On track for the exotic

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John Raby is on the Howrah Mail, one of India’s most iconic trains. During his six-hour train journey, he meets genial Ravi from Kolkata, attempts to order lunch from the Telegu-speaking pantry wallah and encounters a slightly annoying railway official

I’m sat on a train going to Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh; the Howrah Mail to be precise. I boarded this morning and will get off in six hours time, but this train actually left Chennai yesterday and will ultimately travel the 1040 miles to Kolkata, arriving early tomorrow morning…

Read the rest of this published travel feature here at the Western Morning News

 

Painting the Picture

JOHN RABY meets Anna Fitzgerald, an artist with a unique & refreshing style who is making a real impact on the art scene in Exmouth.

Anna Fitzgerald is a prolific and successful artist living and working in Exmouth. I caught up with her at a seafront exhibition, organised by the Exmouth Art Group, where she had four pieces on sale and by the time I had arrived she had already sold three of them. Anna, it turns out, is quite the leading light on the art scene in Exmouth.

Read the rest of this article on the Devon Life website.

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FIVE OF THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN DELHI FROM AN INDIA EXPERT

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Delhi, with a population of more than 25 million, is one of the mega-cities of South Asia. And if you haven’t been yet, then you really should go. Delhi is an ideal place to start your exploration of India because there are so many other places within relatively easy reach. However, before you start trekking the length and breadth of India, stay a few days in the city and see what it has to offer…

Read the rest of this article on Travioor.

Gokarna.

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Hindu Pagoda Temple, Kathmandu Valley

As much as I love the fascinating city of Kathmandu in Nepal, I wanted to get out of the urban maze and explore some of the surrounding natural beauty. Somehow, I had heard about Gokarna Forest and my interest was aroused. Arrangements were made and transport was laid on.

I remember that day well. June in Nepal was uncomfortably hot and beads of sweat were running down my forehead aplenty. Upon arrival at Gokarna, we stopped off to inspect the temple dedicated to a popular Hindu deity, Ganesh. Pausing only briefly, we began our ascent of the leafy hills of Gokarna Forest, leaving the noise of Kathmandu in the valley far below us.

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Kathmandu Valley
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Through the trees

The pre-monsoon heat and humidity made for a sweaty hike up through the woods, as the sun climbed high above us and reached its zenith. Looking across the valley, the outskirts of the city were sharply defined in the intense midday glare. The earth was dry and baked hard from weeks of relentless calefaction. We continued on unabated, moving through patches of shade and light and absorbing the grandeur of the forest around us.

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Baked earth

We didn’t talk much, but in the midst of the peace and quiet, the natural world was constantly proclaiming its magnificence. Mesmerisingly beautiful and enchanting, I just couldn’t put my camera down. Every step seemed to present countless, breathtaking landscapes worthy of capture.

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Grassy Knoll
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Nearing the top…

Having now returned from the summit and the panoramic views afforded by our lofty aspect, we made the return journey. Through the course of our descent, we met a couple of friendly locals and enjoyed that typical Nepali warmth and welcome. This land of the Himalaya, of stunning vistas and superlatives, is also a nation with a big heart and open arms.

Coast.

There’s something life giving about being by the sea. The incessant roar of the waves, the relentless march of the tide, that gust of sea air that is so invigorating and the glint of sunshine on the ocean swell is incomparable. Noise isn’t normally relaxing, but the thunder of the surf really is.

The coast simply has a magnetic pull, and all of the above combine to make the ultimate de-stresser. People use the coast for myriad activities: surfing, kiteboarding, windsurfing, coasteering, rockpooling, swimming, bodyboarding, paddling, sandcastle making and just plain having fun. Whatever you’re doing, whether it’s lazing in the sun, walking your dog, throwing a frisbee or just the supreme romance of walking on the shoreline with the one you love, it’s just great.

