Monthly Archives: March 2012

A fort of one’s own


Waving goodbye to the kids from the construction site, we hit the main highway, heading for a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, and a fort called Madogarh.


There has been some trepidation about this leg, as we are travelling by public bus and everyone has heard horror stories, but we shouldn’t have worried: it’s a regular intercity bus with comfortable, allocated seats – no need to sit on our packs in the aisles as we might on a local bus.

20120330-070650.jpg Not our bus

I notice a girl sitting on a fold-up seat at the very front, next to the driver. She has the best view of all, so when she gets off a little down the road I grab my camera and abandon the comfortable seat for one with a view.



It’s a great way to watch the world go by – we are higher up than most traffic, at eye-level with the trucks, and I end up spending most of the journey just taking pictures of the traffic – rickshaws, camels (we are heading into Rajasthan), and this fellow with the fabulous turban…



Abandoning the bus, we switch to jeeps for an hour or so, driving into the desert past the occasional village, flat cakes of dung drying on the walls to fuel cooking fires. At last we spot a hill in the distance, on which sits a fort straight out of a fairy tale. This is Madogarh, and this is our home for the night – just the twelve of us!


The jeeps take us through the village at the foot of the hill and up the steep track to the fort, past a road crew who are painstakingly covering the track with cobblestones. Two tall turbaned men wait to greet us with red powder to mark our foreheads. Each room is different, built into the walls of the fort. Mine is just behind the battlements, which can be reached up three stone steps to provide sweeping views of the countryside.

There is time in the afternoon for a walk through the village with the manager of the fort, a tall man in a military beret, with a magnificent moustache, who turns out to be a bit of a dancer later in the evening.

20120330-072755.jpg Local potter



We are followed by a trail of local kids most of the way, past the local potter, weavers making a rug at a huge loom, craftworkers attaching sequins to sari fabric, and a detour into the local school to deliver those boxes of pencils (wishing we had something a little more exciting to give), which causes immediate suspension of classes as the kids crowd around for “one photo!”.

20120330-072007.jpg Posing for the camera



We visit a workshop where women are polishing small beads and making necklaces, and another small shop where a whole family is at work melting and shaping resin to make colourful bangles, the daughter painstakingly sticking diamantes into the soft edges.



There is time for chai, where we are served the throwaway clay cups which we saw the potter making earlier. It definitely adds another dimension to the taste.


Back at the fort, there is beer on the turret “bar”, then we have a surprise in store: a local woman has come up from the village to dress all of the women in traditional dress, while the men learn the finer arts of rolling a turban. The finished result has us in stitches, but we definitely look the part as we descend to the courtyard, where dinner is served by firelight, and local musicians play the sitar and harmonium into the night.


I am up with the sparrows the next morning, taking my camera to the rooftop to watch the dawn. In the main village temple I can see flickering lamps, and the sound of the bells and drums signifying morning prayer wafts up the hill. I can see little lights across the plains below until, abruptly, the power goes out and all is dark.


With sunrise come the birds, and there is a hilarious pantomime played out on a rooftop below as a peacock does his best to display his colours to an uninterested peahen. He turns away to show his feathers to greater effect, and she takes her chance and jumps. He looks distinctly confused when he finally turns around to an empty rooftop.

20120330-071452.jpg Checking out her escape options

Breakfast is served on a turret, with the most amazing breakfast view so far.


It’s Valentine’s Day, and in the tiny gift shop a local painter is offering special deals on miniature portraits of Krishna with his favourite girlfriend, Radhe (he had 16,000 to choose from, apparently, but she was definitely number one).

It strikes me that this place would be the perfect writers’ retreat. No internet or TV to distract (in fact, nothing to distract but the view), and peace and quiet in abundance. A wander down the hill to the chaiwallah now and again to break the day… It definitely could be worse!

Agra: A love story and a dysfunctional family.


It is pitch black outside when we leave for New Delhi station to catch the Shatabdi (express) to Agra, leaving early to make the most of our single day there.

The train is easily the nicest I’ve been on, and is apparently the fastest in India. It’s also full of package tourists, and a new game of “American tourist bingo” (in the vein of Auroville bingo) is soon in progress. I imagine someone somewhere is playing a similar game of Intrepid Travel bingo…. or backpacker bingo, perhaps.

We watch the sun rise over the villages and fields as we speed by.


A couple of hours later we are in Agra, bound for the Red Fort and one of the best guides of the trip. If only I could remember his name! He is passionate about the history of the fort and the Mughals, and manages to convey the details of daily life in the fort in a way that really brings the building alive. The fort is huge, built of red sandstone blocks with a moat and drawbridge, and a surprising number of small palaces inside. It was built by Akbar (son of Humayun) in 1565 or thereabouts.



We see the beautifully decorated rooms where Akbar’s grandson Shah Jehan ended his days before joining his beloved Mumtaz in the Taj Mahal (he was kept under house arrest for spending too much money on monuments, among other pretexts, by his youngest son, Aurangzeb – plotting with his sister and having killed his remaining brothers to secure succession, a familial trait).

There are paintings and beautiful inlaid stones set into marble – not precious stones anymore, but sufficiently colourful that you can imagine how it would have sparkled. There are water features everywhere, and clever use of wind and water to keep the rooms cool in summer, with hooks to drape curtains from and rugs on the marble ground to keep the rooms warm in winter. It’s probably heretical to say so, but I almost found the Red Fort more interesting than the Taj Mahal, magnificent though that is, just because so much more happened here – all the romance and political intrigue of empire. The Taj Mahal is stunning, but it’s basically just an over the top tomb, right?*

20120327-175524.jpg View of *that* tomb from the Red Fort

We check in to our hotel (which is your average clean, tidy business hotel, everything works but not a lot of personality), and are mobbed by the kids whose parents are working on the construction site next door. They’re not asking for anything (though it’s clear they don’t have much); they’re just curious and want to say hello.

20120327-175813.jpg Heartbreakingly cute. Or actually, just heartbreaking.

Lunch is at a touristy place with a roof terrace, and I notice that the prices are higher than they were in the south – though it could just be that we are a captive market: there’s not much else going on in Agra, and it’s a bit of a dive, save for the Red Fort and the main attraction.

The best time to see the Taj Mahal is at sunrise or at sunset, and it’s late afternoon when we finally arrive. There is the usual phalanx of touts to ignore, and a queue for security (no food to be brought in either). We are given paper slippers to wear over our shoes when we get to the tomb, and pointed towards the main entrance.

Even the entrance gate is a spectacular arch of sandstone. The tip of the Taj Mahal is visible behind, but it is still a majestic sight when I step through the archway.


20120327-175954.jpg And there it is.

There is a steep foreign price (750 rupees!), and a much cheaper Indian fee, but the advantage of the foreign ticket is that you get to skip the gigantic queue that snakes all the way around the building. Inside, there are strictly no photos, and crowd control is fierce. All is symmetrical, save for the slightly higher marble box that is Shah Jehan’s tomb – the building was not designed with him in mind.

20120327-180208.jpg Check out the queue


Outside, the Yamuna river snakes past, and we sneak a couple of pictures before we are swiftly moved on by another man in a beret with yet another magnificent moustache.


On either side of the main tomb are red sandstone mosques, one of which still operates, and the other which is open to tourists (behind a slightly confusing “Indians only” sign, which turns out to relate to the queue for the Taj Mahal, not the mosque).



A young couple sits together holding hands at the end of an arched corridor, which seems kind of fitting for a place which was built to commemorate a great love.

20120327-180358.jpg No pressure, guys

The sun is low in the sky as we leave, providing plenty of opportunity for pictures of the Taj mirrored in the fountains.


That night there is a wedding celebration in the hotel, the gardens decked out in shiny ribbon and the members of the brass wedding band each playing a different tune again – the modern version of an Indian love story is a bit more clamourous and colourful than its predecessor.


*just a little tongue in cheek

Delhi, old and new


Karol Bagh is situated roughly half way between the former British capital that is New Delhi, with its wide streets and Lutyens bungalows, and the Old Delhi of Shahjehanabad – the former Muslim capital founded by the Mughal emperor.

