Swimming in Paradise

I may update this with some photos from our trip to Turks & Caicos in the near future.

Swimming in Paradise

“Is it an STD?” our brother playfully asks the nurse as we burst into the examination room with camera in hand. Our sister, suffering from burns, sits on a chair in the medical office of our resort while the attending nurse verifies her condition. Barb is not yet finding the hilarity of the situation and presents a finger in response to the intrusive photo taking and general merriment being enjoyed at her expense.

The day had nearly been like any other, on a trip with friends and family at a beach resort in Turks & Caicos. Relaxing breakfast lingering over coffee, wandering through the grounds, reading under a canopy, swimming. Today we sign-out snorkel equipment to be able to better appreciate the beautiful sea life below the surface. “You can snorkel here,” we are told at our resort, “but if you continue down the beach, the area in front of the next resort has a lot more to look at.”

“That’s awesome! Thanks so much for telling us!” Barb replies. We all make our way towards the water pulling on our masks and trying-out making silly noises through the snorkels. We sound like a herd of elephants in confused distress as we listen to our own affected voices manipulated through the air tubes while our feet awkwardly slap the wet sand as we walk with our flippers.

We enter the waves directly, with plans of swimming over to the next resort to behold the more impressive beauty known to reside there. It’s always interesting after swimming somewhere, particularly in salt water where you need to close your eyes tightly, to later swim again but with the added view of what is swimming with you. The beach around our resort was voted by readers of Conde Nast Traveler to be the “best of all island beaches worldwide”. So it was pretty. The main attractions, under the water, were not to be missed.

As a group we playfully drift our way in the direction we were suggested and eventually we encounter a rectangular area a bit away from shore circumferenced by lines of red buoys. “This must be it!” someone calls as we all follow suit and one-by-one duck under the line of buoys to enter the space. “Gold pot!” Barb calls sing-songly as she views her first school of spectacular fluorescent-coloured fish and brightly-coloured vegetation. “Over here, look!”

“This is amazing!” our brother Bryan exclaims, pulling his face out of the water long enough to share his enthusiasm. “Incredible!” calls a friend, “I can’t believe this is real!” We’re all fascinated as we slowly skim along the top of the water, enjoying the views of life and beauty unfolding just underneath us.

“I have to go in,” I swim over to tell someone not very long after we’ve started, “I’m getting burned.” I guess the waterproof sun block is coming off and I’m burning just at the top of my shoulders. I leave the group and the water and make my way to shade. Deciding I’m done with the beach today because of the sun, I go back to my room to clean-up. I’ll find a nice sheltered area where I can read.

An hour or so later Bryan has come to find me. “Do you have burns?” “A little bit, that’s why I got out.” “Let’s see!” I lift my T-shirt to show a bit of redness on my shoulders. “That’s not sunburn, that’s where the buoys touched your shoulders when you ducked-under them! I just have a bit on my arm!” Bryan shows, “You should see Barb, she is covered with great big red spots! She’s in the medical clinic, let’s go!” Starved for adventure at an all inclusive resort, this is quite a breakthrough. I mean, she probably won’t die or become maimed, so no need to worry really.

The first burst of adrenaline in days of lounging and eating at this child-friendly family resort, we excitedly run to the medical office where, when no one answers, we continue through to the private examination room. “This is private!” the nurse shouts on our rude and abrupt entry. “It’s okay, we’re with her!”

“Holy smokes, what is it?” I blurt-out seeing Barb covered in big red blotches and after Bryan has teasingly asked the nurse whether she has been sought on this occasion to treat an STD.

Barb, who was last to leave the water, explains. “We were swimming in fire coral. When I came out there was this older local guy who asked didn’t we know that we could be fined ten thousand dollars each for swimming in a restricted area.”

“What restricted area?”

“The area inside the red buoys wasn’t showing the best area to explore, it was showing where not to swim.”

“But how were we supposed to know?”

The nurse, who most likely fills her days dealing with minor injuries caused by the utter imbecility of resort guests, looks at us with tired eyes and some pity. I suppose she never gets to meet the sensible visitors. The ones who didn’t forget to wear sunblock when seeing sunlight for the first time in three months, or who thought it might not be prudent to try to pet the interesting wild birds that have large, funny beaks. No, she meets the daredevil who was sure he could impress the ladies by going down the enormous water slide standing-up and then sent his now-broken teeth right through his lip when it all went wrong. The girl who had one-too-many bottles of wine before accidentally falling unconscious into the chocolate fountain very nearly drowning herself in front of small children holding up their strawberries and marshmallows on little sticks under the flow of the viral chocolatey liquid. Had it not been for their screams. . . . The man who thought his mother’s medicated hot roll-on ointment for joint pain was his deodorant and burned his armpits. Okay, in his defence he never went for medical treatment and anyway that was months ago and he wasn’t used to having houseguests. They were very similar containers. With the impressive line-up of ailments she must treat, the nurse probably wonders how all of these ridiculous people can even afford travel let-alone how they haven’t accidentally killed themselves already by choking on their own toothbrush or forgetting to chew a large hunk of steak. Life isn’t fair.

“Does red mean “go” in your country?” the nurse asks. “Because in our country it means stop. And caution.” We stare, processing her logic. Interesting.

Barb continues, “He said there was a sign that blew over last week. And then the old man points at my red patches and he says that they are burns from swimming near endangered fire coral and that I will need to see a doctor.”

“Oh my goodness gracious,” I reply, although in less polite terms, as I now suddenly re-visit my own red burns. “So do they put-out burning acid into the water? Is that why they’re called fire coral?”

“They’re actually a type of jelly fish,” informs the kill-joy nurse. Again, we stare with pause. This woman really likes to be the centre of attention, barging-in with her random comments.

“Should we pee on her then?” asks Bryan, helpfully. (Urine can be an antidote to jelly fish stings.)

“You could,” the nurse replies, “but it won’t help.”

“Let’s try anyway,” I offer, “I’ll pee in this jar and bring it back.”

“If it’s not going to f*ing help, I’m not pouring your f*ing piss on me! Thank you!” Barb politely refuses. A tad melodramatic if you ask me. We’re just being silly about her being covered with burns from swimming with poisonous see creatures. I mean, she is in pain and I suppose we don’t yet know if it’s serious or not so I guess she has a point. But she’s probably not going to die or anything.

Cortisol cream dispensed, ten days later it’s like it never even happened. Just another happy travel memory.

Two years pass and we find ourselves on set of a travel show in production. We’re being interviewed for this story and for the story earlier-written that caught the producers attention about our flight to Turks & Caicos. Both stories will be separate segments of “Bad Trip”. http://www.cmjprod.ca/badtrip.html The show will be in editing this winter and aired sometime in 2014. I’ll post a link to it when it’s out.

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If this looks like a photo shoot, it’s because we forgot to take photos while they were interviewing us on cameras. These are pics from the photo shoot afterwards. See here Bryan, Barb, and Me.

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Rather than visit this production company in Montreal, we joined the proceedings at the Royal York Hotel here in Toronto. That’s why it may look like some conference you’ve attended.

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Of course they wanted me to be the one lifted in front but I was too shy.

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Bumbling about the Handsome City of Chester

Bumbling About the Medieval Walled City of Chester by Darren Elliott

Chester is one of those places where I arrived in disbelief. It wasn’t like some outpost in Northern China where I wondered what I had done so wrong to deserve to end up there. It wasn’t shocking in the way that getting-out at the wrong subway station can be in some US cities. It didn’t remind me of my time in Winnipeg or of growing-up in the Kennebecasis Valley. Of being a visible minority in a suburb of London or the only Western person in a school in Japan.

The disbelief came from wondering why I had never heard of this place before. Chester is one of England’s best-preserved walled cities with nearly 3 km of Grade 1 listed walls. First established as somewhere in 79 (that’s 0079, not 1979) by the Romans and having received city status in 1541, this is not some new place for me to have not yet heard about. This is an incredible, handsome city full of character. Chester should long have been on my radar of places to visit, and yet it was only by recent suggestion during my UK travels that it came to be on my hit list.

I had heard of lovely Chester years ago but it didn’t register. My most senior employee when I was a co-owner of a retail business in Winnipeg was from Chester.

Margaret is one of those people with the gift of charm and we were lucky that she wanted to work for us. Friendly and outgoing, interesting and interested, Margaret could while away the hours chatting with customers and neighbours while selling any manner of merchandise. Always impeccably dressed and ready to work, Margaret came from that era when people felt their time at work belonged to their employer. None of the texting, doing homework, mobile phone-using, watching videos or playing games on tablets that younger people might hope to achieve during their employment hours. Between sales Margaret was dusting, sweeping, glass cleaning, watching. We had other excellent staff too, but they weren’t from Chester.

Margaret’s charm was bolstered by her jovial English accent which I had thought was from Manchester. I had known that she had danced with John Lennon, he was in a band called the Quarrymen that performed at a pub in her hometown. (The band later became the Beatles.) That Margaret’s hometown was Chester, a smallish city today of 120,000 people South West of Liverpool near the Welsh border, had never quite connected to my obviously-weak brain tissues. I did not realise I was visiting Margaret’s hometown when I was in Chester, she told me that later, on my blog.

I did come to know that Chester was Paul’s hometown before my visit. Paul was someone who taught for the same board of education as I did, in Matsuyama, Japan. As handsome and impressive as his hometown is, I can see that it may not have had the plethora of career choices he may have wanted since sadly Chester is no longer needed as a base from which to attack Wales. So pros and cons about that. “Let’s attack Wales just for jolly fun!” I am tempted to suggest remembering my very long week in Cardiff this past winter. “Jolly” isn’t even in my vernacular, that’s how enthusiastic I feel just thinking about it. “But Wales is part of Great Britain.” “But is it, really?” “Yes, it is.” “Is it though?” “Yes.” But they were mean to me when I was trying to order sandwiches and stuff. Everywhere I went. All week. Oh never mind, it was just an idea. I bet it would be good for the economy though.

So between knowing Margaret and Paul, I figure I’m practically a son of Chester. Most of the places I’ve visited on my UK adventure I’ve had no connection to whatsoever. Did you know that Princess Diana was also the Countess of Chester? I would have put that above my Princess of Wales title if I were her, but that’s just me holding a grudge. I suppose she had no choice in the matter really. And for some reason when I hear “Countess of Chester” my mind pictures “Court Jester” because of the slight rhyme. So I suppose Princess of Wales has a nicer ring to it, it doesn’t make me giggle.

When my favourite writer, Bill Bryson, passed through Chester, he just passed through. I guess he was saving it for others to write about, he mentions only that he changed trains here. In this beautiful town of medieval buildings, many restored during the Victorian era and still absolutely picturesque. How could he have passed this lovely town and not felt compelled to capture it in his entertaining way for time immemorial. He can’t have been well. Under the weather. Temporarily blinded. I’m not complaining, his act would have been very hard to follow.

