Month: April 2017

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal

Our last day in India and what better way to spend it than at the Taj Mahal.

A very early 5am start from our accommodation in New Delhi meant that with a bit of luck, we’d beat the traffic, the heat, and the crowds and also ensure enough time to shower and change before making our way to the Airport for the flight home that night.

It worked!

Agra was a welcome sight at the end of the long bus ride that necessitated a coffee stop along the way. Not exactly Starbucks, but not bad compared to the coffees I’d had over the past two weeks. The tea drinkers loved the variety of teas in India, but sadly, good coffees were not to be found, anywhere.

Before we could get close enough to the magnificant buildings, we had to negotiate our way through the maze of vendors selling guidebooks and a range of memorabilia and souvenirs. As if by magic, a golf-buggy pulled up beside us and we were ushered in for the drive down the boulevard towards the entrance. I had spotted the horses lined up across the road when we arrived and was a little disappointed that we couldn’t be driven down the boulevard in style instead. But the golf-buggy was fine and it delivered us safely into the hands of more vendors close to the entrance. Since I hadn’t packed a hat for the excursion, some brightly coloured umbrellas caught my attention. My stray gaze towards them wasn’t wasted on the seller, who proceeded to pursue me while bartering the price, which had dropped to a mere Rs 100/-  by the time I’d caught up with the rest of our group at the entrance. Money was quickly exchanged and I was assured of a shaded walk around the Taj Mahal.

Once we were through the security formalities we were free to wander, as long as we met back at the gate at the designated time. The thought of having to be at the Airport later in the day for the flight home was forefront in my mind. I’m not the most relaxed traveller when it comes to the day of flying to or from a destination, and being a few hours from New Delhi made me nervous enough to make sure I would be where I had to be, at the right time.

The next few hours consisted of taking photos and just being in awe of actually being in and around such a famous World Heritage site. Words can’t do justice to the age and beauty of the structures.

I  think the Indian Government has it right with the entry fee. Locals pay Rs 40/- and tourists pay Rs 1000/-, although the ride to the entrance is only included in the tourist fee.

The beautifully romantic story behind the design and construction of the Taj Mahal in the 17th Century is far better explained on the Indian Government site than I could recount here. Since photos are not allowed inside the Taj Mahal, for obvious reasons, the following photos only depict the outside and surrounding buildings. And these photos can’t possibly do justice to the feeling of actually being there. If you haven’t journeyed to Agra yet, make sure you put it on your Bucket List and spend a day, or longer, soaking up the history and magnificence of this amazing place. And with incredibly low airfares to India offered by Scoot Airlines, I know I’ll return one day to stand in front of the Taj Mahal again.

And again, a huge Thank You to Mohinder Singh from the Amritsar Diocese for being there for us every step of the way. From meeting us at the New Delhi Station on our arrival from Shimla, to being our guide at the Taj Mahal, and then helping us negotiate a better price for the souvenirs that were bought along the way back to the bus.

Thank You Mohinder!

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Crossing The Border

Crossing The Border

Okay, we didn’t cross it, but we did get to see some European and local travellers, loaded up with backpacks and luggage, who were making their way across the border in one direction, or the other.

Let me go back to the beginning so this makes a little more sense.

One of the highlights of the trip to India was our attendance at the Wagah Flag Ceremony, between the India and Pakistan border, at sunset. Even though the ceremony takes place every day, apparently thousands of people cram into the stadium each time to witness the event.

The flags of each country are taken down simultaneously at sunset and secured for the night, but not without a theatrical performance by each army on both sides of the heavily armed, razor-wired fences that divide the two countries. To say the routine was spectacular is a gross understatement. The thousands of spectators on the Indian side shouted their national pride in chants and cheering, egged on by a white-shirted man at the front of the stadium.  The patriotic atmosphere was felt as well as heard. Behind me, a young boy spontaneously led the chant at one point; just a small single voice ringing out the cry, to be followed by thousands.

The roads were choked with traffic as we approached the border. All modes of transport ferried the crowds in: buses, pedal-power, horse-driven carts loaded with families, Indian version tuk-tuks, and tractors. If it was capable of moving, it was fully laden, with bodies packed in it, on it, or behind it.


As guests of the Bishop of the Amritsar Diocese of the Church of North India (CNI), we were very lucky to be given an escort into the parking area closest to the ceremony, and seats in the first few rows,  giving us an ideal opportunity to witness the event up close and personal.

