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Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

BITING COLD

It’s awfully cold here in Shillong. Temperature around 17 degree Celsius. We were warned about this, and we did bring adequate warm clothes. We are told only in Shillong it becomes this cold, mainly because it’s in such high altitude of about 1,500 metres above sea level. To the credit of White Orchid Guesthouse, where we are staying, it has top-quality blankets. You wouldn’t like to get out of it!

ELEPHANT FALL

After breakfast, around 9 am, we set out for Cherrapunji, the name we are familiar with since school days, as one of the wettest places in the world. More of that later.

On the way to Cherrapunji, we went to Elephant Fall. The legend goes that the Khasi people here called the place ‘Three Steps Fall’ since the water falls in three steps. Later the British called it Elephant Fall since one of the rocks beside the waterfall resembles an elephant. But this rock was destroyed in an earthquake in 1897.

Here tourists were lining up to stand on a few small rocks for a photoshoot with the fall in the background. Never found such a rush to pose in front of a waterfall!

I have, of course, taken pics, lots of them. They all will be put up next week, when I am back in Bangalore.

CHERRAPUNJI

After Elephant Fall, we stopped at a number of places, popularly called here as viewing points. They are nothing but vantage points that offer a tourist breathtaking views of waterfalls or of the lush green subtropical forests of Khasi hills thickly covered with diverse vegetation.

This area — Cherrapunji and nearby Mawsynram — is among the wettest places because it receives both southwest monsoon and northeast monsoon. And not surprisingly there are a number of waterfalls, big and small, bringing the Meghalaya Tourism Board lot of revenue.

But I only wish some part of that revenue is invested in tarring the roads and bettering other infrastructure. Roads are pathetic in many places. I simply don’t understand why something as important as roads are so low on the priority list of our officials and politicians.

VIEW OF BANGLADESH

Immediately after Elephant Fall, we stopped at Duwan Sing Syiem View Point. Then we went to Nohkali Falls. Here at one point we could see the rainbow in the waterfall. Then we went to Mawsmai Eco-park. There were a few swings and see-saw; but couldn’t quite understand what was eco about this place. From there we can see barren fields of Bangladesh.

CAVE AND RESTAURANT

Then we headed for the Mawsmai Cave. We can walk through it. Not quite recommended for people who are claustrophobic. A portion inside the cave is narrow. So fat people will also have to step aside.

After the cave visit, we got into one of the many restaurants there for lunch. It has a peculiar system of placing the order. We go upto the desk, tell the lady what we want. She writes that down in a book, along with our name. She copies that on a piece of paper and sends it to the kitchen. A few minutes later a boy or girl with the food comes out to the dining area calling our name. We raise hand to attract his or her attention. Never have I found the customer’s name being noted down while ordering food!

We then went on to Thengkarang Park. It’s just that, a park and a well mainained garden and fountain. And then to Khoh Ramhah, from where one has a better view of Bangladesh.

NEED FOR DIFFERENT TIME ZONE

One aspect about this region that’s difficult to get used to is the shortness of daylight hours. Dusk sets in around 4 pm, and by 5 pm it’s darkness. It’s quite a task to convince hourselves that it’s not 8 pm and only 6 pm! The region does indeed need a different time zone.

Retiring for the day early as we need to leave for Mawlynnong, some 100 km south of Shillong — widely known as the cleanest village in Asia.

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I have been travelling like never before. Soon after my Mumbai trip on official work, I am on a brief personal visit to Thiruvananthapuram. Right now I am on my way back to Bangalore in Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation’s Airavat bus. I had booked the ticket online at the KSRTC website: http://ksrtc.in

RAINWASHED GREENERY

The lush green landscape is the best indication that you have entered Kerala. The state has been getting good rains. Lakes are full. Fields are waterlogged, and green is greener. So soothing. So refreshing.

TRAIN REACHES EARLY

My friend in Trivandrum, who was to pick me up, asked me to give him a call when the train reaches Kollam. And when I called him he was surprised.

”It’s only 10 and you are already in Kollam? Are you sure? Because you said the train reaches Thiruvananthapuram at 12 noon,” he told me.

I was in 6321 Trivandrum Express, a special weekly train. It had stopped for more than half an hour at Ambalappuzha station for letting Shatabdi Express cross. So I was under the impression that the train was running late.

My friend said it takes only one to one and a half hours from Kollam to Trivandrum so at this rate the train would reach at least half an hour early.

And it did, reaching at 11.15 am. Since I called up my friend at Kollam itself he had ample time to come early to the station. Many other passengers were equally surprised that the train arrived ahead of time. At least some would have had to wait for their friends or relatives to pick them up.

While walking up the staircase in the railway station I wondered: Malls have escalators, but how many railway stations have them?

STATIC CITY

Trivandrum, now Thiruvananthapuram, has hardly changed. Roads are getting widened. Nothing more. Some swanky shops, hotels and hospitals have come up. But on the ground nothing much has changed.

I was told this is the best time to widen roads, because the very people who would raise banners of protest — the communists — are in power! ”A Congress government would not have been able to widen roads like this,” I’m told by my friend. I doubt if it’s wholly true. Anyway an interesting perspective on how we are progressing.

