Five puppies, four colleagues, two cities, one Test
On the road again. Well, almost. There's a new Indian consul general in town who wants some new and different things from South Africans applying to travel to his country. Among those things is absolute proof of living and working in South Africa, for fear you may never return. All of this is only revealed while waiting anxiously in the visa office the day of the departure flight. Frantic communication ensues, but in the end, crisis averted. All aboard. This will be my third visit to the place my grandparents came from, but I will not be visiting my ancestral home of Porbunder. More's the pity.
Maximum City. Mumbai. Arrival at 8am reveals exactly what that means. The traffic always takes some getting used to.
A trip that would have taken over two hours from the airport to Marine Drive a few years ago now takes only 90 minutes thanks to the Bandra-Worli Sea Link road, a marvel of engineering that goes over the ocean.
Hit the ground running by starting work immediately, except that work today is to hurry up and wait. Walk to the Brabourne Stadium, via the Wankhede, to collect accreditation for the South Africa practice match against the Board President's XI. Am led through a bureaucratic minefield. Go here, find so-and-so, go there, find someone else. Eventually, the entire afternoon later, I find the right person.
The first day of long-form cricket has arrived. And how. The open press box at Brabourne allows me to soak it all in. It's unusually hot for this time of the year, with temperatures close to 40 degrees, and high humidity, but it's wonderful. I find a small piece of what I think is my own history - one of the dining halls at the Brabourne is called the Porbunder All Rounder. I can't wait to tell my dad.
The actual cricket meanders, as it would in a warm-up match, and South Africa's bowlers seem a little soft, but it's only a taster.
That night, three colleagues from our Mumbai office give me a proper taster of the nightlife. We head out on a street-food tour of Colaba, where I am treated to bhel puri, rose sharbat, potato cutlets with a chickpea curry, and am forced to gulp down pani puri after pani puri while getting giggled at. We end up at dive bar Gokul, where we bump into more members of the press corps. It's a good night.
A few more concerns for South Africa after only AB de Villiers manages a decent score.
With so little time in Mumbai, I do the touristy thing and head to Café Leopold for a Shantaram experience.
Mohali-bound for the serious stuff. My only experience of Chandigarh was during the 2011 World Cup, when South Africa played Netherlands. It looks different when hosting a Test match: quieter, cosier, and at this time of year, cooler.
There's not much happening with neither team training, so get some work done and meet up with another colleague, Sidharth Monga, that evening. He introduces me to Uber, which I am embarrassed to admit I had never used before. It is to become one of my best friends over the next week.
Get a first look at Mohali's much talked about pitch, and on first glance it looks green. Looks can be entirely deceiving. South Africa are the only team training, while the Indians make their way back from Harbhajan Singh's wedding in Jalandhar. After practice Faf du Plessis says South Africa are expecting "the worst". He is proved right.
Determined to see a bit more of India than airports, hotels and cricket teams, I have booked a cycle tour of Chandigarh for the morning. As a commuter cyclist back home, I am confident I will be able to cope, and I am not far wrong. Despite an unfamiliar bicycle and unfamiliar routes, I stay on. And I see the city. Among the stops are the Rose Garden (not in bloom at this time of year), the war memorial, the Rock Garden (not open at times when I might have visited), and the Sukhna Lake. Can't help but feel Chandigarh is quite a strange place because it is planned. What was the plan supposed to achieve? I conclude it must be equality. Every sector has a park, a market, a residential area. It's a nice idea.
At South Africa's open media session, Dale Steyn offers a completely different perspective about bowling on the subcontinent. He opens up about the secrets of his success here, and the insights are both informative and intriguing.
There are five puppies in the park close to the PCA Stadium which I decided to use as my running route. They seem about eight weeks old, with bounce and faint barks. They try to jog alongside me but only last a few metres before they are distracted and bound off. I finish my laps and stop to play with them. They enjoy the attention and I enjoy the interaction.
I have decided to become a vegetarian for this trip in order to explore different cuisines. Someone has recommended Whistling Duck as the place to eat at in Chandigarh. Dinner there does not disappoint.
Ah, that Test match feeling. This is the start of a big summer for South Africa. Eight Test matches are the most they have played back to back in the same season since I started covering cricket, and I am excited about the prospect.
Not too many people in Mohali seem to be, though. The crowd is much thinner than I expected on day one, although someone suggested it was a record low. They make up for their size with sound, singing "Happy Birthday" to Virat Kohli even as he fails with the bat. It's a happier day for Dean Elgar, who proves innocuous no more, and for me when I discover at lunchtime that the food at the PCA is as good as it was during the World Cup. The tandoori ovens are still on the terrace, churning out fresh rotis. A ground after my own heart.
Only three of the five puppies are in the park this morning. I spend most of my run scanning the surrounds for the other two. I don't want to think about where they might be.
The fast-forward action in the Test takes my mind off them, as South Africa are bowled out and more than half the match is over inside two days. But then India strengthen their position and it seems the game is only headed one way.
True to their reputation of being cricket's best travellers, South Africa fight back. Their bowlers give them a fighting chance of winning the first Test, though they will have to score the highest total of the match to do so. They don't. The match ends with the crowd sounding like a full house.
On my walk back to the hotel, I notice how alive Mohali seems. The roadside cooks are selling everything from sugar-cane juice to snacks. I stop to take pictures and admire the entrepreneurial spirit. Can't really believe one Test is already over. It still feels like this tour has barely begun.
All five puppies are back in the park again. Relief. I say my goodbyes, wishing I could take them home with me. I'm not sure what Doosra, my cat, would think of that.
Time off is a myth in the life of a journalist but I may actually get some. On a whim, I decide to investigate the possibility of a day trip to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple. It's proving tricky because the rail office at the bus station is closed and private taxis are costly. But I have to try.
Against all odds, manage to get a trip to Amritsar organised with a convenient and cheap taxi by the same people who did the cycle tour. Arrive in the Holy City and am amazed at how busy it is. Diwali is in two days' time and it seems everyone is shopping. Those who aren't are praying at the Golden Temple. It is a breathtaking sight. The structure is mirrored in the water beneath it and the colours reflect as rainbows.
I am just as awestruck at the community kitchen inside the temple, which is the largest of its kind in the world. Hundreds of volunteers do everything from peeling vegetables to stirring the biggest pots of tea I have ever seen. Two different kinds of chapatis in the kitchen - machine-manufactured and handmade - both equally delicious-smelling. Anyone who wants to eat there can, but we head off to the Amritsar Bazaar for a lesson in Punjabi culture.
We roam the lanes for hours, smelling spices and tasting delicacies like sweet puffed rice, gnawing on what looks like tree bark but has a honey-like taste, and sipping the best lassi in town, The guide explains how the bazaar is the heartbeat of the city. At this time of year it feels like the lungs, stomach, kidneys and everything else as well. We have tea at a 100-year old tea shop, munch on jalebi and admire the Diwali lights. Back in Chandigarh cricket is far from the mind. It's a topic that will be tackled tomorrow.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent