Saturday, January 27, 2018

Travelogue 2018, Episode 3, On familiar grounds (Penang & Satun)

Penang, Malaysia


We stayed 6 days on Penang, Malaysia. We’ve been here before and again we enjoyed the great facilities and the variety in cultures. We paid tribute to all three population groups.

We visited a large Chinese temple in the mountains, a mix between a building site and an amusement park.

We visited the floating mosque, a mosque built on stilts over the sea. It was a  peaceful and serene place.

Everyday we visited Little India for a touch of the real India. The sari shops,  Bollywood music blaring from the dvd shops,  grocery stores with all Indian ingredients and spices, ladies in sari and jeans walking hand in hand, restaurants where the food is better than anywhere in India.

An inherent part of Penang’s history is its colonial past. We visited a guided tour around the Protestants cemetery. There were 15 people listening to the funny and knowledge guide. Lots of little stories about Penang’s history and its inhabitants. One of them was the Scottish lawyer James Richardson Logan, who invented the name Indonesia, as he believed its people had the right to have a name that was not made up by or connected with its Dutch colonizers. It wouldn’t be until early 20th century that “Indonesia” was picked up by the independent movement. And so Indonesia stays with us this trip, just like India.

Penang was as cloudy as Sumatra, but much warmer, in the low 30s. Two and three years ago we saw nothing but blue skies here.

Satun, Thailand

This was the fifth time I went from Penang to Thailand. And again I found a new route and a new transport mode. This time it was the super fast ferry via Langkawi. Despite the long wait on Langkawi it was an easy and relaxed route.
As soon as we arrived in Satun, walking to the hotel, we looked for things we recognized, things that were new, things that had changed, things that were gone. Considering the dusty old town it was, surprisingly much had changed. Fortunately not in our hotel. That was as pleasant, quiet and comfortable as we knew it.

Qatari, Indonesians and Malaysians have almost always been very friendly and helpful to us. But the radiant heartiness of the Thai exceeds it all. The famous  Thai smile still is a joy to see.

We were often called at and greeted by passers by. Sometimes when they were on a bike. Like these three young people on one bike, shouting “hello”. We cheerfully waved back at them. The two girls on the backseat did the Thai greeting with hands folded in front of the chest while making a small bow. And they did so in perfect synch. On the back of the moving bike.

As far as understanding goes, it is the opposite. Very few signs are in English and English is hardly spoken. It takes a lot of sign language.

Our favorite lunch restaurant was gone. A search around the new, relocated market was in vain. We inquired with the neighbors of the shed where it used to be, with a picture of the woman, pointing at the former place, and looking puzzled. After some talk amongst themselves we were put on the back of a motorbike and driven to the new location!

Our friends in Satun, the owner of the hotel, the lady of the restaurant, the girl of our favorite coffee shop (who worked somewhere else now) all looked very pleased to see us and they all gave us food.

And so we enjoy having a coffee on our veranda, taking a walk in the countryside or the mangrove forest, cooling down by the pool, reading a book, eating a delicious Thai curry.

At last the skies turned blue and sunny and it got seriously hot. We were lucky to have a clear sky during the lunar eclipse. We saw the shadow of the earth slowly cover the moon that got more and more red, more and more round (in the 3d sense) and in the end looked like a semi-see-through egg with the rabbit inside.

PS Preview of the upcoming Satun info sheet *link*

Satun is a small provincial capital in the far southwest corner of Thailand. It has a definite end-of-the-road feel to it. A dusty little town where nothing ever happens. On the surface.

8km further south is the port and jetty of Tammalang. It has ferries to Langkawi and Koh Lipe, but for neither island this is the main gateway. So Satun sees very few tourists passing through. You may see some people living in Malaysia on a visa run or having their yacht maintained at the wharf. And there’s a hand full of western men living here with their Thai wife.

