Thursday, 23 December 2010

Tuesday 21st December - Doha/Manchester/Home

We heard rumours last night that we were all being shipped out to Manchester the next day and should be checked out and ready to go at 6am.  We were thinking of avoiding the Qatar rep in the hopes of being left behind and hopefully getting on a Heathrow flight.

Unfortunately we saw the rep.  He confirmed the 6am pick up.  I asked if everyone had been informed of this fact and he said that the hotel would be advising people.  I asked when but didn’t get a response.

We went back to our room, Will went to lay on the bed around 10pm ostensibly to watch TV, within 3 minutes his snores could be heard the other side of the suite.  I sat about typing up the blog and then playing games.  By 11.15 I realised that the hotel had not informed us of the pickup.  I got dressed and was just about to go looking for the rep when an envelope was slipped under the door informing us of the 6am pick up.

Went to bed around 1.30, watched some crap telly and finally fell asleep.  All too soon it was 4am and time to get up.  I showered, dressed and packed up my stuff.  Took Will his coffee and after he had performed his ablutions we packed the remaining stuff and went to check out around 5.45.

As usual the rumours were that the bus was going to be cancelled again.  The good news was that breakfast had been laid out early so Will and I dashed off to feed our faces.  Trouble was neither of us felt like eating very much at that time of morning.

The bus from the hotel was pretty surreal; there was a radio show on preaching about Islam.  The English narrators were awful, their intonation was all in the wrong places so everything sounded like a question but was in fact a statement.  It wouldn’t have been so bad if they had nice voices but they didn’t.  Still, we are all aware of the five pillars of Islam now.  Immediately after the sermon an American sounding female DJ played John Lenon’s “Imagine”.  I held my breath when it got to the verse about there being no religion!

We get inside the airport and as usual there are no information boards and about 20 queues.  We did not know our flight number so Will accosted the first Qatar rep he found.  He showed him our boarding passes from the Sunday flight we should have been on and asked what was going on.  The rep in all seriousness said “You have missed your flight”.

I thought Will was very patient when he informed him that we had not missed our flight, it had been cancelled and we had been sent to an hotel.  He did mention something about the rep looking at us as if we were from Mars but didn’t catch much of it, I was too busy laughing.

We were directed to join a queue, then told by someone else to join a different queue.  300 people one check in desk.  The clerk was quite quick in checking in some people in under 8 minutes, others were taking as long as 25 mins.  One chap who had changed his flight to Monday into Gatwick was told that he should have been there yesterday as he was booked on a flight and was marked as a no show.  This was the man that spent most of his time talking to the rep in the hotel and still wasn’t told anything.

They gradually opened more gates which meant the queue behind us got smaller and we waited even longer.  I needed a pee and there were only 8 people in the queue in front of us.  Will told me to hurry up.  I pointed out that even if she was super fast and only took 7 mins per person I still had an hour in which to pee.

It eventually took us about 2½ hours to get checked in.  Just enough time remaining to get a nicotine fix in before boarding.  Luckily there were empty seats around us so Will moved into one of them so we could spread out a little. 

The flight passed reasonably quickly, I watched three films and played online games.  We landed after 7 hours 45 mins to a light smattering of snow.  We collected our luggage and set about putting on warm clothes.  We found a rep who told us that the buses were outside. 

I managed to get a quick ciggy in before we boarded the bus.  Our Scottish Driver, Dave informed us that he could only drive for 4½ hours before he had to stop for a break.  However, we would be hitting Birmingham at rush hour and we may well have to stop short of Heathrow, but he would do his best to get us there in the 4½ hours.

We settled into our seats, ok we wedged into our seats with hand luggage between us on the floor taking up what little leg room there was.  As we were driving we realised that there was hardly any traffic.  We also realised that it was getting warmer and warmer in the coach.  Several people went and asked the driver to turn down the heating. 

When the temperature hit 29 degrees inside I had my first nosebleed and went and spoke to the driver.  It turned out that the heating computer was malfunctioning and he could not turn the temp down.  I burnt my foot on the heater and started to feel sick.  Most people fell asleep or just sat sweating. 

We made it to Heathrow in record time.  Sadly we had advised our cab driver to meet us about 8.30 we arrived about 7.45.  I managed to get a good few ciggies in before he arrived.  The snow was much thicker around London but most of it had melted.

We finally arrived home around 10.30 a mere 19 hours travelling, much better than the 24 hours we had been expecting.

It was good to be home and I had my first bowl of Frosties for almost three weeks.

All in all an excellent holiday, even the delay wasn’t too bad.  We got to stay in a great hotel of a standard we will never be able to afford.


Monday, 20 December 2010

Monday 20th December – Doha

It was the usual story, Will was snoring soundly and I was wide awake for most of the night.  I went to bed around 5am and slept for a while then got up for a nice hot shower using Molton Brown toiletries and drying off with a massive white towel and then donning the fluffy white towelling gown.    I made a cup of tea for myself and coffee for Will.  I was just checking email whilst Will was having a shave and the phone rang.  Reception were advising that we needed to check out as the bus was collecting us for 8am.     

I shouted to Will who asked the time.  I told him it was about five to seven.  A couple of minutes later a dervish emerged from the bathroom who was madly throwing things into bags whilst telling me it was actually five to eight.  I sat and watched the spectacle for a while and thought about the flight we were due to catch. It was not due till 5.30 in the evening so they would not be picking us up so early.  I tried to ring reception back but they did not answer.  I helped Will packing the last few things including the wet undies (we did some washing last night).  I left the phone ringing reception and eventually someone cut in on the line to call us and say that they had just had a message to say that the bus was cancelled.

I think they cocked up and called us by mistake but it was fun to see Will pack all our stuff up in less than two minutes.  What followed was even funnier.  We wanted to be ready when the bus eventually came so Will decided to dry the damp undies in the microwave.  He assured me that as a student he had learned this handy skill.  He successfully dried two pairs of my undies and my travel socks and I was impressed.  However, when it came to drying his own smalls he was no quite so attentive.  

I was still sending mails and suddenly noticed the burning smell.  Will opened the microwave and his pants were on fire!  I didn’t realise he was a liar.  After discarding the burnt briefs we went to breakfast.  Breakfast was great, full English, Indian, Chinese, American basically whatever you wanted was there.  Except of course real bacon.  There was veal bacon but that really is a poor substitute.

After filling our bellies we set of in search of the Qatar rep who advised us nothing was happening there would be a bus later to take people for a flight that had been laid on.  However, it was a small plane and was overbooked as there were still people here from the day previous to our arrival.

Will went and bought some new pants from the shop, I think we will have to extend the mortgage to pay for them when we get home but it will be worth it.  We explored the grounds of the hotel, it really is beautiful.  The pool looked very inviting but we resisted.  We sat in the coffee shop where Will had his first decent cup of decaff in two weeks.  We chatted to other “refugees” and rumours were rife.  Some people were saying we would definitely be on the 1pm bus others that more snow was expected at Heathrow and no flights would be going. 

Will joked that perhaps we should be practising learning Auld Lang Syne in Arabic one chap laughed so much we thought he was going to lay an egg but several others looked panicky. 

Subsequently we have been advised that the people from Saturday flight would get priority but that no more flights would be leaving today.  Some people are getting a little upset at the prospect of not being home for Christmas.  Will and I are remaining philosophical and are making the best of our extra free holiday in this stunning hotel. 

I have instructed my boss to pay the drivers in case I am not back.  We have both phoned our parents to advise the latest info and our friend Ish has picked up the cat, Foobie from the cattery.  The only problem is that we haven’t bought any Xmas presents yet.  Will is actually on holiday this week and it was planned he would shop whilst I was at work.

Christmas may be a little late this year.  

Sunday 19th December – Delhi/Doha

I woke refreshed after my 23 minutes of sleep and was rearing to go.  Running round under a cold shower whilst trying not to let my teeth chatter or shiver to loudly was a challenge but Will managed to sleep through it all.  He only woke when I provided him with coffee.  Check out was super fast and our driver was waiting outside.

Having checked the flight details we were aware there would be a bit of a delay somewhere along the line due to the snow in Heathrow but we didn’t anticipate quite how much carnage the cute white stuff could cause.

We were due to have almost a two hour layover at Doha before onward flight to Heathrow at 12.50pm local time.  When we got our boarding passes for both legs of the flight we realised that they had delayed the connecting flight till 8pm that night.

There then followed several hours of milling round the airport and periodically checking the internet to glean details as Qatar airways were not very informative.  There were members of staff telling people being told to sit here, there, wait here, there.  Don’t wait there etc but no official announcements were made.

I did feel sorry for the poor buggers on the information desk as people were getting irate and shouting at them.  I asked if there was anything happening and was told that there were no hotel rooms empty and that they were trying their best to find us all rooms.  I had searched on the internet and had found plenty of available rooms and asked if we managed to book ourselves into one would the airline reimburse us for the costs and for transportation.  

I was told no, the airline had agreements with certain hotels and that we could not book it ourselves.  I said that once we passed the 10 hour deadline we would be perfectly at liberty to do so but we would wait patiently.  I suggested that they should perhaps make some announcements.  If people are given information they wouldn’t be quite so annoyed and come shouting at the information desk.  She said that there was no information to tell people so I told her that that is what the announcement should say.  Please wait patiently we are doing our best to find everyone hotels and there was no flight information available.

After about an hour an announcement came over the speakers saying exactly that. I was quite pleased they had taken my advice and used my speech.  I wasn’t too impressed when they started repeating that same message every 15 minutes.

We were provided with another voucher for heavy refreshment, which turned out to be samosas and chips or chicken bun and chips.  We ate out of boredom.  We did speak to some very interesting people and there was a sort of camaraderie between those of us who had not been taken to an hotel yet.

We were dreading being taken to an hotel with just the clothes on our backs.  I was more worried about running out of cigarettes.  Disaster was averted, I bought a carton in duty free. . .  phew!

I wouldn’t have worried about my clothes had I known what was coming next.  We were herded on a bus and taken to the arrivals lounge and told we had to go through immigration and then collect our cases before being taken to the hotel.  First we had to queue up at a desk to get an hotel voucher.  This was an arduously slow process where the clerk had to manually type in our passport nos and details of the hotel and package before printing off the form and handing it over. 

The next bit was even worse, immigration.  There were only about 800 people here   but we stood in queues that were moving at a snail’s pace.  Yet again the clerks were manually inputting all passport details, checking photos etc and all whilst looking amazingly dour.  We were again herded outside the airport where we were told to wait for the hotel bus which would probably be about another 20 mins or so. 

I dread to think how they will cope at the airport when the World cup is held here.  Most people were getting a little bit moody but imagine how bad it will be with 100 times the amount of travellers who will generally be boozed up footy louts arrive and have to wait 100 times as long!  Will and I are predicting riots at passport control.  The other worrying fact is that the airline were struggling to find rooms for 800 people.  Ok so this may be purely a matter of economics but how many footy fans will be able to afford expensive hotels?

Will was of course the hero of the day.  He had been to a cash machine in the airport when we first arrived and got out cash because he anticipated delays and the cash machines running out of money.  He asked how far to the hotel and was told about 30 rials by taxi.  We grabbed our mate Dave who we had been chatting to and joined the taxi queue and off we went.

We arrived at the hotel before the masses so got checked in pretty smartish.  There were people milling around who had been sent to the hotel hours previously but it seemed as if they hadn’t been here long.

Will and I retired to our room, desperate to have a wash and brush up and maybe a drink before bed.  We could not believe our room, well suite. Solid wood furniture, leather sofas a huge flat screen tv in the seating area, dining area with mini sink, two fridges and a microwave.  In the bedroom was a walk in wardrobe a huge bed and another massive flat screen tv.

The light in our bathroom was not working so the bathroom was a bit of a mystery.  We made ourselves a cup of tea and reported the faulty light.  After a short while a chap from housekeeping arrived and fixed the problem.  Just as he left our new mate Dave called us to say dinner was still available for another 30 mins and that it was apparently good.

Never wishing to miss out on free food we left in search of the coffee lounge.  It was only as we were walking around did we realise how truly magnificent this hotel was and of course once again how poorly dressed we were.  Men here wear the thobes (smart white dress) with the Shimagh and Egal (headdress and ties with tassels).  Qatar is one of the richest countries in the world and it is certainly apparent.

Our very late dinner was buffet style and had real meat and cakes too.  Will and I both were happy and not long after retired to bed.

Saturday 18th December – Delhi

We had a nice breakfast in the rooftop restaurant of the hotel whilst watching the kites swooping around the rooftops.  Karol Bagh had changed a lot since our previous visit.  There were lots of hotels and neon signs everywhere.

We went for a walk around the market, there were nowhere near as many stalls as there used to be.  Many of the small shops had also gone.  I managed to find a stall selling watches but couldn’t get close enough to see as there were lots of people trying on sunglasses.  Will has truly gone local.  He pushed his way through, dragging me in his wake.  I picked 6 watches and Will turned to the stallholder and demanded discount.  A burly old Sikh chap standing close by laughed out loud then stood grinning at Will.  Sadly we didn’t get any discount as the watches were on sale but I was dead impressed with Will’s new Delhi-esque attitude.

We found a coffee shop and sat and waited for the menu to be brought and after a short 35 minutes it arrived. I complained to the waiter and he said it was because they were busy.  No sweetie, it is because you are disorganised and spend 10 minutes just getting a bottle of water out of the fridge.    We eventually got our drinks, drank them at warp speed due to the raging thirst we had acquired sitting waiting for so long.  

Next we visited Anjlika, our favourite pastry shop and bought some fantastic cakes and returned to our room to eat them with some tea.  Sat about for a while before venturing out for another walk around and another visit to the pastry shop, this time for a sit down lunch and a takeaway of veg puff snack to last us through till dinner.

We spoke to our travel agent, Vinay who arranged to meet us for dinner that night so we spent the rest of the afternoon watching yet another crap film.  Not quite on par with Footloose but up there.

We went to the restaurant in the hotel and had a sumptuous meal, our first non veg meal in what seemed an age and we really enjoyed it.  Vinay came bearing gifts of a of an intricate pewter key ring and some incense sticks.  We shared stories of our travels and gave him feedback on hotels, guides, attractions etc.  All too soon the evening turned late.  We were scheduled to leave the hotel at 5.30am so we all made our excuses and left.

Obviously I was struck down with can’t sleepitus whilst Will snored loudly.  I eventually thought I might be able to sleep and settled down in readiness.  I glanced at the clock and realised I could get a full 23 minutes of shut eye before having to get up, shower, pack, check out etc.   It really was the best 23 minutes of sleep you could ask for.

Friday 17th December – Puri/Delhi

Not looking forward to the early check out today.  The Toshali Sands check out time is 8am.  This is apparently because most people leave by train and all of the trains leave early morning.

We managed to extend our check out till 11am so after a leisurely breakfast we mooched around the hotel, sat in the gardens and admired the buffet that was being set up for the Welders Designers Corporation of India who were holding their 37th annual conference there.

There are lots of crows, some of them are massive, they were intimidating the staff by gathering in great numbers close to the food and squawking wildly.  After a while we tired of the noise and withdrew to the room to pack.  That killed two minutes so we sat and waited watching Footloose on the TV.  English channels here are limited to two and believe it or not Footloose was the best option.

After checking out we walked to the local Coffee shop and had some lunch.  We were not getting picked up until 3pm.  After lunch we returned to the hotel and sat in reception watching as busloads of people arrived.  Mainly men, who all spoke really loudly despite only being a foot away from the person they were talking to.  We could only speculate that this was due to the fact they were welders and worked in very noisy environments.

The guide and driver arrived just as I was having a last ciggy so of course everyone had to wait for me again.  We were driving back to Bhubaneswar airport where we would catch a flight back to Delhi.  We were pleased to note that the airport here wasn’t the same shambles as Kolkata.  There was plenty of chairs and a very nice restaurant. 

With a little forward thinking we ordered some veg pakora which we had intended to stick in a bag and eat when we arrived in Delhi as we were sure it would be very late.  In our experience all internal flights in are always delayed. The waiter asked if we wanted them packaged and put them in a nice foil tray with napkins. 

There was a smoking area in the restaurant so I of course took advantage of this before we left to go through security.  It was all remarkably painless and we were astounded when the flight actually left on time. 

Our driver seemed a bit confused as to where the hotel was located.  It is a bit like a rabbit warren in that area with narrow roads, cars parked everywhere and cars tooting each other to reverse into a gap so that they can pass.  Luckily Will and I recognised the main road and were able to direct the driver to the narrow street where our hotel was.  The driver had a most bemused look when we started directing him and was almost incredulous that we got him to the right street.

It was still pretty late when we arrived at the Clark International Hotel in the Karol Bagh area so we ate our pakora with some freshly brewed tea.  Yum!!

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Thursday 16th December – Puri

After breakfast we went to the tours and travel manager’s office and met our guide/driver for the day, a chap with the good Indian name of Peter.

Peter drove us through Puri town centre and we were singularly unimpressed.  Ok so the road was about 10 lanes wide but there was not much there of any note.  There seemed to be an abundance of banks but not many shops.  The market as far as we could see consisted of people sitting with a sheet on the floor with vegetables on it.  The cows were everywhere, fat, happy looking cows they were too.  

The road was one of the best we have been on in India and took us through many small agricultural towns and rice paddies. The lake was massive, lots of it being used for farming.  There were little islands everywhere and it was quite funny to see a cow on an island that was little bigger than it was.  Only when they left the island and were only ankle deep did it make sense.

We arrived at the tourist centre and chartered our boat for two and a half hours to take us to see the river mouth and the wild dolphins.  Our skipper was joined by his son and they took turns steering the boat.  Whomever was driving got to wear the shared baseball cap.  Will gave the boy his cap and after a little adjustment he seemed pleased as punch.

We passed villages, fishermen and lots of other boats.  One boat pulled along side and matched our speed to allow a chap to jump aboard with a washing up bowl of what we thought was seafood.  It turned out he was offering us oysters.  He broke one open and showed us the pearl.  Will and I were both wondering how he was going to cook the seafood until the pearl appeared . .  doh!

We arrived at the dolphin area and sat and watched.  We were lucky enough to see a dolphins or at least bits of dolphin.  They don’t jump out of the water like those you see in a dolphinarium but they do come up for air.  We saw quite a few but were never fast enough to get any pictures.

