Sunday, October 05, 2014

Palaces, Photo Op's and Prescriptions in the Pink City

Our "Tourist Vehicle"
After what felt like a blink of sleep we were already saying bye to Delhi - but not too quickly as with rush hour traffic it took a good half an hour to get near the suburbs let alone out of the city. Saying that, Delhi doesn't really have suburbs - it has satellite cities such as Guargaon where all the call centres you know so well are located. They have built tons of housing for the workers at these centres and I can't help but see it like a modern technological equivalent of the building of tenements in the industrial revolution. We trundled out in our specially painted "Tourist Vehicle" which was an air conditioned bubble in the swarms of rush-hour Delhi traffic - it also meant we were like an elephant in the Arctic: easy prey. India is always described as a colourful place and I now know that that is relating to the people: from their colourful saris to their colourful personalities. The cities themselves are actually lacking in colour and a bit worn and crumbling and every single piece of space is used for advertising of some form - from houses to natural boulders at the roadside everything is painted advertising something. Most likely it's to do with education or even showing off a local student who got 99% in his degree exams.

This lack of colour is true for cities like Delhi, but not so much Jaipur which is known as the Pink city due to the colour of the stone used to build the walled city. People also always say India is a "country of contrasts" due to the wealth spectrum and we got a proper taste of it in Jaipur where mansions and slums were merely walls apart. In fact, compared to Delhi Jaipur was a bit like India on steroids.

The drive to our hotel took us through a mad market (for India) and our guide kept mentioning how the hotel had so much "character" and so we slowly reached for our hand sanitiser and sleeping bag liners. It is safe to say that we were more than pleasantly surprised when we drove through the gates of Hotel Bissau Palace which was a bit like what The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was trying to be. It was an ornate palace that once belonged to a noble in the city but now due to land ownership laws it was converted into a hotel which had that smell of being full of history.

In the evening we went on an orientation walk which simply took us down the main road from the west gate but that was almost enough to take in every single sight and smell we assumed India had to offer. Then Manu (our guide) led us up too a Hindu Temple (partially reclaimed by monkeys) which offered a view of a Fort as well as the much more scenic construction works for the Jaipur Metro.

In the evening we were going to one of the things I was probably most excited about coming to India for: a Bollywood film. We threw ourselves in a Tuk-Tuk which weaved it's way to the Raj Mandir cinema which was a beautiful art deco building in the centre of Jaipur. The film we went to see was called "Mary Kum" and was a biographic film on a famous female Indian boxer. It wasn't a typical masala Bollywood film that I had become used to but there were still some elements where you had to forget about reality for while. One of the highlights was actually during the interval (yes Bollywood films are that long that they need an interval) when a woman asked for a photo with the tourists.

The following day was our main sightseeing day and we were bundled out at 8am to go see the Amber Fort via Hawa Mahal or the Palace of Winds. Our concept of time is completely lost here because at any time of day the streets are absolutely full of both tourists and locals pushing past in a rush to get somewhere but I never quite worked out where everyone was heading at every hour of the day. The Palace of Winds is basically a large sandstone building covered in windows in the middle of the street which to allowed the ladies of the past to nose on everybody on the street when they were not allowed to leave the palace itself.  Passing elephants, snake charmers and even the odd Mercedes Benz  we made our way up to the Amber Fort and were transported to the age of Arabia except with more tourists and flashy cameras. Drums were playing along to charmers horns and elephants paraded along the edges of the courtyard and only a few hawkers actually came up to pester you. We ascended each level of the fort which had numerous beautiful courtyards on each level alongside increasingly stunning views above Jairpur to compliment them. I couldn't help thinking how good a game of hide and seek could be here...

