03 August 2013

Back in Bollywood and other Swiss oddities

I just left India a little over a week ago. If asked, I would have told you that I left Bollywood behind. Apparently I was wrong. According to the Lonely Planet Guidebook to Switzerland, the Swiss Alps are a huge draw for Bollywood fans. You may wonder why. It's not to take a break from the intense heat of India, although the cool mountain air is refreshing; it's simply because scores of Bollywood films are shot in Switzerland because the mountainous regions of India are simply too dangerous. It was not unusual to see evidence of the draw this region has on Indian tourists. But it was definitely surprising!

Feeling peckish? No worries, vending machines are everywhere - just ready to provide you with a snack.

That doesn't seem to unusual, until you examine closer what all you can buy. The foods are definitely different than those back home.

But while you stood examining the contents of the vending machine, you may have just met the man/woman of your dreams. No worries, this machine carries condoms too. Oops, did the condoms fail? That's okay because look next to the condoms, pregnancy tests. One can never be too prepared! (Don't you just love the name of that pregnancy test?!?!!)

Most people head to the beach for sunbathing. But Switzerland is a landlocked country with no sand to be seen. The solution - just sunbathe in the snow! (Seriously, wear your sunblock or you could get really burnt!)

Little did you know, but the start of the movie Ice Age was 100% true! Walking through the ice palace you can see the unfortunate Scratch and his acorn.

Bern, the capital of Switzerland is know for it's bears. The bear is the symbol of the city and seen on the flag. But that's not enough. Live bears live in the city of Bern. They are not wandering free, instead they are ensconced in an enclosure next to the river. There are three bears to be seen.

The town of Meiringen claims to be the birthplace of meringues. They sell delicious meringues there, but I was more intrigued by another pastry: A Spitzwurm.

Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle visited Switzerland and loved the Reichenbachfalls area. As a result, he decided to set the demise of his famous detective, Sherlock Holmes there. Today this draws tourists to both the falls and nearby town of Meiringen.

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After a 20 hour journey by bus across Europe from England, I was excited to arrive in Switzerland. The mountains greeted me and beckoned me to come play. Luckily, the group of Girl Guides I am with, were also heeding the mountains beck and call.
We walked through the Kandertal (Kander Valley) to the nearby gondola. The gondola looked deceptively short, but it was long and high. We reached the top and headed off on a hike.

Our goal was to find the Aarvenseeli - a small lake nestled in the mountains. Near Aarvenseeli we expected to find a code for the Kandersteg (Scout Centre) Wanderrucksack Badge.

The walk was beautiful, it was great to be back in the mountains, in the Alps. I found myself remembering my trip to Switzerland in 2005 with a group of Girl Scouts and the European Adventure Wider Op of 2003. Such a beautiful place to be.
We came upon Aarvenseeli, or at least we thought. The lake was small, but the water was crystal clear, reflecting the blue sky above.

It was a hot day and the water was cool and refreshing. Several of the girls were prepared for a swim, others of us simply went wading. We looked, but did not see the code. Perhaps this was not the lake we were looking for. We enjoyed it anyways.
When one is in the Alps, time flies by. We suddenly realized that we had about 45 minutes until the last gondola down, and about 45 min of trail remaining to get there.
We set off at a fast pace, the plan was for those in the front to ask the operator to hold the gondola until those in the back made it. As I am the only fluent German speaker in the group, it was imperative that I be at the front. My new hikers were getting the breaking in they hadn't gotten back home.

Along the way we happened to find the sign with the code we were looking for, although we were never sure if we found the correct lake or not.
We made it to the gondola with minutes to spare and took it back to the Kandersteg valley to enjoy the rest of our evening.

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Location:Kandersteg, Switzerland

Whener'e You Make a Promise

I've left India, and flown out to England to join my friend Victoria and her Rangers (Girl Guides) on a Guide holiday to Switzerland. We traveled by bus (or as the Brits would say, Coach) from Winnersh, England to Kandersteg, Switzerland. Now those of you familiar with European geography will know that the English Channel separates The United Kingdom from mainland Europe, and busses do not float well enough to swim across the channel!
Thus, we took a ferry. The bus drove aboard the ferry and we were able to get out and enjoy the crossing.

The crossing started in Dover (England). We sailed away, leaving the famous white cliffs of Dover behind in the sunset. It was a lovely time of day to sail off. Once we set sail, we went into the ship to eat the sack dinners we had brought with us. Then we played a game called "Jungle Speed". This is an active, high speed card game. It was a lot of fun.

About half way through the journey, I did something unique and special - I made my promise as a member of Girl Guides UK. I am now a member of both GSUSA and GGUK. It was special for me and made this first journey across the English Channel via ferry very special.

We then arrived at Calais in France and headed back to our bus to continue our journey across Europe to Switzerland.

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Location:On the ferry between Dover and Calais

29 July 2013

A bit more Indian food

Mumbai is a cosmopolitan city that offers every variety of food that one can imagine - from American fast food chains to fancy Chinese restaurants. With Jolie, we ate from a variety of foods. We ordered in Dominos Pizza one evening and went to a fancy Chinese restaurant another evening. But whenever possible, Tammy and I still tried to eat Indian food.

We went to Leopold Cafe in Colaba. Leopold Cafe is internationally known due to the fact that it features in the book: Shantaram. The food on the menu is a mixture of asian and continental. We shared a steam vegetable wonton and a chocolate lava cake. Tammy and Jolie also shared fried chicken wonton. The chocolate lava cake was heavenly, but I found the wontons to be a bit greasy. I liked Leopold more for the fact that I was in the scene of a book I was reading than I did for the food.

Our first day at Sangam, we joined them for lunch. Sangam always serves traditional Indian food at lunchtime. Today we had some foods that are commonly found as street foods: Pav Bhaji, Bhel, Rice, Salad and Semolina. Dessert was very western, we had Cornetto ice creams. The food was good, but it was not as hot and spicy as other Indian food we'd eaten. It was explained to us that they reduced the amount of spice used because westerners often had trouble with the true amount of spices.

In Pune we ate at a vegetarian restaurant, Agathi. We were joined by Caitlin and her Mom, Marie, Girl Scouts we'd met at Sangam. We decided to order a variety of foods to share. We ordered a Coconut Uttappa, Mango Mastai and a Punjabi Thali. Marie and Caitlin ordered Itily. We had no idea what an Uttappa was when we ordered it, but basically we found out it was a lot like a large pancake. The Mastai was a bit like a milkshake. The Thali was late, very late. We tried to order it initially, only to be told that one could not order it until 7pm - it was 6:15pm. So we ordered the other items as sides and decided we'd wait until 7 to order the Thali. At 7pm, we confirmed that it was indeed time, and we ordered the Thali. At 7:30 we began to wonder about our Thali. We questioned another waiter (ours was hiding - missing - gone?) and found out that it the order was never given to the kitchen. Our Thali was ordered and we enjoyed it. Despite the issues with ordering the food, the food was delicious, spicy and plentiful. It fortified us for the adventure we had getting back to Sangam (read the post about Pune to find out about this adventure)

Part of our program at Sangam included eating with an Indian family. We were met by a Girl Guide, Ashaware, and she walked us to her family home. Tammy and I were treated like royalty. We were given the opportunity to look at family photos of weddings and celebrations and then we were fed. It was interesting, as they simply watched us eat, telling us they would eat later. The food was delicious but quite starchy. As I did not want to be rude, I did not write down what everything was, but our meal included potatos, dal, rice and fried puri. There was also a sweet coconut milky sauce for dessert (one dipped the Puri into it). They kept trying to feed us more and more, but eventually we both had to admit we were stuffed. It was a fun experience to eat food cooked by a real Indian family in India.

Back in Mumbai we had our final typical Indian meal at a restaurant called Shahi Dawat in Colaba. Our waiter, and owner of the restaurant, was extremely helpful and based on his recommendation we ordered Tadka Pindi Chole, a vegetarian Kebap platter and Roomali Roti. The Kebap platter came with: veg seetch, tandoori aloo, Shahi paneer, pahadi paneer, dahi Kebap and cheese kurkur. We also had a salted Lassi to drink and were given complimentary peppery chipati. The food was incredible. The flavors were those of north India and unlike a lot of what we had already eaten. We enjoyed the comfort of the restaurant as the rain poured outside.

Our final meal in India was at a local pub in Colaba with Jolie. They were having an international burger and beer fest. We all drank the Indian Kingfisher beer. I had an Indian inspired vegetarian burger that was basically grilled paneer with spices and chutney. Tammy's burger was Spain- Inspired and Jolie's was Mexican-inspired. We all enjoyed our respective burgers.

