A Travellerspoint blog

(My) Passage To India

it's getting close

sunny 2 °C

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There are the mixologists who combine all kinds of booze and juice and other non-alcoholic beverages to create fanciful cocktails ... and then there's Rashmi -- who I've decided is also a mixologist -- only she has a real knack for throwing a bunch of people together, and creating a diverse yet compatible group (which makes me think that the next time I want to meet a guy I should put her in charge.)

The dinner at her house was such a great idea. She invited some folks who had been on previous trips with her and those of us going in December who live here (there's a couple coming from Australia who obviously didn't make it to the dinner -- although if we'd known that CNN could make a hologram of someone and import them from one location to another ...).

And we all got to know each other over a wonderful, home-cooked Indian dinner.

Those who had travelled with Rashmi before couldn't stop raving about her and the trips she'd organized for them. All we heard, over and over again, was what a great time we were going to have. And they all had fabulous and interesting stories to share with us: how challenging it is to get up on a camel, let alone to ride one ... how much the kids in the villages loved the little gifts they brought them ... how blown away we'd be by the opulance of the palace hotels ... how moved we'd be during the evening Aarti prayer on the Ganges in Varanasi, and on and on it went.

One minute we were strangers -- and the next we were united by our common interest in India. It was truly amazing.

I had a chance to talk to everyone going on our trip, too. There's an incredibly bright woman who owns her own IT company and commutes between North Carolina and Toronto ... her cousin who was a teacher and just bubbles over with enthusiasm and energy ... a soft-spoken, really well-travelled bridge instructor ... me ... and Haidee -- a photographer who's originally from South Africa.

It's a great group and I can't wait to really get to know them. I am very glad I decided against going alone. It will be so much better to have people to share these experiences with.

But it gets even better.

Haidee and I have decided to collaborate on a book of this trip --

with her being a photographer and me being a writer it's a natural! In talking to her that night we realized how much we had in common. It's unreal -- and all good!

Now the time is starting to fly by and it's time to decide what I'm taking on the trip. I pare it down and pare it down because I know I plan to shop. I am definitely buying a sari and I know I want several salwar kameez -- and that's just the beginning -- yes, I will be stashing an extra piece of luggage that folds up into a sack in my luggage.

I've done just about everything I can to prepare for this trip. All that's left to do is get my prescriptions ... last minute stuff from the drugstore ... socks ... an extra memory card and a spare battery for my camera ... money ... and, pack.

Even our itinerary is now cast in stone:

We fly to Delhi (through Brussels and spend a couple of days there. Then we go to Agra (Taj Mahal) ... Samode (where we stay in the most beautiful palace hotel -- Samode Palace -- and celebrate New Years -- albeit 10 1/2 hours before you do here) ... Jaipur (pink city and also where we get to ride elephants) ... Bikaner (where we begin our desert adventure) ... Jaisalmer (camel ride) ... Manvar (where we get to stay in tents and watch the sunset over the dunes) ... Jodhpur (yes, maybe I'll even buy some) ... Deogarh ... Udaipur (where we stay in a floating hotel) ... Varanasi ... Khajuraho (think Kama Sutra) ... Mumbai (where the couple from Australia leave us to go home) ... and then on to a week in the South, in Kerala -- we start with an overnight houseboat cruise of the backwaters ... go to Munnar (tea and spice plantations) ... on to Thekkedy (where there is a wild animal reserve, a wonderful Auryvedic Spa and we'll also get some cooking lessons) ... Cochin -- then back to Mumbai for our flight home.

Yes, we will be covering a lot of ground, but I can't wait. There will be lots and lots of pictures -- some you'll see on this blog -- for the rest you will have to endure a slide presentation when I get back home. Maybe I'll bribe you by inviting you to a beautiful Indian meal I will cook for you, with spices I bring home from India!

To those of you who have endured my endless dissertations on India and descriptions of every event that has led up to this journey, thank you for your patience. I can't wait to share my experiences with you -- on this blog and then again "in the flesh".

I hope you enjoy travelling vicariously with me -- and I hope I inspire you to make the journey yourself one day. The next time you hear from me I will be at the airport -- or better yet, in my pod on the plane.

Namaste ...

Posted by a_broad 12:59 Archived in India Tagged preparation Comments (0)

Desperately Seeking Ganesha

the faith to remove all obstacles

semi-overcast 14 °C

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Daunted? Me? Oh ye of little faith! I thought you knew me better than that. A couple of little setbacks aren't going to dissuade me from going to India. All it's made me do is go out and buy a second guide book -- Frommer's Guide -- and spend even more time on the Internet -- and start talking to everyone I know who's been there.

India was definitely in my immediate future and one way or the other I was going to organize the trip of my dreams. Truth be told, I was enjoying the challenges. I was loving the research because, in the process, I was learning a lot about India and I know that when I finally get there, it will be a lot more familiar to me than it would be if everything had gone smoothly and quickly. There's no question that the preparation is almost as much fun as the participation. What's that saying? 90% Perspiration and 10% Inspiration?

First stop? I spoke to Allison, who used to work for me, who has been to India a couple of times. It was a wonderful conversation and I came away with tons of useful information and tips:

For instance ...

She convinced me that, considering that I couldn't go for months on end, as charming as Pondicherry sounded I should go to Varanasi instead. Of course after I'd left her and did my homework I quickly realized she was absolutely right. It is, after all, the spiritual essence of India -- an absolute must-see. Challenging to be sure -- I would see things that would be difficult to handle -- but pushing my boundaries is one of the many reasons I want to go to India in the first place.

