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Week 59: Agra and Fatephur Sikri

21-Apr-09 :: Saturday morning all 11 of us managed to get up for breakfast without any problem. Everyone loved the buffet breakfast and managed to get ready to depart by 10am. The idea of catching a train from Delhi to Agra had everyone excited but a little nervous about how busy the train station might be. In the end, the cars were able to approach the train station without any resistance and getting our luggage into the station, up across several train tracks and down onto the appropriate track was fairly straight-forward. By the time we all boarded the train and managed to get our luggage stowed away, it was nearly ready to depart. The kids were excited by the fact that we had seats in a sleeper car, which meant that they could sit on a higher or a lower bench, and they had their own curtained-off section!

Checking into the Oberoi Amarvillas was very easy — we were soothed by the offer of a wet hand towel and a drink upon arrival! And we were all happy with the proximity of our rooms, which were adjacent to each other with views of the Taj Mahal. After quickly getting settled in, the kids were happy to head down to the swimming pool. The adults ordered some tea and French fries, since we'd missed lunch, and we passed a relaxing afternoon in the shady pavilion by the pool. Simon, Debbie and the boys impressed us by making it through dinner without collapsing from jet lag, and we all headed off to bed pretty quickly in anticipation of an early morning visit to the Taj.

Sunday morning most of our group arose early to head over to the Taj Mahal, to get the best photos of it shortly after sunrise. Everyone was impressed with the imposing monument, and enjoyed seeing the inlay work as well as the beautiful gemstones. After breakfast our guide, Sanjay, took us to see the Agra Fort (also known as the Red Fort), where Shah Jahan was eventually imprisoned by one of his sons. We marveled at the decorations, the impressive engineering involved in its creation, and the view of the Taj Mahal from the windows. Unfortunately, guests are no longer allowed to visit the room in which the shah spent his last days. But the fort was still sufficiently impressive that it was worth the visit, and we enjoyed Sanjay's stories about the Mughal emperor and his family.

The rest of the day passed quickly with breakfast, swimming in the lovely pool, playing on the beautiful lawn (Wood v. Wood in football!) and relaxing. Daniel and I were the only ones interested in visiting the Taj in the evening as well, so we arranged for a golf cart to drop us off and we had a peaceful walk around the grounds and the terrace surrounding the monument. Although the crowds were much bigger than during the morning visit, we enjoyed ourselves and Daniel made the most of the evening light to take photos from as many angles as possible. That evening the children had dinner in the room and watched some TV, while the adults ate in the special restaurant (which doesn't take children below the age of 10). Another enjoyable evening, followed by a good night of sleep!

Monday morning we repacked and boarded a bus after breakfast. Although the bus is a bit slower than taking several cars, it's a more sociable way to get around! Also, our bus drivers were absolutely lovely, making sure we were comfortable at all times and offering us water constantly. Our first stop on the drive was Fatehpur Sikri, where Emperor Akbar temporarily moved the capital for 17 years (after that they had to return to Delhi because the place just didn't have enough water). Once again, Sanjay entertained us with tales of the Mughal family and the uses for the variety of rooms in the palace. By noon that day the weather had become quite hot and everyone was happy to return to the air-conditioned bus! From there, we carried on to the Bharatpur bird sanctuary, a discovery of Benjamin's. Although we were not sure about stopping there, in the end we really enjoyed the experience. The guides are bicycles rickshaw drivers and they take two visitors each into the park, along a flat, narrow, tree-shaded path which seems to go on forever! With 8 of us along for the ride, we had 4 guides. A couple of them spoke good English and were very knowledgeable, so Ben was very pleased. I think he added about 6 new birds to his on-going list, and we all enjoyed seeing the huge painted storks flying around and up to their treetop nests!

Finally, we continued on to Bharatpur station, where we caught another train to Sawai Madopur, the station closest to Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan. The Indian Railways web-site posts information about the average delay time for each service, and this particular train arrived about 45 minutes late, which is nearly the exact time listed on the web-site! So we had quite a bit of time to stand on the platform and observe all the activity. A local train came by and we watched as half the boarding passengers walked out onto the tracks in order to board from the side of the train opposite the platform! A couple of long-distance trains also went by without stopping, full of people travelling cross country. When we finally boarded our train, we managed to find our seats quickly and the kids all entertained themselves really well for the 2-hour ride. And we were greeted by the staff from Aman-i-Khas when we reached the station, with a fleet of Scorpio jeeps to take us to the hotel!

here for our itinerary for while we are in India. And stay tuned for updates on our adventures!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Agra and Fatephur Sikri.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 58: Shimla

14-Apr-09 :: Flying over the Himalayas was amazing! We were expecting to land in Kathmandu to let off some passengers, but instead our plane flew directly to Delhi, where the airport was rather chaotic. But the drive to the Taj Hotel was only about 30 minutes drive, and we quickly settled into our rooms. I managed a visit to the gymnasium, which was a pleasant surprise. The trainer there kindly offered me some headphones to watch TV while I used the elliptical trainer, and kept offering cold bottles of water as well as cold cloths to dab my neck! It was a great way to work out. That evening, we treated ourselves to some sushi at the famous Wasabi restaurant, which was amazing.

In the morning we left some luggage behind for the week and travelled lighter than usual up to the mountains of Shimla. Landing on the mountain top airstrip was a bit disconcerting, especially as it was not a smooth landing, but we quickly forgot about that as we took in the gorgeous scenery. Although the views were not as dramatic as in Bhutan, the area was quite full of character and charm. Our hotel, the Oberoi Cecil, was located just a short walk from the pedestrianized area of the town, where people strolled from shop to shop, and we managed to entice the kids to head out with us for a couple of hours. After surviving an attack from the surprisingly aggressive red-faced monkeys, they were pleased to discover a shop which sold all sorts of familiar sweets which they had not seen in awhile, so Daniel purchased some chocolates and gummy bears for them. We also managed to find some more rechargeable batteries — one of many things that can excite us!

The boys and I managed to sit down and put together an order from Amazon in the UK, with items for the Wood visitors to bring with them. Benjamin had a series of books that he wanted; Daniel had a recommendation from a recent issue of The Economisti magazine that he hoped to read; I had the third book from my trilogy that I wanted to read; and Felix was desperate to buy a flight simulator CD-ROM. Daniel also discovered that he could get the Samsung laptop that he wanted delivered to Simon and Debbie, so he ordered that and we all looked forward to receiving our new items at the end of the week!

In the hotel the kids discovered a wonderful activity center, where they were keen to spend their time. So we quickly settled into a routine where they worked on school after breakfast for several hours, and then were allowed to join a few other kids in the activity center. While they were being supervised, Daniel and I headed out to explore the town a bit more and attempt some short walks. On one occasion I was returning to the hotel with some grapes, as requested, and was accosted by monkeys! They obviously recognized the packaging and came running at me to try and scare me into dropping the bag. For some reason, my first thought was that a dog was approaching me, so I didn't really react appropriately, and managed to make it back with most of the grapes I had purchased. There was also a lovely indoor swimming pool and gymnasium at the hotel, so we spent a fair amount of time in those places. Since the kids were being productive with their school work and happy to keep things low key, we didn't see any reason to upset the equilibrium and the week passed relatively quickly that way. We all began to get very excited about the visit from Simon, Debbie and the boys at the end of the week, and were happy to conserve our energy, knowing that the schedule once they arrived would become much more hectic!

Finally Friday morning arrived and we packed up to head back to the airport. Our final breakfast at the hotel was very nice, and everyone was ready to leave on time. The drive to the airport was uneventful and our flight departed on time, which meant that we arrived in Delhi shortly after lunch and returned to the Taj Mahal Hotel by early afternoon. I had plenty of time for another pampered workout, as well as a hair color and blow dry! After a family meal at the hotel's Chinese restaurant, the House of Ming, everyone got ready for bed and Daniel headed off to the airport. He finally returned with the Wood family at about 1am, by which time I was exhausted from waiting up for them! Everyone was happy to head directly to bed after that and rest up for the busy Saturday ahead.

here for our itinerary for while we are in India. And stay tuned for updates on our adventures!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Bhutan.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 57: Bhutan

07-Apr-09 :: Sorry for the delay in getting this entry posted — we were down to just 3 laptops in the family for awhile so getting a turn was a challenge!

