Tag Archives: travel

Valley of flowers – Part 1

Aeons ago when I was a gawky little skinny kid and ‘Desh Patrika’ (দেশ পত্রিকা) was still a revered magazine in gentle Bengali households, my Daddy had told me about a magical place hidden away high in the Himalayas. It was a place where few ventured in and when they did, they saw a carpet of colourful flowers in all direction. For a child who was not allowed to cross the front gate without parental supervision, this place was the epitome of the fairy-tale land far far away. The picture drawn from the story I had heard that day, imprinted itself firmly on my mind. Along with the unsurmountable urge to see it all for myself, which in all probability was a highly unlikely thing. The place is the legendary Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand. The valley was declared a National Park in 1982 and perhaps it was around that time that it was featured in the Desh and the subsequent story-telling session had happened.

Cut to present day, I started reading articles and posts about people trekking to the Valley of Flowers. With my hopes soaring high, I was on the lookout for an opportunity to embark on this journey myself. And so I did, on a tour that was organised by the group called ‘Women On Wanderlust’ or WOW. I had to meet the rest of the touring group at Delhi. Around 5 days ahead of my flight to Delhi, the heavens opened up in North India with massive flooding and reports of landslides pouring in. Given the levels of exaggeration on television news channels, Day 0 was spent making frantic calls trying to figure out the ground reality. Finally, it was an assured ‘Just Go’ from someone that put all doubts to rest.

Day 1

Sankarshan dropped me off at the airport and I was on my way to Delhi even before I was fully awake. I arrived at the swanky New Delhi airport around 9:00 hours and waited to meet the rest of the group. By 11:30hrs, all the 13 members of the tour party had assembled and after a quick round of introductions we boarded the bus and started our journey towards Haridwar. It was an eclectic mix of people. Some young, some older. We passed through Delhi, and the ourskirts of Ghaziabad, Noida, Muzzafarnagar and Meerut. Most of us had fallen asleep, but were very rudely awakened when we crossed into Uttar Pradesh and the bus started wobbling on the cauldron-sized holes in the road. We stopped for high-tea at a place called Khatauli, where for some reason the restaurant guys decided to unleash an avalanche of sandwiches at our table. Very soon we were back on the road and into the quaint little town of Roorkee. We reached Haridwar at around 7 in the evening and went straight to one the ghats. The Ganga was not very wide here, but the force of the water was visible. Towering above on the bank, was a massive statue of Lord Shiva. From what we figured, the evening aarti had concluded a while back but the priests on the riverside were pushing forth small packets of assorted flowers for people who wanted to perform a hurried puja and aarti. Most of the ladies went down the steps and did the puja, while Soumya and I decided to keep ourselves busy by clicking pictures. Amidst this confusion, there were these two guys (one with a comical tee saying ‘life is short, get a divorce’) who decided to follow us around for a while. To be honest, my first impression of Haridwar did not go down too well. We were staying at the Lahore House right next to the river. It was an old school Haveli which had its own ghat down a long set of stairs. (The gates to the ghat had been closed for a while now, given the rust on the lock.) The main building was used for the dining hall, office etc, while the lodgings were in luxury tents all over the compound. I was sharing a tent with a lovely lady from Hyderabad. About 15 feet away from the tent door was a wall and beyond it was the Ganga. After a wonderful dinner it was time to turn in for the night.

Day 2

Haridwar being much closer to Allahabad (and generally eastwards), sunrise was at an earlier than usual (for me) time. At around 5:30 hours, a couple of us ventured out around the courtyard near the river bank. A low mist was hanging over the river and unlike the chaos of the earlier evening, the morning was peaceful. Our travel guide Abhimanyu had joined us the earlier night from Dehradun. After breakfast we were back on the bus for our next destination Joshimath. While leaving Haridwar we passed a lot of temples and crossed the forest reserve corridor of Chilla-Motichur where the signboards announced that Elephants had the right of way. After about 45 minutes we were at Rishikesh, where we had to stop to get a permit. Right after that we were on the gorgeous mountain road that skirted the river. We spotted the famous ‘Laxman Jhula’ down below. The weather was beautiful and sunny. Not one bit of the much hyped rain had made an appearance. The road meandered and Abhimanyu warned us not to read as that could induce road-sickness. We stopped at Devprayag where the Bhagirathi and Alankananda meet. By this time we started getting information about land-slides further up ahead on the road and people stuck in traffic snarls. Lunch was at Srinagar (Uttarakhand), where we had the most mouth-watering palak-paneer and dal… EVER! Most of us also changed into sandals, because there was high probability that we may have to cross some parts of the slushy land slides further ahead on foot and board another bus on the other side. We had stop about 10kms before Rudraprayag, where traffic had piled up. We kept on inching forward from time to time and after about 1.5 hours we crossed the two massive landslides that had reduced the road by half. In another 30 minutes we were at Rudraprayag, where we spent another eventful 30-40 minutes (including an episode with a cop and another involving a vested guy in another bus) giving way to traffic. With all the delay on the road, we could not reach Joshimath and had to stop at a place called Gauchar. Emergency lodging arrangements had been made earlier and most of us collapsed in a heap right after dinner. Special mention needs to be made of the ketchup diluted salty tomato soup and the amazing gulab jamuns.

Day 3

This was D-day-1. And it started with an explosion. Literally! The storage geyser in our bathroom exploded when I was taking a shower and water started flowing all over the place. On hindsight, probably that was the omen for things to come later in the day. Around 7:00 hours we started onwards for Govindghat. We stopped for some breakfast of aloo-paranthas at a small shanty near the Garud Ganga temple. Later we crossed Joshimath and had to stop again for a permit. The road was beautiful with gorges on one side. We had turned off the water-dripping (thats another story) Aircon in the bus and enjoyed the fresh mountain breeze. It was misty at times, but mostly sunny. Finally, we reached Govindghat. The journey from here was on foot or by riding on mules. We could see the zig-zag trekking route at a distance. A few mules had been gathered who were to carry our luggage to the tents. After a brief visit to the market to gather a fews sticks, caps etc. we crossed a bridge and at 11:00 hours started the climb. It was a narrow path, but paved. Up and down hill traffic consisting of mules, people and the palenquin folks were jostling for space. Most of us started together but then maintained our own pace. There wasn’t any hurry and neither was the road going anywhere else but Ghangariya. Soon I was walking on my own, feasting on the beautiful scenery all around, clicking pictures and sucking on candy from time to time. This same route is taken by the pilgrims heading for the sacred Gurudwara at Shri Hemkund Saheb. All along, Sikh pilgrims of ages anywhere between 5 to 75 years were chanting the name of the Guru and climbing along. We were crossing each other regularly and at one point I was chatting with this little girl who told me that 30 people from her family had come on the pilgrimage to thank the Lord for blessing their family with a male heir (sic).

