Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Pink City

Jaipur: the famed Hawa Mahal

After a nights rest in Jodhpur at a beautiful albeit slightly neglected guesthouse called Dewi Bhavan, we continued our journey East to the pink city, otherwise known as Jaipur. I may not have heard much about Jaisalmer and Jodhpur before the trip but everyone knows about Jaipur. The romantic city tinted with pink, where one can buy the most beautiful gems and of course the gorgeous Hawa Mahal. Hawa Mahal is translated to Palace Of Winds (not of the gastrointestinal sort) and stands in the middle of old city looking down at one of many bazaars in Jaipur. Its a little tough writing about this place. To be honest, I was very underwhelmed. I've seen really amazing photographs and standing in front of it was a bit of a anti climax actually. When I got home to look at the photos, it looked amazing! I guess its just one very photogenic building. Don't get me wrong, it was very beautiful but it just wasn't what I expected at all. My favourite monument here was City Palace mainly for a beautiful courtyard that had doors representing the four seasons. They were intricate without being gaudy and the colours look as vivid as the bright saris of Rajasthani women.

Jaipur, from left to right: the beautiful and intricate doorways at Ridhi Sidhi Pol in City Palace. Four doors for four seasons. Ganesh against the gorgeous green shades representing Spring. I'm pretty sure the peacock represented Monsoon season but then I was too busy snapping shots to really pay attention to the audio guide.

Jantar Mantar was a blazing hot day and I regret not hiring the services of a guide. I couldn't really appreciate these gargantuas instruments of astronomy as I literally could not figure out the heads nor tails of these phenomenal structures. Superficially, they were also quite ugly as they've been painted over from their original sandstone colour. Nasty. The following day we made it to the Amber Fort. It was massive and again, mystifiying by the sheer scale. There are actually three forts but we only made it to the "newest" wing. We were a little tired by this time. I liked the crazy mirror inlays that created a glittery hall. There is a railing around the walls and you can't enter the main chamber anymore because people kept nicking mirrors off the wall. By this time all I really wanted to do was go shopping and drink chai. When we got back into the old town, we wandered around looking for gems and also the famous sweet shop called LMB. LMB stands for Lakshmi Mishthan Bhandar and it is quite an institution. Not only can you get a huge array of sweets to appease the most insatiable of sweet tooths, its also a hotel! Its an amazing double shot lot. The moment you walk in you are hit with the unmistakable scent of oil and sugar. Not the most unpleasant of smells. I'm not an expert on Indian sweets so I just picked a whole assortment of them. They were all so sweet, creamy and rich. These must be the only sweets that I can't eat a lot of.

Jaipur, from left to right: colourful canned goods and dried herbs and vegetables; bright disco-looking sweet shop; delicious treats from LMB - in my haste to buy all the goodies, I forgot to snap a picture of the shop!

Our hotel is a converted old manor called Diggi Palace. And palatial would be a good way to describe this old mansion with its sprawling lawns. It reeks of faded glamour and old money. The rooms are a little tired but I feel it just adds to the charm. In the mornings there are even pea hens strutting about. We spent two nights here and ate the best naans ever! They were always crisp and fresh. Whats the English translation for "soong" (loose) and "song how" (joyful mouth)? Well, that would be the best way to describe the delicious naans. The thalis were delicious too of course. The Diggi family lives in the adjoining building and we even got to see "Lord Diggi". We assumed him to be the lord of the manor as he has a distinguished air around him. Plus, people constantly flocked towards him. Diggi Jr was a friendly chap who came and came to join us for drinks one night. He shared with us two wonderful bits of information. One, where to buy the best cottons for a pittance. Two, a monument located nearby which turned out to be the highlight of my Jaipur experience.

Jaipur, from left to right: block printing is famous in Rajasthan; the slightly surreal Jantar Mantar; glittery mirrored hall at Amber Fort

Chand Baori is a 10th century stepped well located in the village of Abhaneri about 95kms from Jaipur and located off the road to Agra. It served as the local watering hole for the villagers as well as the Kings public swimming pool on hot acrid days. There are many stepped wells around and although they are not unique to Rajahstan, this one is quite spectacular. Imagine an inverted pyramid with multiple steps forming "V"s all way down. All 20 metres of it. I felt a little dizzy when I was standing at the edge. The sheer scale of it was amazing. As we sat in the shaded stone pavilion, I couldn't help but think "If I fell down, I would hit every step on the way and die a horrible death". Yes, it was just that and nothing deep and meaningful really.

p.s/ I forgot to mention that we stopped in Pushkar after we left Jodhpur. Not only were we conned into some faux spiritual blessing by the lake in a temple, we were also forced to "donate" X amount of money in "Euro, USD or Sterling" preferably. These people who called themselves Brahmins should be ashamed of themselves. We were just walking along and a stranger comes up and gives us flowers. Please do not accept them and walk away, quickly! We stupidly followed them to a temple by the lake and we were split up to do individual blessings because "your destiny is not mixed with others". Halfway through, they start asking how much I wanted to donate. After I told him Rp1000 he insisted that it wasn't enough and demanded for at least USD100. And after all that, at the end of it, they asked for more money to feed their families. Disgusting! If you are thinking about visiting Pushkar, don't waste your time. Its nothing but a hippy town thats full of tourists looking for an alternative Goa.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Raju And His Magical Kitchen - Jaisalmer Part Two

There was once a boy named Raju. He lived high up in the Himalayas and spent most of his days herding his flock of mountain goats. One day, while chasing a stray goat, he chanced upon a little hut. There was a wondrous smell floating all round the hut. It was exotic, familiar, sweet and spicy all at once. Raju was enchanted and he hurried into the hut. A little old lady was bent over the stove that was brimming with copper pots filled with exotic ingredients and the aroma made Raju dizzy with pleasure. "Ah, you have finally arrived my dear boy. I have waited for you for a very long time", the old lady chuckled. And that my friends, was how Raju came to acquire all the secrets of the magical kitchen.

Raju and his magical kitchen (the one in the white singlet)

It was sad to say goodbye to Mr Merchu, Osman and the camels but we were excited to continue our journey. Mahinder got us back to the fort in one piece. What a sweetheart. Ashvind greeted us at the guesthouse and we were ushered to our rooms for a much needed shower. Rafs and I got the "love den". Thats what we figured anyway because there were mirrors everywhere, and I mean everywhere. While we were lazing about in the room, little did we know that our friends already were up at the rooftop restaurant. Rafs and I got there just in time. Not long after we sat down, the thalis arrived. Oh. My. God. Was I dead? Had Balu sat on me last night? Surely this must be heaven. Long grain rice had been fried with ghee and cumin to make deliciously aromatic jeera rice. I could've eaten this alone. Well maybe with some soy sauce and fried egg. The dahl was creamy, chunky and moreish. Deep-fried vegetable pakoras were basted in thick tomato masala sauce and of course, stir-fried ker sangri. We had only tasted ker sangri once before at Ratan Vilas but I can safely say that this had to be what it should taste like. Words cannot do justice to the food that we ate at Desert Boy's rooftop restaurant. It was as if I had arrived home. It was to be the most delicious meal of the entire trip. We made friends with the kitchen crew (Puran, Raju and Sanjay) and they promised to give us a cooking lesson that night. 

Jaisalmer, left to right: weaving through the alleys within the fort; a "tourist tailor" - within 24 hours; the view from Chandu's rooftop 

Revived from the shower and fantastic meal, we set off to explore the sights around the fort. We didn't get very far. Weaving through the narrow alleys, we couldn't help but stop and enquire about the array of colour goodies on display. Next thing we knew, we were in the shop trying on stacks and stacks of clothing while sipping chai and chatting with the shopkeepers. They are all very friendly and seem genuinely interested in chatting. Time passes slowly in the desert so I guess everyone likes to sit down, drink chai and talk. I don't how many cups of chai we drank that day. I do know that we lost Dween quite early on and the three of us spent the next 4 hours enjoying the "sights" within the shops! Silk blouses for under RM30, cotton bias-cut dresses for RM25, camel leather bedroom slippers for around RM30... Is it any wonder we forgot all about the sights?! After that shopping frenzy, we had a quick drink at Chandu's. Chandu is Kamal's brother. Kamal is a shopkeeper that Ah Boo bought some block-print dies from. From what we gathered, the more successful shopkeepers usually have a relative operating another shop in the vicinity. Chandu sat with us on the roof and talked about his upcoming wedding. He showed us a picture of his fiance. Wot a babe! We congratulated him, told him he was a lucky man and off we went to attend our cooking lesson. Puran was very animated when we arrived because we were late. He even made Dween chop onions on our behalf! Rafs and I quickly sat ourselves in the kitchen and played close attention to the master. There were no measurements or descriptions, we just watched Raju weave his magic. From what I understand, there was pinch of almost every spice under the sun! Pinch of turmeric, chili, masala, coriander... Voila, dinner was served! Jeera rice with spicy lady's fingers, stir-fried gourd and creamy dahl. Of course, piping hot and delicious capati by capati master Sanjay. 

