Friday, 21 December 2012


In total, we went on three domestic flights during our time in India: with GoAir from Jaipur to Mumbai and Mumbai to Goa, and with SpiceJet from Goa back up to Delhi. Budget flying is big business in India - and extremely popular. Both airlines we used were good. No frills involved, as you would expect from such operations. Though we were mildy amused by the SpiceJet in-flight magazine referring to its readership as "Spice-jetters".

Anyway, what we really, really wanted after the cacophanous experience of Mumbai and northern India were a few days of quiet on a beach, with some cultural enrichment spinkled into the mix.

Wednesday 28 November
Arrival in Goa and it's time to sample India's "prepaid taxi" system. We have avoided it to date thanks to airport transfers organised by our respective hostelries, but, if truth be told, it's quite a simple procedure. You go to a desk where the different taxi fares corresponding to the various possible destinations are shown on a board. You pay the requisite fare in advance (700 ruppees in our case) and are given a receipt. Someone then ushers you to your taxi driver and the fun begins.

Heaven Goa
Our mode of transport is a small, slightly rickety jeep. The back seats don't have any seat belts, but the driver tells us not to worry. After a while, we begin to understand his insouciance. Maybe I didn't need to tell you this, but Goa really is a quiet, laid-back part of the world - with much less of the chaos we saw elsewhere on Indian roads.

On reaching our guest house, we give the driver our receipt, tip him and then bid him farewell.

"Heaven Goa" is run by an Indian-Swiss couple, Sunil and Karin. Located just outside the village of Benaulim in south Goa, it is a 10-minute walk away from the beach. Admittedly, we favoured this hostelry on the strength of its Swiss connection. Sure enough, it was perfect for us, with a very homely and friendly feel.

Thursday 29 November
Benaulim Beach
We make a bee line for the beach - probably the most beautiful stretch of sand we've ever seen. We laze on sun loungers, go for strolls, swim numerous times in the Arabian Sea and generally relax. On the culinary front, we acquaint ourselves with delicious Goan fish curry. Seafood is staple fare around here: from pomfret and snapper to baby shark, king fish and tiger prawns. Pork vindaloo is another Goan speciality, and not half as spicy as conventional vindaloo.

Friday 30 November
Sé Cathedral
Culture time. As an addendum to our Delhi Magic experience, we have a guided tour of the Goan hinterland on the agenda today. We leave our guest house with guide and driver at 9 a.m. We first reach the town of Ponda, where we visit two successive Hindu temples. Then it's on to a spice plantation. All imaginable spices, and the plants from which they originate, can be viewed (and tasted) here. Next and final stop is Old Goa (Velha Goa). We visit the Basilica of Bom Jesus and Sé Cathedral - the former is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the latter is the largest church in India (see photo). The Portuguese only left Goa in 1961, so (Roman Catholic) Christians are in the majority in Goa. Pilgrims are beginning to arrive in to Old Goa for the annual Feast of St Francis Xavier, which is due to take place on 3 December.

Saturday 1 December
We hire bikes and cycle north along the beach as far as the resort of Majorda. The going is heavy because the tide is in. Things are much much easier on the way back after the receding tide has hardened the sand. We settle for lunch at a beach shack run by a diminutive yet extrovert character who speaks both English and Russian. (the Russians discovered Goa quite a while ago; they tend to stay in the more exclusive hotel complexes). This cool dude (see opposite) brings out the "catch of the day" on a platter, we chose our preferred fish (the black one in the photo), and they cook it. Simple.

We conclude our day on the beach with another swim in the sea, a Mango lassi at our favourite beach shack ("Greg's") and a nice view of the sunset.

Sunday 2 December
Since last year, beach hawkers have been banned from wandering over and approaching unsuspecting, sunbathing tourists on Benaulim Beach. Instead they must set up their stalls on the side of the beach and hope to attract passing custom. Although extremely persistent, they are actually very polite and friendly. As tourists, we would run the gauntlet each day past their shops and onto the beach. Consequently, we ended up being on first-name terms with a good handful of these locals. In turn, they relieved us of some of our ruppees. It was a good-natured game of cat and mouse at all times.

Paddy fields - a common sight in Goa
We make the most of our final day on the beach, soaking in the sun. Stall-owner Sharon (well, at least that's what she called herself) is the specific recipient of a fair chunk of our day's spending. We warm to her personality and persuasiveness. As Brits who have never mastered the art of haggling, we are her dream customers.

Monday 3 December
We catch a taxi back to Dabolim Airport and leave Goa with heavy hearts. First, it's back to Delhi courtesy of SpiceJet. We then hang around Indira Gandhi International Aiport for what seems an eternity before boarding our flight back to Switzerland in the early hours of Tuesday morning. The eight-hour flight home is torture, as I can never sleep on flights - while nearly everyone else can. To compound the ordeal, my video display isn't working correctly, so no films either!