Chester is perhaps most famous for it’s Rows. These are very interesting and unique structures. All in medieval style, basically there must have been some type of agreement between the landowners that each independent building in a row would have a built-in walkway. These are within the structure linking building-to-building on the level above ground. This was a very early form of multi-story shopping where one would promenade along one row of shops and dwellings on the ground level, and another row of shops and dwellings on the level above. The walkways are not uniform and are obviously of separate construction. As one passes from one building to the next there are changes in height, dimension, and building styles; it’s a very interesting arrangement.

Pondering Bryson’s surprising exclusion I find a place to wait for the little antique double-decker bus that has a narrated tour by costumed guides. I have seen this little contraption here-and-there putting about the city. It is quaint and cute and I want a turn. It has arrived to the departure point but I am told to wait. If others do not come, there will be no more tours today. Sitting there, a mother and her grown daughter swoop in beside me. “BHS is British Home Stores and I’m sure they’ll have it. Just wait here and I’ll be back for you,” says the daughter as she merrily wanders off down the high street. “I’ll be here with Mondrian,” her mother replies, referring to my socks. Pretty ones I got in NYC. Having fun socks is enough for this woman to decide that I must be a decent sort of fellow.

Now I might have used the term “swoop” loosely. I meant it in more of a trudging, painfully-slow, dragging-ones-limbs, laborious sort-of-way. The mother, who looks to be shy of 60, is, how can I put this delicately, mammoth. A very large woman who has become nearly immobile and steps with the aid of a large walker. Very friendly and amicable, we start chatting before her ample weight has even met the bench. (No, it didn’t break. How rude of you to think that. You’ve gotten me completely off topic. Again. Bad reader.)

“Are you here with the cruise ship?” I ask. I had just completed a walking-tour with a group of Albertans who came off a large ship docked today in nearby Liverpool. The entire town seems to be abuzz with the sudden influx of hundreds of visitors who arrived all at once and soon will be departing in a flash mob to return to port before curfew. In a matter of minutes half the people wandering the streets will have suddenly vanished. “We are, are you too?” “No, I’ve been here for a couple of days. I’m touring around by car.” “By yourself?” “Sure.” “I’ve never done that, I always bring one of my daughters with me. I’ve run-out of friends to invite, I travel as much as I can afford to. It’s always been my thing, my friends and family think I’m nuts! I used to travel with my husband until he passed a few years ago.”

“So, do you mostly take cruises?” “No, I prefer rock climbing and adventure travel. Last year my other daughter and I hiked the Inca trail to Machu Picchu.” “Oh, I’ve been there too!” “I was kidding.” “Oh, yes. Ha, ha.”

“I LOVE cruises,” she continues, “I’ve been all over the world on cruise ships. I get all sorts of perks now, with the cruise company I’m with this time I have their top status, that’s for having more than 150 days of cruising with them.” “Wow! That’s a lot of days!” “Sure is,” she acknowledges proudly. “My husband, rest his soul, was a large man. One of the cruise companies didn’t treat him well with his mobility issues, so I don’t use that company anymore.” We continue talking about cruising as I have only travelled on one so far and I am happy to learn more from this veteran of the seas.

The conversation comes around to my travels and I tell her that I am planning on taking a road trip around her country soon. “You must visit my beautiful valley, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world.” Well, she would know. “I live in the Shenandoah Valley of West Virginia.” “Like the song?” “That’s the one!” I had thought the song came from Ireland’s longest river, the River Shannon. And that “doah” was a word for “river” like “loch” was for “lake”. Turns out I was completely mistaken in this assumption. But then I only ever knew the first two lines of the song. Every time I sang those lines, as an actor, I thought my character was pining for his homeland across the ocean. I never got to the end of the verse and I never actually heard the song apart from what I sang.

One summer during university I had a summer job in Fredericton as a park performer. I was a member of a troop called the “Calithumpians”, we wrote and performed some historical plays for tourists in a downtown park. In one show there was a brief mention of Ireland and in lament I suddenly burst into song, “Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you, away you rolling river . . . ” before being pulled-back to the action by another actor. The song itself seems to have been made popular by the Irish Tenors too, so I am surprised today in researching it online to find that yes, in all it’s variations of lyrics it is indeed from the Shenandoah Valley of West Virginia. This well-travelled woman’s homeland.

Click on the video below to hear me sing the first two lines of Shenandoah. (If you received this story be email it should open it in a browser.)

We must have chatted for at least twenty minutes before the coach tour was cancelled and I took my leave. “It’s been great chatting with you!” I said as I stood up. Walking away I added, “I hope that I’m you in thirty years!” Now, I am in my fortieth year and I look that or more. If she paid attention to my comment and added 30 years to my appearance, she might have thought about that for a long time. Another kind and thoughtful remark put out into the universe by yours truly. I don’t know how I said that! I was trying to leave with a complement, I had very much enjoyed chatting with this friendly, interesting American woman while she waited for her daughter. The two of us were from small towns and were both enthralled with seeing as much of the world as we could. Of course she would realise that I had meant that I hoped to be her with regards to the extent of her travels, which exceeded my own, and not with regards to her being a young widowed grandmother or for her substantial girth which weighed her down so that cruising was really her only option for travel. “That Canadian guy must have thought I looked like I’m in my seventies! Do I really look that old? We seemed like such kindred spirits, he and I. Why would he say that?”

Kicking myself, I circle back thinking to somehow mend my departing comment but I am too late. Coaches are already filling to take everyone back to port. I see her from afar, as do two older local woman standing near me. “Bless ‘er, she’s as big as a bus,” one of them says, her hand over her face. “Oh my word, don’t look now, she’s trying to get in one,” gasps her friend.

A deep thinker and a student of life, I often look back on experiences to try and find the deeper meaning, the life lesson that the universe is trying to teach me. Perhaps even the real reason that I find myself in Chester today. After only a few minutes I have my “ah-ha” moment.

Next time I happen upon Mondrian socks I really should buy a few more pair because they really do go with just about everything.

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I stayed at a B&B called the Chester Townhouse on this lane. I enjoyed staying there, pleasant hosts and a warm environment.

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Here you can see the unique feature of the Rows. What looks like open balconies are openings on to the above-ground common walkway.

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Another view showing the Rows.

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Walking along the above-ground walkway.

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Click on the image below to see some kind of exercise commercial that was being filmed in from of the town hall.

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A view from walking along the city walls.

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School trips were here and there being led by costumed guides.

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One of the things I miss most when I leave the UK are the pedestrian zones. Every city should have one.

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Another photo looking down from the city walls.

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The antique bus tour I missed from waiting until my last afternoon to take it. I guess I’ll have to go back another time.

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Mondrian Sock.

Click on the image below to play a video of someone practicing piano inside St John’s Church.

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Resting back at the Chester Town House.

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Reading on My Favourite Podcast

Hi everyone,

I wrote in my last posting that I would post a direct link to this.

“Betty in the Sky with a Suitcase” is my favourite podcast, it’s made by a flight attendant who travels with a tape recorder who captures fun and clever stories by her co-workers and fellow travellers. My other favourite podcasts include “A Way with Words” (about language and the way we use it), and “Attention Surplus” (two Toronto guys pursuing meaningful lives of purpose and sharing their journeys).

To be included on my all-time favourite podcast that I’ve been listening to for a couple of years was very exciting for me. I’ll let you know if I end-up on any of my other favourite podcasts!

Here is a direct link to episode 98. You should listen to all of it, it’s great. I keep Betty episodes on my iPod in the car and if ever I’m grumpy putting one of those on has me laughing in minutes. She makes the world a better place as far as I’m concerned. If you’re in a rush you can fast forward about 12 minutes to hear me reading my flight story in front of a Toronto audience.

http://ec.libsyn.com/p/1/8/5/1850939510b8f057/98_Whats_in_Your_Baggie.mp3?d13a76d516d9dec20c3d276ce028ed5089ab1ce3dae902ea1d01c08634d6cf5bce3c&c_id=6240778

Cheers!

Darren

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“England’s Other City”, a Silly Look at a City that has a Silly Slogan.

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If I tell you that this city’s motto at my time of writing is, “England’s Other City” I am certain that you would never guess the city that I am referring to, so disparate must be their self-image to actual. Good for them, it’s been proved that those who appraise themselves more favourably than actual do better than those tho appraise themselves harshly. A good self-image is important although one should also have at least a teensy bit of reality to avoid wearing one of those funny coats where the arms are tied around back. But just try to think of a few places it could possibly be before scrolling down to see. Perhaps even click on the comment button to tell everyone what your guess was. If you’re from there or have read it before than you may know, but that’s not the same as a motto actually suiting a place.

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I am experimenting with my writing, this first bit is some added fiction and the main story starts after the next line.
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Imagine you are in your mid-thirties. You’ve finally landed the job you’ve always wanted, the career you’ve been working towards since you entered university seventeen years ago. You love your city, you enjoy the life you’ve set-up for yourself, and financially you don’t have a care in the world. You have a lovely set of friends that you’ve built-up over the years, an eclectic mix of differing personalities that suit your various moods. I guess you’re a bit of a moody a-hole that you need to do that, but never-mind. The point is that life is good and you feel satisfied. You’re dreams have come true.

You are an art curator and have worked your way up to one the most prestigious art galleries in New York City, an accomplishment that you like to flaunt at every turn. You went back to your hometown high school reunion for the sole purpose of making others feel badly about themselves. “It must be lovely to serve the public at the hospital cafeteria, your family must be dead-proud that you climbed such dizzying heights from where you started at McDonalds and in only twenty years!” “You must feel good about your contributions to the world, I can only imagine how doing the book-keeping for ABC Pesticides must be an exciting and rewarding position for you. I’m sure one has to experience working in a basement office to really appreciate it.” You don’t try to hide your pretensions either, you are the leader-of-the-pack in your pretentious circles.

You have no appreciation for the fact that people are not dealt the same hand. True, you did work hard, but you were also given a free pass when your family easily afforded to send you to the University of your choice. Growing-up, your Uncle Malcolm would take you to fabulous places and show you works of art that most kids will never see during their lifetime, let alone with your uncle’s explanation of why he loves certain pieces so much. (You can remember clearly that there was a modern abstract piece he loved that he claimed was a uterus. Actually, now that you think about it, he could find the uterus in a lot of abstract pieces, almost like it was a fixation of his. You couldn’t quite see it yourself.)

By the time you exited high school you had already visited some of the worlds greatest art galleries in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin. You had private art-tuition on weekends and although you had no talent (You were terrible! Remember!) it aided in your appreciation and somehow it didn’t injure your ego one tiny bit, so strong was your sense of being better than others. You were Daddy’s little Princess and Mamma’s little Cabbage. (She wasn’t calling you retarded. It’s a term of endearment in French.) You won a scholarship by being the only applicant who fell within it’s parameters. (Awarded to a white female candidate who has travelled extensively by age fifteen to at least 5 of the worlds 10 greatest cities with their uncle and who might be considered differently-abled when it comes to the actual creation of art. The scholarship coincidentally coming from your Father’s company and creating a tax write-off for him. Interesting.)

