Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri - 2011

The fasting month of Ramadan is now over and the Muslim celebration of Hari Raya is here.  For those of us living in Brunei the start of Hari Raya is always a little uncertain as it's dependent on the moon being sighted on one particular evening.  If it's seen then Hari Raya begins, if it's not then Hari Raya will begin the following evening.

We were in a restaurant in town last night when the announcement was made - the moon had been spotted, so the parties could begin.  We may not be Muslim, but we were celebrating too... we get 2 days off work! We'll go back to work on Friday, but as it's an early finish at school every Friday (11:45am) I don't mind at all.

One of the lovely aspects of Hari Raya, public holidays aside, is the custom of hosting an 'Open House' (about which I blogged last year).  This afternoon we went to our first Open House of the season, held at the house of the grandparents of one of the girls in my new class.  We were greeted with open arms, fed some wonderful food, and left my lovely pupil with a big smile on her face, delighted that her teacher had come to her party!  I'm glad we went.

I wish I could say I'd made these cute cupcakes, but the image is courtesy of this site

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Homemade Ginger Beer

Living in a hot climate has lots of benefits, many of them culinary.  Bread-making for example is a breeze!  Our non-air-conditioned kitchen is usually hovering about the 30-degree mark so you won't often find me in there slaving over a roast-beef dinner, but it's just about perfect for getting a good rise from yeasted dough.  I make at least 2 loaves a week meaning that we rarely, if ever, buy bread here.

Another thing for which the climate is perfect is brewing...  No, we don't have any 'real' beer on the go, but we have made Ginger Beer, and it's delicious.

I'm happy to go to great effort to make something delicious, but this requires barely any effort at all - it's ridiculously simple.

The recipe, plus photos of the process, can be found here, and many thanks to David Fankhauser who posted this.  I'd urge you to take careful note of his advice about the bottles you use - this very fizzy,  and we found ourselves releasing some fizz from the bottles several times a day as the plastic began to bulge.  I shudder to think of what might happen if you used glass bottles.

The only slight change I made to the recipe was to use half a cup of white sugar and half a cup of brown sugar, instead of the whole cup of white sugar listed.  I imagined this would give it a nicer flavour, but I don't know if it made any difference really.

I love the fact this uses ginger root as opposed to powdered ginger.  Ginger root is cheap and plentiful here and we always have peeled chunks of it in the freezer.  I sieved mine before I drank it, but Rob happily ate the bits of ginger too.  It's not too sweet, and so refreshing.

We made 2 litre bottles of this, but unfortunately our Amah tipped one of them away...  Granted, it did look a little sinister, but it's very annoying nonetheless!  Thank heavens the other bottle was in the fridge - and we'll just have to get another batch brewing very soon.

Friday, 26 August 2011

An A-Z of India Part 5

U is for Udaipur.

Mentioned earlier in the 'L is for Lakes' section of this A-Z, Udaipur was a town that we really enjoyed.  Udaipur is famous for being the setting for the James Bond film Octopussy, and indeed many of the restaurants there screen the film every night.  I found this snippet on youtube - unfortunately the dialogue isn't in English, but as it's 95% action it doesn't really seem to matter.  It's a fairly accurate representation of the city traffic too..!

It is also a lovely relaxed place (despite the auto-rickshaws), with many great shops - aimed at tourists of course, but some good haggling to be done, and nice souvenirs to be picked up.

V is for Views.

Take your pick - there were plenty of stunning ones, and sometimes it was good just to take a quiet moment to appreciate them.

It's hard to choose favourites, but here are a couple of mine:  the Taj Mahal from across the river, and Jaisalmur city and fort from our hotel rooftop.

W is for Wells.

We were travelling along quite happily one day, on our journey between Fatephur Sikri and Jaipur, when suddenly our driver Ram veered off down what was almost a dirt road.  "I show you something!" he announced, but wouldn't explain what.  Baffled, but realising that we had no choice other than to trust him, we sat back and waited...  a good 20 minutes later we pulled up outside what looked like quite a small and rather dull temple in a village.  We were mentally rolling our eyes, thinking that we'd quickly pop in and look, just to be polite, but when we walked inside... wow!

