Out of the frying pan. Shashi’s Cooking Classes, Udaipur, India

Meet Shashi. At around 40 years old (give or take a few) she’s had a hell of a life already, yet just a few minutes of conversation will tell you that she’s only getting started.

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Born in rural Rajasthan, Shashi grew up like most girls in her area, training for marriage. Under her mother’s watchful eye, she started cooking at 13 so she was well-prepared when, in her early twenties, she married a man she had never spoken to, a man whose photo she hadn’t even seen. It was an arranged marriage like most Hindu unions. Had they met before the day it wouldn’t have been much good to them – he spoke only Hindu while Shashi didn’t have a word. She gave him two children before he died when she was only 31 years of age.

Shashi’s husband left her with two small sons and the status of widow. As a Brahman (the highest of the castes) she is not allowed to remarry. Ever. For a year she was forbidden from leaving her home at all, a rule that can’t make it any easier to support two children. She struggled to make ends meet and eventually started taking on houseguests in her Udaipur home.

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Three years ago, Shashi was coaxed into opening a cooking class for tourists by a guest who appreciated her value as a chef. She didn’t speak a word of English and, during her first session with an Australian couple, her hands shook so badly that she broke enough crockery to consume the day’s earnings. One day, after class, one of her students told her he was from Lonely Planet and he was going to cover her in his guidebook. “I didn’t know what ‘Lonely Planet’ meant,” she says “but now I do. It means very, very busy.”

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Today Shashi’s English is fantastic, her hand steady, her wit razor-sharp and her cookery class was easily the best part of our trip so far. In what was supposed to be a four hour class, she spent five and a half hours moulding us into her own little army of cooks. We learned how to beat spices properly (because you should never buy in a store what you can make fresh at home). We learned how to knead, roll and cook dough for chapati, naan and paratha (similar but never to be confused). We learned how to make a mean masala sauce and how to turn said masala sauce into half a dozen very different curries. Shashi even taught us how to make our own paneer and local cheeses from scratch, using only milk, lemon juice and yoghurt.

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More than that though, she entertained us and answered every question we had about her culture, her marriage and her food. In a word, she was the perfect hostess.

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At 700 rupiah for four to five hours, we couldn’t recommend Shashi’s class highly enough, for enthusiastic cooks and reluctant novices alike (we span the scale). For only €10 you get four hours with a master chef, teacher, storyteller, comedian and one of the warmest women we’ve ever had the peasure to meet – not to mention a slap up meal. Try to book at least 12 hours ahead though, she’s a popular lady.

There are more pictures from our cooking class in Udaipur in the gallery

December 23, 2012 at 6:19 pm 2 comments

Daytrippin’ around Jaipur, India

The beauty of Jaipur was that, as well as having so much to do within those lovely pink city walls, there are a handful of easy half-day trips offering visitors a chance to escape the rickshaw horns for a few hours and see a little of the desert. Listed in order of preference, these are the most interesting side trips we took. All can be easily bunched into a single day with the help of a rickshaw driver. If you’re visiting the Amber Fort, you should pass the lake palace on your way. It’s pretty and worth a photo break although maybe not a trip in its own right.

Galta (The Monkey Temple)

Mixed reviews about this one. Gary perferred the Amber Fort but I thought Galta was magical – and since I am the writer and he just a lowly photographer, Galta wins.

Hidden in a valley away from the horns and sales pitches of Jaipur, Galta (known to you and I as The Monkey Temple) is a complex of water tanks and temples with the timeless air of a lost city. As you wind your way down the mountain, past goats, cows, dogs and countless swatches of colourful fabric pilfered by birds and stashed in arid shrubs, the complex reveals itself slowly.

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First come the old stone water tanks – a cloudy emerald green, where a handful of children splash while their mothers struggle against soapy limbs in a bid to wash behind their ears. Laugher and chatter fills the air, mingling with chants and gongs from the first temple, a tiny roomcut into the mountain. Following the stone path along however those musical sounds are pierced by hystierical shrieks and cries.

