Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Orphanage to Nepal

4th - 11th November (Days 85 – 91)

We are up at 4:30am on the 4th ready for our transfer to the airport at 5:30am. We would have left earlier for our 6:50am flight to Bangalore but the hotel assures us that we will have plenty of time. They prove to be wrong (it being Diwali) and as we arrive we are met by huge queues. In the end the airline have to rush us through, along with quite a few other travellers. Once on the flight our journey is trouble free as we catch a connecting flight from Bangalore to Vijayawada where we are met by Samuel the founder of REACH and the Little Lights Orphanage, the institution that we have come to visit.
Samuel started the orphanage in 1992 and since that time it has grown to such an extent that it now provides accommodation, care and education for 3000 young people across the whole of the school range age group.
We first met Samuel at the orphanage two and a half years ago when we were invited to travel with some good friends who have supported REACH for many years and we were hugely impressed with what we saw. The children were happy, well looked after and were shown a great deal of love. That said, the orphanage was struggling to cope not only with the large number of children in its care but also with the constant demand to take on more young people.
When we returned home after our visit we resolved to try and help the work of the orphanage. We raised funds and enlisted sponsors for individual children. Our chief reason for returning was to monitor how the funds we and our friends had raised had been used.
The orphanage is situated on three sites: a college that offers post 16 courses leading all the way to degree level; the girls high school which also houses the girl’s dormitories and the boys high school and elementary school site which also house the elementary and high school boy’s dormitories.
Samuel and his wife Mercy generously put us up in their own home which is located amongst the boys dormitories. We spend almost all of the week at Samuels house, Vijayawada is off the tourist routes and Samuel feels that it would not be sensible for us to venture into the town alone.
On the 5th we are taken to the elementary school dormitories. As we remember, conditions for the children are not easy. The children sleep in open sided buildings on mats on the floor. The elementary school classrooms do not have desks or benches (although, unlike on our first visit, benches have now been provided for the high school children).  We are, however, once again struck by how happy and well cared for the children appear. We are also delighted to see new water containers in all of the dormitories/bedrooms. These containers are filled with water from a water purification system that we organised the funding for and has now been operational for 18 months. Since its introduction water born diseases have been eradicated from the orphanage and the children enjoy much improved health. It really is pleasing to see that funds and resources gathered to help the students all go directly to that task.

Samuel explains the water purification system to Vince

So now all classrooms/dormitories have fresh water
Visits to the girls site and the college confirm our impression that the orphanage is a hugely worthwhile cause and that resources generated to help the orphanage are channelled directly to that end. The global recession has severely dented the orphanages support and their need, if they are to continue the work that they perform, is obvious. We do not have to spend long with the staff and young people there to resolve to continue with, and increase, our efforts to help. In addition to gathering further sponsors, priorities are the purchase of benches (£35 for a bench to seat 5 pupils) and water buffalo (£500 each) to provide milk for the pupils.
In addition to our visit to the different college sites Vince is surprised when Samuel invites him to speak to the staff (for about 45 minutes) on the subject of education in the UK. Michele is polite and claims Vince’s talk was fine. Isaac is more honest when he says he didn’t listen to any of it!

The children are happy and well cared for at REACH

If you would like to know more about the orphanage you could email Samuel direct at reachpastorsamuel@gmail.com

We are very well looked after by Samuel and Mercy during our stay, especially by Mercy who keeps us very well fed and makes an extra effort to cook food Isaac enjoys, even providing him with chips and tomato ketchup on several occasions!
The week at Samuel’s with internet access provides the opportunity to plan more of the trip and before we leave we have booked our remaining itinerary in India and Nepal.
During the week we also decide that after China we will cut Vietnam and Cambodia from our schedule and head straight  to Australia.

12th, 13th  & 14th November (Day 92, 93 & 94)

At just gone midnight on the 12th we leave Samuel and Mercy's home for the train station in Vijayawada. We have booked a 25Hr train journey to take us to Agra where we plan to see the Taj Mahal. Even at 1am the train station is incredibly busy with passengers waiting for trains, but also people sleeping in apparently wherever they can find a space to lie down. Indian train travel appears to be what we expected, in non a/c second class the carriages are packed, the words standing room only are not applicable as there is no standing room left. We have booked to travel 2nd class a/c which means that we have reserved places. These places turn out to be bench style beds. Vince and Isaac occupy the upper ‘beds’ of a shared  cabin of four with two very nice Indian gentlemen whilst Michele is across the aisle in the upper ‘bed’ of two.

Isaac manages to get some sleep on the 25hr journey.

We all manage to sleep reasonably well and during the day we get very good views of the Indian countryside which is green and lush. We are, however, once again struck by the poverty in which so many Indians live.
We arrive in Agra station at 3am and find it to be very similar to Vijayawada in that it is very crowded with people sleeping (and obviously living) everywhere. Our driver Vejay meets us outside and takes us to the Taj Plaza hotel. Our first impressions are not good, the room is basic and not too clean. To add to this Michele is feeling increasingly unwell. We try to get some sleep but Michele gets worse with increasing stomach problems. By about 9am she is feeling so unwell that she decides that she needs a doctor. The hotel organises a car to the local public hospital. The doctor at the hospital takes about 3 minutes to decide that Michele is so dehydrated that she needs to be admitted straight away. She is given a room off the main ward and placed on a drip and prescribed a number of drugs. She is also given a number of health tests. The tests show that she has a severe case of dysentery but fortunately the tests for dengue fever (a major concern) come back negative.  

The hospital is very different from what we would recognise in the UK. There are no restrictions on visiting as family are expected to look after their relatives. Michele is prescribed a course of drugs but they would not have been administered until Vince has gone out to buy them, similarly with food, family members are expected to provide any food and drink the patient needs. As a result the hospital is a very busy place 24 hours a day (with people again taking the opportunity to cook and sleep in any available space). Isaac and Vince sleep in the hospital top to tail on a very small couch.
Isaac is delighted to find a MacDonald’s not far up the road. Walking near the hospital is interesting, particularly the modes of transport used. In their first trip to MacDonald’s, Vince and Isaac see people in cars; on motorcycles; on bicycles; donkeys; elephants and camels (the latter two of which are generally brightly painted in a range of weird and wonderful designs). The local area seems safe if somewhat dirty and very busy, but this is brought into question when Vince heads out in search of an ATM in order to obtain money to pay for another batch of drugs and further night’s accommodation. Unable to find a machine Vince asks in a hotel. The hotel staff are shocked that he is on foot and insist on organising a taxi to take him to an ATM and back to the hospital.
Michele is kept in hospital for both the 13th and 14th. An additional problem for Michele is that her condition means that she has to spend a large amount of time in the toilet. Getting back and forth is a problem as she has to take her drip with her. This problem is compounded by the fact that the toilet is open to the outside and as a result her body (particularly her rear end!!!) comes to look like a pin cushion as she receives about 70-80 mosquito bites.

15th November (Day 95)

By the morning of the 15th we are desperate to get out. Michele is off the drip and has successfully eaten (and kept down) some fruit. Staff say that she will be discharged but it doesn’t appear that anything is going to happen quickly. Vince’s attempts to speed up the process are very unsuccessful but a phone call to Vejay sorts the situation. 10 minutes after receiving a call from Vince Vejay arrives at the hospital. Once he arrives he moves at speed, chasing the doctors, organising prescriptions and discharge documentation.  By 11am (within an hour of Vejay’s arrival) we are sitting in his car being taken back to our hotel. We are due to leave Agra the next day and Michele, despite still feeling weak, is keen to see some of the sights so we arrange that Vejay will pick us up mid-afternoon to take us to the Agra Fort.
It is great to get back to the hotel, sit on the roof terrace and get some fresh air whilst we can enjoy views of the Taj Mahal which is visible through the haze in the distance.

First sight of the Taj Mahal - better view than what I've seen of Agra so far!

Before visiting Agra we were aware of the Taj Mahal, but not of the other sights. The Agra Fort, however, proves to be very impressive.  The fort was the seat of power for the Mughal empire. Akbar moved the Mughal capital to Agra and laid the foundations for the fort, but it was his grandson Shah Jahan (the builder of the Taj Mahal) who had the principle buildings of the fort erected. The high red sandstone ramparts of the fort are hugely impressive as one approaches and the fort is certainly a huge structure (with only a small percentage open to the public). Unfortunately, it is not possible to stand at the front of the fort and take in the impressive view. This is because as soon as we are out of the car we are inundated with hawkers, guides and beggars who surround us pushing for our attention as we force our way to the entrance. The inside of the fort demonstrates the power of the Mughal empire, it also shows a move from initial construction using sandstone  to the use of the marble as later used for the Taj Mahal.
On leaving the fort we once again have to force our way through the overly pushy locals. We force our way to the car and then Vejay drives us to Sikandra (Akbar’s mausoleum). On the drive we witness what are becoming familiar sights in India, incredibly crowded streets with people living in great poverty with partially constructed dwellings (often made out of advertising billboards) with a whole range of animals wandering freely around the streets. The mausoleum is again a mixture of sandstone and marble architecture and is often called the mini Taj, but after a quick look round we are happy to head back to our hotel. Unfortunately, on the way we are forced to sit through what will become a familiar aspect of our sightseeing in India, a visit to a craft centre where we are given the hard sell for some local handicrafts!
Back at the hotel it is hard to build up enthusiasm for food. After the stomach problems that we have all experienced (particularly Michele) we realise that we are now eating to survive rather than with any sense of enjoyment. We decide to become vegetarian and order rice and a dahl.