This was Chand Baori in Abaneri, a famous stepped well.  I realised that I had actually seen photographs of this place before, but hadn't realised that it was on our route.  I hadn't even realised it was in India actually.

Stunning (thanks Ram!).

X is for...

I could have gone with the wincingly awful eXtraordinary, or eXtremely interesting, but couldn't quite bring myself to do so.  Perhaps the best attempt might be eXtreme, for India is certainly a land of extremes...  extreme wealth, and extreme poverty; extreme beauty and extreme squalor.  

Happy as a pig in...

It's a country that puzzles and confuses me.  I loved some things about it, but detested others.  It's so hard to see where you would start when it comes to making changes.  Yes, it's becoming ever wealthier, a new super-economy, but driving around you really wouldn't know it.  So much needs to change in order for the vast majority of people there to have an improved quality of life.  It needs better roads, better sanitation, better housing, a system of rubbish collection, the list goes on and on.  In many ways I found it terribly depressing, and yet we had some amazing moments there too.

Y is for Yellow.

Z is for Zooming home (crap I know, but cut me some slack)

We had a great flight back.  We got an upgrade from Delhi to KL as we had signed up to 'Optiontown', meaning we were top of the list to take any spare first class seats.  It only cost us $50 each, but on a 5-hour overnight flight it was worth every cent to have a flat-bed seat and a pillow.  A 7-hour wait at KL airport then followed, but our flight back to Brunei was in beautiful conditions - bright sunshine and perfect white clouds.

And it was certainly good to be home.  We vowed we'd never again complain about the traffic or driving here in Brunei ever again - it could be much worse!

Thursday, 25 August 2011

An A-Z of India Part 4

P is for Parasols.

These beautifully embroidered parasols were popular souvenirs, particularly in Jaipur.  I was very tempted to buy one, but didn't quite know what I would actually do with it, lovely though they are, so contented myself with taking photographs instead.

Q is for Qur'anic Script.

The Taj Mahal is influenced heavily by Islamic architecture, and around many of the arches you can see Qur'anic script.  This is all created using inlaid stones, and it has been incredibly cleverly done - the script gradually gets larger the higher up the building it is, and this cancels out the natural perspective so to the observer standing at ground-level the script all looks to be the same size.

R is for Ranakpur.

Our drive from Jodhpur to Udaipur took us on a dramatically winding road that rose higher and higher into the hills.  As we drove higher the land became greener and we found ourselves feeling strangely as though we had entered the tropics.  Hidden away in a wooded valley, we found the Jain temples of Ranakpur.  This area had a completely different feel to it to anywhere else on the rest of the journey.  Damp and humid, it felt just like home! 

The main temple (above) was built in 1439 according to a strict system of measurement  based on the number 72 (the age at which the founder of the Jain religion achieved nirvana).  The temple pedestal is 72 ft square, and it is held up by 1440 (72x20) individually carved pillars.  There are 72 shrines and a 72 inch tall statue of the main deity, Adinath.  I didn't worry about counting though, I was just blown away by the sheer beauty of the place.

The pale stone, the coolness and peace inside the temple, the soft natural light, the intricate carvings... a few moments of tranquility in this hectic country.

Ranakpur was also where we photographed these beautiful black-faced monkeys, who posed most obligingly for us.

S is for Saris.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then here's the equivalent of a small novel!

S is also for squirrels.  Well, they're what're called chipmunks in Canada, but the Indians call them squirrels and they're everywhere!  Legend has it that Lord Rama stroked the back of a squirrel, and his fingers left the stripes in its fur, explaining why squirrels are sacred in India.

T is for TATA Trucks.

TATA is a company that dominates India.  They seem to have a hand in everything from mobile phones to coffee, insurance to hotels; but the most visible TATA presence is on the roads.  Everywhere we went the main roads were filled with TATA trucks, but far from being the ugly brutes that you find on the roads of Europe, these were all brightly painted and highly individual.  Despite the noise, pollution and traffic hold-ups, I began to feel quite fondly towards these vehicles.

I wish I'd taken more photos of them as they became quite an iconic symbol of our trip, but a quick internet search revealed that plenty of people have snapped them, and I'm cheekily borrowing this wonderful montage by Nancy Allen, found here, because I think it's just beautiful.  Thanks Nancy.

All the trucks invite you to blow your horn - horns in India are not used in anger, simply to tell other road users that you're there.  The noise, as you might imagine, is constant!

T is also for thali, the cheap and cheerful 'sampler' dish that can be found in restaurants and cafes everywhere.  I had this one in a cheery diner in Jaisalmur.  There were free refills too!

And T is also for Trains.  We pondered doing part of our journey by train, but once we'd arranged a driver it seemed a bit unnecessary.  Not sure I'd have fancied travelling like this...

If that's second class, where is third class?!

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

An A-Z of India Part 3

K is for Kheer and Kulfi.

We saw many Indian sweets being made and sold as we travelled around, but the dessert options on restaurant menus seemed pretty limited.  I was however keen to try both Kheer, an Indian rice-pudding, and Kulfi, a cardamom-scented ice-cream.  But fate seemed never to be on my side - I was either too full of curry and naan bread to even consider a dessert, or on a couple of occasions I ordered, only to be told that they had none left.  Gutted.  I'll have to try making them myself...

Here is a recipe for Kheer.
This Kulfi recipe sounds intriguing.

Boiling up a huge pan of milk for sweets.

L is for Lakes.

Two of the later stops on our route were Udaipur and Pushkar, both settlements built around lakes.  In Udaipur our hotel was set up on a hill just outside the city centre which gave us wonderful views over the city, City Palace and Lake Pichola; but we also spent a memorable evening eating at a lakeside restaurant named Ambrai which had beautiful views of the very exclusive Lake Palace Hotel.  The accommodation prices there are eye-watering, and sadly you can't even just take a boat over to the hotel for a meal, due to worries about terrorism, but Ambrai was an excellent place from which to see it as the sun set.

Pushkar is a smaller town, but a much holier one according to the Hindu religion.  The lake is surrounded by 500 temples, from which 52 'ghats' lead down to the water.  Mahatma Gandhi's ashes were scattered on this lake.  Our Rough Guide informed us that in days past the lake was infested with man-eating crocodiles that would regularly pick off bathing pilgrims, but eventually the British intervened during the Raj, transporting the crocs to a nearby reservoir.  You'd have to be dedicated to bathe in the holy waters if you were sharing them with crocodiles! 

No reptiles in evidence today, only pilgrims and a few sacred cows!  We only spent one evening here, but enjoyed wandering down the bustling main street, doing some shopping and going for a lovely meal (pizza... *blush* - we were a bit sick of curry by then, and we found a restaurant that cooked their pizzas in their tandoor oven!)

M is for Monsoon.

As I mentioned earlier, we had some rain in Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, but none so heavy as the monsoon rains we encountered in Pushkar...!  Our driver had dropped us at one end of town and we had arranged to meet him back there a few hours later.  We found the above-mentioned pizza restaurant at the opposite end of town, and as we sat there enjoying our meal there was a crash of thunder and the heavens opened!  Now we're used to torrential rain - we live in Brunei, it happens fairly regularly - but this Pushkar rain was every bit as dramatic, and showed no sign of easing off.  We had no choice other than to set off through town once we had finished eating...  the water was literally around our shins, and it really didn't bear thinking too hard about what it was that was swilling about around our legs!  Soaked to the skin, we got back to the car to find our driver chortling heartily at the state we were in!

Slightly damp (and taking it in turns with the umbrella!) at Nagda, near Udaipur.

A more positive aspect to the monsoon is the amazing blossoming of greenness that suddenly covers the country.  We drove through parts of the Thar Desert, and many other places that our driver told us were usually parched and dry throughout the year, except during the monsoon season.  It was hard for us to imagine, as these places were looking so lush and beautiful.  What a harsh life it must be to live in such a climate.  Indeed, our driver informed us that one year in recent times the monsoon rains never arrived, leaving many animals, and I suspect their human owners, to starve.

Not quite lush greenery, but plenty of trees here growing in the desert dunes as we drove away from Jaisalmur.

N is for Naan.

When you think of an accompaniment to curry, I'd imagine most people choose rice, Basmati perhaps.  But in Rajasthan we hardly saw anyone eating rice.  Instead they ate breads with their curries, perhaps fried breads such as poori, or more often grilled breads such as naan.  We quickly found ourselves judging a restaurant by the quality and price of their Garlic Naan!  40 rupees was what we thought was acceptable, but we saw them priced at 3 times that amount too.  We became connoisseurs of the naan, preferring those that were soft and puffy rather than drier and crispy as some were.

Pictured here are the good and the bad:

Good - very good in fact - in the 'Kwality' restaurant in Delhi (naff name, great food).

Bad, dry naan at a restaurant in Jodhpur.  Good mini-bucket of dhal though!

O is for Orange.

Orange?  The colour of pilgrimage.  Our driver told us that we were in India during a month of pilgrimage, and indeed everywhere we went we saw orange-clad, barefoot men carrying containers of water from the River Ganges.  They might be walking for any length of time, sometimes many hundreds of miles, depending on their fitness and the challenge they had chosen for themselves.  The water was eventually to be poured onto a shrine to the god Shiva.  

We saw many pilgrims at the Taj Mahal, but also many hundreds on the roads.  Their journeys looked like quite sociable events, as they would often be followed by a brightly-painted truck with music and horn blaring - and generally causing huge hold-ups on the road!


Tuesday, 23 August 2011

An A-Z of India Part 2

F is for Forts.

Pretty much every town or city we went to had a stunning fort.  Either perched on a hilltop above the town, or in some cases right in the centre of the town, these stunning buildings dominate the landscape.  Most can be visited, and are popular with tourists and locals alike. 

Clockwise from top left: Jaigarh Fort near Jaipur, Amber Fort near Jaipur, Meherangarh Fort in Jodhpur, Jaisalmer Fort, with Jaisalmer town all around.

Within the heavy fortifications you find lavishly decorated palaces where the Maharajas lived, in most cases right up until the Independence of India in 1947.  All the forts were incredible, although I have to admit that after 10 days or so, some of them began to seem remarkably similar (I remember the same feeling in Thailand, but of being 'templed out'!)

One of the quietest forts we visited, at Bikaner.  Quiet but beautiful.

Clearly these forts are an important source of revenue for the Rajasthani tourist board, but we began to get a little annoyed with the dramatically different pricing systems for Indian residents and tourists...  At Meherangarh Fort in Jodhpur for example, we paid 300 rupees each to enter, plus 100 rupees per camera.  Indian residents paid 30 rupees.

F is also for Fatephur Sikri, the 'ghost city' built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar but suddenly abandoned around 1585.   We visited on our journey between Agra and Jaipur and it proved a very atmospheric and interesting way to break the drive.

G is for Golden Triangle.

The archetypal Indian experience, the 'Golden Triangle' covers the 3 major cities of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, and these were the first 3 places that we visited as part of our wider Rajasthani tour. 

Ironically, this was the least enjoyable section of the trip.  As I mentioned previously, Delhi didn't endear itself to us and Agra - Taj Mahal aside - was grotty.  Jaipur, the legendary 'Pink City' was also pretty grim, and not nearly as picturesque as we had imagined.  Perhaps the weather didn't help our impressions?  It was monsoon season and it rained in all 3 of these places while we were there.  Once we got further West into the desert areas it was sunnier and less humid, so generally more pleasant, plus the towns and cities were nicer.  If you're thinking of a trip to India, don't just settle on the Golden Triangle, head West.

H is for Hotels.

Hotels proved rather a headache for us on this trip...  We had arranged the trip through a travel company based in Delhi and asked them to provide a car and driver, plus book the hotels that we had carefully researched.  The car and driver part was fine, but despite telling us that he had definitely booked all of our hotels, at every place we arrived it became clear that Deepak (the agent at Truly India - name and shame!!!) had either booked us into totally different hotels than the ones we had requested, or not bothered to book at all!  Many was the time that we had to ask our poor driver to 'phone him, and tell him to ring the hotel and make the booking as we were standing in the lobby!

Sigh.  Despite this (which almost became amusing by the end of the trip, in a 'laugh or you'll cry' kind of way) we did end up staying in some beautiful properties.  Rajasthan is full of lovely historic havelis and palaces that have been converted into hotels, and also new-build hotels in a historic characterful style.  These were some of our best:

The Hari Mahal in Jaipur (we were in the historic part, not the modern block attached).

