...and then add a teaspoon each of cumin seeds, ground coriander, anise, red chilli powder, chopped green chilli, a pinch of salt and simmer...
Aahhhh, the aromas emanating from the pot on the stove in Renu Mahta's kitchen are mouthwatering!
I'm in Udaipur, where I stayed for a few days with the Mehta family as a 'Servas' member (see www.servas.com for more info on this organisation). After weeks of cheap, basic accomodation it was a real treat to avail of the physical comforts of a family home, as well as being a fascinating insight into the ordinary daily life of an Indian family. And the home cooking is only deliciuous...so much for dropping the pounds on my dhal and rice diet... I'm being fed excessive portions of all manner of exotic delights, laden with oil and ghee, but it's just too good to refuse! Learning from Renu, I'm all fired up to spice up my own kitchen when I return so you can look forward (or not!) to being guinea pigs as I practise my palak paneer and aloo paratha.
Udaipur, apparently, has just been voted one of the most beautiful cities in the world and I heartily agree with the judgement. It's Rajasthan at its romantic best: a land of shimmering lakes, hazy wooded hills, whitewashed havelis and the cupolas and balconies of old palaces. The City Palace holds a wealth of exuisite glas mosaics, murals, and incredibly detailed paintings of the Maharana and his harem and Rajput prnces arriving on decorated elephants. All are housed in an architect's dream of connecting balcomied buildings arranged around tranquil fountained courtyards. My highlight was the weighing scales in the form of a hanging chair, used in days gone by to annually weigh the Maharana in order that his weight in gold be distributed among his people. It's a custom for which I'd happily be a peasant but, alas, it's no longer practised.
Less impressive in design but even more stunning in location is the evocatively named 'Monsoon Palace', perched high on a wooded hill overlooking the city, lakes and hills rolling away to the horizon. Renu, an ex-lecturer of Indian architecture and art history, was an ideal companion for the jaunt, guiding me through the details as we sat watching the palace begin to glow orange in the setting sun.
I took an overnight trip to the awesome Jain temples in the forested valley of Ranakpur, staying overnight in the Pilgrim's Quarters: a blanket on a stone floor in a tiny cell with the sound of monkeys screeching in the trees outside. Tourist visits inside the temple are limited to 12-5 pm but, as I was staying overnight, the orange-clad priest invited me to attend the evening puja. It was an unearthly fire ritual in an eerie atmosphere as the carved figures within appeared to dance in the shadows of the flickering candles while huge bells clanged, enormous drums were beaten and the flaming bowl was circled around the idols and flower petals were strewn at the altar as offerings to God. It was an other-worldly experienced that will remain imprinted on my mind.
Back in the city I've been flexing my hands in some tabla lessons (Indian drums) and experiencing another's flexed hands in an excruciating but ultimately therapeutic massage. (My old shoulder injury has been making its presence keenly felt after weeks of backpacking and poor beds).
And finally, for my last night before another bumpy overnight bus journey, I am having a serious blow-out and staying in a 'nice' hotel. Having averaged 3 euro a night for rooms so far, I had to spend days persuading myself that I could justify an excessive 36 euro for one night! But I finally talked myself into it and am luxuriating in a large double room with aircon, a bath, a jacuzzi, a hairdryer (palpitations at the prospect!)and ...wait for it...toilet paper!!!!!! All decorated in gorgeous local style, with antique furniture among the leafy verandahs and there's even a rooftop pool with fabulous views of the palace and lake. And all for the cost of a nasty B&B at home..how could I not treat myself!
I'm acutely aware of the fact that the new school year starts this week, and wish all my teacher friends and colleagues a happy and successful year ahead. I'd ike to say I wish I was there with you but that would be an outrageous lie, as I'm delighted to be so far away with another 10 months of adventures to look forward to!