Vroom, vroom…… off we go, full throttle. The car surges onto NH 22 which becomes a 6 lane a short distance further. Hazy mountain outlines hover into view then become large, dark looming shapes.The…
Source: Roady Toady
Do you believe in ravens, omens & signs?
In transit at Doha on an onward flight to Paris we decide on a quick cuppa before boarding. The coffee spills, oops! over the table, the floor & on Chanson’s clothes. No matter. She has a change. Minor mishap. The first & the last, before journey end, we hope.
All seated & ready for take off, there is an unexpected delay. We are informed about a ‘technical’ snag because of which passengers must disembark, only to board the aircraft four hours later, arriving in Paris past midnight instead of 8 pm.
My friend has traveled ‘Business’; I ‘Economy’ & we have agreed to meet at ‘Immigration’. I see her fetching up accompanied by a policeman. ‘Hey, Chanson”, I wave. She indicates that she is unwell so I leave the queue to join her.
‘Parlez vous Francais?
Parlez vous Anglais?
In the middle of the night! Alas! We have just arrived after a grueling flight. (New Delhi – Doha – Paris)
After a long wait, unending explanations & umpteen glasses of water (my friend is dehydrated) our passports are stamped & baggage collected. This I manage with the help of friendly airport personnel who, manoeuvre me via several shortcuts across, that humongous airport that is ‘CDG Paris’.
We are taken to a paramedic centre where Chanson is made to lie down & get medical parameters checked. Her blood pressure shoots up & down dramatically. This happens over a course of hours. She is anxious & feels dehydrated. Has plenty of water and, wants to use the loo, but no. She is not allowed to move. A bedpan is brought. Fluctuating BP, breathlessness, dehydration, water – bedpan – more water. It goes on into the night. The doctor fears a blood clot from prolonged inactivity on a long distance flight. He cannot take a chance so recommends going to hospital for further tests. We won’t risk the chance either & agree.
Another long wait before an ambulance arrives with assistant & stretcher. It drives us through the dark & empty streets of Paris. An eerie 6 – 10 km ride, on this our first night in the city.
The Robert Ballanger hospital – believe it or not – is blood splattered. Wish I had taken some pictures. And there are patients waiting everywhere. Chanson is moved to a bed & told to wait. It would take time for the doctor to arrive. Those before us would be attended first. A man had been brought in five hours ago & was still waiting. ‘Just relax. Be patient’.
The clock ticks on. Dehydration. Water. Bedpan. More water. Worse, not knowing the blood pressure as there was no one monitoring it.
It is a long night.
Finally. The doctor arrives in the wee hours of the morning. He checks her pulse & voila she is to be discharged.
Just like that?
Yes, just like that. Never mind the BP or the ‘clot’, not to speak of trauma or money down the drain.
Outside, the dawn is slowly breaking & it is another day.
Welcome to Paris.
We have six hours before departure. What we must resolve is whether or not Chanson is up for the trip or should it be postponed by a day. She looks & feels better. In any case there are doctors everywhere – if need be, God forbid.
That decides it.
Marseille, the lovely seaside town every travel guide warns you about. Drunken sailors. Muggings. Brawls. Clever sleights of hand. Pick pockets.
Part of the experience.
‘Hotel La Residence’, overlooks the old port. It is a boutique hotel & we are lucky to have a harbor facing room with the Notre Dame in the distance. Despite a bustling port it is tranquil & quiet in here. We arrive around 4pm & spend the rest of the day loitering around La Panier & Canebiere – simply getting a feel of the place.
There are plans for Cassis next day. Cassis, a tiny fishing village 20 kms to the east – along the coast – of which it is said,
“ he who has seen Paris & not seen Cassis, can say ‘I have seen nothing’”
Along the quay fishermen begin to set up stalls early next morning. Displaying every variety of exotic ‘catch’ and – as the song goes, “cockles & muscles alive……. Alive O!” Handsome Catalan faces against an aquamarine waterfront. Weather beaten faces that beckon – come taste the salt of the sea. The Concierge too urges us outdoor on to this, not – to – be – missed scene. I sling a rucksack & go out & mingle with the crowds. Blue skies, bluer seas. It is a beautiful day. Strolling, watching, quizzing, peering, talking, taking pictures, in short enjoying every bit of the action. Fish and Folk.
We would have lingered, but for Cassis.
What is your worst travel nightmare?
Mine is falling ill and/or losing baggage
In no particular order.
A man at the Metro points to my rucksack warning that it is open. I do remember closing it. However, let me see. Lo & behold, it is wide open, all zips undone. That sets panic bells ringing. I rummage through quickly, turning it inside out, checking each & every pocket, emptying out contents only to find the money belt missing. It had all the cash, credit cards, travel card, medicine and Passport.