Satun is part of the Islamic south of Thailand, that used to be part of the Kedah Sultanate, until that was divided up between Thailand and then British Malaysia. Satun has none of the troubles the other (southeastern) Thai provinces have. It is largely Muslim but with a strong Thai influence. People speak more Thai and Malay than English.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Travelogue 2018, Episode 2, Negotiating North Sumatra

From Doha we travelled via Kuala Lumpur to Medan. A rollercoaster of cultures, levels of development, climates, time zones and day-and-night rhythm.  Sumatra is roughly the size of Spain and has a similar number of inhabitants, but its infrastructure is way less developed. So we designed a non-ambitious tour of the province of North Sumatra.

Medan city

At first sight Medan is large, busy, dirty and noisy. At second sight too, but then you also see the relaxed and cheerful people, always willing to give you a big smile and have a chat. Nobody gets upset, everybody is helpful. There are nice vegan eateries and trendy coffee shops. The mood is pleasant, and if the noise and air pollution wouldn’t chase you away, you’d happily stay for a while.

One could measure the degree of development of a country by the number of meters one can walk on the pavement. In Medan the sidewalks are usually blocked by shop fronts, parked cars or motorcycles, or heaps of building materials, mud or dug up sewage sludge. There are holes big enough to fall into the sewer, unexpected steps, loose slabs or ends of reinforcing steel sticking out.

So mostly you walk on the street, between parked cars and the traffic, hoping the drivers will see you. Traffic mainly consists of relatively new cars, motorbikes and becaks – bikes with a side car that you rent for a ride.

One morning after looking at old colonial buildings and Little India, we took a becak home. It was the oldest and most ramshackle one of Medan. The engine stalled all the time, the front wheel wasn’t in line, petrol came via a tube from a jerry can hanging on the steering wheel. When the driver lit a cigarette he held it in his hand right next to the jerry can. We drove slower than the flow of traffic, which was a real problem as weaving in and out of lanes is crucial for negotiation traffic here. Because of the one way system we had to make quite a detour. All in all we took half an hour inhaling exhumes for what would have been a 2½km walk. Still, we survived. And most drivers were relaxed, gave each other room to move, hardly used the horn and didn’t dive into non-existing spaces.

Bukit Lawang jungle

Usually I don’t feel at home in places that are purely touristic. Bukit Lawang is such a place. It’s a village on the edge of a National Park where an orang utan rehabilitation center used to be. The feeding platform used to be a great spot to watch the mighty animals. The platform is closed now and the only way to see the semi wild orang utans that stuck around is on a long, overpriced jungle trekking – and that is what all the tourists do here.

(Here is the story of my 2000 jungle trek)

Bukit Lawang survived thanks to the treks, the river, the fresh air and as a backpacker hangout. We stayed a couple of days in the strip along the river, in the one guesthouse / restaurant that was busy, cozy and had good food.

Then we moved upstream for a couple of days to a rather remote guesthouse, 1km over a small footpath. There we found the real jungle feel. The place was well designed and decorated with lots of wood and bamboo, the Australian-Indonesian couple that ran it made you feel relaxed.

The raging river,  the green wall of jungle on the opposite shore, the monkeys and the butterflies, one more cup of coffee on the veranda – I could get used to that.  Dinner with our hosts in the evening, total darkness at night, the sounds of monkeys and crickets in the morning. After a rain shower water vapor would slowly rise from the forest and form clouds.

Berastagi volcanos

Berastagi is a former Dutch hill station at 1400m. Now it’s an agricultural town, the center of growing non-tropical vegetables. The wholesale market where the farmers bring their produce was a fascinating chaos where huge quantities of carrots, cabbages and potatoes where hauled around in old trucks that got stuck in the mud.

In the weekend Medan people come to escape the city. The dozen western tourists vanish in the crowd. There are two active volcanos nearby, one of which can easily be climbed – and that is what all the tourists do here. We went straight to the hot springs at the end of the descent to soak up the sulphur.
A trip to the foot of the other, even more active volcano was canceled due to the weather. There were daily eruptions, but they lasted just 5 minutes, so you had to be lucky to see one. After one such eruption the mountain had totally hidden itself behind its own cloud of ash. When it started raining a thin layer of volcanic ash covered everything, including our roof terrace.

Just like the rain forest, volcanos create their own clouds. Steam rising from the cracks in the rocks rise and form a cloud that will stick to the top of the mountain.

The weather. The monsoon lasts long this year, it’s cooler than usual with just 23-26 degrees and mostly overcast. Sometimes the sun sort of breaks through, and most rain is at night.

Lake Toba

Travelling in Sumatra isn’t harder than in say India, but over there I know my way around things better. A night in a lousy hotel, a sick day, serious harassment at a bus station, a meal that doesn’t go down well, a credit card that gets rejected – it can be tough and exhausting at times.

All the more pleasant that we could relax at the shores of Lake Toba – and that is what all the tourists do here.

We stayed there for a week and it was the first place on Sumatra where we really felt at home. The mood was relaxed, nature was beautiful. Even though it is rather touristy, there’s enough couleure locale in the small shops and cafes. And it just takes a couple of steps off main street to be among rice paddies and water buffaloes.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Travelogue 2018, Episode 1, Stopover in Qatar


2018 didn’t kick off easily for us. We were standing in a long queue for immigration at Doha airport when the clock struck twelve. We wished each other and the Malaysian mother and daughter in front of us Happy New Year, but other than that, the thousands of other people remained rather quiet and subdued.

After a pleasant flight with Qatar Airways, Doha airport was a disappointment.  All the glitter, glamour, marble and luxury couldn’t make up for the bad organizing. With only two immigration counters open, the arrivals hall quickly filled up. Serious looking men with walkie talkies were running up and down and putting passengers in line, but they would have been more useful stamping passports. Occasionally an extra counter would open, but that only benefitted the people at the back of the line. We were stuck in the middle. After one and a half hours at last we got through.

By then I was so dazed and confused that I forgot to take my luggage after using the atm behind the carousel. I only noticed once we were through customs. It wasn’t easy talking my way back against the one way system through security and customs. But I managed and fortunately the bag was still standing  - the bomb squad hadn’t been called yet.

Looking around

Apart from being a bit tired after that night, we enjoyed looking around Doha for the next three days. We walked a lot, mainly in the old city center, that had been enriched with a new souk and the impressive Museum for Islamic Art.
Nights and mornings were cool and hazy, but afternoons were sunny and pleasant.

Most Qatari wore traditional dress. Men in white dresses with shawls on their head. Women with thin black robes over their other clothes – maybe high heels or tight jeans. Head scarves and big sunglasses couldn’t hide the care they took for make up and looks. Not all Qatari women wore headscarves. We saw some young mothers in a café smoking a waterpipe, while their Philippinian nannies took care of the kids.

Eating vegetarian in the Middle East takes you to an Indian restaurant or Lebanese fast food place. It takes some searching, but then you can enjoy delicious  hummus,  falafel, foul and  pita bread.

Qatar development

A fascinating and varied city with old and new, rich and poor, east and west, north and south. People seem to come from all continents and shops and restaurants are as varied as that.

Doha is trying to catch up with Dubai and  Abu Dhabi, investing oil dollars in trade and service industries. They still have a long way to go. The old city center is a patchwork of 25 year old high-rises, a couple of modern buildings, lots of building sites blocking streets and sidewalks, wasteland turned into parking lots, a couple of forgotten 50 year old two-story shops – and in-between all of that sit all these cute tiny old mosques. There isn’t a lot of street life, except at night  in the side streets with old shops and restaurants for the migrant workers.

At first sight the Saudi boycott doesn’t seem to do much harm (though the paper said house prices are falling). Our little neighborhood shop running out of yoghurt rather seemed a logistical issue. And that seems to be the sore spot all over. Building an airport, buying a new fleet of city buses, painting a pedestrian crossing on a six lane road, designing a metro route – all that is doable. But to organize it well, to get enough immigration officers in place, to publish a consistent bus route map, to teach drivers to stop for pedestrians – that is a lot harder. Metro works are going on all over town  but nobody dares to commit to a year it will run.

If I were FIFA, I’d be worried about the 2022 World Cup, given that only one stadium is finished.

India connection

In Qatar the India connection is obvious. Almost half of the 2 million inhabitants is from former British India. When we walked down the aircraft steps a group of Indian cleaners was waiting to board. They tend to do the hard labor and building. Cleaners, cooks and shopkeepers mostly are from South Asia as well. Female laborers tend to come from the Philippines and work as a receptionist, maid or nanny.