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Set around a moderate-sized square with a lone tree in the center, the main complex of Galta is made up of ornate golden-yellow buildings. Several stories high with balconies and carvings, it looks look like a modest palace complex. A summer retreat perhaps, or the set of a new Tomb Raider film. That is, of course, until you see the inhabitants. Monkeys hang from every balcony and sprawl across the grass, idley picking at each other’s hair. They strut across the main square and swing through the temples. Their chatter comes in ebbs and flows, quiet and civilised until a fight breaks out and they all speed towards the mountains.

Gary reckons the Monkey Temple is “alright” but for me, it was electric.

The Amber Fort

Just 8km outside of Jaipur, the early 18th century Amber Fort has its own Great Wall tracing an ambitious path across the peaks of every hill in sight. At its base fishermen stand on mounds with nylon lines sunk deep into a peaceful lake while tauts and drivers volley for attention on the banks. Inside the walls however, it’s a beautiful peaceful spot for a visit – full of quiet passageways leading to lovely rooms framed with carved windows, open courtyards and beautiful views over the barren countryside beyond.

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What’s most impressive about the fort is its size, more palatial than defensive with enough space for all the wives and concubines any maharaja could hope to satisfy. There’s a lovely temple just before the entrance to the fortress that will allow you to visit if you take off your shoes and leave your camera outside. Once upon a time they used to slaughter a goat here every day. They’re not doing it anymore but it’s still worth a look-see.

Nahargarh Fort

In the endless procession of forts and palaces that is India, Nahargarh Fort hardly stands out from the crowd. Perched on top of a mountain that rudely interrupts the sprawl of Jaipur’s residential area, it’s a short but challenging trek uphill to reach the gates. Once you get inside, there’s not a huge amount to write home about but it’s worth a visit for the sunset views and its rare sense of calm. A happy bonus is the bar at the top to reward your exertions. Worth a trip if you’re in town for a while but I wouldn’t go out of my way.

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There are more pictures from around Jaipur in the gallery

December 20, 2012 at 3:14 pm Leave a comment

Pretty in pink, Jaipur, India

If Delhi was a cold slap in the face, Jaipur was a warm hug from a pot-bellied uncle. Big-hearted, welcoming and strangely familiar, the so-called ‘Pink City’ is the capital city of Rajasthan, India’s desert state. And it’s a lot to take in.

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For me Jaipur means endless pink walls with imposing gates; honeycombed balconies stacked sky-high; horns blaring through a wall of smog; monkeys beating tin roofs; cows lazing on hot tarmac roads; and polished jewels behind dusty windows. It means rickshaws overflowing with waving schoolchildren, contageous smiles and hello-how-are-yous. Put simply, Japiur was everything I had imagined India to be.

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Famous for its silver, jewelery and fabrics, the heart of Jaipur beats in the Old Town, among the jam-packed shopfronts of the bazaars. This huge area is divided by trade – so if you need a new curry pot you go to the copper district or for a bit of bling before a big event, it’s off to the bangle street with you. Jaipur’s Old Town is an incredible place to wander and (besides from a few tourist-centric spots) makes for largely hassle-free people-watching.

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Of course there are enough major sights to set the mouth of any culture buff watering. First on the hit-list is the iconic Hawa Mahal Palace whose owner covered the face of his home in balconies, so the women in his life could watch processions in the street even if they weren’t permitted to part-take.

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Meanwhile, the City Palace makes for a beautiful and peaceful visit, especially for those new arrivals to India who may not yet be all palaced-out (don’t worry, it’ll come.)

