Mumbai, menopause and madam – Goa cows

HOLLY COW!

Travelling in India has taught me a lot. And among the many things which has surprised me during our month here are the cows. That’s right, the cows.

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There are nearly 300 million of them in India, and I reckon I’ve met half of them. They are everywhere. And of course, being sacred, they know they are special and able to roam at will.

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I must admit I’ve never really thought about cows until I came here, but I’ve discovered they’re rather charming creatures, each with their own delightful personality. So much so, in fact, they’ve triggered an idea which I’m running by my local mayor, Michael Regan.

Dear Mr Mayor
Having had several discussions with you previously over the pros and cons of allowing families to enjoy animal fun on Warringah’s beaches with their dogs, and realising canine capers are probably too controversial to trigger any sort of fair-for all plan, I’ve come up with another fun-filled activity.

How do you feel about cows?

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Because I’ve seen a lot of them over here in India and have come to the conclusion they would be a perfect alternative for beachside fun.

After all…..

They’re friendly.

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They like to shop…

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..and love to hang out at restaurants…

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They’re courteous in traffic…

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…and make excellent local guides.

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They are patient.

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They don’t bite…

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…instead they’re rather neighbourly…

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…and love to pop in for a chat…

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They enjoy sharing a meal…

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…and don’t talk with their mouths full.

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They form good relationships…

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…with everyone.

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They love family outings…

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…and don’t mind a bit of stick.

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But above all Mr Mayor … they LOVE the beach and introducing cows to Dee Why for example could have its benefits.

They wouldn’t affect tourism…in fact they’ll probably attract it.

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They love to play…

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…and can help with surveillance on the beach.

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They won’t romp around randomly and kick sand in our faces, instead they tend to stroll… aimlessly. But in an orderly fashion…

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…and they leave as quietly as they came.

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Anyway, security is always on hand to move them on.

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Of course they poop… but think about the recycling potential! And the local kids can earn a dollar collecting it…

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And they may have to be taught some manners…

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…as sometimes they pop in uninvited.

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And very occasionally there may be some argy bargy…

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…but dare I suggest this is where the well-trained cattle dogs could come in?

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We could even recruit the local Labs to help out.

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The dogs will sort it out and peace will be restored.

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So, what do you think Mr Mayor?
Cows on the beach can only bring good things. Think of the tourism this would generate! Think of the fun! It’s like having a beach full of dogs without the controversy.
Of course India manages to combine their cows, dogs and people harmoniously on the beach…without issue. But baby steps Mr Mayor… let’s start with some cows!

Sincerely,
Wendy
Warringah Cows Moooovement

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Mumbai, menopause and madam – Goa

Freestyle, waves… and a kiss?

It wasn’t until I was bobbing about in the surf at Goa’s popular Calungute beach that I realised I was the only woman in the water. I was obviously creating a stir because I was suddenly surrounded by youths.

Okaaaay. Antennae up, activate and arm oneself with attitude. Naturally, I am well aware of India’s ugly underbelly of assaults on women, but I sensed these young men were more curious at seeing a western woman in the water past the breakers, than actually plotting an attack. At any rate, having always been more at home in the water than on land, and registering their awkwardness, I figured it wouldn’t take much for me to drown one of them. Yes, harsh, I know, but when about eight of them are forming a semi-circle around you and clearly discussing you, your mind drifts to solutions for all sorts of scenarios.

Predictably, their interaction began with warnings of how dangerous it was to be in the water. Queue Wendy to show off and treat them to a few strokes of freestyle, followed by a dash of butterfly, my master stroke. This caused great guffaws and shouts of appreciation, and okay, maybe I was showing off… just a little bit.

It didn’t take long for one cheeky sod, wearing a natty bandana, to show off himself and ask where I was from.

Be polite, but don’t engage has always been my strategy, and when I replied Australia, there was huge excitement and chattering, with Mr Bandana proceeding to name every Australian cricketer he could, the names tripping off his tongue like the alphabet. Ricky Ponting was clearly a favourite because he was mentioned several times.