New Year’s night we had dinner at Saravana Bhavan, the international chain of Indian restaurants. It was full with indian families, we were the only Non-Indians. The food was authentic South Indian served on a banana leaf, and delicious. 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Breeders at The Milky Way

"Good morning" is the opening chant of the single that The Breeders issue on the eve of their tour. It reminds me of Last Splash, the legendary Breeders-album from 1993. They are back with that line-up and with that sound.

The Breeders originated as a side activity when Kim Deal was the bass-player with the Pixies, but didn't get enough creative space. The importance of the Pixies for the development of modern music has often been illustrated by Curt Curbain's quote that with Nirvana he was trying to imitate the Pixies - with more commercial success. Less known is that Curt also said that he wished Kim would write more Pixies songs. We could write a book about the immense influence of the Pixies and Kim Deal.

But now it's 2017. Nirvana and the original Pixies no longer exist, Kim is sober and the Breeders are standing on their own feet. In the Milky Way, in Amsterdam.


The venue is half empty when the opening act begins, the Pins from Manchester. But when they have finished their set, the place is packed. Most of the guests are dressed as casual as we know Kim. No expression of subcultures, no striking outfits.
The Breeders
Kim takes the center of the stage and clearly is the heart of the band. With visible pleasure she sings and plays guitar. Drummer Jim brings that same pleasure, drive and dynamics. Josephine plays her bass guitar cool and unmoved. Kelly needs all her attention for her guitar, all the time looking down at her hands when she plays.

We get a one and a half hour set of short and powerful songs that span the four decades of Kim's career. They also have the necessary historical awareness: "In the room next door Philip Glass is playing. This is from the Safari EP that we recorded in his studio in New York in 1993." "This song we played in 1992 when we were on tour with Nirvana, here in the Milky Way." "Back to the eighties" as announcement for Gigantic, the first single of the Pixies, built around Kim's bass line. She swaps bass and guitar with Josephine. Kelly captures Joey's screaming guitar riffs.

Instruments are also swapped for Off you. Now Kelly is playing bass, but she has to sit on the floor to read the chords of a large sheet of paper. Roadie Mike, who takes care of the guitars, is also playing along. It results in a very beautiful rendering.

Warm-up show for the tour in Newport, KY
The performances of  Drivin' on 9 and Beatles cover Happiness is a warm gun show how The Breeders are capable of transforming any song into their own unique sound. After a week on tour with the Pins, they discovered that Pins singer Faith plays the violin, and that's exactly what makes Drivin' on 9. Tonight she plays along for the first time, and it's the perfect addition. This could have been turned into an extended version, but even this song remains within the three minute limit.

The Breeders play all but smooth. The guitar changes take too long and sometimes go wrong. In the beginning, Kim's voice is mixed too low. They're constantly fiddling with the foot pedals and amplifier knobs. Kim has to explain Kelly what part she should play on Wait in the car. But the joy, volatility and energy laid in Kim's amazing compositions and arrangements make for a memorable evening.


More concert reviews 

Read more concert reviews (PIL, Patti Smith)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

I got a bad review. Now I want to quit. What to do?

Now reality has overtaken Dave Eggers' The Circle and everything possible and impossible is being reviewed, the people at the receiving end are having a hard time. Reviews, feedback and evaluations can make or break your business, your job, your income, your way of living.

People can get rather upset by one bad review, even if it is outweighed by a hundred good ones. Why is that? Not just because reviews matter. Maybe more so because we take reviews too personally?

It's not personal

Reviews can feel very personal, so the first thing to realize is: they are not. They are not about you as a person, but at best about the service you provide. A review says as much about the reviewer as it says about the subject of the review. Maybe the reviewer has a grudge against the company you work for. Or against the website that acted as the broker. Or against their spouse. Or their car didn't start. Or they are just being silly.

