Drive Around The World (Australia)

One family, one car, one year, one planet

Varanasi, India – Cha-am, Thailand, Day 267-286, 1-20 January, 2009

Varanasi, India – Cha-am, Thailand

Day 267-286

1-20 January, 2009

Soundtrack:

‘Take Me To The River’ – Al Green

‘Jump in the River’ – Sinead O’Connor

‘Night Train’ – James Brown

‘If It Takes All Night’ – Roxy Music

‘Night and Day’ – Cole Porter

‘Day and Night’ – Nina Simone

‘An Inch An Hour’ – Tragically Hip

‘Today, Tomorrow and Forever’ – Patsy Cline

‘All Day Sucker’ – Stevie Wonder

‘What A Day That Was’ – Talking Heads

‘A Place Called Home’ – PJ Harvey

‘Happy Home’ – Maurice Frawley and the Working Class Ringoes

‘Barflies at the Beach’ – Royal Crown Review

‘Sycamore and Sand’ – Art of Fighting

(Apologies for the tardiness due to a recent lack of internet access)

DB: We were awake early, if not a tad grumpy, for our dawn boat ride on the Ganges. We have read and heard much about this fabled river and were keen to take it all in, hook, line and stinker.

Again, the car ride from our hotel was akin to the Blind Dukes of Hazard on speed with a death wish, but finally we were introduced to our boatman and led through a madding throng of drivers, touts, stall holders, hangers around, and tourists. Then, boarding the boat in the half light, we began to slowly grasp the magnitude of the holy city of Varanasi, its relationship with the waterway and the confluence of past and present, sentient being and spirit, myth and reality.

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(Pic: The Ganges, Varanasi, India)

I remain astounded and baffled by the sensory overload that is the Ganges, and to be honest still struggle with the level of importance in which it is held in people’s beliefs, while simultaneously it is treated as one very large refuse disposal unit. To watch people come to its shores and immerse themselves with purpose, focus and ritual is very moving – the magnitude of its water’s symbolism in the context of spiritual purification and reincarnation are irrevocably interwoven. However we were also warned, fervently and frequently, about the actual physical toxicity of this very sanctified water. The fetid liquid, particularly on this side of the river, is officially septic, in the truest sense of the word, such is the level of human and other waste deposited continually. Several large sewers empty directly in the vicinity of the long row of ghats – steps from holy temples leading to the river – adding to the already problematic concoction caused by the often hourly human cremations that take place on its shore. While ash might not be too drastic, it’s the cremations where the family can’t afford enough timber for a big fire that tend to leave bits of singed cadaver, which ultimately find their way into the water below. To top it off, dogs, cats, buffalo, goats and miscellaneous beasts of the four- and two-legged variety make the shore home, including ensuite bathroom. Not pretty.

But then again, thousands upon thousands of people are truly elated at the opportunity to visit this consecrated canal, and its importance to Hindus the world over is not to be understated. A measure of this is the number of historic ghats that line the shore, each with its own regional maharaja custodian and band of merry sadu (holy men). A veritable India Expo (and beyond), the buildings are less constructions of beauty and more imposing symbols of religious significance with a State of Origin feel.

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(Pic: Washing clothes in the Ganges, Varanasi)

And then, as we were being paddled along side dozens of other morning adventurers, we heard “Oy – I know you!” We had met Meredith and her partner in the top-floor lounge of our hotel in Selcuk, Turkey. Meredith, from Adelaide, and I share connections with some colleagues and had chatted about our respective works a couple of months ago. Now, here she was with a friend in the middle of the Ganges at dawn, pointing at us with mouth agape. The odds are bewildering. We were hoping to catch up with her at the end of the boat ride, but in the cluttered flotilla we lost sight of each other.

SK: After returning to the hotel for brekky (full credit to the kids for their unflagging energy and chirpiness in the face of tiredness and early morning boat trips), we then embarked on a tour of the city with our Varanasi driver (he of the lovely white Ambassador). Having only one day to explore, we opted for expediency for a quick visit to the major temples. It was an opportunity to see around the city, as well as within some beautiful old and new holy sites. Again it was dodgem animals, with a much greater number of bullocks on the roads.

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(Pic: Some happy campers on the Ganges, Varanasi)

At lunch we bade farewell to our charming driver. Spending time with him, in traffic, was an opportunity to speak about life. His family was safely ensconced well away from the city noise and mayhem, in a small town about an hour or so from Varanasi. His three daughters, similar in age to our two, were being raised by their mother. Our driver, the major breadwinner, was only able to get away from work and visit once a month. It reinforced for me what a privilege our day-in-day-out twelve month long family time together is.

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(Pic: On the Ganges, Varanasi)

DB: We spent the afternoon wandering and wondering, gazing and gawking, engaging with some locals, watching where we were stepping, and dodging touts. This time, though, I was introduced to a new ploy, and didn’t really see it coming. As a westerner I have been conditioned to accept a hand offered in greeting and welcome, but no sooner had we shook than the man had deftly locked my hand under his chin and began massaging my arm. My masseur explained to me that he was simply being kind and hospitable, but after a few more minutes (of quite a nice rub) it became clear that I could really offer to pay him anything I wanted. No pressure of course, but I had the distinct impression that the meter was running.

I declined the offer to move to his stall down the way, as that could have been a lifetime investment – or the beginning of a deep and meaningful relationship, I’m not too sure – and eventually put an end to the rubbing, with a donation to the cause.

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(Pic: Ah, now there’s the rub, Varanasi)

Not five steps later another man was providing me with an outstretched hand and a red, toothy grin. I had to be a little too forceful for my own comfort in rejecting his hand-kneading advances, but we managed to walk on unscathed.

A bit more wandering and we headed back to the hotel for dinner and to prepare for our ride to the train station. The plan was for us to be collected from the hotel at 9pm, get the train at 10.30pm, sleep soundly, get to Delhi at 7.30am and then our homestay shortly after, spend a full day doing last minute exploring, shopping and visiting historic sights, maybe have another go at the fantastic old Delhi market, a leisurely dinner with the Talwars, a cab to the airport, and breakfast in Bangkok.

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(Pic: Sadu, Varanasi)

At least the last two worked like a charm…

We vacuumed another sensational meal at the Hotel India, packed and waited patiently for our ride. Nothing doing. Sandy made a couple of frantic calls and finally a driver turned up. It seemed he was as surprised to be collecting us as we were anxious.

The train station didn’t afford the ‘luxury’ of a waiting room, so we found a bench that wasn’t inhabited by anyone making it their home for the night (and there were a lot of them) and again waited patiently. 10.30 rolled by and the cool evening air turned a decided shade of frigid. We put on as many clothes as would permit us to move relatively freely and not roll away. And waited some more.

A buffalo appeared from a doorway on the opposite platform and stood patiently. I’m not entirely sure how it got there as it seemed the only access was via a timber staircase from our platform over the tracks. Maybe it, too, was waiting for a train? We’ve seen stranger things in India. And the platform announcements, introduced by that confounded “Ta-dah!” talked to us again about junny bunnies. We could only laugh. Thankfully there were no mynah birds – they must all still be in Agra for their conference.

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(Pic: Maddy made a friend who promised to finish school if we bought some flowers from her, Varanasi)

Given our rather trying episode at the Agra train station – that ended with our arrival in Varanasi a little over a day before but felt like a few lifetimes previous – we were extremely anxious about spending another cold night in a cesspool. Sandy had made a couple of calls earlier in the evening in an attempt to determine if and when the train would arrive so that, with a bit of forewarning, we could wait it out in our hotel room and not in amongst the vermin and the shadows. She was assured that the train was on time, but no one could confirm the arrival platform. It was Platform number three. Or number four. Or number three or four.

The train rolled in only an hour and a half late, which was luxurious in comparison with our previous locomotive legend, but upon boarding we discovered that we had not been booked into the same cabin. Again, we had been screwed by our dodgy travel agent in Delhi who assured us we would be together. We thought about making a ruckus, but it was plainly obvious that all the beds, bar ours, were full, and everyone was tucked in. So, Sandy and Maddy slept in a cabin above an older Indian couple who both snored like troopers, and Raffy and I took two bunks in what originally had been the corridor but was now considered yet another cabin in an attempt to service the rapidly growing Indian population. I set my alarm for 7am in preparation for getting the others up and ready to hit downtown Delhi.

My alarm went off and I awoke to a motionless train. I wiped some condensation off a window and registered that we were in the countryside somewhere, and that indeed not much was happening. On our previous train turn we became used to standing still and silent at regular intervals, so this was nothing new. We were also accustomed to train staff providing no indication of where we were and when we might be elsewhere. Finally the train lurched forward and after a time Raffy came and joined me in watching the Indian world go by, albeit in fits and starts.

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(Pic: You shoo them off – I’m busy, Varanasi)

Sandy and Maddy rose shortly after and we were offered breakfast. The others nibbled at some toast, and I selected a plain omelette that, it turned out, came with some hidden extras that were not advertised or pictured in a serving suggestion. Not long after brekky I cramped up and made a mad dash to the filthy squat toilet. Not only would I continue cramping for a couple of days but I would somehow infect the rest of the family.

And then it was midday, almost five hours late, we were still nowhere, and we had no indication of when we might leave it. As we were supposed to arrive in Delhi ages ago there was no food on board – not even chai. Finally we stopped at a train station and Sandy took the gamble to hunt down a chai wallah. She made it back just as the train staggered forward again.

SK: We got chatting with the older couple below Maddy and me. They were heading to Jaipur via Delhi, as she was attending an obstetrics conference to chair a panel. A fascinating couple, engaging and friendly, and not at all surprised about the lengthy delays. At this time of year, he said, you need to add at least twelve hours to each train journey because of the fog. So now we knew that our first trip wasn’t a lucky fluke. Some warning, when our tickets were handed over, would have been helpful, at least ensuring that our supply of snacks for the kids was more plentiful. (Our downstairs neighbours had brought ample food with them in anticipation.) And then we could also have factored in the time lags for our journey and not been in such a rush. 

DB: I could go on in detail about the following seven hours or so, but the recounting would be as tedious and nonsensical as the original experience. Suffice to say, we arrived in Delhi after dark, fought bitter battles with taxi wallahs wanting to extort wheelbarrows of money from us, our promised driver having not materialised, and got to the Talwars’ homestay with just about enough time for Sandy and I to repack our gear while Maddy and Raffy wolfed down some dinner, and for us to make it to the airport with a couple of minutes spare. I hadn’t dared eat anything since the tainted omelette until I was at least on the plane to ensure a quick evacuation, so to speak. All in all, a train ride that was to take nine hours took about 21. I wish I could have gotten extensions like that at uni. We were at our wit’s end. Another day had vanished into the ether. Our public transport experience had significantly tainted our overall India sojourn, and all we wanted to do was get the hell out. Many would suggest that it is such trials and travails that make for enhanced travel experiences and memories, and that in time we would look back and laugh. Stuff that for a joke. To date we find little to laugh about, and rather resent that our India experiences – ones we had looked forward to for years – have been irrevocably tainted. And now all we were dreaming about was collapsing in our apartment in Bangkok – the same one we were in six months ago – and not relying on a tour or transport operator at all ever again.

Gaining access to the Indira Gandhi International Airport got me thinking about our past few days. Getting onto a local suburban train on the Delhi Metro required bag searches and body frisking. Getting into the airport required the presentation of passports and air tickets – just to get in the building, and then a lengthy bag rummaging rigmarole once you got through the door. But getting aboard the long-haul trains required nothing of the sort. Nobody knew who we were, what was in our bag or what our intentions were. While I’m the last person to get overly anxious about the supposed terrorist threat that we’ve been led to believe that stalks us the world over, it was odd that India Rail was not considered a target – even just after the Mumbai attacks. Maybe those swarthy bad guys think that India Rail is doing enough on its own to put its passengers at risk, but then again, it got me thinking about innovative methods of destruction…

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(Pic: The Ganges throng, Varanasi)

We exited Bangkok’s recently liberated airport and encountered a wall of cool, crisp, pleasantly fragrant and seemingly clean air. We were tired, unwashed and I was still dealing with the effects of Delhi Belly, but I smiled. There was no haggling or hassling at the taxi rank and drivers waited in an orderly queue – an airport official noted our precise destination, jotted it down on a chit, and handed it to the driver who loaded our gear, started the meter (a meter!) and hit the wide, clean, vacant roads. I immediately relaxed and dozed – and felt something was amiss.

This was not the Bangkok we experienced six months ago, or even eighteen years ago. The roads were relatively empty, the air was fresh and all was quiet. What happened here? Did the missing days on India Rail force us through some weird time/space continuum vortex and plonk us in a strange parallel universe?

It didn’t matter – we simply succumbed. We got to the apartment before most Bangkokians had thought about scratching themselves, crawled into bed and slept.

By about ten we were up and about. Sandy went down to Our Local Shop (for we felt we had built a relationship since we invested a couple of weeks here half a year ago) for breakfast supplies and – joy of joys – we fended for ourselves, all the while walking around our spacious apartment in our undies and listening to loud music and the distant infectious growl of tuk-tuks. Locals call Bangkok ‘Krung Thep’, or the City of Angels. Like the other famous one, it has its gritty, grimy, sprawling, chaotic side, but for us this Bangkok seemed to look after us like a guardian.

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(Pic: Raffy and Maddy take the Bangkok plunge)

As a treat we had our first dinner at a newish Italian joint. There’s only so much curry and chilli a mob from Melbourne can endure without some soul-food. Some pasta and a couple of cracking pizzas did the trick.

And before we could blink we’d been in Bangkok over a week. We shared and overcame the tummy bug and I got a cold, but we simply revelled in standing still, making simple meals, reading and dipping in the rooftop pool. Maddy and Raffy did quite a bit of school work and scrap booking, and Sandy and I started reviewing our next leg of the journey, interspersed with watching ABC news and an episode of ‘Bastard Boys’ on the Australia Network cable channel. A bit weird, but comforting. Star Suites is, as regular readers will recall, a building that won’t feature in any glamour magazines in the near future, but we felt a connection and familiarity that felt a little like, well, home. In fact, Maddy pointed out that, at that time, she considered the apartment more like home than our own house in St Kilda. We had made a decision a couple of months back to ensure we stayed put and create a regular home environment once in a while, and this was doing the trick.

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(Pic: Maddy digs in to some delicious durian, Bangkok)

SK: This new side of Bangkok made me rethink India. Call it stubbornness, but I don’t want to give up on a place that is so huge, so diverse, and seems to have so much potential. We only managed to see a small part of the country, which in itself was overwhelming in so many ways. We only had a taste of a portion of the place, admittedly it left us ill (literally), but I’d like to have another go. The deserts (desserts?) of Rajasthan await for another time.

DB: Our truck was due at Bangkok port by the end of the week, so we bided our time by going to the cinema (standing to attention for the King’s anthem – still a treat), a couple of local markets and lazing about. The days were warm and dry and the nights cool. And we still marvelled at dry-season Bangkok – the streets much quieter, the footpaths less congested and the climate much more amenable. It may have had something to do with the recent political turmoil here that has allegedly driven hoards of potential tourists elsewhere and cost the local economy eleventy squillion baht, or maybe the world just looked like a nicer place at the moment.

After four changes of arrival date, we were becoming a bit concerned about our truck being late, as we had spent months planning on meeting our friends Justine, Johnnie, Jack and Zephyr in Laos. But every day spent in Bangkok meant another day lost in our attempts to meet up. And finally we came to the realisation that it just wasn’t going to happen.

So they came to us instead.

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(Pic: Justine, Zephyr, Jack and Johnnie join us for dinner, Bangkok)

Sandy and I were wracked with guilt over the JJJZ Laos trip being cut short just so they could come and hang out with us, but their decision made us supremely happy. We felt that for the first time in a while there were people out there looking out for us, wanting to ensure we were ok. We felt loved. They simply got a bus and a train (that ran on time, by the way) and less than 24 hours after they made their decision Maddy was downstairs charging up the street to embrace them.

