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You are what you eat

After graduating from university a few years ago, its fair to say that just ‘good food’ doesnt cut it any more. It has to be : the dosas from that place or the godawesome samosas from the other or as a last resort you try fire-defying stunts at home to produce these little pieces of heaven. So here is a short review of the places we’ve been to which are a bit out of the way:

1) Himalaya Kitchen: Our trip to Dharamsala early this year has made us crave for tibetan/nepali food including rocking momos and soul reviving thukpas. While this place doesnt serve thukpas, it does have some pretty brilliant momos with a sauce to match. They have a nepali chef who works nights and while we were only there for lunch, the place didnt disappoint. The dal was simple and bland (I’m not a fan of overspiced dals) if a touch gingery and my vegetable jalfrezi connoisseur girlfriend says this dish was good too. All in all, good food and good value for money.

2) The Garden Slug: This rather ulu place seems to have the only veggie burger in singapore with a potato patty. I’ve had portobello, tofu and other kinds but as a kid in India pocket money to meant me meant only one thing – burgers. Rs100 = 7 burgers with 2 rupees saved for next time. Those were brilliant days when happiness came in the form of a wonderfully gooey potato patty burger with onions and the works. Sigh. Anyway, The Garden Slug’s burger was a bit jugheady especially since I replaced my portobello with some tall and mean onions. It was a little drier than I would have liked it and ofcourse Indian burgers have a lot more oomph but it is by far the best I’ve had in Singapore. Top it off with a Hobgoblin and you will be a satisfied Indian teen graduated to adult all over again.

3) Stevo’s Salads and Such: Again, this isnt a place you’d call mainstream and it seems to cater for the Singaporean teen/uni student who just have waaay too many yuppie eateries like this targeting them. We had a veggie burger with a sweet potato patty and I must admit that I felt like slapping the chef for his laziness on this one. It was 2 buns and a patty (and maybe a tomato slice?)! Where is the mayo, lettuce, onions, tomato and all the other wonderful goodness that go into a truly special burger? Tsk Tsk. Anyway, this burger did have some real potential so if I do feel like traipsing all the way back to this place then I might take the trouble to ask for all of these ingredients and end up having a kickass burger. Think this place doesnt serve beer, yet another reminder of its target audience being below the drinkable age. Its ozzie some more!

PS : This image is an authentic poster from one of my childhood haunts – burgerola!

Enchanting Dharamsala

In the Winter of 2010, we set out to show India off to a group of friends from Singapore, Malaysia, Germany, Sri Lanka. Out travels took us to the usual places like Agra and Jaipur but we also decide to visit Dharamsala inspired by the mystery of this Himalayan getaway. We are welcomed by cold and crisp air here, a pleasant departure from the foggy and dark plains of Delhi. The sprawling army cantonment with its serious faced jawans keeps us company from Pathankot from where we have driven up. We keep climbing up the winding roads until the edge of the army accommodation announces “Cloud’s End” for the highest village in the area, Naddi. Naddi is 4km away from the bustle of the town and from our charming round hotel rooms here we have a panoramic view of the Dhauladhars. And it is some view: jagged snow streaked peaks give way to rolling brown-green slopes dotted with the occasional house. Our hotel staff is friendly and eager to give us as much information as possible. This has been my experience with mountainfolk in India, their enthusiasm and inclusive nature makes you think that this is the way around here, a stark contrast for all of us who have lived in cities for a large part of our lives.

Sound carries far here and soon you can hear the laughter of school children from the Tibetan school below. Because while this could pass for any other Himalayan retreat, it is a rather different place. Dharamsala is the seat of the Tibetan government in exile and also home to the revered Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. He was forced to take refuge here in 1959 escaping Chinese persecution and several Tibetans followed him to Dharamsala braving a treacherous journey across the Himalayas.

Walking through McLeodGanj, the main street you soon arrive at the unassuming Buddhist temple gates which belie its importance. The temple complex walls abound with pamphlets about saving Tibet and the Panchen Lama. These obvious displays highlight the importance of this little hamlet refuge in the Tibetan struggle that is a constant source of political tension in Sino-Indian relations. The entrance to the temple even talks about a deep Indian-Tibetan bond since Buddhism originated in India and several Hindu holy places like the Mansarovar lie in Tibet. Inside however is almost a different world, one on which the temple has cast a spell of spirituality and calm. Monks in saffron robes clutching prayer beads walk around unhurriedly while tourists look on slightly bewildered.

Dusk in Dharamsala is heavenly, an indigo sky brocaded by orange, gold and grey. McLeodGanj basks in this soft glow and its unique assortment of Tibetan and Indian shops are even more inviting. We had momos, thukpa and fried rice in a place called Tibetan Kitchen that left us craving for more. Yet, despite being a tourist destination its possible to be anonymous in McLeodGanj. Our blond, blue-eyed friend attracted curious stares and pushy vendors in Delhi and Agra but in Dharamsala she gazes at many a local behind the lens of her camera.

Dharamsala enchants and captivates you and while several have been here before we feel like first explorers since at every nook, a different charm awaits.

Sister Celebrity

My sister has been quite the creative genius but this one is beyond cool. She has recently been published by Writers Workshop which I believe was Vikram Seth’s first big break among other such eminent Indian writers. Her book of poems is called “Inklings: A Collection in Free Verse” and it is available in limited edition. She has also been featured in the local newspaper, Deccan Chronicle here. She can be followed on her blog.

Hai Van

The top gear boys have clocked some insane trips but the 1000mile Vietnam journey was always one we wanted to replicate. If Jeremy Clarkson could learn how to ride a bike and then traverse a country then surely it was possible. We settled on the Hai Van pass for it’s fantastic views and relatively short distance. And like all happy endings it was okay save for the drama at the end.

We stayed at Danang which wasn’t the smartest idea since it is simply a sleepy port town with nothing much to do. We plotted on leaving Danang on the morning of the 2nd, stopping at Hue for the night and then being back on 3rd evening for our flight from Danang to Saigon. Our hotel staff tried to dissuade us from attempting the trip since we were a bunch of not so smart foreigners who didn’t speak Vietnamese and with threats of big trucks on small roads. In reality we only saw these monster trucks on the road back and most of these used the new tunnel road anyway so Hai Van was quite deserted.  We rented our bikes from the hotel : generally of Japanese-make there are geared and automatic ones available although the automatics are more difficult to find. For an overnight bike rental we paid 200,000vnd for the geared and 350,000vnd for the automatic per day. Make sure you get fairly new ones for the ride so they are less likely to break down after years of rental abuse. Also with the automatics it helps to get a more powerful one (150cc) so you can rock the uphill portions of the drive. There is no concept of insurance, registration or driving license requirement and we were never stopped in the cities or in the countryside.

The ride itself is spectacular – roads weaving through mountains, paddy fields and little seaside villages. There are stretches where you want to stop and just stare at the incredible colours for ages and urge the rest of the traffic to do the same. At the Hai Van peak there are a few roadside stalls selling more of Vietnam’s incredible coffee and ruins perched on a hillock that give you a fabulous look-out point. You can see the road – a perfect ribbon of tarmac with signature vehicle glints disappearing into the mountains. Definitely much better than roads in both Indonesia and Thailand.

On our ride back to Danang, we spotted clouds passing over the mountains and it was a stunning sight. Little did we realise that it would turn into a thick fog with very low visibility. We ploughed through it and the lack of traffic was a blessing since you could barely see even five metres ahead. As we hit the Hai Van peak, the fog became even worse and after stopping for a quick coffee break we decided to keep going since otherwise we wouldn’t make our flight. We made it safely albeit very slowly out of the mist and at this point my bike decided to give up. Luckily we found a mechanic not too far away who took another 1.5 hours to mend it. Panic set in since we had to get back to return the bikes and then make it through to our flight. Our other friends had decided to take the safe option of the bus ride, I received a call from them with the news that one of them had a broken leg. They were in a hospital and trying to get treatment from docs and nurses who didn’t speak any English whatsoever. We set off again and after another hour’s ride back floundering around in the traffic of Danang city we reached our hotel and made it to the airport 20minutes before the flight. We were not only told that we could check in but were even put on another flight that got us to Saigon earlier. We walked past the security check and our two friends were also there so as mentioned earlier in the end it all went well!

Unpredictable.

Back from a whirlwind trip of India where I had the chance to show my friends the land of my ancestors. What struck me most was the capacity of the country to invoke the most varied of reactions from them. Pure joy, disgust, disbelief, shock, satisfaction – it was all there and oodles of it on a daily basis. The utter chaos of the places we visited overwhelmed most of them but there were moments that make you fall in love with India over and over again.

– Schoolgirls at the Qutub Minar all running up to my blond and blue-eyed friend to shake her hand and chorusing “hello, how are you?” with a half shy-half happy look.

– Phoolwalas in the market opposite Hawa Mahal in Jaipur trying to outbid each other by giving away red roses to the pretty girl who was passing by.

There were ample cases of not so nice gestures too but I’d rather be in a country where both exist rather than neither.

Turn the page – Bob Seger.

On a long and lonesome highway,
East of Omaha
You can listen to the engines
Moanin’ out it’s one old song
You can think about the woman,
Or the girl you knew the night before
But your thoughts will soon be wanderin’,
The way they always do
When you’re ridin’ 16 hours,
And there’s nothin’ much to do
And you don’t feel much like ridin’,
You just wish the trip was through

(chorus)
Here I am, on the road again,
There I am, up on the stage
There I go, playin’ star again,
There I go, turn the page

So you walk into this restaurant,
Uh strung out from the road
And you feel the eyes upon you,
As you’re shakin’ off the cold
You pretend it doesn’t bother you,
But you just want to explode
Yeah, most times you can’t hear ’em talk,
Other times you can

All the same old cliché’s,
Is it woman, is it man
And you always seem outnumbered,
You don’t dare make a stand
Make your stand

(chorus)
Ah But here I am, on the road again,
There I am, up on the stage
Here I go, ah playin’ star again,
There I go, turn the page
Woah

Out there in the spotlight,
You’re a million miles away
Every ounce of energy,
You try and give away
As the sweat pours out your body,
Like the music that you play

Later in the evenin’,
As you lie awake in bed
With the echoes of the amplifiers,
Ringin’ in your head
You smoke the day’s last cigarette,
Rememberin’ what she said

What she said
Yeah, and here I am,
On the road again,
There I am, up on that stage
Here I go, playin’ star again,
There I go, turn the page
And there I go, turn that page

There I go, yeah, Here I go, yeah, yeah
There I go, yeah, Here I go, yeah
Here I go-oh-o, There I go
And I’m gone

Milestones

Milestones are always weird. They make you a think a little more than you should and ofcourse you give in, evaluating the time spent often in tangibles. But when the three years of working for a company have been all about the intangible its a little tough to write something coherent. It probably wouldnt have been coherent anyway since I’m writing this half asleep while waiting to catch a flight.

A lot of my friends are looking for a way out from Singapore which seems a little strange. Another close one recently left for London. Despite spending seven years here I dont despise it as much. In fact, I quite like the place. Changi has this feeling of stepping back into home, the familiar. Despite all the incredibly irritating things in Singapore (people on the MRT, move to the CENTRE!), it has always been possible to have fun and find peace of mind. I still discover new places, recently found what looked and felt like a Victorian quarter with cobblestone streets and all walking distance from work.