Friday 31 July 2009

India by rail

On our second trip to India in 2007, we mostly got around the vast areas we covered by train. The first part of this post has the fun part - the dreadful and most exciting, but not most comfortable incident of our trip. The second part has our itinerary and general appreciation and recommendations for Indian train travel. The third part is about an entirely different type of Indian train, the Palace on Wheels.

The Dreadful Anecdote
or what happened to us on an Indian train at 2am.

Since Mike had to go home early to do work, much of the train travel involved Pen, Julia and Antonia, who had just turned six. The nice, pleasant, relaxing bits during which we read all the Harry Potter books, ate, slept and looked at India don't make nearly such a good story as the brief, but dreadful anecdote. Because we were really squeezed for time and things we wanted to see, we decided to have our driver take us straight from a day long visit of Ajanta to Jalgaon where we would be catching a train to Bhopal at 1 in the morning. Not very desirous of hanging out in the station for 7 hours, we checked into a small hotel a short walk away, had showers and went for dinner in the restaurant next door, then for a short nap. So far, so excellent - our cheap hotel was clean and the proprietor very helpful about waking us up, our dinner was very nice, and we enjoyed the erratic presence of electricity in the town.

At 12.45, we strolled up to the station wheeling our luggage and practically carrying Antonia to begin our long wait on the platform. As usual, the train was considerably late - I suppose it showed up at about 2 am - and we were very tired. We knew which our carriage was, but no matter what we did, the door would not open. Experienced as we were by now, we knew we didn't have very long and were starting to feel panicked. Sure enough the train made that peculiar noise they do make before they're about to go. To our left was a long line of thoroughly closed-looking AC carriages. To our right was the last carriage in the whole train. This was an open (non-AC) carriage and we think they always tack one of these on the end of the train as a sort of overflow carriage for standing room only tickets. Julia and I looked at each other, made a beeline for it and jumped in as the train started to move. It seemed like we would hardly fit, as the entrance to the carriage was so filled with people, but that didn't stop seven men jumping in behind us and shoving.

Now, I have to say, the traumatic part of this experience for Antonia was the thought that she might somehow be left behind on the platform by herself. Little kids don't always realise that adults are actually looking after them, and that Julia and I always automatically made sure she was the second on the train, so that no matter what, she would find herself with at least one adult. Then again, she was worried about being stranded somewhere in India in the middle of the night, whereas Julia and I knew very well that if we missed the train it was just a big nuisance, but we could return to our hotel and sort things out in the morning.

Still we were in, and by dint of yelling, the seven train-jumpers behind us managed to wake up the two men who were lying asleep in front of the toilet. It then transpired that their bodies had been the only thing holding the toilet door closed. Nevertheless, Julia grabbed a sitting space in front of the toilet and I pushed Antonia onto her lap. I had been quite worried about her getting squashed or not being able to sleep all night, so I was pleased. Still, this put Julia in the desirable role of likely matron, and left me as possible available female. Before long, the chap squashed next to me had his arm so far round my waist that his hand reached my breast. I returned the errant hand to him firmly. He looked around a bit and I think he twigged. Antonia and I do look rather similar.

- Oh, is that your daughter?
- Yes, I said coldly
- Where is your husband?
- ..... (no, I didn't say any of the things I should have said. Instead I asked him how far it was to the next station.)
- About 10 minutes (sigh of relief from me). How are you liking India?
- Oh, very well - up until now!

At the next station, Julia and I agreed, we would head for the regular class, slightly smarter conductor-policed carriages, find one with some standing room in, and let the conductor deal with us. We ran down the train, trying every door as we went. Lo and behold, our carriage door now opened and the conductor was standing in the door. When I saw his bleary eyes and unmade bed, I was absolutely convinced he had slept through the Jalgaon station, failing to unlock the doors. I thought of giving him a piece of my mind, but I was so pleased to see my air conditioned bunk at 3am that in the end I said nothing at all.

In retrospect, Julia and I found our adventure absolutely hilarious, though Antonia not so much. To cap it all, on our last day in India, we went to a cinema in Delhi and saw a nice Bollywood movie called Jab We Met, which involved a guy and a girl's misadventures with train travel. It reminded us so much of our own experience, it seemed made for us.


