Monthly Archives: June 2014

Adventurous Arrival in Varanasi

If you read  you may remember that our departure from Delhi was a bit adventurous, to say the least. Instead of Khajuraho we decided to fly to Varanasi and this was decided two hours before the flight’s take off. We do regret skipping Khajuraho, the site of famous erotic temples, but will certainly do it next time.

Flying toward Varanasi, the holy Hindu city along the Ganger River made me a bit nervous. I tried to get a glimpse of the sacred river from the airplane, but it got dark too soon. Seeing the Ganges River would have in some strange way assured me (of what?).SpiceJet from Delhi to VaranasiUpon landing we got talking to a young Indian man, living in the US, who had brought his grandmother to Varanasi. He started making phone calls to different hotels (we all agreed that the point of staying in Varanasi is to be located by the river). We got two rooms at Scindia Guest House, recommended by Eyewitness India Guidebook, and jumped into a taxi. Varanasi, here we come!

The ride to the guest house was long and polluted. It reminded me of Hyderabad –a fantastic city in many ways but oh so bad in pollution! We must have driven for more than an hour and the Ganges was still hiding from me. Suddenly the car stopped and the driver pointed “walk that way”. We were puzzled and asked which way exactly…. After some negotiation he agreed to show us the way, and we begun a 30-minute walk.Cows in VaranasiI don’t know how you say cow shit in a polite way, so excuse my language, but as we were walking and pulling our luggage, I did wonder if local laundry service would accept to clean our by-now-very-colorful-luggage. Don’t we all just love cows? But what would India be without them?

Eventually, after turning about 500 times left and right (we would have NEVER found the guest house alone) we arrived. Scindia Guest House stood there, right in front of the Ganges River, as Eyewitness had promised. It looked very run down, but we had no choice. It was very dark and very late. My husband and I got a river-side room and ordered two rice plates. Scindia Guest HouseWe were told to be careful when opening the balcony door because apparently “the monkeys like to come inside if you leave the door open”. Wow. Imagine waking up next to a monkey! Or two! I was still feeling a bit sick but the idea of monkeys excited me. Little I knew that upon our arrival the monkeys had already been watching me from all over.

After a well-rested night I visited the balcony but the monkeys were nowhere. All I could see was the majestic Ganges River. Varanasi, the Ganges RiverMeanwhile my husband went to the reception. This is when I started hearing screaming noises. Is someone being killed was my first thought. I opened the front door and I saw them: monkeys and more monkeys! There was a metal fence between me and them, which was good because they were big and did not look happy. Some of them were in the middle of their beauty treatments.Monkeys in VaranasiI joined my husband at the reception and had a chat with one of the hotel workers. I thought that his features were very different from other “Indian” features that I had seen before. Mentality wise he felt different, too, and somehow I felt closer to Calcutta. I was definitely visiting a new region, witnessing once again the diversity of India. Man in VaranasiThe moment I tried to go outside of the hotel, this elderly gentleman warned me “please be very careful of the monkeys”. Scared but curious I took a careful look outside and everywhere I looked (left, right, straight, down, above) there were monkeys. Not only entire monkeys but also monkey arms and legs hanging above the door etc.

For several reasons (monkeys, lack of a proper restaurant and customers, run-down building, etc.) we decided to move to another hotel. After negotiating a water taxi we said good bye to Scindia Guest House and moved to Alka Hotel, also located by the river. Later on we were told that Scindia Guest House had illegally built more rooms (and a terrace for the restaurant), and that the local authorities had torn a large part of the construction down. This explained the sad look. Scindia Guest HouseAfter a rough start we learned to love Varanasi. We spent a total of five nights there, exploring Hinduism and Buddhism. We loved the old town –one of the most charming old towns I have ever seen, and felt that Varanasi is indeed inhabited by many old souls.

In fact, Varanasi left such an impression on me that I will definitely write more about it. When the time is right.

Other posts about Varanasi:

Second part of the trip begins in Varanasi

 

Problem of Travelling

I think the problem of travelling is easily explained: the more you travel, the more you want. And the more you experience, the more you realize that the list of places to visit is endless. Furthermore, you want to experience new destinations, but eventually you also want to return to places you already know because your experience piles up and you want to see how you would now feel about an X place. See what I mean?

Yesterday I was emptying some of my memory cards and saw the photos I took in Varanasi. Even if the place is so obscure to say the least, I would like to return there. After all, I am not much wiser today than I was when I wrote Purpose of Varanasi, and to me this alone is a sign of “unfinished business, an urgency to go back to figure something out”. Places with a soul tend to have that effect…

Today I was on a more cheerful mood so I started missing Southern France. Avignon where the Popes lived for a short period, gypsy town Saintes-Maries de la Mer, world-famous Saint Tropez and charming Menton. I have done these places several times and what a road trip that is! South of France, NiceIt is likely that I will travel next week, so in overall, I am not doing so badly. But I would not say no to hopping on a TGV train tomorrow for a weekend trip either!

What about you? Toward the end of each trip, do you start to have that itching feeling of rushing home, or do you secretly (or openly) wish you could continue forever?

 

Golden Star: Delicious Gujarati Thali

During our last visit to Bombay our friends suggested to have Gujarati thali for lunch and mentioned a restaurant name Golden Star. It did not take very long to convince us –another regional thali, another culinary experience. Sounds good to us!

There are two Golden Star restaurants in Bombay, and we visited the one near Air India office. The restaurant seemed very popular, full of locals, and we were lucky to get a table after a few minutes’ waiting. We learnt that people are fond of this simple but cosy restaurant for good reasons: there is a specialty every day and the meals are unlimited. “We serve as long as you can eat” is written on Golden Star’s business card…  Golden Star, BombayOur friend ordered for us and we started to be showered by different thalis of outstanding variety, served by proud young boys. Everything looked amazing and we could not wait to take the first bite. The waiters kept returning to our table to bring more food, and it was a pleasure to watch them. The manager came to talk to us, too, explaining that most dishes are from Gujarat, but some one would find in Rajasthan, too.

Eventually our plate (or should I say table) was full and our friend begun explaining what we were about to eat. A crash course to Indian food’s richness was about to start: dal bati (wheat rolls and lentils), kachori chaat (friend dumplings mixed with yogurt and chutney), spinach and corn curry, rajma (lentils and vegetables curry), shaak (Gujarati name for potato brinjal curry), and cauliflower and pea curry.Golden Star, BombayTo add more complexity to the meal, we tasted every single chutney and pickle from coriander, tamarind and garlic chutney to mango pickle. Amazing and so tasty. Golden Star, BombayBut this was not all; then there were the breads! Bajra rotta (pearl millet flour), deep fried puri, papad, papadi and thin rotli with ghee. Each bread had its purpose, and had to be eaten with a specific dish. The magic of Indian kitchen.

Oh, and then there was also the famous mango aam ras puree! The waiters kept serving us more and more, and we did not decline the offer…Golden Thali, BombayThe meal included sweets (that were served at the same time in the beginning) but this is where my notes and memory get a bit blurry… We did have orange dholkla (steamed dumpling), batata vada (fried potato dumpling), sweet malpua (wheat-flour fritter fried in ghee and dipped in safron, sugar and syrup), but this is all I remember.

I am sure I am forgetting half of the dishes we ate, and I am not in a position to explain how you should eat your Gujarati thali, but I do know that the waiters at Golden Star are very friendly! So, do exit your comfort zone of butter chicken and palak paneer, and experience a Gurajati thali. You won’t be disappointed!

Note: Gujarati food is often vegetarian (many Jains live in that region) and a mixture of sweet, salty and spicy. The cuisine is known to be on the sweeter side (at least sweeter than other regional cuisines of India), but we did not really see any difference. I am not a big fan of sugar in general and I loved the food.

 

Golden Star Thalihttp://www.goldenstarthali.com

Airport Meets Art and Design

If your most recent flight to Mumbai landed prior to January 2014, then probably all you remember is an old airport with long queues and lack of world-class facilities. But if your latest trip took place later, then you know that Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport‘s newest terminal (T2) is a beautiful oasis of art and design. Mumbai Airport Terminal 2Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (Chicago-based architects also behind Burj Khalifa, Dubai), Terminal 2 is a true mix of Indian heritage and modernity. We had a chance to spend some time in this terminal just before catching our Emirates A380 flight to Dubai, and highly appreciated our brief visit. The terminal was spacious, white, clean and full of light, and I loved the pillars. In addition, the terminal is home to the world’s largest public art program! Including images of Bollywood stars, of course.Mumbai Airport, Terminal 2What I absolutely loved was the carpet that according to its manufacturer, Brintons from the UK, is inspired by the peacock, India’s national bird. Such lovely colors, such beautiful designs. Walking on this carpet made our departure from India a bit less sad.Brintons carpet in Mumbai, terminal 2From the practical point of view it was –well– very practical! There was no waiting and trolleys were available everywhere. Time between entering the terminal and reaching the departure gate was about 20 minutes. Wow.

Despite the fact that everything worked smoothly, many shops were still closed. For example, I could not buy English-language books because I could not find a book shop (I certainly hope there will be one!). Regarding the restaurant facilities, we did not use any, but I hear that all big names, “usual suspects”, are or will be there. Personally I hope that I will still be able to eat a good old onion rava masala dosa, and that whoever is responsible on distributing the licences loves Indian food as much as I do. Viva dosas, idlies and upma!!

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: http://www.som.com/projects/chhatrapati_shivaji_international_airport__terminal_2

Brintons: http://www.brintons.net/apac/en/project-wall/chhatrapati-shivaji-international-airport-t2-mumbai-india/

Special Ostadi Restaurant: Iranian Kebabs in Dubai

When Coconut Grove closed its doors few years ago, we had to find a new restaurant in Dubai, and upon friends’ recommendation we found Special Ostadi. Ever since then, every time we visit Dubai, this is where we eat at least once. Simple but delicious southern Iranian food.

Special Ostadi, established in 1978, is older than most of Dubai you see today. Owned by the same family since the beginning, it has a very different feel to it compared to many other restaurants Dubai offers. First of all, there is no alcohol. Second, local Emiratis represent the large majority of the customers (hence Ferraris and Lambourginis parked in front of the restaurant). Third, the atmosphere is cosy and “bling bling” is an unknown concept. People come here to eat seriously good, home-made food and chat. Everything is rather simple, but just like it would be if you had your own Iranian grandmother. Special OstadiAs soon as we sat down, tarragon-infused yogurt, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and mint were brought to the table. The yogurt was so tasty that I finished it in few minutes. The waiter brought me more and I was never charged for it.Special OstadiA few minutes later the Arabic bread came with a mix meat plate: chicken, mutton and minced mutton marinated in saffron, yogurt and lemon. A bowl of rice with dried red Barberries (also called Zereshk) arrived, too. Special OstadiIn the end of the meal there was nothing left on our plates (ok, maybe a little bit of rice). We ordered two mint teas, stood up, paid at Mohammed Al Ansari, the owner, who always sits by the entrance, and left.Special OstadiIt was a lovely, very affordable meal, and we will certainly return to Special Ostadi whenever we travel by Dubai. If you are looking for a unpretentious restaurant that serves mainly meat of excellent quality, then this is your place!

SPECIAL OSTADI: Near Musalla Tower, Al Musalla Road, Khalid Bin Al Waleed, Dubai. Tel. 04-3971469, 04-3972111, 04-3971933. 

PS The dinner cost us 90 AED (18€). Excellent quality-price ratio!

The Midsummer Weekend in Finland

Midsummer in Finland, miss you! Midsummer in FinlandThis is the weekend when Finland shuts down. As early as Thursday afternoon people started migrating to summer houses by the lake or the sea, and they will stay there until Sunday. Activities include sauna, swimming, outdoor games, fishing, water sports and barbecue. It is the weekend when the sun never seems to set. Midnight sun, Midsummer in FinlandThe Midsummer holiday (Juhannus in Finnish) is full of symbolism and magic. Some villages prepare a hug bonfire, kokko, which usually burns by the water. In addition, there are other traditions and rituals that include running around naked, looking deep into water, collecting flowers and placing them under the pillow and observing the direction of the bonfire smoke, to mention a few, and all these rituals are for the purpose of finding a decent husband and getting a hint of who he may be. Indeed, Midsummer is originally a pagan celebration. Midsummer, FinlandI have not been able to join Midsummer celebrations in Finland for a long time and it is a pity. It really is one of the happiest celebrations in Finland (even if every year someone gets too dunk and drowns…). Now that I am thinking about it, I realize I am more nostalgic about Juhannus than I am about Christmas! And to be very honest, uploading these photos (taken at the summer house) made me cry a bit. To me this is the most beautiful place in the world.

Happy Midsummer everyone!! Hyvää juhannusta!!

PS For those interested in understanding what life at the summer house looks like, see these previous posts:

Finland, Land of the Midnight Sun
Summer holidays in Finland
Sauna Time
A typical Finnish meal after sauna
Fishing at midnight
Our beautiful lake has turned into a monster!
What does Finnish barbeque look like?
Finnish fish tajine (part 2)
Very easy tartiflette
The Wind in the Willows (kaislikossa suhisee)
A must-try at the Finnish summer house!

Lastly, if you like these posts, why not to follow Pearlspotting on Facebook, too? Or by Twitter, @Miia_Niskanen.

Mustard Obsession

I bought some really delicious mustard to accompany our Christmas meal last December, and ever since then I have been returning to La Grande Epicerie de Paris to buy some more.

La Grande Epicerie de Paris in the 7th arrondissement is my favorite high-end food store in Paris and maybe in the world. Whatever they sell, it is always the best of the best. Moreover, the packaging is so beautiful that graphic designers shop there not only for food but for ideas, too (and this was confirmed to me by a designer friend). In fact, La Grande Epicerie de Paris is like a dream to me: a dream of being able to buy all the groceries there, or even better, winning unlimited groceries for life!

But, let’s stay focused and talk about mustard!

This week I returned for my usual monthly stock up and came home with three mustard jars. I have tasted Boletus-Mushroom mustard before (I absolutely love it), and in addition I got two new flavors: Curry & Curcuma mustard and Truffle & Black Pepper mustard. Look at these beauties!mustard, Savor & sensI am sure I will be returning very soon to buy more –after all I have over a dozen flavors to taste, and to be precise, 16!! Exciting. There is nothing better than a Sunday poulet rôti (roast chicken), mashed potatoes and Savor&sens organic mustard…

La Grande Epicerie de Paris: http://www.lagrandeepicerie.com/en.html

Savor&sens mustards: http://www.savoretsens.com/index.php/savor-sens-bio-c-96_85

Other delicious discoveries to be purchased at La Grande Epicerie de Paris: