Tag Archives: travelling with kids

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.

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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.

A tale of two two-year-olds, two trains, two days

The long train journey was not as bad as I thought it would be. Having said that, it was exhausting.

We left home in the midst of an extreme downpour, at almost 3.30 to catch an almost 4.30 train at Central. I was un-worried, until I noticed that Amit was the don’t-talk-to-me-I’m-focussing-all-my-energy-on-just-getting-there kind of tense. Then, I started to worry. He called 139, only to be told that our train was on schedule. By 4 p.m. We were all holding our breaths, as the station was still several traffic jams away and we weren’t even sure which platform to head for. Our taxi driver told us it would be platform 7, entry 2, and we took his word for it. Luckily, he was bang on, and we reached with 10 minutes in hand. The train hadn’t arrived yet, and what should have been a brief 10 minute wait at the platform turned into an hourlong marathon with the kids running around, screaming, lying down prone on the filthy ground and generally getting into every kind of scrape concievable. They provided endless entertainment for the others waiting there, and endless exercise for us, in addition to stretching our mental alacrity and patience to the utmost.

At last, the train came, and the journey got underway. The kids were as good as could be hoped for, given that it was early evening and therefore their peak activity time. Still, I was happy to find ourselves in Executive class, and with the two seats across the aisle from us vacant to boot, so that the kids could wander around a bit and even get seats for themselves. There was another girl just a little older than them nearby, and soon they had a brisk trade and exchange program for picture books. Aside from several trips each to the bathroom, despite being firmly strapped into diapers, the journey was not too strenuous. What was really taxing was a long wait just outside Chennai station, when everybody was at the end of their tether and just waiting to get off and go home. It was then that Tara started up her plaintive “pottykini” cries, which I had to ignore because the aisle was crowded with passengers waiting to get off. When we did finally get in to the station, I rushed past the toilet, thinking it’d be dirty and that I’d rather she used the toilet in the hotel. Or, better still, her diaper. It became very clear very soon that this was a big mistake. She absolutely would not “go in her pants”, diaper notwithstanding, and she cried the whole way with increasing desperation. I felt absolutely terrible about not being able to get her to a toilet any sooner. But in the end she held out until we reached the hotel, which was a very short walk away from the station.

A very short walk is all very well, but it doesn’t seem so very short at 11 at night, when you’re tired and irritable, it’s pitch dark, you don’t know the way, you’re walking on the sleazy and stinky pavement outside the station watching buses roar past you six inches away, holding two small and fidgety kids, encumbered with various pieces of luggage… And struggling with “pottykini” pleas every step of the way. I can’t say I enjoyed that particular short walk, but for the kids it must have been absolutely traumatic. Once we reached the hotel, got a room, and got the kids settled in, it took them a good 30 minutes to fall asleep.

And the next morning, they were up just after 7, none the worse for wear. We all grabbed a quick breakfast and walked back to the station, an easy walk in the daylight and without any added tension. Our train was waiting for us, we didn’t have any trouble finding our seats and we left punctually at 8.45.

On this leg of the trip, we were traveling AC First class, something I’ve only ever done once before in my life. I have to say, it was definitely worth it, just because in the coupe the kids could move around enough to not get bored to tears. They could spread their toys around, jump, climb, sit, lie down, or look out the window and that kept them happy for most of the journey.

Just outside the coupe was a short corridor that led to another two coupes and to the toilets. The rest of the bogey was AC two tier, and they and the other bogeys were separate from this half bogey.

Having two toilets dedicated for the use of ten passengers (though a few of the staff used these toilets too) is an unimaginable luxury and one that I don’t know how I would have managed without. Almost every time that I took the girls to the toilet, the western style toilet was vacant. It was even usually clean and dry! For quite a while, I think the girls were the only ones using the western style toilet. I have to say that it was extremely taxing taking the girls to the toilet, though. After Tara’s performance the previous evening, I had given up trying to put them in diapers: taking off and putting on the diaper after every trip to the bathroom only added an extra degree of complexity to the entire process, and any additional complexity I could do very well without. Besides, do you have any idea how difficult, cumbersome and ultimately ineffective it is to try and put a diaper on a child who’s standing up? No, the AC First bathrooms don’t have a fold-away baby changing station, at least, not one that I could find.

Just to give you some idea, every toilet trip involved the following steps:

    put on my shoes (slip-ons without socks for the occasion)
    put on the kid’s shoes
    grab the kiddy toilet seat and wipes
    head for the toilet opening and closing two doors on the way before even reaching the toilet door
    unhook the toilet door
    place the toilet seat on the toilet
    drag the girl into the toilet and close and latch the door
    pull down her pants and seat her on the toilet
    steps A-Z above in reverse
    repeat the entire process for the second child!

So yeah, that part of the journey was tiring. But apart from that, it was ok. Amit spent a lot of time looking after the kids and keeping them occupied or entertained, so I got some reading done: To Kill a Mocking Bird, which I’ve read before, but eons ago.

The sad part was that the train food was extremely insipid and almost unpalatable… And there are few public vendors in AC First. But we survived.

The train rolled in to Howrah station fairly punctually, maybe 10-15 minutes late. It was raining.