Life in the slow lane…in Delhi

“Breathe in, stretch up. Breathe out, palms on the ground.” Rajneesh is taking me through morning yoga by the mirror-like 50-meter pool that stretches out along the ground level of the incomparably beautiful Aman New Delhi.

Billed as a ‘city retreat’, it is serene and peaceful – when the nearby workmen hacking up the roads in the name of the Commonwealth Games are stopping for a chai break.

This is luxe on tap. Only 40 suites, each one has its own plunge pool and 24-hour butler service. When I ring to book a wake-up call, the operator asks: would you like tea delivered at that time? And the freshest, most pure Earl Grey in fine bone china cups is carried to my door.

The spa offers India’s own Auryvedic treatments, tuned to your dosha, or personality. But over coffee, the spa’s high-energy Californian manager dug a thumb into my shoulder and another above my elbow, grabbed the phone and ordered 90 minutes in the hamman to scrub my grotty aura back to pure white and another hour-and-a-half on the massage table to experience the resort’s signature spa with Tensing, his “new Tibetan”.

The gym is staffed by a ranked tennis pro and a rugby player who has represented India, there is a hair spa that caters for media magnates and rock stars’ wives, private yoga in the nearby historical gardens and even a tapas bar tucked away.

Guests pootle around town in a beautiful silver Ambassador, India’s quaint, English-style cars that are a common sight as yellow-and-black taxis, not so common when polished to a sheen and nosing through the narrow streets of the backpacker enclaves, where I was the other day.  We had to hit the horn to get all the cheesecloth-clad hippies from blocking our path. Elitist? You bet. But oh, so comfortable.

Divine intervention: don’t kill your television

What’s on Indian TV tonight? Veging out to Cory Feldman killing vampires, I flick the channel to find lots of ads for Fair & Lovely face-bleaching creams, news of the death of an Australian cricketer in Adelaide at 94, the Bollywood hunk Salman Khan shooting people in his new movie and advertising washing powder, and I meet the (quite possibly self-proclaimed) Father of Indian Healing, an obese man with a fondness of red caftans and lots of beads.

His Holiness Avdhoot Baba Shivanand Ji, the Father of Indian Healing, has a body of an enormous balloon and his face bobs as he plays videos of happy converts telling of their life’s successes to enormous halls of listeners. Preaching Shiv Yoga, he chats with pictures of divinities superimpose above his head and phone number and website, (oh, ok, it’s www.shivyog.com if you’re really interested, and I don’t take commission), flashing in between.

It answers an interesting question I’ve been asking to whoever’ll listen (and hey, guides and hotel staff are paid to listen, the poor buggers). The question is: do Indians do yoga and meditation? Sunny-tempered Ajitabh said he was taught a few moves once, and really should get back to it. But resentful Anob says Indians have no time for such luxuries as meditation retreats: “we are all too busy working”. Join the western world, my friend. But a fellow train passenger today, who hails from the western meditation epicentre of Pune, says yes they do.

While such places as Dharamsala and Rishikesh (where the Beatles famously discovered pot, sitars and their own mantras) cater almost exclusively for westerners, the Father of Indian Healing shows Indians are not immune to the lure of evangelism.

In what has to be the world’s longest TV advertorial, the super-sized Pratiprasav Sadhna is advertising a powerful method to heal fears and phobias, to release unresolved issues of life and receive the grace of Great Lord Shiv-Shiva, himself (ie the Father of Spiritual Healing) and his sidekick, a handsome young Spiritual Master. The all-Indian crowd in front of him appears to be rapt as he promises to release past life karmas, to make your life healthier and happier. Interested?

Singh is King

And so the formula goes: every Sikh is a Singh, but not every Singh is a Sikh.

Dharamasala is behind us as we gun it down to the plains of the Punjabi and the city of Amritsar. Just a few hours after coming down from the mountains, the air is hot and dry.

Tibetan caps have been replaced with turbans, or paghi, and patkas, the black stocking-like headcovers worn by observant Sikh men to keep their untrimmed hair in check. While only 4.5% of India’s total population is Sikh, they make up about half the Punjabi state, and the town of Amritsar is famous not only for its fish tikka, leather shoes and the invention of the pappadum – all excellent things, I’m sure you’ll agree – but also for the most holy of Sikh temples, the Golden Temple.

Shades of Borneo the other week, the domes are covered in 400kg of 24-carat gold and every morning and every night, the sacred text of Sikhs, considered a living god, is woken up and put to bed via a palanquin garnished with garlands of fresh roses and marigolds in great pomp that draws up to 10,000 visitors in one day alone.

Harpreet, a local Sikh, took me round the temple, visiting the massive kitchen full of cauldrons of dhal and a chapatti machine that can churn out 30,000 cooked chapattis an hour. Yes, an hour. Not bad when the average man eats four or five rounds of the bread at each sitting. The 24-hour kitchen, run by a small staff and an army of volunteers, feeds up to 40,000 people every day. Every. Day. Every Sikh temple offers the same service to all comers regardless of religion: which is surely welcome considering the World Bank estimates that 80% of India – that’s 800 million people – earn less than $2 a day.

Lots of men were taking a dip in the waters that surround the temple, and I was reminded of the phrase from the former JJJ reporter Sarah MacDonald’s awesome Indian travelogue, ‘Holy Cow’ that Indians can ‘look without seeing’. Moving on…

Of yak butter, tantric meditation and why I’m not a supermodel…

Walking through the streets of Dharamsala is like walking through a Benetton ad: you can see the broad Central Asian faces of Tibetan exiles, narrow, dark faces from southern India, pink skin and pale hair of sunburnt western European tourists and the placid Nepalese influence all jumbled into India’s mix.

The menus are equally pan-global: chow mein, mutton curry and fried eggs all on the one menu.Will I the only foriegner to gain weight in India??? My plans to lose the cruise ship’s generous bestowal of a second backside have been, to date, thwarted by India’s lush fried breads – parantha, roti, chapatti, poori, naan…

Last night, I ate at a little Tibetan restaurant, where butter tea was on the menu.

“We put tea, water, salt and yak butter in the tea,” explained the waiter happily. Then his face then fell. “But there are no yaks here in Dharamsala, so we use Indian butter. You have yaks in your country?” Not as far as I know, I confessed. I watched him mentally scratch Australia from his list of desired alternative residences.

Higher on the mountain, north of Dharamsala, is McLeodganj, the English-established hilltown that’s the home of the Dalai Lama’s monastery in exile. Three narrow streets link the main square with the temple, and are crammed with shops selling everything from Tibetan dresses to tailors whipping up clothes on the spot, pretty junky jewellery, prayer bowls, as well as espresso.

It is a mark of the town’s tearaway prosperity that it is absolutely jam-packed with espresso cafes, heavily patronised by groovy backpackers regaling each other with wild tales of hairy adventures and narrow escapes, and Buddhist monks texting each other over lattes.

Yoga retreats and meditation ashrams line every corner, cheap guesthouses offer sagging beds for $4 a night, while flashier options are springing up daily, but still charging no more than $15 with views of the towering Himalayan mountain range, Dhamladhar, along with breakfast: fried eggs…fried Indian breads… Despite the absolutely perfect high 20s temperatures, the town is not in peak season. That comes in the next month or two, when it really hots up.

Although I’m not bald and also sans dreadlocks, I stuck my nose in to the new meditation ashram presenting the teachings of controversial guru Osho, and listened to a long-winded lecture about how I must worship the Divine Mother, the world-famous Her Holiness Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi, who also teaches meditation (but for a lot less money than Osho’s mob).

I enjoyed the calmness of HH’s ashram and the sensibility of meditation, but all calm was lost as her devotee refused to pause for breath while telling of miracles across the world, and did that annoying thing of pointing out a deity’s face as appearing in a natural formation: this time in a cloud formation over Australia’s Thredbo village, where she has visited and spoken. Hello, has ANYONE heard of PhotoShop in this town?

A cautionary tale of lentils and the Jammu Mail train

I’m having a flashback to Russia – the a second-class train sleeper (with air-con!) is an open affair of double-decker bunks that double as seats in the daytime. Before we borded the night train, the station platform was full of hungry travellers queuing for Aloo McTikka burgers from McDonalds, so it was round to the second window, serving Chinese and Indian, where I got my takeaway delights of lentils and chapatti. I have eaten a lot of lentils of late. Lucky I like lentils.

