Friday, November 21, 2008

"Cooking may be as much a means of self-expression as any of the arts."

Post by: Beth

NOTE: 3 posts so far today... trying to get caught up before my trip home where I'm sure I'll take many more photos! :) This is the first of three.. keep scrolling for the others.

For every challenge presented to us in India, there is a unique experience that serves as a balance and keeps our little life here moving in a forward motion. The chance to make friends and learn more about the area has brought along the opportunity to try different things, and I hope to take advantage of these more and more during our time here.

I'd been planning to visit the city of Powai as one of my friends, Sarah, lives there. Sarah and I met at an American Women's Club coffee morning and shortly after, she came to Bandra for an afternoon to visit and see the area. We immediately planned a day's trip for me to Powai, which is about an hour away by car. A few days before my scheduled trip, Sarah emailed me and said she'd found out about a Rajasthani cooking class that would be taking place in the hotel next to hers, on the day I was planning to go see her! We enrolled right away and were excited to see how this would pan out.

When we arrived, we learned that this class only had 2 people, so we would be able to receive pretty personalized attention. We met our chef, Bhairav Singh Rajput , and he was immediately welcoming and so friendly, despite the high designation of Master Chef and a long list of accomplishments under his belt. We got started right away, with a book of about 7 recipes he was going to make while we watched, helped, and asked questions. All of the dishes were authentic Rajasthani dishes, and it was so much fun to watch how many spices and flavors he used in the recipes. He made a small portion of each dish so we could learn, and Sarah and I got to try everything as we went along.

After about 2 hours of cooking, we'd made small portions of all the dishes and it was time for lunch! We were carried to the bar area where a mixologist taught us how to make a traditional Rajasthani cocktail, and Chef Bhairav cooked our lunch. After the cocktail lesson, it was time to eat, and Chef Bhairav came out and sat with us and chatted while we ate. All of the apprentices, waiters, and assistants were so nice to us during our lesson and meal, and it was a great experience. They offer a different type of class each month, so maybe we'll get to go back and learn a different style of cooking as well. :)

Here are some photos from our day:

"I got stuck in paradise; I'm free in my head..."

Post by: Beth

*NOTE: multiple posts today... make sure you scroll down past the first post to get caught up!

Goa might well be the most relaxing place I've ever vacationed. There's a very strong emphasis on service in this beach town, and the attitude towards customers seems to be "Don't move.. We'll come to you." From little shops and stalls built in the sand, to beach shacks that bring your food as you lounge in chairs on the water's edge, you can pretty much get anything you want without stepping away from the sand.

This is one of the shops that is built on the beach. We bought some thin blankets to lay on our sunbeds and some towels from these women. It's not a "fixed price" store... There are no prices on anything, and the whole idea is to bargain with them until a price point is reached. The price scale for fabric goods in India is WAY lower than in America, and most shop clerks know that American tourists/visitors are used to paying a much higher price for these items. Because of this, Kristen and I are absolute magnets for shop clerks, peddlers, and store owners. To them, white skin equates with a high profit margin, so they can't wait to show foreigners their products in hopes of making a sale. This turns into a fun game for Raja and Beej, who enjoy the challenge of the bargaining process.

There are many girls and ladies that walk up and down the beaches offering you different amenities. Some offer massages, others manicures and pedicures. Their prices (after the bargaining) are unheard of by American standards, so it's a great way to take advantage of these fun experiences. These two women in the pictures above (look how beautiful they are.. they're stunning in person!) were so sweet and fun to talk to... The girl in the yellow is 17, and the girl in the pink is 21. They walk up and down the beaches all day offering manicures and pedicures. The quality of their trade skills was questionable, but the experience was really fun. As Beej said... "They're beautiful girls and very nice... but they really shouldn't be 'in manicure.' " ;)

The picture above is from one of our dinners on the beach. Beej and Kristen have been coming to Goa for a while, so they have favorite beach shacks picked out. The above waiters are from a shack called "Lucky Star" and their food is REALLY good. Mostly serving traditional Goan and Indian food, there's a huge menu, and they have yummy chicken korma, lucky for me!! We usually got to dinner around 6pm and stayed a long time to watch the sunset bring evening.

Above, here's a view of our table during one of our lunches at a beach shack.

This was printed in one of our menus when we were ordering lunch one day. It totally goes with the Goan attitude of "Whatever... whenever... no big deal." They are flat out telling you that this is going to take a while. When eating at these beach shacks, the food always takes a REALLY long time to arrive. None of the visitors really care, because you're just sitting on the beach relaxing, with nothing else to do. Beej and Kristen had given us a heads up about the wait for food, and we all finally asked one of the shack owners for the reason behind the typical wait at these beach shacks. It turns out that since they're built in the sand, they don't have any cold storage supplies, like fridges or freezers. Which means that every menu, no matter how extensive, offers only food that can be cooked fresh, rather than thawing or warming up preserved and frozen goods. It made sense after hearing this... It explains why you may wait a while for food, but once you get it, it's so yummy and fresh-tasting and hot!

And of course, most of our days were spent lying on sunbeds or playing near the water. We brought books, magazines, cards, ipod docking stations... whatever we wanted to do that day to fill up our days of relaxation. Such a fun time to be able to just hang out with friends and talk all day, play cards, listen to music on the beach... It's definitely one of the most laid-back, low stress vacations I've been on. Truly feels like a paradise... :)

"Slow down and enjoy life. It's not only the scenery you miss by going to fast - you also miss the sense of where you are going and why."

Post by: Beth

Here are some more pictures of our trip to Goa... The next shots are mostly just the scenery around the area, which is gorgeous! No matter what time of day -- morning, noon, or night-- the sky, water, and sands were beautiful, and the views almost automatically slow you down and force you to enjoy. It's nearly impossible to feel hurried or pressed for time when you're surrounded by the never-ending ocean, miles and miles of sand, and a sun that rises and drops with such grace.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

"A vacation spot out of season always has a very special magic." - Max von Sydow

Post by: Beth

When we learned that Bombay would be our next destination for Raja's rotational program, people familiar with India promptly began urging us to visit the vacation destination known as Goa. Our location made it a perfect pick for our first weekend trip, as it's only a 45 minute flight. There was a holiday approaching, so Raja and I began making plans with our friends, Beej & Kristen, to go for the long weekend. (Funny story: The very first day we met Beej and Kristen, Beej said "You guys have never been to Goa? We should do Goa together." And 3 weeks after that expat brunch... there we were, planning to do Goa together. That's how you know you've made good friends!)

Kristen & Beej have been visiting the area for a few years so are familiar with hotels, beach areas, restaurants to visit, and so on and so on. Raja and Beej teamed up and started looking for a place to stay, and much to their surprise, most of the town was booked solid due to the long holiday weekend. They had to start looking for options that were unchartered territory for Beej & Kristen, which is a bit scary in a place like India. When you see a company's "website," or hear an advertisement, you can pretty much rest assured that what you see and what you hear is NOT going to be what you get. Nevertheless, they found a place and booked tickets, and we were headed to the airport for a 5am Thursday departure to Goa!

The flight was incredibly quick, and before long, we were at Goa's airport. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief when we saw a responsible-looking driver holding a sign that read "Casa Maya - Goa," which was the name of the villa we ended up renting. If there's a driver for the villa, there must really be a villa, yes?? Here we are at the airport and packing our luggage into the car that would take us to our villa.

After about 40 minutes of driving, we arrived to Candolim Beach area, which is where we were staying. Another collective sigh of relief when we saw our villa. It a) actually existed and b) was actually pretty nice. We had no idea what to expect by booking sites unseen in India, so we were pretty happy with our situation's outcome.

This is the entrance to the villa.. The den/living area is on the left, there's one bedroom directly to the right, and you can sort of see into the other bedroom in this picture.

This is the outside patio area.. We ate breakfast here each morning, as well as held a cookout here later in the weekend (stay tuned for THOSE pictures.. they're hilarious).

Here's the pool area, and below you can see the sunbeds. There was also a roof terrace with more sunbeds, but we didn't even spend anytime up there since we spent so much time at the beach.

