Monthly Archives: December 2015

Christmas ‘Tidings of Comfort and Joy’ in the UK.


Once upon a time there was Christmas, the most magical and eagerly anticipated day on the Lee Family’s calendar.

Preparations in our household started early, indecently early.  Even before the sun had lost its summer lustre or kissed the autumn apples into blush, Christmas fever would slowly spread.   Boy, did I enjoy the build-up to the grand event.  So much to organise, so much to prepare and always maintaining an air of secrecy.  Although Santa could count on plenty of suggestions from my kids, there was forever the challenge to come up with the ‘surprises’ that would light up their small expectant faces when digging into their bulging stockings on Christmas morning.  And in the great Lee tradition, Santa never forgot to include the adults and left overflowing stockings for them as well..

End September used to herald my first swoop on the shops to explore any early  temptations, followed by a flurry of purchases throughout October and November, long before most of England would have woken up to contemplate the dwindling days to Christmas.  I don’t like crowded malls and stores, so made sure I finished my Christmas shopping well ahead of the throng of the masses.  This meant that by end November I could concentrate on the more important aspects of the celebrations: food, writing Christmas cards, wrapping presents and decorating the Christmas tree.  As early as end November mince pies would feature on the menu, drowning in oodles of thick, luscious cream.  And because few of our Christmases were spent at our own home, mid December required a pre-Christmas Christmas dinner, complete with turkey, trimmings and crackers.  Baubles, garlands, Christmas bells and twinkling lights festooned a huge spruce, filling the house with the delicious smell of pine.  And then there was the Christmas Carol singing – outside Sainsbury’s  or Tesco – with St. Edmund’s Church to raise money for the homeless… When Christmas day arrived in all its glory,  we were just left to savour its splendour in  the company of family and friends.

And then things changed.  That first Christmas, we could not face staying in my Cotswold home, a home brimming with memories of many happy Christmases.  Christmases with Grandma and Auntie B, opening our stocking presents over early morning coffees.  Christmases indulging in the mesmerising smells wafting from the kitchen.  Christmases with the dogs needing a brisk walk in the crisp winter air before chasing discarded wrapping paper from far too many gifts.  Christmases with friends or just the four of us.  That first Christmas we ran, we escaped to the sun of Los Angeles, and peace of Big Bear in the San Bernandino Mountains, to a Christmas that was unlike our normal Christmases.

And if India, last year,  was meant to give me a reprieve from Christmas, I had chosen the wrong part of the country as Kerala’s  Christian population made sure Christmas was celebrated in style.  Stars in garish colours, garlands in all hues, nativity sets aplenty and noisy Christmas parades, but I spent the day in bed nursing the one and only bout of gastroenteritis I fell  prey to in the ten months I spent there.  It seemed a fitting way to get through the day; I was in no mood for festivities.

So avoiding another dismal Christmas on my own, I booked my flight to the UK for the beginning of December, plenty of time to work up a Christmas appetite.  But the Christmas carols greeting me on my arrival at Heathrow grated and jarred and rather than evoking a joyful air, they sounded hollow, empty and did not  arouse my Christmas cheer.  And  aimlessly wandering the High Street of the small market town where my daughter lives, I witness locals busying themselves with their Christmas preparations.  Holly wreaths, Poinsettias red and white, mince pies and stollen scream to be bought.   Shop windows have been jollied with colourful decorations; snowmen and winter landscapes stop passers-by, young and old, in their tracks.  The Salvation Army band choruses  ‘tidings of comfort and joy’, but the message is lost on me.  Father Christmas has  set up his grotto in a snow globe in the middle of the shopping mall.  Whereas a few years ago, all this would have warmed my heart and sent my Christmas spirit bubbling, now the lead grey winter skies settle tightly on my chest.

Christmas has definitely lost its sparkle.  And when my daughter asks, ‘‘What would make you feel Christmassy?’,  I cannot suppress the honest answer,  ‘Boxing Day???’

‘Once upon a time’ does not always end in ‘happily ever after’.


Finding Nemo Hiding in India’s Coral Reefs

I had planned to complete my Indian adventure in style and indulge in a little snorkelling, just a mini-break to unwind after the intense teaching experience and to top up the tan before heading back to the UK in time for the whirlwind of Christmas.   My initial idea to sample the exotic sounding Andaman and Nicobar islands had to be shelved courtesy of the endorsement on my employment visa that put ‘restricted areas’ out of bounds.  ‘Disaster,’ I thought, ‘Where else to go and find Nemo??  That is, if there is such a fish as Nemo in the waters surrounding India..’

I cannot remember now how I learnt about the ‘Indian Maldives’ or Lakshadweep – a group of atolls just off the Keralan coast.  Maybe Google pointed me in the right direction or it could have been that Dr. Anne mentioned them to me, but it sounded like the perfect solution.  Several islands to choose from, some of them uninhabited, and certainly almost virgin territory for visitors, Lakshadweep is a carefully guarded secret destination that only recently has found its way onto the tourist map.  And if discovering Lakshadweep had been a triumph, organising a four day stay on the islands was definitely a tour de force!!  Being used to Western efficiency and the internet at my fingertips, I had not counted on the Indian bureaucracy and their slow pace of working.  Or maybe, India is quite rightly trying to preserve the unspoilt islands from the onslaught and havoc that tourism usually brings in its wake.   A visit to the islands requires a permit and lots of patience to deal with the one and only organisation issuing them.  After four weeks of intense negotiations trying to squeeze the visit into my last few days and spending a whole day organising payment in the absence of an Indian bank account and no internet payment facilities,  it got all sorted.  Seemingly against the odds, I got my paperwork allowing me access to Bangaram, one of the uninhabited islands with tented accommodation and no electricity during the daytime, no internet or telephone at any time… Peace at last! All that was left to do was book my flight to the island of Agatti, and we had lift-off.

If sorting out the four day stay had been laborious, and the three hour delay for take-off in Cochin was just par for the course, once we touched down on the island of Agatti everything ran as clockwork. A fleet of taxis awaited us to take us to a motorised fishing boat for onward travel to the different islands.  And what an extraordinary trip it was:  the breathtaking beauty of the turquoise and cyan waters touching the Carolina and Columbia blues of the sky (I had to look at a colour chart for this…);  crystal clear water barely shading the seabed of white sand;  countless hues of blue shifting with the depth of the sea; dark blues betraying corals and rocks;  the spray of salty sea water and the warm breeze giving relief from the heat of the sun; in the distance the palm fringed beaches embracing the islands:  it was awesome, easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.

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Accommodation on the island was provided in comfortable, spacious tents with en-suite shower facilities, and the water at nature’s temperature was perfectly refreshing after a dip in the sea…  Breakfast, lunch and dinner were cooked by a little army of Indian men, under the supervision of Navas, whose job it was to ensure our every need was satisfied.  As only thirty guests maximum were allowed on the island, it made for a rather intimate group of travellers, and the lack of electricity dependent entertainment meant after dinner conversation flowed easily.  A great way to exchange travel experiences with a Polish couple scouting new locations for their travel agency; with a Japanese travel writer who had just discovered Lakshadweep; with a couple from Switzerland who spent all their winters travelling in South East Asia to escape the winter cold; with a group of Swedish fishing fanatics who were hoping to add fishing in the deserted waters of Lakshadweep to their portfolio of fishing experiences and were waiting for a seaworthy big vessel that never arrived…  They eventually set off in two rather mingy boats, without shelter for rain or sun…


I spent three days luxuriating in the limpid waters surrounding the island of Bangaram.  On the first day, I joined  a snorkelling trip to a shipwreck which had rested on the sandy seabed for about 100 years.  Close to the coral reefs, the rusting remains had forged a symbiotic bond with rich algae attracting an abundance of colourful fish.  Blue and yellow angel fish, stripy fish, and indeed orange Nemo clown fish darted in and out of the decaying boat; corals opened and closed as they sensed our approach; brown corals turned a bright red or deep blue on our touch.   The stunning spectacle kept us entranced for well over an hour before we climbed  on board again.


We journeyed on to the island of Parali where sea turtles tried to evade our approaching speed boat, so we jumped off the boat and joined them in the crystalline water.

We stopped on a small uninhabited island for photo opportunities, stepping over boulders of dead corals, which time was unhurriedly grinding into fine, powdery sand.

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The next day I kayaked to the uninhabited  island of Thinnikara, a mere hour’s work made light by Navas, who graciously offered to accompany me.  Halfway, we jumped out of the kayak to explore the corals in the middle of the lagoon.  Getting out of the kayak was child’s play, but Navas had forgotten to explain the intricacies involved in getting back into the kayak with nothing to support my feet…  There was no other option than me being man-handled into the boat, only for it to tilt and finding myself being flung back into the water…  I eventually hauled myself aboard and managed to stay inside the boat.  And Navas?  After having made a right spectacle of myself, he graciously pulled himself up at the back of the boat, minimizing any chance of a wobble…  Why had he not demonstrated to me how simple it was??


I circumnavigated the island of Bangaram at low tide, when narrow sandy strips surrounded the palm groves and lake in the middle.  I surprised  shy crabs scuttling into the nooks and crannies of rocks, or rushing to the safety of the waves.  Sea cucumbers lounged lazily near the shore.  I waded through the shallow waters and frightened fish into hiding.  I found a most perfect shell and could not resist bringing it home with me as my one and only souvenir of India – well, I am not supposed to be collecting too many belongings whilst I am on my travels as I have nowhere to keep them…

sunset 2


And every evening I watched the sunset, and every evening I watched a different scene unfold:  a deep red sun casting a red glowing column on the sea surface; soft pink tinged clouds riding across a pale blue sky;  a dying sun’s yellow rays set the sky alight from behind darkening clouds.    In the morning, the sun would slowly rise burning through the morning mist, brightening the grey sea and erasing the early clouds.


But I left my most exciting experience for the last day!  I decided that although the snorkelling was indeed amazing, I wanted to try scuba diving.  Not going too deep, mind you, just a dip of three meters to get a feel for it.  All booted and suited, learning to breathe through the diving mouthpiece and having practised the trick with blowing through your nose to equalize pressure, I was ready to give it a go.  And yes, it was fantastic to be so close to the corals and fishes, to be part of the landscape, to be right in between the fishes and stir up the sand at the bottom.  Unfortunately, the water was cloudy that day and visibility was poor, but it did not detract from my enjoyment and I will have to put scuba diving on my list of ‘things to do more than once in a lifetime’…




Sampling India’s modes of transport

Dr. Anne sent me an email this week.  It looks like she has already found herself a new travel companion and last weekend they ventured to Varkala.  Oh, how I envy them.  To feel the kiss of the sun on my skin, to for a couple of days pretend to be a tourist in India and rubbing shoulders with other Westerners, comparing and exchanging stories about yet unexplored  travel destinations…  What did ‘Indian Man in the Know’ say?  ‘You will miss India when you are gone…’  ‘Not in a million years,’  is what I thought…

But travelling with Dr. Anne using India’s public transport has indeed left me with some unforgettable memories to cherish!  That, and other ventures making ample use of other means of transport in India.  Although I probably cannot boast to have sampled all of them, I have experienced a fair few…

The old style elephant ride

There is nothing comfortable about an elephant ride.  I have tried the ‘sit-astride-the-back’ approach and the ‘squashed-in-the-box’ approach and I have vague memories of an elephant ride in Jaipur a long time ago.  The only blessing is that as most elephant rides are extremely short of duration, the labouring lumbering left-right, back-and-forth shifting is unlikely to induce motion sickness.


