2015

On this second last day of 2015, I’m feeling very thankful for many things.

I’m thankful to be home. India has been awesome, but nothing beats being home. I felt this the most when both pa and ma were hospitalised (on separate occasions, thankfully) this year. I was able to visit them the moment I knew, and then every day. During their most fragile moments, they spoke more openly and shared hilarious and heart-wrenching stories about their younger days. It made me question why didn’t I take the time before to get to know them better, beyond their roles as parents? Thankfully it is not too late. They are both well (enough) now and I hope 2016 will be a more peaceful year for the family.

I’m thankful for the many new friendships formed, and old friendships firmed. Old friends have been extremely generous with their time and advice, whilst new friends have readily embraced me. If not for the advice of an old friend on 29 May 2015, “If not now, then when?” I’d probably still be floundering and fretting about where I’m headed.

I’m thankful for the strong support from PJ when I took a significant pay-cut to take on an opportunity I couldn’t miss. And I’m thankful I did not let fear cloud and overwhelm my decision.

I’m thankful for the current job and the many life lessons I’m receiving. It’s been a humbling, exciting, inspiring and thought-provoking journey. And I look forward to 2016.

I will also remember 2015 as a year of tears – tears were shed when Mr LKY passed away; when I was saying goodbye to Mumbai; when Dharma & Greg took the plane to Singapore; when pa was hospitalised; when ma was hospitalised; when I watched movies with old people who are sickly, alone, lonely and confused, and reflected upon life’s fragility; when I read “Still Alice”; the many quarrels I had with PJ (yes, we fight like normal couples do) over insignificant and significant issues; when Bing Bong died in “Inside Out”; when Flo and I surprised Char with a staycation; when I watched a short video about the awesomeness of a mum’s love.

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2015 has been eventful and emotional. I look forward to a quieter, smoother 2016. To Be the flow.

Wishing you an awesome 2016 ahead. :)

Fret not where the road will take you. Instead concentrate on the first step. That’s the hardest part and that’s what you are responsible for. Once you take that step let everything do what it naturally does and the rest will follow. Do not go with the flow. Be the flow.

  • Elif Shafak, Forty Rules of Love
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How to relocate your cat from Mumbai, India to Singapore

After a 3 years’ stint in Mumbai, my husband and I are now back in Sunny Singapore. Relocation is always a little troublesome, but very manageable when there’s just the two of you. But when you throw 2 pet cats into the bag, then it becomes a whole new level of stress and anxiety.

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I had been stressing over the relocation of Dharma & Greg from Mumbai to Singapore for MONTHS. Some fur parents choose to engage an agent to plough through the paperwork and procedure; but I wanted to do it myself – partly to save money and also because I wanted to be with the cats at every step of the journey. And if I was going to be present all the time, I might as well do it myself. And so I read all the websites and guidelines I could find, dropped Singapore’s Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA), Singapore Customs and Singapore Airlines numerous emails, and created a folder and charts for all the necessary documents and procedures. I personally brought the cats for all their vaccinations, blood tests, health examinations and the final journey to the airport. It was quite hectic in the final week, but we made it! The bottom-line is – IT CAN BE DONE! =)

Information comes in piecemeal on the internet, often inaccurate, and it is with this in mind that I am creating this short guide to help any fur parents based in Mumbai or India at large who are thinking or preparing your fur babies for the BIG MOVE. Do note that this guide will be specific to cats and Singapore. 

A quick overview of the entire process:

  1. Singapore’s Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA) requires all cats arriving from India to be quarantined for a minimum of 30 days
  2. Before you can book a quarantine space, you will need to fulfil the following:
    1. Microchip your cat
    2. Vaccinate against rabies
    3. Pass rabies antibody test
  3. Vaccinate cat for Cat Flu and Cat Enteritis
  4. Treat cat for external and internal parasites
  5. Check with your airline on transport requirements & procure the appropriate carrier
  6. Get your vet to complete a AVA Health Cert and issue his/her own health cert
  7. Bring your cat down to Navi Mumbai for a Government Official to issue a India Health Cert. There is the only documentation you will need from the Government of India. There is no need for an export license.
  8. Do note there is no need for a Singapore Customs Permit or Customs Declaration if your cat is arriving as a personal import and if the value is not more than $400. This point is not clear on the AVA website and caused me a lot of unnecessary pain and angst.

And now, for the detailed timeline and process:

AS SOON AS YOU CAN

  1. Micro-chip your cat at your regular vet
  • This is to create a unique ID for your cat and the microchip number must appear on all subsequent vaccination certifications and test reports
  1. Ensure that the microchip meets ISO Standard 11784 or Annex A to ISO Standard 11785
  • This will allow the relevant authorities in Mumbai and Singapore to scan the microchip implanted in your cat

6-8 MONTHS PRIOR TO EXPORT

  1. Rabies Vaccination and Rabies Antibody Test
  • Vaccinate your cat against rabies at least 6 months prior to export
  • Ensure that the Rabies Certification has the Microchip Number of your cat
  • Return to your vet at least one month after the rabies vaccination and within 6 months prior to export to have a blood sample taken
  • This blood sample will be spun for blood serum by your vet for the rabies antibody test
  • Once the blood serum is ready, either the vet or you will need to drop it off at the Bombay Veterinary College (Department of Microbiology) for rabies antibody testing. The college uses the ELISA test. Bring cash for payment (we paid Rs.4000 for each cat).
    • Bombay Veterinary College, Department of Microbiology
    • Parel, Mumbai – 400012, Maharashtra (India)
    • +91-22-2413 1180 / 2413 7030 / 2413 2792 (Extn. 140)
  • The report should be ready within 1-2 weeks
  • A ‘good’ report should show that the cat has a minimum level of 0.5 IU/ml of antibody in the serum. This means the cat is immunised against Rabies
  1. Cat Flu and Cat Enteritis Vaccinations
  • Vaccinate your cat against Cat Flu (Feline calicivirus and Feline viral rhinotracheitis) and Cat Enteritis (ie Feline Panleukopaenia/ Feline parvovirus) not less than 2 weeks prior to export

3-6 MONTHS PRIOR TO EXPORT

  1. Quarantine Space Reservation
  • Once you have the Rabies antibody report, reserve a quarantine space at https://qms.ava.gov.sg/Public/Login.aspx
  • Be prepared to upload a soft-copy of both the rabies cert and rabies antibody report (if you don’t have a scanner, you can take a photo and upload that)

1-2 MONTHS PRIOR TO EXPORT

  1. Carrier

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  • It is good to get your cat familiar with the carrier, so just leave it around the house once you’ve purchased it
  • Can two cats travel together in the same carrier? The short answer is yes. Whilst IATA advises against animals traveling in the same carrier for fear of them turning aggressive during a stressful situation, it is not a hard guideline. Singapore Airlines, after some discussion and checking, confirmed that we could fly Dharma & Greg in the same carrier, provided they each weigh less than 9kg, and that the carrier is big enough for them

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  1. AVA Import License
  1. Airline Arrangements
  • Book your air ticket and inform your airline that you will be traveling with your cat
  • Singapore Airlines does not allow pets to be hand-carried onto the flight. This means they will go into a special cargo area with temperature control

2-7 DAYS PRIOR TO EXPORT

Step 1: Visit your regular vet for:

  1. Health Certificate on the vet’s letterhead, certifying cat is fit for transport
  2. Completion of AVA vet cert (For Cat D countries). Print out the template from http://www.ava.gov.sg/docs/default-source/tools-and-resources/resources-for-businesses/vet-conditions-category-d and bring it
  3. Internal and external parasites treatment (required by AVA)

Step 2: Make appointment to obtain Animal Health Certificate issued by the Government of India in Navi Mumbai

  • Call the Animal Quarantine and Certification Service (+02227552021) at least one day in advance
  • Address: Kopar Khairance, Sector 11, Navi Mumbai 400709

Step 3: Prepare & bring both the original and 1 photocopy each of the following documents for the Navi Mumbai visit:

  • AVA Import License
  • AVA Vet Cert (see 1(b))
  • Vet Health Cert
  • Rabies Cert (most recent)
  • Rabies Antibody Report
  • Tricat Vaccination Cert (most recent)
  • Passport First Page
  • India Visa
  • Flight Itinerary / Ticket
  • TWO COPIES of cat photograph (4R or 4″x6″, with pet name, microchip # and owner name written at the back)

