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Why I wouldn’t go back to Phnom Penh

The bus ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was fairly uneventful, the so called highway was nothing more than a never ending dusty stretch of land, and by the end of it, we were pretty glad that we hadn’t attempted to drive around on our own.

A short Tuk Tuk ride from the bus stand took us to our hotel, The Plantation. I had read rave reviews about this hotel, as one of the best places to stay in this city and I wasn’t disappointed. The hotel is really artistic, the staff is very friendly and helpful, the buffet breakfast is fantastic, and the spa, totally relaxing (we were offered a discount which I obviously availed 😛). But the absolute best part is the huge pool with cabanas along it’s length, where you can relax endlessly with your drinks and books, and when the sun gets too much, just walk down few steps and jump right into the pool!

The giant pool at The Plantation

The giant pool at The Plantation (the cabanas are on the left, you can somewhat see them here if you look closely)

The room

The pretty room overlooking the pool

I had two days in Phnom Penh which I spent mostly at the pool and spa in our hotel, visiting the Killing Fields, sampling amazing cuisine at Romdeng and Friends, buying souvenirs at the Russian market, walking across the waterfront and enjoying a meal at one of the local café’s right opposite it. While that sounds like quite a bit, I must be honest in admitting that I didn’t really enjoy Phnom Penh. It’s not a city that made any impression on me, at least not a positive one, which is exactly why I wouldn’t go back a second time.

I recall that on our first night we decided to have dinner at the very famous Romdeng, which wasn’t even a kilometer away, so we wanted to walk the route. Our hotel strongly discouraged us and asked that we take a Tuk Tuk since pick pocketing was common on the road. We didn’t pay heed, since it wasn’t too late in the night(8 pm) and presumably safe. While walking in a fairly well lit lane, we were followed by this guy on a bike, constantly circling around us and it did scare us a bit. We clutched our wallets and phones tightly and walked hasty steps till we reached the restaurant. And this wasn’t the only instance, all of which eventually led us to leaving our phones, cards (even my earrings behind) carrying only the minimum possible cash. This left me edgy and uncomfortable for the most part, and as a traveler that is pretty disappointing. I have also known of others who have experienced this – a friend who went to Phnom Penh on a work trip was elbowed by a guy on a bike and had her bag snatched. This was while she was walking with another colleague in broad daylight. She bravely held on to her bag and the bike guy had to let go.

I had a fantastic time in Cambodia but Phnom Penh was probably the only place in my entire trip where I didn’t feel safe and welcomed – it seemed like everyone from the Tuk Tuk driver, to the roadside vendor was out to rip us off.

Possibly the only thing that you may want to specially visit Phnom Penh for is the Killing Fields and Genocide museum. These are the biggest tourist draws to Phnom Penh, and while one may argue why such a place has been opened to tourists, I do think seeing these places will offer you an insight into Cambodian history like nothing else. It is said that every Cambodian today, over the age of 50 has witnessed and survived Pol Pot’s extreme regime, every family has experienced this horror.

I visited only the Killing Fields and I can tell you that it is definitely not an easy place to visit. Under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, nearly one third of the population was killed or died out of starvation. The killing fields were where these mass executions were carried out and one of these is now open to public viewing. Since bullets were expensive, people were killed by torture, slitting their throats by sharp leaves, hacked by hammers, rods or hung from trees. The “killing tree” was used to kill babies, by smashing their skulls on this tree. The experience is disturbing and horrific. During rains, many times skulls, bones and clothes rise to the ground surface even today. A giant stupa now acts as a memorial for all those who lost their lives and displays skulls and bones of the victims, which were recovered from the mass graves. It is unimaginable, chilling, painful.

We walked back in silence, the air still, heavy and foreboding, and skipped going to the Genocide Museum that day.

Cambodia is now opening up to tourists from all across the globe, but it is a country which is still getting back on its feet, one day at a time. In a warped way, I could make sense of my discomfort, understand why locals are always out to make an extra buck, why you need to be careful with your belongings lest someone snatch them – I can’t justify any of this, but I could understand it.Somewhat.

The memorial, Killing Fields

The memorial, Killing Fields

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Have you visited Phnom Penh? Would love to know of your experience in the comments section.

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2019 Travel Trends that I actually want to follow

I am not a trendy person, I will be honest. And as I age, my choices in food, fashion, lifestyle are veering more and more towards “going back to the basics”. So, I am surprised that I wanted to write this post. As the calendar rolled into 2019, and the internet was abuzz with forecasts of all kinds, I couldn’t help but enthusiastically nod yes on six trends in travel that I was already loving.

Travel reflects changing mindsets and culture, social and economics shifts. I grew up in Delhi in the 90’s and at its core, travel was about a large group of friends and family, hill stations and road trips in summers. Today, with greater disposable incomes, cheaper flights, options of bnbs, technology, a change in mindset and world views, people are travelling more than ever before. And the expectation from travelling is changing constantly.

Travel leaves an impact, not only on the traveler but also on the destination. And as travelers we need to be more conscious of that. I don’t think that there is any perfect way to travel, it’s all very personal, and it should be that. What is important though is to travel responsibly and respect local culture, peoples and the environment.

The trends this year are a strong reflection of the above – of changing expectations and a growing consciousness. So, it feels right to share these, maybe they will offer you some inspiration, maybe they will resonate with your ideas about travel, and you will also nod a yes 🙂 .

Multi-generation travel

Nuclear families with hectic lives find it difficult to meet their family members on a regular basis…and multi-generation travel is a great way to spend quality time.

Source – www.traveltrendstoday.in

The husband’s side of the family decided to start a yearly trip –spanning 3 generations and age groups from 3 to 70! To me, this seemed like a very complex idea – people like different things, one man’s meat is another man’s poison if you know what I mean. But surprise, surprise, the “tradition” is three years running now. And you know why? Because while differences will continue to exist, this is a wonderful way to bond and spend quality time, in a way that no meal or coffee allows for.

Travelling together with a group is something I grew up with, but as an adult, it fizzled out. Somewhere, I deliberately kept away because I wanted to do things my way and I gravitated only towards a select small group. There is absolutely nothing wrong in travelling solo or with a limited group, in fact it’s got amazing perks as well. Yet, a part of me has truly enjoyed the big group experience. It teaches you a lot of adjustment and patience, getting your way and giving in equally. And travelling with multiple generations actually makes for some very interesting perspectives, I found myself trying things that I wouldn’t have considered otherwise, even enjoying them. It adds a dimension to travel that makes for lot of stories and memories.

The Great Rann of Kutch worked wonderfully well for a large group.

Experiential Travel

There’s been growing demand around culinary travel, cultural exploration, and activity-based travel experiences for a number of years now. But the demand for experiential travel shows no signs of slowing down.

Source : skift.com

All travel is an experience, but for me, there is no better way to know a place than its food and every time I travel, I keenly scout for cooking classes, local café’s, food tours. I also love destinations that allow for sightseeing with long walks, bicycle tours, hikes, anything physical(that basically helps me digest food and get ready for the next meal 😀 ).

These options aren’t too hard to find today, all big travel agencies have tailormade experiences and if you search the internet, you will find smaller bespoke options. Even AirBnb has an “Experience” section which has some great options. Doing some cool experiences can be such an incredible add on to your trip and show you a totally new way to look at a destination. I was in Madrid for a work trip and extended it just by a day to see a bit of the city. I ended up taking a cooking class that I found on TripAdvisor, it was expensive and seemed a tad commercial but since I didn’t find a better option, I ended up going for it. It turned out to be such a fun experience, with a market tour and cooking with a varied group. It helped that we were chugging Sangria all along, but it was exciting to meet people from so many different countries, drink and chat over a self-made meal of Sangria, Gazpacho and Paella.

Cooking classes are a fun way to meet new people and bond over food.

Tackling Overtoursim

Tourism is growing year on year, and while people want to travel and explore, destinations may not have the required infrastructure to support this influx. If managed well, tourism can be great for local economy, but governments and authorities need to plan the eco-system better(which in my view doesn’t happen mostly, especially in developing nations). This article from CNN talks about  places, where overtoursim has had a negative impact on local flora, fauna, to the extent that the damage has been irreversible.

As a consumer it’s frustrating as well. You spend your hard-earned money and time on a place, only to be standing in queues, jostled or have a watered-down experience because there are just too many people. I remember I was in Kasauli, a hill station in Himachal Pradesh, on the Independence Day long weekend and there were just so many people and so much noise in this tiny quaint town that I vouched not to travel peak season or long weekends.

I decided to better my own research before finalizing on a place– sometimes there is a window of opportunity right outside the peak season when the weather is still right, but the crowds have started leaving and the costs have come down. This is the gold mine. If I am still travelling peak season, I make it a point not to stay in busy areas and definitely look for activities that don’t have involve crowds. I am not a big fan of exploring popular sites and museums so that makes it easier. As a traveller, I feel that it is your right to plan and enjoy your experience, and the responsibility of that is in your own hands. At the same time, we need to be more mindful and not leave a negative impact on the destination we visit. I was shocked and disheartened when I read about Leh, a stunning part of Jammu and Kashmir, now choking with overtoursim after it was popularized by the movie 3 Idiots. Cafes have been built to services tourists and photo opportunities created around Pangong lake, there is more construction but it’s unregulated in a region so ecologically sensitive and remote. This article by cntraveller was published in 2018 and shows how unplanned tourist influx can be extremely damaging. We all play a role in this, and we need to be mindful of that.

Tourists and locals at National Tulip Day, Amsterdam 2017

Rise of Responsible and Sustainable Tourism:

Every industry is undergoing sustainability reforms and have begun taking dedicated initiatives to reduce their carbon footprint. Travelers would prefer brands which provides human touch and social commitment to fulfilling environmental responsibilities.

Source : hindustantimes.com

I feel this movement is still in its infancy, but it is a positive one and in the right direction. I believe that anyone who travels, to whatever extent is privileged. Come to think of it, there are so many more pressing matters in people’s lives, and not everyone has the time, money or inclination to go on a trip. So, it is an absolute privilege to be able to travel. And I don’t want to misuse that privilege. Which means that I don’t want to be reckless, insensitive or dismissive about the impact travel creates. Part of it, unfortunately isn’t totally avoidable – whether it is catching flights or staying in hotels that aren’t exactly eco-friendly. Part of it is totally in my own hands – using an efficient means of transport to the extent possible like a bicycle or public transport, refilling water bottles and limiting plastic discard, not wasting food, trying to buy things from local artisans rather than high street stores, even if they are cheaper, eating local rather than at a fast food chain, staying in a bnb, there is so so much that everyone can do at an individual level. I am a firm believer that every drop adds to the ocean. We need to be willing to do our bit, even if it is small.

Handweaving at Bhujodi, Gujarat.

Micro Trips

2019 will be the year of ‘bite sized travel’ – squeezing in more curated travel itineraries into shorter time frames. Thanks to improvements in flight routes, transport, cheap flights, on-demand car rentals and accommodation, micro trips will become increasingly more popular and varied.

Source : Booking.com

I am dying to follow this one. 2018 was a year that travel slowed down for me. I moved back from Amsterdam and spent most of my energy settling my home, a new job and catching up with friends and family. While I did take a couple of trips, it felt like had I planned smarter, I would have been able to do a few more shorter ones. I was dying to go to the Sula Fest in February, Serendipity Goa in December, skiing in Gulmarg in March, but it just did not happen. I have this idea in my head that I need to travel for weeks on end and only then can I do a place justice, and it does make sense if you are taking a trip to another part of the world, but it’s also limiting since I work a full-time job.  There are a number of cool experiences, treks, tours, food trails, festivals that lends themselves extremely well to 3-4 days. With good planning, you can take advantage of long weekends and holidays. I want to do more of this in 2019, especially with busy lifestyles, jobs and commitments , this is a wonderful break to catch up with close friends and family and try something new.

Kayaking in Naukuchiatal, Uttarakhand

Healthy holidays are the new norm

We have entered the era of the healthy holiday, driven by young people who want to be sober enough to take a flattering selfie. But the staggering rise in wellness tourism – now worth $639bn globally and growing more than twice as fast as general tourism, isn’t just down to young people. Wellness resorts are targeting all ages, with holidays for every stage of life, from fitness stag dos to baby moons, mumcations and menopause retreats.

theguardian.com

There was a time in my life when a holiday meant indulgence and nothing else, and since I love food, my natural gravitation towards it on a trip meant that I wanted to try everything, at every meal for weeks on end. I was younger and my body dealt with it just fine. But towards my late twenties and now thirties, I realize that I don’t feel as good about it anymore. It isn’t a happy feeling when you feel sluggish and bloated, and it takes away from enjoying a place to the fullest. Even on a trip, specially on a trip, I like to get my hours of sleep, catch on books, eat local food, pace my drinks. While I haven’t specifically gone on a holiday with only wellness in mind, it is definitely something I want to do this year. India is a treasure trove of Yoga, Ayurveda and there are some wonderful resorts that are wellness inspired. Basically, the idea is to return home feeling rejuvenated and energetic, rather than feel exhausted and sleep deprived, isn’t it?

Path of Gods trek, Amalfi Coast, Italy

How have your travel choices evolved? What are you looking forward to doing more of in 2019? Would love to know!

 

 

 

 

Home is a feeling – Memoirs from Amsterdam

The Beginning

It was a cold windy Saturday morning in June as I stood in the taxi line at Schiphol, tired from the lack of sleep but full of nervous excitement for what lay ahead. After months of thinking about this move, then dealing with the paperwork and permit, I had finally arrived. My company had put me up in a service apartment and after checking in, I dumped my stuff and headed out to the nearest grocery store to buy some supplies. There was a slight drizzle and the air felt crisp after the Delhi summer heat, as I shuddered walking the 800 meters to the store, realizing that I should have unpacked my jacket first. I ought to be more careful, I thought to myself. It was my first day in a new country and the last thing I wanted to do was to get sick. Being on my own was already making me mindful about the trivial things.

I didn’t really get a chance to think about much that weekend, since P joined me from Germany. P, one of my closest friends was working in a town called Maine and decided to stay with me the weekend of my arrival. We were both new to Amsterdam, so we did what every tourist does – go to the Dam square. We walked around, ate Belgian fries with dollops of spicy mayo, checked out many shops, chugged some wine and chatted silly. I didn’t say it to P, but I was glad she was there, a familiar face in a new city.

I figured the best way to go to work on Monday was to take the subway, so I did, a little earlier than needed and was one of the first few to reach office. It was in Zuid, the Amsterdam district with very corporate-y vibes. My office was on the 20th floor of a skyscraper with glass windows till the ceiling and spectacular views of the city. It was love at first sight.

I got entrenched into work pretty quickly, but I still needed to get my own apartment. It was the first time I was living on my own and I was excited to spend every single free moment before work, at lunch, after work and weekends to viewings, to find the right place. I wanted to stay in the city and not in the suburbs, a reasonable size apartment in a location that was close to everything, safe, quiet and residential. My initial euphoria died down really fast as I realized how hard it was to find anything that fit my needs – I saw old Dutch houses, sunny attics of lopsided canal facing houses that made me dizzy, boathouses on water, three story canal houses that were completely impractical for me. In a couple of weeks, it felt like I had seen every possible available apartment in Amsterdam and that everything was either way out of my affordability levels, or too touristy, or ill-maintained. It was a city of expats and demand was sky rocketing.

I grew frustrated with the service apartment and the lack of space, of living out of a suitcase, of the quiet suburb. I also knew that a large part of my comfort in this new life depended on where I ended up living, so I continued bearing it out and seeing more options. I was at work and one day, my agent called me to meet up for a few viewings. No luck all afternoon but as we walked towards the last apartment, he said to me with restrained enthusiasm that I might like this one. He was right.

I met the owner a day later, he hadn’t rented before, I hadn’t stayed in a rented place ever. He was giving up his home. I was making it mine.

Moving In

A week later, I moved in. It was a Friday and co-workers had decided to head out for vrjidag middag borrel, aka Friday afternoon drinks, very Dutch and a very boozy start to the weekend. I decided to give it a miss and move from the service apartment to the new house.

I rented an Uber and put my stuff – 2 big bags, 1 cabin bag and a back pack in the trunk. As impossible as it had seemed initially, I was able to fit everything I needed in just these many bags. I remember the last few days before I left India were full of decisions – of what to keep, what to take and what to give up. I had many tough moments; emotional moments and I constantly fought this urge of holding on to things till I returned. I am glad I gave up what I did. It made me feel lighter, freer and like I had simplified my life in some way.

I lugged all my bags, one by one and with difficulty up the dozen stairs and I could feel my arms burn from all the lifting. But I was too excited to bother. Once everything was inside, I made a small video and watsapp-ed it to everyone back home. I filled a glass with water and sat down on the sofa to relax.  I remember feeling happy. Proud. Strong. And self-sufficient.

I decided to do nothing else the coming weekend but clean the house, buy some furnishings, decor, flowers, a rug. I hung up some photo-frames that I had got along with me, my parents, my wedding photo, my sister. I cleaned the kitchen, got out my favorite mugs and set my Indian chai and spices in the drawer. I dusted the closet and hung my clothes. I made a list of everything I needed to buy. I found joy in setting up this new space exactly the way I wanted. It was home before I knew it.

My spot for many meals and books

Settling

I settled into this new life fairly quickly. I joined a local gym and enrolled with some expat meetups. I enjoyed my work tremendously and made some friendships with colleagues. That summer was beautiful, long warm days and full of the buzz that takes over Amsterdam. On weekends I always found something interesting to do, exploring the streets of the city, meeting new people, spending time in my home that I absolutely loved. I traveled to many countries, sometimes alone, sometimes for work. I would look out for the cheap flights, connectivity was super and I became more spontaneous with travel, the kind that can decide on a Thursday morning where to spend the coming weekend. It was not the sort of behavior I expected from myself, but I found a new enthusiasm to act on impulses.

This life exposed me to people, situations and perspectives that opened my own mind and horizon. When I didn’t have much to do, I enjoyed the simple things – getting my groceries, doing my chores, going for long walks by the canal and catching up on my favorite movies and books. I found joy in these rituals, all of which I did alone. I was surprised– I always considered myself a people’s person, someone who enjoyed being in a crowd and socializing, the caricature extrovert and I was amused that I could spend extended periods of time all by myself and actually enjoy it. I guess I had never really had the chance before to find out.

Solo-ing it in a cold freezing Paris

6 months

I decided to go back to India in December. It had been 6 months and it was a good time for a break. As I booked my tickets, I felt excited at the thought of meeting my friends and family and sharing tales of my new life and how exciting it had all been, I admit to feeling a bit smug about it all. I reached Delhi on a smoggy December night and over the next couple of weeks I constantly socialized, met friends and family, went out, ate, drank and tried to have a good time. Not much had changed, yet I sometimes found myself a bit detached from it all. At that time, I couldn’t really understand why. On the surface, everything was exactly as it should be. In hindsight, being away created a certain distance, and the reality is that not everyone keeps up. Another reality is that I didn’t keep up either with everyone. I realized that there were relationships in my life that existed, even thrived because of situations or convenience. Those had started fizzling out, organically.

What also dawned upon me were aspects of my past life that I just about tolerated, but they now bothered me much more. For instance, life in Delhi(at least my life) was too busy, too fast, no one had much time, and everyone was basically just running around. It was not the pace I enjoyed. I liked having time for myself and my well-being and I hated being rushed. I also realized that all of my socializing was only centered around food, and while I totally love food, I found the focus of meeting up, to be less on catching up and more on eating. I tried hard to suggest alternates but found most people comfortable with what they were used to, and unwilling to relent. By the end of it, I was all round and jolly and waiting to get on the next flight back home.

A change of scene is a great test of what you  can do without 😉 .

The Bicycle

Using a bicycle as a daily means of transport is a very prominent aspect of Dutch life. I wouldn’t be joking if I told you that a toddler learns to ride a bicycle before walking 😊. It is said that Netherlands has more bikes than the number of people, and tis true that you will see bikes everywhere – from formally dressed office goers, to families on a bakfiet (a cargo bike with a rider parent and two or three children in the cart),  to older people. The bike is unmissable and used as an everyday utility which I found very impressive. It is also extremely convenient in a city the size of Amsterdam, plus cheap and fitness friendly. The more time I spent in the city, the more I got asked when I was getting a bicycle for myself, a true test of my cultural integration.

It took me a lot of convincing myself, because bikers in Amsterdam are rough. Okay, rough is probably not the best explanation but I would say that it comes so naturally to Dutch people that there is complete fearlessness in riding (really)fast and overtaking. And I just wasn’t sure it was for me, the last I rode a bike was on a holiday 6 years back in Kerala and the lack of practice showed as I went crashing into a wall because I couldn’t control my speed at a turning. That memory hadn’t faded but my desire to get a bike overtook my fear at some point. A colleague recommended a store that sold second hand bikes and upon landing at the shop, I tip toed outside for a good thirty minutes. When I went finally in, the guy asked me for my budget and showed me a couple of bikes. I rode all of them and eventually settled on a black Bavaria, got the mandatory bell and the front and back light installed. I then invested in a heavy-duty lock to protect my bike from theft, which cost me a bomb. I wasn’t pleased but bikes get stolen all the time in Amsterdam and I was sure I wouldn’t have the heart to get another one. I then had the scary task of riding the bike back home which was thirty min away. It was too much too soon, and I was nervous as hell, but the deed had to be done. My palms sweaty and struggling to balance my phone so that I could see the route, I got on my bike and started cycling as crazy people whizzed past me. I was sure something terrible would happen, there was no way I would survive this. But I kept going on and when I hit a quieter street, I finally relaxed, the sun, the breeze and the feeling of childlike joy consumed me.

I got used to my bicycle quickly, I rode it to work and I rode it around the city. I crossed a beautiful park every day before I reached work. It had a bridge over a pond which became my favorite spot. It instantly calmed me, no matter how bad my morning. On sunny days, I would even stop at the bridge for a few minutes and watch the ducks and the water. I took my bike to Vondelpark in summers and set up a little picnic for myself, with chips and wine and my book. I went to the movies, I went for dinners, I went to buy groceries. I took my bike everywhere. Except the city center. In my 2.5 years in Amsterdam, that’s one thing I never had the guts to do.

Having my bicycle made me explore streets and alleyways of Amsterdam that I never would have, had I had a car or only used public transport. I especially loved riding it in a park or stopping at a picturesque canal. I loved the crisp autumn days when I could hear the leaves crunching under the tyres. I loved the rare sunny days when I would ride for hours and take in the beauty of Amsterdam. Sometimes, when the sun was shining, I would take a longer route to my destination. As I got more confident of the routes, I stopped looking at the map and would go by instinct. I got lost many times, Amsterdam is weird like that, sometimes the streets defy logic. But I found it fun. Having the flexibility of a bike added to my love for the outdoors and nature, in everyday normal life.

Views that I can never get enough of

Challenges and Lessons

I was on the way back from a work event one evening and as the taxi pulled up outside my apartment, as is my habit, I put my hand inside my bag to fetch the house keys. When I couldn’t find them in the pocket I generally kept them in, I looked in all the other pockets and still, no keys! By this time, I was getting a bit flustered since it was 11:30 pm and I really had no other place to go. I got out of the car and emptied my entire bag on the curb in panic. The driver was a nice guy and decided to wait. No key still. My mind was blank, and my first impulse was to call someone in India. I thankfully realized it would be 3:00 am and there was nothing anyone could do, so I called the event venue to check if they had found a key, maybe it slipped from my bag when I handed it over? They called me 20 minutes later that there was no key.

I decided to call the apartment’s owner, there was very little chance he would be up, but it was worth a shot before I started looking for a hotel. He answered(thankfully), surprised that I was calling him so late, but between unending apologies I was able to explain what had happened. He had a spare key and I told him I would come and get it. By the time I entered my house that night, it was 1 am and I slipped into bed exhausted.

This wasn’t the only time I was locked out of the house. The house was in an old Dutch building, and the door sometimes got jammed. It then needed multiple tries with the key to get it to the exact position and give it a hard push. I once stood outside for a good 30 min and the door wouldn’t budge. Sometimes I would stop a passer-by on the street and ask for help. Sometimes, I would ring my neighbor’s bell, but it was usually my last resort since he hadn’t ever seemed particularly thrilled to help. I still remember one evening, when I rang the bell and he came out, visibly pissed with a child in one hand. Before I could even complete what I was saying, he said “Sorry, can’t help, the kid is asleep” and shut the door on my face. I was shocked by his rudeness, and hot tears of frustration rolled down my cheeks. I also remember repeating this story to anyone who bothered to listen, it angered me so much. I questioned his behavior and painted many scenarios in my mind, eventually settling on an explanation that wasn’t particularly uplifting. For the most part, I was shocked by his indifference.

I had bad experiences, big and small, over the course of my time there. I guess that is inevitable anywhere. I used to get rattled with things too fast and would defend or explain or convince. These experiences taught me ignorance for those whose views or attitude I did not agree with. And if I just couldn’t ignore, I learnt to forget and move in. Some things just aren’t worth your time or energy.

And then there were more practical lessons to be learnt. One time the fuse went out and there was no heat and hot water in the house. On a video call, I learnt from the owner on how to fix it. I fixed plumbing and gadgets and appliances, lifted heavy things, did odd jobs. I learnt to keep my wits about.

I learnt patience and taking things in my stride. I learnt that all sorts of people make this world. And that people judge all the time. And I learnt that someone else’s opinion of you doesn’t matter, unless you let it. I learnt that you can have things in common with people from halfway across the world. That you can grow in different directions from people you have known all your life. I learnt that things can go wrong, anytime. And I learnt that that’s not the end of the world. I learnt to deal with loneliness. I learnt to be responsible for my own happiness. I learnt to mope.

And I learnt to get on with it.

The glittering city center of Amsterdam

People

I met a lot of people because of my work, colleagues, acquaintances, some of whom developed into friendships that I will always cherish. Many amongst these were some very strong, independent women. Like M, who I met at work, who came and left within a couple of months but our friendship continued. Her parents were Indian and she was born and brought up in Netherlands but felt a strong connection to India and I think it was this connection that tied us well. I grew to admire M’s creativity, she sang in three languages and her resilience to deal with personal challenges inspired me.

G, another work colleague who I didn’t quite hit it off from Day 1 but slowly, we developed a warm friendship, an understanding of each other lives and views and culture, an acceptance of our similarities and differences. She tried her hardest to teach me some Dutch and wanted to learn how to abuse in Hindi once too often. Funny, witty G, she taught me so much.

I met S at work as well, and she was from Mumbai, an expat now settled in Netherlands. I loved her vibe, she was smart, straightforward, fun and always smiling. One of those who do exactly what they want, probably why she was always such a happy soul. I was always happy with her.

And then there was J, a Dutch girl I met at an expat meetup and we continued to meet later on, we had many things in common, we loved our work, were crazy about travel and strong headed. It was natural that I would take a liking to her.

Ci, lovely Ci from Suriname, who dreamt of moving back one day, close to sunshine and family in a beautiful big home surrounded by greenery. She did many many things for me selflessly, a trait that I don’t find myself capable of but truly admire. She is the one I gave up my bike to, I couldn’t think of anyone better.

There was Ga from Mumbai, warm creative Ga, and she made me feel at home every time I spoke to her. She wanted to make the most of her time in a new country and was always making plans, to travel, to see something new, to meet someone. I loved her spirit to always go out of her comfort zone.

And then there was C, crazy sweet C. Once at her home, I saw how eclectic she really was, art in every corner, crazy tattoos on her body,  and then she surprised me when she took a year off just to travel the world. I could have never imagined someone as soft spoken as her to have this wild and adventurous side.

There were more, so many more people who inspired me with their wit, their intellect,  their ethics, their perspective of life, their take on relationships, their focus on happiness. In them, I saw a little bit of what I was, a little bit of what I wanted to become.

Making some good looking friends in the neighborhood

Loneliness

Most people at a distance in India felt that my life was one endless party in Amsterdam. There were recurring mentions of how cool it was to live in such a “happening” city, and it always made me laugh. I look at Amsterdam as cosy and cosmopolitan, you have everything, but it still feels very small and village like. After a year of living in the city, I would joke that I knew all the bus and tram drivers by face, that’s really how small it is.

There is no doubt that living in a new city alone is an empowering experience, there is also no doubt that it can get lonely.

It was a sunny Friday in August, and my WhatsApp was buzzing all day as friends were making plans for the evening. Friends in India. I spent my day feeling homesick and to make matters worse, I had no plans that evening for myself. I left from work at 6, constantly checking WhatsApp for updates. As I walked to my bike, I crossed a line of bars that were full of people drinking and enjoying the sun. The chatter and the laughs, the warm summer sun, the drinking, it just threw me off guard with such a strong dose of homesickness, of longing for conversations, of familiar places and home food, of the comfort of shared history.

These moments came to me many times, sometimes a lonely weekend, sometimes a Facebook update, a festival or wedding back home that I was missing, a familiar joke, there were many things that triggered it. In the early days, I would land in a spiral of emotion and find it hard to get out of. Over time, I learnt to handle this feeling better and rather than denying it, I accepted it as a part of living alone and abroad. I know that it’s far more glamorous to paint this picture of a life that is constantly exciting, full of travel and adventure, and that talking of things like sadness and homesickness dilutes that picture, but it is the truth, at least for me.

