29 January 2015

India travel tip: How to stay healthy in India

Many of the questions I get about travelling to India are about health issues. Should I only drink bottled water? Should I take anti-malarials? What if I get sick?

While travelling in India, you’ll need to take a few more health precautions that you would at home, but there’s no need to be paranoid. Do expect to get a stomach upset at least once and consider yourself lucky if you don’t!

You can stay healthy by following these tips:

Get your shots: Before leaving for India, make sure you're up to date with your vaccinations for diphtheria and tetanus (recommended every 10 years for adults). Shots for hepatitis A, hepatitis B and typhoid are also advisable. Some vaccines take time to ‘kick in’ so make sure you plan ahead before your trip.

Drink only bottled or filtered water: Tap water is not safe to drink in India so make sure you drink only bottled or filtered water. Most households in India (as well as hotels and restaurants) have a water filter system installed in the kitchen which purifies tap water. This is perfectly safe to drink, as long as the filter system is maintained properly. In a hot climate like India’s, you’ll have to drink a lot more water than you’re used to, to avoid dehydration. Aim for at least 2 litres a day. You’ll notice tender coconuts for sale on almost every street corner, especially in South India. Coconut water is an ideal drink to keep hydrated: it contains sugars, fibre and protein and provides vitamins, antioxidants and minerals.

Use mosquito repellent: Illnesses like malaria, dengue fever and chikungunya are prevalent in India, especially during the monsoon season (June to September in most parts of India). There are no vaccines for these illnesses which are all transmitted by mosquitoes. Anti-malarial drugs can be taken as a precaution against malaria, but long-term use of these drugs is not recommended. The best approach is to try to prevent mosquito bites as much as possible. While sleeping, use a mosquito net or a plug-in anti-mosquito device. Mosquitoes are also around during the day, so use a lotion repellent.  Local brands of repellents like Odomos are readily available, very cheap and often smell better than foreign brands. Mosquito nets and repellent devices are also easy to find locally. I would recommend buying all of these products in India instead of bringing them with you from home. If you develop a sudden high fever, seek medical attention immediately.

How to recover from Delhi Belly: Stomach upsets accompanied by diarrhea (or ‘loose motions’ in local parlance) and/or vomiting are very common among travellers to India and you’re bound to be hit by this sooner or later! It’s vitally important to replace any lost fluids by drinking a lot of liquids to avoid dehydration. Oral rehydration salts (Electral) are available in any pharmacy and when mixed with water, help the body rehydrate and recover quickly. (Coconut water is good too – see above.) Symptoms usually subside after 2 or 3 days – if this takes longer, seek medical help.

Watch what you eat: To avoid stomach bugs, you need to be careful about what and where you eat. Only eat in popular restaurants with a high turnover where you can be sure the food is made fresh. Avoid roadside stalls or food that has been sitting out for a long time. The other usual advice is to avoid ice, peel fruit and pass up salads. However, don’t stop eating fresh fruit and vegetables altogether, or you’ll be missing out on vitamins and anti-oxidants which strengthen your immune system.

Wash your hands: Good hygiene is also key to not getting sick. Though ‘hand wash’ sinks are found in every restaurant and eatery, soap is not always available. Carry your own, or a small bottle of hand sanitizer.

Get insured. Some long-term travellers do not take out expensive travel insurance for a trip to India because the cost of healthcare here is cheap and the care given in private hospitals and clinics is of a high quality. But I have heard of heart-breaking cases of accidents (an Australian on a motorcycle had a night time collision with a cow and suffered serious head injuries; an American trekking in Ladakh fell down a cliff and needed facial reconstruction surgery) which involved long-term care and rehabilitation. You never know what can go wrong and for that reason, it’s best to get a good quality health and travel insurance which includes medical evacuation.

Do you have other tips? Do share them!

Safe travels!

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!