We have beer money… now where’s our beer??

By now you surely know of our struggles to get our hands on some cold hard rupees. Turns out, that was nothing compared to our struggle in turning those rupees into ice cold beer.

You see, Kerala is going dry… words I still shudder to write more than a month later. The reasons don’t appear to be religious, but rather an overreaction to Kerala’s unenviable status as India’s top imbiber of alcohol, with all the corresponding social ills that follow: domestic violence, drunk driving, listening to Coldplay.

Now I’m not heartless to these concerns, but first, prohibition doesn’t work, something we Americans know a thing or two about, and second, cycling is proven to make you parched and after a long day in the saddle it’s my right as a Vishnu-fearing non-Hindu to have an ice-cold Kingfisher, maybe two, or was it ten… alcohol impedes arithmetic as well.

Having ignored the warnings in our Lonely Planet, reality set in quickly that first night in Kovalam. I ordered a beer with my dinner and am pleased to report it arrived promptly — in a paper bag, placed on the floor under the table, and served in a coffee mug.

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And that was the best case scenario. As we cycled throughout southern India, our greatest challenge day in and day out was procuring a cold one at the end of the day. Without exception, not a single one of our hotels served beer. That meant buying it elsewhere, which typically involved having our driver Jamal go on a beer run. (Where he got it, we don’t know, and how much money he skimmed off he top, we don’t really care.) Having at last scored some warm beer, all we needed was a fridge to chill it and a place to drink it. Easy enough, right? Once again, our hotels, which lacked a basic liquor license, offered little more than a helpless head shake. We couldn’t drink in their common areas, or bring them with us to dinner, or even refrigerate them. Banished from decent society, we took turns hosting each other in our rooms. (Jamal saved the day yet again, allowing us to use the cooler in his van to cool our contraband.)

This isn’t to say there were no bars in southern India and we never gave up our search — leading to mixed results. Which brings us to Kodaikanal, an old British hill station perched at 7,000 feet, high atop the Western Ghats. It was the site of our first rest day from the bikes and, sadly, proved to be one of the driest places along our route. We got wind that there was a bar at a nearby hotel so after dinner a few of us ventured out for a nightcap.

Little did we know we were walking into the single worst bar any of us had ever come across.

Located in the hotel’s ill-lit basement, it was filthy and reeked of urine. The beer sat warm atop the bar. When we asked for cold beer, the bartender brought us some very mildly chilled Carlsbergs. The glasses were dirty, but when someone pointed this out, the bartender proceeded to go back and wash them in suspect water with a dinghy old rag. No thank you, we’ll take our chances drinking straight out of the bottle — after we’ve wiped it with our sleeve! (When Warren arrived shortly after us, he took one whiff and promptly closed the door to the loo. Sigh. If only it was that easy.)

But whatever — the company was great and the experience a memorable one, so we soaked up the, umm, ambience, staying until the bar was about to close and we were asked to leave. As we prepared to stumble back to our hotel, we spotted a sign high above the bar that read “DRINKING LIQUOR WILL RUIN THE FAMILY.” Indeed it will.

So there you have it. From now on, when I say “I’ve been kicked out of worse places than this,” you’ll know I’m serious!!

Photo by John Layton

Desperately Seeking Rupees!!

Flying into Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram, was a whole lot easier than pronouncing it, that much is certain. After a long night in the air (connecting through Doha), I found myself standing outside the terminal in the dead of night. But this is India and even at 4am things aren’t dead. There were throngs of people outside arrivals, only they were all quiet and still. An eerie hush welcomed me. (It wouldn’t last.)

By the time I checked into my hotel in the coastal town of Kovalam, it was 5am. My head hit the pillow and I was out cold… only to be awakened at 9am by the front desk wanting to know when I would be taking my breakfast. Are you kidding me??

I managed to get some more sleep (thank you Ambien!) and eventually ventured out to look around and grab some lunch. Kovalam is a resort town, built around a crescent-shaped beach with a “boardwalk” lined with restaurants, shops, and hotels. By day it is hot — sticky tropical hot. There were westerners here, for sure, but for the most part Kovalam was packed with Indian beachgoers enjoying the warm waters of the Arabian Sea and munching on street (make that beach!) food.