On the way back into the city we spotted a photo opportunity as we saw a camel elegantly sitting at the side of the road. We each paid 50 rupees to ungracefully get on the beast which had mastered the art of folding away excessive meters of limbs where it lost all form of elegance. After the photo opportunity we wandered past the Water Palace which was a serene palace built on a lake surrounded by mountains - pretty much my ideal house. Our final site for the day was the City Palace in the centre of Jaipur and you may have noticed by now that I get far to distracted by the pretty buildings to listen to history but the palace not only contains museums but it is also still a royal residence for the Maharaja of Jaipur.

In the afternoon we visited the numerous bizarres along the streets where I managed to get my first sari before meeting for dinner. Before then though I had to run to a nearby doctors to get my foot checked out as it has swollen and blistered after a mosquito bite. Visiting a doctor in a foreign country is always interesting but let alone visiting one in India. The office was in this shady breeze-blocked building adorned with faded posters of smiley westerners with the words "Acute Pain" next to them. After only a ten minute wait after arriving and I was seeing the doctor (probably a white tourist privilege) and the doctor himself actually had a lovely bedside manner and filled out a massive form in script that I think was English but as with most doctor's handwriting it could easily have been Hindi. His little minions went to the attached pharmacy and handed me a plastic bag of pills of different colours and after paying him £6.50 I was on my way to recovery. If only it was like that at home?!



Traffic en-route to Jaipur
Poverty and privilege side by side

Coming into Jaipur



Out hotel foyer

Market

Being a tourist

Metro Construction

Palace of Winds


Amber Fort


Water Palace

City Palace

My prescription...

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Ribbons and Umbrellas

I'm going to completely fast-track my blog entries to yesterday where we went on a little explore of Hong Kong during these protests and I thought I'd tell you what it's like as someone who is here but is completely unaware of all things politics. As far as I am aware the whole story has been on worldwide news but essentially it is all about keeping democracy in Hong Kong which is a Special Administrative Region of China. If you want to know more on what it's all about then this is a good post as you all know I'm not good with political mumbo-jumbo: http://www.scmp.com/article/1604649/what-occupy-central-10-things-you-need-know

If Hong Kong was a cinema, Hong Kong Island is currently a new blockbuster which is The Anabolic Expendables and Lamma Island is a silent film. I'm situated in this silent film so we've felt very far away and have only seen what's on the TV so we decided to go take a look at the excitement. As we stepped off our ferry Hong Kong looked like usual - locals hurrying around and expats sitting at the Beer Bay steps. Our first clue was a line of police trucks and then the notable lack of public transport running through the centre. It was only once we got past the Bank of China where we began to see completely empty streets and crowds building. The streets were immaculately clean and the only remanants of people being there were the barriers and police cones used to contain them. We discovered that this cleanliness was to do with the impressive recycling system the protesters had put it place. In fact they'd managed to organise a microcosm with food stations, first aid points and recycling areas all organised through a communal effort with no real logistics manager in charge - it was all quite impressive considering the majoirty of people involved were students ( I don't think you'd see British students being quite so organised in clearing up after themselves!). The news seems to be portraying the whole thing as quite violent but everything I've seen so far has been quite peaceful and pretty inspiring really!




This girl was handing out cold, wet towels and was very talkative!

852 being the area code for Hong Kong

Sitting out in the heat meant a spot in the shade was lucrative!

It was all quite calm really!


It's being called the Umbrella Movement/ Umbrella Revelution after
umbrellas used for shade were used against tear gas

Examples of the ridiculously organised resource stations

Yellow ribbons are the symbolic support of the movement and
are slowly covering Hong Kong

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Wildlife of India's Roads

Indian roads are notoriously chaotic and busy and the noise of the chirping horns of the numerous vehicles is like the urban birdsong of the city. It took me almost a week to realise that they are meant to drive on the left here but I think I’ve come to familiarise myself with the wildlife of India’s roads.


The Cows, we have to start with the cows. I’m pretty sure the practical Indian driving test must involve navigating your vehicle in between a row of cows rather than cones. They are always given the right of way but they have little care in the world as to where you are going and how quickly you need to get there.