Rainy days, home and a little drink

Belonging

One day, as I was buying my weekly groceries from the local store, I forgot to carry my phone, something I never did since I always needed Google Translate to read the Dutch labels. I managed to buy everything I needed without the app since I could decipher a bit. When I went to the aisle to pay my bill, the student at the cash counter recognized me and asked me how I was, in Dutch. I surprised myself by continuing the small talk in Dutch, till the billing was done.

Sometimes I went to my favorite coffee spots and the staff acknowledged me. Other times I would get stopped on the road and get asked for directions by confused tourists. It made me happy that I didn’t seem like a flustered outsider in some way. Every time these trivial connections happened, they made me feel less like an outsider.

Lots of family and friends visited me and I would have guests at home for weeks at stretch. I loved it, playing host and taking people around the city. It was a city that had become home and I was always eager to show my version of it. When I traveled, I liked coming back to the comfort of my home and my space.

I don’t know when the transition happened, but somewhere along the way,  all of these tiny little things started adding up and made me feel a sense of belonging to the city, it had become my own.

Final Days

While two and a half years seems like a significant amount of time, when the final days came, it felt like they came to soon. Reluctantly I found myself in a familiar spot yet again, of sieving through all I had accumulated and deciding on what to take back and what to leave behind. Yet again, I didn’t want to leave anything behind – it was all a collection of my experiences and leaving it was a hard thought. But it had to be done.

The bicycle had to go. The last Saturday before I left Amsterdam, I took it out for a spin around the city. I went to all of my favorite places, the park I crossed every day, my favorite streets and coffee shops, the route to work. And then I stopped at the canal that I loved so much. I parked my bike and watched the water and the birds and the boats. It was a cold sunny day in November, the kind of day I loved, the kind of day that Amsterdam looked it glorious best. I thanked my lucky stars for being there. But it was now time to move on. I called Ci to come and pick the bike up in the evening. It was time.

Over the next few days, I went through my clothes and shoes, the odd pieces of furniture I had bought, décor, linen and kitchen stuff. I made a pile of things to discard and started packing the rest in cartons and labeling them for the shipping company to pick up. I decided to take some things back, even though I knew I would get them in India, for memory sake. A heavy bottom pan that I had gone to Ikea to buy, because I wanted to make my curries. My first French press from Blokker which led me to loving my coffee black, some of my favorite mugs and cutlery, some candles and cushions and throws. It’s always hard to leave things behind.

And then came the task of giving these to their rightful owner, it made me feel sad, like I was leaving a part of me behind. It’s funny how many stories and memories tiny things can actually hold, things are memories in a way. My house looked sparse after all of it was done, the cupboards empty, a cold fridge with no food, no throws and candles that added warmth to my living room, no paintings on the walls. My home that I loved so much was now nothing but empty. I wondered who would live here next, would they love this home as much as I did? I wished they do. Maybe I will come back someday and rent this place again. That’s the last I thought of that home. A thought of hope.

My two favorite drinks at Coffee & Coconuts Cafe

Back Home

It’s been exactly a year of being back. Being back into familiar territory, into lives of friends and family and catching up and spending time, settling in. Back home, as everyone says.  I wonder what home really is? The house where I grew up. The houses I stayed with my parents. The first time I left home for a job and shared an apartment with random strangers in Orissa. My marital home. My first home in Amsterdam. My current home with my husband. All homes. They were all so different, but at some point, in my life, they all felt like my home. And then came the time to move on. So, what is home if not a feeling? A feeling of comfort and belonging at a certain moment. Sometimes it’s people that add to that feeling, it’s the walls and the furniture, your favorite books and paintings, things you love to eat, your bed and blanket. And what you feel amongst it all.

It’s been a year and I remember my time in Amsterdam often, but I now talk about it with decreasing frequency. Sometimes I wonder if with time I will forget it all, and that thought makes me very sad. But then I question that isn’t life about experiencing many things and enriching you and moving forward? And while I always want to cherish the past, I don’t want to live in it. Like many parts of my life, I am glad this happened, it taught me many things about people and the world, about food and culture, about independence and self-reliance. About myself. And it will always fill me with great joy and adventure when I think about Amsterdam – of bicycles and canals, of trams and parks, of home and solitude, of travel and food, of people and friendships. Of a feeling called home.

Have you lived in and loved a another city? How do you feel when you look back?

In Photos : What I did in Israel!

It was after spending a fair amount of time discussing on where to go, that we closed in on Israel. I  remember exactly what tilted our decision – a Youtube video with this guy trying to find the best eats in Jerusalem. He was overly enthusiastic and smiling too much, while stuffing his face with the gooey goodness of hummus  but it was just what I needed to make up my mind. We had friends joining us and as the respective families got whiff of our plans, growing concerns about our choice of country threatened to derail the plan. Anyway, the dust settled and we booked our tickets and on a breezy Thursday night, we landed in Tel Aviv.
My research had convinced me that Tel Aviv is very cosmopolitan and fun, and it was. The not so fun part was that I had a crazy case of bed bug bites our second night, and by the morning it got so bad that the crazy bites became massive red bumps that itched like hell. We called the dude who owns the apartment and he looked genuinely shocked and immediately moved us to another apartment. He also agreed to give us our money back in full, a gesture that pleased everyone greatly and was accepted as a good deal. Except by me, as I was the only one suffering but somehow everyone had been redeemed with the unexpected money 😀 . Anyway, I was irritable after the incident, and fairly cranky in the heat, always covering myself and sprinkling generous doses of talc and applying thick layers of aloe gel. The pictures below will obviously tell another story 😉 .

Chilling at the Tel Aviv Beach

Tel Aviv is uber hip. Amazing beaches, beautiful people, food, bars, culture, art, flea markets, it’s all very cool and chic. The city breaks all the caricatures of being middle eastern, it’s global and it’s happening and it’s perfect for sun, sand and frolic.

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Just look at the color of the water!

Carmel Market

An iconic flea market in Tel Aviv, at Carmel you can find fresh produce, traditional sweets, clothes, accessories, homeware, basically everything under the sun. It was hot and very crowded, but I enjoy a street market greatly so I ended up taking a walk and bought some snacks and a really funky handmade necklace.

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Carmel Market

Evening cocktails at La Shuk

I am not really a big fan of cocktails but our friends wanted to go to the trendy La Shuk, so I agreed to tag along. The evening weather was perfect to sit outside, and it all felt very European, with the tables laid out on the sidewalk from where you can observe the people go buy. It was very expensive though, and I think any restaurant that is empty but still asks if you have a reservation is pretentious, hihi! A cocktail will set you back by INR 900-1000, but I will admit that they did taste really good!

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Cocktails at the very fancy La Shuk

Hummus at Mashawsha

This is hands down, the best hummus I had in Israel. It’s chunky, which I personally prefer rather than the super smooth variety, and is very flavorful. The pita is warm and fluffy, and they have a homemade style lemonade which is the perfect balance of sugar and lime. It was such a great meal that it made me forget about my rash, and I don’t easily forget 😉 . The set up is cozy and the prices are decent(by Israel standards).

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The best hummus meal at Mashawsha

Sunset at Tel Aviv Beach

As the sun goes down the activity on the beach slows down and the last of the swimmers, sun-bathers and volleyball players start winding down. The golden hour is beautiful, all colors of orange, yellow and rust, and is perfectly enjoyed with a glass of wine.

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Sunset the the beach ~Tel Aviv

Getting some local Halva

I was intrigued with this stall called Halva Kingdom, with their massive mounds of a crumbly pie style dessert, and the pushy sales guy calling out to customers. I assumed it to be similar to the Indian halwa, which is basically a grain(chickpea, a lentil or a flour), roasted with clarified butter, sugar and nuts. It’s the sort of dessert that instantly warms you up and it’s made commonly in homes during festivals and auspicious occasions. I ended up buying a few varieties in Tel Aviv but did not enjoy as it’s too sweet and heavy. People seemed to love it but didn’t catch my fancy.

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Halwa King at Carmel Market

Walled City or Old City, Jerusalem

The walled city of Jerusalem is a 0.9 square kilometer area within the main city, home to hundreds of years of history, conflict and worship. The square is further divided into 4 quarters – the Jewish quarter, the Muslim quarter, the Christian quarter and the Armenian quarter. As I moved through the tiny lanes, some shopkeepers called out to check their wares. The old city is frequented by tourists, local and international so it’s business as usual for the shops, if they catch a “tourist”. I also crossed the significant monuments, the Temple Mount, The Church of Holy Sepulchre, Dome of the Rock, Al-aqsa mosque as I moved from quarter to quarter. The landscape, people, clothes, language, monuments, it all changes so dramatically from one quarter to the next that you don’t need a sign to tell you where you are. It’s fascinating, how tightly diversity is packed together in the old city.

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Walled City Jerusalem

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The Western Wall

The western wall is probably the most significant place of religious worship for the Jews. It is the only part of the Great Temple that survived the Roman destruction and throughout the year thousands of Jews come to pray at the wall. It’s one thing to know history, it’s totally another thing to see it’s impact play out in front of your own eyes. I reached the wall and was pointed to the “women area” , a separate side of the wall to pray. As I walked towards the wall, I could see  women leaning with their foreheads pressed towards the wall. I reached closer to see many putting folded notes between the stone cracks and weeping, not a lone tear but actually sobbing. It’s a very intense experience, even for a non-Jew to see how strongly people feel about the wall, even today.

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Western Wall

Damascus Gate

As we were walking through the Arab Quarter in the old city of Jerusalem, we reached a grand exit gate called the Damascus Gate. We went through it and saw a police watchtower. A sign board pointed towards the West Bank city of Nablus. Curious as to why the security, we immediately took out our phones and got onto Google. We learnt that Damascus gate lies in the heart of Palestinian East Jerusalem and has been the site of recent attacks and unrest between Palestinians and Israelis, hence the watch tower. This has drawn criticism from Palestinians who feel it further restricts their entry into the walled city. Jerusalem is a divided city and crossing this gate lands you on the Palestinian side of the city. 15

Freshly baked breads

In the early morning hours, the smell of freshly baked breads, both sweet and savory wafts through the streets of Jerusalem. I especially loved the croissant style breads filled with warm oozing cheese. It’s the perfect breakfast on the go with a good cup of coffee.