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Our immediate challenge on landing in India was laying hands on some rupees. India is in the midst of an entirely self-inflicted currency crisis, stemming from a November 8 announcement by Prime Minister Modi that all 500 and 1000 rupee notes would immediately cease to be legal tender. That’s almost all the money in India. Worthless. Overnight. In all, the move removed some 23 billion notes, more than 80 percent of the currency in circulation. (Indians were given until December 30 to deposit them in banks.) Naturally, in addition to providing no advance warning of the move, the government has yet to print new notes.

Delhi’s goal is to crack down on the underground economy and tax evasion, but regardless of the good intentions, the move has been deeply disruptive to an economy that runs almost entirely on cash. Regardless of how much money they may have in their bank accounts — and for half the population the question is “what bank accounts?” — ordinary Indians are struggling to get their hands on hard currency to spend. Needless to say, businesses are struggling as no one has much cash.

For us, the currency crisis turned a seemingly simple task (going to an ATM) into an adventure. Most bank machines sit empty. If you’re lucky enough to find a functioning one, you’re likely limited to withdrawing 2000 rupees (roughly $30). If only the problems ended there. The lack of lower denominations made obtaining change exceedingly difficult. Get your hands on a 2000 rupee note and no one wants to change it. Try paying for a bottle of water with one of these notes and it’s the equivalent of buying a pack of gum with a $100 bill — in a country with no tens or twenties. Once you do break a 2000 note, you hang onto the change for dear life. The next two weeks would require continual strategizing and team work to ensure our bar tabs were fully paid.

***

You never want to miss the initial group dinner, but I found myself with little choice but to go rogue that first night. It was December 24 and our hotel had organized a Christmas “gala.” This is the worst thing known to man. A massive buffet. A loud rock band (playing together for the first time). A Santa Claus handing out cake and punch (oddly before dinner). I’d learned in Vietnam a few years ago to avoid these spectacles at all costs. So, after finally finding a working ATM, I walked into town and grabbed a sea-side seat at Malabar Cafe. (I lucked out and found a machine that limited withdrawals to 2000 rupees, but didn’t limit the number of withdrawals — four transactions later, I had my hands on 8000 rupees.)

Malabar and a number of other Kovalam restaurants cleverly display their fresh catch on beds of ice by the entrance. Ordering consisted of picking out three of the biggest prawns I’d ever seen, and once they were weighed, into the tandoori they went. Plus garlic naan and lemon rice. I could hear the surf crashing on the beach and the day’s earlier heat had given way to a gentle breeze off the Arabian Sea. As I munched away, my friends Dennis and Warren from Colombia, and their friend Angela, walked by and joined me for a beer.

A pretty good first day in India!

Last Supper – Delhi Style!!

Before I left for India, my mother made me promise I wouldn’t try any street food. This is my confession.

It’s also the story of my last supper — or, to be more precise, my last ten.

With bags packed, ready to catch the final flight of the day (literally), I ventured into Old Delhi to meet Anubhav Sapra, a bonafide foodie with a love for the city’s justifiably famous street food. A few years ago, Anubhav quit his day job, started Delhi Food Walks, and has never looked back.

On this particular night, Anubhav and I had company. A photographer from one of India’s largest dailies joined us to snap shots for a story her paper was doing on food tourism. And so the three of us set off for what would turn out to be the perfect, gut-busting finale to an amazing trip.

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First up: aloo tikki

We didn’t need to venture far before we were stuffing our faces. Across the street from the main Sikh temple is Natraj (no relation to the identically named Udaipur restaurant in my previous post), a place that specializes in aloo tikki, a snack synonymous with Old Delhi. Not unlike Spanish croquettes, these deep fried potato cutlets are stuffed with lentils and cottage cheese, and served with both a coriander and a tamarind sauce. Light, cheap and delicious!

With a little sustenance in our bellies, we headed down a narrow, congested alley known as Gali Paranthe Wali. Paratha is a fried bread, a staple of Indian kitchens, and Gali Paranthe Wale (literally “the lane of fried bread”) has vendor after vendor specializing in nothing but freshly prepared paratha. At Pt. Gaya Prasad Shiv Charan, one of the oldest and most famous purveyors of paratha, we ordered two: mixed vegetable and rabri, which resembled a kind of  sweet yogurt. On my next trip to Delhi, this will surely be my first stop!