The trucks back home are pretty dull to say the least with the occasional colourful  LED scottish flag flashing in the cabin but here almost every truck is decorated with ornate stickers and ribbons. One of the main things painted on the trucks is “blow horn please” on the back which explains why horns are heard so regularly - they are actually used like indicators.


The Tuk-Tuk is the best means of getting around cities in India. They defy physics on a daily basis winding in and out of potholes while chirping to each other like birds. These Auto-rickshaws are also designed in exciting colours where each owner takes to his Tuk-Tuk as a Scottish boy racer would take to his new Subaru.

This is what they are trying to achieve...
Motorbikes outnumber cars by miles. It’s not just because every male in the whole country wants to perfect their Shahrukh Khan bollywood entrance, it makes sense to have a bike as half the streets are barely big enough to navigate a car down and that’s without skillfully navigating the maze of potholes - if you want to become a skilled biker you should train up in Delhi! You’ll rarely see a saloon-style car here, they are all those awkward box shaped cars nobody dares buy in the western world. However, India is a practical country and anything with a bonnet bigger than a centimeter will be bashed to smitherines in no time. You will see these conspicuous “Tourist Vehicles” which will be used to cart you around in an air conditioned bubble but if I was you I’d try out any of the other methods before this modern equivalent of a carriage.

(None of these are my photos..yet)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Arriving in the heart of Delhi Belly

I sat in Glasgow departures enjoying my last sweet taste of Irn Bru and dairy milk before flying halfway around the world to the land of spice and unwelcome stomach bacteria that is India. I'd heard great things about Emirates and the best thing was through no fault of their own but I ended up with the whole row to myself which although too small for any normal sized human, it is the perfect size to fit a sleeping Rose. Now was no time for sleep though as I'd just discovered the Bollywood section of the inflight entertainment and dinner was yet to be served. I sat eating my yoghurt chicken curry enjoying a bollywood movie accustomising myself to a lifestyle I could get used to. As we flew into the night I thought I should try to sleep for a bit so as I sprawled out on my chairs I discovered probably my favourite thing about Emirates; as they dim the cabin lights to mirror outside'

s setting sun they simultaneously light up the roof to provide the night sky inside. It was quite nice to just follow the roof out the window to the real starry sky.

You could tell you were flying over the gulf states as the black of the desert at night was interspersed with huge orange gas flames lighting up the oil refineries. Dubai which appeared as a orange glow itself over the wing tip before it sprawlled out to the horizon and into the sky. (By the way watching the front facing camera during landing is actually quite terrifying.)

As soon as I stepped off the plane I was smacked by intense heat which I thought was just a consequence of standing near the jet turbines but that was just wishful thinking. Dubai airport wasn't actually as swish as I thought it would be but there did seem to be a garden and pond slap bang in the middle of the place and the bum warmers in the toilets was maybe a bit extravagant. I enjoyed the feeling of feeling like I was abroad, like really abroad and not in a western country and this only increased as I got to the gate of my next flight where I started to really feel like a gap-yah tourist. I was impressed by the nooks and crannies some people could fit themselves in to get some shut eye but I was more mesmerised by the bisare UAE soap operas that were on at 3am - the kind where you are not sure if they were re-runs of something from the 70's or actually just the norm for here.

Of course this flight had a lot more bollywood but I had a lot more sleeping to do and I only woke up for breakfast and landing. I was definitely getting further from home as nobody seemed to be following the seat-belt sign commandment as strictly as I was. I essentially sleptwalked up to immigration, scribbled in an immigration form and sighed a sigh of relief as I was reunited with my rucksack after 12 hours.

I walked out into arrivals where I was to meet by my airport transfer driver and saw a man with a sign saying "Rose" and followed this stranger to a car and as I sat down in the passenger seat I noticed the large crack in the windscreen right in line with my face. A subtle introduction to India's roads and driving style. There is some weird unspoken sense of confidence you get when you are travelling alone where you will easily follow a stranger into his bashed up car with a broken windscreen in a foreign country.


