Monday, April 9, 2018

Caribbean Tales - 3 days in Antigua and Barbuda

We thought all Caribbean destinations looked the same - blue skies, white sand beaches, clear waters. Well, we couldn't have been more wrong. Apart from similar ports, each destination in our itinerary was different!

After a mellow St. Kitts, we landed in Antigua with Liat airlines. We were just grateful that our luggage had safely arrived, misinformation regarding time did not matter after the horrifying tales I had read online.

We chose to stay in Siboney Beach Club Hotel in Dickenson Bay since it suited our budget and looked like a perfect hotel to stay in. Apart from getting a crappy room, everything went perfect! Ha! We are positive people you see.

The beach was literally 10 steps from our room and it was indeed a white sand beach. Coconut Grove restaurant and Anna's on the Beach made the bay really pretty with their decor. The food at both places was yum, especially the seared Mahi Mahi in Coconut Grove.

It was a Sunday evening and I had read that if you are staying in town you must visit Shirley Heights for this night. The place was worth all the adulation it receives - great food, amazing DJ and Steel band, absolutely perfect casual setting, romantic under a moon-lit sky... my first amazing holiday moment had arrived.

The views of English Harbour from Shirley Heights. 

The moon-lit sky at Shirley Heights.

Now let me tell you about Antigua's biggest problem - this island is designed in such a way that there are absolutely no pavements for pedestrians. If you have to go from one place to the other, you have to call for a taxi. And these taxis ain't cheap! Our trip to Shirley heights and back cost us a bomb, but we were determined to go. We crossed a huge stretch of island before reaching our destination. Wood and Cinder block homes lined a few roads and as we passed St. Johns, the capital, we could see the Caribbean life up close. We would come here the next day - today it was about Shirley heights!

Our driver was an interesting man - with four marriages and eleven children, he had his hands full! He waited for us while we hung out, danced and ate to take us back at 10 p.m., when the venue closes.

The next day we took a dip in the very tempting ocean. A pre-wedding video shoot was going on that made the destination look more picturesque. Although I must tell you, Dickenson Bay only had cruise ship passengers who were mostly in their sixties or above. This place didn't look like it was for the younger generation. I wondered where the Shirley Heights crowd went!

After posing in the great outdoors myself, we ate at Anna's on the Beach. This restaurant had a
dreamy setting and a small, but delicious menu. Post a hearty meal, we left to see the port area in St. Johns.

Now this is one area that we liked more in St. Kitts. Basseterre was lively, while St. Johns was tiny and underwhelming. Maybe because Antigua had other things to do, cruise passengers did not stay in this area for long. The by-lanes in St. Kitts had much more to offer than Antigua.

We came back quite early in the evening and thought of going to a restaurant mid-way. But like I told you, getting from point A to point B was a big concern and so we decided to eat at Dickenson Bay.

Even there, walking 200 meters from our hotel was not easy. At night the area was poorly lit and had uneven ground. We wanted a change in dinner menu and so ended up at Putters Bar and Grill. Thank God for a time-share accommodation in the area - otherwise I can't imagine how deserted the entire place would have been at night!

Our third day was spent exploring the entire island. Antigua has a mixed economy - from filthy rich to extremely poor - you can see it all on the way. Most hotels are all-inclusive giving no chance for the restaurant business to boom. The dark history of sugar plantations and slavery is evident in various parts of the island. Tourism is island's prime source of income and a large amount of money flows in from American and European clientèle.

The famous Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Stadium that we saw from a distance

We went to the second most famous beach - Jolly Beach and Harbour. Even with hundreds of visitors, this beach was picture perfect. We had an Indian meal at Castaways and enjoyed our time here. We like places with a bit of a crowd and a good scenery, this was ideal. I could clearly see shady activities going on in the area when a man came and congratulated my husband on having a very beautiful wife! Yes, he wanted to sell us something that we won't smoke - at least not in the Caribbean!

Nelson's Dockyard was again a postcard-worthy place. In another era, the yard served as a naval base to protect British West Indies from French incursions. Now it looked like a picturesque place to sit back and drink nice cocktails! We barely spent any time here and thought of going back to our favourite Dickenson Bay. Devils bridge and Betty's hope were on other side of the island, and we had run out of cash for taxi fare!

