The Devil lives in Praha

WhatsApp Image 2017-07-08 at 10.12.11 PM

We didn’t exactly cover ourselves in touristy glory in Vienna and were determined to make up for the lapse. Prague is exactly the place for such plans!
The countryside en route was lovely but the city itself was as pretty as I have seen.

IMG_20170512_124850

We stayed at the Residence Bene in the old town of Prague. It was small and full of character. My friends were upset because the towels looked like they had been purchased when the hotel was set up around World War II but they looked clean enough (though yellow) so I was not too bothered. The kettle did not look so clean and that definitely bothered me!

It was a bit cold but sunny and bright. The view from my window was old town cheek by jowl with shiny new city which is my favourite kind of view.

They provided a decent breakfast but the USP has to be the location! We were a short walk away from everything.

There were a number of interesting looking stores nearby including many selling art supplies. Prague looks like that kind of place! However, the art supplies were insanely expensive – in Indian money anyway. No way was I paying a 100 bucks for a pencil my boys would surely lose in a minute!

On our way to the Astronomical Clock tower in the old town square, we saw this man blowing soap bubbles which thrilled the children who jumped around trying to burst them. There were loads of kids doing this and in fact, the entire square was full of people doing street stuff. Our kids dropped some money in the man’s bucket like all the other kids but while he collected the white kids for pictures, he shouted at our children who were still innocently bouncing around after bubbles. It was the greatest shock to see someone who makes a living off children behave like this. To be honest, we were too shocked to react with the sort of anger that that man deserved. In hindsight it was probably all for the best since the episode closed quickly, the kids did not realize what had happened and we were able to salvage our day. But it left a very bad taste in our mouth! There is a God up above though and it began to rain almost immediately after and while we continued to have fun, this fellow had to shut shop and made no more money that day.

Unfortunately the clock was being repaired at the time. But it was beautifully made and we were able to see the clockwork procession. It was interesting to see the vices – greed, vanity, death(??!!) and something else that I have forgotten. The good figures I have predictably forgotten entirely but do look up!

IMG_20170512_171452

From there to the famous Charles Bridge was but a step – but a very souvenir rich step! I travel with die-hard shopaholics and progress was slow. There were hand embroidered aprons and caps, paintings, cups, figurines, clock models, Bohemian crystal and magnets! The only two things that caught my eye (and I regret not buying) were

  1. These crazy colorful Dali-esque paintings of CharlesBridge that I saw in a side alley and should should have bought! I cannot find anything similar on the internet to show you what I mean. I SO wish I had not been so sensible about not adding to our severely packed limited luggage!
  2. Garnets – I fell in love with a pair of earrings and did not buy because my husband was not there and I wanted him to approve of them. Now this was probably all for the good since my uncle’s warnings and numerous other net based feedback insists that most garnets sold in Prague are fakes. However, the super recommended Granat Turnov had a store less than 200 meters from the Residence Bene so this was really a miss! If you like jewelry and have troubled to research –  do buy some while here!

IMG_20170512_180054

We went from there to the Lennon wall. I have seen more interesting graffiti but the peace messages and the general flower child vibe of the place was fun and contagious! I spotted this water wheel nearby which looked interesting. There were a number of cafes and we stopped for a break.

And then back!

Our second day in Prague was along similar lines. A ride on Tram 22. The Prague castle where I heard this lovely opera singer.

A visit to the Jewish quarter was next after which we stopped for lunch at an Italian place and I had the most amazing ravioli! The chocolate museum was the most fun for the kids and we ate more chocolate than was good for us. I also bought a tub of chocolate face cream. The chocolatey smell makes me feel like I am walking around in my own bakery bubble. Reason enough to buy it, no?

We went next to Kampa Island where the kids found a park to play in and I noticed this very unexpected statue of Chinmaya!

IMG_20170513_174706.jpg

And back to Old Town Square. My little one is reading Asterix these days and wanted to eat wild boar (he saw a pig on a spit) but did not like it much when it arrived. Finally dinner and a late night on Charles Bridge.