Step 4: Visit Navi Mumbai with your cat

  • If you arrive in your own car at Navi Mumbai, they will ask you to leave the cat in the car, whilst you submit all the documentation & complete a form in the office. A vet will then go to the car to scan for the cat’s mircochip number. Finally, they will prepare the Govt of India Animal Health Certificate & sign off on the AVA health cert (remember to bring the original copy!)
  • Make sure you leave with the following:
    • Govt of India Animal Health Certificate, signed stamped and sealed
    • Original copy of AVA Vet Cert, signed and stamped by the resident vet
    • One copy of your cat photo, signed and stamped on the back

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  • It is interesting that whilst other pet owners have advised giving a “tip” to the Navi Mumbai staff, I was not asked or did I feel pressured to tip them. So, I didn’t. I treated them with courtesy and respect, and they in turn were professional and helpful (albeit slow in getting the paperwork churned out).

5 DAYS PRIOR TO EXPORT

  1. Contact Changi Animal and Plant Quarantine station (CAPQ)
  • Call them at +65 6545 7253 to notify them of your confirmed flight itinerary and import license number
  1. Prepare your carrier
  • Stick a copy of your cat’s photo on the carrier, with its name written on it
  • Prepare a file with all the documentation (identical to the Navi Mumbai list) and tape it on to of the carrier

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  • Buy cable ties to secure the door of the carrier
  • Explore using Feliway, a product that will supposedly relax and calm your cat (didn’t work for Dharma & Greg…)
  1. Remind your Airline of the pet travel

ON THE DAY OF THE TRAVEL – AT MUMBAI AIRPORT

  1. Feed your cat 5-6 hours before travel.
  2. Try to let it go to the potty before putting it into the carrier.
  3. Line the carrier floor generously with used towels or used clothing. Your scent might calm the cat, and also help to absorb the cat’s pee, if any. Feel free to throw in any toys, boxes, cushions etc. to make your cat feel more comfortable. 
  4. Aim to arrive 1.5 hours before departure time or time your arrival to the plane’s arrival at the airport (check with airline on this)
  • You can choose to arrive early to avoid the crowd at the check-in counters, but be prepared to wait with your pet outside the departure gate until the aircraft has arrived. The airline will not accept your cat any earlier than the plane’s arrival, because the cargo area will be too warm for holding your pet.
  • Make sure the airline sticks a luggage tag number on the carrier and also indicates “PET” on the luggage tag you hold.
  1. Be prepared to take your cat out of the carrier at the Mumbai Airport
  • The carrier needs to be scanned with an X-ray machine. You will be required to take your cat out of the carrier. Hold it tight, or have a lease secured to it. The whole process can be traumatising to your cat, but it will be over in less than a minute.
  1. Once the scanning is completed, give your cat a cuddle and place it back into the carrier. Secure the carrier door with cable ties. Wave goodbye and remain cheerful (although I was a wreck).
  2. Before entering aircraft, check with ground crew to ensure that the cat has been loaded. 

ON THE DAY OF THE TRAVEL – AT SINGAPORE CHANGI AIRPORT  

  1. Upon landing, proceed immediately to Lost & Found
  • Inform the counter staff that you’re traveling with a pet and present the “PET” luggage tag
  • Upon completing a form at the Lost & Found, proceed to CAPQ
  1. Make your way to Changi Animal and Plant Quarantine (CAPQ)
  • CAPQ is a distance away from Changi Airport. It is best to have a car or taxi bring you there
  • Bring along an identity card to change pass to enter the CAPQ area
  1. Reunite with the cat at CAPQ
  • You will reunite with your cat at CAPQ :)
  • Submit the original AVA Health Certificate, India Health Certificate, AVA License and a photocopy of the Rabies Certificate and Rabies Antibody Report to AVA
  • CAPQ may keep your cat overnight in its cattery before sending it to the Sembawang Quarantine Station the next day
  • Get a directional map to Sembawang Quarantine Station from CAPQ. This map will provide the exact location and transport guide.

SEMBAWANG QUARANTINE STATION

  1. Visiting hours
  • Weekdays: 4-6pm; Saturday: 2-6pm; No visiting on Sundays and Public Holidays
  1. Quarantine Facilities

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  • Food: AVA will provide daily kibbles and fresh water. You can choose to bring your own food and provide feeding instructions
  • Litter: Litter box and litter will be provided. Cleaning will be done daily.
  • Shower: You can book a room to shower your cat. Note that there is no hot water
  • Toys: Bring some toys and scratching posts for your cat. This will help keep it sane for the 30 days quarantine :)

As I am writing this, Dharma & Greg have just 5 days left in quarantine. The whole process was traumatic at times, for both me and the cats, but we are fine. We survived. We cat people, and cats are resilient. Trust that all will be well.