Tuesday 4 December

And so many memories of an incredible country. Hard to condense in a blog.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012


Traveller's dysentery is not just exclusive to India, but we had learnt the dos and don'ts and were pretty confident that our ultra-careful approach would pay off. Happily, my wife would remain healthy throughout the holiday. Instead, it was yours truly who contracted "Delhi belly" - albeit on arrival in Mumbai.
Day 1 - just before start of play; crowds still sparse

Friday 23 November
A new day dawns and it's an early start. Play on the first day of the 2nd Test between India and England is due to commence at 9.30. We have arranged to meet friends Alison and Nick in front of the ticket office at 8.30. I have had to hurry out of bed numerous times during the night but feel just about well enough to walk with Jenny to the ground - only a 10-15 minute stroll away on Marine Drive.

We meet our friends and are eventually able to secure season tickets for INR 600 (or EUR 8.50!) each in the Garware Pavilion - a very good result all round. All is going fine until midway through the morning session at around 11 o'clock, when nausea and shivers suddenly kick in and I have to beat a hasty retreat to our hotel. Although I feel refreshed enough in the afternoon to return to the stadium for us to watch the whole of the final two-hour session of play, the writing is well and truly on the wall.

View from hotel roof - spot the cricket ground floodlights
Saturday 24 and Sunday 25 November
Days 2 and 3 of the test match are spent exclusively in our hotel room. My wife does Florence Nightingale proud, while I either sleep, watch the cricket on television or consume salt tablets and other, stronger medication including antibiotics. These two days see some of the best international cricket in 2012 - Keven Pietersen's 186-run knock being the highlight [sigh].

Monday 26 November
The antibiotics have done their job and I am strong enough for us to return to the ground and watch England wrap up the test by 11 o'clock on the fourth day, with a day and a half to spare. I try to absorb every single second of this final hour and a half.

Cricket practice on Oval Maidan
Of course, my disappointment is great at missing a major chunk of the match. However, this feeling is tempered by the prospect of free time in which to explore southern Mumbai. In the afternoon, we embark on a walk around the Churchgate and Fort districts. We cross Oval Maidan, the huge municipal park on which people of all ages are playing cricket. Apparently, the further a match is being played from the main path that dissects the park from east to west, the better the quality of cricket - or so the local wisdom goes. We pass the imposing buildings of the university and the high court before reaching Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, or CST for short. The latter is the most impressive railway station building I've ever seen. It was also one of the sites of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. Ajmal Kasab, the only terrorist who was captured alive, had been hanged just a few days prior to our arrival in Mumbai. What is more, 26 November marked the fourth anniversary of the attacks.

Tuesday 27 November
Feeling even stronger, I'm well enough to accompany my wife on another walking tour - this time through the swanky Nariman Point neighbourhood and into the backpackers' mecca of Colaba. We pay the obligatory visit to the Gateway of India, but get accosted/harassed by incessant hawkers. Not the most pleasant experience, so we take snapshots of the Gateway, the bay and the splendidly restored Taj Mahal Palace (probably the best-known 2008 terrorist target) before seeking refuge in a nearby deli/coffee shop. In the afternoon, we explore Colaba Causeway, continue a mile or so north up to Horniman Circle and then return to the hotel via Oval Maidan. Obviously, this is but a fraction of what a megacity like Mumbai (with a population greater than Greece) has to offer.

Part of Horniman Circle
In the early evening, we eat at a popular pizzeria on Marine Drive - my tummy is still too delicate for Indian fare. Thankfully, things will improve during the final stage of our holiday - in Goa.

Monday, 10 December 2012

From the national capital to the Rajasthani capital

Sunday 18 November
We touch down in Delhi in the early hours. During the taxi ride to our guest house (at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning, incidentally), we quickly familiarise ourselves with the Indian penchant for horn-blowing. In India, you honk to warn fellow drivers of your presence, you honk to tell them to get out of the way, you honk to say thank you, you honk to acknowledge someone else's honk. Or you honk just to pass the time of day. Or night. In short, honking is a fundament part of Indian etiquette.

Rikshaw ride on Chandni Chowk
After a short sleep, our driver and tour guide take us into the heart of Old Delhi. We visit India's largest mosque, Jama Masjid, before embarking on a walking tour of the old town. Given our slightly jetlagged state, it's a stroke of luck that we are there on a Sunday. Otherwise the already bustling streets would be twice as busy. Old Delhi is extremely interesting assault on the senses. Although most traders are closed for the day, there is still plenty to observe. A rikshaw ride takes us along Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi's main thoroughfare. Our rikshaw driver puts his back into it. Fifty rupees is the going rate - a pittence by Western standards.

New Delhi could not be more different. Wide, long avenues and imposing buildings. The Gate of India and the seat of government are impressive and imposing - both hallmarks of Lutyen's Delhi.

To experience something different, we ask our driver to take us to the Lotus Temple - an iconic building and calm, peaceful and welcoming venue, regardless of religious preference.

From a culinary perspective, we discover the delights of pav bhaji and the humble dosa - both at down-to-earth but reliable eateries just off Connaught Place.