The lady in the red shirt is Maria. She lives at the villa 24/7 and does the cooking, cleaning, maintenance schedules, grocery shopping, etc. She is such a sweet woman and really made the house feel like a home.

This is the kitchen area through this window.

And here we are relaxing on the patio one morning before heading to the beach.

We spent pretty much all day, every day, relaxing on the beach... We typically only wandered far enough from the water to eat at beach shacks that lined the sand. Most dinners took place in beach shacks as well, and it was so great to sit in a cane-chair eating dinner and watching the sunset. We got to see the sunset each evening, and it's a beautiful time of day in Goa. I took about a dozen photos of the sunsets and Kristen took equally as many, I think. Here are some of my favorites:

More to come from Goa later, but that's about enough blogging for today. :) Hope everyone is doing well! Thanks for reading our blog!

Monday, November 10, 2008

"Who can feel poor when the sails are full and the spirit is full?"

Post by: Beth

A couple of weeks ago, I got to see the famous Gateway of India, which is a major landmark and tourist site in Bombay. I'd heard Mr. Gupta talk of this, and he kept asking me if we'd seen this yet. I had no idea what the big fuss was all about (I'm not entirely educated on landmarks in Bombay, but I'm getting better!) and I'm not big on major tourist attractions, museums, famous statues, etc. Needless to say, I hadn't seen this Gateway of India. That all changed when we got a Facebook invite (thank you, Stacie!) to "take an evening boat tour, complete with drinks and dancing, launching from the Gateway of India!" I may not care much for huge tourist traps, but I certainly am up for any "evening boat tours." I immediately badgered Raja into texting our friends, Beej and Kristen, to let them know that I simply was not missing any "evening boat tour" in India. Luckily for us, they're flexible, and they were up for the boat, so off we went on a Saturday night, all the way down to South Bombay and the great Gateway of India.

We boarded the boat after meeting with friends for dinner, and I was very excited and actually impressed with this Gateway of India. It's a huge arch located on the waterfront, and is the monument that earlier people saw first when arriving to the (literal) lands of Bombay. It's quite impressive in person. Unfortunately, I can't really prove that since being on a moving boat didn't lend itself to still pictures of such a lit up monument at night. In lieu of any of my blurry photos, here's a professional shot so you can see what it REALLY looks like.

Before too long, the boat pushed away from the dock and we were coasting along the waterway. Gorgeous night, and after we'd traveled for a while, it was so pretty to look back on land and see all the lights sparkling from the city. The land pictures turned out a bit blurry of course since we were constantly moving, but at least one turned out decently enough to see the view.

It was a great trip... The boat took us out about an hour, turned around and came back to land to drop off anyone that wanted to return to the city, and then followed the same path back out again for those that wanted to continue. Of course we stayed on, and we had a great time.

Also notable and very exciting for me: I got to see Orion's Belt, which (if you're not familiar) is a constellation also known as "The Hunter" due to the sword hanging from a "belt" made of 3 bright stars in a line. Of course no pictures because it's just impossible to take a flash digital photo of a constellation, but it was really amazing to see and I'm glad Raja knows his constellations well enough to point it out to us. One of the best parts of being that far out in the water is all the stars that are visible... It makes you realize what you sometimes miss by living in such large cities.
After we arrived back at land, everyone was hungry and some of our friends that have lived here longer knew of a place to get food so late at night. The place was called "Bademiya" and its a roadside restaurant well known for late night eating. It's been in business for almost 70 years and is a local favorite. Several men bring around tiny paper menus with all of these rolls and kebabs listed. Each one is either a meat, a vegetable, or a combination of the two, wrapped in a thin type of bread similar to a roti. I was a bit unsure about whether this was okay for me to eat or not, so I only took a few bites, but Raja and Beej had their fair share. The workers make these rolls and kebabs really, really quickly and they have a system down that apparently works pretty flawlessly night after night. From the little bit I had, the rolls were actually pretty good, and Raja definitely didn't leave any to spare so he can vouch for them.

These nights are so fun... Where you just see all kinds of things that are so different from what I've seen anywhere in the States. Sometimes I really miss the U.S. and the familiar... what seems normal and simple, but India definitely has its charms. :)