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Freshly baked bread

Float in the Dead Sea

The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth, with water so saline that no marine being can survive, hence the name, Dead Sea. The water has an oily texture and the saltiness makes it extremely easy to float. Plus a dip in the sea is said to have healing properties, and it’s mineral rich mud nourishes your skin . We visited the Ein-Bokek beach which is a free one, and it was fairly crowded with people either floating or covering themselves in the mud. The bed bug bites stung so badly in the salty water that I decided not to indulge further. It’s still fun though and a very unique experience.

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Dead Sea

Masada

Masada is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a fortress built atop a rock plateau. It’s all very orange and Martian, and you can take a cable car or trek to the top of the fort. We went for the trek but it was noon by the time we got there and it was so incredibly hot(in June) that we ended up avoiding the 2 hour trek. There is a cable car as well that takes you to the top of the fort but if you plan to do the trek, it’s best to go before sunrise.

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Masada

Hummus workshop at Abraham Hostel

Abraham hostel is nothing short of a cult in Israel, with their economical hostels, events, workshops and tours. We decided to try a group hummus making workshop while in Jerusalem. A large community style table was set up and we were told that we will be cooking in groups of two, by our enthusiastic “chef” for the evening. The cooking part was pretty much non-existential, the chickpeas were boiled already, the Tahini was made and all you had to do was mash, mix and add the lemon and seasoning. Since I was really looking forward to a hardcore hummus making class, the cooking part was a downer. But the bar was open and we were enjoying the drinks, so I guess we made some evening out of it. Interestingly, this evening led us to one of our key highlights of the trip, a tour of the divided city of Hebron in the West Bank.

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West Bank Tour

Abraham tours organizes what is called as the Dual Narrative Tour of Hebron,  a conflicted city divided between Palestine and Israel. We decided to do it, and while I had surface information on the Israel-Palestine conflict, once I started reading about it, I wanted to know more. It’s also neither possible nor advisable to visit the West Bank unless with a tour group so this seemed like our only chance. This full day tour took us to Hebron, and involved spending time with an Israeli guide and a Palestinian guide, both of whom present their own narrative on the conflict, their angst, and what the current scenario looks like. Their narratives are compelling and it is a hard hitting experience. I walked away feeling confused and sad. But if I am successful in documenting it to some degree of coherence, I will definitely share it in another post.

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The group at the Hebron Tour

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Hebron ~The Israel Side

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A bird’s eye view of Hebron

Mahane Yehuda Market

The Mahane Yehuda market or “The Shuk” is a bustling street market in Jerusalem, frequented by locals and visitors. During the day, the market is a perfect place to roam around and get some small bites and drinks and buy local spices. By the evening, it’s a happening street with lights and music. It’s a lively place to hang out for a couple of hours and get some local shopping done.

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Mahane Yehuda Market

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A Jewish gentleman buying his groceries at Mahane Yehuda

Mahane Yehuda

If you love olives, you will love Mahane Yehuda for the variety and flavor

Tmol Shilshom

A cozy little cafe and bookstore, I loved Tmol Shilshom as soon as I saw it and ended up going multiple times. Jerusalem is an intense city and Tmol is just so calm and peaceful and artistic. I loved the Jewish breakfast of Shakshukya and the coffee. The staff is friendly and you can enjoy what you are eating in peace, without feeling rushed. Perfect to also catch up on some reading or emails.

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At Tmol Shilshom – that’s my look of regret when I overeat!

Hope you enjoyed these highlights from Israel? Would you ever consider travelling to Israel?

5 Unintentional Discoveries in Kutch

At one point in my life, I loved planning my trips to a T, but I have come to realise that a strict itinerary leaves very little room for spontaneity. There have been times when I have come back home feeling underwhelmed with my travels, largely due to excessive research and having a feeling of “seen it before”. So, sometime last year, I decided that whenever I traveled, I would keep certain aspects like transport and stay finalized before the trip. I could add an odd experience that may be harder to book on the spot. And I would leave the rest to be figured out once there. Interestingly, this has led to some amazing experiences that wouldn’t have happened if I was too caught up in “living my plan”. The internet is a great tool to find information and build your own travel plan yourself. But sometimes, knowing too much and trying to fit it all in takes away from the spirit of exploration and impulse. In Kutch, the top 2 things on my agenda were seeing the White Rann of Kutch and the villages, both of which I researched and planned beforehand. Besides that, I had little else fixed, but I came away with 5 interesting discoveries, purely on local recommendations that I absolutely loved.

Vande Matram Museum at Bhujodi

On the last day of our stay in the Rann of Kutch, our resort manager asked us if we would like to see the Vande Matram museum. Not being a big fan of museums, I decided to skip it while some other members of our group decided to check it out. They were left spell bound and insisted we make the trip. And that is how we landed at this museum. Opened in 2017, this is a 4D museum, one of its kind in India and showcases the story of India’s independence through a series of 17 episodes. The storytelling is done through a compelling use of technology, sound, art, architecture, life size models, and effects. Having seen the grandeur of some of the world’s most renowned museums in Europe, I was not expecting to be wowed by this place. But I was so so wrong. It’s grand, it’s innovative and it’s totally immersive. Once you enter the museum, you move from room to room, 17 in total and each room showcases a historical event in India’s freedom struggle. No pictures are allowed inside. But I can tell you that this is a unique experience that you must not miss!

The exterior of the museum, modeled on the Indian Parliament. Image ref IndiaCSR.in

Vintage embroideries in the bustling Bhuj bazaars

The bazaars in Bhuj, Vania and Shroff Bazaar are a treasure trove of interesting things and our hosts at the Bhuj House recommended that we check them out for vintage embroideries. Right when you enter the bazaar, under the archway, you can find a series of shops selling vintage embroideries, woven on blouses, skirts and patches by Kutchi women, worn and passed across generations. It is an absolute explosion of art and colour, and a wonderful part of town to explore.

Beautiful Kutch embroidery display at LLDC. Image Ref – ShrujanLLDC.org

Using the e-permit facility to get a Liquor license

Considering that Gujarat is a dry state, I hadn’t expected getting a liquor license for a tourist to be this smooth. There is now an online portal for procuring a licence, you fill the form with all your travel details and id proof and get the printout to a registered liquor shop, details of which you can find on the site. The officers on duty will review the paperwork and stamp your permit. We expected it to be a tedious and time-consuming process on the spot, but it wasn’t, We were in and out in 15 min. You will struggle if you don’t have your paperwork ready or are trying to fill the form online on the spot. Once you have the permit, you can buy alcohol from the shop but know that drinking is an expensive proposition in this state.

Sleeping under a Chikoo tree

We stayed at Devpur homestay for 2 nights, a beautiful heritage property in central Kutch run by Krutarthsinh Jadeja. The room I had originally requested for did not have availability for both nights so for the second night we shifted to a tent in the family’s 12-acre mango and chikoo orchard. I was quite sceptical of the facilities; especially uncomfortable toilets make me nervous. But our hosts convinced me that I would love the experience and I decided to give it a try. The orchard was beautiful, and the tent was comfortable. The best part however was a big chikoo tree right outside the tent, it’s branches so luscious and green that it shaded a big part of the tent itself. There was a charpoy laid out and as soon as I lay down, I feel into a deep sleep, disturbed ever so slightly by the wind rustling the tree leaves and the chirping of birds. It was the best sleep I had had in months.

In deep sleep under the chikoo tree

Gujarat Thali at Osho Dining Lodge

From Devpur, on our hosts recommendation we headed to Mandvi beach. While I didn’t find the beach particularly exciting, we were advised to have lunch at the Osho Dining Lodge while there. We headed to this local restaurant between alleys and streets, steep stairs led us to the lodge and we were quickly seated. An over-enthusiastic waiter laid out our thalis and pickles on the table. And then the service began. From deep fried aloo bhondas to dhoklas, Gujarati dal, kadhi, rice, ghee laden rotis, pooris, aloo masala, vegetables and hot jalebis, the variety is immense. And the passion with which the food is served is even better. Our waiter kept on refilling our plates, despite pleas of being absolutely full. He insisted on just one more roti, a little bit more kadhi and rice. Till we were exhausted with all the eating and had to beg him to stop. The food is tasty(though heavy), the experience is even better.

The never ending Gujarati Thali at Osho Dining Lodge

I am glad I left some space in my itinerary that allowed me to indulge in recommendations from locals. What about you? Do you like to plan every detail of your trip or leave some things to chance?

 

 

 

The Artists of Kutch

After the spectacular Rann of Kutch, the agenda was to station ourselves in Bhuj over a couple of days, explore the town as well as the artistic villages of Kutch. Our first stop was Nirona, made famous by PM Modi after he gifted a Rogan art painting created in this village, to then President Barrack Obama during his US visit in 2014.

As we got down from the car, a swarm of school children, seemingly underwhelmed with new faces, walked past, waving and smiling. We decided to follow the crowd that had descended from a bus full of tourists, crossing a few narrow alleys and brightly painted doors framed with bougainvillea, and we ended up reaching the Khatri household, master craftsmen of the Rogan art.

The art form is intriguing to observe, and the Khatri’s willingly give a live demo. We quickly seat ourselves on the plastic chairs and charpoy in the courtyard. Out comes a piece of fabric, and a round tray with many bowls holding the different colours of the paint, which is a thick mixture of castor oil and natural die. The artist decides to seat himself on the floor and starts to work the gum-like paint with a needle, stretching the paint thin and drawing patterns on fabric, without the needle actually touching the fabric. He makes a flower, then a few more, and he continues drawing beautiful patterns. He then folds the cloth neatly along the centre and presses on the fabric. We wait for the reveal which he does without much fanfare, and as he starts to unfold the cloth, a mirror image of his painting appears on the other side. It looks beautiful, the colours, the detail, the creativity. I was spellbound and forgot to record a video but if you are interested check out this link to see the art taking shape.

