JOAN. Jigsaw is a wonderful organisation whose skilled staff work endlessly alongside families in the district who need advice and support when life gets a bit tough. Needless to say they are special people who give constantly of themselves. Mike and I are proud to be supporters as are many Whanganui folk. I want to just pay them a special compliment. When lockdown had just begun and everyone was feeling bewildered and anxious, Jigsaw, no doubt would be confronting more problems than usual in the community. A bulky envelope arrived from the organisation. Inside were two Mars Bars, one for each of us. They were stapled on to a card saying, "Your Support of Jigsaw is Out Of This World", and included a photo of the planet Mars itself. I was cheered and touched by this. With so much responsibility and work to be done, the staff had used humour, generosity and a lot of their time to acknowledge us all. Thank you so very much.
My first outing since level 2 was announced was a walk on Castlecliff Beach. I had decided not to go further than a short walk until level 1 had been achieved as my age group seems very vulnerable but the glorious weather tempted me to go further than I had vowed. What a joy it was. The sun dazzled the sand and the air was warm. Gulls swooped and family dogs bounded around the driftwood. Surfers showed off their skills and the sense of freedom was tangible as Mike and I made our way along the water's edge. It was very special and reminded us, as always, how lucky we are to be here.
MIKE. The final instalment of our trip to India can just be squeezed in before art rears its beautiful head again, offering mouth-watering openings and exhibitions. The three cities of Udaipur, Agra and Cochin will conclude this account.
Udaipur was notable for two reasons, the first being that we stayed in the magnificent Jagmandir Island Palace, the hotel having previously been a maharajah's residence. This too was on Joan's wish-list. Sited on the island in the middle of Lake Pichola, it really was quite breathtaking. Visitors were met on the mainland facing, under a large awning, and conveyed to the island in a boat steered by young men attired, in beret and striped jersey, like French 'matelots'. (Yes, I did find that a trifle extravagant!) When we made the booking from New Zealand, we were asked if we were to celebrate any important event that year. I replied that, soon after our stay, I would turn 70, Joan the same a few months later. Imagine our surprise then, as we received a cooling drink beneath the awning, to be congratulated on our 70th wedding anniversary! Surely we didn't look so old! Just a slip, I thought, But no! The error was reinforced on entering our room, where we found a welcome card stating "Happy 70th year together!" This trivial mistake was amply compensated for by the pampered luxury of our surrounds.
The second item of note was one of those human elements I mentioned last week. Our guide, Videndra, provided us with a tour rich in memories, finally asking if we would care to visit his house in the Old City. We jumped at the chance and, in his 14 room, three storey house, met his large family. As well as his wife and their 3-week-old son, his parents, brothers, sisters and other relatives lived there. They welcomed us warmly, provided tea, of course, and seemed genuinely pleased that Videndra had taken us there. It was another privileged moment, to see briefly into lives so different from our own.
One of the most photographed buildings in the world, the Taj Mahal, would disappoint my expectations, I felt. It didn't! It is virtually impossible to describe such an exquisite piece of architecture, which seemed, as Joan put it, to be "floating in the air". A testament to Shah Jehan's love for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, it is a creation of such beauty, delicacy and symmetry that it really does take your breath away. Rivalling it for symmetry, however, is the nearby structure known as the "Baby Taj". Without the fame of its larger neighbour, it possesses a majesty of its own. Both were built by Shah Jehan, who was also responsible for the construction of Agra Fort, where, by a quirk of fate, he was imprisoned by his son for the last seven years of his life. A sad ending.
Our last full day was spent in Cochin, previously under Portuguese rule. In the morning we visited three places of historic interest. St Francis Church held the remains of Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer, from his death in 1524 until his son removed them to Lisbon 14 years later, while the Portuguese Palace is now a museum with an eclectic assemblage of items from many countries. The third was the Jewish synagogue, the oldest in the British Commonwealth. In 1949 there were 8000 Jews in Cochin, but in 2008 the number was a meagre 13.
From the city we were driven to Allepey, where we embarked on a gracious houseboat, just the two of us, with a crew of three to look after us. For a few hours we cruised the backwaters, "chugging up narrow canals and inlets, on to a large lake". Living by the side of the waters, with no roads into the area, the locals use boats and canoes for transport, providing the district with the title, "The Venice of India". It was an unexpectedly gentle and agreeable finale to our two-week holiday.
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