At the Chai Wallah

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013 | Posted under India, Video

I have to say that our one day in Madhogarh might have been my favorite part of my two week tour in India. For me, getting out of the major cities and seeing rural Indian life was by the far the most educational and most enduring aspects of the trip. During our walk through Madhogarh, we made a stop at the local watering hole, the chai wallah stall.

For most of us living in the U.S., the closest thing we get to traditional Masala Chai is a Starbucks Chai Latte. I’ve been a fan of this drink for years while acknowledging that it’s probably far from authentic. Yet here I was drinking the precursor to that tea knock-off in probably the smallest, most local place possible. Would Starbucks measure up; and more importantly, did I care?

It was up to this man to show me and Team Ozzie, how it’s done…literally.

Chai Wallah Madhogarh

One of Madhogarh’s Chai Wallahs (I’m assuming that there’s more than one, right?)

First of all a little vocabulary:  “chai” is a generic word for tea in Hindi. It doesn’t refer to a specific type of preparation of tea. Masala chai is really what we were having, and what I would continue to crave in the mornings with breakfast while in India. I usually don’t drink caffeinated tea, but I couldn’t resist this, especially having it fresh everyday.  It’s common to find chai stands all over India selling Masala chai. It is a hot mixture of very strong black tea (usually Assam tea, often of the mamri variety), whole milk, a spice blend (usually made up of ginger and cardamom, with the addition of cinnamon, peppercorn, and cloves but the mixture varies), and sugar (lots of it). Apparently, everyone has their own twist on making Masala chai, so I can’t really tell you a process, but there are lots of great recipes via Ye Olde Google. The basic method is boiling water, milk, tea, and spices, and then straining it.

When we rolled up to the chai stall, it was definitely buzzing. There were several men of various ages gathered about chatting. Needless to say, quite a few of them took an interest in me, and I was quite fascinated right back. I could totally tell that they were talking about me, but of course I understood nothing. I did make out the word “African” though.

Chai Stall Crowd

Chai Tea Stall Crowd

Chai Wallah Crowd

For a variety of reasons, the chai spot is really like the local bar. It’s where people (Read: Men) go to shoot the breeze and meet up with friends. In my mind, the chai wallah isn’t just providing tea; he’s also creating community. As a tourist/traveler, I appreciated getting to the local hang out spot, even if I couldn’t really communicate and I was definitely out place. The village men smiled at us, and I think they appreciated that we happily drank our tea.

Man at Chai Stand

This man was kind enough to let me take a picture of him.

I couldn’t leave you all without showing how this chai wallah makes his tea. Perhaps it will inspire you to make some at home.

So cheers, everyone, and try some (Masala) chai in the near future, even if it is at Starbucks.

TDM Chai Stand

By the way, his version is better than Starbucks (big surprise). The milk adds creaminess, but it doesn’t overpower all of the other ingredients, which often happens with a poorly made Starbucks chai. Often you get a weak spice kick with Starbucks, but there was no doubt about what I was drinking here.

Do you like (Masala) chai tea? Do you enjoy checking out local watering holes, bars, and meeting spots when you travel?

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My First Bollywood Movie

Monday, December 10th, 2012 | Posted under India, Video

There were a few things that I wanted to experience while in India, and I knew that a Bollywood movie was one of them. I haven’t really seen very many Bollywood films, but I know that many have some of my favorite elements in a movie: lavish costumes, great singing, lively music, romance, and killer dance numbers. Bollywood is the nickname for the Indian film industry based in Mumbai, which cranks out hits for Hindi-speaking audiences in India and the Indian diaspora. The industry is one of the largest movie producers in the world.

When our guide, Pancham, suggested that our group take in a Bollywood movie while in Jaipur, I was beyond psyched. We all met up for an afternoon showing at the Raj Mandir Theater right in downtown Jaipur.

 

I have to admit that I wanted to see a movie that jibed with my traditional understanding of Bollywood: a big, over-the-top romance. Unfortunately, we had to settle for an action movie called “Tezz” (the loose translation to English means “Speed”). While a little disappointed, I did find some solace in the fact that I recognized some of the stars of the movie. Anil Kapoor plays a police officer and pseudo-good/bad guy depending on your perspective. He was the host of the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” in “Slum Dog Millionaire,” and he’s been in several major English language films. He did a great job in the last “Mission: Impossible”. I also recognized the actor playing the hero and main character, Ajay Devgan, but I have to admit that I don’t know where I can place him.

Here’s a trailer for “Tezz” so that you can get a sense of the movie:


The theater itself was rather ornate, and we chose to spend time in a plush lounge area before entering the theater. We even got Indian movie snacks, which I have to say I remember being good, but I don’t remember what they were. They were DEFINITELY much spicier than I’m used to for movie fare.

