The India Diaries Part V: Varkala to Varanasi

The funny thing about any journal that I keep is that I tend to withhold the extreme joys and pains. Perhaps the highs seem too ethereal – or somehow karmically flawed. And the lows, well, they’re etched into my mind anyhow and hopefully time will erase them altogether… Note to future generations: if there are gaps, it likely means it was very good or very bad. Bottom line, I’m not the best journalist.

I set my alarm to leave Varkala before sunrise (ugh) and met the driver who would take me to Trivandrum (approx an hour away with no traffic). The streets of southern India in the early morning hours were so similar to life in Ecuador (people going to prayer, work, setting up stands, etc), it was comforting to watch out the speeding window. Trivandrum is one of those tiny developing world airports where you’re never quite sure what is going to happen when, and yet you’re treated a bit like royalty. Clueless extravagance.

Long story short: flight delayed, anxiety (due to connection in Bangalore and ultimately a train to catch in New Delhi), quick flight on Kingfisher to Bangalore (aka Bangaluru, which is much more fun to say), posh layover in BLR (shocking distinction from TRV, but such are the extremes in India), long flight to New Delhi (flying from TRV to DEL is like flying from BOS to SFO), immediately grab a cab to the train station, all hell breaks loose…

Well, not exactly, but kindof. People in the south warned me that they “were much friendlier.” And all the tourist books tell you to look out for scams. So after three-plus weeks in southern India, I stepped out of my cab at the New Delhi train station without any suspicion (clearly everyone exaggerates!) and stepped straight into a set-up. I had a printed ticked for a 6pm train to Varanasi. It was 4pm. When you enter the station at New Delhi, you have to go through security which wasn’t uncommon but rarely enforced. In this case, the “security guard” looked at my ticket and told me that my train was delayed due to ice in the Himalayas. No problem, I’ll wait. But oh no no – there’s a train from Old Town leaving in an hour and I can take that one instead. He’ll hail me a rickshaw directly to the ticket office. Gee, thanks. Except that ticket office is actually a travel agency where I’m immediately told that there are no seats on that train. But they have a solution. How wonderful! For $200ish, a driver will take me to Varanasi the next day – and even stop in Agra for a view of the Taj. And now I know this is a scam, but I don’t know where I am and I don’t know how to leave. So after nearly an hour of lamenting that I don’t want a private driver and really just want to go back to the train station to see if my train gets canceled (as they promised it likely would), the owner comes along and says he’s heard the train is on the move and will do me a favor and take me back. But hey, if that train doesn’t show, they’re here to help. How generous!

It isn’t until I’m dropped back at the train station and get the same story about the train being delayed that I realize even the security guys are in on it. I insist that I just want to enter the station and look at the departure board and demand that they cannot prevent me from going in. And when the guy grabbed my ticket from my hands and walked away from the line, I lost it because I KNEW this was all orchestrated and DO NOT try to move me somewhere that people won’t notice. And wouldn’t you know?? By the time I entered the station, my train was listed on time and at the platform so I went immediately there and found my sleeper class (SL) berth without issue.

Except that I was traveling in a car with a family and very outspoken father who, in broken English criticized me for traveling alone and not speaking Hindi. Not for nothing, his son was sitting next to me wearing a Polo shirt with an American flag on it and reading an English-language magazine. And I was so. fed. up!! Shortly thereafter, guards came through the car and asked me to sign a document stating that I would not hold them accountable if anything happened to me (theft, battery, worse…). Where am I??!

So that was my introduction to northern India. For the most part, it got better from that point on.

Warning: Varanasi is an exceptionally photogenic place. I’ve done some major editing and still ended up with over 30 photos…

January 26, 2011

After traveling from Kerala and an overwhelming introduction to Varanasi (walked the ghats without a moments peace; vendors and beggars descend like vultures and follow you), I took today to rejuvenate at Hotel Surya – sleep late, watch a movie, read, lunch, facial/pedicure/threading. While I was online tonight, there was an increasingly loud procession moving our way. I stepped out to find a full blown wedding march – lights, bands, dancing, banners – in the street in front of the hotel. Apparently the groom (along with everyone else in town) was on his way to meet the bride.

