Category Archives: Travels

Dubai & Abu Dhabi: Great First Impressions of the United Arab Emirates!

I’m writing this in Dubai, and what a city it is!

From up above, all below is either grey (or even red!) roads and brown sand – or blue sea and sky, with reflections of these colours shining off all the glass that covers every high-rise building, for which Dubai is oh so famous. Down on ground level things are less distinctly all brown or all blue. Green grass and pink flowers are carefully tended to make the roadsides less desert-like, so it’s quite quite beautiful!

There’s plenty of white too. White cars and the distinctive long white outfits worn by the Emirati men make great sense in a country where heat and more heat is the order of the day.

Last summer, Dubai reached its 3 million milestone in population, of which figures show that approx. 70% of the population are men and 30% women. Yep, there’s not many women at all – and that’s mainly because 85% of the population are expatriates, and of those, a further 85% are Asian, chiefly Indian (51%), Pakistani (16%) and Bangladeshi (9%); and most of those are men, virtually all working in Dubai without their families. They work in construction (plenty of mega-skyscrapers going up all over the city), security, industry, tourism, trade, in fact everything. There’s some Africans too, I just love meeting them all. They come on 2-year contracts, and don’t see their families in all that time.  Amazing stamina.

Another 3% of the expatriates are from the Philippines, including many women, working here as nannies. Then there are over 100,000 British expatriates in Dubai, by far the largest group of Western expatriates in the city. Dubai weekends are Friday and Saturday, which fits the Muslim calendar well, but for those working for international companies, it actually ends up meaning longer hours and shorter weekends. And then there’s the super-rich, for which Dubai has become a playground.  There’s always plenty on offer for all who want to make a home away from home and enjoy all that the sand, sea and sky has to offer, just beware of the jellyfish and birds!

Then there’s the tourists, and that includes me. I’m here to visit my brother for 4 days en route from the UK back to Taiwan and (apart from missing a connection on my outward journey last August which meant I had an overnight in the Dubai Airport Hotel) this is my very first visit to Dubai and the UAE. And because I’ve visited most of the tourist sites of Dubai in these last few days, I can tell you that the most common language I’ve heard on the streets this week is actually Chinese.  It is Chinese New Year after all, and I’ve noticed lots of people from Taiwan, making the most of the holiday. Many of us are traveling around Dubai by public transport, that’s the bus, monorail, tram and metro. The metro stations are decorated in bright colours, and the trains have special women and children’s compartments, of which men are ushered out if they dare to enter, under threat of being fined. Public transport is mostly cheap, but it does take ages, and if time is short, then taxies are also relatively cheap and so convenient.

So, now the transport’s sorted, what’s for us tourists to see?

Well, there’s old Dubai and new Dubai, and they’re very different, but both well worth exploring. Centuries ago, Dubai started as a place for pearl-diving, then as a port for trade in pearls. In the 1960’s along came gold and oil, and the rest is history.  Actually, oil and natural gas account for only about 5% of revenue for Dubai; most of the UAE oil is in Abu Dhabi. But most of the opulence, bling and construction of outrageously-sized over-the-top skyscrapers is all in Dubai. Just don’t talk about the economic downturn, and focus instead on the fact that petrol is really cheap all over the region, and filling up your car costs about 25-30% of what it does in the UK (unlike the weekly shopping bill which is about double that of the UK, due to most foodstuffs having to be imported).

Old Dubai is famous for its traditional souk markets, courtyard houses, small streets and traders… I love it!

While new Dubai is famous for big skyscrapers…

And if you want to see Dubai from on high, and if the Burj Khalifa is too expensive and too crowded, then the place to go is the new Dubai Frame, 150 m tall and 105 m wide, the world’s largest picture frame, which you can even go up, and walk along the top part and look down through the transparent floor, though that’s only for those with a head for heights!

Looking out in one direction from the Dubai Frame is old Dubai….

And in the other direction is the Burj Khalifa and new Dubai…

The Burj Khalifa is currently the world’s tallest skyscraper at 828m, taking over from Taipei 101, which is ‘only’ 509m. Next door is the Dubai Mall, one of zillions of shopping malls in Dubai (Dubai = ‘Do-Buy’); Taiwan’s famous Din Tai Fung Restaurant has a new branch there too.  And there’s a fountain show every evening where the water moves to music and lights.

