may have seen in the news plenty of reports about problems here in Islamabad at the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque). It is a shame that things have kicked off and the police have had to move in. Danny climbed on the roof and could see a column of smoke where some radical students set the Ministry of Environment alight. And last night, I was up pretty late and amid thunder and lightning I thought I heard explosions. Actually I thought I was tired and losing it and imagining things but I read this morning that there were exchanges of gunfire in the early hours. It seems to be localised though so we are just going to stay away from the area.

We might head over to the US embassy for a swim. All I need is a fancy cocktail with an umbrella and ten straws and a sunchair. Else I might just roam around in PJs and watch a few more DVDs…

My flight leaves Islamabad tomorrow morning so I shall be setting several alarms to ensure my timely arrival at the airport. Can’t believe my five weeks are already up, but it’s been great. Thanks for reading, tune in next week when I may do a post-mortem blog entry. Promise it won’t be as long as this…Peace and God bless.

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FAFEN about!

It’s that time of the week again folks, the time when I write my blog and the world reads on in awe. At least that’s the theory. So I guess the question is are you ready for another mammoth post? Can you handle the pressure? If you answered Yes to the above, please continue. If not, well I feel sorry for you, I personally can’t think of anything better to do that tops it. So I shall continue where I left off many moons ago on the afternoon of Friday the 15th. My second week in Pakistan began with quite a relaxed evening at an Afghan restaurant with Danny and two of his friends from school, Elliot and John. Afghan fare hasn’t exactly got a world class reputation as haute cuisine so I didn’t expect much but was rather satisfied with the meal.

On Saturday, Danny and I woke up extremely late (readers of this blog will know about my new-found fondness for napping – that’s what you do when it’s hot – but it’s bad when your regular night’s sleep sort of blends into an extended nap and you find that lying with your eyes closed doing nothing encroaches on your general ability to do anything during your day) and went to the American club to go swimming. Danny said “You’re in America now!” in a retarded Southern yank drawl (on reflection I think that’s just how he was born). It was quite surreal how true this was: inside the compound there were more people with annoying accents but it was a small price to pay to be granted the privacy to strip down to your swimwear and bathe, taking respite from the heat which got up to 50C we hear. Let me tell you more about that. Wow. In the UK when it’s 25C people start taking all their clothes off sitting in beer gardens and/or braving the English seaside at Blackpool/Bournemouth/Newquay and when it gets to 30C the papers go crazy with headlines featuring words such as “heatwave”, “blistering” and “scorcher”. So let’s try to imagine what 50C feels like – let me help, it’s roughly what you imagine the surface temperature of the sun to be like. Then of course there’s the searing ‘breeze’ – which you expect to refresh you but in this case blows at you like a giant celestial fireball, like you did something really really bad and deserve to roast.
Anyway I digress. ‘ America ’ was great and every bit as liberal and tolerant as I imagined. The afternoon was punctured by mouthfuls of authentic blueberry cheesecake which I can’t complain about. In the evening Danny went off for an evening for Elliot to mark his leaving and as a sort of early stag do ahead of his (Elliot’s) wedding. Not wanting to trespass into Testosteroneland I did what any good Pakistanisized girl would and stayed at home to wash and iron Danny’s underpants. Okay, that’s obviously not true. I met a woman at the Internet café the other day and we had talked about meeting up and she had accidentally left some of her stuff there and so she came round. I was about to show her round when I realised I had locked myself out. Luckily it was later that evening and I had brought my mobile out so I sheepishly called Danny and asked him to come and let me in his house.

On Sunday we went to the Pakistani International Church again (where they recognized me as a ‘regular’ and asked me to join the band, pouncing on me as I played piano after service). After, we went to America again, where this time I tried ‘grits’ a traditional Southern breakfast made from cornflour which tastes of kind of nothing, but in a satisfying kind of way. That evening, Danny went to volleyball, and I met up with Sophia of Internet café fame, this time with a little more success. We went to Pizza Hut with her young daughter Georgiana. There was a waiting list such is the popularity of this place (particularly with families) in these parts. At the end of the meal, Sophia insisted on paying and then to top it produced a pair of silver earrings (which I can’t decide look like weird trees or marijuana leaves?) as a gift. This is not abnormal, just Pakistani hospitality for you… I hope! Or else she’s part of some weird underground mafia and I owe her big time.
Monday was pretty interesting. Last post I mentioned a birthday dinner at Jason’s steak house but probably not the fact that we got propositioned with an offer for work. Before I came out to Pakistan , I toyed with the idea of working for part of my time and then gradually the notion became more and more fantastical, and when Danny quit his job it was the final nail in the coffin. Anyway, the offer came on Friday and by Monday we were attending training. It was only going to be a short one week consultancy with the Asia Foundation so we decided to go for it, since the money earned would come in useful on our venture up to Hunza in the next few days. This year is the first time in the history of Pakistan that the electoral roll is to be computerized. Up and down the country there are around 45,000 display centres open for three weeks where people can come to check they are on the electoral roll and if not, add their name to the list. Static Observers (SOs) have been appointed by the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) to monitor various centres and check the accuracy of the roll.  We were to be election monitors moving round the country to see that SOs were doing their job, correcting them and reporting any suggestions or concerns. We were monitors of monitors if you like. The training was interesting to say the least. Either I have the attention span of a six year old or the training really did go on for ages. Or both. Anyway they were trying to explain some simple maths. The objective is for the SO to take a random sampling of 15 voters thus: take the total number of people on the electoral roll…let’s say its 150. Then you divide it by 15 = 10. Then you take every 10th person on the list for your sample. ONLY, the examples they choose to use involved numbers like 693, 5423, or 88,406 which suddenly made the mental arithmetic just that little but harder, and a simple principle just that little bit harder to grasp. I swear it took about an hour. I couldn’t even look at Danny  for fear of bursting out laughing like a woman just released from a strange institution after 40 years.

It pains me just to think about it. Well, that evening we relaxed at David and Mehrs, two of Danny’s friends who were holding a Mexican themed rooftop soiree. The food was truly delicious, but after arriving close to starving at 8pm and having dinner at around 10.30pm, eating mud might have been equally as tasty. Danny definitely looked like a rabid dog – with this wild ‘me-must-eat-now’ look. And I’m sure I noticed some foaming round the mouth.
Next morning (Tuesday) we prised ourselves out of bed and went to the AF offices to sign our contracts and get on the road. Luckily they are right next door to Danny’s house which is rather good. All the same, we got there at 9am and only left at 1.30pm after many a complication. We stocked up on bakery goodies and finally hit the road for a 6hr-ish jaunt to Mingora. I don’t think our driver was that familiar with the concept of antiperspirant because we were greeted by a rather noxious odour on entering the car. Later we also realized he wasn’t that familiar with washing either since he wore the same shirt-trouser combo for six days straight. Yes, I did say six.

We had heard about (and seen several thousand advertisements) for a hotel called The White Palace (Sufaid Mahal) just outside the city, but anyone who knows me knows my cynicism regarding hotels with “star” “paradise” or “palace” in the title. Normally it involves sharing a room with a family of rats who resent you invading their space and an unstable ceiling fan that looks like it might fall and lop your head off at night if you’re not careful. Plus the Lonely Planet describes it as ‘luxury’ but we all know that these Lonely Planeteers stay at these places after 6 days continuous traveling by yak and are so optimistic they get excited by the presence of a plug socket.
When we arrived it didn’t look quite as deluxe as we might have hoped but it was quite nice. Apparently the Queen stayed here once. It also had a mini zoo that had a parrot I was convinced was saying “hello” and “help”. The leaflet was hilarious stating (and I quote) “Visitors are struck by wonder and beauty on his first step in to White Palace…not just an ordinary but great wonder…which will not only satisfy but inspire.”

Our first day of work on Wednesday took us to Uch, Bandegai, and Lower Dir. These are all very conservative places where if you can spot a woman (we made it into a game) she would almost certainly be burqa clad. In one town we counted 9 women and about 9000 men. One of the guys even had an “I HEART JESUS” cap on which cracked me up. I’m guessing he doesn’t realise he’s subliminally proselytising to the Muslim masses.
I donned a black chaddar like a good girl and we went on with the task in hand. Danny keeps on saying I looked good in a chaddar and then laughing so I am starting to think he has a not-so-secret chaddar fetish. It was pretty incomfortable because I know about 6 words in Urdu, one of which is slaughterhouse so I relied on body language and Danny translation for most of it. Luckily some of the Urdu forms used codes which corresponded with the English so I could pretend I knew what was happening. But on every occasion I was the only female in the room I not a 50mile radius so it was interesting to say the least. That evening we stayed in Dir town which is famous for knives and this too made Danny quite happy which, given his passion for the hijab makes me wonder why I am even friends with this guy. Dir is a complete dive. Don’t go there. The first hotel we stumbled upon had several different types of mould growing on the walls/mattresses so we hoped and prayed for something better. We found a slightly better room at the creatively titled Dir Hotel Dir, but the ‘host’ was just as hostile. We ventured out into the bazaar for all of about 15 minutes (literally) until the somewhat malevolent stares became a bit too much. Retiring to our room we spent the rest of the evening reading by the light of one candle and fending off over-enthusiastic staff who came by every five minutes with offers of chai/biryani.

The following day, our work took us to Swat which by comparison is a beauty spot. In fact, in its own right it is a rather magnificent place. The drive was long, but the scenery, which included lush green valleys, rolling hills and the impressive Swat river made it much more bearable. We saw Buddhist ruins – a stupa which we named the stupendous toupeed stupa on account of the grassy mane about it’s crown and we stopped for yummy fish along the river where we ate behind a curtain to protect my modesty.
It’s a strange phenomenon that occurs when you do work and get up early after any amount of time spent lazily napping. Suddenly the days seems twice as long and you have time to do things. That evening we settled into the PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation) Motel in Saidu Sharif. It was a lot nicer than it sounds. Thing is, in these parts of Pakistan the thought that two work collegues might share a twin room is up there in the unthinkable realm. Danny came back to the room with a ‘what-was-I-supposed-to-do’ look on his face and informed me that he told them I was his wife. (The alternative: ‘er yeah we kind of went to uni together ages ago and were an item for a bit and now and sort of are working together on a consultancy…and yeah…that’s just how we scandalous Westerners roll.’