Next up: daulat ki chaat, which translates to “the snack of the wealthy,” a Delhi treat that only makes an appearance during Delhi’s brief winter (a term I use very, very loosely). This wasn’t a snack at all, but a light, rich desert made of cream, milk, sugar, saffron, and nuts. Foamy in texture, it came across as a meringue that hadn’t been baked. It’s only available in the cooler months (and the mixture is kept on a bed of ice) because its delicate nature will collapse in the heat. Easily my favorite sweet of the trip, I felt truly fortunate to be in Delhi at the right time of year to try it.

After that, we stopped for jalebi. You may recall these ghee-fried syrupy funnel cakes from an earlier post, and my arteries clogged a little just thinking about them now, so moving right along…

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You’d be smiling too if you were grillin’ kebabs!

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Want some chicken with your butter?

After an (anything but) quick rickshaw ride from Chandni Chowk to the Muslim quarter, Anubhav and I squeezed into a booth at Karim’s — a true Delhi institution famous for its Mughlai cuisine. In a country where non-veg consistently takes a back seat to veg, Karim’s is the exact opposite, with a menu consisting primarily of freshly butchered lamb and chicken. Perhaps their most well known dish is lamb korma. You’ve never had lamb this good. (Truth be told, Karim’s had been my very first stop when I arrived in Delhi a few days earlier — but I was more than happy to pay it second visit!)

At this point, I must admit even my bottomless pit of a stomach was beginning to reach its limits. I knew I would have to pace myself. So this was absolutely the wrong time to discover the greatest butter chicken known to man. Now butter chicken, every place I saw it prepared in Rajasthan, was made with a tomato-based curry. At Aslam Chicken Corner, there were no tomatoes, just perfectly grilled chicken tossed in rich butter. It was eaten by pinching pieces of chicken between slices of freshly baked flat bread.

With butter dripping off my fingers and chin — which, in retrospect, seems like a good problem to have — Anubhav and I ducked into a dark alley to discover pot after pot of steaming biryani. I’m sure it was good. In fact, I’m sure it was amazing. But after a couple of bites, stick a fork in me — I was done!!!

After a final stop for dessert, which I could barely touch, I bid farewell to Anubhav, certain in the knowledge that I had given Indian cuisine my all… and that I would be declining my airline meal!

New Delhi, India - Jan. 3, 2015: Len Wolfson, an American National tastes some Old Delhi food in New Delhi, India, on Saturday, January 3, 2015. (Photo by Saumya Khandelwal/ Hindustan Times)

New Delhi, India – Jan. 3, 2015: Len Wolfson, an American National tastes some Old Delhi food in New Delhi, India, on Saturday, January 3, 2015. (Photo by Saumya Khandelwal/ Hindustan Times)

Thali Tales!!

Back home, if I were to fill my plate with eight different foods, I’d be a pig, drunk in Vegas, or quite possibly both.

But add a shiny silver platter to the equation and everything changes in the blink of an eye. What you have then is the thali — that most classic of Indian presentations, and the perfect way to experience a wide range of flavors in one sitting. Traveling through Rajasthan, I got hooked on these curried smorgasbords.

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My favorite thali — nay, one of my favorite meals! — of the trip occurred in Udaipur. Sometimes referred to as the “Venice of the East,” this city of 600,000 in southern Rajasthan is quintessentially un-Indian. An oasis tucked deep in the desert, Udaipur’s quaint old quarter is filled with palaces and old havelis, all overlooking the shores of picturesque Lake Pichola, with mountains in the background and, the piece de resistance, a pristine white palace situated right on the lake.

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Tucked a couple of kilometers away from the main tourist drag is a place called Natraj. At Natraj, they serve one thing and one thing only: vegetarian thali. They do this better than anyone, for only 120 rupees (or just under $2), and their portions are unlimited.

From the moment you’re seated, a server slaps a silver tray in front of you and tops it with three silver bowls. Next, a procession of servers fills the bowls and the tray with curries, potatoes, vegetables, chutney, an assortment of breads, and rice. The food, it just kept coming. No sooner did you finish a curry than someone offered to refill it.

