Tuesday, August 3, 2010

10, 000 Steps and a Chicken Biryani

Junagadh. Not much of a city. But, if you are willing to climb the necessary 10,000 steps to the top of Mount Girnar, just 6 km north of the city, it can be a gateway to heaven. On the rainiest day of the season ,when Gujarat received a whopping 11% of it's annual rainfall, we opted for the "lavish people's" private bus from Bhuj to Junagadh. This is the first time we have taken a private bus, as opposed to the GSRTC spine compressor (state bus) and it is a whole world apart. The big attraction for most people is usually the AC, however those who had to wade through knee deep water to get to the bus in the pouring rain probably didn't enjoy the arctic breeze. The fun part for us was meeting a really nice Gujarati family whose children spoke very good English and were thrilled to finally have a chance to meet tourists. As the 12 year-old boy said with great excitement "I can't believe that I am talking to Foreign!"

Needless to say, the next day was neither bright nor sunny. It was, however, the day we had scheduled to climb the mountain so we pressed on undaunted. Mount Girnar is a popular and normally rather crowded, pilgrimage site, but on that day a big diaphanous cloud was enveloping the mountain and there were very few people in sight. The mountain is a holy site for both Jains and Hindus, and it is recommended that one starts climbing the 10,000 steps leading to the temples at the top at dawn to avoid the searing mid-day sun during the strenuous ascent. Approaching the foot of the mountain, we should have probably been forewarned by the rain poncho rental stall. Or by the fact that it started pouring so hard we needed to run for cover at the nearest chai stall. Or by the fact that we couldn't actually see that there WAS a mountain. After much debate we decided to continue. For a mere 5 rupees each, we rented some pilgrim's staffs and with our rain coats and umbrellas at the ready we felt up to the excursion.

The 10,000 steps are conveniently numbered for the benefit of the weary pilgrim. It might seem like a good idea, but there is nothing more disheartening while you are huffing and puffing up the mountain to realize that are only on step number 750. In the beginning, the numbers come every 50 steps, but towards the end, when you really need the encouragement, they numbering mysteriously stops altogether. It was like being in some sort of medieval legend where one is involved in a soul-searching quest against the elements.

At 1,000 steps there was a band of aggressive monkeys who demanded bananas to let you pass onwards. Luckily, some fellow pilgrims had the golden fruit and we were permitted passage.  At about 1500 we stepped into the cloud, and could not see more then 10 meters ahead for the rest of the journey, not until we finally emerged back at the bottom of the mountain, some four hours later.  Climbing a series of jagged cliffs,   after 5000 steps a group of Jain temples emerged through the clouds. This gave us a good excuse to rest for a bit and explore the milk-white temple complex, looking especially mysterious with their misty halls and bits of cloud  blowing in through the open windows. At 6000 steps the gods really seemed to test us, when we walked on a high, narrow,  ridge with an abyss on either side. The wind started gusting in earnest and  the  rain began to blow sideways, soaking us to the skin.

At 7500 we stopped at a little shrine, and were rewarded with hot chai served to us by ash-smeared sadhus who ominously warned us "Make haste and do not tarry at the top, or you will be stranded on the mountain overnight."  At 8000 steps the wind was blowing so hard that we decided that this was no longer fun and thought we should turn around.  At this point we met three other intrepid pilgrims (jaded young Indian men) who insisted that the end was near and pulled us through the last 2000 steps, by telling us that there were only 700 left.  Perhaps they were right, as at that point we had to go down about a 1000 steps before going up again to the final pinnacle. The view must be really gorgeous from the top, but we really couldn't see any of it. At the top, we did a quick darshan and circumambulated a three headed dattatreya while reciting the names of our parents. This god is a great invention, three gods, Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu all in one go. We were deemed worthy, rang a bell twice, and were instructed to proceed to the double gate and go left to receive some prasad, or an offering of food. It is cooked by young sadhus and is given to the pilgrims once they have reached the top.  It was a simple meal of chapatis, dal and kichidi, served on the floor on plates made from dried leaves, but after walking the whole day in the rain, or perhaps because of the spiritual context, this was one of the best meals that we had in India.