Only, they took his middle name for his surname when noting down passport details so we were unofficially Mr. and Mrs. Luke. Well I found this hilarious, so I did what any exploitative wife would do to her under-the-thumb spouse and proceeded to ask my hubby to fetch me tea, and bring me things that were just out of reach and so on and so forth. In the afternoon we went to a Buddhist museum – we had about 80 rupees on us – the price tag for Pakistanis was 10 rupees, foreigners 200 rupees. After a small debate during which Danny contested that he had lived in Pakistan most of his life (I just sat back and looked Pakistani) they called a small board meeting and let us both in for 100 rupees. The visit was followed by dinner at the amazing Serena hotel which is on another stratosphere in terms of luxury. Staying at the motel and dining at the ‘posh’ hotel is admittedly quite pikey which is what most of our conversation around dinner centred on. I wanted to jack the salt and pepper shaker set (obviously I wouldn’t have) so Danny said I’m a pikey but with a name and face like his, that’s pretty rich right? Haha. If he came from the UK , it would most definitely be Romford. No Basildon . Anyway, who’s the most pikey – YOU decide. Cast your votes please.
We continued, to the consternation of the PTDC staff to take our meals at the Serena. Buffet breakfast at 300 rupees a piece? Oh go on then. The conversation took a nosedive:

Danny: “Yeah, that’s what ants taste like, plum skins” [after an apparent conversation in his head with himself]
Me: *incredulous look*

D: “I’m just saying” [he used to eat ants as a kid]
That day we visited 4 display centres, all in primary schools where I was way more interested in the cute Pakistani schoolkids. The staff at the centres were as generous as ever presenting us with bottles of neon Mountain Dew (it’s banned in most countries because a single hit can bring on ADHD) and offers of khanna (which I worked out means food).

We dined at the Serena. Actually first we went to the kid’s playground which had a tree swing with the biggest arc ever. It was so fun. At first we were the only ones seated for the BBQ buffet so it felt like a feast fit for a King and Queen. There were about 100 varieties of salad, meat and dessert and it was pretty delicious with the exception of the soup for starters. Someone got happy with the lemon and ginger and it made your eyes water so Danny waited for an opportune moment to lose most of it over the side of the tablecloth, and I was crying tears of laughter when the waiter came over two seconds later and asked us if everything was alright. Conversation continued to plummet reaching an all time (juvenile) low:
Me: This is boring

Danny: You’re boring
Me: Your face is boring

Danny: Your mum’s face…
Me: Your mum… etc etc

After a stroll around the beautiful grounds of the Serena, we went back to our hotel to sample the pure delights of cable TV. We found a penguin documentary which was scrambled with another much weirder channel – I’m guessing Russian hip-hop TV. And it was like that really creepy moment in Happy Feet when the penguins are grinding which is so many shades of wrong… We also mocked a made-for-TV movie called Mayday starring Dean Cain (Superman, remember?) which had terrible CGI and involved a missile going into the side of a plane and everyone gets sucked out and dies a hideous death and by the end they all miraculously survive (cue ambulance scene and cheesy music/oneliners). He is a bit of a chubmonster these days…
On Saturday we went to Shangla where the skies opened and the sunroof leaked and for a while, my white Patiala pants looked a little scandalous. After hours on roads that felt like you were the first people to navigate Mars or something, and 1/8th of a paratha all day, we reached Mansehra, home of the Cutherell family and Danny’s parents’ hospital.

Danny’s mum Nancy is the most wonderful cook ever so we were greeted by a veritable feast. On Sunday, our day off, we sat around doing very little, giving a cursory glance every now and then just to acknowledge others in the room. We took a stroll around the compound which is a little haven of peace from the bazaar outside, and I got to see where Danny grew up and heard stories involving guns, treehouses, traps and wild boars (4 boys and they had no playstation or TV). In the evening they had church at their house and then had some friends (Sohail and family) who were just a bit insane and refreshingly reminded me of the Babla family back home.
On Monday, we spent another 5hr round trip in the car (after finding a display centre located on a picnic rug with dudes sitting round drinking chai) which left me busting for the loo and evil Danny pointing out water related things of interest (Oh, what a lovely stream! Is that the first spot of rain?, Wow I fancy a swim in that flowing river etc). We couldn’t find the SO in Mansehra so we took the afternoon off. We went shopping with Danny’s parents during which I purchased some long awaited barfi, and we witnessed a mini domestic dispute at the carpet shop (they are moving house) during which Danny added a very unhelpful comment every so often (what about this rainbow striped/camouflage design?). I also looked for glasses but they were all really huge and fifties style and would have required a beehive hairstyle and Jackie O suits to complete the look…

For supper we had meatballs and mash (Mrs Cutherell’s cuisine is always worthy of mention) and tested each other from the “Superior Person’s Second Book of Weird and Wonderous Words”. Here are some of my favourites:
Neoteny – indefinite prolongation of the period of immaturity, retention of infantile or juvenile qualities.

Engastration – the stuffing of one bird inside another (I hope you NEVER have to use this)
Malnoia – A vague feeling of mental discomfort – waking up and remembering yesterday’s unsolved problems (put this on your sick leave form!)

Pantophobia – Morbid fear of everything (ponder this for a second)
If you don’t know at least three of the above words, I am clearly the superior person. Muhahaha.

On Tuesday (19th), after our work in Mansehra was done, we headed up into the hills with our driver to Murree where I saw Danny’s old boarding school and met his Uncle (who is the director) and Aunt and his cousins, one of whom just graduated…They were really welcoming and she makes a mean cake and iced tea. Mmmm
We headed back to Islamabad . We spent part of the journey behind a chicken coop truck. One of the chickens escaped and created quite a scene, clucking and flapping his wings eagerly while his friends chirped (roughly translated we reckoned they were saying “Go Bobby, run for the hills!”). I might have spent the last hour or so annoyingly asking ‘Are we there yet’ to which Danny responded ‘ Yeah, 15-20mins’ every time. So I responded by pointing at things gleefully and asking whether he had been there over and again. It helped pass the time.

Finally that brings us to yesterday and our de-briefing session which was anything but brief. The meeting was of the collaborative work ethic style which meant nothing was really planned and we made it up as we went along. This would have been fine if it weren’t for the overenthusiastic twins that insisted on detailing every moment of their trip in real time. They would start every sentence with “Actually [Pakistanis, like Indians love this word], I have 7 points to make…” Shahnawaz, who was the teamleader has one I-don’t-DO-enthusiasm facial expression which he used to the fullest yesterday. I asked the guy next to me how long he thought it would be before cabin fever set in and Shahnawaz went crazy and killed one of the twins. We managed three and a half hours without incident. Pakistanis are clearly just as verbose in person as in print despite Ashley entreating them to ‘summarise’. Plus there was a huge clock that reminded us in red LCD how long we’d been there and the AC was set to arctic exploration levels.
Now I am sat comfortably in the lounge of the Serena Islamabad taking advantage of their free wireless Internet which we decided we are owed considering breakfast buffet costs 500 rupees. They were nice though they only charged me 250 because I had only tea and a pastry. Please send ideas to get Anila’s appetite back on a postcard, it’s not right, I always have room for food! I am just about to go and get my eyebrows sorted out at the Nirvana spa – it is known as a boutique kind of a salon so that generally means I can expect to pay the average Pakistani monthly wage for this…but I look like a cavewoman and you gotta do what you gotta do. Adieu, I hoped you enjoyed reading. Come back for more next time, and don’t forget to send in your comments and suggestions. If you were reading this at work and it took two hours and you just got fired, I’m sorry!

Passage to Pakistan

If it is a blog that you want then it’s a blog you will get. My blog for India was a resounding success for several reasons namely a) I didn’t have to bother writing and or emailing people individually and more importantly b) Jenna Jane’s memory sucks (I uhh did it for you honey!).

Anyway on with the proceedings. I touched down in Islamabad at approximately 6am last Friday. My entire journey was a pretty smooth ride, and I had been expecting at least a few things to go horribly wrong. There is so much potential for things to go amiss on trains/at the airport/on the plane. Fortunately they didn’t find any contraband items in my luggage (contact lens solution is a common offender) and I had a good few hours to kill in duty free browsing shops that sell items I might be able to afford after saving for say, 100 years. Anyway, I did what any pikey would do spraying myself liberally with cologne testers and searching out free stuff. I found Pimms and lemonade – how very English darling.

The plane ride was great mainly because I was unconscious for most of it. I had a very attentive and rather attractive flight attendant who brought me snacks every so often. Then I had some red wine with dinner which sent me off into a deep slumber… The plane was mostly empty so I could stretch out and lie down. Next thing I know, I have half an hour flight time left…and I still hadn’t cracked open my plane letters. Many thanks to everyone who gave me a slice of entertainment – Jimmy for his kind encouraging words, Jen for reminiscences of India (and advice on loose motions), Ruth for her Christian corner, Sascha for his ever philosophical musings, Aaron for his hilarious games and cartoons, Rhea for the random copy and paste from Google affair (I know you had exams dear) Danny for his ‘Learn Urdu in ten easy phrases’ and contingency plans for every possible eventuality and Thomas for his adorable baby pics and ‘La femme d’ete’ quiz.

Danny collected me in his Suzuki Mehran which is infamously known as the Red Rocket in Islamabad . Google it and you’ll see the irony. I have a nice little bedroom of my own with an en-suite bathroom and AC. Danny has a mini fridge which houses Corona and butter. Needless to say we eat out and the kitchen is something of a no man’s land (he has a just-in-time cleaning system which takes the ‘as and when you need it’ approach to washing up). I went home and slept whilst Danny went into work for his last day.

In the afternoon we got me a Pakistani SIM card – email me and I’ll let you know my number and you can text me sweet nothings. That evening, we went to a party at the Norwegian embassy. I didn’t think a pool party was what I’d be doing on my first day in Pakistan . We stayed right until the end (let’s face it you have to when your host is also the DJ) and it was still really hot and I didn’t have to be asked twice to go swimming. Most people didn’t have their swimwear including me so I just went in in my jeans and T-shirt like the rest of them. It was sweet relief from the heat of the day… On Saturday, we slept in because by now I had a bit of jet-lag and post party fatigue to deal with. In the afternoon, we continued the swimming theme at the Canadian club and I learnt a bit of French (‘Pas de jonglage autour de la piscine’ – No horsing around!) too which will come in handy when I visit Paris later this summer.

In the evening we went to dinner with Danny’s parents who happened to be in town for the day, and then to an ice cream café. It’s run by a guy who directed Pakistani’s first horror flick, and it’s there I picked up one of my first words in Urdu – Zibakhana – slaughterhouse. So I’m going to try and drop that into conversation as much as possible. After that we headed over to a friend of Danny’s house/mansion and sipped Margaritas on the roof whilst I personally provided dessert for approximately 8-12 mosquitoes per square inch.

