Author: Maura (page 2 of 4)

COOKING UP AN INDIAN STORM

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Whilst we were in Goa, Anthony, Zowie and I spent a morning with ex-chef Rahul learning five different dishes, cooking them all from scratch and then getting to eat it all. Perfect.

We chose to make the following dishes:

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The most surprising thing about cooking all these dishes in two hours was that everything required very little cooking. Sure, there was lots of marinading and mixing up about eight different spices, but I thought everything would need to cook for hours to get all the spices to ‘marry’. It was a great experience and Rahul was relaxed and very patient with us. Looking forward to trying to recreate this menu when I am back home…

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See all that garlic? We used ALL of it.

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The marinader

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Goan fish curry paste.

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Red Snapper fillets.

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Pureed spinach for the Palak Paneer.

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Cooking my favourite thing: Paneer.

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Beating up the dough for the stuffed paratha.

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Zowie getting stuck in.

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The winner of the 2014 newcomer for stuffed paratha roller.

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Finishing touches to the Biryani.

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Goan Fish Curry

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Tangadi Chicken (tastes better than it looks)

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Vegetable Biryani

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KERALA: LIFE ON THE BACKWATERS

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Everyone goes on and on about how diverse India is. It wasn’t until we arrived in Kerala that I began to understand quite how stunningly different this enormous crazy country really is.

Southern India is: men in sarongs; spicy and sour food; fish, fried or curried with everything; palm trees; big houses; less bread and bigger rice; very Christian with enormous churches and shrines; and less crowded and well, pungent.

We spent a few days in Fort Kochi wandering along the waterfront, trying to work out how the hell the massive chinese fishing nets worked, watching a traditional Kathakali dance and going for a fancy meal with friends from home, Tram-Anh and Brendan.

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Chinese Fishing Nets

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Spice shop

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Camels and a church

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Kathakali dance performers putting on a bit of slap.

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Super posh dinner with Tram-Anh and Brendan.

Then came the thing I had been waiting for: cruising around the Keralan backwaters on a houseboat. This was very kindly funded by my sister, Katie, and we spent two very blissful days gliding past the palm trees and rice fields. We had a captain and our very own chef who made us the most amazing meals, including the now favourite, beetroot curry.

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On the first evening we went a little ‘off piste’ and stopped off to visit the chef’s village. As the light was fading we walked about 20 minutes away from the river to arrive as a surprise for his family. It was certainly a surprise – for us and for them – the whole village turned out to have a look at us. We were made to sit like royalty on the only two seats in the house as about 30 women and children looked on with shyness that soon gave way to giggling. We later found out that most of them had never seen white people before.

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The chef with his mother, sister and her two children (the little one was only one week old).

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We spent two days pootling along in our little houseboat and, despite the captain loosing his way a few times and almost crashing into overhead cables, I don’t think I have ever been so relaxed. Though it’s quiet, life along the river banks is colourful and incredible: washing, swimming, fishing, it all goes on in the dark green waters. Eagles soared above us and the green of the trees and rice fields bounced off the bright sunlight. We even saw some men in boats herding ducks.

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Duck herding

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These two were adorable. They kept calling me Auntie.

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Our floating palace.

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Fish thali: (L-R clockwise from rear) raitha; pickle; salad of coconut, spices and cabbage; pineapple curry; spicy green beans; fried fish; rice with dal on top; and papads.

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Captain (middle) and Chef (right)

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Our thrones.

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Relaxation levels reach new highs.

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Ever wondered what a boat full of nuns looks like? Here you go.

Our Keralan experience continued at a homestay north of Kochi on an island in the backwaters. We stayed with Benny and his gorgeous family and ate delicious home-cooked meals with them, they took us out on their boat to see their prawn farm, showed us how the chinese fishing nets work and even drove us into Kochin town so that Angela could meet Benny’s friend who is also a lawyer.

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Benny, his wife and their little girl, Carol (named after Christmas carol since she was born in December).

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They made us wear hats…

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Prawn farm

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The view from our balcony.

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Fishing with the chinese fishing nets.

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Sorting the prawns from the tiny fish.

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Our catch.

WE SAW A TIGER!

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We went to Bandipur National Park and saw an actual real-life tiger. It was amazing. We also saw a range of other furry things and elephants too.

First here are some more tiger shots:

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Frida Kahlo the deer.

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Pumba from Lion King made an appearance.

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Wild elephant (obvs)

Sambar Deer - biggest deer in India. Fact.

Sambar Deer – biggest deer in India. Fact.

