A weekend in Pune, India, Part 1…

Pune, India, February 2017.

I arrived back from my first trip to India a week ago.

An opportunity for a visit with the Other Half, who had business meetings, the new Indian e-visa system allowed me to decide 4 days before the flight to jump at the chance.

Destination, Pune in the state of Maharashtra.

Considered to be the cultural capital of Maharashtra, Pune is also known as “Oxford of the East” due to the presence of several well-known educational institutions in the city. One of the fastest growing cities in India, the city is known for its manufacturing, automobile and IT research institutes.

Historically there is evidence of a settlement from around 858AD and during British rule in India (1818-1947) a large military cantonment was built. The city was known as Poona during British rule.

As the e-visa allows you to enter India via certain cities, our best connection was via Hyderabad. A late flight, a very long connection, but take note, Indian airport security is intense and three hours were needed to change from international arrivals to domestic departures, check in, pass security and we were left with 30 mins before departure.

Note to self, for future visits, patience and a long connection time is required.

As I had 2.5 days in which to maximise my Pune experience and not being terribly sure about wandering around town alone, I thought the best way would be to find a walking tour.

Very luckily Mr Google found me Pune Magic and within an hour of my first email I had a reply and duly booked a day car trip and a half day walking tour.

The day tour, with guide and driver titled “Pune, a journey through history”, was just that.

Having arrived with a quick Wiki-ed speed read about the city, our wonderful guide Mrs Daya, took us from the past to the present.

We had landed at 7.30am, having flown overnight, with snatched sleep on the plane, checked into the hotel, a quick wash and then downstairs to meet our no-nonsense guide.

Off we went in our air-conditioned car into a swirling maelstrom of morning traffic to our first destination. Somewhat jaded we sat back behind the glass barriers of our car windows and watched Pune wake up for work. Lane control doesn’t exist and it was a frantic introduction to India. Hordes throng the sidewalks, buses, lorries, cars, auto-rickshaws, bicycles, scooters and the cacophony of horns constantly blaring. I watched it all amazed.

Sidewalk sleepers, vendors, beggars, but all surrounded by such colour. From the sarees and blankets hung over fences, the vibrant orange and red flowers and the women, dressed in their gaily patterned sarees and kurtas, India swirled into my vision.

Leaving the madness of the road we went to the university area to see the Governor Generals mansion, which is within the university grounds. Pune is known as an academic centre, “The Oxford of the East” with emphasis on research. One of the largest banyan trees in the city is within the grounds and the grassy areas were full of students sitting in the shade. The rather majestic building that housed the Governor General was having repair work done to the outside walkways but gazing at it and imagining life in those days, it was easy to feel the colonial past.

Onwards to the British World War Cemetery, beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.The soldiers that died fighting for the Empire came from all denominations and countries. Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians all are buried here together. Islamic epitaphs, the Star of David and a cross on each tombstone denotes religion and the ages range from 17 onwards. It is respectfully kept and a moving reminder to those soldiers who lost their lives. A tranquil place amidst the city madness.

Then a drive through richer and leafier parts of the city where homes are hidden behind high walls and security guards manage entry to the lives behind.

Amidst these tranquil streets, The Osho Meditation ashram is found. Strict security and photos are forbidden, so alas no pictures of an interesting view into the ashram watching the morning dance meditation.

Followers must wear long red robes whilst attending the ashram and for a while, we stood and watched the free expression dancing, the majority seemed to be white westerners.The bottom line is that it is an expensive place to be, karma or no karma. I was fascinated, there has been nothing like this in my life and having watched a tiny part, I don’t think there will need to be, but each to their own.

The ashram was made famous by its inceptor Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who was an Indian Godman and leader of the Rajneesh movement.

During his lifetime he was viewed as a controversial mystic, guru, and spiritual teacher. In the 1960s he travelled throughout India as a public speaker and was a vocal critic of socialism, Mahatma Gandhi and Hindu religious orthodoxy. He advocated a more open attitude towards human sexuality, earning him the sobriquet “sex guru” in the Indian and later international press, although this attitude became more acceptable with time.

Mrs Daya had some interesting input and some wry and witty observations regarding our questions. We moved on from Osho, amused and enlightened.