On Sunday, we went to a church in the diplomatic enclave. Apart from the fact that you have to go through a metal detector and get frisked on the way in, it was reassuringly like most churches round the world (Worship band, post communion tea and coffee etc). We watched Wedding Crashers in the afternoon (great for those like me who have the sense of humour of a 13 year old boy), and in the evening we went to play volleyball (I read GQ from the spectator area) at another friend’s house (Peter and Pam who have worked in development for years and lived in every continent going).

On Monday we napped again til around afternoon (we are both free agents, it’s so liberating) and then started feeling pangs of laziness, and went shopping to find me some Punjabi suits. I got some money changed up (after getting used to Danny paying for everything thus far). We came back with a bag of peaches and cold coffee and ice cream (fast becoming a favourite) in our bellies. In the evening we had a romantic dinner by candlelight (courtesy of the Pakistani national grid) with Tom and Jo (also in development).

On Tuesday, I had a more successful shopping trip with Pam and Thirza buying fabrics to be made into salwar kameez (the first one came back and fits like a glove). Again the power went so we were running back and forth looking at colour choices and designs. In the evening we went up to a restaurant with Elliot, Thirza and two British students from Edinburgh called James and Ben in Daman-e-Koh in the Margalla hills which border the northern part of the city. The view over Islamabad was beautiful.

Early the next morning (as in 5am – yes people, be impressed) we returned to go for a walk in the hills with Ben and James before it got crazy hot, and I realized just how unfit I am. The view from the top looks even better by day, and is quite a nice reward for your hard efforts. We then further rewarded ourselves by going home and taking a nap on the floor for oh, about 5 hours. For dinner, we went to a place called Mr Chips (which confusingly sells delicious Pakistani food) with Colin and Elliot (two of Danny’s friends from school).

Afterward we were just getting ready to settle down and watch a movie when Thirza calls and invites us over. Next thing we know we are in the car heading over to the house of the Minister of Culture for Pakistan . I can’t even remember what this dude’s name is. All I know is that it was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. This man was quite fond of talking, mainly about himself and his opinions on pretty much everything. He was like the caterpillar out of Alice in Wonderland. Someone would ask him a question and he would take a long drawl on the hookah and then pause for what felt like an eternity, then say “Hmmmm” and then if you were lucky get an answer. He was previously Minister of Tourism.

This is what I learnt: (On China ) “They love me” (On Pakistan ) “ Pakistan is s***!” (On the Czech Republic ) “If you want beautiful women go to Czechoslovakia . Almost none of them are ugly.” Anyway, I kind of feel like Wednesday night didn’t actually happen. Like I was dreaming and then I saw a white rabbit and decided to chase it and then I fell down an hole and sustained serious brain damage and started hallucinating and met a caterpillar with a penchant for shisha and recreational drugs…or something… Well we finally got back at about 2am so of course we slept in again (Loz, I am definitely part of the pro napping mafia now!!)

The plan was to get up and go to Khanpur lake and dam at around 10am, but following our strange night, we consulted one another and pushed it back to 12pm. We finally left the house at 2pm, picked up Ben and James and headed over. It’s about a 1 1/2hr ride away so we got there just before 4pm. The drive goes through Taxila which is famous for its stonework apparently and also Disco cheetahs (Mirrored disco balls but in the shape of a cheetah – so not really a ball at all really!). Anyway I must get me one of those. When we arrived the guys stripped off whilst I found a secret spot and changed into a dirty Punjabi suit donated by Thirza which I can wear when things get messy! Haha. The temperature was just right, and we just swam and chilled for a while. When I got out my pink suit was rather transparent. Luckily I had a vest on too, but I still felt like an actress from a Bollywood movie dancing in the rain. Just a bit less glamourous.

On the way back, we heard suspiciously ‘broken car’ sounding noises emanating from the back of the car…on closer inspection the exhaust pipe thingy (I’m sure that’s the technical term!) had fallen off… One of the boys donated the string from his kurta pyjama pants and they secured it whilst I sat back and took photos of the whole charade. We managed fine across the bumpy gravel roads but then the car started slowing and Danny realized the accelerator connection had died so the car sort of didn’t work. About 6 pakistani guys came over and pointed and repointed out the problem. In the event Danny called his mechanic (an amazing guy who picks your car up from anywhere, fixes it up and returns it to your residence in about 2 days) and we took a taxi back.

It made us almost an hour late for a birthday dinner but we arrived just as orders were being taken so it wasn’t all bad (for us!) That was last night. Since today was even hotter than yesterday and I don’t have a lake as respite, I have taken refuge at this Internet café. Danny is at work – although technically finished he is finishing off a proposal so he went in today. I told him to just cut off emotionally but I know it isn’t that easy…I spent the weekend after my official end date at Y Care finishing off my case studies (my baby) so I sympathise.

I hope some of you guys are reading and commenting. I am having a lovely time in the 42 C heat, and it is nice to be with a tourguide whose mental age also festers at around 12. Danny’s favourite phrases are “You heard me” (when I have failed to understand his Southern American mumble), “You just got told” when I’ve apparently been put in my place by some supposedly humiliating insult or other form of defeat and “Hmm yeah” in the manner of the dude from Office Space (which he uses whenever I’m blatantly right which is quite frequently). I hope all is well whichever corner of the world you might be reading this from. Go and play “Here in your arms” by Hellogoodbye. It is becoming my soundtrack to the summer. Also, come back next week for more tales from the Pakistani hood…

Pakistan Ahoy!

The time has come, my friends, to talk of many things…of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings…and Pakistan!

It is that time of year again when I get itchy feet and go off travelling to some far-flung destination. It’s become something of an Anilan tradition! This time it is Islamabad, where I am going to visit one Danny Cutherell in his natural environment. It is somewhere I kinda thought would be a cool place to see, but tis only very recently that the notion of it became concrete.

If all goes to plan, he will be meeting me bright and early at 6am tomorrow with his morning face which should be funny. What is even more funny is that given my arrival time is approximately the middle of the night in the UK and the history of my capacity to sleep on planes or any other mode of transport known to man, I should arrive even more sleep deprived and ratty than him, and he will have to reconcile the girl he once knew with the monster before him…

Getting a visa was traditional Anila fare i.e. not a walk in the park! I simply must have a shady looking face, because I am always stopped for security checks and the like, and visa issue people don’t like me too much. After a spanish inquisition style interview, and lots of raised eyebrows and hushed voices in my general direction I finally managed to wrestle a visa out of the guys at the Pakistani embassy. I thought the hard part was over.

Oh how wrong I was. HAHA. I returned from two weeks in southern Spain only to find that Kiran (the younger twin) had decided that my hiking bag was just the thing he needed to take on a week long camping trip to the Lake District. I could not believe that where my lovely bag had once been there was only air. To say I completely lost it is the understatement of the year. This was not just any bag… This was a rather expensive women’s fit super deluxe…you get the picture. So I went crazy, only the perpetrator of the ‘crime’ wasn’t around so it was my poor mum and brother who had to hear my frantic cries/tears. I told Thomas later that if Kiran were around I would have probably put him in the bag and sold the whole package on Ebay.

Anyway Mum and Ash helped me calm down (liquorice allsorts were instrumental in this) and we tracked down a replacement bag at a camping store in Lakeside. EXACT REPLICA bag is now packed to the Brimble with all my stuff which weighs in at a hefty 15kg…

With that I need a few minutes to get the bag from the floor onto my back… So i’ll be signing off, and with any luck I will be back soon.

Thanks for reading!

“If there is Paradise on Earth…

…it is this, it is this, it is this.”

A persian poet used these words to describe Kashmir, and then Mughal emperor Jehangir nicked the phrase and had it inscribed on the Red Fort in Delhi, so it is a pretty unoriginal way of describing a place but I think I can live with that. Until I see Kashmir to assess it personally I think I am allowed to plagiarise if I feel I have good reason!

For now I think I do have good reason: Jenna and I have just returned from a blissful few days in Shimla in the foothills of the Himalaya. We had spent about 4 days in Delhi and decided to get away from the heat and general hustle bustle of the capital. Initially we had planned also to go to Amritsar until we realised the exorbitant ‘English’ style price tag – it costs about 695r one way which is about a tenner which seems a little steep to me.

Our stay in Pahaganj has been quite nice. It is a place called Hotel Star Palace. It’s not palatial and generally I like to steer clear of places that call themselves Paradise Guesthouse or whatever but we were so dead by the end of the train journey we sort of settled for the first place we could find. You might remember the place was described as seedy but I reckon its just hippy. There are a lot of dreadlocks and clothes in red green and yellow but apart from being asked whether we were from the ashram in Pune (see the entry on Osho) and being offered beer with breakfast it’s been cool. After two roasting days in a room that seemed to have ceiling fan solely as an adornment we transferred to an A/C room which has been like a piece of heaven compared to the sahara style conditions we have endured up until now. We had taken to having cold showers in our pyjamas just to stay cool throughout the night! 🙂

The guy at the hotel reception swears that he has met me before. I thought this was a really cheesy, really bad chat up line but the fact that he carries on as if he has known me forever is a bit creepy. He keeps on saying, “No, reeeally…Are you sure you haven’t stayed here before?” as if on the third interrogation I might suddenly say “Oh yes, I remember…way back when in ‘ 97, silly me!” or something.

Delhi has been quite nice. It isn’t quite as big and scary as remember it but I was considerably smaller and marginally more prone to intimidation back then. It is quite developed and feels very cosmopolitan. We were reticent to do the whole tourist thing because to be frank it is getting a little bit monotonous, but we couldn’t go to Delhi and not see the Red Fort etc etc. In the morning we went to the Jama Masjid, which is the biggest mosque in India and was built by Shah Jahan, he of Taj Mahal fame. Our poor English feet were not accustomed to the searing sandstone underfoot so we left with our feet feeling ever so slightly tender. We met a sweet little old man there who drew a few stares when he sparked up a conversation with a pair of girls. He told us something about the Moghul empire and how much he loves Kashmir but his accent was pretty thick and so I just tried to smile and nod in the right places. We left for the Red Fort and ended up strolling through Delhi’s muslim quarter which felt a bit like Pakistaniville.

The Red Fort was pretty cool. It was the fifth (maybe sixth?) fort we have seen in the space of a few weeks so apart from being generally fortlike I can’t really remember much that marked it out! A lot of the decoration was looted during the various sackings Delhi has been subject to over the centuries so it was probably only a shadow of its former glory but there was some nice pietra dura (the same inlay as is found at the Taj Mahal) and it was so serene in contrast to the frenetic chaos that characterises Delhi. On the way back after failing to find a rickshaw wallah who wasn’t on a mission to rip off tourists a policeman who was eavesdropping suggested we took the metro. The Delhi Metro is still under construction and we hadn’t realised that it was partly operational.

