Friday, 28 December 2007

Just another day the the cricket in India

Bish's Precis:
- We went to this game , which had pretty much everything
- The buzz around the ground before the game is pretty electric
- We got hold of a ticket in a very clandestine operation
- The ground was very good by Indian standards
- We attracted a lot of interest and friends as white spectators, during and after the game
For those of you that are not cricket fans, you need to know two things: cricket is like a religion in India (I heard the words "Tendulkar is a god" at least a dozen times), and the greatest rivalry in cricket is without a doubt between Pakistan and India (who have frosty diplomatic relations anyway).

So for those reasons this was he part of the trip I was looking forward to the most. And I have to say it didn't let me down – it was definitely my highlight of the trip. The only disappointment was that you could not bring your cameras into the ground, so no pics!

First of all, the scorecard. Here it is. The highlights were the great Tendulkar making 99, Younis Khan's ton, and Shahid Afridi finishing off the innings. In pure cricketing terms it was a very entertaining game. But that's not a patch on what happened off the field.

We tried our hardest to get tickets to the game ahead of time. Both of us contacted people who might have lived in the area, the BCCI (Indian Cricket Board), the local Punjabi Cricket Association, who run the ground… everyone who we could think of. No dice. So we resolved to head up there early ( 8am for a game starting at 2:30pm) and see what we could find. We got dropped off outside the ground and walked around the ground. All the ticket boxes were unattended. A few people were about, but noone who could get us tickets. We walked right around the ground before a policeman saw us and told us we had to leave the restricted area if we didn't have tickets. I don't know how we got in the barricaded area in the first place.

At first we thought – well, we've tried our very best, we should try to get to a pub and just soak up the atmosphere of the game. But we wanted to watch the buildup (the atmosphere was already pretty exciting already), and I don't think either of us had totally given up on our chance to get into the game. While walking around ate a bit of street food for brekky and noticed a few people watching us. We'd only arrived in Chandigarh the night before and we hadn't realised until now that there weren't many white people around at all. I was in my Aussie cricket shirt and a couple of locals sparked up a conversation with us.

Like all conversations in India, this one started like this:

"Hello, how are you?"

"Great thanks, how are you?"

"Very well. Where are you from? England? America ?"

"No no, we're Australian"

"Aaah , Australia ! Australia have best cricket team!"

"Yes but India are better at the Twenty-20!"

"Ricky Ponting is a very good player! Shane Warne! You call Harbhajan the Turbanator!"

As the conversation continued, more people gathered around. Still only about three people were talking to us, but about fifty people were watching enthusiastically, including more than a few police and security men which made me a little nervous. As the conversation continued I mentioned that we'd tried but couldn't get tickets for the game. We spoke for a little longer – about half an hour in total - and then decided to move on and look around a bit. I said goodbye with "Jai Hind!" which I think means "Victory to India" or "Long Live India" – I had read one of Nehru's speeches a couple of days before. It got a good reception anyway.

As we walked around afterwards, a couple of people came up to us quietly and said "you want tickets?" Each time we said yes and they scurried off, presumably to find some. Then an older bloke, probably about 55, in a pink turban and red polo shirt (so probably colour-blind), quietly said "you want tickets?" We said yes and he said "come with me." He took us out to a small alleyway between shops and ordered us some chai from a nearby vendor. The alley was filthy – it stank worse than most places in the area, there were flies everywhere, and some young blokes were preparing food right there also. What's worse, we were sitting about two metres behind a group of about eight policemen.

We sat and drank the chai, more out of politeness than anything else. He was very quiet. No jovial discussion – hardly any discussion at all. I was starting to wonder what the point of it all was. After about a dozen words in total, and no mention at all of the tickets, he said "you come with me."

We followed him along the parade of shops, and noticed another white guy with us. He was English and also after tickets. We chatted for a while and it turns out his mate Taz, also English but of Punjabi descent, was on hand to interpret (and also get their own tickets). We stood on a corner waiting with our mysterious scalper and after a couple of minutes he said "you go now." At first we were mystified but Taz told us that he was worried at how conspicuous we looked, three white guys around a local. So we said we'd meet him in 15 minutes.

We shot off to get some street food (and it was excellent – mini veggie burgers with sweet chilli jam and coriander sauce for only Rs 5, our first really good street food), and after about ten minutes we found the white bloke. They had their tickets and we could go and get ours now. Taz mentioned that they'd paid Rs 3500 each for them, and may have got them cheaper because he spoke Punjabi, but we shouldn't accept anything more than that price.

We wandered over. Our colour-blind scalper wasn't there. We walked further along the parade of shops and right at the end we saw some guy who pointed out the back of the shops and said "down there." We started walking down there and saw our scalper sitting on the back of a moped, with its engine running. He looked like he was waving us closer, but e actually meant for us to go away and send a local over. We realised too late, when we were right next to him. He'd given up trying to shoo us away by then. He blurted out "3500 each, 3500 each. No time." We handed over the cash and got our tickets, and as soon as the transaction was completed he shot off. Our colour-blind, clandestine scalper had shot off down the back street and away.

It was quite an operation!


Once we had our tickets we had to head back to our hotel and dump a lot of our stuff. Mobile phones aren't allowed inside due to terrorism fears. Worse, digital cameras are not allowed in either, so we have no photographic record of what happened inside the stadium.

