29 July 2013

A bit more Indian food

Mumbai is a cosmopolitan city that offers every variety of food that one can imagine - from American fast food chains to fancy Chinese restaurants. With Jolie, we ate from a variety of foods. We ordered in Dominos Pizza one evening and went to a fancy Chinese restaurant another evening. But whenever possible, Tammy and I still tried to eat Indian food.

We went to Leopold Cafe in Colaba. Leopold Cafe is internationally known due to the fact that it features in the book: Shantaram. The food on the menu is a mixture of asian and continental. We shared a steam vegetable wonton and a chocolate lava cake. Tammy and Jolie also shared fried chicken wonton. The chocolate lava cake was heavenly, but I found the wontons to be a bit greasy. I liked Leopold more for the fact that I was in the scene of a book I was reading than I did for the food.

Our first day at Sangam, we joined them for lunch. Sangam always serves traditional Indian food at lunchtime. Today we had some foods that are commonly found as street foods: Pav Bhaji, Bhel, Rice, Salad and Semolina. Dessert was very western, we had Cornetto ice creams. The food was good, but it was not as hot and spicy as other Indian food we'd eaten. It was explained to us that they reduced the amount of spice used because westerners often had trouble with the true amount of spices.

In Pune we ate at a vegetarian restaurant, Agathi. We were joined by Caitlin and her Mom, Marie, Girl Scouts we'd met at Sangam. We decided to order a variety of foods to share. We ordered a Coconut Uttappa, Mango Mastai and a Punjabi Thali. Marie and Caitlin ordered Itily. We had no idea what an Uttappa was when we ordered it, but basically we found out it was a lot like a large pancake. The Mastai was a bit like a milkshake. The Thali was late, very late. We tried to order it initially, only to be told that one could not order it until 7pm - it was 6:15pm. So we ordered the other items as sides and decided we'd wait until 7 to order the Thali. At 7pm, we confirmed that it was indeed time, and we ordered the Thali. At 7:30 we began to wonder about our Thali. We questioned another waiter (ours was hiding - missing - gone?) and found out that it the order was never given to the kitchen. Our Thali was ordered and we enjoyed it. Despite the issues with ordering the food, the food was delicious, spicy and plentiful. It fortified us for the adventure we had getting back to Sangam (read the post about Pune to find out about this adventure)

Part of our program at Sangam included eating with an Indian family. We were met by a Girl Guide, Ashaware, and she walked us to her family home. Tammy and I were treated like royalty. We were given the opportunity to look at family photos of weddings and celebrations and then we were fed. It was interesting, as they simply watched us eat, telling us they would eat later. The food was delicious but quite starchy. As I did not want to be rude, I did not write down what everything was, but our meal included potatos, dal, rice and fried puri. There was also a sweet coconut milky sauce for dessert (one dipped the Puri into it). They kept trying to feed us more and more, but eventually we both had to admit we were stuffed. It was a fun experience to eat food cooked by a real Indian family in India.

Back in Mumbai we had our final typical Indian meal at a restaurant called Shahi Dawat in Colaba. Our waiter, and owner of the restaurant, was extremely helpful and based on his recommendation we ordered Tadka Pindi Chole, a vegetarian Kebap platter and Roomali Roti. The Kebap platter came with: veg seetch, tandoori aloo, Shahi paneer, pahadi paneer, dahi Kebap and cheese kurkur. We also had a salted Lassi to drink and were given complimentary peppery chipati. The food was incredible. The flavors were those of north India and unlike a lot of what we had already eaten. We enjoyed the comfort of the restaurant as the rain poured outside.

Our final meal in India was at a local pub in Colaba with Jolie. They were having an international burger and beer fest. We all drank the Indian Kingfisher beer. I had an Indian inspired vegetarian burger that was basically grilled paneer with spices and chutney. Tammy's burger was Spain- Inspired and Jolie's was Mexican-inspired. We all enjoyed our respective burgers.