The humble bicycle

Before arriving in India just over a year ago, I had visions of using a bicycle.  I saw myself cycling to school and easily covering the mere distance of 16 km to the beach on a Sunday morning.  Not only would it be cheap transport, it would provide simple, easy, always accessible exercise.  The dream evaporated as soon as I got the measure of the little hamlet of N.  Yes, there were indeed bicycles, but only men would ride them taking their lives in their own hands, wobbling perilously in between impatient cars and even more impatient motorcycles.   No wonder some cyclists take extra precautions by adorning the handle bars with a rosary… Ladies clad in saris would struggle to mount a bike, and let’s face it, as there is clearly effort involved in pushing the pedals to achieve any forward movement, no Indian woman would be in the least tempted to use the humble bicycle.  The plan got shelved.


The scooter/motorbike

I tried to avoid being a passenger on a motorbike, but this was not always possible.  The scariest motorbike ride was in Pokhara, Nepal, when Bish Po – a 40-something man whom I met up with a few times – decided to show me the most wonderful sunset over the lake.  I had not been warned that he would turn up on his motorbike and had no idea I was accompanying him to a friend’s house…  It was a sultry evening, warm and clouds heavy with rain.  The roads in the town were tarmac-covered, solid, with just a few potholes to slalom around; it seemed safe.  So I mounted, being encouraged to hold him tightly.  ‘Put your arms around my waist, head resting against me.  That is the safest way…’  Really??  I kept my hands firmly on the metal bit at the back and pushed my feet as hard as possible against the footrests and hoped for the best.  I was not really looking for an intimate experience on the back of a motorbike.   Off we went…  Soon the fairly smooth road surface gave way to a more familiar one:  atolls of tarmac  scattered amongst a sea of gravel and holes big enough to  sink the Titanic.  And to make matters worse, the house overlooking the lake was perched on a hill with an almost 90˚ incline.  We bumped and bounced to the top, him enjoying every minute of it, me holding on for dear life and stubbornly refraining from our bodies moving in unison on the bike… We made it in one piece, but the sunset drowned in a rain shower and I panicked: no way was I going to sit on the back of the motorbike on the way down that hill.  It was pitch dark by the time we finished our meal, no moonlight to brighten up the path and the rain made the stones and boulders slick and slithery.  I insisted on walking down the steep part before eventually getting back onto the bike – I did not fancy a five mile walk…

transport 9


A very useful, but rather expensive means of getting from A to B in India is using an auto rickshaw.   ‘Expensive’ has a  completely different meaning in India.  Whereas for a tourist, 300 rupees makes barely a dent in the pocket and is a bargain compared with Western World taxi fares, on my meagre salary 300 rupees was a bit of an extravagance only to be indulged in when buses were not an option.  On the upside, after a year in India, I knew how to negotiate my prices and calculate the cost before setting off.   Pleas for an increased fare because of yet another impending Hindu holiday were easily ignored, and on a few occasions I simply stopped the auto-rickshaw and left the driver standing, unpaid, when an agreed fare suddenly rocketed sky high once the wheels started moving.  And to ensure my safety, it was a comfort to know that some auto-rickshaw drivers did not take any chances and displayed gods of all denominations in the hope that at least one of them would be on hand if disaster should strike…



I travelled mostly by bus, even before I met Dr. Anne, as it is the most convenient mode of transport.  It can be a little hairy to find the right bus as destinations often are  only written in Malayalam, but usually after asking a minimum of three people and finding a general consensus regarding where the bus was heading, I felt safe to get on board. Or should I say, to join the battle to elbow myself onto the bus.  Queuing is an alien concept as Indians only understand the ‘me first rule’, so even before passengers on the bus have a chance to alight,  passengers on the pavement start to heave themselves inwards.   And the sign intended to reserve seats for pregnant women, the disabled, the elderly or people with small children is ignored by all as men and women of all ages and ability take up positions and have no intention of giving up their ‘deserved’ seats…  Although I admit I once shamed one young man into giving up his seat for a woman who was holding a small child on a very long bus journey as he was hogging one of the reserved seats – there were other men as well, but the thirty and forty somethings were clearly not going to budge…  Although the ‘Ladies’ sign on the buses seems to be more of a deterrent as men generally steer clear of that side!