As you can imagine, security was tight entering the stadium. Our tickets were checked five times on the way in, and we were searched four times. The stadium itself, which is quite modern, was surprisingly clean also.

Once inside, we saw some food available and made a bee line for it. Chow mein (i.e. noodles with some scant veggies), fried sandwiches (?), samosas and heaps of other goodies for Rs 20 each (about 60 cents). The food was great. We were worried when we went to take our seats as they weren't together. As soon as we got inside and were looking for our seats, several groups of people told us that we could just sit wherever we wanted. We did, and immediately befriended some of the blokes around us.

Like so many people we met, they were very enthusiastic to meet us and talk cricket with us. The bloke we mainly spoke with had taken the day off and driven straight from his work the previous day in Kashmir south to the stadium. He was a bureaucrat working for the state government in Kashmir, and had a few mates around him who were all similarly enthusiastic.

One of his mates was a freak though. He just sat in the crowd all day making animal noises, screaming them into the air when there was a quiet moment, and mocking the guys selling food and drinks in the crowd. He was pretty funny, because all Chop and I could think about when watching him was how much he was like our loveable but extraordinarily obnoxious mate Jamie, except this bloke wasn't drunk.

The game itself was an incredible one. As Tendulkar, God of Cricket in India, approached his century the crowd noise built from a dull roar to a screaming din, leaving the atmosphere thick and tense with anticipation. This was immediately juxtaposed with deafening silence when he was out for 99. Its pretty incredible when so many people at an event can be moved to silence, and this was one of those times.

Despite the closeness of the game as Pakistan's run chase continued, we were surprised to find the rivalry was very friendly. Fifteen years ago violence was common at these games but now this game was friendly, with many of the crowd vocal in their support for Pakistani excitement machine Shahid Afridi. Punjab, where Chandigarh is, was split up during partition, so this part of the country has a longer history of friendly relations with Pakistan, and it might have been different for games further from the border. That said, there was blanked coverage of the political crisis that had just broken in Pakistan with President Musharraf declaring emergency rule – media coverage of Pakistan had been very negative for about a week leading into the game.

The attitude between the fans could be summed up by a bloke in the crowd who said to us " Pakistan and India are like siblings," to which he added quietly, "but Pakistan is the sister."

It was a tense finish. After chanting for India in English, I asked some of our new friends what we could say in Hindi to support their team. His response was "just say Chak de India – it means 'go India'." After a while of saying this I got a bit bored and mischievously decided to alter the chant slightly, using one of the few words in Hindi I knew. I chanted "Chak de gora." The bloke who was coaching me fell about laughing, unable to contain himself for about ten minutes and sharing what I'd said with those around us.

Gora means "white man."

The game ended with Pakistan winning after successfully completing an amazing run-chase. I noticed a few younger kids starting to look at us as the game came to a close. Young blokes, about twelve or thirteen were looking at us rather than the amazing cricket being played. Between balls I'd look over to them and smile. I was wearing my Aussie One-day shirt, so they kept saying to me "Ponting, Ponting" and pointing at me. I responded by patting my belly and saying "Lehmann, Lehmann", but I don't think their cricketing knowledge ran that deep.

Their attention was just the beginning. After the game finished, we were talking to the blokes we watched the game with about how great it was. The younger boys came up and started talking to us also. Then a few more people wanted to chat to us and shake our hands. Pretty soon it had snowballed. There must have been about 300 people around us, all extremely happy and friendly – not a hint of malice, ane we never felt we were in danger. Songs from Bollywood movies would come over the speakers and we would dance with our new friends (usually at their insistance).

People from all around us were wanting to shake our hands, ask us a few questions (usually the same ones) and were just very happy and curious to see us. The amazing this is that at no stage did either of us feel in physical danger, or that we would be pick-pocketed while we were there. It was all so good natured.

After about 30 minutes of this unrelenting friendly attention, my sides were sore from laughing, my cheeks ached from smiling, and my back was starting to hurt from the friendly pokes for attention. I had to say to Chopper. "I think its about time we left mate." To clear our path I used one of the only other words I know in Hindi, challo ("let's go"). I was quickly and happily mimicked by the assembled crowd, who were happy that I knew a little Hindi. The crowd then proceeded to join us in trying to squeeze out the exit at once. After many happy goodbyes to our new friends, we finally got out of the stadium and, eventually, back to our hotel.

The whole day, especially what happened after the game finished, was really amazing. I heard often before going that people either love or hate India the first time they go, and that experience would have been a real watershed for most people in that respect: we were absolutely inundated with people, but all of the people talking to us were full of happiness and curiosity – every last one of them. Without a doubt it was the highlight of my entire trip to India. I couldn't wipe the smile off my face for some time after we left them.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

I've "done" India

Yeah, I think two weeks is enough to cover 1.1 billion people and 5000 years of history.