Varanasi is where Indians go to die -- and bodies are cremated along the banks of the sacred Ganges 24 hours a day. It is believed that if you die in Varanasi your soul can finally rest in peace.

Allison also warned me about the trains in India and suggested that, because I was traveling alone, I avoid them altogether. I took this suggestion very seriously because Allison is someone who goes confidently where others fear to tread. So if she was warning me about something -- anything actually -- I was going to listen.

She had been to some of the hotels I had decided I'd like to stay at, so that gave me some confidence. She told me I would love the people -- and if I met a local who invited me home for a meal I should definitely go -- it would be a fabulous experience. She told me over and over again how terrific the people are -- how warm, how friendly, how generous, how kind.

She told me not to be afraid of getting delhi-belly -- that she'd never had a problem -- that I should just use common sense.

I walked away from my time with her with pages and pages of notes. It was great --and it reminded me that there is tremendous value in talking to people who have spent time in far away or exotic places you want to visit. Guidebooks are great, the Internet is great, but you can't overlook the recommendations, suggestions and watch-out-fors from people you know and trust.

Which is why I also talked to another friend of mine, Daryl. She'd spent 3 months in India on business and her advice was also invaluable -- not to mention her shopping tips -- like wait to buy a sari in Varanasi, where they are known for silk. And she would know because she told me she shopped so much she had to buy another suitcase and still she had to ship things home!

All my homework certainly paid off:

By now I knew exactly where I wanted to go, when I wanted to go, what I wanted to see, how long I wanted to stay and which hotels I wanted to stay in. It was time to find the right travel agent; and just when I was thinking I might try an agent in the U.K. (with the Internet geography doesn't matter) serendipity took over.

While talking to John, another friend, I mentioned I was planning a trip to India. "OMG", he said. "I have a friend who went to India recently and LOVES his travel agent. Do you want me to get her name for you?"

"Please" was my answer.

I spoke with John's friend Richard that night -- or more to the point, I listened to him rave about his trip and his agent for the better part of an hour. The next morning I called Rashmi Brahmbhatt, the owner of Crossways Travel & Tours. I trusted her immediately. I loved her immediately. And it took her about 5 minutes to convince me to join her on a very small group (8 people in total) trip -- to exactly the places I wanted to see -- that she was leading at the end of the year -- Delhi, Rajasthan, Varanasi, Mumbai and Kerala.

First off, it was Rashmi's passion that got to me.

Rashmi is someone who loves her country ... who is proud of where she comes from ... who revels in its history and customs and pagentry; and wants nothing more than to share it with you. She wants to give you an experience you will cherish forever, and turns herself inside out to deliver.

She understood what I wanted to get out of this trip in a nano-second -- and in about the same amount of time I knew I couldn't be in better hands.

We talked for about a half an hour -- the first of many, many, many wonderful and interesting conversations we've had about her homeland and our trip.

I have never seen anyone work so hard. To say she aims to please is an understatement. But the better I've gotten to know her during the months we've been planning this trip the more I have come to realize that Rashmi gets pleasure from giving pleasure.

Over and over again she refined the trip -- like a craftsman who is working on a piece of marble or fine wood -- constantly polishing and sanding and polishing some more. Re-plotting the course we would take and how long we would stay ... adding in a train journey so we could add that to the many experiences we would bring home with us ... allowing enough time to rest and to shop ... making sure we would have enough time on our own ... breaking up long stretches of driving by stopping and enjoying historical sites, or meeting village people, or simply having a leisurely lunch ... giving us a taste not only of the typical tourist attractions but how the real people live as well ... making sure we see not only the splendour but the spirituality and even the squalor -- the real India.

She was never satisfied. Each time she said she was finished, she would start again.

And she was just as committed to finding people to join us who would be compatible.

What would have been easy would have been for Rashmi to simply advertise the trip. But that's not how she does things. Like a matchmaker, she wants to make sure the chemistry will be right ... that we'll be willing to compromise so everyone gets to see and do what they want ... that we'll roll with the punches when reality sets in and we're dealt the odd surprise -- which is bound to happen no matter how well everything is planned. Like with everything else concerning this trip, she refused to compromise -- even if it meant we'd be a smaller group than she'd hoped for.

While Rashmi was finalizing the itinerary I started making lists of what I'd need and need to do. For someone who hates needles, I could look forward to becoming a pin cushion.

Never mind ...

So off I trotted to the doctor for polio, dyptheria, tetanus, thyphoid and Twinrix shots. She also convinced me to take a flu shot -- my first ever -- because I'd be on a plane for so long. She sold me when she said, "You don't want to get the flu and ruin your trip do you?" With a sigh I gamely rolled up my sleeve and raised my arm.

If nothing else this experience has cured me of my fear of getting jabbed!

Happily I had no reactions. Two weeks before I leave I will take Dukoral (prevents ecoli) and soon after I will start my anti-malaria pills. Thankfully there is a new one on the market -- Malarone -- which apparently has no side effects.

I will also make sure I have a full list from her of stuff to include in a First Aid Kit. What can I say? I was a Girl Guide when I was a kid. I believe in 'Be Prepared'. Considering the reaction I got to some mosquito bites in Bequia last year let me assure you that I have every intention of making sure I am well stocked with steroid cream and anti-histimines.

Next I took care of my Visa and I was shocked at how quickly I got it -- about a week. Now all I really had to do was think about what clothes I would take ... and stop spending and start saving so I'd actually have some money for the trip.