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Pune is not Puny

Pune, located about 3.5 hours south of Mumbai via train, is a bit of a destination in the country for the citizens of Bombay. For me, a lifetime Girl Scout, it's my Mecca. Pune is the location of the world centre, Sangam. But I've already posted about Sangam, this post will be about the city of Pune itself.
Pune had a lot of offer of historical significance. We visited first the Aga Khan palace where Gandhi was interred from Aug 9, 1942 until May 6, 1944. During his 21 month imprisonment, he lost two people very close to him, his wife, Kasturba, passed away on the 22nd of February 1944 and his secretary Mahadevbhai Desai passed away on the 15th of August 1942.
Aga Khan is a beautiful facility. While imprisonment is never desirable, if you have to be imprisoned somewhere, this would be the place to be!

After visiting Aga Khan, we went to the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum. This museum is the personal collection of Raja Dinkar Kelkar. The museum, which displays 2500 pieces for it's "adoring public" (actual words used in description of museum), only shows 12.5% of his entire collection of over 20,000 pieces. Kelkar collected artifacts of Indian heritage. It was a mishmash of items from tools to clothes to jewelry to pottery. It was quite an interesting collection.

After the museum, we headed to the big shopping district of Laxsmi road. Here we wished to eat dinner. We went to a vegetarian restaurant. Because of a mix up with our food (okay the waiter simply forgot to submit the order!), we didn't leave til nearly 8pm.

At 8pm we were ready to take an Autorickshaw back to Sangam, a journey that should take about 45 minutes. Little did we know, we were in for a journey of over 2 hours.

We flagged down a rickshaw, ready to head back. When we told him that we wanted to go to "Phule Neger" (the district where Sangam is), he told us no. Two, three, four more drivers all refused to take us. We had no idea why. Then a nice young man tried to help us. They continued to refuse. He told us it was because it was near dinner time and no one wanted to go too far from home! We were unsure what to do - and no taxis were available.

The young man decided that the best course of action would be for us to take the city bus to the train station and from there take a rickshaw or taxi. We agreed and he said he would accompany us to the station. We had no idea which bus to take or even how to read the signs on the bus (they were in Marathi!) so we were fully dependent on him. Getting on a bus in India is not like in the western world. There is no line and the bus doesn't wait until everyone has boarded. Tammy nearly got left behind as the bus started driving off before she was on - but luckily she made it!

We thought this bus would take us to the station, but when we exited, the young man had us walk across a busy road to another stop. He then explained that the next bus would take us to the station. At this point, things got a bit creepy as he was joined by a friend who was now also with us.
We exited the bus a stop earlier than expected, the driver even said "station is next stop" and had to walk. We could only hope that our young man was leading us to the station and not to harm.

We got to the station and could see why we got off early -- there were so many people waiting to get on the bus at the station, that the reality was that we might not have been able to disembark. Our young man secured us a rickshaw to drive us back to Sangam and then departed. We were lucky that he was truly a nice guy who genuinely wanted to help us.

We arrived back at Sangam without further incident, a bit more weary, with a tale to tell!

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Location:Pune, India

26 July 2013

Why'd they change it, I can't say..

They Might Be Giants has a song about the changing of Constantinople to Istanbul. A sequel could be written regarding the changing of Bombay to Mumbai.
Officially named Mumbai, most people still street to the city as Bombay, even the airport code still remains BOM. As I listened to people refer to the city by name, I tried to look for patterns or indicators as to why a person used one name over the other. I found none.

In contrast to the other places we went, Mumbai was really cosmopolitan. Tammy and I spent time there with her niece, Jolie. We met a lot of ex-pats and ate at expensive restaurants and took advantage of the shopping - once again returning to Fab India. We also met Indians who were more affluent. My experience in Mumbai was a contrast to the other places I visited. It was a good contrast and I feel it enriched my understanding of Indian culture and of the vast differences one encounters between the haves and the have nots.