Trust me, I write reviews, and sometimes I do so mindfully, other times I just jot something down. If it is the tenth request for a review that day, I may not realize that on the other end there is a real live person to whom this matters much more than it matters to me. There are a million reasons to give a bad review, and some of them are just unfair and out of your control. A system in which so much depends on reviews by customers/clients is unfair indeed.
All the more reason not to take it personally. And yes, it can harm your business. But so can many other things: the weather if you have an outdoor business. The exchange rate if you have international clients. The budget if you work for the government. The mysterious algorithms that put you higher or lower on a website listing.

How do I overcome the 'negative bias'?

Yes, all these things matter, but we do not get upset by all of them. Maybe you can mitigate the upsetting a little and ask yourself: Why do I let it get to me? Why do I identify as a person with this one review? Why can I not be happy with the one hundred positive reviews? How do I overcome the 'negative bias'?

Remember: it is simply not realistic to expect to get good reviews only. You can please some people some of the time. You can please most of the people most of the time. But you cannot please all of the people all of the time. If the service you provide was alright for everybody, it would be excellent for nobody. If you provide something special, there must be some people out there that do not particularly like it. If you provide a cozy homestay, you can not please the person that wanted a five star hotel. If you run an excellent five star hotel, you cannot please the person that wanted to meet other travelers.

Take positive action

That brings us to one thing that you can do something about: expectation management. Be sure that your customers know, or at least could have known, what to expect. If you run a cozy café, make sure customers don’t expect white table linen.

And then there is the possibility that there is a grain of truth in that bad review. Once you are over the initial shock of the bad review, consider whether - however excellent the service you provide -  there may be a reason the customer didn't quite experience it that way. Was something not up to standard? Did the customer overlook something? The old saying goes 'a complaint is free advice'.

Don't be tempted to get into long discussions on public forums. Acknowledge they had a bad experience. Correct if they got a fact wrong. Say how you saw it. Say what you'll do about it (if anything).

To conclude: 

Yes, reviews matter. No, reviews are not about you as a person. The occasional bad review is inevitable. Maybe you can learn something from it. If not, shrug your shoulders and carry on.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Travelogue 2017, Episode 3, Amdavad (Ahmedabad), Gujarat

...a lively, almost boiling city full of vitality and contradictions, poverty and opportunity, tradition and progress...

Amdavad old town

Jama Masjid, the Friday Mosque, was built 600 years ago, shortly after the founding of Ahmedabad (Amdavad) by Ahmed Shah.  Clearly he had a big vision, as the large courtyard had room for thousands of believers, just like the main building. 260 Pillars created a mystical atmosphere, the sculptures were very refined, the proportions and the dimensions perfect. The consistent stony colour added to the serenity. The outer wall had murals of large Arabic letters. It was very quiet and peaceful, and the building was really impressive. 

Next to it stood the mausoleum of Ahmed Shah, along with his son and grandson. The graves were revered daily and covered with coloured cloths. This building too was a masterpiece of architecture and sculpture. We sat for a while on the steps at the entrance and saw a miniature neighbourhood before our eyes.  Right next to the mausoleum, laundry hung out to dry above a couple of anonymous graves, girls were getting ready for school, women sat on the street baking chapatti's on a wood fire.  Goats were herded (one baby goat carefully kept in a crib), cats strolled at ease on the street. It was a lovely homely and relaxing scene, you would want to move here instantly. 

Once this had been the core of it, now it was a different world than the metropolis Amdavad had become in those six centuries. The day before in the bus we drove kilometre after kilometre along industrial complexes, then large areas full of modern offices, before we entered the city centre where the traffic was crawling along poor neighbourhoods. It was a lively, almost boiling city full of vitality and contradictions, poverty and opportunity, tradition and progress. 