Kolkata International airport was more the way I remember Indian airports to be. Druk Airways has only 2 check-in counters and writes out their boarding passes by hand! The seating is also "first come, first served", rather than assigned, which is a little chaotic. Since we were leaving the country, we had to go through immigration and customs again before clearing security and heading to the boarding area. Daniel had watched a YouTube video of the landing in between the mountains in Paro, the airport in Bhutan, which had him rather nervous about the flight. After just 45 minutes we were making our descent between the peaks and bracing ourselves — only to be treated to the smoothest landing ever! I read that there are only 8 pilots in the world who are qualified to land in Paro, but later learned that they often get poached by higher-paying airlines because of their skill. Still, apparently it takes special training to be able to fly for Druk Airways!

We were greeted outside the airport by our Bhutanese guides from Amankora, Karma and Kinley, and our drivers for the week, Gaylay and Kencho. I was very impressed with the comfort of the vehicles (we always seem to need two vehicles for the 6 of us) and within half an hour we reached our destination — the Amankora resort outside Paro. Everything about the place was just beautiful and peaceful, not the least of which was the view! Although the mountain tops had clouded over since the morning, the view was still amazing. After settling into our rooms, we had a delicious lunch in the restaurant and went on our first outing to a nearby monastery. There we learned a bit about the etiquette of approaching the altar (having taken our shoes off before entering the shrine area) and how the concept of everything being done clockwise is important in Buddhism. Our next stop was a stroll along the main street of Paro, which has maintained very attractive, mostly traditional style buildings. The kids were getting tired, so Karma took them back to the lodge while Kinley took me and Daniel to a Dzong (fortress, sometimes converted into a monastery or government administration building) nearby. In this case, the Drukgyel Dzong was no longer functioning because it had burned down many years ago and not been restored. At one time, this fortress had been the last defense against an invasion from Tibet, and Kinley mentioned that it was just 1 1/2 days walk from there to the Tibetan border. After having a good look around, Daniel and I walked back to the lodge, through the rice paddies (since it is spring, they are currently being used to grow wheat). What a lovely beginning to our stay in Bhutan!

Upon returning to the lodge, we discovered that another family had arrived from one of the other lodges (there are 5 in total in Bhutan, scattered throughout the country). Lynn and Julian are from Melbourne and have a 4-year-old boy called Christian, who loves airplanes. So Felix and Miranda had collected their planes and brought them back to the lounge to play with him. He is the same age as their cousin, Gunnar, and they really enjoyed spending time with him. I had discovered that a massage was available in the spa, so I went off to do that before dinner, while Daniel had a sauna. When we arrived at the restaurant, Lynn, Julian and Christian had already finished eating but stayed on to keep us company, which was really nice. We discovered that the chef in residence is an American fellow, also named Christian, so I ordered the lobster risotto. Everyone enjoyed their meal and we headed off to bed to prepare for a big day. Kinley had suggested that we set off at 8am, but Daniel and I had promised the kids a more relaxing morning so we settled upon 9am.

The plan was to climb up to the Tiger's Nest, a famous monastery located at 3000 meters, which was meant to take 2 1/2 hours going up and a further 1 1/2 hours coming down. Apparently this climb is used as a test for guests arriving in Bhutan who are attempting some of the longer treks, just to make sure they can manage the altitude. Although Daniel and I are not our fittest, we decided that we had to give it a try and convinced the boys to join us. The girls stayed with Karma while Kinley and Gaylay went up with us. The boys found our pace too slow, so Gayley was happy to take them ahead and they reached the top in less than 1 1/2 hours! We were not too far behind, though — upon reaching the 3000 meter mark, there are 400 steps going down and across a waterfall, then 400 more steps going back up to the building itself, which is perched precariously on the side of the cliff! Very impressive and worth the climb. The story goes that a great teacher flew there on a tiger and stayed in a cave to meditate, after which he used a strand of his hair to create the foundations of the building. Once we reached the bottom, we discovered that Karma and the girls had set out a picnic lunch for us and were having a grand time. That afternoon we couldn't face anything more than a visit to the sauna! But we felt fortunate that the weather had cooperated and we'd been given a lovely day for our climb. At dinner we sat with the Peters again and enjoyed socializing and discussing the shared interest in airplanes (for Christian, Julian and Felix, at least!). The following morning they were returning to Melbourne, so we said our farewells.

Wednesday morning we headed off to Paro to visit the local museum and Dzong, which was an interesting outing. The most unusual display was all the postage stamps printed in Bhutan! The museum also contained many traditional costumes, ancient weapons and various utensils which helped to understand how the people lived in Bhutan many years ago. Many of the baskets and other crafts are still used today, particularly in the far east of the country where the villages are quite remote. That afternoon the rain came, and we were happy not to be climbing to the Tiger's Nest! When we returned to the lodge, Daniel and I enjoyed a massage each in the spa.

Thursday we packed up and were driven to the capital city of Thimphu, where Amankora has another lodge. Our wonderful guides accompanied us there and helped us to get settled in, after which we enjoyed some lunch and then headed out to have a look at the city. Although it had been raining all morning, the sun reappeared as soon as we headed out. Our first stop was at the local school of traditional arts and crafts. The kids were fascinated by the students working with wood and metal, sewing, painting and weaving. We ended up spending far more time there than we anticipated, simply because the kids were enjoying it so much! Our next stop was to watch the traditional method of making paper by hand, which was completely fascinating. Of course, at the end of the tour was a gift shop full of items made with the paper, all of which were amazing. We could have spent an absolute fortune in there, but managed to leave with just 4 packages. By that time we'd seen enough and had the guides drop us back at the lodge. Although we had been looking forward to cultural performance, the outdoor venue meant that it had to be cancelled due to the rain.

Friday we set off after breakfast and drove about an hour before coming to a path which lead to another monastery. At the start of the path was a man who had travelled for 2 days with several bags of rice. He had then hired another fellow with several donkeys to help him take the rice up the mountain to the monastery as an offering to the monks. Apparently this is how the monks obtain much of their food. Once again, the girls stayed with Karma while Kinley guided Daniel and the boys and I up to the top. The walk was only about an hour, after which we were able to visit the temple. Above this monastery was also the home of a young boy who is believed to be the reincarnation of the wise teacher who built the Tiger's Nest, and Kinley had heard that sometimes he is willing to meet people. While we waited, Kinley asked about the process for getting an audience with the young boy and then we started walking up again. After a short wait, we were invited to enter his private chamber and he blessed us. We felt very special to receive such treatment, and have kept a close watch on the blessing string that he tied around our necks. Again, we walked down the mountain and were met by a picnic lunch along the riverbank!

After lunch, the guides had arranged to teach us Bhutanese archery. The kids had trouble containing their enthusiasm, and the archery tournament lasted for about an hour. The target is tiny — much smaller than any archery target I have seen elsewhere! Although nobody got near the bull's eye, Benjamin managed to at least hit the target, which was closer than anyone else in our family. The riverbank also provided a good place to watch for birds, and we had a hard time getting Benjamin to return to the car. That evening, Daniel and I treated ourselves to another massage each in the spa, after which the rescheduled traditional dance performance took place in the courtyard. The kids were absolutely mesmerized by the performers and I was reminded of our similar experience on Easter Island.

On our last full day in the country, our guides took us to the Punakha valley for the day. Amankora has another lodge there and we were dropped off and treated to a lovely lunch in the courtyard, which was really making me wish that we'd opted to spend a few nights there. The altitude is a bit lower, so the temperature was much warmer. Also, the local walks are not quite so hard, because the terrain is a bit less steep. The location is also near a river, so Ben was enjoying the chance to observe the bird life. So we've decided to return to Bhutan sometime and definitely add Punakha to our itinerary! After lunch we visited the local Dzong, which was definitely the most impressive that we've seen so far. The temple serves as a place of learning for the young monks, who we were able to watch doing their chanting. The wall inside is also painted with the story of Buddha's life, which is fascinating.

That afternoon we returned to the arts and crafts school, where we purchased several paintings from their shop. Hopefully the art looks as nice in our house in Vermont as it does on their wall! The boys also bought some small cups from the kids in the wood working class, which caused quite a stir. This brought our visit to Bhutan to an end, which was quite sad. We all enjoyed the quiet, spiritual break from our hectic tour of India! Sunday morning dawned bright and clear, which meant that our flight was able to take off on time. We reached Delhi in the early afternoon and relaxed in the Taj Hotel until dinnertime, when we treated ourselves to some sushi at the famous Wasabi restaurant!

here for our itinerary for while we are in India. And stay tuned for updates on our adventures!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Bhutan.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 56: Kolkata and Darjeeling

31-Mar-09 :: Our arrival into Kolkata was after dark, with everyone a little tired and hungry. When we exited the airport, there was unfortunately only one Toyota Innova waiting for us. Daniel had been very specific in his request for a transfer that we couldn't fit into just one car with all our luggage. Although the Innova is a 7-seater, using all 7 seats means that the boot space is almost non-existent. While the driver called to find out about the second car, we waited out front. In the end, we left our luggage with the hotel representative at the airport and headed off to the hotel before the kids became too impatient. They were already groaning when they learned that the drive to the hotel was likely to be an hour! On the drive I noticed that most of the signs are in English, and I didn't see nearly as much Hindi or Bengali as I expected to. The Victoria Memorial looked very impressive, and we noticed quite a lot of open park space, which is something that Mumbai lacks. Our impression was that the original city had been well-planned. Outside of the center, too, there was plenty of undeveloped land towards the airport, which was slowly being filled by IT parks, according to our taxi driver.

The Oberoi Grand in Kolkata is an absolutely beautiful, classic hotel, and our rooms were tastefully decorated and reasonably priced — the perfect combination! Getting settled was very easy, thanks to the helpful staff. Since I was feeling a bit ill with a cough and Benjamin was still suffering from a head cold, room service seemed like the best option for dinner. Everyone was happy to fall into bed as soon as possible that night!

In the morning we took advantage of the fact that there was no reason to get up early and stayed in bed until 8:30am, then wandered down to breakfast at about 9:30am. After that we realized that there was a long list of details to follow up on pertaining to the remainder of our travels in India — for instance, making certain that 2 cars will be waiting for us everywhere! So Daniel ended up spending most of the afternoon on the internet taking care of those items, and the boys also had access to the internet for their math classes. Although Daniel and I had wanted to see a bit of the city, I really didn't have the energy for a long outing and the kids didn't seem interested. So in the end Daniel and I just wandered around the area for a couple of hours. Upon leaving the security gates of the hotel, we were immersed in the crowds surging along the pavement in between the stalls. Several men began walking alongside us and trying to convince us to enter their shop or to buy something. Daniel had hoped to look for a new shirt in New Market, but once we entered the building the sellers were harassing us every few steps. It was literally impossible to look around because a glance in any direction was taken as an invitation to push more aggressively for a sale. After about 10 minutes I found it too tiresome to continue, so we left that building. We walked around for about an hour after that, stopping in a bookstore briefly, and at the Big Bazaar for some snacks. A few more shopkeepers approached us in an effort to get us to enter their shops, but they were more accepting of our refusals. Although I saw a few shops with interesting window displays, I didn't have the energy to actually enter the shops and deal with the pushy salespeople. Having spent time shopping in Mumbai and Delhi in the past, this was the only time I remember feeling harassed.

After returning to the hotel room, we got everyone dressed for dinner and headed downstairs to the Thai restaurant. Since we had booked an early sitting the restaurant was not crowded and the staff were very attentive. We all enjoyed our meal and made it up to the room by 9pm. With a 10:30am flight, we needed to be on our way by 8:15am, so everyone was happy to head off to bed straight away. In the morning we managed to fit in breakfast, then stop by the Hyatt to leave a few bags behind, and reach the airport in plenty of time. After all that our flight was delayed by nearly an hour, so we reached Bagdogra Airport at about 12:50pm. This was the furthest north I'd ever been in India, so I was feeling excited to see the differences. Bagdogra itself, and it's neighboring town of Siliguri, were far from impressive. Still relatively close to sea level, both towns were crowded, hot and dusty, with a distinct lack of permanent buildings, as well as character. Once we began heading up into the foothills of the mountains, everything began to change. The temperature slowly dropped and a dense forest appeared on both sides of the road. Eventually, the road became very narrow with steep drops on one side, and the skill of our drivers was apparent! After nearly 3 hours, we reached the Glenburn Tea Estate near Darjeeling, and were welcomed by Nina, the manager of the hotel.

Although Kanchenjunga (the tallest mountain in Sikkim, at over 8200m) is usually visible from the Colonial-style main house, the sky was so hazy when we arrived that we couldn't even see the town of Darjeeling, which is on the ridge just opposite. When we could hear thunder, we were hopeful that some rain and wind would clear things up so that the mountain would again be visible, but no luck. The kids managed to find a flat, grassy area to play in while we waited for dinner time to arrive. We all enjoyed the colonial meal, which was served quite formally in the dining room of the main house, and headed off to bed feeling very satisfied. Thursday morning we had a leisurely breakfast and walked down to the river, which is about 10k along a steep path. My legs were feeling rather like jelly by the time we reached the "camp", as they call it, located on the Rangeet River. Since it is currently the driest time of year, the water level in the river is not very high. Large boulders, which are underwater after the monsoons, now sit along the river bank completely dry — an invitation for active children to climb and explore! After a large lunch and some time playing amid the rocks, we caught a ride back up the hillside. We all agreed that this was our bumpiest ride yet.

Another family had arrived at the estate that afternoon, with 2 girls the right age as playmates for our girls. They all got to know each other and dinner seemed very festive with so many of us at the table. Daniel had expressed an interest in whitewater rafting, so Nina had arranged for him to take the boys Friday morning. After breakfast we first headed up to the local school to watch the kids sing their songs for assembly and then to have a look at their classrooms. They looked so cute in their uniforms — some of them were so small! After that Daniel and the boys headed off to the Tista River for their rafting. Unfortunately, about 45 minutes after they set off the sky turned very dark and thunder started booming. The rafting outing was still on, but the temperature had dropped quite a bit so they ended up paddling in the rain and feeling the cold in their shorts. But Daniel still enjoyed introducing the boys to their first rafting experience. There had been some discussion of the girls and I driving to meet them and continue to Kalimpong, one of the other towns in the area, but by the time we found each other and had some lunch all we wanted to do was return to the plantation. The distances are not long, but the driving conditions make the travel times very long, and Kalimpong was about 2 1/2 hours from Glenburn! In the end we reached our rooms with plenty of time to relax and warm up before dinner.

Some more guests had arrived that afternoon, so we met them in the lounge, where drinks were being served before dinner. In addition to Miriam (from Morocco) and Michael (from Germany) who live in Kolkata, from the previous day, there was Camilla from England and Amanda and Gavin from New Zealand (who live in Delhi). So dinner was even more festive with the eclectic crowd! But I think we were getting frustrated by the lack of Indian food.

Next morning we had breakfast in a different location — down on the terrace below the main house. Since it was therefore quiet outside our room, we inadvertently slept late and were the last to join the meal. Amanda mentioned that she would like to drive to Darjeeling, but that her husband would not be interested, so I asked if she would mind my company. Since she was agreeable, we joined a tour of the tea production facilities first (including most of the current guests) and then carried on to Darjeeling. I was not keen on the drive of 1 1/2 hours, but didn't like the idea of visiting the tea plantation without actually seeing the city. So off we set and about an hour later we arrived — the time passed very quickly as we chatted! I learned that Amanda and Gavin had lived in Rome for 5 years before moving to Delhi with the FAO and was fascinated to hear about Amanda's love for Rome. Since we are hoping to settle there next year, I enjoyed listening to her stories of life there.

Darjeeling was another crazy, chaotic, crowded city, but we drove right through it until reaching the Tibet Refugee Self-Help Centre. It is located a few kilometers on the far side of town, and at the top of a large hill. The mood upon arrival was a bit grim, with an orphanage and a cr¸che prominently on view. Amanda and I read up on the information in the photo gallery and filled in the gaps in our limited knowledge of the Tibet situation, then proceeded to the shop. The claim is that the products are made by Tibetan refugees and not available anywhere else, so we purchased a few items. Of course, we then proceeded into the town on Darjeeling, where we saw many of the same items for sale. Depressingly, most of it is absolute junk, which I had no desire to purchase. After Amanda expressed an interest in a particular shop, I managed to find some napkin rings in red and green, which will hopefully be suitable for Christmas.