A few ladies in our group had decided to ride the mules for the initial few kilometers. The rest of us were walking and often stopping at the roadside stalls for tea/lemonade etc. By 13:30 hours we had crossed the first village of Phulna where we met our guide Shanti’s family for a few moments. The track had been a mixed bag of paved trails and rocky (thankfully on firm rocks) climbs. The annoying element was the smell of mule dung that seemed to over-shadow every other odour around. It had started to drizzle by then (similar to what we call as Pune-spray rain). A few of us had stopped for lunch at a shanty and were gobbling paranthas and maggi when the heavens literally opened up. Most of us were carrying phones, cameras, music players etc, all of which went straight into the plastic packets inside the bagpacks. Soumya and I decided to buy the shabby (but life-saving) plastic ponchos for Rs.15 that would cover our bagpacks as well. Wisened by past experience, I wore a cap underneath my jacket hood that kept my eyeglasses dry. We resumed our climb in pouring rain. Thankfully the track was not slippery. The cool temperature was a blessing and except for the general strain of continuous climb, it was not uncomfortable. I was soaked to the skin but thankfully counting the kilometers proved to be ample distraction to keep my mind off it. Some of the longer stretches were painful at times, but then I had not signed up for a walk in the park. The pony people had placed themselves at strategic locations to entice the trekkers to give up. Thankfully, words like “well done puttar, chaltey raho” from the elderly Sikh pilgrims helped maintain the spirit. After a particularly muddy patch with lots of wobbly stones, Soumya and I teamed together. We reached the next village of Bhyundar. The river flowing next to the path had gathered stream and was flowing furiously. At one place water was flowing across the path with great force. We held each other’s hand and slowly stepped through the cold water and crossed it. We asked a couple of folks how far we were from Ghangariya and the answer was ‘you have nearly reached’. For some reason, neither of us believed them and we kept on asking 4-5 more folks we met on the way. They kept repeating the same thing until one guy let it slip that we were nearly 5 kilometers away from our destination.

Groaning (and I with a leg cramp) we continued. Whatever we crossed so far was cakewalk compared to what awaited us. The last 3 kilometers were completely rocky and strenuously uphill. It did not help matters that exhaustion had set in. I caught up with Shalini and we continued our slow march ahead, pausing every 10 yards. Our tour buddy Malini had been climbing with us all this while and it was quite an inspiration for us. She however decided to call it a day in the last stretch. After about 45 more minutes, Shalini and I came onto a stretch of level path. Rows of colourful tents and a vast expanse of green with a helipad was visible. That was base camp. After 8 hours of climb. Grinning all over we both made our way, looking for our tents and room-mates who had reached earlier. Wet clothes were gotten rid off, hot water procured for a quick wash and off we went to bed after a hot dinner.

Day 4

The tents at Ghangariya were set up amidst mountains and a huge green meadow. The Laxman Ganga river flowed on one side down below through a gorge. We only got to hear its gushing flow. Further away, partially covered in mist was a peak with what looked like streaks of snow. The first time I’ve every seen any.

It was D-day and a very wet one as well. Jackets and shoes were still wet and there was no hope of them drying throughout the day. Breakfast was at the dining tent. The cold and all the exercise had induced a demonic appetite and I gobbled down puri after puri. By 8:30-9:00 hours we started off for the Valley. From the base camp, we had to first go into Ghangariya village which was another 0.5 kilometers uphill. It was dotted with a number of hotels and dharamshalas for the pilgrims. There was even a pony-stand! The village had a couple or two satellite phone booths, which was the only means of telephonic communication. We were joined by Chandrakant who was an expert about the valley.

At the entrance gate, the officials took down our names. There was a huge board with the do’s and don’ts that one has to strictly follow. Right from the start of the trail, little flowers dotted the path. The first biggie we spotted was a cobra lily. There were bushes of wild roses and other colourful flowers. We crossed a scary looking little tin bridge and got busy trekking onwards. The estimated distance was 3 kilometers. Thankfully, the mules were not allowed in the valley. However, it was still cloudy. Some of the members were walking with the tour guide and the rest of us were on our own. The trail was nice and quiet and I was walking alone by myself for quite a while. I spotted a coniferous tree with ridiculously (in a nice way) blue cones. The trail went down to the Pushpawati river and after crossing yet another bridge the path got steeper. I was joined by Jyothi and after that we started walking together. The path kept on getting steeper and more rocky. Some early birds who had ventured into the valley much earlier than us were already on their way back. The gruelling climb and a massive downpour that had started were a test in patience. The much awaited valley eluded us. The pushpawati river was flowing next to the trail and already a carpet of fine grass with pink and white flowers was spread across its banks. Finally we spotted the massive rock that is considered the entrance to the valley.

The valley stretches a further 8 kilometers. Besides the raging mass of flowers, there are meadows and even a glacier further down. I had gathered from travel books that the valley changes colour nearly every fortnight. There was a paved pathway through all the bushes. A jamboree of yellow, pink and white were the spread all around. The climb had been exhausting and with the mist spread out we could not see further down. Due to the heavy rains the flowers looked wilted. Cameras had been tucked away, but it would have been a shame not to capture the scenes around. I had gotten my umbrella along with me (no idea why), and we brought out the cameras guarding them under the brolly. Pretty little flowers of usual shapes and hues were dangling from the bushes. We started walking further down when a guy coming from the other side told us that it would be futile to go ahead because the flowers don’t change for another 5 kilometers and in the rain it was dangerous and not worth the trouble. He also suggested that we better turn back sometime around 12:30 hours.