If you have any questions or need any help, please contact me at wongcheehuey@gmail.com.

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2014

2014 has been a different year for me. For the first time in 12 years I was truly unemployed, without any form of income (I had worked through my uni days and also during my first 2 years in Mumbai). Initially, I fluctuated between states of restlessness/sense of worthlessness/fretting over money and “Eh, I actually have the luxury of doing nothing, anything and/or everything.” Things started improving when PJ (finally) got me a sub-card, helped to offset a chunk of my recurring expenses/responsibilities in Singapore, and when I finally got my act together to work on a few projects.

“What do you do everyday?” is a common question I get. I wish there’s an inspiring response like, “Helping to end poverty in India.” The truth is nowhere close, unfortunately. Random activities like reading, cooking, volunteering, Instagramming, playing with my cats and plain-old-bumming-around occupy my time. That said, there were some noteworthy events and here’s what I think I’ve learned in 2014:

1) Thinking about it is hard, doing it is easy (or easier).

I’ve been volunteering for the past 2 years, mainly in HR matters and working directly with the beneficiaries. When CORP (the NGO I primarily volunteer with) offered me the chance to manage a fundraising campaign that will last from Jul 2014 to Jan 2015, I was riddled with self-doubt and fear. “Can I? Should I? Do I want to? What if I fail? How do I even manage?” were just some self-defeating questions. But once I decided to take it on, after rationalising that this project is a very meaningful one, I realised, hey, it’s actually quite manageable!

You might already know that this campaign centers around the 2015 StanChart Mumbai Marathon. Using the marathon as a platform, we are raising funds for CORP’s young children’s food programme by selling charity running bibs and encouraging individual runners to fund-raise for us.

Apart from managing this campaign, PJ and I are both running (a short distance) and fundraising. Learn more and support us at: http://www.unitedwaymumbai.org/scmm-fundraiser-3783. Thank you! :)

That's me giving a lecture :P

That’s me overcoming my fear of public speaking and giving a briefing to our sponsors. See! Another example of thinking about it is hard, doing it is easy (or easier). :)

2) The secret about volunteering: You might think you’re the one giving, but you’re really the one receiving. 

For a while, PJ and I gave computer lessons to children with hearing disabilities. One day, only one computer was functioning so PJ proceeded with the lesson whilst I slacked engaged other children. Some of them asked for a pen and paper, wrote down the English alphabet and started signing fervently to me. Oh! They were teaching me sign language! After they patiently walked me through the 26 letters, everyone was all smiles and I was left extremely touched. As much as I want to teach them computer skills, they want to teach me their language, too. These children have given me something that will remain with me forever – their generosity (and 26 letters).

3) “And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake. I shake it off, I shake it off.” – Taylor Swift 

One of Dharma’s Instagram photo was re-posted on a popular cat account in March, resulting in a spike in Dharma & Greg’s followers. I soon realised that with “fame” comes criticism. The photo that popularised D&G was a cute but unflattering photo of Dharma looking SUPER FAT (it was a bad angle. she’s really not that fat). Some random strangers started slamming me for being an irresponsible owner, allowing her to become obese, endangering her health etc. I was really upset that day and the hubs and friends had to comfort and encourage me to tune out the noise. A couple of months later, I posted a photo of Greg curled up (very happily) in a plastic bag. Again, I received angry accusations of putting my cat in a life-threatening situation. Seriously…?? This time, I was calmer (I think) and spent time addressing people’s concerns carefully. I am now more mindful of what I post, but I also recognise that it’s impossible to please everyone. If somebody wants to take offence at an innocent cat photo, he/she will. Fortunately, the cats also have a group of very loyal followers who would speak up for us and  frequently tell me that pictures of D&G bring them a lot of joy. Yay :)

4) Sometimes all it takes is just one positive voice

“Wow. You published a book??” Truth be told, it’s simple. There are several online platforms that allow you to create, publish and distribute a book with just a few clicks. Anyone can say, “I published a book!” today.

I first experimented with lulu.com, published an expensive hard-copy book, did zero publicity and then slacked off. Oops. One day, an Instagram follower from Singapore bought the book from lulu.com and gave me very positive feedback. I was so encouraged that I revived the project, used the more popular Amazon’s Create Space, and published a (more affordable) photo book ‘Purrfectly Content: Fuzzy Little Insights to Kindness, Happiness and Peace‘ on Amazon: http://amzn.com/1499356951. If you have already gotten a copy, mew mew (that’s “Thank You” in cat language).

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5) Never stop engaging, exploring and wandering

Through engaging new-found friends, acquaintances and even strangers, we experienced many “firsts” in 2014, such as pigging out at eateries where only the locals go, participating in Indian festivities & weddings, and getting a glimpse into the life of the old rich of Bombay.

With more time on my hand, I’ve also been exploring the neighbourhood, stumbling upon street art, new cafes and cute shops. PJ and I have also been exploring other parts of Mumbai together, making us realise there is so much we haven’t explored! We’ve barely scratched the surface of Mumbai (and India), and will try to cram as much as we can in our final 3 months here.

6) Keep an open mind

Each time PJ chanted, “I want to go Old Delhi and have street food!”, I might have made a face. Who wants to go Delhi, the infamous rape capital of India, where women can’t walk alone on the streets after 7pm and the people are rougher (than Mumbai)? I had been to Delhi twice already and never liked it. Two weeks ago, we made our third trip there, visited Old Delhi for the first time and I was pleasantly surprised. Old Delhi was buzzing, filled with delightful street food, old rickshaws and other quaint sights that would make any photographer go weak in the knees. At a roadside store, we (bravely) stopped for breakfast and was joined by an uncle who enthusiastically explained what our dishes were. The store-owner and his crew also gamely posed for photos. Along the way, people were friendly when we asked for directions. Even the rickshaw guy was polite when we bargained over the rickshaw fare! Old Delhi gave me a different perspective and reminded me that it’s important to keep an open mind. Had I put my foot down and refused to visit Delhi, I would never have been acquainted with this charming side of Delhi.

7) With a sub-card comes responsibilities

You would imagine that a sub-card is all fun and shopping, yah? Not entirely. PJ now conveniently outsources most travel arrangements to me because “just pay with my sub-card”. I’ll be responsible for researching and booking hotels, air tickets and car arrangements, and occasionally planning the itinerary. I’m relieved to say we’ve had great holidays in Udaipur, Agra, Ladakh, Jaisalmer and Dubai (I was mainly the Dubai Mall guide :P) this year.

8) Don’t dig your nose at an altitude of 3,000m #truestory

My second favourite place in India is Ladakh (obviously Mumbai is going to take first place). Clear blue skies, beautiful weather, warm people and delicious food; there’s nothing to find fault with. Except, maybe, the high altitude and thin air. PJ really suffered from altitude sickness for the first 3 days whilst on my last night I experienced an 1-hour nosebleed (triggered by you-know-what. See heading). VERY scary. At some point I thought I might just pass out from all that loss of blood. In spite of that, I love Ladakh and raved so much about it that an online magazine picked up my blog entry and republished it on their site: http://magazine.tripzilla.com/tour-ladakh-jammu-kashmir-india/15489.

9) India is a huge country. The Taj Mahal is not near Mumbai. Also, must visit Agra Fort in addition to Taj Mahal.

In an earlier post, I’d explained that The Taj Mahal is nowhere near Mumbai. It is in Agra, part of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and is a 2-hours flight from Mumbai to Delhi and a 5-hours drive thereon. In Feb, PJ’s parents came up for a visit and we finally made the pilgrimage to the Taj Mahal. Perhaps it’s been too hyped up and I was expecting to be wowed upon first sight. Yet all I experienced was, “Hmm… just like that, ah? A semi-white building. Why so crowded at 7am??” Instead, I found the Agra Fort much more charming. But hey, I can finally say, “I’ve been to India!” because, apparently, if you’ve not been to the Taj, you’ve not been to India ;)

Taj Mahal

10) Bring your parents out whenever you can. After all, they brought you out whenever they can when you were just a teeny tiny being. :)

Not working meant my time in Singapore (whenever we return for PJ’s work) was completely freed up and I got to spend a lot more time with my family this year, especially mum. I’d managed to accompany her to most major visits to the hospital, brought her out for meals and excursions. She would often protest and say, “Huh, what’s there to see? Why waste money?” but during every outing, I know she’s enjoying herself. On her birthday, I brought her to River Safari and a birthday badge was given to her. To my surprise, she happily pinned it on, beamed whenever a zoo staff wished her ‘happy birthday’ and replied “Tankeww” in her cute auntie-English. It’s like she’s a little kid all over again.

Looking back, sometimes it feels like I’d barely done anything and I wish I’d done more. More volunteer work, more yoga, explored more, cooked more, learned more… Other times I take comfort that this year has been good. I’ve been contented (for the most part), healthy (when I eat well, do the bikini body guide workout and go running), and did things that I truly enjoy. It is good enough.

I hope 2014 has been good enough for you, too.

Happy new year and may you be safe, be well and be contented in 2015.

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Keralan Coconut Vegetable Curry

The hectic traveling has finally wind down for a bit and I am back in the kitchen trying out new recipes again. When in India, cook Indian food, right? India has many different beautiful curries and I made a lovely Keralan curry yesterday. It was light, flavourful and versatile enough for a mix of different vegetables. The original recipe from Anjum’s Indian Vegetarian Feast uses 400g sweet potatoes, 100g shredded greens and 400g can chickpeas, but I used a mixture of pumpkin, Delhi carrots (because they are in season in India now), mushroom, broccoli, Swiss chard and chana dal (split black chick peas with the outer skin removed). You can try aubergines, okra, spinach, peas and green beans, too. I also used coconut oil to give this coconuty curry more fragrance, and omitted coconut cream to give it more lightness.This curry is excellent with rice, bread or even a side of plain boiled puy lentils.

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Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer, Rajasthan – The Golden City of India

This blog has been dead for the past two and a half months. Blame it on the traveling schedule. It has been rather mad (Mumbai, Singapore, Mumbai, Pune, Mumbai, Jaisalmer, Mumbai, Dubai, Mumbai, Singapore, Mumbai) and when I am finally in Bombay, I just want to be a coach potato and laze around with my cats. I’m serious. Sometimes I just lie on the floor with them, doing absolutely nothing… #crazycatlady

So anyway. A number of friends have asked about Jaisalmer and whether it’s worth visiting. Some who have seen my photos exclaimed and marveled at the beauty of India. (Admittedly, I edit most of my photos and my hubs complains that I make parts of India more attractive than it really is. BUT. I believe my level of photo editing can only make something more beautiful, and not make something ugly beautiful.)

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Jaisalmer was not a city I fell in love at first sight. Rather, it grew on me. The problem was I kept comparing it to Jodhpur, a Rajasthani city we had visited last November. I found Jodhpur (the Blue City) more colourful and more exotic and thought Jaisalmer was a clone of Jodhpur, only that it was yellow and not blue; and smaller. But as the days past, I came to appreciate Jaisalmer. It was more laid back and the people warmer, gentler and more genuine.

To get to Jaisalmer, you will need to take a train, bus or car ride from Jodhpur. Because we are rather pampered creatures, we hired a car. :P The car ride was about 5 hours (one way) through the Thar Desert and you might be able to spot some camels, langur, peacocks and sheep along the way.

It was dusk when we reached Jaisalmer and I wanted nothing more than to take a shower and crash. So it was extremely comforting when we saw our room at 1st Gate Home Fusion. It was spacious, clean, tastefully decorated, comfortable and equipped with small, thoughtful touches like a snack basket (chips, chocolates, Parle-G!), fruit basket, hairdryer, books, and a shower area with two shower heads, one on each end. What a treat (although one does question why we would need two shower heads)! The best part of 1st Gate is that it is extremely close to the Fort, offers you an excellent view of the Fort and shields you away from the hustle and bustle that inevitably comes with staying inside the Fort.

Over the next 3 days, we spent our time exploring the Jaisalmer Fort, Patwa Havelis, Gadisar Lake (you can give this a miss if you don’t have enough time), wandering the streets by foot and tuk tuk in search of Rajasthani thali, masala chai and masala everything (eggs, papad, soda, coffee…). We met shop owners who gently invite you to view their goods and step inside their shops, curious and well-meaning Indian travelers who want to take a picture with you and restaurant owners who will sometimes pull up a chair and tell you their life stories and their beloved city of Jaisalmer. We came to realise that Jaisalmer is really tiny! It is essentially a Fort surrounded by havelis right in the middle of the Thar Dessert. The word often used to describe Jaisalmer is ‘mirage’, considering that it is a golden city surrounded by sand. And why is it called the ‘golden city’? Almost all the buildings and Fort are built using yellow sandstone.