Now there's a concept ...

And while I was in list Heaven Rashmi was constantly thinking of anything and everything she could do to make sure we all had a spectacular time -- including hosting a dinner party so we could all meet each other -- with the exception of the couple coming from Australia, obviously. And ...? The verdict ...?

Posted by a_broad 13:35 Archived in India Tagged preparation Comments (0)

Salwar Kameez if you Please

going to India at last

rain 11 °C

I have always wanted to go to India -- for as long as I can remember. I've always been fascinated with its history and spiritualiity ... and have also been attracted to its dazzling, over-saturated colour and texture, architecture and treasures, music and films, literature and culture and, yes, food. It is just a sensory feast -- almost more than one can bear actually. It's been there, always in the back of my mind ... until destiny recently took over:

One of my mother's closest friends has a daughter who is married to a man who works for Unicef. Most of their married life has been spent moving from place to place -- Bangladesh, Africa, Viet Nam, Nepal -- and now they are in Delhi.

When my mom died Ellen (the daughter) sent me a lovely note and planted the seed -- "why not come to India while we're here?" she asked. Why not indeed. So, without hesitating for even a minute, I sent back an email saying I was seriously thinking about it.

She then got back to me and said that India could be overwhelming -- there was so much to see and do and learn. She went on to say I needed to think carefully about what I wanted from this trip -- did I want a cultural experience ... a spiritual experience ... an architectural experience etc.

At that particular time of my life, having just lost my mother, this seemed like too big a task. She was right, of course, but I didn't think I had it in me to do that much soul-searching. So I tucked it right back into the back of my mind where it had always been, promising myself that I would get to it in the near future.

But I'd caught the bug.

And although I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about it, I did occasionally spend time on the Internet doing some research. Then one Sunday morning in late Winter or early Spring of this year I was plowing through the New York Times over breakfast.

Lo and behold, they had an article in the Travel Section about Pondicherry. Located in the Southeast on the Bay of Bengal, what I found fascinating about Pondicherry is the fact that it consists of 4 former French coastal settlements. So you can walk down one side of a street, order a cafe au lait and speak French and on the other you see men and women in native Indian garb, speaking Hindi.

I was sold!

So back I went on the Internet -- and that's when I discovered Kerala -- otherwise known as "God's Own Country" -- magnificent, lush, verdant, a nature lover's paradise -- and also the birthplace of Ayurvedic treatments.

An itinerary was starting to take shape in my mind: Delhi (lots to see including Ellen) ... Agra (how could I not go to see the Taj Mahal) ... Pondicherry ... Kerala. My mind was made up. I was going to India.

Did some more research online and decided on a December/January timeframe because the weather was the easiest to bear -- dry, relatively cool in the North and tolerable in the South.

Ironically I was going to Montreal for a bar mitzvah and Ellen was there visiting her mother. We met for lunch and talked about my plans. She suggested that I add Jaipur to my itinerary. We agreed that I would come back to Toronto, do more extensive research, complete a thorough itinerary and send it to her for comments and suggestions. My dream was becoming reality.

The minute I got back I headed to the travel section of my favourite bookstore. Grabbing 6 books on India off the shelf I found an easy chair and started going through them. I must have been there for at least an hour and a half. Finally I settled on one: Fodor's Guide to India. I picked that one because one of the features it had was suggestions on what to see if you only had 3 days, or 5 days or 7 days, etc. -- and, as Ellen had warned me, there was so much to see I was already drowning. The guidebook was helping me make sense of it all and narrow my wish list down. It was definitely the right choice for me to have made.

As I read, I kept turning to the Internet -- to check out hotels and sites ... temples and tours ... shopping and galleries ... cities, towns and villages.

I also decided, along the way, that I wanted to go on this trip alone. Why, I do not know -- or at least I didn't feel like delving into it. I am someone who tends to trust my instincts so I wasn't questioning it. If I wanted to go alone, I'd go alone. My friends, although supportive, tried to suggest that I reconsider this decision. They were concerned -- and I can't say their concerns weren't valid -- I, for some reason, just didn't share them.

And then I discovered The Palace On Wheels.

The Palace on Wheels is a luxury train that is a replica of those once owned by rulers -- to say it's ornate is an understatement. The beauty of it is that because you travel from place to place overnight, in just 8 days you get to see a lot of Rajasthan -- much more than I had thought manageable on my own.

This way I could not only see Agra and Jaipur I would also travel to Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Ranthambhore, Chittaurgarh, Udaipur and Bharatpur. The price included meals, tours, everything but tips, sundries, alcohol, etc. It made great use of time and my friends were thrilled because at least on this part of the journey I wouldn't be alone.

If I did this at the beginning of my trip I'd get my "sea legs" before setting off on my own.

I checked out their website and the price with a single supplement, for travel in December/January was $3,800.

I also found a travel company online, that came highly recommended.

They had an office in Toronto so I called. They didn't book the Palace on Wheels so I said I could do that myself -- and I asked them to plan the rest of my trip -- including cars, drivers and English speaking guides. I gave the girl I spoke with a rough idea of what I was interested in, and a rough budget.

In less then half an hour I had received an email from her with a suggested itinerary. I must say this surprised me a bit -- I would have thought she might have spent a bit more time thinking about it -- but ...