January 27, 2011

Wandered the ghats and Old Town today, taking tons of pictures of the art. The Ganga (Ganges River) was black, but still people of all ages were bathing at the shore. The Ganga at Varansi is believed to absolve people of their sins, and so even though it’s ridiculously contaminated, people dip in and even drink from the water! The most interesting had to be an Asian woman wearing a SARS mask, standing at the foot of a ghat calf-deep in the Ganga. Ended up behind a funeral procession winding through Old Town and watched some of the ceremony. I’ve been timid about paying too much attention at the burning ghats (feels like voyeurism) but was told that it’s actually a sign of respect to stop and witness the ceremony; to acknowledge the life that was. The music, the dancing, weaving their way through the tight streets of Old Town – feels like a movie. You could be lost forever in Varanasi.

January 28, 2011

I’m learning that if you take Varanasi slowly, it’s a pretty phenomenal place. It’s the kind of experience where you really want a travel buddy, though. Took an evening tour to see the Aarti ceremony on the Ganga. It was quite peaceful to cruise the Ganga at night with hundreds of other boats and small candles floating in the river – wishes made. The Aarti ceremony is a traditional daily ritual to pay respects to the holy Ganga, from which life flows, and was very colorful and festive.

January 29, 2011

On a train… Highlight of my day was a little girl (maybe one or two years old) giving me a silent namaste. Woke at 5:30am to watch the sun rise over Varanasi – people bathing, praying, practicing yoga, washing clothes. It was cloudy, but still magical. Then over to the Viswanath temple at the University. Back into town to walk the alleyways and buy some beads. Found a yummy vegetarian restaurant for aloo palak and masala chai. First real rain today too, just as we stepped off the boat, so we hurried through the back alleys to the car.

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More of my India diaries:

Part I: Mumbai to Panaji

Part II: Panaji to Palolem

Part III: Palolem to Kollam

Part IV: Kollam to Varkala

Part VI: Varanasi to Agra

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Lentil Soup

My weekly ritual is to cook up a big pot of soup. Soup, wine, coffee, and almonds are the four staple products in my kitchen. Need a pick me up? Coffee. Need to relax? Wine. Need a hold me over? Almonds. Need a quick, filling meal? Soup! Not to mention it’s super healthy: low calorie, low fat, high fiber, high protein, high iron, high potassium, folate, magnesium… Meaning that it will fill you up, clean your blood, help your heart, and build your energy. All good things, and so easy to make too!

Commence autumn.

INGREDIENTS (makes approximately 4-6 servings)

1 T extra virgin olive oil

1 c carrots, chopped

1 c onion, diced

3 cloves garlic, sliced

2 c lentils (I use green because they’re cheap and more traditional, but black or orange are fun sometimes too)

8 c water

2-3 T Better Than Bouillon

PREPARATION

Chop the veggies and add them to a large pot with olive oil. Allow to simmer, stirring occasionally.

I like them to get a little char-grilled for that rustic flavor.

Add lentils, water, and bouillon. Stir well. Bring to a boil.

Reduce heat to a simmer and cover for 45 minutes. That’s all!

Can easily be stored for a week in the refrigerator. It’s even better the next day (and the next…)!

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Popeye Grilled Cheese

It started raining mid-afternoon yesterday and the temperature immediately dropped, signaling what feels like the arrival of fall. For better or worse. My home has been mostly dairy free for a year now, but something about the first chill of autumn makes me crave grilled cheese sandwiches. The traditional variety holds no appeal for me anymore. Maybe I’m growing up. More likely, it’s because I really can’t stand processed cheese (please, please, please do not eat processed cheese when there’s such a variety of slices now!). But really, it’s because I’ve been spoiled.

Of everything that I love about life in Washington, DC, cuisine is not usually one of them. That’s why it’s ironic that one of the most amazing late night joints is right here in Adams Morgan. Let me tell you, there is nothing better in this world than The Diner‘s popeye grilled cheese and fries at 3:00am. Pseudo gourmet comfort food in the wee hours of the morning beats Chinatown any day. Turns out, popeye grilled cheese is pretty awesome any time of the day!

I won’t try to tell you that this is good for you, but it certainly beats the alternative. Spinach is an excellent source of fiber, vitamins A and K, manganese, folate, iron… not to mention calcium, potassium, protein, and omega 3’s… among many others. Think anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, bone-building, and blood pressure lowering magic.

[Note: the original Diner version uses tomatoes but I can’t stand cooked tomatoes so I omit them. If you like, give it a try.]

INGREDIENTS (makes one sandwich)

1/2 T extra virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 c fresh spinach (you could use thawed frozen too), chopped

2 slices sourdough bread

1 T butter

1/2 c feta cheese, crumbled

PREPARATION

Heat oil in a pan on medium heat. Add minced/ pressed garlic and lightly sauté. Turn down the heat to low and add chopped spinach. (I find scissors do the trick quite nicely.)

Leave the spinach on just long enough to start to wilt (not so long it becomes mushy).

Lightly, but thoroughly, butter one side of each slice of bread. Two notes: 1) obviously you can use any kind of bread but the sourdough is particularly delicious and 2) use room temperature butter, otherwise you will tear your bread and use way too much butter!

Put the first slice of bread butter-side down in the pan at medium heat and top with feta and spinach (I like to put the feta on first so that it starts to melt before you flip it).

Then add top slice of bread butter-side up. Duh. And flip gently.

How good does that look?! Once each side is lightly browned, remove from pan and serve. You’ll never look at grilled cheese the same way again!

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The India Diaries Part IV: Kollam to Varkala

After my days on the beach in Goa, I wasn’t terribly excited about more beach time in India. It seemed like there was so much else to do further north – the Ganges, the Taj – but I’d already booked a flight from Trivandrum to New Delhi and so there was time to kill and I’m always a sucker for the coast. The tourist guides describe Varkala as an old backpacker hangout that is trying hard to cling to it’s roots. As if that description wasn’t compelling enough, the image of soaring red cliffs made my decision an easy one. After a few days in Varkala, I was was struck by something in the sky. It actually took my brain a couple of seconds to register what I was seeing: a wisp of a cloud. Varkala is one of those spots where shop and restaurant owners tell you to pay them later if you don’t have enough change (or small bills), you’re encouraged to fill your water bottle from a big jug to help save the environment, the police overlook the fact every restaurant serves cocktails (Kerala is a dry state), and the signs proclaim positive thoughts and inspirational quotes. Fair to say, this turned out to be one of my favorite places in India.

January 17, 2011

Had big hopes of exploring Kollam today – the beach, spice markets, cashew stores – but upon exiting the Nani Hotel it seemed overwhelmingly HOT, crowded, and unimpressive. Only managed to buy a train ticket to Varkala before returning to the hotel for a good shower, email, and cable tv. The train was late and jam-packed but it was fun to watch people interact; especially a little girl and old man, strangers who shared a seat. Was happy to find Varkala stunningly beautiful and filled with restaurants and shops along the cliffs. Staying at the Santa Claus Village ‘resort’ which is reasonable and has a front porch overlooking the sea.

January 18, 2011

Successful day. Got cash (no easy feat but a beautiful walk along the beach to the other side of town for the nearest ATM), a few textiles, and booked a train from Delhi and hotel in Varanasi – but also got a farmers tan and yelled at by a vendor for not buying from her. Walked north and south for miles on endless pathways along the cliffs and shoreline. Offered marijuana twice (really?). I did, however, buy some ayurvedic sleeping pills. The location and view is awesome, but the bed keeps me tossing and turning all night.

January 19, 2011

Quiet day of reading on the porch, hanging out at the beach, and stopping for lime sodas. Spent an hour or so on a rock near the stairs of the cliff to catch a breeze, some sun, and people watching. A great place to see the sunset too. Delish tofu tikka masala for dinner.

January 20, 2011

Meandered through the back roads of Varkala today – some nice homes but not much else. Beach, lunch, then not feeling great so chilled in my room. TMZ made me a little homesick. Sad, but true.

January 21, 2011

Enjoyed a leisurely masala dosa breakfast and thali lunch before spending some time on the beach. Booked a cooking class for tomorrow!!

January 22, 2011

Major frustrations today. The phone kiosk in Kochi never submitted my paperwork (#%^$ typical), so I can’t make outgoing calls or receive text messages. Then the guy who markets his ayurvedic therapy in front of my hotel criticized me for not being married with children. Just when I was losing faith, I had the most enjoyable cooking class with Ani at Kerala Bamboo Village. We made samosas, parotta, daal curry, malai kofta, veg biryani, and a coconut dessert. The spices and smells were incredible. I still smell of coconut oil and vanilla – divine! The owner joined me for dinner in the garden. A really interesting guy with a great story of adventure and entrepreneurship. Faith restored.

January 23, 2011

Last day in southern India spent reading and at the beach per usual. Watched the sun set at Rock N Roll Cafe with a Kingfisher and good tunes. Sunday seems to be a popular day with local Indians strolling the beach. Interesting contrast between the bikini clad tourists and the fully clothed locals.

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More of my India diaries:

Part I: Mumbai to Panaji

Part II: Panaji to Palolem

Part III: Palolem to Kollam

Part V: Varkala to Varanasi

Part VI: Varanasi to Agra

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Daily Fixes for the Urban Beachcomber

Fresh off a week on the beach Up North in Northern Michigan, I immediately unzipped my suitcase, pulled out my rock collection, and added some of the larger stones to my bathroom sink. Now every time the water hits the rocks, the colors and textures emerge, transporting me to a place where I had sand between my toes and waves lapped (sometimes lazily, sometimes wildly) on the shore.

Beachcombing runs in my blood. As a child, I would spend hours marveling at my grandparents collection of agates; treasures from their annual mecca to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When my grandmother passed away this year, we scattered handfuls of these small stones into her grave, compiled from jars marked “Favorites” and “Good (fun!) to look at.”

I’ve collected archaic shells in Ecuador, coral from Zanzibar, white sand from Turks and Caicos, rocks from the Ganges, oyster shells from St. George Island, and petoskey stones from Lake Michigan. But what do you do with it all when you return home? The bathroom sink idea was inspired by my yoga studio – a spa-like touch to the everyday experience. And the bleach-white sand and shells of T&C sit pristinely in an apothecary jar on my entertainment stand.

Now I’m compelled to find creative ways to display the rest. Especially considering the big bag of sand that I scooped from the beach yesterday and carried with me all the way back to DC. The TSA screener pulled it out on my way through security and asked if there wasn’t any sand where I come from. No sir, no sand here. We can’t all live in the “most beautiful place in America.” But I will happily bring some home with me.

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Garlic Broccoli

Broccoli is one of my very favorite vegetables. For the record, I can’t stand mushrooms, eggplant, zucchini, or squash. So many menus focus on these four “meaty” ingredients that I’m tempted to start an awareness campaign for all culinary artists that vegetarians don’t necessarily want a carnivorous replacement; rather a delicious, well-balanced meal. I digress. Broccoli…

It seems like everyone has their own list of superfoods* – and broccoli is on all of them. Garlic often makes an appearance too. Which is only part of why I love this simple recipe. Broccoli is a big detoxifier, cholesterol reducer, anti-oxidant, and anti-inflammator (I might have just made up that word, but you get the idea). It helps with digestive and cardiovascular support; benefits eye, bone, and skin health; and is rich in fiber, folic acid, and vitamins A, K, C, and potassium. Aside from warding off vampires,** garlic is an antibiotic and anti-inflammatory, and a source of manganese, selenium, and vitamins B6 and C. Garlic also helps metabolize iron. Together, broccoli and garlic are a cancer-fighting machine. Not to mention it’s delicious and adds a gourmet touch with very little effort.

INGREDIENTS (serves 1-2 as a side)

1 T extra virgin olive oil

1 medium broccoli crown, or 10-15 florets

3 cloves garlic

1 t salt, to taste

1/8 c water

PREPARATION

Thinly slice and/or press garlic (depending on your preference; I like a mix of each). Cut each stalk of broccoli in half/thirds/quarters so there is a flat edge on most.

Heat olive oil on medium high. Add broccoli (flat side down) and garlic to pan. Sprinkle with salt.

Allow to cook for approx 5 minutes until the broccoli blackens. Then toss and let cook for a few more minutes.

Toss again and pour in water to simmer/steam (cover if you like) .

Stir occasionally. Once water has steamed off, serve on a side plate.

Hint: It also makes a wonderful addition to quinoa!! Superfoods galore!

*Most superfoods are vegan/vegetarian, by the way. Coincidence?

**Lemon reduces the “garlic breath” factor. Try a ginger lemon honey to cleanse the palate after your meal.

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The India Diaries Part III: Palolem to Kollam

When I arrived in India, I really didn’t have any concrete plans. There was a vague idea of going south, then heading north. The more I read and asked around, the more I heard about Kerala. To be honest, I didn’t know if it was a city, a state, a region, a landmark… the mystical Kerala. As I soon discovered, Kerala runs along the south-western tip of India (similar to the shape of Chile in South America). A democratically-elected communist state, Kerala has the highest life expectancy and literacy rate is the country. The culture and landscape are amazingly diverse and the people are incredibly friendly – which might explain why the tourism industry proclaims Kerala as “God’s Own Country.”

So while I sat on the beach in Goa, I combed through my Lonely Planet trying to decide where to go next. I considered a side trip to Hampi but couldn’t find a train or bus that fit my schedule. [This is a big regret and in retrospect I would have spent less time in Goa and gone to Hampi.] I also considered stopping in Mangalore but was repeatedly told that it was better to go straight to Kerala. And so late one night, I said goodbye to Palolem and took a car to catch a midnight train from Margao to explore the mystical Kerala.

I spent nearly two weeks in Kerala. This is the first half: on the backwaters (aka the Venice of the East).

January 11, 2011

Arrived via sleeper class on the overnight train from Goa to Ernakulam which I actually really enjoyed and slept well. A little disappointed that the rickshaw driver ignored my request to go to the ferry and brought me directly to Kochi – first stopping to try and trick me into staying at another homestay hotel. I love it here. Really feels like India. Although touristy, more authentic. Spent the day walking around, past the Chinese fishing nets and through town. Curry for both lunch and dinner. Dinner at the chic Malabar House which was lovely with saffron colored walls, art, water fountains, and lighting fixtures. I’m staying next door at the Spencer Home, which is full of historic architectural details and a beautiful garden courtyard, but dismal rooms. Gorgeous woodwork; lots of mosquitoes!

January 12, 2011

Woke up and had masala dosa at the garden table outside my room and then walked and took pictures all day. Watched the Chinese fishing nets at high tide. A very cool process of repeatedly raising and lowering the nets to scoop all kinds of seafood. Visited the Mattancherry Palace (the interior was exquisite but no photos allowed) and strolled through Jew Town before heading back via Bazar Road (spices everywhere; so colorful and fragrant). Masala chai at Teapot and dinner at Savour. The rickshaw drivers here are relentless. I just want to walk!

January 13, 2011

While the garden at Spencer Home was wonderful, two nights in a windowless room and a squeaky fan had me ready to leave. That and all the rickshaw drivers knew me and were mad that I didn’t want a ride and wasn’t willing to go into shops just so they would get a commission. Kochi is lovely, but I think it’s better done upscale. I left via rickshaw to “New Bridge” to catch a bus to Alleppey. Bus travel is especially difficult to navigate because everything is written in Hindi and seemingly most of the people who take buses don’t speak English. But true to form, everyone is so helpful and when the right bus came along they practically picked me up and carried me on. Terrifying ride, even more than usual, so once I finally arrived at Keraleeyam Resort, I was happy to just sit on the porch and read and watch the houseboats pass. Saw my first elephant walking down the expressway today – working; carrying branches.

January 14, 2011

Walked the 2.5 km to town which was a mistake. Thought I must have missed something on the way in, but it’s not much. In frustration from all the honking and buses and motorbikes, I turned down a side street and was amazed by the oasis hidden back in the neighborhood. Problem was, it was a bit of a maze without many routes back to the main road. There’s a festival at a temple across the lake tonight so the background music is a drumbeat and from the front porch of the main building I watched the flicker of candles while women danced and I drank ginger tea.

January 15, 2011

Lazy day on the backwaters today sitting on the porch and watching houseboats float past. The only break was for an ayurvedic massage.

January 16, 2011

Left Alleppey this morning via the tourist ferry to Kollam – eight hours along the backwaters. It was a beautiful day and a fun trip with interesting people from around the world (Brazil, Israel, Switzerland) – until the boat got stuck in the middle of a canal about 1.5 hours from Kollam. We sat until dark when the staff hired a local with a canoe to take us two at a time to shore. Then we had to walk through fields (in the dark) to the road and hail a bus. These things always happen to me! But at least I had a nice hotel to arrive at (Nani Hotel) with hot showers, TV, and room service.

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More of my India diaries:

Part I: Mumbai to Panaji

Part II: Panaji to Palolem

Part IV: Kollam to Varkala

Part V: Varkala to Varanasi

Part VI: Varanasi to Agra

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