my journey to health and well being via exotic destinations

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in which we visit Bangalore and I get ripped off


Sitting on bench in the courtyard of the Bangalore Palace

Bangalore is India’s 3rd largest city, IT capital and has a population of 8.5m. As one of the top 10 entrepreneurial hubs IN THE WORLD  you might expect it to be Hi Tech City but, no, it is a sprawling hotch potch of ugly buildings interspersed with slums and clogged by horrendous traffic. When you think it used to be a hill station, a green and cool refuge from the sweltering heat of the Deccan plains, home of Tippu Sultan, and was laid out with wondrous gardens and Mogul buildings, you want to weep.


Yeah right!

In role as accompanying spouse, was herded into back of plane while husband sipped champers in the front, but on arrival found ourselves in 5 star hotel; alas much advertised infinity pool empty of water (victim of playing over-exhuberant Holi), so had to settle for 3 mornings in gym with personal trainer Ramesh, who certainly put me through my paces while watching a Jackie Chan film; a massage and pedicure; and then to while away the hours by sight-seeing toute seule! Any down time spent reading and cataloguing Mama’s letters – now up to mid-1946, but only one mention of my father so far, whom she married by the year-end! its very exciting, actually, like reading a novel….


Shiva Temple

Not normally a shrinking violet, and put off by recent press stories of rapes and general nastiness, decided to act the Memsahib and take a car and driver because it had a) aircon and b) driver who spoke English! In fact I made three sorties and learned a lot about life in Bangalore: for instance, there is only water for 2-3 hours per day; one driver comes 90 kms daily by train to work, leaving at 4 am; despite being predominantly Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities live happily side by side -‘its all politics’, that most road accidents – of which there are surprisingly few – only happen when drunk, and usually at night; on the other had the standard of English is distinctly ropey and it took me ages to work out that all these ‘world’ things meant simply ‘old’! Acha!


Branded in sandalwood!


Rather liked this inscription


candle for Louise

Off to Shiva temple, where led down dingy, dark and pee-smelling corridors with display of linga temples in India, compete with mechanised snakes, buffaloes and even the Lord Shiva himself, waving at me…very tacky indeed. Head branded with sandalwood, lit a candle and threw holy sticks on fire, and circled a shrine three times, for Louise; and said lots of prayers as urged by various priests.


The priest relieving me of my wealth!


The old Parliament building surrounded by wire fencing!

Then to 400 year old Bull Temple complete with huge eponymous granite figure – again advised by priest to make donation for ‘good luck’. Hmmm. Drove around for hours at snail’s pace, glimpsed various Churches and the historic National Parliament building (why does traffic always speed up at crucial moment, or huge bus/lorry get in the way?), the Vidhana Souda, surrounded by wire and fences so invisible – see pathetic attempt at photo.

Highlight was Bangalore Palace, still with resident Maharajah (offshoot of much grander Mysore Palace family). Took some illegal photos; a soap opera was being filmed which was fun to see.


Looking down on Soap Opera action!

Determined to get some lovely new kurtas for me and shirts for Ross, driver instructed to find Fabindia…oh no, here is much better ‘local’ shop, guess what, run by Kashmiris! I have every sympathy for the poor old Kashmiris, but they seem to have a baksheesh deal with all drivers in India; the next day ditto!


Bangalore Palace


Moody passerby as I snatched a pic of B’s oldest church

Finally I found Fabindia within 10 minutes of our hotel (wah!), and very pleased with my purchases. And bought some spices to take back to Singapore.


My jolly spice seller

So now to the big rip off! Frustrated by driver on day one not allowing me out much – ‘nothing to see, too expensive’ etc etc, decided as such an expert of Botanical Gardens, simply had to see the Lal Bagh (red gardens), second largest in India at 240 acres, with a replica of the Crystal Palace glass house, famous rose garden and trees planted by heroes ranging from QE2, to Nehru and Indira Gandhi.


The Glass House based on Crystal Palace

Slightly nervous on my own (wasn’t sure what to expect) and concierge no use at all in 5 star hotel – I had read there were buggies that you could go round on, they said not, and best thing to get a guide, driver would organise. So after an hour in standstill traffic, arrived, found guide, who said he would charge R550 for 30 mins and R1100 for the hour. Driver said this was right (crumbs, I thought, it’s a small fortune in India, but what to do?). Agreed and he took me off, and started the old sob story about parents being ill, the while picking flowers and leaves (strictly forbidden I noted) and was rather objectionable. IMG_1266Anyway he showed me round, insisted on taking loads of photos of me ‘say cheese!'(some here for you to laugh at) and then pounced on me to pay him when least expecting it…fumbling with money I ended up giving him just about all I had as he was breathing down my neck and could see what was in my purse. Wah, wah, wah! What a fool! I felt intimidated though…and then had to stop on the way back to get some more cash from an ATM as a tip for the driver!


in front of ancient Silk Cotton tree


‘May’ tree in bloom, early; we call these flame trees in Africa

Still feeling furious and writing blog to exorcise this demon…

Not sure I will come back to Bangalore; it is not India’s finest monument to development, in fact it is distinctly depressing seeing all the huge malls, apartment and office blocks going up everywhere, and now, having done my homework and read Dalrymple’s Age of Kali and Tully’s India in Slow Motion (both out of date but recommend), feel thoroughly disheartened by all the corruption that goes on, everywhere, all the time e.g. the lack of water, planning permission, half-finished metros and flyovers everywhere, just to name a few obvious ones), and the gap between rich and poor simply gets wider…nevertheless India is a fascinating place, so much energy, lovely people (on the whole!) and I am returning in one month, to Hyderabad and Mumbai…


Hideous shopping mall – one of the smaller ones btw

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in which we visit the Botanical Gardens

Singapore’s Botanical Gardens has the largest collection of orchids in the world. Simply stunning. Here is a selection, no words, just pictures to make you go ooh-aah. Click on the images to get a better view.

PS we have moved apartments and now have and 8 ft sq balcony but with room for 2 chairs, a table and a BBQ. Trying it out tonight, if the rain stops!

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in which we receive visitors

Dear friend Fi and husband RIchard dropped in for 24 hours en route back to England from Perth. This provided an opportunity for me to masquerade as experienced tour guide and catalyst for reuniting old friends. The photo gallery below tells the story! Click on each image if you want to enlarge

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in which we visit Malaka


The Malaka river, with the traditional houses now decorated with top-notch graffiti

Sounds romantic, a name we have all heard of in history lessons, and it was a delight! Founded as a port in the 14th century by the Portuguese and fought over by the Dutch and then the British East India Company – it is bang on the old spice trade routes to the east and made a perfect stopping off point for the ships – the old town is a remarkably unspoiled mix of all these influences, charmingly entwined with Straits Chinese heritage and delicious Nyonya cuisine.


Detail of some of the graffiti

Our trip did not get off to an auspicious start, as we discovered we had left our crucial Singapore immigration exit slips behind…signal for being marched into a separate room where new forms were filled and an official painstakingly input everything on a computer…and of course delayed our bus by at least 20 minutes. The queues in and out of Malaysia were horrendous in both directions  – first week of school holidays. Duh! So the four hour trip took well over five; even our return, where we had had to get a limo as all buses were full, took over four hours with overhead thunder, lightening and torrential rain.

ImageBut on the plus side: we met a charming American couple, Sue and Sean, as we wandered round the bus depot in the early hours – turned out they were veteran divers and photographers with inside knowledge of the Indonesian islands; notes were taken for future travels! Poor them, they had decided on a day trip which ended up being scarcely three hours (note to all: this is not day trip from Singapore!), so we took them under our wing and devised a whistle-stop tour of the main attractions, comprising the old Dutch town and the more contemporary 19 and 20th century Straits Malay quarter – Jonkers Street – now a hustling, bustling shopping and eating area.

ImageWonderful street food – 5 dimsum for R3, about 80p – and later Nyonya laksa and spicy seafood in a palm leaf with beers for about £10 (seafood is surprisingly expensive everywhere; had we stuck to veg or chicken we could have spent R5-6 each or about £1.25).


Ross on our gin-less hotel bar balcony!

Had found a boutique hotel –

the Sterling on – and it really was rather wonderful too, old colonial style, with a jacuzzi bath on the balcony But no gin! On the Sunday, after our river trip, we had a rather unremarkable lunch – but at least I had a glass of wine (beer is too gassy), the first for about 5 days; the jolly waiter with a limp, who spoke (in my hearing) French, German and Japanese, thought Ross looked like Piers Branson. Who? You know, James Bond….Aaah Brosnan!


Fast-food street style – here they are dry frying squid

Fascinating the number of tourists (made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008), mostly huge crowds of Malaysian and Chinese, in groups, taking photos of everything in sight, especially themselves. The Churchillian V sign is a favourite pose…and, thankfully, relatively few Westerners.  It’s great when people love their own country to the extent that they visit its landmarks, something we in Europe rarely do.

The photos really tell the story better than words; but Malaysia I think has the potential for lots of wekeend trips – people are friendly, food delicious and access (relatively) easy.

ImageAs we drove back, I mused on what is the difference between what we used to call Third World and Second World countries. It hit me suddenly. In, say, both Kenya and Malaysia you will see modern buildings, high rise office blocks, huge shopping malls, town-house developments and the like. In Kenya (and other countries with outward trappings of wealth and development) you will still see thousands of people walking everywhere and an army of overloaded matatus

Image(minibuses). In Malaysia virtually no-one walks and there are frequent and smart buses gliding down the roads. There is enough disposable income to take public transport, to own a motorbike or even a car. Mind you, even in Malaysia, you have that Third World phenomenon, a police road block. We got stuck in one for 40 minutes!


The garish but luscious rickshaws, complete with boogie box reverberating with Hindi style pop songs!

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in which we make plans…


My swimming pool

Where there is a will there’s a way…Wednesday found us down the Indian High Commission, efficient queuing system with numbers, but unfortunately no-one in the offices! And lots of people waiting patiently in chairs. Beginning to get grumpy at this stage: ‘I told you so’. Officials arrive and the numbers click through quickly as all these people are waiting for something else. So only one person in front of us! Long story short, ‘impossible’ to get business visa if you are non-resident and no work permit…have to get from London. But wait a minute…you live in Switzerland, not London? Ah, so you haven’t been in London for at least two months? No of course not, we came straight here! Then, under these special circumstances we can grant you a tourist visa, both of you…Phew! we will pick them up next Thursday, and we were able to take our passports away with us so that we can travel this weekend. I love India – but reading Dalrymple’s The Age of Kali gives a completely different perspective.

Yes, because travelling is what we are here for! This weekend we will visit Malaka (Molucca), 4 hours by bus into Malaysia, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Then we leave for Bangalore on 25 March; quick turnaround in Singers, before we go off to Djakarta the following week. Then there’s a break for about a month (during which we can get our Indian visas sorted for Hyderabad in May) and then a flurry of India, Malaysia and Taiwan. Haven’t got as far as June yet!

On the bucket list is: Krabi, Langkawi, Bintan (1 hour by ferry in Indonesia), Bangkok where I have a friend…and who knows? Wherever else the low cost flights can get us for the weekend!

Pleased to report I swim 1km daily taking 35 mins, then settle down to reading Ma’s letters. We are now in Alexandria, 1942, having a great time – dances, swims, sailing, oh and a few watches and work in-between. She always said it was the best time of her life, and she felt slightly guilty about it. It is fascinating stuff and I can hear her voice as I read her words…amazing how character does not change.

ImageMost nights I knock up a delicious meal as well. This week I made a kind of laksa with chicken, coconut and kow kee chye, local green veg not unlike spinach but VERY GOOD FOR YOU; last night a Burmese pork curry with Indian okra and pineapple chili salsa. No bought-in pastes allowed. The lime squeezer you have all been so rude about is being used at least three times a day – for morning papaya, Vietnamese-style salad dressing at lunch and in the evening for the stir fries. So there! Tonight we are going out with Mark and Lucie Greaves, and Tubby Shenfield. Light blues out in force!

ImagePleased to report that I also spoke to someone other than Ross this week…a nice woman called Louise (is this a sign?) who has been living here since before Christmas. I am now armed with topical tips and will sally forth next week on some expeditions in search of the under-$2 Japanese gadget store amongst other things….


in which I shop for essential items


View from my kitchen

Day 5: now worked out what I am missing; no, essential items are not replica bags and designer clothes (all of which would be nice but not available here – they are all the real thing and cost zillions).

After 3 days of getting into the new routine: swim 1 km in 35 mins, read my book for an hour, and then for the rest of the day read through mum’s letters in chronological order – now up to 1942 and she’s just been commissioned and  is on a boat but all the interesting bits have been cut out by the censor! – decided to go on first major expedition ON MY OWN.

This is quite easy in truth – Great World Serviced Apartments has nifty FREE shuttle bus that goes to Orchard Road, Mecca of shopping, every 30 mins, and returns in a loop. It deposits me right outside Tang’s Department store (est’d 1932) where the kitchen equipment is in the basement.

Yes, dear reader, I am ashamed to say that this blog risks becoming rather food-oriented (fellow blogger Janet will be impressed my my devotion to housewifely duties, even in Singapore, while she struggles in civilised France to do the same…).

ImageEssential items for a foodie like me boil down to: wok (amazingly flat did not have one); single Bodum cafetière; small egg-size milk saucepan; Kenwood automatic chopper for making own fresh red and green Thai curry sauces and chopping coconut for Keralan curries (these require chopped flesh, not just milk); lime squeezer; garlic press; and four mugs – again only two terrible thick ones and I must have bone china for my tea. Wonderful Tangs had most of these on offer, so I felt a very good housewife indeed. Decided not to get the cute godlfish dinner service though…

IMG_1023Virtue not rewarded as greeted by the 4pm sharp monsoon downpour with thunder and lightening and got wet waiting for the bus. Wah! (new expression which makes me sound quite acclimatised, don’t you think?).

Food highlights have been delicious Thai green prawn curry cooked by me; and last night’s trip to Spize, 6 pm to 6 am local diner where we feasted on seafood nasi goring (Indonesian fried rice) and squid in a hot sauce, with belacan kangkung (water convolvulus with dried shrimp and shrimp paste), washed down with a half litre of sharp fresh lime, all for S$30.

Other news: it looks like neither of us will get visas for India: they changed the rules three weeks ago and as Ross does not have a work permit here, and as I am only the ‘accompanying spouse’ with no official status, it’s looking tricky. Down to the High Commission first thing tomorrow. It’s a blow for Ross as it’s part of his job to go there in 10 days time! I have to say ‘I told you so’, as I suspected you had to apply from your country of residency but no-one ever listens to me…


in which we arrive in Singapore


Day one in Singapore.  Exploring the malls on Orchard Road – an anthropological phenomenon but I can’t say that it really turns me on.

What am I doing here? You may well ask! It seemed like a great idea at the time, when Ross was offered a 3 month interim appointment in Singapore with a Swiss pharma corporation, to be the ‘accompanying spouse’. Not something my friends would normally associate me with, although three years in Geneva should have prepared them. And me.

Arriving for the weekend made it appear like a holiday: unpack, straight out to our local mall and a yummy dinner of chilli prawns, garlic pak choi and spicy aubergine; bed. Then an early morning swim in our 50m pool (outdoor) before heading off to the world-famous Orchard Road shopping city, one of the largest and most modern collections of malls in the world, with familiar designer brands starting at the top end with Cartier, Armani, Prada, etc, then going more prosaic – Zara, M & S, Massimo Dutti, Body Shop (might as well have stayed in London if shopping is the objective). And all ludicrously expensive: I bought a swimsuit in M & S for more than double London price! Given that the average Singapore income for 80% of the population is S$6000 per month who buys this stuff? Notwithstanding the malls are teeming with people; maybe like us, looking not shopping.

Nevertheless the food courts are cheap and full. We had lunch in one of the better known, Food Republic: dim sum and a special soup where you choose your ingredients and they quickly boil them up in a delicious broth, six ingredients all for $4.00.

Then on the amazing underground, the MRT, trains every four minutes, clean, spacious, smooth, efficient, to Chinatown, where we followed a guidebook tour. In between the skyscrapers we see glimpses of what old Singapore must have looked like, 19 century Peranakan houses, with brightly painted shutters and iron grills, the skyscrapers peeking over their roofs, old men ferociously playing checkers, and smaller street food stalls and little Chinese medicine shops.

Peranakan houses

The area behind China Town – Ann Siang Hill – is now very trendy with boutique hotels and bars (left). Here we find SImon Rigby, a Queens man and Ross’s contemporary who is based here for the next couple of years, sans famille. Caught in an end-of-season monsoon downpour, we sip Earl Grey on his hotel terrace. We catch up with him later, first for drinks in the Fullerton Hotel, the grand old Post OffIce building (see below), and then in IndoChine, a rather touristy restaurant, but well situated overlooking the marina.

Fall into bed – after watching the Wales/Scotland game in a bar, as you do, and woke the next morning, no jet lag! Yay!

Ross Simon marinaAnother swim – going to swim 20 lengths every day to keep fit – before meeting more old Cambridge friends for a Japanese Bento box brunch at Moon in Sun in yet another mall. I am surprised to discover Mark and Lucie Greaves live in a house in Singapore, as do our evening dates, friends of friends from Champery and Geneva, who have an old colonial ‘black and white’ set in a luscious tropical garden, with pool and live-in rainforest style terrace. But peeking over the roof of their house is the ubiquitous tower block, albeit rather an attractive one!

Now Day 3 and I wake up and think, What am I doing here? Ross has gone to work and I am faced with setting up a daily routine, which will go something like: early morning tea; emails, online news and Facebook; more tea; swim 20 lengths; read book in sun (one hour); do ‘work’ (research for book, have brought all my mother’s letters, written weekly to her mother since 1939, with me, in my hand baggage); coffee; browse local supermarket for dinner ingredients if not going out; buy sushi for lunch, or whip up a slimming salad; more ‘work’; tea; then what????Wah! this might get a bit monotonous….