Then Goodbye Prague. We missed a lot – we did not tandem cycle (group cycle?) while drinking beer and singing songs, we took no rides in vintage cars, we did not ride in a horse drawn carriage, didn’t see the Fred and Ginger building. And we missed the garnets! I may never visit Prague again but if you do – please pick some up for me!!


PS. The Indian Food Reccos :-

My husband insists my friends and I are not fit to go anywhere outside India, but we like our desi food. So, for Indians in Prague – here’s the recco.

  • The Dhaba Beas where we ate our first lunch had a great system where you pay by weight for what you eat. What a neat way to reduce wastage!
  • For dinner, we headed out to The Indian Jewel. This was a posher place than the dhaba. Although there was indoor seating, we sat out under umbrellas. The owner looked European and had a silver ponytail but spoke Punjabi! I love when people do that. When I was a child, I got on a train once where there were a number of  Sardars speaking fluent Tamil! Anyway, both places served good food.

Vienna waits for you

Over a month back, we went on our second trip to Europe. Now there’s laziness and procrastination, and then there is this! I am totally unsure whether this kind of delay lends perspective or just blurs the details. Maybe both. Let me do my best anyway.

We flew Emirates to Dubai and from there to Vienna. Emirates is a very child friendly airline and our kids got sling bags full of stuff (I was thinking No, No, not more stuff!!) to keep them entertained. My younger one even got a soft toy. With judicious sleeping and waking, we managed the long flight well enough to be fresh and awake when we reached Vienna.

IMG_20170511_163548
I can go from here to a single peg, so I took a picture to remind me to always get here first. Age creeping up!

We were staying at the Novotel – the most boring stay the whole of this trip! As with all of our prior experiences with this chain, this hotel too had a bathroom that could not be locked. However, we were prepared this time. What’s an unlockable bathroom to a couple of scrunchies strategically tied?

We only had about half a day in Vienna, so there was not much we could do. Novotel is close to the city centre and we planned to walk around. A tip: Vienna is a cycle friendly city with well marked cycle paths. People ride by really fast and you don’t want to be in their way, so keep an eye out for cycle path markings. There was one right outside our hotel and we had to keep a hawk eye on the kids!

1200px-sachertorte_dsc03027_retouched
Taken from the net – wikipedia. Not my own!

Our first stop was to have been the Hotel Sacher but we could not find our way and missed eating the famous Sacher Torte.

We did see St Stephen’s Cathedral which was very close to our hotel – we just walked down. It was a very pleasant walk. We had to cross the Donaukanal  or the “Danube Canal” which is an arm of the Danube.

We ate street food – pizza and shawarma kebabs which were surprisingly cheap! Our last trip to Europe had been to Switzerland and Paris which are both fairly expensive. In Vienna you can get tasty street food at surprisingly low rates. The helpings are enormous and for most of us, one slice or one kebab was enough for two with  some left over.

IMG_20170511_204418

St. Stephen’s Cathedral is beautiful. There is a fabulous view of the whole city from the top.

IMG_20170511_211243

There was an enormous bell there as well which made me think of The Nine Tailors, not one of my favourite books by Dorothy L. Sayers but much loved by the world in general.

IMG_20170511_204019

After that, we walked around Stephensplatz. The cobbled streets are a little hard to figure out but after a while we realised that the sizes of the stones distinguish the footpath from the carriageway.

Later, we took a tram and explored the city. We were not able to find Sacher-Torte but we did find a park and turned the kids loose. Since we had an early morning train to take to Prague we returned to our hotel soon after that.

Although we did not see much of Vienna, we saw more than we had expected to given how little time we had! One of my uncles used to live here and he had told me to go to the city centre since most tourist places were close by. From what city centres are like in India, I had expected a  glass and chrome sort of place but Vienna is a happy mix of old and new.