After returning to Glenburn, I arranged to purchase some tea and their brand of shower gel. I also learned that Daniel and the boys had gone back down to the river to fish with Sanjay, the plantation manager. The girls and I began organizing our belongings to pack, and some new guests also arrived — Peter from Melbourne, who is also on the faculty at MIT, and his wife Margie, who is also a professor. Daniel and the boys didn't return until well after dark, which caused me no end of worry, but they also didn't catch any fish. Daniel also discovered that I'd locked the keys in one of our suitcases (in my defense, locking it was something new ... ) so it took about an hour of trial and error to eventually break into the bag to recover the keys. After drinks in the back by the bonfire, Saturday night was a late dinner, but with a very interesting group of people!

Sunday morning we had to leave, so we were up for breakfast early and on the road by 8:20am. Our flight departed more or less on time, and we reached the Hyatt Kolkata at about 3pm. The Indian restaurant in the hotel looked very good, so we arrived for dinner at about 7:30pm and filled ourselves up. The kids were all so tired, in spite of having done not much throughout the day, so we managed to get everyone tucked into bed early, in anticipation of an early morning.

here for our itinerary for while we are in India. And stay tuned for updates on our adventures!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Kolkata and Darjeeling.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 55: Pench National Park

24-Mar-09 :: From Nagpur airport, we had been told that the drive to Baghvan Safari Lodge at Pench National Park would be about 2 hours. Although nobody was looking forward to the drive, it ended up being rather painless. I learned that Nagpur is a rather clean city, known for producing delicious oranges, and contains a small monument representing the geographical center of India. We also drove through rural Maharashtra again, with similar villages and landscape to the area outside Aurangabad, except slightly flatter. After about 1 1/2 hours we crossed the border into Madhya Pradesh, where the drivers were required to stop and register before continuing. So we reached the lodge at about 7:30pm on Thursday, where we were greeted by all the staff standing out front, waving. We were made to feel very welcome in the common area while our luggage was taken to our cottages. After a lovely BBQ dinner poolside, we were shown our cottages and warned that our morning wake-up call would come at 5:30am, so heading straight to bed was an easy decision!

Waking up was painful that first morning, but nobody wanted to miss out on our first excursion into the park. Our naturalist, Vrushal, was waiting for us at the lodge with the Tata jeep ready to go, so we piled in and headed off. At the entrance to the park, we picked up an official guide (each vehicle is required to have one) and continued. Since all the animals were new to us, we made frequent stops to identify and photograph spotted deer, larger deer called sambar, various monkeys and birds. Benjamin discovered that Vrushal shares his passion for birds so the two of them had a lot to talk about. Early in the drive, Vrushal stopped by a particular tree to point out an owl in a hole which was almost completely camouflaged! We also parked by a watering hole for awhile, where numerous cranes were wading and poking their beaks around in search of fish. Amazingly, four hours passed very quickly, driving around and looking at animals! By the time we returned to the lodge, everyone was hungry and the breakfast spread looked very enticing. Finishing our large breakfast at about 11:30am, none of us could imagine being hungry for lunch again at 2pm, so instead we requested some snacks before our afternoon drive at 4pm. So with some fruit and bread to tide us over, we set off again for the park entrance. After picking up our official guide, we proceeded to a different watering hole where a tiger is known to spend time. The guide had information that a tigress and her 10-month-old cubs had been there earlier in the day, so we attempted to wait quietly for their appearance. Although the tigers didn't appear, we enjoyed seeing many birds and monkeys. Before we knew it, the time had come to return to the lodge.

A South African couple and an American fellow had arrived that day, so the lodge seemed to be filling up. We barely made it through dinner and back to our rooms before collapsing in bed, knowing that 5:30am would come very early! The second day getting up early was a bit easier, and we spent the next few days getting into the routine of heading off into the peaceful park to search for animals, then drive back and eat. Although we didn't manage to spot a tiger during our 4-day stay, we did see a leopard, from a distance, which was quite exciting. Benjamin also cataloged about 50 different bird species during that time, and we learned more about the various animals' diet, habits and the environment. Missing out on the tiger was disappointing, but since we have 2 other park visits planned in the next 6 weeks we'll have other opportunities. I was very proud of the kids, who managed to remain enthusiastic about the other animals we saw in abundance, and didn't get overly focused on the need to see a tiger.

By the time our last day arrived, we were feeling quite comfortable with the early mornings and the friendly staff at Baghvan and felt reluctant to leave. But we were losing our naturalist, as Vrushal's parents had come for their first visit to the park and he was needed to guide them around! I was relieved to have had a very positive experience, since when we booked this visit I was unsure if the kids would find it boring spending time riding around in the jeep and trying to wait quietly for animals to appear. Now they are all looking forward to our other 2 safari stays in India, and even planning our visit to Africa!

here for our itinerary for while we are in India. And stay tuned for updates on our adventures!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Pench National Park.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 55: Mumbai again!

24-Mar-09 :: For a treat we utilized the Four Seasons BMWs to drive from the airport to the hotel — a very unique experience to drive in Mumbai in such comfort! The space was only sufficient because we didn't have all our luggage, so we will not be making a habit of it. Upon arrival our rooms were not quite ready (it was 11am, after all) but shortly we were offered an upgrade to a suite again. That made our stay very comfortable, as the boys slept on rollaway beds in the living room. I was also pleased to have the extra space because I was hoping the kids would make some progress on school work during our stay. Once we unpacked and got settled into our rooms, there was a consensus that we should visit the local shopping mall. Although it's not completely finished, the Phoenix Mills shopping area is very nice. For lunch we had snacks from Costa Coffee and then started shopping for some clothes to replace those of Miranda's which I had left behind in Dubai. After our experience at Ellora, I was thinking that the girls should have some slightly more modest clothing, perhaps even a couple of kurtas (sort of traditional dresses worn with trousers beneath). While Daniel took the older kids bowling, I also found the supermarket, with Diet Pepsi, cookies and grapes — the things that make us all happy!

That evening, we had arranged to go to my cousin Raju's house in Colaba and eat with his family. It was lovely to see his wife, Sheila, and his kids again. His daughters are all grown up and currently studying for college exams, and they are hoping to be accepted for some post-graduate studies in England in the fall. His son, Shiv, was also studying for exams while we were there in order to finish school, so at the age of 16 I guess that's the equivalent of O levels in the UK. We enjoyed some lovely food there — we were particularly excited to have samosas with meat! And the kids watched a movie with Shiv while the grown-ups talked and had a few drinks. Still, by the time we got the kids back to bed it was after 10pm and they were exhausted!

Saturday morning, after a lie in, the kids grudgingly put some time into their school work. After that we drove back down to the Cricket Club, which is a place about which I have fond memories. Because we hadn't thought to wear proper attire (trousers are required for the restaurant), Raju had to take us to the café, but there was a nice afternoon breeze and the temperature was very pleasant outside. After that, Raju had to get back home to help Shiv study, so we continued to a shop that Sheila had recommended, called Westside. There I found a few more items of clothing for the girls, and a salwar kameez for myself. They are so comfortable! That evening we were still so full from the huge lunch that we didn't even bother to have dinner.

Sunday we had arranged to visit my Auntie Usha and Uncle Lalu, as well as 2 of my cousins, at the Otters Club in Bandra. This is another place which I remember fondly from childhood and fortunately one thing I remembered about the place was still true — the 3 diving boards by the swimming pool! The kids were in heaven when they saw them, and managed to occupy themselves for several hours. Meanwhile, Daniel and I ate far too much food, while enjoying the sea breeze and the lovely temperature outside. As we were preparing to leave the club and visit my cousin Sundeep's house, the lovely day ended badly when my auntie had a fall and injured her arm. My other cousin, Vicky, ended up taking his mom to the hospital for an x-ray and meeting us later. She put on a brave face, but I think she was really in pain and would have preferred to go home. So Daniel and I used that as a good reason to head back to the hotel at about 8pm — the traffic in Bandra is actually pretty heavy on a Sunday evening because all the shops are open, so it took us a good 45 minutes to get back to the Four Seasons! Fortunately nobody was hungry enough to bother with dinner for the second evening in a row.

