16th – 22nd December 2014
Some days are better than others
There are days on the road which can change your perceptions totally.
Arriving in Bangkok for the fourth time in our travelling career, we had braced ourselves for another two days of battling through the traffic, noise, muggy heat and sheer scale of the place. We are not much big city people, and big cities don’t really agree with children.
But this day was different.
We had one full day in Bangkok, and duly installed in our nice apartment, picked a couple of targets. First, a pleasant swim in the guesthouse pool – a promise delivered to the boys, and the day cleared.
We headed of for the Skytrain – destination National Stadium and a baptism of shopping fire at the MBK Centre. At the Ekkamai Skytrain station, perched between the Sukhumvit road and the railway above, a tiny hair salon ticked off four hair cuts. Onward into the city, and stopping among the Bladerunner-esque big screen advertisements and triple level station we plunged into the shopping paradise/hell that is the MBK Mall. We were lucky – and got away with but a pair of shoes each for three of us, and the three Nintendo DS chargers we’d gone there for.
In a land of religious shrines, MBK is a temple to consumption: a place where all the tricks of the shopping mall trade are not subtly laid on, but pile-driven into you, old testament style: no clocks, disorienting lack of windows, ATMs at every corner, and a constant stream of hyped shoppers. We bailed out just in time.
Crossing the road outside, we umm-ed and aah-ed, and finally clambered into a tuk tuk. The driver too us directly to our next destination – the inner city calm and relative serenity of Lumphini Park – Bangkok’s biggest public green area. It is a classic park – big fence, manicured lawns, chairs and playgrounds. Even on a Monday afternoon it was filled with joggers and folk strolling and enjoying the green. For us it was a revelation, seemingly the opposite of our morning. Really hit the spot.
We all enjoyed some snacks (buy them outside the park – none of the many kiosks are open on a Monday afternoon) and a walk, and then an hour in a swan-shaped pedal boat on one of the lakes. Very pleasant, and also a good way to spot the largish monitor lizards skulking on the lake edge. As the sun set on the glass and concrete office towers of the business district, we wandered out of the park, looking for some more substantial fare.
As it happened, we stumbled into one of the sois that surround the park, and this one hosted the delicious Polo Fried Chicken restaurant. We actually enjoyed some spicy Thai fish cakes and sweet glass noodles – really hit the spot after a long day. We walked off our dinner by strolling through the laneways, as the days traders wound down and people returned to small but homely life. A taxi back to the hotel, through the bright streets to our quiet corner of the city.
Some days come together just right: a bit of frenzy and a bit of calm (in that order). We turned in, the blinking lights of the city skyline a silent lullaby.
The next day started with packing. That task done, as on so many occasions, we stowed our bags and checked out. A half day in the limbo between checkout and flight, we explored the Ekkamai district near Sukhumvit 61. Conserving strength for our long night travelling, we looped back to the hotel and collected our bags, making the airport with time to spare.
It was only after the hoops of check-in, security and immigration checks were done did we realise the boys’ carry on bag was missing: a bag placed down for a minute, and it was gone the next. At the gate, with a mere 40 minutes to depart, we launched a frantic search, the extremely helpful Bangkok Air staff escorting Graham back through the hoops to the Departure Hall for a last, hopeless glance around. Thus we boarded our flight with some sad boys – gone were some of their souvenirs and their favourite Nintendo DSi consoles collected and nurtured along four months of travel. It turned out to be merely the first chapter.
India or bust
Our flight to India was smooth and calm – actually the first “full service” flight we’ve taken in a few years. Decent, and plenty of it. Aside from the tedious in-flight film “Pacific Rim”, it was an OK flight to Mumbai. On the ground, the Sabretoothed Chickens’ official wingnut Graham glimpses his first sight of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, in Air India livery.
We cleared formalities – and straight away got a tiny insight into this new place: while waiting for our bags to come around the carousel, the big screen there is silently showing an interview on spin bowling technique from Warnie himself. What were the odds?
Bursting out onto the hubbub of a midnight taxi rank, there in front of u was a friendly face – that of Prashant – a final year Ph.D candidate whom we had met back home a while back. Our local friends, Manju and Ranjeet had asked Prashant if he would kindly pick us up, and in the great tradition of Indian hospitality, he not only came to the airport but arranged a taxi and accommodation at his old student digs in the Institute of Chemical Technology. This is a University in the Matunga district of Mumbai, and provided us with the golden trio of safe, clean, and quiet accommodation in this enormous city.
And so we woke to our first morning in this vast colourful country. In the cool morning air, a muezzin or three called faithful muslims to prayer, and a train rumbled along its tracks. Slowly a chorus of car horns got going – another sound which seems to define any Indian city. Our host Prashant welcomed us downstairs at the boisterous but clean hostel ‘Mess’, where breakfast dish was delicious Pav Bhaji and the refreshingly ubiquitous chai masala. A great start to our culinary journey.