The Hotel Pleasant Haveli in Jaisalmer, a new hotel in an old style with an incredible roof-terrace/view!

 The Pal Haveli in Jodhpur, a historic hotel in the centre of the city.

The Kurabar Kothi in Udaipur.  We had one of the best rooms in the place with a lovely window-seat overlooking a stunning view of the city and lake below.

H is also for Hindustans, the wonderful antique-style cars that are still built in India today, a throwback to colonnial times.

I is for Inlay.

The Taj Mahal is beautifully decorated, inlaid with all manner of precious stones.  This is clearly a great skill, and we were taken by our Agra guide to an Inlay workshop to see the craft in action.  Of course the guide was on a huge commission, and whilst we were interested in seeing the artisans in action, we had no interest at all in purchasing anything...  We soon learnt that if you have a guide for a morning or day, this is all part of the package.  This was one of the reasons that we decided against taking guides after the first 3 cities, preferring to guide ourselves with our increasingly battered edition of The Rough Guide to Rajasthan, Delhi and Agra.

J is for Jaipur, Jaisalmur and Jodhpur.

Or the Pink City, the Golden City and the Blue City.  Although Jaipur wasn't nearly as lovely as I had imagined, it did have some gorgeous buildings, and the vast majority are painted a distinctive pinky colour.  We didn't spend a huge amount of time in the city itself as our day there was mainly taken up with an excursion to Amber Fort, 13km away, but we did spend an hour or so wandering around soaking up the atmosphere.

Good to see someone keeping the Pink City pink!

The Palace of the Winds was particularly stunning in the morning sunshine.

Jaisalmur on the other hand was stunning, our favourite place on the entire route.  In the far west of Rajasthan, a mere 100km from the Pakistani border, I think it's a place that many tourists might miss, but it is well worth the effort to get there.  The town has been built up around the incredible fort in the centre, a walled ancient city where about 2000 people still live, but which encloses a lavish palace along with hotels, shops, etc.  The fort is in danger of collapse due to the increased demands for water so tourists are urged to stay in the town outside - something we were happy to do as it meant that we got to look at the fort from our hotel!  Built entirely from the local gold-coloured stone this is a beautiful place, but we also found the people most friendly, the shopkeepers less aggressive in their hassling you as you walked by, and the atmosphere generally more pleasant.  It felt like I hoped India would feel.

Honey-coloured havelis, covered in amazing carvings.
 The view across Jaisalmur from the top of the fort.

Jodhpur fell somewhere between the previous two in our affections - it was certainly a more pleasant place than Jaipur in our eyes, but didn't quite live up to Jaisalmur.  In the oldest part of the city most of the houses are painted a distinctive blue colour - the colour blue originally indicated a high-class Brahmin residence, but later people thought that the indigo in the paint helped to repel insects and keep them cool  in Summer.  Whatever the reason, it lends a very attractive feel to the city.  We also enjoyed spending time people-watching in the large market that surrounds the clock tower in the centre of town. 

And of course - how could I fail to mention this?! - Jodhpur was where Rob had a pair of Jodhpurs tailor-made!  Not quite sure when he'll be wearing them...  but if anyone ever invites us to a Raj-themed fancy-dress party we'll be well prepared.

Part 3 coming soon...

Sunday, 21 August 2011

An A-Z of India Part 1

We've been back for a week and a half now, and it's taken me that long to it down and write this post.  There have been the practical issues of sorting through about 1000 photos, and putting many loads of clothes through the washing machine - oh yes, and starting a new term at school - but it's also been a time to mentally assess the trip.  I say trip as opposed to holiday as this really wasn't your usual relaxing break.  It was quite frankly exhausting, sometimes gruelling.  However, there were also many high points, and many amazing sights that I am thrilled to have seen.

I've pondered writing several posts on different aspects of the trip, but I've gone instead for an A-Z, which will hopefully cover it all!  Here goes...

A is for Agra

More specifically its most famous building, the Taj Mahal.  The rest of Agra was pretty grim! 

This was one of those rare places that actually lives up to its reputation.  I was expecting to be a bit disappointed by it as it's such a well-known sight, but the opposite was true, I was bowled over by it.  It was vast, majestic, beautiful and awe-inspiring.

