Detour | Locked Up in Alcotraz, London

Alcotraz London

I’ve been to Alcatraz in San Francisco.  Twice in fact.  It’s an amazing experience.  But I’m here today to tell you about somewhere with a similar name, but a different experience.  Welcome to Alcotraz.

When I found out about this immersive prison cocktail experience, I knew I had to go.  I put out a WhatsApp message to three of my girlfriends I knew would be up for it, tickets were booked and back in August we all congregated on Brick Lane at the entrance to Alcotraz.

Waiting outside, I glanced down to look at my phone, only to look back up and discover an Alcotraz security guard eyeballing me, asking in an American drawl ‘Are you doooone?’.  ‘Yes!’ I squeaked.

We were led inside and thrown an orange boiler suit each, told to put them on and then shouted at to ‘GET IN SINGLE FILE’.  These actors were taking their roles seriously, and it was equal amounts of terrifying and hilarious.

Put inside our cells, the prison warden then made his entrance to explain the rules.  No alcohol of course.  The security guard then handed out record card’s and we were instructed to fill these in with details of our crime.

As we settled into our cell, a prisoner arrived aka the cocktail guy, and smuggled our Bombay Sapphire to his bar prep area, creating cocktails throughout the evening.  Four cocktails each, all different, all delicious.

During the evening, which lasts 1 hour 45 minutes, the warden and security guards marched us out of our cell, demanding us to hand over our record cards.  They grilled us over the details, and to be honest I think they were finding it hard to keep a straight face, as they’d likely not experienced the sass of four kiwi girls.  The whole experience was laugh out loud funny, even though we were scared to laugh out loud for fear of what insult might be thrown our way.

I even made it down to ‘The Hole’ that evening.  I’m probably the only prisoner ever that jumped for joy when their prison number got called out, to be marched down to the hole with a few other inmates.  I won’t ruin the surprise of what happened down there, just in case you’re planning on going to Alcotraz, which you absolutely should do!

We spent the evening laughing our heads off, taking a million photos, and sipping cocktails – actually more like sucking them back, we’d barely finish one and another would arrive! (Word of warning: make sure you’ve lined your stomach with food before your visit, some of us had to live and learn! HA!).

If you like the idea of wearing an orange boiler suit and being shouted at whilst drinking cocktails then I suggest you book your ticket NOW!  Hahaha, my description sounds miserable, however this is one of my favourite experiences in my 17 years in London.  It is truly brilliant!  Trust this inmate, just go.

Detour | Goldfinch SW17 Cocktail Bar, Tooting

Goldfinch SW17

Happy Friday everyone! Not only is a Bank Holiday weekend about to begin here in the UK, it will also be my birthday on Sunday! The big 4-0, oh my goodness!

For those of you in London, with no plans, but loving the idea of a lie in on Monday, let me suggest you make the most of Sunday by visiting one of my new favourite local spots, Goldfinch Cocktail Bar.  I had an ‘Instagram blind date’ here a couple of weeks ago, no don’t go starting rumours, I was just meeting a lovely fellow kiwi girl, Bryony aka Find Me In Tooting, who also lives in Tooting, and whom I’d connected with via the powers of Instagram.

We spent a couple of hours on a gloomy Thursday evening, sipping cocktails and sharing stories, whilst pottering around both snapping a gazillion photos to share with you all.  #instagramlife.

The interior of Goldfinch is lovely.  Cosy, comfortable and chic.  Everything you want in a cocktail bar really.  PLUS there’s the added bonus of a secret little courtyard outside, which we’ve been told will be weatherproofed for winter, and I can only imagine how lovely that space will be on a cold winter’s day, with a delicious cocktail in hand to warm your toes.

We tested out the Cracked Pepper and Strawberry Pina Colada consisting of rum, strawberry liqueur, pineapple juice, honey, strawberries and black pepper, and the Pineapple and Lavender Bees Knees made up of gin, pineapple juice, rosewater, honey, fresh lemon juice and lavender bitters.  Both were equally delicious and beautifully presented.  We also had a couple of sneaky gin and tonics, because hello Thursday, you’re almost the weekend ;o)

Goldfinch Cocktail Bar, located at 145 Mitcham Rd, London SW17 9PE, is one to check out!  And there’s no better time to do so than this Sunday, August 26th, because they’re having a party.  You can have a couple of drinks for my birthday!  #anyexcuse.

Detour | Eat, See and Do in Shoreditch

Shoreditch

Sometimes you just need to take a day off.  Forget work, forget all the life admin you’ve been jotting down on your to-do list in the Notes app of your iPhone.  Sometimes you just need to ask a friend if they’re free to spend the day with you, and go have some fun.

Last Friday I did exactly that, and spent the day in Shoreditch with my friend Jo.  For those that don’t know, Shoreditch is one of my all time favourite areas in London.  For years I used to tell everyone I was going to take a sabbatical from the leafy, quiet neighbourhood of Fulham, and go live it up in East London.  It never happened, but it’s a part of London I’ve returned to time and time again.

We met at Old Street Station mid-morning and walked down the road to Ozone Coffee Roasters.  I love this place and not just because it’s owned by kiwis.  The building is magnificent for a start.  I have regular monthly meetings here as part of the New Zealand Business Women’s Network I belong to in London, and it doesn’t matter how many times I walk through the doors, I’m always blown away by the amazing interior.  A mix of industrial and modern, to me it has a very New York feel, and I just love it!

Ozone is a roaster, coffee bar and eatery.  On Friday we had coffee only, however I need to recommend that you visit for a meal sometime and that you try the following: Braised wagyu mince on toast with Essex smoked cheddar & piccalilli (sorry Vegetarians!).  This dish is available from 7am-4pm and it is SO DAMN GOOD!  I know mince on toast might be a weird concept to some of you, but this is a completely normal meal to those of us from New Zealand, and I advise you not to knock it till you try it.  This is the best version of mince on toast I’ve ever eaten.  EVER.

Drinks drunk, we wandered in the direction of popular Shoreditch cafe The Attendant.  Our stomach’s were rumbling, so it was time to eat something delicious.

Another beautiful spot, The Attendant is a calm space amongst the edgier vibe you find outside on the streets of Shoreditch. The cafe has plants hanging everywhere, there’s even a living plant wall running the length of the cafe.

We sat down and looked over the menu, both settling on avocado smash with turmeric hummus, cinnamon toasted pumpkin seeds, watercress and red amaranth piled high on toast (gluten free toast is available, and it tasted good!).  The whole meal was delicious and felt like I was doing something good for my body.

Fuelled up with food, we paused for a little snap on their seats outside, which are also great for ordering a coffee and watching the world go by, and then we continued on our journey around Shoreditch.

The one thing Shoreditch is never short of is street art.  Some of the biggest names in the street art world have left their mark on walls and buildings in the neighbourhood, and every time I’m in the area I see something new and interesting.  For those of you that love street art, there are some great tours to sign up to online.

We wandered along Redchurch Street, which is full of amazing boutiques, cafes and restaurants.  Some favourites being The Modern Society  – a boutique full of fashion, art, and a cute little coffee bar, Labour and Wait – a store selling wonderfully timeless goods from kitchenware to household accessories and stationery, Barber and Parlour – a very edgy looking building that houses a cinema, a cafe & bar, a beauty parlour and a hair salon.

We decided it was time for a little mid-afternoon pick-me-up and we beelined towards Soft Serve Society at Boxpark.

I’d seen these grey-black ice creams before on previous Shoreditch visits, but I was yet to try one.  Jo and I decided to live life on the edge and order a charcoal coconut soft serve each.  I mean, are these the most Instagrammable ice creams or what?!  And who knew, it actually tasted really good!  If charcoal coconut is pushing the boat out too far for you, there’s a bunch of other amazing flavours and you can surround your soft serve in a cloud of candy floss, top it with toasted marshmallows or have them sprinkle on popping candy.  The world is your sugary oyster at Soft Serve Society.

On a sugar high, I knew just the place we needed to head to next.  Dark Sugars on Brick Lane.  If you love chocolate you’ll adore this store.  Full to the brim with the most eye catching chocolates, truffles, chocolate dipped fruits and other cocoa based goodies, it’s really hard to resist buying something.

And we definitely didn’t resist.  We picked out some favourites to enjoy over the weekend.  My bag of treats was empty by midday Saturday ;o)  Side note: get the passionfruit chocolate when you visit.  It’s too good.

The late afternoon was upon us before we knew it, so we decided on one last stop for the day.  A drink at The Gallery Bar in the Ace Hotel.  I love the Ace.  As long as you are someone that doesn’t mind a swarm of Macbook Freelancers sitting in the lobby using the free Wifi, and you love a good design hotel, then you’ll like the Ace.  We sipped our drinks and discussed our weekend plans, before wandering slowly back to the tube station to head home.

There are soooo many fun, quirky and interesting things to do in Shoreditch.  From the food, to the shopping to the excellent people watching, I never get tired of the neighbourhood.  How could you?  It’s forever evolving and opening something new and hip that has me returning to discover.

The spending money was gifted by Hotels.com, but all views are my own.

Eat | Kiss The Hippo, Richmond

Kiss the Hippo

As some of you know I’m a wee bit patriotic when it comes to where I buy my cappuccino’s from in London.  I refuse all chain coffee shops, because EW bad coffee, and I favour kiwi owned cafes, because YAY great coffee. (Okay I also support Aussie coffee shops, that must be the small amount of Australian in me from my grandmothers side of the family hah!)

So when I’m invited to the pre-opening of Kiss the Hippo, a non-Antipodean cafe based in Richmond, London, I of course accept, but I head along with a decent amount of skepticism.  Let me start with the fact that I’ve actually been back for coffee since my first visit, so I think that gives you a clear idea that this review is a positive one.  When I stepped inside Kiss the Hippo, two things happened.  I marvelled at the interior and was welcomed by the charming and knowledgeable owner.

The interior.  OMG.  It’s actually like no other place I’ve seen in London.  Firstly, it’s LIGHT, thanks to the interiors colours and also the giant sky light flooding the ground floor cafe with sun.  My pet peeve about London buildings and homes is the darkness.  So this was a big tick for me, walking into a place that felt light, bright and happy.  Not only that, the interior is so chic!  It feels like a mix between a coffee shop you’d find in Tokyo or Santa Monica.

The coffee.  Wow.  Kiss the Hippo have their own roastery in the back of the cafe and I’m told the roaster is the rolls royce of roasters.  And I believe them.  It looked shiny and spectacular.  The coffee I drank a short while later was unbelievably good.  I always have almond milk in my coffee, and when they told me they source their nut milk from a UK specialist, my skepticism on just how good it would be rose up again.  I mean, almond milk usually falls into two categories: gritty and overpowering, or watery.  Kiss the Hippo’s almond milk was neither of these things, in fact it tasted like actual milk, and the barista even managed to get proper foam on top of the coffee, a rare thing with almond milk!

The cafe serves delicious food too.  Everything from breakfast to lunch, indulgent to diet friendly.  Us gluten free lot are catered for there too.  Big win!  Another big win that I think most of us are becoming quite aware of, is the need for recycling.  Kiss the Hippo’s straws, cups, containers and cutlery are all compostable, whilst the plastic used is both recyclable and recycled.  I love this, and that alone makes me want to return to their cafe.

If you’re looking for a spot for a quiet coffee, a business lunch, or perhaps some training – yep they even have a workshop space for this!, then you must do yourself a favour and pop into Kiss the Hippo at 50 George Street, Richmond, London TW9 1HJ.

Detour | My Stay at The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai

Taj Mahal Palace Hotel Mumbai

For those of you that have followed my blog posts on my adventure in India, you will know that for the most part, we stayed in accommodation that usually meant we couldn’t shower properly or at all, the rooms often had paper thin walls which meant broken sleep, cows mooed in the carpark, and we generally spent 2.5 weeks never quite feeling rested or clean.

But Jo and I had a plan that was put in place soon after we booked our flights.  To counteract the cheaper accommodation along the way, we decided to spend one luxurious filled night staying at the famous landmark that is the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai.

Flying back to Mumbai from eye-opening Varanasi (read about that here), we had one night in a B&B before we could check in at the Taj.  The B&B experience was worth a whole blog post in itself, it wasn’t our finest evening of sleep, but we were certainly about to experience the best sleep of our trip.

There’s two parts to the Taj Mahal Place Hotel, the tower and the palace.  We’d booked at the tower as there weren’t any suitable rooms left in the palace wing.  We arrived at the hotel, which oozes luxury every which way you look, and at check-in we couldn’t believe our luck, they were upgrading us to a club room in the palace wing.  A club room meant our stay included breakfast, morning tea, afternoon tea, evening cocktails and post dinner cognac and chocolates.  YAY!

The check in was an experience itself, being gifted a beautiful necklace and marked on the forehead with red powder, all symbols and wishes of good fortune.  We were then led to our exquisite room on the sixth floor.  Our twin room was perfect, and everything you’d hope for from a hotel with such a good reputation.

Our first priority was taking a shower, which was truly an amazing experience.  It felt so nice to have clean hair and a proper wash!  Then we head downstairs for coffee in a beautifully decorated room.  Jo and I were so happy in this moment, and I feel so ‘first world’ saying that, but I think we both felt like a bit of a weight had been lifted from our shoulders.  We no longer needed to think about whether utensils were clean, if the food had been cooked properly and all those sort of things that keep you on your toes travelling in India.

We spent a lot of time in the last part of our trip talking about what food we’d eat once we were back in the UK.  I lost weight in India, not just because of food poisoning but because of my gluten intolerance.  Whilst a lot of the food in India is gluten free, I just couldn’t face eating curry every single night, so I ate my weight in Cadbury Dairy Milk to keep me going most of the time!

Mumbai however, does have a lot of fantastic cafes and restaurants and so we decided we’d pop out for a deliciously healthy brunch at The Pantry.  Located in a trendy area of Mumbai, the cafe itself is fab, along with a great menu too.  We sipped on almond milk cappuccino’s and ate a huge bowl of fruit salad with kefir milk, and in that moment, I wished our trip could have lasted a few more days.  We’d had the adventure of a lifetime, but this now felt like a holiday.

Back at the Taj Palace Hotel, we changed into bikinis and head out to the pool area.  This part of the hotel is amaaaaazing.  The pool is huge for a start, and everything is so well designed.  Sitting down on our sun loungers, I tried to relax, but failed miserably, there were too many pretty things to photograph!

IMG_3341_2

I left Jo at the hotel in the afternoon, and wandered around some of the stores, which really were very cool.  From chic boutiques, to design stores, Mumbai is definitely one of my favourite cities I’ve visited.

Back at the hotel, we changed for the evening, and head downstairs for pre-dinner cocktails, skipping dinner and going straight to the cognac and chocolate service haha!  It was such a perfect evening, sitting in such a stunning hotel.  We both agreed we should have stayed two nights and not one!

The next morning, following our lovely buffet breakfast (there was even a gluten free table!), we packed our bags, dropped our room key, and jumped in a cab to the airport.  I was now looking forward to getting home, and I know we both loved our flight back to the London, with hardly any passengers, we spread out, drank wine, and watched movies.

I can’t get India out of my mind, for all it’s up’s and downs, frustrating moments, food poisoning and lack of showering, I’ve never experienced a country like it in all my travels.  It’s got me hooked and I’m desperate to return.  Definitely with a TWO night stay at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel next time ;o)

Eat | Ladies that Lunch, at Bill’s Covent Garden

Bill's Covent Garden

London living is non-stop.  Between work, meetings, commuting and keeping up with day to day life, it’s sometimes hard to find any free time to catch up with friends.  I had a meeting in Covent Garden last week, and grabbed the opportunity to catch up with my friend Jo, when our diaries aligned to meet for lunch.

We decided to pop into Bill’s Covent Garden, in the gorgeous St Martin’s Courtyard, as it’s just had a makeover. We both love good interior design and delicious food, so it was the perfect place for our lunch date.  Seated at our table on the ground floor (there’s two floors and also outdoor seating), we turned our attention to the menu.

The staff were great, and brought me my very own gluten free menu, which makes my life soooo much easier.  And unlike many restaurants, Bill’s has a huge selection of GF dishes, including a handful of desserts.  We started with fried halloumi sticks & Bill’s chutney and hummus with smoked tomatoes and mixed seeds & gluten free bread.

Moving on to mains, we’re both suckers for anything with avocado on and ending up ordering the same dish – smashed avocado, feta and poached eggs, with baby spinach, red pepper dressing, coriander and chilli with gluten free toast.  Our starters and mains were equally delicious, with all being a generous portion size.  But I wasn’t stopping there, those gluten free desserts were whispering my name, so I placed an order for apple and gooseberry crumble with vanilla ice cream, which was seriously good and such a treat for a GF crumble to be on the dessert menu (trust me this is a rarity!).