Mumbai -> Guntakal
Hospet -> Guntakal -> Thane
Thane -> Manmad -> Aurangabad
Jalgaon -> Bhopal
Bhopal -> Indore
Indore -> Gwalior -> Jhansi
Jhansi -> Delhi
  • The Man in Seat Sixty-One taught me everything I needed to know about rail travel, in India and elsewhere. After browsing there, I knew what the different carriage classes were like and how to access the India Railways timetable to decide which trains I wanted.
  • Indrail passes suited us because of the length and complexity of our itinerary. We booked passes and trains in advance through SD Enterprises in the UK, which worked out very well for us. Much better than waiting in a queue at the station unless you're bumming around India for a year and don't care.
  • We chose to travel second class with air conditioning. This was very worth it for us, considering we were with a six year old who could use a break from the heat and the constant attention. Conversely, the people traveling in second class AC were generally cosmopolitan men and women who were invariably friendly and helpful if we requested any information, but pretty much ignored tourists otherwise, in the same way that tourists get pretty much ignored on a train in Europe. Anyone looking to strike up a ten hour conversation with an Indian family had better go ordinary class. Also AC windows are on the grimy side and the view may be less good.
  • Even though we booked weeks in advance, we could not always get the routes we wanted, or bunks together. We did always get at least two bunks together, which we needed because of Antonia.
  • The trains were usually up to two hours late, but they showed up eventually.
  • Generally, the only way to discover which platform we should be on was to ask other people if we were in the right place. Since the trains arrived at unpredictable times, we also had to check with them if a given train was ours. I think the stations were generally very well organised. The problem was due to our inability to understand the announcements.
  • Trains in Madhya Pradesh usually had mice roaming around the floor, compared to trains from Mumbai to the South which did not. Just saying.
  • But the food was generally very nice and copious. Someone comes round and takes your order and then turns up with the food at meal times (at least in 2AC). They also come round with cups of tea. You need small change to pay for all this.

The Palace on Wheels

On our first trip to India, when we feeling young, free and much richer, Mike and I took the Palace on Wheels train/hotel around Rajasthan and to Agra. Was it worth it? Obviously, that question only makes sense starting from the premise that you might spend that much money on a holiday. Sure, you can stay in India for months for what the ticket cost, but at the time we had jobs to go backk to. That being the case, I would say yes, it was worth it for us. Apart from the fact that it was much more comfortable than travelling by road, it allowed us to see the sights of Rajasthan in a period of time we would never have covered otherwise. We would never have made it to Jaisalmer, which turned out to be one of our favourite places.

Certainly, passengers are quite (very) insulated from the sensory overload that is India. It would be a shame to just do something like the PoW. They did take us shopping pretty regularly, but actually we didn't mind, as we were looking for a few things for our new home. Think honeymoon trip for the slightly nervous professional couple who want a taste of India rather than back-packers adventure.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Andalousia, part 4 - Grenada

Penny loved Andalousia so much she had to take Mike there. The second trip was less than a year after the first, in spring 2001. She was in mid-pregnancy, so you could say Antonia was there too. That's maybe why she didn't write anything down at the time. But she remembers:

I took Mike round all the same sights in Seville and Cordoba that had so impressed me, but this time we had a car, and also made it across to the Alhambra in Grenada. I remember being very impressed with architecture and less inspired by the queuing and waiting with the hordes of other people who wanted to see it.

After seeing the Alhambra, we started walking up at random through the olive groves. I don't really know where we went but we found a large ruined cistern for water storage and an ancient, rusting children's playground with the kind of death-defying slide that no longer passes European regulations.

I don't know why, but I decided I simply had to go on this slide. I came flying down the near vertical metal, and was launched from the end onto the ground with a hard thud. Presumably, my pregnant state had made me clumsy, it was perhaps also responsible for my utter terror. Later that day, I decided the time had come for the first cup of coffee of my pregnancy. Obviously, I was feeling a bit crazy. Anyhow, what with one thing and another, Antonia manifested herself for the first time that day. It's the sort of thing you remember, in the same way that I remember her first tooth emerging the day I was standing in the cathedral in Strasbourg, listening to a guide, with my finger in her mouth to keep her quiet.

The other thing that marked our second Andalousia trip was walking down the corridor of our hotel and nearly crashing into Stephen Hawkings. That absolutely thrilled Michael.