IMG_20170511_205624

What really defines Vienna though is the music. We even had to deal with an angry cabbie because we were talking about Beethoven and everyone of course knows he can’t hold a candle to Johann Strauss! But for all the famous composers who were born in or worked in Vienna, for me it is finally about the song by Billy Joel. When I listened to it first, I spent some time wondering ‘Why Vienna?’. On looking it up, Google informed me that Joel’s parents had separated when he was young, with his father, a classical pianist,  moving to Vienna. His mother for all her bitterness and struggles, insisted on her talented child learning music alongside school and work. In fact, he missed an exam as he was working at a piano bar the night before. On being denied a diploma he said, Oh well – if not Columbia University then Columbia Records (or something like that). Years later, when he tracked his father down and went to visit him, he was surprised to see an old woman sweeping a road. On being asked why she was working, his father told him that it was because it made her feel useful.

Vienna is a city that is kind to its old.

I didn’t see any older people working on the streets while I was there but based on what I saw and the people I met, it is a city that’s kind to its visitors!

 

Places of learning

I wrote about school tuck shops a while back. Did I write about what happened this year? My son, ever ambitious on my behalf, told his teacher I would be making pizzas for him to bring. And then conveniently forgot to tell me anything about it. When I learnt about these plans through the usual circuitous routes, I was frankly appalled. I had been struggling along at the time with one of these old fashioned ovens and it took me about half an hour to get one pizza done. (We usually order pizzas in like most of the civilised world, of course)

3353605886_5b3de6cf45

When I pointed this out to Rohan, he gave me a long suffering look and said ‘Don’t worry mummy. I only told them you would send thirty pizzas’. I let out a gasp and a wail but my audience had skipped out on me. I seethed as I waited for my husband to come home and poured my story into his ears. The reaction I got was not quite what I had hoped for. ‘What if we get a new oven?’ he asked. Ignoring the fact that no new oven had been bought while we suffered through slow baked cakes and pizzas at home, I pointed out the obvious to the doting dad. There is NO WAY we will be able to deliver thirty fresh tasting pizzas. And you might as well not deliver cold pizzas at all.

My perfectly reasonable arguments fell on deaf ears and we had a new OTG in our kitchen the next day. I had by then though persuaded Rohan to let me send some pasta instead. On the day of the tuck shop, Rohan’s class teacher asked me to mind the class for a bit while she setup the stalls. I enjoyed this so much I wonder if I have missed my calling. I think I might have made a good teacher. And I would certainly have had fun doing it. I say this inspite of how the entire class wanted to go to the washroom at the mere sight of a substitute teacher. Some many times over!

I had given my son money instead of lunch. When he returned I asked him what he had eaten and he said pasta. I knew that at least one other mom had sent pasta too so I asked if he had eaten that. He looked confused and said, ‘No. I ate what you sent.’ There was a moment’s silence. Then I said it. ‘You spent the money I gave you to eat the pasta I could have packed for you in your tiffin?’ ‘Yes’ replied Rohan slowly and patiently with the look of a boy who had never previously suspected his mother of being so dense.


My son’s class hosted the school assembly this week. Their theme was friendship and parting and they put together a most impressive mix of song, dance and drama. My son was part of a group singing ‘Seasons in the Sun’. I joined him while he was practising the other day, pleased to be familiar with his song for once. When we reached the bit about It’s hard to die my son interrupted to inform me that they would not be singing that part. It made sense – it was not very appropriate. However, that was the end of our musical bonding. I heard the final product during assembly yesterday.

Seasons in the Sun is an adaptation of a French song  called ‘Le Moribond’ which means the Dying Man. In the original, it is quite a sardonic song about a dying man bidding farewell to his wife and her lover – who was also his best friend. Now all this was clearly too much drama for the English speaking world and the song was sentimentalised by Terry Jacks into a dying man’s farewell to his loving friends and family. And then, the primary department of my son’s school stepped in with their version.