Wow, it was totally amazing. It was like the London underground (replete with ripped off Tube style signs) but without the noise and with air conditioning. It was more proof that India has the ability to constantly surprise. It gets some things so right, and some things so wrong. It was clean, smooth and there wasn’t a chewing tobacco stain to be found anywhere in sight. I took a photo to prove that it wasn’t just a figment of my imagination!

The next day we went to Shimla which is a hill station in the Himalaya at about 2200m. When the British ruled India (and about 1/5 of the whole planet I think) they would come up here in summer when the Delhi heat got too much to handle. It took about 12 hours to get there in total. When the guy joked about the narrow gauge train being like a toy train he wasn’t far off from the truth. The train goes so slowly you feel as though you could walk quicker but it means you have all the more time to take in and digest the sumptuous views. The vistas across the valleys are absolutely spectacular. We spent a good part of the journey hanging out of the door… literally, until my feet scraped along the side of a rather narrow tunnel and I realised how much I valued them and kept them within the carriage. We also shared the carriage with a lovely Goan family who recommended that we visit Panaji, and someday I would love to do the south of India. They had two children and their two cousins. The four year old boy, Anthony was possibly one of the cutest kids I have ever seen and he and his six year old cousin entertained us with their impressions of the chai’allahs (garam tea, coffee!) and other foodsellers. When his mum suggested I took him back home with me, I thought Okay, lemme have him!

We got into Shimla at about 5.30pm that evening and we were instantly pursued by a Kashmiri guy who implored us to stay at his hotel. After visiting the hotel and several others I suppose owned by his relatives/friends we were still unable to find anything suitable. Jenna and I are really rubbish at turning people down. No, I haven’t suddenly gone all soft – rather we both find it hard (read impossible) to disguise the look of horror on our faces and simulataneously think of a tactful way of turning down a room. Let’s face it, you can hardly say, ‘Well sir it looks like damp and smells of urine’ can you?

Anyway eventually a guy on the street saw two forlorn looking tourists and led us to a nice hotel called Le Royale. As we walked through the door it as evident it was way beyond our stingy student price bracket but after bargaining, and later pleading we managed to negotiate a price that was more than 50% less than the room tariff displayed. Even so, by our usual standards it broke the bank at a whopping four pounds and fifty pence pppn! It is situtions like this that make you realise the virtues of being a girl – a similar entreaty from a man would probably be regarded as feeble and unmasculine.

After assessing the luxuries that a fiver buys you (cable tv, HOT running water, small sachets of moisturiser) we went out to explore Shimla. The architecture is heavily influenced by the British. In fact it sort of feels like a seaside town at the top of a mountain for want of a better description. There is a promenade with lookout points across the valleys, Christ Church and something reminiscent of Cambridge high street. Even the place names are distinctly British: The Mall, Cart Road, Scandal Point etc. This together with the heightened friendliness of Shimla inhabitants made me feel really at home.

We were only there for two full days, and for both days there was a low lying mist that gave the place an eerie yet magical feel. On Tuesday after a late start due to sleep deprivation we consulted Lonely Planet and then went in pursuit of a place called the Viceregal Lodge. Well either we are exquisitely bad map readers or Lonely Planet is officially rubbish, because it took us much longer than planned to get there. And of course when you accidently walk down a steep hill you have to scale up it again when you realise you are utterly lost! In the end we found it but after several hours I think we had built it up in our mind’s eye to be a place of exceptional wonder and beauty and were a bit dismayed… but it was nice enough. The lodge looked spookily like Reed Hall on Streatham Campus so suddenly I felt like I was in Exeter on the top of a mountain!

We woke up the next day and walked another crazy distance to the highest point which can be found at Jakhu temple. It is dedicted to Hanuman, so inevitably there is a bunch of ‘sacred’ monkeys who like to force people to surrender their crisps and such like. Well I have already been the victim of a monkey attack on Elephanta island (it was the crisps again!!) so together we made a 2-man army complete with pebble artillery. They must have been driven away by the sheer menace in our stares because apart from an attempted robbery by one opportunist chimp we escaped unscathed!

The last time we were in Shimla there were beautiful views of the snowcapped Himalayas in the distance but visibility was limited on account of all the mist so we missed the opportunity unfortunately. We went back down the hill and sought refuge in Baristas (Indian style Starbucks) where we rested our weary legs. To all intents and purposes we ought to have thighs of steel by now but alas, signs of such a transformation are minimal. Over coffee we read about riots in Amritsar (so it was probably a good job we didn’t go) and of Tony Blair’s visit to Shimla. That would be cool if we had bumped into Tony on the top of a mountain but in the end he couldn’t get there because the fog and I seriously doubt he would be found in the budget basement style places we frequent anyway! We didn’t do that much for the rest of the day apart from see how long you could draw out one cup of coffee (answer: about an hour) and browse Indian fiction in the bookshops. In true English style it poured with rain so most of the time we were quite cold but it was welcome relief from the sweltering temperature of Delhi. Then we went in search of a beauty parlour so we could get henna done. I had my eyebrows done whilst the women were preparing to apply mehndi to Jen. Anyway, it turned out that it was the woman’s first attempt at henna (my own reckoning!) and then another woman started on me but it looked reaally bad (she was worse than the other woman!) so I politely asked her to stop. It was so funny because we ought to have seen sense when we initially walked in. The conversation that took place was something like this: me: do you do henna? woman: nooaayyeaah no problem! She either didn’t want to disappoint or saw it as a way to earn a quick buck but either way it was a little bit disastrous. We had our second attempt at Mehndi today and although the guys were infinitely more skilled the colour bled quite a lot . Jen and I laughed when we looked in the mirror because we look like a pair of gangstas/convicts complete with intimidating tattoos. Nice!

Anyway it was a bit of a shame to leave Shimla. It really has such a magical quality about it, and its got a multicultural feel on account of all the Kashmiris and Tibetans in amongst the Indians. The return journey was possibly the slowest 12 hours of our lives to date. The carriage was comprised of an inordinate number of pervy guys one of whom took the opportunity to stroke my legs when I walked by despite the fact I only had about 3 inches of leg on display. At the stations Jen and I felt a bit like exhibits and we were regarded with the same curiousity small child regards a new toy. Strange!

Now we are back in Delhi and the Indian Sweat Syndome has returned. ISS is characterised by profuse perspiration, clothes moulding to the countours of your body and a lovely aroma not unlike spicy chicken korma. Mum, you might like to bring some deodourisor to the airport and/or wear one of those astronaut style fumigation suits.

Today, we went to the National Museum of Modern Art which was quite nice, and then when we had finished our tour we discovered that meanwhile the heavens had opened.  A huge storm was just what we needed so it was really refreshing although I’m not sure Jenna agreed because she was wearing light colours haha. It was near India gate which is also really cool. We also ran into Tim and Sara again today which is just another event in a long line of coindences! They have just come back from Manali, but the bridge to Leh was down so they had to come across by basket! Tim pretended to be married to Sara so he could get in the female queue but even so the female officials decided to have a laugh at his expense and demanded he wear a veil and disguise himself as a woman. Poor guy!

Well I have talked for long enough as per usual. I have lots to do – in no particular order: sleep, arrange and rearrange luggage, prepare for reverse culture shock. I think the last point will be the hardest. I have got so used to being able to eat, watch a movie, have my eyebrows done and my shoes shined ALL for less than one pound that I dunno how I am gonna cope. Any suggestions, please send in on a postcard! See you in London baby!

…it is this, it is this, it is this.”

A persian poet used these words to describe Kashmir, and then Mughal emperor Jehangir nicked the phrase and had it inscribed on the Red Fort in Delhi, so it is a pretty unoriginal way of describing a place but I think I can live with that. Until I see Kashmir to assess it personally I think I am allowed to plagiarise if I feel I have good reason!

For now I think I do have good reason: Jenna and I have just returned from a blissful few days in Shimla in the foothills of the Himalaya. We had spent about 4 days in Delhi and decided to get away from the heat and general hustle bustle of the capital. Initially we had planned also to go to Amritsar until we realised the exorbitant ‘English’ style price tag – it costs about 695r one way which is about a tenner which seems a little steep to me.

Our stay in Pahaganj has been quite nice. It is a place called Hotel Star Palace. It’s not palatial and generally I like to steer clear of places that call themselves Paradise Guesthouse or whatever but we were so dead by the end of the train journey we sort of settled for the first place we could find. You might remember the place was described as seedy but I reckon its just hippy. There are a lot of dreadlocks and clothes in red green and yellow but apart from being asked whether we were from the ashram in Pune (see the entry on Osho) and being offered beer with breakfast it’s been cool. After two roasting days in a room that seemed to have ceiling fan solely as an adornment we transferred to an A/C room which has been like a piece of heaven compared to the sahara style conditions we have endured up until now. We had taken to having cold showers in our pyjamas just to stay cool throughout the night! 🙂

The guy at the hotel reception swears that he has met me before. I thought this was a really cheesy, really bad chat up line but the fact that he carries on as if he has known me forever is a bit creepy. He keeps on saying, “No, reeeally…Are you sure you haven’t stayed here before?” as if on the third interrogation I might suddenly say “Oh yes, I remember…way back when in ‘ 97, silly me!” or something.

Delhi has been quite nice. It isn’t quite as big and scary as remember it but I was considerably smaller and marginally more prone to intimidation back then. It is quite developed and feels very cosmopolitan. We were reticent to do the whole tourist thing because to be frank it is getting a little bit monotonous, but we couldn’t go to Delhi and not see the Red Fort etc etc. In the morning we went to the Jama Masjid, which is the biggest mosque in India and was built by Shah Jahan, he of Taj Mahal fame. Our poor English feet were not accustomed to the searing sandstone underfoot so we left with our feet feeling ever so slightly tender. We met a sweet little old man there who drew a few stares when he sparked up a conversation with a pair of girls. He told us something about the Moghul empire and how much he loves Kashmir but his accent was pretty thick and so I just tried to smile and nod in the right places. We left for the Red Fort and ended up strolling through Delhi’s muslim quarter which felt a bit like Pakistaniville.

The Red Fort was pretty cool. It was the fifth (maybe sixth?) fort we have seen in the space of a few weeks so apart from being generally fortlike I can’t really remember much that marked it out! A lot of the decoration was looted during the various sackings Delhi has been subject to over the centuries so it was probably only a shadow of its former glory but there was some nice pietra dura (the same inlay as is found at the Taj Mahal) and it was so serene in contrast to the frenetic chaos that characterises Delhi. On the way back after failing to find a rickshaw wallah who wasn’t on a mission to rip off tourists a policeman who was eavesdropping suggested we took the metro. The Delhi Metro is still under construction and we hadn’t realised that it was partly operational.

