My random ramblings.

Posts tagged “Travel

10 Reasons to shun the Notting Hill Carnival…

…or take rotten tomatoes with you.

Yes, yes…it was only last year I went to the carnival and blogged about it here. In fact, I seemed pretty fine with it. I did express my dislike for some things, like the booming music and crowds, but I thought I had a good time overall. So what changed this year? I’ll tell you.

1. Ginger sugar cane juice

There is sugar cane juice and then there is ginger tea. Who drinks sugar cane juice with ginger in it?? There was so much ginger in it that I could hardly taste the sugar cane. Last year we had lime juice with the sugar cane juice. That was odd too, but at least it was nice as lime and lemon go well with just about anything. This year it just got plain wrong. Is it too much to ask for pure, unadulterated sugar cane juice?

2. Cavorting women

The carnival on Monday is “adult day”. You would expect to see flesh on display. You’d see the odd woman on the parade practically topless, with strategically placed flowers or ornaments. You might also see a topless woman with body paint, in an albeit feeble attempt at concealing her partial nudity. What you don’t expect to see is women among the crowds, yes, “the members of public” lifting up their tops and jiggling their wonky breasts at unsuspecting people! Imagine the shock, horror, disgust at the tasteless exposure I was subjected to! I don’t consider myself prudish or old fashioned, but I believe flesh-baring and nudity should be done with a bit of class (I’d even accept it under the guise of ‘art’), not while cavorting around intoxicated!

3. Weed, the consumable kind…

The smell of weed wafts to your nose every-bloody-where you go! I know it is a street party and it is a foregone conclusion that there will be alcohol and drugs, but it is no more fun than sniffing second-hand fart, let me tell you! And for someone who’s got the sense of smell of a greyhound, it is not pleasant at all. No amount of hot food will mask the smell of weed! It is pungent and sickening and unfortunately as ubiquitous as jerk chicken at the carnival.

4. Pee

Yes, as if the smell of weed wasn’t bad enough, there is putrid urine stench at every alley! Men don’t take well to long toilet queues. Who would, if they had water pistol-like appendages that allowed them to freely relieve themselves wherever they chose? Your only consolation while covering up your nose with your hand, scarf, hanky and jacket is that you don’t live there. It’s no wonder most residents vacate their house during the carnival and only return days or weeks afterwards. But I’ve always wondered whether the  residents have protested against having the carnival in their posh neighbourhood. Imagine your neighbourhood being turned into an open space urinal overnight!

5. Overcrowded trains

It beggars belief that the London tube services can’t withstand a weekend of Notting Hill carnival but breezed through the Olympic and Paralympic games. Getting to and from the Notting Hill carnival is nothing short of a nightmare if you take the tube. Be prepared to breathe in the scent of pits akin to fermented milk, and beer breath and sweat everywhere you turn, especially on the return trip. Of course some might consider themselves lucky if they could turn around freely on the tube. The trains are so crowded in the evenings that they are the human equivalent of farm chicken coops.

6. Noise

I’m not talking about the booming music…that probably deserves an entry of its own considering the grief and ear-ache it caused me…I’m talking about the incessant shrieking and blaring of whistles and horns. Some people clearly think vuvuzela-inspired noises add to the atmosphere of the carnival. It must be the same kind of people who go weekend in weekend out to techno clubs and shout on top of their voices to their friends next to them while dancing right next to the speakers. Too bad you won’t hear me laugh when you go deaf at 40.

7. Loud music

I told you it deserved a separate entry…

Where can I even begin with the loudness of the music? We seem to be breeding a generation of music lovers who think it is not good music if it’s not loud enough to blow out your eustachian tubes and cochlea! These people lurk everywhere, not just at carnivals and clubs unfortunately…they are in the car that pulls up next to yours, booming music audible behind closed windows…they are on trains listening to their ipods, the music so loud that Bose speakers would be put to shame…

I should have known better from my experience in 2011 that this is not a place to be more than once in your lifetime. I’m the person who switches off the tv and music when I am at home alone, for God’s sake. I love the sound of silence. Even as I write this, there is no music. The tv is switched off. I went again this year, against my better judgement. I told my friend this is how it must be like for women who have their second or third (or umpteenth) baby. After each one, they vow never to experience the pain of childbirth again. Then wired as we all are to be suckers, our brain dampens the memory of pain over time and we yearn for it again and again.

8. Shoddy costumes

For a carnival that is purported to be the second-best (in the world?) after the Rio de Janeiro carnival, it sure is a let down. BBC posted photos of the 2012 Notting Hill carnival, and to be fair the photos do look good. But let me assure you that neither did I see any of those costumes nor see any that looked impressive…and I watched the parade from the main route. Also, judging from the women in the photos, BBC has undoubtedly cherry picked and showcased the best of the carnival.

The costumes looked like they had been put together overnight with little thought or budget. Maybe these costumes look better from far. Maybe they had started to fall apart by the time they got to my section of the route from all the dancing. Whatever it is, just don’t expect Rio carnival standards for the costumes and the women!

9. Disorganised crowd control

The crowds this year seemed a lot more uncontrolled than last year. Gone were the ropes used to contain crowds within the pedestrianised zones and instead, people could freely join the parades, be it to dance alongside the costumed dancers or to take photos with them. I am not sure whether the “marshalling area” within the carnival route provided a more controlled environment, but the people were just about everywhere along the main route. I can’t speak for other photographers, but it was quite frustrating for your photo composition to be constantly disturbed by members of the public distracting the performers.

10. It’s free

“Wait…isn’t it a good thing if it’s free?” I hear you ask. Did you know you’ve got to pay for tickets to watch the best of the Rio carnival parades? That’s why they’re so good.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

You pay for what you get.

Those words of wisdom apply here. You know how it is when you get something for free. Museums have free sections and paid sections. Free sections are not bad – well in this case they are not really free, but funded by the government – but the paid sections are remarkably better. The fact that something is free demonstrates that there’s only so much the organisers can do with the little funds they have.

So maybe I shouldn’t be so harsh on the Notting Hill carnival. It’s free, after all.

I’ve griped enough about the carnival. Now it’s your turn. Pleeeaaassee!! Otherwise I might start wondering if age is snuffing out my fun-loving side! 🙂

Olympics 2012

As I write this, I keep a watchful eye on the TV. It’s fifteen minutes to the Olympics 2012 closing ceremony. It feels surreal. Wasn’t it only yesterday I sat in front of the TV with Bubbles and friends watching the opening ceremony? I remember the surprise, then the incredulity which turned to amused wonderment when the Queen appeared with James Bond. I remember peals of laughter ringing in my ears when the all too familiar Mr. Bean played the repetitive staccato in the Chariot of Fire’s theme song. Most of all I remember being there, among the live audience;  and then watching expectantly from one scene to another recalling what I had already seen.

Yes, I was there! I was there for the opening ceremony dress rehearsal on Wednesday, two days before the actual opening ceremony. I had the privilege of being there with thousands of others, privy to what became a well-kept secret; amazingly.

I present to you some of the photos I took. This is the first setting we were greeted to upon arrival: Green and pleasant Britain.

A tree up on a hill, representing Glastonbury Thor, suddenly uprooted from the ground. It was as spectacular as it was unexpected!

Next, the Industrial Revolution literally packed up the agrarian society.

Tall chimneys rose from the ground, as miners and construction workers laboured diligently at every corner.

These rings rose in a brilliant display of fireworks. I must admit this part looked better on tv as the aerial view showed us the five Olympics rings, not quite visible from the stadium.

As spectators of the dress rehearsal were not privy to all the details of the Opening Ceremony, we were not informed of one of the best highlights of the ceremony: the Queen’s guest appearance with the iconic James Bond. But all that we got was a brilliant display of lights and the James Bond theme music.

From here onwards, I started neglecting my camera. It’s always a dilemma of mine: do I immerse myself in the experience and let my memory do the photographing, or do I break my attention away from the scene to look through the lens of the camera?

Anyway, I managed a few more shots…

As I said, it only feels like I was there yesterday and it is already the Closing Ceremony. Memories aside, the whole Olympics ceremony at my doorstep has taught me about the greatness of us humans. Aren’t we capable of achieving anything we set our minds to, regardless of our circumstances?

And there can’t be a better reminder of this than the next event: the Paralympics.

Who eats ‘ice cream’ on a plate?!

Bubbles and I recently made a trip to Germany to visit a friend I’ve known since I was eight. The beauty of this friendship is that until four years ago, we hadn’t actually met each other!

You see, K and I were childhood penpals and started writing to each other at a time when exchanging letters and sharing stories about your lives were not fraught with risks. It was a time before the computer became a household product and the world was relatively devoid of paedophiles and impostors! Having said that, her world then was instead filled with an ideological divide; democracy on one side and totalitarian dictatorship on the other side. Not exactly without modern day evils! All my letters were addressed to West Germany, not just Germany; but as an eight year old I did not have the maturity to comprehend the severity of it all.

I still remember the day I got her first letter. I was so excited to hear from a girl from an exotic land! I was always mystified by the faraway land of Europe. My only knowledge of it consisted of what I had learnt from the tv, looking at my dad’s old photos from his travels around Europe and some souvenirs scattered around the house. Europe to me was a land where people were white and had blue and green eyes, had beautiful tulips and windmills and four beautiful seasons with snow in the winter. I used to watch enviously a song sequence in the Hindi movie Junglee where Shammi Kapoor cavorts in the snow with his leading lady and tell myself that someday, I would visit that magical land and dance in the snow and have snowball fights.