She was off the mark completely on the hotels -- putting me in American hotels in some places; and the itinerary itself was OK but it wasn't making my heart skip a beat. Personally I think it was right off the shelf -- I didn't feel like she'd listened to me at all. So I called her back and re-briefed her. The follow-up wasn't really that much more exciting. Plus she had me flying everywhere -- which meant I wouldn't see anything of the countryside -- and I would have spent most of my time at airports waiting endlessly for planes.

Back to the drawing board I went ...

The next travel agent I found was, surprisingly enough, right near my office. This time he said he could book the train for me -- and once we'd settled on a date for the train he'd build the rest of the vacation around it. I liked him -- and felt he'd add a lot of value because he is from India himself -- and I figured that the personal knowledge he would bring would be a real benefit.

Within a few hours I got a call from him. He had an available date in December and then he told me the trip would cost me $7,900 -- more than double what I'd found online!

I explained that this couldn't be. He said I couldn't be right -- that I'd looked at the wrong time of year or had forgotten about the single supplement, which is apparently high in India.

Knowing I was right about what I'd found I told him to go to the site I'd been to -- which is the Palace On Wheels site -- and told him what I'd done to get the cost. In minutes he called me back to say I had been right. Not that it did me any good -- they refused to honour that price.

Truth be told, I'd written him and the train off and I was re-thinking my itinerary yet again, when -- days later -- I heard from him.

"I have a great deal for you", he proclaimed!

"I called them directly -- in India -- and here's what they are prepared to do for you: They (Palace on Wheels) will try to find a room mate for you -- maybe a woman -- and, if they cannot you will not have to pay the single supplement."

Giving my head a shake -- because I couldn't believe I'd heard right -- I said, "Are you suggesting that I not only share a stateroom on a train with a complete stranger, but that stranger could very possible be a man?"

Don't get me wrong. I'm no prude. And I am looking for an adventure. But being cooped up in a small space with some strange man isn't my idea of heaven -- unless of course he's George Clooney -- or Barack Obama -- and truth be told, I don't think his wife would let him go.

So ... did this make me give up on India??

Posted by a_broad 09:36 Archived in India Tagged preparation Comments (1)

Mosquito Madness Part II

still itching to do more travelling

sunny 28 °C
View bequia on a_broad's travel map.

Lunch was great -- a couple of rum punches and a tuna sandwich on the open air terrace with the amazing views of the beach -- and a lot of laughs shared with friends. Allyson and Geoffrey did love my tales of woe.

Then we headed home -- about a 15 or 20 minute hike up hills, down dales, through brush etc. I was beginning to understand why Geoffrey told me to bring a pair of sturdy sandals.

And as soon as we got to the front gate I also understood why he'd told me to bring a flashlight. The house came with a snake and when it's dark -- and I mean pitch black -- the last thing you want to do is tangle with it.

Never mind ...

Just cast your eyes on the sight that greeted me as soon as I'd made it down the 20 or so steps to the house:

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That is the view of Friendship Bay Beach -- where we'd had lunch -- from the terrace of Geoffrey and Allyson's cottage. And while Geoffrey did some work on the book he was writing, Allyson and I put on our bathing suits and headed right back over there -- after I'd unpacked and gotten my how-to-use-the-mosquito-net tutorial and the didn't-we-mention-there's-no-air-conditioning story.

Never mind. So what if it's in the mid to high eighties and humid every day ...

More schleping over hills, dales and brush and finally I could get what I'd come here for -- a swim in the ocean. Which was easier said than done because it was a lot rougher than I'd expected. Before I knew it, I was knocked flat on my butt and before I could get my bearings I was tossed around like a sardine in a washing machine. Eventually I slid onto the shore, after swallowing about a quart or two of salt water and a pail's worth of sand -- much like a baseball player stealing third base -- except I was in a bathing suit and my legs were bare. Thank God the sand in Bequia is like baby powder.

We rinsed off and threw ourselves down on the first lounge chairs we could find. This time Noel picked us up. I'd had enough hills and dales for one day.

A shower, a drink on the terrace, a lovely dinner, great conversation and this spectacular sunset and I was a very happy camper.

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We all went to bed about 10 o'clock and I was out like a light the instant my head touched the pillow. I was having trouble with my mosquito net -- which was in 2 pieces and didn't really fit properly but I was too tired to care.

Allyson and Geoffrey played tennis early the next day while I worked on my book. Then Geoffrey and I went into town. I use this term "town" loosely. There is a street that is barely better than a dirt road that runs a couple of blocks. Wandering aimlessly about or just laying wherever they feel like it even if it's in the middle of the road are goats. Scattered here and there are small, pastel coloured buildings -- some not more than shacks. These are the restaurants and shops.

How, I wondered, did this Caribbean island manage to escape being turned into Disneyland -- and more to the point, how much longer would it last?

Where the disconnect is, however, is in the local grocery store -- where you could find everything from rack of lamb to radicchio ... from thai seasoning to mint sauce ... and with a selection of wines and liquors that would rival that of the most sophisticated cities.

I was agog!

Goats laying about the streets, not a building over 2 stories, 1 bank, no hair salon or barber shop that I could see -- but gourmet provisions galore!!

After stocking up Geoffrey and I headed over to the charter sailboat office. We'd all decided to take a day-cruise to the Tobago Cays later on in the week so we went to book our reservations.

For the next couple of days Geoffrey and I worked on our books while Allyson, a terrific artist, painted. We swam and we ate and we napped and we drank and we slept. It was totally what the doctor ordered. And we explored another beach -- Lower Bay -- which turned out to be one of my faves:

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Everything about Tobago Cays was perfect: The day, the boat, the food, the scenery, the swimming and snorkeling, the captain ... all of it:

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Tired and happy we made our way home. That evening we went back to the Mosquito for dinner. My elbow was so itchy sitting there it was driving me crazy.

