2020 India – Gujurat (1)

After spending the last couple of hours home with Vladi he brought me to the airport. Saying goodbye was emotional as we would not be seeing each other for 7 1/2 weeks, the longest period of time since we are together. Till the last moment I had my doubts whether to go or not. When I passed security I had to fight my tears but then there was no way back… I was on my way…

The flight to Dubai was amazing as I had three seats for myself and even managed to sleep a couple of hours. After a three and a quarter hour stop in Dubai the journey continued in a fully booked plane so I was not as lucky. 

Going through immigration was done with the typical Indian flair as fingerprint devices and facial camera’s were not functioning properly. Because of those ehhh…. issues, the procedure took much longer that actually required. In the end it worked out though. Welcome back to India Sir… 

After I collected my luggage I took a taxi to the Regency Fort Hotel where I stayed last year as well. By now I was quite tired because of the long journey, however anxious as well, my India adventure had officially begun…

The staff remembered me from the year before so it felt a bit like coming home. After the check in procedure I only wanted two things, a shower and fresh clothes. Once that was taken care of I felt at least slightly refreshed. That evening I decided not to leave the hotel anymore and have a bite to eat at the restaurant of the hotel. It had been two long days and the journey was taking it’s price…

Next day I had booked “a day in the life of the Dabbawalas“ tour to get an insight into the famous Mumbai lunchbox delivery system but unfortunately this was being cancelled shortly before my departure. As I had already enough inside information I went to Churchgate Station on my own to witness the arrival of the Dabbawalas. They are also known tiffin wallahs and constitute a lunchbox delivery and return system that delivers hot lunches from homes and restaurants to people at work in central Mumbai. It is the world’s best food delivery system and became famous because of the movie “Lunchbox”.

I was early so had plenty of time to enjoy the activities which were unfolding on the streets. Salesmen were setting up their stalls for the day but food stalls were already in full swing, as the commuters were eager for chai, fruits and other snacks to start their working day. I spend some time at the station watching the commuters arrive but still no signs of the Dabbawalas yet 

So I went to a cafe nearby and enjoyed an excellent doppio whilst waiting. Back at Churchgate station I was approached by a friendly guide who was waiting for his guests. He took his spare time to explain the lunchbox delivery system to me, which turned out to be some welcome information to find the right spots for making pictures. He was a good storyteller and I enjoyed his tales. Just before twelve his guests arrived so he said goodbye to tell the same stories once again, this time to his paying guests. Not much later the lunchbox delivery men started arriving and I could witness this amazingly effective system with my own two eyes. It had been a good decision to go here, a slightly unusual sight which is so vital for the Mumbai workforce. I watched several trains arriving and the delivery men unloading the lunchboxes in order to bring them to the streets where they were loaded on pushbikes for further distribution. One month of daily delivery did not cost more than the equivalent of 10 Euro for the people eagerly waiting for a home cooked lunch.

After a while I took a taxi to Leopold Cafe. As I wasn’t hungry I treated myself for a beer and then headed towards the gate of India. By now I was on common ground so I did not need a map to go around. Still not recovered from the long journey I was getting a bit dizzy though so I decided to head back to the hotel for some badly needed rest.

Later in the afternoon I went to the Beer Cafe for some pre dinner drinks. Not much further was the Gaylord Fine Dining restaurant where I enjoyed a terrific masala papadum and a lamb curry. The perfect ending of my first day in India.

It was time to return to the hotel and have a chat with Vladi, something which would turn into an almost daily tradition (depending on internet connection), a tradition that had started during my India trip last year before we had even met in person.

That night was absolutely horrible. Mumbai was upgrading to a new underground but the construction work that night took place directly in front of my hotel room. It was an ongoing coming and going of cement trucks delivering their load. I hardly slept for three hours and got up more tired than I went to bed.

After breakfast I packed my stuff and ordered a taxi to Bandra Terminus to catch my train to Vadodara in Gujarat. Using the sea link (A toll road) was a wise decision as it saved about 45 minutes of travel time as the roads in Mumbai were suffering from over congestion (which is a polite way to describe it).

I arrived in Bandra Terminus plenty in plenty of time and as my train was already at the platform I boarded it so I could catch up on some sleep before we departed. Actually I slept for over 4 hours of the journey so I left the train more refreshed than I boarded. The joy of Indian 1st class sleepers…

In Vadodara I was approached by a auto rickshaw driver and it did not take me long to get to the hotel. There I enjoyed a refreshing shower and dinner before giving Vladi a call, another day had come to an end…

Next morning I overslept a bit so I only ate some fruit and had a tea before I headed towards Central Bus Station. Now Indian bus stations can be a bit confusing at times and I had to ask twice before I was given a selection of 3 bays where my bus would appear at some time. Bay 18, 19, or 20…

When I asked once again I was pointed towards a cramped and shabby looking bus but I boarded anyway. The first thing I noticed was a different layout than during my booking and no air conditioning…. Statue of Unity? Yes Sir, sit down, Statue of Unity…

The ticket collector brought clarity, the destination was right but as I already suspected this was not the AC Deluxe Express bus but an ordinary local one… Oh well, at least the crowd was amused by this misunderstanding. For me it was a good opportunity to experience Indian bus rides as they really are and since it was only a 2 hour ride I was enjoying it. Instead of driving directly to the Statue of Unity we sidetracked to small villages where the roads were sometimes so narrow I wondered how the driver could manoeuvre through them. But he did and almost 2 1/2 hour after departure we arrived in front of the Statue.

As my friend Neha had bought a ticket online for me I did not have to get in the queue to buy one. Also it allowed my to get into the express lane twice, once at the entrance and a second time at the elevator to the viewing platform.

The Statue of Liberty has been built in honour of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, one of the key players during the independence process of India. He was the one who had unity in mind for the remainder of India after separation with Pakistan had become inevitable.

Under the statue was an interesting and interactive museum dealing with the vision of Mr. Patel; unity & patriotism, inclusive growth and good governance. After I absorbed the information for a while I headed towards the elevator which brought me to the observation platform. Although the platform wasn’t too big it gave some good views over the area and the Sardar Sarovar Dam. 

I spent some time at the platform, which is roughly located at the height of the breast of the statue after which I returned to the museum and explored it a bit more. Then I spend some more time at the foot of the statue to observe the surroundings.

By now I was getting a bit hungry so I headed towards the food court for a bite to eat. In several places in the area more attractions were created to entertain the visitors. But it became rapidly clear to me that the circular ecotourism bus line and it’s attractions were more opted to the local tourists then international ones. 

My first stop was a viewpoint over the dam and although rather interesting it was a shame there was no water flowing at the moment which would have made the sight much more spectacular. Not that I would have had much time to enjoy it as I was constantly asked for selfies. Apparently still not a lot of foreigners have found their way over here. I skipped the Dino Trail and the glow park and headed towards the valley of flowers indeed. It was a lovely little park with good views over the Statue of Unity and the dam, although I had hoped for a bigger variety of flowers and some more macro photography opportunities …

At the exit I tried to board a bus to the exit of the park but I was told it was a school bus. Within a minute though the driver changed his mind and I was allowed to board anyway, as a result the teachers and pupils were competing for my attention and the obligatory selfies…

When I arrived at the exit I still had some time to spare and treated myself on an ice cream and a drink. Fortunately there was a help desk at the park where I could enquire where the bus was leaving. Which obviously was not at the bus park…. I was told to get a Auto-rickshaw towards the bus station which was in the middle of nowhere about a kilometre and a half away and which on arrival appeared to be completely abandoned. But things in India are not always what they seem and I was at the right place indeed. Not much later the AC Deluxe Express buss arrived. I got myself a seat and as all curtains were closed even managed to have a nap at the return journey. I must admit the journey in the morning had been the most interesting of the two.

Back at the hotel I relaxed, had a bite to eat and called Vladi to finish of the day. I was rather tired by now but did not want to take the risk to go to sleep to early and wake up in the middle of the night.

Although I slept well I did not want to wake up and kept pressing snooze on my Apple Watch. Finally I woke up, had a shower and breakfast, and made my plans for the day. I decided to stay in Vadodara.

Outside the hotel I got into a auto-rickshaw to bring me to Khanderao Market. Markets are places to experience India at it’s most lively. So may colours, such vibrancy and such activity. The people were welcoming and smiling over here and it did not take long before the whole market was buzzing… photo, photo… when I showed the photo I just took an even bigger smile was thrown at me and in one case I was even given some grapes to try… This market was mainly for vegetables and flowers so I was spared the slightly more bloody scenes I that witnessed at the butcher sections before. It was a rather small market but I loved it intensely. It was very clear it was not overrun by tourists as people seemed to appear much more friendly and open.