And where else? Check out the Palm Jumeirah, it really is a sight to behold, the world’s largest artificial island. A masterpiece in engineering, all built on land reclaimed from the sea, and built to resemble palm fronds, so everyone can have a beachfront property, with a monorail going down the middle. We went on a short boat tour around to the famous Atlantis Hotel, it’s quite something!

And it’s interesting to visit a mosque; after all, Islam is the official state religion of the UAE. This is the Jumeriah Mosque, which is open to the public and has official guided tours almost every day. I went this morning, and it was really informative…

And after Dubai, it’s WELL worth it to spare some time and energy to visit Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE and only just over an hour’s drive from Dubai. We went there on Friday afternoon, to see Abu Dhabi’s Culture – note the capital ‘C’. First the Abu Dhabi Louvre Museum, which is stunning…

And we also visited the famous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, along with thousands of other visitors, and it’s beautiful.  Really amazing.

So there’s plenty to see and do for a few days in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. So many contrasts between old and new. The opulence is staggering, and somehow residents and visitors have to come to terms with it all. Read up before you come, get to know the people who live here, eat the local food and drink some great Arabic coffee, be curious and adventurous, and do get out and about. EXPLORE! The UAE is a fascinating place. So do do do come and check it out for yourselves!

Delights of Sabah 沙巴 @ Kota Kinabalu 亞庇!

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Yes, five days in Sabah is nowhere near long enough, but hey, it’s way way better than no days at all!  And what a great place for five days ~ hot and sunny (and nowhere near as humid as Taiwan at this time of year), lots of tropical flowers, trees, birds, fruits, foods and scenery to enjoy, with much to see and do…

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And so it is that on my way to the UK from Taiwan, I have come to Kota Kinabalu (known as KK), the capital of Sabah, East Malaysia, to visit my good friends, Evelyn and her family.  My last visit to Sabah was in the summer of 2006, way too long ago. KK has changed a lot in that time. New buildings everywhere, new roads, hospitals, high court, university buildings, airport, new infrastructure projects.  All is new, new new!

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New traffic jams too, or maybe just more noticeable – just don’t go near a school when parents are collecting or delivering their children. That means from about 6:00 – 8:00 am, and 11:00 – 1:00 pm. And again about 3:00 pm. Plus the normal rush hour as people go to work and then home again. Long lines of cars and school buses ~ and some of the early-bird parents are delivering their children to school soon after 5:00 am! Traffic, traffic, traffic.  All very patient and very orderly.  Actually, as a place to visit, the fact that the traffic drives on the left is a great preparation for driving in the UK. Taiwan drives on the right, and UK on the left, plus Sabah has roundabouts, which Taiwan doesn’t – so, hey, welcome to KK!

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But not all is new, new, new. The old buildings in downtown KK are still well-preserved, and many recently restored. Some of the buildings are newly-painted in wonderful colours and wall murals. I love colour, and KK has Colour with a capital ‘C’.

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As we drive around, I’m like, “Hey, slow down, stop the car, I just gotta check out that building, that wall, that artwork, stopppp!”

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“Kota Kinabalu (Chinese: 亞庇 Yàbì), formerly known as Jesselton, the state capital of Sabah, Malaysia, is located on the northwest coast of Borneo facing the South China Sea, with a population of 452,058 (2010 census). In the 15th century, the area of Kota Kinabalu was under the influence of the Bruneian Empire. In the 19th century, the British North Borneo Company (BNBC) set up a settlement, and development in the area started soon after that; the place “Api-api” (the name still used by the Chinese today) was later renamed after the vice-chairman of BNBC as “Jesselton”, and officially founded in 1899.  This is the famous Jesselton Hotel, built in 1954….