I could have kicked myself. As Chanson pointed out, why was I carrying everything in the first place? She advised calm as we walked back to the hotel in the forlorn hope that it had been forgotten there.
Of course it hadn’t. The backpack had not been touched since our arrival. I had picked it up as it lay & walked out into the day.
The tally was euro 1500 cash – lost. Luckily it was too early in the day for merchant transactions. We were able to block all credit cards & have the balance in the Travel card transferred to a duplicate one. That, fortunately was still in my possession. The next step was to alert the hotel.
Ricardo was speechless with disbelief, as were Eric & Julie. A wonderful lot, they were full of care & concern. Julie, the young manager personally offered help but it being a public holiday there was not much she could do. Worse, it was a Friday, to be followed by Saturday & Sunday. Nobody in the embassy could be contacted until the next working day. We had plans for Portugal (expense paid) but without a passport we were stranded.
Julie thought a meeting with a police ‘higher – up’ was in order & tried to arrange one but, it being a long weekend that too came a cropper.
Police in any case had to be informed just so travel documents were in order.
She accompanied us expressing dismay along the way. No matter what was written & said about Marseille, it was a safe place. She often went home without incident, alone at night. Ours was an unfortunate occurence. She narrated a similar experience in Mexico where she had to borrow $ 2000 to continue with the remainder of her trip. This she stuffed inside a teddy bear, afraid to lose it if she carried it in person. She would stitch/unstitch the bear every night, as & when money was needed. She also told us that every police station in France had a ’lost & found’ cell where stolen goods sometimes showed up.
Sweet, Julie! her continuous chatter made me forget the problem at hand, to the extent that I actually began to enjoy the walk.
“ Never mind the cash,” I blurted absentmindedly. “If only the passport is returned”
Chanson thought that was a far cry. It never ever worked that way.
“Just a thought”, I murmured, saying a Gayatri mantra to myself.
I am not a religious person yet I said the mantra & I said it without thought of profit or gain. It had been only a few hours since the horrific incident but the mind had reconciled & moved on. Taking stock, the situation did not seem that bad after all. We had scraped through pretty well. The actual loss was euro 1500 only. Perhaps I owed the bloke this money or perhaps his need was more. As for Portugal, that was another 15 days away. I would have a fresh passport by then.
Inside police headquarters Julie immediately got down to the task, explaining everything in detail to the officer on duty. He politely listened, nodding now & then while I stood idly by.
A voice suddenly called out, wanting to know my name.
“Sudha”, I said.
“Voila! Here is your passport”
No kidding. No fuss. There it was, in the hands of a lady officer – the black leather belt with everything in it. Everything that is, minus the cash.
Note: Pick pocketing is rampant in France so much so that the Eiffel tower had to shut down one day. Travelers are constantly advised to be careful. We certainly had several near encounters – that we escaped, if only by a whisker.
The French tend to blame immigrants, especially those of Algerian descent but the 20 year old who found & returned the bag was Algerian. He had gone to dispose a cup after having coffee when he spotted it in the bin & brought it to police.
Bless him always!
Au revoir Marseille. If I return it will be for the likes of, the boy & Julie.
On a dull working day I decide to junk the housework in search of art & pleasure. Here I am at Jogeshwari, in the centre of a road, facing row upon row of antique furniture & curio shops. It is a veritable treasure trove. The auto rick brought me spot on. No parking woes either.
Hayat Ali, with long flowing henna dyed beard, mans shop No:???? He refuses to be photographed as his religion forbids it or so he believes. The first buy is a Japanese teapot in a cheery floral design. A wee bit of haggling & the deed is done. It makes me happy & joyful. Beauty invariably does.
An interesting day it turns out, scouring shops selling everything from antique furniture to curios, lamps, books, coins, stamps, miniatures, paintings, film posters & framed photographs. A frame minus the photograph goes for less than one with a period picture. This is Mumbai. Everything has a price & everything sells. Even empty perfume bottles. I bought one in the shape of a dolphin. And don’t ask me why. There are bargains to be had. Of commonplace household items & freebies if one is lucky. Much like the ‘buy one get one’ scheme at Malls.
A role reversal happens at times, when the seller suddenly & surreptitiously becomes the buyer. “ You have Rolex watch? I give good price,” whispers Hayat
“You have Asharfi? You know Asharfi / Guinea/ gold coin?”
Objets d’ art evoking refinement & grace occupy every inch of empty space. However mediocre their lives it must be said that these shopkeepers have a keen eye for the beautiful. Amidst porcelain vases, sculptures & Chinese curios picked up from rich Parsi homes ( from the days of the opium trade) lie everyday household items such as a grater from grandma’s kitchen – made of brass & shaped like a tortoise – Also a pressure cooker, perhaps the first of its kind, polished, sparkling and new.