16th November (Day 96)

An early start as we head for the Taj Mahal at 6:30am. The Taj is, apparently, often incredibly crowded, but early on a November morning we are delighted to find it relatively deserted. As we enter through the gateway we see the Taj at the end of the huge charbagh (an entrance dissected into four quadrants by waterways). Everybody has seen pictures of this fabulous building but we are still overwhelmed seeing it first hand and few words can do it justice. Shah Jahan built the mausoleum to enshrine the body of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal who died shortly after giving birth to her 14th child!!!  The emperor was devastated by her death and set out to create an unsurpassed monument to her memory. 20,000 men took over 20 years to complete construction. The marble which was brought from Rajastan is inlaid with semiprecious stones for decoration that were gathered from Persia, Russia, Afghanistan, Tibet, China as well as India.

The Taj is fantastic but we did not know that the plans of Shah Jahan were not completed. He planned to build an exact copy on the other side of the river built in black marble as a mausoleum for himself. Before his plans could be finished he was overthrown by his son Aurangzeb who imprisoned him and, after his death, interred him alongside his wife in the Taj.
By 9:30 we leave the Taj  and after breakfast (toast and jam: safe!!) we meet Vejay ready for our journey to the wild life reserve of Ranthambore.
On the way we visit Fatehpur Sikri (the former imperial capital of the Mughal empire). Like the Agra Fort the royal palace covers a large area with an array of impressive buildings and courtyards. We have an interesting tour but are excited as we leave and head for Ranthanbore National Park where we arrive as dusk falls.

17th November (Day97)

Another early start as we meet at 6:45am for a Canter (open top single storey bus) safari. Along with numerous other Canters we head off for the park. Everybody’s aim is to see tigers, but we realise that our chances are not great. After about a 30 minute ride we enter the park and the Canters split up taking different routes around the park. We see monkeys, deer and a whole variety of birds. After about an hour and a half we sense that the guides are excited. Our guide tells us that a female tiger has been sighted. It is easy to tell as we approach the location of the sighting as different groups are approaching from all directions. We come to a stop and it is not long before we see the tiger padding out of the trees. She is a beautiful animal, apparently not phased in the slightest by our presence. She passes very close to us and disappears into the trees. Most of the other groups move off after the tiger, but our guide decides that we should stay put, reasoning that you will often find that a male follows in the path of a female. Sure enough after a couple of minutes the small number of groups who have stayed put are rewarded with the sight of a male tiger following in the path of the female. The sight is awe inspiring, the male looks a lot bigger and more powerful than the female. Again he seems completely un-phased by our presence and he stops within about 10 meters from us for about 4 to 5 minutes. After he leaves we have to make a mad dash for the park exit as the guide tells us he can be heavily fined if we overstay our allotted time.

After lunch at the hotel we set out on a second safari. This time we drive a lot further to a different park entrance. This takes us through a local town. More and more as we travel through India we are struck by the living conditions of the locals. The streets are filthy, not helped by the large variety and number of animals who roam freely around the town and who certainly do nothing to improve the sanitary conditions. Much of the building work is once again makeshift and toilet facilities appear to located anywhere out of site. Some of the toilets that do exist are simply sections of buildings that reach out over the local rivers with a hole in the floor. We realise more and more that conditions in the orphanage, whilst basic, are far better than a large number of Indians experience, orphans or not.  
As we enter the park it begins to rain. At first we are delighted as this is the first rain we have seen since leaving Cardiff. Vince and Isaac, who have rain coats, are so delighted at feeling wet they happily offer their coats to fellow travellers. After about an hour as the rain has become torrential they are beginning to regret their initial generosity. It becomes clear that the animals are not as stupid as Vince and Isaac and that they have taken cover from the rain leaving no possibility of sightings. Our guide, however, seems intent on completing the safari. Two hours in, the clients are beginning to complain and these complaints gradually rise until the guide sees the sense in heading home. Whilst on the safari we are convinced of the sense of hiring the driver, Vejay, for the Indian trip as several of our fellow passengers tell stories of how the trains have been so heavily booked that they had become stranded in several locations.

18th & 19th Nov (Days 98 & 99)

Although distances are not huge, the state of the roads mean that travel times are surprisingly large. We, therefore, spend about 5 hours driving from Ranthambore to Jaipur which is only a distance of about 145kms. We arrive at the Mosaic hotel at about 3pm and are delighted, it is clean and has free wi-fi in the rooms.
We eat in the restaurant and then retire to our rooms where we have the opportunity to catch up on our e-mails.
Vejay picks us up on the 19th and takes us first 11km outside the city to Amber Palace. The palace is perched high on a narrow rocky ridge above the surrounding countryside.

It was the ancient capital of Jaipur state. We climb to the palace on elephants and then undertake a tour of the palace.

Once again the palace is impressive with a range of palace buildings and court yards. The building that is the most ‘different’ from those that we have seen previously is the Jai Mandir (Hall of Victory) which is noted for its inlaid panels and multi-mirrored ceiling which at night, under candle light, glitters like the stars. Having left the palace we head for the Old City (the Pink City) which is almost entirely encircled by a crenallated wall and known for its buildings which are of a uniformly pink colour. At the centre is the City Palace which occupies a large area consisting of courtyards, gardens and buildings. It is still the home of the Maharaja and there is an interesting museum chronicling   the lives of the different maharajahs. One remarkable exhibit is Sawai Madho Sinh 1st clothing which was made for this 2m tall 1.2m wide and 250kg figure (the fact that he was a man who enjoyed excess is perhaps reflected in the fact that he had 108 wives).  
Our favourite site in Jaipur is the Jantar Mantar an observatory that was built in 1728. It is like walking into a garden from Alice Through the Looking Glass, however, as one examines further it becomes apparent that the large structures contained in the garden are amazingly precise astronomical instruments that record, monitor and predict time, seasons and eclipses. It is an incredibly impressive feat of engineering for the time and 1 of 5 similar observatories built at this time.
The day has been long and hot but we all raise a smile on our way back to the hotel as Isaac says 'so where is this Pink City then'? When we point out that we have been driving around it for most of the day he claims the walls appear peach rather than pink! As we drive around the city we can say it is pretty but once again we are struck by the crowds, the poverty and the dirt. We return to our hotel and are happy to eat a very tasty curry in the restaurant and then retire ready for another early start when we head for Delhi in the morning.

20th Nov (Day 100)

Another day of travel, as we move from Jaipur to Delhi. We are staying in the centre of Delhi and, therefore, plan to do a little shopping upon arrival as we intend to leave sightseeing for a day.
Upon arrival in mid-afternoon we realise that we have again been very naive, Delhi is incredibly busy. We try a small walk but it is pointless. The pavements are packed with stalls, parked cars, bikes, rubbish as well as the usual array of animals and the roads are almost completely gridlocked with a mixture of cars, rickshaws, bikes, pedestrians and animals trying to make some progress. We chicken out, order room service and have an early night in the very smart Florence hotel.

21st Nov (Day 101)

We have a guide for today, his motto appears to be less is more, as he wanders around with us saying virtually nothing. He first takes us to a car park outside The Red Fort, it looks impressive but we can only guess as we do not go in!! Our next stop is more impressive, the Raj Ghat. It is more of a park than a ghat and it was the site of Gandhi’s cremation in 1948. There is a black marble plinth inscribed with Gandhi’s last words Hai Ram (Oh God) and unlike so much we have seen in India it is a picturesque tranquil spot visited by a steady stream of quietly reverential visitors.

From the Ghat we head for ‘Humayan’s Tomb’. This is the first Mughal tomb built in India and is recognisable as a prototype for the Taj Mahal.
Our guide then takes us to a temple dedicated to Krishna and we presume that we are going into the temple itself but our guide, more animated than he has been all day, persuades us it is better to see an animated ahow on the life of Krishna. There's robots and everything apparently!!! We go with his suggestion and wander wide eyed round the different rooms where mannequins occasionally move slightly!!! We do learn a lot about his life though!
Having then visited the Bahai Temple, a beautiful modern marble structure built in the shape of 27 giant white petals of an unfolding lotus, we stop for lunch the highlight of which is the snake charmer sitting outside on the pavement.

