Nothing pisses me off more than people’s presumptions and misconceptions about people, things and places that they haven’t experienced, but only been fed media myths about. One of these areas of contention is India. I myself have walked the tightrope between being scared of India and proud of it.
As a girl born, bred and proud of bring a Brit, my mum’s homeland of India always brings with it an avalanche of mixed feelings. Its one of the more mysterious countries on the planet, and one that boasts some of the most drastic differences in lifestyle between poverty-stricken and the rich. The seventh largest country in the world with over 1 billion people living in its territories, makes it second only to China. It’s a land of legends, myths, food, culture, political strife, and a wide variety of ethnic and cultural diversity.
As a young girl that visited her grandma, aunts and cousins there it freaked me out. It was total sensory overload. As soon as you stepped out of the Bombay airport the hostile heat, intense noise, variety of pungent smells and stares from locals at my white skin and foreign clothes was intimidating. I guess it didn’t help that as a west London teenager I loved to experiment with fashion and my Salt & Pepa shaved hairstyles and Madonna fashion didn’t go down too well with the very traditional locals. Often they’d point and laugh at me. Beggar children would surround me to plead for money or stroke my very pale skin.
Back in the nineties it was manic. Imagine the busiest road in your city or town, and then triple the traffic, and add lone camels, herds of cows, lounging buffalo, erratic goats, barking dogs, a colourful temple emitting chanting, people’s cell phones blaring Bollywood tunes, constant cars hooting pointlessly, and overpowering smells – exhaust fumes, animal excrement, incense, a bit of wee and some chai masala spices – and you get an idea. It couldn’t be more different now though.
Also, back then many of their houses and buildings all looked like they were in a dilapidated state and could do with a few licks of paint and renovation. However once you understand that the wet and hot weather damages paintwork year round, you understand why they don’t all look fresh to death like western buildings. Nonetheless it was traumatic for a western kid.
However over the years I’ve grown to realise that India is a magical and charming country that really is like no other place on earth. The things that used to fascinate me now impress me. It’s a country of extremes. One moment you’re driving through the chaos of the cities, and the next sitting in the desert watching the sunset, seeing a caravan of camels against the horizon. Another moment you’re maneuvering around thousands of people in a train station, the next you’re gawping at dramatic white snowy mountains and emerald green tea paddies whilst traveling on an old steam train.
The organised chaos that is their roads has to be seen, to be believed. Scuffed cars, millions of motorbikes, random cows (The cow is venerated because of its association with the Hindu deity, Krishna, who is believed to be a prince of the cowherd clan. It is an important symbol in some Hindu rituals, but is not part of everyday religious practice in India.), the occasional ox pulling carts, huge, colourful, music blaring lorries and pedestrians, all get around in perfect harmony with no road rage and total equality for all regardless of number of wheels or animal obstruction. The locals simply drive around the animal in their ‘live and let live’ state. However, It’s not all crowded and overrun by traffic. Wide-open areas exist too, as do under-populated rural areas.
This month I took my mum back to visit her family for her birthday treat. I also took my other half for his first ‘totally up for it’ adventure to the Asian continent. He’s a born and bred south Londoner with Dominican roots that fancies himself as unshakeable, so this was going to be interesting. We spent four days in Mumbai where her sister and my cousins live, four days in Goa for a beach break with 13 family members and four days in Pune where my mum was born and university educated, before marrying a Kenyan and traveling to England in the sixties to settle down.
When informing others of my impending trip to India the preconceptions and misconceptions were outrageous. Lets take a look at some.
The idea that Indians all work in call centres or are genetically predisposed to be good with computers. That they’re all living in squalor and that they have mass famine all the time, and anywhere you go in India you will see people in a state of starvation. …. I’ve seen more opulence in India that most countries.
Every family, regardless of class has maids and servants to help with daily cooking, cleaning and chores. Their brides wear and own more real gold than most western women can comprehend or will ever see. Most kids travel to and from school in taxis and are much more highly educated than our own often speaking up to six languages by the age of 14. Every home and public building has air conditioning. Their food is fresher and tastier than the pre packaged produce we get at our supermarkets. Theirs comes straight from the fields and oceans onto their plate. Not my definition of poverty.