From the airport the roads actually seemed quite tame but I spoke too soon as as soon as you got out of the airport area you reached the rush-hour gridlock where you lost count of how many lanes there were in the road. Delhi seemed to have numerous "dual" carriageways running around the city which had turn-offs which landed you straight into the chaos of countless shops and hotels stacked high like cardboard boxes along the main bizarres. I kept an eye out for my hotel "Hotel Perfect" but as we pulled up I couldn't see it anywhere and I followed my driver to this other hotel and the an at the desk didn't seem to question my arrival and talk of a tour meeting at 2pm so I assumed there must have been a last minute change or something. I was taken up to my room and I'd really luck-ed out as I had a king-size bed and a fishtank in my room - proper boudoir stuff. I still had a doubt in my mind and soon enough I got a call from reception asking if I had a booking with them. My stomach dropped as I realised something had gone wrong after mere hours in the country. It turns out that in my bleary-eyed, jetlagged state I decided reading more than just "Rose" on the sign at the airport was pointless as how many Roses would be expecting an airport pick up? At least two apparently. I'd managed to steal the airport pick up from some Rose from Brazil and so got taken to the wrong hotel... So to right my wrong they got my driver to take her and I got myself in my first ever Tuk Tuk across Delhi to the right hotel. The chaos and Tuk-Tuk drive was great fun and just what I expected from India - I even got some Hindi and bargaining practice in which was like being thrown in the best kind of deep end.

I arrived at the correct hotel an hour before my tour meeting was due to start so I had time to throw things out of my rucksack and meet my roommate for the trip (A nice lady from Australia - might be a handy contact for later on!). There was only 4 of us on the tour which was quite good as it made everything a little bit more flexible and there was a good amount of time to yourself if need be. Our tour leader, who we know as Manu, was pretty young but knew his stuff and his English was absolutely top-notch!

It was pretty much go from there as we headed to a nearby Sikh temple where we were told about the community aspects of a Sikh temple where many materials and maintenence are through voluntary donations of materials and time which is best demonstrated by the huge community kitchens. The temple itself was blindingly white in the afternoon sun so we were releaved it was necessary to cover our heads but the hot marble burned our bare feet. The visit taught me a lot about a very refreshing and interesting religion which I - shamefully- knew nothing about before.

We were then taken on a drive to New Delhi which was built by the British and it was quite pretty - a contrast to the higglty-pigglty buildings near the hotel. These were basically huge, sandstone versions of St Pauls and the National Gallery which were used for government buildings. At the other end there was even a road resembling the Mall with a war monument at one end that looked like a stretched out Arc-de-Triomphe.

My first Indian meal came from a pretty western looking Indian restaurant - I suppose I have to coax my stomach into these spices- and I stopped complaining about being too western in when my paneer pasanda (a special Indian cheese and cashewnut sauce), naan(with ghee) and mango lassi (a kind of smoothie made with yoghurt) was absolutely delicious. By the time I got back to the hotel I was so ready for bed which made me beat jetlag in one day.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Welcome to Hoy


Every Friday I would run from school and straight onto the M.V. Graemsay that would take me to the island of Hoy: my muddy childhood paradise. My family had a cottage on the island that sat high up on a hill. It was heated by peat that my Dad had dug up and dried earlier in the year and water came from a homemade pump up the hill. The gas stove was just about functional enough to cook some tins of soup for dinner and the porch was cold enough to function as a fridge so I could have my bowl of coco-pops in the morning. The hill was home to miles of heather which gave my sister berries for jam and my grandad with the vital ingredient to his infamously intoxicating homebrew of heather ale. The cottage provided me with the best playground a child could ask for: there was a beach with a sea to swim in, sand to search for treasure, endless animals to draw (and keep as temporary pets), and endless places to explore and conquer.




