Friday 20 May 2022
Mid-afternoon we drove to Montpellier and caught a flight to Amsterdam, trading the clear blue skies of southern France for the clagged in skies of central Europe. We are always impressed flying into Amsterdam by its neatness; from the air it looks like all the streets and buildings have been meticulously laid out over the many centuries. A driver in a nice merc picked us up and (I would love to say speed us) drove us the 15-kilometre (45 minute) trip to the hotel. There may be lots of bicycles here but they still have traffic jams. Sylvia had booked us into the Waldorf Astoria hotel for a two-night stop over on our way to India.
On arrival our bags were whipped away from us and we were seated at a desk and offered champagne while we checked in. That seems to be the drill at these rather flash hotels. After one of the receptionists had checked us in she took us on a bit of a tour. Opened in 2008 in a block of house originally knocked up in the 1600’s the hotel now takes up pretty much the whole block. The building the reception is in has a grand stairway with sculptures of the original owner’s wife on three walls and above that the family crest. The original dining room out the back still has the paintings done for the family of their holidays on the walls. One large painting lifts up revealing where the family used to secretly store their valuable crockery. Downstairs in the basement there is an old bank vault, which has been turned into a bar, with the safety deposit boxes now used to store liquor. There is also a dining room, pool, gym and spa on this floor. Out the back is Amsterdam’s largest private garden, now a UNESCO site. It’s all of 150m long and 30m wide. This level seems to be below the level of the water in the canal out the front. The Dutch are very good at waterproofing, especially as Amsterdam is 2 meters below sea level. As we passed from one building to the next we noticed signs indicating the original owner of the house. After settling into our room we headed to the bar and enjoyed an evening of cocktails.
Saturday 20 May 2022
After a lazy start, a late breakfast and Sylvia’s French lesson we took a stroll through the town, passing a number of interesting window displays. The town was quite busy with lots of people entering and leaving the many shops on the short streets. Some buildings stood out on the edge of the canals we passed over before reaching the Rijksmuseum.
This building has a roadway through the centre of it, covered in the old style ceilings one sees in Europe. A young lady with a great operatic voice stood singing at the top of her voice as we entered. Buying a ticket online as we stood in the queue (apparently the only way it can be done) we headed into the large Arrium, the galleries branching off from there. Although it started of a bit just like any museum it got better as we explored. There were paintings by Van Gogh, Monet and Rembrandt amongst the many other paintings. The large Night Watchman work by Rembrandt was constantly surrounded by people who looked like they were discussing each brush stroke in detail. Another painting by Drost depicts the story of Cimon, who, sentenced to death by starvation, was kept alive by his daughter secretly breast feeding him.
There were some quite extravagant gold and silver tea sets and even a gold mirror the Dutch King William had had made as a present for his daughter to go in the dunny. There was also some very nice furniture, models of ships, cannons, lances, firearms and even the crest from the front of a British war ship the Dutch had captured and brought home keeping the crest and destroying the rest of the ship. The original library is still in the building restored and still in use. We really rated this museum for the effort they had put into the layout of many of their exhibits.
We enjoyed a light meal at the museum cafe before heading back to the hotel for a relaxing evening.
Sunday 21 May 2022
After a good breakfast a driver picked us up and we headed back to the airport. Luckily the limousine service had a special pass into the airport as there was a long queue outside the departure terminal. Things have changed rapidly here since the end of covid. This particular company employed, before Covid, around 200 drivers of which they let a hundred go during covid. Now they are busier than before covid but have only managed to get a small number of the drivers back. This seems to be the case with many businesses worldwide as many people, as a result of covid, have taken up new jobs or gone out to work in their own business creating a massive shortage of labour, something very few saw coming. Apparently the same thing has happened after previous pandemics. Lucky we had been able to sneak in the back way as the terminal was packed. We were lucky also to be in Business class as we were able to get in the fast queue for security etc. Eventually boarding the plane and set to take off the pilot announced a passenger had not turned up so the bag had to be found and off loaded. Over an hour later we finally got airborne. As Sylvia often says as we watch people muck around at security “some people should not be allowed to fly.”
Monday 22 May 2022
It was after 3am when we landed in Mumbai to be met by a rather scruffy driver in a beat up old Suzuki car. Sylvia wasn’t impressed, especially when the guy said “don’t worry about the seat belt the hotel is not far”. A short drive and we stopped at the checkpoint at the hotel entrance; some sleepy looking guards ran a mirror under the car and looked in the boot before a large iron gate was pushed to the side and we drove to the reception. Our bags were put through the x-ray machine us through the scanner, then a pat down. Sylvia was taken into a curtained off area by a woman for this process.
Soon we were seated at the reception. The check in process complete, we were led to our room on the 6th (top) floor of the hotel. The young man made a point of how lucky we were to be in the Taj Santacruz Hotel as it has views from some of the rooms that look right down the runway, the only such hotel in India – “would you like an upgrade to one of those rooms?” both of us thinking it’s now 3:30am in the morning – we just want to sleep!
The little give away houses one receives when flying on KLM at the entrance to the business lounge
At 9.30am Sylvia is downstairs in the foyer meeting the Indian team to head out to visit retail and vet sites around the town. The airport is kind of in the middle of the city. Population here is around 20.9 Million, they say that if every one that lives here decided to lay down in an area the size of this city they would not fit! Don’t ask me who worked that out – it’s just as well they have lots of multi-storey buildings here. The hotel is attached to one of the terminals but not the one we came into. A recce around the area revealed lots of security with all the entrances to the hotel having soldiers with their AK’s on guard. The restaurant is situated in the centre of the hotel, open all the way up to the top of the 6th floor.
Tuesday 23 May 2022
Sylvia had a breakfast meeting at 8am while I sat alone in another part of the restaurant. At 9am a driver picked me up for a tour of the southern part of the city. We headed out of the hotel almost wrestling for space on the narrow road with dozens of rickshaws. These are black and no longer have a couple of poles out the front with a pair of legs powering them along. Now motorised they are basically a 3-wheeled motorbike with a cab built on top. In this part of town there are thousands of them. We headed onto a motorway with shops on each side selling everything, lots of people doing things.
We came off the motorway and ran underneath the brightly painted columns turning into a slum area the driver informed me with pride is where the slum dog millionaire was filmed. There are people everywhere all doing something, be it drinking coffee, sweeping the street, selling stuff or just hanging out and talking. Most of the buildings here have been made from all sorts of stuff, I presume much of it borrowed from building sites around the town. The driver pointed out some rough-looking, multi-storey apartment blocks and told me that the government is building these with 200 sq foot apartments in them to house the people from the slums. He also pointed down one of the narrow lanes and tells me how there are many small factories in the slum areas often making goods from recycled materials. He tells me there are no beggars in this part of town.
We head back onto the motorway and across an eight lane bridge towards the main part of the city with the high-rises in the background. To the right of the bridge on the shoreline are many fishing boats and a bunch of make-shift houses where the fishermen live. The driver points out an abandoned milk factory which was government run and apparently used to supply milk to all the schools with milk. He also points out a 33-storey building where one of the local billionaires lives. We pass a beach and I ask why no one is swimming. “The water is too polluted” is the reply. Stopping by the water at the bottom of the seawall the driver suggests I get out and take a photo of this beautiful spot. As I walk over to take the photo a passing man waves his arm and says to me “great view”. The air is quite smoggy obscuring the great view somewhat. Hungry looking dogs lay about on the pavement.
We carried on our journey… next stop the museum, which is in quite a grand building but looks like there is a funding shortage as the way things are laid out is quite basic. There is however a display of coins, dating back to 600 BC. There are lots of Buddha style statues and a section of stuffed animals and birds of India including lions, leopards, tigers and others native to India.
Next we stopped at the railway station, which is a very grand building built by the English in 1887. There is quite a good rail network in India. In Mumbai there is a large metro service which at present is being extensively expanded throughout the city. Across the road is the city council building, which looks like it was built around the same time. Then we passed by the university stopping to look at the large sports, or should I say cricket, grounds situated across the road from the main university buildings, all of which are historically classified. At the entrance to the grounds is a sugar jucing machine which crushes the sugar cane creating juice, which is sold as a drink to the locals. There are many such machine around Mumbai.