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Pune is not Puny

Pune, located about 3.5 hours south of Mumbai via train, is a bit of a destination in the country for the citizens of Bombay. For me, a lifetime Girl Scout, it's my Mecca. Pune is the location of the world centre, Sangam. But I've already posted about Sangam, this post will be about the city of Pune itself.
Pune had a lot of offer of historical significance. We visited first the Aga Khan palace where Gandhi was interred from Aug 9, 1942 until May 6, 1944. During his 21 month imprisonment, he lost two people very close to him, his wife, Kasturba, passed away on the 22nd of February 1944 and his secretary Mahadevbhai Desai passed away on the 15th of August 1942.
Aga Khan is a beautiful facility. While imprisonment is never desirable, if you have to be imprisoned somewhere, this would be the place to be!

After visiting Aga Khan, we went to the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum. This museum is the personal collection of Raja Dinkar Kelkar. The museum, which displays 2500 pieces for it's "adoring public" (actual words used in description of museum), only shows 12.5% of his entire collection of over 20,000 pieces. Kelkar collected artifacts of Indian heritage. It was a mishmash of items from tools to clothes to jewelry to pottery. It was quite an interesting collection.

After the museum, we headed to the big shopping district of Laxsmi road. Here we wished to eat dinner. We went to a vegetarian restaurant. Because of a mix up with our food (okay the waiter simply forgot to submit the order!), we didn't leave til nearly 8pm.

At 8pm we were ready to take an Autorickshaw back to Sangam, a journey that should take about 45 minutes. Little did we know, we were in for a journey of over 2 hours.

We flagged down a rickshaw, ready to head back. When we told him that we wanted to go to "Phule Neger" (the district where Sangam is), he told us no. Two, three, four more drivers all refused to take us. We had no idea why. Then a nice young man tried to help us. They continued to refuse. He told us it was because it was near dinner time and no one wanted to go too far from home! We were unsure what to do - and no taxis were available.

The young man decided that the best course of action would be for us to take the city bus to the train station and from there take a rickshaw or taxi. We agreed and he said he would accompany us to the station. We had no idea which bus to take or even how to read the signs on the bus (they were in Marathi!) so we were fully dependent on him. Getting on a bus in India is not like in the western world. There is no line and the bus doesn't wait until everyone has boarded. Tammy nearly got left behind as the bus started driving off before she was on - but luckily she made it!

We thought this bus would take us to the station, but when we exited, the young man had us walk across a busy road to another stop. He then explained that the next bus would take us to the station. At this point, things got a bit creepy as he was joined by a friend who was now also with us.
We exited the bus a stop earlier than expected, the driver even said "station is next stop" and had to walk. We could only hope that our young man was leading us to the station and not to harm.

We got to the station and could see why we got off early -- there were so many people waiting to get on the bus at the station, that the reality was that we might not have been able to disembark. Our young man secured us a rickshaw to drive us back to Sangam and then departed. We were lucky that he was truly a nice guy who genuinely wanted to help us.

We arrived back at Sangam without further incident, a bit more weary, with a tale to tell!

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Location:Pune, India

26 July 2013

Why'd they change it, I can't say..

They Might Be Giants has a song about the changing of Constantinople to Istanbul. A sequel could be written regarding the changing of Bombay to Mumbai.
Officially named Mumbai, most people still street to the city as Bombay, even the airport code still remains BOM. As I listened to people refer to the city by name, I tried to look for patterns or indicators as to why a person used one name over the other. I found none.

In contrast to the other places we went, Mumbai was really cosmopolitan. Tammy and I spent time there with her niece, Jolie. We met a lot of ex-pats and ate at expensive restaurants and took advantage of the shopping - once again returning to Fab India. We also met Indians who were more affluent. My experience in Mumbai was a contrast to the other places I visited. It was a good contrast and I feel it enriched my understanding of Indian culture and of the vast differences one encounters between the haves and the have nots.

We visited the Royal Taj Hotel. This hotel was originally built in response to a hotel that was for whites (westerners) only. Overtime, the Taj became *the* place to be and the other hotel was forgotten. The Taj is, as Tammy puts it, "fancy chicken". I have no idea how much a room costs, but I am sure I could not afford it. Ornately decorated and richly furnished, one must go through a metal detector and submit their bags for inspection before entering. Inside is grand. The place is decorated with the photos of celebrities and dignitaries who have visited, including current US President, Barack Obama. We had drinks in the bar and enjoyed the view. The bathrooms were by far the nicest I encountered in all of India. It was quite a place to behold.

Across from the Taj is the Gateway to India. This place holds especial significance, as it is from here that the British left India, ending the period of the Raj. The gateway is not only an area for tourists to visit, it is also a place for pickpockets, hawkers, street kids and beggars. One small girl tried to sell us henna stamps, she was very persistent and didn't leave our sides for over 15 minutes.

Mumbai was a modern city, and I know that if I'd have had more time there, I would have found more gems to visit and explore.
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Location:Mumbai, India

Riding the rails

Pune (pronounced Poona) is not a place that most westerners add to their itinerary during their first visit to India, however for those involved in a WAGGGS (World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts) organization, it is a place not to be missed, as it's the home of one of the four world centers. (See my previous post about Sangam, the world center in Pune). Pune, while smaller, is becoming a retreat for the citizens of Mumbai and has a lot to offer outside of the world center.
To reach Pune, Tammy and I took a train.
We left Mumbai in the early morning. It was rainy and foggy. The Victoria Terminus train station (CST), which is a UNESCO site was shrouded in fog. Humidity further clouded the lens of my camera, giving the photos an erethal feel.

The train offered several classes of service, we chose air conditioned chair class - the nicest available. I love train travel and despite the train appearing a bit run down and having as Tammy phrases it, a squatty potty, I really enjoyed the journey.

Our travels took us through the Indian countryside. We saw hills, green fields, waterfalls and more. It was a beautiful 3.5 hour journey. India's landscape is ever changing and quite diverse. I was often surprised by the beauty. This being monsoon season, the waterfalls were large, fast flowing and plentiful. It was a stark contrast to the metropolis of Mumbai we had left behind.

The train was never still. Obviously it was traveling on the tracks, but I mean it was never devoid of activity. Men came by regularly to sell everything from hot Chai to omelets to children's toys. They sounded musical and there was a rhythm to their spiel as they described for the carriage what they had to offer. I could only imagine what they might be saying, it seemed as though they had good sales pitches, as plenty of people bought their wares. I bought a cup of the steaming, hot, sweet Chai. It was delicious. Sadly the journey quickly came to a close and I was thrust back into the chaos that permeates Indian cities.
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Location:Mumbai to Pune

23 July 2013

Green Tara

Sangam has a number of community partners in Pune. One of these is Green Tara, which works to empower women and reduce violence against woman.
Green Tara was founded by a doctor who herself rose from being a lower caste orphan in the slums. As a doctor, she saw the need to educate women about their bodies, health and to empower them to stand up for themselves. However, she quickly realized, that this had to start when they were girls.

Green Tara operates through the schools and community centers in the slums. They offer courses such as sewing, and computer skills; they teach the women how to open and manage a bank account; they teach about health, pregnancy and nutrition. They do activities with the girls to improve their confidence and sense of self-worth. They take the girls to the police station so that they will learn that the cops can help them if they are being abused or if later in life they have a husband who beats them. They teach the girls to cook nutritious, inexpensive meals so that they and their family can be better nourished. The organization is tireless in its efforts to better the lives of the poorest girls in India.

A group of three Guiders from the UK were at Sangam and had arranged to spend sometime with Green Tara at the Indira Negar. I was invited to go with them and it was the most fulfilling experience I have had in such a long time.

We started out with only 6 girls in attendance, but word quickly spread and soon we had more than thirty. The Guiders from England, had brought a craft to share. The craft was making a bracelet using buttons and elastic thread. The girls really enjoyed making the bracelets and showing off their completed creations. Then we just spent some time bonding with the girls. I had a group of girls around me, at first they were asking me questions. They wanted to know my age and were shocked that I was not married. They wanted to know about my family and job. I asked them about their ages (11-19), school and more. Then they decided it would be fun to teach me some phrases in Marathi, the local dialect. We all laughed as I tried to repeat the phrases. They taught me to say "I love you, I love India, my name is Laura" and we worked on counting from 1-10. It was fun, but it's clear that I have a LOOOONG way to go to speak it with any accuracy. While I was learning the language, some of the girls took my camera to take photos and videos of it!

Then we lead the group in some fun songs: Head-Shoulders-Knees and Toes, Boom Chicka Boom, Hokey Kooky and the Grand Old Duke of York.
The time we spent with the group went by so quickly. As the girls were leaving, lots if them wanted to take photos with us and gave us hugs and told us they missed us. Walking through the slums back to the main road, girls introduced us to their Grandmas, brothers and more. It was such a great opportunity to work with the girls through Green Tara. I really want to go back and do more!

If you would like to support Green Tara's efforts to empower women and better the lives of girls in the slums, you can learn more from their Facebook page

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Location:Pune, India