Thursday, January 26, 2006

Many photos from Udaipur, we hope you enjoy!

We sure enjoyed our time in Udaipur, as you can see...

Of course, I had to get my car fix with the Maharajas' cars in town...

We enjoyed dining and exploring some beautiful restaurants and old palaces...

Please explorer further by clicking below!


Spice Heaven: North Indian Cooking Classes

In Rajasthan, we made it to the promised land of mythic architecture and dramatic color...not to mention cuisine and cooking classes. Here, the colors and textures of sauce rival the bright, rich fabrics that hang from market stalls, and spice is king.

Powdery pyramids of saffron, turmeric, coriander and cumin are piled high on the streets and wooden carts laden with fresh green chilies, cardamon, ginger and red onion roll by in nearly minute intervals. Spices here are fresh, bright and plentiful, and like Rajasthan's patchwork textiles, when mixed together by talented hands, true art emerges.

We thoroughly enjoyed two days of truly awesome culinary lessons with Sushma Soni and her husband Jairja at the Art Loft Guest House, and we redefined the term "fat and happy". Trust me! Andy and I spent about ten hours in their home and picked our most favorite dishes to learn as souvenir. We feel so satisfied--from both the recipes and relationship--as a cooking interaction offers an amazing opportunity to share questions, answers and laughter on both food and life with other people.

Sushma is a true mistress of spice--she grows, picks, roasts and blends her own into lovely masalas that make dishes sing in perfect spice harmony. She jokingly refers to her own personal blend of garam masala as 'magic masala' but there is truth to that statement.~> read more

Masalas or spice blends are the magic of Indian cooking and now that we've sampled, savored and soaked up knowledge from various cooking wizards, I have such a deep respect, a near 'bow down' admiration, for the spice palates, patience and blending abilities of Indian chefs.

We spent our first day with Sushma mastering our favorite vegetarian dishes: chai, rose lassis (yogurt drinks), chana masala (chickpeas in spicy tomato gravy), muttar gobi (cauliflower and peas), dal makhani (lentils and beans in spicy sauce), palak paneer (spinach with paneer, a tofu-type cheese) and stuffed chapathis (bread). Amazing, incredible, filling in every way! And the colors...red chile brightening white cauliflower, green peas with black fennel polka dots, deep dal earth tones made orange-gold with turmeric, saffron and pistachio swirled through yogurt like an anstract painting. Definitely check out the brilliant photos.

We learned little secrets to nearly every dish that I've packed away and plan to bring home to America. Who knew there was black cardamon and black cumin seeds? Who knew that roasting each spice alone and carefully, grinding separately and then mixing into one masala yields the most aromatic and delicious flavors? By sprinkling a half teaspoon of garam masala on at the end of cooking, that last moment when things are bubbling as you remove it from the flame, you'll elevate dishes to an artful level as the spices steam quicky and taste extra fresh-flavorful upon serving.

And, mango powder, anyone? Dried whole ginger pieces? Mix these with cumin seeds for a chaat masala and you have a new way to serve corn or roast chilies! Andy was especially enamored with the 'amchur' or mango powder and got serious direction from Sushma on how to dry unripe mangoes in the shade for a few days, peel and then grind into powder. Mango powder, fennel, fennugreek, rich tomato gravies and the ever-present tandoor oven differentiate the tastes of Northern Indian cuisine over other regions. Smokier, tangier, richer, redder sauces cover vegetables and meat in Rajasthan, and Sushma showed us the way to make these colorful pastes with only a touch of butter and then gently boil them until the masala separates from oil for better, healthier food.

And again, as we learned from others, making the special paste of garlic, ginger, chilies and onion with patience and care is the foundation of any good Indian sauce. Pounding, rolling or gently processing these just until the aromas of each spice is present, then stirring together into a thick sauce for cooking on high heat is ritual in the Indian kitchen. As is the flame dance, high for sauces, low for adding spices, medium for simmering and fire for giving breads that tasty barbeque browned edge. (At this point, after all of the yumminess, Andy is fully on board with building a tandoori oven in our future backyard or balcony. YES!)

Day Two with Sushma brought more favorites: pakoras (vegetable fritters), paneer tikka masala (Andy's favorite tandoor dish with a smokey, chili sauce), butter masala and naan. Gram or chickpea flour is used for the fried vegetable fritters called pakoras, which we've eaten frequently as late afternoon snacks, and it pairs beautifully with fennel and cumin needs. And let it be said: I need to do more cooking with chickpea flour! Sushma also told us about a special pakora she makes for her husband using fresh chilies and Andy's eyes lit up, so she made him ones that were stuffed with mango powder, cumin and salt and fried them up. He loved them...again, that mango powder! She was pleased since they're her own invention, and Jairja was impressed with Andy's daredevil palate. And all three of them made sure I'd copied down that recipe precisely!

Tikka is a deep orange spice rub that goes on meat, fish, potatoes or paneer for hours of marination and then barbequed to perfection in a tandoori oven. As Andy's eaten this dish east, west, south and north in India, I had to make sure we learned its nuances for a possible recreation back home. So Sushma patiently showed us the long process of tikka: cutting chilies, tomatoes, capsicum, gently blending spices into masala, adding slowly-drained whole buffalo milk yogurt, all while making note of what it's real color should be--a true salmon hue, not the garish pink-orange restaurants serve, said she with emphasis. Let it be said now, when Andy and I return to the States and eat Indian food, I think we may be *very* annoying customers.

Also, let me just take a moment for a word on dairy... Holy cow! Or more appropriately, holy water buffalo! The dairy Sushma uses for her food was outrageous and it was all about whole products and freshness. And, fat...who are we kidding? Fat adds flavor. And fat was the name of the game with her yogurt, paneer, milk and more. Neither Andy nor I had ever tasted such rich, drained, whole-milk pure cream flavor before. Andy even whispered to me, "If we go back to Denver, we'll have to get Royal Crest Dairy to deliver us milk!" And later acquiesced to the idea of me having a water buffalo in the backyard. Sushma's stuff was really, really amazing -- the most creamy lassis and sauces -- and I expressed my dismay at never being able to recreate the flavors back home. She told me that another American had taken some classes and written her with a substitution, so she rummaged through her drawers and found the letter. Her American student had the perfect ingredient for others abroad to use: Deven Double Cream! That's right -- the clotted cream used for cream teas that is heavier than whipping cream. My heart literally began to ache...dammit. Needless to say, I'll be limiting my use of the double cream in future cooking to alleviate the chances of double bypass, but that was educational.

Sushma then thread what were the most humongous skewers I'd ever seen (over 2 feet long) with tikka vegetables and paneer, laid them to cook on her special kitchen version of the tandoori oven, and the scent was heavenly. Spice, chili, smoke perfume. Jairja came in for the actual cooking of the tikka, and donned a flowery apron to roast, toast and gently singe it all to perfection. He proudly told us how Sushma had taught him to cook and that when he's alone or traveling, he makes delicious real Indian food for himself. She looked on in amusement and exasperation, and they cooked the tikka in tandem. It was a great moment to experience. Even though we're from half a world away, Andy and I completely identified with their genuine interaction, love of food and the joy of sharing it with others.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Sounds of Our Walk Home in Udaipur

Leaving our peaceful rooftop restaurant last night, we encountered a cacophony of sounds that we just had to share. Andy lamented we didn't have a tape recorder for all of this because it's so unbelievable; any big city will seem so tame after this!

Alas, please enjoy the harmonies of a nightly promenade in Udaipur:
  • Frenzied, high-toned music from Hindu wedding procession in street.
  • Generator whirring from hand-drawn cart to power wedding music speakers.

  • Toyota Qualis horn.
  • Joyful yelling at bridegroom in Hindi by crowd of Indian men.
  • Rickshaw horn.
  • Clip-clop of hooves on cobble.
  • Gun shots from Octopussy film screening.
  • Moped horn.
  • "Yes, please, looking in my shop" from Udaipur silver merchant.
  • "No thank you. Maybe tomorrow!" from Andy.
  • Snorting from large, powerful, mean black bull.
  • Quick steps of Western tourists moving away from the snorting.
  • "Hello! Hello!" from passing Indian child.
  • "Hello!" from Tiffany (the pathetic softie).
  • Motorcycle horn.
  • Rickshaw horn.
  • Piercing drum beat, then atonal flute sound made by Westerner in Udaipur shop while merchant applauds approvingly.
  • "Oh, Baba, please...." in crying female voice with dramatic movie background music (presumedly from dramatic Bollywood movie on tv) out second story window of family home.

  • Stray mutt dogs barking in pack.
  • Unknown horn.

  • "Phhhhheeewwwww...." -- Sigh of relief as we reach our haveli room and have fancy scalloped stucco walls somewhat shielding us from the unique clamor.

Udaipur: Octopussy Galore

We've entered Rajasthan now, a state in the northwest of India which borders Pakistan, and one with a rich, fantastical history of warrior clans, chivalry, vivid colors and harsh living. This is the land of maharajas and magical landscapes: from every angle you see a fairy tale palace, mystical walled city or fierce hilltop fort!

Udaipur is our first destination and known for its romantic, whitewashed palaces that seem to float on lakes created by the effusive monsoon season. And indeed, Udaipur is romantic! Andy and I are staying in one of numerous havelis (or mansions), created over 300 years ago by a wealthy merchant class and painted with extraordinarily colorful murals of peacocks, elephants, Rajput warriors and maidens. Scalloped arches that are delicate and frothy like a meringue cookie swoop to the sky in every direction from the multileveled havelis, and window alcoves with wrought iron cushion beds beckon from every corner. And we have acquiesced...dining and resting in many a pillowed place!

Udaipur is also where the James Bond flick Octopussy was filmed over 20 years ago, and you can't venture anywhere in the walled city without forgetting it! Nearly every hotel and guest house has a sign featuring a nightly "Octopussy" show and around 7:00pm, the strains of James Bond's theme music reverberates through the ancient city. Never, ever before have I heard Rita Coolidge so loudly and clearly crooning about "We're an all time high...We'll change all that's gone before". Wow.

Luckily, it's easy to get lost in the rich cultural legacy of Rajasthan. This is India's Camelot, the land of chivalrous warriors who believed in death before dishonor and demanded it of their entire clan. Men rode off to battle the Mughals in saffron-colored robes while women and children lit themselves on fire rather than risking subjugation. Until reality caught up with them in the late 20th century, the Maharani lived luxurious lives in mirrored palaces with hand maidens and more. We've seen the Rolls Royce they used to take out tiger hunting!

Waking up to the remnants of this lifestyle is like a fairy tale -- where else can I open my eyes and see a painted ceiling and look out my colored-glass window to a monsoon palace?

At least every Maharaja enjoyed his culture too, and filled opulent halls constantly with the local art forms of puppetry, dance, acrobatics and music. We saw an amazing, complex puppet show with vividly painted marionettes that juggled, charmed snakes, flipped their skirts and more. Later we watched a performance of old clan dances involving ladies clapping 13 cymbols on their body while crunching on a sword in their mouth, or my favorite, the lady in vivid green, gold and red who danced with ankle bracelets and 13 pots stacked on her head!

The landscape of Rajasthan is mostly desert bare and to survive stark surrounding and extreme sunlight, the Rajputs decorated everything in vivid colors. My kind of place! Weapons, clothing, camels, you name it and it's got color, sparkle and shine. Most all of the men here wear earrings on both ears, and there are turbans and moustaches galore. The women wear jewel-toned saris and are adorned in bangles, baubles and beads--bare wrists are considered inauspicious so there's lot of gold and enameled jewelry on every limb. Again, a concept I can get my head (and accessorizing) around!

Somehow, this fanastical landscape is just what I imagined in India and wanted to glimpse on our trip. Whether it was Octopussy or not, I don't know, but I am SO excited! It feels like we've stepped back in time. Well...as much as is possible in a heavily touristed Indian location with livestock, poverty and touts. Looking up in Udaipur has dire consequences (think cows in a walled city), and there is begging which you know, from the look in their eyes and the look of the harsh landscape, is just not desperate--it's necessary.

Nevertheless, in Udaipur it's just not difficult to imagine a grand romance between Maharaja and Maiden involving fortresses, dynasties, elephants and exotic headgear. Floating palaces and fireworks reflecting in the lake at night, remnants of Rajput artisans around every corner and the suave shadow of 007. Sigh...

While I can't bring myself to say this is an "all time high", I will say that theme song has an element of truth to it and we're reveling in the romance and realities of Rajasthan.

Bombay Photos also up!

Here is a short gallery of us at dinner (sorry, this gallery was broken before but is now fixed):


And on a different note, some photos from an exciting market we visited in Colaba, Bombay:

Many more here, please note there are 2 pages!: http://bitjug.com/gallery/BombayMarket

Breaking the Camera!

or, Finding a familiar tool in an unfamiliar city...

When you use a camera quite a lot, it becomes a very familiar object, even more so when it has many manual controls on the outside, and you use a variety of lenses with it. We have been carrying a 1 year old Nikon D70 Digital SLR which uses interchangeable lenses just like a 1970s or 1980s film SLR camera. We've also been carrying four lenses, And the total retail value of these items is about $2500 US, or, for that matter, 110,700 rupees . Needless to say, we've been careful with this stuff.

We try to be very careful when we have the camera out in public areas, wrapping the long strap around one of our wrists. We don't often leave the camera in the hotel room (it's usually with us), and even when we leave a lens or two they are swaddled in clothes and locked in a suitcase.

This care and security, therefore, makes it all the more ironic that when we were staying in the most modern hotel room, in the most cosmopolitan city we have stayed in in India, in one of the least threatening situations, I managed to pick up the small camera backpack without noticing it was unzipped (I had unzipped it earlier), and sling the camera with a lens attached on a few foot drop onto a marble floor!

I immediately picked up the camera to see if there was any damage.~> read more

There wasn't any apparent damage, but when I tried to take a photo I could tell something was wrong. The camera didn't want to recognize the memory card, and also the back screen wouldn't come on. However, the top screen with the settings seemed fine, I could change manual settings, and take a picture, but the picture wouldn't be saved to the memory card! I tried the "soft reset" and "hard reset" options that I had read about in the camera manual, but neither rectified the problems.

This presented quite a problem! We had 14 hours between the time I broke the camera and our flight out to Udaipur, called "The most romantic city in Rajastan," but no place at all to get a camera repaired, and we will be continuing on through Rajastan and finishing at the apparently picturesque Taj Mahal!

I tried to think fast. I first went to an internet cafe to search on the internet for the problems I was seeing on the camera, searches like "D70 clock flashing" (the "clock" indicator was flashing on the top screen), and "D70 black screen." I tried tens of variations, but came up empty handed. I decided to call Nikon support. It was about 9:00AM in Colorado, and about 9:30pm in Bombay. Nikon doesn't have an arm of their company in India, just some official agents, who of course were all closed, and many businesses don't open there until 10-11am, and we had to leave for our flight by 1pm!!

So, using the "net 2 phone" VoIP technology that sends your phone call over the Internet and is available many places in India, I tried to call Nikon Support in the US. I couldn't get it to work! I thought it was because their number was an 800, but they didn't list anything else! I called my dad who happened to be at work in Colorado for ideas, and he offered to conference me through to Nikon's 800! Great!

Nikon's rep, who sounded like an early 20s American or Canadian, but could have been an Indian with "accent training" according to the book I just finished, "The world is flat", started by asking me some questions about whether I had downloaded software from the website and what email address I had used to register. I was being patient but let him know that I was conferenced called through Denver from Bombay, and he quickly dispensed with the formalities! I explained that I wanted him to walk me through the resets or any other options for fixing the camera without an official service. He carefully walked me through the procedures, but we had no success in changing the unhappy state of the camera at all. He then uttered the terrible words, "I'm sorry, you are going to have to send it in."

He informed me that the turnaround time for repairs done by Nikon USA is approximately 7-10 days. However, getting packages reliably transported to the US is a challenge in itself, and more importantly our next 10 Days were in Rajastan and at the Taj Mahal and about our last 10 days in India. We plan to be in Cambodia (via Bangkok) before all would be done and who knows how we'd recieve the repaired camera there.

So I considered the option of buying an additional Camera "body." This is just the camera without any lens, and since I had 4 different lenses for different purposes, and hoped that the lens that was on the camera hadn't been damaged, perhaps I could get buy this way. I could get our old body repaired at our leisure and possibly sell one of them once we returned to the US. Professional photographers carry at least 2 of these bodies with them for just this kind of situation, but mere mortals like us have to economize on volume and weight of camera gear as well as the obvious cost!

It was quite late at this point so I went to bed with the intention to either try to take our damaged camera to one of Nikon's agents in Bombay hoping they could turn it around in an hour or two (wasn't seeming likely at this point), or investigate the cost of another camera (body). The whole camera (body plus the lens it comes with) runs about $1000 in the US, so I knew it wasn't going to be a pittance! Basic digital cameras are much cheaper but once you use an SLR it's hard to go back, and the difference in quality and creative possibilities is really significant for both of us. It's what we like to use.

In the morning, my luck started to change. I headed over to the internet cafe a couple of blocks away, and searched for "buy D70 Mumbai" and the magic of google led me to a photography discussion board where a fellow in India (actually on the other side of the country, not in Bombay) was asking other photographers how to buy a camera like ours in India. A fellow named Arnab Pratim Das contributed: "Surender, go to http://www.fotocentreindia.com/ or http://www.jjmehta.com/." Although Arnab didn't mention it, I clicked on both links and both companies happened to be in Bombay. I wrote down their bombay phone numbers and called both of them and asked for a price quote on a D70s "body only" meaning no lens would be included. Our model was a D70 which has now been replaced by the D70s but the differences are quite small. JJ Mehta quoted 41,000 rupees, while foto centre quoted 37,000 and was also more convienient for us to take a taxi to within the now about 3 hours left before our departure! 37,000 rupees is about US $836, and the reputable mail order B&H Photo in NYC showed $870 on their website! Great news, buying a D70s in Bombay was, surprisingly, not going to cost an extra arm and a leg.

Now, how to get 37,000 rupees? I asked foto centre whether they could take VISA, and the response was "No, I want only cash." I paused for a moment and the agent thought I was done and hung up. I called back a few minutes later to make sure they had the body in stock ( "it's ready to go!" ), and also asked if we could pay some of the amount in USD if we couldn't get enough rupees ("No No, only Rupees!") Of course we could get our USD changed into Rupees, which might cover a bit over a third of the total, but usually this carries a bit of a surcharge and we like to have some USD for emergencies and places without ATMs.

Oh yes, ATMs. We had tried to get 12,900 rupees out of one ATM and it turned us down, though we could get 10,900. I headed over to the fancy Taj Hotel hoping they had a loaded ATM, although the real issue is daily limits on ATM withdrawls through our banks in the US. The Taj directed me to a nearby bank whose ATM displayed limits; 10,000 for a basic account card, 15,000 for a debit current card, and 25,000 for a premium service card. These unfamiliar banking terms were not helping, so I of course tried for the 25,000. No way. I dropped down the the 15,000. The machine started whirring, but we have found that is no guarantee. A few more moments, and out pops a huge wad of 500 rupee bills. Great, we're almost 1/3 of the way! I then popped in Tiffany's card and tried the same trick, expecting the ATM to say it was out of cash or the security guard to restrain me until police arrived or some such situation. whir...pop! another 15,000. But I was out of cards, so back to the hotel I walked, trying to think of a way to get the remaining 7,000, plus I had no idea what taxes might be involved.

We figured we could change some USD to make up the difference, but only had about an hour and a half left, and would have had to run around town to do the exchange. Pondering this, Tiffany realized that she had another VISA from another bank account that she had activated, but never used at any ATM. Eureka! I planned to march right back to that ATM, but I thought twice since 1. The darn thing might be empty at this point, and 2. I didn't really want the same security camera and guard to see me back with the third card in an hour.

So I walked away a little of our precious time but found another ATM, and tried for another 15,000. Whirr-Snap! All right, that should be enough to cover the whole thing! Back to the hotel to regroup with Tiffany. Back in the room I stuffed all 45,000 (what a thick wad of cash, 500s and 100s!) into my around-the-neck traveller's pouch, and we decided we'd meet back at 1:00 at the hotel, which was when we had to get in a cab (hopefully a real one this time) for the airport. Tiffany wasn't going to hang around in the lobby since it had been full of arab men (the apparent clientele of our hotel) the entire time we were there, just shooting the breeze.

So I hopped in to a taxi bound for the next neighborhood in Bombay. After deciding that the driver knew where I was going (he did, but just the general area), and checking that he was really going to use his meter, we were off. We arrived in an area with a bunch of photo stores, from antique camera repairers to film sellers to hawkers of the latest slim-line point-and-shoot cameras and handhelds. Not many of these dealers handle Digital SLR cameras. Just for some perspective, I walked into the first big store with a Nikon sign and asked them how much for a D70s body, even though I wasn't sure they had one in stock. Response - 58,000! No Thanks. I stopped into another store, and was quoted something in the same neighborhood.

OK, so foto centre has a good deal, better find them as time is running out anyway. The address I had was:

Shop No.2, BNG Davar House,
Fort, Mumbai

The situation with these "Shop No." addresses is there is no actual address, BNG Davar House is the building (good luck finding the name of the building anywhere with all the shop signs running up the facades), and of course the shops aren't numbered either. Essentially, I wandered around until I ran into the place...

Which was a shop just big enough for a customer to stand in on one side of the counter, and 2 salespeople on the other side. As soon as I walked in the proprietor knew I was the westerner that had been calling him. Though he had been curt on the phone, he was exceedingly friendly and his assistant wasted no time in showing me the D70s, which looked totally new and I took a couple of photos with it using my lens (that was on the camera when I dropped it) to verify that both parts were working. I asked ... 37,000, correct? he said, 37,500. I had heard incorrectly on the phone (I was standing on the sidewalk next to the equivalent of 5th avenue, but with more horns), but this 500 was no problem.

So, I counted out this huge stack of cash from my pouch. 30 500s, 30 more 500s, and finally 15 more 500s. Wow. The fellow checked it, and with this transaction done, he asked if I would take tea. Though we didn't have too much time, I knew how long the cab back to the hotel would take and that I had 15 minutes or so to spare. I accepted the offer for tea. The assistant wrapped up the camera for me. I talked a bit with the proprietor about Nikons, when I told him I hadn't realized my backpack had been unzipped he informed me that another westerner had just the same problem yesterday but had broken a 70-200 f2.8 (high end) lens, which he didn't think would be repairable like my body, 75,000 rupees for that one!! I didn't feel quite so bad.

The tea arrived, served in soft disposable plastic cups barely bigger than a shot glass, but it was surprisingly tasty masala chai, in the top 5 chai servings I've had in India! Certainly not what I expected from a camera shop. We talked a bit more over the chai and when we were done I headed off, cab back to the hotel to meet tiffany, grab our big backpacks and into another cab for about 1.5+ hours in Bombay traffic, but soon we were on the airplane to Rajastan with a brand new camera, and no worries! Thanks to Arnab Pratim Das and foto centre for making this possible!

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Food Adventure: Mitha Paan (with photos!)

Every 10 meters there was another one along the street...

A guy standing behind a small, portable table with lots of little silver metal jars and containers. In the center of each is a silver tray with a pile of green waxy leaves and loose tooth picks. And I was dying to find out what it all was!!!

It was paan, and then I was nearly a pawn in the paan game as Rahul the paan-wallah (worker) made me some of the sweet delicacy in dramatic, hilarious fashion. Paan is an Indian delicacy-cum-addiction and the reason so many people are spitting in the streets, or giving you directions with their mouth full.

In many restaurants around India, we've been handed a jar or bowl of seeds that include a mix of anise and fennel to crunch about for digestion, but on the streets of Bombay, they take paan to an artful level. Gorgeous little leaf packets held together with toothpicks, and occasionally flower petals or bits of edible silver, are everywhere for a post meal purchase. They're actually two kinds too: mitha paan is sweet while another type of paan has tobacco, addictive betel nut or if you're really rich or connected, opium.

Since I was neither and have a sweet tooth, I went for mitha. And Rahul, my paan-wallah, was happy to indulge my first taste with a grand show.

Rahul placed a fresh betel leaf on his silver tray and then started opening jars for me to smell and view like a mad apothecary. One silver container had pink rose powder while the other smelled more menthol than Vick's Vapor Rub. Another whiff was black licorice (gross!) and then I breathed the comforts of cinnamon, cardamon and clove.

After this sniff-o-rama, Rahul rubbed fresh lime paste on the leaf, then sprinkled in some fresh coconut, betel nut and a potpourri of the spices. I wasn't sure what I was in for, but he was so animated and funny, and men were lined up around the cart watching him and me that I knew I had to have a big, fat bite.

With an artist's flourish, he handed over the leaf packet and waited for me to savor. So I bit down and chewed, sinking my teeth through leaf, spices, betel and more. It was actually quite good and refreshing, a definite party for my mouth...and then ultimately, my stomach. I wasn't sure whether to swallow or not, but Andy was smart and questioned that maneuver so after we'd thanked Rahul and walked off, we quickly looked it up in the guidebook--and noticed paan-puddles in the street. Alas, it's not for swallowing but oh well -- the gullible traveler occasionally swallows everything!!! :P

Please click here for the photo gallery!: http://bitjug.com/gallery/MithaPaan

A Tale Of A Two-Names City

The very fact the city of Mumbai/Bombay has two names foreshadows its split personality.

On one hand, it's a megacity with 18 million people and the diversity of both culture and pollution to accompany it. Blue jeans walk next to black burqas on busy streets; enjoying its lovely boulevards with Art Deco buildings on foot is the equivalent of smoking 22 cigarettes a day. Mumbai is made up of seven islands and acres of reclaimed land, yet there's not a patch of beach or bay into which you'd want to stick a toe.

Bombay is India's economic powerhouse and home to the "Bollywood" film studios and glitterati, so billboards sell technology and chaste sexual innuendo. But it's home to Asia's largest slum, which usurps more ground than the tarmacs of Mumbai's two airports, and the smells go from felicitous to foul so quickly I sometimes couldn't catch my breath fast enough and actually dry heaved involuntarily.

And by the time we left, we still weren't sure what to call it....Bombay? Mumbai? Heaven? Hell?

Things started off mysteriously, as we thought we followed all of the Lonely Planet "getting a taxi" steps properly. However, we ended up in a car with a meter, official-looking workers and taxi sign that charged us over three times the normal rate (indicated by the digital meter on the dash, we later found out the real taxis have mechanical meters out of the 1940s on the hood!) to get into Colaba for our hotel. Sometimes, it just sucks being a stranger in a strange land and that stuff happens, but it never feels good.

Once inside the hotel, which Andy had booked 10 days before and then re-confirmed hours before from the Goa airport, we felt like we'd entered a sleek marble forum that belonged in Dubai or Dohar, not Mumbai. There were lots of men in kuffayehs, ghellibeyas and other Arab dress, ~> read more

and only women wearing the black burqa of varying degree. Needless to say, I felt a little underdressed in my lipstick red spaghetti-strap tank top.

Andy introduced himself, Mr. Andrew as he seems to be known around the reservation blocks of India, and they were slow and unwelcoming in getting his information. The two hotel men hesitated and said they weren't sure if they had a room for us. Puzzled and surprised, Andy went over all of our information and explained how he'd called the Hotel Regent a few hours before, and one man said that "no one had checked out" today and they didn't have our original room. Feeling a bit of panic come over us, we were incredulous as a city of 18 million was not easy to secure a hotel room. Finally, one man took Andy and said we could see the one room they did have.

As I waited with our packs and new bag of purchases from Goa, an Australian couple arrived, who we'd actually seen our flight from Goa, and asked for their room reservation. No such luck. For them, it went downhill into an ugly shouting match of "We have a reservation, mate" versus "No one checked out, sir" and we stood there awkwardly thanking the gods for our expensive yet expeditious cab ride from the airport as we ended up with the last room in the Hotel Regent!!!

Hours later, we started our "Food and Wine" magazine as guide eating expedition through the city, as they dine fashionably and fashionably late in Bombay. The food and eating part was definitely heaven! At Indigo, we sat outside on a rooftop patio lit with twinkle lights and candles floating in lanterns filled with water and ringed with fragrant frangipani trees.

The food was continental with Indian flair and the menu was beautiful: cilantro pesto mushrooms with masala-spiced feta, polenta gnocchi with rosemary and chili butter, Parsi-inspired lamb stew with prunes and pinenuts, pistachio creme brulee and more. The presentation was outrageous and my gnocchi starter actually had dried red chili berries the size of raspberries that were perfectly pink and mild, and you cracked them open with a fork and they spilled golden seeds over the pasta. Awesome!!! We tried Indian champagne and it was fruity, sparkly, chilled...and perfect for price since alcohol is taxed 20% in Maharashstra.

Late the next morning, we packed our camera, pocket tissues, deet and Purel hand sanitizer, and set off to explore Colaba Market and greater Mumbai. I love delving into food markets and was excited to share this with Andy since it was a local affair and Goa's night markets had more of a tourist element. This market, however, was so very real...I have honestly never smelled so much at once in six continents of travel!

Formerly fresh fish sat on tables in the sun covered in flies for sale while herbs of mint and cilantro tried valiantly to perfume the air. Samosas deep fried pungently in oil while turmeric burned on altars and garbage baked on the street. The vivid colors of vegetables rioted over the primitive pavement, and sari-clad ladies haggled over the prices of lentils, rice and millet. School children in smart blue uniforms walked by us with a constant "Hello" and we saw barbers, milk scalders, ditch diggers, silversmiths and beggars all working in concert together.