We visited the Royal Taj Hotel. This hotel was originally built in response to a hotel that was for whites (westerners) only. Overtime, the Taj became *the* place to be and the other hotel was forgotten. The Taj is, as Tammy puts it, "fancy chicken". I have no idea how much a room costs, but I am sure I could not afford it. Ornately decorated and richly furnished, one must go through a metal detector and submit their bags for inspection before entering. Inside is grand. The place is decorated with the photos of celebrities and dignitaries who have visited, including current US President, Barack Obama. We had drinks in the bar and enjoyed the view. The bathrooms were by far the nicest I encountered in all of India. It was quite a place to behold.

Across from the Taj is the Gateway to India. This place holds especial significance, as it is from here that the British left India, ending the period of the Raj. The gateway is not only an area for tourists to visit, it is also a place for pickpockets, hawkers, street kids and beggars. One small girl tried to sell us henna stamps, she was very persistent and didn't leave our sides for over 15 minutes.

Mumbai was a modern city, and I know that if I'd have had more time there, I would have found more gems to visit and explore.
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Location:Mumbai, India

Riding the rails

Pune (pronounced Poona) is not a place that most westerners add to their itinerary during their first visit to India, however for those involved in a WAGGGS (World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts) organization, it is a place not to be missed, as it's the home of one of the four world centers. (See my previous post about Sangam, the world center in Pune). Pune, while smaller, is becoming a retreat for the citizens of Mumbai and has a lot to offer outside of the world center.
To reach Pune, Tammy and I took a train.
We left Mumbai in the early morning. It was rainy and foggy. The Victoria Terminus train station (CST), which is a UNESCO site was shrouded in fog. Humidity further clouded the lens of my camera, giving the photos an erethal feel.

The train offered several classes of service, we chose air conditioned chair class - the nicest available. I love train travel and despite the train appearing a bit run down and having as Tammy phrases it, a squatty potty, I really enjoyed the journey.

Our travels took us through the Indian countryside. We saw hills, green fields, waterfalls and more. It was a beautiful 3.5 hour journey. India's landscape is ever changing and quite diverse. I was often surprised by the beauty. This being monsoon season, the waterfalls were large, fast flowing and plentiful. It was a stark contrast to the metropolis of Mumbai we had left behind.

The train was never still. Obviously it was traveling on the tracks, but I mean it was never devoid of activity. Men came by regularly to sell everything from hot Chai to omelets to children's toys. They sounded musical and there was a rhythm to their spiel as they described for the carriage what they had to offer. I could only imagine what they might be saying, it seemed as though they had good sales pitches, as plenty of people bought their wares. I bought a cup of the steaming, hot, sweet Chai. It was delicious. Sadly the journey quickly came to a close and I was thrust back into the chaos that permeates Indian cities.
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Location:Mumbai to Pune

23 July 2013

Green Tara

Sangam has a number of community partners in Pune. One of these is Green Tara, which works to empower women and reduce violence against woman.
Green Tara was founded by a doctor who herself rose from being a lower caste orphan in the slums. As a doctor, she saw the need to educate women about their bodies, health and to empower them to stand up for themselves. However, she quickly realized, that this had to start when they were girls.

Green Tara operates through the schools and community centers in the slums. They offer courses such as sewing, and computer skills; they teach the women how to open and manage a bank account; they teach about health, pregnancy and nutrition. They do activities with the girls to improve their confidence and sense of self-worth. They take the girls to the police station so that they will learn that the cops can help them if they are being abused or if later in life they have a husband who beats them. They teach the girls to cook nutritious, inexpensive meals so that they and their family can be better nourished. The organization is tireless in its efforts to better the lives of the poorest girls in India.

A group of three Guiders from the UK were at Sangam and had arranged to spend sometime with Green Tara at the Indira Negar. I was invited to go with them and it was the most fulfilling experience I have had in such a long time.