India must boast the longest trains on the planet.  Platforms go on forever to accommodate numerous compartments:  air-conditioned class for a different class of traveller with deeper pockets or for Western tourists; general class for short distance and local travel and mostly standing room unless you have managed to beat the throng or have been more successful  in the elbow fights; sleeper class for long distances or more comfortable travel where there is more of a chance of a seat for a small supplement; reserved compartments if you want to be guaranteed a seat, but this needs to be booked ahead; women only compartments to ensure men do not have to sit next to women whom they are not related to – although on the one occasion I agreed to move to the women only compartment, I did get a seat…

Until I started travelling with Dr. Anne my experience of trains had been limited to the AC compartments (when my journeys were booked by men who thought they did not need to ask what I would prefer…) or in the general class for my monthly trips to Varkala – no need to pay the extra for AC – I could cope with being squashed for an hour on a train crammed with commuters.  However, Dr. Anne introduced me to the more sensible travel in sleeper compartments or reserved seating compartments without reserving a seat in the first place…  We often tried our luck in the sleepers and moved when requested to another free seat.  And as for paying a supplement when the conductor checks your reservation, or lack thereof, I hardly ever had to show my tickets so never paid anything extra.

Travelling in the carriages used by ordinary Indians was much more interesting as it often meant fascinating conversations with ordinary people who spoke good English.  I shared a top berth with Fauzia, a 27 year old Indian girl who loved her independence and wanted to find her own husband rather than being matched with ‘ a suitable specimen according to the horoscope’.  We talked about Harry Potter and exchanged titles of books that had grabbed our attention.  A twenty something man wanted advice on finding a job in England – I recommended a Syrian passport….  I was evicted from my top berth by a woman-hating, black-and-orange robed pilgrim on his way to Sabarimala, a Hindu pilgrimage centre, after he manhandled men on the train who refused to move for his troupe of cronies.  I watched the spectacle unfold from above and was bemused when they almost came to blows.  Needless to say that my invitation to share the top berth with him was rejected, so I graciously conceded defeat and moved along to the next top berth…  Mostly though, train travel is a great way to connect with the Indian public, the normal people.

Just don’t expect the trains to run as Western trains.  Although delays in England are common place, it is nothing compared to the happenings in India.  Lack of information boards on the platforms, or even train numbers on the  tickets add to the challenge of getting onto the right train.  Last year when travelling back from Periyar, Emma (another volunteer in Kerala) and I boarded the train at the correct platform at the correct time, but when asking other passengers to help us locate our seats, found we were on the wrong train, so got off…  Our train did not arrive until an hour later…  And I met Pete in Varkala, who left on Friday to travel South, only to reappear the next day, as the train he took was heading in a Northerly direction.  And when Dr. Anne and I returned from Munnar,  with only minutes to spare due to a rather extended bus journey through the gridlocked roads , Dr. Anne rushed to the ticket counter.  A heated debate ensured us tickets on the right train: an express train speeding from Bombay to Trivandrum and beyond.  With tickets in hand we raced to the platform and boarded the train, Dr. Anne having ‘carefully’ listened to the announcement which indeed featured Bombay and Trivandum, and the train slowly gathering speed.  We congratulated ourselves for making it just in the nick of time, after an exhausting eight hour bus journey that morning.   But just ten minutes later, we realised our error.  Yes, the train was indeed travelling between Bombay and Trivandrum, but clearly on its way to Bombay, not Trivandum…  Luckily, or should I say unfortunately, even an express train makes plenty of stop along the way, so our mishap only added another three hours to our journey.  I eventually made it home at about 10 in the evening, after an early morning 7.30 start by bus…  Maybe, just maybe, sometimes it makes sense to pay for a private taxi… but where is the fun in that!!!





Flood crisis: If Chennai had wings, she would be an eagle

Some parts of India seem to be getting more than their fair share of the North Easterly Monsoon downpours…  Unfortunately, it appears that the government is not as quick with help than with playing the blame game.  Welcome to India… where a spirit of community feels that gap when those in higher place fail to take action, as explained in a fellow blogger’s post below:


Today, I am proud to be a resident of Chennai, not a citizenof India. In case you haven’t heard, my citywas affected recentlyby the heaviest rainfallrecordedin over 100 years. Floods wreaked havoc on the lives of 2 million people. Over 325 are dead. Many birds and animals, especially strays, too. Tragically,afew otherdistricts in the state have had it evenworse.