The Khatri’s speak about how the art stood the risk of dying down some years back, as the younger generation didn’t find it financially attractive but streamlined efforts by the Gujarat government have given artists like them a global platform to showcase their work, drawing in crowds and money. A narrative that was echoed by other villages and artisans I visited. Many of them have been accredited with the coveted National Award for being master craftsmen in their field, proofs of which hang in the form of pictures in their homes and shops. All sell internationally and get access to a host of exhibitions, both in India and abroad. The exposure seems to have created a certain degree of confidence and pride in the artists, and rightfully so. They know that their pieces are unique, so they won’t hard sell, and you really won’t feel like bargaining. The prices are steep since all the crafts are hand done, but as I see it, it is a little bit of Kutch to take back home.

Our next stop in Nirona was the copper bell house by Husen Luhar. An elderly gentleman, Luhar sat on the floor and beat the copper thin and created various shapes out of it, creating bells and hangings. As I sat watching him, I couldn’t help but notice that he was constantly smiling while working, and as he beat every scrap of copper, he would hold it up to show it to everyone, a sense of pride in his eyes. I ended up buying a copper wind chime from his workshop, replicas of which I saw many later in Shroff Bazaar in Bhuj, at half the price. I can’t say if it was a replica really or the effect of middlemen, but this is probably the only art form that is fairly easy to recreate. It was disappointing surely, but I found comfort in the fact that the money went to the artisan directly, and that’s worth something.

It’s another day and we decide to explore Ajrakhpur and Bhujodi, both a 20 min drive from Bhuj. Ajrakhpur is aptly named after the Ajrakh art, which is block printing using natural dyes such as indigo, pomegranate, henna, turmeric etc, done by Dr Ismail Mohmed Khatri, who has been acknowledged with a doctorate by De Montfort University, U.K. as well as a Seal of Excellence by UNESCO. Bhujodi is famous for handloom textiles and embroidery, done by the Vankar community. You will find shawls, bedspreads, carpets, blankets, sarees, stoles, all handwoven and hand embroidered. Even if you detest shopping, the work is compelling to look at, and the artists are friendly and inviting, so you will at least come back with a cup of tea and good conversation.

If you don’t have time to visit the villages, I would strongly recommend checking out the Living and Learning Design Centre( LLDC), which is a project of the Shrujan Trust and a conscious effort to keep alive the unique crafts of Kutch. They train craftsmen and craftswomen to better their art, learn from each other and develop products that are marketable. The museum is a crash course into the art forms of 12 Kutcchi communities and is a real treat for your eyes. It’s so much colour and beauty in a room, it will fill you with awe about the talents of Kutch.

The final village that we visited was Bhadli, close to Devpur village, famous for the tie and dye technique of Bandhani. The work was extremely fine and detailed, and unlike I anything had seen before. It was extremely expensive as well and the artisans here didn’t seem too interested in showing their work. They mentioned that they cater to mostly foreign buyers and international exhibitions, and only do selective exhibitions in India. Names of a few of top Indian designers who have been inspired by their work was mentioned casually and I was categorically asked to specify what I wanted to buy and what my budget was. Since I was merely browsing and that obviously was far from comfortable here, I decided to make a quick exit.

A round up of these villages left me feeling creatively energised. It’s hard not to, when you see so much talent. I felt inspired to create something, anything, as soon as I got back home. Maybe I will do up my balcony, or paint something. There is great joy in creating something from your own hands, no matter how small it is right?

Tips for visiting the villages of Kutch

  • The roads in Kutch are really good and all villages are perfectly motorable. Just drive down and walk around. It is very easy to find the homes of the artisans.
  • The artisans are welcoming, and will be happy to show their work, even give a live demo. You can buy the art in all villages directly.
  • These are real home and families. You will meet the other members of the family, the children playing around, and sometimes it wasn’t comfortable to click pictures. When it wasn’t, I didn’t. Where it was, I asked for permission. The reason I mention it is that I found more than a bunch of visitors invasive enough to make some families feel uncomfortable. And that just isn’t right.
  • In Bhuj, I would strongly recommend staying in The Bhuj House, which is a heritage Parsi homestay in the heart of town. It is a home filled with history and culture, and every little nook is representative of the colours and warmth of Kutch. Besides the villages, Bhuj is a unique town in itself, with its walled city, the busy Shroff and Vania bazaars, it’s history and culture.
  • Another beautiful heritage property is Devpur Homestay. From either or both of these homestays, you can use them as a base and explore the various villages of Kutch.

Setting foot on the Great Rann of Kutch

I looked outside the aircraft window, feeling optimistic and excited about the next few days. There were many things that still remained unfigured on my itinerary, but information online wasn’t extensive, and I had been too tied up this time to plan better. What resulted was an itinerary that left a lot of room for spontaneity, but I had a good feeling that it would all work out. Mainly because the part I was most interested in was already chalked out. And I wasn’t thinking of much else.

Other than the Rann of Kutch.

I landed in Ahmedabad, checked into the hotel and met up with the others in the group. For dinner, we decided to eat at the New Irani Restaurant in old city. It was fantastic food for the meat eaters with the lamb curry, mincemeat kebabs and biryani, not so much for the only vegetarian in the group who had to do with Rotis and Egg Bhurji. It was an uneventful evening and we decided to call it a night as the next morning was an early start.  Our plan was to drive to the Great Rann of Kutch, a distance of 350 kms which we expected to cover in under 7 hours.

We got ready the next morning, patiently awaited our self-drive car, which arrived, but with a driver. As it turned out, getting a self-drive for Kutch is not an easy thing and the company had assumed we needed a driver. Since we didn’t, we called more transport companies, more drivers, asked for help from our hotel, but nothing worked out so after wasting 4 hours, we gave up and hired an Innova and a driver. It was 11 am as we settled our stuff and ourselves in the car.

We crossed the mayhem of Ahmedabad to reach the highway. The roads are pretty great in Kutch, and you can really pick up speed, unless interrupted by the odd swarm of goats or distracted by the endless expanse of salt.

To make up for lost time, we decided to stop only once at Honest, a local and loved Dhaba chain. With every possible Gujarati delicacy on the menu, we debated endlessly on what to eat, eventually settling for Aloo Parathas like good north Indians 😊.

The ginormous paratha in my belly, I decided that it was time for a siesta, so I moved to the last seat of our Innova, very limited legroom but continuous seats which in my view are best suited to lie flat on(unless you are very tall). Perhaps it was the warmth of the sun, the cosiness of the space or the music that I had plugged into my ears, that relaxed every muscle in my body. I guess I dozed off for quite some time, as when I got up we had about 50 kms to the Rann of Kutch.

I got up to look out of the window, trying to absorb the sights and sounds. Nothing exceptional I thought. A vast expanse of desert both sides, the odd green shrub here and there, not too many cars in sight. Dry, arid, almost lifeless. Not pretty in any way. Striking though. And almost lonely and sad.

We kept going on till we came across a sign board that said Tent City. This township is built every year by Gujarat Tourism to invite tourists for the Rann of Kutch festival between November and February, which is the only time of the year that the salt desert doesn’t hibernate under water. While I was expecting it to be busy, what with the promotions that the Gujarat government does for the festival, I was still taken aback by the sheer enormity of the number of buses, cars, people and camels at the entry. The chaos feels like a shock, so ill-fitting with the scarce and still landscape.

We kept going further in, crossing tents and bhungas(traditional mud houses) and a flea market. I was curious to see how the tents looked on the inside, considering the prices can put a 5-star hotel to shame. We reached our “resort”, built right at the end of tent city. It was a little over 5 pm and the family was at the gate(some had reached earlier in the day), not so much in our wait but because the bus to see the Great Rann was ready to go. Between a lot of instructions of dropping the luggage in the room and not missing out on the evening snacks to what happened during the day, we found ourselves on the top of a double decker rickety bus, slowly moving towards the Great Rann of Kutch.

Another check-post later, we were on a ramp facing a huge line of traffic – cars, buses, people, camel carts. The line moved slowly but steadily, and fifteen minutes later, we were there.

I don’t think words or pictures can do justice to the Great Rann, but I will try.

An endless white desert that goes far till it meets like sky. Salt so white that I could mistake it for snow. Stepped on a marshy side and soiled my shoe, the desert will make you careful of where you tread. Not a bird, a flower, a tree in sight, but it doesn’t look like the desert needs them at all. I walk further and further till people look like tiny black dots on a white canvas, and I wonder, how far am I? Not more than a hundred metres, I think. I feel alone, very alone. And I want to go back but I want to stay on. Then the sun starts going down, and the games begin between the sun, the sky and the salt. Colours of pink, orange, yellow and blue, both above and below me, transforming like magic right before my eyes. Till all is enveloped in a cloud of black. No moon, no stars tonight, just a thick cover of black.

Just like that, it was over.

I head back to the bus in the distance, it’s neon lights flickering and a conductor shouting for everyone to get it. I must come back, I tell myself. I must come back to feel this magic again.

And go back I did, not once but twice. Different times of the evening and night. The magic didn’t fade even the slightest, the salt shone, the colours danced, the Rann stood still, lonely, mighty, harsh and beautiful.

Magical.

I came back feeling inspired and overwhelmed by the beauty of the Great Rann of Kutch. As dramatic and enticing as it is, it is also a very delicate and remote part of our country. On one hand, it is amazing to see the spotlight shining on this wonderland and the effort made to attract tourists, which lends to local livelihoods. On the other hand, I wondered if this desert will remain as pure and pristine with the growing tourism in the years to come. There are both sides to be argued and no easy answers.


