Girls Weekend in Miami

Miami makes for a great east coast girlie weekend getaway.  Being able to feel the warm sun while the East coast cold front reigns makes it even more tempting from October to March. Fly in Friday evening and you have plenty of time to make the most of the weekend. No passport necessary.

The accommodation that worked best was renting this apartment through Homeaway which was very reasonable, spacious and centrally located.  It even had its own pool for use on the roof.

 Saturday am

Rise early Saturday am to make a day of it exploring.  First stop was brunch and Jerry’s diner was a find serving a super breakfast.

Next explore the waterfront. The bicycle scheme is a great way to zip up and down the boardwalk.  You can pick up and drop off from any location and you do not have to return to the same station as you picked up from.  The bike path runs right along the shoreline and makes a great way to explore.

After all that exertion park yourselves under an umbrella for the rest of the morning and take a dip in the ocean.

Saturday afternoon

For the afternoon a good option for a little pampering is one of Miami’s many spas.  I have used the Aveda spa in the Palms Hotel  which has any treatment you could care for.  Their body wraps are incredible.  They also do manicure and pedicures and have a hair salon onsite.  One of the perks of the spa is that you can use the hotel’s beach and pool facilities before and after your appointment which allows you to make an afternoon of it.  An afternoon margarita by the pool seals in the relaxation.

Saturday evening

Glammed up and ready to go.  Pre dinner drinks at the Rose Bar in the Delano hotel are the perfect aperitif.  Their chilli cocktail comes highly recommended.

For dinner Escopazzo was a superb meal with a really eclectic menu including plentiful vegetarian options.  The fish and pastas stole the show.  It was great value.  If Italian does not take your fancy Sushi samba is another good option for girls night.

For after dinner dancing we chose Mansion which is really centrally located.  It was expensive and the staff characteristically grumpy but the entertainment was plentiful.

Sunday am

Rising late after the night before you will likely have to satisfy the munchies.  Joes stone crab  is delicious and low key – and if you really cant move they will deliver.

If you have more party energy left then hit the scene at Nikki Beach where the sunday brunch is something of an institution.   Their namesake rose wine can cure any ills.  The music pumps and the breakfast buffet lasts all day.

If you have time, take a stroll around the harbor afterwards and spot the giant cruise ships docked for the day.  They all leave in an orderly procession starting at about 5pm every evening.

All that’s left before you fly out is to pencil in the weekend you can all make next year…

 

 

 

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Hidden Gem: Stegmaier Mansion, Wilkes-barre, PA

Our stay at the Stegmaier mansion was happenstance.  Call it luck, as we stumbled across an absolute treasure.  It is everything a Bed and Breakfast should be; unique, friendly, gracious and warm as well as having an incredibly interesting past.

The B&B is in a mansion once belonging to the famous local gentry, the Stegmaier family.  It has been painstakingly restored for over 10+ years by its owner, Joe Matteo to the days when the Stegmaiers lived in the mansion – the early 1900s.  Deservedly the winner of as many a restoration award.

Joe is a gracious host who brims with enthusiasm.  He presented us with some of the local Stegmaier brew upon our arrival and then he gave us a detailed tour through the intricate rooms.  Each room is decorated in a specific manner.  There is the library, the ladies drawing room, the kitchen and the parlor to mention a few and they each have their own unique details.  It is a treasure trove for the curious.  From the intercom system between rooms to the wireless in the library to the smoking pipes and grand piano.  The house is full of family memorabilia including old photos telling the family’s story.  Each of the bedrooms also has a distinct character.  We stayed in the Gold Medal Room which was full of glorious snippets of the Stegmaier brewery’s story.

As if the décor was not enough the service at Stegmaier Mansion is exemplary.  Breakfast arrives at the door on a silver tray which hides fresh bread and strudel. There is also a limitless supply of fresh fruit and warm drinks and complimentary vanity supplies.  We could not be more complimentary of our stay or recommend it highly enough.

The Stegmaier brewery is no longer in existence but Stegmaier’s legendary Gold Medal beer is still brewed, now by the local Lion brewery.  A six pack to take home with you makes a perfect souvenir.  Never stayed in a B&B before?  This place might just change your mind.