Spawned by the same mind that gave us the city of Jaipur and the City Palace, is the 18th century Jantar Mantar. The best-preserved of five such observatories, this collection of elaborate constructions is still in use today and is considered by astronomers to be fairly accurate. There’s even a sundial that can tell the time of day to within 20 seconds. Considering the time of construction, that’s pretty damn cool, right?Jaipur-83

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While the key sights of Jaipur made for great anchors around which to tie our rambles, it was the journey that made our visit. A few days in, we made a pact – we would say yes to everything and everyone, at least initially. It was okay, we decided, to back out if it ended up being a scam, illegal or morally dubious.

Granted our new rule meant a lot of posing for photos, a few awkward sales pitches and one last groping, but we also got to drive a rickshaw, met some wonderful people and sat in the courtyard of a temple while a well-dressed Indian man dictated a two-page love letter to be written in Irish for his girlfriend in Cork.

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The verdict: Definitely visit Jaipur if you can. With a few worthwhile trips within easy rickshaw distance (post on these to follow), it merits at least two days but could easily fill three or four at a more enjoyable pace. If you do have the chance to visit we recommend the lovely Hotel Pearl Palace and its rooftop Peacock Restaurant – both of which are well priced with fantastic service and great taste.

There are more pictures from Jaipur in the gallery

December 19, 2012 at 7:56 pm Leave a comment

New trip. New Delhi, India

It took us two years to decide on our next big trip, although it should have taken two days. It was always going to be India – we have a taste for Asia now and a rule that means we need to travel the most challenging countries while we (and our bowels) are still young. So India it was. Our family and friends were as supportive as ever, offering up such gems as “But you’ll be sick all the time,” and “You know it smells really bad there?” If we had restricted our visit to New Delhi alone, we may have believed them.

New Delhi is okay. The Red Fort makes a great afternoon visit. In the chaos that is Delhi it’s a perfect escape – beautiful grounds, hassle-free wandering and incredible architecture. Gary took some photos that you might like. Let’s be honest, you’re all here for the pretty pictures anyway.

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Outside of the Red Fort there wasn’t much to hold us in Delhi. Connaught Place was quite barren and the bazaars of the Old Town were fun but turned a little scary after dusk. I’m sure there was a lot more to the city, indeed our journey to the bus station (we made a hasty retreat after only a day) landed us in a pretty neighbourhood full of manicured lawns and trees. We read about a promising Ghandi Museum and some ghats we wanted to visit but after a bad tuk-tuk ride left us on the wrong side of New Dehli Train Station – completely blind against a wall of smog, deaf from blaring horns and with heads swimming from the smell of pee – our brief romance with India’s capital city was well and truly over.

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In fairness, our travel senses were a little rusty and as culture shock goes, New Delhi is a big, cold slap in the face. It was a fitting start to a journey that is bound to be full of dramatic highs and lows, swooning over temples and gropings from strangers. After four days (more on this later) India has already proven herself to be one of those travel environments that holds a mirror up to you, acting as the most attentive lover when you’re smiling, but hissing, scratching and swearing when the mood turns sour. Our advice – don’t take New Delhi as indicative of the whole. If you’re flying in or out of the capital, by all means take a day but we wouldn’t go out or our way to see it and if you do, don’t stay anywhere near New Delhi Train Station.

There are more photos from New Delhi in the gallery

December 12, 2012 at 5:55 pm 1 comment

The backpack diaries – our top ten South American experiences

So this post is a little late – over a year late to be precise – but that’s okay because we still remember every miniscule detail of the trip as if it was yesterday. We’re determined to get back on the blogging horse and we have a few great European posts up our sleeves for you, including (home sweet home) Dublin, so don’t go away yet. To get the ball rolling here is our long overdue Top 10 of South America, it took almost a year of arguing, biting and scratching to compile so you had better enjoy it…

10. Paraty, Brazil
Pretty little Paraty may not make it onto many Top 10 of South America lists but this picturesque gem of a town beat tough competition from Ilha Grande to appear on ours. The reason is its unusual charm, the product of pristine beaches married with a picturesque historical centre. In town you have uneven cobbled streets lined with white-washed cottages, windows and doorframes a flipbook catalogue of bright blues, reds, yellows and greens. Outside of town there are endless perfect beaches backed by rainforest that get quieter and quieter as you trek through the forest, away from parents sipping beers on plastic chairs and kids playing football. Walk far enough and you’re sure to find your own deserted patch of sand.