This highly censored piece not only omits any mention of death, it also has to factor in the fact that the singer is bidding farewell to his friend that he’s known since he was nine or ten. Now the children in my son’s class actually are nine or ten. So they are in effect saying goodbye to a very current friend. And since they are way too young to have a wife, that bit has been edited out as well. Also, no goodbyes to their dad. In this new narrative, they are leaving town (most likely) with their mom and dad so the goodbyes are only for the trusted friend. And unlike Terry Jacks’ version, they have climbed hills and trees but only learned to love their ABCs.

So overall, I am hugely impressed with the school staff’s ability to make do with any material they have at their disposal. No wonder we manage to shoot off 104 satellites in one go.

whatsapp-image-2017-02-16-at-12-02-27-pm

Finally, there isn’t much left to say but Goodbye Jacqes Brel, you’re free to cry!

Goodbye Thailand, Hello Europe

It has been so long since I wrote my last Thailand post and even longer since I visited, I wonder why I am doing this. Maybe just to wrap up cleanly before I start my summer holiday posts. We went to Vienna, Prague, Salzburg and the Black Forest but more on that later.

On our last full day in Phuket, we chose to skip the planned trip to the James Bond islands and spend the day on our own instead. We swam in the sea, lazed around on the beach, picked up our laundry and went souvenir shopping in the local markets of Patong. We especially loved the miles of new plantation we drove past. It was incongruous but in a very nice way to see the bustling city and the green hills in such close juxtaposition.

IMG_20170403_145349.jpg

We were on our way back to rest a while before we had to leave for the Phuket Fantasea trip and show when we got a call from my husband’s colleague. He and his family had similarly opted out of the day trip and gone parasailing instead. We all sign off on risks and stuff before operations and adventure sports, fearing but not believing that the worst would happen. Sometimes it does. I might have overdone the drama here. His wife had had a hard landing and broken her leg in multiple places.

What followed was a total, crazy nightmare. The kids and I went to the hotel while my husband ran around trying to get medical help. The government hospital in Phuket was not much better than in India and refused to do anything till the next day. We had all been hoping that they could get her in a cast and let her fly back to India the next day where they would have help and all would be well, but she had got a clot in her legs and DVT can be a real risk so that was out. Also, travel insurance does not cover accidents related to parasailing. They put that in quite clearly. So after a lot of craziness, she was moved to a private hospital and payment in forex arranged for her surgery.

Meanwhile, we had missed our bus for Phuket Fantasea. The kids and I were not too worried but my husband knew how much he had paid and was a little sad. Our lovely travel agent Rita, stepped in at this point and offered to drive us there herself once my husband had finished the hospital work. We were too late to enjoy the whole place but would be able to have dinner and catch the show. I have to make a special mention of her. Rita is SUCH a lovely person. I have not written a TripAdvisor review either and I will. She arranged all our trips, gave us huge discounts and then did this. She chatted most pleasantly with us about her trip to India and views on Bangkok and Mumbai on the way to the hospital, where we picked up my husband, and then dropped us at the venue. We were forced to disturb her later at night as there was some confusion regarding our minibus but she took care of everything. Full, top star rating for her!

Lower rating for Phuket Fantasea though. The white tiger in the house on a higher floor was frankly creepy and we never even went up to look at it. The show was circusy and fun to start with but I was totally bored by the end. I might not have been in the right frame of mind for such merriment perhaps. Not that there was much. Merriment.

IMG_20170403_205046
Till the last minute when they snatched our phones away, my husband was busy coordinating stuff. No chance of our enjoying the place I guess.

We flew back the next day, taking our colleague’s children with us. Without them to care for, he had checked out of the hotel and into the hospital. The surgery went off smoothly and they returned a few days later. His wife made a full recovery.

And that was it. Phuket. A great holiday with some anticlimax. But the funnest of all the beaches this year (Bekal and a short weekend in Goa being the others). And in a little over a month it will be time for Europe. A different place and a different break with different company. Hopefully just as much fun!

Day Trip to Phi Phi Islands

2nd April

IMG_20170402_121349

We had booked ourselves on a day trip to the Phi Phi islands. Our day started with a ride to the rather posh marina (what kind of people live here? Do they all own boats?) in our air conditioned van. I mention the a/c because we noticed the cool-cooler-coolest style setting which took us back to the early non fiat/ambassador cars in India.