We started out with only 6 girls in attendance, but word quickly spread and soon we had more than thirty. The Guiders from England, had brought a craft to share. The craft was making a bracelet using buttons and elastic thread. The girls really enjoyed making the bracelets and showing off their completed creations. Then we just spent some time bonding with the girls. I had a group of girls around me, at first they were asking me questions. They wanted to know my age and were shocked that I was not married. They wanted to know about my family and job. I asked them about their ages (11-19), school and more. Then they decided it would be fun to teach me some phrases in Marathi, the local dialect. We all laughed as I tried to repeat the phrases. They taught me to say "I love you, I love India, my name is Laura" and we worked on counting from 1-10. It was fun, but it's clear that I have a LOOOONG way to go to speak it with any accuracy. While I was learning the language, some of the girls took my camera to take photos and videos of it!

Then we lead the group in some fun songs: Head-Shoulders-Knees and Toes, Boom Chicka Boom, Hokey Kooky and the Grand Old Duke of York.
The time we spent with the group went by so quickly. As the girls were leaving, lots if them wanted to take photos with us and gave us hugs and told us they missed us. Walking through the slums back to the main road, girls introduced us to their Grandmas, brothers and more. It was such a great opportunity to work with the girls through Green Tara. I really want to go back and do more!

If you would like to support Green Tara's efforts to empower women and better the lives of girls in the slums, you can learn more from their Facebook page

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Location:Pune, India

This is my Mecca

The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) owns and operates four world centers:
Pax Lodge in London, England
Our Chalet in Adelboden, Switzerland
Our Cabaña in Cuernavaca, Mexico
Sangam in Pune, India
My dream has been to visit all four. I have visited Pax Lodge and Our Chalet multiple times. I took one step closer to reaching that dream, I had the opportunity to visit Sangam.

Sangam was opened in 1966. The foundation stone of the building was laid in 1962 by Dame Leslie Whatley and the opening ceremony was attended by Lady Olave Baden-Powell. The initial plans estimated that it would take only 8 months to build the center. The land that Sangam is on, was donated by the Indian government. Originally it lay far outside the city of Pune (pronounced Poona) but as the city has grown, it is now in the north - northwest part of the city. The name Sangam is an old Sanskrit word that means "coming together". It is very appropriately named.
The building is open and airy. The front of the building is made up of three distinct sections of arches. The first section has four arches, representing the four World Centers. The middle section, and main entry way, has three arches which represent the three parts of the Promise, our trefoil. The last section has ten arches to represent the 10 parts of the Guide law.

When one enters Sangam, they are greeted with cool, refreshing breezes blowing through the breezeway that opens to a lovely lush courtyard with pool. Several buildings surround the courtyard, the walls of these buildings are adorned with the logos of Guide and Scout Organizations from around the world. (Disclaimer: Some of these are now outdated). Sangam is huge, with gardens, a playground, a water tower, camp ground and space to relax. The water tower is a treasure, allowing Sangam to have access to fresh water 24-7. In India, it is common that city water access is limited to only a few hours a day and some days it is fully restricted. Sangam also has a backup generator for electricity. Electrical outages are a daily (normal) occurrence throughout India. Sangam also provides mosquito netting for the beds, as malaria can be a problem in India. This was my first experience setting up and sleeping under mosquito nets.

The front and back gardens of Sangam have Buddha statues to watch over the guests. The statue in the back has a rich history. The statue itself is so heavy, that it takes 15 men to be able to move it. When the statue was purchased, it was sent via train to Pune. Out of respect for Buddha, they purchased a first class ticket for it, and sat it in first class with its ticket in its hand! Originally this Buddha was in the front garden, but as the city was widening the road in front of the centre, there were worries that he would be damaged, so they moved him to the back. After the road works were complete they purchased another Buddha for the front.

I stayed at Sangam for two nights as an independent guest, but the staff was so wonderful and accommodating that I felt like I was there for a program. The food was delicious - typical Indian foods and I also enjoyed a bit of shopping at their shop, Yahdei (a Hindi word meaning memories). I attempted to complete the Sangam Challenge and earn a special badge, but my time was limited and I just didn't quite finish it.

My stay at Sangam was amazing. I will write about Pune and the program in which I participated with separate entries, but I want to close with two very special happenings.
There was a group of Irish Girl Guides visiting Sangam and taking part in the Centre's Program. The leader of this group was my friend, Lorna. Lorna and I met when we worked together at Camp Lachenwald in Germany in 1998. We had only seen each other once since then, in 2010 when I visited Ireland. It was great to see her again!

Tammy and I had an early train from Pune to Mumbai, and had to leave Sangam at 6:30. Given the early hour and the fact that we had only been there for two days, I was so touched by our send-off. The entire staff was awake and downstairs (yes still in pajamas, but they were there!). They pinned us with a special Sangam pin that is only given to center visitors, and as our rickshaw pulled away, they sang us the Sangam song. It was a very touching goodbye.

I have now visited three of the four World Centers. I think that Sangam has by far been my most enriching experience at a World Center. I hope to be able to visit Our Cabaña in Mexico and fulfill my dream of visiting all four. I am also determined to return to Sangam - next time for a full program with a group.

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Location:Pune, India

18 July 2013

The Indian Food Here is Really Authentic!

Just like the post from Nepal (see Nepalicious!), I am going to write a post showcasing the foods eaten here in India. The food in India is so delicious - so many flavors and spices! It's a treat to be a vegetarian in a country where people know and understand vegetarian cooking.

For lunch in Varanasi we went to a restaurant called Lemongrass. It was recommended by our Homestay host, Hamish. This restaurant served a menu of Indian-Chinese fusion. We were there with the Patel family (a family of Indian origin from England), so we ordered a lot of different dishes and shared. We tried: Methi Malai Matar, Haka Noodles, Dal Makani, Vegetable Kufta, Jeera Rice, Naan (Garlic and Butter varieties), Chili Paneer, Vegetable Manchurian (dry) and a salted lassi. Methi Malai Matar was a creamy curry made with mustard greens and peas. Haka Noodles were basically stir fry noodles. Dal Makani is made with a dark lentil and some pinto beans. It is my favorite Dal! A Kufta is basically a dumpling made of semolina and vegetables. Jeera Rice is rice with cumin. Naan is an Indian bread - very delicious! Chili Paneer is paneer (a pressed cheese) cooked with chili powder and other spices - really good! Manchurians were another form of Kufta. Everything was delicious and it was fun to share with everyone and have the opportunity to try lots of dishes. (Sadly we forgot to take a photo until the end --so you can see we really dug in and enjoyed the food!)

After the meal, they brought out fennel seeds (toasted) and sugar cubes. These are used to freshen breaths.

They also brought us each a bowl of warm water with a lemon in it. This was for washing our hands and cleaning off. In mine they dropped what looked to be a little tablet. It unfolded into a cloth. Very convenient!

At dinnertime we went out again with the Patel Family. This time to a restaurant called I:ba. This restaurant was known for it's Thai food, so we thought it would be fun to eat Thai food in India. However, upon ordering we learned that there was no Thai food available that evening - so we ate Indian. We ordered Vegetarian MoMos and an "Indian Meal". The MoMos were very Asian (rather than Indian) and filled with a tofu mixture rather than vegetables. The Indian meal came with a mixed vegetable curry, yellow Dal, Zeera Rice, Roti, and a vegetable Raika. We also ordered a lemon soda half-half (half sweet, half salted). We tried to order a coconut shake, but they were out of those too. The food was good and it was a nice evening meal - even better than the food, the Patel family was a great family to spend time with.

For breakfast again we had a type of Paratha. It was nice, with a yoghurt and homemade mango pickle. This Paratha was not as filled as the one the day before, but still really nice.

For lunch we went to a restaurant called Saffron. At Saffron we ordered Dosa. Dosa is a rice pancake filled with various fillings. Our Dosa was a paneer dosa, so it was filled with paneer. We also ordered a side of Chili Paneer to share with the Patels. To drink, we had another lemon soda (salty this time) and for desert Kulfi Pista -- a pistachio ice cream. The Dosa was delicious and half of one was more than filling! The Chili Paneer was good, but not as good as the day before. The Kulfi was creamy and the bits of pistachio were delicious.