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Jesselton became a major trading port in the area, and was connected to the North Borneo Railway, but was largely destroyed during World War II. The Japanese occupation of Jesselton provoked several local uprisings, notably the Jesselton Revolt, but they were eventually defeated by the Japanese. After the war, BNBC was unable to finance the high cost of reconstruction and the place was ceded to the British Crown Colony. The British Crown declared Jesselton as the new capital of North Borneo in 1946 and started to rebuild the town. After the formation of Malaysia, North Borneo was renamed as Sabah. In 1967, Jesselton was renamed as Kota Kinabalu, Kota being the Malay word for Fort and Kinabalu after the nearby Mount Kinabalu. Kota Kinabalu was granted city status in 2000”…. (adapted from Wikipedia).

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So there you have it, the history of KK in 2 paragraphs. What it doesn’t say is that KK is a multilingual, multicultural city, with Chinese, English and Malay (known here as ‘Bahasa Malaysia’ meaning ‘national language’) all spoken widely and often all mixed together in one conversation, plus lots of other local languages spoken too. My friend Evelyn speaks Hakka language with most of her family, Mandarin Chinese with her grandson, English and Chinese at work and church, and Malay for everyday use in the town. Amazing! The churches are similar. Lots of services in all different languages, Hakka, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, Malay, English and Filipino. There’s churches of every denomination. Very noticeable, cos many are big.  And big means spacious, with beautiful grounds. And there’s lots of mosques too. In Sabah as a whole, Muslims are 65%, Christians 26% and Buddhists 6% of the population. These are the 2 most famous mosques….

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And a temple with a very prominent pagoda….

The Anglican Church of Sabah (part of the Province of SE Asia) was originally very much connected with the British colonial government, with English services run for the colonial government officials, and large numbers of clergy from overseas, also many schools. High Church style. By 1905, Europeans and Chinese communicants were reported as being ‘in considerable numbers.’ In 1959, the new All Saints Church was consecrated on reclaimed land in the centre of town, and in 1962, All Saints Church became a cathedral, when the Diocese of Borneo was separated into two dioceses, Kuching and Jesselton. This is the cathedral today….

In 1962, the assistant bishop of the Diocese of Borneo, Bishop James C. L. Wong (1900-1970) became the first bishop of the Diocese of Jesselton (renamed in 1963 as the Diocese of Sabah). This is significant for us in Taiwan because Bishop James C. L. Wong left Sabah in 1965 to become Bishop of Taiwan, Taiwan’s first bishop of Chinese descent. Between 1965 and his death in 1970, Bishop Wong devoted himself to establishing St. John’s University, Taipei – and after his death, he was buried under the altar in Advent Church. OUR Advent Church!  From the All Saints Cathedral book, ‘Moving Forward’….

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Evelyn’s daughter, Audrey and her husband, Rev. Paul Lau and their son have recently moved to Christ Church, Likas, KK and it turns out that they are now living in the very house where Bishop Wong lived during the time he was Bishop of Sabah. The building has had nobody living in it for the past 12 years and has recently been renovated. Next door is a derelict building that served as the diocesan offices from Bishop Wong’s time, awaiting a fresh vision and renovation.

The current diocesan office building is right by the cathedral, with this sign….

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Back in the old days, Sabah was a high church diocese, then moved ‘downwards’ and ‘outwards’, and in recent decades, Sabah has been strongly influenced by charismatic renewal. Worship is mostly lively and contemporary, and most churches have a strong focus on outreach and evangelism.  Paul and Audrey invited me to worship at Christ Church, Likas earlier today….

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We went to the Mandarin Chinese service at 7:30 am ~ it has to be early as it’s followed by an English service and then Malay.  Paul was preaching, and I was warmly welcomed by everyone – including the rector, Archdeacon Moses Chin (next to me in the photos below).  In the late afternoon, they were expecting the bishop for a ground-breaking service and blessing ~ to build a pavilion for outside activities, hence the balloons!

The Anglican churches in both Taiwan and Sabah run many kindergartens, and have worked together in past years to help support each other, and give training to teachers. Over the years, my good friend, Mrs. Grace Liu (wife of Rev. Michael T. H. Liu) from Taiwan has been on 6 visits to Sabah to help lead training seminars for Sabah teachers. On one memorable trip, she was the only passenger on the flight! While I was at St. James’ Church, Taichung, Evelyn and another teacher from Sabah came to St. James for 6 weeks to learn and experience St. James’ Kindergarten. That’s how we know each other. And that’s how I came to visit Sabah twice while I was at St. James. On those visits, we went to Sandakan, Ranau, Kudat, Beaufort, and with a friend from Taichung, the 2 of us climbed Mt. Kinabalu, (4,095 m /13,435 ft), Malaysia’s highest mountain – and just higher than Taiwan’s highest mountain, Yushan (3,952 m /12,966 ft). That was quite amazing, a never-to-be-forgotten adventure.  But that’s a whole other story, sorry!