Last week, wewere either trapped indoors without electricity or supplies, stuck in traffic – with no safe route to take us home or stranded in deep waters – battling for our lives. We were helpless and frightened. Even now thereis palpable tension in the air. Some are in grave danger. The rains haven’t yetbid adieu; we can stillhear ambulancesandhelicopters.Added to that, alot of misinformationhas us in a state of paranoia. Ithas been an heartbreaking and nightmarish experience.Recovery is going to be a long, arduous and disease-ridden process.

Apparently, none…

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Embracing my second youth in India, with Dr. Anne.

thenmala 2

‘Youth is so wasted on the young’.  I cannot agree more with the truth in this statement.  Whereas years ago, twinsets and pearls dignified our graceful mothers and funereal black adorned our sweet smiling grannies, we are no longer burdened or held back by the boundaries of numbers.  And Facebook is awash with quirky quips about people defying social expectations to live life to the full, and with not a thought wasted on what others will think…  And this was the spirit Dr. Anne and I took with us on our last trip together, visiting Thenmala near the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border.

A last minute meeting Dr. Anne was unable to escape meant we did not leave Trivandrum until well after lunch and arrived at our destination early evening, which left us only Sunday to explore the area.  We managed to organise our taxi for the next day – buses would probably take too long – and found a cheap and cheerful place for the night to recharge our batteries for the adventures lying in wait.

Things did not get off to a good start as our pre-arranged auto rickshaw lacked punctuality.  As we had no time to lose, Dr. Anne -clearly of the same stock as me and rather short on patience-  immediately set upon organising alternative transport.  But by the time our replacement car arrived, our first driver turned up as well having found a car, rather than using his auto rickshaw…  It was a sensible move, but, as Dr. Anne argued, he had not answered his phone to let us know what he was up to, so he was given short shrift and left standing by the roadside…  We did feel bad though, because his explanation that he had had no mobile reception was a very plausible one.


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thenmala 1

Our first port of call was the Urukunnu Pandavanpara Sree Shivaparvathy Temple, an ancient Hindu temple perched on a huge rock overlooking the neighbouring mountains and river.  Luckily the trek up the ‘hill’ did not start from the bottom; our chauffeur took us about half way and then accompanied us to the hill top. With lots of huffing and puffing and being grateful we were attempting this at the crack of dawn whilst it was still cool, we hoisted ourselves up the roughly hewn steps, rocks and boulders to reach the naked crest.  And as this was a temple after all, we had to leave our footwear at a reasonable distance from the building and brave the gravelled surface barefoot.  Although the ‘temple’ itself was rather underwhelming, the views of the surrounding hills were amazing and certainly worth the effort to get to the top.


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thenmala 3

thenmala lake

Next on the list was a visit to the Palaruvi Waterfalls.  We had already seen a fair few waterfalls on our previous trips, so what was one more added to this?  On our way, we passed the famous Thenmala dam where the resident troupe of monkeys added interest and entertainment to stunning backdrop views.

thenmala monkey

The Palaruvi, literally meaning stream of milk, is one of the most picturesque waterfalls in Kerala, and it did impress when we finally got to it after walking through some dense jungle paths.  Surely, my favourite part of the waterfall was the  bathing place,  a secluded area where a narrow cascade of tumbling fresh water offered the opportunity for a shower ‘au naturel’.  Of course, Dr. Anne and I were ready to take advantage and had no qualms about joining the men and boys who were swimming, splashing, photographing groups under the water deluge, some more dressed than others..  However, Indian modesty nipped our ambition in the bud.  We were indeed allowed to have our own shower, but not until all the men had been removed and chaperoned to a more private area..  ‘Why?’ we wondered as neither of us had any intention of baring it all.  We had not brought our swimming costumes, and somehow did not feel like going down into our undies under the watchful gaze of the security personnel who ensured no illicit photography was taking place…  So, fully dressed we waded across the water and balanced on the rock to get drenched under the waterfall – but no pictures allowed.  Dripping wet, but with big smiles on our faces, we found the changing rooms and put on yesterday’s clothes and moved on to the next attraction.