Wow, it was totally amazing. It was like the London underground (replete with ripped off Tube style signs) but without the noise and with air conditioning. It was more proof that India has the ability to constantly surprise. It gets some things so right, and some things so wrong. It was clean, smooth and there wasn’t a chewing tobacco stain to be found anywhere in sight. I took a photo to prove that it wasn’t just a figment of my imagination!

The next day we went to Shimla which is a hill station in the Himalaya at about 2200m. When the British ruled India (and about 1/5 of the whole planet I think) they would come up here in summer when the Delhi heat got too much to handle. It took about 12 hours to get there in total. When the guy joked about the narrow gauge train being like a toy train he wasn’t far off from the truth. The train goes so slowly you feel as though you could walk quicker but it means you have all the more time to take in and digest the sumptuous views. The vistas across the valleys are absolutely spectacular. We spent a good part of the journey hanging out of the door… literally, until my feet scraped along the side of a rather narrow tunnel and I realised how much I valued them and kept them within the carriage. We also shared the carriage with a lovely Goan family who recommended that we visit Panaji, and someday I would love to do the south of India. They had two children and their two cousins. The four year old boy, Anthony was possibly one of the cutest kids I have ever seen and he and his six year old cousin entertained us with their impressions of the chai’allahs (garam tea, coffee!) and other foodsellers. When his mum suggested I took him back home with me, I thought Okay, lemme have him!

We got into Shimla at about 5.30pm that evening and we were instantly pursued by a Kashmiri guy who implored us to stay at his hotel. After visiting the hotel and several others I suppose owned by his relatives/friends we were still unable to find anything suitable. Jenna and I are really rubbish at turning people down. No, I haven’t suddenly gone all soft – rather we both find it hard (read impossible) to disguise the look of horror on our faces and simulataneously think of a tactful way of turning down a room. Let’s face it, you can hardly say, ‘Well sir it looks like damp and smells of urine’ can you?

Anyway eventually a guy on the street saw two forlorn looking tourists and led us to a nice hotel called Le Royale. As we walked through the door it as evident it was way beyond our stingy student price bracket but after bargaining, and later pleading we managed to negotiate a price that was more than 50% less than the room tariff displayed. Even so, by our usual standards it broke the bank at a whopping four pounds and fifty pence pppn! It is situtions like this that make you realise the virtues of being a girl – a similar entreaty from a man would probably be regarded as feeble and unmasculine.

After assessing the luxuries that a fiver buys you (cable tv, HOT running water, small sachets of moisturiser) we went out to explore Shimla. The architecture is heavily influenced by the British. In fact it sort of feels like a seaside town at the top of a mountain for want of a better description. There is a promenade with lookout points across the valleys, Christ Church and something reminiscent of Cambridge high street. Even the place names are distinctly British: The Mall, Cart Road, Scandal Point etc. This together with the heightened friendliness of Shimla inhabitants made me feel really at home.

We were only there for two full days, and for both days there was a low lying mist that gave the place an eerie yet magical feel. On Tuesday after a late start due to sleep deprivation we consulted Lonely Planet and then went in pursuit of a place called the Viceregal Lodge. Well either we are exquisitely bad map readers or Lonely Planet is officially rubbish, because it took us much longer than planned to get there. And of course when you accidently walk down a steep hill you have to scale up it again when you realise you are utterly lost! In the end we found it but after several hours I think we had built it up in our mind’s eye to be a place of exceptional wonder and beauty and were a bit dismayed… but it was nice enough. The lodge looked spookily like Reed Hall on Streatham Campus so suddenly I felt like I was in Exeter on the top of a mountain!

We woke up the next day and walked another crazy distance to the highest point which can be found at Jakhu temple. It is dedicted to Hanuman, so inevitably there is a bunch of ‘sacred’ monkeys who like to force people to surrender their crisps and such like. Well I have already been the victim of a monkey attack on Elephanta island (it was the crisps again!!) so together we made a 2-man army complete with pebble artillery. They must have been driven away by the sheer menace in our stares because apart from an attempted robbery by one opportunist chimp we escaped unscathed!

The last time we were in Shimla there were beautiful views of the snowcapped Himalayas in the distance but visibility was limited on account of all the mist so we missed the opportunity unfortunately. We went back down the hill and sought refuge in Baristas (Indian style Starbucks) where we rested our weary legs. To all intents and purposes we ought to have thighs of steel by now but alas, signs of such a transformation are minimal. Over coffee we read about riots in Amritsar (so it was probably a good job we didn’t go) and of Tony Blair’s visit to Shimla. That would be cool if we had bumped into Tony on the top of a mountain but in the end he couldn’t get there because the fog and I seriously doubt he would be found in the budget basement style places we frequent anyway! We didn’t do that much for the rest of the day apart from see how long you could draw out one cup of coffee (answer: about an hour) and browse Indian fiction in the bookshops. In true English style it poured with rain so most of the time we were quite cold but it was welcome relief from the sweltering temperature of Delhi. Then we went in search of a beauty parlour so we could get henna done. I had my eyebrows done whilst the women were preparing to apply mehndi to Jen. Anyway, it turned out that it was the woman’s first attempt at henna (my own reckoning!) and then another woman started on me but it looked reaally bad (she was worse than the other woman!) so I politely asked her to stop. It was so funny because we ought to have seen sense when we initially walked in. The conversation that took place was something like this: me: do you do henna? woman: nooaayyeaah no problem! She either didn’t want to disappoint or saw it as a way to earn a quick buck but either way it was a little bit disastrous. We had our second attempt at Mehndi today and although the guys were infinitely more skilled the colour bled quite a lot . Jen and I laughed when we looked in the mirror because we look like a pair of gangstas/convicts complete with intimidating tattoos. Nice!

Anyway it was a bit of a shame to leave Shimla. It really has such a magical quality about it, and its got a multicultural feel on account of all the Kashmiris and Tibetans in amongst the Indians. The return journey was possibly the slowest 12 hours of our lives to date. The carriage was comprised of an inordinate number of pervy guys one of whom took the opportunity to stroke my legs when I walked by despite the fact I only had about 3 inches of leg on display. At the stations Jen and I felt a bit like exhibits and we were regarded with the same curiousity small child regards a new toy. Strange!

Now we are back in Delhi and the Indian Sweat Syndome has returned. ISS is characterised by profuse perspiration, clothes moulding to the countours of your body and a lovely aroma not unlike spicy chicken korma. Mum, you might like to bring some deodourisor to the airport and/or wear one of those astronaut style fumigation suits.

Today, we went to the National Museum of Modern Art which was quite nice, and then when we had finished our tour we discovered that meanwhile the heavens had opened.  A huge storm was just what we needed so it was really refreshing although I’m not sure Jenna agreed because she was wearing light colours haha. It was near India gate which is also really cool. We also ran into Tim and Sara again today which is just another event in a long line of coindences! They have just come back from Manali, but the bridge to Leh was down so they had to come across by basket! Tim pretended to be married to Sara so he could get in the female queue but even so the female officials decided to have a laugh at his expense and demanded he wear a veil and disguise himself as a woman. Poor guy!

Well I have talked for long enough as per usual. I have lots to do – in no particular order: sleep, arrange and rearrange luggage, prepare for reverse culture shock. I think the last point will be the hardest. I have got so used to being able to eat, watch a movie, have my eyebrows done and my shoes shined ALL for less than one pound that I dunno how I am gonna cope. Any suggestions, please send in on a postcard! See you in London baby!

Is it cos I is white?

Heey! Where ya from? I think after almost three months in India it is only fitting that I should start addressing my readers in the same manner we always get approached in the street. It’s quite funny really, everywhere we have been so far, by the time we come to leave there are a bunch of people who seem to know our names so we walk around feeling like film stars most of the time. In Jaisalmer we decided to create pseudonames because we were sick of either a) ignoring people or b) divulging too much personal information (Brits don’t even like giving their name away!) so in the end we had to stifle laughter when someone shouted out Fifi, Nushka or Louloubelle in the street. Jenna even started saying we were moonish so they soon realised it was a joke…

Anyway lots has happened since the last time I posted. Most importantly, I feel a million times better than last week. On Friday afternoon as planned we had an Ayuvedic massage which was the perfect antidote to bruises suffered on the back of a camel! It really was so relaxing the half hour just flew by… I subsequently bought some almond massage oil in Agra from a little old man that carries his shop in a suitcase so now I just need a willing victim!

We spent our last nights in Jaisalmer in an old haveli (which used to be the residences of the well off). It turned out to be quite a nice place to stay for free and was run by an enthusiastic muslim guy who tried (and failed) to ply me with ‘special’ lassi and persuade me to run off into the sunset with him. On Saturday after almost a week in Jaisalmer we left for Jaipur on a night bus and I said goodbye to one of my punjabi suits (R.I.P.)

I think it is the first and last time any of us will ever take a night bus in India because we didn’t get more than about 4 minutes uninterrupted sleep combined! We arrived early morning in Jaipur, found a hotel and then took advantage of cable tv and room service. In the afternoon we ventured out and decided to splash out at one of Lonely Planet’s recommended ‘mid range’ hotels  – we daren’t normally look beyond the budget section. Lonely planet has been our trusty fourth companion all this time. Sometimes places suffer from lonelyplanetitis which is a condition that results from hotels thinking they’re amazing because they feature in a guidebook and then becoming lax but this time we were pleasantly surprised and spent the aftenoon swimming and generally relaxing.

The next day we went to a palace called the Hawa Mahal and a really cool observatory called Jantar Mantar. We would have probably needed an astrophyicist (or just Rhea!) to explain what all the instruments were designed for because all I recognised was the sundial which stood at 30m tall! It looked like modern art and it was unbelievable to think the contraptions were built 200 years ago. In the afternoon we went to the Amber Fort. We met a small boy on the way who showed us some magic tricks for a few rupees and I was pretty impressed at his skills… he was so grown up for a six year old…

In the evening we went to the Raj Mandir cinema to see Mangal Pandey which was a cool film about the Indian Uprising against the British in 1857 although I suspect most of the men there were more concerned about catching a glimpse of Rani Mukherjee in her sexy sari!

We completed our last night train with the mega backpacks a few nights back after which we all breathed a mahusive sigh of relief. As a true finale ought to be, it involved running down the platform with four pieces of luggage attached to various parts of me minutes before the train departed. That the carriage you are due to be situated in is at least 500m from where you are standing prior to it’s arrival is just a given that we have accepted with time! The train from Jaipur to Agra departed at 2am so I just slumped onto the bed and was asleep within seconds and then felt like it was only minutes before we arrived in Agra at about 6am. I had booked the wrong train (a day early) but it worked out perfectly because we needed time to convalesce after several nights of little or no sleep.