After a brief stop at the river mouth where we were once again offered pearls at extortionate prices and cold beer we returned to the tourist area.  We asked Peter if the food was good and he said no, it was dirty but he would take us somewhere clean.  The restaurant owner greeted us with a large crab and told us it was special before giving us the menu.  Will ordered crab thali and I ordered boiled egg thali.  The owner kept telling Will that it wasn’t special and was pointing to other items on the menu that were special.  Eventually he gave up pushing the special and went away with our order.

Will thoroughly enjoyed his crab.  I enjoyed most of my egg except the bit that bounced off the spoon, hit me in the guts and rolled down my front leaving a nice tumeric stain as it went.  I know I an a messy eater generally but in my defence I was only given a metal spoon to eat with and I use the term metal loosely.  It would be far more descriptive to say my spoon was made of tin foil.  You try cutting a hard boiled egg with tin foil and you see how good you are!

On the way back to the hotel both of us were dozing off in the car.  Not too sure if it was the hum of the diesel engine or the calming influence of the lake but we both felt tired.

Dinner in the hotel that evening was most amusing, waiters were rushing round like crazy showing us the vast array of dishes available.  We were a little peeved when we discovered that there was no bread again but sat down to eat.  The drinks arrived quickly and then the head waiter came out with a basket of freshly cooked bread just for us.  It was garlic nan bread that was burning hot and very nice.  We were pestered by it seemed half of the restaurant staff asking if everything was ok.  10/10 for effort.

Wednesday 15th December - Puri

We spent the morning on the beach.  What a fantastic beach it was too.  Deserted golden sand as far as the eye could see in both directions.  We had a bit of a paddle but the waves were a little too ferocious for swimming.  All too soon it was time to return to the hotel which is a 5 minute drive away through the protected forest that is home to deer.  We didn’t actually see any wild deer just evidence that they had “been” there.

Later that afternoon we visited the Tours and Travels man.  We were just planning to get the car to drive us into town but he talked us into visiting Dolphin Island and seeing the largest lake in India.

Spent more time mooching around and watching telly till dinner time.

Went down to dinner and the restaurant was deserted, this was due to the wedding that all the American Gujeratis were attending.  We ordered our drinks and set off for the buffet.  It was quite disappointing, many of the tureens were empty; there were no meat dishes and no bread.  When we sat down to eat we were even more disappointed as the food was all ice cold.  After a few mouthfuls each we gave up.  Cold cauliflower is pretty awful.  Our drinks still hadn’t arrived.  I called the waiter and asked for our drinks and he asked us if everything was ok to which we both replied no, the food is cold.

He dashed off and ten minutes later returned with our drinks and the bill.  Will wrote on the bill about the lack of dishes and food being inedible due to it being cold. Another waiter appeared who asked if we wanted something else.  Will was not a happy bunny and said no thanks and that we just wanted to go back to our room.

Back in the room I cracked out a packet of biscuits and we started playing cards.  After 10 mins the doorbell rang and it was the chief chef who apologised and wanted to have another chance to cook us something.  Will said no thanks and sent him away.

Another 20 mins passed and half a packet of biscuits and the doorbell rang again.  This time it was the Restaurant manager and two waiters, they had brought us a meal.  He was very apologetic and wanted us to please eat something.  They had cooked us the most expensive dishes on the menu; a prawn dish, chicken curry, rice with fruit and cashews and some garlic nan bread.  They dished it up and all stood watching to make sure we were going to eat it.  When they were happy we were munching they left us to it.

The dishes were all great tasting and hot too.  We were quite pleased to get a dinner as we had eaten something at lunchtime that had disagreed with both of us and we were looking forward to having a good meal to get rid of the acid stomach.

Dinner in your room at 10.30 is pretty special I can tell you!

Tuesday 14th December - Puri

We were hoping for a bit of sunshine and lazing by the pool.  However, the weather was not with us.  Still, not to be put off we sat by the pool under a shelter from the rain.  

We spent the rest of the day mooching round, watching telly, playing cards and eating.

Monday 13th December - Bhubaneswar/Puri

After an early breakfast we were collected by our guide and taken to a temple en –route to Puri which was high up a hill and gave us a spectacular view of the city.  We drove for a while watching the changing scenery and went to the Sun Temple in Konark, built in the 13th Century with some colossal carvings of life sized elephants, horses and some very fine carvings.

We were allowed to get out of the car for the ubiquitous artisan’s village, this one being appliqué or gaudy tat as were saw it.  We went to a sweetie stall and bought some zingy zangy sweets.  We have no idea what flavour they were, I would say it was beuuuwwwk, sweetish, spicy and very strange especially when you are expecting something citrus.

Eventually arrived at the hotel.  We couldn’t understand if the guide was offering to come back tomorrow and take us to yet another temple but we politely declined and said we would see him in a few days when he came to collect us to go back to Bhubaneswar.

Hotel Toshali Sands is on a road with a couple of shops opposite and a Coffee shop a short walk away, apart from that nothing else for miles.  The reception area was pleasant, check in was painless.  The bellboy took us to our room which was more like a suite with a dining table, chairs and balcony.  It was a little scruffy looking but clean.  The bathroom was adequate except for the bath that had a hole that had been patched and was cracked.  I was sure that one of us would break it completely with our weight.

We unpacked and called housekeeping to request extra pillows and some towels.  No sooner had Will put down the phone when there was a ring at the door with a chap bearing our requests.  Next the woman from reception arrived and stood just inside the door watching us which was a bit spooky.  Thankfully when the housekeeping chap left she did too . . . .  reluctantly.

We settled down for a nap and were disturbed by the phone.  I said hello, a woman at the other end said hello.  It went quiet.  She said hello, I said hello.  It went quiet.  She said Good afternoon, I said hello.  She said Good afternoon (insistently this time) so I said good afternoon.  I was getting bored when she started rattling on about something that I couldn’t understand.  I asked her to speak slowly, then repeat, repeat again.  I had to say I can’t understand.  She didn’t give up, she just kept talking.

I called Will to the phone there followed the good afternoon ritual and Will asking her to repeat herself.  Finally he caught one word. . .. . .   “Massage”.  He said no thanks but she still burbled on and on.  I think when we eventually hung up the conversation had lasted about 10 mins.

