HIRSUTE IN HOI AN

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I was standing on a street corner in Hoi An yesterday, looking rather more gormless than usual, and wondering whether I should buy a kilo of rambutans or just escape the heat, drink iced coffee and try to look bohemian, when a pretty young thing approached me and introduced herself. The usual pleasantries were exchanged:

“Hello Madam – where you from?”

“Australia.”

“Nice to meet you.” Hand extended, duly shaken.

“Madam, have you seen this before?” holding up her fingers, some of them covered with strips of aluminium foil. Around these fingers is looped a length of white cotton thread, which she displays proudly, twists and pulls taut. She points to my upper lip.

“To take off hair, Madam. I can do for you now. You want to try?”

“Ahhhh…” (pretending to give this some serious thought) “No thanks, not right now.” And certainly not on a street corner.

She must have read my mind. “You come my shop, over there!” She points. “Very cheap. Traditional method, hair grows back much finer… I do good job for you.”

The sun is beating down on my addled brain and I have visions of my face now resembling those heavily whiskered rambutans I was just looking at on the street stall. “I don’t think …”

“But Madam, you must!”

“Must I?”

“Yes Madam…”

I didn’t. Like an ass, I fled back to hotel room instead (sans rambutans or iced coffee but, I like to think, with a certain galloping bohemian gait) and studied upper lip for signs that I had turned into Wolf Woman.

Couldn’t see it myself but you never know what happens after a full moon….

TEN THINGS I’LL MISS ABOUT HANOI

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1. CONICAL HATS AND THE PEOPLE WHO WEAR THEM. The ubiquitous Vietnamese conical hat is a simple, highly practical piece of apparel that has come to represent, for me, the hard work and industriousness of the Vietnamese people. Called Nón lá (leaf hat) and made of straw, bamboo or palm leaves, it is kept in place with a cloth (often silk) chin strap. Most are plain, but traditionally conical hats could be inscribed with hand stitched pictures or romantic phrases which become illuminated beneath the blaze of the sun. I love the fact that people are still wearing a hat that was in use some 700 years ago. There are legends associated with the conical hat, linking it to both maternal love and rice growing. It would be eminently suitable for use in my sun-drenched Australian environment but somehow it just wouldn’t look at home there.

2. BEAUTIFUL FACES AND THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE THEM.

I love walking around the city and just gazing at the beautiful people, young and old. The young women and girls – there are so many! – are exquisite. Tiny, delicate, fragile but clearly with a strength that comes with emerging confidence. Either tottering around in short skirts and high heels or dressed in their colourful Ao Dai’s, they look like gorgeous butterflies. Young men, brimming with youth and verve, grin cheekily, harbouring secrets. Most particularly, I enjoy seeing the lines and experience shouting a story on an old person’s face. I adore those mature, heavily wrinkled faces that speak of wisdom, life, fortitude, experience. There’ll be none of that back where I’m going, where people are so afraid of growing old and showing it.

3. BABIES AND THE PEOPLE WHO MIND THEM. I could sit all day watching toddlers and babies being looked after and entertained by their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbours. There is such joy and inquisitiveness on their chubby round faces, pleasure in those wide, wide smiles, such enthusiasm in each new step. A new generation of Vietnamese who have been born at a time when their country is not torn apart by war or colonization. A baby-boom that really represents hope.

4. BUILDINGS. Building is also booming in Hanoi. Every time a new building appears, another ten are pulled down to be replaced. But I love the old homes – small and squat, tall and thin, crumbling or newly refurbished …. Each style has its charms and idiosyncrasies. I do hope that the old-style buildings remain, that Hanoi resists the lure of the chrome and glass monstrosities that have engulfed other Asian cities. Part of the charm of Hanoi for me is the colour, history and individuality of its old buildings. I’ve even come to feel quite fond of the impossibly tangled loops of wires that adorn the poles outside of the buildings.

5. THE TRAFFIC. OK – I never thought I’d say this but yes, I’m going to miss the chaos, the honking, the ridiculous loads that people manage to get onto the front, back, sides of a motorbike. Recently I saw someone riding along with a huge, heavy and long bamboo ladder over his shoulders, his head between two rungs. He was seriously listing to one side as he went, the front end of the ladder was about to hit the ground, and I just know that within another 50 or so meters he would have had to give up and fall over. And someone would have helped him up again. What I like about all the chaos is that one so rarely sees any road rage, despite the crazy things that people do. When I return to my homeland, people there will drive more sedately but with less skill than drivers here have, and they will become agitated, visibly upset at even the bleeping of one horn. I’ve grown to appreciate the way that order can somehow come out of traffic chaos here, and that people can remain so calm in the face of bedlam. There really is method in the madness.

6. HELP WITH DOMESTIC CHORES. I’m one of the lucky ones here who has been able to employ a cook/housekeeper for the past three years. It has its challenges and I’m never entirely comfortable employing someone else to do what I could do myself, but I’ll miss the smiling face that greets me cheerfully three times a week. I’ll miss the way she (mostly) anticipates my needs before I do; the fact that I can trust someone else entirely with my personal things. When I go back home, and I’m working full time, doing all the shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, maintenance and gardening myself, I’ll be wishing I was back in Hanoi where I have time, not for drudgery, but for doing so many of the other things that really count in my life.

7. THE FLOWERS.

Magnificent, beautiful flowers. In my own country I could only ever afford to buy flowers for myself once a month, if that. Here I can have flowers every week, all year round. Gorgeous roses, lilies, orchids, lotus flowers, chrysanthemums… and the wonderful peach blossoms before and during Tet. And to see the trees in spring or autumn that somehow manage to struggle through concrete and dry earth – that is wonderful! The red flowers of the cây gao (cotton) tree, the vivid purples and pinks of the bougainvilleas, the white sweetness of the hoa sua (milk flower) tree, the delicate cane begonia and the flamboyant cây phuong vì (poinciana). All this I will miss.

8. GOOD, CHEAP ENTERTAINMENT.

Where else can you go to the cinema for just a couple of dollars? Here we have the wonderful Cinematheque, where you can take your wine or beer into the cinema with you, or just sit outside with your drinks in a quaint little courtyard and listen to great music. Where else would I be inclined to join an amateur theatrical society, or go regularly to jazz clubs, or scoff treats at Love Chocolate or wander through the Sofitel Metropole occasionally just to lap up the indulgence and the atmosphere? I can enjoy a great ballet or opera at the impressive Opera House for perhaps a fifth of the price I’d pay at home. Where else but Hanoi could I just sit for an hour on a street corner at a bia hoi and be entertained by watching people going about their business, watch the maneuvering on the streets, inhale the fumes along with the draft beer, absorb the traditional competing with the modern. Then there are the museums, the temples, the pagodas, the Old Quarter, the French Quarter, the lakes, the parks, Not to mention the cheap DVDs and CDs….And my favourite place to browse – “Bookworm”, great selection of new and second-hand books and, best of all, friendly personalized service from the wonderful Truong.