I love that chilled out beach vibe, and I love that we live on an island with an incredible, uninterrupted coastline that is mind blowing in its beauty. Don’t live near the coast? Well in the United Kingdom, it’s really not that far away…

Stourhead, Wiltshire.

Peering out from the grotto at Stourhead, it’s hard not to be awed by the splendid beauty and tranquillity of the place. The National Trust’s 2600+ acres here promise much and totally deliver. If you want to get away from it all, I encourage you to try this beautiful corner of rural Wiltshire. 

Exploring the neoclassical Palladian mansion at the top of the estate, followed by the sublime pleasure of a lakeside amble, I am confident you will find this an altogether agreeable experience.

It’s wonderful to see young and old enjoying this priceless historical and green space. It really is the simple things in life isn’t it? Baking in the late summer sun making its slow trek across an endless azure blue sky, you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Not on a day like this anyway.

Barrington Court, Somerset.

On a hot sunny day, there is nothing better than messing around in an English country garden. And if you like gardens, then the National Trust property of Barrington Court is a rather super one – and that’s putting it mildly.

I’m no flower expert, but I was nonetheless dazzled by the sheer variety of colour generously splashed around this beautiful walled garden. Expert or not, I was loving the unparalleled diversity of all this botanical brilliance around me.

Heading towards the house itself, you have to run the gauntlet of the Strode Tearooms which are housed in a fairly impressive building themselves. Of course you don’t have to run the gauntlet at all; you could just give in which is what we did, and enjoy the excellent culinary fayre therof.

Admittedly, relaxing outside in the burning late-morning sun whilst sipping proper, full flavoured tea, with the gentle hub-bub of fellow visitors chatting in the background, was most relaxing. It’s what an English summer is all about isn’t it?

My friend mused that the only thing missing was a cricket match on the lawn, with the crack of the ball on willow and “…the gentle ripple of applause.” I think he might have got a point. Perhaps the National Trust should look into this? 

Espresso Seafood Bar and Grill.

There’s nothing better than whiling away a few hours by the seaside. And there’s also nothing better than dining in the company of long standing friends too.

On a hot, sunny afternoon Andrew and I came to the Espresso Seafood Bar and Grill in Ilfracombe, on the beautiful North Devon coast. Thankfully, a gentle sea breeze was in attendance to cool things down. 

A discussion about oysters ensued between us, and soon enough we were drawn inexorably to the Deluxe Shellfish Platter – which is what we ordered. Tempted by a spread of Lobsters, Oysters, Crab, Crevettes, Clams, Prawns, Scallops, Mussels and Cockles; you can see it wasn’t a difficult choice to make. 

Now this is where I have to come clean. Shamefully, for someone who has lived on the coast most of their life, I have to grudgingly admit that I am indeed an oyster virgin. Thought I’d just get that one out of the way. Well I was until yesterday anyway. 

I think what I want to say at this point is: “Oysters, where have you been all my life?” Well my friend Andy, who is also a top, local chef showed me the way: Grab the oyster shell, squeeze a few drops of fresh lemon on the aforementioned mollusc, add some shallot vinegar and a tiny smidgen of fiery tobacco and it’s down the hatch. 

That was definitely a culinary watershed for me because later on that day, I was pining for oysters again. “Where for at thou o clam of my desire?” Hmmm, I guess they’ll have to wait for the next trip out, which now can’t come soon enough. 

Further instruction was received from my friend and fellow foodie on dismembering the crab and lobster too (I clearly need to get out more), which proved to be yet another culinary voyage of discovery. And a very tasty one at that too.

I wish you could have been there because the smell of the sea was powerfully wafting off the two tier tray in front of us. This isn’t a particularly cheap offering, but worth every penny. If you love seafood, you’ll be in heaven. 

Washed down with a classic bottle of chilled white, it was just the ticket for a sunny day at the seaside. I also enjoyed a Samuel Adams Boston Lager too, which is a rare find in these parts. It was altogether agreeable, and nice to see it make an appearance after discovering it for the first time on a trip to New York a few years ago. 

No doubt I shall be returning for a repeat performance and I encourage you to try it yourself. This surely is what life on the North Devon coast is all about: locally sourced, fresh produce pulled straight from the ocean and lovingly served with impeccable presentation and flair.

6 Hours on a train.

 

I’m sat on a train going to Srikakulam. I’m on the Howrah Mail to be precise, which has been travelling since yesterday sometime and it is proving to be a very acceptable mode of transport. I love journeys and I love train journeys especially. I think it is the excitement in part of going somewhere new.

Rushing by are the wet rice paddies, countless Palm and Coconut trees and well, life. I’m sat in the compartment with two Indian gentlemen. One is quite chatty, the other, not so. Maybe it’s the language barrier. This is a Telugu speaking area and some speak English and others do not. I guess it’s easy for us English speaking folk. We never have to worry much about language, wherever we go in the world.

There is something truly comforting about the gentle rock of the train carriage as it speeds along. I’ve had some of my best nights sleep on Indian trains. And now I am beginning to feel hungry. Food will arrive shortly no doubt. Already the Chai wallahs are plying their trade up and down the carriage, announcing their approach with vociferous cries of ‘chai coffee!’

The quiet chap opposite, wearing a rather loud purple, green and blue striped shirt that would be hard to ignore anywhere, is really tucking into his food which is making things worse. But at just the right time, the Indian Railways food guy turns up. However, I’m trying to order lunch without much success as the Indian Railways food guy speaks zero English. Not good, because I speak virtually zero Telugu.

Luckily for me, talkative guy rouses from his slumber in the bunk above me and comes to my aid. Now surprisingly, quiet guy sat opposite also gets involved helpfully confirming what time I will be getting down from the train for Srikakulam. After several exchanges between the four of us, I think I’ve ordered a vegetable curry with rice and roti. Well, we shall see what arrives.

My journey through South India has been quite a ride. It began its life at Hyderabad which was a good starting point. There was nothing bad about Hyderabad , only good. Hyderabad is a vast seething metropolis of more than eight million souls. It’s quite a sight as you gaze out over endless urban conurbation stretching as far as the eye can see.

The landscape outside my train window has already started to alter. Rice paddies have all but disappeared, replaced with fields, trees and hills in the distance. Palm fruit trees and swathes of coconut trees still regularly appear.

Quiet guy opposite is now in a prone position, sleeping and snoring contentedly after his lunch, whilst I am now struggling to concentrate  because of that very same noise. A young man from the Indian Railways turns up and sprays the carriage floor with a curious yellow liquid and proceeds to mop. Disinfectant I guess. Our compartment smells sweeter and fresher momentarily.

The train crosses a dry river bed, save for a small water course nestling in the bottom. There is something quintessentially Indian about trains crossing river beds. The rhythmic clang and clatter reverberating around the iron framework as the in-numerous carriages roll at speed across the span of the river bed below.

Meanwhile a stand of banana trees pass by outside and yet another Indian Railways official turns up checking on the cleanliness of the carriage. I have to sign a form, give my ticket number and seat reservation. He disappears but then quickly reappears to question something about the phone number I have just given him. I can’t completely understand what he’s going on about but talkative guy above me comes to my rescue again and basically tells him to stop bothering me. He goes again.

Numerous food and drink wallahs continue to ply their trade and I really want to try the tomato soup and croutons but I am nervous. I’ve learnt that food and drink can be drugged and once you’re unconscious, they come back and rob you. Not wanting to wake up in just my underpants with all my worldly possessions gone, I decide to resist.

We’ve crossed another bridge, and down below on the river bank, the Dhobi wallahs are hard at work washing what looks like bed sheets or saris and laying them out to dry in the sun. That looks like a nice job.

More impressive hills are gliding past us outside, amid the serene and beautiful landscape. Verdant and lush vegetation dominate, and being monsoon season, a cool, grey gloom pervades. In fact it looks a bit too gloomy but that is part and parcel of this time of year. I have been to India many times and I wouldn’t normally choose to come in July, but I have been invited to a wedding and so here I am. Great reason to break the habit of a lifetime.

Some of the other train passengers are chatting amongst themselves, in what I presume is Telugu but it could also be Tamil as this train began its slow trek north in the City of Chennai, on the Coromandel Coast. I’m feeling really hungry now and kind of wanting the tomato soup wallah to reappear or at least the vegetable curry I ordered earlier. Quiet guy is now snoring loudly.

A quick shower of rain appears outside but ends as quickly as it began. We cross yet another river bridge, an old rusty one by the looks of it. Palm fruit trees stand sentinel over the fields below. We’re in the middle of nowhere but the train is slowing to a stop, which can mean anything in this part of the world: waiting for a another train to cross, a breakdown or who knows what.

A woman in another part of the carriage is talking to a small group and every now and again, laughter erupts. Right on cue vegetable curry man appears with my lunch. The tray is laid on the table and I am somewhat taken aback by amount of food served in neat little foil trays with lids: rice, roti, two types of curried vegetables one with paneer, some dhal plus the mandatory raita to cool the palate.

Talkative man now climbs down from the top bunk also to partake of lunch. He introduces himself as Ravi Chakrabatti from Kolkata, and we laugh about quiet man snoring soundly across the way. Ravi laughs and says it doesn’t matter what time of day it is, this guy manages to sleep and snore all the time.

He chuckles again declaring that any time of the day is the same for this chap, concluding somewhat hysterically that “maximum snoring is there!” Ravi got on the train at 6.30 this morning and quiet man was snoring even more loudly then. While we are laughing and chatting, the train has recommenced its journey again and now rolls slowly into the Andhra Pradesh railhead of Visakhapatnam.

Ravi tells me that he is an assistant manager for an automotive lubricant company and he is returning home to Kolkata, which is the final terminus of this Howrah Mail. Meanwhile, quiet man has now woken up and is joining in the conversation. He is a children’s clothing wholesaler from Nellore and is on the way to Kolkata to buy clothing to sell on and distribute from his warehouse in the South.

The Howrah Mail, which is never late according to Ravi, tracks north now towards her destination. The horizon is filled with even more impressive hills now creating a more dramatic backdrop and we cross another river passing yet more dhobi wallahs working hard under the hot Indian sun.

Quiet man helpfully informs me that my station will be approaching in about thirty minutes. I will be sad to get off this train as this has to rank as one of the most enjoyable rail journeys I have taken – and I have travelled a lot by rail in India over the last twenty-one years.

As the train finally draws near Srikakulam, rain-laden monsoon clouds tower above the cooler hills and hot plains below. Time for one more iron railway bridge before we arrive, arching over yet another wide and ponderous river beneath. The reassuring clatter of metal against metal is heard as several hundred tons of rolling stock lumber across, moving inexorably towards solid ground once again.

It’s all a matter of perspective.

Standing on a cliff edge 200ft above the beach below can certainly give you a healthy regard for life – especially when there’s a bit of a breeze blowing. The thing is, if you want to taste the full drama of this rocky coastline, you’ve got to get a little bit close to the edge.

I guess it’s like a lot of things in life. There are many amazing experiences we can have in life, but sometimes we have to take a risk to enjoy them. Maybe this getting near the cliff edge speaks of stepping out of our comfort zone and trying something new.

It’s all to easy to stay in the proverbial rut and not seriously consider what may lie beyond that same rut, much less do anything about it! It is a cliché, but nonetheless true, life is too short not to. 

May we live for our hopes and dreams, and refuse to be anaesthetised by the mundanity of life. Instead, let’s be inspired by a distant shore – whatever that may mean for each one of us.