We finish what has proved to be a whistle stop drive around the Indian capital by driving to the Rashtrapati Bhaven and Rajpath (the centre of government) and suddenly it is like we are in the centre of London and as we drive from India Gate past the government buildings it is very reminiscent of the Mall.
Delhi has proved to be an interesting mix. It certainly has the commotion, noise, pollution and poverty of other Indian cities, but it also has quieter, greener and more tranquil areas than we have come across in India previously.
After a brief rest we head for the main train station to take a 12 hour ride to Varanasi. Our last long train ride ended up with Michele spending three days in hospital and we are not looking forward to the journey, but having spent an hour and a half waiting for the train with the sights and sounds associated with an Indian station battering our senses we are glad to board. Our seating is identical to our first train journey, although this time we have 3 of the 4 berths in the one compartment. We share the compartment with a young man who is ‘throwing a sicky’ so that he can make a round trip to see his girlfriend and so he is keen to get his ‘beauty sleep’ and he does not really disturb us.

22nd November (Day 102)

We arrive in Varanasi at about 8am and are met by a driver who takes us to our Hotel. Varanasi stretches along the crescent of the River Ganges, its waterfront dominated by long flights of stone ghats where thousands of pilgrims come to wash in the holy waters of the river. It stands at the centre of the Hindu universe and has done since the sixth century BC. Anyone who dies in Varansi attains instant moksha or entitlement and so widows and the elderly come here to live out their final days. We are keen to visit the ghats and the old city, but we are tired and decide to rest at our hotel before taking a boat evening ride to observe the ghats in the sunset and see the nightly light ceremony on the Dashaswamedh Ghat.
The tour company through which we have organised our Varanasi sightseeing do not make a good start as they pick us up 40 minutes late for the boat ride and we then have a mad dash so as not to miss the light festival. Rushing through the old city to the waterfront is not easy, the streets are incredibly narrow, poorly lit and as crowded as anything we have come across in India. An additional problem is keeping ones footing as the floor appears to have a complete covering of animal excrement!! We are also informed that we have to change hotel for our second night in Varanasi.
We are surprised by our guide as we arrive at the water’s edge when he moves slightly away from us to relieve himself against the closest wall. Our boat is a narrow rowing boa, and before taking us to the Dashaswamedh Ghat  our boatman rows us down the river to see some of the other Ghats. Without doubt, the most startling sight is that of the Manikarnika Ghat (the main cremation ground in the city) which is considered by Hindus to be the most important cremation ground in the universe. The Ghat had several cremations under way and seeing bodies being burned so publically was very disconcerting. You feel as though you are intruding upon something very moving and personal. As we moved along the river it was obvious that despite the people bathing in and drinking the water of the river it is far from clean, a point emphasised when we saw a dead cow float past (apparently cows being sacred are not cremated but merely thrown into the river).  The light ceremony had a huge audience and consisted of pandas (priests) on a very brightly candle lit stage in synch swinging various lighted objects around themselves.

After the ceremony we made our way back to the hotel for an early night as we planned to be at the river early the next morning to watch the sunrise.

23rd November (Day 103)

Our early night works and we are up and ready to go by 5am, unfortunately, and true to form, our tour company have failed to show up. We try phoning but with little luck. A helpful taxi driver outside the hotel has better luck phoning and he is asked by the company to take us to the river. We finally leave at 6am but we are in time to see the sun rise.

We take a boat and a young guide tells us about the different Ghats.  There are plenty of pilgrims washing and drinking from the river, but not all of the ghats are bathing ghats, for example, we pass a laundry ghat. We also pass Harishchandra Ghat which is the other ‘burning’ ghat in the town. It is at this ghat that diseased bodies are cremated (the only bodies not cremated in Varanasi are those who have suffered from leprosy and infants). The burning ghats are operated by Doms (untouchables) and they build the funeral pyres, supervise the burning and dispose of the ashes in the river. We are quite shocked to see the Doms sifting through the ashes in the river looking for jewellery that has not burnt in the cremation!!
We  leave the river next to the Manikarnika Ghat where even at such an early hour a number of cremations are under way. It is at this point that we see perhaps the saddest sight of our entire trip so far as a man holding what is obviously a deceased baby wrapped in a sheet hires a boat ready to ‘bury’ the child in the river (as I have said infants are not cremated). The body is weighed and then weighted down with stones. We do not want to intrude and so we quickly and quietly move away from the river into the old town.
The town is a maze of incredibly narrow streets which, as well as homes and shops, contain numerous shrines and monasteries. As usual there are also a huge number of animals wandering round and as we move around we have to squeeze past a number of cows and goats.
Arriving back at our hotel at about 9:30 we have a quick breakfast before packing our bags and then heading for Sarnath which is 10km from Varanasi. Sarnath is where, in 530BC, Buddha gave his first sermon which according to the Buddhist faith set in motion the Dharmachakra (‘Wheel of Law’) a new cycle of rebirths and reincarnations leading to ultimate enlightenment for everybody. The site consists of a cluster of ruins and temples set in some picturesque parkland which, particularly after the madness of Varanasi, is a relaxing and tranquil place. We spend several hours wandering around the ruins, visiting the museum and Sarnaths Bodhi tree grown from an offshoot of the tree under which Buddha found enlightenment.

Upon returning to Varanasi we go to our new hotel, it is obviously gearing up for a big wedding later in the evening. As well as all the rooms being booked, it appears that a good number of people will be bedding down in the function rooms as blankets are laid out everywhere. The restaurant is closed but we order a pizza and decide to retire early. We are on the third floor, one up from the wedding, but we are not disturbed by the celebrations, that is until the teenagers from the party move upstairs to our floor. At about midnight we hear some knocking at our door, it appears that some of the youngsters have confused our room for one of their friends. Having made this mistake, however, they invent  a new game called ‘annoy the hell out of the British by knocking on their door every 10 to 20 minutes’.  By 3am we are forced to phone reception but they only manage to stop the disturbances for about 40 minutes.

24th November (Day104)

Vince’s birthday has not started well and he and Michele all very tired as we head down for breakfast at about 7ish. Isaac luckily slept through all of the night's events. The hotel looks like a bomb has hit it with food and other debris everywhere.  It is also a little reminiscent of an Indian train station as people are asleep all over the place.
It takes a while, but we finally find some people to give us breakfast. We are leaving India for Nepal today, and, having read a number of horror stories on the net, we have organised a car, via the Varanasi tour company, to drive us to our first stop in Nepal, Lumbini. True to form the car is late and when it turns up it appears that a couple of other passengers are taking advantage of our booking and joining us on the trip as they have business in Kathmandu. This does not lead to a good start to the journey and after a few sharp words we spend the first few hours of the journey travelling in an uncomfortable silence. The journey to the boarder at Sonauli takes about 10 hours and in this time tensions thaw. India has been fascinating, but it is not an easy or comfortable country to travel in and we are all looking forward to moving on, although we expect Nepal to be quite similar.
Gaining entry to Nepal is quite simple. As we drive into Sonauli somebody who spots westerners in the car taps on the roof and then  directs us to the immigration officers on the Indian side of the border. These officers would not have been easy to find as they operate from a makeshift shack among a row of shops at the side of the road about 100m short of the border.
At the Nepal immigration office we pay US$25 each for our visa and we leave India and enter another new country. Although  it is dark when we cross the border, as we expected Nepal looks very similar to India.
It is already dark but we still have an hour’s drive to Lumbini and we finally pull up at our guest house ‘The Lumbini Buddha Garden’ at about 8pm. Dinash who runs the guest house rushes out to meet us with some bad news, there has been a festival in the town and the hotel is overbooked, consequently we do not have a room. The problem is compounded by the fact that nearly all of the accommodation in the town is full, but Dinash has managed to find us a room in a nearby guesthouse.  When we arrive at the alternative accommodation it instantly becomes clear why, when the majority of the town’s accommodation is fully booked, there are vacancies at this establishment. The room is small, damp and dirty as are the beds. We decide that there is no way that we can stay there. Dinash is embarrassed and obviously understands and so he takes us to another hotel. We insist on the way that we stop at a decent hotel but as Dinash has said it is fully booked. The next hotel is not really much better  than the first but there seems little point in continuing to search for something better. We end up in a larger room but it is also damp with  bare wires from the electrics hanging out of holes in the wall. The plumbing is not any better, the toilet flushed with no problem, unfortunately the water flushes onto the floor as opposed to into the toilet bowl. Vince’s mood is not improved when he is stung on the finger by a large bee. We do not unpack, so by about 9:30pm we make our way up to the open restaurant and share fried rice and noodles (Michele and Vince also have a bottle of Everest Beer!!) whilst Vince reflects on what has not been his best birthday ever.

