Sunday, October 31, 2010
We arrived in Mandrem on Saturday. As we drew closer, I started to get more nervous. I just really wanted not to hate it and to be settled for a few days if not longer! We drove down a very sleepy road with a few restaurants and one clothing shop. At the end was Vila River Cat—-highly recommended by the LP and TripAdvisor.
Rinoo welcomed us effusively and sat us down to coffee and a sandwich while he proceeded to talk our ears off for over an hour. From the snippets I caught, Mandrem sounded pretty sleepy and perfect. There was even yoga at the hotel right across the river. Now if only he would shut up long enough for us to check out the beach!
Finally, we settled into our room and headed out to explore. First, we went across the river where the yoga classes were. The evening class was already underway, but I confirmed that they had yoga every day at 8:00 AM and 4:00 PM—-perfect. It turned out to be a yoga retreat center, so, while we were there, we checked out a couple of the eco-lodges. A couple seemed to have roaches and the whole place was mosquito-infested, presumably from being situated on the river. And then there was the exorbitant price—-no thanks!
We walked out to the beach and it was absolutely gorgeous! Perfect, really—-wide, flat, firm, and clean. It was also pretty deserted. Then we walked around “town” a little bit. The only thing that was really lacking was internet. However, that had been the case in Palolem (and, surprisingly, so many other places in India—-we’d really expected decent, if not awesome, internet here), so we figured we’d just deal with having to go to the internet café. We decided we could see staying in Mandrem for a couple of weeks.
The next day, we looked at the place next door to our hotel and they had a room right on the beach for about half the price. Like Palolem, there were tons of huts in Mandrem, but our new place had to be the best bargain on the beach—-solid construction, oceanfront, and reasonable price! (And, in my opinion, another major bonus was not listening to Rinoo every time we came and went.) We went ahead and reserved it for sixteen days once our stay next door was over.
[The one drawback to leaving Rinoo was leaving the cutest kittens ever. There’s a reason it’s called Vila River Cat—-they feed quite a few strays and one had month-old kittens!]
We also walked up the beach about forty-five minutes to Arambol-—what appeared to be a backpackers’ haven. It was nice that there was somewhere else to walk to, but we were pretty psyched to be where we were.
Friday, October 29, 2010
We’d probably hyped Goa up a bit too much in our minds. Between the fact that it was supposed to be one of the more laidback parts of India and the fact that we’d be on our own schedule, we were *so* excited to get down there.
Even though it’s a fairly small state, we had a hard time picking where we wanted to go. We were looking for somewhere to stay (potentially) for up to three weeks. I basically wanted to find somewhere really quiet that offered yoga twice a day. And after our hotel in Varanasi, I really wanted a hotel with clean sheets. Yann wanted somewhere that he could run every day. If he wanted to go diving for the day (India’s best diving is supposed to be in the Andaman and Lakshadweep Islands and getting there sounded very expensive), everything seemed close enough. Otherwise, we didn’t care a whole lot as long as we could chill out and not have anyone telling us what to do.
With the help of the trusty LP, we narrowed it down to three places. Mandrem was way up in the north and supposed to be very quiet with beautiful beaches. We wondered if it would be too quiet. Palolem was way down in the south and also supposed to be quiet, but maybe not as much so. The LP said it was the place to be if you wanted to yoga, tai chi, reiki, or massage the days away… And in the middle were the fancy resorts. That sounded pretty nice for a couple of days. However, since we didn’t want to pay those prices for three weeks, we wondered if we ought to go ahead and get settled elsewhere. In the end, we decided on Palolem.
Like a lot of Goa, most of Palolem’s accommodation was supposed to be beach huts. Every year, these huts are torn down at the end of the season and then rebuilt at the beginning of the next after the monsoons have subsided. We decided to book a solid hotel for a couple of nights and then we’d find somewhere else to move over the following couple of days.
We arrived pretty late on Thursday night—-it was almost 10:00 PM. We were greeted by the security guy who handed us a bottle of water and told us the restaurant only did breakfast. We’d eaten a little on the plane and didn’t really know what our options were or if anything was open. So we decided to head to bed. Our room was huge and seemed pretty clean, but it was really simple and sterile…maybe we’d needed a couple of days at the fancy resort after all. Neither of us were that excited, but figured there was nothing to be done at that point anyway.
In the morning, everything looked better without the glow of fluorescent bulbs. We had some breakfast and took off towards the beach in search of the one hotel we knew of with yoga. We finally found it, confirmed that they had classes every morning and evening and even looked at some of the rooms. They seemed expensive for what they were.
Then we found the beach. It wasn’t bad exactly. It just wasn’t what we were all excited about. And to be honest, we’ve probably gotten a bit spoiled with spending so much time in the Bahamas and the gorgeous clear water and white sands. But we walked all the way up the beach, checking out a few huts along the way. A lot of them were still under construction since it was still right before the season officially started. As much as the Palolem was supposed to be sleepy, it seemed pretty crowded to us.
However, the LP told us that if even Palolem seemed too happening, we could head further south to Patnem. In the Palolem, the beach had been fairly clean, despite the numerous cows that wandered it and the odd bit of garbage here and there. Patnem was certainly quieter—-and with reason! The beach was absolutely filthy. There was no way that would be relaxing for a couple of weeks!
We decided we’d leave the next day and try Mandrem. If that didn’t work out, we’d check into a fancy place in the middle for about five to seven days to relax, finalize our plans for Nepal, and just accept that it was time to move on from India.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Everything we’d heard about Varanasi was lukewarm at best—-along the lines of “it’s interesting, but a little chaotic...” Even the LP’s first sentence describing the city was “brace yourself”. Between that and the overnight train ride, I was feeling very anxious about our trip. The main consolation was that after we made it through the next four days, we’d be on our way to Goa to chill out and have no schedule until we felt like it again.
Surat dropped us off at the train station a couple of hours early since he had to drive all the way back to Delhi that night. We paid someone 100 rupees to make sure we got on the right train—-it may have been the wimpy way out, but with little in the way of information inside, we figured the two bucks was worth it. Hanging out at the train station only heightened my trepidation as we watched the rats scurry around and listened to the world’s loudest pigeons.
[Allegedly, this is the only picture of the train. For the record, I do *not* have a double chin.]
Finally, our train arrived (right on time, I might add) and our hired guy made sure we got on it. It was an interesting set-up. All of the trains we’d been on thus far had been locked compartments of either two or four bunks. On this train, all of the bunks were out in the open with curtains that you could pull closed. Luckily, it was already 8:00 PM, so by the time we got settled and exchanged a few pleasantries with the men in the bunks across from us, I was able to crawl up on the top bunk, read for a bit, and go to sleep in the very hairy sheets provided by the railway. I vaguely heard Yann discussing politics as I drifted off.
[If one thing recurs over and over in our travels, it’s how ecstatic the rest of the world was for our change of administration. As uncomfortable as it can be at times traveling as an American, I can’t imagine how much worse it was under the reign of terror.]
We were supposed to arrive in Varanasi at 6:15 AM. Around 5:45, the guys across from us told us that the next stop was Varanasi. How exactly they knew, I’m not sure-—there were no announcements or anything. We quickly gathered our bags and headed out with everyone else.
Immediately outside of the train, a young guy held a sign with Yann’s name. He quickly introduced himself as Rahul and led us to the car. After checking into our hotel room, we made arrangements to meet him after lunch.
We spent the next 30 or so minutes arguing with the hotel. Our first room wasn't made up. There was an open packet of toothpaste and hairy soap on the edge of the sink and yesterday’s newspaper on the nightstand. The next room had two twin beds. They didn’t even pretend the next room was made up and told us we could have it at 10:00 AM. I told Yann we should just take the room with two twins so we could shower and have a quick nap now, when magically a made-up room with a queen became available. We moved our stuff in there and I tried not to make too huge of a fuss about it…it was definitely the grossest room we’d stayed in so far and the posted rate on this room was $100/night. We slept in our sleeping bag liners. : )
After showers, naps, and lunch, we were ready to tackle Sarnath with Rahul. Sarnath is where Buddha preached his first sermon after achieving enlightenment. As Buddhism flourished, there were elaborate and huge monuments and monasteries for at least seven centuries until Muslim invaders destroyed the city. The ruins were rediscovered by British archaeologists in 1835.
First, we visited the Mulgandha Kuti Vihar temple where Buddha’s first sermon is chanted daily. It was a really pretty temple painted inside with Buddhist scenes. However, Yann and I didn't like our tour guide--Rahul was about 20, really enthusiastic, and royally grating on our nerves. Luckily, when we went over to the Dhamekh Stupa and monastery ruins afterwards, he let us wander around by ourselves. Here’s a picture of my feelings on sight-seeing at that point:
After that, Rahul presented us with two local tickets (5 rupees apiece instead of 50) into the archaeological museum.
We headed back into town so that we could arrange for a sunset boat ride along the ghats. Ghats are the long stairways leading down to the Ganges River. They line the west bank of the river for about three km or so. Most of them are sites for pilgrims to bathe in the sacred river. However, some of them are used for public cremation.
Once Rahul had secured our vessel, we climbed aboard and headed up the river toward Manikarnika Ghat—-the main burning ghat and supposedly the most auspicious location for a Hindu to be cremated. At this point, it was mostly dark, and we could see the fires from a ways off. The fires burn 24/7 as people bring their loved ones, wrapped in golden shrouds, to be washed in the sacred river and then cremated at its edge. Rahul told us that it takes 300 kg of wood and three hours to burn a body. I’m not sure we believed him. However, it was quite a sight to behold: we were really very close and it smelled of burning flesh. We also saw random body parts sticking out of the fire. Very interesting and a little eerie.
We headed back down the river to Dasaswamedh Ghat, where the ganga aarti ceremony is performed daily at 7 PM. The ceremony is to worship the river and is full of chanting, incense, fire, dance, and prayer. The ceremony was pretty spectacular despite Rahul’s incessant chatter and the fact that we were bumping against about fifty other boats.
The next morning, we woke up psyched—-a whole day to ourselves! After a leisurely breakfast, we found a rickshaw to take us to the ghats (we were staying near the train station and about thirty minutes from anything worth seeing). We instructed our driver to take us to Assi Ghat, the southernmost of the main ghats. We then planned to meander our way up the river and into the old city. I was slightly nervous—-apparently Varanasi rickshaw drivers are notorious for taking you to shops, restaurants, etc. where they will receive commissions rather than where we actually want to go. Our guy was good though and we jotted his number down so we could call him when we wanted to head back.
I’m not sure if it was the gorgeous day or the sense of freedom in not being “on a tour”, but we had a really lovely day wandering up the river, around the ghats and the back streets, and around the old city. Despite the fact that the river is pretty polluted, the scenery was pretty and interesting, and, yes, we did get mildly hassled by people wanting to take us to their shops, but nothing any worse than anywhere else we’d been. A kid of about eleven, Deepak, hung out with us for a while and I was honestly sad to see him go once he got run off by an older tout. We managed to find a pretty touristy restaurant for a couple of veggie burgers and iced teas (despite the fact that we have most consistently enjoyed the food in India, we do occasionally need a break from all of the lentils and cauliflower) and a couple of sweet shops. We both love the sweets in India—-they are only a couple of bites each, so you can sample a few at a time!
I tried to do some shopping afterwards, but just wasn’t in the mood (shocking), so we wandered around, taking in all of the colors and the sights. Late in the afternoon, we headed back to our hotel to shower and find somewhere close by for dinner. Unfortunately, our driver from the morning wasn’t answering our call, but we managed to find another driver who took us straight back again.
The next morning, we were supposed to take a sunrise boat ride down the Ganges. Rahul met us in the lobby at 5:15 AM with another guide, also Rahul. He explained that he needed to pick up another couple and would meet us at the river. Later, it turned out that he’d pawned us off on Rahul II who said it was his first day as a guide and he was “so scared”. The whole thing was weird and silly, but the bonus was that Rahul II didn’t talk *nearly* as much as Rahul I.
The boat ride was very nice. We left from Dasaswamedh Ghat, the scene of the aarti ceremony from two nights before, and were rowed down close to Assi Ghat, where we’d started our walk the previous morning. Mainly, it was just a peaceful scene, but there were definitely a ton boats out and a ton of people bathing—-I felt a little bit like a voyeur.
We got off the boat a little north of the main burning ghat. We met back up with Rahul I and a very nice, if a little seemingly shell-shocked, Indian-Canadian couple. We wound through the back streets to get to the Golden Temple, which is an important Hindu pilgrimage site. Rahul I introduced us to the priest who would take us there. Yann and I would not be allowed to go in since we are not Hindi (I’m not sure if the Canadian couple was either, but skin color seemed to go a long way on such subjects). We were a little confused and I think the priest thought we were mad that we wouldn’t be allowed inside. He quickly relented and said that it was okay, we could go inside. We just needed to say that we believed in the Hindu religion and that we prayed to the Lord Shiva every day. That seemed a little wrong, disingenuous, and disrespectful, so we told him that we’d just wait outside. You couldn't really see much from the outside, but the top of the temple was supposedly made of solid gold.
That afternoon, we met back up with Rahul II for a few hours before we needed to catch our train. First, we went to the Bharat Mata Temple, where there is a cool marble relief map of India and the bordering countries. I’m not sure how Yann got on the subject, but the guy at the souvenir counter wanted to buy his iPhone for about $500. He was quite insistent—-we probably spoke to him for about ten or fifteen minutes.
Then we drove through Benares Hindu University. It was pretty and not much different from college campuses back home. Our driver and Rahul II were both very insistent that we needed to try paan to round out our Varanasi experience before we left. Paan is a digestive and mouth freshener made of betul nut (which is mildly narcotic), lime paste, and spices wrapped in a paan leaf. The idea is to stick it in your mouth and chew it, letting the mixture ooze into your mouth. I wasn’t up for it, but Yann agreed to try it. The look on his face when he bit down on it was priceless!
Then we were off to the train station to board the most roach-infested car that ever existed. That may have been it for our Indian train experience! However, it was definitely well worth it to see Varanasi—-one of our favorite stops on our trip.
Sunday, October 24, 2010
It was a long trip from Ranthambore to Agra. We left the hotel around 8am and Surat told us it would take between 7 and 8 hours to make it to Agra. After two weeks of traveling in the back of this little car we were now relative experts at maximizing comfort in the back of our Tata Indigo. We put the iPod on over the FM transmitter and settled into our books. One quick side note here, neither Catherine or I have ever been able to read in moving cars and somehow we have developed an immunity on this trip. It is strange enough to both of us that we don't really talk about it, almost like we would jinx this new found skill that we have learned.
Between reading and rocking out I entertained myself photographing trucks along the side of the road. One thing I have absolutely loved on our trip is how people in other countries decorate their trucks--we are talking pride that goes well beyond my fellow southerners twinkling eye as he looks over his F-150. Ownership of a hauling truck in these places is a sign of success and the fierce pride is on display across every inch of the machine. What was particularly interesting to me was how the graphics in India encompassed the use of the horn. EVERY truck has big letters on the back asking nearby traffic to blow their horn. That's just the way it works here, no turn signals, no abiding by lane markings, just blare your horn and haul ass if there is an opening.
It was a long haul, but we finally pulled into our hotel as the sun was setting. We quickly got settled and ran back out to make a run for the ATM and mail out box of goodies back home. Over dinner I told Catherine that I thought it would be a good idea to take the locals advice and head to the Taj Mahal at 5:30am to see the sunrise. After she shook off the surprise of my suggesting an early wake-up call she happily agreed and our plans were made.
Dawn was far away from cracking as we piled into the car and met our guide for the day. Within a half hour we had tickets and were standing in a line that was already at least 100 people deep waiting for the gates to open. By the time we made it through security the sky was grey blue and the sun was just peaking its head above the horizon. We made our way through the main gate and enjoyed a pretty view of the moon falling to daybreak. This was it, the big event, what everybody comes to India to see. The Taj Mahal and all of its legend stood before us along with at least a couple hundred tourists (better than the thousands that would arrive in a few short hours). It really is a beautiful building and pretty awesome to finally see it in person. Neither of us were brought to tears or anything like that but both agreed that is was one of the more beautiful buildings we had seen. I took about 500 pictures, but don't worry you only have to look at a couple. The surface did change color as the sun climbed into the sky and I tried to capture as much as I could. Posted in this entry are photos of: 1) Sunrise, 2) Mid-morning, 3) Mid-day from Fort Agra, and 4) late afternoon from the backside across the Yamuna River.
After two hours I had enough photos to keep me busy editing for at least a couple of days and we headed back to the hotel.
Breakfast and a quick nap served us both well and we met back up with our guide who seemed to be more focused on recovering from his birthday celebrations the night before than guiding. Fine with us, we prefer the quiet. It was mid-day and hot so the guide told us he'd take us to the "obligatory" marble factory where we would see how the intricate designs decorating the Taj Mahal are crafted and placed in marble. We are very familiar with this game, but went along with a friendly smile and resigned ourselves to enjoying a free glass of tea--what on earth would we want that was made of marble. We were enjoying our tea and making snarky remarks about the sales pitch until we went into the show room and saw some really amazing stuff. They had table tops with thousands of pieces of semi-precious stones inlaid into marble with jeweler like precision. Only one problem--expensive!
After our education in jeweled marble slabs we grabbed lunch and prepared for the afternoon heat. Agra Fort was a fairly uneventful tour. Most of the property is still used by the military, however the older sections overlooking the river are still open to the public and you can glimpse out at the view of the Taj Mahal just like its creator Emperor Shah Jahan did after his son imprisoned him.
It was still early in the afternoon and we had several hours to kill before our train left for Varanasi. We parted ways with our guide and asked Surat to take us over to see the "baby" Taj Mahal. With similar architectural features this building was allegedly the template upon which the Taj was designed. We strolled through enjoyed the monkeys and headed back to Surat in search of additional activities. A garden sits across the river and directly behind the Taj Mahal and we decided to spend our last hour in Agra taking in another view of its legendary monument. It was quite a different view with the trash and barbed wire fence creating an odd frame for the exquisite Taj. We met some kids, took some pictures, and called it a day. It was time to say good bye and get pumped about our first overnight train trip in India.
Saturday, October 23, 2010
After spending such a great couple of days in Udaipur, we were pretty bummed to leave. However, we'd definitely been looking forward to Ranthambore Park and the prospect of seeing tigers in the wild.
We’d been told that we did not need to book our tiger safari ahead of time and that we should just wait to do it through our hotel. In fact, when we pushed a little, we were told that you could not book it ahead of time (something having to do with monopolies in the travel agency biz and Thomas Cook…). Needless to say, when hotel reception told us that we needed to have booked a jeep at least a week ahead of time, we were a little peeved. He did tell us, however, that if we booked right now, he could get us onto a canter for the next day’s early morning game drive. What’s a canter? A huge diesel truck that seats about 25 people. Sign us up!
After booking our safari, we quickly discovered that there is nothing to do in Ranthambore except shopping, tiger safaris, and hanging out at your hotel. We settled into our books and ate a mediocre buffet dinner in the garden.
The next morning, Yann was *really* excited to get up at 4:45 AM. We ate a quick breakfast and waited for our canter. It finally arrived after about thirty minutes. Does this look like a stealthy vehicle for sneaking up on tigers? We thought so, too.
We spent the next forty-five minutes driving around to the hotels and gathering additional passengers. Finally, we were off to the park!
We quickly spotted some deer. And some birds. Then the guide saw a monkey in the trees overhanging the road. The driver didn’t stop, but continued ahead. Surely he wasn’t going to stop directly under it? Nope, he kept driving right on through and stopped on the other side, even once the monkey started peeing! I was lucky only to catch a couple of drops, but the guy diagonally in front of me got pretty doused. Jealous, Lindsay?
[When Lindsay and I were walking through the hanging bridges in Arenal, Costa Rica, our guide told us never to stand directly under monkeys (especially with an open mouth) since you never know when they will decide to relieve themselves. Lindsay quickly decided that being peed on by a monkey would be *so cool*…until we heard some sort of liquid falling through the leaves and she hightailed it out of there.]
The next two hours were filled with sightings of peacocks, deer, spotted deer, more peacocks, unspotted deer, big deer, little deer, other birds, peacocks, and about half of a small crocodile really far away from the canter. Of course it wasn’t really that surprising that we didn’t see anything very interesting: we were the last in a train of about thirty vehicles and every time we passed one headed back in the opposite direction, they reported that they had seen nothing. This was a far cry from safari in East Africa!
As we were leaving the park, we heard that someone had seen a tiger in a different area. We quickly headed in that direction, but by the time we got there, it was gone.
Well, it was about that time, so we headed out of there, reversing the order of the morning’s pick-ups, so Yann and I were the last drop-off. Maybe especially since we’d had such good luck on safari in Kenya, we decided we didn’t really care to spend another few hours that afternoon tiger-hunting in a huge, yet amazingly uncomfortable vehicle. We settled back into our books for the afternoon.
That night at dinner, I think we may have been the only people who hadn’t seen *at least* one tiger earlier in the day. Most people had seen two or more!
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Before she started our cooking class, our instructor gave us a little intro. She told us about what we would be cooking and that she only made vegetarian food (although her recipes contained several variations with meat). She also told us her story and how she started teaching cooking classes.
About nine years ago, her husband passed away suddenly, leaving her alone with two boys, aged seven and nine years. She had never worked, her husband had left them with nothing, and she was not allowed to remarry. However, she had been born into an upper caste of priests and scholars, thus dictating the type of job she could hold. For several years, she did laundry for tourists to make ends meet, but she had to do it secretly. Her caste did not allow for that sort of work.
Her eldest son brought a couple of Australian tourists into her home for dinner about four years ago. At this point, she spoke no English, but the Aussies loved her cooking and told her son that she should teach classes to tourists—that they would love it. To her son, she said absolutely not—she didn’t even speak English! The Aussies insisted that she wouldn’t need to speak much and that she could learn as she went.
She said she was terrified for her first class and left the room in the beginning. However, four years later, her class is going strong. She doesn’t do any of the computer work—tourists have all pitched in with little bits over the years to get her recipes typed up and her website running. Her son manages the email. But she says that during the tourist season, her class is full most nights (she limits the class to four students).
This may sound a little cheesy and/or condescending, but the more we travel, the more lucky I feel about where I was born. I definitely feel this way as a person, but mostly as a woman. The women we see in a lot of countries seem to work so hard for so little benefit, but they also seem very isolated. Don’t get me wrong, the community of women always seems very strong, but that community itself appears very contained. I’m also not trying to discount the value of other cultures—there are certainly things that my culture lacks as a result of the very things that it has gained.
At any rate, I liked her story and was glad to see that she was doing so well for herself. She seemed to really enjoy her interaction with so many different people and it seemed like a far cry from doing laundry on the sly.
We were having a great day in Udaipur and going non-stop since early that morning. It was 5:20pm and we were apologizing to our guide at the City Palace for having to dart out on the tour so quickly but there were more important things to attend to—cooking classes! Three different courses had been advertised and luckily we picked the one that was a quick walk from our current location. We chugged a bottle of water and arrived 10 minutes later at the address we had been given. The building was an unassuming personal residence sitting just off the main road in the direction of the lake. A young guy in shorts and a T-shirt appeared and we told him we had arrived for cooking classes. He nodded and pointed us towards two plastic chairs around the coffee table in what appeared to be a living room/bed room. There were packets of paper scattered on the table titled “Shashi Cooking Classes.” One other girl sat across from us quietly studying the recipes. We took the queue and began looking through the nine pages of recipes thinking there was no way we could actually be cooking everything listed. A few quick minutes later our fourth classmate came through the door smiling and apologizing for being late. We took this opportunity to introduce ourselves to both of our classmates and swapped stories about our adventures in India.
A small woman suddenly appeared at the doorway draped in a blue saree and a slight smile. I immediately detected a strange intensity that reminded me of a revered professor entering the classroom. Moments later Shashi had nuzzled into our tight circle around the coffee table and introduced herself. She spent a solid 10-15 minutes telling us her story and describing how her cooking classes came to be over 8 years ago. Then with little pause she dove straight into giving us our first series of directions. She walked us through her packet of recipes and dictated additional notes for us to reference while we were cooking. When it was clear there were no questions she stood and marched us into the kitchen.
The kitchen was approximately 6 feet long and 5 feet wide. On the exterior wall sat a rack of dishes and a small cook bench (maybe 3.5 feet long) that held a dual burner stove top and a few various utensils. On the opposite wall the four of us were given seats next to the pantry. Shashi promptly dressed us in aprons and handed out clip boards for note taking. The girls were all plied with traditional bindis and it appeared we were now appropriately outfitted to begin. Once we were seated Shashi asked us if we would like Chai and we all nodded our heads. Without pause she walked us through her recipe for making Chai tea and quickly had the fragrant tea boiling on one of the burners. The tea was strained and we were each passed a cup of the most delicious Chai I have ever tasted (and I’m not even a fan of milk). With that dear reader, let us pause so you too can concoct a cup of the real thing before continuing. See recipe at bottom.
Shashi disappeared for a few minutes running around pulling out various ingredients before she paused to ask us which masala dish we would like to make. Aubergine (aka: eggplant) and Tomato Masala were quickly suggested, Shashi nodded and set about completing her ingredient list.
It was time to start cooking, for which all our starving stomachs were thankful, and Shashi dove right in to appetizers. First we prepared a batch of coriander chutney (that delicious green sauce we all inhale when visiting Indian restaurants at home) and a second of mango chutney. Catherine and I were delighted to discover how easy it is to make our favorite Indian condiment. Next we prepared Pakora batter and proceeded to dredge the likes of cauliflower, potatoes, mixed vegetable balls, and chunks of paneer cheese through the spicy stuff and fry them into heavenly bites of fried dough goodness. As each batch of the fried snacks came out they were ladled onto a tray and devoured by the students. The pakora kept coming and we finally started looking at each other wondering how we were going to make it through an entire meal.
Our focus shifted to spices and learning how to make masala. Masala is the Indian equivalent of one of the three French “mother” sauces and is used throughout the country to flavor all types of foods. It reminded me a lot of making Thai curries but without the coconut and a slightly different melange of spices. At this point Shashi was barking orders to all four of us in a loving, yet stern, tone that would remind you of your grandmother. Catherine assigned to crushing up garlic, ginger, onion, and salt with a mortar and pestle as the rest of us began chopping and making notes. Soon our aubergine dish was completed and it was time to move onto making a vegetable palau which is basically spice and stir fried veggies. Somewhere moving parallel to the group, Shashi began making cheese from locally purchased yoghurt. As she strained the curd we discussed spicing and ways in which it could be shaped and served. Each dish finished on the burners and was then covered and stacked to the side to stay warm for our meal. We had been cooking for a solid three hours and Shashi seemed to be throwing information at us faster than we could cook and take notes; however, we were all smiles and having a blast.
Finally we came to the bread and thought to ourselves, good lord, this woman really is going to cook every recipe in this packet! Sure enough, we spent the next hour making six different types of traditional Indian breads: Naan, Chappati, and Paranthas (plain, cheese stuffed, veggie stuffed, and coconut stuffed). All five of us were working at a 110% as Shashi would smack our wrist and correct our form in turning the bread on iron plate or forming the dough balls. It was just after 10:00pm and we had started cooking at 5:30pm! We were whooped and ready to eat (amazing considering the amount of pakora we had consumed earlier). Shashi trimmed a plate for each of us with a piece of fresh Naan covered in homemade cheese and a tomato relish she had somehow managed to whip up on the side. We made our way back into the living room and stared down at the table full of food we had spent the entire evening preparing under Shashi’s well trained hands. It was absolutely delicious. I think we all ate about three meals worth but this gluttonous moment of weakness had been well earned.
Still in grandmother-like form, Shashi did not eat a bite and instead focused on cleaning the kitchen with the help of some younger family friends. By the time we had made it through our main dishes Shashi came back in and asked Catherine if she and I were married. When Catherine informed her that indeed we were she lit up with big smiles and told us how good that was. With Catherine’s blessing she then began painting an elongated red mark on her forehead to signify she was married. It was my turn next and I received the male equivalent. She must have been really enjoying herself because she continued her painting and gave both of our fellow single students their own marriage war-paint. It was all pretty hysterical and everybody was having a good time. We took a few group photos and exchanged emails. It had been a great night with some really fun people and fantastic foodie knowledge—not too shabby for $10/person!
The recipe here is for one cup. If you want two cups, double it. Three cups, triple it, etc. [Note: measurements are in “glasses,” literally she used something that looked like an 8/10oz juice glass. You should adjust based on the size of your mug.]
SHASHI’s Masala Chai
1 glass of milk (We used whole milk, but you should try substituting your favorite creamy beverage: soy, rice, low fat, etc. Experiment as your results will vary.)
1/4 glass of water
2 heaped teaspoons of sugar (adjust this to your tastes)
1 teaspoon of black tea (Loose tea, not bags. Indian Darjeeling is recommended)
2 pieces of Cardamon (pods)
4 black peppercorns
1 chunk of fresh ginger the size of your fingernail
*Bonus Ingredients: Although she did not include it, Shashi noted that you can also include basil and nutmeg to the mix for additional flavor.
1) Roughly grind cardamom, black pepper, and ginger with a mortar & pestle
2) Add with all other ingredients into a small saucepan
3) Bring to a boil and then reduce heat. Simmer for 4 minutes, stirring ocassionaly. Chai should turn a coffee brown color and you should smell the Cardamon and other aromas.
4) Remove from the stove and pour through a strainer as to leave the tea and other solid pieces behind. [Note: solid pieces can be reused one time for a second cup]
5) Serve and enjoy!
We arrived in Udaipur still a little star struck from the beauty of the Jain Temple. As we pulled into town I pulled out the LP to read my 15 minute crash course in Udaipur’s history. We had heard a lot about the “Floating Palace Hotel” that was located here and I was delighted when the LP confirmed my suspicion that this was the same palace/building that was in the James Bond movie “Octopussy!” I saw that movie in the theatre with my dad and grandfather sometime in the eighties and though that was the coolest evil villian lair I had ever seen! We had actually asked about staying in that hotel until we informed the price tag was $1200/night—ouch!
It turned out our hotel was actually really neat and just a short walk to the city sights and a clear view of the floating palace. The decorations were really cool and each of the windows had a small balcony laden with pillows, but more importantly, they had WIFI! Surat wasn’t going to meet us until 4pm the next day so we had all kinds of time to explore on our own. We quickly agreed to call and make arrangements for the two activities we had read about and wanted to enjoy while we were in town: yoga and cooking classes. A few phone calls later we had sorted out our schedule and were quickly getting dressed to make a 6pm yoga class. I thought the class was great because it went slow enough that I could actually figure out what the hell was going on. I think Catherine even enjoyed although it was probably several notches below her level of expertise. After class we dropped into a couple of shops we had seen on the way to class that advertised silk sleeping bags (basically bed condoms for dirty hotel sheets) and picked out the fabrics we wanted. During the conversation we also saw some clothing we really liked and discovered it was really cheap to pick whatever fabric we wanted and have some clothes made. After being measured and $20 lighter, we both had three custom pieces of clothing that would be available for pick up the following evening. Exhausted of shopping we decided to make our way to dinner. We found a table in an open garden restaurant amongst a packed house. Sipping fresh lime sodas and nibbling on spicy veggie curries we admired our view of the well lit “Floating Palace” just a few hundred meters offshore.
Everything about Udaipur seemed to be cool and laid back. We were determined to get as much of it in as we could and pulled ourselves from bed early the next morning to go back and get in another yoga class. After yoga, we showered and ate breakfast and then began walking down the long row of shops that lead to the lake’s edge. We stumbled upon a small shop with a couple of sitars in the window and ducked inside to see if we could find one for Steve. He had made the request while we were in Madagascar and I had been looking since we arrived in India. It turned out that the shop keeper was actually a musician who also made sitars. After a few demonstrations and discussing logistics Steve became the owner of a new sitar which would take about a week to arrive in Nashville.
We were starved and had to run a few errands before we would meet back at the music shop and speak with the guy who was going to ship the instrument. We found a café and were seated next to a couple of Americans. They were really nice and we were all too happy to swap stories about India, traveling, work, etc. Two hours later we made our way back to the instrument shop and finalized our transaction. It was getting late in the day, we still hadn’t seen any “sights,” and had yet to pick up our cool new custom sleeping bags. We decided to make quick work at the tailor and get on to the Palace Museum as quickly as possible. At 4:00pm we had tickets to the museum and asked our newly hired guide to make the tour 1 hour. It was after 5:00pm and we still hadn’t finished the tour (which by the way paled in comparison to everything else we had seen and done in Udaipur) and we finally told our guide that we had to go. The coolest thing the place had going for it was the old elephant tug-o-war events held in the courtyard. Elephant fights or not, now it was time to round out our day in cooking class.