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An English Summer’s Day in Cambridge

Cambridge makes for a wonderful day trip from London. Cambridge University is far from all Cambridge has to offer but is the focal point of the town center and a good place to start.

The University is organised into a number of colleges to which every student belongs. Students tend to have greater attachment to their college where they live and socialise than to the university itself. Kings college, Queen’s college, Trinity college and St Johns College are among the most famous but they all have a unique character. Many of the most well known colleges charge an admission fee which can rack up. My preferred option is to punt (or walk) down the ‘backs’ (these colleges are set with their backs to the river Cam). That way you get a splendid view at the grandeur of all these magnificent colleges at once. The famous landmarks, Kings college chapel, the Mathematical bridge and the bridge of Sighs are all visible from the river Cam. After that go wandering around some of the smaller, lesser known colleges, which are no less stunning. Clare, Pembroke and Peterhouse (Cambridge’s oldest college founded in 1284) as well as my alma mater Newnham are among my favourites.

  

An absolute must for any trip to Cambridge is punting. Think of a gondola in Venice but with less theatrics.  Scuadmores rules the punting roost and they offer a wide variety of tours. I recommend the self punting option – not only is it a lot cheaper but it is also a lot more fun and a lot less cramped. You will need a good sense of humour.  Remember to get up some speed and duck under the bridges, lest you get stuck!

  

After all that exertion its time for a pint. A great option next to Scuadores is the Mill, especially on a sunny day where you can spill over onto the green. Other favourites are the Eagle – of note for the Crick and Watson’s discovery of DNA – and the Pickerel.

   

In the afternoon, take one of these two gentle walks to see a bit of hidden Cambridge. The first is for literary lovers. Stroll to the Grantchester tea rooms which is about half an hour along the river Cam to the picturesque village of Grantchester. Afternoon tea here is about as British and steeped in literary history as you can get. Go for the scones and clotted cream and jam and enter the age long debate of which goes on the top! If it rains the Green Man pub is a worthy substitute.

  

For the sports lover walk through along the river from Magdalene college, and across Jesus Green to the boathouses. This stretch of the Cam is where the rowing happens. The colleges and city boat clubs are lined up along the banks and in term time the river will be awash with crews. If you can plan your trip to coincide with summer or spring bumps (Mays and Lents). It is a rowing race involving the university’s entire rowing community and a sight to behold!

Many of the colleges rent out their rooms in the summer which can be economical as well as allowing visitors to stay in some grand historical buildings.  Cambridge Rooms lets you see which colleges have availability for any given dates. Make sure you check up on the area of the college the rooms are located in – many of the colleges have accommodations off their main sites or in 70s concrete monstrosities which should be avoided at all costs.

 

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Jumping on the bandwagon: Lake Como

An invite to Lenno on Lake Como for a wedding made the perfect excuse to explore the region. Lenno was a charming cobbled stone village, complete with original roman road, which made for a picture perfect wedding in a 14th century monastery right on the lake shore. Congratuations Mr and Mrs Cavey!

 

Before the trip I hadimagined Lake Como as an overhyped Hollywood lakeside resort, not somewhere I had a particular desire to visit. But here is the thing I have learnt about the places the rich and famous have holidayed for generations. They tend to have a point.

We took the train up to the lake from Milan to Varenna and then a ferry across to the Western shore. It was a superb journey up the side of the lake on the train, with cursory glimpses of the lake’s beauty. The buses on the other hand were much less frequent and painfully slow.

  

Lake Como is jaw-droppingly beautiful, lined with steep green hills which collapse into the deep blue green water. Menaggio is a quaint little town on its shore with no more than a town square and a dock. We rented a house up on the hillside which was superb for lake views. We worked with lakecomohomes who were very professional and made the logistics easy.

The food was superb. Osteria il Pozzo right on the square was delicious but it’s La Baita that’s worthy of special mention. This modest family run place was high up the hill overlooking the lake. There is no menu – just sit back and enjoy the plethora of treats that turn up in endless procession. We had four delicious courses which with wine came to 40 euros per person. Well, well worth the trek.