9. GOOD, CHEAP FOOD. Love the fresh pho bo at Pho 24 or any number of street stalls. The fresh fruit and juices just about everywhere. The prawns, chicken, tofu, frogs’ legs and beer enjoyed while perched on tiny stools amid the noise, clutter and smoke at BBQ corner on Hang Bong. Catfish spring rolls at Highway 4. Great noodles in Tống Duy Tân. Fab Indian Food at Foodshop 45. (Notice the tendency towards numbers….) The fresh spring rolls and nem produced by our cook. The fusion restaurants, the baguettes and croissants, the crunchy almond biscuits in every bakery, the heady caffeine and sugar fix of Cà phê sua Nong and Cà phê sua đá, the honey-sweetened yoghurt at Kinh Do Café that was good enough for Catherine Deneuve…..Donkey Donuts…. Even the crickets in lemon sauce …. All these things I’ll miss, especially when I’ll be forking out at least four times as much for anything decent back home.

10. GOOD, CHEAP MASSAGES. This is a pure indulgence that I was never able to afford on any kind of regular basis before arriving here. I’ll certainly not have the time nor the income for it again, once back in my other world. Here I can enjoy the benefits of a gift of touch that digs deep into my muscles and leaves me feeling as though I’ve had a great workout. And here the person doing the massage doesn’t chatter all the way through, or laugh (at least not in my hearing) at my pudgy flesh, or make me feel less than I am simply because I’m no longer youthful. The therapeutic after-effects stay with me at least until I face the traffic again.

My list could be so much longer. Heck – there’s plenty to love about Hanoi in particular and Vietnam in general, and so many additional things I’m gonna miss when I leave. I’ll miss the friends I’ve made, the experiences of travel within the country, the sounds, sights and smells….. For three years it’s been my home. Often frustrating, certainly challenging, but always absorbing!

FISH, WHEELCHAIRS AND SHIRAZ

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I opened a local glossy magazine the other morning to see a photo of my husband along with an accompanying article that stated he has a Vietnamese wife. This was news to me. It was also, Spouse said, (with something of a smirk) news to him. The article went on to mention that he is European, which is actually a far cry from his unique brand of Antipodean-ness. (While there has been a hint of an Iberian connection with his Gaelic ancestors, it has never been proven…..) The only thing the journalist did get right was her praise of Spouse’s singing prowess; the photo was also genuine and showed him decked out in traditional Vietnamese costume singing, in Vietnamese, at a charity event in Hanoi last year.

His participation in this event came about because the head of a local NGO for disabled children had asked if Spouse would sing to a small audience at the organization’s next annual meeting. How could a person refuse, really? Imagining that “small” meant about 20 people, Spouse agreed, shook hands with the CEO to seal the deal, and partook of that Vietnamese custom of trăm phần trăm-ing – clinking full glasses of alcohol with the rest of the assembly at the table and slugging back the whole contents of the glass in one hit. (In this instance it was red wine – what a waste of a good Shiraz!)

As it turned out, the anticipated small audience of 20 turned out to be a huge crowd of some 700 people, and the event reached an even broader audience on national television. The president of Vietnam was also in attendance. Poor Spouse! Unfortunately, when the night of the big event arrived, I was involved in my own Magical Mystery Tour thousands of kms away and therefore unable to be of any support. However, from all accounts it was a successful night and earned Spouse big brownie points at the event, in his office and around town. His star-ometer rose dramatically amongst the staff at the apartment block where we live. He is now officially a person who has won friends and can influence people.

This year during the week of Tet (Vietnamese New Year) one of Spouse’s colleagues invited us to his home for lunch – a very generous gesture and much appreciated. Though Spouse was at this time still recovering from a bout of bronchitis, our host insisted on rounding off the occasion with several demands for trăm phần trăm-ing too; this time it was with shots of whisky. The females in the group were at liberty to refuse so we did, and watched with interest as the men moved on to their 3rd, 4th, then 5th shot, each time standing up again to propose a new toast. (By the 5th round they really were scrabbling to think of something to honour and having even more trouble stating it coherently….) Strangely, Spouse’s bronchitis magically disappeared – at least for the rest of the afternoon.

Also during Tet we took the opportunity to fly across to Cambodia and visit the temples of Angkor around Siem Reap. We were fortunate indeed to have the company of two friends as I was not at the time speaking to Spouse (something to do with his other wife back in Hanoi….). It was a fascinating trip and I am so pleased we have at last seen these amazing temples. One picture as they always say is worth a thousand words so I won’t attempt to describe the astonishing beauty of the remains.

We also managed to get to Tonle Sap Lake, which can lay claim for at least part of each year to being one of the largest fresh water lakes in Asia. During the wet season it swells to 12,000 sq. kms though it can shrink to only 2500 sq. kms during the dry. The lake provides half the fish that is consumed in Cambodia and its ecosystem is unique. The fish that populate the area during the wet season might have a good time of it, at least till they are caught, but the people who live around and on the lake certainly do it tough.

Back in Hanoi, on our way home from the airport, we were unwittingly involved in an accident. As so often happens in the streets of this city, many people on motorbikes (for reasons known only to themselves) think it perfectly reasonable to drive through a red light regardless of the consequences, sometimes at great speed. Some people also make the decision not to wear the mandatory helmet. Our taxi collided with one such person for whom all three of the above factors were in play. But for the fact that the taxi was travelling quite slowly, the motorcyclist would undoubtedly have been killed. As it was, he and his motorbike disappeared partway beneath the front of the taxi and our driver had to back up before the errant rider could be released. Spouse and taxi driver quickly exited the car to carry the young man (who appeared to have broken a leg) from the road to the relative safety of the pavement; other motorists came over to help, but two security guards who were standing on one corner only meters away from the accident and had witnessed it all did not even blink, nor did they offer any assistance. No-one seemed to think to call an ambulance. (I was next to useless – did not know the number to call, and have too little Vietnamese to have been able to make myself understood, though I did offer my phone to people standing nearby.) The traffic at this always-busy intersection grew more chaotic, cars backed up, motorbikes skidded around us and horns blared even more loudly than usual. The two security guards just gazed on, barely registering any interest at all.

Suddenly into the midst of all the chaos on the road appeared an old man in a wheelchair. He wheeled himself right up to the front of the taxi and began to gesticulate fiercely and point at Spouse and then at me, indicating with his gestures that somehow this was All Our Fault. He was also throwing around the phrase “con lừa” rather too much for my liking. This was a surreal moment made more so as everyone except the injured rider seemed to be chuckling. By then we thought it best to hand over cash to the driver, take our bags out of the car, and begin the walk home. As we took our leave, the taxi driver and one of the many bystanders were jovially lifting the injured man (who was definitely not laughing) into the back of the taxi to take him to a hospital. Meanwhile the man in the wheelchair just rolled himself onward along the road, investigating and commenting on other near-catastrophes as he went, and clearly likely to be the cause of many more of them. (It was night after all and he had no tail lights on his wheelchair.)

Just another thing to wonder about in Hanoi……..

STUFF PARATHAS!

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“There are two kinds of people in the world – those who have seen the Taj Mahal and those who haven’t…..” Thus spoke our clearly very perceptive and eloquent Indian guide as we passed through an unassuming archway to be confronted by one of the most beautiful wonders of the modern world. It was truly a breathtaking moment, one that actually brought tears to my eyes.

To get to Agra in order to see the Taj we experienced our first Indian train ride which necessitated arriving very early at Delhi Railway Station and stepping over the forms of thousands of beggars sheltering on or near the platforms. Porters clamoured to wrestle our small bags from us; we resisted but had to physically fight them off while still trying to avoid stepping on people. The crowds on and off the train were intimidating but once we had settled into our seats and the engine started, the earlier chaos was left behind and we enjoyed an uneventful few hours watching the scenery pass by and even having a pleasant enough meal of potato parathas with curry sauce and a cup of hot tea thrown our way by an obliging carriage attendant who had orange hair and 3 teeth.

An encounter with a stuffed paratha

The city of Agra is best left undescribed, beyond saying that during our time there it was hot, dirty, congested and completely unappealing. Things may have changed since then. It does however, do a lot to make the Taj Mahal look even more stunning. We wandered through and around the monument for several hours taking photos, mumbling superlatives, trying to grasp the facts about construction, dimensions and expense associated with the palace that our guide was spewing forth.

After feeling completely sated by the experience, we left to visit Agra’s Red Fort – a massive and sprawling sandstone construction commissioned by Emperor Akbar in 1565, and Fatepurh Sikri – an abandoned Muslim city 35kms out of Agra. Both of these places were also incredible enough to keep me speechless for several hours, no mean feat to be sure! Unfortunately on the way to and from these sites we passed many Afghan gypsies who were illegally touting by the roadside with Indian “dancing” bears – another of the many sad sights to be seen in any trip around India.

There are so many tourists in Agra that we hardly rated a second look but back in Delhi, especially when accompanied by Kate, everyone stared at us. We are unsure whether it is her height next to mine (we probably look a little Laurel and Hardyish…..), our combined very fair skin, or simply because people took her for an exotic movie star…..This attention is not so welcome when it happens all the time, as seemed to occur, with people lining up to have their photos taken with us. The constant stares, touching of our arms and hair and the unintelligible comments became somewhat wearing after awhile. Many Indian men also have a disconcerting habit of staring at a woman’s breasts or crotch area which makes you feel as though you might have forgotten to put on an important item of clothing before you left the house.

Since this was Kate’s first visit we decided to do as much sightseeing as possible, and spent a lot of time in Old Delhi with its fascinating bazaars, its impressive Red Fort and other historical monuments. On one occasion we set off for Jamu Masjid, the largest mosque in India and right in the heart of Old Delhi. We started the journey by rickshaw and wondered why we were being pelted with water and bright powders by young boys standing on the rooftops of dwellings in the old bazaar. It was only later that we realized it was the beginning of Holi in India – the festival of colours. During the festival it is customary to throw paint at anyone you can. If there is no paint left and you are drunk, you can throw used car oil.

For each of us, climbing out of a rickety rickshaw, drenched wet and brightly coloured, while trying to look at least a little dignified, was hard work. We were also red eyed and coughing, having choked on dust and diesel fumes along the way while pretending it was all jolly good fun.

This is when I discovered that there are two other kinds of people in the world – those who are gullible and those who are not. Unfortunately I fall into the former category and manage to get soundly taken in by any scams that are occurring within a 10km radius. On this particular day it meant falling obligingly behind a deaf mute fellow who took it upon himself to be our tour guide at the mosque. I have never actually been taken on a tour of anything before by someone who could not speak, but this was to be my fate for the next 30 minutes. I suppose it was at least marginally easier than being escorted around by a BLIND mute. Kate had the good sense to pretend she was not attached to this performance; she disappeared to look around on her own for awhile while I very meekly kept watching the man point and gesticulate and nodded gravely as though in complete understanding. This also attracted a large crowd whose members must have wondered how I was able to decipher the gestures and grunts so well, and why the whole process kept reducing me to laughter. I realized each time the urge to giggle came over me that hilarity was entirely inappropriate in a mosque and perhaps I was risking having my tongue cut out. (Maybe the guide had laughed once too often too.) He re-enacted many a famous battle scene including one with lots of archery – it was potentially interesting but could have been about William Tell for all I knew. I think there was another story about a cannon, but perhaps by then he just need to go to the toilet. Anyway, at the end of it all (the longest 30 minutes of my life) I felt obliged to pay him for his services, a fact which would have added to the silent mirth of all those watching.

We did find out later (by reading about it) that the mosque was the final architectural extravagance of Shah Jahan. It is constructed of red sandstone and white marble, with four towers and two minarets standing 40 meters high. The mosque can hold 25,000 people at any one time. The day after our visit there a man finished his morning prayers and ran amok, slashing 4 people with a barber’s razor.

By the end of our tour we had dried out sufficiently and we finished the day by stopping to take photos at India Gate, another very impressive and old monument closer to our home. Once again, Kate was treated like a celebrity, being accosted by the local paparazzi and families who wanted to shake her hand. I was much less interesting to the crowd, and was jostled out of the way before being attacked by two aggressive monkeys and a curious gadha.

Sometime after this we managed to get an invitation to an evening BBQ for the visiting Australian cricket team and a lunch for International Women’s Day which had as guest speaker the incredible Kiran Bedi – India’s highest ranking female officer in the Indian Police Force (she has since retired). For both of these functions, one dresses up and behaves. And for something different again, a ballroom dancing lesson with Spouse created another opportunity for personal growth. Or tension.

Kate’s second week with us saw us travel 9 hours by road to Shimla and then on to the foothills of the Himalayas where we would stay for 4 days. It was a work trip for Spouse and we were happy to tag along.
Stage 1 – We leave Delhi at midday and drive through the states of Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh to reach Shimla – declared the summer capital of the British Raj in India back in 1864. On the journey there we try to avert our gazes from the crazy traffic that we have come to know. Though a two-lane highway is provided for half of the distance, travelling in the correct lane appears to be optional. We stop for a break at a local diner and enjoy stuffed parathas – a flattened bread filled with spicy potatoes and then fried. The journey continues as night approaches, the road becomes narrower and the drivers become sillier. We arrive in Shimla at around 9pm. It is a crumbling jumbled little town now, perched precariously on pine-clad hills and looking from a distance like a toy town constructed by children. A small earthquake, perhaps even a hearty sneeze, could feasibly send it toppling down the mountainside.

Stage 2 – Kate and I go sightseeing while Spouse and his colleagues attend meetings. We visit the State Museum which certainly holds our interest, get lost looking for the greystone Vice Regal Lodge, and climb a steep hill to find the thousands of pashmina shawls, beautiful wall hangings and crafts from Kashmir. Afterwards we meet Spouse and travelling companions and take to the road again, just as night falls. The roads, against our wishes, become narrower still and the climb steeper. It is probably just as well we can’t see the surrounding conditions at this stage because we might have insisted on going back had we known. Luckily someone else is driving.

It is only 60 kms from Shimla to our destination but it takes 2 hours. We reach Narkanda, a small forestry settlement (population about 53, altitude 2800m) at 9pm and it is snowing. We are booked into the only hotel (no electricity, no hot water) and have dinner – stuffed parathas and dhal. Very welcome after the journey and having had nothing since lunch.


Stage 3 – We shiver through the night and I fight off a panic attack – have never been in so dark a place! Wake to find a blanket of snow on the ground and an awe-inspiring view of the snowy peaks of the Himalayas. Fantastic! Breakfast in the dining room downstairs. Porridge and stuffed parathas! Still, we are cold and hungry so we tuck in. Then we set off to reach the valley town of Rampur (altitude 900m). The road – well really it’s a winding track – is difficult to negotiate when cars or the occasional bus approach from the other direction. Sheer drops on one side, crumbling shale cliffs on the other. However, the outlook is superb so we focus on the snow-capped mountains in the distance and the winding river system below. It is extremely rugged country and clearly difficult for people to eke out a living but they do. Wheat and apples.

We are greeted in Rampur by local officials and taken to lunch at a small cozy restaurant. Dhal, fried chicken and the ever-so-familiar parathas. After lunch we pile back into the car and drive on what appears to be a goat trail for about 2 hours. I am beyond frightened now and have entered another level of consciousness which comes from hunching my shoulders in case the boulders above us on this cliff face the car is hugging on the left come crashing down, and holding my breath for long periods because there appears to be nothing between the car and a drop of 1000m on the right. There is plenty of evidence of both such things having recently occurred as we continue.

Eventually we reach a lean-to which indicates that the road has finished so we pile out and are then taken on a real goat track to a village called Sugga. The climb up is quite difficult, not made any easier by the fact that the guides taking us along can run up and back at great speed even when laden down with water, coats and food. Just as we approach the ridge (me somewhat more breathlessly than the others) we see about 50 villagers watching our progress from above. I blame my state on altitude sickness.

The welcome we receive is very humbling – we are invited to walk through a recently constructed archway and are greeted by the women of the village who place garlands of walnuts, peach kernels, coconut and tinsel around out necks. Their best blankets and mats have been spread out for us to sit on and we are given food, drinks and woolen hats while a growing crowd (now numbering about a hundred) sits down in front of us to watch. Then the speeches start with the aid of an interpreter and question time begins. The women state that they must walk for 5 hours every day to fetch water and wood. One woman has walked 35kms, partly through snow, to tell her own story and listen. Many others have come from almost as far away. The tales are sobering but the mood becomes light – singing and dancing are on the agenda once their stories have been told and what promises can be made are done so.

Much laughter ensues and we are grateful for the open-ness and generosity of the people from this region. As it becomes time to leave there is much shaking of hands, bowing and smiling. I am embarrassed to be assisted down the rocky trail by a woman of about 80 who is far fitter and more agile than I am.

We discover that the only thing worse than the drive up to this village is the drive back down, in the dark.

Back in Rampur, we eat at the hotel and the fare is becoming horribly predictable but the hotel manager hovers over us obviously wanting us to be impressed. I am tempted to stuff my paratha into my pocket but he watches us all closely. After dinner we retire for the night.

Stage 4 – The next morning after breakfast (almost a relief to have cold, limp toast) we hit the road again – winding up through the valley for 3 hours to be once again in Narkanda and the cold. We are presented with lunch by a forestry representative and if I see another bloody stuffed paratha I will be inserting it into the nearest bystander, regardless whether this sparks a diplomatic incident: “Foreign visitor assaults government official with local cuisine.” Then it is another 3 hours of driving to Shimla, another meeting with VIPs (to which Kate and I, this time, are for some reason invited, and during which we nod sagely and try not to look too gormless). Then it’s 4 hours to Kalka and a 2 hour wait for the train. We catch an overnight sleeper back to Delhi (7 hours) and arrive in a rather disheveled, slightly manic state. Spouse is so tired he has to be physically restrained from leaving the train in just his underpants.

Of course we have seen such a small part of the country thus far but obviously it is a land of great contrasts – geographic, economic and cultural. A reasonable portion of the population enjoys immense wealth while 42% live well below the international poverty line. Yet the economy is growing apace. Marriages are still arranged by parents for most young people, tensions are palpable in some areas between Hindus and Muslims, disease and poverty sit side by side with opulence and gambling. Some of the most beautiful people in the world are from India. Superstition, religion, astrology, the selling of children, the worship of cows, the thriving film industry, and a government minister who goes by the somewhat unfortunate name (to our ears) of Shelia Dikshit. The massive and tragic earthquake that struck Gujarat in January just after we arrived prompted generous donations from the government and people of Pakistan, at the same time as military personnel from both India and Pakistan were fighting each other in Kashmir. There is a lot to learn about this country……

Thus endeth this installment!

IS THIS A DUGONG I SEE BEFORE ME?

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By some chance positioning of the International Date Line, we arrived in Samoa the day before we left Australia. This feat added to the overall surreal experience of revisiting a country which had been home to us for 3 years almost 20 years ago. Not a lot has changed in that time – some new and bigger buildings, the ubiquitous McDonalds has set up shop, there are several sets of traffic lights when once there were none necessary; the island boasts more restaurants, a few plush resorts, and more tourists. The Samoans remain friendly, cheerful, large, and loud, some with a range of full body tattoos and many displaying what appears to be an attractive fashion starter – open smiles from mouths with 4 front teeth missing.

The past 10 days or so have been a blur of criss-crossing islands, swimming at wonderful beaches, snorkeling over coral or in fresh-water pools, sitting at (& sometimes sliding down) waterfalls, driving through lush rainforests, lolling about the hotel pool and consuming copious quantities of local food and Vailima beer. The average Samoan meal consists of a large plate piled high with roast pork, half a chicken, fish, sausages, potatoes, assorted other vegetables, taro, breadfruit, palusami (baked coconut custard wrapped in taro leaves) and a curry of some kind. Such meals, combined with plentiful snacks of fresh coconut juice, beer, taro chips, ding dongs (fried peanuts) and ice creams, have caused each of us to develop a very duck-like flat-footed waddle in just 2 weeks.

Highlights of our trip have included the following:
• A smiling Kate greeting us at Faleolo Airport in the late evening with beautiful, fragrant white ulas (leis);
• Revisiting favourite old haunts and beaches, and the homes we inhabited all those years ago;
• Watching fire and knife dancing performances;
• Swimming with turtles in Savaii;
• Climbing almost to the top of a 230-year-old banyan tree to look over the surrounding forest;
• Idling away the days in a Samoan fale 10 meters from the ocean and snorkeling out on the reef.

More of these anon, but let me first report that after only a few days en familie, one of our offspring declared that being out with Spouse and me was like taking delinquent children from Behavioural Boot Camp out for the day. Could this be because of our joint displays of decrepitude, and our daughter’s perceived need for almost constant supervision of her charges? Or is it simply because, like most parents, we have always been an embarrassment to our children? Admittedly we did take some days to become accustomed to drivers being on a different side of the road and thus often wandered inadvertently into the path of looming traffic. We also tended to be more deaf and rather more gormless than usual, to lose things or misplace them on a regular basis (I once spent 20 minutes searching frantically for a watch which was all that time ticking confidently on my left wrist), and to jointly or individually wander off to talk to strangers.

Despite these annoyances, Kate made a great effort to show us around the islands and to introduce us to many aspects of her life and work here. She had planned the 2 weeks very well and we’ve had a wonderful balance of exploration combined with relaxation.

It is also to Shol’s credit that she managed to share a room with her aging and recalcitrant, increasingly bumbling and stumbling parents with her usual grace and patient good humour. However, even she began to exhibit a nervous tick by day 10. But I digress! Back to the fun times….

On our second night in Apia we attended the first of several fire dances – this one the Siva Afi 4th International Final, in which male competitors enthusiastically and with great courage twirled one and sometimes two burning sticks over, under and around their bodies. The piece de resistance for each contestant was the ability to straddle the burning stick with the flames at an alarming proximity to their nether regions. (That Jerry Lewis song “Great Balls of Fire” comes to mind……) Fortunately no-one suffered any obvious ill effects from the show, and the tension was relieved by the performances of Samoan, Hawaiian and Tahitian dancing by women and girls ranging in age from 6 to around 30 years.

For a change of pace we travelled by ferry to Savai’i, the largest of the Samoan islands, and spent 4 days living on the beach in a fale (a small thatched hut on stilts) which stood only 10 metres from the ocean and afforded us much rest and relaxation. It was also a wonderful snorkeling spot, with coral, fish and clams aplenty, a warm sea, and perfectly blue skies.

On one of our day trips from that particular beach we went to a freshwater lagoon to swim with turtles – some of which were huge and obviously old & wise, with green moss on their backs and a knowing look in those amazing eyes! Small and pretty fish were hitching rides on the backs of the turtles. I became totally engrossed in watching them glide through the water only inches away, but at one point had my attention diverted by the sight immediately below me of a large grey dugong with a misshapen head devouring several fat, white squirming sea slugs. On closer inspection I realized that in fact this was not a fat dugong but my own left leg, and the sea slugs were indeed my five toes. (I recall a similar case of mistaken identity 20+ years ago when taking a dip in another freshwater pool in Samoa and searching for the famed black eel meant to inhabit that lagoon. My initial excitement at seeing the short, stumpy and sightless eel that floated by soon turned to a horrified underwater screech when it became clear that this was no eel but a human turd.) I must get my eyes checked…….

Another memorable activity on this current trip was seeing the spectacular Alofaaga blowholes on Savai’i, into which a local villager fed coconuts at just the right moment for them to be blown 60 metres into the air along with the fierce sea jet behind them. A potentially dangerous past-time – not even very safe for spectators – but all the more impressive because of the danger factor. We also visited Olemoe Falls, into which the more limber in the family climbed for a cool and refreshing dip – the falls are located in quite difficult-to-reach jungle terrain and drop some 300 metres into a deep pool filled with freshwater prawns. Since age and chronic clumsiness have made me a party-pooper when it comes to physical prowess, I stayed on the hill taking photos while the more agile members of our party braved the trek down to the bottom via what appeared a torturous and slippery route. From where I was sitting it looked like they had a great deal of fun once in the water. I wish I’d had a donkey to take me there!

A little about my rather slight but still cumbersome physical difficulties….. Having arrived in Samoa with a dicky knee, I shortly thereafter compounded the problem by rolling my right ankle on the treacherous walk from the hotel pool to the room. Once we arrived in Savai’i I then managed to stub my big toe rather painfully on some dead coral. This latter incident required the regular application of copious quantities of betadine and the wearing of a borrowed fluorescent pink sock, to prevent sand from creeping under the flap of skin that was left on my toe. You may not wish or be able to imagine the rather peculiar gait that the three injuries combined produced in me, but no doubt you can picture the acute embarrassment I caused not only myself but more importantly our poor long-suffering children whenever we stepped out (I use the term “stepped” cautiously) together.

Spouse contributed his own unique brand of cringe-making humour to the holiday, initially by developing a passion for local papaya. After consuming some 14 or so large papaya in the course of only 3 days he seemed to develop a very serene countenance, a loss of feeling in the lower limbs, and a tendency to try to come up with words that rhymed with papaya. “Jambalaya” was a favourite – emitted suddenly and without context into any silence or sensible conversation. Whenever we had access to a television, Spouse was also keen to tune into the God channel, which featured various American evangelical preachers proselytizing with great enthusiasm. So along with “jambalaya”, “Halleluiah” was another spontaneous interjection that generally drew bewildered glances from curious passers-by. A few half-remembered choruses of the Samoan national anthem were also guaranteed to cause mirth amongst fellow travelers but not necessarily from his immediate family.

Our daughters’ reactions as adults to both of their parents’ antics have not changed a lot in 20 years. “Muuummmmm! What are you doing????!” was hissed between clenched teeth, along with “Daaaaaaad! Don’t do that!” at regular intervals. And if looks could kill…..

Which reminds me – it is interesting to see again the Samoan habit of burying one’s deceased family members in the front garden. Adds another dimension to the saying “Pushing up the daisies”, and you could get first-hand experience I guess in watching the daisies grow from the other side. We can always threaten the girls with a request to be buried in front of their homes. Either that, or insist on each being taxidermed and displayed on the couch in their living room.

Last night we joined the audience for a local “Fia Fia” (dinner and dance extravaganza) at Aggie Gray’s Hotel. (Aggie’s sister was apparently the person on whom the character of “Bloody Mary” was based in the movie “South Pacific”.)

After a morning spent at Papasee’a Sliding Rock sliding down (you guessed it) rocks, we are having a restful afternoon in preparation for going out to dinner at one of Apia’s best restaurants, again arranged by the lovely Kate. Tomorrow we are off to the other side of the island to stay in another beach fale for 2 nights, taking us through to Sunday. Monday we depart and once again, the Date Line will cause a little confusion as the 8 hour trip will take us (by calendar time) a full day and a half. Altogether it has been a truly lovely and invigorating holiday, made all the more special by being able to share it with our wonderful (if slightly nutty) daughters.

DECADENCE ON THE NILE

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No doubt you would have let out a relieved sigh some time ago when the inevitable travelogue was not forthcoming, only to be caught by surprise now since some long time has passed. However, consider yourselves fortunate indeed that the following has been considerably reduced from its original 32 chapters…..

We arrived in Cairo late on 30th August to be met by our charming Egyptologist, who helped collect our luggage and escorted us to the hotel. My choice of hotel (recommended by a travel agent in Delhi) was the first big mistake – the lobby smelt of baby poo and cigarettes, while our room stank of these things plus advancing mildew, and had a feature wall of toxic mold. Since we had paid for the room in advance, we were not in a position to check out and into something more tolerable. However, the sheets were clean and we figured we’d not be spending much time inside…..

Our first excursion on Day 1 was to a corner ahwa or coffee shop, which is really a male-only domain where patrons smoke shisha pipes and sit around in drug-induced stupors. We were able to get tea (in very dirty cups) and were befriended by several roaming males who wanted to sell us their services for taxis, papyrus museums, glass factories, perfume or whatever else they thought we might want. Some offered their sisters for a fee. I left Spouse to wiggle out of any commitments while I sat and soaked up the atmosphere – mostly smoke emanating from the shishas. These are intricate water-pipes which use tobacco mixed with molasses or apple juice. One old gentleman was hooked up to the apparatus as if to a life-support machine and kept grasping for a suck on the tube whilst simultaneously coughing up a lung.

A walk along the street closest to the Nile could have been pleasant but for the pollution (which almost rivals that of Delhi – some 17 million people live in Cairo), and the touts who could spot us as tourists from a mile away. Everyone was called either Mustafa, Mohammed, Ali or Ahmed, and all had a cousin or brother or friend in Australia and all knew a camel or a taxi driver that could take us to the Pyramids. Many of the locals were big, with coarse features and thick moustaches. A lot of the men weren’t very attractive either! (Once we stopped being hassled, people really did become much more beautiful…..)

Yet again it seems that my face is one that can invite a thousand questions – prominent amongst these in Egypt was any variation of “Are you Korean/Japanese/Italian/Spanish/Egyptian ….?” How is it possible for one nondescript person to be taken for so many different nationalities?

Day 2 saw us walk to the Egyptian Museum where we were snatched up by an “official museum guide” and given a 90-minute whirlwind tour for an exorbitant sum. I realized that he wasn’t connected to the museum at all (despite ID badge claiming he was) when he insisted (with eyes darting in every direction) on us paying him behind an out-of-the-way pillar. After disposing of the generally unhelpful guide we wandered around on our own for awhile longer. The museum houses a stunning collection, most amazing of which is the booty retrieved from Tutankamun’s tomb. Afterwards we ate lunch at a local fish restaurant; since the menu was entirely in Arabic (fair enough, since it is an Arabic-speaking nation after all), our order when it came out was nothing like what we had intended, but tasty nevertheless.

Next day was an organized tour to the Pyramids. The words of a wise local camel driver are perhaps the most apt – “very big, very old…..” And awe-inspiring! We stood on the spot where Saddat had lived for part of his time in his bungalow (since demolished), and then ventured closer to the Pyramids, and were able to climb inside the smallest of the three to view the burial chamber. A most interesting and humbling experience (also very claustrophobic!).

On Day 4 we took another organized tour, this time to Islamic Cairo with the mosques, the Citadel, and the bazaars, and to Coptic Cairo, with its churches. Our tour guide mentioned in passing that the travel agent through whom we’d organized most of our tours was one “well-versed with the needs of the elderly such as yourselves.” Since she was no spring chicken either, being even older than we are, we wondered if the whole experience thus far was making us age rather too rapidly.

Day 5 required that we be at the airport at 5.30 am for our flight to Luxor – our starting point for the cruise down (up?) the Nile. Once in Luxor we were ushered to the boat, which turned out to be a cruise ship with wonderfully comfortable cabins, several decks, absolutely impeccable service and a menu worthy of the best of restaurants. Surprisingly, we were two of only eight passengers for the journey to Aswan, this being the first trip of the season. There was a full compliment of staff and crew so passengers were outnumbered 8 to one! We anticipated that this might cause some awkwardness when it came to the cocktail party with the cruise manager, and the Egyptian Buffet night of dancing and frivolity; however, somehow (by moving rapidly from one side of the boat to the other) we all managed to provide the illusion of a more substantial crowd and a good time was had by all.

The boat floated and docked, floated and docked, and we followed our new Egyptologist like lambs to every new and fascinating temple and tomb in Luxor, Edfu, Esna, Kom Ombu and Aswan. In between, we could sit onboard atop the deck and watch the world go by, with a cold beer or a pleasant glass of Egyptian wine, and 63 staff watching over us and rushing to fulfill every request. Very relaxing and the best way to travel! Four-course meals at every turn, a very knowledgeable guide, a cool breeze, and the world on the banks of the river just as it must have looked thousands of years ago – mud-brick dwellings, young boys on donkeys, black-clad women selling vegetables at roadside stalls, thousands of date palms.

In Aswan, Spouse visited the huge dam and various other sites, and took a ride in a felucca, while I nursed a stomach bug (remnant of the Cairo Collywobbles picked up earlier on) and lolled around in the cabin watching TV. By then we were both beginning to experience AEO (Ancient Egypt Overload – aka “Pharoanic Phatigue”). Next day we left early for another flight, this time to Abu Simbel, which is an astounding narcissistic tribute to Ramses ll, and a marvel of construction – both initially all those years ago (all with hammers and chisels!) and when it was moved to higher ground during the construction of the dam in the 1960’s. Talk about moving mountains….!

Words and photos are just not enough to convey the scale and the tremendous sense of history of all the things we saw but I do recall being constantly overawed, though, to Spouse’s disappointment, not quite speechless. Our very personable guide was a fountain of information, and was able to talk us briskly through 5000 years of history and allow us time to explore things on our own. “Turn left at the next obelisk…..” was a fairly common instruction for our next meeting point.

Back in Cairo we met up again with the little man who ran the laundry that we’d used in the first week. The laundry was actually his home, and the laundering was done by his mother whose only English words were “Welcome” and “I love you”. He greeted us like long-lost friends and pestered Spouse several times about his shoes – “I’ll buy your shoes for 50 Egyptian pounds” (about $12) – no matter which ones he (Spouse) was wearing. Spouse finally shut him up with “I’ll sell you my wife for 50 pounds, but you’re not getting my shoes.” The fellow thought he was serious and, looking me over with something that looked to me like a grimace, backed off. He never mentioned the shoes again.