K and I kept in touch all these years, through letters the first ten years and then via email when we both had access to the internet. We lost touch intermittently, while she spent some years in China, and I spent my first few years in the UK, but we always managed to contact each other, even if a good year passed in between. We finally met a few years ago when she and her husband visited us enroute to Scotland. It was a funny experience meeting someone you’ve known all your life and yet is somewhat a stranger to you.

Then two months ago, we started emailing again and she suggested we visit her. We took her up on her offer and headed to Holzkirchen, some 35km south of Munich. The first day was somewhat wasted by bad weather so we spent most of our time catching up indoors and cooking dinner: a fusion of Malaysian, German and French dishes!

The next day, we ventured out to Tegernsee for a hike up the mountains. We walked past a farmhouse, which was quintessentially Bavarian in its architecture. The houses are part-brick part-wooden, with encircling balconies that are perfect for sitting out on a warm summer evening.

As we hiked up the mountain, we were greeted by splendid views of a lake and mountains on the other side. As this was a pretty miserable summer with temperatures constantly plummeting to near-winter levels, paradoxically we enjoyed a breath-taking view of snow-capped mountains. The snow would have normally melted by May, when we visited.

The air was fresh and the grass and leaves, truly green.

It started raining sometime after we struggled up this road, and so we decided to head for some lunch rather than hike in miserable weather.

I can’t quite remember which restaurant we went to, but it was a Bavarian restaurant serving traditional Bavarian food. We headed for a late lunch…it must have been 2pm but the place was packed with people. A sure sign of good food! As we walked past several tables to ours, I thought I saw ice-cream being served on a plate. Rather odd, I thought!

Little did I know until my friend ordered the same dish, that it wasn’t ice-cream, but ‘Obatzda’, a traditional Bavarian ‘snack’ of cheese served with onions and pretzel sticks! I hadn’t noticed the onions earlier, you see! 🙂 It really looked like two scoops of ice-cream! It tasted very nice, the fresh onions giving a nice zing to the otherwise mild cheese.

Bubbles ordered ‘schweinaxe’, another traditional Bavarian dish of pork knuckle and potatoes. It came served with a knife stuck into the pork! It kind of made me wonder whether schweinaxe had its literal origins in ‘swine with axe,’ and to honour the traditional slaughtering came served with a knife! 🙂

I thought this shot of Bubbles’ beer was quite nice. So was the beer! I’m not usually a beer drinker but I felt the beer in Germany was real good.

My food was the last to arrive: potato fritters with sauerkraut, but I was too famished by then and not in the mood to take any more photos!

Later that evening, we bade farewell to K and headed back to Munich reluctantly. I couldn’t help but contemplate nostalgically about how we’ve played a part in each other’s lives all these years. She couldn’t be more Asian with her stacks of Chinese books and Indian recipe books, and I moved halfway across the world to live in the land she exposed me to through her letters.

Has your life been enriched by penpals? Tell me about your experience or just yap away about anything else! I’d love to hear from my readers.

BMW, the Bavarian Motor ‘Wonder’…

What better way to start your Bavarian holiday than with a dollop of German precision and efficiency? Visitors to the BMW Museum are greeted with a sterile and crisp façade, its clean lines an embodiment of the engineering excellence that has become synonymous with the brand.

A little bit of history: BMW has its roots in aircraft engine manufacturing. In 1917, while the first world war was raging, the previously unknown aircraft engine manufacturer Rapp Motorenwerke GmbH presented a new and highly innovative  type of aircraft engine to the Prussian military authorities. The company was renamed ‘Bayerische Motoren Werke’ and became the BMW that it is today.

I know nuts about aircraft engine, but as far as aesthetics go, this one is stunning!

The BMW R32 motorcycle was the first BMW product intended for road use. The company’s foresight in style and sophistication almost a hundred years ago is apparent even from its market début product.

In 1928, BMW made an automotive leap, purchasing a car and military equipment manufacturing company; and thus began its foray into and its domination of the car industry. These are just some of the beauties it has produced over the years.

Before men started giving their cars affectionate names, they slung their belts around them!

In 1978, the now legendary M1 launched BMW’s exclusive high performance series. The capital M is now considered the ‘world’s most powerful letter’ and features not just in sports cars, as originally intended, but on coupés, convertibles and saloons. My name is Menaka. Don’t mess with me, I’ve got the world’s most powerful letter attached to my name! 😀

Even if you are not into cars, it would be difficult to leave the museum without being the slightest bit inspired by the achievements of this automotive behemoth.

Real interesting stuff you probably didn’t know about Florence

Some months ago, Bubbles and I and our nutcase friends, who by the way feature in my blog through periodic mention; visited Siena in Italy. (Read Siena blog here) We also paid homage to its  rival city: Florence. They say you either like one or the other, Siena for its gothic-style buildings or Florence for its renaissance-inspired architecture.

I can’t really make up my mind which city I prefer. It kind of represents the non-committal person I am…and like most psycho-analyses reveal, this one can be traced back to childhood.

Me: (I do something naughty and anger mum, then run around the dining table knowing mum can’t catch me)

Mum: (looking murderous like scary Goddess Kali and wielding a ‘rotan’ i.e. a feather duster that doubles as child-beating weapon) ARE YOU GOING TO COME HERE OR DO YOU WANT ME TO CATCH YOU? IF YOU DON’T COME HERE AND I CATCH YOU, YOU WILL GET TWICE THE BEATING!!

Me: ( I freeze on the spot and weigh the options. Little did I know that at the tender age of five I was already dealing with mathematical problems like ‘probability’ in my mind!)

But I digress. Where was I? Oh yes, Florence. Here’s Ponte Vecchio…one of the most recognised sights of Florence.

Ponte Vecchio does not boast of the pointed arches or elaborate mythical creatures that epitomise Gothic buildings. Instead it almost looks like a nondescript apartment over the river, but yet there is something enchanting about this structure, with its arched bridge crossing the Arno river.

The walk across the bridge is equally bewitching. There are interesting shops that line both sides of the bridge.

Apparently, the economic concept of bankruptcy originates here. When a merchant could not pay his debts, the table on which he sold his ware (the “banco”) was broken (“rotto”) by soldiers. This practice was called “bancorotto” – broken table, or possibly “bancorotta” – broken bank. Without his table, the merchant was not able to sell anything.

Interestingly, Siena hosts the oldest surviving bank in history; Monte dei Paschi, established in 1472. I can see signs of rivalry having its roots here. Bankrupt Florentians must have asked said bank for funds and got rejected in the face. 🙂

I think Florence and Siena have another distinct difference between them. Florence must have had all the muscular, macho men. How else would you explain the fact that only Florence is dotted with anatomically perfect statues such as this? 🙂

I reckon Siena must have had fatties (or flabbies!) as there’s not a single statue celebrating a man’s hot, muscular bod! That could also be where the rivalry originates…can you imagine the wrath stemmed by bodily insecurity and envy? 🙂

Here’s the Statue of Neptune. He’s a bit too bulky for my liking and there’s something odd about the kid standing between his legs. Wait a minute…he’s not a kid. He’s got pubic hair! So, there are two odd things about the kid-statue. Look at his ding-ding. It looks frayed at the edge!

Pray tell what that’s supposed to be! I’m intrigued. So there you go: possible another difference. Maybe there was so much testosterone coursing through the veins of Florentine men that they reached puberty at seven!

Sounds to me like architecture had nothing to do with the two cities’ rivalry. They each coveted what the other had! Like a lot of unproven historical research, I present to you these hypotheses so you can make a valued judgement. (I can tell I would be a very capable historian) 🙂

Have you noticed the frayed genital before or seen any other odd statues in Europe? Do tell me about it! 

Sienna Siena

Meet Siena: the city that lent its name to the colour ‘burnt sienna’. It almost seems ironic then that the very colour makes the city look monochromatic. A rust-coloured skyline greets the traveller from afar, as one approaches the heart of the city through its walled enclave. The atmosphere is unmistakably Italian: ancient and dusty like its southern sister, Rome.

As if decreed by the city, all windows are green; a bright contrast to the reddish brick buildings. One or two buildings stand in defiance, daring to be different.

Even the vespa I spotted is red. One has to wonder if the city’s colour theme is subliminally affecting the inhabitants’ choice!

The gelati too! Would you look at that…the ice-cream tubs have Siena’s signature colours!

By now I’m pretty convinced something is going on in that city. There’s some sort of colour-brainwashing going on. The “brain-washers” are probably operating amongst the average people. Could it be here?

Or here?

We wouldn’t know. We’ve probably fallen victim to it, too. We returned with a magnet of a red vespa.

Have you visited Siena? Were you enchanted by the (predominantly) monochromatic city, like I was?

Sky’s the limit!

It’s a year of many firsts.

For the first time in the 10 years of my life in the UK, I find that it is early May and we still have the heating switched on at home. It is raining every single day in spring. The skies are dull and grey like a winter’s morning.

I am filled with melancholy looking at my holiday photos, where not far from here the land was bright and sunny a few weeks ago.

The skies were a colourful splash of blue and white during the day.

The horizon glowed in the sunset. The world felt right.

And on the days when the sun hid itself, it was only so the clouds could show off their splendour.

They danced languidly in the sky. When night fell, the sun extinguished itself with one final display of grandeur. A rich blue hue enveloped the sky, before melting into darkness.

As if spellbound, I stood with my neck craned, gazing towards the skies.

For the first time, I didn’t photograph my subject with a bit of sky. Instead, I photographed the sky with a bit of subject.

(Note: No post-processing done to these photos.)

Europe = Best train service…really?

Hello peeps! Apologies for not writing in ages, but I was abducted by aliens sometime ago and only recently managed to escape and return to Earth. They were so enamoured by me they made me their Queen and begged me to rule their aliendom. It was a tough decision returning to Earth when one had been bestowed such an exalted position, but I couldn’t just abandon my faithful blog readers. So in no time, I plotted an escape plan and returned to Earth. The moment I returned, I threw myself into another holiday so I could blog about it and keep you fellow readers happy. I know…I take my writing obligations very seriously.

Bubbles and I and our nutcase friends went to Siena recently. We flew to Pisa then took the train to Siena. A quick research done weeks before our travels revealed that it was pretty much ‘turn up and go’ with the train from Pisa to Siena. It involved two interchanges at Pisa Central and Empoli and the whole journey would take 2 hours. We didn’t need to buy tickets in advance. Fantastic, I thought. My kind of laid back life where you just did things without planning too much. I come from a country where you just turn up at a clinic if you are ill. No appointments necessary. Not like in the UK where you need to make an appointment with your GP and by the time you get one you are practically clinging to your dear life. (nevermind the fact that I’m just talking about the common cold and no one expects you to go to the GP for that in the UK, but Malaysian doctors prescribe antibiotics for colds like they were Tic-Tacs!)

Anyway, ‘turn up’ we did at the ticket counter and bought our tickets for Siena. We were told the next train to Pisa Central was in 10 minutes. We ran to the platform and were greeted with a colourful, graffiti-adorned train.

Whatever happened to those new, shining aerodynamic trains I had somehow associated Europe with? Well, it was only a 10-minute ride to Pisa Central so I wasn’t too fussed about it. But we waited ages for the next train to turn up. The train to Empoli wasn’t exactly new and modern either. The UK’s intercity trains look like the Concorde of trains in comparison. The Italian trains looked like they were hand-me-downs from India!

It ended up being a long, dusty journey to Empoli (yes, no air-cond!), then another changing of trains for our final journey to Siena. We were in a perpetual cycle of boarding and alighting trains on the first day of our trip!

Where are Europe’s fast trains? Is it only reserved for the big cities? It made me a bit more grateful towards our UK trains. Maybe in terms of rail fares Italy was way cheaper, but at least the train experience in UK is better. When there are no delays. And no one puking or farting near you.

The Best Travel Souvenirs You Can Buy

A naked man. A hippie with a joint. Bottles of wine. I brought them all home with me. I swear…I have photographic evidence.

Before you conjure up images of me in a wild, drunken orgy, let me have you know I’m talking about fridge magnets, the best kind of souvenir you can bring back from your travels. Why?

1. They are cheap! You can usually get good ones for £3 each.

2. They are small and take up very little space in your luggage or handbag.

3. You can get them almost anywhere you travel.

4. They are unique. You won’t find magnets of Barcelona in London, or magnets of Australia in New York. (the fact that they’re probably all made in China is beside the point!)

5. They remind you everyday of the wonderful holidays you have had.

I learnt very early on that some things just don’t make good souvenirs when Bubbles and I returned from Rome, our first trip to Europe with a miniature Colosseum, a brass gladiator and horse-drawn chariot, an aerial view poster of the Colosseum and some fridge magnets. A week after returning, we looked at the Colosseum and brass items and wondered aloud why we had bought them! We had clearly been struck by a case of overzealous souvenir shopping.

It was then that we decided we should stick to magnets alone and the odd unique souvenir and not get carried away while on holiday. Anyway, here are some of my favourite magnets in my collection.

The naked man I meant. Michaelangelo must have been a mean man. Or maybe he just didn’t realise what a sensation his artwork and sculptures would cause in the future. I mean who would sculpt someone with the tiniest possible ding-dong even if it were really tiny?

Isn’t the hippie cute? Here’s another hippie…I love this one for the fact it’s got a springy attachment that says ‘free the weed’! I keep it high on the fridge so kids can’t reach it…

A rack of wine courtesy of Paris. This was quite expensive by magnet standards…I think £5… but the workmanship is flawless!

Cows from Switzerland. So very cute!

A few more favourites…

And now, some magnets which have been a huge disappointment considering where they come from…these are the worst magnets we own but had no choice but to buy them for lack of better ones. Their workmanship is just appalling…especially the Statue of Liberty. Shame on you, New York!

Our magnet collection has inspired our friends to start collections of their own (you’re welcome, you’re welcome). So, if you want to start having your own collection, you had better pay homage to me for my brilliant idea! 😉

What’s the worst thing you’ve bought on holiday?

To train or not to train…

Bubbles and I are in the midst of planning a holiday and are stumped by one dilemma after another. First, we can’t…umm…decide on the destination, but we’ve narrowed it down to two. Second, if we went with the European destination, should we fly or train it?

Anyway, I spent some precious time reading up on the train journey (in the interest of keeping my job, I better not say where I did my research. Oops!) and started reminiscing our train journey in India. We took the train from Agra to Varanasi,  involving a 13-hour overnight journey on a sleeper train.

I remember watching our train pull into the station platform. It looked like it had been battered by the ravages of time. If the carriages could talk, they would speak of better times when their cerulean shell gleamed in the sun. They might whisper some secrets of colonial times.

We had ‘first’ class tickets which meant sleeping berths in an air-conditioned carriage. This is what first class looked like:

Not exactly luxurious! I kept wondering if the pillows and sheets were clean, but dozed off almost as soon as my head hit the pillow. Bubbles would tell me the next morning that he had had the best sleep ever, rocked by the motion of the train.

I was up at 5 in the morning and watched the train pull in and out of stations. The sun was just rising, bathing the earth in a kaleidoscope of colours.

I stood at the entrance, taking shots of everything within view, not wanting to venture out in case the train left without me. An old lady with her bundle of laundry caught the corner of my eye. I snapped this shot just as she was flinging her throw around her shoulder.

The views were amazing as the train went past villages and cut through fields. It was pure, unadulterated India. I wish I had taken more shots, but at the time I set aside my camera and just took in all the sights. I can never forget the things I saw.

Speaking of the things I saw, regrettably I forgot to take photos of the toilets in the train! I’m not sure if my readers would be pleased with me if I shared such photos anyway, but suffice to say that they were not the best of toilets. Bubbles, who kept going on about his worry I might not survive the filth in India, only went once to relieve himself! I assured him I would have no such problems. And true to my words, it was no big deal to me. I gotta go when I gotta go! 🙂

Anyway, you can see our dilemma. Flying would save us time, but a train would give us a different kind of experience and breathtaking views as it chugs along past mountains and lakes in Europe. The scenery would be very different from that of India, but that’s what you want; a different journey, a journey that takes you on a discovery,  a journey full of serendipity.

Have you had a travel-related dilemma lately? What was it?

Colmar, cakes and copycats!

For some reason they reminded me of an icing cake.

It could have been the smooth, pastel walls that looked like marzipan on a cake. Or it could have been the timber cladding criss-crossing the walls like piped chocolate. Or maybe I was just plain hungry, my growling stomach giving me a case of pareidolia.

This is Colmar, a charming little city in the Alsace region of France. In fact, so charming and picturesque is this city that it inspired copycat Malaysia to replicate Colmar at Bukit Tinggi. Not being one partial to fakes (fake branded goods, fake boobs and the likes) let me have you know that I have not visited Bukit Tinggi nor have the desire to.

Speaking of fake branded goods, I don’t know why someone would want to buy something fake just so they can have a fake sense of belonging among society’s shallow materialists. I’d rather carry a cheap handbag from the market than a fake Prada. Actually I’d rather carry a cheap handbag instead of spending a fortune on a branded handbag. How many times have I seen someone carry a branded bag and thought ‘that looks like the fake one I saw at the market?’ But I digress. Besides, how would a nation’s economy keep itself buoyant without people spending their hard-earned money on frivolous pursuits?

Still on the subject of copycats though, we came across signs leading us towards a ‘Little Venice’, an unexpected promise of a Mediterranean interlude lingering in the continental air. Snaking through alleyways and ducking beneath lush green trees, we kept on going in search of Italy’s darling. Then we saw it. A bridge. Not quite the Grand Canal or Rialto bridge of Venice, but the archetype was unmistakable. The bridge rose and fell over a river, like the bosom of a nubile woman. Restaurants and houses formed the banks of the river. Apparently, the canal serves its purpose to this day, hence its affiliation to Venice, whose canals are the lifeblood of the city. Fresh produce and meat are delivered to the restaurants by the canal front in Colmar.

We wandered on and stumbled upon a market selling local produce like pastries and jam. Pretzels hung on pretzel-trees. Glum women slumped behind checked tables. Very French!

When I walked out of the market, I thought I had felt a drop of water on my head. I gazed at the skies for signs of rain and could have sworn I saw a cloud the shape of a roast chicken. Pareidolia had struck again!

2011 with my iPhone

Hello! Happy New Year!

I thought I’d compile some photos taken with my phone throughout 2011. I hardly use my phone camera but there were moments this year when having my iPhone was a real godsend, like the time when my stupidity got the better of me and I forgot to charge my DSLR before a photo expedition, or when it was just more convenient to take photos using my phone camera.

These were taken in Southend. I still get annoyed at the thought of not having charged my camera, but at least I got some good shots using some cool apps on the iPhone. Plus it’s not too far away to go back and take some proper shots. In a way I’m glad that I learnt this lesson early on rather than it happening when on holiday!

Here’s the facade of a fish and chip restaurant in Southend. The fish and chips were nothing out of the ordinary, but the prices were quite steep. Who wouldn’t capitalise on their coastal connections?

These are some photos of the pier. We walked on it later in the day but the freezing spring temperatures spurred us towards an early return.

This is Smithfield market, meet meat packing smack in the centre of London. Who would have thought a place that breathes so much masculinity with its meat trucks and men dressed in bloody overalls would be painted in pastel colours: pink and green! I used to walk past this everyday when my work was based in central London and loved its character and pizzazz.

What is this? No, it’s not a movie still from Transformers 4. This is an ice-kacang machine…a block of ice is placed into the pit of its bowels to churn out shaved ice.

This is my favourite stretch of the north-south highway in Malaysia, called Changkat Jering. With 270 degrees curves and tunnels carved through hills, it is like your very own ‘Need for Speed’ game. In fact, it is indeed a race circuit to some mad drivers!

I finish off with some shots of Ipoh, a landlocked city in Malaysia. It’s not exactly a touristy place, but I love some of its old buildings.

Where to travel in 2012?

It’s that time of the year again. A time of reflection and self-introspection. A time to either polish those trophies or wince at the near-catastrophes. Do you think about what you have achieved over the year, as it draws to an end? I do, but mostly I dwell on my globe-trotting achievements.

This was how about a week ago, I exclaimed to Bubbles, after a moment of absent-minded pondering –

“You know, we haven’t really gone anywhere this year, apart from our Europe trips.”

What do you we haven’t really gone anywhere? What about India and Malaysia??” exclaimed Bubbles, his voice reaching new soprano levels.


How could I forget? Especially my most favourite trip in the whole wide world thus far – India? I tell you why. We went to India in early April and it just feels like it was ages ago. Cue we need to go again. 😉 Anyway, it’s got me thinking about where I’d like to go in 2012. So here’s a list of potential locations in no particular order. By no means does this mean we’ll cover all next year – unless of course we strike the lottery, or a very generous friend strikes the lottery and shares his/her winnings. (because that’s exactly what I would do for all my friends!) 😉

1. Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, Brazil

This is a National Park with a difference, as it supports no wildlife and practically no vegetation. Located in north-eastern Brazil, it is only accessible by four-wheel drives as the park is protected. The entire park is covered in sand dunes, and in the rainy season, spotted with lagoons from water collecting between the crevices of dunes. This creates a spectacular scene of swirling blue and green waters against white sand.

I’m not quite sure what I’d do once there, apart from ogling in wonderment at the scene before me. This is a park that probably wouldn’t rate highly on many top travel brochures, but that’s exactly why I like it: it’s the path less travelled and is still quite exclusive.

2. Dubrovnik, Croatia

Croatia…yes, the former war-torn country. Rich in history and heritage, and richer in unspoilt beauty, this is a must-visit place on my list. Dubrovnik was exalted to the position of UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

The days could be filled with walks along the city walls, boating at the Old Harbour and short excursions to nearby islands. I sure could lure Bubbles with the prospect of having a beach holiday here…he loves beach holidays and complains we never go on enough of them!

3. Trans-Mongolian Railway Trip

I consider the Trans-Mongolian (or alternatively Trans-Siberian) rail journey the Rolls-Royce of holidays, especially the way Bubbles and I would do it. We would fly to Moscow, spend a few days doing touristy things, and then embark on the Trans-Mongolian rail journey. En route to Beijing, we would stop at one or two locations in Mongolia, one of them of course being Ulaanbaatar. Then, we’d spend a few days in China, and return by flight via Malaysia! So, with at least 5 stops it could be quite an expensive trip, but oh so worthwhile!

Speaking of Mongolia, did you know that Genghis Khan was the greenest conqueror in history? Unfortunately it’s not exactly an accolade…he has been labelled green because he killed so many people that swathes of cultivated land returned to forest!

4. Rome, Italy

Rome is a city Bubbles and I have been twice already, but would never shy away from an opportunity to go again! Plus both visits were during my pre-DSLR days, so I’d love to go again and take some proper shots of the wonderful and majestic city! I’d love to see the Colosseum again, wander around the Palatino, eat gelato by the Spanish steps and eat horrible Italian pizzas! (Did you realise how the pizza tastes horrible in its home country – well, at least in Rome?) 🙂

I’d also love to do some street photography here. The opportunities are endless for interesting people…mime artists, street artists, honeymooning couples, friends huddled over a tourist map…

I guess what they say about first love applies to travelling as well, Rome was the first city I visited in Europe, and it will always have a special place in my heart!

While in Italy, I’d love to go to Palermo too! The beaches are supposed to be fantastic (Bubbles would hope the b**ches would be too!) Plus I’d be able to sell it as a beach holiday to Bubbles…

5. Istanbul, Turkey

Bubbles and I keep wanting to go to Istanbul but we haven’t done it yet. It’s like one of those places that are very accessible and so you take it for granted that you could go any time, but never do! A bit like Devon and Cornwall for us, too…it’s about 2-3 hours away and we’d love to go there but haven’t!

We’ve heard Turkey is a real good place to go if you want to experience some of the Middle Eastern culture, but in a safer and friendlier place. Apparently you get none of the intimidating, overzealous touts and sellers that you do in places like Egypt.

You could also get a tick in the box for having visited a transcontinental country – Turkey straddles both Asia and Europe – okay, not a superbly unique quality, as other countries like Azerbaijan, Russia, Georgia, Egypt etc. share the same title, but still, it’s nice to know the place you’re going to has that extra something! 🙂

So, there you have it – my list of 5 places to visit in 2012 from the seemingly ordinary well-trodden path to the more exotic awe-inspiring, envy-causing locations! Where do you think you’d like to go in 2012? I’d love to hear about it…and potentially poach your ideas and land myself there! 🙂

Happy New Year!

5 Travel Tips for the Holiday Period

Having lived in the UK for nearly 10 years now, and having travelled quite a bit, I’d like to think I’m quite experienced when it comes to travel matters. I’ve got the whole pre-travel, during travel and post-travel agenda sorted out in my head it’s almost second nature to me. So I thought what better thing to share on my blog than giving tips on how to travel what with the imminent holiday period.

So here are some tips that you might find useful the next time you travel.

1. Become a lean, mean cleaning machine!

There’s nothing like returning to a home that is spotless! Before I go away on holidays, I blitz the whole house! I vacuum, arrange everything around the house neatly, wash the bathroom and change the sheets. Bubbles always jokes that I must have been a cleaner in my past life so you can imagine the ruckus I cause especially the day before we travel, trying to get everything to look immaculate.

You see, I find returning home from my holidays quite depressing, so it helps returning to a house that is super-clean and smelling pine-fresh! And heaven forbid if we were to die in a plane crash, at least my family wouldn’t have to sob over my smelly underwear and unwashed plates!

2. Packing your travel bag

Thank God I’m not one of those overgrown baboons who travels with a teddy-bear. Seriously ladies, if you’re over 10, no stuffed animals in your luggage, please! I pack all my toiletries in miniature travel kits, and it’s just as well considering the liquid restrictions on flights. Even if I were going on a long haul flight and checking in luggage, I keep this to a minimum to save space for the goodies I might be returning with! My formula for underwear is “Number of days travelling + 1 = underwear to bring”. Yeah I know you can wash your underwear while on holidays, but if I’m going for less than a week, this is the most convenient method. I’m not into wearing my underwear inside out when I run out of a clean pair! Eww!

Unfortunately these days I’ve got to keep my clothes to a bare minimum ever since I got a DSLR. It takes so much space! How our priorities change in life…

Pack a change of clothes in your hand luggage. This is a lesson I learnt during my recent flight to Malaysia. Our flight to Singapore was delayed and we missed the connecting flight to Kuala Lumpur that night. We had to stay over at the airport hotel in Singapore and we had no clothes in our hand luggage! Of course we could have requested for our checked-in luggage but we didn’t want to lug it back through check-in the next day. It wasn’t a major disaster, but still it could have been more comfortable travelling in clean clothes the next day. But wait till you see No. 5 – you’ll understand why in some cases it’s crucial you travel with clothes in your hand luggage!

Some destinations require medicines. Like India. Enough said.