As we sat patiently awaiting the ceremony, the awe of being on one side of the border, watching nationals on the other side just as patiently awaiting the same event, struck hard. We were in India – they were in Pakistan.  The pomp and ceremony began. The Indian soldiers marched quickly across the parade-ground towards the border gate, in pairs and/or individually, at a very fast pace, and finishing with a high-kick that brought their well-heeled boots in danger of collision with their fan-shaped headgear. This was followed by a shake of fists towards the Pakistan Army in a movement reminiscent of the Haka that we are witness to at any international sporting event involving our Kiwi neighbours from across the ditch. The process was replicated on the other side of the fence by the Pakistani’s, in similarly costumed uniforms. The Indian Army wearing red turbans or black berets, and red fan-shaped headwear – the Pakistanis wearing dark blue. The process was drawn out, to the delight of the crowd who cheered uproariously from the Indian side at each step of the way. The spectators on the other side of the fence were a little more constrained in their show of appreciation of their Army, or maybe it was just that there were fewer spectators.

When the moment came for the flags to be brought down from the top of the very tall flagpoles, on opposite sides of the narrow patch of middle ground between the gates that I assume is neutral territory, the show of pride by the Indian spectators was indescribable – you just had to be there. Caught up in the moment was every other nationality privileged enough to witness the amazing event. Something as simple as lowering a flag had flamed the national pride of a nation.

This well-trained dog joins the cast of Military Personnel in the ceremonial presentation and takes a bow towards the stadium.

The flags are finally lowered and respectfully marched into the enclosure for safe keeping until the morning, when they’ll be raised again at sunrise, albeit, without the ceremony of the previous evening.

If you ever have the opportunity to visit Amritsar, make the Flag Ceremony a priority on your itinerary, but make sure you book through a reputable tour group. Going solo isn’t a viable option for this event if you want a seat, and trust me, you want a seat. The sun was beating down, the dust was thick and the ceremony was long and drawn out. You will also need a hat and water bottle, although roving vendors provided some relief with the sale of water, soft drinks and ice-creams. A fan might also be a useful addition but there will be no shortage of fans, hats, flags and umbrellas thrust at you by hopeful entrepaneurs as you arrive at the venue in whatever means of transport you choose. There were many deals struck through open windows as our bus made its way through the traffic on the way to the gate.

The Flag Ceremony will remain etched in my memory forever and I owe a huge debt of thanks to Bishop Pradeep Kumar Samantaroy and Mohinder Singh for making it happen, and for being there with us.

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Singapore Stopover

Singapore Stopover

Day 2
Arrival in Singapore was as would be expected, with eleven tired bodies making their way from the aircraft to the terminal via the air bridge. Those amongst them who are driven by the need to know where they need to be in advance of getting there, stopped at the first available monitor to check the departure gate against the flight number. As luck would have it, we were very close to Gate 7, our gateway to the flight to India. Those who are happy to saunter along and find out where they need to be just in time to be there chose to use the first bathroom along the way, but I quickly caught up with the ‘need to know in advance’ group.

Having taken care of one somewhat urgent need, my attention turned to the next one: Coffee! On arrival at our designated gate, and with 2 hours between us and the next flight, the travellers flowed away in different directions like liquid mercury, finally free from the thermometer. Jan and I walked to shake off the stiffness in our bones from being cramped into the frugal confines of the economy seats for the past eight hours. The Duty-Free shops beckoned, with their wares tantalisingly displayed. For me, temptation lay in the Electronics stores while Jan found solace in the cosmetics departments, in search of her favourite mascara. In the process of meandering through the relevant stores, Jan found the ideal camera bag to solve a storage problem and I found the coffee.

Two hours disappeared at a rate not found earlier on the long flight. I can’t understand how 120 minutes spent cramped up between the seats on a plane can be so different to the same 120 minutes spent aimlessly wandering through Duty-Free shops and drinking a much-needed shot of caffeine. Perhaps that’s a PhD thesis in the making.

The Koi Garden in Changi Airport

Eleven sleep-deprived bodies anxiously awaiting the moment of arrival in Amritsar, still more than eight hours away have little thought of photography, hence no photos to show for the Singapore interlude. I will attempt to find suitable memories from my time at Changi Airport almost a year ago and supplant them into this blog. We were there, trust me.

Spectacular colour with a Dutch perspective

At the designated time of 1.30am, Singapore time, the weary eleven congregated once more at the departure gate, ready for the next leg of the trip. Again, laptops and iPads were removed, along with little plastic bags containing hand-sanitiser and any other liquid necessity from our carry-on baggage, for the security check.

Scooting off to Singapore anytime soon?