That afternoon we headed over to the Taj Mahal. Then somebody told us that the next day it was going to be free as if it were a top secret so we decided to chance it and instead spent the rest of the day wandering around government emporiums muttering things like “yah just put it on plastic” after inadvertently walking into a section where marble pieces were evidently upwards of 10,000 rupees! In the evening we went to a plush restaurant and started backing out of the door when we realised it was beyond our price bracket, and then decided to bargain with the waiter who eventually decided to give us a thali (selection of dishes) for only 60r (less than a quid) each cos we were the first customers of the night. Not bad!

The next day we went to Agra Fort. It is exactly what you would expect of a fort. It is  an imposing mass of red sandstone big and scary enough to get lost in. In the afternoon we headed down to the Taj and (hallelujah) the rumour it was free was true. I can’t believe our luck that we should accidently arrive in Agra on Shah Jahan’s birthday but it saved our having to fork out 750r (!!) which we were inordinately happy about! The Taj Mahal is as breathtaking and beautiful as I remember it and this time it was full of people jumping for joy like us. We spent four hours just wandering round the perimeter and taking everything in. It was also one of only three days in the year that they open up the real tombs of Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz so that was super cool to see. We were approached by countless people for photos but politely declined (mostly) because I feel we are already in enough pohoto albums. I still don’t quite understand the fascination of having a photo taken with a foreigner. I’m being mistaken for Indian now as opposed to ‘mixed veg’ (= half caste!) so it is all the more odd but there you go.

Now we are in Delhi in a district called Paharganj which the lonely planet describes as ‘downright seedy’ but its not really that bad and was miles cheaper than central Delhi. We left Louise this morning and it felt like the end of an era. We have had a lot of fun these past three weeks (# Celebrate good times, c’mon! #) and now she is on a mammoth train journey back to Pune. As for us we might go up to the Himalaya for a bit to make the most of our last week in India. I’m sad about leaving but this is overcompensated by the excitement and anticipation of going back home to see the family. I think I’ll sign off as I need to recharge my batteries for a day of bargaining in the bazaar tomorrow. See you in 9 days (and counting!)…

101 Uses for a Dupatta

It’s not that often that you can say that you are writing from the middle of the desert, but if last week in Udaipur felt like the Meditterranean then Jaisalmer, which is where we are now feels like the Sahara desert. It is on the edge of the Great Thar Desert and the main town is actually inside a very old huge sandstone fort. It is very very hot at the moment which is a shock to the system after a few months of heavy rain. As some of you know my body temperature likes to mirror that of my external environment, like I’m a reptile or something! So right now on a scale of boiling to very very boiling I’m the latter but I’m adjusting to the heat as best I can.

When I left you last week we were still in Udaipur which has probably been the best stop on our route so far. Last Friday evening we went up to a place called Sunset Point where you had a bird’s eye view of the whole city. It was just stunning. In the evening we went to a Rajasthani dance festival which was really lovely. This woman was dancing with wait for it….eight water carriers balanced one on top of the other on her head! We also visited the tailors for the last time. I had to have my dress altered for the third time because I put it on and broke the zip. Oops.

We had to cancel our plans for an early morning bus ride to Jodhpur but when I finally got my dresses back they were absolutely perfect. I would have never found something that good for so cheap a price at home so it is a good investment when you consider the cost of graduation balls etc.

The next day we went to a place called Ranakpur because we didn’t have time to go all the way to Jodhpur. Khan and Navin took us in the car but it was a really tight squeeze because of the ever increasing luggage we have so we had to just suffer numb legs for a few hours haha.

I felt pretty awful because I had eaten a dodgy pancake and couldn’t hold down (or in!) my food ever since. We spent the journey trying to come up with 101 uses for a dupatta after having discovered several just through our daily wearing of salwar kameez. I think we are at number 64 or something. We’ve also devised a new format for a TV show called Pimp my Rickshaw (MTV fans need no explanation!). In Ranakpur we visited a(nother) Jain Temple but got ripped off a bit by a somewhat money hungry high priest. We stayed in a five star hotel by our usual standards which cost a whopping 700 rupees a night (about a tenner!) It was quite nice though because it had a swimming pool which is a luxury for us!

I hadn’t had anything apart from rehydration salts and a banana for about 36 hours so I was feeling quite weak. The next day we headed for Jodhpur. As we were the last on the bus I got the seat where there was absolutely no suspension. Here’s a formula thats worth remembering: loose motions + no suspension = not fun!!

I was so relieved when we finally got into Jodhpur after about 4 hours. In Jodhpur we were bombarded by rickshaw drivers but we have one stock response now. We just tell them we need exercise and they just start laughing and walk off which is good because we don’t want to get angry with them or anything.

Jodhpur is a geometric mass of blue. It used to be just Brahmins that painted their houses blue but now lots of people do. It wards off mosquitos apparently which is good news for me! We got a free ride from an old guy who saw us trying to bargain with the rickshaw drivers and took pity on us. He lived near the fort so he didn’t want any money for it so that was so nice. Meherangargh fort itself is amazing. They had an audio tour which is one of the best ideas I’ve seen so far. Whenever we have had a tour guide before we have ended up nodding in the right places because we haven’t got a clue what they’re going on about so it’s much better that way. They even had the handprints of all the Maharajahs wives before they burnt themselves on his funeral pyre.

In the evening we went shopping for a bit and then had to get a night train to Jaisalmer. It came into Jaisalmer at the unearthly hour of 5am and we slept through the alarm or didn’t remember to set one I can’t remember. The upshot was we all awoke as the train was coming into the station and had approximately 3 minutes to speedily pack up sleeping bags and generally prise open our eyes!

Emerging from Jaisalmer station is an experience. Even at 5am you have several hardcore hotel owners battling for your attention. We jumped in one of the jeeps – they all say they’ll take you anywhere for 10 rupees but naturally you end up going to their guesthouse (or their uncles or their uncle’s mother etc).

The hotel owner then proceeded to try and make us take a camel safari promising us dance and ‘full moon party’, bhang (marijuana) and whatever else. He got quite nasty after two days because we checked out. Most hotels offer you dirt cheap room prices because they convince you into paying for a safari. I didn’t like the guy at all and besides he had designs on Louise and was trying to ply her with beer so we wanted to steer clear of him.

Jaisalmer city is like a huge sandcastle. The fort is absolutely huge with many of the hotels actually housed in old parts of the fort. It almost doesn’t feel real because its like a real life exhibit. We bought some really beautiful wall hangings. I like mine because its made of both Indian and Muslim gypsy dresses so it looks more unique compared to the rest. I have been keeping a record of where I am spending money so I can keep track and keep on promising myself I’ll slow down soon but the rupees still feel like monopoly money, and I still have a long way before I can pass GO and collect my next student loan installment!

We randomly met Tim and Sara who we had joked with before leaving Deep Griha about meeting again sometime during our travels so we had dinner with them and told them all about our travels so far. Louise seems to be a man magnet because wherever she goes we end up having a bunch of indian guys trying to make inane conversation such as “what is your good name” and really interesting stuff like that! She needs to be a little less soft because before long theres invariably a sob story which is meant to make you take pity and invite them back home to get married!

Anyway on Tuesday we went to the fort museum but none of the exhibits were marked so we had to make up our own stories or find some other diversion. We saw a bunch of bats that were living in the fort which was pretty cool. Then we went to Gadi Sagar which is a big lake with a temple on it. Whilst Louise was chatting up some Indian guys (joke Louloubelle if you’re reading this!) I was talking to a couple of musicians. Hadish was married when he was fifteen and his wife was ten so it was odd to think he was only 23 but had been married for so long. I learnt to play (sort of) the Rawanattha which is a beautiful stringed instrument of the Bhopu desert tribe. Then we went for a ride in a pedalo on the lake and afterwards I was persuaded to get one of these instruments. It didn’t take much persuasion because I already really wanted one so I just wanted a good deal. Also, I am a total sucker for beautiful eyes and this guy was pretty dam good looking but don’t tell anyone that part of the story! So I ended up getting the instrument, a CD and one of his silver rings (which looked exactly like what I had been looking for) for little over 6 pounds. In the evening we ended up going to this really quaint museum run by a guy who I reckon was about 85 years old although he wouldn’t reveal his age. We saw this really weird puppet show (puppets are quite big here!) which made me laugh so much mainly because I couldn’t believe I was sat in a room full of weird puppets. In the museum all the exhibits were painstakingly handwritten and the old man took us round on a guided tour. He even gave us a detailed explanation (no less than fifteen minutes) on the Kama Sutra. It was just so funny having it come out of the mouth of this little old man…easily the oddest fifteen minutes of my life so far! Then we ate Tibetan style before getting an early night ahead of our safari…

On Wednesday and Thursday we went on a safari into the desert by camel. It started off nicely but ended up being two of the most draining days of the trip so far. My camel was called Rosie and she was with her husband Rajah, Louise’s camel, and Rocket, Jen’s camel. Their baby Bella came along for the ride. It was really fun riding a camel if a little bit sore at times. Rosie spent much of the time sidling up to Rajah and the baby was trying to feed from his mama at the same time! When we stopped for lunch the camel drivers entertained us with stories about their desert experiences like the times male travellers have tried to make a move on them – it is so funny their trying to explain these things to us in pidgin english.

In the afternoon the travel agent joined us. After a bit of a domestic with his girlfriend, it was a bit obvious he was trying to make her jealous by going on with Louise. Then he was trying to make Rajah go faster and faster even though they’re not designed for it. I wanted to go slower as it really hurt but Rosie was tethered to Rajah so we couldn’t slow down. After a few seconds I heard Rosie scream and she fell down and was dragged along until Rajah slowed down. I was thrown off and landed a little ahead. That’s another contender for Scariest Moment Of My Life. It was a miracle that I had only a few cuts and bruises especially when you consider Rosie’s injury. When I got up and turned around to my horror her leg was hanging by a thread and she was bleeding heavily. I was crying from the shock of both of these things. I gave my dupatta to be used as a bandage but since no one was a camel doctor they just tried to bandage it back together. They ought to have used it as a tourniquet to stem the blood flow but it was hard to get this across. Worst of all is that the camel driver will have to foot the bill not the travel agent. It costs 10,000 rupees to replace the camel which is a lot to me even so it is their whole livelihood.