We were planning on making  an early start the next day and leave Junagadh before noon.  But as usual in India, we got sidetracked. We planned nothing but a quick visit to the Mahabat Maqbara, a group of 19th century Muslim mausoleums, now doubling as a cricket pitch for the local kids.

On the back to the hotel, Boazcoldrink".  Full of curiosity, we followed them in to the house and were promptly invited to sit on the newly installed swing in the living (and only) room. They were busy painting and were obviously very proud of their newly renovated house. Coldrink consumed and seven albums of family photographs later, we were invited to eat something. Or, considering that none of us really had a language in common, that's what we think we were invited to do. After some polite refusal, but in reality, extremely tempted by the thought of finally having a home cooked meal, we finally agreed to eat a little something. To this there were many smiles, much head nodding and the repeated mantra of "chicken biryani, chicken biryani!". Sounded good to us.

We presumed that some one would scoop a bit of biryani out of waiting pot and we would be on our way. But not in India! A boy was presently dispatched to get some chicken, onions started to be peeled, spices started to be ground, and, naturally, Kim was poised with the ever present food notebook to write down the recipe. Two hours, more photo albums and a large plate of gulab jamun and jalebis later, the biryani was served. We can never get used to the local custom of serving the sweets before the meal, because, as your mother has probably warned you, eating sweets before the meal does indeed ruin your appetite. Besides, what can you say to your children? "If you don't finish your jalebis, there will be no chicken biryani for you!".

Writing down a recipe that you have never made before while the watching three women simultaneously cook is not easy. On top of it all, there was a small language barrier, although Kim speaks "Indian Cooking Language" quite well. Here is a short, funny excerpt from her secret notebook. We promise to refine the quantities and process and share it with you on Lime Soda Cooks, our cooking blog.

1. Slice the onions. Chop the remaining 1/4 finer in step 3. Cut potatoes in quarters.
2. Mash the masala ingredients in a mortar and pestle.
3. Put the chicken in a pressure cooker and cook 10 minutes with about 3/4 of the onions. The chicken should be first cut up into little bite sized pieces by holding a knife upside down between your toes while squatting on the floor.
4. In a blender, grind 20 hot chili peppers, water, and maybe some cumin. (At this point the mother-in-law began to sort through about a cup and a half of cumin seeds....maybe for something else? She used about half a cup in step 7).
5. Cook rice in a uncovered pot in an undetermined amount of water.
6. Heat three ladles (yes, ladles) of oil in a really big pot. Add some of the remaining onions (but not all) add the paste from step four.
7. In the mortar and pestle (with what looks like about 1/4 of the former masala) grind 1/4 cup cumin. Pound lightly and add 3/4 cup water (Where did the rest of the original masala go....possibly in chicken? Or maybe in onions?)
6 Continued. Mother-in-law looks at daughter-in-law's potatoes and raises eyebrows. Cuts them all in half again. Then adds them and coriander and mint that were floating in the same water to the large pot with the onion. The water seems to have been added too. Break a cinnamon stick and throw it in with 3 cardamoms. Add the chicken mixture. Break in another cinnamon stick for good measure.
8. Cancel step 5, it was something else cooking in that pot. Take 4 drinking glasses of rice, wash it and add it to the big pot. Add 2-3 generous handfuls (not kidding) of salt. Put a plate on top. Cook.
9.Cut a tomato into chunks. Add it to the remaining onion (this did not become part of the biryani but became a salad later).
10.Fry some other onions until brown.
11.Try to figure out where the ginger went in?

Barfi: We saw this lovely bangle tree on our pilgrimage and decided to tie a bangle on to it in the hopes that some wonderful thing might happen to us. We have no idea what bangle trees are normally intended for, and hope that we have not incurred some sort of mixed blessing like "May you have 13 sons in the next two years".  We welcome guesses from our loyal readers and will be offering prizes for the most entertaining ones.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Dhow Builders of Mandvi

In keeping with Lime Soda's line of handicraft stories, we thought that these guys deserved a blog post of their own.  They were making the largest, possibly most impressive, piece of "handicraft" we have ever seen, somuch so that we made a special excursion to Mandvi to see them at work.