Antigua's roads are fairly easy to drive but we prefer to play it safe. We do have a hefty amount to pay for commute, but that's our contribution to their economy!

We walked back and forth on our beach, took in as many romantic moments as we could, loved the sound of the sea and totally relished each moment. We were perfecting the art of a perfect holiday - Eat, Drink, Beach and Chill. The three days were filled with moderate activity and were good fun. A beach destination is meant to relax anyway, and relax we did. And if I had to do it again, I will stay at the same place and do the same things. Only this time, I wouldn't take the hotel's lowest category room!

It was our 9th wedding anniversary on the day we travelled from Antigua to Jamaica, an island I was most looking forward to visit...

Previous Post: St. Kitts & Nevis

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Oh! Darling.. #SayYesToTheWorld

Me: Mum, he doesn't buy me any presents.
Mum: He is showing you the world, what else can you ask for?
Me: Hmm! Indian mother-in-law.

Did she read Alice in Wonderland though?

To be frank, I did not love the world. I was afraid of unknown places, people from different races, losing my belongings, getting robbed, feeling extremely anxious before taking flights,  - yes, paranoid to be exact. I lived in one city for 26 years of my life, travelled only to the hill station next door and went to nani's house once every couple of years. Living out of a suitcase? - never did, never thought I ever would.

And then I married him. When I said 'I do', I didn't realise I was saying yes to a life full of adventures. He did not promise me the world, yet he took me everywhere. Without even realising I fell in love again, only this time it was with the world and the man who was my partner in all my journeys.

Our first trip outside Asia was into Switzerland. Apart from breath-taking Alps, I witnessed a life changing phenomenon. A couple in their seventies lived in the room next to ours. One look at them and I thought how cool is their retired life. They have come here to sit back, relax and soak in the nature.

The next day we met them on a hiking trail in their crisp white pants walking briskly past us. The lady climbed the hills like a swift animal and had the brightest radiance on her skin. Sit back and relax? - the Gen X oldies were fitter than their younger counterparts!

After I came back, I made sure I exercised every single day. I had found my deepest travel inspiration – I wanted to be strong and fit even when I was seventy so that I could be like them. 

Every year when we took that annual holiday, I saw more of them. I saw them walk past me because they were sturdier. In Greece, I saw a bunch of women in their seventies riding the toy train and laughing uncontrollably – I sent the 2050 plan to my gal pals. I saw them relishing the beauty of nature much more than me because they were wiser. Frankly, each one of them influenced me. I came back after every holiday stronger in my resolute to stay fit and travel the world as I grew older.

But that is not all that the last 25 countries have taught me.

I was on a train once, crossing a city in central Europe. We were late to board and there were hardly any seats available. I walked from cabin to cabin only to find one vacant seat next to a girl who was probably twenty years old. I asked her if I could sit - she refused rather rudely.

I felt racially discriminated. If that was not enough, she gave the seat to another white girl just fifteen minutes later in the ride! On deeper thought I remembered how we differentiate between fair and dark-skinned people in our own country. We have always been critical of racism towards us even though we are inherently racist ourselves.

Honestly, I was one of them. I liked anyone with a fair skin (except that girl on the train!) and was vary of those who were not of my favourite colour. I was shallow and I knew it. I blamed it on my upbringing, but I realised that after a certain age, it was up to me to change my views. I felt ashamed that even though I was well-read, wise for my age, and more sensitive than most of the people around me, I treated people differently – at least in my head.

All that changed after my trip to the Caribbean islands. On my visit to Jamaica I felt that African-American community was the sweetest in the world. I have never felt so welcomed in any country like how I did in the land of Bob Marley. They were kind, sweet and so helpful. I loved their enthusiasm in life and how they talked. I tried to imitate them, walk like them, basically be cool like them! If you want to learn how to live your life – those are the people you should look up to.

Honest confession – I even had a tiny crush on a guide for like an hour! I was surprised at myself for feeling that way. I was even relieved that now I was where I wanted to be. I wish that girl on the train travelled the world so she could see the beauty in its people. I love the world for making me the person I have become. I owe it big time!

I also owe my confidence to this sweet world. One day I was Googl'ing my way into the world when I got a ping. It was from a person I barely spoke to but was connected on social media. To my surprise she asked me details about a destination I had been to a few months back.