What woke me up in the morning was the itch! My elbow ... my ankle ... my knee ... my knuckle ... my thigh ... my arm ... my arm pit!!

Wondering what was going on, I ran to the bathroom to have a look in the mirror. I shrieked!!!

This is not an exaggeration: From my fingertips all the way up to my shoulders ... from my toes all the way up to my butt -- front and back and all the way around -- my arms and legs were covered -- and I mean covered -- with huge, swollen, angry red bumps -- like hives on steroids!!

The only thing I reqret is not having taken any pictures because Geoffrey and Allyson are the only 2 people who know I am telling the absolute truth.

When they heard me scream both Geoffrey and Allyson came running and when they saw me they just stopped dead in their tracks, mouths falling open.

I was a sight for sore eyes!

Allyson started painting me with Calomine lotion. I looked like I had leprosy; and the itch was so bad I wanted to rip my skin off.

Unbeknownst to me Geoffrey was cruising the Internet like mad trying to figure out what kind of bites it this could be -- as in could it be bed bugs -- or worse? And unbeknownst to Geoffrey I was doing the exact same thing. Allyson was busy filling empty water bottles and sticking them in the freezer -- rubbing them up and down my arms and legs was the only way to temporarily stop the itching.

We went to the drug store and stocked up on more Calomine and some over-the-counter anti-histimines. It didn't help and the next day they insisted I go to the doctor.

It was a reaction to either mosquito or sandfly bites. Allyson was convinced I'd arrived from Barbados with some tiny red spots. I did vaguely remember the same thing and it would have made sense. I'd arrived at the hotel at dusk ... both the bar and the restaurant were outdoors and near the beach ... and it hadn't occured to me that I should spray myself with Deet. Who could blame me? I was still a space cadet from the strike.

Anyway, the doctor gave me a prescription for a steroid cream and some extra strenth anti-histimines ... told me not to spray with either sunscreen or Deet because all I was doing was irritating my skin even more ... suggested I stay away from the beach and in air-conditioned quarters. He said it would take 48 hours to begin to feel better. I was going home in 3 days.

Ha! Air conditioning! Ha!

We bought a new mosquito net for my bedroom on the way home -- one that would actually fit the bed. I did not leave the house. I barely left the shower because the icy cold water felt so good. I was never without a plastic water bottle fresh out of the freezer which I rubbed over my arms and legs constantly -- from the moment I woke up to the instant I fell asleep. And I went through about 4 tubes of the steroid cream and I don't know how many anti-histimines.

And I did tons of work on my book -- which was great. And the three of us still had a great time. Believe it or not, I was happy and still enjoying myself despite this drama -- even though I couldn't drink because of the pills.

And then, before I knew it, it was time to pack again. The doctor had been right -- the itch had finally subsided and while the bites hadn't disappeared, they were no longer red, swollen and angry. They had faded to an old rose colour. My biggest fear was that they'd take one look at me at the airport and they wouldn't let me on the plane for fear that I had some kind of communicable disease. So I decided I'd wear long pants and a long-sleeved T-shirt home.

Anyway ... on this, my last day, I decided to pack early so we could be free to enjoy ourselves. We had decided to go out for a nice dinner. Geoffrey went for a hike and Allyson was painting.

I went to my bedroom and hauled out my suitcase. I reached up to tie the mosquito net up so it wouldn't be in my way. The tail got caught in the ceiling fan. One of the blades of the ceiling fan broke in half and came crashing down to the floor. This caused the net to rip off its mooring at the top.

First I just stared at it all in horror. Then I swore very loudly. Then I sat down on the bed and started to cry. Then I started to laugh hysterically. Then I swore again. By then Allyson had joined me. She looked around at the mess and said quietly: "Don't worry, I can fix the net -- I've brought a sewing kit with me." Then she looked up and noticed the fan was missing a blade. Then she looked down and saw it sitting on the floor -- broken in half. Then she said: "Don't worry, we may have an extra blade somewhere."

I was mortified! I wanted to shoot myself! I am not a careless person. I am not stupid. What was wrong with me? Why was this trip filled with one calamity after another? I was sure that neither she or Geoffrey would ever want to set eyes on me again.

And then Allyson said, "You won't be able to use the ceiling fan tonight."

By the time Geoffrey got back from his hike I'd found a hotel to say in for the night. Not because they were throwing me out -- because I could not spend a night without at least a fan -- not with my bites.

Geoffrey decided to call the hotel and see if they had a restaurant where we could all have dinner. Suddenly I heard raucous laughter coming from the living room. I wandered in and saw the two of them clutching their sides, rolling around on the couch. They were laughing so hard they couldn't speak.

I started to laugh although I didn't know why. Their laughter was contagious. It was the perfect end to this two-week long melodrama I called a vacation:

Although the ad in the directory said the hotel was in Bequia it was, in fact, in Saint Vincent. I had a room in a hotel I couldn't get to.

None of us would ever forget this holiday. Ever.

Geoffrey took over while I finished packing. The people who own The Mosquito own a hotel -- right on the property. It was air conditioned and beautiful. They had one room and it was mine -- for over $400 for the night.

Who cares?

I went out on the terrace and took one, last look. Believe it or not, we could see Mustique. Magnificent. Worth all the time and the trouble and trauma. With a wistful sigh I went back inside.

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Noel picked us up and took us to the hotel. I decided I'd pass on dinner in The Mosquito because I didn't want any more bites. Geoffrey and Allyson went to the bar for some well-deserved cocktails.

I checked in, went to my room, stripped off all my clothes and turned the air conditioner on full blast. My goose bumps were bigger than my bites but I didn't care. I ordered dinner -- BBQ'd chicken -- which was raw. Really raw.

Never mind ...

And then I noticed it. This huge brown thing that looked like a grasshopper. The sucker was the size of a water glass.

Even there, in a luxury hotel, in a $400 room, I would be plagued by creatures and mosquitos. I took a shoe and killed every bug in sight. None of them were safe. Then I took one of the pillowcases and slowly, stealthily crept towards "it". As I got close -- but not so close as to scare it -- I threw the pillowcase over "it", quickly tying the end into not 1 -- not 2 -- but 3 knots!!

"It" was left for the chambermaid!

Not trusting the Liat strike to be over by the time I was due to leave, I booked myself on that small local airline as soon as I got to Bequia. So now I had a flight to Barbados instead of having to take the ferry to Saint Vincent and then flying to Barbados -- and then flying home.

Geoffrey, Allyson and Noel took me to the airport. The plane -- when it finally arrived some 2 hours late was the size of a mini van. In order to get up enough speed to take off it went up and down the runway -- which was only the length of 2 or 3 city blocks -- several times.

Never mind ...

I just closed my eyes and re-opened them when we landed in Barbados. I arrived back in Toronto mere moments before midnight on December 31.

It took more than a month for the bites to disappear completely and about six weeks for the infection in my ears that I'd come home with to improve ... but the wonderful and hysterically funny memories I have of Bequia will last forever.

Here's to my next trip ...

Posted by a_broad 09:52 Archived in St Vincent/The Grenadines Tagged photography Comments (0)

Mosquito Madness

once bitten it seems wanderlust sets in

sunny 28 °C
View bequia on a_broad's travel map.

When I graduated and most of my friends took off for a year backpacking around Europe I wanted to work in advertising so badly all I wanted was a job. I loved it so much it overpowered any interest I might have had in travelling. In fact, I probably cancelled or worked through more holidays than most people ever take. It wasn't ambition -- it was passion for what I was doing. Somewhere in the back of my mind I always said "I'll do it later."

Don't get me wrong -- I have travelled. I've seen most of the U.S. and Canada, I've been to Europe several times, and to the Caribbean and Mexico. But I didn't have "the extended adventure" -- which I certainly could have had if I'd been so inclined.

When my mom passed away a little over a year and a half ago I woke up one morning with a start. To my absolute horror I realized it was later! Not long after that "awakening" a friend of mine, Geoffrey, showed up at my office one day when he was in Toronto for a meeting. Among the many things we talked about that day, he also told me that he and his girlfriend, Allyson, were going to winter in Bequia -- a tiny island in the Grenadines.

And then he asked: "Why don't you come visit us for a couple of weeks?" Without missing a beat, without thinking about it for even an instant, I said yes. Geoffrey and I had worked together for several years at an ad agency here in Toronto and we'd become good buddies, but we hadn't seen each other in a while. His girlfriend and I had met once.

None of that bothered me.

We sat down at my computer and he immediately googled Bequia and showed me these beautiful photos of this totally unspoiled island in what looked like the middle of nowhere. And then he showed me the area the house they'd rented was in -- in fact, he even showed me pix of their little cottage.

I'm writing a book and he clinched the deal when he told me it would be the perfect place to work on it -- long, lazy sun-filled days with not much to do other than swim and sail, walk the beach and sit on the terrace and write -- and no club-filled nights to distract and exhaust me. Like I said, there's not much to do there but chill.

I reserved December 19 to 31 at the Hotel Geoffrey.

Before I could change my mind I booked my flight. Because Bequia is kind of remote and still -- although I don't know for how long -- unspoiled, the route to get there is circuitous: I had to fly from Toronto to Barbados. I then had to fly from Barbados to St. Vincent and then I had to take a ferry to Bequia. Geoffrey made it sound very simple. He also said that if, for some reason, my flights were delayed and I missed the last ferry there was a "charming little B&B just down the road a short distance" where I could spend the night and try again in the morning.

It started well.

I arrived, as is my custom, at the airport early enough to not care how long the lines were to check my bag or go through security. The flight was mostly filled with Bajans going home for Christmas so the atmosphere in our departure lounge was joyous, to say the least. We boarded on time, we took off on time, we landed on time.

And it went quickly downhill from there.

It was chaos at Grantley Adams airport -- not surprising when you factor in the tourists from all over the world who go there on holiday -- and folks who go to school and work on other islands coming home for the holidays and vice versa.

My bag was the last one to appear on the carousel -- as in close to three quarters of an hour! I was the very last person in the arrivals area and I was starting to get anxious because I had very little time to make my Liat flight. Could I find a porter when I finally did get my bag? No -- the hundreds of them that were there when we landed had all disappeared because every other passenger had gotten their luggage and they were happily on their way to their hotels -- no doubt dreaming of the rum punch that was waiting for them.

I, on the other hand, was in a sweat.

Grabbing my bag, my purse and my computer bag I schleped through security and then walked -- make that ran -- to the opposite end of the airport to the Liat counter. What awaited me sent chills down my spine!

