Tag Archives: Indian cuisine

A Fiery Finale to India

You know what makes Varanasi feel so refreshing? There are puppies and women. Puppies and women! What’s not to love? I knew something was amiss after all this time in India, and it was too many Y-chromosomes in the air. Finally, the ladies are back. And they brought with them puppies. Well no, I guess it’s just “puppy season,” as Ananya, the daughter of our Homestay owner Harish, told us. (Now that should be in the guidebooks under “when to visit.”) But seriously, there are women everywhere, which is not the case in all (most) other parts of India we visited. Especially at night. And here we saw lots of women out, young and old, day and night, in groups and alone. Which makes me feel safe, and happy. Also, Ananya took us out for an alley walking/food tour one day, and the company of another young woman all day was so welcome and refreshing to me. I forgot how comforting the presence of other ovaries can be.  (Alan says:  This is our first post together on the combined blog, and I bet you can guess who wrote this paragraph.  Though I do love me some ovaries.)

Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest living cities and one of the holiest places for Hindus.  It sits on the banks of the River Ganges and the stone ghats leading down to the water are the epicenter for both ritual ablutions and cremations atop wood-fueled pyres.

We expected Varanasi to be a highlight. When we began our trip we knew we were going to spend 25 nights in India, and the only places we knew for sure we had to see were Kerala and Varanasi. And so we booked flights into Kerala and out of Varanasi. The rest of the stuff in between was planned as we went. But Varanasi we’d known was a must-do. In fact, it’s the one place in India I’ve been talking about going since I started talking about going to India. The only reason we skipped it on our first trip was that the idea of watching people burn the bodies of their loved ones seemed even more antithetical to the idea of honeymooning than did the risk of Delhi Belly that everyone felt inclined to warn us about when we revealed our plans to spend our post-nuptials in such a locale.

Well, we came in prepared for intensity, for emotions to be tugged, eyes opened, cultures experienced. And that it was, but what was perhaps most intriguing was the experience of joyful emotions in Varanasi. It does not feel like a sad place.  The contrast of extreme happiness – people going on pilgrimage to one of the holiest places – and extreme grief – burning the bodies of their loved ones – is fascinating. We learned from Harish that death at a relatively normal age (e.g. not a child or young person whose children have not yet been married) is not so much a cause for mourning as it is for celebration of a life well-lived. After the friends and family of the loved one carry the body to the river and it’s been cremated, the family (if not poor) of the deceased provides food and sweets to thank those who came. Interestingly, the cremation is generally to happen immediately, but if family members need to travel to attend and see the body, the local members might keep the body warm (in winter, or cold in summer), as Harish did with his mother, by rubbing ghee on the body until the rest of the family can come pay their final respects. It was an emotionally powerful story and an experience difficult to imagine.

We saw the cremation ghats from a handful of different vantage points: the first time on a sunset boat trip up the river, seeing a few cremations from a distance, where the impact is somewhat diffused. (Though you do get a pretty up-front view of the nightly pooja ceremony, which to be honest felt like a show for the tourists). The next morning we woke early to see the ghats by sunrise, and while it was quite foggy, it was still a special experience, seeing all those people up at the crack of dawn to bathe in the freezing cold waters of the Ganges on a winter day. And let me tell you, it was cold. Alan was wearing long underwear! Most moving by far was witnessing the cremations on our last day when we walked to the main cremation ghat of Manikarnika. We went in expecting an intense experience, and intense it was, in some ways expected, others surprisingly so. Of course, it’s a moving experience to see the bodies carried to the river on bamboo stretchers, dipped in the water and then placed on a pile of logs to be burnt while dozens of people crowd around. I was somewhat surprised, though it makes perfect sense when you think about it, to see how many animals congregate by the main cremation ghat. They come seeking warmth, and next to the eight burning bodies are a mix of cows, dogs and goats, everywhere. It can be hard to watch, to see slowly the cloth wrapping the bodies consumed by flame and evaporating into ash to reveal the soft beige of a human skull, and to see the still intact feet poking out of a fire in which the legs and torso have all but disintegrated already.

While the cremations were impactful and emotional, they weren’t necessarily disturbing to us.  What was quite so, however, were a handful of young men and boys around the ghat. We’d been warned in advance, like so many tourist destinations in India, that unsanctioned “guides” will try to sell you tours for money. Here, of all places, seemed to us a disgraceful place to do such a thing, and to top it off, they lie about the money, claiming that they only request donations to provide firewood for the destitute, where in reality they are keeping it themselves. This is one of the holiest places in the world for Hindus, yet this disgusting dishonesty is taking place for personal benefit.

Armed with the knowledge of where this money actually goes, we refused any tours from these boys, one of which was quite pushy. When we told him we didn’t want a tour he stormed off saying, “fine, go away then.” We stayed on, observing quietly and respectfully (no photographs), for a while after. As we were walking away the boy called out after us “good, leave and don’t ever come back here.” In some bit of shock we turned around to confirm he was directing this towards us, and to our dismay he was. Trying to avoid confrontation Alan gave a pitied laugh at him, and this flared the boy up, trying to start a fight I suppose, yelling after us things like “don’t laugh at me, I don’t like your laugh. You stayed here a long time and did nothing.” As opposed to this boy? Who stands there while people return their loved one’s bodies to the earth and scams tourists so he can go buy himself some cigarettes? I am quite an emotional person, and had expected to be moved to tears at the sight of the cremations, but ultimately it wasn’t the cremation but these shameful boys that made me lose my emotions.

By the way – I read recently an article on NPR about how people can send in the ashes of their loved ones to companies that will compress them into diamonds that you can wear as keepsakes. Clearly Varanasi is not the market for these companies as the ashes are going into the Ganges, but I thought it fascinating. Apparently the diamonds usually come out blue, though some are yellow or black. Does that mean you have a dark soul?

Another highlight of our time in Varanasi was the walking tour we took with Ananya. We ate LOTS of food on this tour, starting with a plethora of pakoras. We learned that anything fried in graham flour can be a pakora. We tried tomato, eggplant, cauliflower and a few others.  And we had some terrific chai. I’ll miss Indian chai, I will. That sweet, spiced goodness. Here, Ananya threw in a Kit-Kat as well. Chocolate, as she says, is not a dessert in India. What is it then? A snack. Meandering through tight alleyways packed with people, mopeds, cows, dogs, goats and Bengali style houses with peaceful little courtyards, we stopped a man pushing a food cart full of peas to try “Indian peas.” These looked to us like regular old, get ‘em at your local grocery store snap peas and so we stuck them in our mouths, pod and all, and took a bite. Ananya turned around when she saw a man laughing at us and quickly informed us that you aren’t to eat the outsides, but just pull the peas out from inside. I don’t know, tasted fine to me. But she sure got a kick out of it. Next on the culinary tour was lassis at Spicy Bites. According to Ananya they are the best lassis in Varanasi. They definitely aren’t the best lassis in India, but they did have some of the most unusual flavors I’d seen. We went with a tried and true classic: chocolate banana coconut and chopped nuts, and a newbie: blueberry. Stick with the classics. That said, the best lassis we’ve had in all of India were probably the saffron lassis at Raas hotel in Jodphur. After “whetting” our appetites we went for a South Indian lunch at Dosa Café. We shared the masala dosa and veg uttapam, which is kind of like a pizza with a polenta crust. Both were heavy on the coriander for my taste, but Alan seemed to enjoy.

Onto dessert! Varanasi is well known for its desserts. And Malaiyo is one of its showcase sweets. It’s a special treat that’s only made in Varanasi and only during the coldest winter months (this, also, should be in the guidebooks under “when to visit”). It’s made from milk, which is boiled for a long time until it turns into an airy foam. It’s also got some cardamom in there, and I believe a bit of rose water. We’re told they place big pots of this on the roofs at night so that they chill.  Served in clay cups that are thrown away after a single use, they look like mounds of yellowy fluff. And they taste like an airy, lighter than mousse creamy cup of goodness. Make sure they pour a little condensed milk over top of it for the full effect. Ayo for Malaiyo.

Of course, this was only the teaser, and we went next to a sweet shop for a gulab jamun (basically fried dough soaked in honey and rose water, oh god), and a couple other sweet balls of rose water/cardamom/pistachio based goodness. They all taste similar, but vaguely different. Some of them have silver foil atop them, which you eat. It’s hard to fight the urge to peel off what looks like tin foil.

The alleyways range from fairly deserted and pleasant to walk around (albeit you always have to dodge the occasional pile o poop), to crazy and hectic.  The difficulty level of crossing the street doesn’t quite rival Mumbai but is made none the easier by mopeds driving on the wrong side of the divider. The environment feels ironically happier here than so many places we visited in India. It’s strange to find that in a place most strongly associated with death. Especially when you have to step aside on occasion as groups of men pass by with dead bodies hoisted on their shoulders.

Especially near the mosque where lines of locals wait eagerly for their turn inside, there is a large security presence. I never did quite adjust to the number of weapons that the officials carried here with such cavalier indifference to where they’re pointing.

We passed a number of music shops where the hippie variety tourists toted sitars around.

Ananya told us how from December 14 through January 14 it is not a time for weddings, but instead Hindus eat only bland food (rice with this daal type stuff) and grieve for ancestors lost. After the 14th there is a celebration with lots of kite flying. A friend I met while studying abroad also told me about the same festival, which is celebrated with more flair in Gujarat beginning January 14. We unfortunately missed it but it sounds worth checking out.

We usually cover accommodation in the “Practical Info” section below and we added some advice there, but we are including here our thoughts on TripAdvisor ratings and a lengthier discussion because in Varanasi our lodging was a more integral part of our experience than usual.  We stayed at a homestay, named, aptly, Homestay.  It’s the number one rated spot on TripAdvisor and people really rave about it. We’re coming to the realization that ratings on TripAdvisor can seem inflated, perhaps because people give ratings on different scales in different locations.  For instance, we’d rate our hotel in Cochin to be a “5,” for India and for the price. It was one of the best places we stayed, with a nice location, large room, functioning WiFi and A/C, but it’s no way a “5” compared to say, where we stayed on our honeymoon in the Maldives (for 28x the cost). You begin to notice in India especially people raving about things like “water actually got hot!” Also, a hostel might be a “5” for a hostel, but it can be difficult to know whether something is a “5 for a hostel cheaper than your morning latte in New York City for dirty backpackers with ridiculously lowered standards” or a “5 for a charming experience if less than luxurious spot” or the “5 for anything in the world at any budget.” So, take your “5” ratings with a grain of salt.

That said, Homestay was pleasant and we’re not trying to tear them down. It’s just not the BEST. The family who runs it is quite nice. You interact mainly with Harish, who is helpful and friendly, if also a bit long-winded. Our biggest complaint with Harish is that he spends so much time talking about how much his guests love him and how well he treats everyone that you never really get a chance to see it. Maybe it’s just that we spent four nights there and so heard his spiel to each new guest as they arrived. He also likes to opine on things on which he lacks personal knowledge, a bit of a pet peeve of ours. For example, he likes to explain why foreign tourists see certain local acts as irritating, because he apparently understands the psyche of Americans better than, say, the American tourists sitting across from him. And he’ll tell you how a sight in India is the second most impressive in the country, so beautiful, second only to the Taj Mahal. And fifteen minutes later he mentions he’s never actually been there. You can also expect to pay a bit more for transport and tours than you would otherwise. For the most part this is fine, because his guys aren’t going to try to take you around to shops and restaurants where they get a commission (much appreciated), but the tuk-tuk driver we’d hired didn’t speak any English, so if you’re looking for more of a guide, it’s definitely not a bargain (especially compared to what we got for less money in Cochin). Also, his airport shuttle fees are expensive and his argument that he’s saving you money because you aren’t dealing with commission schemes falls short here. Again, though, after a long 3.5 weeks in India we were just so over haggling.

Breakfast (included) and dinner (I can’t recall exactly but I believe dinner cost around Rs 250/person) are served communally. Harish’s wife, Malika, does the cooking. It’s pretty good. We loved her pakoras and the paneer curries. Weirdly, the dish I liked least was her paratha. Breakfasts are quite basic, pretty much toast (though with some fantastic homemade guava jam) and one hot Indian item that’s hit or miss. And when the power goes out (which happens pretty frequently), the toast switches to bread.

It is quite nice to share your meals with the other guests. We met several interesting people over the course of our breakfasts and dinners, including one couple that was also on a long-term round-the-world style trip including extensive travel in India. It was really fun to have people who could relate and discuss in detail with us such exciting matters as obtaining malaria pills and getting diarrhea (which for the record, was the woman’s opening line as we introduced ourselves at dinner. “Hello, we were supposed to arrive two days ago but I’ve had diarrhea for days.” Oh India and the things you learn about those you travel with).

The monkeys in Varanasi are scary little mothers. Our room was on the top floor, and we had to walk outside across the roof a bit to get to our door, which was something we avoided doing when the monkeys were out there. But the good news is that Jenni’s fight or flight instincts are intact. While dining on a rooftop in the old city, some monkeys snuck up there and in an impressively swift motion she jumped and ran inside the building before Alan could even grab the banana lassi and her sunglasses.  Which he sat valiantly protecting.

Other Varanasi Sites

We’d planned for four nights in Varanasi, expecting to have a work day and catch up on blogging/planning for the upcoming countries on our trip. Otherwise, we would not have spent so much time here. Given that we had plenty of time to spare, our first day we visited Sarnath. This was somewhat disappointing. Perhaps if you have a passion for history, Buddhism, or both, this would be more fascinating.  Deja vu to our commentary on Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka.  Or if you hired a knowledgeable guide. But as a sightseer with little understanding of the ruins you’re viewing, it’s a bit underwhelming.

However, I was more than pleased to discover an Indian zoo tucked away behind some of the temples. All you culture-ites, please avert your eyes. In lieu of checking out more of the temples… we went to the Indian zoo. And it was awesome. They had a collection of deer-related animals, a host of the most exotic looking birds, crocodiles and these strange-looking incestuous accident of a crocodile’s offspring: the cavial. It’s like a croc, but with a wicked fat tail and a long skinny nose.

After our outing to Sarnath we jetted over to the old city for ayurvedic massages on the uber-cheap. You get what you pay for. Not the best massages I’ve ever received, but possibly the cheapest. And definitely the most invasive. They really got up into the nooks and crannies there.  Alan said no man has touched him that way since his father last bathed him in the late 70’s.

Some final observations on India.

It can be overwhelming, which can be hard to admit. But it’s at times discouragingly difficult to get by, and I’ll tell you it was a great relief to arrive on the beaches of Thailand for a stretch of days with little to plan beyond “should I order a banana daiquiri next? Or a banana colada?” In fact, I write this post while in a lounge chair listening to the waves lapping a few meters below me, while the sweetest dog keeps us company over our mojitos. Sinfully good this bit can be.

Before India I’d mistakenly believed that the Air Hancock is a universal symbol for “check, please.” This one doesn’t translate to Hindi, unlike the universal language for “pot sold here”: Bob Marley music and/or posters.

Another interesting cultural difference that we noticed throughout India: the non-sexual touching of same sex friends. While it’s quite taboo for men and women to engage in PDA, men and men often, how do I say this, cuddle. No, but really. I’ve seen grown men spooning on the street. It strikes me as odd, that in a country so focused on sexual repression and where the rights of homosexuals are pitifully archaic (I read in the newspaper there that during 2013 they reinstated an old law banning “unnatural sex”), the men touch in ways you don’t see much in the western world.

Practical Info

Transportation: We flew to Varanasi from Delhi on Air India.  Our flight was delayed several hours and many were canceled due to fog, which apparently is common at this time of year.  There are flights from Agra at least a couple days each week.

A car to our accommodation (Homestay) was arranged by Homestay and cost Rs 850, which seemed quite expensive.  Since it can be even more difficult to find things in Varanasi than elsewhere in India, especially in the old city, folks often recommend arranging transport directly with your lodging.

The day we visited Sarnath we paid Rs 100/hour for a tuk-tuk.  This also was surprisingly expensive, and that was a theme of services arranged at Homestay.  For comparison, we paid Rs 60/hour in Cochin and that was for a driver who spoke English well and doubled as a guide.

Accommodation:

We stayed at Homestay and covered most of the experience above.  One of the key decisions here is whether to stay in the old city or not.  The old city is near/on the river, closer to most of the attractions and more atmospheric.  However, it is also more crowded and hectic.  Homestay is about 1 mile from the main ghat.  I believe that many of the higher end properties are away from the ghats.

I think I might prefer to stay closer to the ghats.  While this might be less peaceful in some respects, the ghats and surrounding alleys are fascinating and it would be nice to envelop yourself in this world for a couple days.  Unlike Agra, where the Taj Ganj area does not offer much to compensate for increased tout-presence and commotion.

We had lunch one day at Shiva Ganges View and the building and location were nice.

We heard that one or more heritage properties may be opening in the old palaces on the river in the coming years.

Food: We ate most of our meals at Homestay and the food was pretty good (covered above).  Lunch at Aum Cafe near Asi Ghat was quite good.  It is a crunchy place where we had our most Trader Joe’s-esque meal in a long time.  An open faced sandwich with homemade nut butter, honey and coconut, plus a much-needed salad and a rose lassi.  We also had lunches at Dosa Café (South Indian food) and Shiva Ganges View.  The former was good and its owner friendly; the latter was bland albeit with a roof deck perched way above the river offering nice views.

In the old city we had lassis at Spicy Bites.  The special with chocolate, coconut, banana and nuts was far better than the blueberry.

On our way to the airport we stopped at New Rajshree for sweets and samosas.  It appeared clean and orderly, was packed and tasty.  As mentioned above, malaiyo is a unique treat here, and of course street food is ubiquitous.  We ate a lot of tasty pakoras in the old city on our walking tour.

Activities: The most popular and unique activity is to spend time on the ghats by the river observing ritual bathing, cremations and more.  Dashashwamedh is the main ghat where the nightly pooja ceremony takes place.  Manikarnika is the main cremation ghat.  You can walk up and down the river, and a sunrise (and perhaps sunset) boat trip is de rigueur.  We arranged our sunrise and sunset boat trips through Homestay.  Each cost us Rs 300 and began and ended at Kedar Ghat.  Near the river you will be inundated with offers of boat trips, and I think the going rate is in the Rs 150-300 range.

The well-reputed Banaras Hindu University is southwest of the old city and home to the Bharat Kala Bhawan Museum.  The Monkey Temple and Ramnagar Fort are other popular attractions.

Many visitors make the ~10km trip up to Sarnath for half a day.  We found it missable, but if you do go there are ruins and Buddhist temples plus a neat little zoo.  It cost Rs 100 each to enter the ruins and Rs 20 each for the zoo.

January 6-10, 2014 (Monday-Friday)

 

Dosas and Mimosas: Bombay

Mumbai/Bombay (whatever you call it) was my first experience in what I would previously refer to as “a really big crazy Indian city.” (We’d been to Bangalore, Udaipur and Jodhpur on our honeymoon; Cochin and Madurai were the biggest cities we hit before Mumbai on this trip). Now, I have a whole new view of Indian intensity in big cities vs. small ones. I actually think Mumbai is much less overwhelming than smaller cities we’ve seen (e.g. Madurai, now Agra). (P.S. I’ve by now also been to Delhi. It’s pretty intense here, so maybe Mumbai is the exception. Details to come in my Delhi post).

That said, it’s still quite an experience. And there are certainly intense experiences.

If you do nothing else, just come to Mumbai, get in a prepaid taxi from the airport, and drive to your hotel. That alone is an experience you will get few other places in the world. Holy intenseness, crazy crazy madness, overwhelming happeningness, and poverty of mammoth proportion. You pass slums leaving the airport, and we hit some pretty serious traffic. You don’t know traffic til you’ve seen Indian city traffic. Every last square inch is crammed with vehicles going every which way. I think our driver’s attempt to skirt the traffic contributed to the craziness of the drive, as we were on smaller side roads for much of it. Kids come knocking on the windows, some begging for money, others trying to sell you things. I spent the hour trying to soak in as much of the scene around me as possible, and crossing my fingers that our luggage tied to the roof of the car wouldn’t go flying off once we hit the expressway.

It’s always a little challenging getting into a new place in the evening when you can’t get your bearings. So starting Mumbai in the dark was a little confusing. Crossing the street is epicly difficult. Despite that there are traffic lights and pedestrian crossing lights at the crosswalks (or zebra crossings), it seems that cars occasionally consider red lights optional. And while traffic keeps left, as with most things in India, consider it a generality. Like our mothers taught us all when we were young, “look left right left, then cross…” Modify this slightly in India, look right left right, RUN RUN RUN. Actually, I think it best to find a group of locals that appear to know what they’re doing and follow (closely!) behind them.

There are lots of people out and about in Mumbai, though pretty much throughout the city (at least the areas we frequented) it’s not the overwhelming in-your-face-ness of say Agra, Madurai or Delhi (except maybe at India Gate). I’m starting to notice that men far outnumber the women in many parts of India, and I find it somewhat surprising that in a modern city like Bombay where many women work that we can walk two or three crowded blocks and pass not a single other female.

Just walking out from the hotel to grab some dinner, we were thrown off passing guards with loaded guns pointed out at street so you have to walk right by it. I’m still not sure what building they were protecting, but it must be an important one. Looking like lost tourists in search of street signs, we wound up getting escorted to our restaurant, Kyber, by a friendly man carrying a laptop in shopping bag. I was skeptical; he was kind. And Kyber was delicious. It was here I tried mutton (goat) for the first time. We ordered the mutton rara: mutton pieces in an almond cream and red masala sauce. Fantastic, but the highlight was most definitely the mint paratha! I am so obsessed with paratha it’s scary, and I didn’t realize it could be improved upon (I’ve tried it aloo (potato), paneer (cheese), garlic, you name it), but mint! Who would’ve thunk it. Oh. Em. Gee. Solid meal. Though the city price tag was a shock after all the cheap and delicious eats we’ve had so far – about Rs 2,000 plus 22% VAT/service charges for what was actually only one main dish. Also they charged Rs 325 for rice (we’ve had huge meals of curry and unlimited rice for less than Rs 100!).

We stayed at a hotel in Churchgate called Astoria. The area is fantastic. Nearby to Colaba, which is probably the most popular tourist area, but a little bit less crowded, and lots of good stuff to see/eat/do nearby. We were also right next door to the Churchgate metro station, which proved to be very convenient for getting to our slum tour. The hotel itself was mediocre, and pricier by far than most of what we stayed in in India (about $100 a night, internet access extra). I guess Bombay is a pricey city. The most redeeming thing about our hotel was definitely the impressive breakfast spread. They had a guy who cooked up omelettes and dosas to order. I think I ordered a Masala dosa every morning. Definitely try the banana shakes as well. Also, they provide scented talc as a complimentary toiletry, random and awesome.

Our first day in town we set out to walk around and explore. We stopped to watch boys playing cricket on the Oval Maidan. It’s a large park with a handful of games going on at all times it appears. And the architecture surrounding the park (as well as all around this city!) is beautiful – art deco, gothic, very European. Next we walked up to India Gate, which was hugely crowded with tourists and hawkers. You have to wait in line to go through some security, but I find it more disconcerting than comforting when the bag check policy seems to be hit or miss. We saw Taj Palace from across the way. Despite the guidebooks intriguing mention of the awesome bathroom on the main floor, we skipped it. From there we walked up through Colaba market, again very touristy. I find it odd that there are super famous and popular places where food is not known to be great and their main claim to fame is showing tourists the bullet holes from the terrorist attacks. Not exactly my thing. Instead, we stopped at Olympia for a quick eat. While I was not enthused by the fact that we had to eat on the “Ladies Lounge” on the upper level, the cheap and tasty mutton masala spicy was worth the principle digression. We knew this spot was legit because it was the spiciest meal on the trip so far, and we were the only white people in the place.

We walked off lunch through some random and poorer areas. Given how many people live on the streets, you see a lot of people’s more intimate and mundane experiences. We saw numerous pick-up cricket games in the streets, lots of people sleeping (everywhere), even kids being bathed in the street.

That night we went to dinner at Pizza by the Bay for some good ole western food. It was super delicious – fried calamari and margarita pizza and a bottle of wine. Mix of locals and tourists, and a great location where you catch the breeze off the water through the open windows.

While there’s definitely a range of budgets accommodated by restaurants in Mumbai, the mid-range restaurants are much more expensive than elsewhere. Or is it just that there weren’t many/any mid-range restaurants elsewhere? Either way, the prices were a shock after our experiences eating cheap. Most shocking are the wine prices. They charge $50 for a bottle of Yellowtail. YELLOWTAIL! Oi. Not to mention there is like 25% extra with taxes and service charges (which you never see at the more casual spots). Indian wines are more reasonably priced, and as such we stuck to these. We had an amusing conversation with our waiter one night about the virtues of Indian wine. His argument was essentially that the conditions for wine in India are on par with those in respected wine producing regions, but the problem with Indian wines is just that their vines are too young. Interesting. His other argument is that Indian people “have the tongue” for it, and so they can taste how good it is. I’ll buy that argument vs. most westerners when it comes to spicy food, but wine? I ain’t buying it.

We walked over to the Intercontinental Hotel after dinner to grab a few cocktails. A girl followed us all the way from dinner to the bar, trying to sell us some flowers by fake crying, making weird faces, hanging off of Alan, and a host of other odd tactics. She seemed to speak decent English so I told her that pretending to have a seizure was probably not her best sales tactic. I guess we were the fools because by engaging with her she gave us her hardest sales pitch all the way to the bar, and then waited for us until we came outside probably over an hour later. That girl should be a Bollywood actress. There are a handful of beggars throughout the city who hold out their hands to you, and they seem to get progressively more aggressive at night, poking you or whacking you with their outstretched palms if you try to ignore them.

The rooftop bar at Intercontinental was très chic and expensive (think $20 cocktails). There were no other non-Indians while we were there. We were seated at a 4 seat high top and twice asked if it would be OK to seat people with us. Both times we said yes, but then the guests refused. No love for the tourists?? Anyway, we very much enjoyed the great views and popular American music. With the flashing Christmas lights it had a very clubby vibe. The drink I ordered was spectacular, I think some combination of kiwi and coconut water and vodka and some other stuff. Budget buster day, but if only for a night we felt like our old employed selves. 😉

The next day we did some more tourist exploring on foot. We checked out Horniman Circle, which was a peaceful little park with a playground inside. Next we walked through fort area.

The shops were not in full force, it being a Sunday, but there was still plenty of activity. Including this cow, waiting in line for a Xerox:

The Post Office building is the most impressive I’ve ever seen. Seriously, the buildings in Mumbai practically rival those in St. Petersburg for impressiveness. We went in to the Victoria train station, tried to figure out how to purchase tickets from Agra to Delhi later in the week, but as with most things in India, it was confusing and definitive answers were scarce. We left empty-handed as we hadn’t brought our passports with us.

Stopped outside to try a peroo (sp?), an Indian guava, with chili salt. Interesting, though I think we should try one with a pink interior. These were white and we saw vendors later selling ones with pink insides that looked maybe to be a bit more ripe.

Crawford market was fun, tons of stalls selling snacks and nuts and spices. We bought a little package of spicy cashews (which I believe gave me food poisoning in Delhi, ugh) and some candy covered fennel seeds (so good, and help digestion if eaten after a meal. They hand these out in lots of restaurants with your bill.) They also had lots of fresh fruits, and right next to it was a row of animal shops with adorable puppies sadly caged and birds of every type, from chicks to parakeets.

We walked by the Devi temple, which had a line of locals that wrapped round the block. We stopped to ask an official looking man if it was OK to go in with Alan wearing shorts, his response was to shove us in and cut the line. Felt bad, but nobody seemed to mind beyond the basic shoving whilst in line process.

Weary from the heat, walking and little food we finally arrived at Chowpatty Beach. I think this is THE spot for Sundays, and it was bumping. There are vendors everywhere selling snacks, toys, rattan mats, and a host of other items. My favorite? Guys with tricked out power wheel cars and motorbikes blaring music that they would push kids around on for a few rupees. We were tempted by the snacks and sweets, though having read that this is a particularly hygienically risky area, we opted for pre-packaged ice cream bars. Fantastic – mine was fruit and nut and had yellow raisins and nuts in it. Which reminds me that so many countries outside the U.S. use the yellow raisins over the red ones. So much better, can we make this a thing in the states?

After chilling on the beach for a while we grabbed dinner at Cream Centre for some solid veg food. Alan got the regionally famous Channa Bhatura, which is a gigantic piece of fried dough that’s all puffed up with air. You pop it upon receipt and use it to spoon out the spicy chickpea curry that’s served alongside it. Pretty good. I enjoyed a paratha and some paneer curry. We stopped at renowned Bachelorr’s for shakes afterwards. Maybe try the fruit, we went with chocolate shakes and they were nothing special and pricey by Indian standards.

Our last day in Mumbai we went on a slum tour with Reality Tours. I was on the fence about the idea of a guided tour, but I’m glad we did it. We learned a lot, and you really could get lost inside those dark and narrow alleyways! We first saw the commercial area where they recycle aluminum and plastic. The non-toxic trades are in the residential area (fabrics, food, pottery, etc.). The lifespan of people working in the recycling shops is quite low given the fumes they inhale daily.

Note that taking photographs is not allowed on the tour, to preserve the privacy of the people. The below photos are professional photographs provided by Reality Tours.

Part of the mission of the tour group is to portray a more “realistic” image than the media does of the slums, and how happy it is here. True, there were a lot of happy kids and adults here. I imagine the picture isn’t quite as rosy as they paint it to be, but it does give you an appreciation of the sense of community that’s created here. 80% of profits go to programs in the area to provide education, the arts etc. The kids are as always adorable and smile and say hello. I’m sorry if this sounds crass, but I feel like this had to be one of the “nicer” slums. They have public pay toilets that are cleaned seven times a day, and a number of the homes had color TVs and internet. I appreciate the mission of Reality, but I’m just not convinced it’s the full reality.

We took a cab to the Dobi Ghat (where they wash the laundry) afterwards with another couple. It was quite amusing when the tour guide tried to squeeze a family of 5, another couple and the driver in a five person car. Though I’ve probably seen more people than that in a tuk-tuk by now.

We braved the train back to Churchgate by ourselves. Trains were not as bad as we were warned, though I certainly could see how they might be at rush hour. The Reality Tours sent a guide to meet us all at Churchgate, and he’d give us three stops advance notice to prep us for getting off the train (apparently they stop only for seven seconds, and when crowded you kind of have to push and shove your way to the door in order to make it. Wasn’t really crowded at all when we rode though). We heard there are an average of 15 train related deaths a day (Alan thinks in Mumbai alone, can this really be possible?!).  The average must be skewed by a handful of bigger accidents, but it’s still incredibly high. I presume this is primarily because of the people who hang out the open doorways.

Our last night we had dinner at Trishna, trying their famous butter garlic pepper crab, out of the shell. Tasty and VERY buttery. We also ordered chili garlic squid and a bottle of viognier, and even splurged on some kesar pista kulfi for dessert (kind of pistachio ice cream dish.. meh. nothing special). All in the meal was around $80. We’re living large in Bombay, baby 😉

A few thoughts on cleanliness/hygiene in India… A lot of people in India chew paan, a reddish tobacco product, so you see people spitting it out constantly. You also see a lot of it on the ground as you walk around. Interestingly, we did not see a single trash can on the streets of Bombay. Trash, you see tons of. The litter is much much worse in Northern India. In Kerala you see signs about keeping the environment clean, not littering etc. It’s not yet part of the mentality outside of Southern India. My friend Aash pointed out that the literacy rate in Kerala is around 90%, as opposed to something closer to 50 or 60% up in Delhi, so that probably plays a big role. Still, even in Kerala you will see trash flying out of bus windows.

You can’t be a puss about dirt here, and you definitely need a healthy open-mindedness about eating at less than spotless restaurants. We’ve had our fair share of meals that would not pass a health inspection review back home (is a grade F even possible?). It’s best to just not think about it. I’m particularly cautious in India (e.g. limited street food) because so many people do get sick here (according to the CDC there’s about a 50% chance of getting sick on a two week visit in India. Multiply by two of us and 3.5 weeks and we were (writing this from Delhi, where our luck ran out) beating the odds. You know it’s not a particularly clean country when restaurants use “hygienic” as one of the three words on their signs to entice you in.

Toilets similarly range in hygiene. The smell of the public toilets (where there are any) as you walk by is enough to make you try to time your water consumption with access to western toilets. And it’s no easy task, let me tell you! That said, you don’t see anybody peeing on the streets where there are public toilets. Men pee everywhere in India, and to my delight, I didn’t see a single man peeing whilst in Bombay! Hooray! Stay tuned for Agra, where I probably saw more men peeing than not peeing.

Getting out of Mumbai was a trip. Our plane ticket said we depart from “BOM,” and when you look up that airport code you’ll see that it’s the Mumbai International Airport. However, we were flying domestic, to Agra. We asked our hotel and they said it would be the international airport then. So they put us in a cab, argued with the driver in Hindi for about 5 minutes and then said, OK no problem, you’ll pay the metered price (basically no cab drivers will agree to metered prices, they try to rip you off, and there’s really no hope getting a metered fare unless you have someone who speaks their language arrange it), it will be a few kilometers past the domestic airport. We get dropped off at the international airport, and then the security guys can’t figure out whether we should be here or the domestic airport. We find some Air India employees who tell us to go to domestic. They’re just different terminals. Really? A $100/night hotel in Mumbai that’s popular with business travelers doesn’t know this? Anyway, we tried to hire another cab or tuk-tuk, and they all tried to rip us off massively (charging more for the 11km ride than it did to take the hour long trip from Churchgate to the airport). We weren’t that crunched for time, and were so furious at this point we told them all to fly a kite. Unfortunately though, nobody was even willing to negotiate. Finally an airport employee saw us struggling and came in to assist, getting a tuk-tuk driver to agree to take us at the metered price. Even then, she says in no case to pay over Rs 50, though of course our driver gets lost and so it cost nearly 50% more than that (not a lot of money, but nobody ever seems to know what’s going on). Then we’re stopped by security that takes Alan’s phone to look at our flight info and says “no, you have to go back to international.” How is this so hard?!? Honestly. Luckily/unintentionally(?), the tuk-tuk driver who could not speak English just dropped us at the domestic airport, and for an additional Rs 75 we were finally the correct airport. If you could see me fuming at the incompetence of the people running the airport food joint, you would have laughed. It’s a love-hate relationship I have with India. Love-hate.

Madurai

I had started questioning myself after Cochin, the backwaters, and Munnar… is India really that intense? As crazy as everyone says it is? Am I misremembering our honeymoon and actually this is a very chill country? Well, Madurai quickly reminded us of the cacophony that so much of India provides. These parts of India offer near-constant sensorial stimulation: sights (colors, people, animals, things everywhere), sounds (essentially continuous honking along with the myriad of other city noises you hear), smells (yeah, lots of those… by the time you realize you smell sweet flowers and think to inhale deeply, it’s been replaced by some other foul smell and you regret taking that deep breath), touch (lots of people and stuff, not so much space), and tastes (obviously you know by now from reading my blog that I love me some paratha, and India has a hell of a lot to offer in the culinary department).

By now I’m used to not having the luxuries at our hotels (a top sheet, a shower separate from the toilet, a safe, air conditioning, a hairdryer, etc.). But Hotel Padmam took it to a new level: none of the above, and no soap, no towels, no toilet paper. Though they do provide the dirtiest looking walls you’ve ever seen. Oh and the toilet leaks and it rotates smelling like piss, vom, and I’ll let you guess the third scent. You can also hear your neighbors retching. Loveliest sounds to wake up to, I tell you. Alan tells me I’m overreacting; it’s not that bad. But hey, I didn’t make us move, I’m just venting about it and resolving to try and bring in a little income somehow so we can avoid the no-TP style hotels in the future. (To be fair, we asked (twice) for TP, soap and towels and we received. I guess it’s just an ask-and-ye-shall-receive only policy. Also, we bought a top sheet for a few dollars from a shop down the street. It helped me sleep, and the pink really brightened up the room). Oh, also for $20 a night they threw in breakfast. We tried the South Indian breakfast the first morning, definitely the worst food we’ve had to date in India. Also, I’m pretty sure they tried to give us a used plastic bottle that was refilled with tap water. (Must be careful of this some places in India.)  The next day we opted for the “continental breakfast” – three pieces of toast. It was much better at least.

Alas, we didn’t come to Madurai for the magnificent lodging (though I think there are one or two nicer places, if you go, by all means, stay at those), we came for the same reason everyone comes: the Meenakshi Temple. And it is truly a stunning piece of work. By the temple the street is quieter and a little more relaxing. You can wander around and everyone tries to get you to go in their shops, which do, to their credit, offer nice rooftop views of the temple. They of course want you to buy things from their stores though. Luckily, we met a not overly pushy guy who made us cinnamon cardamom tea and let us enjoy the views without too much of a sales pitch, provided we tell our friends to go there. So friends, go to Miya’s store and buy some elephants statues, or jewelry, or textiles.

The temple itself is really quite impressive. A bit confusing getting in – but to sum it up for you: full pants required, no hats, no shoes, no cameras, but mobile cameras are fine so long as you pay Rs 50. (Don’t ask me why… one of the stranger rules we’ve come across so far. Also, I just have to say that while so much of what India has to offer is beautiful and cheap to see, it’s a total bummer that you aren’t allowed to photograph a lot of it.) Foreigners must pay Rs 50 each to get in, and there are a handful of places that only Hindus are allowed within the temple itself (and the lines for these are impressively long). There is also an art museum within the temple and the entrance fee is covered by the Rs 50 paid to enter the building. Quite a bargain – for less than a dollar a person you get a full day’s access to this impressive site.

We watched for a while an elephant who would take money from patrons using his trunk, then bop them on the head and pass the buck back to his owner. Pretty neat.

After wandering and soaking in the place for a few hours, we enjoyed sitting and people watching. Alan lay down on the floor for a bit to gaze up at the temple towers and the sky and people thought this was quite amusing. That or just that we were white. (Also, one woman thought he was sleeping, which is apparently offensive, and so he got yelled at). One boy pointed and laughed at us and his Mom told him to come over and say hello. Next thing I knew I was shaking hands with 10 kids who liked to say “Hello! Hello!” It’s cute how much they like to shake hands and talk to us white-folk. (There are certainly other non-Indian tourists, but not all that many. Still, I’m surprised how often we get stared at in India. I would have thought people would be more used to seeing tourists by now.) We also ran into a few kids outside the temple who wanted “one pen, please” and loved seeing photos of themselves. These kids are hilarious and adorable.

Food in Madurai started out underwhelming: an undercooked chicken dish (Alan pointed out that you would think they could have cooked the chicken all the way through in the hour it took to provide it to us) at Chettanoor’s roof-top restaurant, and then a questionable South Indian breakfast at our hotel. Luckily the tali lunch at Arrathy was phenomenal. They give you about ten little dishes of curries and sauces, a bunch of papadum, and then they pile on a ton of rice, cover it with some golden powder and then drizzle hot liquid ghee over top of it. You aren’t provided silverware (except serving spoons). I attempted to use my fingers as the locals did, mixing the rice, powder and ghee together, but I am just incapable of eating saucy curries and rice with my fingers, so I used my serving spoon to assist. Learning to eat Indian food with your fingers is harder than mastering chopsticks! One of my favorite of the dishes was a sweet rose water and cashew concoction. Still trying to figure out what it was called so that I can order it elsewhere! Do tell if you know 🙂

My general impression of Madurai is that it ain’t that awesome. The food options (that you’d be able to eat at and not get sick from) are not very plentiful or amazing (the tali lunch was great, but other places that come highly recommended… not so much), and it’s just not that cool here. I’m writing this now from Mumbai, which I’d heard mixed reviews on, and it is so much better here. Weirdly, we’ve moved to one of the biggest cities in the world, with incredible population density and insane poverty, yet I saw several people peeing on the side of the road in Madurai and none here. I actually feel much safer walking around Mumbai than I did in Madurai, which is surprising to me. And if there are nice, chill spots with some ambience, we didn’t find them. So I would recommend one night max in Madurai. It’s pretty neat to see the temple, but I wouldn’t waste much time in the city itself.

Each time I’m blown away by the roads we travel to get to our next destination. The drive from Munnar to Madurai was no exception. Coming down the mountain we descended a terrifying series of switchbacks where the road would occasionally be blocked by rocks and/or road work with no warning.

::the road to Madurai::
::the road to Madurai::