We wound our way to to the bottom of the peninsula, or as far as we could go because the Navy Base takes up the last of it. A visit to the Gate of India, where I was asked politely by a group of young men and a woman if they could have a selfie with me, and a look at the Taj Prince Hotel across the road (which was the site of a terrorist attack in about 2008) meant, according to the driver, we had seen everything worth seeing.
From there we crossed the bridge south into the actual Mumbai city. Where we are staying at the airport area is actually one of the suburbs. In the city there are no rickshaws but many not-much-bigger black taxi cabs. The majority are Hyundai; someone has done a great sell job on these although there is the odd Suzuki . We made our way back up the peninsular passing a variety of shops, buildings and more slums, which seem to be tucked away on any bit of spare land, often right up against new apartment blocks. Apparently the government builds new apartment blocks for these people to relocate too. Many of them then rent the apartment out and move back to the slums, where they are more comfortable Some slum dwellers apparently have two or three such apartments they are renting out.
Arriving back at the hotel I was put through the scanning check again as three soldiers on duty looked on. Since the attack on the Taj Prince hotel by Pakistan-based terrorists they have taken security very seriously around here.
In the evening we headed out for dinner with the Royal Canin Indian Leadership team at a nearby hotel. On the way at a set of lights some young boys came to the side of the car and pleaded for money while on the other side a mum and baby did the same thing. In India there is no social welfare.
I really enjoy the spicy Indian food and this was the real deal. We were given large bibs, red for the meat eaters and green for the vege only people. There were no eating utensils; it was a use your fingers deal. Later after the main meal they brought out these nice copper bowls with a reddish liquid in them, which were to wash our fingers in.
Wednesday 25 May 2022
As I walked into breakfast I was greeted by name and room number by the staff on the desk. Good service I thought, then I realised we were the only europeans in the hotel. The driver was waiting and eager to go when I walked outside. This time we headed north up the west side of a big jungle reserve, which has survived the ever expanding city. Apparently back in the Bombay days the area used to be made of a number of islands – the gaps between have been filled in as reclaimed land making enough room for the many apartments and slums.
The slums are everywhere ,often right up against new multi-storey buildings. These intrigued me; I couldn’t understand how so many people could live in what look like real dives and not get sick through a lack of sanitation and potable water. On making some inquiries I found out the following. They are mostly built of stolen materials on land that does not belong to them. They have a series of portable toilets that are supplied by the local government. The power they either ‘steal’ by hooking into the local grid, or in some cases, they do a deal with a local commercial building. The local government also sets up water points in the area so people can have a supply of potable water, which is only for the locals to drink. We were advised not to drink the water even in the hotel and use bottled water for cleaning teeth. I took this advice especially as it was discovered that I had picked up in my previous travels H.Pylori. This is a bacteria that eats into the stomach, hence one bleeds into the stomach resulting in low iron and also stomach cancer if left undetected. A couple of weeks on several pills more designed for a horse than a human has got rid of it.
The road was some 5 lanes wide with stalls and even car repairs often set up on the inside lane. There are lots of traders set just back from the motorway making it a bustling and busy place.
The traffic was not too bad, always at least moving. After an hour or so we turned into a forest park. Parking the car we walked to the gate and ticket office. As we approached, two young women asked if we would mind filming one of them dancing in the park. I said yes and they rushed up and paid for the park access fee. We strolled up the road a little and my driver talked to some blokes about getting a ride to the caves. They then had a discussion about the filming and it was going to cost 5000 locals because I was a foreigner. The idea got canned and the women went off to do there own filming on their phone. I offered to give them the money for the entry fee back but they declined that. I mounted a beat up old van with that ‘will it make it thought’ at front of mind and headed for the caves, which are some 7 kms inside the park. Along the way we passed an Axis Stag or Indian spotted deer as they are known locally.