Raj Mandir Theater Jaipur

Our Theater

During the first part of the movie, I got the dance scene that I wished for. Check it out below. Apparently this Laila woman is some hotty Bollywood star. I have to admit that this was the least amount of clothing that I’d see any Indian woman wearing the entire three weeks I was there. Some of the dancing is a bit awkward to me, but I am sure that this is beyond suggestive by Indian norms.

By the way, did you see when the back-up dancers were in BLACK FACE and AFRO WIGS? I was like “WTF?” I did not actually say the F initial of that phrase out loud (just in my mind); but to be quite frank, I was shocked. I can’t understand Hindi (duh!), and it wasn’t clear to me why they needed Afro wigs and to color their faces with black paint. I wondered what the director thought he or she was accomplishing with that. I guess they figure no Black people are going to see this anyway, so why care? Maybe they thought it was cool? It took me a few minutes to get over that and to process it. I didn’t really didn’t have anyone that I felt I could talk to about that, so I just kept it to myself. The joys of travel, right? Moving on…..

Bollywood movies tend to be pretty long with most running about three hours. I did like the fact that there was an intermission. You can get up, take a good stretch and make a snack run (or a bathroom run or whatever…)

Raj Mandir Theater Jaipur

Our theater at the end of intermission

Overall, the movie was decent. There were some crazy special effects that made the stars seem almost superhuman in the action scenes. Again, I was disappointed that the movie took place in London of all places, so we couldn’t really see more of India. I’m still chuckling at the fact that they dubbed the dialogue of some of the white British actors in Hindi. I know they want the target audience to understand it, especially since at least 25% of the dialogue was in English; but it just made the entire scenario just a little far-fetched. Also did I mention whole plot lines that didn’t get tied up? Yeah, that, too.

One thing I did notice that I realize probably happens many places besides the U.S.: the audience’s “enthusiastic” behavior. I love going to the movies in Antigua because often people will be loud and have conversations with the movie. The actors obviously can’t hear, but it’s funny to hear what people choose to say. It takes some getting used to. Indians seem to be the same way. There was lots of whistling, cat calling and commentary throughout the movie. I guess it goes to show that some cultural norms may not be that far apart.

Can I just say that this was an experience? We did miss out on a more traditional Bollywood movie called “Housefull 2“. It’s on my Netflix queue. 🙂

Have you seen a film when traveling to another country? What was your experience like?

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Agra Fort – Sight of the Week

Thursday, November 8th, 2012 | Posted under India

Rajasthan is famous for its kings, and they needed to have a place to sleep, eat and rule, right?

After leaving Delhi, Team Ozzie, Pancham and I made our way to Agra (that’s where the Taj Mahal is located). Agra was actually THE seat of power for the Mughals before Delhi became their capital. We rolled up to this castle-like structure called Agra Fort. It’s the OTHER big attraction besides the Taj Mahal in Agra. I’m not going to go into major detail about every aspect of this place in part because I’ve forgotten parts of what our guide told us, and there’s really quite a bit to say.

I thought I’d present Agra Fort as a photo essay with a little commentary thrown in. Enjoy!

Agra Fort Entrance

 I love the red sandstone. Cool in the hotter months and warm in the colder ones.

Agra Fort Entrance

 

Agra Fort Map

 Much of the fort is not opened to the public.

Agra Fort

 

Agra Fort Inner Courtyard Entrance

 

Agra Fort bathtub

Shah Jahan, who also built the Taj Mahal, lived here, and this was his bathtub. I think would have drowned in that. 🙁

Agra Fort

Agra Fort Inner Courtyard

The hang out spot. Really. The women of the court would look down from above in screened in rooms. They weren’t supposed to be seen.

Agra Fort Air Vent

Ventilation. I believe this is the summer bedroom. Yes, when you’re a rich Indian ruler you get more than one bedroom.

Agra Fort

 

Agra Fort

 

TDM Agra Fort

Just to prove that I actually visited here.

Agra Fort Tile

 I love the detailed wall carvings. This wall has been restored, but…..

Agra Fort Tile

 This one has not been restored. I do like the original color, and I’m pretty shocked that some of it is still vibrant and visible several hundred years later.

Agra Fort

Agra Fort Macchi Bhavan

Agra Fort Macchini Bhavan

Macchi Bhavan (Fish Palace). The courtyard had multiple fountains, and Shah Jahan and his cohorts would actually fish in the fountains.

Agra Fort Mina Masjid

 

Agra Fort Mina Masjid

The interior of Mina Masjid, a small mosque built by Shah Jahan where he was later imprisoned by his son. Let’s just say they had a dysfunctional relationship.

Agra Fort Mina Masjid Rear

 

I was already getting excited for our next treat, the Taj Mahal. Can you see it in the distance? We would go there later in the day.