No, apart from these tiny benefits you enjoyed, you are completely self-made and there’s no excuse why Sharon who group-up one of 5 children to a single mother who cleaned homes for a living should not have created a life just as fulfilling and successful as yours. The fact that she was excited to get her first job at age fifteen because it meant that her family could keep their 2-bedroom apartment despite the rate increase holds no water with you. That her family immediately became dependant on her income and she then never had a chance to advance herself career-wise because of her desperate situation will never occur to you as anything but an excuse for her to be lazy. Lazy in a working-two-jobs-seventy-exhausting-hours-per-week sort of way.

Or what about John who became a pet-groomer, loves his wife and two kids, and he would not have his life any other way. You look down on him too because you don’t understand that his success exceeds yours. He’s happier than you are, and he gives back to his community as a volunteer fire fighter. He does that with his Dad, it is something they can share together in the small town you also grew-up in. But because that town was not your destiny you judge others when it is theirs, as if liking one place is better than liking another. Well it’s not, it’s just personal preference. Imagine if we all had the same preference, what would the world look like then? Hmmm? You’re being pretty quiet now, aren’t you.

Well, you are just delightful. How have we not met and become fast friends.

One day you wake-up and you can’t see a thing. Not a spec of light. The darkness that is your view of others who differ from you is now all that you can see. Sad.

Can’t see the pretty pictures now, can you. I’m sure my readers feel so very sorry for you. But lets have some fun with it anyway. We deserve to have some fun, don’t we. Your social worker is one of those people who yells when talking to blind people. You thought this was funny before you went blind yourself, how people with all their senses seem to confuse which-ones-do-what when dealing with the differently-abled. Now that you are blind yourself you notice that your hearing is actually heightened, so dependent you are on it for information about your environment. Its startling when someone yells at you from close proximity, especially when you didn’t see they were there. In fact, you never see they are there. I sometimes find noisy situations disorienting myself and I have the aid of having full visual guidance. I can only imagine that a noisy place where you cannot differentiate specific queues of comings and goings and activities by their sounds must be very stressful.

You have a type A personality and your social worker has decided that it would be best for you to just jump in to your new life by going to a special boot-camp, an island full of people just like you where you should be able to master your change of ability within a matter of months. Three months actually. But once you go, there’s no leaving early under any circumstance apart from being air lifted due to having a medical emergency.

After packing a nearly-random assortment of clothing (Because you can’t see them. Were you intending to wear the top-half of your halloween crocodile costume with those jeans today? And you have some food stuck to your lips. Oh sorry, I must have forgotten to take my glue stick out of your cosmetic case. Easy mistake, I do tend to forget things.) you reluctantly leave your perfect life. You’d take-up massage, an ideal profession for the sight-impaired because they tend to develop a gifted sense of touch, if you didn’t dislike people so much. You’re not sure what you are going to do yet, but you know you can’t just sit at home and listen to tv all day. You need to learn how to walk with a cane, you need braille to read, you need strategies and you need to train your brain to experience the world differently than you have for the past 35 years. You oscillate between feeling depressed and anxious and then one of your self-help books kicks-in and you feel slightly invigorated by the challenge.

At the conclusion of a considerable world journey you arrive to the island and something seems wrong. You can’t see what it is because you still can’t see. Perhaps you didn’t read the fine print of the forms your social worker had you sign. Oh dear. Your social worker seems to have made a bit of a mix-up. He’s sent you to a boot camp for people who suddenly lost their hearing. It was all the same to him I guess. Oops.

The first days you spend your time stumbling around getting slapped in the face a lot. Sighted people practicing their new language. No one can hear you, even the staff are deaf. Must be hard not being heard. Kind of like how you refused to see the real lives of those you looked down on. Bit judgemental, weren’t you. Hmmm.

Apart from feeling alienated you feel painfully bored, unlike anything you have ever experienced. (Although perhaps you’ve come close while reading this blog today. I’m experimenting a bit.) You’ve alienated yourself before, so that’s not entirely new, but never have you been unable to read, unable to watch a movie, but especially unable to sit and admire the new artwork that you just acquired for your gallery at auction. Attaining things with other’s money actually turned out to be your greatest passion, you felt like it was yours. The powerful feeling of wielding an auction number with a two million dollar budget for the afternoon, you like that.

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I am not saying that Norwich is boring like this island must have been for our dear friend who so sadly lost her sight, it isn’t quite. That it was England’s second largest city in the eleventh century did surprisingly little to alter my experience of it only ten centuries later. But I suppose a lot can change in a thousand years when you really think about it. In my five days of wandering it’s lovely streets (it really is pretty) somehow nothing happened. I didn’t find anything particularly interesting to do, I was not able to meet anyone, I found it difficult to find meals away from very noisy chain restaurants, and I found no stories to tell. I’m sure it has lots of these wonderful things and much more, I just didn’t find any of them myself. It is a handsome place though, with some great buildings and I loved the narrow streets of the old town. If you are out for sightseeing, this is a very pretty town. And perhaps there are events that go on there from time-to-time that would have considerably altered my experience.

There were some interesting bits from history, just nothing during my visit. It was the only English city to ever be “excommunicated” in the twelve hundreds, so that’s something. In the fourteenth city they completed city walls but then someone had the brilliant notion to make it illegal to build outside them which caused complete stagnation and meant the end of the city’s growth. Seems obvious enough today that a city that cannot grow will not be able to keep-up with rivals but then again our life expectancies today are longer than thirty-years so perhaps we do have more foreskin. I mean foresight. Perhaps both, I’m not a doctor or a geneticist or anything.

Speaking of foreskin, since you brought it up, Norwich had a very disgraceful event in it’s history when in 1190 the Jewish population was executed apart from a few who found a safe-place in the castle. I can only suppose this had some tie-in to an event in 1144 when a boy was found stabbed and the Jews of Norwich were accused of his murder. The executions took place an entire generation later, but there is no other explanation presented that I could find so I am guessing that the event triggered a feud. I have no evidence or knowledge of such, I am just drawing a possibly ludicrous conclusion. I am not a historian.

Norwich’s famous department store, Jerrolds, is only located in Norwich so one could probably say with some conviction that it’s not actually famous. (Yes, I do know that locals might argue that it was something larger a century ago and therefore famous but I am referring to those of us who are alive today. In 2013 it is probably known only to people of Norfolk.) The name does remind one of Harrods though, so that’s something.

Perhaps the most interesting fact I pulled from Norwich’s long and fascinating history was that in 1976 it installed speed bumps on one of it’s streets to encourage drivers to keep to the 30 mph speed limit, making it England’s third street ever to do so.

Incredible.

They really should promote that more to draw-in more tourists. Makes one pause and wonder where the first street was, doesn’t it. Can you hardly imagine, now that would really be something. But being number three is not too shabby either and the fact that I stumbled upon that amazing fact shows some civic pride for sure, that someone took the effort to make sure the world didn’t forget. And the world surely won’t forget, or at least several readers won’t – it now being encapsulated in my very informative book as it is.

Norwich seems to have sometime recently changed it’s motto from “Norwich – a fine city” which I would say was arguably true, to the very head-shaking, “Norwich, England’s other city.” This latter incarnation, so ridiculous in it’s implication that perhaps England has two cities, gives me the impression that they are perhaps reaching just a little. Like a thousand years. If you don’t like how you compare to other cities today than you shouldn’t have had your silly “no building outside the walls” rule for hundreds of years. Just sayin’. It was number two before it fell gracefully over the centuries to become what it is today. It does have a lot of medieval churches though, which are nice to look-at. Unless you’ve been touring around England continuously for some weeks and find that the churches are starting to blur your vision.

I can only imagine that this new motto was conjured by an illiterate cave-dweller who had only ventured into public the one time during-which he conveyed this, his greatest idea to a motto-starved public who embraced it with some controversy. He could hardly be blamed, he had only seen cave drawings from the time when that phrase would have been true, how could he have known how drastically the world had changed. According to Wikipedia, the city itself, standing at around 140,000 inhabitants, Norwich ranks number 139. Which is also quite far from being second. Actually in a different listing I found, they stood at number 156 but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt since this seems a touchy issue.

Perhaps those in favour of the new city slogan had never watched Bob Newhart. “This is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl,” is a more accurate grammar usage by a not-overly erudite character on that programme. Note that the total number of brother’s named Darryl that he had was two.

I am a cat lady. I have thirteen cats. This is my cat Margaret. This is my other cat, Bob.

Something doesn’t add up. What happened to the other eleven cats. I don’t trust myself now. Am I even a real cat lady? I don’t think so. See what I mean – it’s like they’re trying to hide something. “England’s Other City,” as a motto applied to a city such as this is an embarrassment that just highlights that really it isn’t. I hope they change it back. Or why not correct it, “Norwich, One of England’s other cities”. They don’t need to necessarily mention that it’s one of England’s more insignificant other cities.

Here are some other possibilities, and perhaps readers might add to my list using the comments button below:
“Norwich, we have several hundred more people than Horsham does.”
“Norwich, we might be friendly but we don’t really talk to strangers so it may be hard for you to tell. Sorry about that.”
“Norwich, chain-restaurants are welcome here.”
“Norwich, proud of our heritage. Well, apart from some of the latter middle-ages. But no one is perfect. Shut-up.”
“Norwich, we may be insignificant today but you should have seen us a thousand years ago.”

Without further ado, here are some photos from my time in Norwich.

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The very handsome train station.

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I found Norwich to be very pretty.

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A local was displeased when I took this photo, but I’ve never seen this kind of very narrow gents street urinal before and I though it was interesting. Actually, I was starved for interesting at the time. There was no equivalent for the ladies, it appears that they are addressing the problem of gentlemen peeing in public. The guy who yelled a sarcastic remark to me was working at the bar nearly opposite with a black sign, something to do with mojo I think. I just though of another slogan, “Norwich, pretty but also pretty dull.”

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Here are some comparisons for the non-British person to be able to fully comprehend Norwich’s grammatically-flawed and false assertion.

These are other cities that also rank number 139 in their countries:

“Cowansville, Canada’s other city”

“Fort Lauderdale, America’s other city.” (Oh, I’ve heard of that one!)

“Matsusaka, Japan’s other city.” (Not the more familiar Matsuyama, which is in the top 40.)

“Cottbus, Germany’s other city.” (Actually, this is ranked number 80 in Germany, I could not find an inclusive list that would include towns below 100,000 which seems to be the defining number of what makes a city in Germany. I suppose the need for such comparisons has no real purpose. Honestly, I didn’t look very hard. Just a couple of minutes at the Second Cup as I was writing and now I throw my arms in the air in defeat and move-on, causing fellow patrons to edge away from me a tad as it looks odd to make such a dramatic gesture to an iPad. I’m about to leave anyway so it doesn’t matter. Anyway, please don’t write me with the answer, I don’t actually care, Cottbus sounds obscure enough to make the point. Feel free to share other cities that rank 139 in their countries by population in the comments below. That’s fun. And very informative. Useful.)

“Meudon, France’s other city.”

“Montesilvano, Italy’s other city.”

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A wonderfully-unique Guild Hall. It was my friend’s birthday back in Toronto so I took a photo for her Facebook.

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Cute market in the centre.

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I do love Victorian Shopping Arcades.

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Other tourists told me not to bother going into Norwich Castle but I did anyway. Don’t bother. Unless you’re a complete history nut or an archaeologist.

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The glass structure in the background is the Forum. I’ve read that it draws tourists.

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I suppose that if I had not spent four days having no friendly encounters whatsoever I may have felt completely differently about Norwich. If on holiday, I’d suggest two nights max. That would probably lead to a better impression. It is a beautiful town.

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Having coffee with my oldest niece. No, we weren’t Skyping, I was that desperate for company!

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The video isn’t fascinating, it’s just a live slideshow from the day that I took most of the photos.

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Spending a Long Weekend in Leicester, UK

Leicester

I arrived to the Campanile Hotel in Leicester before noon on a Saturday. “Is it possible to check in?” I ask at the front desk. “No, check-in is at 2 o’clock, you’ll have to come back later.”

I knew check-in was not until 2, but most hotels allow early arrivals if they have any empty rooms. Or if they don’t, they at least pretend to. “Sorry, we don’t have any rooms available at the moment,” sits better with me than, “check-in is at 2.” But that is the rule and that is the reason presented.

I head into the streets towards downtown. In the very centre of town is a clock tower from-which emanate pedestrianised streets in every direction. My first impressions of Leicester are bleak. Driving in, the Sat Nav was not well able to navigate the mixed-up combination of twisting one-way streets combined with road construction and diversions. I did a few circles before deciding not to listen to Audi’s GPS system and actually making progress. I may set-up the Tom Tom before I leave this city, I am finding Audi’s Sat Nav to be quite poor indeed.

I chose the hotel because it looked very convenient, just outside the ring road of the downtown. But my area of downtown seems to be rather downtrodden, an industrial area now partially boarded-up. “Where have I taken myself now,” I wonder as I walk in the direction of the clock tower, taking some desolate photos on the way.

This is a bank holiday weekend and the shopping streets are packed. In fact, it’s incredible. For a smallish city of around 300 thousand, it seems like we could not conjure these kinds of numbers in a city of more than 10 times the population, I am thinking of my own city of Toronto. The crowds moving through the extensive pedestrian area make me feel like I am at a carnival, it’s like walking through the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition, an 18-day festival in Toronto).

My first impression of Leicester is of feeling claustrophobic. The buildings crowding the streets, the streets crowded with people. I wander in search of somewhere to linger as I explore, but I don’t feel comfortable.

At the Tourist Information centre I discover that I missed the once-weekly walking tour, it was this morning. The office is of no real use to me whatsoever as I ask what options I have for seeing this city. I pause here staring at the pamphlets for some time, I can’t seem to filter out the interesting from the banal today and nothing catches my attention. I’m feeling overwhelmed by my continuous travel this weekend, I wan’t the ladies hired to work here to tell me what is interesting but they don’t seem to have any opinions, they just try to answer specific questions. Well, they don’t really “try” but they do answer if they know. “Go the the Guild Hall,” one tells me, “they might know if any other walking tour exists.” Or, since this is an information centre and since knowing this kind of thing should be something you would want to know, perhaps you could call over there and find out. Eventually I make my way back to my hotel around dinnertime and I stay in my room until the next morning.

My room at the Campanile is small and basic. Just a bed and a corner table with a chair that pulls up, the table holds a tv and an electric kettle, so there is just enough room to do some writing there as well. So it is surprising to me that there are at least 6 Eastern Europeans in the room next door, how different could their room be? I assume they aren’t actually sharing the same room, they must be just visiting, they’ll separate in to their own rooms when it’s time for bed. Eventually. Clearly having a great time, at first just chatting and later watching some seriously comedic television programs after midnight. I watch Netflix in bed using my headphones so that I can hear, my speakers are not strong enough to compete with the noise emanating from my neighbours.

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Not a lovely view from the perspective of where I was staying. I would choose a different area for sure, there are lovely areas in Leicester, just not this one.

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Another view from near the Campenile hotel.

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You can see how my first impression was marred by the location where I arrived and stayed in Leicester. Walking towards the centre was not pretty, but then the city was actually quite nice.

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I guess this building may be on it’s way for demolition?

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There were a lot of people about on this bank holiday weekend. It’s probably much more pleasant any other time.

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The city centre seemed to emanate from this clock tower.

There is no fitness centre in the Campanile. It really is just a faceless but clean economy hotel, the most boring possible choice really. I had seen them other places before, but now I know to avoid them. I’m glad I’ve tried it for a 3-day stay rather than a week somewhere. It is fine if one does not want any character or sound-proofing.

I’ve not had proper exercise for several weeks, not since my first week in Birmingham, so I prefer to take the stairs over the elevator. I exit my room and enter the nearby stairwell, the door labelled, “Push Bar to Open”. A simple mechanism. If you can read, you probably do not need the aid of this sign to aid you. I open the door and bound down the stairs to the bottom. “Door is alarmed,” a sign on this door only, reads. Oh dear. I retreat. On my way up, I notice that the other doors do not have handles from the stair side. I stand at the door I entered from on the 2nd floor. No handle. The door is engaged from the handle on the other side, effectively locked from this side. Hmmm. I may be here a while. Fortunately there is a window into the hallway so I can see if someone walks by and bang for them to open the door for me. Except this stairwell is at the end of the hallway, there are only two rooms I could even see someone exiting from as it is alongside rather than at the very end.

I wander the stairwell down again and on the other side of one door I can hear the noise of dishes. I pound on the door and the clatter of dishes pauses then starts again. I pound again, the noise pauses again. After a third time the noise stops and I can hear someone fighting with deadbolts. It sounds like they are not often undone, someone is wiggling and jiggling making slow progress in sliding one that sounds to be at the top of the door. The door opens.

“Are you here for breakfast?” a curious little ball of an Indian woman asks me as I stand there with a stupid smile on my face. “I got locked in the hallway,” I admit. Would someone really try to come into the restaurant to get breakfast from the fire escape door?

She guides me through the kitchen to the dining area where I do not pause and finally I am out in the gorgeous air. Sunny and a high of 18 Celsius today, not a rain drop expected. This is a faultless day here in the UK. At home 28C feels like summer, but here 18C does. A beautiful, summery, sunshiny day. Honestly, I prefer these temperatures, comfortably warm rather than hot.

My second impression is better than my first. Not immediately, my hotel is still situated in the most ugly possible area of the city so I do walk through a mess of sad buildings before coming to the more picturesque area. I stop for breakfast at a patio-side cafe where a few minutes after ordering a mother lets her 5 year-old play a portable gaming device at what must be it’s highest volume. Very English, I say nothing but passive-aggressively look over disapprovingly. A family of two seniors and a younger couple arrives, with a 2 year old. This young one doesn’t like to eat and the rest of us have to suffer the battle that ensues. Thankfully the mother takes him for a little walk after he has completely lost his wits in a long screaming fit. It looked like such a peaceful place to sit when I came upon it on this little cobble stone pedestrian lane near the Cathedral and Guild hall.

After dining I happen in to the Guild Hall where there is a very popular exhibition. The remains of King Richard III were found and verified in Leicester just last year (2012) and this exhibition shows the excited public all about it. Well, there is too much public for me here today and I leave more quickly than I arrived. The visiting public completely fill the space as they progress from segment to segment, there is no room to move apart from with the general movement of cattle. The recreation of his head is by the exit, so I saw that. Most of the display seems to be written panels of explanation, it is quite a small room and I can see what’s here from the entry vantage point. I may come back, but probably I’ll just look at it online. Later I notice that I missed seeing the main hall of this 600 year-old building.

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I don’t think the door to the right was properly marked to suggest you are about to lock yourself in a stairwell and had better hope that there is someone in the kitchen to hear you pounding on their back door. At the Campenile in Leicester.

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A slightly different route walking into the centre on day 2.

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This little man’s sign said that he was raising money for cats.

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I really was surprised by how crowded the streets were.

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The Tudor Guild Hall.

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In looking for things to do here, I decide this might be a good place to while away some time having afternoon tea. One place in particular stands out online, the Belmont Hotel. I enjoy a nice walk to the hotel but once there I am informed that they do need 24 hours notice to book their afternoon tea. “I will go ask the chef if it’s possible today but you’ll probably need to come back tomorrow,” I am offered at reception. After some moments we determine that tomorrow it is. What could be so elaborate that it takes 24 hours notice to be able to serve afternoon tea? I’m anticipating tea, scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam, crustless sandwich wedges, and some sweets. This is a sizeable place, it has several drinking and dining venues sharing the kitchen. I will be most curious to discover what cannot be provided on an impromptu basis tomorrow at 3PM. I’ll treat it like a late lunch.

This is a very multicultural town, like Toronto, there is no majority race. Certainly white people make-up the largest demographic, but they are less than 50%. How does it happen, what makes someone in Somalia think, “I’m going to live the dream by moving to Leicester in England.” I think in this that Leicester may share in common with Winnipeg, Canada, the feature of being more affordable than most other cities. Easier to start a new life, easier to buy a first home, easier to get-by. End result? It’s probably a comfortable, mediocre town. Those with big dreams go to more competitive Birmingham or London. I should suggest Leicester and Winnipeg may wish to become twin cities.

My time in Leicester has been diminished by having a sinus cold. I wish I had chosen a more comfortable hotel, but I did not realise upon booking how much time I would end-up spending in it.

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I arrive 15 minutes early for my afternoon tea at the Belmont Hotel on the holiday Monday. I am shown to a dining room where I am the only occupant, although I can hear some young ladies chatting in the hall around the corner. A few minutes later and my food selection has arrived.

I am shocked that they could not have thrown this together yesterday. It was clearly made in advance, in that cold from the fridge just pulled off the cling wrap sort of way. But apart from the sandwich pieces, nothing else would have been prepared especially. A sandwich of four segments, each with different filling. A selection of 5 cakes, each basically a partial dessert piece, but here was the disappointing bit, 3 of the 5 are the very same lemon cake. A small apple tart (mostly crust with a touch of apple slime) and a chocolate browning complete the cakes. The chocolate brownie is wonderfully chocolatey, although I would prefer it wasn’t cold. On the top tier are four little French macaroons.

In all, the cakes all taste like they came from any coffee shop or supermarket. If their macaroons were house made I’d be embarrassed for them, or proud how they so accurately replicated store-bought. The tea is disappointingly the same PG bag (not loose tea) that comes with the free tea service in my hotel room and it’s in a generic metal teapot. The dishes are a motley assortment of white basic catering dishes, each of a different generic maker apart from the triple-level cake plates which are English, Dudson from Stoke-on-Trent. The side salad is meant as garnish only, I eat some for vitamins only to find dirt and wilted leaves.

Were I to ever happen through Leicester again I would probably look to stay in the Belmont Hotel, it is much more the kind of feel that I like in a hotel and I like it’s location, connected to the city centre by a 200 year-old walking path called “New Walk”. But I wouldn’t bother with the afternoon tea, there was nothing special about it whatsoever. For an afternoon snack perhaps the cream tea would be fine. That is tea with a large scone, served with clotted cream, butter, and jam. I didn’t have it here, but it couldn’t be that bad. Unless they serve the scone cold, it should be served warm. Come to think of it, I would ask that before I ordered here. One can’t assume. I would have assumed, but not after having cold cakes and sandwiches here for afternoon tea.