I was just getting comfy on the bed and settling down for a nap when the phone rang again.  This time it was the Travel and Tours desk, I said we would see him tomorrow.  I think we managed about 30 mins sleep before the next call, Laundry I think this one was.

We gave up, got showered and dressed and out for a walk.  The shops opposite the hotel may have been pretty sparse but they had everything we required; water, mango juice, biscuits and crisps.  We took a stroll round the grounds of the hotel which is set in a protected area of forest and discovered the pool.  We sat by the pool for a while and were offered massage, foot massage, sauna etc.  Next the entertainments manager advised us that at 7pm there was a demonstration of traditional local dance.  We went back to the room and had a cup of tea in the hopes of getting some peace.

It worked we sat about relaxing and drinking tea till about ten to seven.  We were just on our way out the door when the Entertainments Manager phoned to ask if we were coming.  9/10 for enthusiasm here!

The dancing was to take place in the games room, chairs were set out and people were sitting waiting.  We were given a leaflet explaining that the dance was about poses and was performed by young boys, dressed as young girls.  Hmmmmm!

We got chatting to a chap from the US who told us that 68 of them originally from Gujerat checked in today and another 70 were arriving tomorrow.  We didn’t think the hotel was that big but there were lots of little bungalows dotted around the compound that we had not seen.

Anyway, the dance started and it was quite strange.  Two of the boys looked like boys but there were a couple that were just too good at it and were very pretty too.  The dance was interesting but the poses were more akin to a circus balancing act and most impressive.  

After the dancing we went to the restaurant for dinner, buffet.  It was great, plenty of choice and great flavours.  They had cheesecake and ice cream for pudding which pleased me.

After dinner we retired to our room and played a few hands of cards before bedtime.

Sunday 12th December - Bhubaneswar

Our guide picked us up shortly after breakfast for a tour of the temples. We saw four temples that were pretty special.  The monk who was in charge of one of them was not impressed that I put money in the donation box rather than give it to him.  He told me that box was for God and asked what about me!

Will got fleeced by a couple of locals when we were looking at a spectacular temple from an observation point.  They came up with their donation book and were quite disgusted when Will only gave them 20 rupees as that was all he had.  The guide had just told us that the government pay for the upkeep of the temple so when the boys asked me for money I just told them no.  Will had obviously dropped off to sleep whilst the guide was saying that bit.

The guide was quite knowledgeable but he sounded as if he was just regurgitating facts and he had a really boring way of doing so.  It got to the stage that we were walking away from him when he started talking in order to stay awake.  We are sure he will make a good guide one day when he learns to relax and just talk rather than just reciting information.

We were returned to the hotel for lunch.  There were five restaurants/bars in the hotel.  One of them being Mirch Masala, my fav restaurant in the UK.  We decided to save that for dinner rather than lunch and went to “Bling it On”.  We ordered a basic pizza and some soup and bread.  Will’s soup (instant packet) turned up after 35 mins and my pizza eventually turned up after 45 mins.  We seriously considered returning to the room and calling Dominos, they are pretty big over here.

After lunch we resumed our tour and went to a temple with rooms cut into bare rock with some exquisite carvings.  There were wires everywhere covered in fibre glass with big speaker boxes dotted round.  Our guide advised that this was for a sound and light show but it never worked.  That was the first thing he said that actually made us laugh.

Back at the hotel for a wash and brush up before dinner in Mirch Masala.  Boy was I disappointed.  The menu was good but again the service was so slowwww.  We waited about 35 mins to get our drinks.  We have come to the conclusion that drinks must be considered as a pudding or something that you have when you have almost finished your meal over here because it happens everywhere.  We have taken to carrying our own bottle of water to tide us over until our order arrives.

Saturday 11th December - Kolkata/Bhubaneswar

After a leisurely breakfast we went out walking we bought a foot scraper and I got a watch.  Stopped in a bar for a drink and had some nibbles and returned to the hotel to cool down. 

After a short rest we went out again looking for lunch and ended up in a Spicy Fried Chicken restaurant.  The waiter was disappointed that we didn’t want chicken.  We ate our noodles and veg pakora returned to the hotel to pack.

We were collected early for our drive to the airport and it seems we got there in record time.  I didn’t have a last cigarette outside the airport and severely regretted that as there was no smoking room.  Calcutta domestic airport is a disaster.  There are not enough seats, hardly anywhere to buy food, nothing to do and no information is given.  Our flight was delayed eventually by two hours.  The plane was so hot that even the locals were complaining to the stewardesses that they were being cooked.  We sat on the tarmac gradually getting hotter and hotter and after 20 mins the captain announced that there was a technical problem and that paperwork had to be completed.

He advised us that the flight would take exactly one hour wheels up to wheels down.  He lied it was almost an hour and 20 mins.  I was grumpy beyond belief when we landed due to the lack of nicotine for 5 and a half hours.  We were met by our guide and driver who tried to put a garland round my neck.  I thought he was just another local trying to get money from me so I growled at him and dodged the garland whilst sparking up.

I noticed that Will had the garland so on the driver’s second attempt I let him put one round my neck.  It was icy cold and smelled fantastic.  We walked across the car park and the car was loaded with our luggage but I was going to finish my ciggy before going anywhere so everyone waited just for me. 

It was a short ride to the hotel The New Marrion which is on the main road. Another spotlessly clean hotel with a massive room with dish tv.  We even have our own covered balcony with sofa, chairs and even a rocking chair. 

Due to the late hour we ordered a room service meal and retired to bed.

Friday 10th December - Kolkata

Met our guide at 9.30 who asked about our itinerary.  He noticed that the zoological gardens were on it and asked if we really wanted to see sick animals.  He said he would take us some other places instead.

Our first port of call was a Jain temple the guide described as kitch.  The chap who build it was very rich and very well travelled.  Sadly it did not bestow good taste on him as the temple was a mish-mash of so many styles but visually it was stunning with the mirrors, mosaics and inlaid semi-precious stones.

Next stop was the coffee house, famous for being the birthplace of the Indian Revolution.  Everywhere here in India is now no smoking.  There are signs in the coffee house saying no smoking but the intellectuals say that they must have coffee and be able to smoke so a blind eye is turned.

A visit to Mother Theresa’s Mission followed where we saw personal items and were told the story of this amazing woman from Macedonia who dedicated her life to the homeless of Calcutta and to hundreds of other very poor areas around the world.  Thankfully poverty on that scale is no longer present in Calcutta due to government intervention.  