A boat tour of the lake was another highlight. Forget George Clooney, the lake shore is rich in cultural history whose residents were the source of scandal for generations of European high society. We took a dip in the crystal clear, freezing waters which is not for the faint hearted.

The final stop: Milan

After Florence and Lake Como, Milan was just another big unforgiving city. Persevere as a visit to the Last Supper alone makes it worthwhile.

Even for the art novice The Last Supper was a showstopper. It is worth all the pre-planning. Viewing slots are highly sought after despite the museum being open from 815am-7pm six days a week and viewing restricted to 15 minutes. Book well in advance. Depending on when you book you may only be able to get in with a city tour which includes the Castle Sforzesco and a tour guide. While frustrating to the independent traveler it is still worth it.  That being said, even if you have not secured a place in advance, go down to the entrance anyway. It is worth checking if there are any spare places since if anyone turns up late their ticket is resold.

  

It pays to do your homework beforehand so that once in front of the masterpiece you can just soak it in. Else by the time you have listened to the explanation you are being ushered out again. The painting has gone under a painstaking restoration process over the last 20 years and that it has survived at all is miraculous. To stand before it was an honour.  Acutely aware that the 15 minutes was ticking away I got lost in the scene, gazing through the windows which carry you right into that dining hall.

The rest of our afternoon was spent close to the Duomo. The cathedral is a powerful sight, reminiscent of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. It is gothic in style and whimsically domineering. The best view of the architecture is on the roof, which you reach by elevator or the stairs. Complete your day with a brisk walk through La Galleria which leads you right out to La Scala, the world famous opera house. From there you can jump the #1 tram back up to the castle, or stay on for a full loop of the center.

 

 

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Seeking refuge in Santa Croce, Florence

Hidden amidst the groups of tourists encircling the duomo we found a low key friendly Florence which opened up a city full of surprises.

We loved the Santa Croce neighbourhood, so-named for the Santa Croce church which is its focal point, which became our Florence home for five days (We are ever grateful Karen!). We rented an apartment on Via Pinzochere which comes highly recommended. The Mansarda apartment had everything you need for a 2 person stay and right away we claimed this corner of Florence as home.

 

The very next morning after wandering around the narrow streets close to our apartment we found the Sant’ Ambrogio market. Once discovered this became a daily pilgrimage for breakfast. Both indoor and out the market had a wonderful array of fresh fruit and vegetables as well as pastas, meats and cheeses and a spot inside to grab an espresso. The piazza around the market was filled with inviting restaurants which supplied some of our best eating experiences in Florence. Il Pizzaiuolo was one of those gems which served up deliciously fresh pizza unlike any we’d had before. Even so it was pipped for our best dining experience by the small warm restaurant Antico Noe. It is a converted old butchers shop where the tables are rickety, the lights dim and the walls painted blood orange. The food was transcendent. A masterclass in fresh ingredients and simple fuss free italian cooking. Go for the specials, and the pastas, and you wont be disappointed. After your meal head to Natalino wine bar around the corner or venture into Il Buffalo Trippone – a delicatessen come wine bar where you will be welcomed like long lost friends. Dont even think about leaving!

  

It was after a trip to Il Buffalo that we discovered perhaps the most endearing reason to love Santa Croce. We lived next door to a bakery. A bakery that let us buy hot buttery, just out of the oven, Italian pastries when we got home in the wee hours.

And then there was the Basilica di Santa Croce itself which possesses an understated magnificence. We had walked past the church for days. We could see it from the end of our street. We had even parked ourselves on its steps with a bottle of wine one evening soaking up the babbling dusk. But our visit to the church itself we left until our last afternoon. The church has a fascinating history from its founding to the floods in 1966 which threatened its existence. The Giotto frescos inside which are being painstakingly restored were remarkable. The church is the burial site of many famous Italians including Michaelangelo. The church also houses a leather factory out the back which is well worth stopping in to see the masters at work. I had to be dragged out.