Monday 19 November
Our driver takes us down the recently built Yamuna Expressway from Delhi to Agra. The motorway is relatively deserted; apparently, the tolls are a little on the pricey side by local standards.

We are acutely aware of the difference in Indian and Western spending power throughout our India trip, not least in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. To put it mildly, Agra itself is a bit of a dive. We were warned of this before flying out to India, but nothing really prepares you for the reality. The comparative comfort of our hotel, set away from downtown Agra in its own self-containing gardens, only serves to reinforce this impression.

Part of Agra Fort
Although it was in the large cities of Delhi and Mumbai that we encountered child beggars, a noticeable lack of prosperity was evident in Agra compared to elsewhere. You and I might not call it "poverty" as such; most people, after all, seemed to be going about their business like in any other city. Our view was based, rather, on the local infrastructure such as roads, buildings, etc. Put simply, Agra looked in a shabby state. Apart from its obvious tourist attractions, the town seemed to have little going for it. Little wonder that the preferred backpacker option for Agra tends to be the daytrip from Delhi - much along the lines of: "get in and get out as quickly as possible".

In the late afternoon, we visit Agra Fort, before viewing one of the world's most famous buildings briefly at sunset from the northern side of the River Yamuna. We will visit it properly the next morning.

Tuesday 20 November
As birthday presents go, visiting the Taj Mahal has to be the best ever. All the superlatives you may have heard or read are true.

There it is
After leaving Agra behind, our driver begins the five-hour journey to Jaipur in Rajasthan. We break up this road trip with a detour to the abandoned city of Fatepur Sikri and a subsequent stop for lunch at a highway restaurant amply frequented by pink-skinned tourists such as us.

A word on our travel arrangements. During our time in Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, we had asked a tour agency ("Delhi Magic") to arrange a driver and three different guides to show us around the three respective cities. As complete novices, we thought this level of organisation would offer us a gentle introduction to India before we were left to our own devices in Mumbai and Goa. Thankfully, this arrangement worked a treat. Our driver was excellent and the different guides were very professional and helpful, their knowledge of their respective stomping grounds proving indispensable on various occasions - especially when local hawkers and scam artists were on the prowl.

As in Delhi, our place of abode in Jaipur is an old heritage homestay converted into a guest house. The Barwara Kothi is a beautifully appointed address just outside the centre of town. Judging by the old photographs of maharajas and assorted polo champions on the walls of the staircase and dining room, the family who own and run the place boast their own fair share of Indian blue blood.

Wednesday 21 November
Our driver Mr Singh is a kindly, mellow soul. More importantly, he is very good at what he does. We feel totally at ease in the back seat of his Toyota Innova. This is not something to be taken for granted, given how frightening roads can be in India (e.g. cars randomly driving in the opposite direction, cyclists riding along the hard shoulder, cattle grazing on the edge of the road or crossing en mass...). The journey to Jaipur is unforgettable in that respect.
Jal Mahal

Although the capital of Rajasthan is a sprawling city of three million, it feels almost intimate. Spread out in a sensible grid system, the old town has surprisingly orderly appearance. One particular city-centre avenue even has diagonal parking along both its sides - reminiscent of numerous market towns in the UK. Although nicknamed the "Pink City", many of the old town's signature buildings are more reddish ocre than pink.

The Amber Fort proves memorable. This is followed by a visit to a Hindu temple, lunch opposite the (unfortunately inaccessible) Jal Mahal water palace, and an afternoon spent at, firstly, the Jantar Mantar Astronomical Observatory, and secondly, the impressive City Palace complex.

Jaipur is an attractive city and well worth a visit. Within a day, we merely skim the surface of what the place has to offer. If we ever return to India, we may well travel there again.

Thursday 22 November
What better way to celebrate Mrs Jones' birthday than with an hour-long elephant safari? I think it's safe to say that my wife was looking forward to riding on an elephant more than anything else on our holiday. Wish accomplished. This little extra was prepaid and included in the tour we had booked.

After the ride, we sit in the shade and eat an ample buffet spread laid out for us and other visitors. Then it's off to the airport, where we bid farewell to Mr Singh. Next stop Mumbai.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Passage to India

My wife and I recently returned from a trip to India - probably one the biggest holidays we will ever go on. Considering this was the first time I'd ever ventured beyond Europe per se, I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a little apprehensive before boarding our flight from Zurich to Delhi on 17 November. Thankfully, any trepidation I had dissipated on arrival. Indian life is too high-octane and technicolour to dwell on such trifling thoughts.

We had divided our India itinerary into three distinct legs, summarised as follows:

1) From 18 to 22 November: a tour of India's "Golden Triangle", taking in Delhi, Agra and Jaipur.
2) From 23 to 28 November: five days in Mumbai to watch the 2nd Test Match between India and England (i.e. cricket).
3) From 29 November to 3 December: relaxing on the beaches of south Goa.

My synopsis of our travels will follow shortly, starting with the first leg in northern India.