We arrived at the charming, colourful little port city of Mandvi after traveling in a bumpy local bus from Bhuj for two hours. Mandvi was once the main port of Kutch, and is today an important center for the forgotten art of dhow building. The monsoon was showing its full force that morning, and although we were thankful to be on the bus, we wished it hadn't been quite as leaky.  As we entered the city and crossed the bridge over the estuary we were welcomed by the sight of about fifty boats in different stages of construction.  In the cloudy noon light, with their massive hulls lining both sides of the river and empty bamboo scaffolding surrounding them, the sight was quite eerie, as if taken from an other era.

As we were tired and hungry, we decided to check into our hotel and grab a bite to eat first. We chose the Rukmavati Hotel as it was formerly a hospital, and more importantly, ad self-catering facilities.  In fact, the hotel was so clean,that you could almost think it was still a hospital! Our room had a balcony overlooking the estuary and cooling sea breezes flowed through the open courtyard. After a long, detailed introduction to the town from the well meaning but slightly over anxious owner, we headed out with his home-made map in the direction of Mandvi's most famous thali place- "Zorba the Buddha". Don't ask us about the name, all we can say is that the food was excellent, one of the best Gujarati thalis of the trip, with around 20 different tasty items. We refreshed ourselves with a paan, which is great for digestion, but also an excellent way to pass the time if it starts pouring rain and the streets suddenly flood.

Once the rains stopped, we headed back to the riverside to explore the boat building. The name Dhow is used in India to describe a type of wooden boat originally used by Arab merchants to carry goods between the  Arabian peninsula and India.  Historically they had up to three lateen sails, but now the boats built in Mandvi all use motors. As work was already finished for the day, we had a chance to roam around the site and even to go inside some of the boats. The area looked like a massive lumber yard, with enormous beams lying in piles surrounding the boats.  Walking along the river you could see how the boats were made, from the rough skeleton to the final finishing, sanding and tarring.  Some of these ships towered to a height of a three-storey building, and climbing on their rickety bamboo ladders and scaffolding was a heart-stopping experience.  It was worth it, however, as from the height of the deck of one of these finished giants, you could see the entire shipyard and all the way out to the open sea in the other direction.
The next morning we came back when work was in progress and were able to find out more about the building process from some of the workers, who are still predominantly Muslim.  Apparently, all boats start with a drawing made by an "architect", although none of them look like they do. The skeleton and ribs are made of naturally curving tree trunks, helped into the right form by the workers. Then the hull is constructed around the skeleton, with planks and beams made of Malaysian-imported wood of up to 15-20 meters in length. The workers were hardly using any heavy machinery - most of the work of shaping and fitting was done with little adzes and hand-held drills of type one might use at home to hang an IKEA shelf on the wall. The planks were first individually hand fit into the right place and then attached to the skeleton by means of meter-long screws.

While the work was in progress on the boats it looked like complete chaos, with jumbles of wood and bolts sticking out at odd angles, large groups of men hanging around "supervising" the one or two who were actually doing something and bus-length tree trunks being transported on flimsy looking handcarts. Once finished, however, the boats were sleek and perfectly symmetrical, worthy of braving the strongest storms of the Arabian sea. It is an amazing feat of craftsmanship - being able to construct such huge vessels with predominantly medieval techniques in the early 21st century, and still be in Business. Apparently, what was once a dying art has turned into a booming industry in the last ten years, and it looks like once again, the little port town of Mandvi is going to be on the map of commerce.

Most of these boats are pre-ordered by wealthy people in the gulf states.  It takes a team of 40 builders   about two years to complete one of these bigger boats, which would be able to carry up to150,000 tons.  Actually, this doesn't really mean much to us, as we have difficulty visualizing 150,000 tons of anything, but let's just say that when we moved to Montreal, the entire contents of our house and workshop inside the container were around 8 tons.  Once the wooden structure is finished, the boat is then towed across the ocean to its buyer, where it is them fitted with its engine(s) and electricity - apparently this is much cheaper to do abroad than in India. By now, the price of a boat is the question that must be on your minds.  Well, let's say that instead of buying a house in Montreal we could probably have afforded one of these babies... but then it would probably not have a motor, and we'd be stuck living is the (not very nice smelling) estuary in Mandvi.

Barfi: One of the things that was very difficult for us was the fact that a lot of tribal peoples don't particularly like to have their photos taken. On the other hand, nor do they try to take yours discretely (or not so discretely) with  their mobile phones. The bull in this photo also took offense to having his photo taken, calmly  walked up to Boaz and head butted him afterwards so that he would get the hint.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Touching the Untouchables

There was no mistaking the train to Bhuj.  When half the female passengers are wearing exciting, rather large, heavy-looking tribal jewelery, and their dresses are embroidered  with a million tiny mirrors, you know you are heading for an adventure. Bhuj, a medium-sized city, is the heart of Kutch (a.k.a Kachchh) a vast, semi-desert area which is home to myriad communities of tribal people. According to the state of Gujarat, Kutch is home to to 15 million people, of which 11 million live in 949 villages, only 60% of which are accessible by paved roads. The relatively flat grassland has always been good for grazing and attracted nomadic herders from Sindh, Afghanistan and beyond.  Rabari, Jath, Harijan and Ahirs are but few of the distinct groups who have settled in Kutch and maintain their unique lifestyles, traditional way of dress  and, of course, handicrafts. The area is mainly known for fine embroidery, but weaving, metalwork, block printing or wood carving are some of the other crafts that are masterfully executed here. Considering that our house is already a self-described "Ethnic Depot", we were thrilled by the thought of all of those handicrafts awaiting us.

Our key to this treasure trove of wonders was Mr. Pramod Jethi.  A local celebrity, and curator of the 18th century Aina Mahal (Mirror palace) Mr. Jethi is a one man tourist information office and an endless source of information about the area's history and traditions.  We spent many hours in pleasant conversation with him, eagerly absorbing all of encyclopedic knowledge of all things Kutchi. From embroidery to architecture, his family history to current affairs, Mr. Jethi is a fascinating person, and a wonderful story-teller.

Through him, we hooked up with Kishor and his all-terrain auto-rickshaw and headed off into the Indian "Wild West".  Our first stop was in Badaroi, a village that is half Rabari and half Harijan. We first had a saucer of tea (why wash more cups than you need to) and watched some local old men play a game with black and white pebbles and pieces of chipped pottery on a game board conveniently drawn in chalk on the bench of the bus shelter.  We had a great time watching the parade of moustaches and turbans, while they were having even more fun looking at two westerners trying to sip scalding tea from small, generously filled saucers.  It all looked so elegant when they did it, but really, if you ever plan on coming here we recommend trying this at home (preferably in the bath tub) before doing it in public.

We were then abducted by a group of Harijan women who insisted we had lunch at their house. They were very impressed by Kim's Indian attire and promptly invited her for a trial by fire of Indian-ness -  by testing her chapati-making skills.  She was invited to sit on the ground in the yard , surrounded by at least half the village and prove her domestic worthiness by making a round of chapatis on a wood fire.  They seemed impressed by her rolling technique, but laughed at her lack of control of the wood fire, and the fact that the smoke kept getting in her eyes. Harijan, or "Children of God" is the term coined by Gandhi for "untouchable" or "scheduled" castes. The Harijans of Kutch belong to the Meghwar tribe and, like pretty much everyone else in Kutch, are know for their beautiful and unique embroidery. After a simple lunch of chapatis, a potato dish and a deliciously fire-y mango pickle, we got down to the usual business of mehendi (this time for real), bindis, comparative jewelry and another saucer or two of tea. They definitely won in the jewelry competition, as their nose and earrings were solid gold discs the size of quarters and their silver anklets weighed at least 2 kg and looked like they had been hammered on for life.

Refreshed, fed, and decorated in henna, we pressed on.  We stopped at  some other villages, visiting a wood carver who was producing beautiful geometric designs without ever using a ruler and two groups of women doing intricate Ahir embroidery that takes months to complete.

As the heat of the day finally dissipated we came to our last stop, the block printing workshop of Dr. Ismail Khatri.  The Khatri family have been in this line of work for the last eleven generations.  The name "Khatri" means "Master of colours", and these people are indeed the masters.  Using only vegetable dyes and intricate developing and fixing processes, they produce the most amazing, colourfully printed fabrics.  Entering their large inner yard we were shown an series of large bubbling cauldrons, vats and tanks containing dyes made of indigo, pomegranate peel, madder root and henna.  Off to the side, a large barrel contained a dangerous-looking cocktail made of  rusty old pipes, water and jaggery (unrefined cane sugar).  This was iron oxide, used to make black through a chemical reaction.