The interior upgrade is gorgeous and glam, but with an urban edge, with beautiful velvet chairs dotted around the restaurant, chandeliers and exposed pipework on the ceiling.   I love that it felt classy, yet you can still enjoy the down to earth vibe of Bill’s.  From breakfast through to dinner, or even an after work cocktail, it’s a beautiful space to enjoy a meal or a drink anytime of day.  In fact, it’s such a nice space to be in, that when Jo and I finally looked at the time, we realised if we stayed any longer we’d need to order dinner there too!

Bill’s Covent Garden is dangerously close to loads of great shopping in the area, but this makes it a good place for a pitstop when your feet are weary.  I’ll definitely be heading back for more of that apple and gooseberry crumble, and there’s a burger I have my eye on too ;o)

St. Martin’s Courtyard, Off Long Acre
London WC2E 9AB
Monday to Saturday 8am – 11pm
Sunday & Bank Holidays 9am – 10.30pm

Detour | Varanasi on the Ganges River

Varanasi

Varanasi on the Ganges River is a place I won’t forget in a hurry.  It was our last adventure before heading back to Mumbai for a couple of days, and I think I’m still trying to process the memories of this place!

Having ticked the Taj Mahal off our bucket list, we were about to take our final train ride in India, to Delhi, before catching a flight from there to Varanasi.

The train journey was around four hours long, and Jo and I had a cabin to ourselves, so we were able to stretch out and relax for a bit, something we’d not done all that much of.  Both of us were starting to feel mentally drained as it’s difficult to switch off in India, especially as a foreigner visiting for the first time.

The train journey was unbelievably eye-opening.  We went through numerous run down towns, and each time I’d put my camera up to the window and shoot continuously as we chugged past, and then look at what images my camera had captured.  I unintentionally captured a man squatting and doing his business on the train tracks, which was a bit shocking to see as I flicked through the images!  And seeing families live in what I guess you’d describe as a shack, was an intense experience, but again I was reminded how little you need to be happy.

Pulling in at Delhi, we navigated our way through the chaos, and jumped on the train to the airport.  The difference between the train station and the airport was night and day.  We went from noise, dirt, people everywhere, everything looking rundown, to arriving at Delhi airport which is modern, slick, clean and extremely first world.  And I have to admit, Jo and I were so damn happy in that airport.  From the air conditioning to the familiar western food, I hate to sound like such a tourist, because I absolutely love experiencing different cultures, but we’d definitely had our fill at this stage.  From the lack of showering, to food poisoning, me not being able to eat half the time due to my gluten intolerance, and just feeling like we needed to recharge our batteries.  Thank you Delhi airport for that moment of peace and cleanliness!

And thank goodness for that moment at the airport, because Varanasi was about to assault our senses yet again.  Arriving in the evening, we jumped in a cab and drove towards our accommodation.  Navigating our way to our hostel (side note: consider hostels when you’re in India, we booked a private room each, and they’re often much better quality than a hotel), was an experience.  It was dark, there were monkeys swinging off buildings, stray dogs to step over and cows in the alleyway.  But we made it, and it was good to finally see a bed.  It had been a loooong day!

Jo and I always started our day’s slow and our first day in Varanasi was no exception.  We’d make a point of finding a good cafe on Google and we’d sit there for an hour or so drinking cappuccinos and just being in the moment.   Our first experience along the Ganges river was catching sight of a snake charmer, which was such a bucket list moment and really quite bizarre as this little snake would pop his head out of the basket each time the man played music.

Most of the action along the river occurs early morning and in the evening, so our first wander was pretty uneventful.  We saw some of the ghats, of which there are 88 in total, with steps leading down to the river so people can bathe and pray.  Two ghats are used as cremation sites, and we did witness this a little later that day.

Often the best experiences are when you have no plan and as we walked through the dusty alleyways in Varanasi, dodging a herd of water buffalo, we saw an open door leading into an Ashram.  Asking if we could come in, the residents welcomed us, letting us watch as they held a ceremony of prayer and allowing us to take photos too.

This was a pretty special experience with the ashram also being home to a school.  These little guys were so sweet!

Back down at the river that evening, the place was heaving with people.  We stopped to watch the burning of a body, which really does sound weird as I type those words!  I wasn’t sure how I’d respond to seeing this, but I guess in many ways, even though it was happening before my own eyes, it still didn’t seem real.

Stray dogs lurked around the cremation area, probably hoping for a snack, if you know what I mean.  And yes, we did see a dog with a big piece of charred who knows what in his mouth.  There is no sugar coating of anything along The Ganges River, life and death are both very much in your face, or as I experienced the following day, in your mouth, as I must have inhaled some of the ash (ARGH!), and devoured an entire block of chocolate to remove the tasted of whoever I had swallowed a piece of!

The following morning was an extremely early start, I think around 5am from memory.  We wanted to take a boat ride along the river to see the early morning bathers and people in prayer at sunrise.  Our guide looked all of 16 years old.  My only concern the whole time was trying not to get any of the water from the Ganges on me, which would flick up off the oar, as Jo and I would recoil and cringe as it landed on some part of us.

Just to clarify that we weren’t being princesses,  the river is the 5th most polluted in the world.  Bits of half burnt bodies, whole bodies that have been thrown overboard, open sewers, bathers (both human and animals) and industrial contaminants are floating around.  I’m guessing you’d not be that keen to have the Ganges River land on your either ;o)  The boat trip was definitely worth it.  Watching bathers dunk themselves under water three times in a prayer ritual, early morning cremations and the most interesting of characters wander around looking high on who knows what, it was pretty interesting to say the least!

We were leaving Varanasi that afternoon, and we were ready to head back to Mumbai which seemed tame compared to all we’d experienced.  But I wanted to take one last wander along the Ganges, so I left Jo at the hostel and raced down to the riverfront with my camera.  It was on this walk that I saw some of the most alarming sights.  I thought I was imagining it, but as I swung back for a second glance, I blinked in disbelief as a man strolled around in his little orange loin cloth, with his left arm completed removed from his shoulder socket.  WHAT?  It was following that moment, that I tasted the burning body in my mouth, and thought, thank you for the unique experiences Varanasi, but I’m ready to head to the airport now!

To Be Continued.

Detour | The Taj Mahal, India

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal in India features on many a person’s travel bucket list.  And I’ve done it, I’ve finally ticked the box and seen this beautiful structure up close and personal.

Leaving Jaipur very early one morning, we arrived at the train station, settled into our seats, and as the train pulled out of the station, we had a complete ‘OH SH*T’ moment as we thought we’d boarded the wrong train.  OMG can you imagine!  Thank goodness we WERE on the right train after all.  Panic over, we relaxed and enjoyed the moment of quiet, which is always a rare treat in India.

Taj Mahal India

We arrived in Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, around midday, did our usual bartering with a tuk-tuk driver and jumped aboard to head towards our accommodation.  I use the word ‘accommodation’ because I feel uncomfortable giving it the title of ‘hotel’.  On first glance, the place we’d chosen to lay our head down for one night actually looked quite nice.  It was surrounded by loads of greenery, and it was also spitting distance from the Taj Mahal.

Checking in at reception, we were informed that we’d actually booked a room that comes with a bucket of hot water, but if we’d like to upgrade to a superior room, then they would give us a special price and that would include running hot water whenever we liked.  Ha! I just loved these moments.  They’re so completely different to our first world lives.  So we ‘upgraded’ from the bucket to the water running through an actual shower hose.

Taj Mahal India

The cleanliness of the room was extremely questionable and a rock would’ve been softer than the pillows on offer, but we had more important issues to deal with.  We needed coffee.  And we’d seen a western looking take-out coffee shop just around the corner, so we walked in that direction.

It’s amazing the things that get you excited after a week or so in India.  Placing our order for two cappuccinos, they passed them over to us in actual take-out coffee cups.  I know it seems ridiculous, but when you’re used to the usual first world home comforts, and you’ve experienced none of them for a good while, getting coffee in a take-out cup (my favourite way to drink coffee) seems like a real treat.

Taj Mahal India

We sat at a table outside, which faced out towards the line for Indian nationals to enter the Taj Mahal.  Yes there is a separate line for the locals, where they pay a lesser price than tourists, but it means the line is a lot longer.  The line was largely made up of males.  Think hundreds and hundreds of males standing on the small street opposite us.  Now keep in mind, two western girls stand out like a sore thumb.  It was the largest audience I’ve ever had watching me drink my cappuccino! I loved these moments, where for once I was the minority, the one that others looked at with strange curiosity.  It’s always good to be on the other side of the coin every so often!

After buying a street kid a huge piece of chocolate cake from the cafe, and watching him scuttle off wide eyed and happy, and then worrying immensely about the skinny dog that had settled down near my feet, we head back to our ‘accommodation’ to get sorted for our visit to the Taj Mahal.

Taj Mahal India

Tickets bought, we entered through the tourist gate, which had no queue at all and made me feel a little uncomfortable and sad that I was lucky enough and ‘wealthy’ enough to pay for that ticket, where all the people from India who had likely travelled a long distance to see the Taj Mahal were stuck in a line that would take hours.

Our original plan had been to visit the following day at sunrise, when there are very few people on the grounds.  However the weather was showing clouds and so we’d ended up getting our first sighting of the Taj Mahal at around 3pm when every man and his cousin, aunt and grandfather was there too.  It was a bit of a battle getting to a spot where you could get a decent shot, and just when we managed to steady our camera, we were asked ‘Excuse me madam, could we have a photo with you?’.  This was definitely the turning point for Jo and I, on how generous we were, obliging with selfies.  We’d finally made it to the freakin’ Taj Mahal, we were staring straight at it, we had a good viewpoint for a lovely photo to take home for our own memories, and the selfie requests started.    I sound bitter and twisted I knoooooow, but guys, I honestly obliged with hundreds of selfie requests, so this time I was standing my ground and saying no.  I wanted to selfishly take in this moment for myself.

Taj Mahal India

We wandered the grounds and snapped loads of our own selfies, commenting on how the Taj Mahal looked so much smaller in real life.  This has been my experience with every famous monument or building I’ve ever seen up close.  Buckingham Palace was much smaller than I ever expected, The White House was waaaaaay smaller than I’d imagined, and so I guess it should have come as no surprise that the Taj Mahal was also smaller too.

It is truly beautiful nonetheless, and I feel I should paste some Wikipedia text here so this post doesn’t just talk about hot water in buckets, take-out coffee cups and selfies! ;o)  Wikipedia says: The Taj Mahal, meaning “Crown of the Palace” is an ivory-white marble mausoleum on the south bank of the Yamuna river in the Indian city of Agra. It was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan (reigned from 1628 to 1658), to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The tomb is the centrepiece of a 17-hectare (42-acre) complex, which includes a mosque and a guest house, and is set in formal gardens bounded on three sides by a crenellated wall.

Taj Mahal

We spent a good couple of hours strolling the grounds, and taking it all in.  Before we left, we wanted to get one good photo each of us standing in front of the water, with the Taj Mahal in the background.  This was equal parts frustrating and total comedy.  I mean, you’ve got thousands of people wandering the grounds, with the exact same thought.  Everyone wants that photo!  We took turns to make our way down the steps and to stand in the exact spot that would make for the perfect photo.  Except the problem was, to our left and to our right, were other tourists trying to do the same thing and we didn’t want them in our photo.

Jo got lucky and snapped a handful of photos of me that were tourist free.  We’d not had the same luck getting a photo of Jo, so I sent her back down the steps and instructed her not to move.  I had a guy next to me with his camera pointed at his friend, and said friend was showing up in my view finder.  Neither of us were willing to budge.  Eventually a man appeared next to Jo, and to this day we’ve no idea if he actually worked at the Taj Mahal or not, but he ushered all the other tourists away so Jo could have her moment of glory and I could snap a tourist free photo of her.  This still makes me laugh!  One thing we discovered over and over was the helpfulness and kindness of locals, even if it meant it was slightly awkward and other tourists were pushed to the side! ;o)

Taj Mahal India

Leaving the Taj Mahal, our thoughts turned to food and we bartered with some tuk-tuk drivers to take us to a restaurant.  One tuk-tuk driver ended up pushing the other which was a bit of a shock to see, and also sad that there’s that amount of desperation to make a living.  We told him off nonetheless!  We ate a delicious dinner in a lovely restaurant, and as we returned that evening, and walked past the coffee shop we’d sat at earlier that day, I saw my skinny dog.  I chatted to him in a baby voice, and for a short moment he looked happy and his tail wagged.  My heart still breaks every time I think of that dog :o(

And as for the hot water.  We returned to our ‘accommodation’, planning on a hot shower in our upgraded ‘superior room’.  Alas, there was no hot water.  Off to reception we went, to explain our situation.  It was to be no problem, one of the guys just had to climb on the roof above our room and turn it on.  HAHA!  I heard him up on the roof, and then I turned on the basin taps.  Out of the taps flowed brown water.  I decided in that moment, that I’d yet again skip the luxury of a shower on this day. ;o)

Next stop: Varanasi on the Ganges River.  To Be Continued.

Taj Mahal

Detour | A few days in Jaipur, Rajasthan

Monkey Temple Jaipur

If you read my last blog post here on my time in Udaipur, you’ll already know that I’d woken up the morning we were leaving for Jaipur, and it was Illness – 1 Annmaree – 0.  Talk about the worst timing!  I Whatsapp’d Jo who was in her own room, telling her I didn’t know if I could fly, as I’d been up since 4.30am, spending most of that time in the bathroom – sorry if TMI! ;o)

I popped an immodium hoping that might at least give me some sort of insurance policy, swallowing it, then sprinting to the bathroom to bring that plus the entire contents of my stomach back up.  OMG not fun.  But I soldiered on!  I packed my bags, head downstairs, got into our cab and hoped for the best.  Laying my head back on the car seat, I willed the journey to the airport to go reaaaally fast, and the moment we pulled up, I dumped my bags with Jo and ran towards the airport bathroom.  I allowed myself all of 10 seconds to feel sorry for myself, whilst I stared down the toilet bowl in the cubicle.  I had a little cry, wiped my mouth, and went to check in.

Call it a miracle, but that was more or less the end of the illness.  THANK GOODNESS!  We landed in Jaipur, pre-paid for a tuk tuk, and made our way towards our hotel.  By this stage, my whole body was aching like I had the flu, I guess from dehydration and whatever bug I’d picked up.  All I wanted to do was take a shower and lay my head down on a pillow.

Arriving at the hotel, we were shown our rooms: windowless boxes in the basement, with external toilets and a bunch of mattresses on the floor, where the staff sleep during their breaks.  Yes, you read right.  Here’s the thing in India, the staff often come from villages hours away by train, leaving their wives and children so they can work seven days a week, with minimal breaks, to make money to send home.  They have no staff quarters, so they either sleep on the floor, or on the sofa in the hotel reception area.  This was a common occurrence throughout our trip.

As understanding as we were to the staff’s situation, the last thing Jo and I felt like dealing with, were external bathrooms and the knowledge a bunch of strangers were sleeping outside our rooms on mattresses.  This was definitely our first moment of the trip where we really craved some home comforts.

We considered moving to a Sheraton hotel, just so we could rest and be certain of having a hot shower, but in the end, we upgraded to rooms with our own bathrooms, and I ended up staying in bed the entire day, aching and weak.

As much as I felt like I was wasting the day, it was so necessary to recuperate and regain some energy, something you need a lot of whilst travelling around India.

The following day, still a little weak, but feeling human again, I was determined to get out and about in Jaipur and see as much as I could.  We started the day our usual way, cappuccino’s in a western style cafe, where we always allowed ourselves 1-2 hours to start the day slowly, chit chat, and enjoy our coffee.

Jaipur, also known as the Pink City, has some beautiful architecture inside the old city walls, so we jumped in a tuk tuk and made our way in that direction.  Walking towards the entrance of the old city, we literally stepped over a man who was face first on the floor and most certainly not moving.  Jo and I are pretty certain he wasn’t alive!  These surreal moments happen often in India, and even when you’re there, stepping over a human being that doesn’t appear to be breathing, it’s still hard to connect with the moment and think THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING!

Inside the old city of Jaipur you’ll find shop after shop, which are really trying to target the tourists.  I’m going to be honest, it gets unbelievably tedious with the relentless ‘hey lady, you want shoes?’ ‘hello madame, come and see inside my shop, I have nice sari’s, pashmina…’.  The most patient person would start to lose their shit.   Our shells were starting to harden, and yes we may have been a little short with some shop owners, and we know they are just trying to make money to take home to their family, but it’s exhausting when every 20 seconds you find yourself saying ‘no thank you’, ‘i’m just looking thanks’, ‘no i’m not interested’.

I think this is why we loved our regular coffee breaks, it was the only way to hide away from the barrage of noise, questions, and general intensity.  So we did exactly that after an hour or so of being inside Jaipur’s old city.  We found the Wind View Cafe, and ascended to the top of the building, enjoying a moment of peace, whilst looking out at the gorgeous pink Hawa Mahal (in the photo above).

An afternoon spent inside the sari market in Jaipur was truly amazing!  It is Aladdin’s cave, but with sari’s.  A labyrinth of narrow alleyways, where you are literally squishing past mostly women, is home to stall after stall of sari sellers.  I have never in my life seen so many beautiful fabrics and colours.  We were on a mission to purchase sari’s, so we could take photos in them at the Monkey Temple in Jaipur.

However, as I’ve probably mentioned many times already, NOTHING is simple in Jaipur.  We ended up following some shop assistant around the sari labyrinth in search of sari blouses, the little cropped tops you wear under your outfit.  He took us to half a dozen shops, and each time he’d show us something that was exactly what we HADN’T asked for.  We’d give him the benefit of the doubt, and in the end, we just had to be a little short and tell him ‘no thank you, we’re leaving’ and walked away.  Thankfully a couple of helpful shopkeepers pointed us in the right direction of the sari blouse sellers and we eventually made our purchase.

By late afternoon, we called it a day.  It was time to find a restaurant for dinner, sit on our butts, and relax!

The next morning, we were up early.  The staff in our hotel really were fantastic, and any request we made, they tried their best to help us with.  I’d asked if someone could help us tie our sari’s and the staff arranged for us to go to the neighbours house so the women there could get us ready.  I was ready to pop next door at 7am.  I was still waiting at 8.15am.  Again, this is India, and they work on their own time schedule.  When I finally went next door, the family were lovely and it quickly turned out that I hadn’t been sold a sari, but instead a piece of fabric that wouldn’t be long enough.  Nothing was surprising by this stage of the trip.

One of the women offered me a choice of her sari’s, what a lifesaver, and so kind too!  I chose out an orange and pink sari and she went to work carefully wrapping and folding the fabric to perfection.  Some time later, Jo and I were both ready, our tuk tuk turned up and we drove towards the monkey temple.

Now this moment was an experience.  I think Jo is still having nightmares, wondering why I made her go through with it! Ha!  We pulled up at the walking track, where there was rubbish every which way you looked.  There were also goats, cows, pigs and monkeys traipsing around in the rubbish.  A man and a young boy approached our tuk tuk asking if we’d like to buy nuts to feed the monkeys.  ‘No thank you’ we both said.  I love monkeys, but I’d already seen the size of some of them and I was not comfortable getting too close to them!  The young boy offered to be our ‘monkey protector’.  We declined, but he also declined to listen and walked alongside us as we started on the path towards the temple.

I quickly felt grateful for our young monkey protector, as Jo and I jumped and squealed when a monkey came within a metre of us.  Our little friend kept assuring us ‘don’t worry, I am monkey protector, these monkeys are my friends’.  I’ve never felt so reliant on a child in my life!  We navigated our way past the tiny kids that lived in huts on the track, as they ran towards us, trying to block our way, saying ‘bindi! you want bindi?’.  I confess I had to give a kid of around 4 years old a stern ‘NO!’ complete with finger point, because I literally could not get past her!

We finally made it to the temple, where we encountered one of the worst smells of our lives.  That, the monkeys rushing past, and the people that lived on the temple who were illegally trying to ask for money from us, meant our morning was one of severe intensity.

Jo and I both took turns standing to face the water in front of the main temple, and pose in our sari’s to capture the moment.  The smell was deep in our nostrils by this point, and we were almost ready to give up on it, when I stepped out one last time, and Jo manage to press the shutter button at the exact moment a monkey strolled past.  This is my favourite photo of my entire trip in India.  What the photo doesn’t capture, is the rubbish floating in the water, as I spent a very long time editing it out.  So please, if you visit the temple in Jaipur, expect the unexpected, you may get lucky and visit when there’s no smell or rubbish, or you could get the same experience we did.

Back up the path with our monkey protector, we slipped him some money and head back to the hotel to change, before yet again jumping in a tuk tuk to stop for lunch.  Then on to some shops for a quick look, a stroll around Amer Fort, a quick hike to the top of a hill to catch the sunrise, and finally sitting our butts down again, to relax and have dinner.

Jaipur was intense, it’s very noisy, very dirty and very chaotic.  But I urge you to add it to your itinerary as there are so many amazing sights to see in that buzzing city.

We were on the move yet again, this time waking early to head to the train station and catch a train to Agra.  Next stop: The Taj Mahal.

To Be Continued….

Detour | Onward to Udaipur, Rajasthan

Udaipur

Hello! Firstly, apologies for the seriously long delays between my India blog posts, but life and work just seems to get in the way, so please be patient with me ;o)  In my last post which you can read here, I shared my adventures in Jodhpur, and now it’s onward to Udaipur, Rajasthan.

We’d decided to hire a driver to travel between Jodhpur and Udaipur, and arranged everything the day before the trip, with the manager at our accommodation.  Agreeing to set off early, we were up and ready the following morning, took a tuk-tuk to the meeting place of our driver, and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  An hour went by.  Next thing our hotel manager turns up, explaining there had been a problem with the car, and we’d now be going to Udaipur with a different driver.  Jo and I were starting to see that anything we did or organised whilst in India, would never be a simple process.

We met our new driver, jumped in his car and set off in the direction of Ranakpur Temple, a Jain temple made of marble, and something we wanted to see up close.  We chatted back and forth with our driver, and warmed to him immediately.  He was the loveliest man, a very fatherly type, and we felt safe in his company and knew he’d look after us.

We drove through some small towns where the only description I can come up with is ‘total poverty’.  It is such an eye opener, and every time I experienced these moments, and saw people smiling and laughing, it confirmed how little material possessions we actually need, to make our lives a happy one.

A few hours drive later, we arrived at Ranakpur Temple.  As you’ll see from the photos above and below, it’s pretty magnificent!  We slipped off our shoes, and ascended the stairs into the temple, where there are over 1444 marble pillars, with no two pillars featuring the same carving.  It was the perfect pit stop between the two cities, and I’d highly recommend it.

Back in the car, we carried on, driving through the mountains towards Udaipur, arriving early evening.  Our lovely, kind hearted driver, dropped us at the entrance to the old city, hailed us a tuk-tuk, making sure we didn’t get ripped off, and gave us his number in case we had any problems.  We jumped in the tuk-tuk and chugged off towards our hotel.

Rajasthan

Udaipur, also known as the City of Lakes, has a more serene feeling to it than any of the other spots we visited in India.  Full of exquisite palaces and temples, we quickly realised this city has a slower pace, and the locals were a lot more relaxed too.  It was a welcome change, to feel life move a little slower for a few days.

Our slow paced mornings in Udaipur always started with coffee at Millets of Mewar, a vegan AND GLUTEN FREE restaurant.  The food here is delicious, from the gluten free pancakes to the curries, and I highly recommend it if you’re staying nearby.  Jo and I would sit there for an hour or so, sipping almond milk cappuccinos, whilst putting the world to rights.

We spent our days in Udaipur wandering around, with no itinerary, visiting the City Palace, discovering great cafes and chit chatting to locals.

And it was on one particular evening when chatting to a store owner, and suddenly hearing a lot of noise down the road, that Udaipur’s slower pace suddenly picked up.  The store owner explained that it was wedding season, and the noise was in fact the groom and guests walking parade style to meet his bride.  Actually, let me clarify, the guests were walking, the groom was on a magnificent white horse, looking like something out of a fairytale book.

Within minutes, we managed to be swept up in the middle of the parade, with guests going crazy around us, dancing, bellowing at us to dance, little old ladies nudging us from behind to move forward towards the wedding venue and everyone saying ‘you’re coming to the wedding!’.  It was 10 minutes of utter madness and fun, but we certainly weren’t dressed for a wedding, and we managed to wiggle out of the clutches of the guests and stand on the side of the road to continue watching the party go by.

I had one ‘interesting’ situation happen in Udaipur.  An encounter with a massage guy, who stands outside his centre, and asks to check your health by pressing on your palms.  I obliged, and to be fair, he was extremely accurate when it came to my aches and pains.  Deciding to book a massage, I turned up for my appointment, was lead upstairs to the room, and told to undress.  This sort of massage is not for the faint hearted, there was no ‘I’ll leave the room whilst you undress’, he just stood in the corner and waited.  That’s fine, I’m pretty relaxed with that sort of thing.

The massage was an hour long.  Was it good from a technique point of view? Yes, sure.  But oh my days, I would have had friends running out of that room crying.  This man claims he travels to Europe to work on clients, so therefore you would assume he’d understand what type of dialogue is acceptable/not acceptable to westerners.  The man was creepy.  Physically I did not feel violated, but his conversation with me and his word choice were not okay. I am so thankful that I am able to feel strong enough in myself and not come across as weak or afraid to these sort of people, especially when you have some strange 6ft man hovering over you on the massage bed and he says ‘don’t worry, I won’t touch your special flower’.  Honestly.  Those are the exact words.

I’ve had experience with an Indian healer before, and I know that they are much less prudish than us westerners, however I also feel that this massage therapist in Udaipur isn’t someone you should trust.  As it turns out, one European woman reported him to the police and he went to jail for a bit, and as I asked around about his reputation, the general reply was that he’s very good at massage but a ‘very bad man’ – the locals words.  Wow.  SO, please, if you’re in Udaipur DO NOT VISIT Bharti Massage Centre.  You’ll recognise the man immediately, he’s an older man, usually in trousers, shirt and sandals, with long hair pulled back in a ponytail, and he works with his son.  I’ve since read all sorts of negative reviews on other tourists experiences there, and whilst nothing happened to me that I felt violated in a physical sense, I know his conversation would have deeply affected some of my friends if they’d been in my shoes.  I’d like to protect others from that potential negative experience.

Aside from that bit of drama and a random encounter with a Swiss hairstylist, where I ended up being her ‘model’ for a dress fitting for one of her upcoming shows, we drank coffee, ate delicious food, we even had Mexican and margharita’s one evening, whilst perched on a rooftop balcony that overlooked the lake.

The one thing I had been very weary about throughout my trip, was getting ill, because I have a 100% success rate at getting sick in second/third world countries. So every coffee I sipped, I would eye it up, suspicious of how fresh the milk was and how clean the cup was.  I’d wash my hands in anti-bac gel a gazillion times a day, and kept up with my daily dose of probiotics.

And so it was, that I kept this 100% success rate, and found myself waking up feeling incredibly unwell at 4am, on the morning we were due to leave for Jaipur.  I was A. thankful that Jo and I had booked separate rooms at this particular hotel but B. wondered how on earth I’d manage to get myself together by 7am, get in a taxi, and take a flight.  And don’t say ‘well why didn’t you just take immodium?’  Oh I did, and threw it back up 10 seconds later.  I knew this day was not going to be pretty….

To Be Continued in my next blog post x