25th November (Day 105)

Dinash arrives early, but we have been up for some time, he tells us that there is now room in the Buddha Garden and that he will act as a tour guide for us for the day to make up for the problems of the night before.
We drop our bags off and although our room cannot be described as luxurious it is a vast improvement on the night before. It is actually a chalet which is one of about 10 spaced out in a very pleasant if somewhat overgrown garden.  

Lumbini is the birthplace of Buddha and consequently of huge importance to the world’s one billion Buddhists. With Nepal closed off from the rest of the world for so long Lumbini was not accessible to pilgrims for many years, but in the 1970’s the government authorized an ambitious Master Plan for a religious park consisting of monasteries, cultural facilities, gardens and fountains and it is this that Dinash takes us to visit. After the problems of the night before Dinash proves to be a courteous and knowledgeable guide  as well as an extremely nice man. We first visit Buddha’s birth place and then a number of monasteries the most impressive of which was built by a rich German philanthropist and whose impressive art work depicts many significant stories from the life of Buddha and make them accessible even to us.
Dinash himself is a Buddhist and rightly very proud of the as yet unfinished master plan, he is also keen to make amends for our lack of accommodation. Part of the special treatment that he gives us is to visit his guru, a Buddhist monk, at one of the temples. The monk decides to sing some prayers to us in the monastery. We have become a little cynical on this trip but despite this we do find the experience to be very relaxing and a little moving. The guru also gives a very succinct and surprisingly humanist and scientific answer to Isaac's question 'What is the meaning of life?' His answer obviously relates to faith and he talks about the need to help our fellow inhabitants of the planet but also that we should be continually questioning how the physical world operates.

The building housing what is believed to be the actual birth place of Buddha - the ruins inside may be seen below  which house the 'marker stone' Ashoka is reputed to have placed at the precise location of the Buddha's birth in around 543BC

After an enjoyable day we return to our room where we meet Surya who will drive us to our next stop in Nepal. Isaac is delighted that we need torches to find the restaurant and also with the big lit fire that is burning just outside. We have a later night than planned as after eating Isaac sets about burning everything that he can lay his hands on and we sit around the huge bonfire.

Isaac enjoys the fire with Danesh at the Lumbini Buddha Garden

26th November (Day 106)

We have now booked three days of activities at the Chitwan National Park. The package is not wildly expensive, but includes all meals and various activities including a canoe ride, a jeep safari, an elephant safari and a visit to an elephant breeding centre.
The road system is not well developed in Nepal and the drive to Chitwan, though only a couple of hundred kilometres, takes about 5 Hrs. When we arrive we are very pleasantly surprised at our accommodation in 'The Jungle Safari Resort' which consists of a large house at one end, a restaurant at the other and two lines of very well maintained chalets at the edge of the garden between them.  We are becoming aware that despite similarities Nepal is more different to India than we expected. Despite the obvious poverty (in 2008 Nepal ranked 145th out of 153 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index) Nepal seems ‘better cared for’ than India by its locals.  Problems are, however, obvious most notably perhaps in the daily (and sometimes several daily) power cuts that occur everywhere.
When we arrive we are the only guests and we are informed that we have the opportunity to take a cultural walk early evening when we can visit the local village before we return for a meal.
We take the opportunity and spend an interesting hour looking at the lay out of the local village and the construction of the mud houses occupied by the locals. The highlight, however, comes at the back of the village when we enter a compound where some elephants are kept.

Beyond the compound is a thickly grassed area leading to the river and as we look beyond the elephants we see a rhino in the distance. We move out of the compound towards the rhino skirting round the edge of the grassed area. We do not get too close but we do see that the rhino is accompanied by a baby.  The sighting certainly wets our appetite for the safari to come.
When we return to our resort it is packed with local Nepalese guests who are apparently staying courtesy of their company and their enthusiastic presence makes the local cultural dance show even more enjoyable than it might have been on our own. It is a very impressive performance. The Nepalese guests are extremely friendly and all of them are keen to speak to us. We soon realise, however that this is because they are trying to sell a new wonder food that will apparently cure all ills from depression to cancer and they see us as potential customers. We resist the temptation to buy but do finish the evening with some free samples in the form of tea.

27th November (Day 107)

With all of the guests breakfast is a scrum but bright and early we set off for the river to take a boat ride. In order to reach the river we walk through the more ‘commercial’ section of the local village  which seems very pleasant with a nice range of small cafes and bars as well as several hotels that look very similar to our own.
We share the boat, which is a simple long boat with one oarsman, with 4 other people and it is very tranquil floating down the river with a guide pointing out the different birds that we can see along the route. Things do ‘hot up’ a little, however, when we look about 4 yards to our left and see the two eyes of a crocodile looking back at us. At first the boatman moves us towards the croc but then as the croc submerges there is obviously concern and we move to the other side of the river as soon as possible. Our guide later explains that the croc was large and when they submerge it can be an indication that they are about to attack.  

After about an hour we are dropped off on the opposite bank of the river to the village. It is on this side that most of the animals in the park are found and the times at which people can visit it are restricted. We take a couple of hours to walk back through the grassland but are only lucky enough to see several deer. We later find out that as we have pushed through the undergrowth on the way back Isaac’s side has become lunch for a leech (we have trouble in stopping the wound from bleeding for the next couple of days). On arriving back we return to our accommodation for lunch, but we are back crossing the river in the early afternoon ready for a jeep safari. Our jeep is quite full, and Isaac is delighted that he gets to stand on the tail gate next to our guide. We see a whole range of animals including another rhino and some crocodiles basking on the banks of the river. We also visit a crocodile farm that is helping to replenish numbers in the area. Conservation in the area has been a major driving force since it was made the countries first National Park in the 70’s. Prior to this numbers, particularly of rhinos and tigers had fallen to dangerously low numbers largely as a result of over hunting. The British had some responsibility here, King George V during an 11 day visit in 1911 actually killed 39 tigers and 18 rhinos!!!!
As evening falls we take a boat back to the ‘beach’ area of the village and enjoy a beer watching the sun set before heading back to our accommodation.
We are pretty much forced to have an early night as there is a power cut lasting until well after we fall asleep trying to read by inadequate candle light.

28th November (Day 108)

Again we start early, heading to an elephant breeding centre. The elephants are magnificent, though noticeably smaller than their African cousins. The elephants at the centre are largely female and they are allowed into the national park during the day where they may meet interested bull elephants before they return to be chained up at night. The programme works as can be seen by the number who are looking after infants. Very unusually one of the females has twins and it is moving to watch the pair playing and mock fighting.

On leaving the breeding centre we visit the local museum, which actually is a rural village where the locals are happy for small numbers of visitors to visit and walk around. The locals are obviously poor but they work hard and as a community and they seem to produce ample food to live off. Again we are struck by the difference to Indian villages, the Nepal village is very well maintained without piles of rubbish and excrement everywhere.
When we leave the village it is still early and we use our jeep to drop quite a few children off at school.  On the way back to our hotel the guide asks if we fancy a walk at the edge of the village. We agree and as we pull up we see three ladies sitting on the grass in front of us looking a little frustrated. The reason for their frustration soon becomes clear, they had set off to collect wood  from the other side of the river but, unfortunately for them, sitting on the opposite bank relaxing in the sun are two rhinos.  Whilst staying on the opposite bank we manage to get quite close to these magnificent animals without disturbing them.

After about 20 minutes we move off and are then met with another magical site, that of elephants washing and being washed in the river. One older elephant is on its own, having finished its working life it apparently lives a relaxing life bathing and eating.

Other elephants visit the river with their handlers and it is quite remarkable to see them washing and instructing the elephants to roll round whilst they stand on various parts of the animals remaining dry. We do head off to see some more elephant bathing, but we do not make it as we have to cross a small tributary to the river and as Isaac, who is in the lead, enthusiastically runs ready to jump he slips down the muddy bank becoming ¾ submerged in the murky water. He confesses later that the look of horror on his face was not because he was in the water but because he knew that crocodiles lived along the river (and who can blame him?)
After giving Isaac a hot shower, hand washing his clothes and boots and having something to eat we head off for our last excursion and one we have all been looking forward to - an elephant safari. 
The elephants have seats that can take up to 4 people behind the ‘driver’ and we set off in a convoy of about 20 elephants. 
Once across the river however we split into smaller groups. Our elephant often takes the lead, tearing down branches to eat as we go and knocking down any obstacles in our path at the command of the 'driver'. It is a wonderful experience but after an hour or so we are resigned to not seeing any more rhinos. The driver, however, is persistent and takes us into a part of the park they are not officially allowed in at the moment and as we emerge from the undergrowth a rhino is only yards ahead of us! We are truly lucky and none of the other elephants get as close and we can only gaze in awe from on top of the elephant at another magnificent creature.