I've thought long and hard about how I'm going to organise this email. I took notes in a vague journal/diary form for my time in India (especially my time by myself), and those notes are extensive, even by my standards. And I feel like I've forgotten so much. Narrative isn't really an option. Like Indian food, the best thing to do is to try and break it down into vaguely digestible nuggets.Hopefully at least part of it is manageable for those of you that have read this much. So I'll cover the basics in this email. See also my 600-or-so photos (also on Facebook)

So without further delay, let's get into it…


- I'm back in Perth – both the trip to India and the stealthy return to WA had been planned for a year, but if you read my last blog entry you'd know that

- Chop was delayed and joined me only for the second half of the trip

- I'll do a few more emails on specific incidents later, but this is the meat-and-potatoes email about our experiences
- Delhi was pretty bland and businesslike, but they make a mean suit
- Jaipur, the Pink City is incredible. I rode an elephant there!
- Agra can cram it with walnuts, but you have to go and see the Taj Mahal (unless they move it)
- Chandigarh was a massive highlight because of the cricket, and also because it's off the beaten track a bit
- Mumbai was also really great, although we did more shopping and mixed with more expats there

- Finally, Merry Christmas to everyone, hope you have a great one!

The first thing you need to know is that, thanks to the excellent recommendation of a few of my friends, I read a book called Shantaram, about an Aussie escaped criminal who flees to India. If you haven't read it I won't tell you what happens (you don't have to read it – the movie comes out next year with Johnny Depp starring), but the one thing I got from it as a visitor to India was to just open up and let the experience hit me. I reckon I might have done that anyway, but in India it seemed especially important and I was conscious of being open no matter how much it overloaded my senses.

So where did we go?


I was in Delhi solo for a few days at the start, and then with Chopper for a couple of days either side of our trip to Chandigarh. I did some sightseeing there on my first full day, which included:

- the Red Fort (its amazing the way they used water in the complex, and the marble and semi-precious stones, pointed out by my excellent guide, were also incredible),

- Jama Masjid (the main mosque in Old Delhi, which is not very ornamental, but offers a great view of the city from its southern tower),

- Raj Ghat (where the ashes of Indian PMs and national heroes are scattered – Gandhi's memorial and eternal flame was pretty cool, especially school children came past to pay their respect),

- Humayun's Tomb (precursor to the Taj Mahal in style, and 38 metres high),

- India Gate (an Arc de Triomphe style monument to fallen soldiers of World War I and Afghan wars, very well attended by locals),

- the government district (lined with beautiful colonial buildings, on a broad avenue which leads to the India Gate, creating a Champs-Elysees-style effect), and

- the Indira Gandhi memorial (her residence in Delhi while president and site of her assassination, painstakingly preserved and also packed with locals)

With all that, thankfully I had a driver to take me to these places. The second day, I headed for something I was looking forward to: a bespoke suit. Suits are obviously cheap in India , and some roadside operators can turn one around for next to nothing in 24 hours.

But there was a place that Chop and I decided on which was, by all reports, the best bespoke tailors in India. Generations of tailors at this place have worked their trade on the famous Saville Row in London. They treat you in a very gentlemanly manner also, taking their time, and tending to your every need. There are employees all around you.

Of course, with all this activity, standing at close proximity to me, engaging me in polite conversation, and asking me questions about my suit design, there could be few worse places to have an encounter with Delhi Belly. My first, no less.

I knew I was in trouble when I was sweating profusely in the air conditioned tailors. Half way through them asking me some crucial questions, I had to blurt out "where is the toilet?" They directed me to it (upstairs – eek!) and after a temporary lull in food poisoning, I emerged to see them standing there with a rehydration packet and some hard-core immodium-type stuff. That's what I call service! From now on, when I go to a tailor I will inspect their medicine cabinet before looking at materials or letting them take measurements.

The rehydration salts were stamped with the World Health Organisation, so I was probably stealing from the UN by taking the sachet. Of the other tablets, our tailor, Sachin, said only "only have one a day – any more and you'll be clogged up." Nice!

Also had my first experience with a travel agent, to find that I couldn't get trains to Jaipur and Agra (the "Golden Triangle"), so I had my driver take me to those places. The round trip was to take about 5 days in all.

After that it was straight to bed to rest up for the following day. I didn't want to be this delicate for a 6 hour drive to ...


The trip there allowed me some time to sleep, a chance to see (semi-)rural India, and to sample some more local delicacies . Jokes aside, the scenery with the morning haze looked pretty cool. The traffic was almost as hectic as Delhi the whole way there.

Jaipur is called the Pink City: the old city is painted … pink. The colour isn't natural; it's been deliberately painted onto buildings fairly regularly. The last time was for when Bill Clinton visited in 2000. It's not very old by Indian standards, less than 300 years old. And it's a fully planned city, planned in accordance with Hindu architectural manuals. As a result, the streets are surprisingly wide: almost boulevards. The city is known for its jewellery, fabrics and textiles, and I loaded up on the textiles when there. That evening I went to a fairly touristy but still nice Rajasthani outdoor restaurant. The food was nice, and they had some dancers in traditional dress doing all sorts of crazy stuff, including dancing with pots of fire on their head! No wonder their posture was so good!

They asked me up to dance also, but I had to politely decline: after all that food, I had my own dance.

The highlight of Jaipur was Amber Fort. I got to ride an elephant! The guys who "drive" them sit on the elephants' necks all day and try to extort money from you. It doesn't look like a very nice job. But it could be worse.

The ride up the hill was to the palace itself, an ornate compound with a mix of Mughal and Hindu architecture, as pointed out by my guide. He also showed me some amazing detail in the decoration – semi-precious stones still embedded in ornate marble. He wasn't quite as good at taking photos.

While in Jaipur I also headed to:

The City Palace , which has heaps of old weapons, the largest silver objects in the world (a pair of jugs – cop that Pamela Anderson), amazing old costumes, and some fascinating old artefacts in a museum there. It's really beautiful too.

Jal Mahal – the water palace, beautifully (if impractically) situated on Man Sarobar Lake

Hawa Mahal (the Palace of Winds) – which was closed and covered in scaffolding but still provided something interesting to look at (no harnesses on those blokes in there).

Jantar Mantar (the astrological observatory), which consisted of heaps of instruments that plotted the night sky, and a 27 metre high sundial , which is accurate to within two seconds. Two seconds! It wasn't working when I was there though – it was just flashing "12:00 " constantly.

The world's worst Indian Massage. Not rough enough to get knots out, not soft enough to be relaxing, and the masseuse was not feminine enough to make it erotic (he was hardly feminine at all).

Aside from that, Jaipur was a fantastic city. It has a different energy to Delhi, which, while busy, is pretty bland and businesslike. It seemed a lot more fun, and not just around the touristy areas (which were quite touristy).

I saw some fireworks that night from my hotel balcony and headed to bed, ahead of more driving the next day, to Agra.


Agra is famous as the home of the Taj Mahal. It's also famous for having the worst touts in Asia . Turns out both reputations are true. We got in mid-afternoon and I didn't want to head straight to the Taj as I'd heard it was best early in the morning. So I headed to the Red Fort. My driver said I didn't need a guide, but he was wrong I think. It's an amazing compound, right over the river from the Taj, but information on its history is a bit thin on the ground. I saw a good amount of it (I guess, I could've missed a heap for all I know), but it was starting to get dark before I'd seen it all.

I ate, headed to the hotel and to bed. I planned to see the Taj at dawn. I set my alarm but unfortunately slept through it, mainly because I'd been awake all night with Delhi Belly.

Still, the Taj was wonderful , if a little hazy when I went. Obviously it's a must-see, and it's worth the hype (although the main tomb is surprisingly small – I guess he didn't love her that much). Amazing ornate carving, incredible gardens, and a wonderful setting on the river. The only let down is the electronic sign that tells you exactly how polluted the air you're breathing is – it was displayed prominently on one of the mosques to the side of the main tomb.

Before leaving Agra we managed to stop at the Baby Taj , which I really should've gone to first I guess. It was still lovely, cheap and nowhere near as crowded. Like Humayun's Tomb it was built before the Taj itself. Still lovely, and still has embedded semi-precious stones, but it's not quite as well preserved as the Taj.

The Taj aside, I wasn't sad to leave Agra. It was full of the most touristy shops and, worse still, the most obnoxious touts I've come across. And I got crook on the food there. Very crook. But hey, everyone's going to go there to see the Taj. I suggest you don't make plans to spend much longer there though.

On the way back to Delhi there was one highlight – stopping for lunch we came across a snake charmer. He gave me a snake to handle (second time this year), and let me charm another (although from the look on his face I wasn't a great musician).


Finally I caught up with Chop and we headed up to Chandigarh (also a planned city, planned by the Modernist w@nker, Le Corbusier) the following day for the big highlight, an India vs Pakistan cricket match. Our trip there was our first experience on India's famed train system. The game and the antics surrounding it will be the subject of another email, but I will say that this was the one thing I was looking forward to more than anything and it definitely didn't disappoint (except that no cameras were allowed). Here is the scorecard.

The following day, November 9, was the biggest festival in the Hindu calendar, Diwali. It was also pretty amazing. The markets went nuts during the day, and we saw Pakistan coach and Aussie cricketing legend Geoff Lawson amongst the throng. The fireworks were even crazier during the night. Everyone seemed to be lighting something explosive that night. We split a whole tandoori chicken in celebration of the holy day.

Our final day was spent at an unusual rock garden. Some guy found some disused land and started living there and building rock figures in a massive rock garden. He was so isolated that it took authorities 18 years to stumble onto the illegal sculptures. After that long, they told him to keep going with it, and gave him a staff of fifty to continue the work. It covers 40 acres, but isn't built for large people! Very … um … unique.
We stuck out a bit in Chandigarh. It was off the beaten track, and I think white folk ("gora") are a bit thinner on the ground there. We got more attention there than elsewhere anyways. But it was all very friendly and helpful.

Chandigarh was built in anthropomorphic form, with government at the "head" and commerce at the "heart" (see? Modernist w@nker). Despite the utterly ludicrous literal design – which wouldn't be out of place in the original Sim City – the town itself is very clean and noticeably more prosperous than any other we went to. It's also the place we fell in love with Indian street food. I really liked the place.


After a return train journey, and our last fitting of our suits, we hopped on the train for a 23 hour trip to Mumbai. The train journey was an event in itself, which warrants an email of its own. Let's just say I'm wary of Indian wrestlers and gymnasts now. By and large the people were incredibly friendly though. On arrival in Mumbai, we found ourselves a long way from the city centre, and our hotel.

The hotel was awful, but we didn't hang around for long to investigate. We wanted to get to Crawford Market to check it out, but couldn't really find much to meet our fancy. It was getting dark, so we wandered off to Colaba, the ex-pat area of central Mumbai. Heaps of energy, and the roadside stalls were still open selling everything. We made a bee-line for Leopold's, the ex-pat bar made famous by the book Shantaram. We headed out there for the night, trying in vain to secure Bombay Sapphire gin. Y'know, when in Rome

No dice, but we did sport sizeable hangovers the next day nonetheless.

