Monday, 3 January 2011

Budapest's Széchenyi Baths

Trudging through snow while wearing swimmers is one thing; trudging through snow wearing swimmers and no shoes is quite another.

I'd been given slippers at the hotel, along with a towel and soap, along with the warning that they "tend to get slippery in the snow". That turned out to be true, and I'd given up trying to stay upright.

We were at Budapest's famous Széchenyi Baths, the largest complex in the city and located within the City Park. It's a massive complex with a huge outdoor pool. Tourists usually head to the Gellert Baths but the concierge promised that the Széchenyi experience was something special. And he was not wrong: the outside temperature hovered around -5ºC while the water was between 36ºC and 38º. This meant that there were vast plumes of steam rising up from the water, making it hard to see beyond the perimeter.

Lobby area

After changing in one of the dozens of small booths inside, we held our breaths and dived outside, found a small patch of stone bench not covered in snow to dump our towels, and jumped in. It was scalding below neck, and freezing above (and even snowed lightly throughout). It sounds awful but it was fantastic, exhilarating, refreshing and warmed you up from the inside all at once. Plus, you're surrounded by an ornate, neo-Gothic 1920-era building (housing 14 more smaller pools), there is a bunch of men nearby playing chess, there are lovers taking advantage of the steam cloak to get amorous and the occasional screeching tourist to laugh at as they poke their bare feet through the snow or slipped over in their hotel slippers.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Food porn: the Munich issue

Back in June, wilting under the scorching summer sun, I fantasised about being in snow, somewhere bitingly cold. A few weeks ago, I got my wish, with a short holiday to Munich and Budapest. The main objective was to visit the Christmas markets: I've never had a very Christmassy Christmas and just wanted to know what it would be like to actually, properly celebrate it. Growing up, my family never really celebrated Christmas, just a seafood lunch at home or at a friend's, and as soon as I started working I usually volunteered to work it for the penalties.

Our arrival in Munich was perfectly timed: day one of the city's famous sprawling Christmas markets. Despite an overnight flight we dumped our bags at the hotel (Eurostars), closest train station Hackerbrücke) and went straight into town, where we stopped at the very first wurst stand we saw for two weisswurst in a bun, with a squirt of sweet mustard. That, after the horror congealed mess served up by Emirates, was the gastronomic highlight of the trip. It was chased by the first of what were to be many, many, mugs of steaming glühwein, redolent with cloves and cinnamon.

It didn't take long until we discovered the city food market, Viktualienmarkt, not far from the central Marienplatz area, with its cosy, snow-coated stalls selling fresh meats, vegetables, plants, wines, cheeses, deli items and more, near a cobblestone laneway lined with cute quaint beer halls.

It was here we planted ourselves for roughly the next day and a half, eating roast pork in buns with a dab of sweet mustard, weisswurst in buns with a dab of sweet mustard, gingerbread and more glühwein than you can imagine. In fact, for our last night in Munich we moved to Hotel am Markt, a simple three-star with views out over the snowy market. We'd discovered it on the first night after searching the streets for Bratwurstherzl, which turned out to be opposite.

What a contrast Munich was to Delhi, with its dire infrastructure problems, its questionable cold storage making certain foods no-go zones and lack of pedestrian planning. Munich, possibly the best-planned city I've ever been to, was just such a relief, even in sub-zero snowy temperatures. And the food: it was a smorgasbord of all the things we can't access, or have limited access to, in Delhi (or are priced out of reasonable range, or need good refrigeration). Amazing chocolate, buttery custard-filled pastries, ham, sausage, beef, duck, an array of cheeses, nuts. Crusty bread, cheap and good wine, an array of local beers (without the glycerin additive). Flavoured yoghurt, berries, clementines. One night we went to a beer hall in Haidhausen and there I couldn't choose between the pork knuckle, the roast pork and the roast duck. Luckily, one option was a mixed grill with all three on one plate.

That was the night I got the meat sweats.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Anish Kapoor in India, finally

I suppose when you're a famous installation artist, second only perhaps to Damien Hirst in terms of popularity but far better in terms of talent, you are allowed to be a bit capricious.

Works by Anish Kapoor, Indian-born, British-based sculpture superstar, are currently on show in Mumbai and Delhi at the Mehboob film studios in Bandra, and the National Gallery of Modern Art respectively.

Now this is a massive, massive deal for India's art world. In fact, organisers first had the idea a decade ago, and only now has it been possible. For starters, there was simply not the exhibition space large enough needed to show his massive works (In Delhi, the NGMA has a capacious new wing where it's showing the sculptures). It is also, as would be expected, an extremely expensive exercise. So to finally be in a position to put on show works by the artist who left India at 18 in his native country, is significant. There are even ads at bus shelters, pasted over the paan stains.

Unfortunately, artists are an unpredictable lot. In the past I've had trouble with artists, in particular one fashion designer who got the shits when I asked him a question about his label's background. He ended the interview after I insisted I needed quotes from him, rather than lifting lines from the briefing notes I'd been given (sample: "Inhouse workshops insure an all-encompassing expression of our vision of beauty"). As the only vaguely usable quote I had from him - "my designs are a synthesis of East and West" - was not going to fill my 450 words, I sent a strongly-worded email to his PR and moved on to profile someone else.

In this case, Kapoor opted to cancel all interviews except for a handful. Now, this is the biggest thing to happen in India this year in arts, so naturally, dozens of journalists were clamouring for access to him. Is he shy? I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume that about them, if they're being a little difficult. The British Council, staging the exhibition, said he was concentrating on the preparations for the show beforehand - that is understandable. He would also be leaving Delhi almost immediately after the launch - on November 29 - so wouldn't be speaking to journalists afterwards either.

I was invited to the launch - my best opportunity to "grab Anish for a comment", according to the BC - but didn't go as I was overseas. Today, finally, I went to see the show at the NGMA, at its on sprawling grounds in central Delhi, near India Gate. It costs 150rs for foreigners, 10rs for locals. Inside, there's a string of rooms showing architectural models and sketches of some of Kapoor's large-scale works.

The larger sculptures are in the new wing out the back. The exhibits include the massive red wax quarter-orb that appears slammed against the wall, called Past, Present and Future. It's the most dramatic piece in the room, which also houses a stomach-height perspex cube, with what appears to be a gold stingray and bubbles suspended inside. The name of the work is Laboratory for a New Model. and the exhibition guide tells us that the sculpture "is addressing the weight of human knowledge, from the grand purposes of physics to the more specific concerns of art history." I'm sure it does do that - it must, as the booklet tells us so - but I confess, I couldn't really see how.

I tried taking a photo of the room but as the ratio of security folk to viewers is roughly 1:1, I had little success, just this one:

Close to the mirror you might spot an earnest guard on his way over to berate me.

Outside in the garden is the much-vaunted Sky Mirror, which is mounted a few metres above the ground and tilted at 60 degrees so it reflects the sky on its convex surface.

It would be perfect if there was something going on in the sky, like moving clouds or birds, but all you see is the rather less impressive, tepid blue-grey of Delhi's winter sky. Around the back, however, you realise what it's all about:

There's also a documentary on Kapoor being screened on a loop in the auditorium. In it, the floppy-haired Kapoor is revealed as enthusiastic and likeable, particularly in the bit when they practice firing red wax out of the cannon (Shooting Into The Corner, Mumbai). After the expectoration - leaving bright red splatters reminiscent of paan stains all over the freshly-whitewashed buildings of Connaught Place - he turns around, smiling cheekily at the camera, much like the grown-up boys of Mythbusters. Maybe the cannon ("an active part of the architecture: at once performance, process, painting, installation and sculpture, with the life of the piece being recorded on the walls") is all just a big boy toy with a fancy name.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Durag Niwas & the Sambhali Trust

Soon after making our spur of the Monday decision to go to Jodphur that weekend, I emailed a childhood friend who married into a Jodhpur family (but lives mostly in Mumbai) for suggestions on where to stay. She came back with Raas (way not an option unless you're an heiress) and the family-run guesthouse Durag Niwas.