I could have spent more time over here but I still had some more places on my mind. Next was the Lukshmi Vilas Palace, which is the Official residence of the Maharaja Of Baroda. The royal family still resides in this magnificent palace built in 1889. As a part of the palace is open for visitors I could not resist to get my entry ticket which included a complimentary audio tour guide. This guide gave some interesting information about the palace and it’s inhabitants. Unfortunately it was not allowed to make pictures inside and only cellphones were allowed to make pictures from the outside. Although the part open to visitors was rather small it was absolutely stunning witch architectural influences from all over India and the Western world.

As Sayaji Baug was not that far away I hopped into another auto-rickshaw for a short ride to one of the entrances of the park. It’s a  beautiful and well maintained garden which covers around 100 acres. As it was Sunday it was buzzing from activity with families picnicking, relaxing or taking the toy train on a fun ride through the park.. I enjoyed it a lot but as I was getting slightly hungry I decided to return to the centre for a bit to eat.

In the shopping centre above the central bus station was a food court and after looking around what was available I opted for a Punjabi Tali which turned out to be a good choice. Next I was on the road again towards the EME temple and was surprised to be dropped at the entrance of a military base. The temple was located within the premises so obviously I was not allowed to see it. Change of plan, off to the Akkalkot Swami Math. Fortunately my new auto-rickshaw driver was better informed than the last one and he told me all temples were closed during the afternoon. Oh well, one can’t have it all. Instead I asked to be brought back to my hotel where I slept all afternoon. So far things were going amazingly well and it was good to have my regular breaks to keep me going…

As the restaurant in my hotel was not very appealing I decided to go out for a bite to eat. An auto-rickshaw is never far away in India but the main challenge appears to be to explain the proper destination, this time the Old School Eatery. India never ceases to amaze and it did not fail tonight either… The Old School Eatery is a trendy and extremely popular place where, after I was amazed by the setting, choose the Mumbai Platter. As I asked for the spicy version the staff enquired 3 times whether it was ok for me, they were willing to bring me a milder version even when my plate was half empty. It was not needed as I enjoyed the wonderful balance of spices… This is something that I really miss in Europe where the taste palate seems to be far more bland…

It had been a beautiful day which I enjoyed a lot and once at the hotel I was ready for the highlight of the day, you can already guess what that is, a call to Remscheid…

Next morning, after a simple but sufficient breakfast I headed back to the central bus station where I enquired for the bus to Padavagh. I had already found out that there was a scheduled departure at 9:05 but I still needed to find out the ramp. Like two days ago I was given three…

At the ramps it took me a while to find someone who spoke sufficient English but also that worked out and I was friendly invited to take a seat. Although we were supposed to depart at 9:05 we were still at the ramp at 9:30. But then, who cares, I was in the right bus after all.

We finally left for the one hour drive to Pavagadh during which the bus got more crowded. On arrival I was dropped at a small bus station, opposite the entrance of the historical park.

This spectacular Unesco World Heritage Site combines a sacred, temple-freckled 762m volcanic hill (Pavagadh) that rises dramatically from the plains, and a ruined Gujarati capital with beautiful mosque architecture. 

As I knew I could not cope the 20000 steps towards the temple I decided to stick to the ruined former Gujarati capital. At the first masjid (mosque) I visited I met Tamara from Chicago, and as it turned out the sites were rather spread out we decided to get an auto-rickshaw together and visit the numerous sites.

The evocative ruins of the one-time capital of Sultan Mahmud Begada today stand as testament to Champaner’s brief period of 15th-century glory. When Champaner was captured by Mughal emperor Humayun in 1535, the Gujarati capital reverted to Ahmedabad, and Champaner fell into ruin.

It had definitely been worth it and once back at the bus station we witnessed a small ceremony going on at a temple nearby, both of us were invited to join and witness the intimate ceremony. We then had a perfect lunch at a simple restaurant after which the bus was already waiting for the one hour trip back to Vadodara. My first part of my visit to Gujarat had come to an end as I would be traveling to Ahmedabad the next day. All that was remaining was a quiet evening…

Next morning I could have a bit of a sleep in as my train was not scheduled to depart until 11:05. Once at the station I enquired for the platform and moved over there, only to find out it was changed last minute… But as I was in good time there was no stress and I made it easily to my executive class wagon. Seats were comfortable as could be expected and perfectly on time we departed for the two hour trip to Ahmedabad. Executive class comes with executive service and in spite of the short trip I was offered a tasty 3 course meal. 

In Ahmedabad I took an auto-rickshaw towards the French Haveli, an 180 year old house in the centre of old Ahmedabad, now converted to a B&B. I was absolutely excited on arrival as this seemed like my own “Best Marigold Hotel”. The inside was stunningly decorated and my room, although small was all I needed. The bathroom was something else, so lovely and spacious, it had real character.

Once I settled though I became a bit sad being here on my own. Although it was early afternoon I did not feel like going out as I was missing Vladi desperately. I had a look around at the Haveli and ended up in a conversation with Michel and Baska, an English couple. They were not that happy as their room had no windows. It was my initial plan to go and listen to some music at the roof terrace but I didn’t make it there as I started to feel tired and went for a nap. 

Early evening we had dinner in the hotel together after which I went to bed, it took me very long to fall asleep though as somehow I could not get rid of my restlessness. Next morning I still felt tired but after a refreshing shower I was ready for breakfast.

With Ahmedabad having such right strings with Mahatma Gandhi it was only logical to start my visit  with the Sabarmati Ashram, which has been Mahatma Gandhi’s home for many years.  While at the Ashram, Gandhi formed a school that focused on manual labour, agriculture, and literacy to advance his efforts for self-sufficiency. It was also from here on the 12 March 1930 that Gandhi launched the famous Dandi march 241 miles from the Ashram (with 78 companions) in protest of the British Salt Law. On 12 March 1930 he vowed that he would not return to the Ashram until India won independence. Although this was won on 15 August 1947, when India was declared a free nation, Gandhi was assassinated in January 1948 and never returned.

In the museum an informative museum was created that gave a good overview of Gandhi’s life. In a way the place felt very peaceful, and I definitely thought it was a special place to start my exploration in Ahmedabad.

After a refreshing drink I took an auto-rickshaw towards the Bhadra Fort. The area round it was simply amazing… The fort, built immediately after the founding of Ahmedabad in 1411, houses government offices and a Kali temple. It is surrounded by a large marketplace which obviously is the perfect spot for making pictures. The area was abuzz with crushing crowds and sellers of all things bright, plastic and glittery. In a small temple next to the fort a group of devotees was singing some rather hypnotizing songs and I stopped a while to enjoy the atmosphere. People invited me to join them and participate in their chanting, but knowing my singing qualities I kindly rejected.

Not much further was another temple but this was breathing a more serene and quiet atmosphere. I continued my stroll over the market towards the Teen Darwaza Arches but as not a lot seemed to go on behind them I decided to return and just follow some of the narrow streets. I was happy to find the nearby fish and meat market, always a great place to hang around….

Not being upset by the pools of blood I was getting a bit hungry so I headed for a nice restaurant in order to have a bite to eat. Lunch was good and I felt energised to continue my walk for a while.

After another hour or so I returned to my hotel for some rest and update my diary. It had definitely been an interesting day!

Next morning I did not want to wake up when the alarm went off at 6:30. But my plan was to do an organised heritage walk in the old city Center so there was no other way. After a refreshing shower I met up with Michel and Baska again and we took an auto-rickshaw towards the meeting point. Whilst waiting over there for our guide two more American couples showed up and not much later we were on our way.

A short bus ride later we entered an old Haveli here we were offered a refreshment and Jeep, our guide introduced himself whilst we were enjoying a refreshment. He turned out to be a passionate storyteller and in the courtyard of the Haveli he explained how they were built and their role in society in those years. 

We started our tour wandering through the narrow alleys and there was so much to discover I did not have eyes enough… the old city enter was breathing the most wonderful atmosphere, although because of the time of the day it was still relatively quiet. Stalls were being set up, chai was made everywhere and the most beautiful smells appeared  out of the kitchens.

At some haveli’s we were allowed to have a look inside and we received more insight information about the layout and functionality. We were shown an inside well, which in former days was used by the whole community as only the richest people had one. 

The city was divided in pol’s, small guarded communities with a central Haveli supporting the community and vice versa. Services were being paid in meals and apparently the first a la carte menu’s appeared in Ahmedabad (The better the food offered, the easier it was to attract workers).

Obviously we passed by numerous Hindu and Jain temples, as well as mosques. They all seemed to mix well together. Cows were passing by, birds were being fed in giant bird houses whilst chipmunks made sure they received their fair deal as well. It was a wonderful cooperation between the species.

Our final stop was the Jumma Masjid, Ahmedabad’s largest mosque. As my Bermuda was found to indecent I was given a dress to cover my legs before I was allowed to enter. In front of the mosque was a giant courtyard and a central point. The mosque itself had 256 pillars and Jeep explained the Hindu features that were to be seen everywhere.

Time flew by quickly and we headed back through the three arched gate and the Bandra fort towards the point where we started. It had been a  wonderful tour and I was deeply impressed.

A short auto-rickshaw ride later we were back at the French Haveli where breakfast was being served. Since I had not slept well the last two nights I decided for a short nap, to wake up for hours later… I must have needed it.

In the evening, Baska, Michel and myself went to Manik Chowk, a local food market for dinner. On arrival I immediately loved the almost manic atmosphere. On a small square tables and chairs were setup in the open, surrounded by food stalls. Each of them had different specialities and the trick was to find a place to sit and order from the food stalls of your choice. It did not take long before we found a table and I asked Baska to order for me whatever they were having and took some time to make pictures. 

When I returned to the table it did not take long before our food arrived. A dosa with a cheese-vegetable curry that at the first bite blew me away. Not because it was too spicy, on the contrary. The flavours were so rich, yet subtle and balanced. Without doubt this was the best dosa I have enjoyed so far in India. I doubted whether to order a second one but opted for a Manu fruit shot instead as dessert, I did not know that purple fruit so it was time to find out. It had a nice taste, a strange grainy texture and with the rim of the shot glasses dipped in salt made it extraordinary. I had made the right decision.

With one day left in Ahmedabad I had decided to book a local tour which would bring me to some places I had already visited, but also a number of new places, most of them a bit further out of the centre of Ahmedabad, which. Would be more complicated to get to on my own.

Meeting point was a hotel opposite the Gandhi Ashram and this is where I met my guide and my fellow day trippers, all Indian.

As expected we spend most of the morning in the old centre of town visiting places I had already seen but it was always nice to hang around and breath the atmosphere. The Siri Saieed Mosque, Bhadra Fort, Bhadrakali Temple, Teen Darwaza, Jama Masjid were all known places but I listened carefully to the descriptions of Happy, our guide “This is an old building, very beautiful”,  although I have to be honest she also had some more in-depth information than this.

Back at the bus we went to our next stop, the Hutheesinh Jain Temple. It was built in a small courtyard and contained the most beautiful carvings and statues. Unfortunately I had to leave my camera behind, something that seems to be very common in this area. A short stop at Rani Sipri’s mosque and tomb got another view of one of the many mosques spread over Ahmedabad. Then we passed by the shaking Minarets but I could not find out why they were called like this (Very old, very beautiful).

Our next stop was the Gandhi Ashram followed by lunch in the hotel opposite of it. As I had already seen it I decided to have a break and enjoy an extended lunch instead.

After lunch it was a longer drive to the Adalaj Step Well. It did not seem much from the outside but once we came close I could see a fantastic structure that was mainly under earth.. The Adalaj Step well is among the finest of the Gujarati step-wells. Built by Queen Rudabai in 1498, it has three entrances, leading to a huge platform that rests on 16 pillars, with corners marked by shrines. The octagonal well is five stories deep and is decorated with exquisite stone carvings; subjects range from eroticism to buttermilk. The stairs surrounded by arches led to the two wells. It was an amazing structure and it became clear to me how vital and appreciated water was as a well was not simply a case of digging a hole in the earth. It was a magnificent piece of art.

Next on the program was Dandi Kutir. It is the world’s Largest and only Museum built on one man’s story – Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Nation. On arrival I did not know what to think of it as it appeared to be a giant pyramid. Later I understood it symbolised a pile of salt, inspired by Gandhi’s salt mach.

The museum in fact is a chain of multimedia experiences, each visitor was given a receiver and headset that responds on the area where he or she is. Then we were brought to an elevator which brought us to the top floor where the exhibits started at Gandhi’s childhood. I enjoyed the way it was setup and although execution at times had some flaws (My receiver seemed to skip bits of the story so there were gaps in the experience) it definitely was worth it. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Our last stop of the day was the magnificent Akshardham temple and I was really looking forward to this. We had to leave our bags, camera, phone and all leather items behind which was nothing surprising. At the entrance however I was not allowed to pass as I was wearing my Apple Watch. This must have been the most ridiculous reason to deny entrance I have ever heard and it was the first time I seriously lost my temper. I asked which uneducated monkey had come up with this rule… Happy offered to have my watch put in storage but I was not willing to let this precious gift of Vladi behind and fumingly I returned to the bus and waited for the others to return.

Another hour’s drive later we arrived at Gandhi’s ashram from where I took an auto-rickshaw to Manik Chowk for another delightful indulgence in Gujarati street food to finish of an exciting day.

Continue the journey to Patan