Never have I seen so many people -- no lines -- no order whatsoever -- just people -- everywhere. And luggage everywhere. People were yelling ... screaming ... crying ... shouting ... waving fists ... pacing ... making cell phone calls ... elbowing other passengers out of the way trying to get to the counter.

I tried to be polite. I tried to say excuse me. I tried not to shove ahead of anyone. I tried to figure out if there was a line and I was just not seeing it. And then I just said to hell with it and did what everybody else was doing: I elbowed my way to the front of the line.

As I got there two reservations employees walked out of a back room holding a huge sign:

Liat had called a wildcat strike. Some flights to some places were still going. Some flights to some places were cancelled. Mine was one of the ones that was cancelled.

Sidling up to the counter I said, in the firmest voice I could muster, "I am going to Bequia. I have to get to St. Vincent in time to catch the last ferry. You have to find an alternate way to get me there. Today." By now I had realized that I could have avoided St. Vincent and the ferry altogether -- there is a small, regional airline that flies to and from most of the islands -- including Bequia. Bad Geoffrey for not knowing that! Bad, bad, bad!!

But he didn't and I didn't (Lesson #1 -- don't depend on anyone to tell you anything -- figure it out for yourself) and now I had to get myself out of this mess.

The agent did his best to avoid me. Silly of him really -- one look at the determined look in my eye should have told him it was an exercise in futility. I was having none of it. He tried to give me a voucher for a hotel and a phone number I could call in the morning to see if I could get on a flight.

Right. And if I fell for that one I would fully expect him to try to sell me some swamp land in Missouri next.

I'll bet you that phone number is still busy today -- almost a year later.

"No", I said firmly. "That won't work for me. I am not going to spend my vacation listening to a busy signal." And then I noticed that his nameplate said he worked in the Marketing Department. So I smiled sweetly and told him I was in advertising too. And I could only imagine what hell he was going through. But surely he could understand how I was feeling. I'd come all this way, I had friends waiting for me at the ferry dock in Bequia and I had no way to contact them. So couldn't he please get me a seat on one of those small planes to Bequia? Please.

He told me he'd see what he could do and disappeared. Did I expect I'd ever see him again? No. So I called Geoffrey and told him not to expect me any time soon.

"This could only happen to you", he said. "Hang in there", he said. "We'll have a rum and coke waiting for you," he said. "And in the meantime," he went on, "Allyson and I will just have to go to the all-you-can-eat-just-caught-lobster-fest without you."

He's a brave man, Geoffrey is, because that was like waving a red hanky in front of a bull.

It took about another three quarters of an hour but believe it or not that agent (marketing guy) came back with good news -- not exactly what I wanted to hear, but ...

No flight for me today. But he promised -- guaranteed actually -- that I was on a Liat flight the next morning which was definitely not going to be cancelled. Don't ask me how he knew that, but when you are desperate and tired and thirsty (which I was) you are prepared to believe anything that sounds remotely like good news. I did however mention that I'd haunt him and the children he didn't yet have for the rest of their lives if he was not telling me the truth.

He gave me a ticket and another piece of paper that was full of code. And then he gave me a voucher for a hotel -- The Bougainvillea Beach Resort -- and a taxi.

I was spending the night in Barbados.

The hotel reminded me of an aging film star. You could see that it had been beautiful in its day, but it was now tired and in need of a facelift.

My room wasn't ready so I was given a voucher for a complimentary cocktail and dinner. The bar, right beside the pool, was very close by so I headed there first. Be honest -- you would have done exactly the same thing.

There I met a really nice couple from the U.K. and I had the free drink and then some. My shoulders were no longer up around my ears. I forgot I was drinking overproof rum, though, and I am lucky I didn't end up in the pool when I tried to make my way back to the lobby.

When I got there, my room was ready -- a bellboy took me, which is just as well, because you needed a map to get there. It was down this path and around that corner and up those few steps and down those few steps and around that corner and down that path and through that arch ...

I cursed myself for not leaving a trail of breadcrumbs. By now it was pitch black outside and I considered forgetting dinner because I was afraid I'd never find the restaurant and they'd discover my remains a thousand years from now beside a palm tree or a hibiscus plant. But my stomach was rumbling and there was no room service. Never mind.

A shower and a change of clothes made me feel much better. Believe it or not I had now been travelling for more than twelve hours and I wasn't even half way to my real destination yet. And if you looked at it on a map you'd realize that I wasn't really going that far. Never mind.

How I found the restaurant I don't know, but I did. It was lovely. No walls, open to the beach. I could hear the sound of the surf slapping up on shore. Reggae music was playing softly in the background. I recognized several people from the airport -- other Liat passengers who'd been stranded. We shrugged our shoulders and smiled at each other. What can you do?

Fortified with more rum and some great Caribbean food -- flying fish and rice and peas -- I headed back to my room, had another shower, turned on the TV and fell asleep watching CNN.

Being somewhat paranoid about that flight actually leaving the next day I decided I wanted to be at the airport very early so I could get a head start on the throngs of people I knew would be there. The taxi picked me up, as requested, at 4:45 in the morning. Yes, I know I'm crazy.

I was surprised to find that the airport was relatively empty -- I was sure there'd be a lot of other folks who wanted to beat the rush but no, I was the only lunatic there.

When I handed over the ticket and that slip of paper with the code on it the Liat ticket agent whistled, shook his head and simply said to me: "You are one very, very lucky lady." I tried to get him to tell me why -- to decipher that code for me, but he wouldn't.

Who cares? It seems I was truly on a flight that was destined to leave that very day for St. Vincent. Good, good, good.