Monday morning the kids did some more schoolwork (this was almost turning into a morning routine!) and then we headed off to see the movie Slumdog Millionaire. It was quite interesting to watch the movie there in Mumbai, as the cinema is located in a very nice shopping mall with a slum just next door, and it is also in the Muslim area of the city. We really enjoyed it, but went through a few tissues in the process ... Although the city has cleaned up noticeably, the poverty is still upsetting. The kids seem to be taking all the differences in their stride, but it helps that the number of beggars outside the car windows has decreased dramatically from what I remember years ago. That evening we had no plans with relatives and I think everyone was happy to have a quiet day making use of the swimming pool and hot tub at the hotel. After putting the kids to bed, Daniel and I went downstairs to try the Asian restaurant. The sushi was delicious and the service was impeccable — but the bill was rather stunning! The expense was mainly down to the bottle of wine and the associated taxes, so a lesson was learned ...

Tuesday our agenda was to catch up on some vaccinations, so after the morning school work we headed off to Breach Candy, where the nice hospital is located, to visit the clinic recommended by the Four Seasons. The kids were not looking forward to this task, but it had to be done. In the end we had Hepatitis A and tetanus boosters, plus oral polio boosters, but because we had to wait for some doses to be delivered from other locations, it took most of the day. We managed to slip out to the local shopping mall for some lunch, which was very pleasant, but by the time we returned to the hotel it was after 4pm. We decided to visit a couple of local art galleries and then take the kids back to the Asian restaurant for an early dinner. As usual, they enjoyed the sushi, sashimi and teppanyaki on offer and ate very well. Daniel and I skipped the bottle of wine, and 6 of us ate for the same price as 2 of us the previous night!

Wednesday was a big holiday in India known as Holi, which signifies the change in seasons. The celebration consists of throwing colored water on people, and I gather it can get really out of hand at times. Raju had warned us not to venture out that day, but our other cousin, Anju, had invited us to her apartment building to join in their celebration. Apparently that is the way to go, as celebrating with neighbors eliminates the risk of things getting out of control. When we arrived, Anju's daughters had filled a bucket with water balloons, and the kids got into the spirit very quickly. Eventually, the girls (who are both in their 20s!) took our kids down to the courtyard to participate with the other young people from the building. They had an absolute ball — what kid doesn't love a water fight?? By lunchtime the kids were soaked and their clothes were destroyed, but they had really enjoyed themselves. Anju had made special food for us which was not too spicy, so we had a lovely lunch at her house before returning to the hotel for some quiet time. On our last evening in Mumbai we met Raju at CCI to see the new bar, and my Uncle Ghansham and Auntie Indra came as well. They are always good company and the evening passed very quickly!

Thursday morning we packed up and prepared to leave Mumbai for good. Although we hadn't spent as much time with family as I would have liked (it always feels that way) we felt excited to embark on the rest of our travels in India! Another smooth transfer to the airport and an easy check-in found us landing in Nagpur at about 5pm that day, ready for our safari adventure.

here for our itinerary for while we are in India. And stay tuned for updates on our adventures!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Mumbai.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 54: Aurangabad, Ajanta and Ellora Caves

17-Mar-09 :: Having been warned that the drive to the domestic airport, formerly known as Santa Cruz, could take up to 2 hours, the hotel arranged for 2 cars to pick us up by 3pm. The Four Seasons had agreed that we could drop off some of our luggage to keep there until we return on Friday, so a stop there had to fit into our drive. Once that was done, the drive turned out to be surprisingly quick, and we ended up at the airport more than 2 hours before our flight's departure! The airport looks brand new and was not the least bit crowded, so checking in at the Jet Airways counter and getting through security was very pleasant — there is a dedicated queue for ladies, which was unexpected but quite nice. After filling up on snacks at the coffee shop, we boarded a bus out to the tarmac and our plane, which reminded us of the propeller planes we take from Philadelphia or Newark up to Burlington! After an uneventful 1-hour flight on a very new plane, we reached Aurangabad and walked to the terminal to collect our luggage. Just as we found a couple of luggage trolleys and Daniel headed off to the restroom, the power suddenly went out! As it was nearly 8pm, this plunged us into complete darkness for a few seconds, until the back-up generator kicked in and turned on a few lights. Of course, then the luggage carousel was not running so everyone crowded around the entrance window to get their bags.

Getting to the hotel was no problem and the kids were relieved to discover that it was only a 10-minute drive. Our rooms are very comfortable and overlook a lovely swimming pool. We had some hungry people among us, so we headed directly to the restaurant for some dinner. I tried the tomato soup and a glass of Indian wine, which comes from the nearby Nasik Valley. The chardonnay was quite nice, and a fraction of the price of imported equivalents! But since our tour guide had informed us we should set off early in the morning, the goal was to eat quickly and get everyone into bed as soon as possible.

Getting up early was still painful, however, and breakfast was a sleepy affair. As planned, Thomas met us at 7:30am, when the temperature was very pleasant. Our destination was the Ajanta Caves, located 110 kilometers from the city, or about a 2-hour drive. The road quality was very nice, but we were frequently stuck behind slow trucks and farm equipment, which is what makes the travel time longer. Still, we reached the parking area for the caves at around 9:30am and boarded a bus to the entrance. Nothing looked familiar from my previous visit in 1976 until we actually walked up the hill and around the corner to the sight of all the caves in a long line along the rock face. Thomas showed us the most important of the 30+ caves and told us the relevant parts of the story of Buddha's life depicted in the paintings, which are still intact. Everyone found the visit fascinating, and there are many photographs to demonstrate our interest! By noon the sun was getting quite hot and we were very glad to have set out early. We left the caves by 12:30pm and headed to a nearby road-side shop for a shady picnic with the boxed lunches that the hotel had sent with us and were back in Aurangabad at our hotel by 3:30pm, glad to have time to relax and try out the swimming pool.

With another early morning planned, we tried to get the kids in bed relatively early, with mixed success. I was pleased to see the kids take an interest in Indian food for breakfast, even if they were only eating the bread! The Ellora Caves are closer to the city and the Daulatabad Fort is on the way, so we stopped there first. The fort was much more impressive than I remember from visiting when I was 11 years old. There was a fair amount of walking up hills and stairs and the kids did really well. They were also excited to spot a few more wild monkeys and squirrels. At one point the fort plunges into total darkness and we had to follow a guide with a special torch — we were able to see how difficult it would be for any potential invaders to successfully attack the fort. As we proceeded further into the fort, the walls also afforded some great views of the surrounding countryside. From there we continued to the Ellora Caves, which was another 20-minutes or so away, and along the way we passed a water park which appeared to be out in the middle of nowhere! The first difference we noticed upon arrival was how much busier it was — perhaps being closer to Aurangabad made the difference. Here we saw examples of Buddist, Hindu and Jain work, including the famous Kailash Temple which depicts the Hindu folktales of the Mahabarata and the Ramayana on the exterior walls. Again, the morning passed quickly as we listened to Thomas tell us about the caves and the monks who carved them. By 1pm we were again ready to head back to the hotel for lunch and a swim. The girls and I braved a visit to the swimming pool, but she quickly had enough and wanted to return to the room. At 4pm we met Thomas again for a tour around the city. First stop was the mini Taj Mahal, which I don't really remember from my previous visit. It is constructed mainly of plaster, with a bit of marble, but made to look like a replica of the original. Hearing it referred to as "mini" gives the impression that it's quite small, but in reality it is quite large (just smaller than the original). We then visited a weaving center, where silk threads are woven into the most beautiful saris (there is a special name for the type that come from this region, but I can't remember it). They were also weaving shawls, table covers, bedspreads and other items, so we purchased a couple of small pieces. After another delicious meal, we once again made the effort to get everyone in bed at a decent time. Friday morning was an early departure, so we had to promise the kids a late morning on Saturday!

here for our itinerary for while we are in India. And stay tuned for updates on our adventures!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Aurangabad, Ajanta and Ellora Caves.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 54: The Taj, Mumbai with the Dusejas

17-Mar-09 :: After all the activity of our visit in Dubai, we were relieved to have a quiet day to head to the airport. We packed up at Atlantis and checked out by 10:30am (unfortunately, I later discovered that I somehow left about half of Miranda's clothes in the room!) and headed off in the cars provided by Emirates. In addition, when we reached the airport about 45 minutes later, we disembarked into a special section for business and first class passengers only! The check-in was completely empty, and soon we were on our way to the duty-free shopping and the lounge. I have never seen such a huge lounge for business class (first class passengers were separate), containing a separate section with children's food, of all things! Of course it was located at the furthest point from the entrance to the lounge, requiring a 5-minute walk. The kids were over the moon with excitement at the selection of video games located in the lounge and were wishing that we'd arrived hours earlier. Before we knew it, our flight had been called and it was time to head to the gate and board. The flight was just over 2 hours and very comfortable, with just enough time for a nice lunch. Landing in Mumbai was quite exciting — my first visit in nearly 10 years. The airport was completely unrecognizeable, as it was so modern and new. Although we had to walk quite a long way to reach the immigration section, there was no queue at all. I was a little uneasy about our visas, but the officers who checked them showed no sign that there was anything unusual (phew!!). Our luggage was collected quickly and we headed out to find our Emirates drivers.

Driving into the city in a chauffeured Mercedes was a new experience for me as well, but I was still worried about how long the journey might take since the Taj Hotel is located at just about the furthest point in the city from the airport. In the end, the journey took just 1 hour and 15 minutes, and we reached the hotel before 8pm. We were pleased to see that security is pretty thorough since the terrorist attacks of November 26th, as most of the entrance has been barricaded so that only one small opening allows entry, and that is fitted with a metal detector. After getting settled in our rooms, we headed out to Uncle Ghansham's house, since that was where my parents were staying. The kids were tired after the previous night in Dubai, but we dragged them out anyway to meet my aunt and uncle and to see the grandparents again. They were rewarded with some delicious, home-cooked Indian food, so there were no complaints after that! They all behaved quite well, in spite of having another late night, but the grumpiness revealed itself the following morning ...

Nobody was happy with the lovely breakfast buffet — a sure sign of being tired! But I wasn't worried about how much they ate because I knew there would be plenty of food at the lunch I'd arranged. We quickly got everyone washed up and looking decent, then went down to the lobby to make sure that there was some kind of sign directly family members to the correct room. We found the sign, but it was not as prominent as I'd hoped, so the kids decided to have "Duseja" written on some paper and stand in the lobby to direct guests! That kept them busy while waiting for people to arrive, since the Dusejas are a notoriously late bunch. The room was decorated beautifully and the food was plentiful — we ended up with about 35 people in all, which meant that my parents were able to see just about everyone from the family who lives in Mumbai. The kids and Daniel were very tolerant of having to meet so many new people, and everyone mixed up at different tables and chatted. Then the cameras came out — anyone watching from outside must have wondered if some celebrities were inside because the cameras were snapping and the flashes were going non-stop! It was a very pleasant afternoon and everyone was gone by about 4pm. After taking the kids for a quick swim, we met up with Mom and Dad and my aunt and uncle for a drink in the evening.

Monday we were hoping to get a new sim card for the mobile phone, but once Daniel realized that he needed a photograph that stalled things. Although he managed to have some photos taken at the Taj business centre, we didn't manage to get back out to a shop after that. We spent the day with my cousin Raju, who kindly showed us around the local area a bit and then took us to his office. While the kids watched a movie in his conference room, he showed us the dealing room and Daniel enjoyed watching the currency broking in action. My dad and uncle made an appearance in the office as well, and by the time Daniel and I left it was nearly 5pm. We decided to leave our trip to the bookstore until the following day as well, and headed back to the hotel to freshen up. The kids were excited about going back to my aunt and uncles' house for another home-cooked meal and to say farewell to Grandma and Grandpa.

My aunt, on the previous night, had mentioned that she enjoys an occasional drink of champagne, so I brought along a bottle from my duty-free stash. When we arrived, I mentioned that I had a surprise for her; in response she said she also had a surprise for me! Not only had we both chilled a bottle of champagne, but they were both Lanson! What are the chances? So we enjoyed 2 bottles of champagne as a group, which was a very festive end to my mom and dad's stay. The next day we were off to Aurangabad for 3 nights, so it was a farewell for us as well (although we planned to return to Mumbai after that for 6 nights).

Tuesday morning we ventured out to the bookstore and then packed up to depart!

here for our itinerary for while we are in India. And stay tuned for updates on our adventures!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from The Taj, Mumbai with the Dusejas.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 53: Dubai Visit

10-Mar-09 :: Landing in Dubai before dawn was rather disappointing, as we'd all been thinking about the stunning buildings, and the sun had still not come out when we reached our hotel at about 6:30am! The Park Hyatt was mercifully close to the airport and the hotel had miraculously arranged for both our rooms to be ready upon arrival, which was very impressive. But that was just the beginning of a fantastic week's stay at the hotel — we could not say enough good things about the rooms, the staff and the setting. More on that later ...

After settling into our 2-bedroom suite (which was beautifully decorated and on the ground floor, with a grassy area outside leading to the creek!) I got straight to work on the visas for India. We'd received some conflicting information about the time-frame to obtain the visa, so I figured it was better to get started on the application immediately. I was hoping that I could go to the consulate on my own, but when I rang I was told that all family members need to appear in person because we are not residents of the UAE. Fine, so against the moans and protests I rounded everyone up and we headed off to the Indian Consulate. We reached there at 10am and the closing time for submitting an application is 11am, so Daniel and I got busy finding out what was required. Fortunately, we already had our photos and we had printed out photo-copies of our passports at the hotel before coming, so I thought we were set. However, they were short on copies of the application form, so when I asked for 6 copies I was told to take one copy and proceed to the copy/photo room and pay for my own! Had I anticipated this wrinkle, I could have printed off everything at the hotel, but oh well ... Finally Daniel and I had finished filling in all the applications and had been given a number to wait for our turn to submit them. I then discovered that cash was the only acceptable form of payment, but of course we hadn't had time to obtain any dirhams yet! I had to leave the consulate and receive special permission to return after getting some cash. Anyway, I sent Daniel back with the kids and returned to pay — by the time I returned from the consulate it was after 1:30pm, but I had been assured that our visas would be ready for collection in just 4 days, which was better than I'd expected.

Shortly after that, my parents arrived at the hotel and we had a happy reunion with lots of hugs! Carole and Pete had left Chicago the previous week and spent about 5 nights in London to break up the trip, and had arrived in Dubai the previous day. After spending 1 night with my cousin Gautam and his family, they checked in to the Park Hyatt as well, and we had neighbouring rooms. Once we'd spent an hour or so chatting and catching up, I started to call the local relatives. Between my cousins, they decided that we would all meet at Sachin and Shalu's house for a casual evening. I was afraid the kids wouldn't last but, although they were tired, they managed to stay awake long enough to get there and be introduced to everyone. I also discovered that my cousin Vishal had a son last year — the cutest 10-month-old boy! By the time we returned to the hotel we all fell into bed exhausted!

The next day I felt relieved because I didn't have to think about the visa issue anymore. In the meantime, Daniel had been working very hard to confirm our itinerary for India, booking flights and hotels, airport transfers and tours, always making sure that the rates were reasonable. So he was relieved that we weren't going to have to cancel everything! That day we wandered over to the nearby mall, City Centre, which I immediately recognized as the place I'd been to with Miranda on my previous visit to Dubai. As we were getting ready to leave, we noticed how busy it had become — this was Thursday, which is like Friday most places, and apparently we were there during the busiest time. If we had any doubts of that, the line for catching a taxi convinced us — I think we waited for a half an hour! Although our hotel was only a few minutes drive away, we had to cross a very busy highway which made it impossible for us to walk. That evening we left the kids back at the hotel with my mom to catch up on their sleep, and Daniel and I took Dad out to meet everyone at the Irish Village. There was quite a happening social scene there, and my cousins kept running into various people they know. When Gautam arrived, that's when the horrible blue-colored shots started to appear. Amazingly, we all lasted until 1:30am!

Friday we relaxed at the hotel during the day and made use of the swimming pool. That evening we were all invited to Gautam's house to celebrate his and Aneela's 10th wedding anniversary, so we got everyone ready to go and caught a couple of taxis. Unfortunately, our taxi driver had no idea where he was going and even struggled once I put him on the phone with Gautam for directions — in the end it took over 1 hour to get there, even though their house is only a 10-minute drive from the hotel, and all the while Daniel and the kids were waiting at a nearby meeting point and wondering what had happened to us. In spite of the less-than-ideal beginning to the evening, it ended up being a fun one. We finally got to see my cousin Anant and his family, who live the furthest away. Another lovely evening of reminiscing, and we reached the hotel with 4 very tired kids at about 1:30am!

Saturday, Sachin picked us up from the hotel just after noon and took us out to the new part of Dubai to see one of their new businesses — a motorbike shop! The boys were in heaven and even the girls enjoyed a ride on the back of a bike. We met the rest of the family there and continued on to see the new houses where Sachin and Vishal will be moving shortly. The building is nearly finished and we snuck around and had a look at the various rooms — it's very spacious and will be a fantastic home once they've got their furniture and moved in. From there we proceeded to an Indian restaurant nearby, where we enjoyed some fantastic malai kofta and palak baji! After that everyone came back to the hotel with us for some tea and to pass the time until the tennis match was starting. It was the women's final of the Dubai tennis tournament, and Sachin and Vishal had purchased tickets for all of us. Mom wasn't that interested in coming, so she stayed back with the kids again, but Dad enjoyed the match. Fortunately it was not another late night!

Sunday we ventured out to the Dubai Mall, which is the newest and supposedly the largest in the world. Even though only about 75% of the stores are open, I doubt we made much of a dent in it. But we walked around and found the food court, as well as some hiking shops like Columbia. In anticipation of the cool weather we may encounter in the mountains up in north India and Bhutan, we found some warm jackets for nearly everyone. From there I left to collect our passports from the Indian Consulate. As I was checking each visa, I noticed that we'd been granted a single entry rather than a multiple entry — when I asked I was told that non-UAE residents can only be given a single entry visa. The problem for us is that we had already paid for 6 days in Bhutan, followed by a return to Delhi and a couple more weeks in India. Since there seemed to be nobody able to help me, I just decided to go back to the hotel and ring Vishal, who said he knows someone with connections at the consulate, and see if there was something he could do.

That evening was the Liverpool v Man City match, so Sachin and Vishal had said they would come to the Park Hyatt and watch it with us. The kids were so excited to be entertaining — they had their room tidy and were ready for bed by the time the match started! We ended up having a relaxing evening drinking a few beers and watching the match while eating some snacks, but unfortunately Liverpool drew and that was the start of their freefall in the Premiership ... My aunt ended up coming over too, which was really nice. She'd done some laundry for my parents and wanted to deliver it, so she ended up staying awhile and chatting with them.

Monday we all went out to see where Sachin and Vishal have their office and wholesale shop in Old Dubai. From there we went to a south Indian restaurant nearby where everyone tried dosa and we must have consumed about 60 pooris! Our next stop was the Mall of the Emirates, which is a bit older than the Dubai Mall, but rather more lively. It also contains the indoor snow facility, where one can ski, snowboard, or just play in the snow. We figured it was a "must do", if only for the novelty of it, so Daniel and Felix rented equipment to ski and snowboard, respectively, while Vishal and I got warm coats on to take the 4 girls inside and play in the snow. What a ball they had! Riding on tubes down icy slopes and climbing snow-covered hills kept them busy for an hour with no problem. By then my hands were beginning to feel the cold so it was time to leave. The boys managed to find some junior golf clothes, finally, and we made it back to the hotel for a relatively early night.

Tuesday Vishal picked me up to venture off to the Indian Consulate so we could meet his friend and find out whether it would be possible to change our visas to allow at least 2 entries. I don't know how he did it, but after about 2 hours of waiting I received all our passports with the "single" crossed out with pen and "double" written by hand underneath it, but with a signature beneath it. I checked with Vishal that he would consider that sufficiently "official" but he didn't seem to think there was any problem. Still, I knew what Daniel would say when he saw it ... After that I returned to the hotel and had a bit of time to relax by the pool before we had to be ready for Anant to pick us up and take us to his house in Sharjah, a neighboring emirate to Dubai. Amazingly, he arrived virtually on time! As Daniel is discovering, this is unusual within my family.

The traffic going to Sharjah was busy, as expected, but we arrived just after everyone started feeling a bit car sick. Anant's wife, Vrushali, had made some sandwiches and snacks, and we ate a bit while we watched the kids play on the Wii. After a bit, Anant suggested that we drive over to the Kasbah, a lovely outdoor area along a canal with a huge esplanade and lots of little places to eat along it. The evening was lovely and we enjoyed walking along with the kids — then they spotted a playground and a blow-up slide and they were off! By the time we dragged the kids from the entertainment and got back in the car, we didn't reach the hotel until 10pm. By this stage, the kids we had lost track of the late nights for the kids and they were getting grumpy ...

Wednesday we had to check out of the Park Hyatt and move to Atlantis. After visiting the Atlantis in the Bahamas back in March on Vaimiti, we were eager to see how the new branch in Dubai would compare. Because it's located out at the end of the Palm, one of the man-made island projects, the drive there was quite long. We reached there just before 4pm, looking forward to getting settled into our rooms (but knowing that they would not be as pleasant as those at the Hyatt!). Unfortunately, our rooms were not yet ready! I could understand if we'd arrived prior to check-in, but since it was already 4pm I had to wonder what time they were expecting us. We were told we'd be upgraded to a suite as compensation for the inconvenience, then shown to the Imperial Club lounge to have snacks while we waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, by 5:15pm we started asking about our rooms and were told that someone would be up shortly to take us there. Half an hour later we were still waiting. We finally reached our room at about 6pm, but we had no time to relax because Auntie Rekha was expecting us all to be at their house for dinner by 8pm (and we had a pretty long drive to get there!). So we got everyone bathed and got back into a taxi by 7pm.

An hour later we arrived at Sachin and Vishal's house for a nice evening. This was my parents' last night in Dubai, so we had to say good-bye until we saw them in Mumbai on Saturday. Gautam and Aneela came over as well, so it was a lively evening! Thursday the kids took full advantage of the water park, as we spent at least 4 hours camped out by the little kids pool and play area while the older kids ran around trying the various water rides. In the evening we got a babysitter and headed out for a big night at Dubai Festival City, where we met up with the gang at the Belgian Bar. To our relief, most everyone was looking nearly as tired as we were! It was coming to the end of a long but fun time in Dubai. We all made arrangements to meet up the following day, as it was our final one.

Friday morning we took the kids back to the water park for another 3 hours or so and then returned to the Imperial Club room for some lunch. After that, Daniel and the boys headed off to the race track to watch Sachin and Vishal's motorbike participate in a big race. I gather that was a hot outing and, although their driver won the qualifying round he could not participate in the final because of a mechanical failure, so that was a big disappointment. Shalu brought the girls and the Aunties out to Atlantis, and Aneela brought her kids, so we took them all to the swimming pool for a dip and had some tea. Later in the evening everyone got back together for an amazing buffet dinner at Kaleidoscope, which was great. Then we said our final good-byes to everyone with promises to meet up again soon!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Dubai.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 51/52: Bunker Bay and Prevely

03-Mar-09 :: As we drove down the coast from Perth to Bunker Bay, we enjoyed the greenery, which we had missed sorely in South Australia. The directions we received from the agent had mentioned that the last supermarket was located in Dunsborough, so we stopped off and bought some essentials for the next few days, then headed up the peninsula toward Bunker Bay Road at about 5pm. As we drove closer, we noticed a rather large plume of smoke off in the distance, but didn't think too much of it. We just continued to follow the road that we assumed was the only road to access the beach house which we had rented (and already paid for!). As we approached the turn-off for Eagle Bay, the bay before Bunker Bay, there were police cars and signs indicating that the road was closed. After confirming that there was no other way to our accommodation, I discussed with one of the officers the likelihood of the road opening that day. He assured me that the road would re-open that night, but he had no idea when. So we decided to head back into town and get some ice to keep our groceries from spoiling and play it by ear. Just another adventure! Along the beach near Dunsborough was a pretty nice playground, so we parked there and let the kids run around for a bit. Daniel kept tabs on the fire visually, and felt sure that it was diminishing. Finally we got a call at about 7pm to say that the road had opened, just in time to make it to the house and cook before the kids became too grouchy with hunger.

We later learned that the fire had started due to a transformer sparking, which was enough to set the forest ablaze. The road beyond our beach house remained closed until the day we departed Bunker Bay, so we didn't make it up to get the view from the lighthouse. In the meantime, we could periodically smell a bit of smoke as they worked to keep the fire under control and engaged in some back burning at the same time. Otherwise we were not inconvenienced at all by its presence, even though it was quite nearby. Of course, that night as we watched the news the Victoria fires just became worse and worse, and we felt very lucky with the outcome of our fire experience.