9. Colca Canyon, Peru
Hidden away from the world by towering canyon walls is a tiny gem of a place. Giant cacti bearing bright red fruit, birds with a three metre wing span, terraced fields, well tended orchards, winding paths sheltered by overhanging fruit trees and little girls chasing stray sheep. This is where the mighty Amazon begins as the gurgling stream we dipped our toes into after the long slide downhill. The only problem? What goes down must come up. It was a hike that for me at least, was more difficult than the three day Lares trek – but we did it in two hours.

8. Wineries in Mendoza, Argentina
Take six wine-loving backpackers, six dodgy bicycles, one hand-drawn map and dozens of world-class vineyards, chocolatiers, olive oil producers and absinthe brewers. Throw in a dash of sunshine, a sprinkling of local characters and you have yourself one hell of a day.

7. Trekking in Tupiza, Bolivia
Who would have thunk it? In the arse end of Bolivia, itself the (lovely) arse end of South America, we found the whirlwind adventure we had been chasing all this time. Our reluctant partners in crime, advertised as Argentinian stallions, turned out to be a bunch of fat, grumpy Bolivian mules. Together we cantered across arid scenes of red-sand cliffs and rocky terrain worthy of John Wayne, we crossed railway tracks, fast-flowing rivers and fields of waist-high grass. When we slept it was metres away from them. When we ate they were tied to the trees under which we sat. We wore cowboy hats, chewed coca leaves and spat a lot. It was breath-takingy beautiful and eventually, bum-numbingly painful and it was our biggest South American adventure.

6. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
You don’t walk in Rio de Janeiro, you dance. You tap your toes as you sit in a restaurant, wiggle your bum on the beach and shake yo’ thang at the Lapa street party. Here salsa is king but caparinhas shaken by large-bottomed women with infectious smiles are a close second. Rio lives up to the hype. We came expecting endless white sand beaches with beautiful people playing volleyball, City of God slum towns where kids wandered alleyways with guns slung over their shoulders, skyscrapers that winked in the sunlight and entire neighbourhoods that spent all night dancing in the streets. It was all of that and more, so why isn’t it better than Buenos Aires? Because we were expecting it.

5. World’s Most Dangerous Road, La Paz, Bolivia
At certain points, if you go over the edge of the World’s Most Dangerous Road you fall 600 metres before there’s anything to grab hold of. So obviously we had to try it. And obviously we were bricking it. The start was a fantastic warm-up – smooth tarmac road, a metal barrier and space enough for everyone – but eventually the road changed into a narrow, gravelly track that wound blindly around corners. Then came the trucks, hurdling towards us at video game speed. They took the inside lane while we spun out to the very edge, our toes teetering over a vast drop where birds circled above a rainforest canopy far below.

4. Iguazu Falls, Argentina
At Devil’s Throat it wouldn’t be hard to convince yourself that the waterfall is actually inside your head. With the way it thunders and pounds, sheet after sheet of white noise, it’s hard to think of anything else really – just the waterfall and those suicidal little sparrows that nose dive into huge clouds of spray. Foz Iguazu is actually 275 waterfalls spread over 2.7km in two countries. At it’s highest point it drops 83m, that’s 29m more than Niagara and at one viewpoint, visitors can enjoy 260 degrees of waterfall – a fact that prompted Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to sigh “Poor Niagara!” on her first visit. Poor Niagara indeed. Surrounded by national park, the Argentina side has a fantastic array of wildlife too, from rainbow coloured butterflies to (reportedly) tigers. And no visitor should miss a chance to take a speedboat into the waterfall either – all those screams you hear are happiness at it’s most hysterical. Just leave your clothes on dry land.

3. Buenos Aires, Argentina
Since we’ve been home people have asked us time and time again where did we like best. Now we don’t like to play favourites but if we were to pick just one place where we could stay suspended in time for ever and ever, it would be Buenos Aires. Maybe it was because we had a reunion with a long-missed friend or maybe it was just because Buenos Aires really is just that good. It has tango dancing in the streets, steak you can cut with a spoon, a nightlife that never seems to stop, real life cowboy markets, a cemetery you could easily build a home in and so much to do that you could never get bored here. Buenos Aires is all that and a bag of chips.

2. Lares Trek, Peru
Okay so there was a little bit of altitude sickness but there was also a team that sprinted ahead of us to cook four course meals three times a day in an oven made from stones, a guide that made us giggle, hours of singing The Sound of Music while we skipped down mountain sides, and eye-opening visit to a Quechun village, beautiful scenery, much coca leaf chewing, a night spent drinking macho tea under the stars and of course, the star of the show, Machu Picchu. I defy anyone not to include this beauty on their top ten of South America list.

1. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
For two days we saw nothing. The sandstorm was so bad it tore the roof off a hostel (the temperature was -20°c), so bad that it blasted all the paint off one side of our jeep, so bad that we couldn’t see to the end of our bonnet. Then we arrived at Salar de Uyuni and it stopped. At first it was just a mirage glimmering on the edge of the desert but as we got closer it sucked all the colour out of the world until all that was left was a bright blue sky and a ground so dazzlingly white, we needed sunglasses. This wonder of nature is one of the few places in the world where you can clearly see the curve of the earth.

 

There are more pictures from South America available in the gallery

December 21, 2011 at 11:44 am 10 comments

Transported back to 20th century Paris, France

I have to admit that my vision of Paris has always been stuck in the 1900s. An idealised picture of luscious dinners eaten after the theatre; ladies in long dresses with elegant cigarette holders; gentlemen who would never leave the house without a hat; seamstresses in chic homemade dresses; and cafés full of smoke and talk of philosophy. Of course I would be completely out of place in this city but I can’t help wishing that I saw Paris in its heyday. So when Fodor’s re-released a free download of their 1936 guide to Paris in celebration of their 75th birthday, I was in heaven….

 

Note: Now that we’re home Gary and I had to get real jobs. Funnily enough I managed to bag a position as a blogger for a tour company. The above is an extract from my favourite blog on our new Paris site which I think is pretty good if I may say so myself. And I may because this is my blog.

Click here to have a look at the full post. Think casual racism and pay-per-dance balls in Montmartre. 

July 12, 2011 at 2:26 pm Leave a comment

One last knees up. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Note: You might have noticed that it’s been a while since we last updated (almost 6 months actually). We have been home for that whole time and we didn’t want to update until we had this – an edited version of an article I wrote for the travel section of the Irish Independent.

I remember being conscious of the bead of sweat trickling down my nose as I pressed my back against the wall. I was face-to-face, toe-to-toe with a Brazilian drug dealer, his rifle cold against my shoulder as he brushed past. In the stifling heat of Rio de Janeiro’s slums, the cool touch of metal was the only relief from the rising humidity.

A month later I would be watching news reports on a police siege of the slums that left at least 45 dead. But that day I felt safe in the favelas. I believed my tour guide Luiz’s soothing words. “Don’t worry,” he said, “they usually only use their guns to fire in the air to signal that the police are coming.”

As we wound our way down alleyways too tight to accommodate a pram, between the hotchpotch redbrick shacks – one stacked clumsily on top of another – we passed huge mounds of putrefying rubbish stowed in every available space. We backed into walls to let pregnant women, drug dealers and schoolchildren past; the kids happily swinging their backpacks and tearing around corners on their headlong rush home; the dealers chatting lazily to friends, cigarettes dangling from idle fingers.