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Peacock

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Bison

Up close with an elephant

Up close with an elephant

Monkey

Monkey

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Our jeep. Please note the small children in the rear seats. These children screamed and cried their way around the park making all the animals run for cover. Thanks kids.

HAMPI: HOLY ELEPHANTS, BIG ROCKS & HELL’S ANGELS

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Hampi is a weird place: covered in boulders seemingly dropped in neat piles from outer space; and scattered with temples in various state of ruin and repair. Hampi is also my favourite place in India.

We spent five very content days wandering its quiet and small bazaar, visiting seemingly endless temples, stumbling upon a Bollywood film being shot, watching Lakshmi, the temple’s resident elephant, having a bath and then receiving a blessing from her, and lounging around in a chai haze chatting with some very awesome Australian girls we met.

Without a doubt, our Hampi highlight has to be hiring mopeds for the day and being part of the biggest, baddest motorbike girl gang.  We zipped around the quiet roads framed by rocky hills, climbed the steps to the Hanuman temple, chatted with a Sadhu and looked through his photo album, and rode around the edge of a reservoir apparently home to a crocodile. It was absolutely ruddy brilliant.

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S

MUMBAI

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The tour of the Dharavi slum (yes, the one from Slumdog Millionaire), was our Mumbai highlight. ‘Paying for someone to show you round the poorest parts of a city, isn’t that a bit crass?’ I hear you say… Well, this is something we wrestled with and researched and discussed. I mean, the English equivalent would be tourists paying to take a tour of some of Tower Hamlets grittiest council estates. That would be weird.

However, we found a tour company, Reality Tours, that was run from within Dharavi, by people that live or have lived there and the majority of the profits are ploughed back into projects in the slums. Any doubts and concerns about voyeurism quickly wore off when we met our guide and he explained the importance of the tours for him, personally. He too had lived in Dharavi and wanted people to understand that it’s not all jumping into pits of poo as depicted in Slumdog Millionaire. In fact, most Indians we have talked to were unhappy with the film, to them it’s an unbalanced portrayal of India as a poor, dirty and dangerous country.

The morning we spent in Dharvari was an astonishing and humbling experience. Home to nearly 1 million people in roughly 500 acres, it is one of the world’s biggest slums. Yes, people are living in extreme conditions, but it is alive with industry and ingenuity. The annual turnover is estimated at 500 million USD.

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Postcard from Reality Tours

The slum is divided into toxic and non-toxic areas. Certainly the toxic area was the most shocking in terms of the methods and lengths people are going to to earn some of those 500 million dollars. Absolutely nothing is wasted here: old oil drums are stripped, cleaned, repainted and sold back to the fuel companies; plastic bottles, toys, household objects, well plastic anything really is hand sorted, broken down, melted and re-set into small colourful pellets, washed and then dried in the sun by people raking it with their feet on the roofs, before being sold back to manufacturers; and aluminium is melted down in make-shift furnaces in dark rooms with almost zero ventilation, poured and set into bouillon blocks and sold within the slum for business to melt and re-use to make machine parts. The smell and heat in the aluminium furnace was overwhelming, like something out of a post-apocalyptic film or a Victorian factory.

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Postcard from Reality Tours

The non-toxic area is home to pottery, leather and catering industries. Pastry buns are made, baked and then distributed to the whole of Mumbai (though without mentioning that they were made in a slum). We saw clay being softened by men walking up and down in bare feet then made into a variety of pots and baked in brick kilns.

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Postcard from Reality Tours

Sure, these people are living in over crowded conditions with little or no infrastructure – one toilet block serves over 1000 residents and it sure ain’t pretty. The walkways between houses is one person wide making privacy an unobtainable luxury and it is incredibly overwhelming. However, the over riding impression in the residential area is that of cleanliness – the glimpses we had through the curtained doorways were of freshly scrubbed floors and pot plants. Games of cricket were taking place in the open spaces, women washing clothes then smacking them dry on flat rocks and children peeked out of doorways waving and saying ‘hello’.

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Postcard from Reality Tours

Towards the end of our tour we visited a school which the profits of our tour had helped to build and run. A dance class was taking place and children of all ages were watching intently trying to learn the latest moves. To say it was cute was a massive understatement.

Understandably we were not able to take photographs during the tour, but we did buy some postcards and these are the images you can see in this post.

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Postcard from Reality Tours

During our short stay in Mumbai we also drank a tower of beer in the infamous Leopald’s Cafe, as featured in the best-selling novel, Shantaram, queued with thousands of Indian tourists to see the Gateway of India, saw thousands of sheets, pairs of jeans and shirts drying at the city’s biggest laundry and visited the station featured in the final scenes of Slumdog Millionaire and designed by the same dude who built St. Pancras, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. 

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SIX MONTHS ALREADY?!!

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Just over six months ago we packed up and shipped out of dear old London town and now, five countries on, we are alive, happy and in a slight daze at the fact that we are still on this big long holiday.

For me, the strangest thing about this big long holiday is that it isn’t strange at all. I mean, obviously the different cultures, languages and experiences are strange, but the fact that our holiday seems to be going on for longer than the obligatory two weeks seems well, normal, now.

For the most part, these six months have been a complete blast of fun, wonder and pinch-yourself-you-are-very-lucky-moments.  Sure, we’ve had a few tiny grazes with bad luck, but compared to the horror stories travellers love to share, we are practically cruising through without too much collateral damage. To date, we are two iPhones down, but far worst things have happened at sea (and in India).

I guess in many ways this trip was quite a test for mine and Angela’s fledgling relationship. Spending 24 hours in each others company, in strange, new and often very confusing situations, armed with only our instinct and some scribbled notes from Tripadvisor, it turns out that we make quite the team. The division of labour happened quite naturally: Angela deals with the money and other maths related activities like adding and subtracting; I research and book accommodation; and everything else we work out together.

It’s been so fascinating to see how the other reacts in such different environments and situations, it turns out that Angela LOVES learning Spanish, horse riding and long train journeys and isn’t much of a fan of rice. Of course there have been tantrums, tears and grumpy moments (mostly from me) and times where one of us has attempted to storm off in a huff (and then realising we can’t actually go too far, so stand slightly up the road or peer round a corner), but it’s been an intense and brilliant way to get to know each other better.

So, here’s to the next six months. It’s got a lot to live up to!

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ONE PHOTO?

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‘Hello, one photo, one photo please.’

‘What, of us? Oh ok then?’

This happens to us regularly in India. Mostly if we are at a monument, it’s the weekend or in a very busy area. Usually there will be some whispering and then, the most confident of the group will approach saying ‘one photo, one photo’. A group will huddle around us, stand perfectly straight, all with completely serious faces, and little to no smiling. It’s weird, but it’s really fun. Occasionally it can be a bit full on when there is a queue of people waiting, but hey, at least now we know how the Beckhams feel…

Another plus point is that if they ask for ‘one photo’ we take photos too:

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‘FINDING OURSELVES’ IN RISHIKESH

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We sailed out of the Delhi madness on a clean(ish) air conditioned train headed for the northern town of Rishikesh. We were very excited about our first journey on the famous Indian Railway and it didn’t disappoint: on time; food served; comfy seats; and the perfect blend of Indian organised chaos.

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Rishikesh is in the foothills of the Himalayas and at the start of the River Ganges. The town itself is not much, but the life along the riverbank is really quite magical. This is where the Beatles escaped to in the 70s to ‘find themselves’ and write most of The White Album. Though the Ashram they stayed at is in ruins now, the area is still full of ashrams, aveydic pharmacies, massage shops, bead stalls, yoga classes, basically everything you need to find yourself and live as a true hippy.

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We spent five days wandering along the Ganges, exploring the temples, ashrams and the curry menus in the local restaurants. In fact, Angela had the best curry of her life – a vegetable Jalfrezi in Beatles themed 60’s Cafe if you are interested.

We also partook in some light finding ourselves activities including evening meditation sessions with a very peaceful German named Eva. Unfortunately, as it takes approximately 4.5 seconds for me to fall asleep normally and quicker if I am lying down (as we were in the meditation sessions), I took relaxation quite literally and was completely mortified when I woke myself up snoring during our second session.

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Cows feature heavily in Rishikesh and, as we are finding, in much of India. They pootle about the narrow streets munching on bits and bobs, standing in the middle of heavy traffic or on the bridges seemingly without a care in the world.

DSCF6574 Avoiding the many aggressive monkeys which swing through the town whilst trying to catch a perfect photograph of them also took up a fair wedge of our time. As did trying to figure out if the 60 year old American lady in our hostel was really heavily pregnant or had some other mysterious ailment. We tried a number of leading questions, but left none the wiser.

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Getting around the supposedly pedestrian streets was a real adventure: huge huddles of families; slow moving long haired holy men; aforementioned cows and monkeys; and motorbikes all battle for space on the winding streets and on the two suspension bridges. Nothing like a traffic jam made up of a huge cow, ten hippies, 20 grandmas, a couple of men selling postcards, and five motorbikes, to wonder about just how much a bridge can handle. Turns out it’s quite  a lot.