Durag Niwas is run by Govind Singh Rathore and his family, and is clean, cheap, has a lovely courtyard and friendly staff. It appears like a thousand other guesthouses throughout Rajasthan: clean, basic, with some kind of local flourish like a carved wooden chest or filmy fuchsia curtains, but has one clear point of difference: it's also home to the family's NGO, the Sambhali Trust.

Govind established Sambhali, as he shyly told it, when his mother and grandmother begged him to do something to help the beleaguered women of Rajasthan, in the wake of family difficulties that had left them with no idea what to do. Rajasthan is an extremely tradition-bound, feudal and patriarchal society, and Govind felt that by giving girls and women access to education, personal development and livelihoods, he could help improve their lot.

So Sambhali, which has been around for about four years now, looks after literacy and livelihood projects in Jodhpur and the outlying village of Setrawa, in the Thar desert. The women learn basic skills like to block-printing techniques, embroidery, English. Information on building confidence and anti-domestic violence and women's rights laws is also supplied through the centres.

It has been hard though, he told me, to convince the men of the family to allow their wives, sisters, daughters, to attend the classes: they sometimes have a vested interest in keeping their women downtrodden and ignorant.

Sambhali products can be available here. My friend is also in the process of setting up an online accessories store stocking products made by Sambhali, called Forty Red Bangles.

Durag Niwas also runs excellent safaris out to the desert. Our Bishnoi village trip that ended up in an outdoor opium den may or may not have been with them, and the guy in the photo drinking the opium water may or may not have been Govind's cousin Bunty.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The Opium Bores

It had been billed as a half-day Bishnoi village safari, but turned out to be far more than that.

With a half day to spare in Jodhpur between the end of the music festival and the train back to Delhi, a five-hour village tour sounded ideal. Plus, I have more than a passing interest in the Bishnois, a sect of Hindu eco warriors, who famously offer their heads in place of trees earmarked to be cut down.

Of course, being the morning after the night before we were already a little weary, so missed the 8am wakeup call by a half hour, but soon were away from the smog and noise of the city and heading off-road, on soft sands pockmarked by tufts of tundra.

The first stop was a small hut at the end of a barren stretch of road. It was home to a Bishnoi family. Only the children were home and we sat on a scratch camel hair rug and drank tea, but they shrugged when I tried to ask searing questions about their faith and devotion to living things.

The next stop - punctuated by a quick detour to check out at a local watering hole where migrating Siberian ibises had set up camp - was at the home of a master weaver, whose modest home, with blue paint flaking attractively off the timber beamed door, was like something out of a Taschen book.

His recently bereaved wife and her granddaughter showed me their matching silver ankle bracelets, part of the traditional dowry of their community. They are soldered on at their marriage time and thereafter are never removed, even after their husbands pass on. Each anklet weighs half a kilo.

Next up was another village homestead, a cluster of well-maintained rustic huts in the midst of a courtyard, with a couple of open-air shaded shelters. This was home to the extended family of Baba Ram, a farmer of the Choudhury caste. Baba had worked hard to have the means to educate his sons, both now working at one of Jodhpur's best hospitals, a source of immense pride to their father.

Despite the relative modesty of the buildings, the Choudhary family does well: inside the two enclosed built rooms (erected for the benefit of the sons' new wives) was an air cooler, a fridge, a TV, a DVD player and various other modernities.

Baba took us into another section with a roof covering made from bound branches, sat us down on a charpoy and pulled a small lump of opium from deep within his robes. Then he flaked off a bit into a wooden bowl, added water (Bisleri, for our benefit) and started rubbing vigorously to make a paste. This he then added to the top of a wooden contraption, added more water and offered it round, all the time chanting in praise of Shiva.

The opium ceremony, you see, is apparently to legitimise the repeated, ongoing use of opium by farmers to enable them to work the long, hard hours required.

Unfortunately it just tasted like mud to me and had no conceivable effect.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Jodhpur for the music festival

I've had a few pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming moments while in India. Barrelling down Marine Drive in a friend's car late at night, watching the lights of the Queen's Necklace twinkle. Watching the sun rise over Kanchenjunga from high on a mountain near Darjeeling. Drifting on the Keralan backwaters at twilight.

Now there's another to add to the list: sitting under the ramparts at a 550-year-old desert fort listening to master percussionist Pete Lockett jam with Rajasthani folk musicians.