It is in Old Delhi that we start our tour, first catching a local bus outside the metro station. The conductor calls the destinations out the window at each stop, a fistful of rupee notes in his hand.


The morning traffic includes a slew of cycle rickshaws and the occasional oxcart.



We step down at the stop across the road from the Red Fort, impressive from the outside but apparently not as fine as the one in Agra, which we will see soon. Instead, our destination is the Jama Masjid, a huge mosque which was once occupied by a Sikh regiment after the so-called Indian Mutiny (or first war of independence, depending on your chosen historical perspective).


Today it is full of tourists and, after leaving our shoes outside, the women in our group are required to don brightly coloured overgarments which cover us from top to toe – all of us have shoulders and knees covered, so I can only assume that the blanket policy of, erm, blankets is a combination of money-gathering and just generally making female tourists look ridiculous.

20120327-093122.jpg Spot the foreign women…

We also need a token male with us if we are to climb to the top of the minaret, and luckily there is one guy in our group prepared to make the climb. The view from the top is fantastic, though curtailed slightly by the haze of pollution around the city.


Below us on one side is the Red Fort. On the other, a warren of alleyways, the bazaars of Chandni Chowk, and it is into this maze that our tour leader takes us next, past rows of shops selling nothing but ribbons and trim for wedding clothes, another selling sweets (where we do stop to taste some of the peanut and sesame toffees) – he sets a swift pace though, so there is little chance to stop and take photographs.





Emerging from the network of lanes, we find ourselves on a wide street, at one end of which is a large Sikh temple, the Sheeshganj gurdwara. Inside the complex, underneath the temple, we leave our shoes and don headscarves (the boys too this time, all heads must be covered, and scarves are provided for anyone who needs them). We walk through low jets of water to wash our feet, then ascend the main steps to the temple. Inside, three men are playing a drum and a harmonium, and half singing, half chanting readings from the Sikh holy book. We find a spare space on the carpet at the back and listen for a while. The atmosphere is peaceful and meditative.

Outside, we find the kitchen, where a turbaned Sikh is stirring a vast vat of halva.


Further on, people are making chappatis and, in the hall beyond, about fifty people are seated on the floor in long lines while food is distributed. It is part of the Sikh philosophy that free meals be provided to anyone (of any creed or none) who needs or wants it – and not just the poor, as it is hoped that people who eat in the halls will donate what they can, either in cash or in time spent in preparation of the meals. It’s a pretty cool concept.



Back on the street the traffic noise is a bit jarring. To get back to the hotel, we take the flash new metro, most of which was completed in time for the Commonwealth games in 2010. It’s the equal of any underground I’ve been in, and cleaner than most (certainly cheaper!). Security is high – every single bag is scanned and person searched as if at an airport. I can imagine riots breaking out if they tried to introduce a similar policy in London, but here it’s is just something else to build in extra time for. Entry is by a small plastic token with value loaded for the trip (like a miniature oyster), which is swiped on entry, and dropped into a slot on final exit. There are also one day tourist cards which are pretty good value (100R for one day, 250R for three, plus a refundable 50R deposit). The other advantage, given the famously gropey hands of certain Delhi males who ought to know better, is that the first car of each train is for women only (well, it says ladies, but I presume they’ll make an exception), and often less crowded than the other cars.

With the rest of the afternoon free, there is just time for the three musketeers (being the three solo travellers from the South Indian trip) to find an autorickshaw to take us to Humayun’s tomb, a kind of mini-Taj Mahal in red sandstone to the South near Hazrat Nizamuddin station. I don’t know if it’s our pronunciation but it takes a while to find a driver who knows where to go – in the end we get as far as Khan Market and ask for directions.

Our driver waits while we go inside. Humayun was the second great Mughal emperor (after Babur and before Akbar, in case you were wondering). After a life of dramatic battles and intrigue (he killed most of his brothers to secure the throne), his death was utterly mundane – he tripped on his robe while running downstairs, cracked his head and that was that. His tomb, however is quite something – a rare oasis of green parkland, with the red sandstone dome soaring above.


One of the displays shows a picture of pre-British Delhi, with smaller domed cenotaphs dotted across the land.



The tomb seems to be under constant renovation, and the site hosts regular training workshops in the use of ancient carving and building techniques, such as the elaborate stone grills, or jali-work, in place of windows. This is the sort of place to which you could bring a book and a picnic and spend a peaceful afternoon away from the noise of modern Delhi.



Since we are in the neighbourhood, we make a quick stop at Khan Market, and immediately wish we had longer. There is a branch of Fab India here, and also a branch of Anokhi, which may just be even better than Fab India. There is also a camera shop which has a single precious 49mm UV filter for my camera – the original was smashed in a heartstopping incident in Periyar. There is nothing else for it – we’ll have to come back here to investigate properly when we return to Delhi.

That evening we return to Om Saravana Bhavan, a brilliant South Indian cafeteria just around the corner from the hotel, for dinner. I had asked our trip leader that morning for a cheaper alternative to the mediocre hotel breakfast buffet, and he directed me here. When I walked in at 8am, I was the only foreigner in the place, and smoke was billowing out the door as a priest performed some kind of ceremony that involved lighting a small wood fire on the bare marble floor. But once past the smoke, I was seated with courtesy and served a delicious masala dosa and South Indian coffee within minutes, for half the price I would have paid for toast and dry omelette in the hotel.


We are just finishing up when everyone else from the group walks in to join us (news of good food travels fast) and I’m already looking forward to coming back to Delhi in a couple of weeks time for a return visit.

Goodbye South India, hello Delhi!



Arriving back in Fort Kochi brings the joy of the familiar – a rare event when travelling. There is one last night out with the group, at a restaurant on the very edge of the river. It’s sad to say goodbye to new friends, but four of the current crew will be joining me on the northern trip (or I will be joining them, they leave Kochi at 6am).

We are a diminished group at breakfast – I’m going to miss the South Indian breakfasts! – and soon it is time to board the taxi for the hour-long journey to the airport. I’m flying via Hyderabad, though connecting passengers don’t leave the plane so I can’t tell you much about it. I was expecting delays on past experience, but the plane arrives in Delhi exactly on time, and I have already purchased a voucher from the pre-paid taxi booth by the time my pack appears on the conveyor belt.

The driver is a bit bemused when I insist on holding onto the voucher – he doesn’t get paid without it, so holding it until the end of the trip is some small security that you’ll actually get to the right destination – but in these security-conscious days, there is now an inspection gate with armed security guards checking every taxi on exit, and I have to hand it over for a few minutes at least, so that we can leave the airport!

The streets are wide and the traffic doesn’t seem too bad until we get closer to Karol Bagh, where a familiar chaos resumes. At Karol Bagh metro I call the hotel and one of the porters comes to meet us and give directions to the taxi driver. I am just in time for the orientation meeting, and dinner at a local (fairly average) restaurant. It’s a full house of twelve again, but this time more people travelling in pairs (three of us from the South trip the only exceptions) and slightly skewed towards an older age-group. The guide is a much more gentle personality this time too – he is Jain, non-smoking, non-drinking and vegetarian. Comparisons are odious, as my grandmother has been known to say, but the first part of the trip has been so much fun that I wonder if the second half stands a chance…

At home in the Kerala Backwaters


No trip around South India could be complete without a trip to the backwaters of Kerala, where the rivers meet the sea. To get there, first we face another long drive through the tea plantations (oh the hardship!).


Along the way we stop at a rubber plantation, where sticky white latex is slowly dripping into coconut shell-shaped plastic cups (once they would have been actual coconut shells) from small cuts in the bark of the rubber trees.


There is a refreshment stop at a roadside cafe which specialises in deep fried battered bananas stuffed with cashews, spices and raisins, and balls of date halva wrapped in banana leaves, as well as packs of bamboo rice, which is produced only once every 24 years and rumoured to cure just about everything, including impotence.

20120325-093806.jpg Homemade date halva

We stop briefly too at a Christian church sitting atop a small hill in the midst of tea plantations – the view is lovely, but more importantly I finally manage to convince the rest of the crew that our trip will be incomplete without a human pyramid – go the victory arm!

20120325-093627.jpg My work here is done.

Eventually we turn off the main road and down a rough unsealed road to a rather unsalubrious-looking settlement next to the river. There is time for a quick toilet stop (5 rupees and hold your nose, girls!), then we board our craft for a one hour journey down the river. A row of plastic garden chairs has been placed on the upper deck, and the breeze as we cruise along is welcome – it’s becoming increasingly humid.

All along the riverbank are cottages with steps leading down to the water. Women are washing clothes in the river, and a canoe pulls up to one set of steps to offload its cargo – a large brown cow, which miraculously disembarks without swamping the boat.


It’s like being on a main highway – in fact there are road signs along the riverbank, and shelters like bus stops for shelter while waiting to hail a passing ferryboat. I’m told there could be as many as 300 islands in the backwaters, many on reclaimed land. We see men at work strengthening or rebuilding the stone walls along the riverbank – with global warming, rising tides and monsoon floods are having a serious effect here, though this section ends in a dam which prevents the sea and fresh water mingling as they once did (good for irrigation, not so good at flushing out the waterweed which is now becoming a real problem along the river).


Behind the walls lie rice paddies growing the red Kerala rice. Along the river, that waterweed – water hyacinth, I think? – grows in large clumps, providing floating platforms for kingfishers and cranes resting from diving for fish.


We turn into a smaller canal, and come to a halt at a small jetty in front of a farmhouse, the trees in front of the house leaning down to graze the water. We are staying in homestays tonight, three different houses, one of which is across the far side of the river.

For those on this bank, there is lunch at a communal table, then one of the sons, Wishal (a former Intrepid guide who now works for a local charity) takes us for a walk along the riverbank and through the small village, showing us the different varieties of coconut palm and describing the irrigation methods used by local farmers to grow rice by immersion.

A large canoe-like boat is waiting to take us back to the homestay as the sun sets, punted with a long bamboo pole.


Dinner is served, a variety of curries (including my favourite pineapple), dhal and Kerala rice. Then the lights are dimmed, and a cake full of candles is brought in – one of the group turns 66 today! “Happy birthday” is followed by calls for another song, and the birthday boy proves to be an excellent singer as well – then it’s just like being in a tiny country pub in Ireland, as songs are called for from each of the countries represented – though I do feel that our host was copping out just a little bit by choosing the Indian national anthem.

The next morning I am awake at six, and quietly let myself out the gate to go for a walk. The sky is just starting to lighten. The air is still and quiet save for the birds, until the sun begins to rise, and the call and response of a Catholic mass can be heard from a church across the rice paddies. Then the mosque across the water starts, and the bells of the local temple.


Back at the house there is time to sit on the jetty and watch the fish jumping (I’ll be breaking into song any minute now…), as the rest of the house’s occupants wake up and get ready for the day.


The boat is back to collect us for the trip to Alleppey, the main centre in the backwaters, where seemingly hundreds of traditional reed houseboats are docked awaiting passengers. Some of these boats are nothing less than floating hotels, complete with chefs, aircon, even a swimming pool on the more outrageously expensive boats, so that there is nothing left to do but sit back and watch the world go by. We say goodbye to one couple here, who are about to do exactly that on their very own houseboat.


For the rest of us, there is a short wait at the local bus station before the crazy scramble, bags and all, to find a place on the local bus to Ernakulam. The bus is full, three to a seat, and the windows are mercifully barred rather than enclosed by glass – the driver is a frustrated rally car driver, judging by his pace, so there is quite a breeze as we make our way back to Fort Kochi and the final night of the South Indian trip.


First, take your coconut…


Learning how to cook some of the delicious South Indian food that I have encountered here was high on my wish-list for this trip, so I jumped at the chance to attend a cooking class in Periyar. In the end only four of us opted to take the class, which turns out to be just as well, as our host has sneakily added an additional four people, who are waiting for us when we arrive at the top of the steep, narrow path to a small outdoor cafe, in the front yard of our host’s family home.

Our host can only be described as the Indian, teetotal version of Keith Floyd. He certainly has the larger-than-life demeanour required of a TV chef, utterly wasted in his day-job as a rickshaw driver.


The living room of the family home has been cleared to make way for a large table, on which gas burners sit ready for use. But as any cook knows, the first item on the agenda is always prep. Outside we take over the cafe tables and are set to work chopping, peeling and slicing red onions, garlic, beans and potatoes.


The fundamental ingredient in South Indian cooking is the coconut. If there isn’t coconut milk or chopped coconut, then there’s a high chance your meal will have been cooked in coconut oil. The chef’s mother is on hand to show us how to grate a coconut the old fashioned way, sitting on a wooden stool to which a lethal-looking star of metal has been bolted at one end, and running the halved coconut over the blade to produce the familiar stringy white pulp. To make coconut milk, this pulp is wrung out by hand into water until the water thickens and turns white.

20120324-151316.jpg Coconut monster

We are shown how to make several local curries (ideally the class would have been more hands-on, but there are too many of us and not enough cooking space). The basic method seems to be as follows:

1. Make sure all of the ingredients are sitting in front of you, measured and prepped, ready to throw into the pan.
2. Heat 1-2 T coconut oil.
3. Add black mustard seeds, cook for a few seconds until they start to pop.
4. Throw in a handful of curry leaves (they must be fresh, god only knows where I’m going to find them in London, anybody know?). The oil will fizz and bubble.
5. Add the main ingredients, meat/fish if applicable, cook through for a few minutes.
6. Throw in your spices or spice paste, and coconut milk if required, for a few more minutes then serve.

A standard mortar and pestle would do to make the spice paste, but our host (or, to be fair, his mother) relies on even more traditional methods. Outside the house sits a huge heavy stone which is grooved in the centre from decades of use. In the groove rests a stone rolling pin of sorts. The necessary spices are placed in the centre with freshly grated coconut, and ground together with the rolling pin to make the paste. For pineapple curry, we combined freshly grated coconut with garlic, a red chilli, onion, salt, turmeric and cumin. It’s slow and laborious when I try, but his mother makes quick work of it. A blender would be faster still, but where’s the romance in that? Besides, like a seasoned wok, I’d like to think the stone somehow added to the flavour.


To accompany our various curry dishes, there is fresh basmati rice (bigger and longer than the exported varieties), and we have a chance to make our own roti to accompany the dish. First the dough – a well is made in the flour and the wet ingredients mixed directly on the marble bench top. The dough rests for a while, then we each practice breaking off small pieces to knead, roll, stretch and shape into the flat round pancake shape which is fried on a flat griddle, then (while still hot) clapped between your hands to create the distinctive layered effect (and brushed with ghee if desired).


At last it is time to sit down and try our creations (and those created for us), at the long table in the yard of the cafe. The vegetarian dishes are delicious (though sadly, a little cold by the time we eat – perhaps time was spent on one dish too many?), but the chicken drumsticks which look deliciously charred, and which have been slowly roasting over coals in a sunken pit since our arrival, prove to be red raw in the centre and are hastily spat out.


It would have been nice to stay and chat with the other attendees, who are in the midst of their own journeys and have been to some interesting places (one girl has been to the ashram of the Hugging Mother, where devotees queue for hours for a hug from their guru), but there is another early start tomorrow – in any case it’s after ten by the time we find our way back down the path to the waiting rickshaws. It has been a fascinating experience, and with a few tweaks (reheating the veg food for the meal, a smaller class, either cooking the chicken or leaving it out), it could be a truly excellent cooking class – our hosts have given us a great introduction to South Indian food, leaving me keen to learn more. When we are leaving the next day, we stop briefly at the bottom of the path to the cafe again, and someone comes down with a sheet where they have written some of the recipes for us – I don’t think I am giving away any trade secrets by sharing this one….


….or the paratha recipe. I shall leave the interpretation of the diagrams to your imagination.