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

 

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.

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.

Car Bundh

My entry for the World Nomads / Lonely Planet Travel Writing Competition 2016.

We listened to our Nepali guide, Nema, as he spoke excitedly on the phone. Then I heard the phrase ‘Car Bundh’ and my heart sank. Bundh meant a political strike and in this part of the world, Car Bundh was a road blockade – and probably one fuelled by violence too. Years of experience in Nepal had taught me that strikes here were anything but peaceful.

My two friends and I needed to get to our hotel in Birgunj. It was June, and in the pre-monsoon heat of the Southern Terai, I wiped my brow free of sweat, once again. A difficult and troubled passage lay ahead. Climbing back into the vehicle, we reluctantly proceeded down the road.

Evidence of a disturbance began to mount as we witnessed one discarded truck after another. Drivers preferring not to go any further and risk danger to themselves or their vehicles had parked up and left. You don’t mess around in this part of the world. Soon enough, a seething mass of people came into vision with trucks drawn raggedly across the road to form an impenetrable barrier.

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Our driver slowed and began the turn off the main road to evade the approaching flashpoint. Then out of nowhere, a protester appeared running towards us. His face contorted with aggression and anger, he launched at us with a lathi raised high in violent intent and threatened to smash in the window. This was it, now we were really in the thick of it.

As the animated exchange then took full flight between dissenter and driver, every means of escape was cut off. Young men hurriedly pulled a makeshift barrier across the track to our left, whilst others dropped large rocks on the road behind our vehicle preventing us from reversing. We were completely trapped.

Without warning, our driver exited the vehicle and vanished into the crowd. All we could do was remain calm and still. We waited and waited, trying not to succumb to the mounting tide of tension. Surrounded by a powder keg of unrest which was liable to explode at any time, I was beginning to regret being in this beautiful country I had loved for so many years.

Then as quickly as he had disappeared, our trusty driver returned. The barriers were removed and we were on our way. Later it emerged that he knew the leader of the mob and after discussion and payment no doubt, we were released.

Arriving at our hotel in Birgunj at last, we headed for the bar glad to be feeling safe again. We laughed and as I sank my first cold beer, it had never tasted so good as right there and right then.

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Shallow Seas.

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The name ‘Bahamas’ literally means ‘Shallow Sea.’ And when you first arrive in this archipelago of some 700+ islands, you immediately begin to see why Christopher Columbus graced these islands with this name.

We found ourselves on Great Exuma, a beautiful cay (pronounced key), shot over by cobalt blue skies and surrounded by turquoise waters. We drove down to Little Exuma too, which was no less beautiful.

Eventually, we discovered Coco Plum beach, said to be the finest in the Bahamas. Well I couldn’t possibly comment because I haven’t explored many of the other islands, but I think we’ll let the locals fight that one out. It was pretty stunning though, and that’s probably an understatement.

Things were fairly quiet round there though. I mean, if a beach was busy, you may see 10 or so people occupying a half a mile stretch of pure white sand. If it was quiet, then nobody – except you of course. Just the way I like it.

And with many of these remote beaches serving cold beer, rum (of course) and delicious, grilled food, what more do you need?

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The Day that Sandy came to town.

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After a three day standoff with Hurricane Sandy, we are permitted to leave the breezy shores of Great Britain. New York City eagerly beckons and finally embraces us as we descend and come to rest in JFK, Jamaica Bay – a world away from the Caribbean.

We have arrived the day after Sandy came to town. The Big Apple is bruised but not eaten. The East Coast is battered but not beaten. New York skyline stands tall and proud, seemingly indomitable. Trash and filth sprawls across the streets.

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Myriad yellow cabs defiantly speed on their way, relentlessly ferrying their cargo to every corner of the city. New York City Police stand silently by looking, gazing, and chewing gum like modern day gunslingers. New York has survived another attack.

On board the open topped tourist bus, the wintry air wraps around my face like a wraith as we travel ever slowly southward, to the tip of Manhattan. Sandy’s playground is a mess. Damage & destruction, pain and hurt are left in her wake. Grey skies look on dispassionately. A silent reminder of the storm that was.

Emergency responders scurry to clean up, even the army has come to town. We drive up Water Street, aptly and

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cruelly named. Pipes emerge snakelike from the bowels of offices, restaurants, people’s homes disgorging their contents into the street, returning to the open water from where this surge emanated.

A tree is uprooted outside a building; symbolic of devastation and horrors past. Chinatown, normally fervent with energy and light is quiet and subdued in the darkness of a total power outage. Nearby though, Wall Street is mystically aflame with light, life, power and money. The wheels of commerce grind on relentlessly, taking no notice of mere human misery.

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Café owners toss their ruined stock and furniture on the sidewalk. Buildings lie silent and dormant – mute testimony to the force of nature which has conquered and restrained this proud city, temporarily anyway. We take photos but then feel ashamed and quickly put our cameras away. We observe helplessly, there is nothing we can do.

Later, within the refuge of our 7th Avenue hotel I complain to the receptionist about the lack of hot water and heating. She is a kind, middle aged woman from Staten Island. I have a problem but they are the ones with real problem, for across the water Staten Islanders are crying for help.

Yet, this lady still has time for my minor inconvenience and speaks reassuring words in her own brand of New York accent.

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What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow

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‘What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.’ That was how the conversation went on a train heading out of Kolkata towards the railhead of New Jalpaiguri, in the far north of West Bengal. Having found our seats in the carriage, we discovered that by an administrational error, we were sat opposite Monojit & Sudip, a reporter & cameraman from an Asian TV news network.

They had been tasked with interviewing some Bollywood stars and were en route. As everyone settled down in the carriage, old & young struggling by with impossible amounts of baggage, we chatted about some of the more notable figures in Kolkata’s cultural landscape. Artistic luminaries, such as Rabindranath Tagore, the film director Satyajit Ray and the world famous Ravi Shankar were all hot topics for our discussion.

DSC_0013_1It was during our relaxed & entertaining banter that I began to grasp the kernel of truth they had imparted to me. Tagore & Ray hailed from Kolkata, and Shankar having Bengali parentage, had helped make this city a centre of artistic & intellectual enlightenment. This was far removed from the clichéd black hole that many mistakenly talk about!

In between our scholarly exchange, food vendors and chai wallahs with their vociferous cries shuffled past plying their wares. Hot sweet tea and tasty, spicy snacks served to sustain us for a further long night’s chat where east was most definitely meeting west.

Our new friends’ extravagant and of course, locally biased statement of cultural life in West Bengal, drove us inexorably to one inescapable conclusion: compared to the sprawling masses of the rest of India, the good peoples of Kolkata were most definitely ahead of the game.

Early next morning I sat by the open door of the carriage enjoying the ever changing landscape, fresh morning air and warmth of the sun. I reflected on my ‘local’ encounter and realised that you can make friends just about anywhere you may find yourself. Well they do call Kolkata the ‘City of Joy.’ Now I see why.

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New York baby

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I remember walking the entire length of Central Park with my 2 daughters and arriving in Harlem. So many boroughs and places within New York city are well known and so iconic, and Harlem was no less so…

Harlem seemed far removed from the glitz and glamour of Lower Manhattan on the other side of The Park. Yet, whichever part of this famous city you visit, you cannot fail to be absolutely bowled over by it, and I defy you not to fall in love with the Big Apple – whichever bit you find yourself in.

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A Tale of Three Cities…

Published in the Western Morning News on Sunday, 15th November 2015

Bologna

The Italian City of Bologna is situated in a region known as Emilia Romagna, north of Tuscany. It is reckoned to be the nation’s gastronomic beating heart, and for this reason alone, it is well worth a visit.

Yet despite that formidable reputation, I get the feeling that Bologna can often be passed over by would be travellers, for greater tourist honeypots like Rome, Naples and Pisa.

Undeterred and accompanied by my eldest daughter Becky, we arrived at our apartment right in the heart of the city, just off Via dell’Indipendenza. This is the main avenue that will lead you inevitably up to the central Piazza Maggiore. This ancient square magnetically draws both tourists and locals alike.

