26 January 2015

No more trains to Hillgrove station

I was sad to read that trains running on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway will no longer stop at Hillgrove station. I had written about my trip on this historic railway running through the Nilgiri Mountains two years ago and described the stop we made at this charming station where time seemed to stand still. The newspaper article announced that from January 5th, trains will no longer stop at Hillgrove station because of ‘operational reasons and poor patronage’.

This makes me sad because this picturesque station in the middle of the Nilgiris is especially scenic and unique. I enjoyed the short time we spent here while the steam locomotive was being refilled with water and the train’s wheels oiled. In the meantime, passengers stepped off the train to buy tea and snacks, feed the monkeys, and take a few pictures of this lovely little railway station.

I even met Mr Maraiyan, the stationmaster, who told me that he didn’t stay in the station’s sleeping quarters because of the wild elephants who make nocturnal visits. He showed me where they smashed up the windows and door of the station. I guess he’s now been posted to another station.

I did a bit of research and read that an NGO called Heritage Steam Chariot Trust which works to preserve the Nilgiri Mountain Railway has protested the closure of Hillgrove station, pointing out that it is the only station on the line where the railway’s unique rack and pinion system (where the train’s cog wheels interconnect with the rack rail of the track) can be seen up close.

A stop at Hillgrove station was definitely a highlight of my journey on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. Even though tickets to this small hill station are no longer sold, I hope the railway authorities would consider having the train stop here for a service break so that while the locomotive is refilled with water and the wheels oiled, passengers can admire this rustic little railway station in the middle of the Nilgiris.

19 January 2015

Winter in India

A foggy morning outside my window in Delhi

On my last day in Chennai I read about the ‘nippy weather’ the city was experiencing in the newspaper.  It reported that minimum nighttime temperatures had dipped to 18.3 degrees Celsius, the second lowest temperature recorded so far in January. It described commuters on suburban trains switching off ceiling fans and pulling down windows to try to escape the ‘cold breeze’, bus drivers wrapped in woollen shawls and thick cotton towels, and morning walkers delaying their walks because even by 7:30 it was still ‘chilly’. The article then outlined a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ to deal with the cold and avoid getting sick. Advice included washing hands regularly, avoiding ‘crowded, dusty areas’, the flu vaccine for senior citizens, and eating onions, beetroot, fresh greens, pomegranates and guavas.

I always find it interesting and amusing to hear about the ‘winter’ in South India. Though it does get a bit cool at night in December and January and you may need to put on a light sweater, daytime temperatures in Chennai easily climb to the high 20s, hot enough to suntan.

On the morning I was travelling to Delhi the city was covered with thick fog, especially at the airport. Several flights were delayed as a result, including mine, also due to the fog in Delhi which is common at this time of year. When we finally descended towards the capital, nothing was visible at all because of the thick blanket of fog. It was only when we were a few metres away from touching down that I could finally make out a few buildings on the ground. The pilot announced that the temperature that afternoon was 13 degrees. 

This is my first experience of ‘real’ winter in India. Though the current temperatures are certainly bearable, Delhi can get ‘bitterly cold’ (as all my South India friends warned me), and temperatures can fall to 0 degrees. What I find difficult is not the outside temperature, but feeling the cold indoors. Central heating is not common, and electrical or gas space heaters are used instead.

It’s interesting to see how Indians dress for the cold, mostly bundled up in woollen shawls or sweaters. I’m surprised more people are not wearing jackets and coats. Women wear long-sleeved sari blouses with the pallu of their saris neatly peeking out behind them under thick cardigan sweaters. It seems very important to cover the head to keep warm, especially the ears! When we stepped off the plane in Delhi I watched everyone wind woollen scarves around their heads. Some pulled out their earmuffs. I’m surprised I don’t see more earmuffs here – they don’t seem as popular as in South India! Also, many people still wear sandals, worn with those flesh-coloured socks with articulated big toes. I bought a pair today and the package says ‘thumb socks’.

I was also touched to see that many Delhi street dogs wear winter coats! Someone is taking good care of them.

What I find odd is that though it’s winter, all the trees still have their leaves, so the city is still very green even though days can be grey and bleak.

Needless to say, I’m glad I’m heading back to warmer climes again very soon!

13 January 2015

A Place I Love: Amethyst in Chennai

Chennai is a busy, bustling, noisy city. In the middle of all the hustle and bustle is a calm and green oasis called Amethyst.

Amethyst used to be housed in a beautiful century-old colonial mansion. There was a charming café on its veranda which wrapped around three sides of the house, and you could also sit in the elegant black-and-white-tiled drawing room decorated with old furniture. On the ground floor there was also a small bookshop, another selling designer clothes, and a flower shop. Upstairs there was space for exhibitions and cultural events.

This was a favourite haunt for me when visiting Chennai because the atmosphere was truly unique. I had written about it on this blog back in 2007 and posted some photographs of what it was like then.

Then at the end of 2010, I heard the news that it was closing down. Shock. Horror. How could that be possible? But a new Amethyst soon opened not too far away from the old Amethyst, but it just wasn’t the same is what I had written back then. The new Amethyst was not a charming old mansion but a new construction. The colonial-style furniture and even the floor tiles were transplanted to the new building, an attempt at retaining a few remnants of the old Amethyst. The new building also had a wrap-around veranda and an even bigger garden. This is the most amazing part of the new Amethyst: its beautiful lush garden which was newly planted and lovingly tended and now years later has been transformed into a tropical paradise.

So Amethyst’s lovely Wild Garden Café  has once again become a favourite haunt. However, the service and food have not improved much since it got a new avatar. It’s still a challenge to get the waiters’ attention, and though the menu has been spiffed up a bit, the food is really hit and miss. Oh, and pricey.

“So why do we keep coming here?” my friends and I ask each time.

“Because there is no other place like this in Chennai,” is the simple answer.

A place where you can escape from the hustle and bustle. A place where you can sit under the plants and trees and breathe. A calm and green oasis.

Address: Amethyst, next to Corporation Bank, Whites Road, Royapettah, Chennai 600 014. Website: http://www.amethystchennai.com/

11 January 2015

December in Chennai

I arrived in Chennai during a cold spell. When we landed at 3am, the pilot announced it was ‘a very warm 25 degrees’ but this was contradicted a short while later by the taxi driver who complained to me that it was ‘very, very cold!’ Though my idea of ‘cold’ falls much further down the thermometer, Chennai was indeed almost ‘coolish’ and definitely not ‘hot’ during the last weeks of December when the skies were generally overcast and a few days of rain brought temperatures down further by a few degrees.

December is a special time in Chennai, not only because of the cooler weather but also because this is when the city’s festival of classical music and dance begins. I’ve been attending this festival almost annually since 2002, and I’m only one of many ‘Season’ regulars who come every year. I’m always happy to meet the dear friends I have made over the years… some live here full-time and others come every year to get their dance and music ‘fix’. Some are long-time students of dance or music, or simply passionate aficionados. My friend A drives up from Pondicherry while S travels all the way from Sydney, Australia. C comes every year from France to continue her study and documentation of kolams, while V and S, also from France, work on a documentary film on a different topic each year. And I always run into F who I know from yoga class in Brussels and is a great lover of Indian music. These last heady weeks of December are full of concerts, dance performances, and long discussions over tiffin and filter coffee.

This December 26th marked the 10th anniversary of the tsunami, a natural disaster which is etched in everyone’s memory.  On that morning, I walked to Marina Beach to commemorate this in a quiet and personal way. From Mylapore, it was a short walk to the sea. My walk along the beach started just behind Santhome Cathedral. It was around 7:30am, almost exactly the time the tsunami had struck this beach and where 131 persons perished (a total of 18,000 had lost their lives in coastal India). The scenes of everyday life I was seeing were probably the same 10 years ago. As I headed north, I saw a group of fishermen untangling their nets, while women sold fish from makeshift stalls, their heads covered to protect from the ‘cold’. There were rows of concrete structures in a bad state. Where they destroyed during the tsunami? I saw that people were still living in them. A little further away were newer buildings which may have been built to re-house those who had lost their homes in the waves. Further ahead, near the Gandhi statue, the beach was busy with morning walkers and joggers and people meditating or just enjoying the first hours of this December morning. It was a grey, overcast day. I didn’t see any type of commemoration happening but later I read in the paper that this was planned for later in the day.

December has now come and gone, and it is now a new month, and a New Year. The rains have stopped, temperatures have climbed back up to the 30s, and the music and dance season has come to an end.

A very Happy New Year to you, dear readers!

02 January 2015

I'm back in India!

Dear readers, I’m back in India!

In response to my last post, some of you had got in touch to ask if I was moving back to India. The answer is no, I have not moved back to India – but I am here for the winter to attend a few dance festivals, work on a few projects, catch up with friends and just soak up the colours, sights and sounds. It’s great to be back!

Thank you to all my readers who have also got in touch to ask when I’ll be updating the blog. I know it’s been a long, long time… this past year has been a busy one starting a new life in Istria, Croatia, renovating an old stone house, and working on a new blog.

Now that I’m back in India, I’m keen to return to my window in India and continue writing about what I see and hear around me. Maybe you’ve noticed that this blog got a bit of a facelift… I’ve streamlined and simplified, removing some features and adding new ones.

I’ve also changed the focus of the blog a bit. In response to the many queries I receive about travel to India and recommendations about places to see and stay in, I’ve added two new categories: India Travel Tips and PlacesI Love, and will be adding content soon. I’ve also added an About My Window page.

Thank you to my faithful readers who have been following me all these years and a warm welcome to new visitors!

I already have a long list of posts to go up in the next few days and weeks, and have my camera handy, so do visit again very soon!

07 August 2014

I’ll be back

It’s been just over a year now. Since I left India.

Sometimes I wonder how I got here.

How did I manage to leave India?

I had always said that someone would have to drag me away kicking and screaming. But it didn’t quite happen that way.

Then I remember. It was on a Qatar Airways flight and I was with my friend R. I was so relieved when I found out we would be on the same flight. This made the departure so much easier for me. It was just the departure that was hard, the physical removal, la déchirure. Once we were airborne it was OK and I could breathe. I had managed to leave India.

On to new adventures.

And life is not so bad. I survived.

But I’ll be back. India is calling me.

So don’t abandon this blog because when I go back to India I’ll be sharing the colours, sights and sounds I see, hear and experience again.

In the meantime, sign up for email updates so you’ll know when something new pops up here via an email in your inbox.

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Or follow the India Outside My Window Facebook Page where I regularly post my India photos and will be sharing new posts.

And if you’d like to know what I’m up to these days, you can find me on my new blog.

More soon!

30 August 2013

Thank you India!

I always felt like I’d be here forever. Or maybe it’s just because I feel happy and content here and would like to stay forever.

I could never imagine leaving India. “Someone will have to drag me away, kicking and screaming,” is what I thought.

But all things come to an end. And change is something which has to be accepted.

I feel very fortunate that for the past 6.5 years I have been able to live here continuously.

My husband and I had decided to move here. We weren’t sent over by some multi-national company. Before moving to Bangalore, we were living in London. One day I decided to quit my job. A week later my husband decided to quit his. He didn’t like living in London and wanted to leave. So we started to think of where to move to next… We didn’t want to go back to Belgium and I didn’t give going back to Canada even a thought. There were many opportunities in his field in the US, but moving there was out of the question.

We had been to India several times before, and as connoisseurs of Indian music and dance, it was time to give India a try. It felt right. And it was, because he got two job offers: one in Bombay and one in Bangalore. I was praying for Bangalore, and Bangalore it was.

I was able to continue my study of Indian classical dance in Bangalore. We went to concerts and dance performances, and travelled all over India to attend music and dance festivals. ‘This is what we came to India for,’ we would say, and I think we made the most of it. Working full-time, my husband often did not have the time to travel, but I didn’t hesitate to take off solo.

India gave me the chance to breathe, free my mind and let my creativity manifest itself. I started writing and this blog came into being and I found myself spending a lot of time writing about things I enjoy, mostly the Indian arts and places I’ve visited in India and found that people wanted to read what I wrote and even publish it. India gave me the inspiration to become a writer.

Thank you India!

I feel like I have experienced and seen a lot of India in the past 6.5 years... but I also feel that there’s still so much more to see and experience…

I know I’ll be back, but something tells me it won’t be the same. It won’t be like living here full-time, all year round.

I don’t know when I’ll be back and in the meantime I’m not sure what to do with this blog. Should I continue publishing something every month, at least a few photo essays, to keep my readers coming to my window? Or should I just put this blog on stand-by until the next time I’m in India?

I believe that things happen for a reason and the pain of leaving India is alleviated somewhat by another dream we’ve had which finally came to fruition recently. For years we’ve wanted to renovate an old stone house in a lovely medieval village in beautiful Istria, that magical peninsula in the Adriatic Sea. This house is helping me leave India, and embark on a new adventure. Though I’m awfully sad to leave, I’m ready to try something new.

A new adventure calls for a new blog… Thank you dear readers for looking through my window all these years. Wherever I go I’ll always have a window to look through, so please do visit me in my new home and share with me the view of Istria Outside My Window.