Our guide for this tour was the 27 year old Sufiyan, who, together with his brother, now runs the business. The real magic, however, happens over six long tables in a cavernous back room, where the fabrics are pinned and hand printed with remarkable precision. There are at least  three different blocks for each pattern, and they need to be placed exactly over the same place on the cloth.  To do this they first mark the entire length of cloth (about 10m) with a line by using an ingenious system of twanging a chalk loaded string pinned to two end points. This is their point of reference for the entire printing process. After completing the actual printing, the visible colours are still surprisingly monochromatic- different shades of beige and brown. The transformation of this into the rainbow of colours typical to Ajrakh printing comes through the natural reactions of the various dyes with a series of mordents and fixers, a process involving up to sixteen different washes.

We were so excited by what we had seen that we got invited back to visit again, an offer which we eagerly accepted, since we needed a good nights sleep to decide on all the different fabrics, scarves and other items we wanted to buy. We also got along very well with Sufiyan, and spent a rainy afternoon at his workshop watching the workers scurry to and fro to bring in all the cloth that had been drying in the field before the rain shower. Since we were stuck there until the storm let up, we ended up with more than twenty meters of cloth.

Sufiyan mentioned that monsoon time was perfect weather for chicken tandoori and invited us to join him and friends at their favourite road-side chicken stall.  If you have ever traveled in India, the words "chicken" and "roadside" in the same sentence should send shivers down your spine.  However, as Sufiyan and his friends looked rather healthy, we decided to trust our local guides.  Once we got there, however, they didn't seem so sure if this was such a good place for us any more, and asked repeatedly if we wanted to eat in the car.  Picture this: in the midst of a dilapidated neighbourhood, under a corrugated tin roof,  is a guy with a large oil vat over an open fire on a four-wheeled pushcart,  frying vivid orange morsels of chicken.  Behind him, about 20 men are seated on plastic chairs, surrounded by cows, dogs, cats and a million flies, all waiting for a piece of the action.  Now try to imagine a nice western lady amidst all that, and you can understand why the possibility of eating in the car was all of a sudden so attractive to our friend. Sitting at that table, with all those guys, however, turned out to be very comfortable.  Because of our local friends no one bothered us, asked us our name, walked up and shouted "HI!" or pestered us for a "country coin". Sufiyan ordered plate after plate of the piping hot orange chicken, and even though we were unable to keep up with our hosts, we had to agree that this was a very nice way to pass a rainy afternoon.

Kutch and its people are so beautiful, that we went a little crazy with the photos.  There is a lot more to see in our picasa album.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

"Would you like us to arrest some one?"

We have been really terrible about keeping you all posted in the last week, but we have been kept busy with a series of mis-adventures. As you can probably guess from the title, one of them required a trip to the local police station!

It all started while we were writing our last blog entry, which was done from a little cafe during a torrential rain storm that started about two minutes after we logged on. We were extremely pleased with ourselves for having avoided it and spent the three hours of heavy rains in the safety of the internet cafe. When we returned to our hotel, it turned out that our room was not as lucky as we had been. Just that afternoon the owner had told us that the week before the hotel had been completely flooded after the rains and we could hardly believe it. When we got into our room that evening we discovered our backpacks floating in about ten centimeters of suspicious looking water, thus destroying our plans for a quiet evening at home. It was the time to experience being a dhobi-walla as we had to wash every single item of clothing we had with us by handand string them up around the coutyard of the hotel. As if that weren't enough, we discovered that at some point during the last three days, half of our traveler's cheques and a bit of cash had gone missing. Traveler's cheques can be replaced easily... or can they? In India the answer is; we hope you have a backup plan.