It was late October in Jodhpur, at the so-called Rajasthan International Folk Festival (there was folk music, a lot of it, but it wasn't folksy in any way). I'd mentally bookmarked it at the start of the year when I'd seen a poster for it in Jaipur, and then promptly forgot about it till I got a notification on Facebook. Usually travel plans are scuppered by something, whether it be the inability to take a day off work, or train bookings, or hotel rooms, but all the ducks managed to line up and Jason and I got there on an overnight train, our very first trip to Jodhpur.

I do love Rajasthan, it's every cliche come to life but better because it's real.

The festival was on at the Mehrangarh Fort, which is not just large and imposing but extraordinarily well maintained. There's even a lift.

The first must-see on my list was a session called Living Legends, held in the Moti Mahal, a small marble hall just off a courtyard, through a maze of rooms and hallways. I stupidly forgot my batteries, meaning I couldn't take photos nor record any of it. And it was marvellous: it turned out to feature Patashi Bhopi, the wife of a man called Mohan Bhopa who was featured in William Dalrymple's Nine Lives. The chapter on him told of how he and his wife were among just a few to be the custodians of the oral legend of the Rajasthani folk deity Pabuji, told in song that takes a day and a night to recite. Patashi Bhopi - now a widow - recited a few verses while her son played his rawanhatta and marched, duck-like, so the bells on his ankles tinkled in time. (More reading)

Then it was through a decorative arch to another courtyard where a bar was set up. So as the sun went down we looked up at the sky and all around at the intricately carved archways and up at the small windows where courtesans once hung out of, with wonder.

Through another doorway and it was into a the main stage area. With floodlights up the sides of the fort walls and under the light of a full moon, a flamenco troupe from Barcelona danced and played and sung. Then they stood aside while Rajasthani folk musicians came on, with a ghoomer dancer in a wide blue skirt seemingly made almost entirely of mirrors. When she spun around in a circle the skirt flared out around her, like an extremely reflective spinning top, around and around and around. Then the flamencos came back out and while the musicians all jammed together, the dancers had what amounted to a dance-off. And no amount of foot-stamping and arched-back hissing could match the girth of the skirt which almost swallowed the stage. Ghoomer well and truly won that one.

Afterwards, we headed to another area of the fort that was converted into a nightclub, a kind of open-air courtyard with a roof terrace from which you could lean over the shin-height barrier and look at the dancefloor below. Or you could lounge on a mattress, lean back on a bolster, and look up at the fort lit up by the moonlight as you sipped your g&t.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Kingdom of Dreams

"Come to Kingdom of Dreams," said my friend L. "It'll be fun. They say it's like Dilli Haat on steroids."

Kingdom of Dreams is just that: a glittering dreamscape, a kind of alternate reality, like stepping into a movie set where everything looks like enhanced, hyper-real versions of how they otherwise are.

And then you flick the marble Doric columns and realise they're hollow, and made of Plaster of Paris.

But Kingdom of Dreams represents what the CWG structures could have been, were the games organised by the private sector. It's clean, it's grand, there are no caved-in ceilings or ripped carpet.

So what is it? It's a Bollywood theme park in Gurgaon, only open a couple of months.

Entrance to Kingdom of Dreams

And iIt's enormous. There's a theatre, with plaster elephants flanking the entrance. Lying alongside is perhaps the largest reclining Buddha I've seen. Inside, there's a stage, surrounded by decorative masks and elephant heads and filagree work. That's where the Bollywood musical Zangoora is staged.

But we didn't go to the theatre, instead we headed straight for Culture Gully, the bland name totally belying the experience. First, there's a giant representation of a lotus flower in bloom to walk through.

Outside might be dark but inside you find yourself under a perennially twilight sky, thanks to a ceiling painted like sky and clever natural lighting.

Culture Gully downstairs is made up of a heap of stands representing different states in India, laid out in a rough approximation of the map of India. So when you first walk in, there's Kashmir to the right, and Sikkim to the left, and Kerala right at the other end of the hall.