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I was the only non-Indian in this establishment and, seeing as how the seating was communal, felt a little sorry for my table mates. Not only did they have the terrible luck of being seated next to the only westerner in the entire restaurant, but they had to suffer through watching him snap pictures of his food!! Who does that??

Maybe next time I’ll try explaining Instagram….

 

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Small (heart-attack inducing) bites

Back from a whirlwind 15 days in India, it’s hard to know where to begin. So maybe it’s best to start with some small — albeit calorie whopping — bites.

On my final night in Delhi, as I ate my way through the old city, I stopped at the old and famous (it’s in the name!) Old Famous Jalebi Wala. This Old Delhi institution does two things. Samosas. (Yum! Mine was bursting with fresh peas.) And the main event: jalebi.

Jalebi are India’s answer to funnel cake, and having consumed one (or the better part of one), I will forever look at funnel cakes as the healthy alternative. These pastries are made by piping a wheat flour based batter into scalding hot ghee. (Do I have your attention yet??) The twisted concoctions are then bathed in an intense sugary syrup before being served hot.

On your first bite, the firm (but not crispy) texture gives way to a torrent of hot butter and sugar. I kept telling myself “this is your last bite” (I had so much more eating to do) before taking another chomp out of these calorie-packed treats.

The jalebi puts to shame any of the creations at the Texas State Fair. Deep fried butter? Please. You have nothing on the artery-clogging capabilities of these delicious treats!!

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Postcards from Yangon

I didn’t get to spend as much time in Yangon as I would have liked. (A snafu with an internal flight — not at all uncommon in Burma — cut our time in the former capital short.) But I loved what I saw of this once great city that still conjures up nostalgic notions of a bygone colonial era, and which is simultaneously decaying and thriving again. The city center is a mix of British colonial and Burmese architecture. Power and phone lines criss cross narrow streets laid out in a perfect grid radiating from Sule Paya, a 2,500-year-old pagoda perched in the middle of the city’s busiest traffic circle (it’s a rather jarring paradox). Of course the undisputed highlight of the city is Schwedagon Paya… more on that another day!

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Early morning over Yangon

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Dusk at Shwedagon Paya

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Looking south toward the Yangon River

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Central Yangon approaching Sule Paya

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Colonial architecture

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The decay

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A typical street in central Yangon

Burma

Burma hit that sweet spot.

To appreciate why, it’s important to understand what led me there in the first place. The decision was about as spontaneous as any I’ve ever had — borne out of my two prior trips to the region (Thailand in 2008 and Vietnam a year ago). I had come away mesmerized by the way of life in southeast Asia and by its beautiful people. Yet as eye-opening as those trips were, I couldn’t quite shake the notion that I was a little late to the party.

Southeast Asia had always evoked in me romantic notions of a simpler pastoral era. But Vietnam and Thailand are modernizing rapidly, and while villages and rice paddies still dot the countryside, they aren’t the quintessential Indochinese experiences they were just 20 years ago. I still wanted to see a nation untouched, unspoiled, as close as possible to the state in which it had existed for decades and maybe even centuries. 

Burma offered me that opportunity. Considered until very recently the second most closed society in the world, the military junta that ruled this nation with an iron first had only dissolved itself in March of 2011. Visitors that year numbered a scant 800,000. (By comparison, nearly 20 million people visited neighboring Thailand that year. Another six million traveled to Vietnam.)

I felt that if I waited even a few years, Burma would be just another Asian nation I got to too late. So I packed my bags and hopped a plane to Yangon.

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From the moment you set foot in Burma, you are stepping back in time. Sadly, the country has made scarce strides in the past half century. Yangon is a colonial city thriving, yet simultaneously in a state of physical decay. Up north in Shan State, ox-driven carts rule the road, and the motor vehicles reminded me of the jalopies from a Steinbeck novel. Everything is still done by hand, from field work to road work and everything in between. (When we came across new road construction, what we saw were upwards of 50 people — men and women alike — crushing stone and laying pavement. Machinery was virtually nonexistent.)

What made Burma even more special was its people. It’s not simply that they were amongst the kindest and friendliest I’d ever encountered, though that alone would have likely been enough. It’s that they went out of their way to welcome us. These are people who, with few exceptions, hadn’t encountered foreigners during their lifetimes. We felt like ambassadors… and so did they. They were incredibly proud of their nation and were pleased to see it finally reopening itself to the world. Our job, it oftentimes felt, was to embrace them and let them know the world hadn’t forgotten them. “Welcome back, Burma.” “Glad to be back, world.”

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There were sad moments, too. Nothing broke my heart more than stopping at a roadside tea house and being served by the owner’s 8-year-old daughter. Everywhere we went, we saw too many kids who should have been in school but weren’t. (Unfortunately primary education isn’t free and, in a country with an average wage of just a dollar a day, is out of reach for many poor people.) There were the riverside slums in Mandalay, about which I wrote last month. There was corruption and vast cronyism, which is keeping most of the country’s wealth in the hands of a few elites and stifling the entrepreneurial spirit needed for real, sustained growth.

***

Of course I haven’t even mentioned the intense beauty of Burma. The pagodas, from the shimmering, golden Shwedagon Paya in Yangon to the thousands of temples that dot the dusty plain of Bagan. Inle Lake and its floating villages. Mount Popa and U Bein Bridge.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, take one glance at sunrise over Bagan… and pack your bags.

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Water World

Last year, as the Reunification Express slowly chugged past the endless rice paddies that dot Vietnam’s central coast, I recall contemplating about the importance of water to that country. This, of course, barely registered as a noteworthy revelation — water is essential to developing and wealthy nations alike (or so my friends in California insist). Then I got to Burma, a nation that lacks so many modern conveniences that running water is still a luxury outside the major cities.

As we rode through Burma, we saw people washing, well, everything. In rivers and streams, lakes and ponds. Their food, their clothes, themselves — even their scooters!

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Share the road… Burmese style

“Traffic” in Burma was unlike anything I’d previously experienced, a seemingly endless stream of ox-driven carts, jalopies, tractors, and a sort of motorcycle/bus hybrid usually teeming with people. The pictures here speak for themselves. I hope the smiles and waves from the beautiful Burmese people warm your heart as much as they do mine!

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Oodles of Noodles

We didn’t just eat noodles in Burma. But it sure seemed that way when it came time for lunch.

Our options were pretty standard. Fried noodles or fried rice? With chicken, pork, or veggies? Simple. Tasty. With plenty of regional variations. Somewhere west of Mandalay, on our way to Mount Popa, we stopped at a typical roadside restaurant. As soon as we arrived, fresh veggies went into a hot wok bubbling with four generous ladles of oil. Then came the noodles (oodles of them!). A little fish sauce. Once off the embers, the mixture was combined with some cooked chicken, and topped with the ubiquitous fried egg. It was just what we needed to give our tired cycling legs the fuel to get us to the top of Mount Popa on another hot Burmese afternoon.

IMG_9702 IMG_9716IMG_9728Of course noodles weren’t the only thing on the menu.

Whereas Burmese food lacks the imagination and sophistication of some of its regional neighbors, the country’s position — it shares a border with India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, and Thailand — results in a cuisine that is oftentimes a fusion (God I hate that word!) between what we traditionally associate with southeast Asia and the heavier and oilier curries from India.

Additionally, Indian and Chinese restaurants can be found just about anywhere in Burma. Stop at a roadside teahouse and you’ll be greeted with samosas and fried flatbreads with chickpeas. Christmas dinner, which we celebrated in Shan State near the Chinese border, was a feast to make any American Jew jealous!

My first meal in Burma wasn’t even Burmese. It was lunch at Nilar Biryani & Cold Drink. As the name suggests, this Indian restaurant just a block from Sule Paya (the 2,500-year-old pagoda that is Yangon’s geographic center) does just one thing (well… two) but boy does it do it well! Large caldrons facing the busy street cook a wide range of biryanis for hours upon hours. The result is chicken that falls off the bone and extraordinarily aromatic rice. The cold drink? An out of this world banana lassi.

IMG_9094No discussion of Burma is complete without a mention of mohinga, the national dish that’s eaten for breakfast. It’s a fish broth filled with noodles (they they are again!), chunks of fish, and various condiments ranging from hard-boiled egg to cilantro. It’s not the prettiest dish, but it made for a delicious and filling breakfast — especially when 80 kilometers of cycling lay ahead.

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