We chose to spend our days walking around and lazing in the room (because it was so comfortable!) and skipped the excursions to the Desert. Did we miss much? I’m not sure. But this was the ideal holiday for us – leisurely, too much food, walk-able routes, lovely people and scenic views. I heart Rajasthan!

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7 Days in Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir, India

We just got back from Ladakh and IT WAS BEAUTIFUL.

Situated at an altitude of at least 9,800ft (3000m) above sea level, Ladakh is a high altitude desert. The Himalayas create a rain shadow denying entry to monsoon clouds which is currently covering the rest of India at this time of the year. Even though a desert, it was cool even during the day with plenty of sunshine. Skies were amazingly blue; flora and fauna flourished in seemingly everyone’s gardens.

For our 7-days trip, we used Leh (yes, in typical Singaporean fashion, there were plenty of “leh” jokes e.g., we are going to Leh, leh!) as our “base” to explore the rest of Ladakh and chose to stay in Gangba Homestay. Gangba then referred us to notjusttravel.in for a tour package and we picked “The Best of Ladakh in 7 days”. To call it a tour package is a misrepresentation, at least to me. I would imagine a tour guide of sorts with the tour package, yes? No. There wasn’t. Instead, all we were provided with was a driver and a car, for which we had to give daily instructions on where to go by referring to my itinerary in my email. This wasn’t a bad deal, actually, because it gave us much freedom to decide how much time we want to spend at each place, and whether we should drop a place or not etc.

In those seven days, we did what most tourists would have covered – Shanti Stupa, the monasteries circuit (Hemis Gompa, Thikshey Gompa, Shey Palace and Gompa), the Druk Padma Karpo Institute aka The 3 Idiots School (have you watched ‘3 Idiots’? you must!), Nubra Valley via the Khardung-la Pass, Leh Bazaar, Pangong Lake and Leh Palace. Naturally some were hits and some misses. But if you are a first time visitor to Ladakh, just go through this rite of passage. :) My only advice would be to plan a holiday longer than a week. Depending on individuals, it could take you a few days to acclimatise.   Traveling to places like Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake from Leh would easily take you 4-5 hours. One way. I took quite a few days to acclimatise and by the time I was truly comfortable, the holiday was over :( If we could do it all over again, we probably would have skipped Nubra Valley (but oh, the came rides at the White Sand Dunes were so fun!) and stayed overnight at Pangong Lake.

At the risk of stating the obvious, do try Ladakhi food when you’re in Ladakh! Often elusive, because the many Indian tourists demand Indian/Punjabi food, you might need some effort tracking them down. Even though we were staying in a homestay, we had to pester our hosts before they finally served us a Ladakhi breakfast  of khambish (bread made from wheat flour) and gugur chai (salt tea with butter) on our last day. We also managed to get very decent mo mo (dumplings), thukpa (noodle soup) and skew (pasta with root vegetables) at the Chopsticks (Noodle Bar) in Leh Bazaar.

Ladakh is also famous for its apricots and sea buckthorn (leh berry). Dzomsa in Leh serves very fresh juices. Another interesting thing is that almost every cafe would serve hot Maggi noodles soup. Trust me, they taste even better at a high altitude ;)

Would I ever visit Ladakh again?

In a heartbeat <3

Street Food of Maharashtra

“Do you eat curry every day?” and other FAQs on Mumbai / India

India is a place where many friends say, “Oh, I would love to visit!” but never really get round to it maybe because Europe/Australia/US/Japan/Korea/Vietnam/Laos/Thailand is more sexy; maybe because of the rape cases and safety issues magnified and exaggerated by the media; maybe because you have young children, and hygiene and healthcare are real concerns; maybe because you think I’ll be here forever and you’ll eventually find time to visit us.

Well, guess what? We have just 9 months left to go in Mumbai  before PJ de-posts and we return to Singapore for good. Sniff. So fast hor. I’ve been here 2 years and 2 months already.

This post is prompted by a friend who is “banned” from visiting India by his mum (you know who you are :p) because of the sensational rape cases that have been happening in the past 1 year and he actually asked me to post more nice pictures of India to correct the mindset. But I have been! Just check out my Instagram. It’s on fire.

So, instead of just photos, I thought I’ll do a FAQs of the top 6 questions (and the accompanying facial expressions) I’ve received. Here we go, starting with the burning question on everyone’s minds:

 

Q: Do you eat curry every day? *makes LOL face*

A: If by “curry” you mean the chicken curry we find at the chup chye peng stalls in Singapore or Muthu’s Fish Head Curry, then no. If by “curry” you mean anything with a gravy, then yes, we eat curry almost every day. In fact, I cook curry very often because there are just so many different types of curry to experiment with and it would also be a pity not to cook using the beautiful, fresh spices and ingredients here. But there’s so much more to Indian cuisine than just “curry”. Come visit, and I’ll show you.

By the way, you can’t find “fish head curry” here. It’s a Singaporean and Malaysian dish. >.<

 

Q: Do you eat prata every day? *makes orgasmic face*

A: Haha I wish! Again, roti prata is a Singaporean and Malaysian dish. The closest we have here is “paratha”, which looks like roti prata but with a denser texture. I’m also not sure they flip the paratha here like the roti prata uncle in Singapore does… They also don’t serve it with a portion of curry but do stuff it with ingredients like potato, Indian cheese etc.

 

Q: Is it safe????? *makes worried face*

A: It depends on what “it” is. Mumbai is generally quite safe. There have been some scares that happened quite close to where we live but this hasn’t deterred me from walking around my neighbourhood during the day and even taking an auto-rickshaw (it’s like tuk-tuk) on my own (though I seldom do it lah). Mumbai is an extremely overcrowded city, so much so that it’s impossible to be alone on the streets and I have the faith that if I shout, someone will come to help (‘cos Mumbaikars are generally friendly and helpful).

We have traveled to other parts of India and I have never felt threatened except maybe in Delhi. My perception might have been tainted by media reports and when in Delhi, there’s a rather ominous feel in the air. Outside the city centre, the streets were deserted and we were told by a Delhiite that people avoid going out after 8pm. In Mumbai, it’s very common to see females walking alone at any time of the night, but that very rarely is seen in Delhi (at least when I was there). Nonetheless, the few times we were in Delhi, nothing extraordinary happened. The bottom line, at least to me,  is that crimes can happen anywhere. You need to be more mindful and take the necessary precautions when you travel.  When traveling in India, I would suggest that you hire a car and driver who speaks English (try Eurocar), versus taking the local train/bus/tuk tuk. It’s much easier when you get dropped off and picked up from point to point. Also, stay in a good-class hotel (maybe from a well-known chain) or a homestay/B&B. Don’t pinch your pennies when it comes to accommodation in India.

 

 

Q: Can you dress like that (points to my tank top and shorts) in India?? *makes wide-eyed face*

A: You can, but I prefer not to, especially on the days when I volunteer in the slums. Apparently bare shoulders and chest are considered “erotic”, and in many parts of the country it’s sacrilegious to show your knees (I don’t know why). In religious places and some of the more conservative states like Rajasthan and even Kerala, you would be asked to cover your shoulders and wear something that covers your knees. In Mumbai, I see many ladies wearing tight-fitting dresses, spag tops and micro-shorts but as a foreigner, I don’t want to draw extra attention and choose to dress more conservatively, given that I already attract enough stares by looking different. Which brings me to the next question…

 

Q: Do people really stare at you? *makes horrified face*

A: Umm. Kinda. People are generally curious about foreigners. Just the other day, PJ and I were walking to a community centre within a slum and we attracted a huge group of children. They trailed us and shouted, “Hello! How are you? Where are you from? China? Korea? Japan?” When I replied “Singapore”, this girl looked really confused and disappointed… We’ve also had cameras shoved in our faces and had pictures taken without our permission. There’s no need to be agitated or annoyed when this happens. I’ve realised that the people who are curious and stare incessantly are generally people who don’t see foreigners very often. So we’re a rare sight to them. Like the panda. And you would stare and want to take a picture of a panda, too, no? :D I would.

 

Q: Is the Taj Mahal near Mumbai? *makes excited face*

A: If by “near” you mean “a 2-hours flight to Delhi and a 5-hours drive thereon”, then yes, Taj Mahal is near Mumbai. Heh. The Taj Mahal is in Agra, part of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, whilst Mumbai is on the west coast, part of the state of Maharashtra. If you want to visit the Taj Mahal, you should fly into Delhi and hire a car from there.

Any other burning questions? :)