 


 

 

 

Living the slow life in Ubud, Bali

Experiencing a new place is as much about you, your mindset, your choices, your likes or dislikes as that point in time. For me, Ubud was a trip like that. I was weary from work and travels, and wanted nothing more than to take things slow, eat well, sleep and not do much else. And Ubud is perfect for that. It’s leisurely, staying in bed is the norm and not the luxury, meals can be savoured, there isn’t no “getting out of the house” and “doing this and that”, evenings wind up early, and there is ample time to catch an afternoon nap and read at will.

Frankly, Bali wasn’t on my radar till a family wedding cropped up, and since I was going to take this rather long flight (there are no direct flights from Delhi), I thought it was worthwhile to extend the trip by a few days and see more of Bali. I gravitated towards Ubud, for it’s tropical, green and laidback vibe. I can’t really tell you to do this and that in Ubud, as I didn’t “do” much. I slept well, ate a lot, roamed the streets, stayed in two parts of town (one more central and the other very quiet), got a massage, attended a yoga class, visited a few flea markets. And that’s about it. Things typically Ubud. But all put together they made for a wonderful five days, that had me relaxed and rejuvenated.

If you are looking for nightlife, architecture or a constant stream of activities to do, you will find Ubud too slow and boring. However, if slowing down is on your mind, Ubud can be a charming little getaway with loads of peace and sunshine.

Stay

For the first leg of my trip, I stayed in a quiet street, just off the Monkey Forest Road, which is one of the busiest roads, dotted with people, art, markets, restaurants and cafes. This was an Airbnb, on Jalan Bisma No.97 which is a cool street with a couple of spas, bars, restaurants and a few luxury properties. The Airbnb was rustic, with a semi-open bathroom overlooking a rice paddy. It was basic, but the people were warm, and the location was great. We rented our scooter here as well.

The second place was really the stuff of dreams. It was a private bungalow, with its own pool and a wonderful view of rice paddies, in a tiny arty village called Penestanan. The house was made in traditional Balinese style, with intricately carved wood but all modern amenities. Much quieter and very private, this was like my own retreat in the middle of a rice paddy.

Tip: The town centre is extremely busy and touristy, and I don’t recommend staying there. Pick a quieter back lane or stay in Penestanan and rent a scooter to get around.

Entrance to the Airbnb on Jalan Bisma 97

Private pool overlooking rice paddies at the Penestanan Airbnb

Eat

Ubud is a delight when it comes to food, and there are no dearth of places serving traditional Balinese dishes such as Nasi Goreng, Nasi Campur, Gado, Satay etc but you can also get your fill of fusion or western food (though I am not sure WHY you would do that). Infact, the food scene in Ubud had gotten fairly premium with world renowned chefs setting shop, waiting lists stretching to days or even weeks, and a meal setting you back INR 5000 per person. Of course, without alcohol.

But like I said, Ubud is full of all sorts of places to eat, from cafes and bars to warungs (local restaurant or café), and to suit all budgets.

Umah Pizza

I know that I am contradicting myself here, but the wood fired oven and the smell of fresh dough and melted cheese was something I just couldn’t resist as I was passing by. The pizzas are thin, fresh, the variety is immense, and the rates are decent.

Wayan Café and Laka Leke

Run by the same owner, the restaurants are airy and beautifully made. There is an option to get a table or have a cosy floor set up with cushions. This was one of the fancier meals we indulged in, but it was totally worth it. I preferred Wayan Cafe over Laka Leke, both for its vibe and food quality.

Atman Kafe

Full of healthy, vegan, gluten free options and free Wi-Fi, you will find a lot of people working or just hanging around this café. Their sourdough bread with sambal is to die for, and the organic coffees, fresh juices and daily specials are fantastic.

Alchemy

This is a raw vegan food café and has a sort of a cult following in Ubud. I tried a pizza and zucchini pesto pasta, all raw. The place is Instagram worthy, but the food didn’t do it for me, and it was fairly expensive. I like food that is hearty and found Alchemy to be overhyped.

Ubud Raw Chocolate Factory

In one word: AMAZING! From truffles to dark chocolate to cacao chips to cheesecakes, this is a haven for the serious chocolate lover.

Tukies Coconut ice cream

I was walking in town and came across this shop with coconut shells by the dozen outside. Now, I am a big fan of coconut, in all shapes and forms so my interest was piqued.  I realized that they sell ice cream and went inside to get myself a cup. OMG! This is a wonderful treat in balmy Ubud. The perfect creamy coconut ice cream topped with roasted coconut shavings. I would go back just for this.

Sari Organic

Another Ubud cult, Sari Organic is a social organization and also runs a farm and café. The plus – a ride on a scooter or foot through amazingly lush rice paddies gets you to this warung. The views are to die for if you love nature. The minus –  definitely not even close to my top meals in Ubud, it’s not bad food by any standard, it’s not exceptional either. The setup is extremely charming, and for that it definitely warrants a visit.

Do

Get yourself a scooter – It’s the best way to navigate the crowded streets in Ubud and a wonderful experience to go through the rice paddies.

Spa – I tried one (interestingly on another blogger’s recommendation), but I wasn’t satisfied so not recommending it. However, every corner you turn you in Ubud you will see a spa and locals will be happy to give you great recommendations. Putri Spa was close to the Airbnb I stayed in and looked great, judging by how busy it was always. Treatments aren’t really expensive, so if you like a good massage (who doesn’t), this is definitely an affordable activity to do a few times.

Yoga

I tried the very popular Yoga Barn and it was a great experience. The place is scenic, quiet and feels very spa like, what with the greenery, incense and soft music. An individual class comes at 130,000Rp but depending on how many days you are in Ubud and your interest in yoga, you can take a package. You can check out the full schedule and rates here.

Traditional Balinese Dance

Unfortunately, I missed this, but I had great recommendations for Puri Lotus (temple right next to Lotus cafe on Jalan Raya Ubud). There was no performance the night I went because of the festival of Galungan which is massive in Bali.

Shopping

Street and flea markets are aplenty but frankly I didn’t find them exceptional. Lot of cotton clothing, trinkets,  crochet, ikat and batik prints, woven bags and baskets. Nothing eye catching that I wouldn’t find back home in India.  However, if you do want to buy some very good quality indigo dyed cottons, check out Threads of Life. It is such a beautifully done up store and you can just get lost browsing the amazing things on display. From the local markets, below are the three things I enjoyed getting back home

  1. Balinese Coffee or Kopi as it’s called.
  2. Crunchy Peanuts – you will get these in every supermarket, they are salty and super crunchy. I guess they are fried but whatever it is, they taste darn good.
  3. Woven bags – locally made and super cute, you can find these all around and for a fraction of high street costs.

Did I love Ubud enough to want to go back soon? Not really. There is no direct flight from Delhi, and the stopover costs you at least 11 hours of flight time one way, which is tedious considering this is Southeast Asia. Secondly, and more importantly, this sort of tropical, food centric, yoga and organic, flea market experience for me can be found closer back home, with better infrastructure and cheaper costs.

I did enjoy the down time though, and would love to see more of Bali in general and explore some of the beach towns next time.

(In April 2018, Indonesia’s national airline Garuda has started a direct flight from Mumbai).

 

 

 

 

Experiencing a cooking class in Madrid and making Sangria, Gazpacho and Paella

One of the things that interests me the most about visiting any new place is it’s food and over time, I have found myself gravitating away from fast food chains and leaning more and more towards local cafes, food tours and cooking classes. I love these experiences and come back home excited to try out recipes and relive my travels through them.

I was in Madrid last year on a work trip, part of a large team organizing our flagship European event. This was an event for which we pulled out all the stops, and while work was intense, it also gave me the chance to experience local culture, food and historic sights in a grand way.  Three things had got me really excited – Spanish food, Flamenco and Espadrilles. So, on the lone free day after the event was done, I decided to try these before I headed back home. (Sadly, The Flamenco performance didn’t work out, but I guess there is always another time.)

My heart was set on trying a local cooking class and I researched online for a good one that I could join end minute. I wrote to quite a few, only to be turned down by all except one, which was Cooking Point in central Madrid and walking distance from where I was staying. Frankly, I wasn’t thrilled as this was not on the top of my list – while the reviews were spectacular (#1 on TripAdvisor), it looked more commercial and I was hoping to try something more intimate and local. But time was running out, and when they emailed me that they had 1 spot left, I decided to go for it.

Located in Calle de Moratín, I reached the studio and met our guide and chef for the day, made the payment after which I was told to wait for the others. People began trickling in and everyone seemed friendly and eager to get started.

The first step was a visit to the legendry food market Anton Martin, to pick local produce of meat and vegetables. This was an amazing experience for me, as I anyway love picking groceries and Anton Martin had over 60 shops selling everything from meats, to seafood, to olives to all sorts of wonderful vegetables. We smelled great produce, understood how to pick vegetables and meats and after 45 minutes well spent, we walked back to the studio.

Once back at the studio, we were divided into groups of 2. I was the only one trying the class solo, but I got a partner from a wonderful trio of ladies. Each group was given one gas stove, chopping boards, knives and all cooking utensils needed for the class.

We first began prepping for the Sangria.

  • We began by pouring a bottle of wine into a glass jug. You don’t really need an expensive wine.
  • Add 2 tbsp sugar and a pinch of cinnamon
  • Add 100 ml orange juice and 50ml vermouth (you can add brandy as well)
  • Add some fruit – we added sliced limes, apples and oranges
  • Refrigerate for at least 4 hours
  • Add 100ml soda before serving

While our Sangria chilled, our chefl took out pre-prepared Sangria which was poured into a large bowl and we started the tasting. A few drinks sure got everyone talking(ahem!)

