Category Archives: travel

Devbagh

We’ve been to Devbagh a few times already, so we knew exactly what to expect on this trip… or so we thought. You know it’s never that simple, right?

We reached the bus stop with about 5 minutes to spare. By our standards, that’s about 20 minutes late. It was past the kids’ bedtime and the commute to the bus stop had involved auto-hopping interspersed with short(ish) walks, so the kids were end-tethered by the time we reached. (By the way, I hadn’t realized that autos in Bangalore had become so completely unusable. It’s not like they go where you want them to; it’s more like a bus – if it’s going in roughly the direction you want, you hop on; then you reach the farthest common point and get off and look for another fellow willing to go in roughly the direction you want. And as for charging by the meter – forget it!  Arrrrrrrrgh! Thank god I very rarely have to use a $&%(*#@$ auto nowadays.)

The bus was supposed to start at 9 p.m., so obviously it got rolling only around 10. Meanwhile I took two grumpy girls to the toilet (in the bus operator’s office, thankfully; the option was, of course, by the side of the road) and tried my best to get them to sleep. It’s been an extremely long time since either of us (adults) went by sleeper bus and we’d seriously overestimated the size of the berths. Each berth is so narrow that only a reasonable sized person can fit and then only if they lie ramrod straight without bending limb or hair. And two adults would have to lie so close together on adjacent berths that being side-by-side with anyone other than your normal sleeping partner would be unthinkable! I’d thought that since we had two berths side-by-side, all four of us would squeeze in somehow, but I was wrong. Amit could have occupied a double berth on his own and still all his appendages would have been squashed into strange shapes and places; and the kids and I would have been approximately comfortable with a double berth to ourselves. In other words, we had to make do with exactly half the minimum space we really needed. We made do – I and the girls put our heads on the plastic “pillows,”, while Amit turned himself upside down and put his head where my feet were. This way, he had to contend with my smelly feet in his face, while I had to struggle to snake my legs through a tangle of kids’ limbs and straps from the camera bag that lay at the foot of my allocated space, and then try to avoid kicking him in the face. The girls’ feet were also ideally poised to kick him… where it hurts the most… but that’s the price of being a father anyway.

Kids, mercifully, can sleep through anything, so at least they got a good night’s sleep. Amit stuck his endless legs out of the berth and rested them on something that covered either the engine (rear-mounted; we were right at the back of the bus) or the air-con unit of the bus – it was hot like an oven! Mrini sweated with her head next to this box, while Tara and I curled up under the sheet with the air-con blasting on top of us.

In short, it was “interesting”.

It became more interesting as the drive progressed. At some point at night, we started on the ghats section of the drive. As the driver threw his vehicle around every curve, we fishtailed around in the back like flies on the tail of some really angry whale. By 6 a.m. we were all awake. The ghats were lush and green outside the window, but inside, Tara was the first to feel the effects of the drive. Empty-stomach as we were, the effects were limited, but she was a sorry sight all the same. Thankfully, we stopped for breakfast soon after. None of us ate, but we used the toilet “facilities” (5 bucks a go and nothing to show for it!). Soon after we got back in the bus, despite my efforts at distracting them with a story, Tara was back to feeling sick. Much to my surprise, I ended up retching as well! This never happens to me! Mrini was fine until the last ten minutes of the drive – then we were greeted with the spectacle of both girls retching simultaneously into the same plastic bag! Not the prettiest of sights…

And in all this, Amit, the one who can be counted on to be sick in any sort of long drive, was completely unaffected!

Once we got off the bus, things were better. We all had a hearty breakfast (though at first the sight of food still made Tara sick, but she recovered soon enough) at the usual place. I was a little worried about the impact the impending boat ride would have on our nicely-fed bellies, but the good thing about boats of this type is that you can be sick over the side and nobody has to clean up! (And what is a little puke compared to the vast quantities of oil (and waste) that we humans regularly pump into the sea?)

Amit went to locate the JLR office – it was in a slightly different location than it had been on our last few times. He found out that the houseboat would only arrive at 11.30. I had, as usual, been quite irresponsible while doing the booking and had completely ignored the need for vital information, happy with my own assumptions about what the houseboat would be like. We went back to the office after breakfast and found out a little more about the houseboat. It would collect us at 11.30 and take us 25 km out to sea. The next day it would bring us back. Not quite what I’d expected – I’d expected something moored a stone’s throw offshore, so that we could come and go as we pleased. I’d thought we’d linger on the beach during the day, have our meals in the Gol Ghar (in this instance, it refers to their dining room) and retire to the houseboat for the night. Being stuck on it for 24 hours 25 km out at sea with 2 little kids and nothing to do suddenly didn’t look like such a good idea. When they offered to swap our houseboat reservation for a cottage on the island, we jumped at it. What – give the kids an opportunity to drown themselves in the sea or cover themselves in sand? Sand, obviously. As long as they can get themselves dirty, kids are happy! And on the beach, at least we don’t have to worry about them falling into the sea!