The Taj Mahal is closed to non-Muslims on Friday, which was the day that we arrived in Agra, but our driver took us to the gardens opposite the Taj, just across the river.   There were very few other people there but we had the most stunning sunset views.  The next morning we set off early to visit the Taj itself, and even at 7.30am it was busy - but due to the sheer size of the place it never felt crowded.  In fact all the people there just seemed rather tiny and insignificant.  After marvelling at the building however, it was lovely to focus on the other visitors, particularly the ladies in their colourful saris.

A is also for Amber Fort.

B is for Baksheesh.

Although India is a 'cheap' destination by Western standards, you could be forgiven for thinking that you have a hole in your wallet as you travel around as almost everything you do seems to require 'baksheesh' in the form of a tip.  I don't object to tipping after a meal - I'm perfectly used to that in the UK and Canada/USA - and I'll happily tip someone for carrying my bags to my hotel room (although quite frankly I'd often rather just do it myself), but I do object to giving someone a tip simply for handing me a paper towel at the bathroom sink when I've been to the toilet and washed my hands!  This happened in almost every restaurant we ate at.  It wasn't so bad for me (as these 'assistants' were always male and therefore less intrusive in the women's toilets), but poor Rob had people scurrying around practically following him into toilet cubicles in the desperate desire to earn a tip, turning on the tap for him at the sink, and even dispensing soap for him!  It really did get very irritating.

B is also for blue - specifically Jodhpur, the 'Blue City'.

C is for Curry.

We ate some great food in India... but I have to admit that it did become slightly monotonous.  Perhaps it was just that we were mainly offered Rajasthani food, but pretty much every menu began to look alike after a while.  Don't get me wrong, it was all lovely stuff, but 2 weeks of curry became a bit much.

I was however hugely impressed by the vegetarian food on offer.  I'm not vegetarian, but decided to eschew meat for the duration of the trip in an attempt to stave off Delhi-Belly.  I ate lots of wonderful dishes that used Paneer, the gorgeous mild white curd cheese, and we had plenty of dhal, many different types.  Unfortunately I don't think it was very healthy.  All the dishes were swimming in ghee, and we avoided all salad in case of illness.

Here's a typical curry breakfast:

Poori bhaji and parathas with curd (yoghurt) and lime pickle.

I'm looking forward to making some curries soon, but might be leaving it a little while!

C is also for chai (the spiced tea we drank at least 3 times a day), colours, cows and camels (regular features of the traffic in India).

D is for Delhi

Delhi is most people's introduction to India, and I have to say it's not a great one.   Vast and crowded, with nightmare traffic, it's a city I found hard to love, not helped by the fact that we were put in very seedy hotels there (we stayed there for our first 2 nights, and then the final night of our trip).  However, we did have an excellent guide for our full day in Delhi, and saw some wonderful sights.

Our favourite thing was wandering around the narrow streets in Old Delhi, just watching people going about their business.

It was chaotic and hot, but full of life and colour - and lots of smiling faces (the children in particular always waved and shouted hello).

D is also for driver - the lovely Ram, a Nepalese chap who drove us throughout our 2-week trip (see photo below) - and desert - the Thar Desert in Western Rajasthan.

E is for Elephants.

As mentioned previously (see letter C) animals are an integral part of Indian traffic.  Cows are sacred and seem to know it, wandering round with the clear belief that they are invincible.  They certainly lack any road-sense.  Camels are beasts of burden, and could often be spotted pulling carts laden down with bricks or stone.  But elephants?  I wasn't expecting that!  We passed a few being used to pull carts, but sadly I didn't manage to get a photo as we were being driven at the time.  However, we did see a huge number of elephants at Amber Fort, just outside Jaipur.  They were being used to carry tourists up to the fort - what a way to arrive.  We didn't take the elephant ride option (been there, done that!) but did take the opportunity to take some photos.

Shortly after I took this photo the mahout demanded 'baksheesh' (see letter B) for the privilege...

We saw the elephants again as we drove back into Jaipur from Amber.  The road was steep and winding, but the mahouts were 'driving' their elephants down the road at a very leisurely pace, causing miles of tailbacks!

Part 2 coming soon...