3. Make a list

Didn’t we just cover packing? Why a list now then? Aha. It’s not a packing list…it’s a list of things to eat! I seriously make a list, especially if I’m travelling back to Malaysia, my home country. Do you know how much there is to stuff your face with? The list is quite exhaustive: satay, loh bak, wantan noodles, dim sum, petai, char koay teow, ciku, rambutan, mangosteens… you can get some of these here in the UK, but it’s not always the same, especially satay. Yum! I make this list on my phone and check them from time to time to make sure I’ve ‘covered’ them all! Unfortunately, the next time I go, the list would have shrunk sizeably due to my recent pescatarian diet. I hope I don’t regret it!

I also make a list of things to buy, especially when I’m returning to Malaysia. Usually this would be spices and clothes, but the next time there’s going to be one additional thing on my list: DSLR lens. It’s dirt cheap there. Check what’s cheap where you’re going – you could save a mini-fortune by buying some stuff abroad. (That’s what happens when you pile on the VAT, Cameron! Some of us would be contributing to the economy of other countries instead!)

4. In-flight tips

When I travel alone, I prefer the window seat. Actually I prefer the window seat. Period. But it especially helps when you’re travelling alone, as you can doze off with the confidence that no one will wake you to go pee/poop/barf. If you’re scared of flying I wouldn’t recommend the window, though. Now’s not the time to see the teeny-weeny crack in the window and wonder how old the plane is…

Another flight tip: travel with your own Bubbles, if possible, (remember Bubbles?) whomever that might be. Bubbles lets me put my feet up on his so I can sleep with my legs stretched as far as possible. Comes close to travelling first class! 🙂

Yet another tip: watch out for empty seats like a hawk. If you find the 3 or 4 middle seats empty, you’ve hit jackpot: stretch yourself nicely over the seats and go to sleep!

5. Packing for the return trip

Packing for your return trip is easy-peasy if you haven’t done much shopping. What went in in the first place can go back in! But what do you do when you’ve bought so much stuff they don’t fit into your bag? Roll, baby! No, I don’t mean roll a joint in frustration, or forget packing and start partying, I mean, roll your clothes. Fold them first, then roll them as much as you can so they can be squeezed into every nook and cranny. Trust me on this one. You’ll be amazed at how much space you’d be left with in your luggage.

What do you do when you’ve bought so much they can’t fit into your luggage, or worse, they fit but your luggage is too heavy? Always, always weigh your bag if you think it is going to exceed the weight limit at check-in. I once weighed it, and knowing it was too heavy went to the airport in the hope that the airport weighing scale might record it a few kilos lighter. Fat hopes. It was even heavier (I can feel a conspiracy theory on this one). What did I do? Executive decisions had to be made on what to chuck out.

I’m compelled to also put in writing what a friend recommended years ago. Wear two pairs of jeans and a few t’shirts to lighten the load. That will at least save you 1-2 kgs. Yes, it was you, Ada, (if you’re reading this) and no, I won’t ever be doing it! 😀

Pack a change of clothes in your hand luggage. My aunt had a serious case of Delhi-belly when travelling back from India and had a little mishap during her return flight. You don’t want to know the rest of the story but you get the picture.

So, there you go. Some travel tips you cannot do without. Happy travelling and happy holidays!

Chilling in Camden

During summer this year, Camden Town became our most-visited, chilling hotspot in London. If we didn’t know what to do over the weekend, we’d go to Camden. If we were meeting friends in London, it would be in Camden. If friends from abroad were visiting us, we’d take them to Camden. What was so alluring about Camden?

Camden Market. I’m no urban planner, but Camden Market sure scores high marks for knowing how to attract patrons by clever manipulation of its layout. You see, there are two or three ways to get into Camden Market (as far as I know) and they all require you to weave through a trail of stalls selling all kinds of food! The food list boasts an impressive ethnic variety: nutella pancakes, pulled pork wraps, spinach and cheese crispy pancakes (my favourite), Caribbean goat curry, barbequed pork ribs, seafood paella… I can go on and on. I tell you, they’ve got you hooked from the moment you step foot into the area!

If you’re like me, all that choice would surely confuse you, so what do you order? I’ve gone round and round the stalls trying to decide what to order, and I’m sure there are many others out there faced with the same predicament when in Camden Market. While you’re wandering around the market, the stall owners try to entice you with some samples. By the time you’ve gone around, the samples can actually fill you up! Ahh free food…could this place get any better?

Still, the glutton that I am, I end up ordering something. After filling our stomachs, we’re ready to explore the rest of the market. The Stables Market is tucked away in one corner. It’s built in the former Pickfords stables and horse hospital which served the horses pulling Pickford’s distribution vans and barges along the canal. Massive life-size horse statues greet you at the entrance of the market, and you’re unlikely to miss the huge horse bust at the other end of the market. Cue photo moment! Inside the market, there are shops selling everything from vintage clothes to incense and retro posters. It’s quite difficult to return empty-handed after going through all those shops!

Another one of Camden’s quirks is its buildings that front the main street. They are adorned with what I can only think of as big, bold wall art! The photo on this blog explains it all – my words will do no justice in describing it!

Hmm…what else could you do in Camden? You could people watch! If you’re into street photography, this might be the place for you as you’re bound to see some very interesting characters! The heavily tattooed man, a gothic girl, Bob Marley lookalikes, the backpacker tourist…they’re all there.

Anyway, how would I sum up Camden Market? It’s a hip, hippy place and you couldn’t possibly get bored of it! 🙂

The trip to somewhere but nowhere

Remember winter last year? It was one of the coldest, with the most relentless snow showers…no, make that blizzards! There were so many flight delays and cancellations on the run up to Christmas that it was almost like another terrorist attack had descended upon us, only it was nature terrorising us this time!

Bubbles and I were at Stansted two days before Christmas, due to fly to Dublin, Ireland to spend Christmas with our friends there. It had been a feat just to get to the airport. The taxi we had called for had not arrived since the roads were quite treacherous. After waiting for quite a while we had decided to drive to the airport ourselves, for to wait any longer would mean risking a real late check-in for the flight.

After an uneventful journey and check-in we found out that many of the flights were facing a one hour delay. Not so bad, we thought. A delay was far better than cancelled flights like the day before. Still, it was quite worrying. We alternated between gazing pensively at the announcement board and pacing the waiting room, hoping that the gate number would appear on the board. In one and a half hours there had been two announcements that our flight had been delayed. We were certain that a third announcement would mean a cancelled flight, for it was almost 7pm. Our friends in Dublin were waiting anxiously for news of our boarding. I don’t know which is worse: waiting to know if you can fly or waiting to know if your guests will make it to your home for Christmas. Well, I’m sure it’s the latter, for we’re the life of the party. Heck, we are the party! 🙂

Finally, the next announcement came. It was time to board. Yippee! We made it! Just as the plane started taxiing, the captain made an announcement that the control tower hadn’t given them the go-ahead just yet, as the snow was being swept off the runway. Bubbles and I caught the knowing glances the stewardesses were giving each other following the announcement and thought ‘Great! We’re still not 100% sure we’ll be getting to Dublin today!’, but despite all the odds our plane took off minutes later. (We were also very lucky as all flights the next day were cancelled)

We arrived in Dublin and were greeted by our friend at the airport. Poor Arul had had quite a journey to get to the airport, shovelling his 40-50 foot driveway to get his car out and then the roads on the way! The snow was so thick that cars got stuck and we stopped a few times to help shovel the road for others so they could be on their way! I have never seen so much snow – it was practically knee-deep! I looked at the snow-covered trees and buildings and fields with child-like wonderment. It really was a beautiful winter wonderland! It was nothing short of breathtaking!

We eventually got back to Arul’s place. His missus had made a sumptuous meal which we gladly tucked into, then went out for a wander. Arul lives in a clubhouse and the back of his house overlooks a few hockey turfs and rugby fields. The entire area was a thick blanket of snow and we had fun trudging through the snow late into the night.

It continued to snow overnight and the snow was just as thick the next morning. We went to Marlay Park, a walk of less than 2 minutes from Arul’s house. Of course walking on the thick snow was such a feat it took so much longer, but well worthwhile. It was the most beautiful snow-covered landscape. There’s something about snow lining the tree branches and roofs of buildings…it’s just picture perfect! We spent hours walking in the park, despite the cold, fuelled by our visually-stimulated endorphins! I snapped so many photos and by the time we were done my fingers were borderline frostbite!

The roads were too treacherous to venture out too far, so we stayed home for the rest of the days. We were well-fed…a different meal for every meal of the day! Needless to say, we had a traditional Christmas meal with stuffed turkey and the whole works, but the rest of the meals were a fusion of Malaysian dishes and towards the end of our trip we were dying for a detox!

I can’t believe that this was our second Christmas in Dublin and both times we didn’t really go anywhere! We did explore the city centre on our first trip, but still, it was a hurried trip under limited daylight hours. This time, we only stepped out a stone’s throw away from the house, but still had so much fun! So, I call it our trip to somewhere, but really nowhere. But as Bubbles would say, it’s not the place; it’s the people you’re with that makes a memorable trip! Thanks Arul and family for a wonderful Christmas last year!

Why unplanned holidays are fantastic!

Have you ever gone on an unplanned holiday? The question almost seems paradoxical, as most holidays involve some level of planning, but seriously, Bubbles and I, and two of our best nutcase friends, went on a completely unplanned holiday. We knew when we were going and when we were returning, and a rough idea of where we were going! We had a basic route sketched out around France, Germany, Luxembourg en route Belgium, and then back to France for the crossover at Calais.

We didn’t book hotels or read up on anything. If you’re raising an eyebrow over our nonchalance, you’d be happy to know that we had a little hair-raising experience of our own! It all started when we reached Brussels one evening. We thought we could stay somewhere on the outskirts of Brussels where hotels would not be as expensive as in Brussels itself. So, thinking we had the luxury of time, we sauntered around Grand Place, taking a myriad photos and doing a bit of crowd-watching. It’s such a lively place it’s difficult not to be caught up in the moment. Then, we went looking for the little social misfit, you know, the boy who pisses in public: Manneken Pis! Mind you, I don’t know what the fuss is about him and we weren’t really walking all the way to see the statue but he ended up being in our wander-path, so we obliged.

I can’t quite remember the sequence of events, but I think D and I got side-tracked into one of the many chocolate shops. We took turns distracting the shop owner so the other person could gorge on free ‘taster’ chocolates and biscuits dipped in chocolate fondue. Right about the time D was done, I was convinced the lady would be racking up a huge loss that day! 😀 In the meantime, J had an epiphany: we should have Belgian waffles while in Belgium! We went past many stalls and cafes, until one finally got her seal of approval. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the best of waffles and Bubbles had fun taunting her for the rest of our trip about English waffles being better than Belgian waffles!

After all the dilly-dallying, we drove out of Brussels looking for a cheap hotel. We stopped at a few but they were all either full or way above our budget. This is how we stumbled upon Ghent. It was probably close to 10p.m. when we reached Ghent. Its beguilingly quaint appearance fooled us into thinking it’s a cowboy town and that accommodation would be dirt cheap. It was not only expensive, but mostly fully booked. Just as we were about to give up our search and resign to the idea of sleeping in the car, we stumbled upon a monastery-turned-hotel: Monasterium Poortackere Hotel.

Bubbles and D went to investigate. Yes, they did have rooms available. Yes, they were a pricey £90 per night. Pricey by monastery standards, methinks! Another round of contemplating sleeping in the car, then we decided we should stay at the hotel. Room keys and luggage  in hand, we gingerly made our way through the dimly lit corridors to our rooms. When we entered our room, I could feel myself both gawking and grimacing at the same time. I hadn’t been prepared to see before me a room so big. It was at least twice the size of normal hotel rooms and about ten times the size of the Pod in New York! The bathroom was bigger than the Pod, I kid you not! The room, decorated in muted colours blended rather tastefully with its antique furniture. So why the grimace, you might ask. It must have been a mix between the dull incandescent light bathing the room with shadows and the creaking of the floor beneath our feet; but the room felt very eerie. So eerie that us girls, who were initially tired and contemplating staying back in the rooms while the boys went to buy something to eat, decided there was no way we were staying alone, or even with each other as company!

So, out we went for dinner. After cups of pot noodles later (it was nearly 12 midnight and only the local ‘Spar’ was open), we decided to call it a night. I was so scared of the room that I wondered how I was going to fall asleep. Add the worry of what might find me in my dreams…or that I might need the bathroom in the middle of the night, I was sceptical of catching a few winks that night! This was without a doubt the scariest room I had slept in! Okay, I once stayed in a hotel in Melaka that was rumoured to be haunted, didn’t experience anything overnight, but in the morning I woke up to sounds of furniture being dragged across the room above ours for hours. But who’s scared of the daytime ghost? Anyway, I somehow managed to sleep and it was a real good sleep! I couldn’t even remember having any dreams!

The next morning, we found out D and J had an equally good sleep. So much for the fear of ghosts! Bubbles, emboldened by daylight (I’m sure), said “what did you think was going to happen last night? This is a monastery – there aren’t any ghosts here!” Yes, Bubbles, but what if exorcisms had been carried out here many moons ago and the released spirits had remained in those rooms?! Or what if the spirit of dead nuns roamed the rooms by night? *shivers*

Anyway, why do I think unplanned holidays are fantastic? It’s probably because anticipation is sometimes better than realisation and as much as we think we want certainty in our lives, its the unknown that fuels us. To take the words of Robert Luis Stevenson in the literal sense, “Little do ye know your own blessedness, for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive…”

Egypt – Part II

It was time for Sharm-el-Sheikh! We flew on a small plane – it must have been a 60-seater or something…I can’t remember, but it felt tiny! I’m not usually afraid of flying but this one made me a bit jittery as the plane felt so fragile. To make matters worse Bubbles turned to me, as we were flying over the desert, and asked “how come there’s turbulence when there are no clouds or wind?” Thanks, Bubbles – I felt a lot more confident after that! But this flight was nothing compared to the return flight. There was more turbulence and a lady fainted during the flight!

We arrived at the Sharm-el-Sheikh airport and another rep fetched us and sent us to our hotel. We went exploring around the beach resort after off-loading our luggage in our room. I’ve never been a fan of beach holidays but this was the point I started warming to the idea that I could enjoy beach holidays even though I didn’t like water activities. I got into the water but alas did not try reading a book while floating on the Red Sea!

The first evening, we took the hotel bus to town. We had dinner at an Egyptian restaurant and by now I was beginning to suss out Egyptian food: it is full of spices but isn’t hot like Indian food. We took a leisurely stroll around the shops and found a local tour agency that organised tours. We fancied a camel ride and a quad bike ride in the desert. I had especially been looking forward to riding a quad bike as I hadn’t been on one before. There was also a tour to the St Catherine monastery and I would have loved to go, except it started in the wee hours of the morning so you could be at the top of the mountain for sunrise. I love hiking, but not at some ungodly hour like 3 or 4am.

The next morning, I finally got into the pool! I clung to the edge and watched Bubbles enviously as he swam a few laps across the pool. Bubbles had also been planning on going snorkelling, so he borrowed snorkelling gear from the hotel and went snorkelling by the shore. Me, I just stood there and looked at all the fish by the shore – the water was so clean and clear! If you’re keen on snorkelling you might want to stay where we stayed – at the Hyatt – as apparently it boasts one of the best snorkelling spots. Boats from tour groups brought tourists to the Hyatt’s waters whereas we were right there!

That evening we went on a camel ride in the desert overlooking Mount Sinai. I tried hard to snap some photos but it was quite a bumpy ride, so nothing turned out well! Fortunately the camel herds stopped the camels every now and kindly offered to take photos of us on the camel. After nearly an hour, we returned to the base and climbed a hill to watch the sunset. It was picture perfect. Isn’t nature the best artist? Included within the package was a barbecue dinner with the Bedouin people. We must have missed the fine print as the BBQ dinner ended up being a pre-cooked meal transported to the desert by a group of men masquerading as Bedouins. Well, who can blame them for deserting the harsh conditions of desert life! They danced around a lit fire as the sun disappeared beneath the horizon.

Another morning and more lazing around the hotel resort. This was beginning to sound like the best holiday ever: being waited on hand and foot, great hotels and great food. We were also having the best of both worlds; starting our holiday with a city break and then ending it with a relaxing beach holiday. We only had two more nights and we wanted to relish it. Bubbles was planning to go snorkelling the next morning, properly this time. I thought I’d curl on a deck chair by the beach with a book. But before that we had our quad bike ride in the desert.

That evening we were picked up at the hotel again and taken to a yard near a desert. We were each given a quad bike and had a test ride around the yard. Bubbles wanted me to ride pillion but I wasn’t going to have that! This is just like a large tricycle, I thought! We were asked to bring a scarf and sunglasses to keep the desert sand away from our faces, so they tied a keffiyeh for us. We weren’t given helmets but I thought that should be fine since we were only going on the desert. After waiting around for a bit, we were finally on our way. The ride felt bumpier over the desert. Some of the people in our group went zooming past while I was trying to get comfortable with the bike. Not even five minutes after we rode out to the desert, we were veering off to a road. There was traffic going past us in the opposite direction. We weren’t briefed about this – I thought the whole ride was going to be on the desert. Only later did we find out they veered off the desert to avoid land mines. Great! Anyway, I didn’t like it one bit, it didn’t feel right as we weren’t even wearing a helmet. I slowed down contemplating if I should stop completely. The next series events happened in split-seconds. I stepped on the brakes but it felt like it wasn’t braking properly. Before I knew it, I was losing control of the bike and it was going towards the kerb. It went up the kerb, throwing me off and toppling over back on the road.

The next thing I remembered was someone asking me if I was okay. I had fallen on my head and was bleeding profusely. There were grazes all over my body. I was bundled up into a van and rushed to the hospital. I was not unconscious but I was suffering from shock and couldn’t remember what happened the next two hours. My wounds were cleaned and I was sent for a brain and ankle scan. Fortunately there wasn’t a concussion and I didn’t need hospitalization. But I had a second degree sprain on my right ankle which meant I couldn’t walk properly. My body was badly bruised. We had to get a taxi home as the tour organiser disappeared while we were at the hospital. I wish I could remember the name of the company so I could “name and shame” them on TripAdvisor, but I never got round to it and now it’s just been too long and I can’t remember which one it was.

Poor Bubbles was in worse shock than I as he had witnessed the whole accident from behind me. He spent the next day nursing me in the hotel, implementing the RICE method (rest, ice, compression, elevation) on me. No snorkelling, unfortunately! The hotel staff were fantastic – bringing ice and food and checking on us every now and then. I spent the whole day feeling sorry for myself and recuperating, and finally it was time for our flight back home the next day. The ground stewardess saw my condition and upgraded us to Premier, so it was a lovely flight apart from the fact I was in so much pain! Anyway, it was lesson learnt. Safety comes first even on holidays, especially when you have the sense of balance of an egg like I do.

Enjoy your holidays, but stay safe!

Egypt – Part I

Egypt: it feels like it was aeons ago that my husband, Bubbles and I went on a holiday to Cairo and Sharm-el-Sheikh but I remember minute details of the trip like it was yesterday, for both good and bad reasons. The trip left an indelible mark on me, quite literally, as you’ll soon find out*.

This was our first trip that we booked our holiday via a travel agency. This covered the flights, hotel and airport transfers. We also organised a tour guide and driver, as even the most seasoned traveller would tell you that you need, at the very least, a driver to take you around Cairo. Do not attempt to travel on your own unless you are overly ambitious and adventurous…and brave! It is one thing trying to navigate your way on the labyrinthine roads of a foreign country, but quite another to dodge the local predators that lurk around tourist sites! Street vendors can be pretty aggressive at peddling their wares to you and there are lots of touts waiting to cheat an unsuspecting tourist.

I must say we felt very pampered from the moment we arrived in Cairo as the travel agency representative greeted us at the airport and sent us straight to the hotel. Until then, we were used to finding our own way to the hotel, checking in and doing everything ourselves. Our rep did all this while we lounged in the waiting area sipping on welcome drinks.

Since we had arrived in the evening, our tour was to only start the next day with our guide, Emad. We decided to have dinner at the hotel restaurant. I’ve never mentioned this before, but each holiday we unintentionally end up spending on something on a whim that is an utter and complete waste of money. We learnt a big lesson after our first ever holiday together to Rome when we returned with a clay model of the Colloseum and gladiator figurines. A week later we wondered: why the hell did we buy these? Ever since then, we decided that we would only buy fridge magnets or the odd t-shirt, but somehow some wasteful expenditure deceptively creeps in in another form. On this holiday, it came a bit too early! Of course, it should come as no surprise that eating at a hotel restaurant will set you back at least double the amount of eating out. In fact, Bubbles warned me that it was going to be expensive, but drilling sense into me when I’m famished is akin to asking the Japanese to stop whaling: it won’t work! Anyway, we chose a restaurant that beckoned to us with the aroma of fried Indian spices and sweet sitar music. We ordered enough food to last us the whole trip. See, this is what happens when you order ‘under the influence’ (of hunger). Suffice to say, the food was nice, the ambience royal and the bill a whopping £50++ equivalent! It’s a lot to pay for an Indian meal in a hotel in Egypt, but I suppose the high price tag came with eating at Oberoi Hotel’s restaurant. So, we retreated to our room making a mental note to survive on beans on toast for a week after our holiday!

The next day, we started our tour of Cairo. Emad came bright and early to fetch us from the hotel. We headed to Cairo museum first as Emad said we would otherwise get caught in mid-day traffic jams. Cairo museum transported us thousands of years back in time, to an era when Egyptian civilisation was transfixed by the unknowns of the afterlife (not that any of us aren’t now) and centred their daily lives around preparing for this day. To this day, their mysterious practices are the subject of constant research. We soaked in all the facts about ancient Egypt as we traversed the halls of the museum. Every now and then I chanted “Imhotep! Imhotep!” (ala The Mummy) with my arms outstretched, which Bubbles found hilarious!

After the museum, Emad took us to Ibn Tulun mosque. It was a choice between the citadel and the mosque and disliking crowds, we chose the less popular mosque. On the way there, we went past graveyards by the roadside. One legacy the ancient Egyptians left behind is a penchant for building graveyards and we could see brick graveyards everywhere. These were nowhere near the grandiose “graves” once built for their rulers, but still quite significant nonetheless.

Ibn Tulun mosque’s claim to fame is that it is Cairo’s largest mosque in terms of land area. The James Bond flick “The Spy who Loved me” was also filmed there. We were given fabric shoes to cover our feet and I was given a floor-length green garb to put on. Emad explained the history of the mosque to us but after soaking in all the facts at the museum, I could absorb no more. If I were cartoonised, this is where you’d see doughnuts in my thought-bubble!

Finally came the moment we had been waiting for: time to go to the Pyramids of Giza! It was around 2pm and it was oppressively hot. We went to Egypt in the summer when it gets to around 40C at least. The heat was unbearable. The humid mid-day heat of Malaysia feels like a pleasant spring day in comparison! I can’t remember why we hadn’t decided to go there later in the evening, but I wish we had. I have to confess there is nothing beautiful about the pyramids. They are nothing but huge concrete slabs of stone. At one time they would have had an outer shell or casing stone made of polished white limestone and I suppose it would have looked more opulent, but most of them were removed  during the Islamic era. However, what makes this site awe-inspiring is the surrealism of standing in front of a four thousand year old structure that is the only standing ancient wonder of the world. It also remained the tallest in the world until the Lincoln Cathedral was built in 1300.

Not far away was the Sphinx with its face disfigured. During the Islamic era, the faces of statues were disfigured as Islam is against idol worship. We had to queue to be photographed with this ancient celebrity! By this time we could take the heat no more so we quickly took some obligatory photos for the “we were here” stamp on our trip and retreated to the van Emad was waiting in. Emad insisted we had to go to another side of the site so we could get some good photos of both pyramids. So there we were further exposed to the sun and I was pretty certain we were going to get a heat stroke any minute! As if that wasn’t bad enough, Emad made us pose for silly shots – like we were touching the tip of the pyramid -mortifying!

That was the end of our tour for the day. We spent the rest of the evening chilling by the hotel pool. Bubbles had a swim while I, with the aversion to (deep) water of a cat, glued my butt to the deck chair.

The next day we covered “Coptic Cairo” which is a part of old Cairo. It is believed that the Holy Family visited this area and stayed at the Saint Sergius and Bacchus Church (Abu Serga). I would highly recommend visiting this church and other places like the Hanging Church and Babylon Fortress, for they are so rich in history. Then we went to el-Khalili market, where we wandered around till we got lost. You see, the market encompasses a tourist section and a locals section and is such a maize you don’t know where one ends and the other starts. We didn’t want to expose our vulnerability of being lost (remember the predators I mentioned?) so we continued walking whilst trying to find familiar landmarks, but we couldn’t fool the locals that we were one of them, with backpacks and all. So a man approached us asking if we were lost and needed help finding our way. Thank God he was a decent man and gave us directions back to the main square, rather than harassing us with offers of being our guide!

Our stay in Cairo was drawing to an end. The next afternoon we had a flight to Sharm-el-Sheikh. I think the second part of our Egypt holiday deserves a separate post, so do pop back to my blog sometime soon to read that! (Better yet, please ‘follow’ my blog so you’ll be pinged when a new article is posted) 🙂

*to be continued in the next post!

A weekend in Porto, Portugal

My alarm fails to ring and my husband (let’s call him Bubbles) and I oversleep. We get up with barely enough time to grab our passports and luggage and head for the airport. Then, we arrive in Porto and I realise I forgot my DSLR. No wait, we arrive in Porto, I begin taking photos and accidentally drop my camera, breaking the glass to smithereens. The alarm rings. 

Phew, it was a dream after all! Yet again. It seems to be a recurring dream every time a planned holiday nears. My fears manifest themselves in creative variations within my dream, but always centred on a common theme: my DSLR! As if that’s not bad enough, I start wondering on the way to the airport, ‘did I put the DSLR in the luggage?’ even though I checked ten times before leaving the house!

Anyway, dreams and delirium aside, we got to Porto drama-free last weekend. Upon reaching the hotel we noticed that there was a supermarket right next to it, so we immediately stocked up on munchies. I found some little cakes which reminded me of kuih bahulu in Malaysia! It also tasted almost like it, albeit a bit more oily. Little did I know that this was going to be the only nice tasting food I was going to have in Porto!

I’ve just read that Porto has some of the finest restaurants in Portugal and that their traditional dish, the “Francesinha” is one of the 10 best sandwiches in the world! I find this hard to believe as the food looked so unappetizing! Bubbles ordered a grilled turkey dish which was served with rice and salad. And no gravy. How do you eat rice without gravy?! I ordered a cheese omelette and it came with … rice! We didn’t order the “Francesinha” but a group of people on the next table ordered it and it didn’t look the least bit appetizing. It looked like someone had stacked four pieces of bread and poured loads of gravy over it. Apparently it is toast with layers of meat inside, covered with cheese and a spicy sauce.

The next day we went to another cafe and I looked around me for inspiration on what to order (you’d have thought I would have learnt my lesson after last night’s dinner). I saw a plate of salmon being served at the table next to ours. It was a salmon steak, skin intact, served with two halves of a large boiled potato. I almost gagged. You could argue that it might have tasted better than it looked, but I eat with all my senses and the food was just not visually stimulating.

Fortunately the port wine made up for what the food lacked. I can see why Porto is famous for its port wine and actually has a wine-making industry. The wine was lovely!

There is not a great deal to see in Porto, but it is a charming little city where the new exists alongside the old and the refurbished is interspersed with the dilapidated. One interesting feature is that some building façades are partially tiled with bright, colourful tiles. I can’t recall seeing this anywhere else in Europe. The architecture is otherwise quite homogeneous with other parts of Europe – a mix of neoclassical, baroque and modern styles. The Riviera overlooking the mouth of Douro river was the highlight of Porto. It is classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as it has a rich 2,000 year history.

Porto is a nice place to shop! Bubbles heard about Norte shopping centre being one of the biggest shopping malls in Porto, and so we went there since it was only a Metro ride away. Well, you know how each mall that comes along in the UK or Europe claims to be the biggest in UK or Europe but is nothing compared to Mid Valley in KL? This was like 10% of Mid Valley! The shops were not bad but the same shops were along St Catarina, so I wouldn’t recommend going all the way there.

Some websites and brochures on Porto say the locals are nice and friendly. What they failed to mention is that they are also hot! 🙂 Bubbles thought the chicks were one of the best looking he had seen in Europe. Me, I still like the chicks in Paris – elegantly dressed, understated beauties. But the men in Porto…*whistle*! They were hot! Well buffed up! I wish I had taken some photos, but we were sat quite close to some of them in the cafes so I couldn’t possibly have taken shots without getting caught in action! So, you’ll have to take my word for it until you see them for yourselves, ladies. (and some men!)

So, how would I sum up Porto? Great weather, good sights (landscape and lads), but lousy food! I’d say Porto is a bit like Venice, in the sense that there aren’t many specific tourist sites to see. The best way to see it is to just wander around, explore it in your own time and you are bound to find hidden gems tucked away in a corner you least expect.

Note: I still haven’t worked out the best way to display my photos on WordPress, so please head to my flickr account (click on flickr) for more photos of Porto. Thanks for viewing them.

Incredible India

Thankfully no Delhi-belly for us!

India is as diverse as its cacophony of clatter, smorgasbord of scents and menagerie of masses. From sadhus to shrines, and from history to heritage; there is no place quite as enriching and epiphanising as this country. After having planned our trip for nearly 2 years, each time in vain and limited by the seasonality of the country, my husband and I were ecstatic when we confirmed our trip, as it dawned on us that we were finally setting foot on our ancient motherland. I couldn’t wait to see and experience the country that gave us logic and philosophy, and numerals and the decimal system.

One of my first observations of India was the traffic chaos: there is no place quite like it! Everything from cars to cows clamour for rights of way on the roads, there is incessant blaring of horns and traffic using the wrong side of the roads. Yet, despite the madness and seemingly blatant disregard for conventional traffic rules as we know it, there is a sense of order and respect for one another on the road. I did not witness a single accident, nor flaring of emotions while I was there. In fact on one occasion, a naked, destitute child who was no more than 3 years old ran across the busy road in Delhi, instigating the blaring of horns and screeching brakes, but miraculously no one hit him! I was told by my tour guide you need three things to be able to drive in India: good horn, good brakes and good luck! So true!

On our first day in Delhi we went to Chandni Chowk, a bazaar in Old Delhi that houses a host of shops selling clothes and jewellery, spices and all just about everything under the sun. We went around Chandni Chowk on a rickshaw after being told that is one of the best ways to see the bazaar. I remember turning wide-eyed with apprehension to my husband when the rickshaw driver pulled up in his old, tattered rickshaw: surely it wasn’t safe to sit on the rickshaw, as it looked like it was going to fall apart any minute? He convinced me to get on it after much cajoling and I was so glad I did it! It was an amazing experience riding through the streets and alleyways, seeing the true Delhi with all its charm and idiosyncrasies. I got off the rickshaw feeling reborn, for I felt like I had cheated death and come off miraculously unscathed!

On our second day in Delhi, we went to Gandhi Smriti – the place where Mahatma Gandhi spent his last 144 days – and was assassinated. The building, courtyards and garden oozed simplicity, a testament to the modest and unworldly lifestyle Gandhi led during his life. Biographies of his life and quotes by Mahatma filled the corridor leading to the place where he was assassinated, where a shrine-like structure has been erected in his memory. One quote that particularly touched me was Mahatma affirming “Even if I am killed, I will not stop repeating the names of Rama and Rahim, which mean to me the same God. With these names on my lips, I will die cheerfully.” It almost seems like he had a premonition of what was to come as his last words were “Hey Ram!” (Oh God). Many a times I felt like a hypocrite in this place. There I was, claiming to revere him as the greatest soul to have lived on Earth, the closest a mortal has come to being immortal; and yet there was not a single principle of his that I was following. He practiced simplicity, while I wandered around snapping photos with my expensive DSLR, he preached non-violence, whereas I could not give up meat for a single day, he put aside his whole life and fought for justice, whereas I have forsaken my birth country with the excuse the politics are ruining it; his existence brought freedom to the whole nation whereas I am a self-absorbed human being whose existence, come to think of it, does not really benefit anyone but myself in my quest for worldly pleasures. What right did I have to call this Great Soul my biggest hero and inspiration?

A few days later we were in Jaipur. We visited the City Palace and Jantar Mantar on the first afternoon with one of the best guides we have ever had. Nidhi Mishra was a minefield of knowledge and gave us an excellent narrative as we walked around these places. The theme of the tour seemed to be that ‘there is a reason for everything’, as Nidhi so eloquently put. I was reminded that ignorance is the main impediment to understanding the cultures and practices of another. Many a times we scoff at other cultures, but when we hear an explanation it immediately banishes our prejudices and we grow to understand or accept why things are or were done in a certain way. For instance, to the undiscerning eyes, the low entrances in and around the medieval castles and palaces in India would have suggested that Indians were short people. However this impression would have changed upon learning that the low entrances were an ingenious tactic to ensure that adversaries who attempt to invade the castle would need to bow their heads to enter the castle and this gave the guards ample time to behead their enemies. Why did Indian men have so many wives in the pre-British era? It had nothing to do with Hinduism and everything to do with a culture that was spread by invading rulers: it was a way for them to spread their domination, and slowly over the years this culture became embedded among the society.

Our next stop was Agra. Who could resist a trip to India without seeing the enigmatic, resplendent Taj Mahal! We saw the Taj Mahal at sunrise and it was breath-taking to say the least. Despite the crowds it exuded a kind of serenity usually reserved for holy places. Then again, one might argue that a monument of love is also an embodiment of divinity and godliness. We spotted some stray dogs playfully wrestling each other and I joked that even the dogs were feeling the vibrations of love at the Taj Mahal!

We took the overnight train from Agra to Varanasi which was an amazing experience in itself. I was awake by 5 a.m. and stared out the window the whole time while the train traversed the countryside. The view of wheat fields was interspersed with tiny villages and level crossings at small towns. These were places modernisation had not placed its indelible and irreversible mark yet – the mark of homogeneity both in infrastructure and lifestyles – and I noticed that people were still at one with the elements. Some men gathered around water pumps, brushing their teeth with twigs while others squatted in the open fields to empty their bowels! Well I guess the latter is not really a sign of a lack of modernisation since men in modernised places do relieve themselves in public places, but you catch my drift! (pun unintended!)

Varanasi’s main attraction are the ghats by the Ganges. The Ganges is truly the lifeblood of India: from birth to death and the life in between, everything centres around the river. Hindus celebrate births in the family by offering thanksgiving prayers at the river and they mourn death by cremating their loved ones by the funeral ghat. Hindus believe that the dead will achieve moksha or liberation from reincarnation when their ashes are strewn in the Ganges. Never have I experienced an atmosphere quite like this: children played cricket, sadhus relaxed on the steps and devotees submerged themselves in the river. People congregated to participate in the evening Aarti or prayer ceremony in one corner and boatsmen were busy in another corner building a boat. People from all walks of life converged in this place.

On our second day in Varanasi, we visited the Bharat Mata temple. Unlike all other temples that are dedicated to the worship of God, this temple was devoid of any deities or priests. Instead, there was a map of India, carved out of brass on the ground. This ancient temple was built before the partition of India and Pakistan, and even Sri Lanka and hence included all these countries on the map. I don’t think this temple was built to invoke patriotism among Indians, instead it was to revere the great land that has over thousands of years served as a birthplace to some and provided refuge to others. For some reason it made perfect sense. Why can’t we revere India or any other nation in a temple? Afterall, does our country not provide for us on the ground the same way our Heavenly Father watches us from above?

We returned with a heavy heart from Varanasi to Delhi knowing that our trip was coming to an end. After two more days in Delhi, we boarded the plane back home. I have never felt such reluctance to return from my holidays: usually it is just the thought of going back to work but this time, I was filled with emotions of having to leave my motherland and its wonderful and colourful people.

These 10 days in India have moved me in ways no other country or people have. I have been reminded of how fortunate I am to have a roof over my head, food on my table and an education that has given me a good job, which in turn has enabled me to fulfill my basic necessities and luxuries. I have also started questioning myself: what have I done to help another human being? How has my existence benefited anyone else? What is the legacy I want to leave behind?
I went to India intending to sight-see and quench my photographic thirst, but instead returned from my ancient homeland having experienced a multitude of emotions and growing spiritually. I cannot wait to return to India to take in the sights and be among its wonderful people. In the words of Caroline Quentin, my love for India is not a short romance, but I think it is going to be a lifetime affair.