I asked her about her preferences and helped her make a detailed itinerary for the same country. She was the first of many more who got in touch with me later...

You see, I am a housewife. People of the world look down upon the likes of me. Having no kids doesn't make the picture look any prettier. Travelling changed that for me. Since the husband's only contribution to our travels is his awesome wit and a half-loaded credit card, I know my places to the T. I choose our destinations, book our tickets, reserve hotels, make itineraries, pack our bags, be a pain in the back-side when we are on a vacation, etc.

That gives me an edge over other women who book through travel agents or leave everything to the man of the house. I don't know why I started it, but I post detailed albums on social networking sites. I do it as a hobby, but you won't believe the kind of confidence people around me have shown in my abilities as a pseudo travel agent.

A few chats with my free-loader clients a.k.a friends/cousins

After posting a few albums, I started getting messages from people I barely spoke to for help regarding their travel plans. I helped a cousin plan his entire Europe trip, I assisted a new mom in deciding a relaxed vacation with her three children, I managed to find a fun birthday celebrations venue for a group of friends... the list is endless. 

Imagine my happiness when someone told me that before planning a vacation they look at my albums for help. There are times when I have to turn down requests because I have not been to a particular location! I tell them I haven't been everywhere, but it is on my list!

Do I love the world now? YESSSSS!!! It has given me everything I never thought I wanted yet it was everything I ever needed. Life is all about happiness, oozing with confidence, being loving towards one another, staying healthy - travel has given me all that and so much more.

Travel has given me dreams. I stay healthy for those dreams. I save every penny I can to fulfill those dreams. I tell everyone around me - divide your earnings in three parts - one, for necessities; two, save as much as you can for old age; then use the rest to travel beyond your city. There is no better gift you can give yourself.

Needless to say, I can't believe I agree with my mom. He did give me the best gift. And the adventure continues..

Monday, April 2, 2018

Of Flying, Finding Beautiful people and Saying Yes to the World

Most people I know love to travel but hate long flights. Then there are those who refuse to travel just because the plane journey is tiring. It is arduous no doubt – sitting in one place for hours, waking up fellow passengers when you need to get past them to use the loo, difficulty in falling asleep, border controls, the works. I cribbed about all this too until one day when I realised that a difficult journey can turn into one of the most beautiful experiences of one’s life – let me tell you a little bit about it.

This is a story of one New Year’s Eve – a joyful gift from my travelling experiences.

I had travelled to Mumbai for my cousin’s wedding. Even though my schedule had been tight, I made sure I was there for her big day. I was selfish as well – I wanted to meet my entire family and also explore how the city had changed over the last few years since my last visit in 2009.

I had to go without the husband for this one because he had no leaves from his office. The wedding ceremony was to be held on 30th December leaving no choice but for me to come back to my guy on 31st to celebrate New Year’s eve. I had a gala time during the wedding festivities and all my cousins in Mumbai coaxed me to stay for the party on 31st, but I politely declined.

You see, kissing the husband at midnight is a tradition for us and I didn’t want to miss it for the world!

My flight was to leave at 18:30 hours; considering the time difference and short flight, I would have landed in Bahrain at 20:30, giving me enough time to get ready and hit a club. I had thought of the dress that I was going to wear, our friends were first going to come home so I had even discussed our food menu that we were going to order, we had tickets for the venue …the night was well-planned.

In Mumbai, Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport was a breeze. I bought a neck pillow to get some sleep because I hadn’t got any in the last few days. At the boarding gate I saw a family that I had earlier seen on my way to Mumbai as well – same dates, I thought to myself.

There was a talk going on between a group of friends that I overheard. They were planning their New Year’s eve in Dubai if the plane diverted. I laughed to myself - with Dubai traffic, there was no way they would be able to reach any party venue after landing even if the plane diverted. And WHY would it divert?

And then I understood why. There were a number of people at the gate who were in distress. The morning flight from Mumbai to Bahrain had been canceled due to unexpected fog and a lot of the stranded passengers were being accommodated in this much bigger plane. Some had missed connections, few had left home some 20 hours before for the morning flight but were stuck here, a couple were fighting to get each other a seat, kids were uncomfortable, the stories of miseries were endless.  