A lot of hopes are resting on Shashi Tharoor, the MP from Thiruvananthapuram, who won by a surprisingly huge margin of around a lakh. He is seen as a fresh, uncorrupted, non-politician lawmaker.

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It was a momentous day for us yesterday, when one of the news sections of our newspaper, went live on the new editing and pagemaking software. ‘Went live’ means, the page that people are reading today was made on the new software. This is the first news page of our publication to go live. A day to cherish.

Though we have been bringing out trial versions over the past week, the feeling that ‘live’ brings in is altogether different: a combination of excitement and tension. There was a lot of coordination to be done. And everything had to click. Software transitions, wherever, are always tricky, with the fear of a ‘crash’ always looming overhead. Touchwood, barring minor glitches, all went well.

I was just wondering, how journalism, like of course everything around us, has changed over the years. Twenty years back, I was involved in a similar exercise when the newspaper I worked for then, brought in computers to replace typewriters and teleprinters. The media industry is poised for still more revolutionary changes as technology evolves rapidly.

Last night most of us missed our dinner. At 1.30 am, totally exhausted, we had only one thought in our minds: where can we get something to eat. We were told there is a restaurant called ”Light of Asia” close to the CST. It was 20 min walk away.

The cafe had its shutter down, but there was a tiny door beside it kept ajar, through which we all squeezed in. Wow! So spacious inside. We had our meals, and the big surprise, they offered us complimentary icecreams! Let’s come here everyday, someone screamed. Stay on in Mumbai, don’t go back, added another.

The most odd hour to have dinner, but nothing unusual for journalists. The cab guys were very considerate and stayed on beyond the 2 am cutoff time, and we were back in our rooms, by 3 am.

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Yesterday we took a day off from our training workshop. Decided to spend the day going around Mumbai. Thought we will start with a visit to Elephanta Caves. The plan was to get out of our rooms early, so we save on time. But…

0900: … There’s no water in the guesthouse and most of us are still waiting for Bisleri bottles for the basic necessities.

1130: Finally we are out. On our way to Gateway of India.

1230: In the steamer on way to Elephanta Caves. We paid 10 bucks extra and got on to the upper deck. Breathtaking view of ships and oiltankers.

(No way I can download the pix. They will be uploaded after I return to Bangalore.)

There are three treachers from Chandigarh who are with us on the upper deck. They are quite curious as to who all of us are. On knowing our profession, they are more curious, shoot questions after questions. I found that quite annoying. It’s a very bad Indian habit to ask very personal questions when meeting strangers.

Then one of them asked me, ”Where in Andhra are you from.” I said I was not from Andhra.
”But you said you are from Bangalore…”
”Ya, Bangalore is the capital of Karnataka.”
”O, I see…”

He looked thoroughly confused. The south of Vindhyas is still an unknown entity for many in the north, sadly for even teachers. I enquired what he teaches. Mathematics, he said.

By the way, many south Indians are similarly ignorant about places in the north and, particularly, northeast.

Some 15 minutes later, one of them, came up to me and asked if he could take a photo of all of us. That sounded quite strange, but we obliged.

1320: As we step into the Elephanta Island, we find there is a toy train to ferry tourists, just about 500 m, to the foot of the hill that leads to the caves. We get the tickets, Rs 10 two-way. Kiddish joy as we get into the train.

1330: We are hungry and the sight of a restaurant cheers us.

1445-1730: After food, we begin the climb. Not very steep. Either sides, there are shops selling postcards, curios, t-shirts, guidebooks etc. Bargain hard. A colleague bought a Ganesha idol. Initial price quoted: Rs 200. Offered Rs 100 and walked ahead. The price dropped dramatically and after a bit more of bargaining, got it for Rs 100.

We go around all the 5 caves. Take lots of photos. Good view of the valley and the sea from the top.

This is a Unesco World Heritage centre. The sculptures, carvings and inscriptions take you to a different world. Some of the sculptures are damaged. There is a Shivling. At some portions of the vast cave complex, restoration work is going on. Good crowd.

Interestingly, there is a beer bar at the top of the hill, like one at the foot. A good view of the Arabian Sea. The mat-like design on chairs and tables is particularly striking.

1730-1840: We are back on the boat travelling back. It is much more enjoyable as sun has gone behind clouds, there is good strong breeze.

1900-2015: We get into Cafe Monde (Monde’s) at Colaba. It’s perhaps the most well-known joint for beer. And the food is very tasty. The ambience is addictive. It’s almost always crowded. The large room is abuzz: people trying to make themselves heard above the loud music.

We moved ahead to the ”Innside story”, a less crowded smaller room with gentle music. Though it wasn’t crowded when we came, by the time we were through, it had filled up.

2045: Back in our guesthouse. Quite tired. Though we couldn’t go around the city or do some shopping, the cruise and the visit to the cave were thoroughly enjoyable.