The rest of the group had gathered beneath the huge rock and we tucked into aloo paranthas that had been brought from the camp. Soon after we started on the way back. We had crossed another bridge to reach the valley and while returning we saw a fresh pile of rocks had gathered around it. The trail had become slippery with mud at some places, but it wasn’t too bad. Water was flowing all over the wobbly little bridge near the start of the train. In 45 minutes we were back at Ghangariya. Amidst mule dung. We also spotted a cinema hall which was playing some kind of a Nepali blockbuster.

Back at basecamp, we changed into warm clothes but somehow the cold had crept into our bodies. Shivering all over, I went to Jyothi’s tent and we tucked ourselves under the quilt with hot-water bags. Some of the girls were planning on an impromtu visit to Hemkund and Soumya joined us to discuss the plans for the next day. We were chatting and slurping soup when suddenly there was a loud crackling noise. It kept on increasing and we all fell silent. The guessing game began – helicopter? bomb blast? Dude – LANDSLIDE!!! We ran out of the tent and saw boulders coming down in leaps and bounds from the top of the mountain across the river. Cameras were grabbed and videos taken. It was scary! Later we also heard the story about how Mini – writhing in pain until then – had jumped out of the bed ready to run for dear life at that sound. 🙂

Except for the chilling weather and intermittent sounds of a couple of more landslides, the night was mostly uneventful. Next morning, Mona told me how around midnight, when they had come out of the tent after the last landslide they had seen an amazing sight of stars in the sky, that had surprisingly cleared up by then.

Day 10 and a round up

During the earlier stop at Dubai, I had done some bits of window shopping and evidently nothing on sale was really up my alley. I had a few shopping lists for dark chocolates etc. and so I did get a bit of stuff from the candy stores. I was pretty zapped due to the insufficient sleep in the earlier flight and very soon I was perched near the departure gate and curled up in the chair. The flight was announced soon after and by the time the other passengers trooped in, it resembled a domestic Indian flight. Nearly everyone was a desi, and most of them speaking Gujarati. Even the announcements in the flight were in Hindi.

This time I got a window seat and while taking off tried to crane my neck to spot any of the Dubai hot spots like the Burj hotel or any of those artificial islands. Sadly nothing, but whatever was down there looked straight out of a town-planner’s desk. Beautiful and wide highways, neat neighbourhoods and some grand villas, with patches of green lawns and swimming pools, amidst the brown desert dust. We were flying over the sea most of the time and sometime later the map showed us the southern coast of Gujarat. Outside, it looked like a faint stretch of land. The inflight entertainment did not offer much choice this time and both me and Ankit settled on watching ‘Kambakkht Isqh’ on one of the channels (its too cheesy). With really thick clouds, landing at Mumbai was pretty turbulent. The stewardess was collecting headphones then and nearly fell down on the aisle when we hit a rough patch. Anyways we finally made it in one piece.. plane, luggage, us et al. With nothing to declare, we were out of Immigration and Customs soon and on the way to Pune in another 20 minutes. Reached home sometime around 7 in the evening to some piping hot dinner.

This trip was special because it was the first time that I traveled outside the country. And to a place which was beckoning for a long time now. Especially, the names and some voices with which I have made connections over the past half-decade. When the travel itinery was shown to me, I nearly lost sleep looking at the 2 long hauls of 14 hours. (To be honest, the last time I genuinely enjoyed flying was at the age of 9. Those days we used to travel in teeny tiny Donear planes run by Vayudoot and I was unconcerned about the turbulent North-East Indian skies. ) Well, it was’nt so bad at all. Rather it was pretty good. Perhaps, if I have to travel such long distances again, I would rather prefer a non-stop flight that takes me as much near to my destination as possible. Maybe it might take a few reassuring warm phone-calls from friends to build up the courage, but yep its not scary anymore

We stopped over at Dubai (I know, I know its the wrong direction… ) both times. As luck would have it, the first thing I notice as I step out of the plane is an Airbus A380! Oh boy… its huge. To be honest, I found the Dubai airport more like a super-sized mall than an airport terminal. And secondly, IMHO, airports which are hubs for transit passengers should have movie theatres and more restrooms. There are snaking queues inside the restrooms, thankfully they are extremely clean and organized. However, once inside a lounge through the departure gate, the crowds thin down and the rest rooms are less occupied. Anyways, other than these gripes, spending time at Dubai was not much of a problem. I put on my music player (with Tum Mile on a loop.. ) and walked around the terminal checking out the glo-signs of the famous brands from all over the world. The most colourful was the Haagen Dazs parlour. Also for the first time I saw a Starbucks coffee shop and an elegant restaurant with Caviar on its breakfast menu!

Moving on to Brisbane, if there was one thing I was allowed to carry back home in its entirety, it would have been a coffee shop. I just fell in love with all the places we used to frequent for our breakfast. The people behind the counters were friendly, the food always great and affordable. The streets are beautiful, clean and there are hardly any crowds that one has to push through. Although the deserted streets were a bit uncomfortable, but the business district and the mall areas had people all around. Traffic was disciplined, pedestrian crossings were marked and even for an out-of-towner like me it was hardly any trouble getting around.

Which brings me to the wonderful people that I met during those 7 heavenly days. My workplace is multi-cultural and our team even more so. I met people from more than 20 countries, across continents. Due to the upcoming holiday season, a lot of people were planning trips back home. And ‘Home’ meant places like New Zealand, Colombia, France, Brazil, Japan, everywhere. So Leticia told us her plans about going to the Carnival at Rio and watching it from one of the ‘boxes’. It sounded like out of a dream, I could not believe that I was listening to someone talking about *The Carnival*, that I have only gotten to know through magazines and television and is always half a world away. There were travel plans being discussed about the pros and cons of taking a route via USA or Chile to Colombia. Some good-natured Aussie vs Kiwi jokes also floated around. Its intriguing how sometimes the setting for a conversation remains the same everywhere, but the elements within take them to a wider horizon. Hedda, my colleague from Germany was telling us how her mother made syrup from ripe Elderberries. It reminded me of the many conversations about pickle and chutney making we have during lunchtime back home. Most of these people have traveled across various countries and always have wonderful stories to tell. Shall miss them all 😦

Everyday of that week was a revelation. There were new things to see and hear, nuances of a new culture to understand, and lifestyle lessons to learn. Urban living is mostly similar to what we have back home and it just takes one to keep an attentive eye out and learn the things that work differently. In Australia, it was an easier culture to blend in, lets see how Europe treats me. Thats not planned for anytime soon, but yeah sometime before I kick the bucket.

p.s. Considering its summer time in the southern hemisphere, this year I actually got to see Summer twice… with mangoes and gulmohurs and the news of heatwaves…the total works!