Our guide told us that Calcutta is the cultural centre of India and that it is traditional to give the gift of a flower and a book.  We visited the book market, we have never seen so many books in one place.  There was something like 3,500 bookshops, stalls and even street vendors selling books of all sorts from technical manuals to British and American classics with everything imaginable in between.  

We visited the wholesale market, one of the few remaining in India where the carrying is all done by hand.  We saw four men carrying a sack on their heads that must have weighed about a tonne.  There were hundreds of other people carrying smaller sacks on their heads and people selling all manner of fruit, veg and spices.  I thought the smells were fantastic.  Will assures me that there was the pungent odour of rotting veg everywhere but luckily I could only smell the nice things.

We drove round the centre of Old Calcutta and saw some fantastic buildings.  Unfortunately you have to photograph from the car as no parking is allowed except for government officials.  After a visit to the Victoria Memorial which is a stunning marble building with a dome not unlike St. Paul’s Cathedral in London we returned to the hotel.

Our guide was very entertaining and very knowledgeable.  He writes articles for newspapers, academic papers, department of linguistics and many others.  He had a lovely story telling voice and was so well spoken Will and I were almost putting on our telephone voices.

We would have loved to talk to him all night he had us in stitches, not just his jokes but the fact that his favourite place in the UK is Folkestone.  He has been to the UK 17 times and always likes to spend at least two days there to unwind and relax. 

We made our way back to the hotel and had a rest before going out in search of dinner.  Search being the operative word.  We had heard that Park Street was the place to eat and drink.  It was only a short walk from the hotel so off we set.  We gaily walked along Park Street then, I have no idea how we did it, but we managed to get lost.  We ended up walking for over an hour in what was quite a warm evening before finally doing a complete circle and ending up back on Park Street.

We picked a restaurant that looked busy and sat down, wiping the exertion from our brows as we did so.  The waiters made a fuss of us and left us with the menu.  They asked several times if we were ready to order but we weren’t, the menu was extensive and we couldn’t make up our minds.  

When we eventually placed our order the waiter asked if we knew what we had ordered to which we replied yes.  He obviously didn’t believe us so decided to test us.  “What is alu matter?”  “potato and peas”. “What is chana?”  “Chick peas”  “Hrummpph, you must speak Hindi” and off he trotted.  The food was good but not as good as the canteen the previous night and it was three times the price too.

Back at the hotel we asked if we could extend our room and were told no problem, what time would you like to check out?  A big change from the previous hotel.  We both loved Calcutta and want to return.  If we do, we definitely want to stay at the hotel Lytton again.

Thursday 9th December - Kolkata

Calcutta station was mad with hundreds of people milling round, many of them staring at us.  I decided that when people were staring I would say hello to them.  A good plan in theory.  However, in practise nigh on impossible to say hello so many times.

Arrived at the Hotel Lytton in the heart of Calcutta and were wowed by the décor.  Stained and hand made glass everywhere in striking patterns. We were even more impressed when we saw our spotlessly clean room that was massive and housed a table and chairs, pull out sofa with coffee table and a huge bed.  After a quick shower and change of clothes we went in search of food as we hadn’t eaten for about 20 hours.

Stumbled across a small veg restaurant and had a thali that was different to the ones we had previously but still just as tasty.  Mooched around the streets for a while getting our bearings and of course attracting the stares before we went to the Indian Museum, the largest in Asia.  The natural history section was good but could have been better if the exhibits were cleaned.  I think the museum was opened in 1950 and didn’t look as if it had been cleaned since.  Some of the statues from the 10th century were stunning in their detail.

We started to look around the geological department, I love looking at rocks but was sadly disappointed.  Some of the cases were so dusty that you could not see the exhibits inside.  We did laugh when we saw the albino tiger that was so dirty and dusty that he was yellowy brown in colour.

Walked around for a while and managed to attract a shopkeeper who was almost on par for persistence as the rickshaw driver from the previous day.  We retreated to the hotel for a drink to shake him off.  

There was a chap in the bar boasting to the barman that he had 17 cars and then thought he should tell us that he has been to Australia.  We acted suitably impressed before beating a retreat to our room.  Had a bit of a nap and watched some tv before showering and going in search of food.

Found a great restaurant full of locals and had a great meal for about £2.00 each.  Walked around the streets and attracted yet another shopkeeper who was keen to tell us that his grandfather was in the British Army and his mother who was 115 got 400 rupees per month from the British Government and did we want to buy pashminas, shawls or scarves.  We walked off most of our dinner and came back to the hotel and said goodnight to our new friend.  I am sure he will be waiting for us in the morning and by now the rickshaw driver from Varanasi will be here.  

We have a full day sightseeing tomorrow. 

Wednesday 8th December - Varanasi/train

We had breakfast in the hotel and learned from one of the waiters about the bomb in the town. We went back to the room and put on the news and realised that we were lucky we had chosen to go on the evening boat trip the night we did.  An 18 month old girl was killed and about 25 other people were injured.  It was a small home made device but still big enough to cause damage.

As far as we are aware no-one has claimed responsibility.  Two men were arrested in Delhi for sending an e-mail claiming responsibility.  It seems strange that here in India they are more tolerant of other religions than anywhere else in the world.  Hindus and Muslims live side by side in harmony, never mind the Christians and Bhuddists too.  It makes you ask why.  Why would anyone want to harm innocent people?  I guess it is in the name of god.  If God wants you to go round killing and injuring people I am glad I am an atheist.

Our pick up was due at 7pm.  We asked repeatedly if it would be possible to extend our room but were told it was not possible.  We were kicked out of the room at 11am.  Only 8 hours to kill.

We went for a walk, the roads were much quieter and people were a little subdued.  A rickshaw driver latched on to us and was telling us that the area of the bomb was closed off and it was a bad area.  He chatted as we walked and kept trying to get us to hire him, very cheap 20 rupees for one hour, 10 rupees each, much cheaper than motor scooter.  I thought it was funny that he was following us everywhere we went.  Will was getting a little peeved.  We tried several evasive moves to lose him, just as we were congratulating ourselves he would turn up again.