Also, The service is crazy efficient in India. They don’t want you to lift a finger. Your suitcase will be carried, your tea will be poured, your food served and your every need catered to.
That Slumdog Millionaire and Bollywood are true reflections of exactly what it’s like in India… This is like saying that every part of the UK is like Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Railway Children or a James Bond movie. Any Indian you come across with roll their eyes if you mention these. Yes, the slums of India are known worldwide for being some of the worst in the world, which is unfortunate given the wealth of the nation and the absolute opposing lifestyle of those people enjoying the high life. However, even their slums have all the modern electrical gadgets of an English home and satellite TV! I’ve seen more poverty on UK reality shows like Benefits Street.
People asked if I was going to ‘find myself’ in the mystical land of yogis and Ghandi where everyone is some kind of deep Gandhi like Guru who sleeps on nails and levitates and has a deep spiritual side, the land of snake charmers, elephant mahouts and mystics…. Lol. This is like foreigners coming here, and assuming we are all akin to ye olde englande of yesteryear, and assuming that still in 2014 we brits Morris dance, only eat fish & chips, speak in plummy accents, wear bowler hats, are all violent football hooligans and that our only reason for being is to acquire materialistic wealth and be on permanent diets (that last one may be somewhat true).
The idea that you will only be able to eat curry, and almost certainly suffer Delhi belly…. Firstly, not all their meals are curry-based. Secondly, most westerners see India as a backpacking cheap holiday adventure, and so eat at street food stalls that they’d never dream of eating from in the UK. Of course you’re going to suffer! Eat in regular establishments as you do at home and Delhi belly wont affect you!
That the climate in India is always “hot”… It’s as diverse as it can get depending on where you live. In Mumbai we experienced extreme heat and humidity, the next day in Goa it was scorching hot one minute and monsoon torrential rain the next, and in Pune the climate was as calm and as green as in London. India can be both the hottest and coldest place you have ever been on earth.
Our trip began in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), where on day one,feeling adventurous,I convinced my local family and Mr South London to travel the local train from one side of Mumbai to another as challenged by a Mumbai-ite who now lives and works in London. She said if I were truly ‘’street’’ I would take pics at regular stations to prove I’d done it.
Oh the jokes! My little lord Fauntleroy style Indian nephews weren’t impressed and looked traumatised, my other half couldn’t believe the crowd and open doors as passengers hung off and on top of the trains, but challenge completed we celebrated with high tea at the opulent Taj Palace Hotel.The scene of the terrorist attacks in 2008 when by horrid coincidence i was also there with my family. I will never forget the kindness and help of the Virgin Atlantic crew on that trip that kept us safe and reassured at the airport.
The beautiful parks and gardens and the grandeur of the famous Taj Mahal Hotel overlooking the Gateway to India (which is similar looking to our Marble Arch), is the focus of a BBC documentary HOTEL INDIA, showing on our TV’s right now.
So I was like a groupie when I spotted staff members that the TV show has made famous. The ultra efficient concierge who has served royalty, presidents and superstars was at his desk. I giggled like an excited schoolgirl. The high tea was in the famous sea lounge and more proper than the high tea I have often partaken in at Harrods, Fortnum and Masons and Mayfair.
High tea at The Taj is legendary with its fancy food stuffs and array of tea and coffee choices.
After high tea we strolled across the street where an old dude was crushing raw sugar cane bamboos into sugar cane juice- delicious!
The next day I suggested a slum tour but was shut down by my fam. Instead I finally convinced them to come on the tour of the huge Dhobi Ghat- a massive outdoor laundry area where wealthy people send their clothes to be washed.
We traveled there by rickshaw. Mr South London had sworn not to travel in one, as it was ‘too dangerous’. This coming from a renowned motorbike and supercar speed freak. Hilarious scenes ensued with him gripping on for dear life as the rickshaw swerved in and out of traffic and squeezed alongside juggernaut trucks that threatened to squish us. Mr South London squealed. A lot.
I pointed out the many imposing Victorian buildings, which would lead you to believe you were in a grand British city. Many places still bear the names of companies, which traded here at the height of British rule. We also clocked the chaotic streets, outdoor bazaars, popular waterfront destinations like Marine Drive, where visitors go to watch the sun set over the Arabian Sea, and the carnival-like Juhu Beach.