RB: I was upstairs when I decided to go back down to meet Maddy. I pressed the button on the lift but then I saw another lift going down from level 7 so I waited for that lift and there was Maddy and Jack and Zephyr (I call him Zeph).        

DB: And perhaps as an omen, we got the call to come and collect our truck that same day.

Sandy and I made our way to the dock while Maddy and Raffy got spoiled by JJJZ.

Again, as regular readers will know, our dealings with all things shipping, docks and customs has rarely gone smoothly. Usually what should seemingly take a few minutes ends up taking hours and collecting our truck from Bangkok port was no exception.

Our rendezvous point was a 7-11 shop near the entrance to the docks. Perhaps a tad mysterious, but it will have to do. We weren’t sure if we were supposed to meet a man with a carnation in his lapel, or if we were to surreptitiously swap brief cases. Given there are 7-11s all over Thailand – often three within one hundred metres in an apparent attempt to squeeze out local independent shopkeepers – we hoped we picked the right one. Time ticked on. I fressed on some spring roles and Sandy made a call. Finally we were approached by a young man on a motor scooter. Was he the one? Maybe. Let’s find out. He beckoned us towards a car with two women in the front. They greeted us and opened the back door for us to climb in. We had been in contact with a couple of people in Bangkok via email in the previous weeks to establish details about collecting the truck, and one of them had a name that was probably the most encouraging name you could have when representing a couple of foreigners who couldn’t speak the language and were at the mercy of a variety of hard-headed bureaucrats. She was, is, and for us will always be Wallapa. To us, the Bangkok Wallapa (and definitely not the Werriwa one). If anyone was to cause us grief, the Wallapa would step in and make things right again. In Wallapa We Trust. As a token of our appreciation she now has a little toy koala dangling from her bag.

We were taken to a row of shipping containers standing in the afternoon sun and we picked out ours. It was opened for us and there our truck waited for some of our TLC. We were told that port officials were surprised not to find any keys in it. Damn straight there are no keys in it because they were in my pocket, as our one and only experience of entrusting keys to a shipping company ended unfavourably, and anyway, I had to disconnect the batteries prior to it making its voyage from Izmir, Turkey.

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(Pic: Danny checks all the truck’s vital signs, Bangkok port)

I retrieved a spanner from the back, popped the bonnet and connected the batteries up. It had been six weeks since it had last started, and while I have supreme confidence in the truck’s staying power, I was anxious about potentially hearing that dull click and whir that indicates a battery has given up. Of course I needn’t have worried. Trucky fired up first try and all was well in the world. I backed it out of the container and double checked the battery connections, as well as other vital signs, and then drove the truck with Wallapa in tow to the customs clearing area. This is where the official documentation gets ticked, stamped, signed and caressed through the necessary hurdles.

And, as Gomer Pyle said, “Surprise, surprise, surprise”, there was a catch.

Deep breath. In with hate, out with love. Om.

Once again, regular readers will remember the seemingly endless palaver regarding our ‘personal effects’ when we were shipping from Turkey. While we thought we were done with it, it had come back to haunt us.

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(Pic: The conference regarding our ‘personal effects’ continues – Sandy speaking with Wallapa, Bangkok port)

The Thai customs people didn’t actually give a fig about what was in our truck and what size Y-fronts I may or may not have had, but we were currently faced with two sets of paperwork for our shipping. Yep – one for the truck, and one for our personal effects. And, hit it again, Gomer, we’d been slugged twice for the one shipment because, according to the Turkish officials, there were two shipments – the truck and our personal bloody effects. Nobody else in the world has cared about our luggage, and now we were staring at a bureaucratic nightmare regarding how the two shipments could be separated, even thought it was only one.

We were taken to an office in the port complex and we waited for something to happen. We sat in a waiting room while various shipping agent bods went in and out of the office, pleading their case and exchanging bits of paper. Finally, it seemed we had a deal.