During breakfast, our good friend Ranjeet wandered in among the chatting students and clatter of steel crockery. Ranjeet and his wife Manju used to live near us and our eldest sons shared a kindergarten class. Their current visit to India was part of the motivation to travel here. Another friendly face in less than 12 hours.
Led by our two friends, we struck out into the hurly burly of Mumbai to get an Indian SIM card. For a country that wants to be known as a global technology hub, India seems entranced with the ponderous bureaucracy of its past. Where in other countries the acquisition of a local phone number would involve a five minute trip to the local 7 Eleven and some local currency, in India the task required three passport photos (but not the 5cm x 5cm needed for a visa), several forms, and the production of official ID – both passport and Western Australian driver’s license as (gasp!) Australian passports do not have your address in them. All of this, and some in depth discussions between the various parties, yielded two SIM cards. Which would be active in the next 48 hours or so. Maybe.
Ah. So this is the frustrating India of which people speak. We just smiled, sipped on a fresh glass of sugar cane juice, and thanked our lucky stars we had good local friends. To succumb to bureaucracy rage is to be destroyed by India and we weren’t going to let this happen.
Ranjeet and Prashant returned to the Institute to get some papers ready for submission. We cast off, into the Mumbai streets in a battered yellow and black hatchback taxi, destination the Gateway of India, the only landmark we know in this city.
We disembarked, into a crowd of tourists, stall holders, purveyors of trinkets. We took photos and were the subject of them, taken by strangers, themselves visiting this landmark. We had launched ourselves into India.
In the afternoon we took a taxi tour of Mumbai, taking in some of the sights, along the Bay, Chowpatty beach, the Hanging Gardens, a house in Laburnum Street where Ghandi spent some time. Our ride took us into the heart of Mumbai traffic – its noise, its colour, its congestion – observed from the passenger seat of a car, an intriguing part of the city itself.
From the sublime to the mind-blowing, our driver pulled over and disgorged us briefly overlooking the ‘Laundry’ Ghat, the tiny slum in the shadow of the railway lines where thousands of clothes are washed and dried by hand every day.
We stopped for a photos at the stately Mumbai University, encountering for the first time the stern admonishment of a paramilitary uniformed security guard: “No Photos!” (At the beach I was requested to put away my camera, even as locals snapped away as if at a Bollywood Premiere!) The bizarre fear of photographs of public buildings (or lost anything else) is just another aspect of the frustrating ‘authoritocracy’ of India. Across the road as I encountered the frowning visage of India was the happy smile – on a vast stretch of sun-browned grass, a hundred games of cricket were in progress.
Next day is a quiet one, but we have a nice evening with some Couchsurfers who live in upscale Juhu Beach. We enjoy a nice coffee at a cafe next to the local theatre, a stroll on the beach at night, and later, a walk through a major Hare Krishna temple. Back through the traffic to our digs, with a crazy singing taxi driver draws our frenetic stay in Mumbai to a close.
Out of the frying pan and into the countryside
Up early the next morning, and Ranjeet drives us through the pre-rush hour streets and out onto the open highways. We climb into the hazy Western Ghats, crossing over and down into Pune. This city was once a provincial capital, then a British garrison town, and lately is a fast growing hub of India’s University boom. We weave into the suburb of Aundh, and there, at the end of the laneway, waits Ranjeet’s wife and their two children, friends of the boys from back home. The familiar faces are showing up thick and fast – a real treat.
We stop only briefly in Pune, before once more hitting the highway. The road sweeps south, and after an hour or so, the Toyota pulls up at the green and cream coloured ‘bungalow’ of Henant and Mangul, Manju’s parents in the city of Satara. We are honoured as guest in the traditional Indian way. We are soon welcomed into their house, which is large and comfortable. Graham’s evening started with a massage from a local retired wrestler!
Henant and Mangul are semi-retired, and enjoy a happy life among their friends and business interests in Satara. They are typically Indian in their generous hospitality, taking time to show us the open, grassy mountains and magnificent vistas that surround this city of ‘seven hills’. Here and there are great picturesque reservoirs and rocky hilltops worn smooth with age – the basalt peaks in these parts are of a great age and remind us somewhat of the contours of Australia, also worn smooth by time. In our few days with these new friends, we discover the joys of fresh strawberry ice cream in the hill station of Mahabaleshwar, take a paddle boat ride on Venna lake with other day trippers, and share a tipple or two with the wide circle of our hosts’ friends in a ‘get together’ on their patio.
Week nineteen of our trip has taken us a long way, and friendly faces, both old and new, have given us a wonderfully smooth landing in this rich and colourful country.