The giant laundry Dhobi Ghat was mind blowing. Hundreds of people launder over 100,000 garments daily, speedily and never mix them up. We were taken through the intricate maze-like cubicles which washer men hire and wash, steam and press clothes in. clothes separated by colour, saris refurbished from old to new, contaminated hospital gowns boiled to cleanse, frail men ironing piles of shirts.
Electricity and wiring that resembled a health and safety nightmare. I wont lie, it was devastating viewing with what I imagined sweatshop conditions to look like. But, that issue was just mine, the people there looked happy and grateful to be working and the organisation and efficiency was mind blowing.
In keeping with our rags and riches experience, the next recommended escapade was a trip to a restaurant called Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra. Its owned and run by Mumbai’s Jiggs Kalra , a gastronome, food writer, historian and consultant who has spent the past 40 years in recording and reviving Indian cuisine, who owns multiple restaurants in the city.He’s a celebrated name across India and overseas and not just Mumbai, while being based in Gurgaon. But the most talked about is the “Masala Library’. Jiggs says ‘’we serve memories, not just food’’ and he wasn’t joking. While reservations are highly recommended, Masala Library keeps a few tables to cater to walk in guests, which are on first come first serve basis, and luckily i got lucky!
Frankly readers, it was worth the flight to India alone for this incredible culinary experience. My words can never do it enough justice, the experience was phenomenal. The décor is simple, very sophisticated new york brasserie chic with a touch of Asian waterfall art wall thrown in. I expected a fancy restaurant like Royal China where many of their Bollywood stars frequent, but this was something else. It put our celeb chefs like Gordon Ramsey and Heston Blumenthal in the shade.
It has a reputation of being one of the best Indian gastronomic molecular creative food spots in Mumbai and it didn’t disappoint. On arrival the staff were highly accommodating friendly staff and service was unbeatable.
We asked what they’d recommend and at their suggestion went for the 10 – course tasting menu. This let us sample most of the signature dishes’ on the menu in small portions.
Then a marathon of food platters and plates all more marvelous than the last arrived one by one. One of the first courses looked like a regular cup of tea, but was in fact a mushroom truffle chai- totally delicious`!.
By course four we were stuffed but couldn’t resist not devouring the creative, arty food creations that kept on coming.
The best part of the dining was Dennis Chelai Wu, Operations Manager of Masala Library, who explained everything about the dish we were about to demolish.
How, why, when it was inspired and created. He answered every query with easily understandable knowledge, and made the dining experience a real culinary and intellectual treat.
The style juxtaposed modern day cooking techniques with centuries old traditions. The type of dish you can be sure you’ve never been served anywhere else. Ever. The presentation, vibrant colours and captivating blend of flavours had us awaiting the next dish like excited kids at Christmas.
Prawns served on sliced tree bark, scallops served in shells, a bubble of almond that pops in your mouth, a mini treasure chest steaming with dramatic dry ice which opens to reveal a palette cleansing lollipop.
But our absolute fave was a mouth-watering honey and maple, pepper glazed rib dish that was so scrumptious we are still raving about it (and unsuccessfully attempting to recreate it at home) today!
If you are visiting Mumbai I highly recommend dining at MASALA LIBRARY. At around £30 per head its costly for locals but a miracle for us Brits.
Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra
Ground Floor, First International Financial Centre,
Opposite Sofitel Hotel, G-Block,
Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC), Bandra (E), Mumbai
+91-22-66424142 / +91-8452900900
Mumbai might not be the capital of India, but like New York feels like the capital city. It was on the eve of Diwali when we experienced stunning, dramatic fireworks all over the city in the lead up to India’s biggest annual festival in preparation for the next day. It also makes for a fantastic hub for jetting off to other Indian city centres like the party capital Goa, where we went next, really excited as we would be experiencing indias biggest celebration of Diwali whilst in Goa!
Goa is famous the world over for its beautiful beaches and party culture and offers numerous of festivals/carnivals from cultural to music so it is definitely worth checking out what is on while you are there.
Once a year Goa hosts a carnival, which lasts for 4 days just before the season of, lent, the sunburn festival in January is also worth checking out with top name dj’s making an appearance. Little did we realise that as the city is not mostly Indian but catholic- they didn’t celebrate Diwali- so no fireworks in Goa for us!
Goa used to have a reputation for catering to the “hippy” tourist, with flea markets and weekend bazaars selling handicrafts, clothes and arts even though the fabled hippy bargains have long since disappeared – thank god!. Goa is a medley of people, culture and festivals. A land of scenic beauty and pristine beaches. It is the smallest state of India with and area 3.702 Square Kilometers and lies along the western coast of India. Panaji is it’s capital city. It is divided into two districts, North Goa (noisy Ibiza style tourist area) and South Goa (more rural, calm, family vacationers and locals).
Thirteen of my family members and I stayed at the Heritage Village- an all-inclusive resort on the beach- in Goa. Everything about this hotel was lovely from the layout, location on the beach, big pool, lush green gardens, tennis courts, spa and dining facilities and bar. The one thing that did let it down though was the lack of wi-fi. They were charging £7 a day, which is more than most top NYC hotels. On day one it was scorching hot and we had a paradisiac day at the beach.
However day two and three it rained torrentially without any relief.
That didn’t stop the hard-core Indian and Russian kids in the pool through, who stayed flipping and splashing in the pool well past sunset. I did my kanye shrug and thought ‘if you cant beat em….’’ And jumped right in to join my young nephews.
Goan’s are friendly, relaxed and extremely happy go lucky people belonging to different faiths and coming from different cultural backgrounds. However all Goans lay emphasis on good living. Goa was ruled by the Portuguese for more than 400 years and was liberated on 19th December 1961. Strong Portuguese influences still abound as can be seen in the architecture across the state and also experienced in their cuisine.
Many had suggested a visit to the local restaurant Martin’s Corner, which has a bit of a reputation now. But a kind local told us that its reputation had made it shoddier now it was too popular and the standard of food and service wasn’t as good as it used to be. He instead suggested an alternative local restaurant zee-bop, which was beautiful. On the edge of the Arabic ocean, with freshly caught lobster, pomfret and giant prawns selections the menu was delectable, accompanied by a live house band and very jovial atmosphere a real treasure find.
Most of the beaches are lined with shacks, which have evolved into pubs, restaurants, lounge bars or clubs. Authentic beach shacks can still be found on some of the more remote beaches. The culture is quite tolerant, laidback and relaxed. Apart from the beaches, Goa has stunning old heritage churches, old town areas and forts to visit. You can enjoy boat cruises on the river Mandovi and water sports along some of the beaches.
The cuisine is a good mix of western and Indian that can appeal to most travellers, especially when had with some local brewed alcoholic beverage called Feni- a toxic alcoloic brew made from cashew nuts. Seafood is a staple part of the diet and is also very affordable. Goa is well connected by rail, road and air and also has some nice trails that run along waterfalls through lush thick jungle.
After three days of watching all the blokes in my family try and out do each other in the drinking stakes it was time to fly out of there and escape from the all inclusive resort and make our way onwards to the much cooler, cultural capital of Maharashtra, the old city of Pune where my grandparents lived.
Pune is known globally for being famous for the Osho International Commune, established by India’s sobriquet ‘Sex Guru’. It has several museums that portray the history of the ruler Shivaji’s empire. Literature of Pune is famous throughout Maharashtra. It is well connected by air, rail and road. There are picturesque hills and hill stations within 20 kms from Pune. The city is not far from a large number of forts and scenic trekking trails. The state is well connected by the express highway which is one of the first 6 lane high speed high way. Pune has an excellent network of hotels and restaurants and travel within the city is a little more expensive compared to other states.
As my grand parents home was full of relatives, Mr South London and I had checked ourselves into a local hotel- the Hotel Sagar Plaza. It was not great. It wasn’t awful. It was safe and acceptable, but I wouldn’t stay there again. The receptionist was frosty and unhelpful on arrival; the rooms were old fashioned decorated in an old seventies style with stains on the sofas. When the bathroom door was shut mouldy debris fell from the ceiling onto our towels, and you needed a maths degree to understand how to work the telly. If visiting Pune for a bit more money the opposite Aurora Towers hotel is lush, modern and much more professional.
