Wednesday, December 24, 2008

True Blue...Bosphorus

I thought that I must write a year end post on the awesome holiday we had this year at Turkey. I know it lasted just ten days and it did mop up quite a bit of our savings but it has left us behind with the most amazing of memories.

Write since my childhood I had coloured the sky as light blue and the sea as a darker blue in painting class. As I grew up I saw that the sky could still be blue. Except the older I grew the more I spent 'blue sky' hours indoors in offices. And the blue sea? That largely remained a myth. The sea in Mumbai is grey. The one at Goa borders on grey. The river in Kolkata? grey again.

Then I went to Istanbul, the city of the Bosphorus and the Marmara. We could see a glimpse of the sea from our room at the Marmara Palace hotel. Electric blue.

We of course did the customary Bosphorus cruise. This was a dream like experience. I am yet to see the 'Blue Danube' but here the waters were blue enough to make me compose symphonies. We passed by lovely villas, the super expensive Kempinski hotel which is a converted palace, castles, the Blue Mosque and other monuments, the military school where General Musharaf of Pakistan had studied. These were some of the most beautiful sites that one had ever seen. And the breeze? Pure unadulterated Ozone. One felt so far removed from the grime of one's daily grind. It did to my spirit what rounds of botox couldn't do to a rich dowager.

It was definitely one of the most memorable moments of a holiday filled with memorable moments.
Traveller's notes:
  • You do get night cruises but they defeat the purpose because you will be unable to see much
  • The Bosphorus cruise ends at a place called Eminonu which is the tram stop for the Spice Market. You can leave the tour here and spend time here as you get much better deals here than at the more popular Grand Bazar.
  • A Bosphorus cruise is a visual delight. The quality of the guide doesn't really matter. Ours occasionally droned out something perfunctorily while reading the newspaper, speaking on the mobile, snapping at passengers and scratching his head at the captain's deck

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Goodbye Gurgaon, Ruby Tuesday

I was quite happy to leave the Smart Villa the heartbreak motel of Gurgaon.

The client presentations went off like a dream. In fact the board applauded after I finished. I could barely hear it though as I was deaf from the air cabin pressure drops. Still it was a relief as I had flown in with a bad throat and blocked nose and was keeping my fingers about lasting the presentation. And then I had to spend the night at the sleazy dump where I was kept. Few things at work give me a bigger high than a good presentation.

We went for lunch at Ruby Tuesday after the first presentation. This is opposite TGIF. This time I had couple of colleagues with me.

We started with a broccoli and cheese soup which was quite nice. The broccoli was finely shredded so you didn't mind it and the cheese was nice and solid. I enjoyed this and it was good for my throat.

I had a half rack of pork spare ribs. As the menu promised the meat was extremely pliant and tender. 'Fork removable' was the term they used and they were right. The barbecue sauce was on the sweeter side. It reminded me of a teriyaki sauce. It came with a baked potato and sour cream which I didn't care much for.

My colleagues had batter fried shrimp and spaghetti bolougnaise. The dishes looked good and they said that they enjoyed it.

The food was pretty good. Prices (Rs 400 - 600, 10 -15 USD a dish) were similar to TGIF. But the service was less attentive and informed than TGIF and the place was even deader with just two tables occupied on Monday afternoon.

The good food at TGIF and Ruby Tuesday helped reduce the pain of spending the night, Smart Villa and wannabe Gurgaon.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

TG for TGIF: down and out in Gurgaon

Gurgaon is a satellite city of New Delhi.

It is located in the state of Haryana. It is a 20-30 minute drive from the airport thanks to the swanky new flyover. It has developed at very fast pace over the recent years with swanky malls, BPOs and MNCs shifting base here to steel and chrome office towers. Frankly, it looks a bit like Vegas to me. Amazing buildings interspersed in fairly desolate, dusty and arid patches of land.

I have made a number of work trips here recently where I fly in the morning and return by evening. This Sunday was different. I had two presentations to make on Monday. So I came in the previous evening as the winter fogs at Delhi have turned the schedules of flights topsy turvy.

So here I am on Sunday night at Gurgaon. 'Gaon' means village and Gurgaon seems like that. What adds to the feeling is the guesthouse that the client has put me in. Its neat and clean but is fairly sleazy. Red blankets, plastic pink roses, waiter knocks and walks before you can open the door, stained toilet seats, no hat water in the basin, you get the gist. No way comparable to the hotels one stays in at New Delhi. One of the barest places I have stayed in at Delhi while travelling on work. Apparently Gurgaon rates are fairly expensive. I should have probably stayed at my company's guest house in New Delhi. It is supposed to be good and New Delhi is at least a town.

This place is a freaking ghost town. There is no life on the roads. Everyone's either in the malls or at the offices. So you can imagine how depressing the can be on a Sunday night. To top it I left Bombay with a throat and nose infection. And now I am deaf after the flight thanks to the pressure drops. I hope the block opens before I present. i can barely hear myself speak!

And then I came to this maudlin guest house. I took one look at the tattered room service menu and said that's it... fog and cold be damned. I called for a cab and went over to TGIF at the Metropolitan Mall. I remembered going there with my boss earlier and enjoying it.

