Sunday, April 20, 2008

Day 4: 18th March 2008

This morning we woke up to the pitter patter of rain at 6.00 am. Breakfast was of Aloo paratha and curd. We packed off toast butter jam for a mid morning snack and were ready to go for the onward journey. The room that I complained about so much last night looked better in the morning

While we awaited the vehicle we chatted up an Old British couple. They were here to see the India that their grandparents had lived in. The rain reminded them of England. We wished each other an enjoyable journey and parted ways.

We drove past a military base, after long I was seeing the military trucks and it reminded me of Navy Nagar in Colaba. We saw a cavalcade of protesting Tibeteans go by.

A little ahead we stopped for our first sip of Darjeeling tea as the rain had brought in a chill in the air. We told our driver to have breakfast. They served him steaming hot chole and puri along with the three chais, cost a mere Rs. 25. This normally includes the commission a driver gets from the shopkeeper for getting him customers.

We were on our way to Darjeeling via Mirik. The drive was pleasant as we went up the hills through the teak and sal trees.

Mirik town gets its name from the lake it cuddles at the foothills.

One can go for horse ridding while family watches from the old style benches lining the sides of the ring.

We went boating in the lake and fed the fish with popcorn. The slow floating on the lake allowed us to enjoy the serene environs, the conifers lining the lake and the pin drop silence. We drove through acres of tea gardens and conifers alternating.

The roads are narrow and serpentine, taking us up and down several hills. We passed some really lonely areas and we being city bred, Dad started wondering if group travel would have been better. Frankly I felt safe but with Dad now a senior citizen , he was right if thought that way.

This little doggie at Mirik lake does a dance for biscuits and you feel like picking him up and cuddling him. He was too cute and we being a pet lover family were swept by his charm.

From Mirik we went to Ilam. This is a village on the Indo-Nepal border. After entering our names in the register at the border security check post we crossed over and entered Nepal.

It is a strange feeling when you cross a border, it is sheer thrill to be able to do that. From here about 1.5 kms downhill was a small market selling Korean and Chinese goods, this market is duty free and hence attracts tourists. We had to leave the vehicle behind and take a Nepalese taxi. The distance is not much but the taxi drivers fleece the tourist here., they demanded a 40 per head for a return drive. Since this is a border area and has a security all around most tourist cave in and take a taxi. One actually doesn't need a taxi. It is a walkable distance but yes coming back walking could be a problem if you have shopped a lot as the return path is an uphill walk.

I shopped for bed covers, Chinese tea cups, purses, clips and other nick knacks. Dad bought a sweater and I got my hands on two long coats, one furry and one formal.

It was afternoon we did not want to have lunch so asked the driver to go ahead and he insisted we taste Momos. The filling in it was not too interesting, soya nuggets and raw onions, we had just one each and gave our plate to him. He seemed to enjoy both the plates thoroughly. The hot cups of tea were great though. We saw people sitting aroud the sigree at 1.00 pm as it was quite cold.

On the way we stopped at Jurephaguri Park, it had started raining again. We bought the entrance tickets and roamed around a bit in the area near the gate itself. We did not explore deeper as there was a fog and a board warned us about thieves. It felt out of the world though to sit on the old fashioned bench and watch the rain drops fall in the pond while the ducks swam slowly and fog created an environ ideal for honeymooners. It is a surreal world here. I understood why they say a person from these hills find it difficult to live in the city. Yet when I mentioned it to our driver he thought we'd get bored of it in few days. The air is so fresh and rejuvenating. I could have sat there for years. Many times I have seen my Dad get restless in such calm places, is it security worries or just that he is a city person?

I recollect reading a story where a girl enjoys this fog on a hill and one day just disappears into it. It is an ideal setting for a mystery.

We reached Darjeeling at 4 pm, it looked crowded and dirty. At the Mall we were stopped by the police as we were entering the Darjeeling Rajbhavan area, a VIP area where the Governor's bungalow is located. Our hotel was at a stone throw from the Rajbhavan and we did not have permit so the driver informed the police that we had a lot of luggage and that it was difficult to get a porter here. So after talking to us he let us go. In these hills as the roads are narrow there is a parking problem hence the traffic rules are stringent. Fortunately the hotel staff were expecting us were standing out to watch out for us as they are aware about the rules there. They received us warmly.

The Hotel Retreat is built on the edge of the hill and as it happens here the flight of stairs take you down instead of up, so you climb down from the roof to the storeys below. I loved the ambiance, a terrace with plants leading to the reception. The furniture all in wood of the Victorian era and the walls all wood panelled. The lounge with its circular sofa looked welcoming.

On checking in we quickly got fresh and ordered a plate of mix vegetable pakora, a veg sandwich and pot of Darjeeling tea. We were starving as we has skipped lunch and the weather sharpened our hunger.

It was now time for us to go check out the town. First spotted the ATM and fetched some cash, got the pictures of last three days copied on to a CD at a Kodak studio . It was raining and breezy but we managed to go anyways. I nearly froze in the chilly breeze and was literally shivering. Yet I enjoyed walking down the hill and up again. Darjeeling is after all the queen of the hill stations. To many this weather would sound bad but when it is your first experience it is wonderful. Walking in the fog and watching couples cuddle up under the little wooden shelters with benches that Darjeeling is famous for is an amazing experience.

I returned to the hotel room and did a pedicure. We had baigan bharta, tandoori rotis and schezwan rice for dinner.

Now after writing this I am sleepy and off to bed. We have to wake up at 4.00 tomorrow

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Day 3: 17th March 2008

It is Dad's birthday today. We woke up at 4.00 am, had bath and wished him. As he completes 66 years, I told him this tour was for him combined with my club 5 holidays. He was happy about it.

We had tea and asked Nityanand to pack breakfast of bread, butter and jam to eat on the train. It chugged out of the station exactly at 6.45 am. We were on our way to New Jalpaiguri by the Kanchanganga Express. Rather it should be spelt as Kanchanzonga as the locals say. As we left Kolkata we passed through lush green paddy fields with mud huts scattered in between. I stood at the door to take in the fresh air and enjoy the soothing of the vast expanse.

After 3 hrs the train halted at Shantiniketan, a family travelling with us recommended that next time we are in Kolkata we must go there for an overnight stay. Yes I decided for my love of Rabindranath Tagore.

Around 12.00 noon the train crossed borders and we were in Bihar, my cell switched service provider. The journey through Bihar lasted about 4-5 hrs, through fertile plains and the famous mango orchards of Malda. At Malda the engine was changed to a diesel one.

We were running late by 2.0 hrs and have entered West Bengal again and there are atleast 7-8 sms telling me what to do to have an interrupted service on the cell.

We finally reached NJP at 7.30 pm. It was dark yet the station was a busy one. There were 2 representatives from Heat Flexi Holidays. They led us to the car and surprised us by putting the Khada around our necks! That was sure a warm welcome.

On the way to Siliguri we passed through small markets, where vendors sold there wares in oil lamp light. It was a sultry weather and I was actually craving for the cool weather had we were soon to enjoy.

Hotel Apollo reception was alright but the room was crowded and there was no view, the bathroom was not welcoming at all. I started worrying about would this continue in the upcoming days. The hotel service was pathetic. The room had psyched me much and I did not expect good food so ordered for a standard Thali of Kofta curry, Moong dal fry, Mixed veggies and the paraphernalia.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Day 2: 16th March 2008

Thank you Sandeepa for including this post in RCI Bengal. Read about the event here.

The Dakhineshwar Temple

We slept well at night and woke up around 5.00 am. The sun had risen and the sky was bright. We were in the east of India we realized. I went back to bed and woke up at 7 am. The car would arrive at 8.00 am. I had a leisurely shower and went down for breakfast. Right from yesterday the smart Nityanand had tempted us by saying I will serve you hot food straight off the stove instead of eating from the hot pots if you come down to dinning table near the kitchen. Wasn't that tempting an offer?

As I entered the dinning area he rattled off all the dishes he can make for us, poori bhaaji, paratha, satoo etc. but we stuck to our cornflakes and milk, toast with butter and orange marmalade and wonderful cups of lightly spiced tea.

Kolkata's signature yellow cabs

We first drove to Belur Math. Today there were some celebration going on every where and we saw procession carrying the pictures of Ramkrishna Paramhansa. That prepared us mentally for the crowd we would meet at the math.

Belur Math

We went over the Bally bridge that spans over the Ganga (known as Hoogly in Bengal) and passed through dusty roads, everything looked old and dilapidated. It depressed me to see the reminiscence of a golden era gone by. The new IT revolution has not changed much here. Then I thought may be we are at the end of the summer, soon the monsoons will wash the "City of Joy". and prove the title endowed on it to be true. The thought of rain soothed my mind too.

The Belur Math area is beautiful, situated parallel to the Hooghly and is in the midst of orchards. I need to go there on quieter days. To be able to sit in front of Swami Ramkrishna Paramhansa's statue and be still in the mind. On this the day the main sanctum that houses Pramhansa's idol was closed due to the celebrations. This main building was conceptualised by Swami Vivekanand himself. It is a beautiful sandstone building with a design very Indian yet minimalistic.

In a nearby Pandal kirtans were being delivered and Rabindra Sangeet lilted in the air. Click here to listen to this genre of music. The Ramkrishna Mutts all over India have a certain serenity, discipline and cleanliness that most temples in India lack. In spite of the rush we managed a few moments of solitude on the river bank.

The Hoogly at Belur Math

We paid our respects at the temples that housed the relics of Sharada Mata, Swami Vivekanand and Brahmanand swami.

The Hoogly flowed slowly here almost reflecting the teachings of Ramkrishna Paramhansa of submitting oneself to God. The Ganga that starts its journey at Gangotri in the himalayas gushing through the mountain ranges and plains completes it here and unites with its lover, the sea in an embrace that's calm and peaceful.

We bought some books on the lives of Swami Ramkrishna Paramhansa and Swami Vivekanand. I was a little upset that the main shrine was closed and we did not get Darshan. Dad had pacified me by saying that may be it would be a reason to visit again. I spotted a large picture of the shrine in one of the stalls and felt calmed almost instantly.

Our second stop was at Dakhineshwar across the Hooghly where Paramhansa had been a practicing priest at the Kali temple. This temple is diagonally opposite the Belur Math across the river and we could have taken a boat ride but since we had not informed our driver so we decide to cross the bridge over to Dakinshewar. That also was a learning always ask for the driver's cell # so you can reach him when you need to just is case you change plans or get lost in some area.

Again as it was a Sunday here too there was a huge line for Darshan. We did not realize that it would take a good one hour for us. Dad was exhausted in the harsh March sun by the time we got to Kalimata's shrine, he refused to go around to the smaller shrines and wanted to get out of the place. Yes but he did insist that we go and wash our feet in the Ganga at the ghat. There were many people having bath there. The water deep and flowing smoothly it was cooling when we had a quick wash even though it wasn't clean. We wet our eyes and on the head at the Brahmarandhra in the action of becoming Suchirbhut. I overheard a young girl exclaimed, "Oh this is the Ganga from where people collect holy water for Pujo at home!" Yes it is just the faith that has kept this tradition going.

While were were driving from airport to the city we had spotted the "Haldiram Food City". It was now 12.30pm and we were tired and hungry, we decided to check it out. Read more about the Food City and this meal that we enjoyed.

After a good two hours at Food city we drove to Science city.

The Science City has the usual things to showcase nothing new but both Dad and me enjoyed all the three shows. We could not get the tickets for Time Machine show as all were full till 6.15 pm and it meant it would be too late for us. So we bought tickets for the documentary, 'Forces of Nature' that was playing in the Space theatre, 3D show and The Evolution tour.

The space theatre is a dome theatre where the seats collapse and you watch the movie in the sleeping position. The multimedia impact was so good that I enjoyed it but Dad was attending such a show after ages and he felt giddy. So I just told him to close the eyes and lay back till the end of the show.

The 3D show had adults and all screaming like kids though it was meant for juvenile audience.

The Evolution tour was a walk through a tunnel exhibiting the evolution of dinosaurs. When we were inside the power went off for 10 mins and people got agitated but maintained discipline, thank GOD!

Oh yeah forgot to mention we enjoyed the 10 min ride on the cable car from the entrance into the Science City. Finally wound up our day there at 6.00pm and returned to the guesthouse.

The unusual shaped buildings in science city

The mural that dominates the skies of Science City.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Day 1: 15th March 2008

Today we left home at 4.45 am and reached blr airport. We had to arrange for a taxi at night itself.

It had rained heavily the night before inspite of this the morning was slightly warm. The airport security was slightly tightened due to the alerts nationwide. We were asked to show photo ids. I had my work id card so I cleared security check and moved in. We took the Kingfisher Deccan flight to Kolkata. During the entire flight we just flew over clouds.

Blr airport and city view

Morning sky and the cloud cover

Inflight Food catered by Cafe Coffee Day the breakfast combo of Sub sandwich, choco chip muffin, oat meal cookies and coffee.

I don't know over which cities/ towns we flew neither did the pilot announce. It was a 2hr flight and as we lowered down on Kolkata we could view the delta region. It is always exciting to see new topography. The bright sunny Kolkata at 9.00 am and the smell of the sea endeared this Mumbai girl immediately. This has been my experience even when I visit Chennai.

We took a prepaid taxi to Simi International Guesthouse that Mala (KDC) booked for us. It was located in Salt lake city. This suburb is cean airy and less crowded. On our way we passed through the dusty, old and worn out areas. Kolkata gave the impression of a very dust laden city but it was too early to judge. We reached Simi by 10 am. The staff was warm and pampered us thoroughly. We were the only ones on the second floor so besides our double bed room we got the entire lounging area and dinning area for ourselves we were lucky. Each floor had such central areas surrounded by 4 bedrooms. It felt like my Alibag home and I became comfortable instantly. We were welcomed with glasses of refreshing Nimbu pani and after bath we had tea and cream crackers.

Nityanand the hospitality guy enquired with us about our plans for the two days and what we'd like for our lunch. Pat went the reply, "Ofcourse Bengali !" He made Masurir dal, Mix veg Poshto, Phool gobi matar jhol, hot phulkas, rice and Rosgula! We had arrived in Kolkata.

At 2 pm our car arrived, for 5 hrs he would drive us around Kolkata. The first was a visit to Victoria Memorial. We parked the car at Birla Planetarium and walked to the Victoria Memorial main gate. Victoria Memorial is just opposite Birla Planetarium. It is a regal building a gift of the colonial era with landscaped gardens and a water body that is a perfect calming place in the heart of a hustling bustling city. Walking around the place watching victorias (horse drawn carriages) pass by and horses gallop with happy children on their back is a sight that reminds us of the simple life ages ago.

This picture is taken from the left side of Victoria Memorial

In the museum the most enticing portrait was of Swami Vivekananda minus his turban, yet those eyes embodied divinity. We saw Tatya Tope's preserved achkan and lock of hair and it reminded us of our friend Dr. Appa Athavale who is the current owner of Tatya Tope's Wada in Pune city and thought how lucky he was. Most of Indian history is archived here in some form or other. I would have probably appreciated history more had I visited her when still in school.

Taken from the first floor balcony of Victoria Memorial that overlooks the lawns.

The central water body , calm and peaceful inspite of the throngs of visitors.
After this we went to Kalighat. Our chauffeur advised us not to talk to the Pandyas standing outside the temple, ready to pounce on people aka bakras. He took us from the backside and introduced to one of the Pandyas of the temple. We bought some offering from him and followed him into the mayhem that the temple was in. The temple is filthy. The Darshan is divine as always. I managed to touch the feet of Kalimata and rushed out after just a little more than a glimpse.

Some souvenirs from Kalighat, stone plate, bowl and glass, they are called Pathuri. The Conch shell bangles, kumkum and Durga Mata made from Rice husk.

We drove around the city a bit and ten went to the Radha Krishna temple at Ballygung built by the Birla's. As expected it is a beautiful marble monument like all Birla temples.

We drove back to the guesthouse and went of to bed after dinner. Nityanand had made Malpuas for desert. These were quite different in taste and shape from the Malpua I know. They were thick like a vada and had fennel seeds in it. I think they were a bengali version.