Next was the mausoleum of Rani, the wife of Ahmed Shah, also completely hemmed in by the encroaching city. Again the building was superb, with lots of fine sculpture, but it was much less maintained. The elevated walkway around it even housed a family. Still they were better off than the family we saw on the sidewalk not far from our hotel, covering themselves up for the night. 
We walked through the maze of alleys. Motorcycles and bicycles zigzagged around the cows and the potholes and us. Houses, shops, workshops. Close together were concrete buildings and old stone houses with havelis, overhanging balconies of carved wood. Some well maintained, most neglected. We stood there admiring a  facade when an old lady motioned us inside. Her shabby courtyard  also had a facade full of carvings. Just down the road was a square with a bench where we could sit down. In two hours we had covered 200 meters as the crow flies. But zigzagging so much and seen so much, that we were fully saturated. 
We went to a restaurant for lunch by auto-rikshaw. The four of us crammed in the back, the small tricycle overloaded. A kamikaze ride through crazy traffic, steering left and right to avoid collisions, diving into each gap, braking and acceleration. Scruffy males cheerfully waved at us from other rickshaws and freight cars. For contrast two beautiful girls in modern dress, all made up, sat on the back of a motorcycle. When we stood still in traffic we inhaled pure exhaust fumes. 


A stepwell is a well with stairs dug until the ground water level. That sounds easier than it is. To gradually descend to the depths required, 20 to 50 meters, you either have some sort of spiral stairway, or build a long straight slope. This one was of the latter type. The slope and the pit themselves were fully ornamented with statues, arches, platforms. Over the full length that gave beautiful vistas, the full depth of about five floors with balconies above the well. Deep underground it was a relatively cool place, and thus a sort of village square, where gossip and news was exchanged. The overall design, the elegance and the details of the stonework were gorgeous. Actually, it was a kind of three-dimensional, inside out, underground, oversized artwork.

We visited seven stepwells in Junagadh, Amdavad and Patan. 950 to 500 years old, simple to richly decorated, in good and in bad condition, with slope and with spiral staircase, deeper and shallower. This variety gave a good idea of the differences and similarities.

What we were really concerned with

All these sights are a good excuse to travel through Gujarat, but actually we were more concerned with: Where can we buy dahi (yogurt for breakfast)? What are the toilets of the bus station like? How clean is the bathroom in the hotel? Is there hot water for the shower? Where do we have lunch? Did we get bananas? Do we have Wi-Fi? How hot / cold is it? What time do we have breakfast? How often have we been addressed / stared at / photographed? Who is sick, weak or nauseous today? How much can we get off the fare of the auto rickshaw? At what time does the bus leave?

North - South

Amdavad was a worthy conclusion of Vibrant Gujarat, as the slogan of the tourism office goes. It’d been a long time since I've experienced India so intensely, and we were ready for a quieter stage to digest it all. No better time or place than our friends down south.

The sheer size and diversity of India was evident once again. Language and ethnicity in the north is close to European, while the south is Dravidian. Even though the Muslims are a minority in Gujarat as well, they are much more visible there, both in architecture and dress – maybe because of several centuries of Moghul rulers.

Gujarat is semi-desert rather than tropical. Wheat and cotton in stead of rice paddies and coconut plantations. Camel carts in stead of oxen carts. The infrastructure was better  and the road discipline was even better (that is: less suicidal than in the south).

On average the ladies in Gujarat were dressed more  modern, their hair done more fancy, and blue jeans were no exception. People spoke less English, but as they were more extrovert, you engaged in a conversation more easily. But once you got to know them, people were equally as friendly all over India.

The weak instant coffee was no match for the real filter coffee in the south. Then again, the Gujarati thalis were much better than the Tamil meals.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Travelogue 2017, Episode 2, Gujarat, feels like the first time

Our trip through Gujarat was very intense. All the impressions and adventures were overwhelming at times. It felt like the very first time I had visited India.

Some parts of the journey went smooth, the people were very friendly and helpful. Transport was easy, and (in the beginning) the distances were shortish. The food was superb, espescially in Junagadh. The weather was sunny and dry. Midday temperatures of about 25 degrees, nights and mornings were cold (15) and windy.

Sometimes we’d encounter Indian bureaucracy or lose track of what was going on. Especially the shortage of cash was an issue. Credit cards were rarely accepted.


Junagadh is a medium sized town in the middle of Gujarat, full of palaces and mosques in Islamic architecture, a 23 centuries old fort, a mountain with holy Hindu and Jain temples, and lots of people. Lots. I don’t know whether it was because I was more familiar with southern India, or because I was so tired, but everything felt as overwhelming as the very first time I had been in India. The lively colours, the countless people that greeted us, the crazy traffic, the fantastic shops, the cows in the street – it was just too much.

