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Monthly Archives: March 2012

Our first day on the road starts with a morning visit to the Shore Temple and the five Rathas of Mahaballipuram and a late and delicious subcontintental breakfast with ghee roasted dosas at a simple eatery called Maballa Bavan located in the centre of the village.

After a long day’s drive, we arrive in Tanjavur, Tanjore, a messy and indifferent city with the quite spectacular Brahadiswara temple. We walk around the huge complex in the dusk and take in its serene beauty. We have dinner at a hotel restaurant, return to our room and decide to leave Tanjavur first thing in the morning.

On the way South of Tanjore we stop in the Chettinad villages, an enclave of charming architecture in the middle of nowhere. Here one can see old mansions once built by prosperous traders who established themselves in the area.

We take our coffee in the beautiful garden of the Bangala Mansion and just enjoy the distinct environment. Floors are shiny, furniture is functional and light, a big terasse offers shady comfort and the coffee cups are perfect for giving the pinkie a good little stretch.

Next stop is some kilometres further away, in Kanadukathan, where we have a walk in quiet side-streets and end up having a Chettinad lunch at Visalam, a hotel housed in a mansion once offered as a wedding present by a rich entrepreneur to his daughter….

The food is good, albeit not spectacular. The tasteful presentation and the serene surroundings make it really worthwhile though.

Just before sunset we cross the Indira Gandhi bridge and arrive in Rameswaram, an island at the tip of a peninsula stretching out to Sri Lanka. This is the place where a god once worshipped a god.

We drive directly to the beach to catch the sun setting.

Rameswaram is an important pilgrimage destination for Hindus who come to the Ramanathaswamy temple to pay their respects to Lord Shiva and Lord Ram.

This tiny village is the place from where Lord Ram crossed over the ocean with an army of monkeys and bears to get back his wife Sita who had been abducted by the villain Ravana and held in custody on the island of Lanka. The endeavour was crowned with divine success.

Lord Ram, incarnation of Vishnu, decided to worship Lord Shiva by offering him an impressive lingam, symbol of the latter. When moving a Himalayan mountain  did not work out as planned, Sita made a lingam of sand that got Lord Shiva’s approval and blessings and can be found in the sanctum of the Rameswaram temple.

Does this sound like a long story? Well, I have just spared you from having to read the whole Ramayana.

This deviation also explains why the Rameswaram beachfront is not such a romantic spot for watching the sun set.

Unless romantic includes loads of people taking a holly dip in the sea with their clothes on, stray pigs, dogs, cows and goats and piles of trash.

If pilgrimage is not your thing, do stop by here if you are passing by. Make your way towards Dhanushkodi and Adam’s bridge and discover the seemingly endless narrow stretch of beautiful – empty and clean! – beach surrounded by turquoise waters.

Smother yourself in sunscreen, take off your shoes, walk in the water and feel epic.

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With a backblog and a totally ridiculous and unsolicited taxi-driver sunburn, I salute you from the rice-eating & coffee-drinking kingdom of Tamil Nadu.

When I stepped out of the plane last Friday, at Chennai domestic airport, and into the late night air, the humid heat felt like a soft collision with a wet towel.

I entertained myself with some chai and letter-writing and picked up my friend from the international arrivals.

A well-known face and a new place to discover.

The weekend in Chennai revealed a mosaic of traffic chaos, bazaars, people, colonial architecture, temples and churches, a crowded sea front, lines of coconut, banana and palm trees swaying in the warm breeze against the blue sky…

I find colours here vidid and joyful –  lush green, egg-yolk yellow,lavender blue and fluorescent pastel tones. Meals comprise different declinations of the word rice.

I had no expectations, nor a preconceived idea of what South India might look like. Yet, contradictory as it may sound, it is exactly as I had imagined it. A real-life version of visual imprints from children’s books and magazine articles maybe…

Together with my friend we do our best to feel the pulse of Chennai. We fondle silk sarees, catch a traditional dance performance, negotiate with rickshaw drivers, visit temples, and try to tick off some of the many items on my long ‘things to eat’ list.

As much as Chennai is a welcoming city, it is still big, noisy and overpopulated. Distances are not negligeable, air pollution is a fact and the heat makes our skin feel sticky.

Early Monday morning we are all set to leave for pastures new.  Our driver arrives in his baby-blue Suzuki. Suitcases are loaded in the trunk, we make ourselves comfortable in the back-seat and the ignition is turned on.

That’s it, we’re off. We lean back and watch out of the window as the city landscape slowly surrenders to rural sceneries and we are on our way to the south of the south.

This is it. Suitcases are packed. I’ve had my last DBRS for lunch with Nithya at Natrani, quenched my thirst with an ice cold lemon pudina and then returned home for a short rest before taking a rickshaw to the airport.

One month and a half has passed already. My feelings about Ahmedabad have evolved from initially disliking it, to starting to appreciate it and finally even learning to like it.

Gradually being able to discover the city on foot has been fundamental. Accepting the different order of things is an ongoing process. However, making new friends has been great not only on a purely social level, but also in terms of better  understanding the Indian psyche.

Retrospectively I can say that not giving up on Ahmedabad right away was a very good decision.

I am returning the key of the city, and keeping the memories.  I say au revoir, because who knows, maybe we meet again…

Quite some time before coming to India, I was reading a blog on gluten-free baking and came across sorghum flour. Intrigued by this flour type I did not recognise, I looked it up and discover that sorghum is a type of millet, also known as jowar, Egyptian millet, etc.

Some further research on the internet revealed that millet flour can be used to make Indian flat-bread, rotis. I bought a bag of jowar flour and started experimenting at home. The result, tasty as it was, could not really qualify for an authentic roti.

Short after my arrival in Gujarat, the millet roti popped up again… I had a taste of the real, traditional millet roti, called rotlo, made of  bajri flour – pearl millet -and served with white butter.  I was totally lost in translation, but  blissfully so!

I like millet even more now that I know it is not only gluten-free but also rich in essential amino acids and iron.

Now if all these different millet types and flours are interchangeable I do not know. What I know is that I have found my rotlo-master in the mother of my friend Khushi….

During a food discussion, Khushi mentioned that her mother is an expert rotlo-maker. When she saw the spark in my eyes she swiftly arranged for me to meet the Guru.

Yesterday evening, she came to pick me up on her scooter and off we went to her parents’ apartment.

Her mother stood like a real ‘Mama’ in her spotless kitchen, wearing a blooming dress. Soon I realised that the workshop came complete with dinner cooked by La Mama: shak (remember?) made of cauliflower, eggplant and peas, and kichri (lentil rice).

La Mama first filled a small  recipient with water and added salt to it. Then she sifted some millet flour onto  a big metal plate and started kneeding. She kneeded and kneeded, until the dough became malleable and smooth.

In the meantime, a clay tawa was put on the gas flame.

She took a small piece of dough and rolled it into a ball. She carefully flattened it a bit in the middle by pressuring it gently with her palms. Then she clapped it into shape and launched it on the tawa.

Once the first rotlo was ready, she put it aside, cracked the crunchy top crust and poured ghee into it. La Mama is one of those cooks who do not compromise on taste.

It looked like a child’s game when the dough was in her hands. She let me and Khushi try with the last piece and corrected us as we went along playing with dough

When rotis were done and the food was ready, we all sat down on the shining living room floor and had our delicious dinner.

I am extremely happy to have found my rotlo master, but also to have been received with such great hospitality and warmth in a Gujarati home. Showing curiosity is a doorway leading into a new experience.

The rotlo live show and the succulent dinner are fond memories that I will carry with me on my next stops.

Walking around in the city is a fauntastic experience.

Animals and humans do not live in segregation here. On the contrary, they seem to be getting along really well. I dare say that they coexist in peace and harmony.

Cows and buffaloes are holy and omnipresent. Whether they are owned by somebody or just stray, they roam the streets and alleys all the same.

They nap on the pavement, eat animal feed brought to them, or just help themselves to the abundant amounts of junk-food the city has to offer. They also leave behind small piles of fragrant holy dung.  Goats can also be seen skipping around and munching on this and that. In winter-time, when the weather is cooler, some of them can be spotted sporting  t-shirts.

These ruminants have learned the art of putting their noses into small plastic bags to feast on their innards. I just wonder if they end up eating some of the packaging as well.

I sincerely hope that milk cows and buffaloes (buffalo milk being the most commonly used) do not graze in landfills.

Dogs live a dog’s life, it is confirmed.

The ones in my neighbourhood always get together and start howling at night, after a certain time – usually just around bedtime. I suspect that their favourite spot is located just somewhere below my window.  I prefer serenades to dog fights. Full stop.