Don’t forget to check out the Sunflowers

Once on board, the weary travellers settled back and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, there was an announcement from the Captain apologising for the delay that the thunderous electrical storm playing out on the outside of the plane was necessitating. No complaints from me. I was more than happy to be viewing the lightning from the reasonable safety of the ground. There’s no way I wanted to see what those flashes look like up close and personal. But then, seemingly seconds after making the announcement, we started the take-off process. I chose not to look in the direction of the window and was very glad I hadn’t been issued a window seat this time. It’s moments like this that the pre-flight safety presentation starts to take on a much more serious meaning. I made a mental calculation of how futile the whole process would be if we actually made contact with one of those bolts from the sky (lightning) and had to make an emergency landing over water. They might just as well hand each of us a big neon sign with a bull’s eye on it as we evacuated the aircraft, saying, ‘here I am, come and get me’. Still, futile or not, I mentally ran through the procedure so at least I’d meet my end with a full capacity of air from the mask that would strategically drop from the overhead. And the life-jacket might help a bit as well – maybe.

But to their credit, the Captain and crew got us off the ground and through the storm without any problems. I was very glad I didn’t have to put all that safety stuff into action.

When we were safely delivered to the other side of the storm, the meal was served and cleared, and everyone settled down to sleep, including me.  It didn’t seem too long before another meal was served, presumably breakfast, and we were approaching our descent into Delhi. Five hours done and dusted and just one more short flight to our final destination – Amritsar.

The Customs experience was much less impersonal than the Brisbane deal. If anything, it was a much more casual affair with some of us being processed at the counter that said ‘Crew and Media’, manned by a human Customs Officer who sent us on our way with a quick wave of the hand towards the exit barrier. On to the carousel to collect the array of luggage accompanying us, and out into the terminal where we were met by officials of the Church group we were to visit. Waiting for us outside the terminal were cars and mini-vans and local people carrying exquisite fresh flower garlands, which were ceremoniously presented to each of us, along with a very warm welcome.

We had arrived!

 

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Brisbane to Delhi

Brisbane to Delhi

Travel Day 1
6 am – Wide Awake and ready to start the day and the journey.
Coffee, shower, pack the bathroom items, load the car and ready to go.

Way too early to be at the airport, but plenty of time for a leisurely stroll around DFO, Brisbane Airport style. Another coffee, light lunch, then time to deliver the car to Portside Parking on Curran St Eagle Farm where it will be taken care of until our return in just over two weeks. Park the car, sign the paperwork, and into the waiting mini-van for the trip to Brisbane International Airport. The journey has begun.

Too early to check in, but plenty of time to liaise with the rest of the group who would be my travel buddies through India. Lots of photos taken, helpful travel hints shared, reminders about document requirements (too late now if you don’t have your passport), and then on to check-in. Our group of eleven managed to make it through the queue mostly intact, but somehow some of us ended up at different check-in counters. My utmost praise for Singapore Airlines staff who managed to get us all seated and next to at least one member of the group. The fact that we were scattered throughout the aircraft didn’t really matter; we each had a seat. There were a few funny anecdotes post check-in of two travellers at the same counter, mistakenly taken for ‘a couple’ with the apologetic attendant bending over backwards to try to get them seated together until they explained that they weren’t actually ‘a couple’.

Image from Wikimedia Commons: Credit: Nate Cull

The age of automation has seeped into the travel experience.

Apart from a few attendants ushering travellers to the appropriate line to be in, there is no longer a face in the Customs procedure. No-one stamps your passport with the date and name of the city you are leaving behind in search of foreign shores. Now you wait your turn in a line, proceed to a scanner and place your passport on the slide for self-scanning of the photo page, walk up to a pair of footprints strategically placed on the floor, remove hats and/or glasses, and smile for the camera. The trade-off is a much faster trek through Customs, presumably freeing up our very qualified Customs Officers for the more important task of screening incoming passengers, making sure that our country stays safe and secure. That’s it. Done and dusted. You then exit the Customs area straight into the hands of Duty-Free scalpers who think it’s fair game to ask exorbitant prices for everyday items that can be bought in your local supermarket for a fraction of the cost. Travel isn’t what it used to be.

With check-in safely behind us, the next hurdle to be overcome was Customs.

An hour’s wait – long enough to stock up on snacks for the flight – then boarding at 5 pm. The flight was reasonably full, but boarding was executed quickly and very efficiently. Groups, all six of them, were boarded one group at a time. We were in groups five and six. We seemed to be no sooner settled in our seats than the seatbelt sign illuminated and the plane started pushing back ready for take-off. For an International flight, the departure process seemed incredibly fast.

I’m not sure why, but it seemed to be a very quiet flight. The loud-talkers were missing in action, and even the babies seemed to be reasonably settled, with only the occasional murmur. Perhaps the noisy travellers all turned left on entering the plane (otherwise known as Business Class). The movie selection was reasonable and once the meal was dispensed with, most people kicked back to enjoy their choice of latest release or favourite re-run. It was then time for sleep – for those who find sleep comes naturally at 9.30pm Eastern Standard time in Australia. For the rest of us, there were more movies to watch or blogs to write. The night passed uneventfully.  We landed in the city of the Merlion a little before midnight, Singapore time.

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