Sunday, 20 March 2011

The accidental vegetarian

I seem to have become vegetarian by accident.

It's quite difficult to be a carnivore in India. In some towns, like Pushkar and Hampi, you'll not find any meat at all. In others, you'll find meat if you look for it, but still a majority of the restaurants will be pure veg, or predominantly veg, and if you want a thali, it will probably not have meat in it.

So I was pretty much eating veg most of the time in India; I can count the number of times I ate meat, and tell you exactly where it was. Five times, in three months.

So when I came back to France I honestly thought the first thing I'd order would be steak tartare; one of my favourite dishes.

Instead of which, I found myself staring at choucroute and thinking; all those pieces of dead pig. Oh dear... not so much that I have qualms over eating animals, I just somehow didn't feel like eating it. My appetite for meat had gone.

A month later, I haven't really got it back. I find myself cooking veg, and thinking I really should get round to cooking some meat, but just bookmarking the veg recipes in my cookery book. How strange.

Vegetarian food, and Indian food, can on one level be deeply boring. Dal fry is dal fry however you serve it up. India is a bust for gourmet travellers. (The south is worst; idlies for breakfast, idlies for elevenses, idlies for lunch, idlies for tiffin, and for dinner - more idlies. Idly-idly-idly-idly-tum-te-tum, can't bear any more of the bloody things. And don't say 'You could have a dosa'; I got tired of those, as well.)

And yet eat dal fry a hundred times, and each time it will be different; a different spicing, consistency, flavour. The same for mutter paneer, or paneer butter masala (good in Puri, great at the German bakery restaurant in Hampi, too hot to handle in Ahmedabad).  A simple veg curry will be sour and hot in Kerala, richly spiced in Rajasthan,  sweet in Gujarat.

So that I haven't missed my meat. But I still find it perplexing that I've dropped into vegetarianism so very accidentally. I wonder how long it will last.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Some packing lessons

One or two things I learned about travelling while I was in India... this is after 30 years as a traveller! But nearly three months is a longer time to be on the road than I'm used to, and it throws all your small failings into stark high relief.

  • Pack a torch or a headlamp, and keep it with you - even when you go to the bog. Power cuts nearly always happened when I was in the shower - the one place in an Indian hotel practically guaranteed to have no natural light at all. (Cracks in the wall don't count.)

  • Have a large handbag or a tote, not a daypack. Zipping and unzipping a daypack requires two hands, which is a pain when you have a camera. The only time I was glad I had a daypack was when I was biking. (And it would be easy to fit straps to a handbag.)

  • One thing I got right was taking a jagbag. I slept in silk sheets every night... next time I'll take a pillowcase too. Though grimy, my bag has survived everything India could throw at it.

  • Another thing I got right was having a shesh, not a hat. A shesh has so many advantages. I can wear it as a headscarf, a makeshift sarong, a shawl, use it as a towel or a fruit carrier... When you're wearing it as a hat, it also covers the back of your neck, one of the most annoyingly easy places to get sunburnt. And my shesh cost about 50p; it was a bit of cheap cotton muslin chopped off the bottom of an old curtain.

  • Next time I go to India I will buy an Indian mobile phone on day one. They are incredibly cheap and the call rates are even cheaper.

  • I really must make sure not to pack trousers and shirts that don't have pockets. You're always after somewhere to put a bus ticket or your lens cap... I might even get a flak jacket style waistcoat with plenty of pockets, though camouflage isn't really my preferred dress style.

  • I will print off Google maps of places I'm going, because the guidebooks' maps are always crap.

And I will pack lighter. I thought I had packed pretty light... but in the end, I had far too much.


Thursday, 10 March 2011

India: some highlights

Travelling around India, I found the Rough Guide was almost always wrong about a place. If it says it's wonderful, it's probably either grotty, or too touristy; if it says don't bother to stay there, it's probably a place with great cheap hotels, good pure veg restaurants, and a nice relaxed feel. Maybe that's just me... but I thought I'd put up a few personal highlights.

  • Hampi. First off, a chance to see some incredible temple architecture, but for once set in a landscape rather than among the streets of a bustling town or in municipally-flower-bedded ASI compounds. The landscape, pale orange boulders and lush riverside plantations, makes you feel as if you're walking in an Indian miniature; there are hills to climb, views to sit and soak up. And the place has a marvellous feeling to it - despite the global hippie hangouts, the didj music, the buy-a-cool-tshirt joints, there's an underlying sweetness to the place. I meant to spend two days there; I stayed a week.

  • Mandvi, Gujarat. I only went to see the boatbuilders, and I'm glad I did; most of the boats are reaching completion - the superstructure was already being finished on one, delicate banisters and a carved wheelhouse - and it seems there may not be many more new commissions. But Mandvi also possesses a glorious beach, 8 kilometres and almost unvisited, except for the funfair at the town end; and one of the best restaurants I ate in during my entire stay, the Osho.  (No choice at all; you get a thali. Which, of course, is in itself choice.) Fine old shipowners' mansions, a long straggling market street, small town India at its best.

  • Madurai temple. The city of Madurai is unlovely, and hotel owners there might like to know that physical aggression in pursuit of tips is not a great way to get anyone to return... but the temple, a claustrophobic agglomeration of inhumanly huge corridors, dark halls, tiny gilded shrines, soaring towers, where chants echo and bells are ringing all the time, where every sculpture and every wall seems to be painted in violent, strident colours...  where you enter a twilit world of ritual... the temple is something else. It's worth going for the entire day, participating in the life of the temple and its deities, slowly feeling it capture you.

  • Trichy. Not on anyone's list - I was told it was the one place in Tamil Nadu I could miss out. Not for anything! Where else would I have seen one man chopping veg to feed two hundred hungry people at lunchtime, at the Rock Fort? Or seen the huge Srirangam temple, so huge it holds its own village inside it? All this, and a marvellous electronics bazaar where I could buy SD cards for three quid. I enjoyed Trichy. A very civilised place.

  • Tughluqabad - one of the past cities of Delhi, now the most atmospheric ruins, on a ridge above a few remaining scraps of plain and forest holding back the development of the Delhi exurbs. Cricketers use the plain in front of the huge mausoleum, striking with its stone the colour of congealed blood and its tapering walls, more a fortress than a tomb. The Red Fort is more photogenic, but Tughluqabad has a million times more atmosphere.

  • Bundi, Rajasthan. Here, yes, I do agree with the guidebooks. A delightful small town. Though the main road is full of tourist businesses, as soon as you wander off it, you're in small town India - particularly in the market (wonderful Mahaveer kulfi centre!) Stepwells, paintings with an amazing bright turquoise I never saw anywhere else, palaces clinging to the rock... I loved it.

  • Amber. The best palace in Rajasthan bar none. And behind it, a village of fine havelis, soaring temples, cobbled streets.

  • Jaipur. Which Rough Guide says is busy and stressful and not worth staying more than a couple of days... I got into a nice rhythm. Morning; French toast and coffee at the Indian Coffee House, and a chat with my friend Mr Krishan the retired schoolteacher; then to Lassiwalla (the original, the one that doesn't sell snacks as well, just lassi); then exploring, by foot - to Galta, Gaitor, Nahalgarh, or just wandering the alleys off Tripolia bazar, finding small temples of unparalleled grace, or tiny palaces with panels of fine painting. Or, on one occasion, an entire street taken over by huge steaming cauldrons over their cookfires, for a wedding. No, Jaipur is worth it - providing you are prepared for a long walk. It is big.

  • Pushkar. I didn't like Pushkar. A fight broke out on the bus there, and I had to duck in my seat to avoid punches. The internet didn't work. The hotel turned out to have vicious dogs (which weren't vicious, according to the owner, but they still wanted to bite me). The next day I couldn't find my way up to Gayatri temple, and when I did, I twisted my ankle on the way down. Brahma temple won't let you in with a bag, and I'm not going to leave a grand's worth of photographic equipment on a bench outside. So... and then suddenly, it started working its magic. I can't explain. The unwonted honesty of stallholders ('Madam, that is only glass, this is real stone. Madam, this is synthetic coral, you understand, real we are not having...') The porridge at a little street stall, glinting with jewel-like pomegranate seeds. The chikku shakes. The ladies at Savitri temple singing bhajans, who laughed and joked and let me take their photos on the way down the steep path, and had broad hips and broad smiles.

  • Lodi Gardens, Delhi. I walked there down the long tree-lined streets of New Delhi, finally able to stride out after days in the crowded, twisting alleys of Old Delhi. There were games of cricket, and softball, and toddlers in Sunday best making their unsteady and very serious way across the lawns. There were courting couples holding hands in hidden arbours, and teenagers listening to radios. (You never see that in London any more; iPods have privatised music, it's no longer a communal experience.) Old men reading the newspaper. And among all this, fine Mughal tombs, high domes and Persian style tiles and hidden staircases.

  • Sarkhej, Ahmedabad. At Nizamuddin, Delhi, and at Ajmer, I'd been disturbed by the feeling of the dargahs (Sufi shrines); madwomen at Nizamuddin clutching the screens, yelling at visitors, a feeling of downtrodden poverty and grabbing. But at Sarkhej, the shrine has a holiday feeling; kids playing with huge brightly coloured balls, women chatting in the dim dappled shade of the corridors round the mausoleum, pan puri stands outside (where I was bought one, and everyone shared a laugh when the pepperwater proved too hot for me). It's a lovely place, despite the poverty of the local Muslim community - sidelined by the development of huge residential estates around Sarkhej.

  • Kumbakonam and Kanchipuram - the two best Tamil towns in my book. Kanchi may not have the amazing architecture of Mamallapuram, but it's a much nicer place to stay; Kumbakonam is just cram-full of temples, all in use, all visitable, and again, it's a great little town, part ancient city, part modern mall strip - real India. I have fond memories of both; not perhaps up there on the 'extremely special' list with Amber or Hampi, but very enjoyable and slightly off the beaten track.

Not that other days weren't magnificent. Humayun's tomb. The Gulbumgaz in Bijapur, a huge, looming dome; I went there at dawn and sang Hahn's 'A Cloris' in the dim echoing space, and heard my voice return seconds later, darkened and enriched by the reverberation. The temples in Osian, near Jodhpur. The brigadier-type who hands out the audio guides in Meherengarh fort, and promises you 'this will be, positively, I can guarantee, such an unforgettable experience for you, madam!' (and he was right). The temples of Bhubaneshwar.... I could go on.

And then there are the places I wouldn't bother with again. Tiruvannamalai, a grave disappointment; the volcano Arunachal that is unspectacular, the muddy, unprepossessing track around it, the perpetual demands for money... except that the ashram there has such a feeling of peace and softness; monkeys that don't steal, dogs that don't bark, a chance to sit in the stillness of the cave and meditate.  So that was a day that had its special moments, even though overall it was rather miserable.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The international jewellery market and the stoneworkers of Jaipur

I saw a delightful style of silver jewellery while I was in India that I thought was traditional Jaipuri work. Mixed, rough-cut stones are set in silver bezels, linked together to form necklaces or bracelets.

It's rather effective from a price point of view. The stones are quite large, but they're not regular, and often flawed, so they're relatively cheap. And the amount of silver used is much lower than in an all silver necklace, which now that silver prices are hitting 40-year highs, is helpful.

But is it traditional? Is it heck.

I spoke to a couple of jewellers - Netaji, who has a little shop not far from Holiday Inn (on the way to Jal Mahal), was most informative and very honest about his trade.

"We are international, very international. The stones for instance, they don't come just from India. Some from Brazil, from South Africa, from other places. I am buying from everywhere. And I am selling to everywhere."

Because he's international, he has to respond to what international markets want. That changes from year to year - when I asked about some amethyst beads that were cut like little pumpkins, with segments, he said "Oh, those are not fashionable any more - two years ago, not now."

And he also has to take on board the dual effect of economic recession and the rise in the silver price. Silver used to be the low cost alternative to gold; now, it's too dear, having quadrupled in price. Netaji noted that everyone's sales were down over the last year or so; but he has a secret weapon. He's started importing glass from China, and thinks a promise of maximum bling for minimum outlay will keep his sales buoyant.

I hope so.  I never bought anything... but he still introduced me to his family, including the pet rabbit.

What you see in Jaipur is traditional skills - stonecutting, silversmithing, and even I'd argue gem trading, because recognising good stones and a good cut is a skill, and one I began to acquire while I was in Jaipur. But you won't see traditional designs. This isn't like the souk at Muttrah, where until a few years ago you'd find old Bedouin amulets and anklets alongside recognisably Baluchi and Kashmiri work, and where you could still pick up museum-quality khanjars (if you had enough money).

In fact if what you want is what the modern Indian is wearing, it's not going to be silver, and it won't be big rough cut stones either. It'll either be gold, or costume jewellery.

The gold will be in a thoroughly ornate style, with tiny, extremely well cut stones, and possibly with enamelling. No semi-precious stones either; no lapis, no turquoise. It'll be diamonds, rubies, emeralds.

Meanwhile the costume jewellery is intricate, with tiny 'stones' set in complex designs. A complete set of costume jewellery might cost you 500 to 1,000 rupees - £6-12. A nice cheap souvenir - and far more authentically Indian than most of what you'll find in the tourist shops.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Just back from India

Just back from nearly three months in India. Incredible India, as the slogan has it; also infuriating India. You can't have one without the other.

India is extreme. You'll be stuck in a crowd, fighting your way off a train (literally; I had to land a couple of punches and shoulder my way out of the scrum to get off at Chittaurgarh), beset with rickshaw wallahs quoting horrifying prices for places you don't really want to go to anyway... and then something will happen which turns your day from terrible to amazing.

You're waiting at the wrong bus stop, it turns out, and no chance of getting across town in time to get to the right stop before the bus goes... except that someone will run you there pillion on his motorbike, and make sure the conductor knows where you need to get off.  Or one and a half hours from Delhi, from metro to bus, to another bus, all you're seeing is cement factories and motorway, and you despair of ever getting to Tughluqabad - and then suddenly there it is, its rubble walls dominating the plain, a tawny plain on which several games of cricket, of varying degrees of professionalism, are being played...

India taught me a few lessons. One was patience. Or optimism. Or not exactly either, but a willingness to wait and see, to hope that things would turn out right. To look for a friend, instead of battling things myself. To not take life's ups and downs personally.

And I think another lesson was to take the time for other people. One of the nicest days I had was when I met a Swedish hare Krishna in Puri, and we spent the day just wandering around, taking photos, meeting a cat who was a princess in disguise, eating sweeties, meeting local people, ending up on the beach, a long and happy and unpressured day. And I know from the great friendliness of Indians everywhere, who helped me when I needed help, and always had time to accompany me to a destination, or make sure I caught the right bus, or just recommend a good place to eat, that in future, I'm going to make time for travellers myself - if I have a New Year's resolution this year, it's to do that.

So, slow travel. There's no other kind in India. Trains are slow. Buses are slow. (Or rather, they're very fast for about ten km, then there are roadworks, or a tiffin stop, or someone wants to be let out in the middle of nowhere.)

But it's taking the time for others, taking the time to experience a place, to let it soak in, that makes real slow travel. It's attitude, not speed.

Still, when you have three whole months, and when travel is naturally slow, and when taking the train is sometimes an experience in itself... and when two weeks in, you take six chapters of your carefully sectioned guidebook*and put them in the bottom of your rucksack because you know you haven't got time to visit the whole of India, not even in three months... then learning how to slow-travel is much easier.

Thank you, India.


* Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Himalchal Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, and most of  Maharashtra, if you really want to know.