Bunker Bay is just beautiful and we stayed in a lovely house that is attached to the hotel/resort, so we had our privacy but with access to the pool and tennis courts at the resort. I took advantage of the nice temperatures and the gym to get in a run or a workout each day we were there. The boys made use of the tennis court the first morning, spending a couple of hours playing in spite of the heat. That afternoon we took a leisurely drive to the Sugarloaf Rock, a nearby coastal formation that afforded some amazing photography opportunities. The following day was more of the same — morning at the beach and an afternoon drive to visit the Ngilgi Caves and another coastal formation called the Canal Rocks. Our goal for the rest of our stay in Australia was to enjoy the gorgeous coast and beaches, since we might not be seeing anything like them for awhile ...

To fill the remainder of our time in Western Australia, we found a house further south in Prevely, just next to the well-known town of Margaret River. The house was also beautiful and afforded sweeping views of the ocean from the terraces. Again, the goal was to enjoy the beach and appreciate our last opportunities to cook for ourselves rather than eat in restaurants. While continuing with a fair amount of school work, we also managed a visit to the beach each day, including more surfing lessons! Although no visits to the local wineries made it into our itinerary, we still purchased local wines from the shop and enjoyed them at home. All too soon it was time to pack up and leave — Monday lunchtime (the 16th of Feb.) we dropped off the keys and started driving back north to Perth. Checking into the Inter-Continental for our final night in Australia was rather strange. The hotel was quite nice and the dinner from room service was very good. Daniel and I made certain the kids were ready for bed and popped down to the Irish Pub on the ground floor for a drink to watch the steady stream of people entering and leaving the casino next-door.

Tuesday morning I got up early and headed out to the US Consulate to have some pages added to my passport. Although the security was tight and this added time to entering and leaving the premises, the whole process was quick, painless and free! How often does that happen? After that I was able to stop in at Woolworths and pick up some grapes and snacks for the kids, and I even managed to get my legs waxed! Back at the hotel, Daniel had taken the kids to the pool for the morning, which is where I found them upon my return. Although we had requested a late check-out, due to our flight departing at 11:30pm, they were only able to allow us to keep one of the rooms until just after noon, so we had to pack up and just keep out a few items to get us through the day. We basically hung out by the pool until 6pm and then showered and changed for dinner. Even knowing that we were headed for 2-months of Indian food, the kids still wanted it for our final dinner in Australia! So we headed off to a very trendy Indian restaurant and enjoyed some delicious food. Checking in at the airport was a breeze and we were happy to get there early and spend time in the Emirates lounge. The business class section of the plane was amazing, with chairs that turn into flat beds and very high-tech television screens (I needed considerable help to operate mine!). With all this at their disposal, the kids handled the 11-hour + flight with ease.

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Bunker Bay and Prevely.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 50: Perth

17-Feb-09 :: Upon arrival at Perth airport, we discovered that there is a $4 charge for luggage trolleys, so we made do with just 2 instead of 3 (didn't have enough cash!). A minor issue, but something that we always notice. Also, the car rental area is not very convenient, but it appears to be under construction so hopefully it will become more user-friendly soon. As we drove away from the airport, Daniel realized that the car rental agreement had been left in one of the returned luggage carts so we went back to retrieve it. By the time we checked into the Crown Plaza hotel the time was nearly 7:30pm (but it felt like 9pm to us, which was the time in Adelaide), so we took the suggestion of the concierge to visit the local Vietnamese restaurant down the road. Fortunately we managed to get some food into everyone before returning to the hotel and tucking them into bed! That was the end of a pretty long day, and everyone was tired.

Thursday morning we were on a mission. I had a quick work-out in the gym followed by breakfast. We then started planning the remainder of our time in Western Australia, booked a house in Bunker Bay, continued with our "to do" list and planned our visit to the Indian Consulate. We first went to the actual consulate, at the other end of town, only to be directed by a sign to return to a street near our hotel for visa applications. Big sigh, but OK. So we arrived there and took a number. When it was our turn, I started to read the requirements to get a visa for India, one of which was to have "at least 2 blank pages" in your passport ... As I searched and searched, I could only find a half a page free! As it turns out, this was a deal breaker. So it was back to the drawing board, where I fortunately discovered that adding extra pages to one's passport is not a big deal (and that I would have the ability to make that application and they would honor it while I waited) so I should submit my application on the 17th. So that was good news. Guess our Indian visa applications will have to wait until Dubai.

Since the morning had disappeared with attention to the visa/passport issue, we agreed to take the kids out in the afternoon. We left the hotel around 1pm and headed north for Joondalup. By the time we found the indoor adventure playground (the kids had discovered it on-line) the time was 2pm and the silly place was closing! Who would have guessed? So plan B was to play mini-golf nearby. The kids had discovered the most lovely mini-golf course, located within the Joondalup Botanical Gardens, on the north end of the lake. Although we suffered a couple of mosquito bites, everyone enjoyed playing on the picturesque little course. By the time we returned to the center of the city and got dressed, we made it to the Japanese restaurant around 7pm. We have been completely spoiled here in Australia by the most delicious sushi! Having accomplished very little, we decided to try and fit a lot in the following day ...

Starting with wake-up calls at 6:45am, we headed down to breakfast early and had just enough time back in the rooms to brush teeth and put together a bag to take out for the day. Our shuttle bus picked us up at 8am outside the hotel, headed for the Barrack Street Jetty, where we caught a brand new ferry to Rottnest Island for the day! After 1 stop and an hour and a half journey, we finally arrived. The final 1/2 hour of the trip had been pretty rough and some passengers were having problems keeping their balance. A young girl, probably about 4 years old, had fallen off a window sill and hit her face on a chair, and was bleeding quite badly. By the time we reached our destination, she appeared to have gone into shock and was taken to a waiting ambulance. Hopefully she recovered quickly from her ordeal. I know it made an impression on our kids and hopefully made them think twice about moving around the ferry unnecessarily while it was in motion.

Our first activity was an eco cruise. The boat was exactly the same as the one we'd taken on Bruny Island in Tasmania (but the temperature was a bit warmer!), so the seating arrangement was very familiar. Once again, conditions were quite windy, particularly on the south side of the island, so the first half of our tour was cut a bit short due to the wind. Still, we managed to spot an osprey nest, and to see the majestic bird perched on a bare branch! What a great way to get the feel for the bird's immense size. The second half of the cruise covered the north side of the island, where a small colony of seals live. We managed to see a few of them playing in the rocks from a fair distance, but it couldn't compare with our experience on Bruny Island. One of our guides was a Japanese lady who moves between Perth (in the summer) and the Ningaloo Reef (in the winter), and while chatting I discovered that she grew up very close to my first apartment outside Tokyo, in Kawasaki City! So I really enjoyed talking with her.

When the cruise finished, we found some lunch and then headed to the bicycle rental shed. The kids were so excited, since we hadn't been on bicycles since the Hyatt resort in Coolum! This time Daniel got the seat on the back and we set off to explore the island. To see the whole thing would have been a 25k ride, so that was never going to happen with the girls. Instead we circled one of the freshwater lakes on the north side of the island, first making a stop at a lighthouse, and took just over an hour and a half to return to the town and turn in our bicycles. We were just in time to catch the ferry back to Perth — another hour and a half journey with 2 stops. Upon reaching the hotel, we needed to eat and change our clothes quickly in order to make it to the evening performance of the Cirque du Soleil, which was taking place just opposite the Crowne Plaza in Langley Park. Fortunately, when the room service staff learned that we were trying to get ready for the performance, they very kindly sped up the delivery of our order! So the kids got fed and dressed up and we walked across the road to find our seats. With 2 cartons of popcorn and some complimentary booster cushions, we made our way to the very top row of the seating inside the tent — fortunately all the seats were quite good because it wasn't that big. The kids were so excited and the performance didn't disappoint! The girls both fell asleep at the intermission, but it was a late night by the time we made it back to the rooms at 11pm. And an end to a very long day!

Next morning we'd promised the kids a lie in, so we didn't get to breakfast until nearly 9am. Then it was back up to the rooms to pack again and hit the road. I'll continue our adventure from here in the next entry!

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