We picked a hotel in the old town, but the air pollution in the narrow streets was so bad  we had to move to the newer part of town, next to the bus station. It was slightly better. And just as noisy. It made you wonder how long this could go on. The smog entered your throat, eyes and head.
The old town was an endless collection of old palaces, mosques and mausoleums, surpassing each other in how neglected and crumbling they were. In between the vibrant city life. If you are afraid  good old India is disappearing, go to Junagadh.

Sasan safari

It was an enchanting and magical sight in the headlight beams. Trees, bushes, giant leaves, trunks, boulders  - everything looked like an animal. Later, in the morning fog, they looked like grey ghosts. It was dry forest, not very dense, with some slopes, creeks and tribal villages.

With all our sweaters and coats on, it was still cold in the back if the open Jeep. We saw a rabbit, deer and peacocks. Then, some Jeeps that were parked on the side of the road. Something had to be there. Yes, very vague behind the bushes was a lion’s head. Then a lion got up. They walked closer to the road and we got a better view. As grayish-brownish as the  shrub and dirt, and above all, huge, gigantic. One adult female and four adolescent children. Ignoring our presence they strolled around, laid down for a moment, walked on. Majestic!

The second half of the safari the sun came up and we saw lots more deer and peacocks. Also an antelope, some black faced monkeys, a crested hawk eagle, a common hoopoo, and two spotted owlets. One female on a branch and one male opposite hidden in a tree trunk, really you just saw its eyes.

Somnath town

Somnath is an important Hindu temple on the Arabian Sea that draws pilgrims from all over India. 

The old town of Somnath was a maze of narrow alleys. Most of the houses were made of concrete, the older brick ones often run down and deserted. Cows and pigs roamed the streets or the open sewers. There were just some small shops, until we reached a wider street with a street market. Old women sat on the ground with vegetables in baskets in front of them. The veggies looked good and varied. Old men sat in tiny rooms, open to the street, with a sewing machine or performing other crafts.

We visited an old mosque with an ancient Persian stone inscription. In the back was a beautifully tiled room with a grave, covered in clothes as tradition wants it. The caretakers were most welcoming and friendly. Down the road was a Hindu temple with a silver façade and a black marble statue inside, hardly visible underneath all the cloths. Men were performing rituals, women were praying. A little further again was a big Jain temple, beautifully maintained, colourfully painted, with decorated pillars and coves with statues of wise teachers. A group of women was performing rituals but could spare us a friendly nod with the head.

This street had some larger, older houses with wooden balconies, maybe of merchants. The old town was pleasantly quiet without traffic, and the pilgrims for the big temple didn’t bother to come down here. No other Western visitor even considered visiting this faraway corner of Gujarat.

Portuguese Diu

Diu is a small island on the south side of Gujarat. Until 1961 it was a Portuguese colony, and the Portuguese had left a far better legacy than the British. The contrast with the mainland was huge. Everything was better kept, cleaner, neater, quieter and more peaceful. The architecture was quite different, in Portuguese style, with churches, monasteries and chapels. A welcome change after ten hectic days.

The street pattern and the curved shoreline provided total disorientation, and we regularly lost our way. Thanks to the wonders of GPS all ended well. We did see several other western tourists, but in the end it turned out to be only a handful who were there for a long time and who we bumped into again and again. On weekends it was very busy with domestic Indian tourists, coming to get that drink that is illegal in Gujarat.
We fully enjoyed the "holiday within the holiday" with, among others, a motorcycle tour around the island and a walk on the city walls.


Palitana is a provincial market town, a regional centre where people from all over the region come to shop. Farming tools, rope, cables and provisions.

Money troubles

November 8,  Prime Minister Modi declared almost all banknotes invalid, as per immediately. It was a move against black money and corruption. However, without additional structural measures, it was a senseless action which inflicted a lot of damage to the Indian economy, which runs primarily on cash. Especially the poorer half of the country does not even have a bank account. Farmers cannot buy seeds and miss a harvest. It means bankruptcy and starvation. Since then, new banknotes have been distributed sparsely.  There are way too few, and people can only withdraw very limited amounts.