Santa Croce made Florence for us. It was an oasis to escape to, but close to everything with a lively genuine atmosphere. During the day we took in the museums and city sights. Booking early for the museums really did pay dividends. We used ticketitaly and had no problems. In four days we visited the Medici chapel, Accademia, Opera del Duomo, Bargello, Uffizi and the Pitti Palace. The range of artwork on offer is overwhelming so try not to overload yourself. One to two booked sites a day is plenty preferably in the early morning and late afternoon which are the quietest times of the day. The Bargello was a particular favorite given its tranquil outdoor courtyard and large collection of both sculpture and painting without the show stopper that brings the the hoopla of the Accademia or the Uffizi. The Pitti palace was a great option for a Sunday when most of the other museums are closed. The Bomboli gardens were majestic and made up of hidden corners which make an ideal picnic spot. The Bardini gardens were a lot smaller and quieter and an incredibly pleasant spot for tea.

  

Climbing the Duomo is a must. Not only are the views over the city breathtaking but the journey up inside the dome itself captures the imagination. My top tip is to shoot for the last entry of the day which is much less busy and can mean you get the viewing platform almost all to yourself as people start to leave. Treat yourself to gelato afterwards. Everyone seems to have their favorite but ours was Coronas cafe.

  

For food options more centrally food lovers will delight in the central market which has a mesmerising selection of fresh produce from the porcini mushrooms piled high, the tri colour pastas or the sundried tomatos by the bag. Truffle permeates the air. Nerbone in the market is an institution for all the right reasons. Famous for its tripe but home to the best caprese salad we had anywhere. The market also doubles as a great place to buy a little bit of Florence to take home. The mushrooms probably have to stay but the selection of olive oils and balsamic vinegars was impressive. We splashed out on some Leonardi 15 year aged balsamic vinegar which was worth every penny and will have to act a taste of Florence until we can return.

  

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Un viaje conmovedor en Loja, Ecuador

Les invito a que conozcan a Sergio Arboleda. Tres días después de su nacimiento, Sergio descubrió que su hijo Andres sufria síndrome de Down . El no sabia nada acerca de esta enfermedad y empezó a entender lo que significaba para su hijo y para su familia. Dos maestros extranjeros, que trabajaban con niños discapacitados, le ayudaron a entender. Le dieron un libro sobre el síndrome que todavía tiene. Llevo a Andres a una clínica especializada en Loja donde recibio instrucion terapeutica para tratar al nino.

   

Hoy Andres tiene 11 anos y ayuda a sus padres a hacer las artesanías que venden a los turistas. Un préstamo de FACES de baja taza de interés ayuda a la familia para que  su micro-empresa crezca y permite  que alguien se quede todo el tiempo en casa para cuidar a Andre. Cuando uno conoce Andres, el sonrie y se emociona mucho cuando su padre toca una canción en uno de sus instrumentos musicales hechos a mano.

  

Les encontré a Sergio y a Andres cuando estaba trabajando para la fundación Grameen. Me asignaron a FACES por una semana, una organización de micro-finanzas en Loja Ecuador. FACES es una organización pequeña que ofrece prestamos a los Ecuatorianos que no tienen recursos bancarios. La organización hace su trabajo con un objetivo social muy importante; generar empleos para sus clientes.

Me han interesado durante mucho tiempo las micro-finanzas y decidi participar en un programa de la fundación Grameen que se llama ‘banqueros sin fronteras’. Los estudios mas recientes sobre las micro-finanzas indagan acerca de si estas sirven para mejorar o no el nivel de vida en situaciones de pobreza. Yo queria comprobarlo por mi misma. El proyecto en Ecuador me pareció perfecto – por que tenia la oportunidad de hablar en espanol y de visitar Ecuador.

   

Loja es conocida por su ambiente tranquilo y por su gente amable. Es un pueblo pequeño, de 200 000 habitantes que se extende de norte a sur rodeado por cerros verdes. Esta entre dos rios que dan espacios verdes a la ciudad. La ciudad es antigua, una de las primeras en Ecuador, establecida en 1548. Hay varias plazas lindas, iglesias bonitas y casas coloniales pintadas en diversos colores en el centro.

   

Tambien hay dos parques – el parque Jipiro en el norte y el parque Lineal en el sur. Vale la pena visitar los dos. Hay una colección de edificios de todos los continentes del mundo en el parque Jipiro mientras que el parque Lineal es mas tranquilo y allí los lojanos hacen gymnasia. Hay varios lugares desde dondese puede ver toda la ciudad y el valle.