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Evelyn is principal of Good Samaritan Kindergarten, KK, known as “Tadika Anglikan Penampang”, after that area of the city, and their priest-in-charge is Rev. Chin Pit Vun – whose brother-in-law, Rev. Joshua Ng, is ministering in the Episcopal Church in California and is known to us from his visits to Taiwan. Ah, it’s a small world! Here’s Rev. Chin and me – welcoming me to his church!

Under the previous bishop of Sabah, Bishop Albert Vun, a prayer station, ‘Kokol Prayer Summit’, was established up in the mountains outside KK, and Paul and Audrey took us up there to visit. It is built in the shape of the cross that Jesus carried on the Via Dolorosa. What a place.  Stunning location!

That area has retreat centres and churches of different denominations, as well as hotels and resorts. We visited one of them to see the sunset…

And while in Sabah, never forget the food. Tropical fruits like durians are one of the highlights – a whole durian market exists for people to enjoy the delights of durian ~ if you can stand that smell!

Then there’s tons of small restaurants and supermarkets offering everything imaginable. This was a small selection of what we enjoyed….

So, a big thank you to Evelyn and her family for their warm welcome and hospitality, plus all the meals – and trips out here and there.  It was fun!  This is Evelyn’s son in his truck…

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And I mustn’t forget the dogs.  Actually they belong to Evelyn’s grandson, but they are just such a bundle of high energy!

Sabah is a great place, with very lovely kind-hearted people, and so many things to see!  These are the street scenes and some of the sights…

So, as I prepare to leave KK tomorrow for London, thanks be to God for a wonderful 5 days in this beautiful country ~ let me end with these 2 photos taken last night on the beach, with all the people playing with bubbles, while they waited for the sunset!

So goodbye to Kota Kinabalu ~ and especially to Evelyn and her family. Here we all are having dinner this evening.  A big THANK YOU to you all!

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Angkor Wat 吳哥窟 and Siem Reap 暹粒市, Cambodia ~ oh, and nice crunchy spider for dinner!

Think of all those historic buildings in the UK: Durham, Norwich and Exeter Cathedrals; Rochester, Windsor and Warwick Castles and even my lovely CMS link church at St. Andrew’s Church, Haughton, Darlington.  And what do they all have in common?  Well, they were all being built at roughly the same time as the Angkor Wat Temple Complex in Cambodia.  Now, how’s that for Interesting Fact Of The Day, eh?

Angkor Wat has become such a symbol of Cambodia, that it appears on its national flag. How about this?

Angkor Wat is considered to be the largest religious monument in the world ~ the ruins cover an area over 400 sq. km.  It was originally constructed by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as a temple of the Hindu deity Vishnu, and gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century.

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400 sq. km?  That’s 248 sq. miles.  Imagine that!  That’s what I was interested to see – the sheer size and immensity of the whole complex.  Buildings stretching for miles into the forests in every direction.  Jungle, in fact.  Angkor Wat is so immense that you can even buy a 7-day pass to see it all.  7 days!  Or a 3-day pass even.  But me?  I had only one day.  One day to see a little bit of the whole, just a glimpse.

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The way to do it is by overnight bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, 6 hours and very comfortable.  As buses go, that is.  That was me this past Sunday night.  On Monday morning, there I was, bushy-tailed but very bleary-eyed, with a nice tuk-tuk driver who got me to the ticket office at Angkor Wat by 7:00 am, where I was just awake enough to peer at the camera in time for my photo.  It’s US$ 37 for a one-day ticket, with photo attached.  Had yet to even brush my hair.  Ha ha!  Now I have a permanent reminder of what I look like after a night on a Cambodian bus.

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October is the rainy season in Cambodia and the night before they’d had a big rainstorm at Angkor Wat.  So Monday morning was cool and overcast.  Good weather for a day touring round temples.  Grey sky and dark buildings are not easy to photograph, but they kind of fit the mood of the place….