And so, around 10.30, after an uneventful 20-minute crossing by a small motorboat, we were on the island, walking through the pine trees to the cottages.

Wait – pine trees? Here? I’ve always wondered about this – the trees do look like conifers, they come complete with thousands of needles, peeling bark, and tiny, really minuscule pine cones. So they must be pine trees, even though I always thought pine trees were to be found only in high latitudes or altitudes. They lend a very soft and romantic atmosphere to the island, providing plenty of shade, with sunlight filtering through, the ground covered in a thick layer of dry, brown needles, yet never the dense suffocation of thick, dark, heavy trees and a lot of undergrowth.
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One-and-a-half days passed pleasantly enough. The kids, on Mrini’s suggestion, had brought their sand toys. (She heard “beach” and I asked Amit what toys we should carry for them, and she had the answer. How she even knew, considering the last time she saw a beach was Lakshadweep a year-and-a-half ago, I don’t know, but she had absolutely the right idea.) They spent ages cooking up stuff with sand, pine needles, and sand toy utensils, and getting themselves – and, by extension, us – covered in sand in the process. Then they upturned some moulded plastic beach beds and used them as slides. We downed a bottle of beer. Everyone retired to the air-conditioned comfort of the cottage for the afternoon, and in the evening, we went out on to the beach again, to entice the kids into the water. Mrini was game for a bit of experimenting, though she ran away whenever the water touched her feet; Tara (typically?) watched from a safe distance, with a skeptical expression, and reverted to playing in the sand. Amit and I took turns in the water for about 15 minutes each. By this time it was almost 7, so I decided to walk back to the cottage with the kids and get the three of us cleaned up, leaving Amit to enjoy the water for a few minutes longer.

Excellent plan, but for the dog.

Last time we were at Devbagh, there were no dogs. But then, there were no houseboats either. Given that houseboats have been on offer for three years, or so we were told, it must have been more than three years since our last visit. Time enough for the dogs to arrive.

I’d walked a fair distance towards the cottage when I heard Amit shouting. I turned around just in time to see a dog grab his clothes from the beach towel and make off at top speed. I dropped everything and gave chase – but running across a sandy beach clad in a wet swimsuit is not really my thing. Actually, let me be honest – running is not my thing; the rest of it is very ok. Anyway, the dog, encouraged by his pack of friends and allies, made straight for the woods and was gone long before I got within anything more than shouting distance.

It was Amit’s turn. Like a cross between Venus rising from the sea and a dripping wet Tarzan the Ape Man, he followed the dog into the trees at an impressive sprint. He had kept a very precious mobile phone in the pocket of his shorts; losing it was not an option.

Luckily, the dog had only made off with his T-shirt. True, it was a Nike T-shirt, but it was one Roger (Federer, must I add?) had sported a couple of years ago, so it was definitely time for an upgrade to the current season’s look. And at any rate, the mobile phone was safe.

The next day passed in an equally relaxed way, though we had to vacate our comfy cottage in exchange for a tattered tent with no attached toilet. We’d reserved the cottage for one night, and the second half day package included lunch, a tent, and a common toilet. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t too bad. The beach was just as good. We went for a long walk in the morning before breakfast. The tide was out, so there was an immense flat area that had been underwater but now was only slightly wet. We went out onto the large, flat area and watched fishermen extract fish from their nets before casting the nets in the water and pulling them out again. Mrini and Tara were brave enough to pick up a couple of fishes by the tail – which was more than I could do!

By the time we started to walk back, the water had crept in behind us, and we had to wade in upto mid-thigh level to reach the beach. It was mid-stomach level for the kids. Tara was a little worried by it, but Mrini walked through it happily, holding Amit’s hand and asking for more!

After breakfast, Amit went for a full-body massage, while I kept an eye on the kids. After another bottle of beer was finished, I washed the kids’ hair under an open, outdoor shower. They had their swimsuits on, so it was quite decent and well worth a video. It was the first time ever that they actually enjoyed a shower.

Around 5 p.m., we took the boat back to mainland and then shared an auto for the short ride down the highway to Karwar town. This was when things started to get really interesting.

First, it turned out that our bus back to Bangalore started back not at 8 pm. as I’d been led to expect by the information on the website, but at 10 p.m. So now being 6 p.m., we had a whole four hours to kill, with two little kids in tow. Somewhat to Amit’s disappointment, I insisted that we find a room. Keeping the girls up that much past their bedtime just didn’t seem like a good idea to me. So we found a crummy room with a fan that gave no air, a grainy TV, grimy walls, and clean but torn bedsheets, where we camped for the rest of the evening. The kids jumped on the beds, we browsed TV, we all went out for an early dinner, and then the kids fell asleep, we read, and outside the half-open window, a deluge started.

It was still raining when we left the room at 9.40. Amit waited to get some refund from reception, while I went on ahead (with some vague idea of holding the bus, should it show any inclination to make a timely start). We got wet, the sleeping kids got wet, and, in the pitch darkness, we kind of lost our way. Luckily, though, Amit caught up with me, because I was beginning to feel jittery out there in the dark on my own – Karwar is the kind of town that is shut up tight by 9 p.m.

It was 10.00 p.m. Amit called the bus shop – the bus would leave in 5 minutes. “Yes, ok, hold on, we’re on our way,” said Amit, being desperately polite, “by the way, just where exactly did you say the bus would be?”

A couple of minutes later, we saw it. With a mixture of rain and sweat pouring down us, we climbed on board to find…

…that our seats were…

Taken.

Very firmly occupied, by a fat old couple who claimed to be senior citizens incapable of sleeping on the upper bunk.

It took half an hour and a good deal of screaming on my part to get the situation sorted out. The fat old couple remained as firmly seated as though they’d grown roots, so an unfortunate young couple were unceremoniously evicted from their berths and moved to an upper berth, so that we could get a lower berth. At last, frustrated, steaming, sweating, swearing, and trying to soothe two sleepy children we crammed ourselves into our double berth and the bus started rolling.

The bus was supposed to reach Bangalore by 8 a.m. – but the two hour delay in its starting time, the half hour hiatus as we fought for our seats, and the inevitable puncture stop along with the tyre-repair stop combined to ensure that at 8 a.m. we were not anywhere close to Bangalore. For the next three hours, we sat and counted the minutes and fretted and sweated as we crawled into the city and then crawled through the traffic around Yeshwanthpur and all the way to Windsor Manor.

We were both worried because it was 11 a.m. on a Monday morning and we had lots and lots of WORK to do! And now that we were so extremely late, we still had the onerous tasks of getting the kids ready for daycare, getting some lunch organized for them, getting ourselves cleaned up, and somehow getting to office, before lunch if possible. In the end, I managed it all and even managed to send out the documents in time for the end-of-day release… but I would have been happier with those three hours in hand.

And the kids? Were wonderful! They sat five long hours in the sleeper bus after they woke up. They talked, they sang, they got bored, sucked their thumbs and threatened to fall asleep, demanded food and demanded water, but… they didn’t fuss at all. No whining no fighting no driving us up the window (there wasn’t a wall). When they got home, they straightaway got to “work” with their toys, and, apart from occasionally fingering my laptop, didn’t cause any trouble at all. I dropped them at daycare at 1 p.m. and their teacher there said they ate and slept without any fuss and she’d never have guessed there had been anything different (tiring!) about their day.

I know I’m a disgustingly proud mama, but honestly, tell me: aren’t they just the bestest?

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Gingee

Every time we drive to Pondicherry – which, as you all know, is often – we pass by Gingee Fort. It’s an old, thick wall that runs up to the road on both sides, and a small collection of ruins atop three small, abrupt hills that stand guard over the highway.

When we drove to Pondicherry for the (non)hearing last week, we planned to stop at Gingee on the way back. It was a good idea – after all, this would be the “last time” we went to Pondicherry; we’d be returning full of excitement and a sigh of relief; and we could at least make a small outing of the long weekend we would otherwise be wasting.

As we all know – in great detail – things didn’t turn out quite the way we’d expected and we were returning to Bangalore with all the weight of the mountain of pending documentation to be collected. Our mood was far from jubilant, excited or even relieved. I was inclined to drop Gingee right off the agenda.

And yet… next time would be bang in the midde of the week and that trip promised to be quite a bit more hectic than usual. And who knows… it might even turn out to be the actual “last time” – for real. “Let’s go, anyway,” said Amit. “At least for a short time.”

So when we came to the old wall, halfway between Tindivanam and Thiruvannamalai, we looked for a path to turn off on to. My very cursory research had indicated that the hilltop we wanted to visit would be on the left, but the only path we saw was on our right. We turned off and parked. A long flight of stone steps showed the way to the top. We stepped out of the air-conditioned car and reeled back as the heat assaulted us in no uncertain terms. It was only 10 a.m. Ahead of us, a light-skinned foreigner stepped out of his car and squinted up at the steps, grasping an ice-cold bottle of water for moral support. “One hour,” I heard him ask the taxi driver in a weak voice. A moment later, he was back in his seat and his car was heading back to the highway. Following him pronto seemed like the sensible thing to do.

So we sat down on the old wall and traded our city shoes for a good pair of hiking shoes. We filled a knapsack with water, bread and jam, and more water, and Amit shouldered the camera. And we set off to climb the hot, steep, jumbled, stone steps.

First, we had to buy tickets. Yes, there was a ticket booth here, in the middle of nowhere, and the ticket collector tried his best to charge us foreigner rates. I had to test out my rudimentary Kannada on him to persuade him that we were, in fact, Indian.

If I’d thought that the climb might be too much for the girls, in this heat, I’d have been completely and utterly wrong. They walked up it without stopping, without gasping, without holding hands (well, Tara did; Mrini held Amit’s hand quite firmly), and without any sort of fussing. They were more hardy and willing than I was.

And yet… despite everything, the magic of the place had me in its grasp in a few moments. All of a sudden, I remembered why I had ever wanted to study Archaeology. All of a sudden, I remembered the person I used to be. All of a sudden, time slowed down, and I almost forgot about the documents, the court case, the sweltering heat…

The steps probably took us about 20-25 minutes. At the top were various buildings offering some welcome shade, and nothing much else. The ASI board at the bottom mentioned granaries, wells for oil and ghee, and a temple or two, mostly built around 1200 AD. All of these I saw, clustered fairly close together. It seemed like an incongrous place to store grain, oil, and ghee. Who would want to come all this way up to deposit or extract them? It didn’t seem as if there were any residences here at the top.

I would have loved to lose myself in the place for half a day or so, but reality didn’t quite take a back seat and in a couple of hours we were back in the car and back on the road again. We did pass by a road that looked as though it would lead to the other hilltop, where the other parts of this fort could be seen, but by then there really was no time. This entire expedition would have to be planned for another time. The way things were going, we’d still have several “last time” opportunities to take advantage of.

Cauvery Fishing Camp (Without The ‘Fishing’)

We took the kids to Cauvery Fishing Camp for a quick weekend trip recently. We’d taken them to Doddamakkali a year-and-a-half ago, when they were still too small to have enjoyed it much. This time we went to Bheemeshwari and they really did enjoy themselves.

Bheemeshwari is quite a bit nearer than Doddamakkali. We started around 8 a.m. and after a leisurely drive that included a break for a snack, we reached around noon. The kids played in some rubber rafts that were kept by the water’s edge, and then it was time for lunch. In the early evening, we went for a coracle boat ride. Unlike the usual such boat rides, which just take you around in a small area, this time we actually went downstream for a couple of km, and the water was quite fast. We have been whie-water rafting once, years ago, and this was nothing compared to that, but it wasn’t entirely placid either. There were sizeable waves, one of which swept right into the boat and wet a good part of Amit’s pants. Given that it was soon after the floods in North Karnataka, and that water level in the Cauvery was said to be still quite high – and, in fact, it appeared to be quite high, as we could see trees up to their knees in water, and roots of some of the massive old trees in the camp that we thought used to be above water were now submerged – I’m not sure how wise we were to go on this boat ride; but this was all part of the Jungle Lodges package, and they should know what they’re doing, so we didn’t worry too much about it. Besides, we all had our life jackets on… For whatever that was worth.

There was a jeep waiting to drive us back to the camp, but we decided to walk. They all thought we were crazy, and perhaps we were, but it was a comfortable walk of half an hour or so, and helped the kids work off some of their energy.

The bonfire that evening was very pleasant. It was too warm for a fire, but that didn’t seem to matter. We took a table some distance from the barbecue area, and the twins spent the evening running up and down ferrying food to the table and clearing away the used plates. I was amazed to see them go and ask the servers, coherently, for whatever they wanted. Amit had palpitations whenever the ran past the fire, logs from which jutted out in various directions, but they managed the evening without falling anywhere in the vicinity of the flames.