We were definitely the only non-natives at the market that day (I don't know why) and while it was great not be hassled for a rickshaws or pashminas, it was a little overwhelming. My nose and stomach bore the brunt of this and poor Andy! This was definitely NOT the Cherry Creek farmer's market and harshly broadened his senses and horizons.

After Colaba, we took it down a sensory notch with a self-guided walking tour--though it's Bombay and that's only possible to a certain extent. In a monster city like this you collide with a mysterious form of India's magic: sheer magnitude.

With population and diversity as massive as in Mumbai, you have everything...and everything is magnified. Every smell, every sound, every light, every shadow and every person and his/her physical space. There is never just one balloon or peanut vendor -- there are 62. There are never just a few people on the promenade at sunset -- there are hundreds. While sitting in a taxi, however, you are just two backseat bodies...but next to at least a thousand more on one road surrounded by scores of humanity going about their day. Physically and mentally, I found it all a little challenging to digest.

And then, hours later, we were eating again and that was easy to digest. Sigh...the polarities of travel in a megacity. Bombay has The Taj, a very famous old hotel, and inside of it was Masala Kraft, a trendy spot serving Indian fare from all over the country with a strenuous focus on meticulously roasted and balanced spices plated to perfection. We had a tomato chile soup served in a coffee cup with a stick of lemon grass for stirring and spicing. Our main course dishes were mezza lunas put together to form one giant, round moon plate, onto which they placed the most delicately cooked giant shrimp with cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger and fresh mint chutney, plus barbequed satay of broccoli with mustard and fennel, a reinterpreted-from-street-food lentil kebab and lamb, for Mr. Andrew. The vivid Indian spices and ingredients jumped off the white plates...a feast for eyes and tummies alike.

I guess that is what Bombay/Mumbai is too: a feast. For the senses, and perhaps mostly the ones I'm not normally aware of in my daily life. Ones without such a magnitude of humanity, in every literal sense.

Friday, January 20, 2006

North Goa Photos now posted!

Please check out some new photos of North Goa!

Please click on the link below, and please note there are 2 pages in this gallery. I wouldn't want you to miss the sunset photos on the second page!


When the Ship hit the Fan

This is a long, but I hope entertaining, story.

Renting a motorcycle or Scooter seems to be THE way to get around north Goa. Every hotel or guest house has them or can get them, and there are a lot of beaches to explore in north Goa. We had rented one from the guest house in Anjuna where we were staying, and taken a ride to the beach pictured above (Candolim), which has this large ship run aground right in the middle of it. It would be quite easy to swim to.

Candolim also has some of the better waves in Goa. The Arabian sea doesn't have the kind of waves in Goa that surfers enjoy on the Pacific coast of the United States, but in Candolim we found some 5 footers, perhaps, that were consistent. I'd been bodysurfing at several beaches in Goa, but some of the best was here. I got brazen, though, and was opening my eyes as I was carried on the crest of the wave, enjoying the view as I was coming into the beach with no board.

That was my big mistake. One of the waves slapped me up a little as I was coming in and whisked the contact lens out of my right eye. I'm a -8.50 or so which translates to not being able to see the clock radio by the bedside when I'm in bed, and of course I didn't bring any extra contacts! I had rented a geared motorcycle because I prefer them to a scooter, but Tiffany doesn't have experience with the shifting, brakes,~> read more

and clutch on a motorcycle. So, I took my contact out right on the beach and switched it to my right, more dominant eye, being careful not to drop it in the sand and therefore have no contacts at all!

The sun was just getting ready to set so we decided to hop on the motorcyle and head back ASAP. we had about a 30 minute ride ahead of us over exciting roads! let's just say that driving on the left side of the road is the least of your problems, even with both contacts! We started on our way just as the twilight was dwindling. Then, things really started go get ugly. Our headlight was totally non-operable, in high beams, low beams, anything. we couldn't even turn on a blinker. Major electrical issues, we were lucky the bike was still running!

It's hard to explain the kind of traffic you see in India without the experience itself, but, for example, taxis just honk at pedestrians and don't slow down at all, just weave around them. Furthermore, there are just about no traffic lights and right-turners just push right in and force the opposing drivers to slam on their brakes. In short, a headlight is a really nice thing to have when it's dark out. I quickly figured out that following a scooter, motorcycle, or taxi (that had headlights, of course) fairly close behind was the safest thing to do, so that other drivers would avoid that vehicle, but when my protector turned off the road, I had to regroup and find a new one! Meanwhile Tiffany is on the back of this little bike hanging on to me and being very patient with our situation!

We made it home ok after 35 or 40 minutes, and I promptly informed the about 20 year old son of the family who runs the guest house we were staying at that there was a major problem! He was very apologetic and attended to the problem immediately. I think he took it to the motorcycle workshop, and had it fixed up within under an hour.

So, despite our frightful ride, we hopped right back on to go out to dinner, but not without a couple of extra contacts and a bright headlamp "just in case!" Little did we know, the night's stories weren't over yet! We went out to dinner at a nice restaurant near some of the higher end resorts, then headed to a 24-hour internet cafe to call some family 12.5 hours away, late at night is the best time. We started heading home just after midnight.

Our map showed a direct route home that involved a parking-lot type area at the end of a fairly minor road, then a dotted line, which we assumed was a dirt road, to a bridge back to a minor road. We meandered down empty streets to this parking lot area, which was mostly deserted and not well lit at all. It wasn't very apparent where this alleged dirt road was so I stopped facing back the way we came. Another bike with what looked like two Indian guys on it pulled up almost immediately, but there are tons of motorcyles in goa with at least two Indian guys on them so I didn't think twice about it until they pulled up close to us and started saying "excuse me sir". We are pretty well trained to ignore people that talk to us in tourist areas, but I was having problems getting the motorcycle started again. Just as I got it started the guys (in their early 20s, dressed in respectable clothes but not uniforms) said "stop, you must stop!" The guy on the back got off and was carrying a 2.5 foot long stick, he started walking around the bike and rapping it against his other hand. While these guys had a law enforcement tone about them, and in fact the police do carry sticks of that description, I decided it was probably time to leave and managed to throw the bike in gear and take off. I didn't waste any time zipping quickly through the empty streets, but we were not pursued that we could see. Perhaps they decided it wasn't worth it since one guy was off their bike.

Little did we know, this wasn't the last not-quite-law-enforcement experience of the night. Once we got back on the main road (the "long way home" but we had done it earlier that day with no headlight!) after a while we came to a place with metal gates partway across the road. You see cows, dogs, pedestrians, rickshaws, bicyles, and more on the streets of India and the normal thing to do is honk, so that's what I did. It turned out, however, that this was a Police checkpoint, and perhaps honking wasn't the smartest thing! This presented a problem, because although I have a motorcyle driver's license in Colorado, I technically should have an international driver's license to be driving in India, and anyway I didn't have my passport, colorado driver's license, or any other ID on me. Our guidebook had mentioned that license enforcement was "quite lax".

I imagined this was a drunk driving checkpoint, which is what it would be in the US. We each had a single drink with dinner but it had been several hours so I wasn't worried about my fitness for riding. We were directed over in front of one of the barricades and three policemen approached the bike. They nonchalantly asked me for the Indian equivalent of "License, registration, and proof of Insurance." I explained that I had none of this at hand, and of course I had no idea where the motorcycle registration document might be. I did say, however, that my license was back at our guest house, which was perhaps 15 minutes away. This didn't seem to impress the Policemen at all. They informed us repeatedly that the "proper" fine for riding without your license is 1000 rupees. While that's only a little over $20 US, 1000 rupees is a lot of money in India. We were only going to be in Goa for a couple more days, so clearly we weren't going to stick around to go to court.

I wanted to show my passport and Colorado Motorcycle license to straighten this all out, but these guys didn't seem interested in running us around. One of the officers was waving his finger at me and lecturing me about if I caused an accident, I could hurt someone and I would be responsible! Tiffany said "Our documents are at the guest house, do you have a motorcyle or car, you can take him there and I can stay here!" This wasn't going over very well either.

One of the police then changed tactics. He said "We have reports someone is carrying illegal things. Are you carrying illegal things? If you have illegal things tell us now." I'll put this in context by saying that there are more than a few foreigners rotting away on drug related charges in a prison just south of the beach where the picture with the ship was taken. We had nothing illegal, but it is not unheard of for officers to plant items in exchange for a big bribe. This tactic was designed to make us want to pay the 1000 rupees and leave, I'm sure, but it worked!

The problem was, our restaurant had been quite a bit more expensive than we had thought, and an average restaurant dinner for 2 is around 300, so we just weren't carrying much money, nowhere near 1000. We kept offering to go back to our guest house (with them or without, whatever) and get the 1000 rupees, license, passport, or some combination thereof. Finally we explained that we didn't have 1000 when it became apparent that the license documents didn't really matter. Eventually one of the officers asked how much we had. I said "not much, maybe 200" and pulled out the cash from one of my pockets. I probably had 100 in another pocket and tiffany had another 200 or so but I wanted to see what would happen. The first pocket actually had 250 in it and as I peeled this off the officer said "That's fine, 250 is enough." We were not amused at the time but laughed about this blatant bribe (called "baksheesh") situation later on that night and the following day.

We mentioned it to Marta, the mother of the family who runs the guest house we stayed at, because I wanted to have the registration document with us (along with the headlamp and extra contacts). She said, "There is no document! They just want baksheesh! How much did they want, 300?" She just laughed and laughed when we told her 1000. We said we didn't have it and gave them 250 and she said "fine, just fine" laughing along. She also said "Even if everything is in order, then they just get gruff and say 'Fine, give me a cigarette!' " Marta also related a story that was in their newspaper about a Russian who had been stopped in Anjuna, paid 500 baksheesh, then stopped at another barricade in Calangute, paid another 500 despite his insistence that he had already paid the fine, and then he was stopped a third time in Candolim for another bribe. The big Russian's temper got the better of him and he picked up the Goan policeman and held him entirely above his head like a weightlifter! He said "DON'T ASK ME AGAIN, I'VE AREADY PAID TWICE TONIGHT!" Apparently the other police ran off and the lifted man followed as soon as he was set down.

We're not going to be anywhere else in India where we will rent a motorcycle, and we're OK with that :)

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Goa's Night Markets -- the End of Shopping Willpower

North Goa is known for its sensory-overload flea markets and, of course, I wanted to see them in living color.

Arpora and Baga host Saturday evening markets and we got on our rented motorcycle with rupees stashed in zipped, toggled and closed pockets ready for the experience. I had even pre-meditated the shopping experience and taken out a bit of extra money at the ATM days before as the fabric in India is so amazing and I wanted to be, umm..., "prepared".

"Yes, please, madame...just looking my shop!"

In Arpora, we found a fairground-type, sandy space aglow with tons of white lightbulbs and Christmas lights, and our eyes, ears and noses awakened to a new level immediately. Bamboo stalls with coconut mat floors were built in numerous, zig-zagging 100 meter lines. Men, women, children of all ages called out to us vigorously to look at their wares...silk pillows with elephants and buddhas in metallic thread, jewel tone saris, hand-carved chessboards with Hindu deities for pieces, sequin patchwork bed covers, sparkly harem slippers, plastic bongs, hand-made clothes, jewelry galore and much more.

"Pashmina, madame? VERY good shawls, madame!"

A band of Indian locals played loudly in the center of the mayhem, covering Bob Dylan, ABBA, Norah Jones and The Who. I'd never heard "Like a Rolling Stone" with an Indian accent
~> read more

before and it was something special at 3,000 decibels, trust me! Cooking stalls surrounded the band and offered anything we wanted: smoky tandoori grills, spicy Goan snacks, red banana chips, fresh seafood fried in garlic, Kingfisher beer, Middle Eastern meze plates, Bacardi Breezers, and pizza. Our noses prickled at the perfume of patchouli, sandalwood, garlic, ginger, oregano, liquor, tikka barbeque, marijuana and hot oil, while our eyes smarted from the smoke, colors, glare and sheer overload of it all.

"Saffron, madame! VERY cheap, madame!"

I feel a bit like a robot when I first arrive at a market, walking straight ahead and barely looking in stalls so I can get an idea of what cool treasures are there, constantly parroting, "No, no, no thank you! No, thank you!" I also usually employ big glamour sunglasses to shield my madly roving eyes at daytime bazaars; behind black plastic they aggressively look for good stuff worthy of a closer look and definite vendor contact. However, this night market offered a new challenge! Thus, I worked on perfecting a good "lazy eye" for the night and let it float away into stalls checking out colorful fabric and henna stamps while my other eye and body stayed straight ahead moving about purposefully through the throngs of people and noise with Andy. (who was VERY patient and supportive of me during the shopping endeavors! and, even got into looking a bit himself!) I won't say this technique is flawless, as you do sometimes get caught by some aggressively helfpul vendors who start unfurling bedspreads in eighteen different colors with the speed of light, but as a whole, my disinterest and lazy eye worked well for night shopping. But big, dark, Jackie O. sunglasses and a scowl kick ass for daytime markets.

"Anything 150 rupees!!! Anything, madame! Material, blanket, jewelery, shoes, pillows."

So, leave it to me to find the one Italian lady selling chic couture-type clothes at a night market in Goa, India!!! One stall in at least 300 and I found Francesca from Milano who was inspired by Pucci, Missoni and Versace, and moved to Goa to design with rich local fabrics and have personal pieces sewed by hand in Bangalore!!! Sigh...that is what? Talent, luck, a curse? I'm not sure, but it was a tad costly...and oh so lovely! I now own these two incredible trapeze style, 60's-inspired color block dresses that I adore and could never find in the States. One is silk, the other is cotton and why buy one, when you can get two in vividly different shades? Good thing I was "prepared" by that ATM visit.

"Spices, madame! You want spices? VERY good prices."
(sound of man sniffing violently and waving clear plastic packets of bright spices)

After that, one gift, another silk slip dress for $18, and a purchase of seven hand-stamping blocks that the locals use to henna themselves before weddings and festivals (they're all hindu patterns and i can just see them sitting in a big incongrous platter or bowl looking fabulously arty), we were out of cash. So, back on the bike we hopped and zoomed to Martha's Breakfast home where we were now staying (and just loved--the whole family was so kind) in Anjuna, for more rupees and a little "tv" break. There's a BBC show Andy found called "Top Gear" that's about, what else? cars, and it was coincidentally on from 10:00pm - 10:30pm, which gave us enough time to get a secondary supply of money, for him to chill out from shopping and for me to admire my purchases! (somehow, this seems like something we might mention if ever interviewed on how to keep a relationship happy: "shopping tempered by Top Gear".)

"Yes, please?! Looking only...looking is free!"

When we headed off this time, freshly revived and re-Rupee-ed, we ventured to Baga for its night market which winds along the Baga River and whose chaos reflects madly in the dark water, offering even more aural stimulation...if that's even possible. There were only Indian vendors at this one, yet a huge beer and liquor garden, and that somehow blended for potent concoction of mayhem. Tons of local Western Goans moved about, carelessly tipsy and unknowingly smacking you with their long dread locks, tourist Westerners looked about with saucer eyes, open mouths and each carried a plastic shopping bag with handles straining against the inevitable weight of a "this was so amazing and so cheap that i had to buy it!"purchase, while local Indian Goans implored you more seriously to buy their goods. Baga's night market stage delivered a hilarious version of Jimmy Buffet's "Margaritaville" that everyone...lookers and hawkers...sang along to, and after that came a sittar and drumming circle! This is Goa, after all, and it's a strange melange of influences and ingredients.

"End of night special, madame!!! Anything 50 rupees! Anything, yes, please, madame!"

And toward midnight, I saw it. Hanging in the back corner of a stall, poorly lit and located by the beer garden and squat toilet area. Not necessarily the most appealing location, but it was a patchwork swath of material with lime green, sequins, deep magenta, some small gold elephants, and more--all done by hand. "Hmmm", I thought, "this could be it." I sipped my beer nonchalantly and looked from afar, putting on my glasses and pretending to squint at drink prices. I decided I needed to move in for a closer look, so Andy graciously accompanied toward the lion's den.

"Yes, please, sister," said an Indian man with a maniacal grin, blurry eyes, pierced ears and henna-ed hair. "What you see?"

And so the price dance began. My fabric piece is bed cover size, supposedly double-ply silk, sewn by hand in Rajasthan and beautiful. Though the lighting is so poor, I'm not too sure of all of the colors. However, as I held it up to the primitive light bulbs, I was worried I might set something on fire, so I decided to just go for it. The initial price I heard was 4,800 rupees and then down to 3,800, and we jockeyed about the condition of the piece and how much I was willing to pay. I hmm-ed, haw-ed, looked at other things and finally answered the "How much you wanna pay, sister? How much?" question.

"1,800." I replied flatly.

"Oh no, sister!" he said, feigning shock and a near heart attack. I said it was the best I could do, and he came back at 3,400 and then 2,800 rupees. He had more dramatic reactions and I decided that was it. I folded up the fabric, we started to walk, he was comic--and his beer was somehow spilled in the whole process. As Andy and I got about 30 feet away, his crazy orange-red henna hed came to us and he grabbed my hand, "Okay, sister, okay! You take. End of night special. But no money for me!"

So, feeling slightly smug, slightly pleased and then slightly afraid, I returned to his stall. He crammed the fabric into a tiny plastic bag, Andy wondered how we would carry this in India and beyond, and I was happy. As I scooped up my purchase, the kooky seller showed us his spilled beer and implored us with a toothy smile of unhealthy teeth to give him 50 rupees for another beer. Just a little "baksheesh" so he could at least get another beer, since we'd practically robbed him of his fabric.

We laughed, Andy gave him a 50 note, I felt a little adrenanline rush, and we tried to exit Baga's night market. Unsuccessfully, however, as there was one more piece of lovely fabric on the way out. Dammit! After the next melodrama of choosing and bargaining for this pretty piece of sari silk and threads, I was then ready to run out of Baga!

On the ride back to Anjuna, we were perfectly balanced on the motorcycle--a bag of fabric over each arm...

Friday, January 13, 2006

Goa photos posted!

Hopefully, some of you have been looking forward to some photos from Goa. Well, here they are, some photos from south Goa, we have now moved on to north Goa.

Please Click Here: http://bitjug.com/gallery/SouthGoa


Typical Day in Goa

AM-ish: Wake up, marvel at stiffness of Indian beds, then run out to see the ocean from front porch of our safari tent.

AM-ish: Determine where to go for coconut pancakes (more like a crepe with freshly-toasted coconut), mixed fruit with curd (plain yogurt) and ginger milk tea. Andy occasionally rolls the dice and goes for a Western breakfast of fried eggs, spiced potatoes and toast, but I am very predictable.

Early PM: Slather selves with sunscreen for beach; SPF 50 for me, SPF 30 for Andy. Pack up beach bag with our Indian-themed reading, "The God of Small Things" for me, "The World is Flat" for Andy.

PM: Body surf, walk the beach, read, say no to beach sellers of Indian wares, constantly answering the following: "Where you from? You want henna? You just looking, looking my things?"

Later PM: Decide where to watch the sun set. Sometimes at beach-side restaurants with glass of chai in hand, sometimes just us, close to the water enjoying the colors. Watch the sun slide into the haze of the sea, usually a flare pink orb that turns the water lavender ten minutes later.

Later PM: Commute to tent for showering off of the salt, mulling over dinner options and cravings. Maybe wash some clothes in shower bucket and hang to dry. Seafood? Tandoori? Italian? The place with the cool atmosphere? Um, which one -- they're all so cool! Perfume selves with Deet.

Late: Indecisive pair decides upon dinner, with tandoori and atmosphere being the strongest indicators of choice. Andy is sampling chicken tikka masala up and down the Goan coast. I savor variations on a vegetarian theme, and of course, ask if they have the "berbinca" (local coconut cake) on menu for dessert. Both are partial to eating fresh naan bread while high tide laps at their bare feet.

Late-Late: Walk a bit of dinner off--explore the dark end of the beach or where the cool trance music is playing. I always see some market stall to look into and peruse the fabric slyly before having to get into major bargaining conversation. Andy is patient. See cow, goat, piggie, dog or kitty on the road and pet. Buy bottles of water for drinking and brushing teeth.

Late-Late-Late: Celebrate lack of sun burn. Look at night sky; have Andy point out Orion for the umpteenth time. Resign myself to full-time glasses wearing in near future. Marvel again at hardness of Indian beds. Sleep, thanking god for invention of the fan.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Mexican, Thai, Italian, Oh My!

In restaurants in touristed areas (particularly beaches), I have noticed a trend (It's hard to miss, actually). The restaurants advertise their capability to create nearly any cuisine you can imagine, from Israeli, to Continental, to Chinese, Thai, Italian, Pizzas, and more. Indian is very rarely on this list. Furthermore, when you sit down you are presented with an extensive menu of at least 8 pages (usually closer to 15) with a dizzying variety of options, and yes there are Indian items on these menus. There will be a row of 15 or more restaurants on the same beach with exactly the same apparent versatility and type of menu.

However, there is a catch. It seems that roughly half the items we attempt to order are simply "not possible." Reasons range from the Tandoori oven not being fired up (understandable, both wood and charcoal must be stoked just right and often aren't at 2pm), to simply "we opened the hummus this morning and it smelled sour, so we threw it out." While I appreciate not being served sour hummus, you might be able to imagine that this sort of statement erodes the confidence a bit, especially after some gastronomic misadventures in other provinces.

As long as you don't have your mind set on anything in particular, you can always pick something else. However, this can be difficult because of the very friendly but also insistent nature of Indian service. Indian servers want to know your order right now, if you've had the menu for a minute and a half before you're asked, you're lucky. so when you place your order and it isn't possible (these are the words used), you better be able to pick something else soon. we have started selecting alternates.

The other confusion I have is about the variety of ethnic possibilities. The kitchen is never something you see in a restaurant in India. So I'm trying to imagine whether there is a Chinese woman, an Italian guy, a Thai grandmother, and a rather Continental chef back there. somehow this seems unlikely. So my question becomes, where did whoever is back there learn to cook all this stuff? It's a question that remains unanswered.

But my bigger question, really, is what is wrong with good Indian food? Look, I can see someone from Israel craving an Israeli breakfast after you've been in India for a month and a half, but most of the travellers here in Goa seem to be down from europe (lots of brits) for 2 weeks tops. You'd imagine that at least a few of them might like to try a good Indian dinner while they are here, wouldn't you? But I have yet to see a restaurant in a tourist area that features Indian center stage.

Please understand that none of this is criticism of India or even the restaurants themselves, it's just an interesting phenomenon. We have chosen from so many beach restaurants almost at random and certainly ignored their signage, and seemingly against all odds the meals have been great everywhere. My pork vindaloo at the "Thai specialty" place was very authentic. My chicken tikka masala at the fresh seafood griller was exceptional. The Naan (fluffy but hearty Indian flatbread) we ordered at a place featuring Pizza and Pasta was perhaps the best we've ever had. We must admit, however, that we love Indian (especially north Indian/Punjabi) cuisine and order it much more often than the mysterious foreign options. "When in Rome" works great for us here!

Goa: Paradoxical Paradise

Goa is unlike any other part of India.

It's palm huts and pina coladas, fair-skinned foreigners sunning in Euro-kinis next to fishermen cleaning the day's catch from primitive boats, rave and reggae music blaring from beach-side speakers.

It's colonial Catholic churches the color of wedding mints next to tiny stores selling Pringles, Prell and paba tanning lotion.

And, restaurants that run riskily against the water's edge with "chill out" pods of bean bags, rugs and pillows where you can smoke bhang/marijuana cigarettes and everyone looks the other way and pretends it's smoke from the tandoori.

Goa is a paradoxical paradise, and while we're amazed, it's easy to get caught up in the groove.

The beaches and easy freedoms draw tons of visitors to Goa: beer and alcohol are untaxed, late-night parties spill onto the beaches from coconut palm groves lit by psychadelic lights and there are only a few historic sites to tax the brain and draw one away from the warm sea.

The last occupied state in India, Goa was a Portuguese colony until the early 1960's, when Nehru's military finally kicked them out...but not before hippie traveleres had discovered its lure. Goa feels more Mediterranean than sub-continental, and we sometimes forget that we're in India until a cow happens upon the beach or busy "entrepreneurs" throw shade on you on the beach asking if you'd like a sarong, henna, jewellery or drum.

I've polled a number of Indians, some wealthy and vacationing here and others native, and this former colonization of Goa--for close to four centuries--is the main reason they feel it's so different. That and the booming tourist season that brings charter flights from the UK into Goa's tiny airport from Novemeber to March, seem to make it a tiny piece of Raj Riviera.

And it is quite enchanting...

We spent 5 days in Palolem Beach in South Goa, and just moved up to North Goa to spend five days on Morjim Beach. Palolem was a palm-lined crescent of beach with perfect waves lapping at its shore lined with hut villages and restaurants. By day, rattan loungers and "Kingfisher" or "Sprite" umbrellas dot the sand and offer bathers a respite for chai and shade, and by night, Palolem is a glimmery half-moon of candlelight and Christmas tree lights. Everything is open air and mellow, and drifting the beach at night, you smell patchouli and sandalwood burning from spiral incense coils.

We rented bikes and cycled south to Patnem for a day to check out the waves, and it was a less-crowded version of Palolem. There were hut villages, restaurants made of rattan and palm fronds, and more surf to ride in on among the fishing nets -- though nothing too exciting. And plenty of Western white bodies, one of which Andy managed to accidentally take out TWICE in his body surfing expeditions. Seeing a pasty Brit in a tiny swim briefs being catapulted from a hot pink air mattress by my lover was one of the best laughs I've had on the trip for certain! Somehow, "Sorry mate!" didn't cover it; one headed for sea, the other, for shore...pink air mattress in hand.

On the way to Patnem, we passed oxen ploughing fields, and in Palolem, we passed one smelly piece of beach path that involved rotting garbage and some very cute black piggies on our daily "commute". (sigh...finally, a commute I can handle! even without NPR!) These, and the busy women who work the beach and the guest house floors in saris, were often the only reminders of India. So very strange for such a vast country...that you can visit one of its states and feel it's so far away.

Two days ago, we hired negotiated a taxi ride north to Morjim Beach--in a mini-van thing of sorts that Andy thought was very cool and would fit into a garage "sideways" but be good for hauling things. Have I mentioned that when we talk of a future abode, the words "garage" and "kitchen" come up the most? Or, has Andy's mom Marjie likes to say, "One of them wants a loft, the other a lift..." (for crucial car repairs).

Anyway, North Goa has more of the fabled "party atmosphere" and we wanted to experience its various village towns and night markets. So far, life is good...we're staying in a Rajasthani safari tent about 100m from the beach! We've eaten at a restaurant with dining areas covered in mosquite netting and candlelight (for atmosphere), and stuffed pillows to rest against as you gaze at tapestries with a Ganesh face or "Om" sybmol in Sanskrit glowing in black light. (no, I am not kidding!)

It's one day from a full moon, and we're exploring the town of Arambol. We just ate dinner at a place with staggered plateaus of cement built on to the beach from a cliff. Each plateau had a table and candle, and we faced straight out to the moonlit Arabian sea, hearing the waves crash as we ate fresh naan. Oh my....life does not suck here in Goa.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Many new Photos!

Hi Folks, we found a good internet cafe here in goa, so I am now able to bring you some photos we have been waiting to post. There are 3 new galleries. The galleries will open in a new window so you can just close the window to come back here.

First, a gallery from our new year's eve celebration that I described in a previous post:
Please click here: http://bitjug.com/gallery/NewYearsEve

Second, a short gallery from my "UnBirthday" celebration described previously by Tiffany:
Please click here: http://bitjug.com/gallery/UnBirthday

Finally, a little bigger gallery of Munnar, the mountainous tea-centric area we just left a couple of days ago, including some pictures from the tea factory/museum and a hike we did. Please note this gallery is 2 pages, I have a link for the second page as well:

Please click here: http://bitjug.com/gallery/Munnar
and here: http://bitjug.com/gallery/Munnar?page=2

it's a very beautiful landscape up there.

We're happy to be in Goa and will hope to post some photos and impressons from here before too long. Cheers!

Goa'n to Paradise?

Five hours of curvy roads in a hot Hindustan sedan, the shock of horns and humidity after Munnar, four hours of lay over for connecting trains that we used for "eating" the specialty thali lunches endemic to Mangalore (that's right, Mangalore not Bangalore) and 18 interesting hours of train travel north...and we finally made it!

Goa. Goa!! Goa???

Goa is the fabled state of India filled with pristine, palm-lined beaches and idllyic outdoor enclaves for yoga, raves or ayurvedic massage. We made a pilgrimmage here to experience any or all of the above, and are curious what we find since India continues to surprise, excite and sometimes repel at every turn.

Andy and I arrived in Goa last night, I felt ready to pull a "Pope" and kiss the ground. I'm not sure if it was the humid, sticky heat or the chaos of second-class AC train travel that is essentially a dormitory on wheels, or the carnival-barker style vendors that peddled "chai-chai-chai" and "chips-chips-chips"up an down the train aisles from Ernaukulam to Canacona, but I was migraine-central by the time we wobbled off the train.