Weary of sitting in our room and admiring the artistic wall of mould, we decided to venture out again to the Pyramids, this time for a camel’s eye view. We arranged our ride through a tout we had met on the street but it transpired that we had unwittingly agreed to another exorbitant price (to cover fees charged by the owner, the manager, the guide, the 2 walkers and the ticket seller). At some point during negotiations the camel driver asked “Have you got a daughter? I’ll give you 100 camels for your daughter…..” but commendably, we resisted the offer. We managed to see the Pyramids from a different angle and were again astounded by their size and sheer beauty. Those ancient Egyptians sure knew a thing or two about construction and maths! At one point a hysterical policeman came charging out on top of yet another cud-chewing artiodactyl mammal and yelled to our guide in hostile Arabic. However, whatever the matter was, it was resolved after several minutes of heated debate and we were none the wiser. Later, after dismounting from our 2 hour ride, the phrase “walk like an Egyptian” took on a new meaning.

Back in town we were hungry but reluctant to sample the lamb scrotum sandwich that seems to be a favourite in Egypt. Instead we sought out and found a Lebanese restaurant that sold reasonably familiar-looking food – something of a relief.

Our final excursion was a day trip to Alexandria and the site of the Lighthouse of Pharos; we also visited the Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa, and saw the fabulous library from a distance. In between monuments and tombs there we enjoyed a wonderful fish lunch in a breezy restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

I had hoped to smuggle back my very own Nubian slave but he wasn’t allowed past the check-point at the airport. Cairo airport is, refreshingly, almost as bad as the airport in Delhi and we both became annoyed with the pushing, shoving, rudeness and delays that came with the experience of checking in. Spouse also became annoyed with me when it appeared I had mislaid my passport; he left me to scramble around on the floor under the intense scrutiny of guards with guns, searching through the mess that was the upturned contents of my bag. I finally found it in my coat pocket just before the flight was due to take off.

Thereafter we parted ways – Spouse back to Delhi and me to Canberra. It was so wonderful to spend time with Shol and Kate! Three weeks of being well looked after, meeting much-loved friends, eating great home-cooked meals, of non-stop talking, drinking nice wines and endless lattes, and walking our puppy went all too quickly. I was sad to say goodbye but knew it would be only for a few months more.

On the 16 hour flight from Sydney to Dubai I was seated next to Judy and Trent, a couple who were, as it turned out, on their way to Egypt. Pleasant enough conversation, several unnecessary meals, many films, and endless reasons to leap out of the seat helped to pass the time. Without sleep I am a crazed woman but kept it in check until my arrival in Dubai, where I struggled to find a hotel room and fought back inexplicable tears.

After an 11 hour drug-induced sleep at the hotel, I was ready for the last leg of the journey, and arrived at the joke-in-progress that was the Indira Gandhi International Airport, at 3 in the morning. The building still smells like a public toilet and the immigration staff continue to give new meaning to the words “slow” and “surly”. Fortunately Spouse was waiting for me on the other side of the immigration counter, even at that ungodly hour, and was able to distract my attention away from the baggage carousel, which had been in danger of a damn good thrashing by the time my bag came limping out some 50 minutes later.

Delhi has experienced changes since I left here 6 weeks ago – the monsoon rains have ceased, the air is less humid and certainly cooler, much of the city is green, there are some 1000+ reported cases of Dengue fever in the city, with 10 associated deaths thus far. A recent study has shown that the vegetables we consume here, which we already have to soak in iodine for 10 minutes before cooking/using, have been found to contain unacceptable levels of lead, zinc, cadmium and copper – four times the recommended maximum levels. And now we have a Delhi winter to look forward to, when people burn off tons and tons of firewood, cow dung, kerosene and furniture in an effort to keep warm. This, combined with the diesel in vehicles, makes breathing a risky business.

A walk around Nehru Park shows many of the familiar sights and faces, although there seems to be a variation in the performance of public urination – a number of men were pointing Percy at the usual trees or walls but conversing on mobile phones at the same time. I await the sight of the absent-minded gentleman who attempts to talk into his dick and put his mobile back into his fly…..

Driving around town I notice a few camels ambling along beside the cars, several donkeys carrying sacks of bricks, an elephant freshly painted for the Diwali festival, and a wrapped corpse whose legs and feet protrude part-way out of the open doors of a nearby van. Family members, no doubt on their way to the crematorium, sit next to the body on its stretcher to prevent it falling out completely.

A recent visit to a dentist has made me more determined than previously to avoid dental procedures if at all possible. His office has inexplicably become also the office for a gynaecologist. The dentist is in the habit of setting three patients up at once in three connecting rooms and visiting each one in turn, never finishing with one patient before flitting on to the next. As I didn’t see any evidence of an extension of offices, it occurred to me that he was moonlighting as a gynaecologist; it was unnerving to think that he might move directly from one such examination and straight to the dentist chair again. I guess the preamble for each is much the same – “Open wide!”

And thus life goes on ……. Colourful and always interesting. Already the experience of Egypt is a blur but we have more trips to look forward to!

VIA AGRA

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It had to happen … a sign stated that the annexe in which I sat was no longer a dentist’s waiting room but a venue for the “dentally-challenged”. Adjusting carefully to my politically correct surroundings, I browsed through glossy copies of “Femina” and listened to one side of a mobile phone conversation in which it was clear that someone was going to get the rough end of a pineapple when they got home. The clock ticked ever so slowly. Interest was provided briefly when another foreigner entered the room looking for a support group for People Called Roger. (This was intriguing because it turned out his name was Bruce.)

Ten more minutes passed. I glanced over at Bruce (aka Roger), and doubted he was getting the support he needed in this waiting room. Just when the magazine story about Indian-style carbuncles became interesting, the dentist (sorry, “facilitator for the dentally impaired”) stood in the doorway and chanted my name incorrectly several times over. I scuttled into a smaller room, where I then sat for 42 minutes on a reclining vinyl chair and stared at the ceiling.

It is an interesting fact of life in India that in every office, restaurant and shop there will always be five, possibly six men in uniform whose sole job it is to stand around and Look Useful. Part of the job requires that each man will cross the room at least 5 times for no apparent purpose. At intervals of approximately 8 minutes, the men will gather in a line or group in a corner of the room and stare at the foreign patron or client. A minute or two of staring and then one by one this silent chorus line will disperse, to wander in and out through doors, dart from corner to corner with an object, or linger by a table or sink. This day was no exception. Every so often a small man in a white coat would enter the room expectantly, try to Look Important, walk several paces, adjust some object (water glass, blinds, air conditioner, sterilizing equipment…..) and then disappear.

Finally, in came the Big Guy Himself, who sat on the stool beside me and with a flourish, snapped on the surgical gloves. Just as he said “What seems to be the trouble?” off went the power. Off came the gloves and he slipped wordlessly from the room, his grand entrance stymied. Another 15 minutes passed, with more charades by the six other men in white, while I worked myself into a lather of sweat just by sitting still. Then the sound of a generator kicking in, and we started all over again.

After I had explained the extreme pressure and cold sensitivity of a region of my mouth, the dentist approached with a metal rod the size and shape of a billiard cue and thwacked each tooth in turn. After successfully Hitting the Spot (he noticed the sudden watering of my eyes and my muffled wail), he murmured “Let’s see” and squirted a syringe-full of icy water along my gum line.

It took all six of the Men in White Coats and the receptionist to prise me from the ceiling that day and I do believe some of my fingernails are still embedded there. I am to return shortly for the dreaded Root Canal Therapy. I have approached the tribal people who plough fields naked as part of their annual rain dance, and requested they perform a special “Keep the generators going” dance on the specified date. I would hate to be plunged into darkness, heat and the dentist’s irritation in the middle of root canal treatment.

But I digress. The reason I got onto that story was because while I was window-shopping on the way to the office for the dentally challenged, I spied a T-shirt with the words “VIA AGRA” above a picture of the Taj Mahal. Beneath it was written “A Man’s Greatest Erection for a Woman”. Clever….. or am I just starved for entertainment here?

The only reason anyone would ever go via Agra of course is to see the Taj Mahal. Agra itself has the dubious distinction of being the scam capital of India, with the most lethal scam being the “poison in the food” trick which has actually killed people. The idea is apparently for someone in the restaurant to poison a patron’s food (not as difficult as you might think) and then demand money for getting the afflicted person to a hospital. The doctor also gets a commission. Nice one…..!

Agra itself could pass for the arse-end of India. It’s dirty, smelly, polluted and overcrowded and has no endearing attributes whatsoever and no particular reason to exist, other than to highlight the beauty of the Taj Mahal. Scientists have declared that the Yamuna River as it tries to flow through Agra is incapable of sustaining any life form whatsoever.

Travel within India remains time-consuming and risky. During a recent taxi ride from Mussourie (a hill station at 2500 metres) to Dehra Dun (on the plains), the taxi driver in his wisdom (and guided by his desire to save on petrol but charge for it anyway) turned the ignition off once the descent started. So for the next 20 kms we glided down the mountain with nothing but a pair of worn brakes and 4 completely bald tyres between us and catastrophe. The trip was made more interesting by the fact that thick clouds enveloped the car and the mountain, so visibility was limited to a few feet. It was raining and the car had no windscreen wipers. Despite all the odds, we made it to the train station in one piece.

A week’s break in Thailand was a pleasant interlude, and we discovered that the Thais actually manage to drive in designated lanes on their roads, and the roads actually run in efficient directions and get people quickly from A to B! Whilst in Bangkok I was recovering from a very unpleasant viral fever, so had to be content with doing imitations of the golden reclining Buddha and re-creating my own floating markets by self in bathtub. Reclining still more at the beach destination (Hua Hin) for 4 days and eating fabulous seafood helped to get me back on track with health. Spouse got bored after 2 days and seemed to need the chaos that is Delhi to get him back to full speed.

Now it’s back to reality for both of us. Last week a walk around sunny Haus Khaz village looking for some wall hangings proved a less than pleasant experience in the 40 degree heat and 90% humidity. There were the usual flies and the fresh cow splats (which can cover a vast area if let loose and hitting the ground with force). Then I almost stepped on what appeared to be the freshly coughed up insides of a large animal – still red and almost pulsating on the ground in front of me. Curiosity made me lean forward to examine the mass until common sense sent me reeling backward and stepping into something equally unpleasant.

In the afternoon (after a clean-up) I ventured to the bank to deposit some rupees, only to be informed that as a foreigner I could not make cash deposits into my own account!!!!!!!!! Having only recently come to terms with the fact that I cannot take any money out of the country, or indeed take traveller’s cheques beyond a certain (small) limit, I was nevertheless a little surprised at this other asinine regulation. I cannot really recall all the flabber in my gast, but suffice it to say that John McEnroe would have been proud of me. “You cannot be serious!” reverberated many times off the walls, there was a lot of throwing up of hands (mine), and quite a few references to the ridiculousness of a banking system wherein one could neither deposit nor withdraw cash from one’s own account.

On the way out of the bank I noticed a large sign of approx. 20 feet by 7 feet and weighing several tons dangling above the doorway, swaying precariously and secured only by a few badly tied ropes held onto by 3 gangly Rajasthanis. What a spiffing end to the day if it were to fall as I walked underneath! I bolted through the doorway as best I could whilst trying hard to maintain my rage and sense of indignant righteousness, much to the amusement of workmen and bank staff.

The other night we were taken out to a Moghul restaurant in the Muslim area of Delhi, right next door to Jamu Masjid, the largest mosque in India. We dined on mutton kebabs, mutton biriyani, mutton & spices with yoghurt, mutton curry and grilled chicken. Very tasty, very oily and very filling (though perhaps a bit heavy on the mutton….). The walk through Old Delhi to get there was fascinating – crowded, busy, full of life and unfortunately also despair. It is an area famous for pickpockets and beggars, the latter being quite persistent, prepared to argue with you and tackle you to the ground for a few rupees.

The next night was a complete contrast when we had dinner at the American Club and partook of western food in a sterile, air-conditioned environment. Spouse ordered apple pie for dessert and the waiter said “Would you like me to vomit for you sir?” Looking a little alarmed, Spouse said “Pardon?” “Would you like me to VOMit for you?” “Ah, no thanks……” Thinking this was some new form of restaurant entertainment, we stared at each other for a few moments before realizing he had been saying “Would you like me to warm it for you….” and almost fell to the floor laughing at the images that had been conjured up.

Snippets from the local paper: A caption: “Heavy smoke caused the Kremlin towers to be invisible” next to a picture of …. nothing. White. Blank! Invisible towers!
Another: “India launches first meteorological satellite, hopes for moon….” Haven’t the powers that be here actually noticed that the existing health, education, welfare and sanitation systems are woefully inadequate…? Perhaps some prioritizing needs to be done….?

So here we are: me jobless and often frustrated by the way of life, but fortunately assisted by knowing a number of lovely people, and Spouse keeping busy and, almost always, quite enjoying his work. The weather is cooling off (now between 34 and 36 degrees) and rain has come often enough to damp down some of the pollution. There is a serial killer of taxi-drivers on the loose in Delhi. The Ashok Hotel on the corner sets off its air-raid siren at 8 o’clock every morning as a kind of general wake-up call for all its guests and everyone within a 2 mile radius. There have been no terrorist attacks in Delhi recently (though plenty in Kashmir). India & Pakistan have taken fingers off the nuclear buttons, at least for now. We are safe and well. Can’t ask for more than that!

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