It was only when we went back to the secure parking lot where our truck stood solitarily, that things really started to heat up. One bloke with some clout was saying no, he needed two sets of paper for the two shipments, while the shipping agents were explaining that it was all one shipment, and about a dozen or so hangers on seemed to flip-flop between the two parties with looks of “on the other hand”. It was like watching a game of verbal tennis in the round. A dozen or so people stating their case, scratching their heads, rubbing their chins, exchanging paper. And all the while Sandy and I wondered what would happen if we simply slipped into the truck, fired it up and drove away. Ah, that was it – they had our Carnet de Passage and my passport. Drat. There’s always a reason to play the game.

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(Pic: Repacking the truck, Bangkok)

The sun was getting low and we were concerned about either negotiating Bangkok traffic in the dark or having to come back and do the whole thing again. There was a serious impasse, and while the customs team was attempting to use the sleeper hold the shipping agents were having a go at the Heimlich manoeuvre. And then the big guns rolled in – the head honcho of the customs office who parked his flashy car, hitched it to a pole, sauntered into the fray with spurs a-janglin’, pushed back his hat and gave a look that said “Do I always have to come in to sort you peckerheads out?” Finally, sense reigned supreme and, for reasons only known to Cowboy Customs, the right bits of paper were signed in the right places, and we high-tailed it out of there and back to the apartment.

SK: Bangkok traffic six months ago had me quivering in my seat. I had palpitations at the thought of navigating through this major, monstrous metropolis. Just goes to show what a bit of experience and familiarity does. Danny and I took our appointed places in the truck, pointed ourselves in the right direction, and calmly made our way home as the sun set.

DB: We all hung out in our apartment for a couple of days, and then made the trip south-west to the beach town of Cha-am (SK: and it was a most cha-aming town). Young Jack hitched a ride with us in our newly arrived truck while Raffy hung with Zeph and his parents in a minibus. The eight of us spent a glorious five days that seemed at once to stand still and fly past in a blink. Our days were spent eating, mainly, with some Chang and Singha beer washing it down, and some existential navel gazing that potentially did the soul some good. The four children entertained themselves endlessly and the grownups got massages and foot-scrapes on the beach while vendors brought delectable prawns, squid, vegies and noodles to us. We had replaced gritty, frenzied India with salty hair and prickly skin. We were living a dream.

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(Pic: Jack, Maddy, Danny and Johnnie pedal power, Cha-am, Thailand)

Our last evening together was observed by a bonfire on the beach after Raffy and Zeph in particular spent the best part of a day collecting firewood. In the morning the JJJZ would head home and we would aim our truck north, aiming for Laos.

What has become recently evident, albeit unmentioned, is that we are possibly running out of time to complete our planned journey. Ideally we wanted to drive clockwise through some of south-east Asia, and then south through Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Timor Leste and home. It was the Indonesia and Timor bit that might be pushing it. We could have simply gone south and forgotten about Laos and Cambodia, but the weather in Indonesia isn’t currently favourable, and Sandy suggested that maybe we wouldn’t get another chance to drive through Laos and Cambodia, and a drive through Indonesia could be another trip down the track.

Then again, it looks doable on paper, so maybe we just might give it a crack…

What had been a couple of difficult weeks for us turned into an idyllic sojourn. Refreshed and invigorated, we set ourselves for a great couple of months.

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(Pic: Bonfire farewell, Cha-am, Thailand)


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2 Comments»

  Hilary wrote @

i did laugh at the indian arm-wrestle massage tale – reminds me of some buskers who one pays to stop… not you of course! it’s intriguing how some of the most interesting travel experiences can end up reading like cautionary tales, places you wouldn’t at to visit in a fit. maybe what india calls for is first to find a decent gateway in there, then allow oneself an open-ended sojourn? nah, i still wouldn’t go. what do m & r say about it?
fondly
hilary

  Wally & Eleanor wrote @

Hi DSMR I just finished watching a programe on tv called India Now. A ll about the problems the Caste people are having wanting their little plot of land they were promised. It was lovely to see the photos of JJJZ and to read about the quality time you all had together. I have spoken to Johnnie and quite excited about the shift to Melb. Looking forward to seeing you all when you return to Melb. Love you all Wally & Eleanor.


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