Day 9

Sunday dawned bright and sunny. Very soon the other guys came over to my room with their luggage. We dumped everything and went outside to wait for Jens to arrive, to take us to Gold Coast. We did not expect any of the breakfast joints to be open, so breakfast was out of question. There is a bus stop right outside the apartment building and we sat there. Jens arrived very soon with his purple mazda and a very thick street directory of Brisbane and Gold Coast.

We took a bridge and got onto the Motorway (M1) very soon. The roads were beautiful and traffic was hardly out of discipline. Gold Coast is about 80 kilometers away and it took us about 75 minutes to get to Tugun, which is one of the beaches there. On the way we crossed many suburbs like Springwood, Logan, BeenLeigh, etc. (To be honest, I stopped keeping track after a while and concentrated on the view outside :P)

The first view of the Pacific left me awestruck. The water was emerald green near the shore and gets a deeper tint of blue further on. The white sands stretched on both sides and as is the norm, the general population in the entire beach would sum up equivalent to the total number of people found around a nariyal-pani walla at any given point of time on Juhu beach. There were two flags on either end, marking the area for swimming. Parag and I did not intend to get into the water since we were scheduled to fly later in the day. However, very soon our shoes were off and we were happily wading in the cool waters. Everyone else decided to get into the water. After about 1 hour we decided to end the water games and head back to the city. Unfortunately, we were short of time and could not get to see much of Gold Coast and especially the view from Qdeck, which is the observation tower on the 77th and 78th floor of Q1, which is the highest residential building of the Southern Hemisphere.

On the way back, Jens took us to his favourite Pie joint – Yatala Pies. This Pie place is about 60 years old. We walked into the beautiful cottage, and there seemed to be history pasted on all its walls. There were photographs from the past with antique cars and people in (probably) extremely fashionable clothes of the time. The ceiling fans were also of an old make. The counter staff were pulling out piping hot pies from ovens behind them. (These are probably not the ones used for cooking but to keep the pies warm.) The doors of the oven have perhaps not been replaced since they were first installed, yet they glowed with the same shine. I had a custard and apple pie. It was pretty yumm… less on the sweetness but very high on the satisfaction scale.

Very soon we were back at the hotel and got back to the ‘stuff-every-shopped-item-into-whichever-bag-it fits-into’ mode. After some amount of struggling we were finally packed and ready to leave. We met Max again downstairs at his office to complete all the formalities. We also took some photos with him. He called for a taxi for us and we hauled our luggage outside. The taxi-driver was very sweet and she asked me if we were going back home and where was home. We took a different road to the airport this time and reached there after a 20 minute ride. The check-in counters for our flight was not open and we looked around the duty free stores for a while. I found a good deal on the Golden Boronia nougat candies that Caius had brought to the office the other day and bought a big bag to carry back home. After about 30-40 minutes we checked-in and got rid of our huge bags. The security check was over fast as well. However, I seemed to have left a printout of my e-ticket on the other side of the metal detector and sort of created a little fuss to locate it. The officer there thought that I had lost my boarding pass. Thankfully, I found it on my side of the gate, where I had un-mindfully left it.

Post security, there was nothing much that we had in mind and decided to find a place near the departure gate for our flight, which was a long walk away. We started looking at all the photos that we had taken during past week and had some fun exchanging comments about them.

Our flight arrived from Auckland and soon the pilots and crew for our flight started to show up in their elegant uniforms. They were sitting on the other side and looked like a huge team, about 25 crew members. Later, it was announced from the flight deck that considering the length of the flight (~14 hours) there were 4 pilots. We were soon onboard and settled into our seats. The flight left Brisbane at 8:30PM local time. My watch was on IST and I was waiting for midnight, which would indicate that we were nearing our destination. Dinner was served and soon Ankit went off to sleep. I watched the remaining half of ‘The Ghosts of Girlfriends’ past’ and then went off to sleep.

After we crossed Darwin and were somewhere over the ocean, there seemed to be a huge lot of movement in the aisle. People were running up and down and that woke me up. Just like me some more folks on the aisle side started to crane their necks to see what was happening. Most of the crew members were loitering about in their pyjamas and tees (with ‘crew’ written at the back). A stewardess ran to the rear and pushed something like a customized wheelchair about 10 seats ahead of me. I remembered that a wheelchair bound elderly gentleman and his partner were seated there. They were among the few people who had boarded the plane first. Incidentally, this gentleman had fallen sick. After about 10 minutes, he was carried by the stewards to the back. A stewardess called for any doctors on board to step up. 3-4 people stood up and went to the rear too. The commotion continued for another 30-40 minutes and the stewardess called for a ‘registered doctor’. Things settled down afterwards and the gentleman’s partner also looked a bit relaxed and returned to her seat.

The remaining part of the flight was uneventful, except for some ugly turbulence around Indonesia. I finished watching 3 more movies. It was quite sad to see the plane pass Mumbai and perhaps Pune (because we crossed a bit to the south of Mumbai) on the way to Dubai. We arrived at Dubai sometime around 4:00 AM local time ending the third leg of our journey.

Day 8

This morning, the ‘amazement’ of the race from yesterday creaked through all the joints in my body. It took me a while to pull myself out of bed. I met up with Parag and we decided to go get breakfast, since the others had resorted to Maggi. Out on the street, it was an uncanny sight. All the breakfast joints were closed. I remembered seeing a coffee shop about a block away and we decided to check if that place was open. The road was uphill and the climb was not a pleasant one considering our sore joints. However, it wasn’t too bad and a little bit of stretching and movement eased things up.

Thankfully the cafe was open. We got our coffee and carrot cakes and also loaded up some cookies for the trip to Lone Pine Sanctuary. The earlier evening we had found a nice deal on the for the ferry tour which included a two-way ferry ride and entry into the sanctuary all for $50. The ferry started off from the Cultural Center Pontoon in the South Bank. Unfortunately, I mixed up the details a bit and we landed at the Eagle Street Pier instead, which is used by the Kookaburra tourist ferries. So we made a dash for the road, hailed another cab and landed at the correct destination. There was no ferry to be seen around and we were left wondering if the ferry tour had taken a break as well, like the coffee shops. We decided to wait and used that time to click a few photos. Like clockwork, the ferry emerged right on time. By that time a few more people had gathered at the pontoon. We boarded the ferry, paid for our trip and went to the upper deck to get some good seats. It was sunny and a little humid. The makings of a Southern Hemisphere summer (as was being announced on the news every morning).

Soon the ferry started on its journey, and along with it a commentary about the various sights that we were crossing. The Brisbane river is more that 300 kilometer long. It snakes around southern Queensland and meets the sea at Moreton Bay. The water is quite muddy, due to the mixing of the submerged particles during the tides. We crossed the Central Business District and very soon the scenery changed from skyscrapers to neat little cottages. On the way we saw a floating restaurant and some other landmarks, most of which had some anecdotes from the times when Brisbane experienced major floods. We also saw the Regatta hotel, where in 1965 two women had chained themselves to the bar to protest against a law that restricted the use of public bars only for men. It made headlines across the nation and very soon the law was overturned.

The suburbs of Towoong, Tennyson, Indooroopillay passed us, along with some beautiful villas. Noteworthy was the heritage house at Tennyson – Tintangel. On the way we saw the campus of the University of Queensland (aka UQ). Of the many beautiful bridges that we crossed, the most unique was probably the Walter Taylor Bridge, the towers of which are residential apartments! Most of the houses along the bank have their own jettys too.

After an hour-long ride we reached the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. Jens met us at the gate and brought along some mango too! After this quick snack, we started our tour of the sanctuary. A few colourful Lorikeets and Cassowarys were the first residents that we saw. Right around the corner, a pretty ugly stink was emanating. We followed the trail and landed at the Koala enclave. There were koalas of every shape and size hanging onto the branches of the small eucalyptus trees and snoring away. As per the information brochures, these guys stay awake for 4 hours a day chewing away at the eucalyptus leaves and then sleep for 20 hours! The cubby house and the kindergarten area had some young koalas, who are generally more active than their older relatives, but I guess they don’t compromise on their nap time at all. A wombat was sleeping nearby, with its hands and feet in the air. It was quite comical really. Next, we visited some scaly, slimy reptiles in the ‘Tails and Scales’ section. Umm.. considering my general aversion to them, it was a hurried walk through.

Up next were Kangaroos! We walked into a meadow and passed a few Emus. These birds are huge and flightless, and seemed unaffected by the humans around them. Some ‘roos were munching away at a distance and we walked over to their side. We tried to get a few pictures of Parag and a kangaroo, but everytime he posed the roo turned its back and ran away. Jens brought some kangaroo feed. The first few kangaroos refused the food. We moved onto another side of the meadow looking for a friendly and (hopefully) hungry kangaroo. Very soon a cute little fellow was eating out of my hand, but its tongue was pretty ticklish and I let go of the food. A bird that was lurking around (probably a small cassowary) sneaked up and pecked at whatever remaining food that was on my palm. I totally freaked and fled. All this while, we saw Red Kangaroos. Nearby, a grey and a red kangaroo were sitting peacefully. That was the only grey kangaroo that we got to see.

It was getting hot and also we were running late since we needed to go back on the ferry. We bought some ice-cream and went to see some crocodiles, kookaburras, owls, dingos etc. After a mandatory visit to the souvenir shop, we headed back to the jetty. Jens came along with us and then waited by the pier until the ferry left. The ride back was very relaxing and we were back at the cultural center pontoon by 2:30 PM. We walked up to the Victoria Bridge and went down to Queen Street Mall. On the way we saw something similar to the cycle rickshaws back home. These are called Green cabs and one can get a ride on them for $5.

At Queen Street Mall we kept dispersing and meeting regularly. I wanted to take a closer look at the Christmas decorations at Myer and was crossing the road when a little boy ran into my path and fell down. He was hardly 2 years old. I was so shocked and quickly picked him up to check if he was alright. His mother came running too and I just couldn’t stop apologising and was pretty scared that I may have hurt the child badly. The kid was a tough guy and broke into a brilliant smile, much to my relief and his mum also calmed me down. His mother and I got talking for a while. Her name was Hamza and she was from Pakistan and stayed at the QUT campus where her husband was studying. Somehow she had assumed that I was visiting my husband here in Australia and was quite surprised that I was returning to India after only a week of stay, so I had to explain that I was here on my own and for an official tour. It was quite a sweet little tete-a-tete, especially since it was in Hindi.

We continued on our shopping spree and raided the Woolworths. Laden with bags and sapped of energy we hailed a cab and returned to the hotel. We were scheduled to check out early the next morning, however it posed a problem since our flight was late in the evening and we had made plans to go to Gold Coast. Thankfully, the apartment manager Max, allowed us to use my room for the next day as well to keep our luggage. In the evening, we decided to go to this place where we had dined earlier in the week. Unfortunately, they turned us back saying that they don’t allow sandals after 6:30 PM (this was probably a weekend rule, because we were not stopped on the earlier occasion). Thankfully, their more casual outlet was round the corner and the guy at the counter guided us there. This place was called Hollywood Garden and was an open air diner. The menu was the same and we got our lip-smacking ‘garlic prawns with jasmine rice’. Thus ended our last night at Brisbane.

Day 7

Friday was a fun day for many reasons. It was the day of the big race. I was in the purple team and got a chance to wear my cute purple tee that I bought during my last visit to Kolkata. So anyways, I pumped in the usual flat-white and bacon+egg muffin into the system and headed to the office.

Most of the folks were already gathered in the cafetaria and there was a huge spread for the picnic lunch. Packed with lunch and water we started off, team captain Jared in command. After racing off towards the Brisbane Square, very soon we crossed the river via the Victoria bridge and onto the South Bank. For the next 3 hours we were solving clues and running all over the South Bank. Everyone else was nearly 2 feet taller than me, with a proportionate leg span and tons of stamina, especially Richard who did most of the running. That resulted in me always lagging behind or huffing and puffing to catch up with them. [Gentle reminder: get back on the bicycle to build up your stamina]. We crossed the ‘Streets Beach’ several times and considering the warm temperature and humidity, I was tempted to jump in. Anyways, to cut a long story short, we finished 7th (total number of teams = 7) and I was the last one to cross the finish line. But I take back with me an immense knowledge about the layout of the South Bank. The race was organized by the super-awesome Valente family team of Francesco and Melissa. They put together a track with clues, around a stretch of more than 4-5 kilometers.

Everyone gathered at the finish line inside the QUT and posed for some fun pictures. Gladys and I walked back to the office on a road that ran next to the river. I found a painted hoarding pointing the direction towards the Brisbane Cricket Ground – Gabba. All throughout the walk we had to keep an eye out for the cyclists, who were zipping past us. There was a second spread for a late lunch at office, along with the prize distribution. After everything was over, there were impromptu gatherings and chit-chat sessions at various corners of the cafeteria, which included me being enlightened about the infamous “drop bears” – courtesy Ryan and Francesco. Most of us were tired and somewhat sore from all the running around. But who cares..especially when the fun factor shoots through the skies!

It was our last day at the office and I tried to stay back as long as possible. After a lot of warms hugs, hand-shakes and goodbyes, I packed my bags and headed towards Queen Street mall for a round of shopping. (All by myself – very liberating and totally fun!) The others had gone back to the hotel and we decided to meet at 7 for dinner, with some more team-mates. Queen Street mall is a stretch of road with lots of shops. Cars are not allowed in that road. On one side is the Brisbane Square with the majestic Treasury Building aka the Casino. During most days of the week, the shops close down by 5PM, however on Fridays they are open till 9PM. I checked out some clothes, which were invariably made in China and priced way way way too high compared to whatever you get in India. Next, I moved onto the souvenir shops and got busy getting presents. I had already collected a lot of stuff and soon started getting pings on my phone to meet the others for dinner. Aside from the other team-members, we met Asgeir’s wife Jessie – a very chirpy and friendly lady with a brilliant smile.

We all walked down to Eagle street pier and chose a restaurant next to the river bank. The lights from the story bridge shone brightly alongside and the mood was very festive. Earlier during our walks we had crossed this place several times, but sadly I can’t seem to remember its name. There are huge wooden benches which can seat about 15-16 people. We took over an entire bench and spent the evening over some wonderful food and conversation. After dinner Jessie offered to take us to Mount Coot-tha, however the plans fell through and we said our goodbyes. On the way back, Parag and I got some coffee and then we got into a cab and rode back to the apartment. We all met again in Ankit’s room to plan for a trip for the next day and decided to catch a ferry to go to the Lone Pine Koala sanctuary. Tired and exhausted, it was time for bed.

Day 6

Oh what a day!! I am exhausted and sleepy, yet I don’t want this day to end. But tomorrow I would be doing something that I had been hoping and wishing for a while now and so I really need to turn in for the night soonish.

Well, I’ll skip the mandatory ‘waking up late’, ‘fun breakfast’ bits today and move straight onto lunchtime. The entire team got together for lunch this afternoon. We crossed the Kurilpa bridge to go to South Bank and onto the beautiful …(oh so beautiful!) State Library. There is a cafe inside the building with some seating outside. By the time everyone had settled in, the trouble started. 3 large lizards (or whatever exotic mix of reptiles they were) decided to come and join the party. These guys started prancing around the tree and under the table. One moment I was sitting down on the chair and the next minute I was on my feet. This routine continued several times during the meals. Meanwhile, a bunch of ibis’ started a karaoke session up on the Neem tree. These birds looked pretty nice, but apparently no one else thought so. These are scavenger birds and do not have a great impression on the general population. Lunch was fun with Corina regaling us with the stories of her travels in Kerala in India and some other general chit-chat.

After lunch things got busy again. The other guys got off a bit early this evening and we decided to go on a romp. Michelle had taken us on a tour on Tuesday and today we retraced the steps in the opposite direction. We took one small detour (very unintentional) to get into the QUT campus. Instead of the road near the Parliament building, we walked in through the Botanic Garden. And what do we see there….two small little stray creatures standing on their hind legs!! Staring intently at us. We decided to believe that these were stray kangaroos. I can finally get back at Francesco who has been trying to pull my leg about ‘Kangaroos-on-a-leash’. On the way to the South Bank we stopped for pictures. The settings in my camera are still borked and night time photography is a pain.

We stopped for dinner at one of the many eating joints in South Bank. We found an Italian place and were reading the menu for our order. Just when we were ready, the ‘Closed’ sign came on. We walked a little further and found another small little place. The exotica on the menu for the day’s special included quail and sardines in a tin. We ordered one of each, along with some prawns. The quail was good, but the real winner were the sardines. They tasted like the Bengali delicacy of ‘Bhapa Machh’ (i.e. Steamed fish), but without mustard. Dinner over we were back on the trail and stopped next at the Brisbane Eye, which has been fondly renamed by us as the ‘Golu’. Finally I got some nice pictures of the wheel.

We decided to catch a cab from South Bank, instead of walking back to North Quay. After waiting for a while we started walking on Montague Street. Unfortunately, some parts of it was closed for work and most of the buildings looked like dairy processing units with high walls. It was kind of lonely, so we decided to walk back towards the bridge again. Thankfully a yellow cab came by and we were soon on the way back to the hotel.

At this moment, I am very very very sleepy and had fallen asleep twice while writing this piece. Tomorrow is going to be long and tiring. But, bring it on!

p.s. Stickster was expected to stay on until tomorrow, but left today. Unfortunately, I got to know this pretty late and could not get to say goodbye.

Day 5

“এই এখানে দেখো…আরেকটি রংয়ের একই জিনিস পেলাম। সাধারণত পাওয়া যায়না কিন্তু। এটি নিয়ে নিই, কি বল?”

(Hey! Look here. I got the same thing in a different colour, you generally don’t get it. Perhaps I can take it.. what say?)

Oh yeah… loud and clear thats what a lady was telling her partner in Bengali, inside Myers Departmental Store in Queen Street Mall. 🙂

So the day began yet again with the ‘oversleeping’ routine. Thankfully the others were running late as well and so there was enough time for me. We returned to the breakfast joint downstairs and after a round of ‘hi, how are you?’, ‘how is your trip going so far?’, ‘lovely morning’….I ordered for the egg and bacon muffin (what else!) again. After breakfast we walked down to the Taxi zone which was empty. Already a few people were waiting. Not too long after we found a cab and went off to work. Bag, jacket, take-away coffee in hand, I don’t think I was looking too much out of place. On the way I spotted the poster for the upcoming movie ‘New Moon’ – the second one in the Twilight Series. It is scheduled for release on the 19th of this month, so I would not be able to make it. And I guess, just like the earlier one, its not releaseing in India.

Sometime mid-morning, I met up with a few others in the cafetaria and we were discussing plans for the weekend. Most of the really impressive sites seem to be around Gold Coast which is about 80 kilometers away from Brisbane. So things are still being planned and cancelled and planned again for the weekend. A colleague, Corina came by with a handful of wonderful smelling flowers (Gardenia) from her garden. She was passing around 1 to each of the ladies. This looks like a smaller version of the flower that we call “Gandharaaj” (গন্ধরাজ), but with an equally divine fragrance.

The day flew by really fast and soon someone came poking for lunch. Today, we went to this Japanese Ramen chain called Ajisen. I’ll have to try hard a bit to remember the name of what I had, but it was a kind of soup and noodles with a lot of salad greens, pork and half an egg served in a big bowl with a wooden ladle. Truly delicious. Post lunch was a rush of meetings and other stuff.

Later during the evening, Chester took us around to the main City area further down Queen Street Mall. On the way we went inside Myers, which was unexpectedly still open (probably for Christmas shopping). We looked around all the floors. In the toy section, there was a 6ft model of Darth Vader made out of black Lego bricks. Super impressive! I was unsure about the store policies and hence did not dare bring out any sort of camera. Maybe I’ll go back later again and see if they allow it. Overall, prices are way too prohibitive, even by general Aussie standards (as per the locals).

We went further down and came by a Hunger Jacks outlet. From what I understood, Hungry Jack’s is really Burger King, but due to a copyright issue they had to change their name in Australia. We found a Singaporean food joint right next to a police station (which btw had also downed shutters at 6 in the evening. so for any emergency, the only way to get to the police was to call the emergency number). Anyways, once inside we ordered for some veggie puffs to check if they were samosas, and satays. Whatever sauce came with the satay was delicious. Meanwhile, I coaxed Chester to teach me how to use chopsticks. Too complicated! And I suspect its not very easy for people with short fingers. Ankit tried it out and very soon he was dangling some salad with it. Next up came a roast duck! It was kind of chewy and had an interesting taste. Chester had also ordered something called ‘Nasi Lamek’. Besides a lot of other things it contained some fried tiny mourola (মৌরলা) fish and a fish sauce on an egg. The fish sauce tasted very much like the famous (and immensely popular!) Sylheti Shidol Chutney (a kind of pungent sauce made with a dry fish known as Shidol and is very much a cultural thing for Sylhetis).

All through the meal we spoke about various things like, life in our countries, living in multicultural environments, misconception about Chinese food, postal system of Australia, expenses of flying back home etc. etc. Bottom line.. another evening spent in excellent company (never knew Chester could be so funny!) with some great food and conversation.

After a cab-ride back to the apartment its time for some more pages of ‘The Memory Keeper’s Daughter’. Meanwhile, Chester gave me a musical toy armadillo which has been playing a tune of some kind since the past 5 minutes. I am not sure if it has another switch to turn it off. Let me go check before the battery runs out!

Day 4

‘Hi, How are you?” – This is what everyone seems to say here when you walk into immigration or an eating joint or get inside a cab. 🙂

Today was perhaps the most eventful day I have had ever since my arrival here. Over the last few days, there has been intermittent rain at very inconvenient times. Sometimes even with the sun shining brightly alongside. I believe a couple of rainbows have also been spotted in as many days. As is the routine, we met up for breakfast in the morning and went to this other joint downstairs. I had the most delicious egg and bacon muffin along with a flat-white. yummm! While at breakfast, we sort of figured out that it was strangely raining only on the other side of the road. We slowly walked downhill to the ‘Taxi zone’ and hired a black & white cab to take us to work. We went via new route right next to the Roma Street Parkland and the railway lines.

Morning started with a few more matchings of names-to-faces. The rest of the day whizzed by in meetings. I had an opportunity to hear Stickster give a speech, which got underway after a whoop of joy about the news of Fedora 12 going Gold. Also, I got to see the biggest pizzas, 4 of which probably fed 40 people and then there was some leftover. We finished work early today and Michelle took us out to dinner. Manuel and Gladys also joined in. We started walking and got onto the bridge and crossed onto South Bank (Southern bank of the Brisbane River). Its a beautiful pathway and we started walking along the banks of the river. After a couple of shots, the batteries in my camera died. What followed was an effort to get a good picture of the City-Cats on my mobile phone camera. We came by the Brisbane Eye (a ferris wheel similar to the Eye of London). Ankit and I had been planning to take a ride on it later during the week, but apparently its not too great for city viewing purposes. There is also this small little artificial beach and although it was cold, some people were actually swimming in the pool in there.

We settled into a Lebanese restaurant right next to the river and ordered some platter. What followed was some awesome food (the hummus was to die for) and exchange of interesting stories. We spent nearly 2 hours. At about 8:30 we parted ways to go back home. Michelle had a secret plan that she did not and asked us if we were up for some walking. Since we were, she took use around the other side of the river for a grand tour. We crossed the river near the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and walked right into the campus. The majestic old government building (now converted into a museum) was one of the first things we spotted. We walked along and came by near Stamford Plaza, which is apparently one of very few 5 star hotels in Brisbane. We took a detour behind this building and came right next to the river again. The Story Bridge was illuminated and shone brightly in the night. Besides the river were rows of very upmarket restaurants and bistros, which were choc-a-bloc. Apparently, one may have to shell out nearly AUD500 for a meal in some of these. *shudder*. We also spotted the Kookaburra tourist ferry boat which was chugging along. After walking nearly 3 kilometers we left the riverside and started walking towards Spring Hill. It took us another 15 minutes to climb up the hill and reach the hotel. It was 9:30 PM and an evening well spent.

