Tuesday 25 September 2012

Our forthcoming Ambassador car rally!

Only three more sleeps before Mr Jules and I depart for our holiday.  A rally tour of Kerala in an Ambassador classic car!  I am so excited I had to write something about it now.  I am also thrilled that we will finally get out of Mumbai to explore other parts of the country.  Goa is lovely but it doesn't really count as far as 'proper' travelling goes and I have heard that Kerala is soooo beautiful.

So what's with the old car? To give you some background, the Ambassador (affectionately known as the "Amby") is a car manufactured by Hindustan Motors of India. Based on the Morris Oxford III model, first made by the Morris Motors at Cowley, Oxford (in the UK) in the late 1950s, it has been in production in India since 1958 with only a few modifications and updating (such as air conditioning). Despite its British origins, the Ambassador is considered the definitive Indian car. In Mumbai, it is mostly politicians who are transported around in these cars but in other parts of India, such as Calcutta (near the Ambassador plant) they are ubiquitous and are commonly the preferred model of taxi.  Indians do not hold the same fascination with Ambassadors that us Brits do.  They are considered too old fashioned - the locals would rather been seen in something zingy, shiny and new.

The Hindustan Ambassador...quaint, fun and classic
I've actually just seen this one advertised for sale....tempted!
Why do I/we want to want to drive around in an Ambassador?  Well my friends and family know that I once used to work at the European headquarters of an amazing top end classic car auction company - the best in the world in fact.  Through working there, I fell in love with vintage cars (mostly Jaguars, Mercedes, Ferraris and Aston Martins).  I was also lucky enough to be my dear friend Annette's navigator on classic rallies in southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria - in her incredible Jaguar XK120.  Each drive was an extraordinary experience and such good times!  So as a result of all this, the novelty stuck. I'm still in love.  (Besides which, what better way to see so many places in so short a time...it's got to beat a coach tour!)
Annette driving and me navigating in her fabulous 1949 Jaguar XK120 (aka "Dorothy").
No roof, no windscreen and no seat belts!

And the rally itself?  The rally is a two week organised tour of Kerala. It starts in Calicut, then heads off towards the beautiful fort city of Cochin, then passes through Keralan backwaters, stopping off at a lakeside hotel in Kumarakom , then pootles up to the British Hill station 'Ooty', driving on to Mysore "the City of Palaces", then on to the old British summer resort of Munnar via Tea and Sandalwood plantations and finally on to the Wayanad wild life reserve (where we should see elephants!)...then ending back at Calicut on the last day.  The cars, breakdown support (probably much needed!), insurance, hotels and food are all arranged for us by the organisers.  There are 40 participants in 20 Ambassador cars (mostly from the UK but on the list are also couples from Australia and Canada and another expat from Mumbai). Those foreigners who have never experienced Indian traffic before are going to have the shock of their lives! - at least Mr Jules and I are used to it although we have never driven ourselves in India.  Hopefully we will be able to dodge oncoming traffic/straying animals for two whole weeks, try not to damage our Amby and get home in one piece.

The route
We fly to Calicut from Mumbai on Friday and I am hoping to update my blog at stages throughout the 14 days but I am not sure what wifi access will be like..so you might only hear from me in a couple of weeks time! (although I might manage another un-related blog before we depart).

Wish Mr Jules luck...he will be the one driving!

Monday 24 September 2012

Playing with fire at Ganpati

Mr Jules and I somehow managed to get amazingly caught up in a Ganpati ritual last night on Carter Road.

During a big fat roast pork Sunday dinner (with crackling, yum), we could hear the distant beat of drums through the open windows.  As we had not really seen any of the Ganpati celebrations so far, we decided to take a stroll to the beach to see what what going on. 

Firstly - I won't go into a long explanation of the origins of the Ganesh Chuturthi festival (you can read everything here, if you are interested) - commonly called Ganpati.  But in short, the festival celebrates the birthday of Ganesha and clay statues of the god are made by special artisans two to three months in the run up to the celebrations - from the smallest of small sizes to over 70 feet tall.  During the celebrations, people have the statues in their homes, in temporary shrines that are constructed on every street and in every sacred place going.  The statues which are decorated in the gaudiest of colours (making Ganesha look more like a tacky seaside souvenir than a revered god!) are further adorned with marigolds, candles and personalised decorations.  Money can also be stuck on to them like a bride at a Greek Wedding.

