Monday, August 29, 2011

A la Carte

Taking a vacation is so easy - you jump on the plane, chill around for a few weeks, and before you know it you're back home. In hindsight it feels as if the whole thing never happened.

This may sound ironical - but as much as I love to travel, I dislike sightseeing. Museums, monuments, crowded buses & long queues is not my idea of travel. What inspires me is the nature, views, people, culture, adventure and most importantly -  it's the food. 

After 8 months of captivity, I finally managed to escape in May. The maiden trip to Central America (Mexico & Costa Rica)  started with a swish layover in New York. Throughout the trip, good  food became a fatal obsession. We planned dinners while eating lunches. We planned breakfasts while eating dinners. And if we were not eating food, we were definitely talking about it.

During this trip I've eaten at more places than I remember & remember more places than I've eaten. Once again the company was the key - its always more fun to share it with people you love. Here's a pensive on the highlights...

@ Hangawi, New York City

The holiday kicked off in NYC & we were staying with bum chums Vishal & Pooja in Manhattan. They're big foodies as well and they made reservations at their favourite spots even before we landed . The dining scene in the city is overwhelming and the food variety is astonishing. But as a tourist one has little time & it feels terrible that you can squeeze in only 3-4 meals in a  day !

 Hangawi was a Korean-vegetarian restaurant - an ironical association. When I entered Hangwai I felt as if I was transported from Manhattan to a Buddhist shrine in Korea. We were a big group - cousins, friends, friends cousin's and cousin's friends. In Hangawi there's a ritual of taking your shoes off when you enter. The place was quiet with soothing zen music playing, and we dined sitting on the floor where the tables are recessed.

Everything we ordered was delicious from the mushroom pancakes to the vegetarian stone bowl rice. The traditional teas were exquisitely presented and the cheesecake was delectable. The traditional ambiance and the unusual nature of the food made it an unusual dining experience.

@ Lolo lorenas, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Post the hustle-bustle of Manhattan the beaches of Mexico were perfect for rest and relaxation. Once again Megha & I were traveling with Manoj & Geetu -  our enduring travel partners who bestow the extra zest to every trip. Our agenda was to explore the Riveria Maya area in Mexico. We spent our initial days relaxing on the tiny unspoilt island of "Isla Mujeres" where we came across "Lolo Lorenas".

Lolo Lorena's is not really a restaurant where you can just walk in. It's more like being invited to a private party hosted by a celebrity chef. We had scheduled our dinner one day prior with "Lolo Lorena" - a french lady living on the island. Lolo cooks dinners in her kitchen every night and limits it to 12-14 lucky guests.

When we reached Lolo's house - she had not even decided what to cook ! She cooks depending on her mood and sets the menu based on what she thinks is "fresh" on that particular day. After we reached Lolo updated us on her plans for the evening's meal and asked for our inputs. Dinner was served at a communal table in her outdoor garden, so we had the opportunity to meet other visitors on the island.

It was a five course prix fixe dinner. My vegetarian diet didnt deter Lolo & I had as many options. The cuisine was fusion with a French-Mediterranean influence. The servings were small - as they are in France. But there were several courses so there was plenty to eat & we washed it down with mojitos. After every course Lolo spent time with us, explaining us her plans for the next course. Finally I settled with the carrot salad, the tzatziki dip, aubergine-tofu satay and a wide selection of deserts.

I thought the food was just okay - but that's probably because I'm naive with degustation menus. But the presentation of the food was very exquisite. The arrangement and styling of each course presented to us seemed like a piece of art. For a change I didn't feel like eating the food, but just staring at it. It will surely be a meal to remember because of it's intimate setting and Lolo's approach to nouvelle cuisine.

There's been a crazy twist in our lives since we visited Isla Mujeres. Hundreds of years ago, Isla Mujeres was a sanctuary to Mayan Goddess "Ixchel". We visited a temple dedicated to Goddess Ixchel on the southernmost tip of the island. The sequel is almost unbelievable and it's changed our lives forever. I'll unveil the magic of Goddess Ixchel in a separate post...

@ Pita Bonita, Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

If I had to pick my favourite spot on this trip, its would surely be Puerto Viejo - a costal town on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. It has a very laid back vibe and is surrounded by with pristine beaches, dense jungles & divine snorkeling.

One day wifey and I spent an exhausting morning snorkeling and hiking in the jungles of Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. When we returned to the resort, we were really hungry and craving for a good meal. The lady at the resort front desk tipped us to visit "Pita Bonita" - a middle eastern food joint 7 km away.