Eagle eyed Will noticed a sign saying Bar so of course we had to investigate.  Rickshaw driver advised us good for beer, so off we went.  The bar was almost in total darkness in stark contrast to the bright daylight outside.  We chatted to the bar owner for a while and he put the English channel on the TV for us to watch.  Someone managed to film the actual blast from the previous night and it was repeated every 5 mins.  Eventually we all got bored of it and a music channel was put on, much more cheerful.

We were on our second drink when I noticed the menu.  We ordered some nibbles, veg pakora and paneer spring roll.  Wow! The pakora were the best we had ever tasted and the spring roll was lovely too.  At one point Will was staring at something behind me and told me not to look round.  I thought it was some sort of creepy crawly but apparently it was a mouse who was sitting in the breath freshener bowl.  When the owner brought us the bill in the breath freshener bowl Will didn’t even take it out to look, just threw some money in it.  We still think they were the best pakoras we have ever tasted and there were no nasty after affects.

We were in the bar about an hour and a half, rickshaw driver was waiting outside with his usual line of patter only 20 rupees for one hour etc.  He gave up on this tack and tried to engage us on a political level.  “Osama Bin Laden is a bad man, I don’t like him and George Bush is a good man”.  Thankfully we spotted a veg restaurant we had earlier mistaken for a pizza place and made a dash for it to escape the highbrow conversation.  Richshaw driver said that it was very expensive in there and offered to take us to the Indian market to buy pashminas, only 20 rupees etc.  I did wonder if he expected us to eat pashminas.

We had a couple of veg thalis that were very nice.  An hour or so later we came out of the restaurant and yes, you have guessed it, rickshaw driver was still waiting for us.   10 out of 10 for persistence and 8/10 for amusement value.  He followed us back to the hotel and seemed pleased that we said we would look for him the next day.  We fully expected him to follow us to Calcutta.

Only three hours to kill back in the hotel.  We bought 30 mins internet time and set about sending emails and facebook updates informing people that we were nowhere near the bomb blast.

We sat at a table and got out the cards.  We had been playing our game for about 30 mins when one of the girls came over to tell us that we were not allowed to play cards in the lobby.  We asked why, we were not gambling.  We were advised that the manager said that it was not permitted.  I think he was just cheesed off that we weren’t buying drinks at extortionate prices.  We were so pleased when the cab came to collect us.  We couldn’t wait to leave that hotel.

The guide told us that the station was 18km away and it would take us 45 mins.  We thought it was the traffic that would make the journey so slow.  Initially there was a bit of traffic but the real problem was unmade roads.  We bounced along for just over 30 mins.

We were told that the train was 20 minutes delayed and that we were not booked on the same carriage.  The guide went and swapped our tickets whilst we waited in the air conditioned car right opposite a purpose built urinal that remained largely unused as men much prefer to pee up the wall next to it.

After a while we grabbed our bags and ran the gauntlet of porters, beggars and fighting dogs between the car park and the station. We hefted our cases up and over to our platform and stood waiting.  The delay was now extended to 30 mins, then 50 mins and finally one hour.  We got chatting to a chap from Calcutta who had left his bag about a foot or two behind him and the rats had chewed their way through it.  The rats were daring devils running round and jumping on anything that was dropped that could have been food.  We were even entertained by rats fighting for a while.

Eventually we got on the train.  I was shocked to see that we were sharing a carriage with two other people, I don’t think they were that pleased either to see a female.  Will obviously elected me to have the top bunk and I pulled off some amazing monkey like climbing to actually get up there.  It seemed in less that 5 mins Will was asleep and snoring.  The old fella in the top bunk opposite me was coughing and grunting so I read for a while. 

I think the train eventually left Varanasi just over an hour and a half late.   Our rat bagged friend from the platform had advised us that it didn’t matter if the train left late it would still arrive on time, he was wrong we arrived an hour and half or so late.

Tuesday 7th December - Varanasi

You know what happens when you really need to get to sleep early, bing! You are wide awake.  Will and I read for ages before finally settling down for the night, only to wake up a couple of hours later at 2am and again be wide awake.  Anyway, we still managed to get out of bed and do the dawn trip.  It was pretty chilly but the faithful were bathing, some were even swimming.  One chap was singing and swimming, we were impressed.

We walked a little round the old town of Varanasi with its narrow winding alleys dodging cows, goats, mopeds and of course cow pats.  We saw the outside of the Kashi Vishwanath temple (golden temple) with its intricate carvings but were only allowed to peek through the doors at the internal splendour as we were non Hindus.  Close by is a famous mosque.  Security getting in the area was very tight, we were not allowed to carry anything in with us, were scanned and frisked.  They were either very thorough or just wanted to cop a feel of the fat white man’s family jewels.

The difference in the amount of people on the street from the previous night was startling, you could walk at least ten paces before someone tried to sell you postcards, bindhis, henna or some awful trinket whereas the previous night you had to contend with one person either side of you constantly. 

We had some masala tea in the old town area and actually bought some masala spices to make our own when we get home.  The shopkeeper assured us that the mixture was made by his 94 year old grandmother.  We were going to buy a wooden carving of Lord Ganesh but he tried to rip us off by quoting a ridiculously high starting price.   He tried to haggle a little but we walked away as we do not like to do business with people who are deliberately trying to rip off tourists.  A little profit is fine but blatant overcharging is wrong.

Back to the hotel for some breakfast and a nap before our afternoon excursion to see even more temples.  The most interesting one was called MotherIndia temple and was dedicated to the Indian nation.  Housed in it was a relief map of India and some of Indo-China made entirely of marble and perfectly to scale.  It took six years to make and the effect is breathtaking being able to see the Himalayas in contrast to the plans.

The guide discovered the previous evening that we had not tried South Indian food so he took us to a restaurant for lunch where we had Dosa, a very thin bread that was rolled into a tube about 18 inches wide.  With it came chutney, dal and a vegetable dish.  We were impressed and will be looking for Dosa again.

The rest of the day was spent lazing about before eating in the hotel due to the fact that there were no restaurants within walking distance. Before diner we heard a big bang and didn’t think too much of it as it is wedding season here and fireworks go off all the time.  Given the choice we would rather have eaten anywhere than in the hotel.  The prices were extortionate, probably because they know they are the only place to eat and drink locally. The only saving grace is that the restaurant staff are friendly and the food it pretty good.

