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Gerry Feehan

“India? Are you nuts?” Join Gerry for Part 1 of his series on India.

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Feature Image India part 1

This is the first in a four-part series on India

“India. Are you nuts?” an incredulous friend remarked. “Why would you want to go there? It’s dirty, crowded, smelly and full of stray cows.”

So, I was anxious as I stared out the window of the Dreamliner 787 on descent into New Delhi after a 14-hour flight from Vancouver. But Delhi was nowhere to be seen. The worst smog in the country’s history had enveloped India’s capital. Visibility was near zero.

Man carrying basket on head

Smog in India

The late-night ride to the hotel was a dystopian dream. With the twelve-hour time change we were in a trance-like state. The streets were eerily quiet. An acrid smell hung in the air. As we drove through dense smog, the moon made a futile effort to silhouette India Gate, Parliament House and the Prime Minister’s residence.

“What’s happening?” we asked the clerk at check-in.

“Diwali,“ he smiled.

Diwali is an ancient Hindu festival that pays tribute to the victory of light over dark, good over evil – and a highlight of the annual celebration is the setting off of fireworks. When Delhi’s 22,000,000 inhabitants simultaneously ignite firecrackers and other pyrotechnics, the sub-tropical air becomes thick with the stagnant refuse of gunpowder. Add to this the exhaust of 9 million vehicles, smoke from burnt stubble fields in nearby Punjab, plus a temperature inversion – and you have unimaginable, eye-searing air pollution.

“…At the top of the heap are India’s cows. Bovines stand nonchalant, impervious – and sacred – amongst the vehicular pandemonium…”

Schools were closed. Construction was halted. Roads were sprayed to keep dust down. Farmers were threatened with fines for illegally burning rice stubble; all to no avail. The particulate index climbed, from just over 600 when we arrived, to 964 three days later. This level is 15 times the “safe” limit in India – and 60 times what would be considered hazardous in Canada.

Women selling wares

Street Vendors during Diwali

Then the currency crisis hit. In an effort to weed out “black money” – cash hoarded through corruption and counterfeiting – Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the demonetization of all 500 and 1000 rupee bills. That’s like cancelling all our $10 and $20 bills.

India’s 1.3 billion people were given a fortnight to exchange old rupees, after which the old bills would become worthless. The bank lineups were horrifying.

India’s is a cash economy and many people don’t even use banks. The country was in chaos. But surprisingly, most people we met – guides, drivers, shopkeepers, restaurant employees – were sick of the endemic corruption and in favour of this Draconian strategy.

Our tour group consisted of my wife Florence and me, together with our fun-loving travel-mates Kim and Simone from Victoria and Joe and Carla from Saskatoon. We struggled through these pollution and currency crises from the comfort of an air-filtered, credit card-accepting hotel. Meanwhile out on the streets the locals coughed, lined up and resolutely carried on life in 21st century India.

school kids some wearing masks

Air quality is an issue

But for me more astonishing and unfathomable than the choking smog and worthless bills was India’s overwhelming, perpetual traffic congestion.

The “sub-continent” has 54 cities with more than a million people. Four of these urban agglomerations have over 20 million souls. And even the smallest Indian village is a clogged spoke of trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, bicycles and foot traffic. Pecking order is determined by size. Bicycles give way to motorcycles, which give way to rickshaws… ascending up to the big Tata transport trucks.

 

full bus carrying men

Traffic is insane

Buses overflow with humanity – arms, legs and heads spilling from every door and window. A moped transports an entire family – and their belongings. The lowly pedestrian occupies the bottom of the traffic heap, flirting death with each wary footstep.

At the top of the heap are India’s cows. Bovines stand nonchalant, impervious – and sacred – amongst the vehicular pandemonium.

people watching cow in street

Cows rule.

This may come as a somewhat of a surprise but Indians are fantastic drivers. In what can only be termed functional chaos, traffic actually moves. Roads designed for two lanes harbour four – in each direction. The tiniest opening in traffic is immediately filled by the largest object that fits that space. India abhors a vacuum.

Horns blast non-stop in a cacophonous chorus, used not in anger but to convey a message. A little beep means, “Hey, I’m here.” A resolute honk indicates, “I’m filling that gap.” And an extended blast from a bus states unequivocally, “Coming through, out of my way.”

The first two weeks of our month-long stay in India were spent in the company – and under the watchful eye – of guide Anoop Singhal and driver Devinder Singh. Each morning Singh Ji, a soft-spoken Sikh, greeted us with a colourful turban and a contagious smile. (“Ji” is an honorific, used to show respect – and we happily started referring to one another as Kim Ji, Anoop Ji, etc.)

kids with balloons

Despite the culinary curry shock to my digestive system – and the occasional experiment with street food – I managed to avoid “Delhi belly.” I credit my intestinal well-being to a daily dose of local yoghurt. But even with the use of air masks, we all eventually succumbed to the dreaded Delhi cough.

White palace on water

The Lake Palace of Udaipur

After “seeing” the capital, we travelled a few hundred kilometers southwest to Udaipur to begin an exploration of the fabulous architecture of Rajasthan. Vast palaces built by fabulously wealthy Maharajas in the 17th century still dominate the landscape. The Lake Palace of Udaipur, the White City, is a stunning snow-white jewel set in a liquid surface.

In Jodhpur, the Blue City, we looked down on a jumble of turquoise buildings from the heights of Mehrangarh Fort. The last in the colourful triumvirate of Rajasthan’s famous towns is Jaipur, the Pink City, where in 1857 Maharaja Ram Singh ordered his palace painted pink to impress the British overlords.

India is a photographer’s paradise. No need to search out photo ops; simply plunk down on any curb and start snapping: a vendor hawking fruit, women in crimson saris haggling over spices, a cow imperially chewing its cud, children laughing, beggars begging. All day, every day the flavour, colour, texture, sound, energy and urgency of India unfolds spontaneously, unrehearsed.

On the last day of our stay in Rajasthan, we stopped in at the famed camel festival of Pushkar where local dromedaries are auctioned annually. I nearly closed on a fine one-humped specimen but was outbid by a clever camel herder from the Punjab. Just as well; probably would have been tough to squeeze a grumpy dromedary into my suitcase.

Next time: Taj Mahal and the Sacred Ganges.

Thank you to these great local sponsors who make these stories possible!

 

If you go: Explore India from Vancouver B.C., www.exploreindia.ca, capably and professionally handled all aspects of our private month-long tour – air and land travel, hotels, meals, guides, drivers, entrance fees and activities – for one all-inclusive price.

Click below to read about some of Gerry’s other great travel adventures.

India Part 2- Terrific photos! Experience the Taj Mahal and Ganges with Gerry Feehan

 

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Gerry Feehan

A Rainy Day in Montenegro

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Dubrovnik City wall

Room 703, Valamar Hotel, Dubrovnik, Croatia.

I had a strange dream last night.

Well past midnight there came a quiet rap on the door. An apologetic bellboy pointed to a small man standing quietly in the hallway. The man sported a fine suit and monogrammed luggage. ‘I’m sorry,’ said the bellhop, ‘the Valamar is sold out
this evening. This gentleman needs a room. Only for tonight. Perhaps you can accommodate.’ Naturally I declined. However my wife, speaking from her comatose oblivion, insisted we invite the stranger in. ‘Sshh, it’s fine,’ she said simultaneously
snoring, ‘for today, we go to Montenegro.’

What my dream-world wife didn’t anticipate—but I did—was that our uninvited, nocturnal guest would soon become an unpleasant somnambulant nuisance and ultimately transform into a weapon-wielding demon. By the time I finally, politely
asked him to depart our quarters, the intruder had morphed into a loud, apocalyptic earthquake. I awoke in a heap of sweat to a thunderous lightning storm, crawled from bed, pulled closed the trembling illuminated curtains—and swore off rakija for the balance of our Balkan holiday. I tossed and turned the rest of that uncomfortable night, occasionally glancing irritably at my happily reposed spouse. The alarm tolled at 6:15am.

In a post-hallucinogenic stupor I stumbled into the hotel lobby and ran smack dab into the selfsame night-watchman who, in my torpor, had invited Armageddon-man into our room at witching hour. ‘And you call yourselves a 5-star hotel,’ I remarked testily. He regarded me uncertainly, shrugged and opened the lobby doors. Outside, standing curbside beside a dark blue Mercedes van, stood a veritable giant of a man; our driver for the day. He grinned grimly, swung the passenger door open and commanded us to climb in. I was fearful the nightmare was continuing. But as we pulled away from the dewy curb our mountainous chauffeur politely introduced himself as Zoran and began a casual, intriguing introduction to the history of Montenegro.

Incessant rain made for a dreary day

The downpour began in earnest as we neared the border. The Croatian exit authority inspected our papers with palpable disinterest—then stood up, exited his cramped cubicle and promptly disappeared into the mist. ‘Between shifts,’ explained
Zoran with a resigned shrug. After a 10-minute, stiflingly humid delay, an equally apathetic replacement arrived to re-scrutinize our passports. Documents eventually back in hand, we were permitted to depart Croatia and make the short descent into neighbouring Montenegro where another listless guard repeated the same agonizing process.

Everyone loves passport stamps. I entreated Zoran to ask the guard for some evidence that we were actually entering mysterious Montenegro, bragging rights for the folks back home. ‘This not good idea,’ said Zoran apologetically—but
unequivocally—and we pulled away from the tiny damp station and into a strengthening deluge. It was a half-hearted, bureaucratic, blustery beginning to a soppy day. (For no discernable reason, other than inane custom and mutual distrust,
countries of the former Yugoslavia demand perusal of papers upon both ingress and egress. But I digress.)

Montenegro. The name evokes visions of a small, opulent seaside protectorate where luxury yachts bob in an idyllic harbor surrounded by spectacular mountains. But while the country is indeed small, and is on the ocean, and does have a stunning mountain backdrop, Montenegro is certainly not well off. In fact Montenegro is one of Croatia’s poorest Balkan cousins. Together with Bosnia, Serbia and a few other newly-formed states, they were all part of Yugoslavia. In 1984 Yugoslavia hosted the Winter Olympics, welcoming the world’s best athletes to a snowy paradise. Nine years later the entire federation would descend into anarchy and civil war, the lid of a centuries-old pot, boiling with religious and ethnic hatred, finally blown off. Our destination was the walled city of Kotor, a Renaissance-era gem of narrow, picture-postcard lanes. As the European crow flies, the town is not far from the Croatian border, but getting there entails a long circuitous drive around the Gulf of Kotor, which perforates deeply, fjord-like, into the Montenegrin coastline.

Kotor

On arrival, we exited hesitantly from the van, unfurled our umbrellas and splashed into town. What should have been an interesting, leisurely stroll down blind alleys and through colourful curio shops turned into a quick excursion—hurdling
overflowing gutters and dodging the deluge spilling from dilapidated gargoyles in the old fortified town. Overall, the morning was a wet bust. Zoran was apologetic, as if he were personally responsible for the obscuring rain. ‘I wish you could see our beautiful mountains.’

But then came lunch—and, nonpareil, the best meal of our three-week Balkan adventure. I stepped, glasses fogged, into the Konoba Akustik Restaurant and discarded my broken umbrella amongst a stack of equally derelict parasols.

Rainwater, dripping from the ceiling, clanged into an ancient metal pail in the foyer. Expectations were low as we dodged around the overflowing bucket and took our squeaky seats at a rustic wooden table.

Then the food began to appear. First a hearty veal soup served with fresh jecmeni—barley flatbread. Then a platter of green olives and prosciutto. Then gnocchi and pasticada—beef marinated in wine vinegar. More jecmeni arrived to sop up stray sauces.

Perhaps a cocktail with your jecmeni?

The dishes kept coming. Stuffed to the gills, I declined desert, sat back in my rickety chair, and focused my attention on the adjoining table where Zoran and two large companions sat, surrounded by three nonplussed waiters and a gesticulating chef.

In unwavering concentration, they methodically devoured every dish we’d been offered plus massive plates of crni rizot—black risotto, and ajvar—spicy red pepper paste. Between mouthfuls they’d wedge in a large portion of Pag cheese. When the
skewers of lamb kebab arrived I could watch no more and directed my attention to the restaurant’s ornate opaque windows and the passersby sloshing outside.

Montenegrins are not the tallest people on earth—the Dutch stubbornly cling to that lofty position. But I can state (anecdotally at least, having spent one full day in the
country) that the people of Montenegro are really, really tall. And apparently it takes a lot of calories to develop that degree of vertical span.

Zoran is on the right… in case you were confused 

It was a full day. On the long drizzly drive back to the Valamar Hotel, the windshield wipers flapped incessantly, hypnotizing me into a sleepy daze, interrupted only by Zoran’s occasional, meaningful collision with a muddy pothole. Nearly home, we passed through the beautiful old city of Dubrovnik. At a bus stop, under a portico tucked into the ancient city wall, I spied a small tidy man huddled under an umbrella, expensive luggage stacked neatly by his side. The fellow from my nightmare. I wiped my eyes and peered again. He was gone.

I slept dreamlessly that night.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

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Gerry Feehan

A glorious afternoon among the vineyards by Gerry Feehan

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A glorious afternoon among the vineyards

One of the keys to enjoyable travel — and recovery from a seven-hour jet-lag hangover — is to give oneself time to acclimate. And what better place to do that than in the City of Lights?

On tap was a week-long bike ‘n barge in southwest France. But rather than simply change planes at Charles De Gaulle airport and continue on to Bordeaux, we deplaned, shuttled into the French capital and gayly strolled the streets of Paris for a couple of days.

Fun in the streets of gay Paris

Paris, like many of the world’s great cities, is a pleasure to walk. From our hotel in the Latin Quarter, it was an easy saunter along the left bank of the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. En route, we passed two of the world’s great museums, the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. Famished after a half-hour en pied, we stopped at a quiet brasserie for escargot and steak tartare. Fun fact: raw beef is best washed down with a heaping helping of Pernod. After lunch we wandered on and were soon gazing up at the Arc de Triomphe and the crazy traffic on the Champs-Elysees. On the return traipse we followed the river’s course to Notre Dame Cathedral where we climbed the narrow spiral staircase to the church’s wooden bell tower for the magnifique view of Paris. We were amongst the last to do so. A couple of months later, the 800- year-old edifice was gutted by fire.

After our relaxing stay in La Cité, we boarded the train at Gare Montparnasse, well-rested and physically and mentally prepared for the formidable task ahead: seven laid-back days of pedalling through the serene back roads of southwest France, coupled with the burden of sampling fine Bordeaux wines.

The trip from Paris to Bordeaux is over 500km, but when travelling by rail at over 300km/h, the journey is over in a flash. At the station in Bordeaux we transferred for the short run into Libourne, a sleepy little village on the Dordogne River, where we boarded our vessel, the aptly named MS Bordeaux. The ship was originally commissioned in the 1920s as a Rhinetuger, hauling heavy burdens on the Rhine River. The old gal went through a number of iterations over the decades before being converted into a passenger vessel. The boat has 49 cabins, but there were only 23 guests, so we became friends with everyone on board — crew and clientele alike.

It was a cozy, intimate experience.

On the weeklong voyage, we drifted slowly down the Dordogne toward the Bay of Biscay. When we reached the wide Gironde estuary we made a u-turn and rode the incoming tide up the Garonne River to Castets-en-Dorthe where we were to disembark. It was late fall, the ship’s last sailing of the season. The weather was ideal. The autumn hues of southern France were on full display.

Each morning, after a fine petit dejeuner, we stuffed our panniers with a picnic lunch of oven-fresh baguettes, pate, brie, fruit — and a world of pastries. Then we’d roll down the gangplank and hit the bucolic road. Each route was unique and scenic.

A GPS mounted to the handlebars kept us on track, ensuring we didn’t turn a la gauche when we should have gone a la droit.

We pedalled past orchards of ripening grapes, waving at the friendly vendangeurs hand-picking the last sweet remains of the year’s vintage. Often the route led us up what looked like a private lane, a path we’d never have taken had not the GPS assured us we were on course. We’d stop and gawk at some enormous ancient stone Château before continuing down the cobbled way.

Fall is hunting season

Despite the season, many of the Châteaux were open for tastings, invariably hosted by a friendly, effusive, fifth-generation proprietor, happy to share the family cellar with a group of foreign geeks in cycling shorts.

Bordeaux boasts some of the most stunning scenery in all of France — and some of its best vintages. That’s saying a lot in a country renowned for le vin. Personally, I turn up my nose at snooty French reds like Cote du Rhone and Burgundy. They’re a little too subtle for my meat-and-potatoes palette. Give me a big beefy Bordeaux any day. And that is what this appellation is all about: deep purple merlots blended with a splash of cabernet sauvignon.

Some of our fellow passengers chose e-bikes to lighten the load, but our group of eight hearty Canucks toughed out the Bordeaux hills with good old-fashioned foot-pedal power. We logged about 50km per day, a distance one could easily cover in a few hours. But, what with stopping to marvel at the glorious views, photograph the panoramic campagne, sip Sauterne and enjoy a leisurely picnic lunch, we managed to stretch every outing into an eight-hour work-day.

Beware of dogs in the fog!

One morning as we meandered down a medieval lane enjoying the ‘douceur de vivre’ a layer of mist descended upon us. This typical morning fog offers perfect growing conditions for Bordeaux’s famous varietals. Suddenly from out of the haze a huge dog, teeth angrily bared, descended on my wife Florence. I shouted but the mongrel continued its malevolent advance, apparently unfamiliar with English profanity. Then I remembered the tip regarding unfriendly curs contained in our pre-trip information pamphlet:

“Continue cycling past the dog. If it persists, a more aggressive approach may be required, in the form of pretending to throw a stone (or in extreme cases actually throwing a stone).”

The animal’s command of English may have been lacking, but it was a quick learner when it came to comprehending the meaning of rock on chien.

That evening, after another glorious dinner on the boat, we retired to the lounge for a digestif. It was the last night of the last sailing of the year and Sebastian, our maîtres d’, cum waiter, cum bartender, was ready to let his hair down. He brazenly lassoed all the female passengers onto the dance floor for a Bacchanalian romp. Overhead, a faux-disco ball twirled as the ladies gyrated and the boat rocked. The men, fatigued from another trying day amongst the Bordeaux vineyards, were content to sip Pastis and chat.

An ebullient Sebastian

Another fantastique dinner

I quietly slipped into the night air and onto the upper deck. After bidding adieu to my bicyclette and its worn tires, I made my way to our berth and slipped into a dreamless sleep. I needed the rest. In the morning our last arduous adventure would begin: two lazy days of decompressing back in gay Paris.

If you go: www.aquitaine-cruises.com

 ‘Goodbye Bordeaux’

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

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