We had no energy but the thought of eating middle eastern food in a jungle was alluring. So we rented bicycles and did the gruelling 30 min bike ride. We reached at 4pm and after seeing the sign "Cervaddo" (closed) on the door we were frustrated !  I waved at the couple sitting in the balcony asking when they open.

They turned out to be the friendly owners - Eylon from Israel and his glirlfriend Alison from California. They invited us saying "We usually open at 5, but for you we'll open a couple of hours earlier". After living in Israel, Thailand, North America they decided to call Puerto Viejo home. They'd been to India a couple of times & were obsessed with Indian food. After meeting them we forgot that we were starving. We started chatting in the outdoor patio as if we were bonding with old friends.

Finally we ordered the mezze sampler & the falafel. I thought this could be a great time for a middle eastern cookery class, so I decided to join Eylon in the kitchen while he was cooking. It was actually some of the best falafel & mezze platter we've ever had. The sampler was delicious as well, including tabbouleh, israeli salad, carrots, parsley, baba ganoush, olives & fluffy pita.

                                                                                  Other memories from the trip........

Cupcakes from Baked by Melissa, New York

Tequila shots in Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Coco Locos by the pool side in Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Swimming & lunch in Tulum beach, Mexico

Fresh fruits after hiking in Cahuita National Park, Costa Rica

Rice & beans at the Paracue river camp, Costa Rica

Gujrati Food after returning home in Mumbai, India !!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sakura brings hopes for Japan...

Japan was invincibly on top of my travel wish list for 2011. So I researched the regions of Japan, started reading about their culture, saw movies filmed in Japan, tried Japanese food and everything possible to entice myself. Finally, I was all set to be in Japan on March 26. I had planned to stay in ancient Buddhist temples, visit the alps, soak in the hot spring mountain villages, see beautiful shrines amidst Japanese gardens and spot geisha's. But after planning a very exciting trip, buying my tickets & booking accommodation - a merciless earthquake & tsunami on March 11 decided to shatter my plans & more importantly.....thousands of lives.

I wanted to be in Japan during March/April to see blooming cherry blossoms. In Japan blooming cherry trees are called "sakura". They are throughout Japan and have always been a very significant part of Japanese culture. The blooming of these delicate pink and white blossoms occurs around the end of March or beginning of April. Cherry flowers have short lives. They reach full bloom and fall within one week & this blossoming period is a very special time to be in Japan. Its triggers a nationwide celebration for the Japanese people and parties called "hanami" are organized to view the beauty of blossoming cherry trees throughout Japan.

During this week people gather in great numbers wherever the flowering trees are found. Thousands of people fill the parks to hold feasts under the flowering trees, and sometimes these parties go on until late at night. The hanami celebrations usually involve eating and drinking, and playing and listening music. Some special dishes are prepared and eaten at the occasion, like dango and bento, and it's common for sake to be drunk as part of the festivity.

As I write, the cherry trees have reached full bloom in Tokyo, Kyoto and several other regions in Honshu. This year's cherry blossom festivities will be overshadowed by the tremendous loss caused by the recent earthquake & tsunami. The 2011 blossoming period may not see hanami parties but it still holds special significance. The start of the sakura coincides with the onset of Japan's calendar and fiscal years, which means a new beginning for the Japanese people. Students attend the first day of the school year and new employees begin the first day on the job. This year, sakura will serve as a source of hope, resilience, optimism and motivation along Japan's road to recovery.

All through March Japan has been in my thoughts. Before the quake I was anxious for my trip and after the tragedy my thoughts have been with the people of Japan. My heart goes to those who lost their loved ones in the disaster & the brave workers at the nuclear plant. They sacrificed their health and safety to save the world. My desire to visit Japan and fondness for its people has only increased after reading about the humble way in which they have managed the calamity. I am hoping and praying everything will come to an end and hope Japan will recover and rebuild soon from the catastrophe.

“Sea, I’ll never forgive you in my life even if your waves touch my feet a million times” - A boy who lost his love in the tsunami

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Movies that arouse my wanderlust...

Travel and movies are somewhat similar - they are both forms of escapism. We all want to escape from reality and experience something new. Travel takes us to places we've never been and movies take us inside characters of people very different from ourselves. Both distract us, inspire us, educate us, awaken us and broaden our perspective. They offer much needed therapy to our soul by transporting us to another world which is very different from our mundane lives.

Its so easy for me to sit through crappy films if they are filmed at exotic locations. Being passionate about the subject of travel, the destination takes precedence over the story. I get lost in the backdrop and almost  demerge the cinematography from the actual movie. Movies have a powerful ability to evoke a sense of exoticism and they surely inspire travel to those destinations.  Here's a list of movies that arouse my wanderlust...