Looking at how chatty the whole area was, it seemed to me that there were no strangers around here – isn’t it is amazing how people come together in times like these?

We finally boarded thirty minutes later. I opened my phone and saw an episode of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. After my meal, I slept like a log.

When I woke up, we were only forty-five minutes away from Bahrain. I opened the sky map and smiled to myself. I love reuniting with the husband like this – feels like I am in a movie!

Suddenly I saw the plane take a U-turn. My worst fears had come true. We were being diverted to Abu Dhabi airport for the night since Bahrain airport had decided to shut down at 19.45 till further notice due to extreme fog and very poor visibility.

All the passengers were taken to the waiting lounge. The first thing I did was to call the husband and tell him that the New Year’s Eve was ruined. There was no way I could come. I borrowed a charger from someone and charged my phone for the rest of the ordeal. They gave us food coupons and advised us to rest.

I looked around – most people were with their spouses. There were a group of people sitting and chatting. I went up to them and discussed everything that was happening. In the end all I could say to them was that atleast they had each other to which one replied, ‘You also have us.’ That got me all teary eyed and I called the husband again to mourn!

There was a school teacher with her husband who wanted to send flight status to her children waiting for them in Bahrain. Their phone could not catch the free wi-fi. I noted the number of the children and messaged them from my phone on her behalf. She was so grateful and joyous that she repeatedly called me an angel. I felt like my mother was with me.

Amongst all these people there was one lady walking around frantically. Since she was also alone like me, I thought I’ll check with her if she wanted to take the airport hotel room and sleep in there. She readily agreed. On our way, we, along with five other people first checked into the airport lounge.
The television was on where they were showing New Year eve’s fireworks across the world. We were stuck in three time zones – India, U.A.E and Bahrain and had lost track of time. It was 12 a.m. and a fellow passenger got a message from her husband to atleast take a glass of wine and celebrate.

We all got a glass from the bar and became a close-knit family at that moment. We cheered to 2018 and thought of this unique experience as one that we would remember for life. None of us were finding faults with anyone or anything. This was nature’s doing and nothing could be done about it. At that moment we formed a Whatsapp group so that even if we lose each other at the airport, we can keep track of the latest information and tell each other about it.

There was no room available in the hotel and so we found a few sofas in the lounge. I usually travel with just my sling bag and so I had nothing to cover myself. My fellow single passenger who was always with me that night gave me her sweater from her trolley bag. After that, I slept comfortably for a few hours.

We woke up at 6 a.m. and chatted with so many in the lounge. There was not a soul who was fretting or finding faults. Everyone was very patient and was waiting for 8 a.m. to look for the announcements regarding the flight’s departure to Bahrain.

We took a nice shower, ate our breakfast and chatted some more. At 11 a.m. we boarded our plane. I was so tired from all this that I fell asleep. I woke up after one hour and the plane was still where it was when I had fallen asleep! I could now hear people losing their patience.

It was then I realised how hard it would have been for the airline staff. From answering our queries all night, to being extremely calm when people were losing their patience, they were the stars of the night. All of them had been away from their family as well on this occasion, and unlike the passengers, they were on duty. The air-hostess told me how she was surprised at the positive attitude of the travellers – she was prepared for some serious bashing! I felt proud of us.

We landed in Bahrain at 2 p.m. and said our goodbyes. A 4-hour journey took us 18 hours yet all of us were surprisingly calm. I was finally reunited with my husband for our new-year eve kiss!

Needless to say, I did not see a single picture from the bash he went to without me. And I believed every bit when he said he missed me! My concern was that I didn’t miss anything and relished each moment of this experience. 

I love the world for this. Exploration has made me see how beautiful people are – inside and out. The lady who called me an angel, the girl who told me I had their company for the new year’s eve celebration, the lady who gave me her expensive cashmere for the night, the three people who gave me their phone chargers, the woman who waited for me at the bottom of the plane’s stairs to help me climb because she knew I had a problem, the man who got us all chocolates in the morning, the air-hostess who handled it all with a smile… I will remember them all.

Like they say – journey is more important than the destination and the people you meet along the way make it all worthwhile. Small problems like lack of leg room for a few hours is nothing in front of the beautiful experience you can have in being a world traveller. Say yes to the world and you would also vouch for the same.