They did their best to make us happy and we saw the sand dunes and were rolling down them like kids and burying ourselves entirely in sand. We later heard that they had been sobbing most of the time they weren’t with us. We tried to get some money back from the travel agent to give to the camel drivers. He was a nasty piece of work and ended up saying he would pray to his god to get us back twice for the wrongs we have caused him. We wanted to relax by the campfire but he stayed their bad mouthing us in Hindi probably because he had been humiliated by three girls. We did our best to ignore him and concentrate on the beautiful surroundings.

We got back last night and spent a long time arguing for a refund. Of course, there is no concept of a refund here but we argued all the same. In the end they conceded to give us 33% back and two nights in a guesthouse. We had wanted the money to give to the drivers but we gave them what we could.

Right now Jen and Louise are out visiting some Jain temples and a few other things. I am feeling really really weak. I have been pancakeaphobic after the incident a few weeks ago but generally I am not in a great state. It’s why I decided to stay back while Louise and Jen go because they say rest is a good tonic. I am currently taking a cocktail of medicines so I hope by the next update I will be alive and kicking and ready to go. We are hoping to get a massage tonight which would be amazing. Wish me well 🙂

Rebel Without a Cause

Well it’s Friday again and update time. It is also Aaron and Kiran’s 13th birthday and the third week anniversary of Ash’s 20th (oops I forgot to mention it earlier) so Happy Birthdays all round! I have been deserted by Jenna and Louise although it is a good thing because I hate making people wait for me and more than that, I hate having people waiting on me and not so subtely hinting their impatience through a series of taps and sighs. They are at a temple so its okay because you may have gathered I’ve had my fill of Ganesh and his buddies already haha.

Well our time in Udaipur is almost up and we will be moving on tomorrow. We were actually going to get a bus today but we have decided to go tomorrow morning to have an extra day in Udaipur. I could probably stay even longer but we have all our trains booked so things aren’t that flexible.

Udaipur really is a magical city. It is full of quaint whitewashed buildings, winding streets and narrow passageways. It feels like an Indian Venice – I could almost be in the Meditteranean right now because it is a world away from Ahmedabad which by comparison was pretty filthy and very crowded.

It is quite touristic here because its the quintessential place to visit if you are doing a tour of India. This is great because it means I can wear western clothes without my ‘erotic’ shoulders drawing a small crowd but at the same time I had quite got used to feeling famous! I really like the feeling of being different so it is something that I am going to miss when I go home – it will be like, “What? And why do you not want my autograph? Huh? Huh?” It’s funny because now the further north I go the more people know that I am part Indian. In Maharashtra I was anything from Russian to Spanish to just plain mongrel!

Less about me, back to Udaipur. Well on Tuesday we went on a stroll around the town. There are so many beautiful handicrafts… I would love to buy the whole town but I’ll have to stick to my 20 rupee budget! We all drive a hard bargain in particular Jen who takes it to a whole new level. I am somewhere in the middle and Louise is a bit too soft so I think she is taking lessons from the master. Louise bought some artwork – it is a beautiful painting on camel ivory. It is very small but absolutely exquisite. I have bought a couple of things at rock bottom prices and then we all had a bit of a mad moment at the tailors. Somehow and I still don’t really know how we all ended up having two ball gowns made. They work out at about 25 quid a piece. I shall now try to justify this expenditure – they are perfect fits, they are stunning colours and I designed them myself sooo there is no other like it! Well moving on…

Udaipur is just a beautiful place, so enchanting. Two weeks ago the lake was bone dry for the lack of rain so we are really lucky that the rains came when they did. On Tuesday we went on a motocycle tour of the island with the guys who run the Art School and it was amazing. I love being on the back of a motorbike it is such a thrill haha. In the evening we went to a rooftop retaurant which offered stunning views of the city at night over Lake Pichola (that of Octopussy fame!) which no camera would ever do justice.

On Wednesday we set off early by rickshaw to do the whole tourist thing. We visited a crafts village called Shilpram where you can get pretty much anything under the sun. Then we went onto Tiger Lake a mammoth artifical but very beautiful lake nonetheless. Then we drove past another lake, Fateh Sagar onto the City Palace and Museums. It is a huge edfice set in beautifully landscaped surroundings and is partly British architecture partly Indian interior design. There is mosaic, glasswork, beautiful miniature paintings, just mind-blowing. I have to admit whilst I could appreciate the craftmanship the huge palace with all its hidden passageways struck me as the perfect place for hide-and-seek. I am such a child!

I’d borrowed a mobile phone from one of the Art School guys and it was only once we had reached our final destination – some beautifully maintained Gardens called Saheliyon ki Bari (Garden of the Maids) when I sort of realised that it wasn’t in my pocket any more. Anyone who knows me well knows that they should not trust me with anything worth over 10p. Honestly though I could keep a scrap of paper with a telephone number on it at the bottom of my bag for years but as soon as you get into mobile phone/passport/airline ticket territory something very bad happns. In fact Jenna has been nominated as keeper of the purse because I have such a record of going to see people and leaving my money/phone behind. This would not be good in India.

So anyway we actually went back to Tiger lake and retraced all our footsteps over the scree to no avail and the same with the crafts village. I was really praying I’d find it because I was so worried of the consequences. Just as we had given up all hope the rickshaw guy took out all the seating on his rickshaw and lo and behold it was there. I literally jumped for joy I was so happy and Jen said she prayed for the first time in ten years because she was so scared for me and Louise said the same so there was a massive Thank God chorus from the three of us. Needless to say I didn’t relate any of the fiasco back to the guy. What you don’t know etc etc 🙂

That evening we relaxed at a place called Savage Garden which was expensive but very nice. Jen and I went back to the hotel and then Louise stayed out a bit longer. The next morning we were informed that we were being chucked out of our room because Louise broke the curfew by one minute. In truth I heard the guy had a double booking so I think Louise provided the perfect scapegoat. The guy told us that he didn’t like people like us which makes me laugh because it makes us look like a trio of hellraisers which we are not and couldn’t be if we tried. Nope we are just a bunch of geeks really!

Well we found a new place for half the price and then celebrated with a boat ride across the lake. It was so lovely and perfect weather too (Can you tell yet that I am in love with this place?) We stopped at Jagmandir Island which gives a lovely vista of the lake. In the evening we went to Monsoon Palace which is supposed to be great at sunset. It looked so beautiful with the light falling across the spines of distant mountain ranges, just captivating. We had to imagine the sunset because it was quite cloudy but the views were worth the trip. On the way down we were listening to Madonna’s Holiday and Material Girl (takes me back to being five years old again!) which I think will become the anthems of our trip…

They say it’s a small world well we now have conclusive evidence of this. Whilst we were in the palace, at the top of a mountain in Rajasthan no less, Louise happened to just run into a friend from her Medicine course at Cambridge. Just amazing, no? Alice is here alone so we invited her out for dinner and spent the evening at a lovely place right on the water’s edge called Ambrai.

Well thats the Udaipur round up for you. I think I will find the girls and do a bit of window shopping… I almost parted with a great deal of cash this morning to get a piece of artwork but after a couple hours deliberation I awoke from my trance and decided against it on principle thank God! We are going back to the tailors to check the fitting of our dresses later on – I can’t wait! This evening we are planning to visit a traditional haveli for a Rajasthani dance festival.

Then we will be heading northward where the weather gets warmer and the people get more beautiful (its true!). Check back next week for tales of warm summer evenings and gorgeous people. Maybe.

Mumbai Ahoy!

Ahh….at long last I have reached an internet cafe! It seems that the rest of India isn’t as acquainted with technology as Pune, and finding one is like trying to find water in a desert!

Anyway Louise Jenna and I finally left Pune last Saturday morning bound for the Gujarat, Rajasthan and beyond. This week has been partly manic partly quite sad because it meant saying goodbye to a city that has become our home for the past two months.

So much has happened since the last time I posted it seems a lot longer than just over a week but I’ll do my best to bore you with the inane details anyway haha. Well it has been a week of festivities – last Sunday was Friendship Day so it was a cheesy affair which involved tying pink ribbons emblazoned with ‘best of friends’  around each others wrists. Jenna and I only had one each and they were from each other! Well actually later on when I was walking back from the shops a random guy gave me one, so I suppose I have one friend and one random guy who took pity on me and decided to befriend me.

On Tuesday we went to see a Hindi movie called Dus in an authentic Indian cinema (which basically means the theatre was very…fragrant!). We walked out halfway because it was pretty rubbish and anyway, there was no high pitch singing or dancing through meadows which was a little disappointing 🙂

On Wednesday we revisited the Leather Lounge which plays a cocktail of Hindi and Western remixed music, and the next day we got invited to a place called ZKs by some guy who claims to be a relation of a famous cricketer…or something! Yeah well I’m not too sure of his credentials but it was a nice place to go for all the volunteers to celebrate Sharon’s 20th birthday. We had the bright idea of going in our new silk saris which sounded like a grand plan until you realise how impossible it is to manouvre in starched fabric. Even the simplest of things like say…walking become difficult and end up more waddling like a duck instead for the fear of coming apart…after all it’s 6m of fabric and only one pin! This is not something I plan on doing anytime in the not too distant future without at least 300 safety pins to make sure I stay in place!

I spent much of the rest of the week doing last minute things before having to leave Pune. I have a whole bunch of photos developed, which at some point I will be able to upload. It probably won’t be during my time in India though as the computers are deathly slow and patience is not my best virtue. In terms of technology its sort of still in the dark ages 🙂

We spent time going to some of our favourite places such as the local Diamond Bakery which makes the best cake and lassi for about 6r each (I am going to have such a reverse culture shock when I get back to sterling prices)! We also had the tasks of moving room to make space for new volunteers and packing an infinite number of things into a very small space to contend with. I was quite impressed with myself, or at least my rucksack which seems to be of the Mary Poppins variety as it miraculously fitted all my  purchases to date in it. It does weigh about the same as me, and at this rate will weigh more by the time I get home because its a workout just carrying it 10 yards!

Jenna and I finally managed to get our report and volunteer handbook together as well – in true anila style I finished it on Friday at about 6pm! Hans was really pleased with the work and in the end we were really happy with what we got done so its been a couple of months well spent I feel.

When we left Pune it actually felt like leaving ‘home’ for a month long journey ‘home’. Over the past few weeks we have been compiling a list of the things we miss most. In no particular order: carpet; meat; long summer evenings; ranch dressing; mashed potato; hot cross buns; george forman grill; ritz biscuits; cheese and salad! No surprise that most of them are edible – I think some of them will feature on my MOST WANTED list for when I get back…

This week was the culmination of Mission Moustache. There is a phenomenon in India whereby all guys over say…fifteen years of age feel the need to cultivate hair on their upper lip. Apparently it is the way to look if you wanna be in the cool gang, or at least that is what I can gather from the number of guys sporting it. Anyway for all you western guys reading this who want to know how to achieve said Indian look  you can follow these three easy steps:

1) Have any hairstyle you want – popular styles include random tufts of hair at random lengths or if you haven’t the time, no style at all!