TDM Agra Fort Vista Taj

Taj Mahal from Agra Fort

Agra Fort Taj Distance

The Taj Mahal from Agra Fort

 Shah Jahan had to actually rule, and he often did so from this structure, The Hall of Public Audience.

Agra Fort Diwan-i-Am Hall of Pubic Audience

Agra Fort Diwan-i-Am Hall of Public Audience

I wish my office looked like this.

So there’s a snippet of Agra Fort. I thought it was a great warm up for the Taj Mahal, and if you don’t make it to Agra, try the Red Fort in Old Delhi for another sandstone fortress experience.

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How to Dress As a Female Tourist in India

Monday, October 15th, 2012 | Posted under India, Travel Tips

A fashion post? Well, not really. Every country has its own cultural norms that include customary dress for locals. I believe when one travels you are a guest in someone’s country, and as such, you should try your best to respect local customs. It’s the nice thing to do, and it’s about being a conscious global citizen.

When I was planning for India, one of my biggest concerns was how I going to dress particularly as a woman traveling alone at certain points in my trip. As I mentioned before, late April and May are some of the hottest months of the year in India. I also know that style of dress for women in India is rather conservative. I read many stories of women, both nationals and travelers alike, encountering harassment due to dress. This is not an indictment of India or its culture, but it definitely reminded me that I needed to be careful about I presented myself while there.

Beautiful Sari at Taj Mahal

Okay, so I will admit here that this was one moment where I didn’t ask for my usual permission to take a picture (I can be honest). I just had to get a pic of the fabulousness that is this sari. I feel bad, but I made sure that I told this woman “thank you.”

I looked online for tips but a lot of the advice I got just didn’t resonate with me. Everything was either super extreme like you can’t wear anything that exposes absolutely anything OR wait until you get to India and then commission a tailor to make local Indian women’s clothing like a salwar kameez or sari.

Yeah, I wasn’t really feeling any of that. The rationale for the latter suggestion was that Indians will appreciate your attempt to dress like locals and adapt. Yet that just didn’t feel like me. I’m not Indian, and I felt like it would be akin to me wearing a costume. I think Indian local style is beautiful, but I wasn’t really interested in dressing like a local woman because that’s not who I am. Besides, Indian women often look so elegant and wonderfully accesorized, and I don’t think I could hold a candle to them (see above and below).

Here’s an example of a salwar kameez via C Bazaar.com 

I didn’t really feel too secure with any of these sets of advice, and so I consulted Ms. K. from the blog, Chronicled, aka the blog formerly known as From India with Love, about what to wear. She had just come back from spending a year in Delhi, and her blog was really an important resource for me to prepare mentally for my trip to India. Her advice was to err on the side of conservative but that I didn’t need to worry about attracting attention with my clothes. Just being me was going to be attention grabbing enough. 🙂 Between my own conversation with K., my own research, my own analysis of what it’s like for me personally to walk around in 100+ Farenheit heat and some observations of women after I arrived, I think I’ve come up with my own ideas about what women tourists can wear in India while still holding true to their own style aesthetic.

Again, please remember that I traveled to India during its hottest period, and I was in both small towns and some North Indian cities, so my perspective is skewed that way. Here it goes:

Long, loose pants made of light, breathable fabrics – Indian heat and the sun are just so strong. There was no way that I could get by in jeans. I never saw any Indian women in shorts or skirts that were not to the ground. Skirts were relatively rare. Usually the skirts were a part of a sari outfit. Most women wore loose pants or jeans (jeans were mostly worn by younger women that I saw in Delhi). Here’s an example of a pair of pants that I wore during my trip.

In Udaipur. The pants I’m wearing in this picture are these cute, loose, linen pants that I got from Old Navy.

TDM Taj Mahal

Another pair of linen pants. I wore these alot. They were long, light and exactly what I needed.

Cover your shoulders – This is true in India, and I would also extend this advice for women traveling to many Muslim countries, too. I think I only saw one Indian woman in a spaghetti strap shirt the entire three weeks I was there. In many cultures, particularly Muslim ones, women should not show their shoulders.

By the way, I saw many women wear saris, and their stomachs were exposed. I found that ironic considering that in the U.S. and many other cultures exposing your stomach is considered a touch racy. Aren’t cultural differences fascinating?

At first, I was concerned about wearing shirts that didn’t cover my arms, but that seemed to be fine. This shirt below (and one other) was probably the shortest sleeve I wore the entire time.

TDM Hotel Room

I brought lots of loose, light shirts that covered my arms and weren’t particularly tight. I only saw tighter shirts on women and girls in Delhi. Most women didn’t wear close fitting clothing. Local Indian fashion is very much about draping. 

TDM at Agra Fort

 At Agra Fort. A shirt that I had in my closet. You can’t see it, but there are lots of sparkles on it.

So let’s review:

1. Jeans or long pants are fine. If it’s a hot time of year, I would suggest long, loose bottoms made of cotton or linen.