The next day we intended to go sightseeing. We headed to:

Victoria Terminus (VT) a lovely old train station made very much in the style of the grand London stations, like St Pancras.

The Gateway to India , another symbolic arch that sits on the shore and reinforces Mumbai's history (and ongoing) role as a landing point for new arrivals in India

The Taj Mahal palace and tower , a lovely old gentleman's club built by a wealthy Indian who was denied entry to a white's only club. Good smarm that.

And, um, that was it. We were surprised by how little really appealed to us for sightseeing in Mumbai. That night we did some for searching for Bombay Sapphire again, but failed again, and ended up in Leopold's … again. We did other stuff during the day too, shopping, indulging in street food and being offered a part in a Bollywood movie (a paid part no less – Rs400 for 10 hours work, but it was an all-nighter so we knocked it back).

After getting a quick photo with our waiter, who didn't look unlike Anil Kumble, we foolishly had Indian ladyboys. Both of us had a "little bit of sick" afterwards. Ladyboys!

The next day, my last in India, was spent getting cricket bats (look how seedy Chop looks here), then shopping for pressies for the rest of the day, and eating street food until we felt better. Luckily, by the end of the day I'd recovered enough to get on the plane!

Which was just as well, as I had to surprise my folks – and everyone else - on mum's birthday the next day!

So that was it! India was absolutely amazing and I definitely want to go back. They say you like it even more the second time. And there's so much to see! We didn't even get to the Ganges or the Himalayas. But that's next time. As mentioned, there will be other emails coming that cover specific incidents or aspects, but I had to get this email out at least before I embark on the rest!

Tuesday, 20 November 2007


Surprise! I'm back home in Perth!

Before I touched down here, only two people in Australia knew I was coming home. And one of them wasn't even here for my arrival.

I've been planning this surprise return for well over a year. It's quite a story actually.

The Origins of the Plan

When I left my first job at Hillingdon at the end of September 2006 I was really leaving without having a new job to go to. I was travelling for a couple of weeks (France, Belgium, Berlin, Prague - you may remember) and happy not to work for a little while given the terms of the Working Holiday Visa (stay for 24 months, work for 12). So I said to my agents, who were lining up jobs for me, that I had a fairly strict set of conditions I'd want for my next job.

But in the meantime I wasn't doing anything. I was a member of the gym still, and our house had Pay TV and free internet. I was getting calls for work but as none of the jobs met my criteria I passed on them. After a while with nothing to distract me I was starting to get a bit homesick. So I did what planners do - I planned something. I looked at the time I had left to work - about 40 weeks under this visa. That would take me to at least October or November if I did a bit of travelling too. Mum's birthday is 15 November.

So I decided, in about mid-October last year, that I'd turn up unannounced on the front door on mum's birthday. And hope she didn't have a heart attack.

There were two other reasons to head home for such a long time. The first was that, while home, I didn't want to just burn money. I wanted to work. Part of this is to maximise my prospects of applying for the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme. Part of it was to catch up with my old colleagues too, who I always enjoyed working with. The second reason was the cost of airfares. Not surprisingly, they are exorbitant for the two weeks around Christmas and New Year, pretty much double the normal price. But the main reason as to surprise mum.

India with Chopper

I'd always fancied going to India on the way home. I mentioned I wanted to go to India to my good mate Chopper, and he said "I'll come along with you", so we made our plans from there. It was after we'd organised it that I said I'd be coming home from India. From there, total secrecy was needed. I know only too well that the grapevine in Perth is extensive and healthy. It also meant not telling anyone in London, for quite a while, so that it wouldn't get to the Perth grapevine.

At first I thought it would definitely be the end of my time in London. I wasn't 100% sure I could get a Highly Skilled Migrant Programme Visa and as I'd been feeling homesick I thought it would only get worse in the ensuing year. Setting my mind on a date certainly helped ease my homesickness while I was looking for work anyway.

What to say, what to say?

It wasn't long after the plan developed that people started asking me about how long I intended to stay. I guess the novelty of being "fresh off the boat" had worn off (f*ck I hate that term and the implied naiveté of it – especially as I first heard it from some 20 year old twinkie that was already married). Besides, people had nothing else to ask me about - like "how's work going?" for example. I developed a standard line. "I'm not going home for Christmas this year, but I'll be home for Christmas next year - if I don't my parents will kill me. The question is whether it's home for good or not. I haven't decided yet."

So if you heard that from me, yeah that was a very economical version of the truth (but not technically a lie). I already had this plan. Sorry.

As he last year has gone on, my parents – mum in particular – have been probing more and more about when I'll be home for Christmas. I needed a bone to throw them so they didn't pursue me too hard and make me bend the truth too much, or even lie to them. So when an opportunity to see Lionel Richie in Perth on 15 December presented itself, I nabbed a ticket. Not just to see the great man himself, but to say to my folks "I plan on going to a Lionel Richie concert in Perth on December 15, so I should be home by then."

It was perfect: not a lie, just enough details to quench their thirst for knowledge, and plausible (Lionel rocks). It worked, but every time they asked about my plans, I was desperately trying to suppress a smirk – at the thought of the look on mum's face when she opens the door on November 15.


There were some complications from the outset. My folks were coming over for the Rugby World Cup, from early September until at least the end of October. I knew I'd be wrapping things up here while they were in London or nearby. What was more, Dad was talking about staying away for mum's birthday rather than returning home. This would have been disastrous. I wrote a letter to him, addressed to his work, advising him that it was "very important" that he ensure mum is home for her birthday, because of a "birthday present" I have planned for her.

Obviously I was petrified my friends would think I'd betrayed them by not telling them my plans. In early December last year I headed up to Birmingham to visit Pete Rees, with good mates Jez Wilkie, Kev Gill, Rob Morgan coming too, and Eammon coming over from Ireland for it. While up there I drunkenly let out my plan. I was gutted that I'd let it slip and tried to cover it up afterwards. For some time afterwards I couldn't stop thinking about the gaffe.

In June a mate, Danielle, and one of my best mates, Kate Fitz, came over for a couple of weeks at the same time. Towards the end of their stay we were talking about birthdays, and I asked Kate what she wanted (her birthday is the 23 rd of Nov or thereabouts). She said "I want you back home!" I could barely contain my laughter when I heard that – she didn't know she was going to get her birthday wish!

Then in September I was out with a mate from planning back home, Kareena, and mentioned that I'd just booked my trip to India. She shot back at me: "so it's straight back to Perth from there then?" For some reason I didn't bat it away with a denial. I meekly looked at my shoes and mumbled "I haven't decided that yet – I have a … uh … open ended ticket." I wasn't very convincing. I was petrified this gaffe too – the planning grapevine in Perth is worse than any I've come across.

The final nail in the coffin of my façade (still having trouble with mixed metaphors by the way) was when I caught up with Jez and our mate Steve. Finishing our beers at the Old Queens Head in Angel and walking to the train, they asked me my plans. I gave them the usual line of going home and not sure if I'm coming back.

Jez, having just returned from an always-the-same Perth (as he saw it), said to me "you can't go home for three months – you should go home for three days – nothing's changed." Steve perceptively said "you could go home for good actually – you're certainly travelling through Europe like you won't be back." And I had – and no-one else had mentioned it. At the start of the year I'd planned to knock off a whole lot of countries – many more than I actually did this year (15 incidentally, including UK and Australia).

The final complication was work. Putting in my notice at work was a bit of a stress (I needn't have worried though as my boss said "that's actually quite convenient as we were going to fill your position with a permanent staff member anyway"). But the bigger issue was the jobs I turned down.

About a month before I left I had an interview for a job at about the same pay as Luton, but in Hammersmith and Fulham (a far more central and appealing locality). What's more, the job was project managing a massive project for an Australian client (working on the Council's side though). I was offered the job. It would have looked fantastic on my CV, but my prospective boss said I'd need to be there for at least the next few months (returning home for a couple of weeks at Christmas). I couldn't take the job. When people asked why I knocked it back, I had to lie a little bit and say "the money was a big step down." Some planning mates, not knowing the real reason, thought I was crazy to do this.

Less than two weeks before I left I was offered another job, this time as a Senior Planner close to me but not in the city centre, for about 30% more than I'm on at the moment. Again, I had to knock them back. Geez I hope that job is there when I get back!

Making Arrangements

Obviously I wanted to tell my mates in London – I wanted to tell everyone because I was very excited about surprising my folks and everyone else back home. But the only people I actually had to give any notice to were: (a) my housemates and (b) the job I hoped to return to. I made some casual enquiries about work, but asked my boss to keep things as quiet as possible – I wanted to surprise my colleagues.

With my housemates, it was about July when I raised the issue with them – that I'd be heading home for Christmas and my usual line that I was still undecided whether I'd return. They pretty much said they'd kill me if I didn't return.

It was not without irony that, on the way to picking my folks up from the airport, I called into STA Travel in Covent Garden and booked my trip. I had a copy of my itinerary, which detailed my return to Perth, on me when mum and dad walked through the arrivals door at Heathrow.

With my parents lurking around during September, it wasn't until the start of October that I advertised to lease my room. Luckily the room went very quickly (to a lovely bloke, Rich), and I didn't have to worry about my parents coming over to "surprise" me at my house while we were showing someone around (my folks were in America at the time). It also worked out that my folks were leaving earlier than I was (the Friday beforehand, 26 October), so I'd have boxes, be moving out etc after they'd left. Mercifully, the surprise remained intact.

I allowed my mates in London to know that I was leaving only a couple of weeks beforehand. It was when we were watching Australia get bundled out of the Rugby World Cup that a let a couple of people know about it. On purpose this time.

The Election

The X Factor in all of this was the election. It was never going to change my plans, but I was hoping that the election would be held as close to my arrival as possible, so I'd miss all the campaigning. I was gunning for a November 17 vote, but I'm happy enough with a November 24 election.

What I was really hoping for was that I'd be there to celebrate the election with two of my very good friends who are members of a political party. I'd hope they their local candidate would win, that their party would win, and that they'd invite me to join them at party HQ to celebrate! I delicately tried to find out what they were doing for the election, and all I got in return was a suggestion I chase up one of their mutual friends who lives in London.

Madness: The Last Ten Days

The second last week before I left was crazy. Starting with drinks on the Monday (housemate Amanda's birthday) and Tuesday (getting to know new housemate Rich), it escalated with a blind date on Wednesday. The lovely girl I met that night was a friend of Kev's. Not long into the night I mentioned I'd be going to India and then back home for the summer. From her reaction it was obvious Kev hadn't told her. Nice hospital handpass there Kev!

I was out on Thursday and Friday nights too. Again, fantastic fun, but I couldn't do anything to prepare for my travels those nights. On Saturday when I got home the removal boxes had already been delivered, and I set about running a couple of errands and hiding as much evidence of my imminent move as I could. Saturday night I headed out to Heather's birthday celebrations, where a found a few of my friends that still didn't know I was leaving. Some of them couldn't make it for my leaving drinks! So on short notice I had to say goodbye to them for a few months.

Mum arrived at my front door on Sunday morning, from France via Portsmouth . The afternoon was set aside to catch up and spend some time together. Mum surprised me a little bit when she asked to keep her luggage at my place while staying nearby. The reason was that she didn't want to lug the luggage upstairs by herself, which was fair enough. It meant I had to give her a key and expect her in my room regularly while I was at work in order to get clothes and things she's need from day to day. Of course, this meant not packing anything myself – especially the boxes – while she was using my room. I hadn't planned on this!

The remainder of the week it was a case of working, arriving in near home at about 5:45 by train, and meet up with mates who couldn't make it to my party for a quick drink between 6pm and 7pm . Then I would meet mum after work at about 7pm for dinner, answer her questions about India and coming home as honestly as I could without giving anything away, wait for her to get a bit tired after dinner, and walk her to her hotel.

An example of the conversation I'd have where I'd hide my intention. By this stage I'd handed in my notice to work…

Mum: "So you leave for India on…?"

Me: "Next Monday night"

Mum: "And you're away for two weeks – no, more than that. When do you get back?"

Me: "I leave India on the 14th, a Wednesday, but I'm not going to work the rest of that week. I think I'll need to wind down and relax, coming back to a developed country after visiting the mayhem of India."

Mum: "Yes that's understandable. What does work think of all that time off?"

Me: "They're fine about it."

After saying goodbye to mum at her hotel I would then go back to my place, frantically organising things for the move and reading my India guidebook. Add to that I had to visit the gym twice, and I also came down with a flu on the Tuesday for a couple of days. I didn't get time for packing my three different cases (backpack for India, boxes for the move and another suitcase full of things I'll be keeping behind).

One small glitch occurred in the last week of mum's stay. She mentioned in passing that my sister was wondering about my visa arrangements. I said there was no problem – it expires in May and I'd get another one by then if need be.

"What about your work? How much have you got left there?"

"Its not a problem – if I get back in March I'll have two months' work still left and that takes me up to May."

"Hang on – back in Perth in March?"

Bugger. I let it slip. I had to think quickly, not my strength. After what seemed like an eternity, I managed to blurt out "oh, yeah, I'm thinking about getting an around-the-world ticket and going back to the UK via South America or the US."

"Um, OK, so how long are you going to be back home?"

"Oh, I dunno, maybe three weeks."

I felt mum's heart sink a little as we walked. I'd done a little too much to dampen the speculation.

The Plot Thickens with Dad's Arrival

On Friday, the day my folks left to go home, dad arrived back in London at midday . Thankfully it was at Luton Airport – right near work – so I met him at the train station at 1:15pm (work were good enough to let me off at 1pm on the last day because of this). We headed back to West Hampstead and met up with mum for a late lunch, ahead of their rescheduled 8pm flight (which meant going to Paddington station at about 5:30 on a Friday, which isn't easy!). These arrangements also meant that I couldn't clean out my desk on the last day (dad would see all the stuff and ask questions) – I had to get as much done as possible ahead of time.

On the train, for the first time, Dad asked me a direct question:

"Now after India you're not planning on slipping home are you?"

I froze. I couldn't look him in the eye and lie to him. I looked away, out the window and said "no, there's no way I can afford it – I need to be earning money right now." I was utterly unconvincing, and felt myself smile a bit in the corner of my mouth.

There was a long pause: an interrogating pause. The sort of pause I suspect only a lawyer or father is capable of (dad's both). After an age, I tried clumsily to change the subject.

But more was to come. Infront of mum later in the day when we were having coffee, dad said to me "so is Chop coming back home with you after India?"

The devil!

I deliberately interpreted "home" to be the UK, and replied "he was going to be joining me in London next year but now he's thinking about starting a business which would mean staying put."

Not to be dissuaded, Dad had to give it one last try. In the cab on the way to Paddington dad said to me (again infront of mum) "so what are you going to do about your room while you're away?"

I replied (again looking out the window), "I think I'll be right for two weeks." I almost burst into laughter when mum echoed my comments, saying that dad was silly for thinking otherwise.

I spent the rest of the time heading to the airport and saying goodbye to them, and at each opportunity I said "only 7 weeks, only 7 weeks!"

But I knew that wouldn't be enough. Once dad has his mind set on something he doesn't easily change it. What's worse, when he has a theory – especially when he thinks it's based on privileged information – he will espouse it to anyone who'll listen and many who won't. When I left my parents at Heathrow, I was totally stressed that the surprise was blown.

Drinks Blah Blah Blah

Thankfully I could get home from Heathrow at a reasonable time and start preparing food for the get-together I had planned for the next day (I was making some pizzas, from scratch).

I knew my mates would never forgive me if I didn't have some leaving drinks. Actually my best mates wouldn't forgive me because of the "drinks", rather than the "leaving." But Facebook – the best way to arrange these sorts of things – is hideously voyeuristic. There was no way on earth I could post an event called "Ross' leaving drinks" on the net and keep it quiet. So I posted another event, called "Drinks Blah Blah Blah" which downplayed the importance of the drinks, but was still "organised" enough not to be considered stock-standard Saturday night drinks. Those people who seemed to equivocate on attending I contacted directly and told them the reason.

For everyone else, it was a "reverse surprise party", where people come along and then figure out the reason for the party when they get there.

A couple of my best mates over here – Jez and Kev – couldn't make my drinks, and knew the reason for it, so we contrived to meet the Sunday night for some quiet leaving drinks. And then a few loud ones.

The Last Leg: India and home

On the Monday night I got on the plane to India. It had been an utterly mad weekend. Monday had been a bit sad. It was quiet in the house and the weather was good for once, and I was thinking about what I was leaving behind.

On landing in India , with Chop held up meeting up with me (more on that in the India entry to come), I found myself travelling by myself. I was therefore quite disarmed when mum called me out of the blue when I was in Agra, still by myself. The whole family was on the phone and I found myself bombarded by questions about when I was coming home. Despite the cacophony and mayhem of India, and - in Agra - the worst touts in Asia , I wasn't prepared for this! I managed but was again unconvincing, and I kept fretting. In fact, I was starting to get paranoid.

Also in India I received a message from Nicole, a former colleague, mentioning she'd heard a rumour I was coming back. By this stage, with a week to go and at my wits end, it was all about damage minimisation. I owned up to her and begged her not to tell anyone, which she thankfully did (thanks Nic).

Once Home

So I touched down at about 3:30pm on Thursday. I figured that it would be enough time to get me to mum and dad's place before they go out for dinner or whatever. While in transit in Singapore I managed to text mum (it was 9am on the day of her birthday) and describe things without lying to her:

"Morning and happy birthday! I've left India and in transit, about to get on the plane. Have a great day and I'll talk to you late when I get a chance."

In the subsequent conversation I managed to get from mum that she'd be home at 6:30 and then heading out to dinner. Excellent, now I knew when to surprise her. My plan was to stay at the airport until 6:10 and then get a cab home, ensuring I'd arrive after 6:30 .

But there were two more twists to come.

I arrived in Perth at 3:35 and was through customs by about 4:10pm. With two hours to kill, I got myself some food and an Iced Coffee, and nursed it while I read at the airport for about an hour. When I couldn't credibly occupy a table without anything to eat any longer, I got a coffee and a muffin. While waiting, I thought I saw someone who I knew – quite a good friend actually – at the departure gate. I panicked. All my stuff (backpack, small backpack, a large package containing cricket bats) was next to my table and too voluminous to easily move. All I could do was hide myself as well as I could manage, propping my hand against my temple and donning my hat while reading. I didn't risk another look at her and didn't even look around for another 45 minutes, by which time she was gone.

The final obstacle came after my cab ride (wearing a black hat, sunnies and a leather jacket – I felt like Michael J Fox in Back to the Future when he tries to dress inconspicuous), when I arrived home at 6:35. With a heap of anticipation I noticed that there were no cars in the drive. I knocked, camera in hand, ready for a photo when mum opens the door. Noone was home! After all that! I waited for about 45 minutes. Then I texted mum, saying I wanted to catch her on a landline – when would she be home?

The answer: 10:30pm . They'd already left for dinner. After a bit of gentle persuasion, I still couldn't get mum to tell me where she was for dinner "so I could call her on a landline."

Luckily my old key to the house still worked. I slipped in, let the dog in, put my pack and cricket bats down, and called her mobile. After a birthday call to mum, I'd found that she was at the Hyde Park Hotel. I said as little as possible, but I was petrified. I was sitting in the study at my folks' place, and the dog was there. If the dog yapped (a very likely prospect as I was refusing to throw its tennis ball), it was all over. The jig was up.

Mercifully the dog stayed quiet. On hanging up with mum I called a cab and finally got to the Hydey at about 8:50pm, to surprise the lot of them. Mission accomplished!

Other Surprises

Sorry but after the big surprise the others are … well … "others".

I'd already teed up a time to come in and chat with my boss on Friday morning, and asked her to keep it quiet. I wanted to rock in that morning, late-ish, surprise everyone, and then join the boys (and girls if they wanted) at a nearby pub for lunch and watching the cricket.

Friday night was always going to be difficult. I had to find where my mates would be that night without contacting them. Especially with Chop still out of the country (he got in from India after me). My sister found out where Kate Fitz was out that night and we met up for a few drinks.

Saturday the plan was always to travel around the grounds for my old cricket club and see how everyone's doing. They had a quiz night on that night, which was a shame. Great for the club but I'd rather spend the night chatting to people and catching up than listening to questions and answering them all correctly. Still we managed to win second prize at the quiz night (first was lunch with Liz Constable, which we didn't want).


So anyway, there you have it. I'm back. I start work on 26 November, and I'm spending the week before that going the beach, catching up with friends, organising myself here and resting up a little bit.

I can't finish without saying a MASSIVE thanks to Chop for keeping it quiet all this time. Cheers mate, it must have been hard! And also to everyone in the UK who found out a little ahead of time – thanks so much for staying quiet!

And also I must thank Sandra at DPI, the only other person in Perth I told of my return!