Me quede en el hotel de San Sebastian, limpio y barato. La comida en Loja es muy rica. Muchos de los restaurantes sirven almuerzos – una sopa, pollo o puerco y algo dulce. Cuestan $2-3 – una ganga! Recomiendo también el restauran Mar y Cuba que ofrecen ceviches riquísimos. Después aconsejo el bar el Viejo Minero. Tiene un ambiente tranquilo, música buena y copas de vino chileno a $1.50! Resulta difícil irse. Igual que de Ecuador.

Este artículo también está disponible en Inglés.

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A humbling trip to Loja, Ecuador

Meet Sergio Arboleda. Sergio first learned that his son Andres had Downs Syndrome three days after his birth. Never having heard of this condition he set out to learn about what this diagnosis meant for his son and his family. With the help of some foreigners who worked as special needs teachers he began to come to terms with the news. They gave him a book about the syndrome which he proudly still has. He started taking Andres to a specialized clinic in Loja which helped them with various therapies.

  

Now aged 11 Andres helps his mother and father make handicrafts which they make to sell to passing tourists. A low interest loan from FACES has helped the family grow their own home business which ensures that someone from the family is always at home with Andres to take care of him. Andres was smiling broadly when I met him and was visibly thrilled as his father took up one of his home made musical instruments and started to play. My attempt was not met with the same delight!

I met Sergio and Andres working for the Grameen Foundation. I was assigned to spend a week on the ground with FACES, a micro-finance institution based in Loja, Ecuador. FACES is a small organization which offer loans to low income Ecuadorians without access to credit. They link their products to a strong social mission to reduce poverty by supporting employment opportunities for their clients.

   

I have long been interested in micro-finance and became a member of Grameen Foundation’s Bankers without Borders PPI reserve corps nine months ago, desperate to see its work on the ground. Recent news flow around the micro-finance industry questioning its ability to meaningfully reduce poverty only made me more impatient. The issues around micro-finance and poverty reduction are the cutting edge of the industry which is something I am proud to be a part of. This project in Ecuador was my perfect match. First it was in Spanish and I had also been to Ecuador once before and knew I would feel at home among the Ecuadorians.

I was not wrong. Loja is known in Ecuador for its warm atmosphere and friendly people, a reputation it lived up to. It is a small, narrow, town of about 200,000 inhabitants, running north to south and flanked by rising green hills on all sides. It is split between two rivers which provide a pleasant spot of greenery in the city center. The town is old, one of the first to be settled in Ecuador in 1548. It is home to a number of attractive squares framed by pastel colored churches and colonial columned houses.

   

There are two recreation areas, one to the north (parque Jipiro) and another to the south (parque Lineal). Both are well worth a visit. The first has a collection of model buildings representing every continent and the latter is more tranquil and acts as the city’s exercise ground. There are a few good city viewing points to the east and west which allow a wide view of the valley. The surrounding valleys only get more remote and are even more beautiful with their soft rolling hills.

   

I stayed at the pleasant though nondescript Hotel San Sebastian which was clean and good value. Although not famous for its cuisine I ate very well in Loja. Most eateries serve ‘almuerzo’ which is a set lunch menu usually including a soup, choice of a chicken or pork dish and topped off with something sweet. For $2-3 these are the best deals in town. For a more upscale dinner option Mar y Cuba comes highly recommended, serving delicious ceviche and fish dishes. Finish the evening at the Viejo Minero – a gem of a bar. It has a relaxed atmosphere, good music and with Chilean red at $1.50 a glass it can be hard to leave! The same goes for Ecuador.

For more information about the project please visit:

http://ppiproject.wordpress.com/

http://www.razoo.com/story/Bankers-Without-Borders-Progress-Out-Of-Poverty

This article is also available in Spanish.

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India: North by Northwest. Part 3 – Darjeeling and Varanasi

Darjeeling

We flew out to Darjeeling via Bagdogra and took a jeep up into the hills. The air was fresh and crisp. The road was narrow, steep and windy and the hills covered with tea bushes which we saw being picked en route.  It was a slow drive – but the villages we passed through and the scenery helped pass the time. As we passed the Nepal border adorned with brightly colored flags we felt close to the mountains. Our anticipation grew. We pulled into Darjeeling, a town built of cascading houses on stilts, carved into the hillside. We made the Elgin hotel our home falling for its old world British charm, which made up for its disappointing food.