Day 3

The good thing about Brisbane is that morning starts pretty early. By 6:30 the coffee shops are already functional and people are on their way to work. As a result, the bad thing is that day ends early too. So by 17:00 people are already leaving for the day, shops down shutters and the roads become deserted.

Today being the first day at work in the local office, I had set the alarm pretty early. But as is the norm, I overslept and then rushed through the morning chores to meet the other guys for breakfast. We had found a few cafe’s nearby, but they were all closed on Sunday. This morning they were back in business with people lined up for their favourite caffeinated poison. During recent times, I have been avoiding coffee and stick only to green tea. As a result, earlier at the airport I was quite put off by the cappuchino. This morning I settled for something called ‘Flat White’ which was more milky and very mild on the coffee content. Probably the yummiest honey-oat cookie on earth was what I bit into, along with the flat-white. If there was one thing I could carry back home, it would be these coffee shops which are so much more nicer than the pretentious brands that have mushroomed all around in India.

Breakfast over we found ourselves a black and white taxi cab to take us to office. The cabbie was an Indian and was playing a local hindi radio station, where we heard someone review the recent Madhur Bhandarkar movie ‘Jail’. Apparently its not too nice.

The office is very beautiful and the first people I met there was Spot and the Fearless Fedora Leader – Stickster. It’s quite an honour and the day could’nt have started better. Slowly people trickled in and names were matched to faces. I found a desk to plant myself and the day’s business started. At lunch-time, Gladys led us on to a small steak joint in Queen Street mall. I was not quite sure about stuffing myself with steak in the middle of the workday and settled for some sausages and mashed potatoes. It was a fun lunch and we spoke a lot about the local food habits of our places. On last count, we had people from 6 nationalities on that table. Mixed nationalities included.

The post-lunch session was a busy rush of meetings and presentations. The day ended pretty early by general work-day standards. At 6, Ankit and I left office in search of something to take us home. We decided to find our way back on foot and started walking in the general direction we ‘guestimated’ from the map. We walked past the Roma Street Parkland and landed somewhere near Wickham Terrace. Next we followed the markings for Turbot street that would take us back to Boundary Street in Spring Hill. The roads were deserted of people and only cars and city buses whooshed past. The roads go up and downhill most of the time and with heels and a heavy bag things got a little tiresome. To add insult to injury, it started raining. We stopped under the awnings of a building and read our map again. It seemed that we had to take a connecting road to reach Boundary Street. Another climb followed and we landed at a 4 point junction. We looked at the markings for the street and were studying the map again when this nice couple asked us if we needed any help. We told them where we were headed. The lady told us that we were about 2 blocks away on the straight road. After about 5 minutes we were at our destination.

Both of us met up again in another 10 minutes, this time with comfortable shoes (which is what i am going to stick to for the rest of the tour) and found nice diner called ‘Imagine’. After a nice seafood dinner we walked back to the hotel. Ankit decided to make a phone call from the phone booth, so I ended up taking pictures of the street which was empty except for the 2 of us. Time of the day: 8PM. Like I was telling pjp earlier during the day… the only thing that seems alive here are the traffic lights.

Back in the apartment we checked out some of the possible touristy things that we could make time for during the weekend. I suspect there is a ‘snake holding’ event being sneaked into the schedule and I am not too happy about it. Perhaps I’ll stick to the more conventional koala patting part of things. Off to read a few pages of ‘The Memory Keeper’s Daughter’ and then to bed.

Day 2

Probably the first thing that one sees in Brisbane is that its green all around. Clear blue skies with tufts of clouds. We walked through the beautiful terminal and joined the long queue at the immigration counter. There were rows of officers seated at the counters and we handed our declaration forms to them. I was marked to go to Quarantine as I was carrying some items which need inspection. I collected my luggage and joined another long serpentine queue to head towards the quarantine section.

The officer waved me on to approach her counter. She asked me about the items that I had declared about and ran and X-ray on them. She was pretty satisfied. When I asked her if need to dispose off the opened packet of Haribos from Dubai, she told me that it was not necessary and would be such a waste to it. 🙂

We came out and decided to hang around and grab something to eat. We selected a very inviting cafe+bakery counter. I got a small coffee and a jumbo muffin as part of a coffee+muffin deal (yep coffee *sigh*. I can hear some people guffawing after reading this part; whattodo). Parag and I went to check the printed maps and brochures and collected some of them. Next, we hired an orange coloured “yellow taxi” to take us to the hotel. The young Punjabi driver chatted with us all through the journey. The roads are beautiful and there are lots of inclines. We crossed the showrooms for Porshe, Audi,Volkswagon and some equally eye-catching automobiles zoomed past.

We reached the hotel to find the main doors locked and the office closed. We called up the contact person and very soon the elderly gentleman named Max came by to let us in. He gave us our room keys first and then took out a map of the city to show us where we were and the directions to some the important places. He insisted on taking my bag and no amount of pleading worked. He showed me my room first and then promised to return after taking the others to theirs. Later he came by again and showed me the gadgets and other stuff in the room that I could use during my stay.

I have seen that the amount of light during the day is what determines my sleep cycles and I often have problems adjusting during summers and winters. Thankfully (and probably) due to this and by sleeping on the plane my body adjusted quickly to the new timezone. The others were not so lucky. We all met again in the evening. Most of the shops were closed and the roads were pretty lonely. I had somehow misunderstood our meeting place before going to dinner and managed to come out onto the street alone. There was not another person in sight and it looked like a curfew was on at 7:30 in the evening. Pretty scary. I walked back in and found the guys at the other entrance. Later we took a walk and went out to dinner at a nearby deli. Tomorrow is going to be eventful and I need to get some sleep before that.