Arriving at the caves and heading up the steps to the gate I was turned away by the security guards as I had to buy a ticket. Over at the ticket place I asked how much, the guy said “where are you from?” I said “New Zealand”. “300 locals please”, which I handed over, asking how much if I was from Mumbai? “25 locals” came the reply.
Set near the top of the hill are 109 caves that were occupied by Buddhist monks between the first and tenth century. They have an array of sculptures and drawings in them; each cave has its own water supply in the way of a cistern, which collects rainwater off the rocks around it. Some of the caves were locked, I presume the ones with the drawings in them as I didn’t see any drawings. Some caves had several rooms, others just one.
When I got back to the car park the locals had their stalls set up selling fruit and drinks. A different van and driver turned up to take me back down to the gate as his brother’s van (the one I came up in) had broken down. The driver did point out a school as part of a slum that had been erected in the forest some years ago. I discovered later that in the past a couple of kids from this slum, whom gone into the forest to relieve themselves at night, had been taken and eaten by a local leopard, which are quite prevalent in this forest and are, of course, protected. As we drove back to the gate we saw some more deer and lots of people enjoying the bush. The dancers came and said good bye as I headed out the gate to find the driver.
We carried on north on the motorway, heading around the top of the jungle and back down the east side where the buildings looked more organised and the general area a lot tidier. In places it looked like building debris had been dumped on the side of the motorway.
The driver then suggested we go to the flash part of town where the Bollywood stars live. Bandra West is definitely a better part of town; the buildings look maintained and many have gardens and grounds. One of the apartments was about to undergo a paint job and bamboo scaffolding had been erected. This one rail of bamboo was what the painters stand on to do the painting. I asked the driver if they have a safety harness, and was told some of them tie themselves on with a bit of rope when they get up higher.
We headed through a street with a big street sale going on then back to the hotel.
The evening involved a dinner, this time with the people from last night and the people that report to them. The venue was a hotel nearby with a large atrium with with balconies on each room overlooking the atrium. After starters at a long table set up there we moved inside for the main meal. I was really impressed with the people I sat with at the table; they were all smart and engaging and seemed to all really enjoy working for Royal Canin.
Thursday 26 May 2022
After a morning of catching up an a few things, including a trip to the gym and a very good massage it was time to depart for Bengaluru.
The terminal where we departed from was full of many styles of Indian art and custom items lining the walls. Outside there is evidence of the new metro going in.
Arriving in Bengaluru a driver picked us up for the hour long journey into town. With a population of around 13 million the outskirts of this city look quite modern with major brands displayed in new buildings alongside the roads.
Arriving at the Conrad Hilton hotel we were given the usual story about a free upgrade to a better room on a higher floor. On arriving at this ‘upgraded’ room it smelt very bad, almost like a dead body had been left in there for a week or two. We rang reception and a guy turned up with some air freshener. On ringing reception again we were told there were no spare rooms. A visit to the reception and a conversation with the manager and we got a room, pretty much the same but with no bath on the 10th floor that did not smell.
Friday 27 May 2022
At breakfast Sylvia joined one of the Royal Canin staff for a meeting as she had done each morning since our arrival in India. She works very hard on these trips. I was joined by Satinder, the GM for Royal Canin in India. He spent the time filling me in on why in Mumbai there is little crime. Apparently it is the belief in reincarnation that helps as people reap the rewards of their previous life in this life. If they are poor it is because they have been a bit bad in a previous life; thus one has the chance to make a better deal for the next life.
At 9am a driver arrived and we headed off to explore the city. His english wasn’t that good but someone had given him a list of places to take me. We passed the lake that we could see from our room. There used to be a number of these around the city but most have been filled in to make way for buildings. A drive along Infantry road revealed a strong military presence in the town, both army and airforce. Next we passed the local government building with the high court painted red across the road. Here the rickshaws are mainly green and there are not as many of them.