Monday 27 July 2009

Andalousia, part 3 - Madrid

OK - so Madrid's not in Andalousia, but anyway: Penny's impromptu and brief stand-in for her father on her parents' Andalousian holiday came to an end as she journeyed back to Madrid on the fast train and whiled away a day in the big city before catching a flight back home.

Visiting Madrid

Back in Madrid, I wanted to buy Michael some typical Spanish sweets or cakes as a gift, but I don't know Madrid at all, so I wandered around randomly waiting to find a cake-shop. Eventually I saw one that didn't have anything very travel-proof in the window, but I went inside. On the counter were about 8 huge blocks of different types of sweets of the halva or nougat family, called turrones. They all had ingredients like almonds, figs, pistachios, orange zest and most importantly sugar. A large slice of one of these and another of quince terrine soon doubled the weight of my bag.

I spend the rest of the day in the Prado and since I didn't have much time, I decided to concentrate on the Spanish art sections. It was interesting to see how Spanish art didn't seem to find its way until the later Renaissance. The opposing Italian and Flemish influences seemed to be fighting it out very uncomfortably. I think this is partly due to the small size of the collection. Seville is known for its collection of earlier painting, but I did not have time to see this. The other thing missing from the Prado is a decent collection of works by El Greco. For this, I think you have to go to Toledo. In later art the idealism of Italy and the realism of the Flemish combined to form a specific style. In Spanish painting you get the full impact of the ugliness, suffering or shallowness of the subject without the element of ridicule which often creeps into Flemish painting. This is tragedy, rather than comedy. A large part of the Prado's Spanish section is given over to works by Velazquez or Goya. Getting to stand in front of one of the more famous works requires special powers, due to all the tour groups so I mostly had to just glance at them from afar. The most impressive works were Goya's black paintings. You really get no idea of their size and brutality from the reproductions.

Andalousia, part 2 - Cordoba

Read part 2 of Penny's impromptu adventures in Andalousia. As her Dad eventually made it back to Europe, she vacated his bedspace and proceeded to Cordoba alone. Despite this generosity, she did make a point of rejoining her parents when they arrived in Cordoba, with a hungry look in her eyes, and information regarding the best restaurants in town.

Visiting Cordoba

Cordoba is rather different from Seville, mainly in that the touristic part of the town is quite separate from the everyday Spanish part of the town. Part of the problem is that a lot of tourists seem to take coach trips to Andalousia and Cordoba tends to form a midday stopping point on the drive between Madrid and Seville. Accordingly, in the middle part of the day the area around the Mezquita is packed, for the rest of the day it is dead. The Mezquita is the ancient mosque of Cordoba and although it was converted to Christianity it is still possible to get a pretty fair idea of the original architecture. It really gives the impression of Christianity still just camping out in a Muslim mosque with churches and chapels of various periods scattered almost randomly about the vast space. Christian paintings and sculpures are positioned in available spaces and convey the impression of being part of a temporary exhibition. This huge building is surrounded on all sides by a hideous tourist souk, selling the worst form of cheap, tacky souvenirs. It is really a case of the sublime and the ridiculous as the Mezquita itself is a world class monument and well worth seeing. The Cordobans themselves prefer to hang out in the newer part of town, in the pedestrian area around the main shopping district.

If you walk from the mosque towards the river, you soon come to a bridge resting on roman foundations with an arch on one side and an old tower on the other. The tower contains a small 'museum of the three cultures', which is a poetic, if rather idealistic monument to religious tolerance. Alongside this bridge, stretching right across the river is one of Cordoba's most interesting but underrated monuments: a group of arabic water mills. The river bed was heavily modified to flow through four channels and turn heavy wooden wheels. One, presumably a reproduction, is visible on the city side. This quite sophisticated industrial milling system was eventually shut down in Christian times, apparently because it made so much noise that the queen was unable to sleep! When I went to explore the nearly ruined mill buildings I discovered that some people were staying there. Maybe they were connected with the large flock of sheep grazing in the river bed. At this time of year the river is fairly dry and contains a good deal of vegetation.

There are only three synagogues surviving from the Sephardic era in Spain, in each case I think they survived by being converted into churches. The synagogue of Cordoba is small and square but very tall, presumably to collect light from above the rooftops. The walls were once covered with white Mudejar style decoration with Hebrew inscriptions and a lot of this survives. In fact there is only one problem with this synagogue. It was obviously only designed to accomodate about 20 or 30 people at a time and the tour groups queue up all the way down the street and wait for a turn to squeeze in. In other words, to really appreciate this monument you have to arrive before they do.