I had some piping hot mushroom soup for my throat. Then the waiter strongly recommended a roast turkey platter. This came with a glass of house wine. The Turkey piece was nice and springy. It tasted like chicken but had a nicer feel to it. I enjoyed every bite. It came with a nice, creamy, mildly tangy sauce, buttered vegetables, a fair bit of nice mash and a fresh garlic toast. The combo was finished off with a slab of Christmas cake, which was hard and a bit frozen, but was also sweet an comforting. Just about three to four tables were occupied which further bolsters my village theory. You wouldn't fine a prime restaurant so empty at Bombay on a Sunday night.

I rarely go out alone to restaurants when I am travelling in India. But room service was not really an option in the guest house I am staying at. At least the great dinner helped to restore my spirits and to help me tide over a wasted Sunday night in this glorified motel (Smart Villa) in this wannabe one hick town.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Follow the yellow brick road: Mumbai Pune Expressway

I still remember the excitement which was there when the expressway opened between Mumbai and Pune. We had rarely seen a road like that in India. And it cut down the distance by almost two hours from what it used to be.

It still is about a 2 hr drive and another 1.5 hrs to get in and out of the cities.

I have travelled the route over the years and have seen the highway grow. As have the food courts!

I did the route yesterday and I saw that the food courts have really grown in number and variety. There is something for everyone. I was telling my colleagues that I felt like I was seeing a baby grow. And it felt good!

Here were some of the pleasant discoveries on the way to Pune from Mumbai:

- The Mc Donalds at Panvel, which is actually before the highway while coming from Bombay – now opens at 6 AM and serves breakfast. I remember stopping there earlier at 9 and 10 AM in the morning and being turned back as they opened at 11 AM. This time we had some very nice sausage muffins (the bread was light and slightly crisp compared to the burgers), excellent pancakes with coffee and maple syrup, Georgia Coffee (very nice), Minute Maid orange Juice. A colleague had has brown potatoes which looked tasty. Most dishes cost Rs 50 (1 USD). I wished they served this at Bombay too. They had done up the toilets too and they looked nicer than before

- The side of the lane facing Pune has a largish stop in the middle with a number of restaurants which sell local Maharashtrian fare (upma, bata vad, etc), South Indian Stuff, juices and sandwiches. This is one of the first courts but has grown with time. The average dish costs Rs 20 – 40 (50 – 60 cents) here
- Now there is a stop at the end of the highway towards Pune. This is the second stop after it ends and you have a Coffee Day there if you don’t like the local coffee in the earlier stops. Good to buck you before a meeting or before entering Pune.

There are quite a few stops on the way back to Mumbai from Pune

- There is a stop before Lonavla which has a Coffee Day, a US pizza shop and local stuff as well
- Then there is a largish stop after Lonavla which has at least 6-7 options: Ramakant's vada pao (they used to serve local fare such as vada pao in a van on the highway before the food court), a Café Coffee Day, some other local stores AND a 24 hr Mc Donalds

My excitement would sound strange to people from the West or even from countries like Thailand. But these are big improvements in India.

I was travelling with a couple of colleagues yesterday who shared my love for food. We kept talking about food through the journey. Which was good as our meeting at Pune seemed a bit pointless.

Traveler’s Notes:
- These stops have ample parking
- Now there are signs directing them to you on the road so you are warned well in avance in case you want to turn in
- There is quite a variety of options, most places are reasonably clean and hardly any have dishes which cost more than Rs 50 (or 1 USD)
- Most of these places have washrooms which are ‘fairly’ clean

- There are gas stations/ petrol pumps at all these stops

- Most also have shops where you can buy local favourites such as chiki (nuts in hard boiled jaggery), chocolate fudge, jelly sweets, jams and juices which you can take as gifts

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The many wonders of India... our amazing politicians

You would have probably heard of the Taj Mahal, the forts of Rajasthan, the beaches of Goa, the backwaters of Kerala, the tigers of the Sunderbans ... but have you heard of the world's most amazing collection of political leaders.
Well the latest terror attack at Mumbai threw up quite a few. Consider the facts and then think whether it is worth coming to India to see these unique specimens:
  • A geriatric, soft spoken, Prime Minister who waited till the nation was brought to its knees, till the killing spree was close to 24 hours, till a city's back was broken before coming on television, reading from a tele prompter and threatening to rap the knuckles of the bad boys who were out there killing people. Who is his role model? Chamberlain, Britain's prime minister who had tried to negotiate with Hitler!
  • A Home Minister of the country (in charge of internal security) who has taken multiple terror attacks in the last three months - Delhi, Jaipur, Guwahati, Bombay - calmly in his stride without blinking an eyelid. Just another day in office for him. A day too many for us though
  • A state Chief Minister who went to inspect the damages and destruction done to his state's capital with his son (who apparently acts in films) with a guy who used to make films
  • A state Home Minister who in reference to the carnage in his state said, 'such small incidents happen in large cities. The terrorists were planning to kill 5500 people'. Unquote. Well, yes it is not as important as shutting bars where girls danced to entertain patrons is it?
  • A leader of the national opposition who tried to score brownie points while terrorists were killing people in Bombay by saying that blasts when his government ruled killed fewer people than when the current government took over. This is the same gentleman who had overseen the destruction of the mosque which led to terrible religious riots in our country. The same gentleman, who as home minister, had handed over the man who is considered to be the master mind of the recent terror attacks to hijackers
  • A Chief Minister of another state, Kerala, who went to visit the house of an army major slained by the killers to get political mileage. Who was thrown out of the house by the indignant father of the slain major... himself a retired scientist of ISRO, India's equivalent of Nasa. A Chief Minister who hit back at the family of the martyred soldier by saying that even a dog (sic!) wouldn't have looked at house if it wasn't for their son. I was tempted to write that a dog did visit them because of their son. BUT I love dogs and I would never run down these noble creatures by equating them with politicians
  • An opposition party member who responds to citizen candle light protests by saying 'that a few women who wear lipstick and apply powder on their face are criticising politicians without knowing what they are speaking about'. Well let me assure him that we all know what our politicians are worth
  • Self appointed guardians of a city, who beat up people have come to work in the city from other parts of the country, who do not speak the language of these leaders and who refer to the city by a name which these leaders refer to. Not a squeak was heard from them as the citizens of the city they claim to own were being mowed down. As a friend of mine pointed out, they finally seemed to have paid heed to the gag order put on them by the courts. Or perhaps they have fled the city

The list goes on. These are the people we have elected. Or, worse still, the people we have not elected because we did not vote.

So go out and vote the next time. Many have asked who do we vote to? Even I ask the same question. But someone made a telling point on TV recently. Our politicians cater to vote banks. If go out and vote we will become a vote bank. Then they would have to listen to us.

And here's a sobering thought. The chances of the next prime minister of India being less than seventy five years old is much much less than the US getting a coloured president.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mumbai 26 is not business as usual

Frankly I was quite exhausted and emotionally drained over the past few days. And I want to thank everyone who called, texted, e mailed, scribbled on walls, commented on blogs asking about us. Kainaz and I were home safe and no one close to us was caught in the tragedy that hit Mumbai. Unless you count the city of Bombay of course!

I was glued to the telly for a large part of the last few days watching the horrifying events unfold. I was dazed and in a state of shock. VT station, Leopolds, The Taj, the Oberoi, these have all been places which have made Bombay special to me. Places which have made me fall in love with the city. I have vivid memories of each of them.

I first landed at the Victoria Terminus for a summer project presentation in 1996. I fell in love with Bombay then and shifted in a year later. Kainaz and I would often walk past the VT Station on our courting days for a Bengali dinner at Hotel New Bengal. Even today I always feel happy when I see the Gothic beauty of the VT station when I head to South Bombay for work.

Leopold is where my summer project guide had treated me to a beer, where I had spent many evenings with friends when I had moved into Bombay, where I have had many Friday lunches of beef chilly and prawn fried rice and brownies with Kainaz, where we had dinner on her last day at FCB Ulka, the office where we met. Years later I felt good reading about it in the book, Shantaram.

The Taj Hotel was of course THE hotel we all aspired to. I remember each of my visits there… a lot of them were to the Sea Lounge, the old tea room by the sea. It is hard to think that the place where I was introduced to the ice cream boat and then shared it with Kainaz, where I took my mom for tea… an experience she still remembers, the place where as a junior executive, eight years back, I had shelled out Rs 1500 (30 USD today) to treat Kainaz to a chocolate buffet (a kind, elderly waiter took pity on us and allowed us to share a plate from the buffet though I had paid only for one person, but that’s Taj for you)…to think that this place, the Sea Lounge, was apparently the last refuge of the killers is painful.

The Oberoi is just opposite the Nirmal building at Nariman Point where Kainaz and I worked together when we first met. We often used to go to the cake shop there for pastries and ham and cheese sandwiches and even now I get a cake from there on her birthday. The Oberoi had a chemist where I would buy Kainaz’s favourite Lindt Chocolates, for the then pricely sum of 90 Rs (2 USD), as a peace offering if we had a tiff. I have bought her a red tee shirt from a shop called Scarlett over there which she still wears.

To see these places, which are such a big part of my life pillaged numbed me. I was truly dazed.

And then there was the human misery and pain. The deaths. The bloodshed. The injuries. The massacred families. To think that we could have been one of them is a chilling thought. These were people who had welcomed me to Bombay and made me feel at home here. Or they were people like me who had come from outside to Bombay, drawn like a firefly to the flame.

I have consciously used the word ‘Bombay’. I know there are political parties who believe that Bombay should be called Mumbai. Well, if they really care about the city, then their actions need to speak for that. And so far the silence has been deafening.

We have been let down by the most inept political leaders which we have abetted by voting for them, or worse still, by not voting. And I know that there are many of my peers who have followed the American elections by the minute but do not vote here. To start with, I haven’t voted ever since I shifted to Bombay.

Hats off to the policemen, army men, ordinary citizens, hotel staff, journalists, firemen who braved their lives to stand up to the killers. I hope that I too would someday be able to do something for this city.

And then there are the endless debates on the ‘spirit of Mumbai’. Three calamities back, this was good and much lauded. The flavour of the day now is to ridicule this term. The ‘spirit of Mumbai’ is the reality of life anywhere in the world. You need to eat to live, you need to earn to eat, you need to work to earn. People get back to work after each of the hourly blasts in Kabul and Kashmir, shops remain open after bombs exploded at Delhi, Jaipur and Guwahati, the fishermen are out after the cyclones in Bangladesh and the tsunami in Thailand and Tamil Nadu. That’s the truth of life. And that much more if you are a daily wage earner. So let’s face reality folks.

You want to know what Mumbai is like? It is like Sylvester Stallone in any Rocky movie. Battered in round after round. A broken nose. Blinded vision. Paralysed speech. The assault continues. Except in the movies, ‘it ain’t over till its over’. Rocky picks himself up for the umpteenth time and finally lands the sucker punch which fells Apollo Creed, Mr T, Ivan Drago and other challengers. Mumbai has the bomb blasts of 1993, the communal riots after that, the floods of 26/7, the commuter train blasts, the blasts at Ghatkopar and at the Gateway and now the carnage of 26 11.

And people are scared. Everyone stayed home on Thursday. I went to office for a short time on Friday. I asked my team mates to leave when there were rumours of more explosions. They said they were scared to leave. The cabbie who drove me to work kept muttering about how scared he was and how he didn’t want to get his work out. Fear has cut across. Even to the young… or to the poor, those who normally carry on in the face of danger.

And I have an eerie feeling that this is not the end of the fight. After all the politicians are still at their games. And there are many who act like it is business as usual. Well it is not business as usual!And this nighmare will not end till we realise that.

Life obviously doesn’t stop. We will get back to our spread sheets and power points and our rat races. Even I have gone about my daily routine over the past few days. But at least let’s care about the citiy. Let’s do something. And I don’t mean candle light vigils or being part of internet ‘communities against terror/ politicians, etc. Let’s not support the killers by turning against each other. And let's, for god's sake, vote. For all those who admire Obama but who have given up on our poilticians...let's not forget Obama's message of change.

PS: I am posting this on both my food and travel blogs, though this has nothing to do with either, so that I could reach out to as many people as possible

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Placing the wrong bets - Genting

What do you do at Genting if you don't gamble, if you are not into amusement parks, if you want to go to a hill station. You don't go!

We planned to cover a modern city and a sea resort by going to KL and Langkawi during our trip to Malaysia in 2006. We then added Genting to our itinerary as a day trip as we felt that we would get to go to a hill station too.

This is when our travel agents let us down. This was really sad as they had helped us chart out a lovely tour of Thailand last year. I would have expected them to know that artificial pleasures of malling, amusement parks, casinos are not our scene. They should have known that we are more into history, natural beauty and food. They should have told us not to go to Genting.

The beginning of the journey was fine as we stopped at chocolate 'factory', a tourist trap after our heart for a change. The cable car ride after the two hour drive was fun too.

The coin dropped when we reached Genting. We figured out that it is not a hill station. It is a complex of casino hotels and you are confined to these. We went into the casino to kill some time and came out soon. There was an amusement park which you had to pay to enter which didn't make sense as it was not our scene. We stepped out of the hotel and figured out that you could only go up to the parking lots. There were some pretty gardens there but that's it. And it was fairly chilly too.

So we went back in and spent time in the coffee shop till our time was over and our coach left for KL.

A precious eight hours wasted!
Traveler's notes:
  • Genting is about 3 hrs away from KL
  • Don't do an an overnight trip unless you are clear that you will be inside the hotel and will frequent the casino
  • The amusement park is supposed to be good and would attract those with kids

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Majestic Ayuthaya: Thailand 2005

I love Mumbai. Don’t get me wrong. It is the city where I feel free. The city where I have come of age. The city where I met my wife. The city where I grew in my career.

But it is a bit of an eyesore with its dusty, grimy, broken roads, its slums and its shanties, its ugly buildings, its tiny houses. I love the buzz here, I love living here, but there are times when I feel the need to get way from it all to rejuvenate my senses. That’s when I set out in search of endless horizons, beautiful places, marvels of nature and man, experiences which are very different from the smoggy, adrenalin charged life of Mumbai.

One such place which we had been to was Ayuthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand. I hadn’t heard of Ayuthaya before and we owe the visit entirely to Abhik, of Indian Wanderers, who had organized our trip to Thailand in October 2008. He was the one who insisted that we go there.

It was an amazing experience, quite different from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, where he had based ourselves. And a universe away from mad, mad Mumbai.

We reached after about a three hour drive from Bangkok down very smooth roads.

The palace was awesome. The architecture was breath taking and was very well preserved. The sheer Oriental beauty of the palace, the manicured gardens, the temples, the streams and fountains and the opulance of the Royal Quarters were a feast for the eyes.

We then went on to see some ancient temples and Buddhist ruins which were burnt, pillaged and ruined by Burmese invasions some seven times and rebuilt each time by the Thai Kings. There was of course, no one, to guard the remains from modern tomb raiders. The image of the Buddhist statues which were beheaded by smugglers was quite poignant. The two huge statues of Buddha were as awe inspiring as Abhik had promised.

Our royal experience didn’t end with the sightseeing! We returned to Bangkok in a posh river cruise. The food was very good. Three years down the line I still remember the lovely Tom Yum soup and Thai curries and wide dessert spread. It was nice to get a glimpse of the Thai river houses on the way back. Great food, cool river breeze, lovely views, life couldn't get better than this!

Traveler’s Notes:
- This is a must for the architectural beauty, history and the luxurious cruise ride back
- It is a day trip from Bangkok where you start at 8 AM and return to your hotel at 6 PM

- The trip involves quite a bit of walking in the sun so wear comfortable shoes and carry a cap. Our tour group had umbrellas for us to use in the sun

- You can't wear shorts or sleeveless tees to the Royal Palace. Sarongs are available for women in case they aren't suitably dressed

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The hysterical Cemberlitas Hamam

I didn’t know much about Turkey till I went there. The Turkish Hamams were an exception. In retrospect I had ‘heard’ about them but didn’t ‘know’ about them.

I had visions of an exotic, relaxing, unwinding experience. What I experienced was jarring, unsettling and disturbing. Lonely Planet did say that one must experience a hamam though they warned that many today were tourist traps.

We had gone to the Cemberlatis Hamam near the Blue Mosque at Istanbul. This was recommended by our local travel agent and Lonely Planet. Its call to fame was that it was designed by Sinan, the architect of the Blue Mosque, and was around four hundred years old.

I went in for the ‘luxury package’ hamam, soap scrub and oil massage which was 80 liras or 40 euros per person. Kainaz did suggest going for the basic package in case we didn’t like it. She was right. We should have done that.

You expect a certain amount of finesse, luxury and hospitality when you are paying 40 euros or Rs 2400. Especially in Turkey where one got used to experiencing the same.

Well, here’s what happened. I entered the large . I was directed to a changing room where I was given a towel and two tokens. I wrapped the towel around me and walked tentatively back into the lobby. Someone then directed me to another room. Here I saw there was a round marble platform with a few vessels lying there. A few people were lying on th platform. One or two were getting massaged. And there were a few like me who were walking around with disturbed looks. By then I knew I was not getting my moneys both. The surroundings were damp and looked 400 years old. I could see soot in the grills when I looked up at the dome like ceiling. I did not feel good or relaxed. A far cry from, say, the Thai massage parlours.

Then a man with a towel around his waist appeared and asked me though gestures to lie down on the platform and to rest my head on an aluminium cup. He then gave me a cursory, painful rub over, which passed off for a massage. He nexttook a loofa, worked up a soap lather on me, took me to a tap and asked me to clean up. He then looked at me, smiled, winked and said “massage good? Service! Service!”. This was the only time in Turkey that someone openly asked us for tips.

He then pushed me into another room which turned out to be the oil massage room. This was the only redeeming feature of the experience and contributed to 50% of the cost. The massage was good but I was too tense to enjoy it. In fact he even asked me to relax a couple of times. He was the only one who spoke English. Though I seriously doubt whether it lasted 30 minutes. The room was clean but didn’t really give you a good feeling.

Next stop was the shower cubicle where I went and had a shower and then came out in a wet towel wondering what to do next. I stepped out into the lobby when one man took me back in, put towels around my head, torso and waist and sent me to the changing room.

I then waited for Kainaz. She came out from the women’s section a few minutes later and looked shell shocked. She hated it as much and more. She said the women’s section was even worse. It had no shower cubicle, no soap, no changing rooms, no one to wrap you in towels at the end. She too said that the oil massage was the only redeeming feature but was nothing unique. Her ‘soap massage’ in the hamam was quite surreal though. I was recently reading a new Bond book set in the seventies which speaks of a hamam in Iran with scantily clad women doing the massages. Seems it was pretty much the same in the women’s section. Except the women were of the same seventies vintage…so you had grandmas in granny panties. 'Bizarre' was how Kainaz described it.

To add insult to injury Kainaz picked the tab AND lost her fairly expensive glares there.

The hamam left us dazed and confused. Well not really – we are pretty clear that we will never recommend it to anyone.


  • Avoid this
  • If you want to feel relaxed take the Bosporus cruise or have an apple tea in a local cafe
  • The prices change and the next day what we paid seventy for was 80 liras

Monday, November 10, 2008

Hips don't lie: Turkish belly dance

We wanted to do something special for our anniversary dinner. Arvind and Dilber of Faraway Travels, our travel agents in India, suggested that we have dinner at the Keravan Serai. Dilber also said they have Turkey’s highest paid belly dancer there. Belly dancer?! You need to have a fairly sporting wife to go there for your anniversary.

Well we did go there on the 22nd of October, our anniversary, and had a fairly majestic experience straight out of an Ottoman sultan’s court.

The place was packed, largely with tour groups from across the world. In fact, we saw quite a few Indians for the first time in our holiday at Turkey. Thomas Cook, SOTC, Kuoni, all the usual suspects were there.

While most were sitting on common tables our travel agent had got Kainaz and me a cosy table for two where he had quite a romantic candle light dinner.

The belly dancers were quite awesome. Their moves defied the laws of gravity, biology and physics. They were quite artistic and heady. They were anything but raunchy. In fact rhythmic and exotic are words I would use. And I must say that I am not writing this to be politically correct or because, more importantly, Kainaz would be reading this. They were genuinely graceful and I really felt like I was sitting in an Ottoman court and enjoying it. Just to highlight the point it would be a polar opposite, pun intended, to pole dances or Bollywood item numbers. Quite poetic. All right, all right most of the dancers were quite pleasing on the eye too :) The ‘highest paid’ belly dancer of Turkey (in the picture below) did live up to her star billing.

It was amusing to see some of our fellow Indians watch the dancers with their mouth open. Their wives steadfastly looked down at their plates. Quite different from Bharat Natyam and Kathakali.

The belly dances were interspersed with Turkish folk shows like Caucasian dances, gypsy sword throwers and so on. They were nice though I am sure the audience’s heart wasn’t in this.

The second half of the show saw one of the most talented performers that we had ever seen. I think Arvind had told us about him. This person was a linguist, singer, dancer, comedian rolled in one…a vaudeville artist who would probably give the best in Broadway or West End a run for their money. He would ask people which country they had come from and speak to them and sing in their native language. Indian (awara hoon), Mexican, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Australian, American, British, Brazilian, Persian, Russian …nothing stumped him. He would respond instantly. He had a good voice too and really got the audience involved.

I am being very honest here when I say that he left a greater impression on us than the belly dancers!

The food? We had quite a nice fare. A bottle of red wine which Kainaz tried out too though she is not much of a wine drinker. A prawn cocktail like fish dish topped with caviar, mint flavoured paneer samosas (!), roast lamb with mashed potato, lovely breads and fruit salad.

A most memorable anniversary dinner.

Some of the other anniversary dinners over the years which I remember include the basement English Pub at Glennaries Darjeeling (we later got locked out of our hotel as were late and froze outside), Sunderban Tiger Camp, Sadri’s Malaysian fish at Langkawi (and our sad faces when we saw the price) and the continental place at Pattaya where we had some lovely risotto and pasta.

Traveller’s notes:

- There are other shows in Istanbul. One is called Sultana, 1001 nights. I’d strongly recommend Keravan Serai as it is quite well rounded
- The listed cost is 70 euros per head if you land up by yourself. Our travel agent got it at 40 euros per head. This includes a drop from the hotel, food and alcohol
- Menu is fixed though differs from group to group. I saw that those in the Indian tour groups had salads, mezze, shaslik. They also have vegetarian options
- Alcohol is sufficient, though not unlimited. My definition of sufficient is two glasses per person
Duration: You are picked at 8PM and dropped back at 11PM. Show is for around 2 hrs
- This is close to Taksim

Friday, November 7, 2008

Eat in peace at Istanbul

Indians love to travel. Indian tourists form a sizeable chunk of tourists worldwide these days. One area where many face a problem though is when it comes to food. Some typical problems are:

- Where to get vegetarian food?
- How does one avoid meats like beef or pork which are taboos for Many Hindus and Muslims?
- How does one get used to sharp and alien tastes, food textures, smells?

The preferred antidote to this are packaged tours. The deal is that you get Indian meals every day cooked by Indian chefs who go along with the group. Doesn’t make sense to people like me who love to try out new dishes. I do understand that religious taboos could be a constraint for some who might be open to trying out new cuisines. Well, at least Turkey or Istanbul won’t be a problem for them.

The concept of ‘vegetarianism’ is quite understood there. The moment the heard that we were Indian or Hindistani they would offer us vegetarian options. And here I am speaking of the basic delis and not the up market restaurants. I remember once someone was asking a cart lady at the Sum Lum night market in Bangkok whether a dish was vegetarian and all she got in reply was ‘no pork’. That is unlikely to happen in Istanbul.

You also get a range of vegetarian dishes made with chick peas, kidney beans, beans and of course the ubiquitous green salads. I do not understand vegetarians and share Anthony Bourdain’s impatience with them. Still, I thought I must make this point for those who would like to travel by themselves but join the packaged tour circus of food fears.

The restaurant folks will even tell you what meat has been used. Chicken is obvious. But there are people who don’t eat beef for example. In Istanbul they will tell you whether it is mutton or beef or the more rare pork.

I remember that we had once ordered ‘kokerece (?)’ which was a dish made with intestines. This was in a restaurant in upscale Cisek Padesi. The waiter checked with us at least thrice before finally asking whether we had sany idea what we were ordering. We had to spend some time assuring him that we know and like our organs. Thank God that we convinced him as this chilly powder based, buttery, dish was heavenly and quite unique from most of the fare there.

For breakfast you won’t get the Indian dosas, idlis and parathas which you get in the Far East. But you do get loads of bread, an unbelievable array of cheese which I stuffed myself with every morning, salads, cereals, fruits, the works and of course cold cuts and eggs.

A lot of the dishes have fried onion, tomato, red chillies, Indian spices and the taste is different without being miles apart from (North) Indian food. You also get local breads which are similar to tandoori rotis, naans, parathas (called pide there) and rumali rotis. So you won’t miss home food as much as if you were depending on Chinese noodle soups, Thai coconut milk and fish oil based curries, bland fish and chips or Italian cheese and tomato dumps.

So drop your inhibitions and explore Istanbul. You won’t regret it.

if nothing else you have the American saviours there in most tourist spots. I am not sepaking of Rambo or Obama but of the fast food joints. Mc Donalds (apprently more popular than Mc Cain), Burger King, Starbucks, KFC... name it and its there.

You can read more on restaurants in turkey in my food blog, finely chopped.


1. The beauty at the top of the post is a lovely mutton kaba dish that I had the day we landed

2. The average price for a dinner for two in a street deli costs about 15 Turkish Lira or 8-10 euros

3. Most meals are served with complimentary bread, rice. So unlike in India you don't have to order rice or bread separately with the main dish

4. Try the local butter milk which is called Ayran very similar to lassi

5. Curd is quite popular in Turkey and you can get pachaged curds to go with your meals

6. Cheese is called 'peynir' but is rarely like the Indian 'paneer'

7. Turkey is big in fried, roasted chillies. These are served with kebabs but you can ask for it separately too. They are not very hot though

Friday, October 31, 2008

The fierce Turks

One of the things that made Turkey special, without doubt, was the fact that they were some of the friendliest and warmest people that I have ever met.

They were extremely helpful whenever we asked them anything. In case a person didn't know English or couldn't answer our query then he or she would go and call someone else who could. They would really go out of the way to be helpful. There were times when people came and stopped us and pointed out that one of our bags were open. Then there were a couple of times when there were people who came and asked us whether we were lost and needed help in navigating the local transport.

Especially memorable was the elderly gentleman who saw us at the Taksim Metro ticket counter, thought we were lost, and insisted on guiding us on how to reach our destination, Topkapi Palace. He was very earnest so I couldn't break it him that we knew the drill by then. So we just played along. He had a very kind looking face and got off abruptly before we could thank him. I tried to click him from inside the train for memory. Not that I will ever forget him.

Then there was an old lady near our second hotel who was selling lace handkerchiefs. Kainaz felt she reminded her off of Mamma and took a photograph with her. She later bought a handkerchief and the old granny kept beaming and kept repeating 'merci, ciao, terrekezen(thank you in Turkish).

They were quite sporting too. There was a 'Turkish ice cream seller' at Goreme park in Cappadocia. He saw me taking a picture and insisted on doing a flourish with the ice cream so that we could get a good picture.

Have you ever had a hotel owner literally feeding you? Well, there was this kindly, avuncular, gent who insisted on feeding ravioli with a spoon to Kainaz in his restaurant. He also told her to mix chilly flakes and salata (a local salad spice) in the ravioli and was clearly keen to ensure that she enjoyed her meal in his restaurant... or should I say house. The board behind had letters of appreciation from people all over the world. I was not surprised to see so many and added my own too.

And of course there was this young man at Starbucks who did not understand my order of cikolata (chocolate) frappuccino at first. When he realised this, he was so upset about it that he came and gave me a free one. I struck gold through our little 'lost in translation' tableux as cicolata frappuccino was the most heavenly drink that I had ever had.

There were so many more. The earnest poster seller in windy Taksim Square, the enterprising maitre d at the Museam hotel, the cheerful young man from our travel agency at Istanbul, the friendly shop keepers in the spice market...I love Turkey!!!

From the caves of Cappadocia

One problem in the run up to the Turkey trip was the pronouncing the name of the places! I kept tripping over names such as Galipoli, Ephesus, Pergemum, Kusadasi, Anatolia, Cappadocia, Pammukale, Izmir as I would read out from the Lonely Planet Book to Kainaz every night while planning the trip. It didn’t help that most of us in India didn’t know much about Turkey. At least I didn’t

We zeroed down to Istanbul, Cappadocia and Ephesus/ Izmir before the trip. This was largely thanks to our travel agent, Dilber. She suggested that we skip Anatolia given it’s a sea side resort and given that we were more into history. We then wanted to choose between Izmir and Cappadocia as the inbound flight rates were messing up our budgets. That is when she suggested go ahead with Cappadocia as she knew people who had really liked it. She also suggested the staying in a Cave hotel. We then found out about, and fell in love with, The Museum Hotel.

There was one problem. The cost actually went up compared to our original three city plan. I sat and weighed bankruptcy on one hand and an apparently surreal holiday on the other. Kainaz stepped in and said that she would pay for the Cappadocia part of the trip as an anniversary gift to me.

We moved on to Cappadocia after 3 days at Istanbul. We landed at the one horse airport of (with stinking loos) Kayseri. I got the first glimpse of the mountains as we drove down and my face fell open in wonder. And that’s how it remained for the three days that we were there.

Our hotel, Museum Hotel, was straight out of Discovery Travel and Living’s amazing hotels. Our room was fashioned out of a cave, we had our own Jacuzzi (!), a window which looked onto the most amazing rock formations and gourmet.

We had dinners where the waiters and maitre d’s were in tuxedos and every dinner was a candle light one with the most tempting looking, artistically styled, gourmet dishes.

Our room was called the ‘dovecote’ or ‘Guvencilik’ after the pigeon coves which were found in the cave and had been preserved while fashioning the room. Each room had its own name and theme. The Museum hotel was very tastefully done and got its name from the various artifacts which the owner had collected and displayed.

The curios included a gentleman, called Isa, who manned the front desk. He didn’t seem to have any answer to any of our questions on how to operate the Jacuzzi or whether the local hamam was any good. Each question would be met by a polite, perplexed look. Very different from the lively and enterprising restaurant staff there.

All in all, the Museum Hotel, was indeed a special anniversary gift for me.

As was Cappadocia! The terrain which was sculpted by volcanoes centuries back and had amazing rock formations was breath taking. The mountain rocks were shaped into mushrooms, camels, parent and child formations, couples dancing, ‘fairy chimneys’ and whatever else your imagination fancied. It out of a lotus eater’s fantasy. As we walked through the multi coloured valley in the cool, crisp mountain air, I thought ‘could we really be here?’, ‘could we be here in this magical land? Can someone pinch me and tell me that it’s not a dream? This was so removed from anything we had seen in real life. A 70 mm experience if there was one.

It was not just the natural beauty which was breath taking. There were the marvels of early man. There were churches from the time of the apostles, built two thousand years back, fashioned out of caves, decorated with frescos made out of pigeon droppings and grape juice. There were the pigeon valleys where alcoves were fashioned by people centuries back to attract pigeons to gather the precious droppings. I always feel a shiver up my spine when I am by ancient ruins as I try to imagine life as it was then. And here the shivers were on an an overdrive. The achievements of people so many centuries were awe inspiring and humbling.