I wanted Mr South London to visit not just the fancy restaurants and bars in the city but also the raw yard style spots. We had lunches and dinners in really classy places as well as the Hard Rock Café and Pune’s finest Indian real food spot- Georges on Main Street. One afternoon I shopped leisurely for fabrics to have a local tailor make me up copies of my favourite shirts and dresses. The fabric cost less than a fiver for four separate outfits and then 20 quid for the tailor to make them to my measurements. Even Mr South London had a few pairs of shorts made up. Brilliant!
Our leisurely meander took us to the local fruit, veg and flower market. Now here’s where it gets interesting stroke hilarious. Before showing him the lushness of all the local produce, I wanted to take him through the slaughterhouse. This narrow corridor of the market houses live chickens ready to wring, pluck and feather as well as freshly slaughtered animals mostly goats, cows and pigs. Mr South London often shows me videos of his relatives in Dominica slaughtering goats so naturally I had assumed this was all second nature to him. He approached the door and said ‘’eeewww I’m not going in there it stinks’’. I rolled my eyes and said ‘’of course it does- its freshly slaughtered animals blood- come on, man up, if you can buy it in Tesco’s you can see how it got there’’. Mr South London, wearing t shirt and shorts, gingerly tiptoes into the area, careful not to get his white fresh to death sneakers dirty by stepping around the dripping goats heads and skins of offal everywhere. Market traders were yelling at us from all directions to buy their livestock…. Suddenly three huge bandicoot rats run across our path and scamper off. It happened so fast I didn’t really react, but Mr South London froze, on one leg, shook like shaggy in Scooby doo- you could practically hear his bones rattling with fear and yelled at me ‘’oh my god- get me out if here! I HATE RATS!’’. As much I tried to calm hi down he was in full panic attack mode and trying to escape but ran in the wrong direction sending himself deeper into slaughterhouse hell. I stifled my giggles as he darted around wild eyed with panic. Around an hour later he was calmer. But I never did get to show him the lovely market.
Today Pune is a bustling cosmopolitan city, famous for its many large colleges and universities. It also a hub for a lot of IT/Technology companies, and a major training base for the Indian Army where my mother worked in the Southern command when she was younger. It’s much cleaner, cooler and calmer than Mumbai. The central area of Mahatma Gandhi (M.G) road is a major commercial area with shops, stores, hotels, and malls as big and as fabulous as Westfield. Pune also boasts its share of party places that cater to the young crowd. One night we went to an underground basement bar where a local rock band was entertaining the crowd over beers and snacks. They were exceptionally good! Another night it was dinner and cocktails at the world famous Hard Rock Cafe.
LUNCH AT THE TAJ.
This time I was determined to grab a photo with the BBC (Hotel India) star concierge Satish. I asked the desk if he was around. His boss Brian wearily informed me that people arrived daily from the UK asking about the ‘’BBC STAR’’ and requesting photos. He said he’d call him but would we be kind enough to play a prank on him?
Mr South London (always up for a prank) agreed to be a very angry hotel guest. Once the star concierge arrived, Mr South London berated him in an enraged fashion. The poor man looked mortified and so sad and apologised profusely.
Mr South London turned to shake Brian’s hand. We all laughed as BBC star Satish looked on totally confused. Even when all was revealed he was still the most humble, dignified gent. Brilliant!
After a final dinner with the full family at Royal China which looked to be all full to bursting with Bollywood stars arriving to dine at 11pm, we all packed and jumped into a car to Mumbai’s stunning airport that resembles a futuristic out of this world style. Its gates are akin to a 5 star hotel and packed with visitors from Europe, the Caribbean, Africa and the States. We were sad to be leaving this country of wildly polarising content.
India is chaotic, noisy, colourful, intense, hectic and sensually rich. If you like your travel destinations as bland as processed cheese, then India’s not for you. On the other hand if you want to experience the kindness of the Indians, the amazing service, excellent food, beautiful hotels which all exceed expectations and a totally different world then book your flights.
World-class hotels and gardens that look like they’ve been transported straight out of Europe share space with the slums and their squalor which is a huge culture shock for many first time visitors too the city but it’s a visit you’ll never forget for all the right reasons.
When I travel around the world, many countries and high streets across Europe and America are exactly the same as the UK. You feel like you’re still in the same country. When you go to India it’s a truly once in a lifetime experience and you will make memories that will last forever!