This is a good value afternoon tea, £12.95 ($20) for a lot of dessert, but I would happily have paid more to have better. Or received half the amount to have better. The only difference in the more expensive options were the addition of several price-points of Champagne.

I think Leicester may be a nicer city than I have experienced. I will not know what this city is like during it’s normal days, I was here during the three days of a bank holiday weekend. The city was probably filled with visitors from the surrounding towns and villages on Saturday and Sunday. The information centre was useless to pointing me towards interesting distractions, and I was not entirely well for the duration.

My final night at the Campanile, the hotel is nearly empty except for the room beside me. It’s 2:48 AM when my neighbours finally settle down for the night. I think they may actually work at the hotel too.

Off to Norwich tomorrow.

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Everything’s relative. New walk is 200 years old.

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The area New Walk passes through is lovely.

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More views on and from New Walk.

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The Belmont is in a lovely area, is near the train station, and you can walk to the centre via the lovely New Walk. Next time.

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This bit was disappointing though. They should charge a bit more and get some nice tea services, especially some pots so they can make tea the traditional way rather than using a tea bag.

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The tea room was lovely. Perhaps have a cappuccino here.

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Three of the 5 cakes were the same cake.

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Just some more views around Leicester.

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The building on the left curves with the street. It’s called the Curve and is an arts centre, part of rejuvenation of that area of the downtown.

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I always feel pangs of nostalgia when I encounter one of the remaining Coffee Republics. I was their 2nd ever manager of the first Coffee Republic location which was on South Molten Street in Mayfair, London. Soon after I left to move to Edinburgh, they opened their 2nd and 3rd locations and eventually had over a hundred across the UK. The original location has since closed, as have many others.

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I hope you enjoyed this posting and that you will read other postings on my blog. Thank you for visiting and I hope you’ll follow me, the follow button is on the bottom right of your screen. Cheers! Darren

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The Beginning of my Indian Adventures of 2013

Going to India 2013

The flight departing from London at 21:05 was packed-full. I passed through the first-class pods with a touch of dread; a relaxing, comfortable slumber would not be mine tonight. Window-seated, I was confined by two seat-mates separating me from the freedom of mobility that only first-class or an aisle seat can offer.

Having an aisle seat didn’t help me on my previous Indian flight though, leaving India after a month touring Northern areas last winter. On that flight a couple from Delhi became my torturers. They were not among the sophisticated, educated city-types one meets on International flights, they were a backward-seeming police official and his wife.

On introduction, Mrs.Kumar showed me her husband’s badge, of which she was very proud. A licence to print money, so it seemed. They spoke very little English but somehow they communicated that her husband was a very successful police officer and they were now starting out on a 6-month tour of the USA and Canada. Two weeks in NYC, a week in Banff, a month in Miami, a few weeks in Hollywood, Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Washington. . . .with countless flights all over the continent. They did have family in two of the cities they would be visiting. The cost of a 6-month tour as they described would be out-of-reach to most Westerners. But this kind of success from someone in the Indian Police force, a fixed-income government job, highlights the kind of success for which one should feel ashamed. The corruption of Indian Police officers is notorious, it is assumed that most take bribes as part of their income, but he must have really been a high-achiever when it came to cheating the public.

It soon became apparent that this couple had never flown before. They were also not accustomed to being told what to do. Before take-off the flight attendant had to tell them 3 separate times to hang-up and turn off their cell phone. The first two times they completely ignored her clear instructions gesturing at the phone and showing them to put it away. The third time she threatened that she would need them to deplane if they continued to refuse her instruction.

An hour into the flight I deal with being kicked over and over, she has reclined onto her husband’s lap and her feet extend into mine. It would have been less irritating had she removed her dirty shoes. Food comes and she’s up again. They apparently have servants at home because they seem to think the fight attendants are there solely for their comfort. The fourth time they ring for more drink during the meal the flight attendants finally tell them no. I feel embarrassed just to be near them. Every time I heard a ding I’d look up to see our light being lit, peanuts, another blanket, another pillow, more water, do they have more of the dessert that was part of the dinner tray. . . .

The lights finally off I put on my own eye mask and settle in to sleep. There’s someone in my lap. She’s straddling me, climbing over my lap. I’m 6’1″ and I fully take my space, she’s a little more than 5 feet tall, not nearly tall enough to climb over me. Well, it’s possible, but not without all her weight sliding over my lap, her feet losing touch with the floor. I’ll stay awake until she returns, I think, rather than start to fall-off again just when she’s returning. I don’t know where she went because she was gone a long time, perhaps 30 minutes.

Settled, I am woken next by her husband tapping me on the shoulder. He needs out. Then he needs back in. Then she’s climbing over again before I can wake to stand out of her way. Ding. They need a snack. Ding. Do they have another, different newspaper? Out she goes again. Out he goes again. Making the most of having free drinks that they continually consume, mostly tea, water and soda, they frequent the toilet again and again. She sleeps for another hour, restless leg syndrome or too much tea, the kicking resumes.

Morning comes and I have a strong resentment towards my evil seat-mates. I could not have imagined a less considerate, more self-absorbed, ignorant couple if I tried. I wonder if they will grow-up a bit during their North American travels, I cannot imagine anyone putting-up with their demanding, selfish behaviour. Not restaurant servers, not chamber maids, not hotel concierge, not taxi drivers, in North America we consider ourselves to be more equal and expect respect in our various different roles.

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Mumbai, India – Arriving
Written Sat Jan 12, 2013

I hired a pre-paid taxi inside the airport, which one should always do if disputes over the fare want to be avoided. After long deliberation between my driver and various other drivers as to how to get to the destination (the general direction anyway), we set out.

Streets are a cacophony of movement in India. Various forms of mobility weave and mingle forming a mass of random-looking motion. Three lanes become five, as cars, auto rickshaws, buses, ox-carts, trucks, scooters, motorcycles, bicycles weave in and out, crowd in together, and entirely disregard the notion or existence of lanes. The vehicles don’t drive one-behind-another, instead the moving mass fits together like a large, ever-changing jigsaw puzzle moving its way slowly forward. The noise created is deafening, engine noises of all sorts and incessant horn blowing in a range of pitches and volumes. Bollywood music blares here and there, both from vehicles as well as from little vending shacks. The louder the better.

This is the beginning of my second trip to India and my first visit to Mumbai. From the airport to my first destination involves more than an hour of intense navigation. After we leave the heaving mass of movement that seems to be a highway, we enter smaller roads that meander through endless neighbourhoods, some ordinary, others maze-like. These smaller roads are still messes of confused congestion, on a smaller scale. There is more stimulation from the roadside now, with mostly shack-businesses lining the side streets. Rubbish is strewn anywhere, laundry hangs from string and if available on roadside fencing. Vendors sit on the ground surrounded by their wares, usually produce. Cows linger with dogs. People are everywhere, walking on the streets, sitting on the streets, selling, buying, waiting, going. Smells emanate continually, it smells like farm, now fish, now burning rubbish, now open sewer, now just traffic pollution. Heaps of rotting discards, hot from the sun, smell earthy. Cows pick through. So do people.

I feel myself becoming entirely engulfed by the chaotic humanity. Going deeper and deeper into the urban jungle; there is no quick escape from this place. This realisation makes me feel claustrophobic. I am absolutely surrounded by high-density life for miles in every direction. This city will be my home for the next three weeks, from four different vantage points.

My first situation is a home stay in Charkop Sector 8, a North-West suburb. As we approach the general region the driver stops for directions. Not that we’re lost, this is actually the modus operandi of taxi drivers. I have found that addresses are of little interest to drivers, they just want to know the nearby landmarks. In fact, addresses very often include landmarks, officially as part of the address. (Whenever possible) My address here includes “behind MTNL”, a large telephone exchange. So it will be this, and not the actual address, that the driver asks for each time we stop. After three such stops and one U-turn, we have found the landmark. At this stage we phone my host, who now guides us in like an air traffic controller.

Well, nearly. Now behind the telephone exchange with street-side locals scratching their heads, we connect with the host one last time using the mobile. Another u-turn and a bit more searching and I am finally introduced to my new friend and host who is flagging us down from the sidewalk.

“I will never find my way home,” I think as he helps me into the building. During my first trip to India I stayed in hotels that were the landmarks of directions. Also, I was not travelling alone and our driver was always with us.

I am in for quite a local adventure.

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I definitely have a nervous anticipation of the situation I will find myself arriving to for my first home stay in India. I have never been inside an Indian home before and I’m not sure what to expect regarding daily routines. I did choose a home stay that had numerous references from previous foreign guests so that I do have assurance as to the cleanliness of the flat and the positive character of my hosts.

Being an introvert, I tent to avoid situations that will possibly cause me too much distress. I’m not shy and I do enjoy meeting people, but having too much stimulation, having too-long of a day, or not having adequate personal space can cause me a great discomfort and mental exhaustion. When pressed beyond my endurance, my socialisation threshold, the felling of panic and agitation that ensues can cloud a whole experience.

I arrive from the airport early afternoon and my host, Aman, meets me outside He is warm and friendly, a big guy by Indian standards, similar in size to me. He had been on the phone with the taxi driver several times to negotiate my arrival and he came down to the street during the last call of arrival.

A little security hut with a little security guard sits at the now open gate of this typical middle-income Indian apartment block. The gate opens onto a small alleyway that links to the open main floor of the building where cars park and kids throw balls and families sometimes play badminton. We chat introductions while waiting for the little freight elevator that had a regular wooden hinged door over top of a black metal accordion gate. The elevator box has a tendency to stop a few inches off the mark, usually too high. It also makes a lot of noise, like the warning of a truck reversing, all the time that the doors are open. I guess that a microchip that could give us a few seconds of grace from the alarm would be a bit of an upgrade.

Upstairs, Aman’s Mother’s full name appears on a metal plaque on the door, like at a doctor’s office. I am greeted by a very pleasant host Mother who immediately offers coffee.

Isha is 50 years old with 2 sons, Aman who is 30, and his older brother. They moved here from Hyderabad 5 years ago. Separated from her husband who remains in their hometown, Isha is a devoted member of her “cult”. I flinch at their use of this word to describe her spiritual devotion. It has negative connotations in North America, but perhaps that stems from Christian’s monolithic belief that theirs is the only true way. By Christianity’s doctrine, any cult would be the wrong way because it is not Christianity. Here in India, there are many ways to honour God(s) through your dedication and the word “cult” is a neutral word.

Host Mother’s cult devotions benefit her guests as it pertains to daily life. She gets up daily at 4AM to meditate. Later, she visits her cult and coming home she buys fresh food for the day. Mid morning she meets her “bai” (literally “woman”, what they call the female domestic servant) who helps her clean the entire home every day. She hovers over the girl for several hours as they attend to the all the details that can be found in a 2-room plus kitchen and double bathroom apartment. The thorough cleaning of everything everyday is part of her cult’s mandates for living a pure life.

When it comes to food, as a guest in her home, Isha’s cult followings serve me well too. All food should be freshly made, vegetarian, but with no garlic and no onions. This differs from the Jains who do not use any root vegetables whatsoever. She buys fresh milk every morning and makes fresh yoghurt from it every day. We enjoy fresh juices made directly from the fruit at the time of drinking. Watermelon and orange seems to be the most common. The healthy meals here are a fantastic highlight of my home stay. Finding food on the streets, particularly off the beaten tourist path where I tend to gravitate, is hugely challenging. Being able to come home to clean, safe, highly nutritious food is a bonus of huge magnitude. Even a beautiful, clean restaurant can have a kitchen behind-the-scenes that looks like a scene of a slum. The front can be palatial and gleaming while the back is feted and filthy. Levels of bacteria and parasites that have no impact on Indians whatsoever often leave the foreigner begging for mercy.

The final way I benefit from Isha’s cult following is in her constant state of relaxed kindness. She just seems like a happy, satisfied person. Her easy, straightforward friendliness is contagious and it gives the home a warm and comfortable feel. It is a place I want to be, with her and her son.

Aman is my designated host who is taking a break from the IT industry. His last job was working for a call centre that serviced North America. His English is fluent and eloquent. The politeness of his indirect speech I find a bit humorous.

“Have you been to Goa?”
“Not really.”
“So, just a little bit?”
“No.”

“Do you have brothers and sisters?”
“As of now, I have an older brother.”
“As of now? Is your Mother thinking of having more children?”
“No.”
I explain that “as of now” implies that a situation could be different in the future. “As of now, I have been to 9 Indian cities,” is a statement of fact that is likely to change in the future.

“Drunkards in India have not yet turned to wine,” he tells me, “it’s probably too expensive.” I know that he really means that most drinkers, those who do drink alcohol while many do not, are not in the habit of choosing wine as their drink of choice.

I went to a wine bar in Bandra with a new Mumbiker friend. It had at most 25 choices on the menu, and considerably fewer in reality. A “local” spot for Indians with money, it was definitely 2 to 4 times overpriced, very expensive here. It was all Indian apart from a few Chilean wines. I set out to try a few small glasses, ordering a different kind each time and asking for suggestions. My friend, however, refused the sampling game and stayed with the same mediocre taste over and over, three times.

The prevailing taste was of someone’s home-made wine kit gone a bit wrong. My standards thoroughly lowered after my last India trip, “drinkable” now has a meaning closer to, “does not taste like ethyl alcohol”, or “does not taste like it must have been opened 3 months ago and allowed to re-ferment in a rotting fruit sort of way,” or “does not make me gag.”

An English couple had told me there were some lovely Indian wines. I didn’t actually believe them after having suffered my previous trials last year, but they did put a shadow of doubt in my curiosity . . .if I could find a nice wine to enjoy sometimes that would be great. This night I do not have one I would ever want to repeat, but I do later have a few decent ones.

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Aman makes a wonderfully kind and engaging host. For the moment the is enjoying the role of host to foreign visitors. I suspect that the small daily tariff we pay to join their household exceeds the income he could earn working as an “executive” at a call centre. This must make the drudgery of work seem pointless unless following a passion. His brother is working on benefiting from this foreign economy as well, he is organising the rental of a flat what will also allow him to host foreign visitors which his current one does not.

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The flat itself consists of two rooms, a kitchen, and a double bathroom. (It seems like one bathroom split down the middle into two narrow ones. The spaces don’t need to be large because the shower is not designated a separate space from the toilet, the entire floor is basically a draining shower floor. It’s similar to the set-up we had in our motorhome when I was a kid. A small water-heating device hangs on the wall to heat the shower water as needed, the kind often found in Europe. In India these are called “geysers”.

This set-up meant that when you needed to use the toilet, you had to put on sandals because the floor was rarely dry. Oddly, they do not keep sandals here for this purpose so I bought my own the first time I left the house. The bathroom “slipper” tradition continues in Japan despite the fact that their washrooms have evolved to be highly modern and hygienic rendering the need for footwear completely unnecessary. But the idea of providing bathroom slippers, this is probably the set-up that idea came from.

The washroom sink taps are cold-water only, as is the kitchen sink tap. There is a galley kitchen that contains all metal cutlery, cookery, and dishes. Isha spends hours in this space cooking everything from scratch. After-use, the metal dishes are put into a large, wide bucket and accumulated for the “bai” to clean in the morning. This she does squatting on the floor in the bathroom.

I’m not sure of the dish-cleaning process, but I do know that the first time I heard it I sat bolt upright in bed with eyes wide open. There is so much metal clanging noise at one time that it sounds like a class of preschoolers armed with great metal pots and spoons. Fighting, they all then fall down a flight of stairs together. Repeatedly. For half an hour.

The main rooms of the flat aren’t really designated with a specific purpose, it’s not like the West where bedrooms are generally designated as private sleeping quarters and the living room is a lounge area. These rooms are more-or-less equal, the room closest to the entrance is more public.

In the more public room is a single trundle-bed against the wall facing a double wardrobe. A small, rolling coffee table and plastic stools serve as food holders when dining while sitting on the bed. There is a computer on a small desk in the corner beside the wall of sliding doors which open to an exterior laundry-hanging area. At night, the trundle pulls out from under the bed making two single beds.

In the 2nd, smaller room, two single beds and one wardrobe take up the entire space. This room also has sliding doors to the outside where more laundry is hung and where several large tanks of cooking gas are stored. The sliding doors do not have screens, nor have they been fit with precision. Fully closed, there’s a gap where each door meets allowing mosquitos to come and go freely through the night leaving me nearly bloodless by morning. These are little, tiny, dwarf mosquitoes. They don’t look capable of malice, but I wake-up several times during the night slapping myself in the face trying to obliterate the miniature beasts that are capable of so much harm. After a week, I am covered in red, puffy welts some of which actually enlarge by localised bruising.

In addition to improving the quality of life for the local mosquitos, every day the air passing through the openings brings in the smell of morning. Somewhere around 6AM when neighbours start rising and start taking their morning showers, using the toilet and otherwise getting ready for a new day, the level of the sewers rise causing the stink of rotting faeces to to waft into the room and kick you in the face. At least, it kicks the foreigner in the face. “What smell?” Aman asks.

It’s like when you work in a coffee shop all day, you get used to the smell of coffee and don’t notice it but newcomers coming in have a heightened awareness of the coffee aromas. Crossing town in mixed company when we passed an open sewer I mention, “Wow, it smells like a farm but worse!” “I know,” responds the other Westerner. “What are you talking about?” asks the Indian. “The stink!” “What stink?” So this auditory feature is perhaps limited to visitors who are not there long enough to develop an immunity.

At 2AM one morning I dash to the toilet. An explosion of chunky liquid brings some relief momentarily but I feel like my insides are being twisted and knotted. I spend the entire night finding it difficult to breathe and I take in deep breaths which I hold and then release very slowly.

My host, in the bed 12 inches from mine, gets up at 11AM and I continue to lay there aching, nauseated, and weak. At 1:30 he tells me the time and I explain to him my condition, which he doesn’t believe. “You probably overdid it yesterday,” he suggests, “maybe you need some rest.” I spend the rest of the day fending-off food offerings during toilet breaks. In the end, I do have an apple.

I am still unwell the next day, again to my hosts disbelief. I am aching everywhere, I’m running out of medicine, and I’m drinking my rehydration liquids that I brought from Canada. I try some rice and yoghurt and somehow within minutes it has cycled through my disabled digestion tract and explodes out the other side. “Should have used a dish, could have given that to the cow,” I chuckle when I see the barely adulterated recognisable food. Host Mother always feeds me to beyond capacity, it is not possible to finish with an empty plate because it is disallowed. An empty plate gets more food, so I always end with left-overs. “Give to my cow,” she cheerfully states as she clears away the dishes. It’s one of her few English phrases. She doesn’t have a cow per se, but there is a cow that she passes everyday and feeds left-overs to like any good Hindu should.

I return to bed and take-off my day clothes since my trial lunch was not a success. I ache all over. Partly from the food poisoning, partly from the super-hard 2″ thick mattress on wood that I have spent far too many hours on. I still feel too weak to sit-up, to tired to read, I’m hot, sore, crampy, and nauseated. (I hang my head over my bedside pail now and again, but in the end I don’t end up using it. This time.)

My host, who has never himself experienced food poisoning, continues to remain suspicious of my condition. “Are you sure you have diarrhoea?” he asks, his head tilted and eyes narrowed as if to uncover some deep, hidden secret. I feel a tinge of momentary hatred as I look up at my lovely, kind host who has been attempting to force-feed me now for 2 days. “You’re weak because you’re not eating enough, ” he declares. I don’t feel like defending my condition anymore so I don’t. I just look and then close my eyes.

The next morning I feel completely well. I have been in Mumbai for one week and today is my first moving day.

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“Explore Cultured Mumbai Home stay” listed the following as amenities: air conditioning, tv, internet, elevator, washer, dryer, pool.

I arrive to the very local suburb of Mulund after the usual taxi conundrums – stopping for directions, calling my host several times, and making the occasional u-turn. I did give very clear and concise directions which were disregarded for the usual routine of spending much of the drive seeming lost.

Standing at about 5’2″, my little host meets us roadside and we complete the journey with him pointing the way. A tiny “temple”, a miniature square building about 7’x7′ sits awkwardly at the roadside against the front of a 15 or so storey building built 2 years ago. “We cannot destroy temples and it was here first,” he informs me when I ask about this little structure that interrupts the sidewalk and looks so out-of-place. “Can’t they move it though?” “No.”

“Have you hosted a Canadian before?” I ask my new host.
“Yes, I had a guy from Michigan.”
“That’s not Canada,” I offer.
“But it’s the same, isn’t it?”
“No.”
“Oh, and I had a girl from Seattle.”
“That’s not in Canada either.”
He tilts his head back and forth, not sure whether to believe me? It seems something like, “We’ll just agree to disagree.”

We roll my suitcases around the large structure on broken cobble to the back where we find the middle-aged, typical 6-storey apartment complex that is supposed to be my home for the next 7 nights. Somewhat dingy and with electrical wires bulging form wall panels on every floor, we have a tour of floors through the metal gate of the lift as we approach the 4th floor.

Already apparent is the lack of a pool. There is no possible space, inside or out, where one could possibly be.

The door to the flat is large and is covered with a paper sticker that gives the impression of being a wood-panelled door. Well, it doesn’t actually give me that impression, it just looks comedic, cartoon-like. My host, Babu, removes the padlock and slides the bolt to unlock the door. I’m not overly fond of having a door, in a foreign country, where any passer-by can lock me inside by simply sliding a bolt. Fourth floor, no fire escape, barred windows. . . . .

He opens the door to a one-room plus kitchen and bathroom apartment. Readily apparent is the lack of family one normally associates with a home stay. This is just a bleak, faceless, worn-out space and the complete lack of character suggests that no one lives here.

“People used to stay with my family, but I decided it is more comfortable for the foreigner to have their own space.”

“But if a foreigner chooses to have a home stay, they have decided they would be more comfortable to share a space. This is not a home stay,” I suggest.

He tilts his head. “But it is, because you can visit my family anytime. My guest from Finland said that I lied about the place because he wanted to stay with a family, but this is better.”

“But this is not a home stay,” I reason again. He should advertise it for what it is, a flat rental. That way, people who want to have the situation that he has decided is better for them, can. But clearly he understands that this is not the situation many foreigners are looking for, otherwise he would not have misadvertised. His parents probably don’t like having constant house guests so he rented this apartment rather than lose this, his only, income.

Other missing amenities come immediately to view. For tv, I am welcome to visit the family home any time, less than 15 minutes away. Well, the 2 times I did happen by the family home (a 3 room apartment) his mother was glued to her Hindi soaps. I don’t speak Hindi so my interest in these would be very short. How likely would it be for me to go into their home, commandeer the television and watch English programs when both her and her husband don’t speak English. Not likely. Television is not an amenity of this “home stay”.

Internet too was a false promise. I had already learned this from comments of previous visitors though, so I knew to expect that. If I had not been able to internet-enable my iPad with a SIM card, not having internet, without phone or tv especially, would have been a deal-breaker.

The tour of the small apartment just got better and better. There is no air conditioning. “But I can visit the family home to cool down, can I? Very handy especially at night if I can’t sleep because of being too hot.”

“No, we don’t have ac either. I hope to put it in someday, after I make lots of money renting the flat to foreigners.” So in his hopes to get air conditioning some day, he lists it as a benefit now for this “home stay”.

The kitchen is a cluttered mess in that due to having no shelves, drawers, or cupboards whatsoever, the counter is a pile of condiments, dishes, and useless items. A sink at one end and a 2 burner stove at the other, and a large empty jug as from a water cooler laying on it’s side with a spout attached to it’s mouth.

Absent from the kitchen, making it a completely useless room to me because I can’t even make tea with milk, is a fridge. Restaurant left-overs will have to go ” to the cow” and I cannot stock-up on any fresh food or have chilled water in this hot, stuffy apartment. The kitchen does come in handy later for brushing my teeth. Later I discover that there are no window screens in the bathroom but I can avoid the mosquito attacks somewhat by leaving the bathroom door closed and using it as little as possible.

Speaking of the bathroom, the next thing I notice is the absence of a toilet. This apartment has the more traditional squat-hole. Lovely. Another missing element, although I don’t notice until the next morning, is a water heater. Usually called a geyser, this little point-of-use appliance that provides warm showers does not exist. It doesn’t seem like anyone ever lived in this apartment, that it was never quite finished. Yet, it is in a rather dirty, worn-out condition. What there is, however, is a big plastic tank full of fetid water overhead. It’s like a huge, plastic toilet tank that keeps itself full for when the water is not working, your own private stash. In case the water was not bacteria-laden and parasitical enough, you can turn a valve to bypass the regular supply with this one.

Looking around, I enquire where I do laundry, which I had accumulated until now since a washer and dryer were listed as amenities. “I can show you how to wash it in the sink, ” he cheerfully offers. “Not necessary, I can figure that out myself.” No dryer, no washer. The ONLY truth in his profile listing this accommodation was the elevator. WOW.

So it was that I took an immediate dislike for my host who lied so thoroughly to fool foreigners into pre-paying for his “home stay”. I did not trust him whatsoever. I didn’t hide it either, this liar would be no friend of mine.

There was a complete in-congruency between his lying and his friendly, gentle nature in-person. I guess he got away with his false listing because other foreigners newly arrived to India staying off the map in this local area would be dependent on his assistance to do anything. Even getting a taxi here requires much local help and intervention. In my case, however, I had already made some friends in Mumbai, I already knew how to navigate the insane train system, and I did not require his assistance to get by.

My refusal to be friendly to this little man who lies and tricks foreigners into renting his nasty apartment did not sit well with Babu. He kept coming by offering to take me to a temple, go here or go there. My first day I did take a day trip with him, but his continued lies bugged me so much that I couldn’t stand him any longer. He interpreted my coldness as disappointment in the flat and arrived with drinking water and a plant.

In fact, the apartment was okay, I could deal with it; I just really begrudged his lies and his refusal to acknowledge them as such. On day three I responded to his texts offering to do things together with, “The apartment is fine. It is you I don’t like. Because you are a liar, I do not want to be your friend.”

Thirty minutes later he showed up to the door. “What do you mean? I am not a liar.”

I looked down at him in complete disbelief. I cannot believe he needs this reiteration again. “Okay then, show me the air conditioner.”

He tilts his head back and forth, “I explained to you that I want to have that in the future.”

“But it’s a lie to list it as a benefit now.”
“That’s your opinion.”
“No it isn’t, it’s just a fact!” I am completely exasperated. “And where’s the tv? Internet? Washer? Dryer? Pool?”
“I told you about those things, you can visit my parents home. And i can take you to the pool, it’s only 30 minutes away. . . ”

His continual refusal to even see his own deceptions infuriates me so much that I couldn’t stand it anymore. “Just leave me alone until I leave, I do not want to know you.”
“But I’m not a liar!”
“Yes you are – now just leave me alone.”
“No I’m not, it’s just your opinion!”
With that I push him out the door. He is actually fighting against me to stay inside. Him weighing all of about 140 lbs, it’s no trouble to close the door with him on the outside.

He kicks the door. “You don’t like my room, then get out of my house! I’m calling Airbnb!”

I feel very fortunate to have my own internet with me, otherwise finding alternate accommodation on the spot would have been impossible. Airbnb calls. “Your host is very upset. He said you called him a liar.”
“He is a liar, and you need to make him change his profile.” I explain how the listing does not remotely reflect that actual accommodation.
“Oh, now I see the issue. I will talk to your host and explain to him the misunderstanding.”
“It’s not a misunderstanding! I understood his profile entirely, it’s a bunch of lies to attract more foreigners to come!”

As soon as I was packed, I started the long process to transfer myself by taxi to a hotel in Bandra.

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“Your country?”

“Canada.” I look of non-recognition, I show with my hands, my left is the USA, I place my right hand, Canada, above it.

Anil, who looks to be in his late 50’s, seems to have woken-up to drink this Sunday afternoon. Around 3PM he is rather sloshed and I bet that tomorrow he will ask his friends, “Was I hanging-out with a white guy yesterday?”

I have not found it that easy to interact with locals on the street, but this time I have to my advantage that in this non-tourist area people are curious without their hands held out, and that I have an understandable reason to linger, sitting with my suitcases waiting for a taxi. I called for the taxi from outside so that I could implore the assistance of a neighbour to talk to the taxi company. A full, clear address never seems to be enough. Unless your location is itself a famous landmark, it takes a lot of work to get to your destination. I can never assume that a driver knows where he is going because he rarely does.

A little man who runs the cigarette and betel nut stand for our building comes over and stands looking at me at very close proximity. “Do you speak English?”

Head tilting, “No.”

By this point Anil has ascertained that I am friendly, like a dog he cuddles up against me, sitting next to me on a low cement wall. “Cigarette?” I offer and he readily accepts. I had purchased this pack her last night and smoked one here in an attempt to meet locals then. But, I guess it seemed too threatening and suspicious and perhaps I didn’t linger long enough. Today, it took about 20 minutes before I seemed approachable.

“He’s my friend,” Anil tells me, pointing to Manoj, the guy who helped me on the phone. “Peter Francis, he’s Christian.” In fact, he’s the only guy of many about who is wearing a head covering so I am surprised. Anil calls him over. He rolls over on his motorbike that he’s been sitting on and Anil points out a “Jesus” emblem on the front.

“Christians are friendly with Hindus,” I kind of ask, using my iPad translation app, English to Hindi. “Yes. I am a Hindu as well,” Manoj replies. “You are Christian and Hindu?” “Yes, same God.” “So, do Hindus just divide the same God into many Gods, or is the Christian God one of the many?” My question, even translated, is not understood. I am curious as to what the thinking is about this because Hindus may also be Christian but I don’t know any Christians who are also Hindu.

A small crowd is slowly gathering of curious guys who live in the building. This driveway is a hang-out during the weekend, where people smoke and chat and chew betel nut. Guys anyway, no girls hang about. They are probably visiting each other in their apartments while the men have left them to privacy. It’s a very friendly building, most doors seem to be left wide open onto the hallway apart from overnight and when people are out. Neighbours come and go between apartment and the building has a very welcome feel. English is not well-spoken in this neighbourhood though, so despite earlier attempts to meet my neighbours, during my departure is the only time I actually do.

“Is he the party guy?” I point to my new sidekick. The iPad translation app I’m using is fast and easy, and with a click it shows screen-sized translation of each sentence making it easy to communicate with a group. Another benefit of having internet from a SIM card, it only works when connected to the internet. On reading my question the group breaks into laughter. Yes, yes, he parties everyday. My little friend now has his arm over my shoulder and seems quite content to be the centre of attention. Now and again he puts his hand up as if for a high-five, when I meet his with mine he grabs my hand instead. “My friend!” he says every time.

“What is your name?” someone asks. After saying my name several times to looks of confusion, I key it in for them to see. “Full name?” I key my family name. “My family name comes from Scotland,” I key, “people in Canada come from many places.” They tend to read aloud and there is group recognition and agreement with each sentence.

There is a lull and they wait for the foreigner to entertain. “People everywhere are much more the same than they are different,” I key as way of a conversation starter during this cultural exchange.

“Not Pakistan,” one man suggests to nods of agreement.

“In Canada, Pakistani people and Indian people are friends,” I show them on my screen. This statement draws awkward looks as they glance from one to another not sure whether they should believe this crazy statement.

Change topic. “It’s hot today!” I quip. Near to 30 Celsius an da bit humid.

“No, cold, cold!” they tease. Yes, I do realise that it gets much hotter here compared to this, but no one really thinks this is cold.

“At home, now, it might be minus 15 degrees,” I key. Looks of disbelief and shock, wonderment as to how one could survive such a temperature leads to a conversation about winter clothes and how we stay warm.

I man named Rakesh introduces himself. “In high school I knew a guy named Rakesh,” I tell them, “There are many Indian people in Canada and in the U.K. too.” Nods of acknowledgement, they know this, many people emigrate to Canada.

The conversation being more like a discussion of which I am the leader, I keep moving it along. “In Canada, total people only 30 million. That’s only double this city, but Canada is the 2nd largest country in the world.” They seem to find this interesting. A country that only sounds vaguely familiar has very few people but is very large.

“Canada pictures?” someone asks and I show the very few I do have on my iPad. A birthday party, a small wedding, my brief visit to Newfoundland.

“India pictures?” I open the file from my trip to Rajasthan but they are quickly bored. “Mumbai photos?” They’d like to see photos of something familiar to them. The nearby India Gate receives approving nods and “ahhs”. I skip from pic to pic rather than showing a slideshow, I don’t want them to see the pics I find so interesting of local life. Of the neighbouring shacks, stray animals, laundry hanging in the street draped over public fences, rubbish, people going about daily activities.

An hour of interacting and I am grateful when my taxi arrives. It was great, but tiring. Like a performance. I leave Anil my cigarettes, which he had already pocketed anyway.

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Bandra is well-known as the “Queen of the Suburbs” in Mumbai. Actually very central to all the action, I’m not sure why it’s known as a suburb at all. Perhaps they just mean, “residential neighbourhood”. But neither term gives any semblance of understanding to a foreigner because the reality is that Bandra is a hectic, noisy, trendy zone, busier than any neighbourhood in Manhattan it seems to me. The term “suburb” does not adequately capture the chaos, even if it is a chosen domicile for multitudes.

With one of the priciest property rates in Mumbai, Bandra is a desirable neighbourhood and many Bollywood actors choose to call it home. With a long and interesting history, many Christians remain from the era of Portuguese rule when commenced in 1532. During the time of British rule many Bandrites became employees of the East India Company. At that time very few Indians could read or write Roman letters so this gave the Christians a definite career advantage.

Earlier in my stay I had asked a gentlemen what the word is for someone from Mumbai. “Mumbiker, ” he replied, “but I call myself a Bandrite”. Even though Bandra is a neighbourhood within Mumbai, pride of residing in that neighbourhood has coined this even more local handle distinguishing the residents from other Mumbikers.

Bandra has a trendy and fashionable selection of shops, clubs, bars, hotels, and restaurants but it still has it’s problems. Street congestion is compounded by roads narrowed by illegal street hawkers setting up for trade right on the street. The city seems to be aggressively targeting these activities. According to an article I read in the newspaper during my visit, only 8000 of 32,000 vendors are actually legally licensed. There is talk about designating more space and legalising more hawkers so that the government will at least have some control. At present, the illegal vendors pay bribes to the local police and other officials to be overlooked, creating a substantial income for the generally-accepted-to-be-corrupt police force. Since they are there, licensed or not, might as well charge a small tax to pay for the administration and better organisation while reducing corruption. (Legally, a police officer should force the closure and removal of an unlicensed vendor. But honestly, the police officer does not really want to take away someone’s livelihood. But since the vendor is willing to pay a bribe in lieu of removal, the officer accepts. In a way it is a win-win situation, but the government might as well just grant more licences.) Vendors would surely welcome this tax in lieu of bribes. All they want to do is to make a living; whatever taxes they are charged would most likely be far less than the bribes they pay out anyway.

For a prestigious district, Bandra is a surprising disaster. A mess of unplanned construction. A torn-down bungalow replaced by a skyscraper here, a random mega store there, new and old and in between not quite working together. Instead of interesting, it’s just messy.

I check in to my hotel on Hill Road, one of the main original streets renamed by the British. Not a quiet oasis due to it’s location in this very loud, congested neighbourhood, but I felt I would be an interesting base for 3 days of local wanderings. Hotel Metro Palace has 3 restaurants the day I check-in, all of them somewhat party-like serving alcohol and blasting dance music. I knew this to the be the case from customer reviews though, my earplugs are ready to go.

Still shaken from my “home stay” gone wrong in Mulund from which coming here was a sudden unplanned early escape, I do nothing the first evening apart from ordering room service, facebooking, and researching my surrounds.

In the morning the next day, I am somewhat surprised to discover that all three restaurants that had been so alive with loud music and drinking mere hours before were now being literally torn apart. Walls were coming down, metal supports were being sawed through creating that incredibly ear-grating noises of metal teeth cutting metal. Piles of rubble were accumulating, as was dust and dirt.

I hit the fashionable neighbourhood in food and at no place I encounter with actual nourishment do I fee safe to eat. I have had the “runs” for a full week now, and taking chances on food hygiene i snot on my bucket list. I find some white sugar, white flour, and trans fat at a coffee shop chain in the form of a “banana muffin”; basically a greasy ball of white cake with a hint of banana. By 4PM I have circled-back to the hotel now desperate for something edible, surely they can help.

“You may eat on the 1st floor terrace,” I am told at the front desk. Arriving to the spectacle that was once the 1st floor terrace (2nd floor for us North Americans) his misinformation is obvious. “I’m sorry Sir, but you cannot eat here,” I am told by a young, hip-looking manager as he watches his terrace cafe being filled with debris.

“Clearly,” I agree, “but downstairs they do think you’re open.”

“They are mistaken, Sir. Sorry, Sir.”

“Yes, I can see that.”

“Our restaurants are combining to make a KFC.”

“Sorry?”

“What country are you?”

“Canada.”

“You don’t have KFC?”

“Yes, I know it. So, could you possibly show me somewhere that I can find food nearby?”

“Yes, I will show you, Sir.”

He leads me downstairs to the street and points to a double-entry with “RUDE” above the doors. “You can eat there, Sir. The food will be good for you there, Sir.”

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I cap-off three weeks in Mumbai with a 5-star hotel stay. I looked into the famous Taj located at Mumbai’s India Gate. It is by far the most famous luxury hotel in the city but they have no rooms available in the original palace wing. I’m not interested in being in that busy location, I’ve already spent time there, to stay in the new wing which has been reviewed as being far less interesting and not that special. Instead I choose a hotel chain that I was very impressed with before, the Leela Kempsinki Hotel.

I previously stayed with this chain last year at the Leela Palace in Udaipur. Our driver deposited us at a small ferry dock where we were greeted by fancily-uniformed guards who helped us onto a small canopy-covered boat which transported us across the lovely lake, for which Udaipur is famous, to our palace hotel Intricately-costumed men holding large elaborate parasols protected us from the 30 seconds of skin-damaging sunshine from the dock to the threshold. Upon our entrance, a Rajasthani band serenaded us as rose petals fell from above. We were greeted directly by name and guided straight-forth to our room without pause, moving through the gorgeous interior replete with antiques and ornamentation suitable for a Maharajah’s palace.

The room itself was sumptuous. I loved the oversized mahogany dressing room and 4-part bathroom. A toilet room, a central double-sink make-up area, a shower room, and across the hall, a separate bathing room.

A lovely large carved desk flanked the headboard of a very comfy bed, with a sofa sitting-area nestled around the view of the lake. The entire room was furnished with antiques and reproductions, vibrant jewel tones, luxurious hand-woven rugs, tasteful paintings, and wall hangings.

There was an open central atrium that featured live dancing and music in the evenings, lit by dozens of receded candles. The exterior terrace was gorgeous, featuring water features, lovely restaurants, and all overlooking the gorgeous views of the Lake Palace.

So ti was with some anticipation that I booked the equally-priced Leela Kempsinki Hotel Mumbai.
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Keeping in mind that I have no plans to leave this hotel for 5 days, I booked the most exclusive class of room, the “Royal Club”. Located on the top floor, these rooms have an exclusive all-inclusive lounge, private check-in, butler service, and private concierge. This would possibly be a wasteful splash if just using the hotel as a base, but it’s a real asset when calling the hotel “home” for the duration of my visit. It is a little mini-break from my travels in India.

The arrival was promising. Set on 11 acres of gardens, the gated entry is far enough from the hotel that it’s existence from the road is obscured by the trees. The routine of open hood, open trunk, inspect interior, roll mirror under car to check the underside, is no longer surprising to me.

Surprising is the lack of staff at the entrance. I help my driver with my luggage and deposit it myself at the x-ray machine. After going through the metal detection and being thoroughly frisked, I collect my handbag but leave my other bags. I stand waiting for reception and watch other bags trying to come through the x-ray machine, pushing mine into a pile. I am thinking I should overstep boundaries to go save my own luggage when finally someone goes over to attend to them. I don’t mind to carry my own suitcases, but somewhere like this it should creat a stir to see a customer so unattended.

I know that I have priority check-in due to the class of my room, but there is no one available to inquire where I am meant to proceed. I wait for my turn at the understaffed reception counter and two separate Indian guests barge past me to be served first. When I finally get to the counter, I show my hotel voucher. The young man keys into the computer, in that mysterious seeming to be more official or complicated than it actually is sort-of-way, and recognises, “You have private express check-in.” Seems a bit late to be private or to be express with the lack of attention given to new arrivals. Now it just means that even though I was made to wait a long time for the regular check-in process due to there being no staff there to direct me otherwise, instead of now being checked-in, they will make me wait all over again upstairs for my special express check-in. The irony of this “special service” is lost on the Indian staff. The way they have carried-out this service, it’s not better than ordinary check-in, it is twice as bad. But I am supposed to know where to go on entry I suppose, this is a benefit only to those who have already stayed in this hotel, but I never will again. The lobby is shockingly noisy. Despite there being few people about, the marble and hard surfaces reverberate the little commotion there is into being a loud cacophony. There has been no thought whatsoever to the acoustics. A water feature masks the noise with water noise, not the usual relaxing feeling generated by splashing water.

I am now ushered up to to the top floor. I express my annoyance and am disregarded with, “Sorry, Sir, we are fully booked, very busy, Sir.” I think that if they are fully-booked then they can well-afford the very cheap labour to be well-staffed.

The 8th floor is the “Royal Club” top floor with private concierge called, “butler service” and a private lounge that has inclusive snack and drink benefits. I am passed-off to my butler, Gerard, who takes my hotel and pre-paid hotel voucher as well as any requests for coffee, tea, or soft drinks. The “welcome champagne” as described as part of club room benefits is not offered, even though I now could use it given my annoyance checking-in. My coffee takes some time to arrive so that it does not fill my waiting time, it arrives at the same time my passport is returned so I only take a few sips before asking to be shown to my room.

The room is nice, no reason to complain really, but it is disappointingly boring. Stream-lined and traditionally modern, the only interesting touch is the colourful rug on the hardwood floor. The furnishings are nice in a non-offensive anyone-would-be-okay-with-them sort of way. The colours are typically muted, ivory woodwork and beige plain fabric textured wallpaper. There’s a minibar that would be overpriced in Europe let alone in Asia, an oldish flat screen tv (the kind that was 4″ deep rather than the 1″ nowadays), a writing desk and chair, a round table in the bay window with a comfy chair and ottoman. There is a view of the hotel grounds as well as two very large taxi depots, one for the black and yellow regular cabs, another for the blue and white aircon cabs.

A queen bed with – a real mattress. I’ve been on the super-hard, super-thin Indian-style mattresses for the past few weeks, so a real bed is quite a treat.

“May I take breakfast in my room?” I inquire of my butler, who I rarely see again except at the concierge desk. “No Sir, if you want to upgrade to a suite for only . . . .”

I guess they’re not completely full.

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I hope you found this story about the places I stayed in Mumbai to be interesting. If you did, please follow my blog! Click on “Follow” on the bottom right of your screen and enter your email address to receive my posts as emails. You can remove your following at time. To share a link in facebook, click on the facebook button, or share a link on Twitter. Thanks for reading! The next posting will tell some stories of things I did when I stayed in the places you just read about. Cheers! Darren http://www.PersonalTravelStories.com