Encouraged by my laughter, and obviously thinking my mirth showed great potential, Mr Bandana took his bravado to one more level and asked for “just one foreign kiss please” and pointed to his cheek.

I nearly choked on the salt water, not because of his audacity, but because he wanted a kiss from the overweight nanna in the bathing suit! I mean, what are the odds? Clearly, his exposure to Baywatch had been limited, he had no clue there were plenty more better fish in the sea than me!

Naturally, I said no .. and when he persisted I put my stern mother voice on and repeated NO! But hang on, I thought, I can give him something even better and it wasn’t long before my opportunity came.

I caught a wave.

And I’m pleased to say the old girl still has it. I caught that baby right into shore, leaving a ripple of amazement in my wake. I stood up to frenzied cheers and clapping.

“Take that Ponting,” I muttered. “It took an Aussie sheila to prove there’s more to Australian sport than hitting a little white ball with a bat!”

Now I was elevated to hero status, and although they still floated around me like a swarm of jellyfish, they kept their distance, encouraging me to “do it again, jump that wave” and of course, the show off in me obliged.

Later, when dressed, I went down to the water’s edge to take some snaps. Mr Bandana rushed out to greet me with the enthusiasm of the keenest cricket fan. He asked me to take his photo.

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And he couldn’t help himself. He asked again for “just one foreign kiss please”.

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The question is … did I give it?

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Mumbai, menopause and madam – The train

Late trains and Balu’s hullabaloo

The teen and I were catching our first train in India.
We were travelling from Ranthambhore to Delhi to meet up with an old friend, Tanya Willmer, where we would spend just one night before flying to Goa.
Although our train tickets had been booked, that didn’t necessarily mean things would go smoothly. We had heard all the nightmare stories – people claiming your seat, theft, trains not turning up, break downs, fires, or just plain running late.

One Aussie traveller we met travelling with his wife and three daughters, took a sleeper train and woke one night to find an Indian sitting on the end of his bunk.

“He was just sitting there as if it was a perfectly normal thing to do,” he said. “So we had a conversation for the next three hours, which was interesting considering he didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Hindi.” Throughout the 17-hour-journey he was also handed a Glock pistol to admire, was admired himself by one gentleman who constantly told him he loved him, and he watched in astonishment another man snap a photograph of his daughters before jumping from the moving train as it pulled out from a station.

So what was India without a trip on a train! I figured it was all part of the experience and we had to do it, if only once, and a short trip at that.

Daylight was just breaking on this very cold and foggy morning at Sawai Madhopur station. We were met by a cow blocking the narrow entrance (the teen wouldn’t let me stop and take a photo) and there were lots of shadowy figures…

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…lurking around…

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…which was why the teen was understandably a little nervous.

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Some passengers were making sure they didn’t miss the train…

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…while others waited patiently in the waiting room. This lovely lady couldn’t take her eyes from us, politely staring, while her baby looked just a little alarmed by the teen.

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But once we were on board our train we were pleasantly surprised. The seats were comfortable and clean… and it was quiet. Not only the train itself, but the passengers! It was rather disconcerting being surrounded by people normally so vocal. Our newfound peace was occasionally shattered by the food vendors walking up and down the aisles offering water, chai tea, samosas and vegetable biryani, but apart from that it was probably the quietest time we’d shared.

There was plenty to see through the window.

People working beside the tracks…

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…waiting to cross the tracks…

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…or for a train.

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Wildlife…

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…and of course India wouldn’t be complete without a cow staring at you through the window while stopped at some random station.

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We were comforted to know there was always someone watching over us…

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…there was protection…

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…tender moments…

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…and we were always connected.

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The five and a half hour trip took eight and a half hours, not that there were any announcements en route informing us we were running late. It was a wild guess that this station we pulled into at our designated arrival time wasn’t Delhi.

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Naaaah.

THIS was Delhi.

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Definitely a huge WOW! moment. Nothing could have prepared me for the sheer numbers gathered at Nizamuddin, one of Delhi’s three major railway stations.

It’s being developed to ease congestion.

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And we had to get up those stairs …

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…along with everybody else.

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But just getting to them was a challenge.

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There were hundreds of boxes and sacks piled up, people pushing carts, pulling trolleys, carrying bags on their heads, and among all the chaos, the odd sight of a large dog sitting serenely on a pile of suitcases. Sadly, I couldn’t stop to photograph it, we had to get right in there and flow with the human tide, hoping it would sweep us along to those stairs and up.

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Needless to say, the teen didn’t share my optimism. She was rooted to the spot where we had alighted at the end of the station and where there was still room to move.

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But we had no choice, so in we went.

And we got there, to the top of the stairs without incident, except when I nearly strangled a nanna when I stepped on her long scarf.

Victorious, we then had to figure out how to find our driver. We had said goodbye to our old driver Prakarsh in Ranthambhore and despite phone calls to and from this new driver we still hadn’t determined where we were meeting. Balu was very shouty with an accent as thick as syrup and I couldnt understand a word he was saying. He’d rung us twice on the train, and me, in ignorant bliss of our late schedule, kept telling him we were arriving at 12.30. Of course when I realised how late we actually were it took several calls back and forth to the hotel and the agent to determine our whereabouts and an ETA. I was told “no problem, he will wait”.

But would he? And where?

Our first problem at the top of the stairs was to decide quite simply whether to go left or right, and we had to make a decision in a hurry. Standing still, and dithering, wasn’t an option as we would just be bumped along anyway.

A kind man, alert to our obvious confusion shouted and pointed right so off we headed, interrupted by more phone calls from the incomprehensible Balu , clearly was beside himself with anxiety that he’d lost his cargo. I was forced to keep hanging up on him as I was dealing with the more immediate problem of trying to get through the crowd. I can only imagine how this would have exacerbated poor Balu’s hysteria.

Reaching the exit at the bottom of another set of stairs and a much calmer environment I tried Balu again. We both understood that the teen and I had arrived, it was just trying to describe to each other where we were.

Then an angel intervened.
This young girl approached and asked if she could be “helping me”. I gave her the phone and could hear Babalu shouting into her ear. I also noticed her family standing behind us, watching intently and as proud as punch, that their daughter was able to help the foreigners.

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While we waited for Balu I discovered this young lady’s name was Chandra, she was in Year 11 and was returning to Delhi after celebrating the new year festival with her family in Rajasthan.

Our phone rang again… Balu. Another conversation with Chandra followed…

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And then finally Balu arrived, running towards us flustered and frenzied with his “Miss Wendy” sign. In a tsunami of Hindi he proceeded to explain to poor Chandra everything he’d been through, before charging back to his car, with us trailing behind like naughty schoolchildren.

Inside the car we learned he’d been there since 12.15, (it was now 3.45) because “Miss Wendy you tell me you arriving at 12.30”. It was far too hard to explain that I had no clue when we would arrive, but I think he concluded that “Miss Wendy” had no clue about anything at all. Anyway, Balu was on a roll, nothing was going to stop him recounting to us every minute of his sad afternoon and he dramatically lamented the saga for the whole 40 minute trip.
Each time I thought he’d finished and there was wonderful silence, he was in fact only drawing breath to start all over again … “Miss Wendy, I wait since 12.15…”, never missing out his favourite part about how he’d missed his lunch.
I just tutted sympathetically where I could.

We were near the hotel when Balu’s brouhaha was diverted by a traffic jam of rickshaws, tuk tuks and cars all trying to negotiate the same intersection at the same time.

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This vendor took the opportunity to sell us maps through the car window.

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He stalked us faithfully, convinced we wanted a map of India or the world.
And because the traffic was so slow, he was there, again, when we pulled up at our hotel.

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It was goodbye to Balu, and I could only imagine how his poor wife would be forced to listen to over and over again how “Miss Wendy said she’d be there at 12.30…”

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Mumbai, menopause and madam – New Year’s Eve

Going potty on New Year’s Eve

After watching Sydney bring in the New Year in her own unique and spectacular fashion on our iPad, it was time for the teen and I to herald in the New Year Indian style. We’re staying at the Nahargargh Palace Hotel, a rather flash joint (more about that later) on the
edge of Ranthambhore’s National Park.

We ventured downstairs at 8pm, our nostrils immediately assaulted by the strong smell of smoke.

Bushfires?

Nup, bonfires.

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Several were set up on the lawn before a stage adorned with Indian musicians. And they were armed with drums. The loud banging kind.

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Now I’m not going to beat around the bush here, nor bang on about cultural differences, but I don’t like Indian music. I never have, and after a fortnight here, I doubt I ever will. Actually, in fairness, I’ll modify that, I dont mind some of their modern music, it’s the folksinging which injures the ears. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste, one I have yet to acquire for chamber orchestras, jazz and heavy metal as well. I do like Motown, disco, Willie Nelson and Barbra Streisand, which probably just says more about my age than anything else, but the persistent wailing and shrieking of an Indian folksinger backed up by enthusiastic drum banging, just doesn’t do it for me. And it doesn’t help when you haven’t got a clue what all the wailing is about.

So the teen and I were a little apprehensive when we pulled up a chair. Almost immediately the boys broke out into song. Almost immediately, the teen reached for some comfort food.

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Clearly, after a fortnight here, we’ve heard our fair share of Indian music, but this lot took the biscuit. They took wailing to a new level, screeching with passion and emotion. And one can only imagine what all the hysteria was about. The Indians are an excitable bunch, a casual conversation about the weather can seem to our ears a full force gale of an argument. Were they singing about lost love? Or a favourite goat? Who knew. All the teen and I heard was male voices reaching notes that no man should reach, and drums being banged with increasing intensity.

And then the dancing girls arrived.

One had a pot on her head.

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And she danced effortlessly with the pot on her head.

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And then she put another pot on her head and danced with two pots on her head.

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This is the Bhavai dance, a popular folk dance in Rajasthan which was performed hundreds of years ago with clay pots balanced on the head. These have now been replaced with brass or stainless steel pots. Not much fancy footwork is played out, it’s more of a shuffle backwards and forwards and the odd twirl. Understandable when you’ve got pots on your head.

And just as we were finishing applauding the two-pot dance, along came Helpful Harry, who put another pot on her head.

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Very nice.

And then he put a fourth pot on her head…

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…and you guessed it, she danced with four pots on her head.

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Enter Helpful Harry again to add a fifth…

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…and we were treated to The Five-Pot-Dance

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Now anyone who knows me well, knows I’m not a great fan of dance. I’d rather have my teeth pulled than go to the ballet, or any show based on dance really. But this potty dance got me thinking. It was intriguing to wonder who in hell thought it up. Was it a bunch of men half a century ago sitting around a log fire who thought, “Hey, I know what we can do to liven things up, let’s get a bunch of women to dance around with pots on their heads”.
Or, was it the women themselves, inspired by their amazing ability to carry whatever is required on their heads?

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Maybe, one day, bored between chores they challenged each other to see who could dance with the most pots on their heads.

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The more I thought about it, the more absurd the concept seemed. But then I was distracted by this little fella who appeared from out of the blue to do a lap.
Not quite sure why.

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Time to move on and we headed to dinner, set up beautifully outside in one of the hotel’s many the courtyards.

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We were seated next to a fire…

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…with our own personal fire warden ensuring no embers landed on us. Obviously, two western women had no clue and he took his job very seriously.

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It was a splendid buffet…

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…with very attentive service…

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…and the teen was particularly impressed with the array of deserts on offer.

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Then all of a sudden her head swivelled to the sound of something hauntingly familiar.

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“Oh my gosh! Mum, it’s Justin Bieber!” That apparently was worse than any wailing Indian folksinger. The disco was underway, and it was heaving with Justin Bieber fans.

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It was a bit like a school dance really.

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The teen’s reaction to my suggestion of a bop was a little less than enthusiastic.

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But I could tell she was considering it.

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This little fella was considering it too…

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This bigger fella needed no encouragement, doing it Gangnam style.

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But then we got distracted.
Helpful Harry and the Wailers had returned with their young performer…

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…and the dancers. This time without pots on their heads.

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It struck midnight and the fireworks went off. Perhaps not as spectacularly as Sydney, but pretty nonetheless.

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…and no sign of OH&S.

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Meanwhile, Helpful Harry and the Wailers got right into it, stalking the guests and serenading them with their songs.

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And everyone loved it

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This gentleman was clearly the chief storyteller…

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A formidable force evoking passion and frenzy.

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It was theatre at its best.
Just a little shrill on the ears.

To all our friends around the world … Happy New Year!

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Mumbai, menopause and madam – Udaipur

A Hotel Fit For A Princess

This is the Hotel Ambrai…

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…located on the shores of Lake Pichola in Udaipur, overlooking the City Palace…

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…and the luxury boutique Lake Palace Hotel, formerly a summer palace built by Maharana Jagat Singh II in 1743. The locals loved to proudly tell us that the James Bond film Octopussy, was shot there. In fact, that was where the infamous character Octopussy herself lived.

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This is the teen on the lawns of the Ambrai getting a much needed doggy-romp-fix with Toro and Leo, the dogs of the owners of the hotel.

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We’ve had to restrain ourselves from disturbing the street dogs, so this was a welcome treat.

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These are the owners of the hotel.

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BUT… The teen and I weren’t staying at the Ambrai.

Oomph noooooo, we were staying here…

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…at the Little Prince Heritage Hotel.

See the doorway across the gravel pit next to the men and the motorbikes?

Our car couldn’t fit through the narrow, winding narrow alleys of the old city where our hotel was located. So we had to walk, dodging the traffic.

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BUT… what the Little Prince Hotel had, that the Ambrai didn’t have, was Addy and Manu, the manager and chef, who welcomed us like long-lost relatives.

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And the Ambrai hotel didn’t have the view from our room of the donkeys carting gravel…

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…and emptying it onto the pile.

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…nor a view of the cow lounging in the sand used to mix with the gravel to make the cement.

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Nor a view of the women carrying the gravel and the sand to the mixer…

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…to lay the cement on the path which we had to negotiate. And yes, there was a moment of contemplation by the teen as she imagined evil mother falling into the wet cement and being set forever in the back alleys of Udaipur.

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Ambrai also didn’t have a view of this woman buying stuff from this street vendor who roamed up and down bellowing his wares from 7am.

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Nor did the Ambrai have the view of this street seller shouting about his pani pooris…

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…a favourite street snack in India, the puri is deep-fried dough stuffed with a mixture of either sweet or savoury fillings like potato, onion and chickpeas.

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The Ambrai didn’t have a view of this old woman peering out through her doorway…

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…nor would you have seen this really cool rooster!

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The Little Prince Hotel, now apparently featuring a Princess, the title bestowed upon the teen by the effervescent Addy, is actually an old house overlooking Hanuman Ghat (ghat meaning steps leading down to the water).

The hotel has eight charming and clean rooms. Upstairs is a common eating area where everyone hangs out…

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…and where Manu concocts the most amazing chocolate pancakes in between chewing your ear off. He’s a wonderful character, widowed with two teenage sons living with his parents in a village 500kms away.

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Further up on the roof more spectacular views of the City Palace are offered…

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…and of that stunning Lake Palace Hotel…

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…and of course, the activity on the roofs below.

This woman bringing in her washing…

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A child playing…

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A couple of gossips checking out the other neighbours…

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Family time…

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Goodnight Udaipur…

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…we’ll miss you.

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Mumbai, menopause and madam – Jodhpur

A working mum doing the best she can

Okay, so there I was complaining that we hadn’t had hot water for five nights.

Then I remembered this little girl. And all of a sudden, my hot shower seemed unimportant.

But let me tell you how I discovered her.

We’d been to the Mehrangarhg Fort and marvelled at the enormity of this amazing structure, standing at about 130m above the city of Jodhpur on the precipice of a cliff.

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I will never, never comprehend how these amazing fortresses – built to keep out the enemy from advancing on foot, or charging ahead on elephants – were constructed up to 600 years ago.

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From the Taj Mahal, built by 20,000 workers over 22 years from marble transported by more than 1,000 elephants…

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…and inlaid with 28 different semi-precious and precious stones…

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…to this Merhrangarg Fort with proportions so colossal Rudyard Kipling called it “ the work of giants”.

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It is only right that it is acknowledged today as the finest Hindu fortress in India, a great complement considering there are a lot, and my dear teen is convinced I want to see them all.

The carvings alone of the palace inside the fort are enough to blow you away.

How did they do it?

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The fort overlooks Jodhpur’s famous old blue city.

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It is believed the Brahmins, the priestly class, began painting their houses blue to set themselves apart from others. Neighbours from other castes began to copy and the tradition has been maintained.

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On the way back from the fort I noticed a worksite where a group of men and women were building a stone wall.

I asked Prakash to stop.

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It fascinates me that although Rajasthani women must veil up after marriage in front of their fathers-in-law in the home, and in front of male strangers on the street, they are considered equal enough to work on construction sites and cart bricks, or wet cement, on their heads.

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And as I watched this stunning woman walk, I saw her stop to wipe the sweat off her brow in front of this tiny child. This tiny, tiny little girl obviously in “day care”, was sitting placidly on an empty cement bag…

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…while her mother laid the cement.

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It was Christmas Day. Not that that mattered to these Hindu women. To them it was just a normal working day, the end of which would probably never include a hot shower.

My first world problem in this amazing third world country was quickly put into perspective.

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Mumbai, menopause and madam – Bikaner

Mum shows rat cunning

“Not much to do here,” the teen announced.

She sounded hopeful. As I’d promised, we wouldn’t visit every fort and every palace in every town we’d stopped. So a morning of no forts, nor palaces, in Bikaner surely meant a morning in the hotel Facebooking her mates.

“Oh yes there is darling. We’re off to the temple of rats!”

About 30kms out of Bikaner is the Temple of Deshnok. Legend has it that the Hindu-born sage, Karni Mata, who was an incarnation of Durga, the goddess of power and victory, implored the god of death Yama to revive the son of one of her clansmen who had drowned in a water tank. Yama refused, but relented when Karni agreed to all her tribesmen being reincarnated as rats until they could be born back into the clan. (Remember, with Hinduism death is just the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, and you go through a cycle of transition until you are reborn.)

So, currently at the Temple Deshnok, built in Karni’s honour, there are about 20,000 black rats hanging about waiting, and hoping I guess, to be reborn.

The teen meanwhile was hoping to be anywhere else but outside this temple.

More than 20,000 rats were inside.

More than 20,000 rats were inside.

Her apprehension turned to dismay when told we had to take off our shoes.
“Of course you do,” she grumbled.
“But it’s considered good luck if they run across your feet!” said perhaps a little too enthusiastically, judging by the look she threw me in return.
And sure enough, there they were. Little furry rodents scampering everywhere or poking their heads out of numerous holes.

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They are revered and if you accidentally tread on one and kill it you are expected to replace it with the rat’s weight in gold – a cause for concern as I watched the teen hopping about in her socks. (I was relieved to discover they now sell little gold and silver replacements to cover for any unfortunate mishaps.)

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“Things good be worse,” (my favourite mantra) “you could be sleeping among them!”

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Any food you give which is nibbled on is considered an honour, but even better is the blessing you receive if you eat food or water that has been sampled by the rat.
NO! Even I drew the line at that one.
Another blessing is to see a white rat as they’re believed to be the manifestations of Karni Mata or her family. Sadly, we didn’t see one.

The rats are fed around the clock to prevent them from leaving the temple. They are fed milk. Lots of milk. Buffalo milk in fact.

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And afterwards, like all of us after a big meal, they enjoy a nap.

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Not a bad life for a rat in the Temple of Deshnok.

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