The cave churches and houses were fascinating. However, the underground city of the pre Christian, Hitites was something else. The Hitites, and later the early Christians, used to burrow in into this underworld cities when their enemies would attack. They would surface out three to five months later.

You had to bend double through short passages and then come to a floor where there were various remains of ancient flour mills, grape crushing vessels, grain storage ares and so on.

Three to five minutes was all I lasted! The memory of my recent MRI was still raw and I felt claustrophobic and requested our guide to take us out. Kainaz went in, though like a rabbit, through the short passages and into the 4 levels. The group we were sight seeing with adopted her and took it upon them to look after her after I scooted out. She maintains that she was not ruffled at all. I am quite sure that she enjoyed being babied though. She said that it was an amazing experience inside.

What can I say? I like the blue sky. I met other people who came out after one or two levels and we formed a mini support group of our own while waiting for the others to come out! It didn’t help that our hotel room was in a cave. I must admit that I was a bit uneasy at night

Kainaz and I are not fond of packaged tours. Visions of a fixed itinerary, guides with whistles, Indian food, pesky fellow travelers with whom you have to make polite conversation have kept us away from packaged tours. We do take ‘seat in coach’ sight seeing options while travelling and we had our best experience so far at Cappadocia.

We had the same earnest guide, Dida, for both days. Her calling in life seemed to be to save creatures in distress. She once stopped our bus to move a turtle that had strayed onto the road to safety. And of course she stopped her tour in the middle of the underground city to take my out when I had a panic attack.

Our driver was a friendly man too unlike the grouchy, old rougue who picked us up for the first two Istanbul tours. .

We had this lovely mix of fellow travelers in our Cappadocia sight seeing tour. There four, ever smiling, elderly, Australians who were as energetic as mountain goats despite having reached after a grueling trip of Egypt. We had two honeymooning couples. One from Japan. Another was a Pakistani couple settled in the US. The Japanese lady was a hair dresser and I got a professional opinion from her on Kainaz’s Toni and Guy perm. The Pakistani couple wanted some Istanbul restaurant tips. I launched into a discourse on the street food there. Kainaz berated me saying that we would probably want something posh on their honeymoon. How was I to know? I was on my seventh wedding anniversary after all.

Then there were these two Mexican guys from the US. One of them would keep making the other take photographs of him in all sorts of poses. He would then inspect the photos and ask for retakes if they didn’t meet his approval.

A lone Japanese gentleman joined the group on the second day. For some reason Kainaz felt sorry for him and decided to take him under her wings. Whenever we got off at a place our mother hen would ask him if he wanted a photograph of himself on his camera. She would then take the camera from him and give it to me to click him. He would politely agree. Later in the day when this happened to the n’th time he sidled up to me and explained that he had left his battery charger in Japan and wondered whether his camera would last the rest of the trip. That’s when the coin dropped. I realized that in his polite, Japanese, way he was telling me, “ask this crazy lady to leave me and my camera alone!”

The two days that we spent with this group was good fun as we got to know each other and became friends. In between we even got entertained by Kainaz who was asked to demonstrate her pottery skills in a ceramic shop.

(PS The gentleman with the grey specs is the one who was trying to save his camera from Kainaz)

Apart from the ceramic shop, we also went to a a carpet shop and an onyx factory. Unfortunately such tourist traps eat into sight seeing trips the world over. We did buy a lovely black Onyx urn for Mamma from there.

I guess everything fell into place with this group. As people we got along well. Everyone was friendly and cheerful without being too prying. We were together for two days and then went our own ways. Within the two days we headed to our own hotels in the evenings and get enough time by ourselves. And we were all doing what we wanted. Kainaz and I were on a lazy croc, two city holiday. There were some who were bent on taking on as many new sights and discoveries and possible. And of course the honeymooners who were getting to know each other while exploring new places.

We definitely had the most amazing experience at Cappadocia. It primed us up for our second shot at Istanbul. I must admit that we were quite happy to get back to a big city after three days in the wilderness.

At the risk of a horrible pun…Cappadocia rocks!

Though whenever I think of Cappadocia I won't forget the yelps of help of 'Cutlet', the tiny brown coloured stray puppy who had broken its foot. I wish I could have done something for it.

Traveler notes:
- Our local travel agent in Turkey did the Cappadocia part through a company called ‘Agra Tours’. They were quite good and efficient
- Even if you like travelling alone, you would need a sightseeing tour to see places at Cappadocia as it is a large province and not a town. There were some who were driving by themselves though. I guess you would need time for that
- We skipped the balloon rides which are a speciality there. We gave it a miss as it was 170 (!) euros per person for an hour AND you had to get up at four (!) in the morning. Those who went up though raved about it. You go up in a balloon and fly over the Cappadocian terrain for an hour. At the end you get a certificate and a champagne toast

- Cappadocia involves a lot of walking so carry comfortable shoes
- If you stay at the Museum Hotel, pay more for the deluxe rooms as the regular ones are not pure cave rooms.
- While the Museum Hotel is on an expensive side, you must stay in a cave hotel if you go to Cappadocia. The cave hotel theme is quite popular now and a net search will throw up some cheaper options too. Check whether the room has a window though as it could get a bit claustrophobic otherwise

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