Breakfast day three was southern Indian, a meal called Itlly. It consisted of three varieties of steamed rice patties, Samorath sauce and a coconut chutney. We placed the rice patty in a bowl then spooned on the sauce and chutney and ate it all together. One variety was plain white rice, one was with pepper and one with vegetables. The one with pepper was my favorite. I found these to be a really filling and flavorful start to my day.

Lunch was at the food court of the PDR Mall, Bikanos Food Court. I was not very hungry, so I ordered a lime soda (salty) and a Rasgulla. Tammy ordered a Masalla Dosa. The Masalla Dosa was similar to the Dosa from yesterday and it was fairly tasty. Rasgulla is a pastry ball. It was solid white and very spongy. It was soaked in some sort of a rose water. Basically it was like eating a sponge soaked in perfume. I did not care for it and after two bites I stopped eating it.

Dinner was a special treat. We at dinner with our Homestay, but more importantly, she taught us how to cook the Indian foods. (See blog post "Now you're cooking!") It was an amazing meal: Pani Puri, Shahi Paneer, Bhindi Masala, Punjabi Curry and Mal Puha for dessert. The Pani Puri was filled with a water that tasted like an incredible salad dressing - so many spices. The challenge was to eat it without having it explode from your mouth. The Paneer was homemade and the style of sauce: Shahi was bursting with flavors. The Bhindi Masala was an okra - onion masala and the Punjabi Curry included some Gram Flour dumplings. The desert, Mal Puha was a fried bread with sweetened milk and pistachios. This meal was incredible!

Breakfast Day 4 was a western Indian dish called Poha. It was a flattened rice with light herbs and spices. We had fresh mango to accompany it and fresh made pomegranate juice. The Poha was very light and while tasty, it lacked the flavor of some of the other dishes we have had.

Mid-morning we were shopping for spices when the owner's son of the spice shop discovered we had not tried Pan. He could not believe that we had been in Varanasi for a week and not tried it. He immediately decided to treat us to some. He got us a local variety called Banarsi Pan. Pan is a mixture of: betel nut, cashew, limestone paste, cardemon, rose petals and saffron incense that is wrapped in a leaf called a pan patar. This is chewed, NOT SWALLOWED and then spit out. We see many (men especially) with teeth stained red from chewing pan. We tried it - it was really interesting. Very flavorful, yet immediately afterwards I wanted to rinse out my mouth. The owner of the spice shop told us that we should chew it and keep it in our mouths for about 10 - 15 minutes before spitting. We tried, we swallowed a bit, which you are not intended to do, and then we spit. Our Tuk-Tuk driver told us that he typically chews pan 15 times a day. Here you can see our reaction to the pan!

Needless to say, it's probably not something we are going to try again - but it was an experience and experiences are a good thing to have!
For lunch we ended up back at Lemon Grass, where we had eaten a few days earlier. Having loved the Paneer Chili (dry), we ordered it again. We also ordered a Mushroom Masala, Garlic Naan and a fresh lime soda. It was a good meal - too much food, but all very good. We really liked the Paneer and want to find recipes to make it when we get home!

For our evening meal, we went to Deena Chat Bhandari. Chat is actually a snack food, but we had several of them and it made for a meal. The entire menu was posted on the wall in Hindi, so we looked at what they were cooking and just made decisions based on appearance.

As it was brought to us, our waiter said the name of each dish, I transcribed it as best I could. We had Anuk Ku Chi Chat, Tomato Chat, Palak Pakache and Kacholi Chat. For dessert we ordered a Kulfi. It came with noodles seasoned with saffron and rose water on top. We didn't really care for it. We had fun eating our Chat, but the locals really had fun staring at us. We were the main attraction - westerners eating at this all Hindi Chat.

The breakfast on our last morning in Varanasi was Chila, a dish typical of Rajasthan. It is a made of gram flour and had onion, coriander leaves and spices in it. Again, it was accompanied by fresh mango and fresh squeezed pomegranate juice. This was our final meal cooked by Malika. I will miss her cooking - she's an amazing cook!

We have eaten so well in Varanasi, so many delicious, authentic India dishes.
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