In this wide open space, you can sit, relax and enjoy an espresso or a chilled beer whilst taking in the impressive sight of the beautiful, but unfinished 14th Century Basilica di San Petronio. Opposite, you will find some open topped tour buses that will whisk you around the city for about €13.

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If you have a got a head for heights, why not head for Le Due Torri (The Two Towers), situated in Piazza di Porta Ravegnana at the head of Via Rizzoli? It is the taller ‘Torre degli Asinelli’ that is open to the public, and from there you can enjoy commanding views over Bologna

This comes at a price though; you will need to climb an impressive 498 steps to reach the top, so a strong pair of lungs as well as a head for heights will be required.

Unsurprisingly, Bologna is replete with restaurants, trattorias (less formal than a restaurant – think Bistro), café’s and numerous gelateria. I guarantee that you will be more than satisfied.

And being the home of Bolognese sauce (hence Spag Bol), you can of course try the real thing – known more accurately as ‘Tagliatelle al Ragu.’ The term ‘Ragu’ is distilled from a French verb meaning to ‘stimulate the appetite.’ Or why not try another local favourite, ‘Wild Boar and Polenta?’

Venice (Venezia)

Situated in the neighbouring region known as the Veneto, Venice is a two hour train journey from Bologna. Emerging from the Railway Station you are immediately wowed by the impressive and beautiful Grand Canal.

With a 24 hour Vaporetto (water bus) pass in hand, purchased from the tourism office on the platform (€20), we headed immediately for water bus stop number 1.

Vaporetto No.1 basically stops everywhere between the railway station and Lido de Venezia (Venice Lido). The Lido is one of the outlying islands, and has an altogether different feel to the main city itself.

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Now the Vaporetto may not be the most comfortable option, as the boats are usually crowded, but it is cheap. Cruising down the Grand Canal as it snakes its way through the heart of the city is an absolute must. One beautiful building after another slips out of sight as you glide down this main arterial waterway.

The front doors of these fine-looking & elegant buildings along the Grand Canal are perched precariously above the waterline, often with a boat tied up nearby just the way you would park your car on the drive or road.

As we stepped off the Vaporetto at the iconic Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), we were treated to that thoroughly unique and truly Venetian of sights: a flotilla of beautifully crafted gondolas, and their gondoliers, bobbing on the Adriatic. Truly, if romance is what you are looking for, then Venice has it by the bucket load!

Any visit here should include popping into the stunning Basilica di San Marco. The interior of this cavernous cathedral will have you literally reeling as you look inexorably up at the dazzling sight of the gold mosaic covered walls, arches and domes.

Florence (Firenze)

Hop on a train again at Bologna Centrale and this time head south for a mere 40 minutes, and you will arrive in the Tuscan capital of Florence (Firenze if you’re local). A leisurely 10-15 minute walk will bring you into the beautiful Piazza del Duomo and face to face with the marbled façade of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Known simply as, Duomo.

Whilst entrance to the cathedral is free, you can purchase a combined ticket for €10 from automated ticket machines nearby, which will give you access to the dome, baptistry, bell tower, crypt and the museum. However, it is Filippo Brunelleschi’s magnificent, red tiled dome that is the real draw here.

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Once you have ascended the 463 stone steps (not for the faint-hearted), to the top of the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore, you will be treated to unparalleled views across this historic city in every direction.

Food is never far away, and having exited the cathedral, we soon found ourselves in nearby Piazza della Signoria, tucking into pizza just across the way from the remarkable and imposing Palazzo Vecchio, which overlooks the square.

A further 5 minutes walk will bring you to the classic arches of the Ponte Vecchio which span the Arno River. Medieval in structure but Roman in origin, this eye-catching landmark will at once be immediately recognisable, and is a definite ‘must see’ whilst in Florence.

Famed for the many jewellery shops that inhabit both sides of this crowded and busy bridge, you will find plenty of gift ideas for your journey home.