Jaisalmer, from left to right: thali from heaven; oh my gourd - I still don't know the name of this vegetable; Raju - he is quite shy, ah bless him!

When Rafs and I woke up the next morning, all we could think about was breakfast! Puran was aghast once again at how late we were. We had said 7:30am but we only arrived an hour later. He is a sweet man who fusses like an uncle would over his nieces. A few minutes later, our platters of puri bhaji arrived. Sweet, sweet puri! I was never fond of puri because they tend to be dripping in oil. This was perfectly crisp and dry (in the unoily sense). And the bhaji! I'm pretty sure I had died and gone to heaven. Oh, Rafs must have died too because she was there oohing and aahing with me over the mind blowing bhaji. I know, I would not have thought that I would ever describe bhaji as "mind blowing" but this clearly bowled me over. Rafs eyed my bowl greedily but all that was left that was half a puri. And only because I had ran out of bhaji. Sigh... It was the loveliest 10 minutes of our entire trip. Raju, oh Raju! We stretched the minutes at the lobby. None of us wanted to leave Jaisalmer. The people of Jaisalmer had us charmed. Finally, with much shuffling of feet, we hoisted our rapidly filling backpacks and went on our way.

NB: Rafs would like all of you to know that Raju belongs to her and they plan to marry soon.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Balu, The Renegade Camel - Jaisalmer Part One

Jaisalmer, left to right: picking up supplies at the fort before heading out to the desert; woman with child at a traditional mud village where we encountered the cheekiest kids; fascinated by the hard working dung beetle who left a little present on my mattress

It was exciting to be in Jaisalmer. The road leading to this desert city was a never ending landscape of sand dotted with desert shrubs. When we finally arrived at the fort, Mr Singh dropped us off at the entrance as vehicle access within the fort is restricted. We took a mad but enjoyable ride by tuk-tuk up the narrow cobbled stone lanes. Our driver never slowed down nor did he stop blaring his horn. Somehow, we managed to not run anyone over, narrowly missing them by an inch. Once we dropped our bags off at Desert Boy Guesthouse, we set off with Mahinder on his Mahindra Jeep. I can only say that the entire experience was surreal. Mahinder was a real lad who liked blaring Bhangra music. We suspected he might have been a little high but turns out he just dances to his own beat quite naturally. We snapped pictures, we ate gulab jamun, we laughed and tried to "hum" along to the music, it felt like we were in a movie or very long video clip. We met several locals on the way. Farmer Whip demonstrated his cracking skills with his rather lethal looking whip. We met the sweetest children with the most beautiful and cheeky faces. As usual, they asked for pens. All of us were penless by the time we were done with Jaisalmer. So do remember to stock up on pens before heading over to Rajasthan.

About an hour later, we finally arrived at the base. Shortly after, we hear the unmistakable sound of bells and the camel procession arrived. I suddenly had second thoughts about the camel ride. They looked even taller than I had imagined. Even though their faces were cute and friendly as hell, I knew better than to judge a book by its cover or a camel by this hump. After Mr Merchu and his assistant saddled them up, we all picked a camel each. They all looked about the same when kneeling and mine looked placid enough. Oh no, when they all stood up, Dween funnily enough had the shortest one. Vertigo set in as we were given minimal instructions and Balu The Brute lurched forward. I felt precarious in the saddle, there was nothing to hold onto, I was officially freaking out. Do camels buck? Balu The Beast stomped his way in front and chose his own path, which was straight towards food. I could not for the life of me make the lug move. He was not even scared of Mr Merchu so what chance did I have? Once I made peace with that, Balu The Cutie and I got on quite well. He'd stop many times to eat and the rest would follow suit. He even raced towards a tree only to scratch his neck. Ah Balu, a camel of simple needs. Lots of food and a good scratch. As soon as we got near the camp site, they made a break for it. Balu got there first of course. Mahinder was already waiting there for us. 

Jaisalmer, from left to right: breathtaking sunrise; the watermelon that wasn't quite a watermelon - the best part of the fruit is where the seeds are and that has a texture of a watermelon but the taste of a honeydew. I threw away the seed bits as I assumed the best part was the pale green area. Duh; sweet Jettah - Rafs and I swapped camels as she wanted to ride the wild beast. Jettah was so graceful when he knelt, I barely moved.