We could take small amounts from the ATM, at relatively high cost. The first two days that sort of worked, after that we didn’t see any ATM's that worked for a week. Slowly I began to worry. We tried regular ATM's and bank offices, but all we got was zip, zero. In Veraval we were referred to Somnath. In Somnath we were referred to Veraval. One bank pointed  to the other, and vice versa. Credit card and even cash were refused by  the banks.

In Diu I walked into an office of ICICI Bank, and the manager said at half past one the ATM would be filled.  We happened to walk past the office again at 12pm, when the guard waved us over and said  the ATM would open in ten minutes. So we started queuing. After twenty minutes, the shutter opened and a man came crawling underneath. An hour delay, he said. We decided to split. Two of us went for a bite to eat. After twenty minutes the others came over: the machine was broken, it would take another hour. While they had  lunch, I went to look at the SBI  across the street. There was a queue and something seemed to happen. I joined and was immediately waved forward. White privilege. That helped me jump at least 15 places, only 10 people left in front of me, inside the booth. Then came an Indian lady in sari who was immediately allowed all the way to the machine. Ten minutes later it was my turn, and sure enough, I got money. Wow!

When the others had finished their lunch, they tried the SBI. But they were not waved to the front and the line barely moved.

We walked back to the ICICI - there too was action. We joined the queue, but were directed to the front by the guard – after all originally we had been the first in the queue. Two of us took money out. When the other two moved in, the machine was empty. All in all it had been operational less than half an hour…

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Travelogue 2017, Episode 1, Two nights at Mumbai airport

Take your mind back to New Year’s Eve 2016-2017. Where were you? At midnight we were on an escalator towards Bombay airport departure hall.

Seldom an outbound journey has been so adventurous and the arrival so overwhelming

In spite of the early start - we were at Schiphol at 5am - the journey started well. After days of fog and cancellations there was a brief window of visibility, in which we took off. Changing in Zurich was easy and the flight to Mumbai was comfortable. We had the first row in economy with extra legroom but no noisy toilets or freezing emergency exits. The veg meals were delicious.

No long queues for immigration and customs. The brand new, huge terminal "T2" wasn’t exactly beautiful, but a huge improvement. In the arrival hall we had some trouble getting money. Because of the recent demonetisation there was a huge shortage of cash, and you could take just 2500 rupees out of the ATM. With  a 230 rupees service charge. That was, if you found an atm that actually had money, about 1 in 10.

Midnight. We spent the night sitting, walking and waiting. At 5am our domestic connection should depart. At 5:05 the pilot announced a delay due to poor visibility in Rajkot. The fog had caught up with us after all.
We had to deboard and received new boarding passes for the same flight one hour later. Which was then cancelled three hours later. By that time we were too exhausted to wait around for the evening flight, so we decided to wait until the next day. Getting our luggage and getting out of the airport was a true ordeal. Clearly departures was a one way process, and to backtrack we needed special assistance and authorisation.

There we were, in front of the airport. No travel desk, no travel guide, no clue where to go. Airport hotels were 200€ per room, the city centre was too far away for an early departure the next day. So much out of character, I ended up with a shady guy offering a taxi and rooms nearby. Negotiations and exchanging money on the back seat in a dark parking garage. On my own I would have felt uncomfortable,  but with the four of us I felt safe.

Within 10 minutes the guy dropped us in a narrow winding street full of tiny shops, street stands, potholes, colourful people, cows, goats and a small hotel. Which wasn’t too bad really, except we paid way too much as the guy obviously took a large commission.

It was a fascinating little neighbourhood, very poor, one step above a slum, very lively, the tiniest shops, and people dressed in their Sunday Best – after all it was New Year’s Day. At the beginning of the alley was a main road with an elevated metro line, some expensive restaurants and hotels, and a middle class neighbourhood on the other side.

The rest of that day and night we slept, we ate, we slept, we ate and we slept. The next day at 11am we flew to Rajkot, Gujarat.