An immitrex and chai sounded awesome for the last 6 hour leg of our train journey, and I conked out on a top, blue-vinyl birth that Andy sweetly borrowed for me from another passenger. We were assigned seats that are bunks at night and only seats by day, but for some reason, our section had eight people instead of the normal six. We lacked words, so I slept and Andy read "The World is Flat" with ear plugs in, feeling its fiction come to life as we see the engineers on the train with "Sun Java" and "Oracle" embroidered on black laptop backpacks.

I thought I was dreaming of Boulder when I heard "Chips-chips-chips", the call of Fast Eddie, the local hot dog guy who's very witty and has a thing for cat calling at the ladies who prefer tofu to mystery meat. But, I was not. This set of trains had a team of efficient food "wallahs" (workers who peddle things) and they raced through the narrow dormitory cars with giant metal thermoses of hot milk for tea, plastic buckets of chips and nuts, and then large coolers from which Andy bought a Coke that was advertised as "fun-fun-fun-Coca"!!! And they called their food with sing-song accuracy in English and whatever.

Alighting from the train, I felt woozy and then delirious when I felt cooler temperatures, saw the moon and stars in the sky, and heard only a lone horn honking in the distance. We were in Goa! Goa of the movies and Lonely Planet prose, Goa...destination of hippies and package-tour British travelers. We were definitely ready for Goa!

And this morning, when we woke up to sun and palm shade, it did not disappoint!!!

We're in a crescent-shaped cocoon of beach on the Arabian Sea, and fews cows and water buffalo roam the beach. There's little trash, and after breakfasting on coconut pancakes and fresh pineapple juice, we hit the water. It's SO warm -- warmer than most of our showers! Ah, Goa.

Goa has fewer "entpreneurs", as Andy nicely calls the people who pester you on the beach to buy sarongs or drums or beads, and there are tons of pasty-white Westerners that make us feel better about being in the and and surf.

Alas, we're probably not in the "real India" right now, but it's a nice change of pace from the hard travel to sacred places of the past few weeks.

The "Sour Curry" Cooking Classes

South India, especially Kerala, is known for its unique cuisine and we were ready to savor every taste of journey. Though we were definitely uncertain of what to expect in flavor and texture; most of what we eat at Indian restaurants in the States is North Indian.

[On a geek note: When the "Partition of India" divided parts of the country along mostly religious lines in the 1950's, many Punjabis fled all over of the world and brought their "wetter" Northern cuisine that is ghee-based, made into rich gravies and eaten with flat breads like naan. Thus, their flight from fear launched the flavors that we now enjoy in restaurants worldwide. But, it's truly just the tip of the rice bowl of what all they eat on this subcontinent!]

And so in Munnar, we began our noble eating pursuits! Each night at Olive Brook, we crowded into their 10'x10' square kitchen--equipped with a locking spice cabinet, mid-sized fridge, 6 portable gas burners and a low shower in the corner, fully tiled and with a squirt hose, for washing fruits and vegetables--and learned the secrets of a different South Indian dish.

Sour Curries are the special guest star of any Keralan meal, and we were schooled in how the tangy dish comes together: high heat, lots of stirring, sour curd (yogurt), plenty of cardamon and turmeric, and mustard seeds! Somehow, the mustard seeds, cardamon and yogurt blend together for a distinctive taste that is tangy, creamy and good. Different, like when you eat a sandwich with a surprise sauce, but good. The color is a vivid gold from the turmeric, and perhaps cumin if included, and the texture is palpable from chopped carrots, gourds, onions, beans and potatoes. (or meat, but you'll have to ask Andy about that!)

Cashews have a supporting role in numerous South Indian dishes and, luckily for us, sometimes we felt like a nut! If, sometimes, you don't...you're out of luck on dessert, vegetables, a main dish and possibly all three in one meal. Olive Brook's chef, a young man who'd attended three years of hotel management training and learned to cook there (because he's a man...a woman would have learned from female family members growing up), showed us the secret steps to making awesome dishes with cashews: toasting/roasting them yourself in a pan for fresh flavor and making a delicious, decadent, not-so-low-cal fresh paste of cashews to blend into dishes for rich texture. "Whoa!" is all I can say! Amazing deep nut taste that is sweet and pairs so nicely with paneer (their fresh cheese that is like tofu when it's good) or potatoes in a korma or a vanilla-coconut sweet rice pudding. Yum! Cashew roasting and paste are new endeavors for our next kitchen...

Vegetable Sambars with coconut had a recurring role in our meals of Olive Brook and I'm ready to have Andy but a machete from one of the local men so we can hack into fresh young coconuts whenever possible! These are essentially "dry" curry type dishes that use only vegetable oil and spice to hold the dish together instead of ghee (clarified butter). Coconut is grated fresh from the shell and added to the pan, placed atop the chopped fresh vegetables that range from cabbage to carrot, eggplant to pea, as to steam and cook to a perfect tenderness. And it did! Fresh coconut isn't as sweet as dried coconut and when mixed into a sambar spice mix of cumin, clove, cinnamon, cardamon, turmeric, mustard seed and green chilies, you taste something unlike anything before.

We savored these dishes each night to piggy perfection, and ate them with either rice or a puffed, thin chapathi that is lighter than a tortilla. For breakfast, we tried South Indian dosas and idliis that are made with feremented rice flour, or puffy pappadams that are salty and can be dipped in chutneys or yogurt.

Our cooking and flavor knowledge is increasing by the day, and we're having fun tasting a new dish, or even new blend of chai, and teasing out whether it's heavy on cardamon or maybe has mustard seeds. We're kind of like sommeliers of spice at this point, or partners in pappadam. We experienced sour curry instead of sour grapes in Kerala, and now it's on to Goa where the cooking landscape is bound to change. Bring it on!

** Please Note: It would be grossly unfair of me to mis-represent our stomaches in all of this. As the saying goes: no pain, no gain; no guts, no glory; no spice, all is nice. We're going for the gusto here and there's no rhyme or reason as to what makes for interesting digestion. India is an adventure in eating in every sense!

Friday, January 06, 2006

High Tea & Women's Work

We were just in tea heaven!

Or so it felt... Literally, because Munnar is home to some of the world's only high altitude tea plantations and figuratively, because I got to trek through fields of tea, run my hands through freshly-picked leaves and breathe deeply into its freshly-dried aroma.

[Hmm...obviously the Bollywood (India's answer to Hollywood) melodramas we see on our bus trips are rubbing off on me. The above sounds a bit dramatic, but for someone who started drinking tea with her great-grandmother at age 5, it was awesome!]

22,000 hectares of tea grow up rocky hill and down steep dale around Munnar, which rests at 1600m, and we spent a few days hiking around the various plantations, visited a tea museum and drank as much as possible. The tea plant grows into a perfect little bushy shrub that's kept precisely manicured to 3' high and 4' wide. The bottom is made of knarled branches and then leaves explode off and look like giant bay leaves. Its color is a waxy grass green, but the tea bush honestly looks like anyone's basic hedge plant instead of the powerhouse plant it is.

The hills of Munnar are carpeted green with tea bushes, dotted occasionally by big black rocks and colored by the groups of women who pick tea leaves for the plantations wearing brilliant headscarves.We hiked around the various estates and they're planted so precisely and densely that we'd be walking along in silence and then suddenly hear women's voices clearly...yet never see their faces! The tea pickers are completely obscured by the dense plants or the abrupt climb of the hills. It's pretty wild to experience; we'd suddenly hit a plateau and could then immediately see a group of ladies hunched over the bushes, picking leaves by hand or with small shears--snip-snip-snip--and dropping the leaves quickly into apron pouches.

[Women pick all of the fresh tea leaves around Munnar, and a crop of tea sprouts new leaves for use every 10-14 days. The workers wear flip flops as they scale the hills to pick, and pluck close to 50 lbs of tea per day. For this hard work, they earn 75 rupees per day: $1.67 USD! Jesus. It makes me think very differently about the tea bags I use every day. Tata is the Indian conglomerate that owns most of the fields we visited and they export most of the tea in Munnar to Europe, often under the brand of Tetley.]

But back to the romance of the tea...

On our plantation hikes, we were enveloped in green vegetation and mist on Munnar's highest (1700m) peak, plus saw wild elephants tracks (and droppings). Whoa! Our guide Manoj gave us "coffee sticks" and cheese sandwiches for the walkabout, so Andy and I were trekking around with skinny wooden, notched sticks from the coffee tree that were very helpful when navigating the climbs...and slices of white bread with processed cheese that never tasted so good. The little respite from spice was quite welcomed by our tummies!

At the tea museum/factory, which smelled like a strong steeping Lipton tea bag only a bit grassier, we saw an expedited version of the tea-making process and this was where I was running around rubbing fresh leaves between my fingers, feeling them dry on vents, watching the grinding and more! The geek in me was especially satiated by the guide who explained the differences between white, green and black tea (it's all the same plant, just different times of picking), showed how to extract the healthy enzymes used in cosmetics and the difference between loose leaf and bagged tea processing.

I'm thinking I may try my hand at a tea crop in Colorado as the plant seems to be highly profitable. Not only do the leaves blossom quickly, but they can be used for anything from a beverage to age serum. And, after learning that the Master Taster sips over 120 cups of tea a day for tasting, I think I may have found my perfect job! When I mentioned this to Andy, he looked a bit alarmed. Whether it was the thought of me highly caffeinated or the fact I seem to have the lost edge for working more lucratively in high tech, I'm not sure. ; )

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Happy New Year - AND Papa Burning

In Pondicherry, we found that some restaraunts had private parties for the christmas eve holiday. So in Fort Cochin Tiffany had the very wise idea to stop in at the Malabar house, one of the fancier
"home stays" in town, to see if their restaruant had a special event for New Year's Eve.

Indeed they did, and while the price per person seemed astronomical, it wasn't any more than we would have paid for a nice new year's dinner in the US, probably less. This begged the question ... was it going to be a nice dinner? We hadn't been so lucky in Pondicherry, when we "splurged" on dinner at the fanciest restaraunt in town (still much less than the new year's eve per-plate), well, let's just say we got food poisoning, without going into detail. More specifically, we've found that how agreeable a meal is to our stomachs is not at all proportional to the cost of the meal.

So, we broke out our fanciest duds. Which aren't quite what they would be at home... I had some dark jeans and a very nice madras plaid shirt with ribbonlike threads in various colors that I had been fortunate to find in Pondicherry. I spent the equivalent of about $15 US and I think the shirt now my nicest including what is at home. I have some running-type shoes that I had to wear but at least they are darkly colored.

Tiffany, in her typical style, was not to be restrained by this backpacking lifestyle. She broke out a beautiful black dress from the bottom of her suitcase, saying only "I just thought it wouldn't get wrinkled" as I stood aghast. she paired this with her new silver ganesh earrings from pondicherry and, cleverly, with the Guess platform flip-flops she's been wearing around town, which went surprisingly well in black and white.

So we trotted just a couple of doors down to the Malabar House. I wasn't ready to arrive exactly at our scheduled time of 8:00, so we arrived about 8:10. A maitre'd rushed up to the hotel desk as we were arriving and said "Mr. Skalet!??" and once I confirmed he whisked us past a beautiful small swimming pool bedecked with floating candles in coconut shells for this night, to our table, which was front and center! a table for two perhaps 4 feet from the stage, with tens of tables much farther away. I must say we did look the part of the important and fashionably late couple. This was looking like a good night. Traditional Keralan drumming was already going on onstage, with 6 or 7 men drumming rigorously. Our guidebook describes the traditional drumming as 'piercing' and I don't think I can say it better. Another acquired taste, perhaps.

The food started arriving soon (along with some dancing onstage) and we were impressed, with a very nice gazpacho and a fresh vinagrette salad that was a special treat (it's tough to find a nice western style salad here), on into a seared fish main dish that was just wonderful, a "noble" use of the fresh fish available in south india as far as we are concerned. Dessert was a little array of chocolate and a lime mousse tiffany nicknamed "sprite fluff". We certainly felt that we had made a good choice to splurge on dinner.

Once we had finished dinner it was approachng midnight and we participated in a basque tradition (the hotel manager is a basque woman) of eating one grape representing each month of the coming year. The 12 grapes are delivered wrapped in a leaf-pocket.

Next, we were paraded outside the front of the big house to see a few fireworks, and the ceremonial "Burning of the Papa". This ceremony is not to be missed. The basic idea is this: You start with a 10-15 foot tall Santa Claus doll, clothed in a full western style red suit and thick black belt along with the typical beard and red hat, and boots. This doll is made up of wood and tinder, and at midnight is lit ablaze!! It almost instantly becomes a standing bonfire splashing flickering orange on all around. As the flames die down a bit, however, the standing human form still engulfed in flames was a difficult sight for us to celebrate!

We have some pictures from new years that I would love to post but we just don't have the capability here in the mountains in Munnar; we will post them in about 5 days, until then let your imagination run wild!

What happened to the second Editor?

I've enjoyed posting some descriptive prose on our 'Blog'; we certainly have seen some interesting things to talk about. However, I haven't been posting much lately and I want to explain why. One thing is the technology; it is often a trick getting photos posted from virus-ridden computers with no DVD-ROM on dubious internet connections in locales where the power goes out several times a day for several minutes at a time. For instance, right now I think 4 computer users are using 1 dial up connection here.

However, it's fun to be able to share some of our pictures "live"; this is something we never could have done so easily (relatively speaking) without digital photography and of course the Internet.

The second thing I've been busy with is planning transportation. India is a big country, and, we've found, Indians just have a different tolerance level for transportation than we (at least Tiffany and myself) do. Doing a 4-5 hour bus ride on the buses we previously described, with plywood-hard seats and no legroom, is absolutely routine. It is also quite easy to end up on a 15-30 hour train ride trying to get where you want to go. Furthermore, many flights and trains are full. It is not wise to book trains any later than 2-3 weeks in advance, because they are so full. We saw some trains with 120 person waiting lists for a single class (3-bunk stack A/C)

So, the other thing I've been working on is arranging travel and lodging. It's kind of fun, it's a challenge to plan, and I hope it will be rewarding to us later. two days ago we traveled from Kochi to Munnar in a private car, about a 5 hour trip. we will be here 3 more days, then travel back to Kochi either in a car or on a bus, then take a train overnight to Mangalore, up the coast (not Bangalore) we'll have a 4 hour 'layover' in Mangalore, then continue on to goa, for a total of about 14 hours train travel. This is the best we could do booking 10 days in advance.

we'll be in Goa for a while then take a plane to Mumbai for a couple of days. Then, we will fly again from Mumbai to Udaipur, where a lake palace is, along with some cooking classes! a few days later, we will fly from Udaipur to Jaipur, then after a couple of days take a train from Jaipur to Agra, where the Taj Mahal is. After a day and a half in Agra we'll take a train again to Delhi, and the following day we will fly from Delhi to Chennai, and fly later that evening from Chennai back to Bangkok!

All of the train and plane reservations have been made, and hotel reservations in Goa. We still need to make hotel reservations for Mumbai, Udaipur, Jaipur, Agra, and Delhi, but I think (hope) this will be fairly straightforward now that we have all of the dates lined up.

So ... that's what I've been up to, when we've had communications access. Hope to talk to you folks more now.

Kerala Backwater photos available for Viewing!

I posted some photos from the Keralan backwaters that I think some of you will enjoy, they should give some further illustration of some of Tiffany's recent posts.

Please click here: http://bitjug.com/gallery/KochiKeralanBackwaters

Andy's Un-Birthday

It started off with complete innocence. I'd mentioned in my first email to Manoj at Olive Brook that I wanted to book this for Andy as a Christmas present.

Something got lost in translation and when I arranged the private car to Munnar, Manjor asked me what day was Andy's birthday as he would make arrangements. I couldn't resist and disappoint, so I promptly said, "January 3rd."

And then told Andy that if anyone says "Happy Birthday" to him, just go with it. We had a small scare when they asked for our passports yesterday, but it was just to record the visa numbers and they didn't seem to notice that he's a Virgo born in August.

When we opened our door to walk over to breakfast this morning, our balcony was decorated with colored streamers and ballons! It was so cute--it reminded me of decorating friends'lockers for birthdays in junior high. The staff had snuck over early and quietly decorated the place, and when we got to the eating area there were many pleased, vibrant grins on moustached faces.

We sat down to Masala tea and toast, and then the quintet of Olive Brook men appeared together with a tray of candles and presented the un-birthday boy with a cake! In the middle was a white bakery cake that even read "Happy Birthday Andrew" in red gel frosting, and Manoj made an announcement to all of the guests that it was Andrew's Birthday. He was asked to immediately cut the cake to celebrate, and then for us Westerners, he blew out a good 20+ candles all at once!

In India, birthdays are not normally a big deal. There are so many religious festivals which take precedence over individual secular revelrie, that it's merely noticed but not celebrated. We were SO touched that Olive Brook wanted to make it special for us! A very merry un-birthday, indeed.

And no, please don't worry that we'll be trying this throughout the trip! ;)

At Olive Brook in Munnar

On New Year's Day, we splurged and took a private car up into the windy, blind-cornered, densely green roads of Kerala and entered the Western Ghats. In our tiny Tata car, which provided the most leg room we've experienced since leaving my parent's Avalon at the airport, we wound up into rocky hills, passing groves and groves of rubber trees. Rubber is a big crop for the people who live in the mid-lands and each tall tree had a little spout that trickled white, Elmer's glue-like substance when you tapped on the bark.

Every time we neared a blind corner, the driver would honk his horn like mad...supposedly signaling to oncoming traffic that our car was coming and to watch the hell out. Definitely entertaining when you careen around a corner and are met head-on by a big public bus with Hindu garlands and people hanging out the windows and forced to share a tiny space on the dirt road bordered by sheer cliff drop on one side with no guard rail.

I knew Andy had influenced my thinking when I actually pondered how good our tires could possibly be for this type of driving....

Anyway, the Western Ghats are a high-altitude region of South India where tea and spice plantations abound, where one smells cardamon and black pepper pungent in the cool air upon arrival. We were psyched that the temperature was cooler and gladly welcomed the chance to pull out a long-sleeved shirt when we embarked in Munnar at Olive Brook.

As my Christmas present to Andy, I'd booked our stay the Olive Brook before we left the States and it was upmarket for our budget, $50 per day with two meals and some activities included, but I still wasn't sure what to expect. We're constantly surprised by the accommodations in India so that keeps it exciting when we arrive somewhere new.

Olive Brook (why it's called this, we don't know -- there are no olives. i think it's 'lost in translation' thing as there is also a blackberry hills place, but no berries to be found.)is a quaint little home stay with a few rooms, and ours rests at one end of the long ranch style villa with a private balcony where they promptly served us fresh tea!

Our room has our fanciest bathroom yet, sporting black porcelain accessories and an actual shower curtain! It even has a small dip in porcelain in the shower area so one doesn't flood the whole bathroom when showering. We are living large for a few days!

And actually, we will be large after indulging in their meals...

Each night, they have dinner on the patio that overlooks a tea plantation and light a tall taper candle for us to dine by candlelight. I'm thrilled to be wearing a wool sweater and eating outdoors, and there's a team of sweet, moustached Indian men who prepare and serve us feasts of Keralan delicacies for breakfast and dinner.

We've enjoyed "bitter gourd" (we don't know what that is, but it's fried and spicy and good), a chana masala with a Munnar twist that uses butter beans instead of garbanzos, molee (fish in coconut milk) and some of the trademark Keralan sambars that are a zesty curry soured by tamarind and hing.

As we waddle back to our room, readying ourselves for the reality of a tiny mattress on plywood, one can see bright stars in the dark sky and nary a horn honks. It's definitely a different India up here.

I feel a bit bad typing this, but it's a treat to be in this oasis of green, tea plantation calm and collect our wits mid-trip. When we step out of Olive Brook, there is no one immediately asking us for something or what our name is or wondering if we need a rickshaw; we're just free to walk about and soak up the natural beauty as though we almost belonged.