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I am in Mumbai on official work, will return on June 14. Reached here yesterday and the work begins this afternoon. The last time I was here was more than 10 years back. Yesterday’s diary:

31/5
0830: In the Vayu Vajra bus on way to Bangalore airport. Taking 1115 Kingfisher flight to Mumbai. Quite impressed by the promptness of this dedicated BMTC bus service to the airport that is 40 km from my house. The detailed schedule of the bus service is on the BMTC website. The call centre provides you with contact numbers of the bus terminus from where the bus departs. You are also provided the mobile number of the bus conductor.

While I was waiting for the bus, three cab drivers asked me if I needed a pick up. One desperate guy even offered the bus rate. One reason why I refused to take the cab was I thought I must do my little bit to make the bus service a success.

1000: At the waiting lounge after checking in. Struck by a strange board hanging at a cafeteria: ”Live Dosa counter”. Right under it was a guy making dosa. Reminded of roadside eateries (called in Malayalam ‘thattukada’) but this one a posh version. (Check back later for photo.)

1200: I switch on the inflight TV and see breaking news on Zee News: Major tragedy averted in Mumbai airport as two aircraft preparing for takeoff simultaneously come close to collision.

1240: Intense pain above my right eyebrow as the flight descends. Impact of pressure difference on my sinus problem? It has happened once before. Now I must seek medical advice.

1315: Pain gone. In a taxi on way to the guesthouse on Worli Hill Road. Had to bargain with 3 cab drivers. This guy asked for Rs 350, but wanted Rs 150 extra since he said I was being picked up from inside airport premises. This looked far reasonable compared to the most outrageous rate of Rs 900 demanded by the first driver I spoke to.

After I got into the cab, the driver suggested I pay the money and that he would give me a receipt. I was surprised why he wanted the money before he had taken me to the destination. He parked the taxi by the roadside, wrote out the receipt and gave me, implying I must hand him the money. Since the guy had already started, and since I would have had to pay him anyway, I gave him the money.

More surprise was in store. A little after he got on the main road, he stopped by the roadside ahead of another taxi. The driver told me I would have to shift to the other taxi. I was wondering what the hell was happening.

The explanation was that only he had the licence to pick passengers from inside the airport premises and it’s the other taxi that will ferry me to the destination. Before I could ask him why he didn’t tell me before, the driver got out, walked to the other taxi, spoke something to that driver and handed over the cash, probably after keeping some for himself.

Now it dawned on me that this was a major taxi racket, where hapless passengers were being fleeced. The driver took my baggage shifted it to the new cab, and told the driver not to take any more money. And told me also not to give any more money! I just hoped I wouldn’t be shifted to yet another taxi, and that I would be taken to my guesthouse and not to ”an unknown destination”. Journalists can be haunted by news stories they handle.

1400: I reach the guesthouse after going around in circles for some time.

1800: At the seaside in Worli.

2015: At Gateway of India. Place overflowing with Sunday crowd. Oberoi Trident and Taj brought back memories of TV images. Can’t believe this spot was the scene of war, six months back.

2200: Back at the guest house. At the gate my two colleagues and I were greeted by the barks of a dog that was struggling to break free from the control of the gatekeeper. While we were waiting for the lift suddenly the dog came barking towards us. He almost bit my colleague even while the gatekeeper came rushing in and tried to pin the dog down. The dog came very close to me but was chased away and then was caught by the gatekeeper. A brief moment of panic.

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Vandazhi visit

My wife’s sister’s children are here on summer holidays, and we had been planning to go on a short outing. A few days leave from office was obtained, but we were still undecided about the destination.

Friday last, my wife suggested, “Why don’t we all drive down to mom’s place in Kerala?” Her rationale was one, great grand-aunt (my mom’s youngest aunt) hasn’t been keeping well and a visit was due anyway, and two, it would be good long drive and an outing for the kids as well. My only doubt was if my parents, who are old, would be cool to the idea of a long journey. When I checked with them, they were only happy about the idea.

My mom’s place is Vandazhi: a small town, some 10 km off the Palakkad-Thrissur highway near Vadakkancherry (different from the similar-sounding Vadakkaancherry.) There was an option to go via the shorter Mysore, Gudalur, Nilambur, Perunthalmanna route. But on second thoughts we decided to go via Salem, Coimbatore. The reason was the better quality of the road. With parents and kids with us, I didn’t want to take a route that wasn’t familiar.

On Sunday morning, at 6.15 we left. Around 9.30 we were a few kilometres short of Salem. We stopped at a shade for breakfast. Around 1 am we were near Coimbatore and had lunch at a restaurant. And by 4 pm we were home. Some 450 km from Bangalore. 

Fantastic road

Good road is basic to comfortable drive. I was thoroughly impressed by the progress on the upgrading of the highway NH7. This was my third drive on this highway: the earlier ones were in 2006 and 2007. I can thus make out the difference. But for small stretches where work is still on, the rest of the highway is so impeccably done.

Smooth, broad National Highway 7.

Smooth, broad National Highway 7.

Silken smooth 6-lane broad roads and plants on the median providing green relief. There are three toll plazas — Rs 25, Rs 48 and Rs 28. It’s worth paying. There is one more coming up. The structure is up, but not the booths. So, that will make it a total of four between Bangalore and Coimbatore. We need to pay for quality. What we as citizens should ensure is that the money thus collected is well utilized for improving the road connectivity.

I was quite surprised by the attitude of truck drivers. They seemed to be very well-behaved as far as lane discipline was concerned. All of them kept to the middle lane leaving the extreme right free. Even when they were overtaking, the drivers made sure to move left to the inner lane, so that faster moving vehicles could overtake from the right. My earlier experiences have been bad. Truck drivers were known to stick to any lane they fancied. There were very irritating occasions when two trucks going side-by-side would be blocking the road. Any vehicle following them would have to wait for one to slow down or the other to pick up some speed and then overtake either from the left or right. Nothing of that sort this time. It left me wonder whether the good quality highways had also instilled in the drivers some discipline. A chain reaction of sorts!

Green difference

There is no need of any sign board to tell you that you have entered Kerala, at Walayar. The unmistakable indication is the green landscape. When they carved the boundaries of Kerala, I don’t know if someone kept this in mind, or it just happened by chance! Even in the peak of summer there is lot of greenery around unlike most other states, except perhaps the southern coastal areas of Karnataka.

Vandazhi

Paddy field in summer. Ahead of harvest, it's a virtual carpet of green.

Paddy field in summer. Ahead of harvest, it's a virtual green carpet.

My mom’s native place is no longer a village; there has been lots of development, and I would classify it as a small town with a hospital, medical stores and lots of shops. There are still vast stretches of paddy fields left in Vandazhi. Close to the harvest season around August these fields turn into green carpets, such a lovely sight! The place is still a strong communist stronghold. There is in fact a junction called “Moscow Mukku”: a refuge for communists on the run during pre-independence days. 

An old house by the road, untouched by the wave of modernity.

An old house by the road, untouched by the wave of modernity.

Many houses were painted pink. Reason unknown.

Many houses are painted pink. Reason unknown.

 

Another one, presenting a gaudy look.

Another one, presenting a gaudy look.

 

Mangalam Dam

Palakkad district of Kerala has many tourist attractions. Since the primary aim of the visit was to call on our ailing great-grand-aunt, and since we didn’t have much time, we could manage only a visit to the Mangalam Dam, some 10 km from our house. It’s an elevated area, a quiet retreat good for picnics and relaxation in the midst of thick forest.

Drive to Mangalam Dam.

Drive to Mangalam Dam.

Being summer, the weather was hot, and nature wasn’t in its full bloom. Nevertheless it’s a lovely place to spend a day. There is a Kerala government tourism project to develop this area. But like most government projects, nothing seems to be happening.

Inside the dam premises.

Inside the dam premises.

Mangalam dam. In summer it's not operational and engineers are utilizing the time for maintenance.

Mangalam dam. Right now it's shut down for maintenance.

The dam, built in 1956, stands over the Cherukunnapuzha which is a tributary of the Mangalam river. Around 50 km from Palakkad town, the dam was built for irrigation purposes. Right now as there is no water, the dam is undergoing repairs.

Cherukunnapuzha over which the dam is built. During rainy seasons, the river is full bank to bank.

Cherukunnapuzha over which the dam is built. During rainy seasons, the river is full bank to bank.

The dam is situated near a thick forest.

The dam is situated near a thick forest.

Cut off from e-world

For a good three days I was off internet, not out of choice but by compulsion. My GPRS wasn’t connecting. Initially, I felt odd. After a couple of attempts, I gave up; didn’t bother to even find out why; and was enjoying the freedom from ‘outside influences’. This definitely helped me relax. I guess it’s a good idea for internetphiles like me to go off the e-world once in a while.  

Return

We started back on Tuesday around 7.30 am. Had lunch at Salem around 1 am. Stopped at the Nilgiris at Hosur for snacks at 4.30 pm. We were back home around 6.45 pm.

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Trip to Mekedatu

One of the getaways not too far from Bangalore is Mekedatu: about 100 km one way, just right for a day’s outing. And that’s where we decided to head for on April 7, a holiday. There were nine of us and we hired a Tata Sumo.

When it comes to outings such as this, arguably the best guides are the bloggers’ accounts. There are quite a few, and from them we got a fair idea of what awaited us.

Mekedatu (translated in Kannada as “goat’s leap”) is a rocky terrain where river Cauvery flows. There is a deep gorge, and the gap between the rocks at a particular spot is where a goat is said to have made a leap. (An elaboration on the legend is welcome.) This spot is some 5 km from the Sangam, the confluence of Cauvery and Arkavathy rivers. Direct access by road is only till this Sangam.

After reaching Sangam to reach Mekedatu, one needs to cross the river — carefully walk across during summer or use a boat when there is lot of water — and either trek up the wooded slope or hop on to a bus.

OUR JOURNEY

Though we decided to leave at 8 am, the vehicle arrived late. So it was 9.45 am when we left. None us, not even the driver, knew the way; we only had a rough idea of the direction; and we headed straight on the Kanakapura Road.

Being a holiday, there wasn’t much traffic. After some 25 km, the vast stretches of land, the greenery and the unobscured view of the blue sky gave us the unmistakable and refreshing feeling of being out of the city.


The road was the best relief: but it also left us puzzled as to why the globally renowned Bangalore city has to put up with potholed roads.

But as we neared Kanakapura town we ran into a horrible stretch. To our bad luck, it proved too hard for even the Bangalore-hardened tyres of the Tata Sumo. About half an hour was spent there in replacing the flat tyre.


We then travelled through rural areas bareft of any signs of modernity. We saw many huts and cattle; and some stretches gave us a feeling of being in the midst of some rustic hinderland. As we went ahead, we nursed a regret: of not getting the flat tyre patched up. It worried us as well: what if another tyre gets punctured?

We even conjured up adventurous scenarios of staying over in the village huts and calling up the office the next day to say we aren’t reporting for work since we are stuck in a remote village!

Some 10 km before the Sangam, we saw signs of human life, and without losing time we asked where we could get the puncture fixed. We were lucky to find a place. The guy there said it would take at least 30 minutes but we were ready to wait longer.


After some 45 minutes, we resumed our journey. It was almost 1.45 pm and we were hungry. Seeing the road, we felt we took the right decision to get the tyre fixed.


In another 20 minutes we reached the Sangam. We had our food, and then got into water. The water didn’t look deep, and we held each other’s hands and crossed the river.



Close to the other bank, we splashed water on each other and had good fun. Quite drenched, we ventured to explore the other side. Some 5 km ahead is Mekedatu. It was close to 3 pm,and since we were already running late, we almost abandoned the idea of going ahead.


Just when we about to return to the river, we saw a ramshackle bus revving up. That was the shuttle bus which takes passengers to and from Mekedatu.


Some quick enquiries about the time we would be back, and we clambered on to it. One rickety contraption called bus, it rattled its way ahead. Sitting or standing, one had to struggle to keep from falling. The to and fro fare is Rs 40 per person.


One could see the deep gorge and Cauvery river flowing by the beautiful rocks.

Around 5 pm we were back at the Sangam. There was another round fun in the water, when all of us got completely drenched head to toe. At 5.45 pm we called it a day. We rounded off the trip with a chilly bhaji and omelet party.

At 6.15 pm we started our return journey. The sky at dusk presented a spectacular view. We noticed that much of that village stretch had no street light. We saw an accident – a motorcycle had come under the wheels of a bus.


We were in Koramangala around 9.15 pm, and we got into Anand Bhavan restaurant for dinner. A customer-friendly place with a warm ambiance. With lots of space, friendly staff, and quick service, it was a great way to sign off the Ugadi outing.


Though we started off late, and lost time due to the tyre problem, on the whole it was a fantastic trip.

THE FLIP SIDE

It pains to see the place is crying for attention of the tourism corporation. The nature’s beauty is marred by bottles, paper plates and other litter scattered all over. There is no good restaurant: only roadside eateries; no hospital or first aid facility for emergency; no communication facilities: mobile phones go dead; no petrol pump or automobile workshop.

Indeed there is a sense of adventure in missing out on these; but the complete lack of an institutional support mechanism to face an emergency is a serious shortcoming. The scope to develop the area by keeping the natural tranquility and roping in local people is a lot. The hundreds of tourists who come to this place deserve a better deal.

Will the Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation do something?

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Not so often I am away from blogs. As regular bloggers would admit, this online journal stuff can get addictive. The maximum duration I can stay away from blogs without any adverse effect is a week. It’s mostly more important and immediate work that keeps me away from weblogs. But, before long, the urge to find some time to blog becomes compulsive.

Last week, Mr Henry Whitfield was back with us. He is a family friend of ours who first came to India from the UK in 1968, and has been coming back quite frequently; one, to pursue his passion of climbing mountains in the Himalayan region and two, to see — not the glitzy side of India’s development but — the heritage and traditional features of the country. One of his interests is rocks and minerals.

He is easily one of my best and closest friends, for one simple reason: his attitude and approach to life, the amazing realistic view he has to everyday situations; his ability to soak in and enjoy the precious moments that life has to offer. That’s possible for him because he has loads of patience and he is in no hurry to flee the present to some unknown future.

On 25th, he reached Bangalore by the Rajdhani Express around 8.30 am, some 2 hours behind schedule. As we drove into the city, his initial comments were that traffic in Bangalore was much more organised and less chaotic than in Delhi. But the next day, Friday, his impressions changed. He discovered how it had deteriorated since the last time he was in the city a year back. We got caught in a awful jam for more than half and hour near the Ulsoor Lake. We abandoned plans to see a few places of interest and instead decided to get to shopping right away.

On Saturday, in the afternoon he made a trip to Lal Bagh alone. But it ended some disappointment: a plant that he bought from the nursery there got badly squashed in the crowded BMTC bus. In fact it was meant to be an addition to our little garden at home, but he was so upset at the way the plant got damaged in the crowd, he just dumped it by the way side. We felt quite bad about it. “It’s okay, I must understand that such things do happen, and it’s by no means the end of the world,” is what he said about the incident.