We watch for a short time before we have to head back to the river to cross over, being as quiet as an elephant can considering we are not meant to be in this area.

We are all excited as we get back into the jeep and once again we go for an Everest beer by the lake before heading back to the hotel for dinner and another early night due to the power cuts.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Suez to Mumbai

29th, &30th  October(Days 79 & 80)

The trip to Ismailia proves to be a good decision. Ismailia is a nice looking relaxed town (unlike Suez which, having driven through, we are glad we avoided, although to be far to the place it's had a troubled history!) We are off the usual tourist map here and are, therefore, the only European tourists, but the hotel is comfortable, quiet and it offers clear views of the Suez Canal where we can see huge tanker ships sailing through what from our perspective appears to be simply desert.
The hotel proves to be very accommodating over check out allowing us to stay in our room until 4pm before arranging a taxi to take us first for a closer look at the canal and then on the 120km ride to the airport at an incredibly cheap rate.
Our visit to the canal shows it to still be very heavily fortified but it is easy to understand why given the recent history of the area. As our taxi driver explains what it was like to have the Egyptian army massed where we are standing facing the Israeli army on the other bank so recently it is easy to see the effect that it has had upon him, but also how much he values the current peace. He insists we take a photo of the opposite bank which now says 'Welcome to Egypt'.

Our trip to the airport is easy and gives us plenty of time to devour plenty from the ‘Burger King’ menu before taking the overnight flight to Mumbai.

31st October, 1st – 3rd November (Days 81 – 84)

Having had only limited sleep we land in Mumbai and meet our transfer by about 8:30 for the drive to our hotel.
Our initial impressions of Mumbai are mixed. It is home to the biggest slum in Asia and, it appears to us that our hotel is located right in the middle of it! The poverty is startling with huge numbers of people living in tin/tarpaulin constructions at the side or, in some cases, under fly overs in the middle of the road. When we arrive at out hotel there is major construction work under way in the foyer and we begin to feel a bit jaded.
The staff at the hotel, however, prove to be extremely helpful and our room is comfortable. The view out of the window onto the surrounding 'homes' stops any thoughts of complaints!
View from our room!
And another -
notice the lady sewing on the steps 

 A walk around that area clearly illustrates the difficult conditions that the locals endure, it is estimated that up to 15,000 people share one toilet! On the other hand we have read that the area has been described as one of the most inspiring economic models in Asia, amidst the ramshackle huts are one-room factories which employ up to half a million people and turn over a staggering £700million annually.

After a few hours sleep we feel brighter and head for something to eat. Our receptionist suggests the Ramada Hotel which shares the same site and owner as our hotel.
At the Ramada two gentlemen notice our accents and strike up a conversation with us. It turns out that one studied in Cardiff whist the other Mr Nikhil Kraheja is the owner of the hotel along with another large construction company. During our conversation Mr Nikhil asks us if we would like to visit the Bollywood Studios to which we say that we would.
The next morning we are awoken by a call from the reception manager to inform us that on instruction from Mr Nikhil he has organised a trip to Bollywood for us.
On the steps of the Masterchef studio
Isaac in Mr B's chair
The reception manager accompanies us and via both his and Mr Nikhil’s contacts we manage to visit the set of 'Millionaire' where Isaac sits in Big B’s (India’s Chris Tarrant) chair and we meet the producer who also worked on the movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.  We are then taken to the wings of the final of 'Masterchef' before touring much of the rest of the site.  

 As the day progresses we become aware that we have arrived in India only a few days before Diwali, which would be like arriving in the UK in Christmas week. This helps to explain why some of our travel arrangements have proved to be so difficult to arrange. Nothing like being prepared!!
On our second evening in Mumbai we head into the centre to eat and our taxi driver shows us many of the sights including the hanging gardens, Chowpatty beach, Marine Drive, The Victoria Terminus, The Gateway of India and The Taj Mahal Hotel which is the area that was the back drop for the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 200!
The Gateway of India

We soon realise that if we were to spend our time in Mumbai in this small central area we would be oblivious of the vast slums to be found in the city as this area ‘Colaba’ has a very modern cosmopolitan feel to it. Our taxi driver is a very small elderly Indian gentleman who is cannot do enough for us, his English is very limited but when we ask what he calls the city he chuckles and says 'Bombay' and then laughs continuously as he repeats over and over again 'Calcutta/Kolkata', 'Bombay/Mumbai'.
The next morning we visit the most expensive suburb of Mumbai, Bandra which is home to many of the big Bollywood stars as well as a number of large corporations. It certainly contains many of the big name shops but it is not quite as developed as the centre and we are met with the site of some top high street stores being located next to buildings with, for example, cattle tied up and feeding outside them.
Gandhi's few personal possessions
On our final day we revisit the centre to see some of the sights again in the light and to visit Mani Bahavan which served as Ghandi’s residence when he was in Mumbai. Revisiting the story of Ghandi’s life in his own home looking at his photographs, documents and belongings adds extra
                                                                                     poignancy to the story and is a moving experience.

Taj Mahal Hotel-POSH!
The floating Mosque-Haji Ali's Tomb

Hutatma Chowk-Flora Fountain

Our visit to Mumbai has been memorable, the poverty is shocking, some of the sights are hugely memorable and the people are charming.
We now head for the orphanage in Vijayawada for a week before heading up to Agra, the Taj mahal and the golden triangle.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Egypt (The Land of the Pharaohs and Baksheesh)

16th & 17th September (Days 36 & 37)

All thoughts now on the journey to Egypt. Thursday (16th) is spent packing before our 7am pick up on Friday from Linda’s. The schedule is tight but we make the journey from Swakopmund to Rivendell and then to the airport with time to spare before an overnight journey (via Johannesburg) arriving at Cairo at 7am on the 18th.

18th September (Day 38)

What a difference!!! After the peace and quiet of Namibia we have arrived in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. On our journey from the airport we are immediately struck by the noise, the number of people, the rubbish and the complete insanity of the roads. The Egyptian government has wasted a huge amount of money on road signs and lane painting which are completely ignored as cars battle four or five abreast with drivers sounding their horns and shouting at each other as they battle for road space. We realise, however, that the roads are not as dangerous as they first appear because drivers rarely manage to reach more than 5 – 10 km/hr. Our journey from airport to hotel (only a few kilometres) takes the best part of an hour and a half arriving at 9am. We store our bags (check in not being until mid day) and head out into the Zamalek district of Cairo. We are fortunate to meet a South African lady who lives in Cairo who walks with us,  advising us on travel, sightseeing and shopping. She is also kind enough to take us back to her apartment close by and give us a load of maps of Cairo and Egypt.
Our first task is to change travellers cheques but we fail as most banks are closed on Saturday. The May Fair Hotel wants full payment for our whole stay but we persuade them to accept one night as that is all we have from the Namibian pounds we changed at the airport. We then head to Thomas’ pizzeria recommended to us earlier by the South African lady and after early afternoon pizza we are ready for bed.
The hotel room is large which is probably the most positive thing about it  and our view from the balcony is pure Cairo (the back yards and rubbish of several crumbling turn of the century high rise buildings). The TV is in the room but all channels appear to be a grey fuss that make a buzzing sound. We mention this at reception and two employees spend an hour swapping and waggling aerial leads which one finds increasingly funny as the other becomes increasingly irate. Having obviously failed in their task they turn the television off (presumably thinking we haven’t noticed what they have been doing) and tell us the TV is now working and they leave. We are too tired to care and are soon asleep.

19th September (Day 39)

Michele and Vince spend most of the day trying to organise our Cairo stay and the remainder of our time in Egypt (using the free internet on the hotel terrace). Isaac, having completed some school work, watches DVD’s in the room.
Not to completely waste the day we decide to walk to the Cairo tower in the evening as it apparently offers superb views over the city as the sun sets and views of the pyramids in the distance. We set off confidently and seem well on our way to the tower when a local young man insists on walking with us to show us the way. He is very attentive, holding Michele and Isaac’s hand to cross roads. We actually cross back and for the same road a couple of times in order for him to hold Michele’s hand! Michele obviously makes a big impression on the guy who, once Vince is slightly out of earshot, tells her that he is in love with her. Michele then decides that we may enjoy our evening more just as a family and asks Vince to ‘get rid of him!!!’.
The views from the tower show much of the city and most tantalisingly through the mist we catch our first views of the great pyramids of Giza. The highlight of the visit is a lovely meal in the rotating restaurant at the top of the tower.

20th September (Day 40) .

While Michele and Isaac complete school work on the terrace, Vince sets off to get a SIM card and to change money. The SIM card is no problem but changing traveller’s cheques is not so easy. He finally finds an HSBC which will accept the cheques but only after visiting 5 or 6 other banks who refuse and so he is gone from the hotel for a good part of the morning.
As soon as Vince returns we all set off for the Tourist Information office in the centre of town. Travelling around Egypt and visiting Jordan may prove difficult and we decide to start by booking Alexandria and Luxor (including train travel). We will need to organise a Nile Cruise before we can proceed further.
Having discussed plans with the tourist office we visit the Windsor Hotel, an old colonial hotel in the heart of Cairo. It is a throwback to a more cosmopolitan Cairo that largely disappeared after Nasser’s 1952 coup when a quarter of a million foreigners were forced to leave the country. You could say that the atmosphere is literally peeling off the walls, but the bar feels a real throwback to an era that I am sure many tourists visiting Cairo would welcome a little more of.
The evening involves more planning and an early night.

21st September (Day 41)

Today we visit the great pyramids of Egypt. We have been warned about touts and overpriced taxis and we are pleased with the price of our metered taxi to Giza. Our naivety is demonstrated however as a man claiming to work for the site takes our tickets and us and leads us into the site to introduce us to ‘an official guide’. The guide is charming he takes us on a camel ride and the size and scope of the pyramids really are awe inspiring.

 We are enjoying our tour but doubts are cast over the expertise of our guide when he states that Cheops, the builder of the first great pyramid, died at the age of 122 and also that the Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus the builders of the pyramids ruled from Luxor. Our doubts are confirmed when our guide, after taking us to the sphinx, insists that we leave the site to visit the other great tourist attraction-a perfume and papyrus shop ( this shop is apparently a must for all visitors to Giza!) We are given drinks and then for a bargain basement price of only a few thousand pounds given the unbelievable opportunity to buy goods from the shop. To be fair the owner of the shop is very understanding at our lack of interest, our guide, however, shows a different side to his nature as he quite forcibly offers to walk Vince to an ATM as he does not consider the tip offered for his services sufficient. The ensuing conversation is unpleasant and puts a downer on what had been a very enjoyable day. A valuable lesson had been learnt which is that to avoid this type of situation one has to be blunt with many of the locals, a bluntness that has to border on the downright rude! Our first opportunity to do this comes soon after shaking off our guide. As we are walking back to the entrance past the sphinx a local holds up his hand and shouts to us ‘take photo’. We oblige only to have him try to charge us 10 Egyptian pounds for the privilege! The resulting argument shows that we are coming to terms with dealings with many of the locals.
The day picks up as evening falls and we visit the Mena House hotel. A beautiful old building in the shadows of the pyramids originally built as a royal hunting lodge. It was the sight of the signing of the Camp David Agreement and a second world war meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt. Our taxi driver back to Mayfair Hotel gives us a good price, but better still informs us that he is one of the most famous taxi drivers in Egypt having been based at the Mena House for 50 years and he regales us with stories of the stars he has seen there.

22nd September (Day42)

Much to the delight of Isaac (not) today involves more sightseeing. We choose the bazaar Khan el Khalili which is given glowing reference in our guide book. Perhaps we have been jaded by the dirt, noise and relentless pestering of the locals wanting our money but the bazaar we see has in our opinion little more to offer than Carew or Splott markets back home.

The Mosques of Ibn Tulun and Sultan Hassan are far more impressive and it is understandable why our guide book describes them as the two Islamic monuments to see in Cairo. (To labour a point… we were quite understandably required to remove our shoes to enter the Mosque Ibn Tulun, we were, however, disappointed that despite having paid an entrance fee, the attendant refused to return our shoes without us paying him a tip).

We also call into the train station today to buy our train tickets for Alexandria and then Luxor. As soon as we enter the busy station a tourist police officer offers to help us sort out the tickets which he does, he then refuses to hand them over until we have given him a tip! Baksheesh!

23rd September (Day 43)

The Egyptian Museum today. This houses a magnificent collection, the wealth of the country’s history is only too apparent as many of the artefacts, which would be main attractions in other museums around the world, lie with minimal labelling in this sprawling old building. The highlights are the collection of Egyptian mummies (including mummies of many of the most powerful figures of the ancient world) and the Tutankhamen exhibition which we saw (what we now realise) was only a small fragment of in London.

24th September (day 44)

Another day and another argument with a Taxi driver who appears to invent an additional 40 Egyptian pound bill to the price shown on his meter. 
The sights we have seen have been awe inspiring.  The construction skills of the ancient Egyptians were truly amazing but of all the sights Vince certainly finds todays visit to Saqqara (the stepped pyramid after which the best beer in Egypt is named) the most impressive.

Zoser built the step pyramid about 2615 BC and the buildings here at Saqqara represent the first attempts at stone building in ancient Egypt. The stones used at the site are not big (demonstrating Egyptians hesitancy at working with this new material) but both the pyramid and the Funerary complex with its colonnaded corridor and frieze of cobras (the first examples of stone pillars and friezes known to exist) again demonstrate ancient Egyptians to have been a hugely resourceful and revolutionary race. When visiting the birth place of stone architecture here I am afraid that the sight of the crumbling buildings in the centre of Cairo coupled with the half-finished brick high rise accommodation (that resemble the towers found at the back of fire stations in the UK) constitutes a sad state of affairs for a people with such a rich architectural tradition.
The age of the Saqqara site is emphasised by the first known example of graffiti left by Egyptian tourists from the New Kingdom (1540-1069 BC) visiting what was already to them an ancient site.
We’re impressed with ourselves in being more clued up in that we refuse the guy who tries to insist that we have to buy an additional ticket to go into the step pyramid, (we later realise that you cannot enter it) and the ‘guide’ who tries to take our tickets and give us a tour. We snatch them back and guide ourselves around.
Having sent our taxi away we walk down to the car park to pick one up but are dismayed to find very few around. It’s Friday! We ask one driver who asks for a huge amount of money so we decide to walk down to the main gate to see if there are any more there and a very friendly guard helps us out by phoning one for us. Whilst we wait however, a taxi pulls in and tries to insist we get in but we don’t want to let the other guy down and explain he has phoned someone for us. A heated debate ensues between them with us feeling more awkward by the minute but they eventually agree that we should get in the taxi and we make a quick exit. So much for our earlier confidence!
The taxi takes us to the pyramids at Giza where we plan to wait for the sound and light show later that evening. When we get to the ticket office however a sign says that the show is cancelled as Andreas Botticelli is performing there the following evening and the stage is being set up by the Sphinx. We were aware of the concert and had actually phoned the tourist information in Giza from the museum yesterday to double check the light show was on, they assured us it was!! A wasted journey and very frustrating especially as we thought we had planned it properly. We haggle over another a taxi and head back to Cairo.

25th September (Day 45)

A rest day today packing ready for our trip to Alexandria. Michele colours her hair whilst Vince and Isaac head down a back street to Coiffure Engleze! Having all sorted out our hair we have a meal on ‘Imperial’ one of the many static Nile boat restaurants.

26th September (Day 46)

We are glad to leave the Mayfair Hotel for the last time at 8am as we head for our train to Alexandria.  We have first class tickets and we have a very comfortable two and a half hour journey north, arriving in Alexandria late morning. Whilst busy, Alexandria is nowhere near as busy as Cairo and the drive along the Mediterranean coast to our hotel (about 16km’s west of the town centre) is very picturesque.
Our argument for the day is with reception. We have booked a triple room for bed and breakfast for two adults and a ten year old boy. The hotel have this booking but tell us that it is their policy to make an additional charge for breakfast for children over 6. We argue with reception but they only relent after we inform them that we have e-mailed a complaint to the booking agent!!
After sorting this out we are happy just to relax and take advantage of the hotel pool and private beach.

27th September (Day 47)

A continuation of yesterday afternoon, taking advantage of the hotel facilities.  In the morning we visit the hotel’s private beach Isaac and Michele set off before Vince, fancying a dip in the sea. They put the valuables into the water proof bag. When Vince arrives about 40 minutes later they come out of the sea only to find that the 'waterproof bag’ does not really work and has partially filled with sea water! The water breaks a mobile phone and the camera (although the pictures are saved).
At dinner later in the hotel, Michele is definitely the loser on the ordering front. ‘The Chefs Special Salad’ appears to be sliced spam and pork luncheon meat on a bed of grated carrot, not the smoked veal on a dressed bed of lettuce that the menu promised.
Before leaving for food we had phoned for a toilet roll. We are disappointed not to find any upon our return, instead we find dressing gowns and realise that we have mistakenly been delivered toilet robes!