Our next door neighbour's Ganesha Shrine.  No expense spared with the orchids!

Ganesha is worshipped in full force for 10 days and then on the 11th day, comes the immersion - the statue is taken through the streets in a procession accompanied with dancing, singing, and fanfares to be immersed in a river or the sea. This  "symbolises a ritual see-off of the Lord in his journey towards his abode in Kailash while taking away with him the misfortunes of his devotees".   People at home  might just immerse their statue in a bucket of water.  In Mumbai you will see loads of these statues constantly being transported - by truck, by cart, by hand...all the people making their way to water like lemmings. 

Ganesha, blindfolded and kidnapped
The point at which Mr Jules and I caught this process was during the chanting and blessing and flame throwing before the idol was to be taken right into the sea.  A community had dragged their Ganesha all the way from Dhobi Ghat by foot! I thought this was miles away but Google Maps tells me that this is a 2 hour 7 minute walk (basically then, it's quicker to walk than go by car!).

So last night, as we were walking past this group of people, I had turned round to take a photograph of their Ganesha and before I knew it, people were tugging at my arm, calling me over and trying to seat me right in front of the statue!  "pliz, tek photo, tek good photo!!!" So I sat there on the pavement looking up at everyone else for the whole of the pre-dunking ceremony, whilst Mr Jules craned his neck to find me over the crowd.  We were the only 'outsiders'...what a privilege!

The ritual involved a main guy chanting words from a book whilst everyone else tried to follow, lots of waving of hands in the air, lots of throwing of marigold petals on to our heads and lots and lots of swirling of fire in front of the statue. The air was accrid with incense and the chanting was very Shaman-like.  This went on for a very long time. The people were gradually closing in and I couldn't move and it was getting very hot.  I did start to feel a bit faint at this point and had to try and remove myself from the crowd.  But hands were pulling at me and dragging me back.  Then I realised half of them were completely smashed!  "Pliz tek photo, pliz tek photo, my mam, my dad, my brother!!"  One of the guys kept trying to make groups of people with his family for me to photograph, throwing himself into the middle each time.  Then Mr Jules was brought into the equation and everyone wanted their photo taken with the tall blonde man.  It was very sweet if a little manic...

Eventually, after having banana pieces and almond paste pressed into our hands and told to eat it, having extensive photos taken with every person and every member of their families, we politely made it away.  Unfortunately this did mean that we did not actually see the immersion which was to follow...but at least we did have the privilege of getting involved somehow!  Here are the photos:

Photo of the group before I got hauled in
Once hauled in, I had to sit right in front of Ganesha, in full view of everyone

The view from the floor.  The main guy chanting from his book (Ladybird Book of Hindu Chants)

Some offerings

Waving of fire in front of the statue (me still on the floor in hair singeing distance)

Lots of clapping and chanting....boy desperate to throw his marigold petals

More waving of fire..note the money stuck to Ganesha.
I kept wondering if this was going to end up in the sea and if so what a waste!

It's getting very warm and very intense at this point!

These are the two 'main women'...very scary looking

Thowing of marigold petals...I ended up with them in my hair, down my top, in my shoes...everywhere!

The two scary women

The peak of intensity - I managed to extract myself from the group at this point.
Before we managed to flee - one of the [out of focus] group photos

Sunday 23 September 2012

Bombay - a love love relationship

Well it's been over three months since I settled here and so much has happened in that time.  Friends and family (and even new friends) keep asking me if I am enjoying living in India and if I am happy.  It occurred to me that I never really say anything about my situation or what I am feeling about being in Bombay.  So this is a little post to reassure all the folks back home.  I would also like to mention a few reasons for the love love relationship with this [crazy] city.

The people

The best thing about Bombay is Indian people.  The best thing about India is therefore Indian people.  The open arms, the smiling faces, the ambition, the upwardly mobile, the hard working, the Hinglish, the generosity, the openness, the positivity, the can-do attitude, the resourcefulness, the personality, the sheer happiness.  The parents who experience such hardship and hold down several jobs just so their children will have the lives they can't (I speak about our cleaner). The children are a delight - inquisitive,  [generally] well behaved, keen to learn and be educated and instilled with a desire to lead a better life.  Of course not all Indians are like this but you get the general impression.

Never a dull moment

There is never a dull moment in Bombay!  Even a ninety minute drive to work through the shitty traffic keeps me in awe.  From the cattle weaving in and out of the cars, street hawkers and beggars tapping on your window, frail old men dragging two tonne trolleys, sweetcorn vendors, masumbi and chai wallahs on every corner, the mounds of rubbish everywhere, the BMWs, Mercedes and odd Ferraris of Bombay billionaires, the satellite dishes atop slum buildings, the families squatting on pavements with babies and toddlers, the Ganeshas being transported in the open backs of lorries, the dogs sleeping in the middle of roads, eleven year olds running across the street in front of the car, narrowly escaping death, honking rickshaws, buses crammed full of school children shouting out of the windows....I could go on all day.

Mother precariously holding her child on the back of a motorbike whilst speeding in and out of the traffic. 
Note how only the father is wearing a helmet!

Get anything, any time

Want a glass of red wine at 9pm on a Saturday night but the cupboard is bare?  No problem! I call my local alcohol vendor and can have a single bottle delivered to my doorstep within 10 minutes.  At no additional charge. (I won't mention that alcohol is bloody expensive in Maharashtra and that quality wine is hard to come by!).  I love that I can go down to Pali market and order my exported toilet paper, crates of Himalayan mineral water, a lump of butter and a small bag of garlic and then ask them to deliver it to me at a time convenient to me (no Tesco-esque prepaid time slots here).  Of course I could even do this by phone. If I want, I can have any manner of product delivered straight to my door for no extra charge...it's "all part of the service ma'am".  Go to a shoe shop and decide that those jewel encrusted slingbacks are a tad too high?  No problem madam, "we make them with whatever heel you like madam!".  Want an art deco dining set but the one in the shop is a bit too big for your space? "No problem madam, we make it made to measure!!! Six seats instead of eight!!".  Everything can be made to your exact requirements...providing you can find the right quality in the first place.

My privileged life

You may think I am talking about our nice lodgings, view of the sea, the extensive travel that our life affords us, our car, driver and cleaner. Yeah, that's all very nice.  But in fact I am thinking about the amazing people I work with, making the life of hundreds of families better in marginalised communities for no or very little pay.  About the devotion and commitment of volunteers, the inspiring workers, the skinny children tugging at my hand, the inquisitive looks of their mothers, the joy at having their photographs taken, making even trudging through dirty monsoon water in the slums a pleasure.  I get to see a side of Bombay that a lot of others will never see (or will choose to ignore).  Sometimes it's hard but I feel privleged that I can even have the tiniest role in helping others to help others.  Sounds cheesy? May be a little.

Staff at the Foundation demonstrating how to cook a nutritious meal to uneducated mothers

 Food glorious food

I love the endless new eating experiences that Bombay provides me with.  From glitzy restaurants trying to replicate London counterparts (usually badly), the most basic (and risky) of street food during Ramadan on Mohammed Ali Road, giant unending thalis, rich Punjabi cuisine, Rajastani inspired yoghurt marinated Malai kebabs (my favourite, yum), simple rice idlis with coconut relish for breakfast, the Parsi delights of Britannia restaurant, biryanis beautifully cooked in clay pots, simple and cheap Mysore Masala Dosas, my daily chai brought by the chai wallah, home cooked Goan prawn curry, work colleagues sharing their tiffins at lunchtime whilst sat cross-legged on the floor....the list goes on and on.  Let us not forget Yorkshire pork joints from Joseph's for our Sunday Roasts with suitcase imported Paxo and Knorr stock cube gravy.  I haven't even really started my food odyssey yet...I will soon be trying Bengali cuisine, South Indian cooking, Keralan fish dishes....the months to come will provide so many more culinary adventures.

The girls at work - sharing their tiffins at lunch time.
Sensory overload

Marigolds, sunsets, Ganesha festivals, textiles shops, rug traders....rubbish dumps.  Be it in a good way or a bad way, everything is colourful.  The colours go hand in hand with smells....you take the good with the bad.  The sandalwood incense that you might find at the foot of a shrine to Ganesha could be five feet away from an open sewer.  That's just how it is in Bombay.  The delicious smells of street food waft over drains overflowing with monsoon water.  Indians don't go in for the colour black much.  I always used to wear black in London, it was my uniform.  But now you will find me in the colours that match the warmth of the city...blues, reds, oranges, pinks, multicoloured patterns!  My clothes lack structure, I fling on garments without a thought in the morning and I even leave the house without lipstick.  The colours of India have got to me.  The sounds are constant, the tinny engine noises of the auto-ricks, the cartoon-like honking of giant buses, the squawks of the kites as they fly past our windows looking for prey, the call of the rag-and-bone man.  I now can not imagine not being surrounded by these sounds. As for touch?  Well it's best not to touch anything...

The spices from Crawford Market sum up India - Spicy, Vibrant, Tasty and Hot!
So - you think I am going to list the things I hate about Bombay?  No I am not going to that.  Let's revisit in another three months and see how I feel then.  When the novelty may have worn off.  Be assured for now that I couldn't be happier and I am looking forward to all the Indian adventures I will have with Mr Jules. Stay tuned!


Wednesday 19 September 2012

Britannia - The Best Loved Restaurant in Mumbai

Yesterday I had another fabulous lunch at Britannia - undoubtedly the most famous and well loved restaurant in Mumbai.  It may be where all the tourists head (much like Leopold's) but it doesn't matter - because the Parsi food served here doesn't get any better.

Inside the Britannia

Boman Kohinoor, eccentric 91 year old owner of Britannia
If you are British and go to Britannia you are in for an extra special treat.  The 91 year old owner - Boman Kohinoor -  is a devout Anglophile and worshipper of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. He can detect a Britisher at 20 paces, will come up to your table whilst your order is being taken to show you his collection of QE memorabilia and news cuttings. You will even find a cardboard cut-out of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (aka Wills and Kate) stood precariously on the balcony.  Definitely an eccentric, he does go on a bit but it is hard to resist the old man's charm.  Or perhaps he is just the best PR agent in the world, I don't know.

Boman proudly shows you his collection of QE memorabilia and news clippings, including a personal letter from the Queen.  Wills and Kate looking slightly drunk on the balcony.  Her Majesty is close to his heart...literally.
More important is the food.  Britannia is particularly famous for its Chicken Berry Pilau (Pulav).  I have eaten a replica of this at Dishoom (a "Bombay Cafe") in London and it didn't come anywhere close.  The berries - barberries, which are a bit like a cross between pomegranate and cranberries are especially imported from Iran.  You can't get them anywhere else, and especially not in England. Being with a Britannia first timer, we had to order this most famous of dishes and it did not let us down. Light fluffy rice mingled with chicken breast and chicken mince balls, a smattering of delicately spiced gravy topped off with the little red jewels.  Yum.

Possibly one of the most served restaurant dishes in Bombay - Chicken Berry Pilau (Pulav)

Lentil Dhansak to the left.
Also very impressive is the Britannia's less famous Sali Boti - (mutton in gravy topped with fried matchstick potatoes) which we didn't actually order but got given anyway.  We mopped this up with our chapatis in no time - delicious, rich and meaty but not too spicy. 

Sali Boti - truly delicious mutton in gravy topped with crispy fries
Alongside the berry pilau we had a lentil dhansak which nicely balanced out the relative dryness of the rice.  Everything was up to the usual standard and our newcomer went away satisfied and impressed.  And the service was excellent, our waiter patiently attending us whilst Mr Kohinoor regaled us with his stories of brushes with British Royalty. (Poor him, he must have heard these stories a million times!)

Our waiter - very proud of his boss (and has the patience of a Royal Valet)
The bill for three wasn't bad value either considering these guys don't need to fight for customers - the three dishes above with chapatis and three lime sodas came in at just over 1,000 rupees (£11.50/$17).  We couldn't manage dessert but I hear that the caramel custard is the thing to try.

The restaurant itself is full of charm - slightly rough around the edges with peeling paint on the ceilings but has the feeling of a proper old school Bombay Caff.  We went at about 3pm on a Tuesday afternoon when it was relatively empty - so we got the full attention of the owner! An absolute-must-experience.  Here are some more photos:

Boman Kohinoor - in full flow

Britannia - the colonial interior of an old school Bombay Cafe
Britannia Menu - Parsi food at its best

Boman - saying his goodbyes
The equally ancient and I imagine, long suffering brother!

Britannia & Co,
1 Sprott Rd.,
Ballard Estate,
near Fort;
tel +91 (0) 22 22615264
Open 12.00 - 3.30 Only (closed Sundays)
An explanation of 'Parsi' and 'Parsi Cuisine'
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, 'Parsi', also spelled 'Parsee', are members of a group of followers in India of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster. Parsi literally means: 'Of the Ethnicity of Pars-- also known as Fars', a province located in Southern Iran. The Parsis, whose name means 'Persians,' are descended from Persian Zoroastrians who emigrated to India to avoid religious persecution by the Muslims. They live chiefly in Bombay and in a few towns and villages mostly to the north of Bombay, but also at Karachi (Pakistan) and Bangalore (Karnataka, India). Although they are not, strictly speaking, a caste, since they are not Hindus, they form a well-defined community.
When they fled from Iran, around 1,300 years ago (exact date unknown), they settled on the coast of Gujarat. Parsi food is therefore a rich blend of Persian and Gujarati culinary styles. It has the Indian flavor in vegetarian food and when it comes to the non-vegetarian dishes it derives taste from the Persia.

Parsee recipes are known for there bold flavors, use of dry fruits and being not very spicy. Chicken, mutton, eggs and fish are generally used in dishes. Parsis are very fond of eating egg dishes. They use Indian spices, ginger, garlic and onion but the dishes are not very spicy. Rice is generally eaten with a variety of curries. Some of the famous Parsi recipes are chicken farcha. Patra ni machhi, dhansak, saas ni machhi, akuri, pora and tamota ni suss chaval. In desserts sev, ravol faluda and kulfi are popularly known. Bhakhra, batasa, khaman na lavda and dar ni pori are snacks which are light and tasty. (http://www.indianrelish.com/main/recipe/parsi/)

Monday 17 September 2012

My Day With Lewis Hamilton

Yesterday I got to see Lewis Hamilton in the flesh.  He sat about five foot away from me.  For about 20 minutes.  I think he may even have looked at me.

McLaren F1 in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt, Santacruz
How did this happen?  Because I was lucky enough to get one of 200 places at an Indiblogger meet in conjunction with the Mumbai Speedfest sponsored by Vodafone.  With the promise that Lewis Hamilton would come and speak to us all.  Not in a million years did I believe that Lewis Hamilton would come and speak to a bunch of Indian Bloggers ...but he really did. This is how the day panned out:

I turned up the Indiblogger meet at the Grand Hyatt in Santacruz not knowing a soul.  I immediately hooked up with a very pretty girl standing on her own - who happens to be a model and one of the biggest fans of Lewis Hamilton in India (and also writes a blog about Formula 1).  As we had turned up early, The Model and I got seated straight away - right on the front row.  I would not normally want to draw attention to myself but she was keen to be at the front as she is a self-confessed semi-stalker of Lewis Hamilton.  I think she would be OK with me saying this.

Once all the other invitees had eventually arrived - about an hour later, we had a little speech given to us by the Indiblogger team and a representative of Vodafone.  They assured us Lewis Hamilton would indeed be turning up to meet us.  It was at this point that I turned around and realised that I was not only one of the oldest people in the room but also the only non Indian!

Room full of all-Indian Indibloggers
errr.....I won't if you don't mind!
Then some instructions came up on the screen..."Wave your Hands in the Air!!"... "Hug Every Blogger in Sight!!"...."Let's Have a Ball!" Oh my god....I'm at an EVANGELICAL CONVENTION!  Seriously I was getting very scared.  I thought blogging was a harmless past-time not a cult religion!  And there was far too much bodily contact for my liking!  Even more scarily, each of us then had to stand up and say everything we could about ourselves in 30 seconds.  Being right at the front, everyone could see me.  Aaaaagh. The Indiblogger motto is "Indian by Birth, Blogger by Choice"....so as part of my speech I said "I am not Indian by birth, just in case you haven't noticed!"...I didn't get much of a laugh.

The Model - 30 seconds of fame
As there were almost 200 of us in the room the introductions went on for some time.  However, through this exercise I at least came to realise that my blog is not the most boring one out there.  Some people write about engineering, maths and physics!  Oh, and I wasn't the oldest person there - someone was 63.  The youngest was 14.

Then we broke for lunch.  I hung out with the fashion bloggers, all of which were young enough to be my daughters.  But I have to thank them as I would definitely not have made it through the day without them (plus they made me look cool).  After lunch there was another networking type exercise.  We were all given a big sheet of paper and then told to go around the room, to ascertain the blog details of at least another 20 bloggers.  Despite feeling extremely uncomfortable (and pale-skinned), I was very proud of myself as I managed to get 35...lots of people came up to me and The Model (note to self, hang out with models more).

20 minutes to get as many details of other bloggers as possible
(pretty much like speed-dating without the excitement)
After a bit more time wasting...the atmosphere suddenly became electric...the room went silent, doors were being opened and closed, people were running back and forth, the hotel manager swung past looking stressed...was LEWIS about to come in????  The Model was literally on the edge of her seat, chewing gum so fast I thought her teeth might fall out.  Then the Indiblogger team got up on the stage and started making grunting noises and waving their arms.  "MAKE A NOISE"!!!! AAaaaaghhh!!

Then he appeared!  Like a vision!  He was actually in the room with insignificant US!

The arrival
Everyone rushed forward with their cameras.  Lewis looked very calm and composed and even said that it was the warmest welcome he had ever received! (Boy, those PR people have trained him well). Then there was a question and answer session with Lewis.  Unfortunately most of the Indibloggers had already admitted they weren't that interested in Lewis or Formula 1....they were just there to meet other bloggers and for the free food.  So I know they didn't care what he had to say, they just wanted the photos for their blogs. A bit like me then.

So here are the photos of Lewis.  He does have lovely skin.

oooooh, what lovely skin!
Just in case you need more evidence of his attendance....
Just in case you want to know what he wears on his feet (Nikes)

No...he's not singing us a song...just blinking
Bloggers' Photography Heaven

Alongside another McLaren F1 Car.  Vodafone sure were good with the props.
A very lucky girl, who had written a blog post about why she would like to do a lap in a car with Lewis Hamilton won the prize of a lap in a car with Lewis Hamilton.  She was so choked she couldn't speak.  I felt very pleased for her because as least she was very passionate about Lewis Hamilton, McLaren and F1.  A well deserving winner.

Lucky winner of the ride with Lewis
After Lewis had gone, there was a bit more milling around before we were all then taken to the Mumbai Speedfest in Bandra Kurla. An event where Lewis would drive up and down the streets in his McLaren F1 and do a few doughnuts.   I am not going to write loads about this. Needless to say, we had to wait around for hours for the event to kick off, endure some crappy carnival acts and bad compering, finally watching Lewis whizzing around whilst it rained.  It was impossible to get photos of the car, as it was obviously just too fast! (although I did get some good video footage).  The roar of the engine was very impressive but I just wanted to get home and out of the crowds by this point.

Rickshaw v Formula 1
The rain...and Hamilton's car...simply too fast to photo!

Everyone trying to film the action - I got the footage below

Thank you so much to the Indiblogger/Vodafone team for organising such an amazing event for us.  Despite sounding cynical, I enjoyed meeting people from the blogging community and everyone welcomed the only non-Indian there with such open arms.  I just wish I was more into party games!!


(Oh, and thank you also to Indiblogger for allowing me to be one of the few non Indians on the site)