2) Wear as high waisted trousers as possible. Remember they must be of the drainpipe variety. Think John Travolta in Night Fever and you are heading in the right direction

3) The piece de resistance is the moustache. Who cares if they went out in the seventies and can now only be found on men with aviators, unbuttoned shirts and lots of chest hair? If you want to woo an Indian girl (apart from this one) its the only way forward!

Anyway we decided it would be our mission to find a victim and try and get him to remove his moustache. Anyway after weeks…no months of gentle persuasion, and later, harsh ridicule we got Sagar (the tailor) to finally remove the thing. Ahhh, he did look about ten (hes actually 23) so we could see why he might have wanted it as a disguise to look older but it was well worth the wait. Ah the (further) ridicule he must have got from his friends for shaving for a bunch of girls! :))

On Friday evening we went to Paul’s housewarming party which sounded like a good idea and was until the rickshaw ride home where the guy tried to charge us double fare and ended up trying to hit Jen when we refused and ran away. By the time we had got home, done last minute packing and got to bed we managed 2 hrs sleep – oops! Our train was cancelled when we got to the train station at about 6.30am the next day and so even though we had made a reservation we didn’t get a corresponding one on the replacement train. Nevertheless we made it to Mumbai in the end and found a nice little place to stay called Bentleys hotel.

We were sleep deprived and starving but found a great restaurant run by a friendly bunch of Muslims called Delhi Durbar. Jenna finally broke her vegetarian fast after 6 weeks. I managed a month before I was tempted by a chicken biryani so I was rather impressed with her resolve! Mostly though I think it’s because we see the chicken’s legs sticking out the pan of boiling water at the Cultural Centre which is enough to turn the more sensitive souls ie. me and Jen vegetarian.

On our first day in Mumbai we went to Elephanta Island which is home to some caves and is about an hour from the Mumbai coast. We took the ferry from the Gateway to India which is a very beautiful, intricately carved British archway I believe. Unfortunately I felt reeeeally seasick so I didn’t have a great time of it but the island itself was very serene. We were shocked to find when we got back that two female tourists had been stabbed outside the gateway in broad daylight just an hour after we left and before we arrived back. The guy was mentally unstable and one of the girls died it was reported so that was very shocking.

Well the next day we went to the Jehangir Art Gallery and then went for a stroll just to take in Mumbai’s sights on foot. There is some beautiful Victorian architecture in the form of Bombay University and the High Court. Then we went on to The Oval a large park where nearby a few media students asked us to be in a short film entitled Mumbai – A Global City. Well Louise wanted to be a Bollywood star so I guess this was 2nd best!

In the afternoon we went to Horniman Circle (English gardens) and Colaba Causeway which is where you can pick up a range of handicrafts. In the evening we lugged our ton weight rucksacks round some Hanging Gardens whilst a little ‘wheeler dealer’ boy of ten tried to sell us peacock feather fans for $5. We ate across from Chowpatty beach and then headed down to the train station for our night train.

Night trains aren’t actually that bad and the only pain was the early morning rise which I have never been good at. We got into Ahmedabad at about 7am and went for a heritage walk which was quite interesting and visited a bunch of temples and some mosques. That was finished by about ten and then after that the day was painfully slow because there isn’t exactly much to do in Ahmedabad. Really it was a stopover to avoid getting a 24hr train or whatever. We spent the rest of the day ambling about and drinking sodas and then we watched half of another movie which is a strong contender for Worst Movie in the History of the World award!

Now we are in Udaipur and we have found a beautiful hotel with lots of character in the Old part of the City. We traipsed around looking at loads and ended up returning to the first one, funny how it always seems to happen like that… It is housed in a converted haveli which is a traditional building with stained glass windows and it overlooks the Lake Palace (where James Bond was filmed!). It is in the perfect spot. Anyway we are here until Friday and then it’s onto Jodhpur. I don’t know when I will get to an internet cafe next but I look forward to updating you on things Chez Anila soon (Indian time!)…

Anila in Wonderland

In case you are wondering Wonderland is my new name for India. Actually, I stole it from a book called Holy Cow that I have been reading but don’t tell anyone. It’s written by a woman who came to India, hated it and vowed never to return and then came back and loved it. Hmm… sounds familiar! Anyway in my humble opinion its a bit of a rubbish book so I reckon you should just read this instead…

Hopefully by the end of this post you will be halfway to seeing exactly why there is so much to shock and surprise you about this place.

This week, as I’m sure those who are well informed by the BBC will already know, we  realised that we are experiencing the worst monsoon in India’s history (well, last 100 years at least!). I think you probably knew before we did in any case!

The rain returned after a blissful fortnight of sunshine but we go shopping come rain or shine so it didn’t bother us. I have spent insane amounts of rupees on dress fabric recently so Saturday was just another one of those days. When I get home I will look like a Punjabi for the first time for a long long time. I reckon I will have approximately fifty salwar kameez by the time September comes around.

This time round we got a free club sandwich at the dressmakers. I have been pushing my luck recently and for today I have requested barfi and halwa. I was half joking the first time but they took it seriously, so obviously we were obliged to accept the offer… Indian hospitality strikes again haha. We will have to drop hints for a candlelit dinner next time 🙂

Jenna discovered that she had lost weight so all her punjabi suits are being tailored a few inches smaller. Actually what he told her was “You were fat, now you are thin” in his crude English. We tried to explain the subtleties of the English language but sometimes it’s just funnier to listen to how they try to communicate sensitive subjects like that! Also when he realised that I was partly Indian he said I can pay the balance when I come back to India sometime because he can trust Indians. I knew there was an advantage there somewhere!

Saturday evening all the volunteers went out to a pizzeria. Jen and I got back a bit too late and so we met up with them later at a place called ABC farms after an hour or so in a rickshaw trying to locate the restaurant. The moral of the story is: don’t ask a rickshaw man a question that begins “Do you know..” because the standard answer is always ‘yes!’ or that head shake thing that is a cross between a yes nod and a no nod and can mean anything from ‘yes I do’, ‘no I don’t but I’ll pretend I do” or just ‘I’m sorry, do I know you?’

We met up with the guys by fluke at a place called Ola and then we went to a place called The Shisha Cafe which sounds like it might be modelled on a turkish harem but was actually quite classy. Then we went to a place called 10 Downing Street that thankfully didn’t look like the real thing in the slightest. We have a curfew of 10.30pm which I think is a bit crazy but we stayed out much longer because it was the LINK guys (a bunch of volunteers from Scotland) final few days in India. I drove the rickshaw part of the way home and so did the others then used it as an excuse so that he wouldn’t extort quite as much money from us.

The next day we went to Mahatma Gandhi road. There’s an MG road in every town in India and he’s on all the banknotes so I think they quite like the guy. Well I had some photos developed and they came out really well. I have several pictures of the children at City of Child and I think I might have to kidnap a few before I leave Pune. Jen and I also got some passport pics so that mum can replace the one of me in her purse from 1995 and I can start looking like the older bossier sister again. We both had to wear Louise’s bright pink floral jacket because our pale pink clothes (you may recall all our clothes are now pale pink) sort of paled into the background.otherwise. So we have genuine smiles on our faces at least!

In the evening we went to a place called A Thousand Oaks for yummy ice tea and snacks. We bumped into a couple of other volunteer type people who told us about a place called Not Just Jazz by the bay. We got onto the guest list so that we could avoid the astronomical entry fee that was the equivalent of about 3 months Indian wages.

Unfortunately we had a really dodgy rickshaw wallah and he took us here there and everywhere but not where we were meant to be. When we arrived home we were all really mad so we decided to go out to a local place called Palazzo. I felt sorry for Stephen because he was all cheery when we got in and we all three kinda tried and failed to be all smiles. When we arrived at Palazzo after 5 flights of stairs we found out there was a private function. Anyway we hung around outside for a bit waiting for the all important question – What is your good name? and eventually we got invited in.

Well this was pretty cool given our run of bad luck and there were several hundred bemused faces wondering what three white girls might have to do with a Parsi baptism party. Well anyway it was great – we went round meeting and greeting and getting asked questions such as “Do you know Queen Elizabeth” to which I gave several contradictory answers. It felt like the mad hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland. Our cups were constantly refilled and we were given a huge meal and dessert.

In exchange for this mini banquet they asked us if we would sing songs, so we became the amateur entertainers for the night. Louise told me she felt like she was dreaming as we proceeded to provide renditions of Lean on Me, Wonderful Tonight, Summertime from Porgy and Bess and other show tunes. Very surreal. When we relayed this to the others whe we got home Tim suggested we ought to be in Namaste or whatever the Indian version of Hello! magazine is.

This week we mostly had to put off work on our report because we were busy doing relief work. The river burst its banks and when they opened the dams a bunch of people had their houses float off down the river or just become seriously waterlogged.

So we made up food parcels of rice dal flour toothpaste soap etc whilst some of the other volunteers had the unenviable task of wading waist deep to deliver them to families affected by the flooding. There was a small army of Indian guys who had come down to help us pack but it was a case of Too many cooks etc instead of Many hands make light work because it was pretty manic! We went down to the river banks and it was really scary because at some points the water was up to my thighs and all the villagers were pointing as if to say “too much water in that direction”. They obviously thought us totally mad.

We managed to get a skeleton version of our report done all the same and we started fleshing it out. We have been looking at Ofsted reports of really rubbish schools to try and figure the best way to say not very nice things in a very nice way and so far I have to say I’m quite impressed by ourselves!

This week we also sent the Link guys on their way so they are probably recovering from jet lag in Bonny Scotland as I type. They ended up saying bye for about an hour and a half so it was funny as in the end we were laughing just trying to get rid of them…

Yesterday we finally got round to booking our train tickets as trains are now running into and from Mumbai Central. You have to fill out a separate form for each train each with all your contact details on it and then wait for it all to be processed. The woman at the counter was a bit funny – she said the policy was to line up and buy each individual ticket separately (3 people, 7 journeys). That is a bit of a joke given that queuing never entred the Indian vocabulary haha

After several hours we finally mapped out a route and found trains that were available so we are readying ourselves to leave Pune next Saturday. We finally made it to Not Just Jazz last night which as the name suggests played less jazz and more ‘Take me home to West Virginia’!

Well looking forward to wrapping stuff up in Pune this week and can’t wait to report on my Rajasthani/Punjabi/Himalayan travels. Don’t miss it.