Darjeeling was something of a family pilgrimage for us. Both my grandfathers had spent time at this British retreat hill station when they were posted in East Asia in the late 1940s. They had both told tales of this town to their children; mum vividly remembering her dad talk of seeing the imposing Kanchenjunga on the skyline, and my dad’s dad of Chowrasta and the ponies that gathered there. Knowing both my grandfathers had walked these same streets made exploring this town all the more special.

The people here look distinct – warm looking with wide rosy cheeks and narrow eyes, and bundled up in blankets and animal fir. Hardy and fit for mountain life. The Himalayas dominate life here – the town home to Tenzing Norgay (Sherpa with Edmund Hillary on his 1953 expedition to Everest) who is a local hero. The mountaineering institute brings this and many more expeditions to life, its a treasure trove of mountaineering history. It is inside the zoo which is a nice stop on the way.

     

Our attempts to glimpse the mountains themselves were dashed on more than one occasion. We walked up to the viewing platform on Chowrasta, taking a picture of the ponies, but the mountains remained shrouded in cloud. Next we took the toy train – a UNESCO world heritage site – and a train lover’s delight. It runs on a two foot track, alongside the main hillside road, at present only as far as Kurseong . The train is slow and rickety, built in 1879-81. It has a coal fired steam engine, toot toot!, and I was sure it had not changed one bit since my grandfathers were here. It has two dinky carriages, which you can just about stand up in, first class and second class! If you want to spend time at Batasia loop, which on a clear day (not ours!) offers unsurpassed views of the Himalayas take the tourist train which does a loop. We got off in Ghum and walked back along Tenzing Norgay road – ask the locals for the turn! Its a lovely walk along the backside of the hill – littered with small villages and you pass a beautiful monastery perched on the hill.

    

By now we had been enveloped in cloud for three days without so much as a glimpse of the Himalayas which had such an impact on my grandfather. In a last ditch attempt we joined the huddled masses at Tiger Hill – a viewing spot another 400ft up the hillside – at 5am. I would suggest buying a ticket for the building unless you want to freeze and many cups of the sweet milky coffee on sale. We waited. The sky was brightening and we were staring so hard into the clouds that we were seeing things. Then suddenly, rising above the clouds stood the tip of Kanchenjunga, lit by the warm glow of the early pink sun. Mesmerizing and one of those moments you snap a still of in your mind to have for a lifetime. Here’s to you grandad.

Varanasi

Varanasi was our next stop, and a world apart from Darjeeling. A holy city, it is a place of tradition, ritual and pilgrimage. The main focus of the town is the Ganges with many temples, ghats, lining its shore. In the morning men come down at sunrise to bathe in its lukewarm waters. The women wash clothes and boat men take tourists on trips into the murky river. The town has special significance in Hinduism since if you die here your soul goes straight to Nirvana, breaking the cycle of reincarnation. There was a mixture of relief and inner peace in the people we met here for this fact, they feel lucky that they will die here. After death, the bodies are swathed in cloth (white for men and red for women) and carried down to the waters edge to be blessed with the holy water. In public view the bodies are brought up to the cremation ghats. The air is thick with incense, ashes and the smell of sandalwood. The families gather, comforting each other in their grief. It is a curiously uncomfortable sight for those of us who treat death and grief as so very private.

  

Back from the shore line, Varansi is a bustling town. It is made up of a maze of narrow alleyways no more than 2 ft wide but room enough for the bikes, cows and carts to roam at will. We stayed just back from the shore at the Kautilya Society Residence which was clean and friendly and fed us often. We had some of our best food anywhere here in Varanasi. Start with a sample of the wonderful sweets sold at the entrance of the old town and do not miss the Blue Lassi, one of those rare lonely planet havens which deserves its accolades. The seasonal lassis were among the best we had and my favorite du jour was the apple. VSB was a local favorite where a whole thali (meal) costs $1 and was both filling and delicious. Many of the restaurants will also make and pack up sandwiches for you which beats the offerings available at the station.