On Sunday Mr Whitfield was at the at the get-together of the alumni of Sainik School, Kazhakootam. He had taught chemistry in the school from 1968 to 1971 along with my father. In a short speech there he said how important it was for all of us to get into a routine that’s different from the usual one. “When I am back in the UK, I follow a particular routine. When I come to India, when I am at the foothills of the Himalayas, when I am climbing the mountains, when I am touring places, I follow a very different routine. It’s refreshing as much as it is educative. Such occasional changes from the normal, helps us widen our perspective.” A very profound thought.

On Monday, around 8.30 am we set off to Kolar, some 70 km east towards Chennai. The small town is known for the gold fields, which are now shut down. It was Mr Whitfield’s interest in rocks and minerals that prompted this visit. He was quite curious about the KGF, the geology of the area, the methods used to extract gold, the reasons why such a successful mine has now been closed down. He said a number of mines back in the UK had shut down simply because they ran out of the minerals and ores. We were very lucky to meet an engineer, Mr K M Diwakaran, who was very optimistic about the future. He is the president of the Bharat Gold Mines All Employees Industrial Cooperative Society Ltd that’s involved in efforts to revive the mines. His estimate is that in a year employees would be recruited and mines would reopen.

A section of the dysfunctional mine.

Another view of the mine.

Kolar Gold Fields is said to be one of the oldest mines in the world, though the modern history begins with the systematic mining by the English firm John Taylor and Sons in 1880. One of the first hydro-electric projects in Asia was built in 1902 to provide power to the mines. The Mysore government took over the mines in 1956, the government of India took over in 1962 and the mines closed down in 2003.

We visited the a portion of the mine and the mill tailing dumps called the cyanide dumps, because of the cyanide content. These expansive elevated plains of deposits are nothing but the mining waste and have accumulated over the years. The dumps which have in them gold worth crores themselves provide gold extraction work for so many years. At some places it rises to up to 30 meters. From the top one gets a good view of the town. It’s a scenic area and not surprisingly many movie shootings have taken place there. We understood that the mines closed down because of a variety of factors: lack of far-sightedness on part of the authorities, poor management methods, and the bureaucratic lethargy many public sector firms in India have become victims of.

A section of the vast cyanide dump.

Mr Whitfield, who has a keen interest in rocks and minerals, examines a piece from the dump.

On the way to the top of the dump.
A view from the top.

Kolar has plenty of interesting places to visit. Just heard about them, didn’t get time to visit. However, one wonders, why these places aren’t developed into tourist centres. For a huge country like India, the tourism potential is wasted untapped.

On our way back, at a spot some 35 km before K R Puram, we saw a large nursery, from where Mr Whitfield finally bought a plant, that bears bright reddish yellow flowers. The next day, Tuesday, we had lunch at the Tamarind Restaurant on the Ring Road near the Ramamurthy Nagar junction. “The ambiance is very pleasant. I must say this is one of the best hotels I have come across in India, and it gives, what we call, good value for money.”

After the lunch, we headed to the railway station to book his reservation for onward journey to Pune. He is going there with the hope that he would be able to see a quarry (quite unlikely since one needs to get permission, which he felt may not be easy) or at least meet someone who deals in minerals. I am yet to hear from him. Hope he has had some luck! He got a berth in the foreign tourist quota in the Udyan Express for Wednesday.

From the railway station we headed to the Iskcon (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). He found the spiritual and tourist side to the place quite innovative and was quite skeptical if a similar thing was possible back in his country. He felt Iskcon has been able to combine both remarkably well.

I spent a lot of time talking to Mr Whitfield: our likes, our prejudices, our cities, our nations, the world we live in, the leaders, heroes, and villains. He has the typical British understatement, and of course, what makes conversations interesting are the insights he brings into a subject.

I asked him what brings him back to India over and over again. “One, obviously the mountains and the nature in general,” he says immediately. “It’s remarkable to be in the midst of people who are extremely calm; Indians patiently work around situations that are very difficult, hardships that we in the West aren’t used to… I must say trees are a refreshing sight in Bangalore. Roads in Delhi are broader but the city isn’t as green as Bangalore. I’m sure the roads here will get better the next time I’m here.”

Hopefully.

Links:

Last year’s visit by Mr Whitfield:

Friend from Britain
Business at Sangam
The Gumbaz

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This is the last of the tour diary pieces. Links to earlier ones and two related pieces:

* Malaysia, Truly Asia – Read here
* Shoppers head for Malaysia – Read here
* Malaysia tour diary I – Read here
* Malaysia tour diary II – Read here
* Malaysia tour diary III – Read here
* Malaysia tour diary IV – Read here

Devotees offer prayers inside the St Paul’s church, Malacca.

Most police stations typically have blue roof.

BABAS AND NYONYAS

Immigration of Chinese to Malaysia goes back to the visits of Ming dynasty’s Admiral Cheng Ho to Malacca. His fist visit was in 1405-07 when he also came up to Kerala, India. One of the Ming dynasty rulers of China, eager to expand ties, is said to have sent his daughter Hang Li Po (Hang Libao) to Malacca. There is no clarity as to which emperor’s daughter was Li Po. One view that she is the daughter of Yongle is disputed. But it is known that she was married to the Malaysian sultan Mansur Shah, the great grandson of Parameswara.