The next morning, we went for a mini trek. The guide allotted to us was visibly reluctant to lead us up the mountain path with the girls in tow. First he proposed a flat route, then, when I said no, we want to go to the watch tower on top of the hill, he led us a short way, then stopped and pointed up to where the watch tower stood. “Full teep” he said. It did look a formidable climb from there, but, having done it before, I knew it wasn’t that bad. Besides, after all the Himalayan treks we’ve done, I wasn’t going to be scared off a small hill like that, not even with the kids in tow. So we went on up the “full teep” path, holdin the twins hands and egging them on, and the guide took pity on them and led us up a route that eventually joined up with a jeep track and was quite as steep as advertised. We reached the tower in 40 minutes or so, and climbed the wet and slippery metal tower to the top. It was very misty, so we couldn’t see anything worth seeing, but it felt good to have made it that far with the kids. The descent, of course, was somewhat worse, but we made it without incident and were soon back at the camp seated at the breakfast table.

After breakfast, the girls had fun climbing the giant net and tackling the hammocks, and got scared by a monkey whom they rashly invited into the tent ‘for lunch’ and who appeared ready to take them up on their invitation. Then we all bathed and it was time to leave. Mrini kept us entertained during the early part of the car ride home by making up stories based on pictures in the books we keep for them in the car. She was amazingly good at it. She started each story with those hallowed words “once upon a time…” then she introduced some characters, usually monkeys, tigers or other wild animals, then she strung together 6-10 sentences about the characters, then she either trailed off, or ended with the other hallowed words, “happily ever after,” which, as she says it, would be written “happiligili after.” And on that happy note ended our first mini trek outing with our girls.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? (Continued)

At last, we reached the platform for the last ride, our journey back to Bangalore. It didn’t start well; we waited on the platform for more than half an hour without getting a glimpse of the train. By the time it rolled in, it was already past the time of departure. In the end, we left only 15-20 minutes late. But, by then it was past 9, we were all hungry and the kids were tired too. We gobbled up some snacks that we were carrying and put the kids to bed – still hungry, they claimed – by 10. It was 11 by the time we got dinner, and midnight by the time we turned out the lights.

On this train, we had no problem with the air-conditioning. We, unfortunately, did not get a two-person cabin; but the other couple who should have boarded at Bangalore didn’t, so for a while we dared to dream of having the entire four-person cabin to ourselves. The dream was short-lived; the first night some three-tier passengers, perhaps traveling on the wait list, got bumped up to AC First. Theirs was a short stay: the joined us at 11 p.m. and disembarked (detrained?) at 5 a.m. Later in the morning a woman with two small kids and an ayah joined us, and they stayed all the way to Bangalore. We, smartly, manipulated ourselves into a two-person cabin when one fell vacant that evening, and from then on, things were easier.

That day was very comfortable for me, because Amit finally took pity on me (I’d been busy with the kids the whole day, every single day, for the entire ten days we’d been away) and volunteered to handle all toilet calls for the day. This should have been a good thing, but trusting small girls to their dads in the cramped and generally distasteful public toilets in moving trains is so not a good idea. On the very first toilet excursion with Tara, I heard loud wailing coming down the aisle, followed by Tara’s distraught appearance, followed by Amit holding up one shoe and wearing an expression of disgust and exasperation. It turned out that Tara had managed to send the other shoe down the hole. (It was the Indian style toilet that he’d taken her to… On my advice… Because I’d done it a hundred times without facing any problem.) Bathrooms on Indian trains have bottomless holes; some poor farmer or railway labourer will one day find a single child-size shoe in good condition adorning the railway track in the middle of nowhere. Maybe he will know of a one-legged child who can benefit from it.

Meanwhile I, within seconds, and with an insufferably smug air, pulled out a spare pair of shoes for poor Tara and brought the smile back to her face. And Amit’s. He still had to manage the rest of the toilet calls though – and thankfully he did not allow any more shoes to be sent down the hole, because I had only one spare pair of shoes between the two of them.

We had heard, vaguely, even before we left home, that there had been heavy rain on our route and trains were getting held up. Still, we were surprised to hear that our own train could not go on its proposed route. Between Hyderabad and Bangalore tracks were flooded and even some part of the road had been washed away. Our train had been diverted away towards Vijawada and Chennai. S&S, checking over the phone and internet, told us that night that our train was being declared as running 23 hours late! Twenty three hours!? What would we do for food? And would the gas for the AC last that long??? And wouldn’t the toilets run out of water, as I recall well from long train journeys of yesteryears?

In panic mode, Amit began to work out alternatives. He is wonderful at such operations. Telephone calls flew thick and fast between him and S&S in Bagnalore. Simultaneously, whenever he had coverage, he surfed the Net desperately, trying to find out the latest information. Would we go as far as Secunderabad? Then could we take a bus or flight from there? No, no buses were plying, the road was closed. Flight would set us back a cool 32 k! Then, it turned out we wouldn’t get to Hyderabad-Secunderabad at all. We were going through Vijayawada. Again, Amit considered bus and flight. Then we heard that we might be going through Chennai. Then we could certainly hop off the train and take a flight. Anything, to avoid spending an extra 23 hours in the train, coping with the energetic and frustrated twins.

Meanwhile, I? I was sitting and watching the panic mode in mild amazement. I have an old-school mentality. We’re on the train, right? So we stay on the train at least until we reach Bangalore. Then, we hop off at the most convenient platform and flag down a passing auto. If we get a little late, we get a little late. If we get very late, we go hungry. If we get very, very late… well, we’re in AC First. Surely they will not let us die of hunger. (Not that those in lower classes will die of hunger either – vendors know an opportunity when they see one.) We were not, as far as I could tell, one of the unfortunates stuck in the flood who had to have food air-dropped to them. We were still going to be passing through railway stations like Vijawada – surely they’d load food as required. And gas for the AC.

In the end, it turned out to be much ado about nothing. We got into Bangalore a little over three hours late. Instead of waking up early at 6.30, we slept late, had a leisurely morning, and were home before eleven. There was a slight risk of starvation – we weren’t served any breakfast – but I’d had the sense to keep some slices of bread and jam for the kids, and a couple of bananas. What’s more, the staff did come around at about 9 a.m. with a couple of boxes of upma for the kids – which was very thoughtful and nice of them, considering nobody else was getting any food. And considering they’d already been tipped and couldn’t have been motivated by any such consideration (I’m such a skeptic).

Of course, we heard of other trains that had been stuck in flooded parts for hours on end. Our own train going from Bangalore to Delhi was held up by 23 hours or so. But, well… those are things that happen to other people. We only suffered a minor three-hour-delay and came back poorer by one shoe and hungry for breakfast.

And yesterday evening, Amit booked the train tickets for our next holiday in December. Boy, some people just never learn.

We’re Going By Train: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

I mean, flights get delayed, diverted, crash, or sometimes simply disappear. Trains? Well, they’re usually at least half an hour late, and very occasionally disastrous things also do happen… but they are generally a safe, comfortable, slow and almost boring means of covering large distances, aren’t they?

That’s what I thought. But I’m not so sure any more.

We actually had four train trips on this holiday: two long-distance, from Bangalore to Delhi and back; and two short ones, from Delhi to Chandigarh and back. We traveled all along in the lap of luxury – theoretically, at least – AC First on the long distance legs, and Executive Class on the short trips. It was the AC First Class journeys that were quite “interesting” both ways.

AC First Class berths come in two flavours: two-person cabins and four-person cabins. Theoretically, they come equipped with running water in a tiny sink, long, broad, comfortable bunk beds, a mirror, electrical sockets, a tiny cupboard, hooks, shelves, reading lights, and – best of all – an indicator showing whether the two bathrooms are occupied or vacant at any given moment.

AC two-tier comes with much fewer frills. There might be electrical sockets, but none of the other amenities. Worse, all the berths in the coach are separated into cubicles of four each, with nothing but curtains in between. Since the curtains are quite flimsy, they don’t provide much privacy at night; and since they are generally left open all day, it means the kids can run the length of the coach all day. This is not a good thing. In AC First, the cabin is their kingdom, and, though it means they are a little cooped up, it is much easier for us hapless parents to manage.

On the way out, we got a four-person cabin, and one of our cabin-mates was an old woman who conversed fluently, albeit with a strangely anglicized accent, in English, Hindi, and Bengali. She was deposited on the train by her son, a young and polite person, two minutes after the scheduled time of departure. Her tardiness was apparently due to traffic jams of epic proportion caused by the usual rush-hour conditions and greatly exacerbated by the heavy downpour and water logging that had also greeted us on our way to the station. We, of course, being experienced and paranoid travellers, left home a good two hours before ETD, and were probably amongst the first to board the train. We had settled in, changed Mrini out of her wet clothes (the rest of us having remained mostly dry thanks to the small, old, and defective umbrella I always carry in my handbag), given the kids dinner and demolished a packet of ‘nibblies’ by this time. So we smugly sympathised with the old lady’s wet, bedraggled, and mildly stressed state.

Apart from being rather talkative, the old lady was in no way an inconvenience to us… Until, late at night, she kept the light on and rummaged endlessly in her various bundles, searching, I surmised, for some particularly elusive pill or potion.

The kids stayed awake till well after ten. When I went to the bathroom, preparatory to going to sleep myself, I came back to find Amit and both kids fast asleep. This was inconvenient because both girls were in my bunk, the top bunk. I clambered up and squeezed in along with them, hoping Amit would awaken and take one of them on to his bunk. But he didn’t, so I spent the whole night squashed up and expecting to fall off at any moment. Naturally, it was not conducive for a good night’s sleep.

It was warm at night, which was unusual. Usually at night with the AC on, it gets so cold that you curl up under the blanket and still turn into kulfi (frozen dessert) by morning. In the morning, it continued to be warm and got warmer still. Apparently the AC wasn’t working. “We forgot to fill gas in Bangalore,” we were told. “We will do so now at Ballarshah.”

Ballarshah would come around 1.00 p.m. By then, temperature in our little airless iron oven would be soaring and we’d have the unique pleasure of being simultaneously slowly roasted and suffocated in our luxurious ‘AC’ First Class cabin.

By 11, we, along with several other smart passengers, had requested the attendants to downgrade us temporarily to AC two-tier. Just until the problem was fixed, of course. Smart, but a bad idea. With only about 20-odd passengers in the coach to start with, relocating several and with some others disembarking along the way, there were only a handful of passengers left in the entire coach by lunchtime. In India, it’s a numbers game, always. If you don’t have the numbers, nobody is going to do anything for you.

So the problem didn’t get fixed. It turned out there was a leak in the AC gas container. Perhaps they knew about it all along; someone even said that the coach was to have been changed before starting, but, for reasons unknown, it wasn’t. By evening, we had been formally relocated to AC two-tier, and given a letter that would entitle us to a refund. With the grant of a refund letter, we had no further basis for argument, so we all settled down to the downgrade in various degrees of disgruntlement.

Our new lodgings were crowded and messy, so around 5.30, we took the kids back to the deserted AC First coach, and there, in an empty coupe, the twins played sweetly with their toys in the heat, while the staff sprawled in the other empty cabins. That was the happy, blissful part of the journey, unbroken by interruptions of any kind.

Back in AC two-tier, we had been given two berths, upper and lower, right at the end of the coach. The door opened inwards – and frequently – disturbing us with a blast of warm air and, after we were asleep, a bright glare from the corridor lights as our curtains were rudely nudged aside in passing. So, what with all that, none of us got much sleep that night either. Maybe that was why, when we got off the train early the next morning, we left one of our many bags behind. What’s more, we didn’t even realise it until we alighted from the taxi at Amit’s father’s house, about an hour after we got off the train.

The bag had all of Amit’s clothes in it, and a precious and expensive set of Bose headphones. The latter was too valuable to let go of, the former too difficult: Amit, thanks to his extreme height, cannot get readymade clothes, so all his clothes have to be tailormade. Replacing this set, far from being a fun outing, would be a chore of monumental proportions, quite apart from the financial implication.

So Amit went racing back to the station where, after a couple of hours spent looking, asking, running to the yard and returning empty-handed, and trudging despondently to the platform where we had gotten off the train, he finally found it safely in the hands of one of the train attendants, who handed it over with a smile. And so that journey at last came to a happy end.

The two journeys to Chandigarh and back were, by comparison, uneventful. AC worked, food and drink was plentiful, and even the toilets were amazingly clean. I managed to lock Tara and me into the bathroom once for several worrying and embarrassing moments, while I visualised shouting to the staff for help. However, I took heart from the many visible scars of prior battles and, after a few minutes, I managed to extricate us with brute force but without breaking anything. (I seem to have ‘gets locked in the bathroom’ written in my destiny; if you missed my previous experience, go read it now.)

Ok, now we only had one more train ride to undergo and then we’d be back home. The end was, finally, in sight. And after such an eventful journey out, the way back was – by the law of probabilities – bound to be easy. We might even get a two-person cabin all to ourselves. And the AC would work the whole way, no doubt. Surely there’d be nothing to write about there. That’s what I thought.

(To Be Continued)

We’ve Got A Train To Catch

We’re leaving today for a short trip to Delhi and Chandigarh, where our immediate families reside. I seem to have a handle on the packing, which just gives me time for a quick update here.

The twins are now old enough to understand where we’re going, whom we’re going to meet, and, most importantly, how we’re going. We’re taking a train, so we have 36 hours of absolute indulgence to look forward to. Yes, indulgence. We go AC First Class, which is still less than half the cost of air fare for four. It takes a while, but who cares? They feed you and water you, and you get to lie in bed all day and watch the countryside roll by. The kids might be a bit restless, but then again – 36 hours of uninterrupted access to mom and dad? I don’t think they’ll be complaining too much.

We will have quite a hectic trip, as usual – two days in Delhi, two-and-a-half days in Chandigarh, another two days in Delhi, and then we’re off to board the train back. But it looks like it will be fun for the kids. Let’s hope everything goes well and nobody falls sick.

Meanwhile, tomorrow is the twins’ second homecoming anniversary. Two whole years have passed. In those early days, I wondered how I (we) would ever survive… but, incredibly, it has gotten easier. It’s difficult to celebrate much in a train, even if it is AC First, but I’ve baked a chocolate cake to carry along, so it won’t be too bad. Only, with our stuff overflowing from every corner of every piece of luggage, the only way to carry the cake might actually be in our bellies. 🙂

I doubt I’ll be blogging much while we’re away, so come back around the 5th or 6th of October for more.

If parenting is a full-time job, does it come with paid vacations?

The answer, I guess, is: it depends.

One way of looking at it is that full-time parenting (I mean, stay-at-home parenting) is a paid vacation. But I don’t know. Stay-at-home parenting is a break from work, it’s true; it’s just that, depending on the kind of household help you have, it’s a vacation that involves a heck of a lot of work, and not the kind of work that you are used to, either. And it’s not all fun.

Then, of course, you can always go on vacation with the kids. This is especially easy before the kids start going to school, and Amit and I have actually made a good attempt at this, with trips to Binsar, a href = “https://thetwinsandi.wordpress.com/2009/01/03/traveling-with-twins/”>Lakshadweep, and an abortive trip to Leh to our credit. The moot point about traveling with small kids, though, is whether, from a parent’s perspective (and especially from the perspective of a stay-at-home mom), this can be considered a holiday at all. There’s actually more work to be done when you’re away from your regular set-up, and many variables that are worryingly difficult or impossible to control: travel times, meal times, nap times, quality and quantity of food and drink available, toilet availability and cleanliness and usability…

There is another option: leave the kids with someone, the most likely candidates being their grandparents on one side or the other, while both parents go on holiday together. Without passing a value judgment of any kind, I have to say that this option is not for me.

And there’s at least one other option that I can think of: holidaying alone. Or, to put it more precisely, each parent taking a holiday separately, while the other stays home with the kids.

In Binsar, while I was still recovering from the trauma of the drive up (which had both kids retching and puking for three straight hours), I decided that this was the only alternative left to us. Staying at home with the kids all day, while it has its joys, is not – in my dictionary – the definition of a holiday. Neither is holidaying with two two-year-olds.

It’s not that I’ve never traveled alone before; I have, on more than one occasion, and both for business and – on separate occasions – for pleasure. I have to admit that at first I had my doubts as the to “pleasure” aspect of traveling alone, but now no longer. While it’s great to travel with a companion, it’s also nice in a quite different way to travel alone.

But, in the past whenever I traveled alone, I left only Amit behind; next time, I’ll be leaving Amit and the kids.

The longest I’ve ever been away from the kids till date is when I took a day-long trip to Pondicherry and back (for some adoption-related paperwork). That time, Mrini was terribly upset with me and refused to come near me for hours after I returned. That really hurt – the more so because I was totally unprepared for such a reaction. But they are a good bit more grown up now, and if I tell them I’m going away and that I’ll be back in a few days, they will understand it, won’t they?

When Amit travels on work, the kids don’t fuss much about it. They do ask after him sometimes, but they don’t seem upset or anxious in any way. But then, they are used to him going away from home every morning and returning in the evening. With stay-at-home moms, it’s different.

In the past couple of months or so, they have grown accustomed to my going away from home from time to time, usually leaving them in the care of Shaba-aunty. They’ve never seemed put out by it, nor upset when I return. So does it mean that they’ll be ok if I disappear for a few days at a stretch?

The other day, something went ‘click’ in me, and I decided it was time to put the kids to the test. I would take a short three-day break, get away on my own, lounge by the sea, read a book or three, eat, drink, sleep, and not worry about a thing. Then I’ll come back, and we’ll see how the kids cope with this. Amit, of course, will be at home with them for the entire duration. This should work.

I have, of course, several complex and contradictory feelings about this: guilt and selfishness and a reprehensible sense of self-indulgence; all covered over with a thick layer of pure, delightful anticipation. Amit has been totally supportive about it, and in fact I think it has even prompted him to go ahead and book his own holiday later in the year, which is good because it helps me feel a little less guilty about mine.

But all the guilt and questioning notwithstanding, I’m planning to go ahead with my solitary vacation. What do you think: is it completely selfish and self-centered to do this, or only just a little?