The Aga Khan palace is a place of importance in Indian history. Built by Sultan Muhammed Shah Aga Khan III in 1892, it is one of the biggest landmarks in Indian history.

The palace was an act of charity by the Sultan who wanted to help the poor in the neighbouring areas of Pune, who were drastically hit by famine.

Mahatma Gandhi, his wife and secretary were held here under house arrest from 9 August 1942 to 6 May 1944 and his loyal wife, Kasturba Gandhi passed away here.

In 1969, Aga Khan Palace was donated to the Indian people by Aga Khan IV as a mark of respect to Gandhi and his philosophy. Today the palace houses a memorial for Gandhi where his ashes are kept.

This palace is also the headquarters of the Gandhi National Memorial Society. It was an Indian schools picnic day before the end of year, on our visit, so the grounds were filled with children and youngsters dressed up for the occasion.

Onwards to St Mary’s Church, Pune, built in 1825. The church was built to meet the spiritual needs of the British soldiers stationed in and around Pune. Nowadays it falls under the jurisdiction of the Church of North India and a 1,500 strong congregation worships there each Sunday. The memorial plaques on the church walls tell the tale of the British in India. “Succumbed to fever” and “Killed in action” feature against many memorials.

Then to Shinde Chhatri, a memorial to 18th-century military leader Mahadji Shinde.The Anglo-Rajasthani style of construction with exquisite and detailed carvings and an imposing three storey facade. Within the building is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva.

Chhatri means umbrella in Marathi. As a sign of respect to the great warrior, visitors are required to close their umbrellas inside the premises, even if it is raining.

By this stage, my companions were flagging so we decided to take a slow drive, instead of a walk through the Shivaji Market area, a decision I regretted as soon as we started to drive through the small streets overhung by old houses and seeing the life outside my car window. But none of us had slept much in the last 24 hours and they had meetings, so, back to the JW Marriott, me for a shower and the Executive floor for a sunset drink and the workers to do big business, mine was the better option!

 

Visa:

India now has an e-visa system. For a British passport this works ok, but only for two trips in 12 months. It’s an online application, a little daunting as for some reason parental information is required ( even if you are 60), not 100% user-friendly, but have your passport to hand as you work through,  plus saved copies of a recent photo, in a reduced format that matches the upload requirement.

Flights:

International: Emirates to Hyderabad- 3 times daily. Hyderabad is one of the 16 entry airports in India that accepts the e-visa. The e-visa queue had us three in it, whereas the normal immigration channels were catering for at least 500 people. We got through very quickly but luggage waiting time was over an hour.

Internal:

 Outward: Jet Airways to Pune, 3-hour connecting time- needed. Interminable queues for security. Separate queues for men and women, so hang onto your boarding card if you are separated as it needs to be stamped for security. Lighters are forbidden and blue tooth earphones seemed to be an issue. Generally, a good idea to pack cables together in a plastic bag too otherwise they all get dragged out.

Inward: Air India to Hyderabad. Delayed, slightly tatty and the fastest turnaround and push back I have ever experienced. Faintly concerning but I’m sure the pilot knew his stuff, we arrived on time.

Hotel:

J.W.Marriott, Pune. Executive floor offered on check in for much less than the online booking rate. Well worth the extra, drinks and food included in the price, with extremely helpful staff. Airport pickup available.Driver and car can be arranged at short notice at the front desk. Gym, spa and swimming pool onsite.

Excellent breakfast, very comfortable room.

Trips:

Booked with Pune Magic, part of Magic Tours of India guide services.A 2-hour response to my initial mail, 3 days before departure, the trips booked on the same day.

My tour guide, Mrs Daya Sudama, who, (see Part two), spent a lot of time with me, was hugely knowledgeable, with dry and witty observations and after Day one knew what I wanted to see, negotiated good prices for me and really made my trip an utter pleasure.

I was hugely impressed with the service, tours and pricing from this company, there are no hidden costs, and a guide/driver gratuity is up to you. ( FYI, my recommendation is totally personal based on my highly enjoyable experience, this company has no idea of my sharing.)

 

 

 

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Oman road trip: The Dhofar coastline and a midnight visitor…

Leaving the comfort of the Salalah Marriot, we headed up the coast. Oman is doing some major road expansion and the road from Mirbat to Hasik, which winds through crinkly foothills, is being straightened and expanded to meet up with the incredible road constructed from Hasik to Ash Shuwaymiyah, linking these two towns through a mountainous range.  Continue reading

Monday Window: Philippines windows or not….

Palawan island in the Philippines, referred to as the last frontier, for a variety of reasons. A new island for me, with some very different windows….

Palawan officially the Province of Palawan, is an island province of the Philippines that is located in the Mimaropa region. It is the largest province in the country in terms of total area of jurisdiction. Its capital is Puerto Princesa City, but it is governed independently from the province.

The islands of Palawan stretch between Mindoro in the northeast and Borneo in the southwest. It lies between the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea. The province is named after its largest island, Palawan Island , measuring 450 kilometres long, and 50 kilometres wide.

Bamboo is the construction basis for all housebuilding outside main towns. Palm fronds are also put into use too. Shops selling every conceivable part of bamboo, from stems to woven panels line the road outside Puerto Princesa. Tricycles and jeepneys laden with bamboo and palm fronds were not an uncommon sight.

The climate is hot and humid. In small remote settlements, electricity is not part of everyday life, fans and air-conditioning seem a luxury confined to towns, so window openings are a necessity rather than a design function.

I checked the Oxford dictionary for window definition whilst writing this post as I’m not sure some of these “windows” can be defined as windows.

An opening in the wall or roof of a building or vehicle, fitted with glass in a frame to admit light or air and allow people to see out.

You can decide for yourself….

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Come and join into Monday Window blogging… find some windows every week….

 

Who am I and why am I here…

Not everyone will understand your journey. That’s okay. You’re here to live your life, not to make everyone understand.

A recent quotation, currently journeying around Facebook, is a fairly apt statement as to why I have decided to turn my hand to blogging my exploring and travels .. you don’t have to understand it, just enjoy it with me !  Continue reading

Indonesia, Lombok, October 2014

Travelling from Jakarta to Lombok is approximately 2 hours, Jakarta airport is fairly fluid and relaxed. Garuda was the airline choice, there are many to choose from, but working on the premise their safety record showed up the best and had the most suitable flight times, it was the airline of choice. A comfortable flight, fabulous visibility, I was pinned to the window watching Java and Bali pass below me.

Lombok is a large island dominated by its volcano in the north. Tourism revolves around the main town of Mattaram and there are a few scattered luxury resorts to the south, but little else save for back packer hostels.

Staying slightly outside Mattaram meant a hire care was necessary. The island is too large to cover by motorbike and the 4wd booked was not as advertised- however, the car rental company didn’t quite realise we are not your average tourist when it comes to exploring off road, we do take cars where others don’t, so off we headed without making too much of a fuss…their mistake !

Over the week the west and southern section of the island was covered. Mattaram Town is a melee of small streets, packed with people,buildings, motorbikes, cars, small trucks all jostling for space. It was noisy and hot,with lots of character, but sadly couldn’t be avoided when trying to head off to quieter areas.

Picking up on a hint from a fellow traveller, we headed off to find “Pink Coral beach” … crossing the island on the main two lane highway, dodging bicycles, trucks and pedestrians was a slightly fraught journey until we reached the dirt road that took us to the  south-eastern tip of Lombok. Here the track was rough and our inadequate 2wd rental was put to the test. Reaching the tip, some spectacular views, high on cliffs with sheer drops down to an unforgiving sea, it was time to get back to the safety of the terrible dirt road.

Pink Coral beach had a long undrivable track down the cliffs so it was time to do some walking and not think about the journey back up . At sea level, the pink sand was an unusual sight, ground from the red coral reefs offshore with idyllic turquoise seas, it was a remote paradise. Some small beach shacks, a few boats disgorging passengers, but further down the beach, not a soul in sight. Lying in the sea, in this remote place, I thought of how small my world was and how much is out there to be seen …

Back on the road again after the long haul back up from the beach and turning left off the track, we were heading to the south coast, it was a long and bumpy ride through jungle, with lizard sightings – no photos, they moved too fast !  A small village miles from anywhere indicated we were closer to the south, the villagers were poor, homes are raised wooden structures, some with makeshift walls, with usually a washing line and the inhabitant’s clothes on hangers under the cover of the palm roof : there is no visible furniture, only hammocks and raised platforms for sleeping, a fragile life in this humid area.