This girl and about 500 others who also got married to Malay officials are considered to be the first Chinese immigrants in Malaysia. They later married among the same group and gave rise to a mixed Chinese-Malay breed called Peranakan, the male called Baba and female Nyonya. They adopted local customs like dresses and language, but largely kept their style of marriage.

A Nyonya in her typical dress

Given their ability to adapt easily, during British rule they learnt English and occupied many administrative positions. They are quite western and most of them affluent businessmen. While many nyonyas have taken to typical Malaysian dresses, their marriage customs are typically Chinese. Their language, Baba Malay, is now getting slowly extinct with only some elderly people speaking.

A Baba-Nyonya restaurant.

BABA FOOD

The Baba-Nyonya restaurants are immaculately decorated inside, food is yummy and the hosts are courteous and affable. The food is very close to the Indian style while retaining the Chinese flavour. It is, I am told, a fusion of typical Malay and Chinese cuisine. It is spicy.

STADTHUYS

This was the official residence of the Dutch governor and his officers. A typical example of Dutch architecture, it was built in 1650. The Stadthuys in Malacca was the state town hall, official functions used to be held during Dutch rule. Today it is a museum that showcases the entire Malaysian history, customs and traditions. It’s very exhaustive and takes at least two
to three hours to go around it completely and appreciate the full extent of the exhibition.

One of them (pictured above) caught my eye. In the wedding and family section, there is a replica of the bedroom where typically a Baba and Nyonya spent their night, possibly nuptial night. What struck me was beside the double bed, there is another one. Why three? No one seemed to have a clear answer, though one tourist said it could be in symbolic anticipation of the first child.


FOUNDING OF MALACCA

At the Stadthuys museum, there is a painting (pictured above) that shows the widely held origin of Malacca. The popular legend has it that Malacca was founded by Parameswaran, a prince who had fled Sumatra in 1377. He reached the port of Malacca around 1400. He was apparently taking rest under a tree. He noticed that one of his hunter dogs was chasing a deer. But
what he found amazing was that the deer had in fact managed to push the dog into the river. The triumph of the weak was taken by Parameswara as a good omen and decided to stay on. He later changed his name to Megat Iskandar Shah.

A prayer in progress at the Cheng Hoon temple

CHENG HOON TEMPLE

You thought the Chinese are all Communists and there is no religion. Wrong. Founded in mid-1600s, this is Malaysia’s oldest Chinese temple (pictured above), located at Jalan Tokong and covers 4,600 sq metres. It propagates San Chiao or the Three Doctrinal System of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. There are a number of traditional Chinese rituals. The carvings and figurines are stunningly beautiful. All the materials used in the construction were brought from China. Unlike Indian temples photography is allowed here and many tourists were seen happily clicking away. The temple has won a Unesco award for outstanding architectural restoration.

The typical house of Chinese tribesman

SUNWAY LAGOON PARK
This water theme park (pictured above), spread over 30 acres, was once a mine! It was set up in 1993 and is a big tourist attraction in KL. There are three parts to it: Waters of Africa, Wild Wild West and World of Adventure. The last section has the world’s longest suspension pedestrian bridge of 428 m and offers a beautiful view of of the whole lagoon. Today, in celebration of tomorrow’s Independence day, a ‘My Nation’ Merdeka Countdown Party at Sunway Lagoon Theme Park.

A majestic creation outside the park

HOP ON HOP OFF CITY TOUR BUSES
Introduced in the end of last year, these luxurious doubledecker buses (pictured above) go around 40 tourists attractions in KL. Tourists can take a ticket and use the bus to hop on and hop off at tourists spots.

BATU CAVES

This is an amazing place, a little over 10 km from KL. There are at least three caves big and small, which were discovered in 1892. The caves are of limestone 400m long and 100m high. You need to climb 272 steps to reach the caves. This comes alive in January during Thaipusam festival.
The entrance to Batu Caves complex, the steps can be seen behind the statue
Inside the first part of the cave. There is another set of steps to the second part.

A view of the entrance to the caves from inside.


NATIONAL MONUMENT
The National Monument, called the Tugu Negara (pictured above), commemorates war heroes who sacrificed their lives for the cause of Malaysian freedom. This is near the parliament building. Interestingly, in 1966, when this was constructed, there was no good Malaysian sculptor, and this was designed by the renowned American sculptor Felix de Weldon.
In the nearby building, on the roof are replicas of all regiments which took part in the wars and one is from the Jalalabad, India: seen in the photo above, the one on top right.


OLD RAILWAY STATION
This was once the hub of rail transport, till KL got its Metrorail and Monorail, and then the KL Sentral station came up. This one built in 1910 is a tourist spot now. Many trains do pass but not many stop. This has snack kiosks, money changing booths, souvenir shops, and rest houses.

