Our trip began with a train ride from Manakau down the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island, to Wellington Central Station, where we were met by Jenny’s uncle Ian, and cousins Stuart and Michelle. This enabled us to return the shirt Stuart had lent Ravi for the funeral, and have one last real cappuccino/hot chocolate. If you count McCafe as “real”. After three months in India and six months in Thailand, we actually do!
And then it was on to Wellington International Airport, which is milking the Lord of The Rings exposure for all it is worth. We patted Smaug’s nose in the lobby, and walked under Gollum’s arm in the food court, before joining the extensive queue to get through security.
Taking off from Wellington was spectacular. As we had landed in darkness, it was Ravi’s first opportunity to see the beautiful New Zealand coast, and Wellington Harbour, from the air.
The weather was kind, with radiant sunshine. There was only a small amount of bouncing around during take-off, courtesy of Wellington’s perpetual howling gale. They don’t call it “Windy Wellington” for nothing!
We were met at Sydney Airport by Ravi’s parents, who took us out for dinner, along with Ravi’s brother and his girlfriend (and his dog, Penny, who has been registered as a “companion animal”, and can therefore be taking into restaurants, hotels, and other places that would normally not allow dogs). David was in a lot of pain, with a suspected broken foot, but he managed to participate in the evening’s events.
The Budget Ibis hotel got our thumbs down – despite its non-budget price of $116 AUD per night, it wanted to charge an extra $12 for use of the WiFi! No, thank you very much. We headed into the terminal to use free WiFi while having breakfast at a cafe there instead.
And then we boarded our Air India flight to Delhi! We decided that we wouldn’t try to sleep on the 12-hour flight to Delhi, but instead we would take the day flight, get some work done, and maybe watch a movie or two.
After a pleasant flight, we arrived in Delhi, and went through the incredible security rigmarole required to check in to the transit hotel. This time, we were in the “domestic” wing, as our onward flight the next morning was within India. This gave us a view from our bed of the entire departures hall.
We made sure the curtains were well drawn before getting undressed for bed!
After a lovely night’s sleep on crisp, clean, white sheets, and a leisurely buffet breakfast watching the planes taxi to and from the terminal, we made our way to the gate lounge for our flight to Pune. Which was delayed. They hadn’t announced it or changed the boards, because they had no idea when the plane was going to finally turn up.
Well accustomed to this, and with no pressing connection to make this time, we relaxed and read in the gate lounge until the flight was finally ready to go.
It was lovely to get back to the ashram in Pune – it really felt like home.
We felt it was really quite lovely of the whole country of India to take a four-day holiday in honour of our wedding anniversary!
We decided to spend one night in a nice hotel to celebrate our anniversary, so we picked a hotel within walking distance of the Aga Khan Palace, a tourist attraction we had been meaning to visit. Gandhi was imprisoned here for two years with his wife and several supporters. His wife and his secretary passed away during those two years.
We arrived at the location of the hotel according to Google maps, and asked around, to discover the hotel was actually about 800m away. Fortunately, the new location was still about the same distance from the Aga Khan Palace.
We arrived at the hotel, and were shown to a room which was large, but smelled of mould. We turned on the air conditioner, and wafts of even more mouldy air filled the room. We saw that there was mould growing on the ceiling and the wall above the air conditioner. It was time to request a room change!
We were moved to a room across the hall, which smelled much better. Preparing for an afternoon siesta, we discovered that the sheets had not been changed after the previous occupant of the room had checked out.
The bed had been made, but they had simply pulled the bedcover up and smoothed it, without changing either the sheet or the doona (duvet) cover.
We called Reception, and two lads came up with a clean sheet. We saw when they came to change the sheet that they hadn’t even straightened the bottom sheet – it still had the curved creases where the previous person had lain.
Reluctantly, one of them went off and returned with another doona cover. Ravi noticed, but didn’t tell Jenny, that while it was a DIFFERENT doona cover, it wasn’t exactly a CLEAN doona cover.
Apparently, this is quite common in India, and smart travellers carry their own sheets with them, to ensure they aren’t sleeping in other people’s skin flakes and body secretions every night.
At $50 AUD per night, which is quite pricey for Pune, we were seriously underwhelmed by the hotel.
Still, it was our anniversary, and we were determined to have a good time. We had a siesta, and then headed out in search of dinner.
We found a Domino’s Pizza store, and decided that since it was a special occasion, we would pay the absurd premium demanded by Western franchise chains in India, and have a real pizza. And since we were eating in, a garlic bread.
Half an hour later, Ravi went to enquire as to progress on the pizza. Five minutes, they said, and gave him the garlic bread, which had clearly been sitting there, cooling, for at least 15 minutes. Someone then went into the kitchen and started making our pizza – they had forgotten to make it!
Several discussions with the manager resulted in someone bringing us a free Coke (which we don’t drink), and then a free garlic bread (which did taste much better when it was hot). Eventually the pizza arrived, and it was not what we had ordered (it had olives all over, instead of only on half). More discussions about the difference between politeness vs actual customer service, and eventually we were refunded the price of the pizza.
We took the free Coke, and gave it to one of the beggars.
We stopped off to buy ice cream, and Jenny worked her way through three before she found one that hadn’t been melted and re-frozen. When she tried to give the bad ones to the woman in the shop, the woman said “put them back in the freezer” – shedding light on why it was so hard to find a good one in there! Jenny tried to tuck them down the bottom at the back, where other people wouldn’t accidentally pick them up.
Coming back to the hotel, there was a very impressive display of fireworks. This was now the night before Diwali proper, which happens to fall exactly on our wedding anniversary.
The next morning, we were even more unimpressed when the hot water wasn’t hot. We left it running for five minutes, and when it still wasn’t hot, we called Reception. We left it running, and someone came up, turned it off and on again, and told us to wait five minutes.
We already waited five minutes, we said.
Wait five minutes, he insisted.
Ten minutes later, the water was still cold, so we called Reception. We will check the system they said. We will call you back in five minutes.
Ten minutes later, we called Reception. They sent someone up, who turned the water off and on again. Wait five minutes, he said.
Wait five minutes, he insisted.
What do they think is going to happen in those five minutes? Divine intervention?
Ten minutes later, we called Reception again.
Still no hot water, we said. We will check the system, they said, and call you back in five minutes.
No, we said. Do you have hot water in the kitchen?
Five minutes, they said.
No, we said. Listen, and answer “:yes” or “no”. Is there hot water in the kitchen?
Pause. Hot water in the kitchen?
Yes. Is there hot water in the kitchen?
(Conferring noises) Yes, hot water in kitchen.
Good. Put some hot water in a bucket, and bring it to our room.
You want a bucket of hot water?
OK. OK. Five minutes.
Ten minutes later, someone arrived with a bucket of piping hot water. He went into the bathroom, where the water was still running, and commented that it was now hot.
We jumped in the shower, and got half-way through washing our hair when the water went cold again. We expertly diluted and applied the hot water from the bucket, and got a bit further through the hair washing process.
When the bucket water ran out, we wrapped ourselves in towels, and called down to Reception to get another bucket of hot water. Unfortunately, we forgot to leave our water running while they filled it in the kitchen, so we didn’t get any more hot water in the pipes to the shower.
However, the second bucket of hot water was enough to rinse out the conditioner, and we were good to go for the day!
The first stop on our walk to the Aga Khan Palace was when we passed a very Western-looking coffee shop. Could we actually get real cappuccino in Pune? It’s our wedding anniversary, and coffee had not been an available option in the hotel breakfast. Let’s give it a try.
The coffee was, for India, remarkably good. The day was somewhat redeemed.
We found that there was no way to enter the Aga Khan Palace from this side, even though the gardens extended to the road at the back, so we needed to walk around three sides of it to the front gate.
In Pune, as with many Indian cities, there are areas of wasteland between areas of high rise. As we crossed one flat, open area, we met this lady carrying a huge load on her head. She doesn’t even reach to Ravi’s shoulder!
There aren’t many proper sidewalks in Pune – and where there are, they serve as an extra lane for motorcycles and auto rickshaws when the traffic banks up!
Finally, we paid the entry fee (two orders of magnitude more for foreigners than for Indians), and we were inside.
The gardens are lovely and peaceful, and the building exterior is well-maintained.
This is the room where Gandhi and his wife spent their time. While the public can wander through many of the rooms in the palace, this one is sealed behind glass, to protect it from the devoted public.
We were bemused to find signposts pointing the way to samadhi (the Sanskrit word for liberation, or enlightenment). We discovered that the word is used to apply to the resting place of someone’s ashes. The signs are pointing tho the garden where the remains of Gandhi’s secretary and his wife are interred.
After exploring the Aga Khan Palace, we headed back to the ashram to meet up with our friend, Subash. His family lives in Orissa (another state of India), so he was alone in Pune for Diwali (kind of like being alone for Christmas), and we had agreed to go out for dinner with him to celebrate Diwali.
It was a bit of a struggle to find a restaurant in Pune that opened before 7pm (Indians are late eaters!), but we got to have a good long walk, and see the huge piles a last-minute Diwali decorations and gifts still being sold. On this street, the entire left lane was taken up by Diwali stalls! Drivers took it in their stride.
Eventually we found a restaurant that would give us appetisers before 7pm, and get our food going the moment the tandoor reached temperature.
The food was lovely, and we had a great time chatting with Subash. We will miss him when we leave Pune!
We walked back to the ashram through clouds of firework smoke. After days and days of fireworks every night, we thought we were used to it, but this night was The Big One, and there was a constant sound of bangs, whistles, and pops until long after midnight.
So now we have experienced three big festivals in Pune – Ganpati (the Ganesha festival), Navratri (the Nine Nights festival), and Diwali (the traditional New Year’s festival), as well as several smaller one-day festivals. And we attended a puja. Cultural immersion – tick!