By the time we had reached the centre of the favela (slum) a whole other world had revealed itself. While gun-toting boys selling cocaine patrolled the edge of the neighborhood, the centre was a refuge for thousands of families. Here teenagers banged out samba rhythms on empty buckets, women hummed as they draped their washing on lines, dogs stretched out in isolated cracks of sunlight yawning widely and shopkeepers sat out on their stoops tapping their toes. From the staff at the local juice bar to joggers on the beach, everyone in Rio de Janeiro was moving to their own beat and in the favela I was learning that that beat was surprisingly uplifting. Slowly I started to lower my guard, letting out a deep breath I hadn’t realised I was holding.

With Luiz leading the way, we climbed four floors up a cramped staircase, sidestepping crumpled steps briefly illuminated by flickering neon lights. At the top we shoved through a splintered door and gazed upon one of Rio’s most memorable sights. On the roof of the city, far away from tourist board images of Carnival, volleyball games on the beach and Christ the Redeemer, we were presented with a view of Rio not usually printed on postcards.

Dripping from every hill and valley was a sea of houses. In the early afternoon it was strangely mundane. Mothers collecting their kids from school or folding coloured sheets that flapped in a rare breeze, old men fanning themselves on their stoops and teachers keeping a close eye on their lunching wards at a nearby playschool.

“Life here,” said Luiz as he stepped out onto the roof, motioning to the scene in front of us, “is not as bad as people say. Many people live here and work in the city. For many families this has been home for generations. Their parents lived here, as did their grandparents and in the future their children and grandchildren will be raised here. There is community here. Life in the favelas isn’t perfect of course, but what neighbourhood is?”

Listening to the rhythm of life in the favela it wasn’t hard to see it as the birthplace of samba. Between the towering houses, suffocating alleyways and looming shadows came dizzying cracks of light. The screeching sound of little girls reciting a skipping chant rose from the streets below and mingled with the sultry tones of Amy Winehouse drifting from a nearby window. Leaves rustled. Luiz drummed his fingers. Doors slammed. A mother called out to her children. Electricity lines fizzed. A gunshot cracked through the sticky air.

Of course there was much more to Rio than just the favelas. We spent a lot of time people-watching on the beach, we climbed up to see Christ the Redeemer and we partied hard. One major highlight was our night at the street party in Lapa – a weekly occurrence for those lucky enough to live in this magical city.

In a word, it was immense. Samba bands filled the night with music and hoards of tourists and locals of every age filled several blocks. People lounged on the colourful Lapa steps chatting to friends and strangers; restaurants spilled out onto pedestrianised streets; laughing vendors sold homemade caipirinhas and street food from rickety tables; and some incredibly friendly locals showed us how to shake our (completely insufficient) hips to the beat of a drum. As a wise woman once said, I could have danced all night.

Rio was the perfect end to a perfect trip. The Cariocas really have it sussed – rollerblading to work, spending lunchtime on the beach, eating out on weekdays and dancing until dawn. We made two new Kiwi friends, laughed a lot and then, when it was time to leave Fla, cried a lot (well I did anyway.) How could it be time to go home already? In ways it felt like only yesterday that we had left, shaking with excitement and fear. But in other ways it felt like a lifetime. We had done so much in only 12 months. We had climbed the Great Wall of China, dived the Great Barrier Reef and hiked to Machu Picchu. I’d lost half my face to a Vietnamese Road, we were chased off a desert island by monkeys and we were poisoned by a yak stew near Tibet. We had also made more friends than we could count – friends that hopefully, we would keep forever – and perhaps most notably, we had survived an entire year together with little or no drama. And no breakups! Year long breakup indeed, I guess this thing is going to go on longer than we had expected.

There are more pictures from Rio de Janeiro available in the gallery

May 10, 2011 at 10:46 am 2 comments

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Thanks for coming to visit us – stay tuned to watch us argue, punch, kick, pinch and scream our way around some of the most beautiful parts of the world.

Over the next year we will be fighting in Asia, Australia, New Zealand and South America.

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