On track for the exotic

lunch-on-the-train

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.

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? 

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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The only way is forward.

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Standing at a crowded Euston Station today, it made me think that life is a succession of journeys. Some literal and geographical, and some metaphysical and emotional.

I guess our direction of travel is really important – it should always be ultimately forward. Today, I literally travelled to the post-industrial town of Blackburn. I discovered it is most definitely a place of opportunity.

In travelling, not only do we discover new places, but we discover ourselves too. You often hear the phrase, ‘enjoy the journey,’ and that is certainly true. We should always do that, wherever we are going in life.

For me, the travelling is as important as the arriving. It’s all about never missing the moment, because life is made up of moments such as these.

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Waxy’s Little Sister

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On the corner of both Lisle and Wardour Street in London, just tucked inside Chinatown, you will find Waxy’s Little Sister. And in case you were wondering, it’s an Irish pub.

A curious name I hear you cry! Well it refers to the Waxy O’Connor bar across the road – which I guess must be like the mothership.

I soon got chatting to the Mirko the Italian barman. So now we have an Italian barman, working in an Irish pub, in Chinatown in London. Well London is one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the face of the earth. What else would you expect?

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A good chat about all things Italian ensued as we discussed the culinary and otherwise delights of Emilia Romagna in the north of the country. Mirko himself hails from the lakes area near the Swiss border, but loves London.

You can’t keep a good man down though… After a brief spell in Italy at the end of the summer, he’ll be off to Paris. There are so many interesting people you can meet, if you just take as little time.

As I gazed outside at the myriads of tourists, workers and locals, once again the clouds shed their heavy load and a torrent of water from the skies poured downward. Well it is Britain isn’t it?

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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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