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However, it was here that the Indian friendliness we had encountered in Delhi stepped up a gear. What would often start as a shy boy asking for a photo with us, would end up as four generations of a family blocking the road to cram into the photograph. It’s still the Diwali holidays, so we met people from all over India. My favourite was a gang of little old ladies from Gujarat in bejewelled saris who were thrilled to meet us, stroking our hands, smiling so wide and fascinated with Angela’s tattoo. The attention was occasionally overwhelming, with people approaching us every 10 minutes or so, but so wonderful to be welcomed so warmly and to make people smile just simply by being there.

One of the highlights of Rishikesh was attending a Hindu ceremony called Ganga Arti on the banks of the river. It involved singing, clapping, music and some pretty awesome hand cymbal playing. It was very moving to watch the sun set on the river as floral offerings were carried away by the Ganges and it was a perfect introduction to what we would find at our next destination: Varanasi.

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WELCOME TO INDIA

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After a few hours of sleep we stepped out into the Delhi daylight and the full impact of India hit our exhausted eyes.

India is everything you imagine, everything and then some more. Walking along the main bazaar was a complete sensory overload – it is like being smashed in the face with a Michael Palin documentary.

You quite literally walk through smells of cinnamon, urine, incense, garlic, rotten food, spices and petrol. Shouts, car horns, music and squealing children all vie for your attention, whilst you attempt to politely escape stall holders pleas to look at their wares and simultaneously dodge an oncoming cow. There are cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, tuk tuks and bikes everywhere. Crossing the road was the most terrifying and liberating experience: after realising that there is never a break in the traffic, you just have to step out. They actually drive around you….well, just about.

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The majority of our time was spent figuring out a route round India that fitted in with the few train tickets left on the almost sold out trains. It didn’t help that we got good and scammed on our first day when our tuk tuk driver took us to a fake tourist information centre – luckily we sniffed a proverbial rat and didn’t part with any rupees. We had a small train related victory when we bought the smallest phone in India so that we could buy train tickets ourselves without the help of the many ‘official’ ticket sellers we met.

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Ours for just £7.00 including £2.00 credit.

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Old Delhi

We also spent a fair amount of time chatting to curious Indian men, who made us laugh and attempted to lure us into their ‘tourist office’ or what was actually a travel agents. They certainly love English sayings or rhymes and would crack up whilst saying to us: ‘see you later alligator, in a while crocodile’ and someone actually said: ‘lovely jubbly’.

We did manage a day of sightseeing and even braved the metro, which is very clean, fast and had actual air conditioning putting the hot and sweaty (even in November) London Underground to shame.  We visited Humayun’s tomb and the Red Fort, which were both absolutely stunning.

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Turns out they have named a station after our friend Chandni.

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Humayun’s Tomb

The Red Fort

The Red Fort

Though Delhi was exhausting, stinky and dirty, we loved it almost exclusively for the people. Yes, they might be trying to sell you something, but they are so friendly and genuinely happy that you have come to visit India, that it’s hard not to feel welcome almost immediately.

Early days, I know, but we think we might be falling in love with India.

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CARTAGENA, YOU BEAUTY

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If Angela’s South American dream was to visit Machu Picchu then Cartagena was mine. I couldn’t wait to walk it’s walls and wander the borganzilla framed streets and not only met my expectations, it totally smashed them.

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We stayed in the slightly grubbier end, just outside the walls of the old city and was bursting with colour and life. Our hostel, Mamallena, was to become our favourite in all of South America, not because it was particularly fancy, but because we met an array of brilliant people, the staff were lovely, the air conditioning was cold and the breakfast was free. 

1544321_10154572195020063_1175178136948641940_nThe only downside was the vicious and irritating hostel parrot and the intense humid heat. This was a whole other world of hot. Just a slow walk would require at least two stops in air conditioned shops, pretending to be very interested in their wares, whilst desperately trying to cool down. 

We ended up staying in Cartagena three times in total. Most of our days were taken up with: wandering the narrow streets; taking pictures of flowers bursting out of crumbling buildings; sitting in the nearby plaza as the day cooled slightly into evening; talking long into the night with Colombians and other travellers; dancing outside the bar next to our hostel; drinking strong mojitos; eating empanadas with assorted sauces; and pootling around the small but stunning city feeling very at home.

If it wasn’t for the oppressive humid heat, I would say that this was my favourite place in Colombia and perhaps even South America, nay, the world!

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