It had been too early to get breakfast at the hotel and I now had 3 hours to kill, so I had coffee and some kind of a bun, poked around the duty free shop and then headed over to security.

I guess the group of officers on duty that morning hadn't read the travel articles that raved about how friendly Bajans are. Holy cow they were surly!

Got through without being arrested and tried to find the gate I was sent to. Wandered around for at least a half hour asking various airport employees. I was here, there and everywhere but there was no gate with my number on it. So then I started to ask the few passengers who were beginning to mill about.

A group of us -- all headed for the same place on the same flight decided to sit together. Safety in numbers, I guess. It was now about 40 minutes to our departure time. I went digging in my carry-on bag for something and froze in mid-search. I dumped everything out on the empty seat beside me. I rumaged through my pockets, my purse, everything I had with me. I went through it all again and again.

"Oh no..." I wailed!! I had left 2 vials of pills at the blooming hotel!!

I NEVER do things like this. I am actually really well organized. I am not scatterbrained. Prone to exaggeration, yes. Dramatic, yes. Eccentric, yes. Bizarre, yes. But scatterbrained, no.

I had to act fast.

First I called Geoffrey to find out if Bequia had a pharmacy that could refill a prescription for me -- assuming I'd be able to get to my doctor, of course .. also assuming the pharmacy had a fax machine.

Then I called my friend Sharon and asked her to call my doctor as soon as her office opened (several hours ahead), to get a prescription and then fax it to the number she would get from Geoffrey because I'd be sitting on a plane shortly.

Then when I had calmed down slightly I thought I'd try and see if the hotel could find the pills. Amazingly they had them and could send them in a taxi right away. I high-tailed it back to the departure area of the airport and waited for the taxi driver. I had given them my description and they gave me his cab number and license plate.

Sure enough he showed up in 10 minutes and I still had 10 minutes to make my flight. I gave him a HUGE tip and ran all the way back to security. Luckily there was a guy there who recognized me and he let me through right away.

Sadly the bar was not yet open.

What would you say if I now told you -- after all that rushing around and thinking I was going to miss what was probably going to be the only flight leaving that day -- that my flipping flight was delayed more than 2 hours?

We got bounced from gate to gate to gate to gate.

Everyone was getting agitated and short tempered -- the travellers and the employees. I spoke to several of my fellow passengers and we decided that if the plane didn't leave shortly we would charter a plane ourselves -- which is what we probably should have done in the first place.

By now Geoffrey and I had exchanged at least 30 phone calls which varied in their degree of hysteria and one minute I was swearing and the next convulsed with hysterical laughter. Poor Allyson wanted to know if I was always like this.

Finally. We got crammed onto this tiny plane with absolutely no leg room and took off. By the time the flight crew got the air to work we had landed in St. Vincent -- somewhat soggy, but at least the end was in sight. Or so I thought until I arrived at the "terminal" and I do use the term loosely.

Imagine a room the size of a single car garage. Imagine a line of people that is the length of the room, and then wraps around the perimeter of the building several times. Imagine each and every one of those people having a nice chat with the one and only customs official working that morning. "How ya doin'? ... how's the family? ... back for Christmas? ... how's your mom? ..." etc., etc. No worry, no hurry.

Except I had a ferry to catch. What else is new?

I commandeered a cab, explained my challenge and, with a lurch, off we went. I have never seen anyone drive that fast in my life. I honestly did not think we would get there alive -- and neither did the drivers of any other cars on the road -- not to mention pedestrians and dogs.

But he got me there in mere minutes, and helped me load my bags in the cargo area -- and with a wave and a smile he was off.

I checked in with Geoffrey and Allyson, bought a roti and a soft drink and headed up the stairs to the passenger area. Despite the fact that the ferry should have left minutes after I got there it was at least another 2 hours before we went anywhere.

I no longer cared. I was operating on island time.

For the longest time nothing happened -- other than the fact that the seats were rapidly being filled up and the bar was doing a booming business. This time when I called Geoffrey I told him I'd be there when I'd be there. It was beyond me to try to commit to a time -- or even a day.

The sun was shining ... the snow and the cold weather in Toronto seemed a million miles away ... and I was in holiday mode. And with that -- and a sudden lurch -- we were off. The last leg of this journey had officially begun. And all was going well until I decided I wanted to move to the opposite side of the ferry to take a photo.

As I got to my feet the ferry rocked and rolled and I was thrown to the opposite end -- and was literally inches away from landing on top of the crate of eggs a woman sitting there minding her own business had resting on her lap. All she could do was stare at me in horror. All I could do was pray.

P1000170.jpg

it took about an hour, but all of a sudden I caught a glimpse of pastel cottages -- some yellow, some mint green, some pink, some pale blue, some white -- dotted here and there on the hilly landscape. Bequia was in sight. Very quickly thereafter we were slowly moving toward the dock -- and then I saw Geoffrey -- waving madly, sprinting down the dock towards the ferry.

The next thing I knew we were docked and I was getting a huge hug from Geoffrey and Allyson. We collected my luggage and made our way to the cab -- a pick up truck that had a canopy over the open rear cargo area and a bench that ran around its edge. In I climbed, with the help of a footstool and a boost from Noel, the driver -- and Geoffrey's neighbour.

We were off to the Mosquito -- their local hangout for a late lunch. Little did I know just how significant the mosquito would turn out to be ...

Posted by a_broad 12:28 Archived in St Vincent/The Grenadines Tagged air_travel Comments (0)

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