Monday 6th December - Varanasi

After a good night’s sleep we were collected by our guide and taken to Sarnath, 10km from Varanasi, the place where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon after enlightenment.   We visited the archaeological museum, saw the ruins of many monasteries and stupas.  It was very interesting seeing where history was created.

Our guide asked us if we would like to do the evening riverboat ride on the Ganges which of course we did.  It was a fantastic sight, a vast array of small boats rowing down the river towards the outdoor crematorium.  The chief mourner of the family wears all white clothes.  There is no crying at the funeral, women are not allowed to attend due to their “gentle heart”.  The family stay with the body until it has been fully burnt, approx three hours they then go to the temple to pray.

There are rules as to who cannot be burned at an open cremation; pregnant women, children under the age of ten, those who have died due to a snake bite and those suffering with leprosy.   These bodies are cast adrift in the Ganges far upriver from where all the temples are.  

From our boat we witnessed an amazing ritual carried out simultaneously by five young priests in which they made offerings to the gods including incense, fire, feathers and water.  There were huge crowds gathered on the steps of the Ghat.  Bells were rung constantly and there was chanting and music. 

After we had got off the boat we mingled with the crowd in the busy streets where there were several wedding processions taking place.  We ate at a great vegetarian restaurant recommended by our guide then went home to bed in the hopes of getting lots of sleep.  Our next excursion was a dawn boat ride on the Ganges to see the pilgrims bathing.

Sunday 5th December - Varanasi

The Hotel Hindustan International is a fairly tired looking hotel.  The rooms are spacious and well furnished.  Everything looks either in need of a good clean or redecorating especially the bathroom that has dark damp patches and a badly fitting shower door causing water stains to the floor etc. 

After we eventually managed to get a cup of tea we went out for a walk to see what the local area had to offer by way of food and drink.  Varanasi is the oldest city in India and as such all of the shops are little kiosk type affairs.  We bought supplies of bottled water, mango juice and crisps but were unable to find any restaurants or places to have a drink.

We returned to the hotel slightly dusty and amused at the fact we had caused a small traffic jam because people wanted to stop and stare at us.  Fat white people must be a novelty here.

We had dinner in the hotel’s Indian restaurant. The food was superb and the waiting staff were great, helpfully describing things to us.  Neither of us had the heart to tell them that we knew exactly what everything on the menu was.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Friday 3rd/Saturday 4th December - Delhi/Varanasi

After only a short delay of an hour our flight took off. We were hoping the flight would be quiet and we would have a spare seat, no such luck.  Upon arrival in Doha we found a smoking room.  I had time for one quick ciggy before we boarded the next plane.

India Ghandi International airport had changed so much in just a year we hardly recognised it.  Clean, air conditioned and organised.  The only downside was that instead of coming outside the terminal and jumping into a car you now have to walk for miles to get to the multi storey car park.

We were taken to our hotel by a nice man called Francis who advised that Vinay, our travel agent would be meeting us there.  The Star Rock hotel in South Delhi was very nice, clean rooms with large flat screen on the wall with cable tv.  The bathroom was so state of the art we had to have lessons on how to use the taps and shower.

After travelling for 19 hours we were tired and a bit wiffy.  After a quick sluice in the ultra modern shower we were ready for a good long nap.  Of course as our heads hit the pillows Vinay called us on the internal phone to say he was here.  We said our hellos handed over payment for our trip and give him his present of two bottle of Glenfiddich chatted for a while and decided to meet up in the morning to go over the itinerary.

We went back to our room for our longed for nap.  After a few hours we woke up and as instructed, called our friend Gurdip who lives in Delhi.  We were expecting to meet his sons, see his dogs and go for something to eat.  However, Gurdip neglected to tell us that we would be attending an engagement party.  We were dressed for Delhi not Delhi society.  Will was wearing cammo shorts and a tee shirt proclaiming “Dos Chevesas por favor” with an attractive picture of two pints on it.  I was a little better for a change not wearing cammos.

We went to Gurdip’s house and were surprised at the size, the lounge was huge, as big as the ground floor of our whole house.  We greeted a chap at the door warmly as we thought he was a family member, he turned out to be a servant.  Gudip’s mum was an amazing lady who kept us entertained whilst the boys showered and put on their good suits. 

We drove to this fantastic venue with hundreds of people dressed to the nines.  On our way there Gurdip came up with the idea of telling people that our luggage had not arrived.  We were greeted warmly by the families.  There were so many staff bringing fantastic nibbles constantly.  Then came the ring ceremony where the affianced were on a large stage under a beautiful canopy of pink silk.  After the ceremony the bar was opened. 

Gudip was pouring Chivas Regal down Will like there was no tomorrow.  Luckily all the food soaked most of it up.  The evening was a little chilly, I was glad I bought a cardie as then Gurdip advised us that food would be served outside.  We thought the nibbles were the food!

Outside there must have been at least 100 staff serving all manner of food.  There were two massive salad stations, pasta, bread being cooked while you wait and various chairs and sofas to sit at.  We had a big plateful of food and then went back to the party.  The females from the girl’s side of the family did a dance and then the bride danced on her own.  There followed more dancing and drinking.  Some of the dresses were amazing, covered in rhinestones and tiny glittering jewels it really was a spectacular sight to see.

By midnight we were flagging badly so Gurdip drove us back to the hotel where we slept the sleep of the dead until 9am on Sunday morning.

We had a good breakfast then met Vinay.  Our flight to Varanasi was delayed so we spent a few hours at the airport eating some of the best samosas you have ever tasted.  Finally the flight was called so we went and queued at the gate.  It turned out they had changed the gate so we were in the wrong queue.  We found the right gate and joined the queue.  This again turned out to be the wrong queue but finally we made it. 

After a short flight we arrived in Varanasi and were taken to our hotel.  The Hotel Industan International.  We unpacked our bags and were ready for a cup of tea.  A sign in our room proclaimed that tea/coffee making facilities were available on request.  Not our request though, lucky we brought our trusty kettle.  The next problem was the sockets are not the same here as in Delhi and our adapters didn’t work.  We again called housekeeping who brought us a four way adapter with a blown fuse.  Once more the poor man came back with another adapter and it worked, we were able to have tea.