The Beach - It's a cliche to put this up. If you love to travel you've seen it a million times. A travel movie list would be incomplete without a mention of The beach. It's a story about young backpackers who set out to find a tropical "island paradise" in Thailand. It's a bible for backpackers traveling to Asia & truly depicts the laid back life on Thai islands. Its was shot on the Thai island of Phi Phi. Just don't make the mistake of heading to Phi Phi island- its a tourist magnet since the movie released.

Under the Tuscan Sun - Starring Diane Lane, this is a story about a woman who moves to Italy after divorcing her husband. It's centered around her experiences of purchasing a villa in Tuscany where she finds new love, friendship and happiness. The story is mundane, but the cinematography is stunning. It indulges you with amazing vistas of Italian countryside surrounded by rolling green hills Tuscany as well as the breathtaking Amalfi Coast.

 The Lord of the Rings - Without any hesitation, I rate New Zealand as the most beautiful country I've visited. If there is any country besides India I could live in, it has to be NZ. There couldn't be better setting LOTR -the stunning landscapes, evergreen forests and wonderful mountains are what New Zealand is all about. Peter Jackson captures the magic of the place wonderfully. Cant wait to go revisit NZ.

Blood Diamond -  Africa's profound beauty and striking landscapes have always enthralled me. The fact that Sierra Leone is dangerous & life threatening country makes it all the more alluring. I've been to several countries in Africa - but they are the touristy bits of the continent. Sierra Leone surely sounds captivating.

Memoirs of a Geisha - Although this movie was not filmed in Japan, the set designers did a great job in recreating it you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference. The opening scenery of the Japanese coast, the little fishing village, Japanese tea houses and the set of the small Kyoto alleyways lined with geisha houses and you’ll immediately feel like you have been transported to Japan in the 1920s. The result is a visually stunning love letter to Kyoto. It's on the wishlist.

Seven years in Tibet - This movie is one of many reasons I want to go to Tibet. It's probably one of the few visual insights we have of what Tibetan culture might have been like before the Chinese invasion. This movie is about a German mountaineer and his time with the Dali Lama. Released in 1997 and starring Brad Pitt, it takes a good look at Tibetan culture on the eve of the Chinese invasion. You get an outsider’s perspective on this remote nation and of the ruler who now lives in exile in India.

 Honorable mentions...

 Some movies like Eat-Pray-Love, The International, Bourne Identity and Dhoom (Hindi) are filmed in several international locations. But I'm biased towards movies that singularly focus on one nation / culture, as opposed to actors globetrotting every few minutes.

Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe. ~Anatole France

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A winter dreamland...

Travel and snow don't gel very well (unless the traveler is a snow sports enthusiast). When planning leisure travel, we always google  "best time to visit XYZ" or "XYZ weather in January". The destinations with sub zero temperatures are easily filtered. And it's a fair justification. Without snow the luggage is lighter, flight disruptions lesser, beaches are buzzing, cities are bustling and sightseeing is a lot more fun. Even when travelling to the mountains -  we love the sight of snowclad peaks, but don't want the white stuff on the surface.

The winter temperatures are wavering around 20C in Mumbai. For most mumbai-kars it's perfect weather conditions. But being a travel addict, I hate the four letter word called home. So instead of celebrating the perfect Mumbai weather...I'm actually remorseful of being at home. I'd prefer to be in freezing temperatures than home. And actually, I'm fantasising of being in the snow...especially after reading about the sparkling Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido prefecture, Japan. Cheers to the Japanese for proving it that snow can be a lot of fun.

The traditional snow festival began in 1950 at Odori Park in the city of Sapporo, when a group of students prepared snow statues and showcased them. Later, the event started to draw thousands of spectators for the majestic snow sculptures carved by the self defence forces. Today, more than two million people flock to Sapporo in Japan to take a look at the awe-inspiring structures, from palaces, statues and scenery's drawn out of the fairytales to events reflecting all that is contemporary. For seven days in February,these statues and sculptures(both large and small) turn Sapporo into a winter dreamland of crystal-like ice and white snow.Every year the number of statues displayed is around 400 in total.

The subject of the statues varies and often features an event, famous building or person from the previous year.A number of stages made out of snow are also constructed and some events including musical performances are held. Visitors can enjoy long snow and ice slides as well as a huge maze made of snow.At night those statues are illuminated, and the views are incredible.Watch artists create legends in the fragile blocks of ice and get a taste of the local delicacies as you dig into some of Sapporo's delicious food.

The 2011 snow festival will be from February 7 to 13. I'm quite sure there's a fellow traveler in Sapporo willing to swap homes with me in Mumbai !

All images via the City of Sapporo website

Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. ~John Ruskin