The south coast was spectacular, but with no-one visible anywhere.We could have been the only people on this coast… A track to the beach was found and bumping down it to the sweep of a vast bay, some huts to the back , we were completely alone. The tide was high and about 1km out there was a rock formation that marked the reef . Each sweep of coastline repeated this wild and idyllic seascape. As the tide dropped, the reefs became populated by villagers collecting shell fish for food.

In one of the stops, Monkeys were on the high cliffs and we saw them scampering down the cliffs out onto the exposed reef .. there was little of interest shell wise, until I came across a juvenile lambis chiagra (missed the photo opportunity), left in a rock pool as the tide had retreated. Beautifully defined, it was a prize on an otherwise barren beach and was not left behind…

Further along the coast we came to Kuta, a dusty backpacker town, handwritten signs, kaftans and wifi cafes, one or two luxury resorts tucked away behind high coconut matting walls, idyllic beaches, one could just lose themselves here in this escapist place.

Ikat weaving is traditional in Indonesia and in Lombok there are several villages where the traditional craft is still carried out. Sukarara is one and traditionally women must learn the art of weaving before being considered as marriageable.

Invited into a weaver’s house, I watched this age old craft with interest, 2 generations of women were sitting on the ground creating the most intricate of textiles, surrounded by small children, chickens, dogs and poverty . A buy was inevitable and it’s a treasured part of my souvenir collection. Leaving the village, I came across the Co-operative, a wonderful treasure-house of woven textiles.

For someone like myself, who loves fabrics, it was utter heaven .. I didn’t know what to choose, but finally settled on a beautiful blanket, sofa throw and a “piece of fabric that if you are inventive will look great anywhere ” item … it decorates my chair, love it to bits.

Wonderful memories of this beautiful place, Indonesia is still on the to do list; its such a huge nation,with so many different islands to visit .

One thing that struck me about our journey, Indonesia is a very colourful and tolerant Muslim nation. Coming from the Gulf, where clothing is traditionally black for women, it was such a change to see the women dressed in a respective fashion according to their religion, but with such vibrant colours and patterns. It is the largest Muslim nation in the world with over 62% of the world’s Muslims, but it is a way of life that mixes with other religions and creeds, seemingly without conflict in the under-developed areas of the nation.

Living in the Gulf, where Sharia law and religious ideals are part of everyday life for nationals and expatriates, it was refreshing to see the Muslim world from another perspective. I’m used to the prayer calls, the Abaya and Hijab are part of everyday culture. The Friday mosque parking hazards are just part of Dubai and I respect it, I’m choosing to live in a country that applies Sharia law, but it was a different and refreshing view on Islam and the acceptance of integration without the same restrictions applied to those not of the faith . Maybe its because there is a high level of poverty and faith is part of survival without expectation .

Indonesia is vast, this visit only touched a tiny part of it .. I search on Google maps and can see for me, another visit to a different area is surely part of the plan..Nusa Tenggari, Papua, Timor..where do I go next ..?

Some Eastern sunsets to close my story…

Phu Quoc Island 2013

A short plane ride from Ho Chi Minh, Phu Quoc island is on the cusp of development investment, but for the present, retains its authenticity as one of Vietnam’s traditional fishing locations. Baffling road works around the airport show the amount of investment that is slowly starting to create the infrastructure for the development of tourism.

In years to come it will be a jewel in the Gulf of Thailand , but for now it’s a sleepy island, abject poverty in some areas and incredibly beautiful in others.


A tranquil sea,Cambodia in the distance ...

A tranquil sea,Cambodia in the distance …

Hiring a motor-bike seemed the way to explore and when presented with motorbike helmets in camouflage design and a wry grin on the face of the renter , the feeling of being a Great White Westerner was compounded. Seriously though, the Vietnamese people are tiny in stature and size, and even more so away from Ho Chi Minh city and fast food outlets , the islanders are fit, lithe and the obesity of our western world seems positively self indulgent.


The trusty steed ... check out the GI style helmet...

The trusty steed … check out the GI style helmet…

Duong Dong is the main town on Phu Quoc and hotels lie between the airport and town as the road hits the coast. As yet, the star ratio may not be equivalent to other countries, but being welcomed with hot towels, lemongrass drinks and lovely smiling faces puts inadequacies to rest.


typical Viet water feature, calming and tranquil...

Typical Viet water feature, calming and tranquil…

Off to the night market, my first experience of the famous Asian markets which seem to be a whole different set of social and daily necessities rolled into one.Phu Quoc’s night market is mainly restaurant-oriented with stalls and tables presenting the most amazing displays of fish wares to be cooked in the local style.

Spoilt for fish choice...

Spoilt for fish choice…

Did I dare to eat these ? ....not this time, check out Borneo 2 years on ..

Did I dare to eat these? ….not this time, check out Borneo 2 years on ..

More shellfish ...wonderful colours, and they taste good too....

More shellfish …wonderful colours, and they taste good too….

The seafood is unbeatable here ...

The seafood is unbeatable here …

Famous for its fish sauce (so pungent that airlines ban it, in case the bottles should break …and yes I did get caught on departure and asked to hand over the one I had purchased ) the only way to eat is local style. The cooking is superb, order scallops and not 3 or 4 are presented as in the West, but a whole heaped bowl of scallops tossed in greens and spiced only the way Vietnamese know how. Utterly delicious and the lobster splurge “lets go for it” feast was to die for.

Strong fish sauce....

Strong fish sauce….


Over the week travel around the whole island was accomplished, bumping down dusty unpaved roads and finding beaches, white sand and azure water with no-one in sight .Small villages and family homesteads, just shacks on legs with rattan sides which were homes to families, a line run along the outside replacing wardrobes, hung with the family clothes, the ubiquitous hammocks strung across the free space, no electricity, no water … another world ..But, one thing that struck me was that there was no emotion towards our presence, neither excitement or aggression, it was as if we didn’t exist. We were just passing through their lives, but in other Asian countries I have never experienced such indifference to our presence. As yet the opportunities that tourism present don’t exist for these remoter settlements, their lives are based on fishing and provision . No child or person came begging or asking …

Idyllic shores....

Idyllic shores….

Caught a fish...

Caught a fish.


Fishing is the main staple of the economy on Phu Quoc, every village has its own boats, and the main fleet are based in Duong Dong… feeding the local market with fresh produce from the Gulf of Thailand.

I would wonder quite how seaworthy this little craft is ....

I would wonder quite how seaworthy this little craft is ….

The fleet in Duong Dong harbour...

The fleet in Duong Dong harbour…

Sunset over the harbour...

Sunset over the harbour…

Drying fish for food and fish sauce is part of daily life and all around the island wooden trays were laid out to dry, with pungent fish drying in the sun. You knew you were heading towards one of these areas from quite a way away.

Working at drying fish...

Overpowering aroma of drying fish became a part of travel ....

Overpowering aroma of drying fish became a part of travel ….


Memories of Phu Quoc are arriving in a small fishing port on the landward side, finding an incredibly long pier built right out into the sea as the lagoon was so shallow, the boats couldn’t dock, walking out along the endless pier, being “friended” by some visiting mainland Vietnamese and somehow being centre-stage in their holiday snap shots without uttering a word, but lots of smiles. I was their new western friend for a shutter moment, seeing nets in the back of boats which were threaded with huge Volute shells to hold the net down in the water.

The long narrow pier...

The long narrow pier…

Volute weights on nets ...for catching octopus...

Volute weights on nets …for catching octopus…


Further up the dirt track which rings the island and the route to the main port on the landward side, stopping at a small sign offering coffee and being shown to a bench looking out over a turquoise sea framed by coconut palms, watching the fishermen in their small rattan huts perched on stilts above the sea. One of the best locations ever for coffee!

Made me want to be a fisherman ...

Made me want to be a fisherman …

View from the coffeeshop, beats Starbucks any day ....

View from the coffee-shop, beats Starbucks any day ….


Coming across an alligator farm and shop on the side of the road, going to look, the owner was too indifferent to our presence in the heat of the day to exit his hammock and try to make a sale, We left empty-handed as the languor was catching, it was too hot to buy.

Hammock in the heat ...

Relaxing in the hammock in the heat …

Bottled snake.....

Bottled snake…..


Flowers on the roadside, Orchids hanging in gardens, spectacular colours…

A new one for me...so far nameless...

A new one for me…so far nameless…

Orchids...

Orchids…


Meeting fellow travellers on a remote beach,the only Europeans we had seen and having an intense conversation about Asia and travels with complete strangers, knee deep in water,arranging to meet our new best friends for dinner in the night market – would we , wouldn’t we, a chance meeting and a loose arrangement ..normal amongst travellers in different lands.

dinner.....

dinner…..


Eating on the beach, not so many beachside eateries to come across, luckily finding one and ordering tamarind prawns, Vietnamese style, I can still recall the taste to this day, superb cooking which in my world would be the subject of a TV show. Prawns,scallops, fish all on offer, freshly cooked and utterly delicious.

Grilled prawns, vietnamese style ...

Grilled prawns, vietnamese style …


Watching girls grind chilli for local island paste, being offered a huge Helmet shell for sale …carrying my $10 huge shell on the back of the bike, bumping along 30 km of forest track, there was a long cause for regret at my instant purchase.

Grinding chilli's ...

Grinding chilli’s …


Dropping into a road-side bar/restaurant, finding in situ the very British owner, with his local wife and 2 children scratching a living before tourism hits, meeting an expat Australian over a whisky or two and leaving with an invitation to visit the pearl fishery he was managing.Visiting and learning some new facts about how the whole industry starts in these farms, fascinating manipulation of the natural ecological cycle of the oyster, I still have the beautiful shell he gave me.

Iridescent oyster shell in a grubby bowl …..


Passing through a village where the track was churned into knee-deep mud after a recent momentary downpour, fisherfolk selling wares in the mud, shacks so basic and tumbledown that it was a shock to realise these were home. Filth everywhere and plastic waste, the scourge of under-developed worlds, scattered as far as you could see. Feeling over-privileged and vulnerable, the bike was moved up a gear or two to power us out of that place . It was an uncomfortable feeling, the only time on the island that the poverty was over-whelming and unwelcoming.

Fisherfolk's homes.....

Fisherfolk’s homes…..


The sunsets were my first experience of the South east Asian sunset, intense pink hues flooding the horizon as the setting sun moved west. Phu Quoc was a remarkable place to visit,though I suspect that I won’t return, there is too much more of Asia to see and do and in a few years it will be a very different place.

Asian sunset ....

Asian sunset ….

Kenya, May 2013…for 48 hours

One of the benefits of living in Dubai is that it’s a travel hub with many destinations,which,if carefully planned are reachable for a weekend trip.However, being able to sleep on the flight is usually the painful part of attempting to maximise the timeNairobi falls into the net, so another city ticked off the list.


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Elephant in Amboseli…magical….

The main aim was a day safari at Amboseli National Park, 3 hours drive from Nairobi. A battered Volkswagen camper van conversion was home for the day. And what a day,  African light is incredible, it’s almost transparent, it’s so clear.  Amboseli is mainly known for its free-ranging elephant herds and our guides found a gathering fairly quickly. Standing in the Volkswagen, painfully aware it would peel open like a tin can, whilst the elephants went about their feeding and bathing surrounding us, it was a slightly unreal but magical experience.


Vast rolling grasslands, stumpy acacia trees, in the background Kilimanjaro towering above clouds and elephants, ,blowing, chasing, trumpeting,splattering mud , I was in the middle of it all. Water Buffalo , Zebra, Giraffe, to name but a few, appearing round each bend of the track and in the distance, Hippo waddling on the shore of the lake.


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Rural roadside life…

A perfect day and a long drive back through the Kenyan countryside, small Masai villages and traditional roadside stalls laden with vegetables and fruit. Rickety homes, stalls’,barrow’s, cafe’s and “Hotels” line the sides of the roads heading back to Nairobi.I’m not sure I will be over-nighting at the Konza Junior Hotel!