Kerala stand: a bar on a boat, with a beach

But these are no humble Dilli Haat food stalls, oh no. The Delhi stall is a mockup of the Red Fort , while Kerala is an actual houseboat, with a beach. Bombay is a train carriage, while Rajasthan has a peacock doorway just like the one at Jaipur's City Palace. Each stall is hawking either food, or souvenirs, or both.

Then, at various intervals, music starts up and out marches some kind of procession, such as a troupe of Himalayan dancers, complete with Chinese dragon. Or a clutch of monkey-men: dressed in silvery suits with blackened faces, these things were a menace, as monkeys are. One leapt in front of me and flailed his tongue menacingly, causing me to jump and nearly drop my kheema dosa.

Crazy monkey man

Upstairs is a bit more Palazzo Versace. There's a bar with a fluorescent pink floor, a shop selling incredibly expensive sherwanis and cufflinks and a whole other section with all sorts of fortune tellers. I had my palm read; he told me that good things will happen for me in coming months and I will have two children.

Since then, whenever i'm having a Bad India Day I think back to Kingdom of Dreams: its fake, Venice-in-Vegas sky, its larger-than-life religious statues, its fake twilight, and its liberal scattering of life-sized baby elephants, and think about life in a parallel India universe, and sigh. Clean streets, well-maintained buildings, space to walk, doormen who salute you, street theatre and hygenic street food.

But still, annoying and slathering monkeys when you least expect them.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Delhi's Commonwealth Games opening ceremony


Suresh Kalmadi must know people hate him, but there's nothing like the sound of 50,000 people jeering you as you're trying to deliver your speech, your moment in the sun, at the start of the event you've engineered, to really drive that message home.

But I doubt he cares, he likely has a house made of gold bricks to go home to, each brick stamped with a little Commonwealth Games logo.

Kalmadi only really has two friends about now: his son, who is the part-owner of a company bringing F1 racing to India (in a deal brokered by his dad), and the owner of Wasabi by Morimoto, the uber-expensive Japanese restaurant at the Taj Palace hotel, where he apparently likes the sushi. A lot.

Still, the opening ceremony was truly spectacular: giant mendhi hands! A yoga demonstration! A colourful and oversized depiction of what it's like to get a train! It celebrated India through and through and I doubt there was a heart in that stadium that wasn't swelling with Jai Hind pride at being a desi.

(Thanks US Embassy in Delhi for the image)

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Uncle was a disco dancer

You know, when that cool cat lead singer of French electro-jazz group Electro Deluxe, during their show at the outdoor amphitheatre at the Garden of Five Senses last weekend, asked people to come up on stage to dance - what he actually meant was:

"Yo hot girl in the purple boob tube with oh-so the swingy hips, come up on stage and dance. Dance I said!"

And not:

"Uncle-ji, head on up and show us how it was done in 1979."

Stlll, to my mind uncleji had the best moves of the lot AND commendably ignored the control freakish commands to "slide to the left... now to the right."

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Foodie tour of Old Delhi

I don't love Old Delhi but when given the chance to traverse Chandni Chowk with a celebrity chef on a culinary tour, even I realise the foolishness in refusing.

More fool me though - I was still recovering and went against the advice of my doctor, who really just doesn't understand what it's like being a freelancer, and the experience of spending four hours in the maelstrom of the old city was enough to push me back inside the dengue pit.

Nevertheless it was a great day. It was a story for a UK magazine on restauranteur Marut Sikka, who owns two of Delhi's most evocative and creative restaurants - Magique and Kainoosh. He also has a cooking show on NDTV Good Times and a couple of cookbooks. The concept of the story was to have him introduce his food neighbourhood; although with Delhi being very spread out he chose Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi rather than his own neighbourhood.

Marut Sikka in the back of a cycle rickshaw

Together with a photographer flown up from Mumbai, we spent four hours pushing and shoving our way through the milk market, the spice market and various street food stalls. Not speaking Hindi, usually the nuances of these experiences escape me, so it was great to have a guide - especially one as enthusiastic and knowledgeable as Sikka.

The best chole batura stand in Old Delhi, according to Sikka

Vendor at the spice market, selling bark used as an old-time toothbrush

It was freaking exhausting, though. I fell asleep in the car on the way back to the restaurant where we still had to take his portrait shot and finish up my interview. I hope I didn't snore.

Thankfully the day ended with dinner at Kainoosh: tandoori lobster, the smoothest galouti kebab I've ever tasted, lamb spare ribs, chicken leg stuffed with apricot-y mince and wrapped in pastry, fig kulfi and a cocktail designed just for me: a jasmine cardamom martini.

Then I woke up the next day with a throbbing head and aching limbs. The fever was back.

But it had been such a stellar day it was kind of worth it.

This is me at the end of the day: slumped and exhausted and awaiting my jasmine-cardamom martini.

Last photo by Chiara Goia

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Dengue feverish

Dengue fever here is pronounced "deng-goo". Against my better nature, I have started saying it that way too, just to be understood.

And I've been saying it a lot this past week, as I have fallen victim to the seasonal scourge that plagues mosquito-ridden Delhi in monsoon time. Deng-goo.

It has not been pretty. There is nothing glamorous about deng-goo. It's all about sleeping endlessly, waking up for a round of projectile vomiting, sleeping some more, swallowing a handful of pills and trying to keep them down, staggering from the bed to the sofa only to pass out from the effort. Repeat for seven days, punctuated by platelet level tests in which some ham-fisted orderly jams what feels like a blunt needle into your arm.

The best bit is that as there is an epidemic - 1,500-odd official cases, far more in all likelihood - there is nary a hospital bed left in town. When I went to Supermax hospital in Saket on Sunday evening, the day I was struck down, they stuck me on the only spare bed in emergency, in the Resuscitation Room, and discussed loudly that they were only admitting the most serious patients. I caught a glimpse into the adjacent ward which looked like something out of WW2 with beds crammed in every which way.

There is also concern that platelet stocks might run low, so instead of admitting patients when their levels fall under 100, they've downgraded to 50.

We're just a few weeks out from the Commonwealth Games. The Games village is built on the banks of the Yamuna River - a major breeding ground for mosquitos. They've now called the army in to drain stagnant pools of water and fog the site before all the foreign athletes descend. For what it's worth, I don't think anyone should bother coming here. It's still raining, mosquitoes are out in force, the city remains a building site.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Pushkar in the monsoon

Does anyone bother to visit Rajasthan in the monsoon? You should. When it's been raining solidly for six-odd weeks, as it has been, Rajasthan sheds its dusty dry desert skin and grows a dense, lush, green new covering. Rather than choking on dustballs, it's so humid you could chew the air. Last November Pushkar was so dry the famous lake was little more than a few desolate puddles; in August it was full to the brim again.

Just a day and a half after returning to Delhi from Ranikhet a couple of weeks ago, I was back on another overnight train to Ajmer, the town adjoining Pushkar, to review a resort on the outskirts of town. I had planned to sleep, swim, play on the internet while sipping g&ts and go for long walks. Instead, it rained incessantly, the internet was not accessible on my Mac, and the hotel had me on a schedule: a tour of the town, dinner with the owners, an early morning camel ride, an ayurvedic massage. So instead of reading the New York Times online, posting photos of myself by the pool on Facebook and writing bits and pieces, I actually did stuff.

This was my camel. He kept arching his neck back in a scary double-jointed manner to swat away the flies.

The ride went for a good hour and a half: I was well and truly over it halfway through and tempted to get down and walk, but didn't want to appear a wuss. Already, my travelling companions - two hotel workers - had laughed long and loud at me after I screamed when the camel stood up.

Because of my reaction, they'd opted to stick to the gravel rather than head for the off-road sands, because that is where camels can run free and wild.

After the massage there was another run into Pushkar town, mainly because I wanted to revisit this stall near the temple:

It sold nothing but rose petal products: rose water, rose perfume, rose cordial and most of all, rose petal jam, or gulkand, which helps reduce body heat. It is also so sweet it makes your eyes water.

And then, finally, it was g&t time by the pool, listening to the peacocks cry and watching the sun go down behind the hills.

The GreenHouse Resort

Kishanpura Rd, Village Tilora

Pushkar, Rajasthan

ph: +91 (0) 145 2300079