My prized bargain that day was a ‘Soporo’, a cone shaped artifact with a tiny bird at the pinnacle. It is used in Parsi ritual. This one is in silver & has an embossed Persian design. There is an inscription at the base, a date along with the name of the silversmith, the makers Rustomjee Jahangir. It also, has a name – SN Soonawala – Its last owner I presume.
It is a sad feeling
What could have compelled Mr Soonawala to part with precious family silver? It could not have been penury I am sure. Had he fallen on bad days? Was he emigrating to a far away land? Or could he have died childless? The possibilities were immense.
In any case the shops were all chock – a – block, full of artistic souvenirs from stately affluent homes. And each had a story, a tale to tell.
Exhausted from walking & talking, the heat & the dust I looked around for a café in an area where there was none. A shop owner offered to find me a drink. What would I have?
A Coke preferably or Pepsi. Any Cola
That would be difficult
Unofficial ban. American company. Nobody buys or sells it here.
‘Minute Maid’ pulpy orange then
That too. Same company. Have a Thumbs Up’ instead. Easily available
A ‘Thumbs Up’? Uggh!
A tiny less explored corner – that is forever – Coorg (64 Sq Miles).
It is, in a nutshell, coffee & spice & all things nice.
Evening mists. Beautiful women. Warriors.
The much touted KSRTC, the State run bus service turns out to be a let down so I go cross country, taking any old bus from Bangalore to Mysore, then onwards by taxi. A blessing in disguise for it offers the opportunity of enjoying the countryside at will.
The ‘Elephant Corridor’ at Badaga is a 20 acre estate & the Chengappas, Nimmi & Viju perfect hosts. You are cautioned against early morning walks as elephants graze & roam the wilds & can often be heard crunching grass. Yes, quite literally for all around us is the sound of silence. Pachyderm encounters are not uncommon & could be counted among the many joys of life in Coorg.
‘Homestay’ is an organized sector here. There are 200 registered owners who act with rare passion often going the extra mile in their eagerness to showcase all things Kodagu. Hence no surprise that Viju offers to organize transport & keep a track as I commute from Mysore to Badaga via (at his suggestion) the Tibetan enclave & Golden temple at Byeluppe.
The couple are college day sweethearts. That their hearts continue to beat in unison after 35 years of marriage & 2 children is there for all to see. Parked next to their car in the porch, is a Royal Enfield ‘Bullet’ – the one that was used during their courtship & wooing days. Large sums are being proffered for it today but it continues to stand there – mechanical testimony to a Mills & Boon romance.
Nimmi a Srilankan is the epitome of everything Coorg – from language to cuisine to good looking but the banana jam is hers & hers alone. It goes exceedingly well with the local Dosa – Idli. A desi version of pancake with maple sauce if you will, but far more tasty. ‘The Elephant Corridor’, which has been a homestay for over 10 years, looks to becoming a wedding & pre nuptial destination, as also a location for Bollywood flicks. ‘Coffee Beans’ was filmed here.
Mercara or Madikeri (3500’) as it is now called is the district headquarters. The entire area that was once a rain forest may be termed ‘semi’ rain forest today as large tracts have been cleared for plantations of rubber, coffee, spice & orange. Acre upon acre of cultivated land interspersed with surviving rain forest vegetation – trees so tall that they seem to be reaching for the skies. Large & small homesteads with red brick tiled sloping roofs dot the countryside at regular if distant intervals. There is hardly a soul around. And silence so deep – except for the occasional bus rumbling by – it is picture perfect
The river Cauvery has long been to the south what the Ganga is to the north. A disputed river perhaps but also the holiest of holies, especially at its source – Talakaveri,
Pilgrims climb the Brahmagiri hill near by for a Coorg view. Also to leave behind make belief houses. Little stone clusters that symbolize their hope of future housing.
After springing forth at Talakaveri, the river vanishes underground. Suddenly & completely before re emerging 8 kms away at Bhagamandala,. Here it meets the waters of the Kanikke & the mythical Sujyoti to become ‘triveni sangam’, a site of pilgrimage.
Breakfast at the gazebo and a Coorg style sit down meal with friends & extended family. Otti Roti, Pandi curry, Kumbala curry – the works
That coupled with the quiet of the countryside is what I shall carry long after.
Gangtok is a mere 124 kms from Siliguri, from NJP & from Bagdogra but the trip by road takes roughly 5 – 6 hours. Not only because of difficult hilly terrain but dilapidated road conditions.
The alternative, by chopper covers the distance in less than 25 minutes.
The Bell helicopter operated by Pawan Hans is a 5 seater that takes off from Bagdogra (weather permitting) thrice every day.
(Bagdogra is a military airport. A couple of international flights operate from here.)
For the return flight from Burtuk helipad, the fare is Rs 2700 – on board baggage strictly according to specification, which is a smaller than 22”suitcase weighing less than 10 kg.
Capt. Sardul Singh, our pilot flew us at heights of 5000’ – 6000’ over flat plains, low hills, valleys & lush green countryside interspersed with villages. The meandering Teesta in the valley below us a veritable delight.
From Burtuk the chopper can be further requisitioned for a 15 minute joyride over Gangtok & around. At Rs 9500 this offers breathtaking glimpses of the eastern Himalayan range – especially Kanchenjunga (if one is lucky & the day clear)
Perched at 5500’ Gangtok has ample charms, its rare & beautiful orchids not the least. Locals however rue the way it is regressing mainly because of a large tourist influx & poor infrastructure.
I liked Gangtok.
Among other things it is plastic free. One can stroll the promenade, eat the best Chinese ever & get a super duper hairstyle all for a throw.
I did not stay here though but at Mile 5 at 8000 ft. where the air was clean & noise pollution zero. There was even an 18 hole golf course & golf hut to boot.
The trip to Nathu La the Indo Chinese border post got cancelled several times on account of inclement weather. I bide my time, my patience finally rewarded with clear skies when I can make the trip without hazard.
From Mile 5 at 8000’ to Changu lake at 12500’, to Sherrathang, Kupup 13500’ & finally Nathu La 14400’.
5 am June 6, 2013 At first an antacid, then a hot cup of green tea & biscuits & I am ready. The road is torturous, pot holed & slithery with debris strewn all over. And there are umpteen roadblocks caused by landslides but these are quickly cleared. Can this possibly be our border road? Not much change I notice since my previous visit nearly 30 years before. And why allow so many tourists every day?
The Chinese have state of the art infrastructure across.
Now this is harakiri.
Past Mile 17 & on to Changu with a halt for breakfast that consists of tea, coffee, Alu paratha, pickle & curd. Everything tastes absolutely divine at such heights.
A line of 10 Chinese trucks is seen approaching the recently opened trading post at Sherrathang. All laden with goods I presume.
The drive up is scenic with mountain springs & waterfalls from melting glaciers. Short bridges decorated with prayer flags span fast flowing streams. There are at least 3 big lakes enroute.
Also the wind chill factor, hence despite the sun it is bitterly cold. Thank God for the woolens.
Baba Harbhajan temple at Kupup is a big draw. It is thronging with visitors come to pay homage to the soldier saint who guards the frontier – so it is said – even in death. The mandir for me is a disappointment. I would have preferred something military, simple, dignified & proud of bearing
And so to top of the world, Nathu La where it is 3 degrees F in May. The one big change I notice (besides better buildings / ongoing construction) is the open camaraderie between the Chinese & Indians. Raw recruits laughing & chatting – in what language I’d love to know.
What hasn’t changed however & never will is the warm hospitality of the Indian army. One experiences it at different locations again & again. Cheerful smiles, handshakes, hot tea & roasted nuts. Everyone ready for a photograph. Memories are made of this
Along the Nahan – Dehradun highway, on either side of the road are forests of Sal, Mango & Poplar. Cruising at an easy 80mph, fast approaching & almost upon us, is what can only be described as a forest on wheels. Would this be Birnam Wood marching towards Dunsinane Hill?
It is rural India at its chaotic best. Tractors spilling with sugar cane bear past. Sometimes it is a beast of burden plying this load. There are make shift stalls beneath the shade of trees selling fresh sugarcane juice. At Rs 10 a glass it is a most refreshing drink especially when garnished with lemon & mint.
Villages appear & disappear, hand pumps dot the landscape, vast stretches of pot-holed roads interspersed with amazing state of the art highways. The forests give way to fields of mustard, wheat & corn. Swaying in the breeze, ready to be harvested for Holi has just gone by & Baisakhi is only a few days away.
Past Asan barrage on the Yamuna are field of strawberry. Ripe & red & a plenty the farmers don’t mind you plucking & eating them.
There are tractors brimming with human cargo in their colorful best. Everyone it appears is going to the Holla Mohaala fair at Paonta Sahib, midway between Nahan & Dehradun. The scenic Gurudwara dedicated to guru Gobind Singh is on the banks of the Yamuna. It has a museum that has antiques, weapons & personal belongings of the last Guru.
The mela is on in full swing & will continue up to Baisakhi.
The same at Anandpur Sahib is bigger & better we are told. Here there are turban tying competitions, mock fights & a demonstration of martial arts. Also, simulated battles with war drums & standard bearers, games of tent pegging & bareback horse riding.