The Alcazar of Cordoba is really nothing compared to the one in Seville but it has a very pretty garden. When we went there on Friday morning we discovered that we could get in for free. The reason seemed to be that on Fridays weddings are held in the Alcazar's chapel. The bride and groom then go and have their photographs taken in the garden. It seemed to be quite a production line as there were several wedding parties on the premises when we were there. My mother speculated that a Catholic wedding must traditionally be open to the public, and therefore the Alcazar cannot charge its usual (rather inexpensive) fee.

Since Cordoba was a big centre of Arabic and Sephardic culture several restaurants are reviving the cuisine of the time. I especially liked partridge in a sauce sweetened with grapes and steamed fish in almond sauce, but my favourite was almond gazpacho served with chopped apple and sultana. Most of Spain is not really known for its desserts but I think Andalousia must be the exception as there were almost too many nice things to choose from. Cordoba's speciality is a large flat cake that tastes as though it is made of shredded turkish delight in a thin flaky pastry with lots of caster sugar.

Andalousia, part 1 - Seville

We've seen a lot of Europe over the years. Find out what we did from our 'blast from the past' posts.

In October 2000, Pen took a short and unexpected trip to Andalousia in Spain. What happened is that Pen's parents had booked a trip, but this was in Pen's Dad's pre-retirement days. Almost inevitably his company decided that they needed him in Thailand or somewhere so he had to blow Pen's Mum off for a few days. Pen stepped in to fill the gap. This is what she wrote soon after the trip.

Visiting Seville

My mother and I set off to explore Seville at about 6 in the evening and promptly got lost in a maze of narrow residential streets. It seems that a lot of Spanish and Portuguese towns have avoided the worst horrors of car traffic by having streets that are just too narrow for cars. On the other hand life gets quite awkward when one of the rare cars does come along. Eventually we found the shopping district and discovered that Seville is THE place to be for Flamenco dresses from the exquisite to the tacky, wedding dresses (ditto), matching negliges for the wedding night!, christening sets for 9 months later, matching crib sets and children's clothes. After this we found ourselves under Seville's main landmark, the Giralda without knowing quite how it happened.

By this time it was getting dark and we decided it was time to go and look for a drink. My mum was very keen to go to a typical and genuine Spanish tapas bar and we eventually found one with plenty of azulejos, old photographs of corridas, even older hams hanging from the ceiling and some very nice tapas. I think, however that my mum decided it was a bit too genuine when she saw that the bartender was leaving his cigarette on the kitchen counter with the ash dropping onto the floor. The Spanish smoke a lot, and the next time I hear a foreigner complain about the French smoking I think I will send them to Madrid or Seville where they can develop a sense of perspective.

The last time I came to Spain was on the coast near Barcelona and I definitely got the impression that I was eating to live (and that it might not be worth bothering). The food in Andalousia came as a very, very pleasant surprise. There is also some kind of meal going on practically all day and all night, though fortunately it is not compulsory to eat all of them. The city is very busy at night, but it is not quite nightlife as we know if. Whole families are out in cafes and restaurants until way past midnight with their babies, toddlers and children who all seem to behave angelically. Even very young adolescents are out late on their own, obviously the city centre at this time is considered completely safe for them. Although it is dark, it might as well be the middle of the afternoon.

The next day, we did Seville's main tourist things - climbed the Giralda and spent a long time in the beautiful gardens and palace of the Real Alcazar.

Saturday 25 July 2009

Capitalizing on the house

The young, free and single have one set of problems and opportunities when it comes to rtw travel, and middle-aged, home-owning parents of families have another. I have spent some time wondering about the best way to make the French house work for us:
  1. Sell it? Out of the question! We love it too much.

  2. Empty it out and rent it? Good plan, since it would probably bring in about 24 000 USD a year. Of course, storing our stuff would be painful and expensive. The problem is that Mike doesn't want to commit himself to a vagabond lifestyle big time. He wants a place he can come back to and be with his stuff at fairly short notice. He might even like to spend some time at home while we are travelling somewhere for a shortwhile. He had a different idea:

  3. Rent it to friends or others who don't mind living with our junk? OK, well we'd have to find these friends. Mike thinks he can do it, I'm not so sure. At best it lowers the sum we'd expect to get from the house to Mike's guesstimate of 12 000. Then, after checking out accommodation prices in places like Australia, New Zealand and the USA - all places we might go to - I came up with another plan:

  4. Serial house-swapping? Our saving on accommodation would be greater than the loss of rent. It might alleviate Mike's Internet issues. On the downside, we can't keep coming back to do the laundry and make sure the house is in good shape. We would have to make an arrangement with someone to do the cleaning, but it might come to less than the cost of storage. And then there's option 5:

  5. Holiday home rental? If we take off for an area where house swapping isn't available, and if our house is already tidied up ready for strangers, we could rent it as a holiday let, using a local agency. Or we could default back to option 3.

Friday 24 July 2009

Minicamp in Northern Holland - the plan

It's not like Pen to waste time or opportunities. When Mike first said he was going to a Hacker's convention on a campsite in Holland, he was going to be driving up with a fellow geek. Then he decided he wasn't going up for over two weeks like his friend, so he was looking for a new driving partner. Pen thought it might as well be her.

And when Pen decides something, she plans it! Usually at 3 o'clock in the morning while her adrenalin is all fired up. So here it is: Minicamp in Northern Holland for Pen, Antonia and Little Rabbit.

  • Wednesday 12 August: get up early and drive for about 10 hours, yuck!
  • Thursday 13 August: drive from the Hackers campsite at Vierhouten to Hoorn across the Markemeer. Set up at Camping ‘t Venhop. Visit the local beaches, canals and the city of Hoorn in the afternoon.
  • Friday 14 August: train to Amsterdam. Walk around the city, afternoon visit of the Rijksmuseum masterpieces collection, train back to Hoorn.
  • Saturday 15 August: visit the Zaanse Schans: windmills, old stuff, boat trips and pancake restaurant.
  • Sunday 16 August: relax in the local area, possibly renting a boat or bike. Take a short drive to visit Edam.
  • Monday 17 August : catch up with Mike, or just start driving back. Maybe stop in Luxembourg or somewhere.
There's only one problem with Pen's planning. Mike does not believe in planning. Already he is changing his mind about which day he wants to go up and being vague about what time we might want to arrive, where we will all sleep when we get there and how he wants to get back and who with. It looks like anything could happen. That sort of thing drives Pen crazy. It means no bookings can be made and no budget can be worked out. It means she has nightmares of sleeping in the car in a layby with a child and other similar 'adventures'.

Thursday 23 July 2009

About us

What's it all about?

We're a work-at-home, school-at-home family who ended up traveling so much that we decided to try to turn it into a way of life and become a work-on-the-road, school-on-the-road family.

Quite a few families take round the world tours these days. Usually, they save hard, take sabbaticals (for the parents) and a year off school (for the kids) and travel intensively. What we hope to do has to be sustainable in terms of finance, work and education, so that we keep going indefinitely. At the moment, we're in the phase of figuring out how to make that happen, whilst still doing the usual traveling of course.

Meet the family

Michael is obsessed with the Internet/Computers/Telephony. His world is accessible from any computer anywhere with an Internet connection. Clearly, Mike has no need to travel, but it doesn't hurt him either. He's along for the ride. He is the one who coined the motto 'Adventure is waiting for us'. As far as he is concerned, Adventure could be waiting for quite a while.

Penelope has spent much of her life with her nose in a book. Now she'd like to write one instead. And travel the world. And have adventures. Because it's just as well to have things straight up front and to be very clear: all this is absolutely all Penny's fault.

Antonia is various things depending on her mood. She has been a dragon, a fox, a rabbit, a bird and so on. She also gets older, bigger and possibly wiser rather more conspicuously than the rest of us. Beaches are an important part of any travel plans she makes.

And who is Little Rabbit?

Little Rabbit was given to Antonia as part of the kiddie-package on some airplane - we think it was Lufthansa. That was many, many years ago. She (it's a female rabbit, of course!) has been traveling with us ever since while plusher, larger toys stayed safely home in bed. She has been scrubbed and repaired on numerous occasions. She has been lost, briefly, and found again. She was born to travel and her vagabonding skills have only improved with experience, so she was naturally suited to the role of travel blog mascot.