The garment district in the largely Muslim part of town is well worth a visit to see the saris being made by hand. The material patterns are hammered into the pattern board which then gets fed into the sewing machine which is worked using foot pedals to stitch the silk. A wedding sari can take a single maker six weeks or more. We also spent the morning at a local school supported in full by the German Bakery cafe. Catering to backpackers missing home the food doesn’t live up to much and is expensive but their help with our local itinerary more than made up for it. The school was a highlight as we spent the morning teaching the children about Christmas, trying to explain Christmas trees and holly.

    

The end

Before we knew it, our cross continental India trip had come to an end. We had been surprised, welcomed and enraged. Defining one’s first experience of India has stumped many an author. I found India dirty, busy and struggling. Traveling in India is hard work, it takes it out of you. Yet India is also giving and friendly. It is warm-blooded, full of life and unapologetic human energy. I can only say India left an indelible mark. We will most definitely be back.

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India: North by Northwest. Part 2 – Agra and Ranthambhore

Agra

We chose not to stay in Agra itself but hired a driver from Jaipur to go for the day. Be sure to leave early if you don’t stay overnight to beat the crowds. We arrived at the Taj Mahal at 930am and there was no queue. In the winter fog season it makes little sense to do the sunrise tour. Take a guide to fill you in on the well rehearsed anecdotes and take the ‘essential’ photos. Give yourself extra time to wander the grounds at your own pace afterward, else it can feel a bit rushed.

It does not matter how many times you have seen pictures of the Taj Mahal, standing in front of the building herself stops you dead. The effect of the white marble against the sky backdrop is transcendent. The site is at the same time both bigger and smaller than you imagine, the mausoleum itself is a narrow dome while the main building is flanked by four towers and many other buildings, one is the mosque. The attention to detail in the design was extraordinary, using inlay techniques for the precious stone designs.

Agra’s Red Fort gives you another view of the Taj Mahal, where the king who had it built was imprisoned, to see his creation only though a haze from his window. He must have wondered if it was a mirage. The fort itself, if rather overshadowed by the Taj Mahal is well worth a visit. Its red sandstone facade and greenery makes a sharp contrast to the cold white of the Taj Mahal. It had a large military role but also was the palatial home of many rulers with their white marble living quarters clearly visible in the center.

Ranthambhore

  

We ended our Rajasthan tour in the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. Home to a rare, silent, India. We stayed at the Ranthambore Regency which we would highly recommend for its service and value. Pack in as many safaris as you can – we did four over three days. We were extremely unlucky not to see a Tiger but this is the wild. There are many more sightings in the summer when sources of drinking for the Tigers get more scarce so consider this in your timing. Despite our disappointment we thoroughly enjoyed the safaris. The terrain was beautiful and each track was diverse – sandy or hilly, scrub land or wooded. We saw many different species of wildlife including crocodiles, turtles, samba deer and many many birds; owls, vultures, kingfisher among them. The safari was a break from our holiday and showed us another side of India altogether. The air was still and we were engulfed by the sounds of the jungle, not the people.

       

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India: North by Northwest. Part 1 – Delhi and Jaipur

Delhi

My first sense of India was stepping out of the new modern metro and down onto the street. It was there she launched her first attack on my senses. The sights and smells and the rising din. Bicycles, stacked high with family members or brown packages, taxis, speeding tuk tuks, limbs hanging out of buses, cars and wooden carts pulled by starving cows all merged into the traffic. We tried to take the route through the market to the amusement of the residents, the smell of chickens, fruits and roasting nuts. Then came to crossing the road, a rushing torrent with no way across. Somehow we made it, luggage and all. Just that gave us the rush of achievement. Then through a hidden door we stepped into our wonderful family run oasis, Shanti home.

Delhi is a run down city of fading grandeur. Connaught place, the city’s focal point, was a construction site, and mostly empty although the United Coffee House is worth a recommendation for dinner. The main tourist sites of the city were definitely worthwhile. We began with Qu’tb Minar – one of the first founding sites of the city. The imposing minar itself is quite a sight and the encompassing complex a pleasant and interesting place to wander around. Another favorite was Raj Ghat – the memorial site for Mahatma Gandhi. It was a very modest place, perfectly fitting with a serious air. The Lotus temple is a newer addition to Delhi’s architecture and it really stands apart. A bah’ia temple it is modeled on a lotus flower. Its surrounding pools of water add to its tranquility. P.S. It is a good idea to carry a bag to put your shoes in for all of these sites.

      

We rounded off our day in Delhi at dinner graciously hosted by friends. A glorious Indian feast which gave us a taste of the hospitality and warmth we would come to appreciate all over India.

Jaipur

Jaipur, the pink city, was the city in which we felt most at home, so named for the pink hue the buildings give off as they bask in the afternoon sun. The center of town is a giant bazaar laid out in a square, each side hawking a different ware. There is sari street filled with women stocking up on clothing and textiles, the jewellery street filled with precious stones and gold, the flower market resplendent with floral garlands, the food street selling chillies and spices which gave the flower market a run for its money in its colorful spread. Last but by no means least, dad’s favorite, was hardware street with strands of loose copper wire piled high and more nuts and bolts than Dad could ever imagine or I need. A wonderful stroll to while away an afternoon. To keep your energy levels up pop into LMB for a snack – their samosas were the best we had and you can eat them in the open shop area as you eye up the bewildering array of sweets on offer. Try the ladoo.

   

The Raj Mandir is an absolute must. Get tickets early (same day) to the left of the theatre (top tip: it helps if you write down the show time and how many tickets you want) and then come back about half an hour before showtime to ensure you have some time inside to take in the extravagant décor and get your popcorn. Take your seats on time since the show starts promptly with no previews and you do not want to miss the drawing of the velvet curtain accompanied by rapturous applause. Audience participation is encouraged. Don’t be worried about not being able to understand what is going on, we had no knowledge of Hindi and there were no subtitles but we understood 90% of the movie. Firstly, you can bet you have seen the plot b­efore and the slow pace and regular use of English phrases is more than sufficient to allow you to follow along with ease. After the show, let it sink in over a delicious lassi around the corner.

Set a full day aside to visit Amber Fort. And go as early as you can to avoid the rush. A taxi takes about 30 minutes from town for 120R. Always use the pre-paid taxi booths at stations if you can as they were always cheaper than hailing one. Else bargain hard and stick resolutely to a fair price. The sandy colored fort is surrounded by a hilltop fortified wall which towers above. Amber Fort lies about half way up the hillside and was the palatial home to the ruling king. Jaigarh fort, perched above on the ridge, acted as its military defense and is also well worth a visit.

       

But first Amber Fort. The elephants trumpeting up to the imposing entrance gate helps transport you back in time. The elephants are majestic, all individually decorated in their Sunday best as they march through the gate to deliver their guests in the fort’s first courtyard. Upon entering the fort the site is a maze of palatial rooms, many intricately decorated showcasing a fine attention to detail. It is not hard to imagine the decadence in which these residents lived; seeing them dancing in their finery in the room coated with silver leaf or taking a wistful afternoon stroll through the peaceful rooftop garden. The fort exuded a sense of privilege and peace, in stark contrast to Jaigarh fort above. The day visitors tend just go to Amber Fort and leave but I strongly recommend taking the 10 minute trek up the hill. Jaigarh fort is red, crumbling and much more basic, and stern, in design. Its walls are particularly discouraging. It was here that the barracks were based, and where the royal family retreated if Amber fort was ever threatened. You can wander around the fort freely and the views are breathtaking. The decadence of Amber Fort clearly came at a cost, fiercely protected by the soldiers above. A wonderful day trip into Raj history. We took the bus back to town by following the locals onto the main road.

   

Another highlight of Jaipur was the Jantar Mantar observatory. A collection of sun clocks built long before their time the site offers unique insight into the scientific legacy of India. There are a collection of different clocks and instruments used to map the stars and understand the universe. You can even find the constellation representing your star sign. I would take the tour if astronomy isn’t your strong point.

  

During our stay in Jaipur we stayed at the truly wonderful home from home Rawla Rawatsar  where we were treated like family. Its conveniently located close to the Sindi Camp bus station and Handi restaurant which comes highly recommended.

 

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