Next, we started preparing Gazpacho (this is a simple and healthy dish and also quite perfect for the scorching India summers)

  • Roughly chop 250gm tomatoes, 50 gm green pepper, 50 gm cucumber, 1 onion, small piece of bread, 1 garlic clove, 1 tbsp vinegar and churn in a blender
  • Pass through a fine mesh and return to blender. Add some salt, pepper and cumin.
  • Add 50 ml extra virgin olive oil and blend again to emulsify the oil
  • Chill in the refrigerator and top with diced cucumber, croutons and a dash of oil if you like

And now for the final (and my favourite dish), Paella

  • In a Paella pan (or any plat bottomed pan), add olive oil and fry about 250 gms of chicken for 3 minutes. Set aside
  • In the same pan, add a few cloves of garlic. Once brown, add diced green and red peppers (half each)
  • Once soft, add 200 gms of diced calamari and fry till it gets white.
  • Meanwhile, grate 1 tomato. Add to the cooked calamari along with 1 tsp sweet paprika. Add the fried chicken as well. Cook the mixture till dry
  • Add 150gm of Paella rice and mix everything well
  • Add 500 ml boiling fish stock (add saffron to the stock while it is boiling). Cover the rice and don’t mix further. Lower heat and let it simmer for 5-6 minutes.
  • Arrange mussels on the rice and lower heat further. Let it simmer for 5-6 min.
  • Add prawns to the dish and let it cook for 5 min.
  • If stock remains, increase the heat so that the stock evaporates within a minute or two
  • Take off the heat, cover with a clean lightly wet cloth and let it stand for 10 min
  • Squeeze the juice of 1 lemon over the dish and it is ready to be served

After everything was made, we all displayed our food and laughed and ate together. It was a wonderful experience with some lovely people and great home style food. Post lunch, the group clicked some photos and shared further travel plans. We were handed over a recipe booklet by cooking point and we said our byes.

The experience doesn’t come cheap at a cost of 70 euros per person and typically takes 4 hours. But I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did. While it was more on the popular, commercial side of things, still there was something cozy and comforting about the way the class was conducted by Cooking Point, and the Sangria helps of course 😀 .

If food floats your boat and you enjoy meeting new people, you will definitely walk away feeling satisfied.

This experience was self-funded and not in collaboration with Cooking Point. All reviews are entirely my own.

A Photo Blog from Shanghai

Shanghai was the last leg of my China trip and I was keen to take it bit slow, unwind and reflect after three weeks of hectic travel. One would think that Shanghai is a likely misfit with that objective, and it’s true as well. Shanghai is dazzling and fast and all sorts of electrifying. But I still managed to do my own thing – ate some amazing food, chilled in my AirBnb, visited parks, walked on streets. A more relaxed pace and (mostly) away from the bustle, and I still had a great time. Sharing a photo blog of my days from Shanghai-

One of the busiest streets not only in Shanghai but apparently in the world, Nanjing Road is right in the city centre and bustling with shops, food and tourists. 


A local hideout, Wei Xiang Zhai was recommended to me by a friend as one of her favorite places to get a bowl of noodles. The lady at the counter seemed surprised on seeing us, I presume not many tourists frequent the place. Tables packed tightly together, I could see the kitchen at the back and customers who were totally focused on the food. The menu was all Chinese but we had saved a link from the internet with pictures and made our order. A very no-nonsense place, you get your food, eat and get out. Don’t think hygiene, conversation or ambience. Just focus on the food 😀 . 



And right at the other end of the spectrum was Green & Safe, an upmarket grocery store and cafe, serving western breakfasts, cakes, desserts, pizzas, organic juices and more. You can hear English widely and communication is a no-brainer. This could be any city, in any part of the world. Two Shanghai’s is close vicinity but couldn’t be further apart!


Fuxing Park is a great option on a slow day. It’s beautifully done and was full of elderly people sunning themselves, kids playing around and even this group doing what looked like some team building activities.

Probably the most visited spot in Shanghai, The Bund is the waterfront that lends an incredible skyline which is great to see both in the daytime and in the evening. Though I would imagine that it would look spectacular all lit up in the evening, I never ended up going back for the view(am fairly lazy like that 😉 ).



Steamed xiaolongbao are dumplings, with soup and meat inside and are nothing short of a culinary miracle. Poke a hole, slurp drink the hot soup and then eat the dumpling. I could go back to Shanghai just for these 😀 .

One of the many “hidden bars”, Speak Low is a seemingly popular place to get a drink in Shanghai(it was packed even on a weekday). On Fuxing Lu street, you enter this bar tools shop called Ocho and you are supposed to find the door to Speak Low. Once you do, you go up a flight of stairs and get to the first floor which is where we sat. Drinks and vibe were super cool. But know that none of this comes cheap.


Potstickers: Classic Shanghai street food, these dim sums are first steamed, then grilled on a skillet on one side, to make it crunchy. The meat releases its juices which will scald your throat on the first bite. Still, it’s totally worth it.

If you have the chance to do only one thing in Shanghai, then DO NOT miss getting a ride on the Maglev. Going upto a speed up 431 km/hour, when you see the traffic on the street from the train, it make you feel like you are in a sci-fi movie. The train line connects Shanghai Pudong International Airport and Longyang Road Station and a one way ride costs RMB 50.

Have you been to Shanghai and what were your impressions of the city?

 

A Foodie’s Love Affair with China

Exploring local food is a part of travelling that I really look forward to, and I always feel intrigued on how food plays such a crucial role in many cultures worldwide. Seemingly mundane matters of what people eat, how they eat it and who they eat it with can shed a lot of insight into history, weather, local produce, traditions and habits.

For a foodie, China is definitely out there in terms of quality, complexity, variation and flavor. There are some Chinese dishes that have found popularity globally but that is still a tiny tiny speck of what the cuisine has to offer. Many countries where Chinese food has become popular have adapted the cuisine to suit local palate, to the extent that there is nothing Chinese about it anymore 😉 . In India for example, Chili Chicken is a dish of mass appeal, had as a starter mostly, but ask a Chinese about it and they will draw a complete blank.

The food in China is more than fantastic, and I am surprised to say that I did not have one bad meal. 3 weeks, 3 meals each day = 63 meals out and NOT ONE BAD MEAL.

That is incredible in my view. And very very rare.

So this post is a memoir of the dishes I loved the most in China, from the regions I travelled.  Goes without saying that this is not an all-encompassing list. So if you are planning, do not go near the fast food chains and western restaurants as that would be a terrible waste of an opportunity. Not only that, a Chinese meal is a shared experience. There is no concept of individual portions. Meals take time and are savored. There is conversation and food. Lots of tea. It’s a grand ritual in itself that is repeated meal after meal, day after day and there is something very comforting about it.

Before I drool any further, here are my favorite 15:

Har gou: Steamed Shrimp dumplings, delicate and flavorful with a really thin skin and delicate juicy meat inside. Read more on enjoying a Dim Sum meal here.

Lo baak gou: Shredded radish mixed with rice flour and flavored with ham, shrimp, or other vegetables, then pressed into cakes and fried. Called turnip cakes as well. Commonly found in all Dim Sum places, you can read more about enjoying a Dim Sum meal here.

Sichuan style fish: This dish is literally fire in a bowl. The Sichuan peppers are explosive and you can feel your nostrils and mouth on fire, just after one bite. This dish is a Sichuan cuisine classic, fish and some veg, in a whole lot of oil, chili and other spices. You basically use your chopsticks to eat the fish, leaving the rest in the pot. To calm your insides, towards the end of the meal you will be served with some chilled watermelon, sweet custard like tofu and jelly.

Cauliflower in peppers and bacon: Another Sichuan classic, the vegetable is nice and crunchy and oozing with the bacon fat and heat from the peppers.

Grilled Tofu: Soft melt in the mouth tofu, fried and then covered in a sweet sauce and grilled on a skillet, this dish is another Cantonese favorite of mine. The tofu is so soft and served so piping hot, I burned my mouth many times for lack of patience 😀 . This is a must have for all vegetarians.

Potstickers: Classic Shanghai street food, these dim sums are first steamed, then grilled on a skillet on one side, to make it crunchy. The meat releases its juices which will scald your throat on the first bite. Still, it’s totally worth it.

Congee: A rice porridge popularly had for breakfast and cooked in chicken broth, topped with soy, onion, egg, this is a decently heathy breakfast and very easily available.

Steamed xiaolongbao or Soup Dumplings: Another Shanghai classic, a really thin skin, with a pork filling and steaming hot soup inside. Just imagine the level of skill needed to perfect these. The trick to eat is it to make a small hole in the dumpling, slurp drink the soup and then eat the dumpling.

Fried Pork chops: Tried this at a local’s recommendation at Wei Xiang Zhai in Shanghai and OMG! Crusty perfectly crisp pork chop, soft on the inside. The stuff of dreams I tell you.

Mussels: If you end up in a Cantonese restaurant, do try this if you are a seafood fan. Had them in Guangzhou and they were incredibly fresh, I am sure I could taste the ocean in them. Topped with a whole lot of garlic and chili. YUM!

Tofu cream: I really don’t know what this dish is called (sorry) but at a food court in Wenzhou, I saw big pots of soy milk boiling and the chef was removing the top layer that was cream. It was served in its natural form, with just a bit of soy. Tastes a lot of like cream but nuttier. A very unique dish and great to balance any spices you may be eating.

Baozi: This is basically a bao, a steamed bread like bun filled with all sorts of vegetarian or meat fillings. It’s a great snack on the go and perfect for breakfast.

Sesame paste noodles, vinegar and scallions: Another favorite from Wei Xiang Zhai in Shanghai, this is a dish locals swear by. Wheat noodles topped with hot sesame paste and chili oil with a few scallions thrown in, this dish is full of substance and flavor.

Zongzi: Very commonly available street food, this is glutinous rice with meats cooked and wrapped in bamboo or any other large flat leaf. It can be stored and frozen for months so is easily available at train stations where they will just steam the Zongzi and serve you on the go.

Lai wong bau: Bao dough stuffed with an eggy milk custard and steamed. Sweet and perfect to end your meal with.

Have you visited China? If so, did you love the food as much and what were your favourite dishes?