For the benefit of our loyal readers we will enumerate the necessary steps:
1. Spend about an hour looking for an "All-India" STD (no, that's not a disease, it's a type of phone connection).
2. Locate a trusty-looking Indian guy who happens to have a quiet office nearby and ask to make a phone call on his mobile.
3. Call the "toll-free" (10 rupees/minute) hotline. It won't work, try the other number too.
4. Wait to get connected (20 minutes).
5. Talk the representative, answer lots of seemingly irrelevant questions, get disconnected.
6. Repeat steps 3-5, answering different irrelevant questions this time.
7. Try to spell "Flute Maker" three times while the other guy in the room yells on his second mobile phone.
8. get a confirmation number (repeated five times, that other guy is still yakking on his cell a meter away from you).
9. Copy your passport, your receipt for the cheques if it's not water-logged (or left at home) and send it along with a "Police Report" by fax.

Ah, yes, the police report. Now if calling the help-line seemed like a simple task, wait until you hear about acquiring a police report.

Back at the hotel, the helpful manager explained how this works. First, you take several sheets of paper and fold about a third of it over for "police comments". Then you write the report yourself (addressed to the "Police Inspector") in the comfort of your hotel room and head down to the station with it. The station is exactly what you'd expect a sleepy local police station in India to be. Two desks, a Sergent with a big belly and a glorious mustache, a friendly female officer, a very important "head inspector" who's never there, and about ten other guys that seem to just hang around minding other people's business. Oh yes, and one officer (the alleged "Head Inspector"?) sleeping on a desk in the back room. And by on the desk, we don't mean with his head on the desk, we mean he was lying on it. Needless to say, no one really spoke English, but the female officer was trying her best, and the moustatioed Sergent was smiling. A lot. Eventually they understood more or less what we wanted - just a stamp and some serious looking "Police comments" on our margin and we would be on our way. After much discussion in Marathi (none of which Kim could follow), a phone call was made, judging by the amount of "Sir", to a higher ranking officer, and the phone was handed over to Boaz. A mysterious voice (the Inspector?) asked " What would you like us to do? Would you like us to arrest some one? Should we visit the hotel and pick some one up?" Thinking of the nice Gujarati brothers running our hotel, we had to decline. Having this once in a lifetime chance, we really tried to think of some one we might like to have arrested, but no one in Auranagabad came to mind. Much relieved that no one would need to leave the station, everyone got down to the paperwork. Everything was copied into three different police logbooks in Marathi (providing much debate on how to transliterate our names and address on "rue Marie-Anne est"). While all this was happening, the moustached Sergent chased away three girls who had their phone stolen, yelling at them that he was a busy man with better things to do.
But enough about that... we still haven't faxed it because the number was wrong... we'll keep you posted. But this was just the start. The following four days were a series of mishaps. We had our fair share of stomach issues, managed to throw up in the garbage can of a UNESCO world heritage site, got on a train that took us back to Mumbai instead of Baroda, Gujarat, about 500km to the north, discovered that it is impossible to book any train tickets on a Sunday evening, spent the night in a tight, smelly, humid, overpriced hotel room. The stomach problems continued, but luckily we had bought the "econo-pack" of Immodium. To entertain ourselves in our dark hours, we were trying to come up with an entertaining name for the opposite of a laxative. We would love to hear some of your suggestions. We have been trying to reverse this bad Karma by giving some money to any and every Saddhu/deformed beggar/poor lady by the mosque or temple/child who's probably a part of a begging ring. It seems to have helped, because a few days later, we finally found our lost paradise.

The lofty hill of Pavagadh rises 800m out of the surrounding plains. It is a jagged piece of rock with 5 plateaus believed to be formed when the toe of the goddess Kali fell from the sky. It is now a very important pilgrimage site, and people from all over central India come to pay their respects to the goddess. The mountain is covered with lush vegetation and teems with life. Swarms of butterflies (some the size of small birds) and huge dragonflies drift through the evening air. Gangs of naughty monkeys are lying in wait for travelers with exposed snacks and herds of centipedes make barefoot walking, even inside the hotel, precarious. The State of Gujarat's Department of Tourism was kind enough to build a neat little hotel in the middle of all this, with a balcony to see the view and watch the action. The highlight was a peacock strolling on the opposite roof first thing in the morning, just as the first rays of sun were cutting through the mists covering the mountain side. City slickers that we were, we didn't even know that they could fly...