2. If you do want to wear a skirt, wear one that is a maxi skirt, i.e., long and to the ground.

3. Make sure to cover your shoulders. Short sleeves are okay, and you don’t need to cover all of your arms. If it’s very hot, lighter fabrics and looser shirts tend to keep you from feeling too sticky.

4. I would advise against shorts. Capris or pants not to the ground are okay. Bottoms should reach past your knees at the very least. I would advise against showing a lot of leg.

5. In general, I would not show lots of cleavage.*

6. The farther you go away from cities, the more conservative women’s dress will be. It will be rare to see women not in salwar kameez, sari or other traditional dress in smaller towns. Make sure to dress accordingly.

I love hot weather, and when the mercury rises I shed clothes. India was a travel fashion challenge for me, but I think i still found a way to look the way I wanted to and still feel like I was respecting local custom.

Have you ever dressed differently than you usually would in order to fit into local custom or styles of dress? How did you feel about it? 

 

* At the end of our tour in our last city, Team Ozzie and I saw a few female tourists wearing low cut shirts. It was so completely jarring after not seeing people dress that way for a few weeks. It’s amazing how you can get acclimated to seeing certain things so quickly.

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My South Indian Breakfast in Delhi

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012 | Posted under India

Have  you noticed that I haven’t written about Indian food yet? I’ve been going through my pictures, and to be honest, I’m not so fond of the food ones. At the same time, there’s no way that I CANNOT write about Indian food. I’ll try my best.

As usual, it’s always good to start with breakfast.

When I ordered this dish at Saravana Bhavan, a small South Indian restaurant in the Karol Bargh section of Delhi, I didn’t realize that I’d be getting a small feast. All I knew was that I didn’t recognize anything in the description of the dish. Sounds like a perfect meal to me!

South Indian Breakfast Tiffin

My tiffin

A tiffin is a small meal, kinda like an afternoon tea set-up. Although it resembles thali to me. Either way, this is not a little bit of food even early in the morning, but I was the only tourist in the place and the only woman so I figured that I was just going to eat whatever I wanted. 🙂

It took me a while, but I have now figured out exactly what I ate. I’ll describe all the dishes starting with the big light brown thing on the bottom and going counterclockwise from there.

The very large, light brown, and almost opaque crispy item is a dosa made of rice batter and lentils. In South India, you can find it at breakfast or also as street food. It often comes stuffed with good things like vegetables, savory sauces like sambar (more on that below) and of course the ever-present chutney.

Dosa with

A Dosa with Condiments via Peppers Restaurant

Moving on to vada, which looks like a donut, doesn’t it? Definitely not a donut. Often eaten as a street snack or with breakfast, this is a savory pastry made from dal, lentil and/or chickpea-like flour and deep-fried. Yay for deep frying! It’s usually eaten with a filled dosa, idly (see below) or some pongal (see below).

The white disc next to the vada is idly (or idli), a steamed white cake made out of different kinds of dark lentils. It’s usually served with sauces and chutneys. I forget how I actually ate mine, but I definitely ate it. In South India it’s mostly eaten for breakfast, but this side dish is enjoyed across all of India.

Idly

Idly via India Net Zone (there’s some vada there, too)

Continuing to proceed counterclockwise, there was a small bowl of upma made of semolina flour, mustard seed, oil, vegetables, and cumin (there’s always cumin somewhere),

Here’s another look at what upma looks like.

Upma

via Sailu’s Kitchen

Next to the upma is pongal. Pongal is particular to the Tamil Nadu region in the south, and it’s rice dish that has both sweet and spicy variations. If I remember correctly, mine was the spicy kind. Actually I don’t think I had anything sweet for breakfast except the masala chai (There will be a post about tea!). Pongal is actually eaten during the Pongal Festival in Tamil Nadu in the southern part of the country.

Ven Pongal

Homemade pongal via Yasmeen Health Nut

That orangey dish right next to the pongal? I’m just not sure what it is. 🙂 Anyone out there know?

Right next to the bright orangey stuff is sambar. It’s a very spicy brothy stew made of pigeon peas base and spicy sambar powder (too many spices to list. Trust me.) I got used to lots of spice in the mornings.

The two small bowls in the middle were chutneys that I am not remembering so well. Sorry! That said they were unlike any other Indian chutneys I’d had before.

I also couldn’t forget my masala chai. I miss this now. Spicy tea with milk. Yummm…

Masala Chai

I’m disappointed that this time around that I didn’t make it to the southern part of India, but I feel like this “breakfast” of mine was a great introduction to the region’s food. Plus, it got me used to spicy breakfasts!

What kind of flavors do you like for your morning meal? Sweet, savory or spicy?

Saravana Bhavan
15.A/17 W.E.A, Saraswati Marg
Karol Bargh, New Delhi-11oo5

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