MERDEKA SQUARE

It was here (pictured above) that exactly 50 years ago, on August 31, 1957, the Union Jack was lowered and Malaysian flag was hoisted. There is a 100m told flag post. Earlier, it was called Selangor Club field and for the British during those days this was a central point from where every important place could be accessed. Now, concerts, carnivals etc take place here.
On our way to Putrajaya, we looked for a place to have food. I had no doubts: I had already fallen in love with Baba-Nyonya food, and I suggested their restaurant, seen above.

PUTRAJAYA
This expansive capital city, around 25 km from Kuala Lumpur, spread over 4,931 hectares is still under construction, and when it is done in another 5 to 6 years, it’s going to look majestic. Already it is! A good part of it is natural, comprising lush green landscape, and lots of water bodies and wetlands. The plan to have a capital city was first mooted in 1980 and in the next decade work began. It now houses government complexes, parks, eateries, shopping complexes.
This is one of the bridges that was photographed during a river cruise in Putrajaya.

On our drive back to the airport, at the end of the week-long tour, in one area of the Expressway, I counted 12 lanes, 6 on either side!
The landscape of Malaysia bears close resemblance to that of India. But what struck me most was the amazing amount of infrastructure work that is going on. And, secondly, the warmth of the local people. The society, that is predominantly Muslim, is so diverse, but the at the same time, is a model to the whole world for its inter-racial cordiality, tolerance and broadmindedness.
Malaysia, truly Asia. It was a memorable trip there. Would love to be back in Malaysia!

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Read Part I here
Read Part II here
Read Part III here


EYE ON MALAYSIA

This is modelled on the London Eye. This giant wheel comprises 42 gondolas (cabins) and during the 15-minute ride at the maximum height of 60 metres one gets a beautiful overview of Kuala Lumpur.

The Eye on Malaysia from the entrance

The laser show at Eye on Malaysia
Avoid getting on the Eye on Malaysia wheel at night, because one can’t see anything other than dots of lights. This was inaugurated on January 6 this year as part of Malaysia’s 50th year of Independence celebrations. The park is a good place to spend some time, especially watching the laser show.
ROADSIDE EATERIES
There are plenty of them in Kuala Lumpur, and they come alive at night. One of them, on Doraiswamy Street in KL, is well-known for mutton soup. A very unique feature I found there was this: small plantain-leaf packets of rice and curry are kept on each table, and one can just unpack them and start eating before even ordering anything: a real blessing if one is too tired and hungry. At restaurants one is asked for “what drink?” before any dish is ordered. The practice seems to be linked to one ordering liquor before meals. So, even fruit juice or soft drinks or tea or coffee is served before ordering of meals.
A popular roadside eatery on Doraiswamy Street in KL.
The Indian restaurants, which are found in plenty, are locally called ‘Mama stalls’. Unlike Chinese, Japanese or Korean restaurants, Indian ones serve all varieties of food. One finds a mixture of all races among customers in an Indian restaurant.
JEBAT, THE MUSICIAN
We met Jebat, one of the local musicians, at a roadside eatery on Doraiswamy Street. He landed up there on a bike. And in dramatic staccato movements, took out his guitar to which a mouthorgan was attached. He pulled up a chair on which he kept a small bag for people to place their offerings, and he began playing a few very pleasant numbers with lilting rhythm.
Jebat
This 36-year self-taught musician has been playing on the streets like this for 19 years and gets an average of RM 40 (Approx Rs 450) a day. He works at an office during the day.
Heading to Malacca
MALACCA

If Kuala Lumpur is all concrete and congestion, Malacca is steeped in history and folklore. It’s 120 km southeast of KL and 250 north of Singapore, provides an amazing glimpse of the 600-year old history that saw waves of rulers starting with Malacca sultanate, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, the Japanese and the British again.

On the way, we got into a restaurant for breakfast. I found this cat there.

Strait of Malacca

PORTUGUESE SETTLEMENT

Malacca has a separate enclave for people of Portuguese descent. Only such people can own land there. It’s a government initiative to recognise the Portuguese connection and ensure that they are not left out in Malaysia. The Portuguese were among the first foreign occupiers having defeated the Malacca sultanate in 1511.

A typical old house in the Portuguese settlement of Malacca.

Aloysius De Mello and his wife at their renovated house.
Aloysius De Mello and his family live in this settlement. He is about 70 years old and is a retired veterinarian. They don’t even remember from which generation they have been in Malacca, and have totally lost all contacts with their country of origin. They speak Kristang (a combination of Malay-Portuguese), English and Malay. He says the number of settlers has increased over the years and the government has built more apartments for them. Many of the traditional Portuguese-style houses have been rebuilt in modern style. The whole place was getting decked up for the St Pedro festival from June 21 to 30.
A’Famosa

A’FAMOSA
This is perhaps the most photographed monument in Malacca. Why not? A small arch is all that remains of a huge fortress that Alfonso de Albuquerque built after conquering Malacca in 1511. It’s atop a hill that overlooks the sea.
Ben
BEN, THE ARTIST
He has been atop this hill, he says, for the past 30 years sketching the history of Malacca and selling them. He has been to an art college and has seen the growth of this tourist destination. He says in the ’90s there was lot of demand for sketches, but now it has declined due to availability of photos-postcards.
(To be concluded tomorrow)

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