I thought it would be like the sahara - endless sand dunes in a barren desert. The desert in Rajasthan is fertile. Our camp site was actually someone's farm. We met the children as they came running along quite soon after we arrived. They seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. Once again, pens were requested. Dween parted with his gorgeous water bottle to the eldest of the four. This little boy walks for more than 10km to go to school everyday. When he comes home, its in the scorching heat. I made a vow to drive less and walk more when I got back to KL. We "set up" camp which involved lining up a couple of mattresses on the sand. Five minutes later, we were done and were able to enjoy the sun setting over the vast landscape before us. Rafs convinced us to lie down on the sand. It was an unbelievable feeling. The sand was warm, the sky was on the fringe of darkness and a deafening silence filled the air. It was a little eerie and overwhelming not to be able to hear my own breath. 

That night, Mahinder and Mr Merchu whipped up a mean dinner. Long grain rice, fresh chapati, dahl, vegetables and he even made dessert! I couldn't make out what it was but it tasted like sweet potato. Amazing! I mean, we were in the middle of the nowhere and all he had was a pen knife, some pots and fresh ingredients we had bought earlier. Chapati is staple in the north and its easy to make. After all, there we were sitting on the sand dunes enjoying piping hot roti. Mahinder made sure we had enough to eat. We had seconds and could've gone for thirds but we knew they weren't going to eat until we were done. I wish I had remembered to take a photo but alas, all was forgotten when hunger struck and the smell of food filled my senses. Mr Farmer Man came to join us around the fire. We learn that he has a total of seven children. He is a busy man! After our bellies were full of happiness, we lay on our mattresses and watch Qutub (a cute dog who came to camp with us, I think he belongs to Mr Farmer Man and his family) hunt for scraps. He sure likes his dhal and roti! It was a full moon and in the open landscape it felt oddly bright. How do you turn off the moon to go to sleep? I must confess, we did not sleep well. It was warm, cool, warm, cool and worst of all, insects. A bug found solace in my ear while Ah Boo and Dween were both bitten by some sort of beetle but its a small inconvenience for a phenomenal experience. The last thing I heard was the tinkling of the camels being led away for dinner. Oh Balu, you rascal... 

Monday, October 06, 2008

Just One Ta-Dah!

Weeks before the trip, my friends and I made Caring pharmacy very happy by buying all kinds of drugs for various scenarios. Mild, medium, severe food poisoning. Indigestion. The kind that repeats on you and one for repercussions caused by gluttony. Anti-histamines and Cataflam just in case. Panadol, yup. Water sterilisation tablets, check. "Do you need antibiotics too?", the pharmacist asked. No, I think I'm all set. Better safe than sorry I always say. Theres nothing worse than getting food poisoning when you are travelling. But you know what, apart from very mild diarrhea, none of us got to use any of our drugs. Apart from the water sterilisation pills. And even that we gave up on a few days into our trip. Who wants to keep drinking swimming pool water right? We never drank from the tap but we had plenty of chai from street vendors. Moral of the story, we are Malaysians and the mamak stalls here ain't any cleaner.

Jodhpur, left to right: Details of a tiny window at the marbled Jaswant Thada; posing by the doorway of Jaswant Thada - does his silhouette look familiar?; view of the blue houses from one of the many balconies at Mehrangarh Fort. 

So after a very, very long train ride (12 hours), we arrived in Jodhpur. City of blue houses and jophurs. Ask someone where to buy jodphurs and they will look at you funny. Jodhpuri pants would be the correct term. Otherwise, point at the nearest tourist. Highly likely they would be wearing jodhpurs or the even more popular, cotton ali-baba pants. We have two pairs each! Outside the train station was a hub of activity. And strange smells. Mr Singh whisked us into his Toyota Qualis and off we went to our hotel, Ratan Vilas. Its a quiet oasis in the centre of the dusty city. It had the old charm of Lone Pine, minus the beach of course. We had a quick shower and went off to enjoy the sights. First stop, Jaswant Thada which is a beautiful marble cenotaph located near Mehrangarh Fort. Dween is convinced that this majestic memorial was featured in The Darjeeling Limited and I think he is right. Its a magnificent building and it was definitely one of our favourite monuments of the trip. Perhaps it helped that there were very few tourist then and the sky was a vivid blue. 

At the Mehrangarh Fort, we got a great view of the entire city with its rows and rows of blue houses. I sat there, in the "vip lounge" which was a room with a fantastic view especially for people who had opted for an audio guide. That was me! My travelling companions were avid photographers who were preoccupied with their SLRs. My compact camera and I met many audio guides on the trip. It was incredibly hot and we were quite dehydrated without even realising it. You know your body is crying for water when we drink bottles and bottles and we don't need the toilet. After that peaceful tour we were taken to the first of many tourist traps organised by the tour. We were first brought to a three-story shop lot selling all kinds of soft furnishing. By KL standards, the prices were okay but we would learn later that we paid far to much for very mediocre merchandise. We then went to a spice shop and bought more things at inflated prices! That night we enjoyed a very mediocre meal at Ratan Vilas. I think they made some sweet and sour paneer especially for us. Yes, it was like eating bad Chinese food. However, we did get to try ker sangri which is can only be found in Rajasthan. Its a bean like vegetable that grows only in the desert. The beans and buds are dried. The texture is a little like enoki mushrooms but the taste is mildly earthy and sweet. After breakfast the following day, we journey West on a 6 hour car ride to Jaisalmer.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Delhi In A Bite

Old Delhi, left to right: one of the many alleyways leading to our hotel; market right outside the previous alleyway - boy selling melons; a common sight- chai stall. 

I'm back! I just spent 12 glorious days travelling around Rajasthan. I was vegetarian for most of the trip and am utterly convinced that I could live on Indian vegetarian forever. The thalis are just so delicious that I felt completely satisfied after each meal. Ah, I miss the morning pooris, sweet spicy chai, and Diggi Palace's excellent naan. Everyone is surprised by my positive review of India. They always crinkle their nose before asking "So how was it?" Everything that you have heard about India are both true and false. When everyone keeps telling you how nasty and dirty Delhi is, combined with reading too many kwai loh guide books, I started to believe that I was doomed to die a violent death from food poisoning or sheer dirtiness! If you think about how populated Delhi is, over 20 million and growing, it is relatively clean compared to Kuala Lumpur. Sure they are some nasty bits but as a tourist, you never really get to see it unless you make a point to go looking for it. As for feeling overwhelmed by the masses, I didn't quite feel it. Oh wait, only when travelling in a precarious tuk-tuk. Talk about too close for comfort! Hats off to Indian drivers. They are true masters of the road. And I say that with all sincerity. Not only do they have to navigate the countless potholes, there are added obstacles in the form of other vehicles swerving violently to avoid unsuspecting animals (and sometimes people) lying in the middle of the road. I think its funny how so many of these cows are happily grazing on the greens growing on the divider oblivious to the chaos they are causing. So while the roads from town to town are relatively smooth, you can never drive over 80kph because something is always crossing the road. Billy goats, camels, cows, buffalos and the occasional elephant. Our driver Mr Singh from Indian Holidays is a real champion. Thank you Mr Singh for bringing us back safely and not killing any animals on the way! 

The night that we arrived, our driver tells us that there had been a serial bomb blast an hour earlier. So the dusty sky we mistook for pollution wasn't really pollution at all. It felt unreal as everyone seemed quite indifferent. The following day, it was business as usual and the only signs of the bomb blasts that we could see was increased security and upturned bins near India gate (a few bombs were found in the bins and diffused in time). Navigating the pretty manicured streets of New Delhi on the first day of our tour was a far cry from the messy and narrow roads of Old Delhi. But where was the drove of beggars that I had heard so much about?There were a couple of children that came tapping on the window of our hired car but nothing like I had imagined. Maybe asian faces don't look as welcoming as mat salleh ones. There was one girl who was quite persistent. She was quite a contortionist. She was doing flips and splits in the middle of heavy traffic and no one even batted an eyelid. It is a sad sight to see especially when you look into their eyes and see where childhood innocence should be is a hard resilience instead. After a whirlwind of day of sightseeing, that evening we boarded the Mandore Express for a 12 hour ride to Jodhpur.

Delhi, from left to right: huge archway in heavy relief; golgappa stall Rps10 for 3 pieces (more on these addictive snacks later!); quiet moment at Jama Masjid

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Balik Kampung

And I'm back! Back from my hiatus, back from a fantastic trip from India and back on the bloggersphere for good. And just in time for a quick raya post. Thanks for all the encouraging comments while I was away. I would like to wish all our Muslim friends Selamat Hari Raya. May there always be delicious food on the table! Speaking of which, I was invited to Hunky's grandmother's house for festive cookies and soto ayam. Fat taugeh, rice, crisp golden shallots, pegedil, shredded fried chicken, spicy green chili paste and intensely aromatic broth to drown it in. Sublime! Ahhhh, its delicious to be back!