WhatsApp Image 2017-04-02 at 6.52.59 AM.jpeg

Our trip went something like this. We took a speedboat first to Monkey Beach. There are monkeys in Bangalore – relics of greener times – so there wasn’t any novelty there. We stayed in our boat and took pictures and left the monkeys alone. I truly believe it was the right thing to do.

IMG_20170402_135901

Then they told us all about birds nests which are some of the most expensive cooking ingredients ever. These nests are used to make soups and jams and what not. Not available at 7 eleven, naturally!
People pay to lease out space on the islands where the nests are found and then they can take home all they want. Kinda like leasing a gold mine!

IMG_20170402_135819

After that, we had to pick between scuba diving and snorkelling. My six year old really enjoyed the snorkelling. The beach was a bit polluted with very many tourist boats and I don’t know what fish and coral the scuba diving people got to see.  Coral reefs are endangered the world over and are fiercely protected here. They told us that being found with coral in any amount in our luggage would get us in very serious trouble with customs!

IMG_20170402_114045

Then we went for lunch at a coral island resort. The cool thing here was that the restaurant was on the sea. Not on the beach, but on the SEA! We waded out of the boat to the steps that took us up to the restaurant. A first for us for sure.

IMG_20170402_132834
The view from our table was something like this

Then to Maya Bay where we swam a bit. This place is famous for being where The Beach was shot. It is a beautiful, isolated lagoon. This place was devastated by the 2004 Tsunami but they seem to be better prepared now. There are marked Tsunami escape paths and several new trees have been planted.

IMG_20170402_140027

Finally, a quick stop at a private (khai) island for no apparent reason but helping them earn commission. Then back to the marina to change and return to the hotel for dinner.

IMG_20170402_120311


On thinking it over

This was a special day for us but for our guide, this is his job. Like how I go to work and back. I couldn’t help but wonder if he found it boring too. Surely his glib pleasantries must be rehearsed and automatic by now. There was a moment when he was telling someone not to stand and disbalance the boat when his gritted teeth showed through his smile. I wondered what the boat  trip would be like if he were to talk about what he was really thinking. A journey full of very existential discussions perhaps.


And also, what is with the genetics of these people? The women have not one ounce of superfluous flesh anywhere. And in those tiny bikinis they wore, we would know!


Being on an office  trip, I had not packed any swimwear at all and was forced to stand by as my family frolicked in the water. It took a Pakistani lady (from a group that came a few minutes after us) wading into the waters in her burqa to shake me out of my self importance. Who cared what people thought of me swimming in my clothes anyway? When we finally came out and I was drying myself off in the sun, I told my husband about my newfound epiphany. Then he explained to me that the children attached to the Pakistani contingent had been naughty and entered the water on their own. Their irked father had ordered his wife to bring their offspring back and the poor woman had had no choice but to wade in in all her clothes. I was very sorry for her but also deeply grateful. But for her, I would not have got into the wonderful warm, shallow waters on the best day for swimming ever!

Something Fishy

IMG_20170401_150938.jpg

1st April

“What time do the rest of the office folks get here?” I asked my husband, rubbing my eyes sleepily.

No-wait. Hold the line a minute. I’ve gone off the rails.

I don’t know if you have had the same experience, but the snag I always come up against when I’m telling a story is this dashed difficult problem of where to begin it. It’s a thing you don’t want to go wrong over, because one false step and you’re sunk. I mean, if you fool about too long at the start, trying to establish atmosphere, as they call it, and all that sort of rot, you fail to grip and the customers walk out on you. Get off the mark, on the other hand, like a scalded cat, and your public is at a loss. It simply raises its eyebrows, and can’t make out what you’re talking about. And in opening my report with the above spot of dialogue, I see that I have made the second of these two floaters. I shall have to hark back a bit.

I have been chattering away about 4 nights in Phuket without a word of explanation on how we came to be here on such a short trip in the first place. I published my first travel post on this blog almost exactly two years back when we went on our annual family trip with my husband’s work colleagues. We have been doing this for the last three years without having ever ventured outside our home state of Karnataka. This year however, we went all the way to Phuket.

Having got here a day before most of the office gang though, we grappled with the problem of what to do before everyone else got in. Especially since it was pouring cats and dogs. The kids were quite content to run up and down the bunk bed but my husband prowled round and round the room in a manner that would have caused comment in a caged tiger. I was very relieved when the monsoon finally gave up and we were free to hit the  beach.

WhatsApp Image 2017-04-01 at 4.02.44 PM.jpeg

The office people had reached and checked in by the time we came back. Being hollower than the Grand Canyon however, they were on the lookout for lunch. The catch being that it had to be vegetarian. We went foraging and at a few minutes walk, found a Thai restaurant that promised to serve some, and all of us trooped in. Now the food at Novotel (both dinner and breakfast, NOT the pizza we had eaten for lunch) was very nice so we were hopeful of finding something good here too. This was sadly not to be. The entire team, people differing on a wide range of topics and ideas, were as one on this. So a tip for vegetarian people holidaying in Phuket: Airbnb.

After lunch, we headed to the beach for a spot of parasailing. Parasailing in Phuket is a bit like Goa and a bit unlike. Unlike because you take off from and land on the beach – not in water. Similar because it is equally unsafe. All the kids had smooth landings but the adults jerked down mostly.

After that, all the people who’d come in that day wanted to sleep a bit, but we were all rested and ready for a spot of retail therapy! I had done my research well and knew that the place we needed to be at was Jungceylon.

Our hotel had a free shuttle to Patong but we didn’t know that and we took a taxi. Taxis in Phuket are expensive compared to India. We didn’t rent a car or scooter during our trip and I am not sure about the pricing but it would make sense to look up the hotel’s arrangements if you are staying at one. The tuk tuk though very exotic (not for Indians, we own the autorickshaw and phatphati) costs exactly as much as a taxi.

Jungceylon is a huge huge mall and there is no way you can see it all over the course of one evening. We managed to see most of the ground floor. If you are from somewhere with a currency conversion ratio in your favour, you will have much to do here. Being from India, there was a sense of sameness about both the things to buy and the price. There are tons of shops and it is easy to get carried away but honestly except for souvenirs there is nothing that you don’t get back home. Holiday shopping also makes for difficult returns!

There is a crazy variety of cosmetics and beauty stuff. Then there is Thai silk. But at those prices, it ain’t no silk. There are two Jim Thompson outlets at the Bangkok airport and one at Phuket if you really want to buy Thai silk for your home but my recommendation would be to go to one of the many Thai tailors and get a tailored silk dress. Years ago my dad visited Thailand and returned with lots of Thai silk material for my sister and me. Having no idea what to do with it, we took it to our local tailor in Karol Bagh who fashioned some very Delhi salwar suits out of them. 🙂  They turned out well but don’t try this at home! The local tailor is definitely the saner choice.

The Jungceylon food court has a cafeish vibe and the food was rather nice too. I can vouch for the sticky rice with mango and the green curry (made veg by the simple expedient of opting for None Of The Above when asked to choose between pork, chicken or fish) was lovely. As we were leaving, my son spotted a fish spa and asked to try. He found it ticklish at first and then he loved it! The fish were all gathered round his feet and literally jumping out of the water to have a go at his legs. I have no notion what he had on his legs and feet that the fish loved so much but it worked. He came out all smooth and soft I was sorely tempted to try as well but it was late and we had to leave.

WhatsApp Image 2017-04-01 at 7.56.00 PM.jpeg


PS. I bought this outfit from a brand called Island Girl. It was so floaty and white and pretty and like something out of a music video! Sunset on the beach sort of thing. Didn’t get a chance to wear it on this trip but Phuket, I’ll be back.

IMG_20170423_214859.jpg

PPS. Wodehouse on the beach is a great idea!