28th September (Day 48)

Site seeing in Alexandria is not extensive as much of the historical part of the city has been lost or, after an Earthquake, buried at sea. Work is underway to make Cleopatra’s palace, currently to be found under water in the harbour, accessible to tourists but as this work is not complete we make do with the Roman Theatre and Baths and the Catacombs of Kom. We have seen a number of sights recently and are happy to return to the hotel.
In the early evening we visit the Montazah palace, the royal family’s former residence. The palace is closed to the public, but the grounds can be visited. The visit proves very pleasant and unlike anything else we have so far experienced in Egypt. The grounds are green and tranquil and also a very popular spot for locals to visit and relax in. We really are very fortunate in the UK with our parkland.

29th September (day 49)

After breakfast we head to try and change traveller’s cheques. Again this is a big problem solved only at a branch of the HSBC and they take the best part of an hour to complete the transaction meaning that we manage to check out of the hotel just on time at 12 O’Clock.
Our train for Cairo is due to leave at 5pm so we spend the afternoon in the pool before taking another comfortable train journey, arriving back in Cairo at 8.30pm.
The comfort of our two train journeys so far has not really prepared us for our overnight trip from Cairo to Luxor. The platform is crowded even though we do not leave until 10pm. When we eventually find our seats they do not recline and are in a small dingy compartment at the end of carriage 1. It proves to be a long night for Vince and Michele, although Isaac sleeps well on a bed made from ruck sacs and blow up pillows.

30th September (Day 50)

We arrive two hours late into Luxor at about 9am. Having visited Tourist Information and some of the boats moored at the edge of the Nile in an attempt to organise a cruise, we stop at a café to have a drink. Vince decides to try to get credit for the phone and visit some more of the Nile boats. Whist walking along the river bank a local gardener approaches him and invites Vince back to his flat claiming he is very strong and could show Vince a very good time! He suggests they head into the bushes so he can show him his ‘hose’ to prove what a good time he can offer! In the best traditions of a certain red top newspaper Vince makes his excuses and leaves to report the incident to Michele who finds it very amusing.
Mid-morning we take the people ferry to The Nile Valley Hotel, and it soon becomes obvious that Michele has found a gem. The cost is the same as the May Fair, but we have a large air conditioned room with a balcony overlooking the pool (complete with pool bar) and the Nile.

 Apart from some phone calls trying to sort out a Nile Cruise we spend the rest of the day relaxing after what turned out to be a tiring journey. The food in the Hotel matches the other amenities and is served on a roof top terrace which has an outstanding view of the Luxor temple which is directly opposite across the Nile on the east bank and looks sensational lit up at night.

1st October (Day51)

Isaac drives the people ferry!!!!!!
After breakfast we take the people ferry (LE 1 or about 10 pence)
 and arrive at the Temple of Luxor. The Pylons behind the giant statues of Ramses II are one of the most recognisable images of Egypt and it was from here that the Obelisk that stands in the Palace de la Concorde in Paris was taken, leaving its partner lacking the original symmetry.  Vince and Michele are convinced that the impressive Colonade of Amenophis III has played a central role in at least one Agatha Christie movie.  Michele is in her element and feels as though she is in a Christie film; the only thing is Vince can’t decide whether she’s Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot! The whole temple is very impressive as is the avenue of sphinxes that lead over 4km to the temple at Karnak and is gradually being uncovered and renovated. The hope is that the avenue will run all the way to the Temple of Karnak as it did originally and houses are being demolished and people relocated in preparation for this.

After leaving the temple we visit Karnack travel and secure what appears to be a good deal on a seven night Nile Cruise (although we refuse to pay until we have been shown the boat and have checked out reviews on the internet).

2nd October (Day 52)

We spend today relaxing at the pool of the hotel (which also involves continuing work on Isaac’s school work).

3rd October (Day 53)

We leave at 7am to start exploring the West Bank and our first stop is The Valley of the Kings. On the drive we pass Howard Carters house and then arrive at the entrance. Our tickets give us access to the Valley and entrance to three of the 62 tombs that have been found there. Entrance to the tomb of Tutankhamun is extra and Michele and Isaac decide to pay to enter. His tomb is small with little decoration. All that remains in the tomb is Tutankhamun’s mummy and his sarcpphagus (now identified as being second hand). After leaving we visit the tombs of Ramses IV, Ramses III and Tutmosis III, these are far bigger with far more decoration on the tomb walls bringing home the fact that Tutankhamun ,who died at 19, was a briefly reigning Pharaoh who was hastily buried. The relative insignificance of his tomb goes a long way to explain the fact that it lay hidden for so long and can only lead one to wonder the extent of the riches that were originally entombed in the other larger resting palces.
Even at 8am we are uncomfortably hot and we find out later that Luxor is experiencing a mini heat wave as the temperature soars to 47 C. Isaac provides the comment of the day declaring  in the heat that he ‘picked the wrong day to wear his cotton pants’. We leave the valley and head for Dier el Bahri and Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple. The temple is described in our guide book as the finest building in Egypt ranking alongside the Parthenon and the Taj Mahal as one of the great buildings of the world. Built about 1460 BC the temple remained unknown in modern times, being completely buried until 1894. The building was the work of Hatshepsut and her architect Senmut. Hatsheptut (a name that sounds a little like ‘hot chicken soup’) was only the third Egyptian woman to rule as queen and the first to rule as king and she is regarded along with the likes of Ramses II as one of the most formidable figures in Egyptian history.  As one local told us she was their own ‘iron lady’. The magnificent Temple would certainly support her great significance.

We return to the hotel by 11:30 and cool off by the pool ready for the Nile Valley’s Egyptian night. The hotel has been fantastic but the night proves to be a bit of a disappointment. The food, particularly the rather tough beef, is not easy to get through and just as we are about to leave we become trapped by the arrival near the exit of the musicians and a male dancer. Isaac is first to be called upon to join the entertainers and despite his intense tiredness he performs manfully receiving (the only) enthusiastic ovation of the evening .Michele’s reaction to a dance in which the performers try to get all the ladies to join them in a belly dance type number is interesting to behold. The performers are very insistent and are succeeding in persuading even the most reluctant ladies to join them, that is until they reach Michele, and the Milford in her comes to the fore. She does not say a lot but her body language and glare are clear. Suffice to say that Michele does not dance as the performers retreat clear in the knowledge that to push the matter further would in all likelihood lead to serious physical damage.

4th October (Day 54)

We waste no time this morning and arrive at the Nile Story, our cruise boat, by 10:30am. We look around the boat and are very pleasantly surprised at its 5* status and so pay our very helpful guide from Karnack Travel, Ahmed. We then take full advantage of the sun deck and pool and have the place to ourselves as other guests enjoy the sights of Luxor.
Isaac relaxing on the boat with the Temple Of Luxor for company

 We only leave to take advantage of the first two of what are to be many ‘all you can eat buffets’. We assume that during our first lunch, where we are sat on a table with three German tourists, that we are our usual urbane and witty selves. Our delusions are shattered, however, when we arrive for dinner to find out that they have asked to be moved to another table!! We later learn that they have moved to a table of fellow Germans which makes us feel slightly better. The advantage is, however, that in a crowded restaurant the three of us have a large table to ourselves.

5th October (Day 55)

The boat is still in Luxor where we have already seen a number of the sights and we therefore stay on the boat (having it largely to ourselves again) whilst the remainder of the passengers in their large tour parties set off early sightseeing. The day is spent relaxing on the sun deck, eating and working on Isaac’s school work.
When the sightseers return the boat finally leaves Luxor at about 1.30pm and it is both interesting and relaxing to watch Egypt go by as we float gently down the Nile.

6th October (Day 56)

Our first guided tour starts at 8am when we meet Amr who takes us on a horse drawn carriage to the Temple of Horus at Edfu. The temple, the second largest in Egypt, is considered to be the best preserved with the original colouring evident everywhere. We have begun to recognise the pattern of many temples. Entering through the Pylons into an open court where ‘common folk’ were allowed to visit. This court is followed by Hypostyle halls (covered halls) which lead to Antechambers and eventually the Sanctuary of the God (in this case Horas) who resided in the temple. Amr is an entertaining, thoughtful guide and we spend an enjoyable couple of hours with him before returning to the boat to sail to Kom Ombo where at 5pm he once again meets us to show us the Temple of Sobek and Haroeris, telling us again much of what he told us in the morning as it is just as applicable!!!
 For Isaac the highlight of our visit to Kom Ombo is that as we arrive a floatilla of small boats surrounds ours as the locals throw clothes and other wares onto the boat.

 We are not sure how but we are sure that they will expect payment for the goods so Isaac sets about throwing them back with some relish and with good aim.

7th October (Day 57)

Today we arrive in Aswan and meet a new guide, Mohammed who sadly has been drafted in to take the place of Amr whose father has been taken ill. We set off for the Temple of Philae on the Island of Isis. The temple has been moved to the Island to prevent it from being submerged as a result of the building of the Aswan Dam. It is a good job that we are up to speed on Temples and the work of the Ptolemies as our new guide obviously has no interest in us or his job as he takes us round the temple at break neck speed. He then rushes us up to the Aswan dam before depositing us back as quickly as possible at the boat.