We stayed there for one jasmine-scented night and the next morning explored the ruined city of Champaner, which lies at the bottom of the hill. The ruins, now a world heritage site, consist of several deserted pre-Moghul mosques. The site covers a large area, and some of the more remote mosques are quite hard to find and are hardly ever visited. After wading through through a labyrinth of small tracks in a wooded area, we finally found one of the more remote ones. e therefore were surprised to see a young Indian couple arrive on a motorbike several minutes later. They seemed to know exactly how to find it and were rather embarrassed to find other people there. The couple quickly disappeared into the darker recesses of the mosque. Now, that's what we call romantic!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Don't let the bed bugs bite!

So we have decided to go back to India.  What can we say, we are simply addicted.  Given the choice between spending the summer in Montreal, looking for windows, electricians, foundation cracks and mould resistant paint versus going to India, we chose the less practical route and went to India.  The new house will still be there in September. It's difficult to say WHY exactly we are addicted. While debating whether or not to come to India, we reminisced about all the things we missed about it. While trying to let practicality reign, we also came up with a list of all the things we weren't as fond of. Neither list was short, but we will share some of the highlights with you.
 We will start with the smells.  For everyone, India is an olfactory adventure, it's just that not everyone likes it. Landing in Mumbai, your nose is hit by the undeniable presence of the world's largest slum. We don't want to know what exactly it is, but for us this smell says "welcome to Mumbai". What we dearly missed is the way the streets smell when you go out for your breakfast first thing in the morning - a combination of incense, cooking fires and great food,  with dark undertones of open sewage, rotting banana leaves and diesel fumes.  It a unique mix, and believe us, we really did miss it. 

The other thing we missed was "slow travel" India-style.  Getting on a ramshackle bus together with eighty other people for a five-hour ride that covers about seventy kilometers.  It may not be the most efficient way of traveling, but it's a great experience.  Hawkers selling delicious snacks and drinks keep going on and off the bus, complete strangers become your best friends and everyone always cooperates in order to squeeze just one more person (and their belongings) into the over-crowded vehicle.

India is full of surprises, and the unexpected always seems to happen to willing travelers. Usually this ends up being fun, or at least makes a good story, but sometimes it can be downright annoying. Case in question:  when stepping out into the streets of Mumbai on our first day we were amazed at how quiet the place was.  Streets that are normally traffic-congested were bare and devoid of a single psychotic taxi driver, all the shops and restaurants closed and barred, and not a single street vendor to be seen. After much debate about which day of the week it really was (the result of  jet-lag and a flight that spanned 3 calendar days) we realized that something was up. After reading the local paper, we learned that there was a general strike, organized by the opposition, to protest fuel hikes and inflation. Wary of Shiv Sena activists, most Mumbaikars chose to spend the day either at home or at a nearby hill station, rather than risk going to work.

Another thing with which we have a love/hate relationship is  hotels.  A mandatory feature is a ceiling fan that whirs like a helicopter, keeping you cool at night but often seeming about to fly off it's moorings. On one hand, hotels can be cheap and cheerful, relatively clean and run by very friendly people who give you good advice on local sights. On the other hand, if you get the wrong bed, you might end up being the feast for the resident bed-bugs and fleas, who are more than happy to have you stop by! On our first morning in India, Boaz was welcomed with an armful and a legful of tiny little bites that itched like anything. When confronted with the problem, hotel management sent a "boy" (who was actually a fully grown man of 40) armed with a large canister of isecticide to fight the little vermin. Despite half a bottle of nasty chemicals, the next morning was worse, prompting us to leave before spending another night there!

Kim has spent the last couple of months learning Marathi in her spare time. As her spare time was somewhat limited, her Marathi is somewhat basic, but still endlessly entertaining for the locals.  "Mi marathi shikte" (I am learning Marathi) is her usual opening phrase, followed by "madji marathi tsangala nahi ahe" (my Marathi isn't very good).  This never fails to reward her  with huge smiles, free cups of chai, bindis, bangles and new friends.  We spent our 8-hour train ride from Mumbai to Aurangabad making friends with a very sweet 12-year old girl and her parents, who proudly passed Kim's Marathi notebook around the whole car, drawing in a crowd gawking at the miracle of a Marathi-speaking gora (foreigner). If you are a tall, blonde woman, the downside to spending a long train ride with a 12 year old girl is that you are treated like an over sized doll. After everyone had done "mehendi" to one another with a ball point pen, tried on each other's jewellery, and had their nails painted a ghastly sparkly pink, we told a blatant untruth and claimed not to have any make-up with us...