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Anyway off I set around the temple. There’s a whole lot of walking and a huge number of very steep steps.  Loved it!  My friends had told me that their one regret was not having a guide, so they had no idea what they were looking at.  So for one hour, a guide in a uniform came round with me and explained everything and answered all my questions.  He told me how the sandstone and laterite stones were carried from a quarry about 60 km away by elephants and chariots.  He told me that most of the Buddha statues were headless because people were so desperate for food during the years before, during and after the genocide that they cut the statues’ heads off to sell them.

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He told me what everything was and why it was there.  He set me up for the whole day.  Because after Angkor Wat main temple, there are lots of other temples to look at.  The temples are all under restoration, and it seems that every country is helping out, each one assigned their own temple. I saw signs indicating temples being restored by Japan, France, India and China, plus different universities assigned to take care of the archaeological digs.

That’s one temple down, a zillion more to go.  So off by chariot (sorry, tuk-tuk) along a road lined with statues, passing by the elephants….

Bayon Temple comes next ~ “the most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene and smiling stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak. The temple is known also for two impressive sets of bas-reliefs, which present an unusual combination of mythological, historical, and mundane scenes.” And this all leads on to the Elephant Terrace.

On to some more temples – where there were rocks carved as snakes all over.  “The snake symbol is depicted as the hooded cobra or naga. Not only is the naga-serpent the most prominent motif found at Angkor, but the word “Angkor” itself is derived from the Sanskrit nagara, meaning “city,” from the root naga. The common etymological derivation of the two words underlines the link that exists between the symbolism of the snake and that of the “holy city.” Today, the stone nagas watch silently over every major edifice in the city.”

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But the best temple was yet to come.  Known as the Tomb Raider Temple, because that’s where the movie was filmed, Ta Prohm is THE BEST!

“Unlike most Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm is in much the same condition in which it was found: the photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings have made it one of Angkor’s most popular temples with visitors.” And lucky India has the job of restoring it.

You MUST MUST MUST go there! It really is amazing. As you can see, there were even wedding couples posing for photos! And outside were people playing music who had been injured in landmines …..

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And so to lunch.  I chose mine based on colour.  After a morning of Tomb Raiders ‘n doom and gloom and the like, I needed some colour.  Ha ha. It’s chicken curry in a coconut.  And Cambodia beer.  Gotta try the local stuff.  This is it!

And then the sun came out.  Another temple. The last!  Oh, and a lake….

Time for something else.  The tuk-tuk driver suggested I might like to visit the local Killing Fields Museum at Wat Thmei, located in a monastery and temple.  This is not for the faint-hearted.  More on this in my next post about the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh.

After all those dark and gloomy temples and then the Killing Fields, I thought a church was in order.  Going round Phonm Penh, I had only seen one church in all the time I was there, the Khmer Rouge had destroyed them all.  I asked if there was any church around Siem Reap.  Any church of any kind I said.  Yes, said the driver.  And off we went.  Turned out to be St. John’s Roman Catholic Church, where a dear Japanese sister was sweeping the church floor and a catechist was cleaning downstairs.

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If I remember correctly, the catechist said that these days there are about 30,000 Roman Catholics in Cambodia, and 50+ priests, of whom 7 are Cambodians and the rest are foreigners, including their own priest who is from the Philippines.  They even had a leaflet there in English, which said that the church was built in 2004 and the parish also serves several churches in the floating villages on the Tonle Sap Lake.  They are part of the diocese (apostolic prefecture) of Battambang, which is twinned with the RC Diocese of East Anglia, UK. And St. John’s Church itself is twinned with the deanery of Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk.  Ah, it’s a small world ~ Suffolk, I love you!

And so to Siem Reap, which was bustling with tourists.  Lots of places to eat, and lots of choices.  Ha ha, my dinner menu was spiders, scorpions or snakes.  Take your pick!

Time enough to enjoy the late afternoon and night life of Siem Reap…..

And finally to the bus stop for the overnight bus back to Phnom Penh.  Bus departure time 11:00 pm.  (If you’re interested in the bus, get all your info here.)  No shower for a while yet though!