Next stop was the palace, I think the summer one. The driver said I could take photos outside but would have to ask permission inside. Dismounting the car I raised my camera to take a picture of the gardens and had just clicked off a shot when a guy raced over and told me no photos. I lined up at the ticket box and bought a ticket, indicating to my camera. I paid the money and joined the next queue to get the photo wristband when the guy from the ticket box raced over. A security guard in tow points to my camera and asks me to come back and pay more money. I went back to the booth and paid another 400 locals (USD5.60) and returned to the wristband queue where I got a pink and green wristband. One person handed them to me, then another person put them on for me. They are great at employing people here. As we left the airport the other night, at the pay machine the driver handed his ticket and money to a guy who put it in the machine and handed back the ticket the machine spat out.
As palaces go this one would rate towards the bottom end of what I have seem. It was quite dirty and looked like a half-hearted attempt had been made to restore and maintain it. At the back there is a big tent-like structure, which looks like they hold functions in. As I wandered through an old guy appeared from a room and started giving me a run down on the amazing artefacts in this part of the palace. He even insisted on taking my photo. Politely tolerating him I played along. When I exited he put his hand out asking for money. “Bugger” at that stage I didn’t have any locals on me on me. I went out into the garden and took a photo of the palace and headed to the gate. As i exited one of the three guys at the gate cut the bands from my wrist. Taking a few steps toward the carpark I raised the camera again only to have the guy race over and tell me no photos. There are definitely lots of people here with too little to do.
Back in the car we headed across town to the botanical gardens. Over the last few days I had been a little bemused by the way the traffic interacts and trying to work out if there were any rules or did it just all work. As we headed through a reasonably large, uncontrolled intersection to get into the gardens, 4-lanes of traffic bore down on each side. There were 3 lanes in the road we were on. It seemed to work like this. The driver just pushed his way through the traffic like a game of chicken; we were in the centre lane and most of the traffic was making a right turn. We had nearly made it across when another car decided to kill the chicken by turning right, hitting the front of our car. A loud scraping noise erupted from the left side of our car leaving a crease all the way down the car. Both cars stopped where they were and the drivers dismounted and yelled at each other. My driver got back in while the other guy took some pictures, did some more yelling and we drove off. I asked the driver who pays and he said they both take care of their own repairs as it’s not worth chasing the other guy for the money.
Arriving at the gardens I dismounted and headed up a small hill with a shrine in top. Not being a gardener I am mot sure whether it was the word botanical or the word garden that was missing from this scene, or maybe both, as the area just seemed be a bunch of unkept grass with a few paths and trees in it.
Next we stopped at an ATM so I could pay the driver in cash the 3000 locals for the day out, a very good deal. The first ATM would not work with my card. There were some workmen next door working on some scaffolding – unlike in Mumbai, here they seem to have three sticks to stand on.
Next was a rather nice restaurant next to an ATM that worked, where I ate a nice spicy lamb, some in chunks and some in mince, mixed together with a few spices added to give it a great flavour along with some naan bread.
Next we stopped outside a shop, the driver saying you might want some gifts. Sure I said “I will be back in a couple of minutes.” Tt was actually quite a bit longer than that. I usually think in these situations one is going to get well stroked. Walking in I was soon accosted by the manager, who spoke really good english and seemed to be a really good bloke. An hour or so later I emerged from the the shop with a couple of rugs, two small decorated elephants, a stone ashtray and some stone coasters. What started out to be well over 300 thousand locals ended up just over 22,500. From what we have seen of rugs around the world these were good prices.
Next stop was a temple. The first one was closed so he drove me to another nearby. These are quite intriguing with all the little painted figures on the outside. The one I went into had a tree growing through the roof and had sort of been built around it. It was quite dirty but people seemed to go in and out in a steady stream bowing to the altar and lighting incense.
Arriving back at the hotel there was a wedding going on with the bride being towed along in a little cart by the groom. The light was fading as I headed up to our room to get ready to go to the airport. Interestingly I had seen no slums in this city, which on the whole is much better presented than Mumbai. The driver did say there are a few slums on the outskirts of the city.
Many hours later, after an unusually good aeroplane sleep, we touched down at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris, to be met by a queue exceeding a thousand, immigration being the hold up. It appears to be taking some time for the European airports to come back up to speed after the pandemic. Even the departure terminal was packed as we caught our flight to Marseille.