It was a crushing affair to leave the comforts of the Taj Mahal hotel in New Delhi. The bed was big and soft, the butler service immaculate (“Madam, you are tired. Please let me run you a bath with soothing salts.”) The trade-off is I’m on the road, gunning it to Dharamsala on the Jammu Mail train. The name suggests she’s not a cannon, and in the first few minutes, she’s lived up to her name.

It’s a real Canterbury Tales brew of folk: there’s a young couple from Moscow whose baby, fat-cheeked, milk white and happy, was born here in India. A vast family of Indian diners using my bed as a dinner table. A mid-50s couple from somewhere north of Vancouver (“Is this your first time on a train?” they ask before regaling me with tales of crushing humanity and waking up beside Indian men who thought two-to-a-bunk is perfectly acceptable). And a Ukrainian coffee fiend who also turns out to be a Master of Darkness.

“I have spent 52 days in a dark room, meditating, and I want more,” says Yuri, who is, incidentally, the happiest Ukrainian I have ever met. As everyone settles down for bed, he regales me with tales of group energy exchanges, extreme yoga and 80s tantric universities. It’s exactly the conversation I had hoped to have on the train up to Dharamsala, exiled home of the Tibetan living god, the Dalai Lama, and therefore a drawcard for every yoga-loving, om-chanting, fishermans-pants-wearing, dreadlocked westerner.

Yuri, Master of Darkness, is sleeping in the bunk above me, a silent Indian man in the one opposite and a stocky old Tibetan man, whose wife carefully makes his bed with the Indian Railways issue of sheets and pillow, in the opposite upper bunk. This is no pyjama party, it’s sleep with your clothes on, your shoes safely tucked away and your passport by your skin. I have bought a shoddy Indian lock and chain for R40 (about a dollar) so I can chain my laptop and camera bag to the bed.

That night, the silent Indian man proves not so silent, and snores raucously through the journey, then begins the day with another, less special but equally loud, bodily cacophony. I wake from a heavy sleep in the early morning, stretching my legs to nudge something soft and impenetrable at the end of my bed. It’s the old Tibetan man from the upper bunk. And he’s chanting his morning prayers. He doesn’t seem to notice that I’ve just stuck a toe in his ribs, and continues his deep, rumbling chant, counting on his sandalwood beads.

I flag a cup of tea from a passing chai-seller then stand to see Yuri on the upper bunk, eyes also closed in a spot of early-morning meditation, then the Canadians, super-chirpy in a Ned Flanders fashion check to see that I’m awake, and we grab gear and fall out of the train.

Ashok, my driver, is waiting with a printed sign and air-conditioned 4WD, and my last view of the older Canadians is them piled on a bicycle rickshaw, bags thrown behind them as their little man starts picking up speed. “See you!” their words float on the morning breeze as they pass. “We’re travelling in styyyyyyyyyyyyyllllllllllllllle!”

All that glitters…gold and the gate

I don’t know what I was expecting, but I didn’t expect there to be so…many…saris. Here, women glitter – literally, with richly decorated saris. In the afternoon sun, the gold spangles on their clothing flash and shine, as does the gold in their ears, on their noses and occasionally, studded on their foreheads.

Early this morning, I walked to the nearby India Gate to take some morning shots. The gate commemorates soldiers fallen for the glory of India, in France, Mesopotamia, Persia and also in the 3rd Afghan war, to mention but a few battles. Scattered round the massive gate were sleeping dogs, comatose in the morning sun. One adopted me and we went for a walk together, him howling and chatting and occasionally lurching too close to my ankles for comfort.

We passed two women grubbing in the dirt for what I assume were seeds or roots, a girl who, though a series of practised, though complicated moves, was bathing in the public ponds and a few taxi drivers in gleaming Ambassadors, parked outside my hotel, the Taj Mahlal (naturally). One driver was from Dharamsala, up north of Delhi.

“Aaah, Dharamsala!” he moaned nostalgically. “Very nature. Very greenery madam. Not like here.”

I’m taking an overnight train there, so will report back.

Bollywood movies and butter chicken

The fabulous Hong Kong has come and gone in a flash. Now, on an Air India flight, I’m having a few qualms. Not least because the toilet doors don’t lock and three hours into the five-hour flight, there has appeared to be no food apart from unsalted peanuts.

The movie, broadcast on a pull-down communal screen, is a film of a 40 year old hulk with shocking bags under his eyes, who plays the bad boy to the village’s beautiful 18-year-old good girl. Their love thwarted by corrupt police, it ends him saving her one last time (he does it quite a lot) from being ravaged by the bad local mafia boss who has the coppers in pay, and he rips off his shirt to reveal not only an astonishing oiled body that doesn’t burn even when flames lick his skin, but also that he’s an undercover cop, then takes on 10 at once, killing them all. There are quite a few dance scenes with some pretty raunchy dancing, and lots of almost-kisses. Pure Bollywood.

Ooh, but wait! It’s the drinks trolley. And now the food is being wheeled down the aisle, great steaming piles of it with buckets of yoghurt, and strong wafts of onion pervade the cabin. After three days running – literally running – through the streets of Hong Kong in the name of work, I need to eat. Weird, considering I ate myself a doppelganger on the sea cruise. Oh god it smells good. My first Indian meal in India. Well, possibly Indian airspace. The moral of this story is: India is a waiting game.

Although I’ve never been to India before, its food smells more familiar than last night’s meal in a Hong Kong hole-in-the-wall diner that recently earned a Michelin star. Yes, a Michelin star for the smoked chicken, the deep fried logs of 1000-year-old egg and pickled ginger, and the pomelo peel, cooked to a flaccid, taro-like consistency and dressed with a glutinous brown sauce scattered with dried shrimp, to make what’s known as poor-man’s abalone.

Bollywood movies and butter chicken on the flight? Bring it on, hostie.

The price is (not) right in Hong Kong

The hottest story in Hong Kong right now – after the discussion about the unseasonal smog on the city this month – is about its property prices.

Yesterday, the real estate market broke all records with the most expensive sale ever, a three-storey house on the Peak (the hill with cable car that overlooks the city and harbour) for HK$280m. That’s about US$40m, or HK$60,215 (US$8,500) per square foot. Hong Kong talks about real estate in square feet because it sounds sooooo much better than in meters, doesn’t it?

“And the square feet includes the communal corridor and sometimes the lift,” swore an HK expat the other night. Well, my apartment’s measurements include the balcony, I said, but when a HK resident raised her brows at the very idea of a balcony, I knew we were talking different planets.

The cost of a home here is now the second highest in the world after New York, beating Tokyo, Mumbai and Singapore. Frighteningly, real estate prices went up in the tiny district nearly 21% last year, and suck up, on average, 37% of a family’s income.

Remind me to stop moaning about Melbourne’s real estate spike…

Feeling low but seeing Hong Kong on high

Ohhhhhhh the comedown. I am in a hotel in Hong Kong, and all in front of me I can see the harbour and my lovely ship – which is sailing tonight without me! Booo!

The Grand Hyatt is on Hong Kong Island, looking over to Kowloon and the Ocean Terminal where my other address when in HK, aka the Seabourn Odyssey, is champing impatiently to head off to Vietnam.  If only the pollution were less thick, it would be the most perfect view. The locals say that it is getting worse every year as mainland China builds yet more factories manufacturing flat screen tvs and plastic toy guns.

So all the cruise-ship white is packed and it’s back on with the city black wardrobe.

Yesterday was a whirlwind of packing, a quick trot through Mongkok’s Ladies’ Market, where market traders mutter, “Hello cheap designer handbag watch sunglass look look this way lady look look ,” in one breath as you pass, then dinner in the hot highrise restaurant atop the gleaming Upper House hotel.

Can I say three words, people: pear & rosemary martinis. Hong Kong’s new drink of choice. Sensational. Worth a 10-hour flight (or a 12-day sail) from Australia.

Snoozing and cruising on the Seabourn Oddity

Today is the last day before we reach Hong Kong, where something like two-thirds of the ship gets off. There are about 130 world cruisers – those travelling from go to woah – from the USA to the final destination, Greece – and the poor things now have to make new friends with the next batch of guests coming on board for the next leg through Vietnam, China and so on, which sounds fabulous.

Last night was the traditional black-tie dinner, where the men dusted off their tuxedos and the ladies their evening gowns and pearls. Despite all the wrangling on board about dress code (the hottest topic at the card tables as the Old Guard demand jackets in the restaurant and no shorts in the observatory bar after 6pm, while the New Guard would rather leave their swimmers on, come what may) the black-tie affair was lovely to see.

And today? Snoozing and cruising on the Seabourn Oddity, as per the captain’s orders.