The city is literally dotted with squirrels. They are small energy bundles that relish in doing everything at the highest of speeds. Watching them pivot 180 degrees around themselves is just a hilarious sight.

Ah, and of course, last but not least, the indisputable king of them all: the monkey….

For the records, monkeys grow on monkey-trees. Eventually, the ripe ones fall on the ground due to the cruel law of gravity.

Then the hullabaloo starts. Not that they make THAT much noise. But if they could, I am sure they would!

Oh, how happily they move around the city….

Entire families of them cross the street. They climb up on balconies of apartment buildings and make themselves comfortable on the swings.

Once in a while, they will stop to catch up over a bite of food and a chat and forget the frantic rhythm of city-life.

I can just imagine how they’re asking each-other : “Did you see that monkey?

PS: due to lack of space, camels and elephants have been left out of this post.

Some days ago I was taken to one of the slums of Ahmedabad to interview  parents who bring their children to the SEWA childcare centres.   One of the couples visited happened to be garment workers, just like the majority of the people of their community.

We were told that a big percentage of garment workers suffer from serious pulmonary and cardiac conditions as  a  result of exposure to dangerous chemicals and dust found in textiles.

The woman in the picture is 35 years old and a mother of five.  She spends around 12 hours a day crouched over her sewing machine. Her two eldest under-aged daughters also help the family make ends meet…..

In their living room cum bedroom cum workshop, two big sewing machines stand  against the wall with stacks of clothes leaning on them.

Her husband, is only 39 and literally brokenhearted: two of his heart valves were destroyed and had to be replaced as a consequence of his working conditions.

This is not only the reality of garment workers in India. It is the reality of garment workers anywhere in the world. I know it, because I have witnessed it in my family.

It is such a demotivating and hard way to make a living. Workers are deprived of ownership of the final product. Doing piece work of this kind is ungratifying, repetitive,  and a grand example of taylorism and the wonders of global economy.

Workers are exploited, squeezed like lemons by giants of the cloth industry. At the same time, an average Swedish person will buy 15 kg of textile per year and throw away  8 kg. Normal?

I know that for the woman in the picture, her sewing machine equals the daily bread for her family. Yet, I am not convinced that I should continue buying clothes that are the fruit of such skewed working relations.

So far, I have been doing minimal shopping in this cradle of cotton textiles, where beautifully printed fabrics and handlooms are on display and sale everywhere for really good prices.

I am thankful of the reminder I got the other day. Now, I am convinced that I want to make informed choices. As much as I can, I will  use my purchasing power  wisely and explore local initiatives that employ principles of fair and ethical trade.

My objective is not to make you feel guilty by writing this, but rather happy about the fact that you have a choice.

So now it is done – I have ventilated my rage against the machine. Similar feelings anyone?

 

 

 

Dal, bhat, roti, shak and kachumbar, this is the Gujarati food mantra. Dal as in broken pulse stew, bhat as in rice, roti as in chapati as in Indian flatbread, shak as in vegetable dish and kachumbar as in fresh vegetable salad.

Gujaratis love their food so please try pronouncing these words with veneration. DBRSK is serious stuff.  The different components are assorted on a metal plate, a thali, and are typically served for lunch and dinner. The result looks like a plate full of mezzes or tapas.

One would start eating the shak and kachumbar with the roti. Small pieces of bread are wrapped around pieces of vegetables that are always very finely cut.  At the end of the meal the dal is mixed with a heap of rice and eaten with the  fingers.

We had D.B.R.S.K for dinner last night. The kitchen became a  culinary ashram, where the Gujarati-maharashtran thali guru Anuja,  imparted  her knowledge on how to compose a proper thali. No serious digression was allowed.The cashew nuts in the rice were kindly overlooked. Anuja approved the vegetables to be used in the  kachumbar and soberly declared that my dal tasted quite authentic.

I hope I have inspired you to try this. Don’t forget to wash your hands before eating and then just enjoy touching your food and licking your fingers when you are done. Delicious….

sofiawise

Clockwise, otherwise & likewise

The Chick on a Pea

Clockwise, otherwise & likewise

Buttercupgoeswest

Buttercup is a newborn and we are taking her on a 5000 KM journey from Ahmedabad to Kanyakumari

Sadness Theory

Music with passion for the environment

zee pause café

taking a moment, having a coffee, writing down some thoughts