The North of Hoy is home to beautiful and different scenery to anything on offer on the rest of Orkney. It was the landscape of fairytales for me as a child with glistening streams, giant dragonflies and toads the size of a dinner plate. There is no escaping the Hoy Hills as they dominate the skyline as the tallest point in both Orkney and Shetland – although the highest point (the Ward Hill) is only a mere 479 metres. The Hoy Hills were shaped by glaciers in the last ice age but depending on what source you prefer they may have been formed from the teeth of the Stoorworm. My first ascent of the Ward Hill was also my first – literal – hands-on experiences with nature. While the dog had already ran to the top we were fascinated at the heathery lower slopes which are home to Common Toads – which at the time easily filled my cupped hands. Golden Eagles became extinct in Orkney due to hunting but the majestic giants are slowly returning even if it is still a rare sighting.

The top of the hill is decorated in wind stripes and sandstone scars from thousands of years of lashing wind and frost action. When the clouds clear away you can see across Hoy Sound to Stromness and the flat, green meadows in the north. Where the hills flatten out into the sea at Moaness there are the sandy bays of Quoys and Creekland. Although these beaches often look like they are 50° further north than they ought to be with cream-coloured sands and turquoise waters they are simply over shadowed by Rackwick Bay. Locals often comment on Rackwick’s bizarre microclimate which is usually the complete opposite of the rest of the county. This means that for most of the time Rackwick has a Mediterranean climate. The reason for this has not been thoroughly investigated but Rackwick Bay is sheltered from incoming weather systems from the Atlantic by the highest vertical sea cliff in the UK – St John’s Head and any polar winds from the north are well sheltered by those Hoy Hills.

Rackwick Bay was once much longer than it is today due to longshore drift which is caused by the sea waves moving grains of sand along the beach at an angle. Rackwick Bay is sheltered by more sandstone sea cliffs which act to catch the sand moving in their direction. These sea cliffs are home to numerous birds: puffins, fulmars and black-backed gulls that sit and watch several herds of common and grey seals around the bay. Killer Whales are also spotted in the bay throughout the year having resident and transient pods causing fear to the seal population but fascination to other crowds.
Orkney is not famous for its woodlands but as with the rest of the Hoy landscape and elsewhere in Orkney – Hoy is different. For having barely any trees whatsoever – let alone native woodlands – Hoy is actually home to the most northerly ancient woodland – meaning it has existed continually since 1750. However studies suggest forests similar to this covered Orkney around 7000 years ago. Berriedale Wood is another example of Hoy’s varied assembly of pristine landscapes. It is the only place in the islands you will find a natural canopy of hazel, rowan, aspen and willow covers a bed of heather, ferns and even roses.

It would not surprise me is there were actually more species of bird on Hoy then there were permanent residents. Every year hundreds of ornithologists travel on a pilgrimage to Hoy to enjoy the wealth of winged residents. The official RSBP reserve is surrounding the Sandy Loch which is along the walking path to Rackwick Bay however the whole island is dominated by birds. Most of the bird species on the island are viewed for their grace and beauty such as the peregrine falcon, puffin and red-throated diver but there is one species that has both locals and visitors bemused. Locally known as Bonxies, the Great Skua is known to dive bomb anyone walking near the proximity of their nests – and Hoy alone has around 12% of the world’s population, so watch your head!

Over the years, our cottage in Hoy became a bit of a graveyard for cars as my parents’ inability to throw anything out progressed beyond the boundaries of the house walls. As a child my favourite car was our tough Soviet Lada Cossack 4×4 which was white with black zebra stripes. Every time I got in it I felt like we were about to embark on an epic adventure deep into the rainforest. The thing didn’t even have seats in the back but it was so full of things that it wasn’t much of a problem and we didn’t mind cuddling up to the dog. More so it reminds me of my real childhood, the one before computers appeared. The one that instantly makes you remember the smell of mud in your hair and when car journeys really did seem to take a lifetime.

The Lada Cossack, guard dog and childhood everest.