Thenmala has recently been developed to become an ecotourism destination in India, promoting wildlife and nature treks, hikes, night camping and an adventure park amongst its advertised attractions.  It was a pity we only found out when we arrived in Thenmala, because both Dr. Anne and I would quite happily have joined a group of hikers to traverse through the jungle.  In the event, we only had time to check out the adventure park.  With just about two more hours to fill, we directed our driver to the park and joined the twenty-something Indian youngsters in search of some thrill.  We scaled the heights of the Comando Net and crossed the pond by Flying Fox – not too sure about the safety of the safety buckles but I thought that the water would break my fall in the event of a mishap.  Our boat ride was hijacked by the park attendants who needed to disentangle the operating ropes of the Flying Fox (thank goodness, this was AFTER we had had our go).  We left the mountain biking and rock climbing to the younger generation and took to the elevated walkway..  as by then we were running out of time and still had to get back to Trivandrum and beyond.

flying fox

spider net

And in the true tradition of all my travels with Dr. Anne, after a smooth journey to our destination, the homeward leg dragged on and on involving several bus changes and waiting, and waiting for the next bus to turn up.  But on the upside, I had by then not yet experienced the pleasure of being with 15 travellers in the back of a jeep intended for 6 people at the most…  Five men squeezed in the front of the jeep, six people crushed on each of the benches inside, infants squashed on mothers’ laps and the rest… Others perched their bottoms on the back flap, or stood on the back bumper and hung on for dear life whilst the driver was clearly in a race to his journey’s end.   I was glad to have found a seat inside…

Is there such a thing as a Sari Bra???



My first foray in the art of sari wearing happened last January on the occasion of Republic Day.  As the school manager himself – we were still on talking terms in those early days – commissioned the purchase of two saris for me, I could hardly refuse.   I grudgingly agreed to turn up on the day swaddled in yards and yards of clingy teal synthetic cloth around the bottom half of my body, whilst I feared exposing my white fleshy mid riff.  On the upside, at least clad in the teachers’ uniform, I would not stand out quite so much when the parents would arrive to watch their children’s performances to mark the ‘auspicious day’.

Taking me under her wing, Malayalam teacher supervised buying the necessary underskirt and as she was handy with thread and needle, she saw to the sewing of the blouse.  After casting a mere appraising eye over my body, she dispensed with measurements and, indeed, turned up the next day with the sari blouse ready for fitting.  I let slip a sigh of relief,  at least I was not yet presented with the finished product.  Malayalam teacher applied a few nips and tucks, made adjustments  in the appropriate places and another day later, a properly tailored blouse arrived.  Properly tailored of some sort…  The blouse would only fasten after squeezing all air out of my lungs and tight sleeves threatened to cut off the blood supply to my lower arms.  And clearly, Malayalam teacher had overestimated what would fill the pointy boob cavities she had provided.  Why would anyone make those ‘cups’ pointy?  I studied my boobs carefully and could not see the point!!  So on that occasion, I resorted to a well padded bra that just about let me stretch the blouse enough to pull the fasteners together.  It seemed to do the trick and to be honest, by the time all the layers of fabric and the pallu (the bit that hangs aimlessly at the back) had been adjusted, the front of the blouse was well and truly out of sight.

Although I felt I had done my bit in the sari wearing department, the discovery of a ten-year old sari tucked away at the back of an under-the-bed drawer during my clear-out of the house in May, opened up new possibilities.  Bought on our family trip to India in 2003, the sari had been destined for cushion covers, or maybe a bed spread…  Either the deep burgundy red had looked less appealing at home or at odds with the prevailing bluish shades in the decor, than on my body in the Indian sari shop under the watchful eye of a persuasive shop assistant. as it got mothballed and forgotten about.  To be quite honest, I believed it had long since been disposed of.  Excited by the prospect of finally wearing this sari if the right occasion arose, I packed it in my already bulging suitcases and took it with me to India.  The only things left to negotiate were the making of the blouse and draping the fabric in the required fashion around my waist and top.

After my ‘churidar’ tailor refused to tackle the blouse stitching first on account of ‘being too busy because of Onam’ and a few weeks later on account of ‘not being in the business of making sari blouses’, I was a little stuck.  I did not want another blouse with pointy bits at the front…  I scouted the school for a suitable seamstress.  As most Indian women can wield needle and thread, I approached New Maths Teacher, who in her maiden state had more time to do the necessary needlework than her married counterparts.  So what if she did not feel the need to take my measurements??  I gave her my one and only blouse as a perfectly fitting sample which had turned out well, although I explained I preferred the blouse to follow the natural contours of my upper body.

Two weeks passed and the long awaited blouse appeared.  I was itching to have the fitting as this time I selected a sleeveless blouse model. A bit on the risqué side for Kerala, but being white and Western, I would probably get away with it.  Unfortunately, the fitting stage did not materialise, as New Maths Teacher presented me with the finished product, which did not fit at all…  It nicely followed the contours of my upper body, but lacked room for my arms and neck…  I groaned and reluctantly bought some matching fabric to have the blouse made somewhere else.  I remembered A (the teacher who lived with me for a few months) talking about a little tailor shop she had used to make her sari blouse just before she left, so I ventured out with lots of hope.  Taking the disastrous blouse effort as a sample of the style I was looking for, I felt sure of success.  Could they please take measurements and only use the ill-fitting blouse as an example of the model I was looking for.  Measurements duly noted, I left and felt at peace in the belief that surely this time using the expertise of a ‘professional’ tailor, my blouse was in good hands.  I returned two days later to another blouse that would not stretch around my rib cage and sleeveless holes big enough for two people…  Another sigh escaped my tight lips, how could it be so difficult to get this right??

For a while I gave up on the sari wearing, defeated and deflated by the numerous attempts to get a blouse made.  Maybe it was not meant to happen…  And then I got invited to Art Sir’s wedding and there it was, the perfect opportunity to show off my best frock, if only I could get a blouse made.  Drastic measures were needed.  I bought a matching fabric – the original part of the sari had shrunk dramatically in all the efforts to produce a wearable blouse – and thought that black would do the trick.  Taking no chances, I bought enough fabric to fashion two blouses: one with and one without sleeves…  I did not venture into the tailor’s with a sample blouse but insisted on being properly measured this time and indeed, three days later the blouses were waiting for me.

Best to try them on before paying, I thought.  I was ushered into a back room to avoid the gaze of nosy passers-by as the shop looked out onto the road.  But I had the benefit of the input of ‘Woman with Mask’ who peered at my attempts through the caked and creamed up layers of her ‘facial’ .  She spoke good English which was a bonus.  Watching me pulling the blouses into place and squeezing every breath from my lungs to be able to close the blouse fasteners, she nodded approvingly.  ‘And the pointy ends over my boobs, surely this was totally wrong,’ I argued.  ‘No, no,’ she explained, ‘you are wearing a churidar bra, not a sari bra!  With the right bra, the blouse will fit perfectly!”  A sari bra??? Why had no one else mentioned this before…  I have since consulted the internet and googled ‘sari bra’, unfortunately so far the internet has remained stubbornly silent on the subject…  There is no evidence of such a garment as a sari bra…  So I will just resort to extra padding and hope that the sari itself will cover any unsightly bit of the blouse.

So I proudly wore the sari for Art Sir’s wedding, after two teachers spent the best part of half an hour dressing me using copious pins to hold the fabric in place.  I managed to stumble up two flights of stairs constantly treading on the superfluous material at the front and held the whole thing together just long enough to see the wedding through… By then the heavy silk had started slipping downwards, exposing more and more of my white mid riff.  So I went home, on the bus, and got changed into the more practical churidar…  The effort involved in wearing a sari for longer than an hour or two was too much for me.  Saris are definitely nice for special occasions, but day to day???  Not for me!!