View of Lake Nasser from the High Dam

 He does try to sell us a rather expensive trip to Abu Simbel, but we decline opting instead to enjoy a more relaxing time for the remainder of our trip on the Nile, organising any sightseeing we may decide upon ourselves.  We are put off by the high cost of the trip, the fact that it would take 3hours by car to get there and another 3 back and also because the Temple has also been moved due to building of the dam and is said to have lost some of its impact as a result. We do get off the boat and find an Internet café in Aswan where we manage to book the Reef Oasis resort in Sharm-El-Sheik for the next part of our stay in Egypt.

8th, 9th & 10th October (Days 58, 59 & 60)

We decide to stay on the boat watching the sights at the edge of the Nil, having done all the sights on the way down. The Nile delta is a huge contrast from the rest of the country, the land is green and fertile but we should not recognise the living conditions of the local people as anything other than challenging.

 Isaac continues to do some school work and also some impressive DVD watching as he manages such feats as Rocky I – III without a break. We also manage to become fed up of buffet food and Isaac and Dad begin to crave Peter’s (or Clarkes) pie, chips, peas and gravy!!

11th, 12th & 13th October (Days 61, 62 & 63)

It is nice to return to the Nile Valley. On arriving at the West Bank we arrange a local taxi driver to pick us up on Tuesday morning at 7am to take us to the Valley of The Queens, the Ramessuem, the Mortuary Temple of Ramses III and the Colossi of Memmon.

Later on Monday we travel to the East Bank to buy some suitcases as we are finding the rucksacks to be difficult to lug about and lacking in space for packing. We make the mistake of taking a carriage and telling the driver what we are looking to buy. He takes it upon himself to take us to luggage shops and trying to broker a deal and then sell cases on to us. This leads to a very unsavoury argument as we explain that we do not require his help. He remains involved but after a lot of heated debate we reduce the price of a case from 600 Egyptian pounds down to 150 and then head back.
The next morning we are at the Valley of the Queens bright and early. Here there are over 70 tombs of queens, princes and princesses. Three are open to tourists Tomb 55 of Prince Amun-herhopshef killed in a smallpox epidemic during the reign of his father Rameses III, Tomb 44 of Prince Khaemweset and Tomb 52 of Queen Titi. These tombs are not on the same scale as those of the kings many having the appearance of just caves. The tombs we visit however are brightly decorated with painted decoration as opposed to carving as the friable limestone at this end of the mountain did not lend itself to carving.  
The other sites we visit are of a familiar design to us and it is not the individual temples that impress us as much as the density of sites in and around Luxor leading down to Aswan. The Pyramids are somewhat isolated in comparison but this area really does give one an impression of Egypt as an empire.
We spend the rest of the day at the hotel apart from Vince going over to meet Ahmed who has booked us flights to Sharm for a fraction of the price we could find on the internet.
The following day Michele is up early to catch the sunrise over the Temple opposite, a beautiful and relaxing sight with the roof terrace all to herself. We then relax at the hotel and catch up with emails and Isaac’s school work. We also look through the internet for places to stay in Mumbai for the four nights that we will be there. In the evening we have arranged a motor boat to take us up to the Temple of Karnak for the sound and light show which begins at 7.45pm. The boatman meets us at 7.00pm and insists that we have plenty of time and so takes us to a small café for a drink. By 7.20pmish we are getting a little restless and hurry things along but we have to wait until the waiter has stopped praying before we can pay the bill! We finally get back to the boat and head up the Nile and when we get to the mooring spot we realise the boatman was delaying things as he’s not meant to be mooring here, a police officer rushes up to speak to him as we make a quick exit. We sprint to the Temple and get there just as the show starts! So much for getting there early to look around as we had planned! The problems are all forgotten however once the show begins as it is really impressive and involves a commentary on the history of the Temple accompanied by lights and projected images. You are taken on a tour through the Temple, stopping at various places for the next part of the commentary until you come to the sacred lake where you sit for the remainder of the show. The Temple is similar in layout to the ones we have already seen but on a much larger scale, it is the largest Temple in Egypt and I think we did right in leaving the best until last, the others pale in comparison.
Karnak by night, one of the best sights in Egypt!

At the end we take our time making our way back through the Temple and are the last to leave. We find the boatman moored further down the Nile and Isaac helps him to steer us back to the Nile Valley hotel.
Isaac steers us home

Isaac heads to the room while Vince and Michele go to the roof terrace to share a bottle of wine and enjoy the view over the Nile, conscious that our time with this beautiful view is coming to an end.
Our last day in Luxor is spent once more trying to sort out some of our time in India and then packing our new suitcases. We enjoy the pool and the view one last time.

14th  - 28th October (Days 64-78)

We’re up early again and take a motor boat over to the east bank to meet Ahmed who will take us to the airport for our flight to Sharm. We arrive there by lunchtime and after some more haggling over taxi fares we arrive at the Reef Beach Resort where we are to spend the next two weeks, the longest we have spent in one place since we started our trip in August. We have chosen the resort for several reasons; a chance to have a bit of a break from moving around so much, it’s on the beach so a good chance to do some snorkelling and for Isaac to try diving for the first time and we also hope he’ll meet some children so he can have a play with people other than his mum and dad!

The Reef Oasis proves to be a good choice.  There is coral and a large variety of fish directly off the beach and we enjoy the snorkelling. In addition to our beach we also try snorkelling at Ras Mohammed which is a reserve about 40 minutes away by boat. Isaac proves to be a good underwater photographer and we shoot off 4 films. In addition to the snorkelling we also complete a discover scuba diving course and manage to get a closer look at the coral in two open water dives. Our instructor Bruni is great and he is very impressed with Isaac who he thinks is a natural who should complete the full PADI qualification.

Sight-seeing was kept to a minimum but we did make an early start on the 25th October to visit St Catherine’s monastery at Mount Sinai where we gazed at the ‘burning bush’ (!) and in the Greek Orthodox church we lit candles for our loved ones. A lovely way to spend our 16th wedding anniversary.

St Catherine's Monastery with Mount Sinai in the background

                                                    Vince, Isaac & the Burning Bush!

On the way back we stopped for lunch at Dahab, a town we had thought of visiting instead of Sharm. We had a decent lunch with very friendly people but we felt we had made the right decision in staying at Sharm as the place itself appeared half finished and quite derelict in places which is a shame as after the fishermen of the town were banned from fishing by UNESCO hotels were built to try and make a living from tourism. It appears that it started well but had tailed off for some reason. We then made the obligatory visit to the town’s bazaar where Isaac organised to borrow money from his dad to buy his mum a cartouche with her name on. Dad’s present was spending the money on mum!
The visit to Reef Oasis also proves to be a success when it comes to meeting new people, particularly Isaac who makes some lovely friends and has a fantastic time playing with them. He first meets Scott and Gavin two brothers from Aberdeen in Scotland with whom he enjoys hours in the Aqua Pool. They play on the slides in the pool and show ability far beyond their age and that of the other players in the daily volleyball and water polo games. A couple of days after meeting they are joined by Sam. The leader of the boy’s group is Arran who despite being a different side of 30 to the rest of the gang is the ring leader. Along with their parents the boys win the resort quiz and although Gavin and Scott had left for home the remainder win certificates in the sport challenge Olympics.

The only down side to the visit has been the dodgy stomachs experienced by so many, despite the ‘all inclusive’ tag the Brownes had to be very conservative in their diet resorting mainly to bread and pizza, the latter being made fresh in front of you. Isaac proved to be the healthiest of us all, mainly due to his pure pizza diet!

As the others gradually leave the Brownes are left at the resort alone and, grateful for a great couple of weeks, they prepare to continue on their travels.
With two days to spare before they leave for India the Brownes decide to stop off at the Suez Canal to witness the procession of large ships that make use of the water way in such large numbers. After searching the internet and reading so many bad reviews of Suez itself however, Vince finds a Mercure hotel in the town of Ismailia which overlooks Lake Timsah and offers good rates and a view of the ships coming through the canal. It also has a pool to keep Isaac happy. We then look into  the best and cheapest way to get from Sharm to Ismailia and after reading the guide book and the internet and talking to the staff at the resort we decide to take the bus. Most of the staff actually live in Cairo as it’s too expensive to get an apartment in Sharm and so they use it regularly. Vince sets out to get a taxi to the bus station but the resort taxis tried to persuade him to take one of their taxis to Ismailia, principally by lying about the bus fare! Vince persevered though and took a taxi to the bus station where the taxi driver was embarrassed about the lies about the bus fares and he helped to organise a local taxi driver to complete the trip at a cost which was only slightly higher than taking the bus but which would deliver us to the door of the hotel.