And finally, guess which delectable dinner option I chose?  This one….

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Ha ha!  The spider!  The girl selling it said it was the best choice, as it was crunchy.  It’s true.  It was crunchy.  Very crunchy.  And what’s more, I lived the tell the tale, and am still in one piece all these days later! So, be adventurous and daring ~ and GO FOR IT!

(This is Part 2 of 3 about my visit to Cambodia.  Part 3 coming soon……)

Happy Chinese New Year from Beautiful Bangalore, South India!

Rarely, possibly once in a lifetime, does such a wonderful opportunity come along ~ a chance to take 2 of my very good friends from Taiwan along with me to visit my many very good friends in South India ~ YES!   The opportunity came at Chinese New Year, and with the blessing of the bishop of Taiwan, Bishop David J. H. Lai and the rector of Advent Church, Rev. Lennon Y. R. Chang and all our friends and church members, off we went!

God has blessed me with many good friends in Taiwan, and my 2 traveling companions were 2 of the very best!  Shu-Jing 薛淑靖 is my colleague here at St. John’s University Chaplain’s Office, and Hui-Ling 許惠苓 is Bishop Lai’s secretary and my colleague in the diocesan office in Taipei. Both are the first, and so far only Christians in their families, both are devoted long-time members of Advent Church, and very importantly, both very good friends with each other. So there was certainly never a dull moment on our whole trip ~ and rarely even a quiet one!

We set off together on Saturday January 21 for Bangalore, at the invitation of my very good friend from Tanzania days, Jyothi.  Jyothi welcomed us all so warmly and graciously, willingly giving up 2 weeks of her valuable time to take such good care of us all.  I first visited Jyothi in Bangalore in February 2013, also for the Chinese New Year holiday, along with New Zealand friend Ruth.  This was my second visit, but the first ever for Shu-Jing and Hui-Ling.  And what a great welcome we had from Jyothi and all her friends!

We arrived in Bangalore in the middle of the night and got to bed at 3:30 am, but a few hours later we were upright and wide-awake, all ready for the main 8:30 am service at St. John’s Church, Bangalore, part of the Church of South India (C.S.I.)  We were there along with 600 others – and 300 in the Sunday School.  The latecomers have to sit on chairs outside, there’s so many people.  Amazing.

Amazingly also, the new pastor of the church, Rev. G. Wilson, studied for a year in 2004 at Tainan Theological College in Taiwan, and was delighted to tell us how much he loved Taiwan, and what wonderful people the Taiwan people are!  One of his many gifts is preaching, and everyone enthused about his sermon after the service.  Here we all are, posing for photos!

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We met so many of Jyothi’s good friends at the church, including Asha and her family who took us all out for breakfast straight after church.  Oh yes, and Nancy (and her daughter – both looking stunning in the above right photo) who was to accompany us on our 2 big trips! Then to lunch with Rhena and her family ~ ah, Bangalore people are so welcoming!

The next day, we were up bright and very early, along with Jyothi and Nancy, in time to watch the sunrise from Bangalore Station as we set off for the 10-hour train journey to Kerala.  There’s nothing boring about spending 10+ hours on a train in S. India, we met and talked to everyone, smiled and played and laughed with the babies, took photos of and with everyone, ate, drank and even shopped onboard.  Ah, it was such fun!

The terminus is at Ernakulam Jn, and from there it’s a short drive to Kochi (Cochin), the centre of the Indian spice trade for many centuries and the first of the European colonies in colonial India, first occupied by the Portuguese in 1503.

We spent 3 nights in a really great guest house in Fort Kochi and visited the Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica, one of 8 basilicas in Kerala and oozing with history – like everywhere else we visited! Also the Chinese Fishing Nets, and then the Paradesi Synagogue.  This was THE most fascinating place to visit (do check out the Wikipedia page on the Cochin Jews), though no photos were allowed inside. There’s been trade going on between India and Israel since the days of King Solomon, mostly of peacocks, teak, ivory and spices.  The synagogue guidebook says that the first Jews probably arrived in Kerala in King Solomon’s merchant fleet, and “the oldest Tamil word found in any written record in the world appears to be the word for peacock in the Hebrew text of the Book of Kings and Chronicles. The old Tamil word ‘Takai’ became in Hebrew ‘Tuki'”.  These days virtually all the Paradesi Jews have moved to Israel, and there are only 5, 2 men and 3 women, remaining in Kochi (others from the wider Cochin Jewish community remain, but their numbers are dwindling fast too).  We had the honour of meeting one of them, Sarah, who was seated in her living room, next to her shop, where she sells traditional Jewish embroidery. She sang to us one of the ancient songs ~ it was beautiful!  And to finish the day, after a bit of spice shopping over near the CSI church in Ernakulam, we went to St. George’s Mar Thoma Church (facebook page here), founded in 1913, and looking stunning in the sunshine!

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We also went on a boat tour of the famous and very beautiful Kerala backwaters, floating along all morning and disembarking to visit 2 small business ventures, one converting clam shells into lime for use in such things as whitewashing and pharmaceuticals, and the other, the coir industry, converting coconut fibre into ropes.  We were in a group with other tourists, including several independent travelers from Israel and a Punjabi family – parents, daughter, and newly-married son and daughter-in-law ~ it wasn’t a honeymoon they said, this was their ‘family-moon’!

And our final stop was a performance of Kathakali, a traditional ‘story-play’ form of classical Indian dance, which included us watching the make-up session and then a demonstration of how the all-male team use their eyes and hands to convey meaning. Amazing ~ those eyes!

And so back to Bangalore by train, but this time in an A/C compartment, which is definitely more comfortable, but oh so boring by comparison to the one on the outgoing journey to Kerala!

Friday in Bangalore was a day of rest, and our first chance to go to visit my good friends, Varghese and Rachel, Kerala friends from Birmingham days – so wonderful to see them. And then a meet up with Rhena who took us shopping.  The world’s best shopping assistant!  And what a great way to spend Chinese New Year’s Eve – shopping!

On Saturday, the first day of Chinese New Year, we set off by car, again with Jyothi and Nancy, with Driver Joseph at the wheel, for Coorg (Kodagu) ~ a 3-day trip to Madikeri and Mysore, NW of Bangalore.  Met our very first Chinese-speaking group en route, 7 adults and 3 children, all Chinese expats living in Bangalore and working in the IT industry, on their way to Mysore for the weekend.  On the way, we stopped to visit the famous Hindu Temple, Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangapatna, dedicated to a manifestation of the god Vishnu, which saw us join a huge long line of several hundred pilgrims, all of them there to pay homage. No photos inside, this is the outside….

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The journey from Bangalore was uphill all the way to our destination, Madikeri, altitude 1170 m, followed by a visit to Abbey Falls, where we joined thousands of people on a busy Saturday afternoon, including 200 girl guides and boy scouts and their 23 teachers, who all became our best friends within 5 minutes!  Photos galore!  We visited all the sights of Madikeri, the old fort, the viewpoint at Raja’s Seat, the toy train – and did plenty of shopping for spices and coffee.  Note the petrol station pumps covered in tinsel that we passed en route!

Next day was really the highlight of the 3-day trip, and a visit to the Elephant Camp at Dubare.  In 2013,  we had visited but at the wrong time of day, but this time, we were right on time to see the elephants eating and drinking in the river.  Spectacular.  Loved it!

And this was followed by another highlight, the Tibetan Settlements at Bylakuppe, including the Namdroling Monastery – the largest teaching centre of the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism in the world, with over 5,000 lamas (both monks and nuns), a religious college and hospital.  We met a large group of pilgrims from Himachal Pradesh, the neigbouring state to Tibet, who loved posing for a group photo!

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And so to Mysore via the garden centre for Nancy to buy some plants (from then on, we could always spot our vehicle by the orchids in the back window!), an afternoon visit to the Brindavan Gardens and evening visit to Mysore Palace, all lit up at night, and open for tours during the day.  Loved it!  We also visited St. Philomena’s Cathedral, the Chamundi Hills and Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, before arriving back in Bangalore in time to hit the Monday night rush hour. Ah, such fun – or not, as the case may be.  Anyway it was an experience.  The drivers are amazing, and there are so few accidents – we saw only one minor one on the whole trip!