For those anxious about our whereabouts, we are currently in Aurangabad (Maharashtra), exploring the world heritage sites of Ajanta and Ellora in the rain. Cave temples figure prominently on our "like" list, and it's a perfect pass time for a rainy afternoon. Today, we heard that there was a weekly market in town and asked our hotel owners for directions. They told us that we were mistaken, this was not "our kind of market" and would feature a plethora of colourful people from the surrounding villages, selling vegetables, livestock, kitchen wares and street snacks. What we should do instead was go to a different Bazaar, which was for "lavish" people (such as ourselves) where we could buy mobile phones, Benetton sweaters, and eat pizza. Guess which one we chose....you can see the photos on picasa.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Forgotten drinks

Elixir et boissons retrouvés, 3ème édition Kim has a new hobby: inspired by a book found on an occasional prowl through the delightfully vast cooking section of the Bibiliothèque Nationale du Québec, she came across an interesting little book. Elixir et boissons retrouvés is a charming tome that has a wonderful combination of old-fashioned aperitifs, liqueurs, infusions and syrups, interspersed with charming old labels. If, like us, you have ever wanted to make your own Absinthe, Pastis or Crème de Cassis (and you can read French), this is the book for you. Our house has turned into a depository/laboratory/herbarium, with strange ingredients such as Artemisia, Winter Savoury, Gentian root, Angelica and dried artichoke leaves turning up in surprising corners of the house, or hanging on rustic-looking ropes, drying above the heater. You could easily mistake this for a witch’s lair...

Yes, we have always liked drinking strange things, as long as they are tasty. Cynar, the Italian artichoke aperitif, is one of our favourite drinks, so it was only natural for us to develop and invest in this new hobby. Making drinks at home is an unfortunately forgotten art, although it was once common in many places. We have friends in France who said that in their village people used to bring their surplus fruit to be distilled by the local distiller. We tasted some of their plum eau-de-vie and it certainly was good! Now, even France has been known to put a stop to this age-old tradition by requiring people to have licences for distilling. It is really too bad that such a beautiful centuries-old tradition can be so easily lost. Most of the drinks in this book, however, do not require anything as exciting, dangerous, blindness-inducing or - at least in Canada, blatantly illegal. All it requires are some simple ingredients found in most homes (or gardens/specialty shops), like red or white wines, eau de vie (or vodka if you don't have it), and whatever flavours with which you wish to infuse them.

The aperitif that we would like to share with you was inspired by (but doesn't actually come from) this book. It is for a rosemary red-wine based aperitif and it is, in our humble opinion, rather delicious. Actually we have a new blog policy that if we get more than two requests for a recipe we will blog about it, and we received several requests for this one. At the beginning, we were rather skeptical, and worried about wasting a perfectly good bottle of wine. But this concoction, when served to family and friends is sure to bring much praise and admiration. So, without any further ado- the recipe!

Rosemary Aperitif

75 grams rosemary
750 ml (1 bottle) of red wine
75 grams of sugar
one small glass of rum (approximately 1/3-1/2 cup)

1. Macerate (soak) the rosemary in the red wine for four days.
2. Strain, mix in the sugar and rum.
3. Put in a bottle.

Obviously, the recipe is simplicity itself. A few tips:
-It is best to get wine with a screw top, then you can use the bottle to store the aperitif.
-Do not macerate the rosemary in the wine bottle, otherwise it will be hard to get all the bits out. The best is to put it in a glass pitcher with a cover, as it may be hard to get the taste out of plastic.
-While putting it back in the bottle (using a funnel or something with a spout for pouring) don't forget that because you added the rum you now have more liquid than will fit in the bottle!
-The drink mellows out as it matures, the first few days it is quite strong, and after a week it has toned down a bit.

And if you were wondering who helped with the styling of "randomly scattered" rosemary in the  the photo above, here is a hint: