Sharmi on the Trot

Travelling, Exploring, Eating…

Archive for the category “Memories”

Guest Post: A Tale of Two Biryanis

The magnificent Biryani

The magnificent Hyderabadi Mutton Biryani (kachchi)

Only a few weeks ago, I undertook the seemingly herculean task of making a Bakr Eid biryani. Up until then I had just been an avid fan and a diligent consumer of the preparation. Have biryani, will eat. I don’t discriminate when it comes to the nawabi delicacy. Still, gun to my head, I would side with the Hyderabadi and the Murshidabadi variety. On this particular occasion, I decided to bet on the former.
I chose the Kacchi biryani recipe, consulted friends who were in the restaurant business on the correct way, went through a dozen web videos and recipe charts, memorized it and recapitulated it in my head again and again and then some. In stark contrast to my paranoid planner mold, my partner is more the take as it comes kind. However, I literally force fed the recipe to him and even revised it with him, night before Eid. He did his best to keep a straight face and I managed to not lose my cool.
As with everything too well-planned and rehearsed this biryani was doomed from the very start. The supposed aged long-grain rice, crumbled to the slightest duress (much like kheer rice) after its 30 minutes in waterbath. Then the mutton did not tenderize, in spite of the measured portions of unripe papaya. And the best of the lot, the sealed dum mold cracked open midway. Total sabotage. Long story short, I was staring at a resounding failure on a day when six expectant stomachs were counting on me rather hungrily. I can’t even begin to start counting the lessons learnt. But those are for me till I risk the next attempt.
I was especially heartbroken because the homesick me wanted to recreate a childhood memory. One of my fondest. That of a perfect, homecooked pot of biryani. As meals go, for me, biryani constitutes the start and end of perfection. Biryani meant summer holidays. Biryani meant festive. Biryani meant family. Biryani meant Sundays.
Growing up we were a wildly happy bunch. And Sundays for no rhyme or reason made us happier. And when we got too happy we cooked biryani. So my first memories of a Sunday cook were filled with aromas of onions slowly caramalising to a crispy sweetness, rice boiling in whole spices, meat stewing to juicy tenderness and fat potatoes being prodded and poked, baked and crackled with the intimacy reserved for old friends. It was like a montage right out of a lovely French film. Such beauty. Such visual generosity. Such homely warmth. We were smiling from our stomachs. All guts and glory. What went behind the scenes was another story.

Chicken Reshmi Kebab

Chicken Reshmi Kebab

I took the longest time to fall in love with my plate of food. I don’t really know what it was about my childhood that deemed mealtimes as merely a four-time necessity to be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible. Not surprisingly those four times were the most dragging part of my day that required stories, threats and coaxing on my late mother’s part. Quite a task considering taste buds and appetite were never my strong suit as a kid. Gritty woman, she did get every mouthful to its designated destination, sometimes prying my jaws open with a spoon, if and when needed. At least I remember it that way. I salute her a thousand times every day as I now run after my finicky toddler at mealtimes.
But the summers were different. Summers at Grandma’s. The only time when food was something more than just a daunting routine. The only time when food turned into something more festive. Not suggesting a change of heart towards meals though. (I still hated those rude, unwarranted intrustions into my playtime and daydreaming). It was the hoopla around food. The sights, sounds and aromas.
My mother was the eldest of five sisters; all married with two kids apiece. That made my grandma’s ancient two storied house a veritable epicenter of boisterousness. Ten cousins in all shapes and sizes seeing each other once a year generated enough revelry that could literally bring those wooden beams down. A little insight into what food represented in my family. From where I come, a man’s character and likeability was plainly shown in his palate and his plate. If you nursed a healthy appetite you were pretty much golden. And that required  at least three additional servings/helpings at the table. Yes three was just about ideal. Anything less than that was considered an insult to the food and hospitality. (So if you happened to find yourself saying, ‘No thanks’ after the first helping, consider yourself judged forever). I have actually seen some of my uncles with superhuman capacity for food and abyss for stomachs who wouldn’t shy away from five or more helpings. I kid you not. But of course, each of those addendums (or the very suggestion of it) were to be politely declined at first. Till the host piled the ladle-full on the plate, that is. It was one of those joys you couldn’t deny the host. This joy of love demostrated in terms of vertiable forcefeeding. You could literally see the eater’s hand defending the front of his plate in a mock protest with due shyness but abandoning it at the behest of the host’s greater will.
Now considering that my Grandma was fond of all her sons-in-law, one can imagine the quantity of food prepared and the chaos and clamour surrounding it. She took an inhuman amount of pain and pride in her food. Not joy so much. Never actually.  The kitchen was her cross and her crown. I guess when you have been doing something for five decades it becomes second nature and the spark of it as an accomplishment fades. Or maybe she lived in times that saw culinary brilliance as a prerequisite rather than a cause for applause. Every plate of food she put up had a beautiful narrative to it. But it went largely untold. I can’t even imagine her telling anyone about making a brilliant pot of stew or taking a picture of it. It would just about embarrass her perfectly. She lived years before the validation or gloating of social media invaded our kitchen counters and table tops and poked it’s nose right into our food plates with the ‘Like’ buttons.

Mutton Shami Kebabs

Mutton Shami Kebabs

To tell you the truth I have really never seen my grandmother anywhere outside her kitchen except when she slept next to me at night. Her frown was chiseled on her forehead and with her horn rimmed glasses she was the matronly masthead, the epitome of domestic dictatorship presiding over all things dead or alive entering the four walls of her kitchen. Trespasser were prosecuted. Her penchant for perfection was characteristic of her generation. She didn’t budge an inch from her recipes (all handed down through generations). So while the summer holidays were fun for us kids, Grandma with ten hungry children and five set of parents had her task cut out.
Work, always, started a day before. Everything was shopped early morning from the local bazaar. The trusted family butcher (you just needed to tell him what you were cooking and the rest was his job), the spice seller, the vegetable woman – all those people who were part of my childhood and unknowingly made so many of my fondest memories- would instinctively know what to suggest when told about Grandma’s feast.

Soya Chop, for the vegetarians

Soya Chop, for the vegetarians

And so would begin the grand undertaking. Under the watchful eyes of Grandma. With my mother and aunts played minions. Since Sunday biryani could never mean just biryani, there was a separate meat dish or two, a few vegetable preparations, sweets and salads on the menu. And everything was made right from the scratch. There was peeling, chopping, cleaning, grating, mixing, grinding and dozen other processes undertaken, while abundant gossip and tea broke the austerity. Rows of sun-kissed spices, saffron steeping in a now golden milk, sheets of wet muslin and a beautiful langour covering everyone. Kids were left alone with a simple brief. ‘Go play. Don’t disturb.’ (I was 13 when I was first allowed to set foot in the hallowed space only because I was making my first dish ever- green banana koftas in gravy) Now, while on regular days this would be a God send, these happy Sundays made us crave for the grown-up attention. Resultantly, one or two of us would loiter around stealing a peek, taking in a whiff and hearing a bit of gossip before we were chased out of the circle with an earful.
Once the prep was over (and we are still around 9 in the morning), the shiny brass and copper cauldrons and pots (all big enough to fit two of us five year olds inside) would come out. It was an alfresco event, our biryani. The fire was lit on the terrace and each of the ingredients would be carried up. No longer able to hold our curiosity, we would run amok, knowingly risking being swatted along with the flies.

Chicken in creamy gravy

Chicken in creamy gravy

The cooking part was tricky. Of course, there was the rice to be prepared, then the meat to be prepared, then the layering and the final Dum. But ‘tricky’ lay in handing over the ladle to one of her sons-in-law each of whom claimed to know more than the next. To quash the cacophony Grandma ended up squatting under the canopy monitoring and bringing in a much needed restrain as everybody got a chance to stir the pot. There was always a fight about how much of water to be added. But I guess they reached a consensus when Grandma punctuated the flying arguments with one of her coughs. As we neared lunchtime, the aromas wafted through the whole house and garden and I bet the neighbourhood. It wasn’t unusal for one or two neighbours to drop in claiming they ‘happened’ to pass by.
Rows of food in shiny brass and copper utensils, embroidered sheets running from length to length of the room. After a day of regimented exercise, this meal could stretch till evenings at times. Slow, easy, filled with conversation and anecdotes, laughter and such copious amounts of bonhomie. Sitting there listening to it all, food was the least of my thoughts. In fact, it would be years before I started to revel in the succulent, melting pieces of meat or draw happiness in the alchemy of ghee or rejoice the versatility of potatoes in the magic rice. Till then all I cared about was the happiness at being a part of it all. It was my carnival.
I was relatively cheered up when friends dropped in with Eid biryani the next day. A little more when my Maasi made the same biryani and the usual accompaniments I set out to make and promised me a cauldron full during her next visit.

Maria Bilkis is a Mumbai based writer, visual artist and committed foodie. Follow her journey as the amateur food writer and new mommy learns the ropes in her tiny kitchen on Instagram and Facebook

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How I Learnt to Balance Travel with Technology in Hungary

The gorgeous Chain Bridge connecting Buda and Pest

The gorgeous Chain Bridge connecting Buda and Pest

I sat in front of the Chain Bridge in Pest and stared at my phone. It was a hot summer day and being a Sunday in the middle of the tourist season, Buda looked at me invitingly from the other side of the Danube. I was sitting on the party side of the Hungarian capital while the historical hilly portion kept telling me ‘come visit’. My phone had blacked out for the second time during my Eastern European sojourns this summer, absolutely refusing to come back on. And instead of soaking in the historically rich city, I was wistfully gazing at the black screen, hoping against hope to see the start up icon pop up just to ease my racing mind.
How did I manage to get to this point? How did I get so dependent on technology that it seemed impossible to function in the initial panic-stricken moments?
In a constantly evolving world where technology and travel go side by side, can we ever imagine doing things the old-fashioned way? The long phone calls to hotels, going to the Tourism bureaus to check out the brochures, standing in line at the railway stations to book a ticket other than in emergencies, gathering paper maps and neatly folding them along the creases, consulting with the weather forecast in newspapers before a journey, deciding on what books to bring along and the selection of cassettes for the fashionable walkman, buying rolls of film for the camera…
Looking back it seems so long ago. Almost ancient isn’t it? As I staunchly tried to resist major technological changes for a rather long time (I wasn’t on WhatsApp till about two years back which friends called a foolish thing to resist) sitting on a bench along the Danube in Budapest, I wondered if I could balance technology and travel today.
When we make travel plans, applications or Apps are our friends. From the route on the map to where to stay and eat, purchasing tickets to packing according to the weather conditions, reading and listening music to pass time, noting down directions to taking pictures which last a lifetime, everything can be done on one device. And when the device fails, we are at a loss. We panic.
Also Read: Loving Amsterdam on a Budget 

On the bridge

On the bridge

Technology has definitely helped us to be better travelers. We know exactly how long it will take us to reach the destination. Instead of folding sheets of paper, navigation can be done in real time. The best hostel/hotel deals on websites and apps help us fix a budget as do notifications of airfare sales. All it takes is a bit of research to find amazing deals. In fact, I found a lovely hotel absolutely last-minute at a steal near the bus terminal. I wanted to stay around the area thanks to an early morning journey. In money matters, a credit or debit card with net-banking helps with instant transactions instead of cashing in travelers cheques. There’s so much of travel advice on the internet (which also helped finding the hotel in Budapest near Népliget) that helps one decide and focus on how to go about a holiday or even giving everything up for some years to see the world. Careers have been made out of travel blogging and I too had thought would join the bandwagon and live a nomadic life. It is fun I assure you because I’ve met so many of them on my travels around the world. But then there are problems too, like any other profession.
Also Read: 5 Ways to Plan Your First Europe Trip on a Budget

The cars drive on the bridge

A car drives on to the other side

I was in London this summer and to my utter surprise, I found people depending on their phone to navigate the city much more than anywhere else I’ve visited. I was standing at the edge of the Jubilee Walkway at Trafalgar Square and wanted to walk to Hyde Park because the weather was sunny. If you’ve ever visited the UK, you know how rare that is. I deliberately refused to use Google Maps and just asked a passerby if I was on the right path. She took out her phone and of course, Googled it. “Better yet, take the tube,” she exclaimed, giving me directions as to which station to get off at. Do people not notice anything on the streets if it’s not online? I was in London for a week and managed to give correct directions because I was looking up and taking mental images where to turn left or right!
Also read:  Living it up in Paris on a Budget

A view of the Danube

A view of the Danube

But while technology definitely helps, I sometimes wonder if we’ve lost our sense of adventure.
Do we need to know every single detail of a holiday? Do we need maps to tell us the shortest route? Must be depend on food apps to find the best places to eat? Must we note everything down in our phones or tablets and not on paper?
Also Read: Stumbling upon the Royal Cemetery in Bangkok

I can see Pest!

I can see Pest!

Personally, I think it’s wonderful to have so much information at our fingertips. It’s time-saving and very useful when on the go. But on the other hand, I love getting lost in walkways on cobblestone streets, I enjoy stumbling upon little eateries where locals gather and stories are exchanged, I look forward to sitting and reading a paperback somewhere on a park bench, dozing on the green grass, finding a local pool and jumping in, meeting and talking to people from different cultures to share ideas. Nothing ever beats human contact. No amount of using technology can ever replace that.
It’s all about balance at the end of the day. I still use my trusty notebook to jot down addresses and names in case I don’t have wifi to check my phone on travels, I still sit and write down adventures with a cup of coffee by my side and not worry about my laptop crashing and losing all memories. I do use a digital camera and make sure I back up pictures immediately. While I carry mostly cards, I ensure there’s enough cash in hand in case an ATM refuses to dispense. I firmly believe in walking, asking around and checking actual paper maps to locate places rather than use online ones. But when it comes to scoring cheap tickets, I don’t think I’ve been to an agent or tourism bureau in years.
So I stopped panicking. I looked over to Buda across the Chain Bridge. It was a long walk to the other side. I put my switched-off phone into my backpack, took out a paper map I had brought along from the hostel, brushed the dust of the back of the jeans and set off. I was going to enjoy my day without the help of my state-of-the-art phone! It was time to get to know Budapest better.

A view from Buda

A view from Buda

Nostalgic Egg and Vegetable Noodles

Bengalis have their quaint idiosyncrasies. We often get ridiculed for the ‘monkey caps’ in October or our love for Boroline (it IS a magic ointment, I swear) and of course the abundant respect for fish. Among all things, there has to have been that one moment when a Bengali child brought homemade Chinese to school which would be shared during a lunch break.
I don’t know much about other places but in Calcutta, one could buy these ‘Classic’ noodles from any shop. The maida (flour) noodles came in red coloured pouches which were about Rs 10 for a packet. When the tiffin boxes would be opened, a smell of homemade Chinese would engulf the air. With lots of vegetables of course, the noodles would be tossed with a dash of soy and vinegar and we would be very happy with that. The boxes would be passed around so all could take a bite. The days we felt rich, we would buy heavenly greasy noodles from the school canteen and share among us.
Recently, I had this craving for homemade noodles. As I searched the stocked shelves, I came across this red packet which instantly reminded me of school days and tiffin boxes. There was no question of not making them. But just to compensate for all the empty carbs, my fridge foraging led me to find lots of greens!

Ingredients
1 packet noodles (Use any sort – glass/rice/wheat/flour/egg)
1 egg (whisked)
1 carrot (julienne)
1 onion (sliced)
2 cloves garlic (smashed)
1 inch ginger (sliced)
1 capsicum (chopped fine)
1 bok choy (shredded)
3 button mushrooms (chopped)
1 small broccoli (chopped)
2 tsp sesame oil
1 tbs dark soy
1 tbs chilly vinegar
1 tbs oyster sauce
Salt to taste

Favourite from the school days in Calcutta. Pix credit: Barnik Bardhan

Favourite from the school days in Calcutta.
Pix credit: Barnik Bardhan

– Cook the noodles according to packet instructions. Drain and keep aside. Toss with a bit of oil to keep from sticking
– Heat 1 tsp sesame oil. Cook the egg tossing it about in the wok. When done, take out of wok and shred into small pieces
– Heat the remaining oil. Add the onion, ginger and garlic. Saute till fragrant
– Add the carrot, capsicum, mushrooms and bok choy.
– When the vegetables are slightly soft , coated well with the oil, add the vinegar, soy and oyster sauce.
– At last, add the shredded egg.
– Mix well and serve hot

A long view!

A long view!

Delicious dinner

Delicious dinner

PS: Best accompanied with a book, eating in bed!

A meeting with Bond, Ruskin Bond

It’s funny really, looking back, thinking of the first time I got tongue tied. Have you ever met someone whom you admire, get inspiration from? And then when you come face to face with the person, you’re unable to speak but just stupidly smile? Well, it happened to me for the first time.

I had been planning to go to Dehradun for a while now. One of my close friends has set up house there and had been asking me to visit for over a year. While the fact I would be meeting my friend had my backpack packed, it was also a meeting with a certain Mr Bond which kept me awake two straight nights!

Ruskin Bond. We’ve all heard of him growing up, reading his stories where he weaves magic with words. Whether you’re hooked onto every word of The Blue Umbrella, dream with The Room on the Roof, keep pace with Vagrants in the Valley or had to re-read Time Stops at Shamli in school, you could never get out of Ruskin Bond’s stranglehold over your childhood literature. His style is so simple yet elegant, funny with hints of naughty, sincere, straightforward and hauntingly beautiful, I pick up his books even today from bookshops.

If you decide to visit Dehradun, do head up to the hills from the valley to Mussoorie on a Saturday afternoon. Mr Bond sits at the Cambridge Book Depot on Mall Road, ever ready to autograph books and discuss anything under the sun.

My friend Anamika and I reached Mussoorie by 4pm from Dehradun (it’s about an hour and a half away) and after that, it was a race to reach the end of the Mall Road in time to meet Mr Bond. Like all popular hill stations in India, the Mall Road is where everything happens. You’ll find tourists strolling hand in hand, families with children in tow munching on popcorn or even boisterous groups of friends digging into warm plates of momos. We passed all of them, literally ran-walked to reach the small bookstore.

A happy me with Ruskin Bond

A happy me with Ruskin Bond

As you halt right in front and if the store is not mobbed by fans, you can clearly see a bespectacled portly gentleman sitting surrounded with books, chatting away to glory. There is a smile on his face as he glances at you. The deep brown sweater and black trousers keep with the image you’ve had of him. The hair is receding but the twinkle in his eye hasn’t diminished at 80. In one of his books, a child says, “‘You were born in 1934? And you’re still here?’ Bond reflects and says, ‘I guess I’m lucky.'”

On that misty Saturday afternoon, I was lucky having got a chance to come face to face with him. To be honest, I’ve had the chance to meet and interview the world’s best sportspersons — from badminton to tennis, cricket to hockey, golf to motorsports… yet as I stood in front of Ruskin Bond with two of his novels in my hand, I couldn’t utter a word.

“Could I please ask you to sign these for me?” is all I could muster as Mr Bond looked up and smiled.”Of course. Whom should I make it out to?” he asked. “Sharmi, please.” I don’t think I stopped smiling for those minutes. “Why don’t you sit down?” he asked and I was floored.

Could you please sign these for me Mr Bond?

Could you please sign these for me Mr Bond?

Thankfully Anamika was there to make me not look like such a star struck fan. She asked him if he was reading anything new. “Writing or reading?” Mr Bond asked confused. “Reading.” “Well there are some books I keep going back to like Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. But I try to read at least something new every month. I was recently reading Somerset Maugham’s new biography (I think he meant The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography). I used to like him but he seems rather naughty. I don’t think I like this fellow anymore,” he chuckled. His deep voice with that slight drawl will stay with me for a long time. ( Read about Anamika’s experience )

My sister, who was introduced to reading thanks to Mr Bond’s Biniya, didn’t speak to me for two days because I went to meet him without her. But I do hope she gets to meet him one day. Because she’ll cherish it for the rest of her life.

It wasn’t possible to keep sitting next to him all day lest he thought me a stalker but I was inclined to follow him to his house. Maybe he would invite me in for tea? Thankfully better sense prevailed as Anamika and I bought tarts and warm coffee, sat on a bench overlooking the whiteness of the mountains, happy in our thoughts as we discussed the meeting. It was a wonderful Saturday after all!

Of Comfort Food and Nostalgia

What is comfort food? The phrase means different things to different people but to me it simply means the aroma of home cooked food. Simple and delicious, food I’ve grown up eating and crave from time to time. After a bad or good day, its the longing for something familiar, craving for something nostalgic.

I left home a while ago and though I go back at least twice in a year, the days I crave for comfort food most are when I’m ill. When I’m lying in bed sipping warm tea with honey, my mind searches for childhood memories, tastes I imbibed during my younger days, the tastes I long for…

The past week I had a long phone conversation with my mother. We discussed everything under the sun. From films to posters, music to theater, Bengali food to Kerala’s famous beef curry. I kept telling her how much I was missing home food. I guess it was one of those days when I wasn’t well and things weren’t going the way I had planned. So she told me, “Make something you like.” That’s when the idea struck.

So for the past few days I’ve been cooking my comfort food. I was surprised to find that though I love experimenting with every cuisine I can lay my hands on, what I end up cooking when I’m low is Indian food from various parts of the country but with a twist conceptualised by my mother.

————

Bread Upma from school
A very close friend used to bring this concoction to school almost thrice a week for tiffin. The aroma of the spices mixed with bread pieces left us wanting more every time. I remember I asked my mother to ask T’s mother how to make it. And since that day in class 3, my mother makes it when I’m home and hungry! The flavour combination is so delicious that when its being cooked, you can smell it from the other room. Tangy and crisp, spicy and yet subtle the textures just leaves you wanting more. It’s so simple to recreate that the whole process barely takes 15 minutes!

Bread, spices and a whole lot of flavour

Bread, spices and a whole lot of flavour

A closer view!

A closer view!

—-

Chirer pulao, Bong style
In English we would call it fried flaked rice stirred in with vegetables and spices. Chire (poha) is eaten all over India but every region uses it differently. My mom makes it the way her mother used to. It has little pieces of potato and onion and tomato softened to perfection with whole spices (cinnamon, cloves and cardamom). It’s slightly sweet and you serve it hot with a good scattering of chopped coriander. I love this. It gives me a feeling of home every time I make it. It light, delicate and filling, a perfect breakfast dish.

Perfect with morning tea

Perfect with morning tea

Chire, potatoes, onions and tomatoes - delicious!

Chire, potatoes, onions and tomatoes – delicious!

The quintessential Bengali lunch
I’ve said before that we didn’t eat a lot of Bengali food on a regular basis growing up but on occasions just some fluffy rice, potato fry and yellow dal is all you needed to have a great day. I just added my version of an egg curry along with it made with tomatoes and yoghurt. On occasions when I really crave comfort food, I turn to this simple home-style lunch to get me through the day.

Yummy lunch! Lentils, potato fry and egg curry!

Yummy lunch! Lentils, potato fry and egg curry!

A plate of homemade Bengali food

A plate of homemade Bengali food


What do you eat when you crave something comforting?

Reminiscing about Roland Garros

The second Grand Slam of the year is underway and I could not be more excited! I doubt I’ve mentioned what I do when I’m not travelling or cooking, but my day-time job is of a sports journalist. And where would my specialisation lie? Tennis of course!

Guess what that is!

Guess what that is!

I don’t think I can remember a day when I haven’t heard the word tennis. Some statistic, some gossip, some childhood memory, some obscure video or book simply an article about a player. Associated with the sport since I was about four, it’s been a long long journey… from the courts to covering from the other side… it never tires.

Beautiful day isn't it?

Beautiful day isn’t it?

Anyway, getting back from all the rambling, I can’t help but feel nostalgic because last year this time I was roaming about the street of Paris, eating crepes sitting on the banks of Seine, admiring works of art at the Louvre… But among the few days I spent falling in love with the city, I took one whole morning off to visit Roland Garros. And when you have an all-access pass (well, somewhat) how can you not enjoy the second Grand Slam of the year!

Which way?

Which way?

Situated in the suburbs, it took me a while to reach Port d’Auteuil, the stop for Roland Garros on line 10, from where I was putting up. About a 15-20 minute walk away from the metro station exit ‘Roland Garros’, you come across many people who love the sport as much as you do. I met this rather determined old lady with a walking stick walking towards the Stadium. “Je na parle pas L’Anglais,” she smiled pointing towards the entrance. With a mattering of broken French I figured out she’s been going there for over 20 years now.

Flags in the sky!

Flags in the sky!

As the roads began to get crowded, I knew I was getting closer. The little tennis ball and racquet stickers on the side walk act as guiders. I was told to waltz in and ask for the pass kept under my name. They turned out to be the florescent wrist bands which are reserved for player guests among others. That was fun!

When you walk into Roland Garros, you realise just how small the area is. I mean I knew it wasn’t as big as Wimbledon, but for years what you’ve seen on television and when you actually stand there – there’s a major difference. But there’s no dearth of atmosphere. The air is charged with excitement, fans move about carrying large tennis balls which will be shortly filled with autographs, tennis officials looking smart in Chanel-inspired outfits giving instructions – it’s everything a Grand Slam should be.

Roaming about

Roaming about

I made my way to Bullring or Court 1 to catch up on the matches. The stadium is so tiny that you feel the red clay is at your feet (Watching a match from the player box does have its perks!). It was a gorgeous feeling. First up was India’s very own Sania Mirza partnering Bethanie Mattek-Sands. It was a good match but I was longing to look around the stadium. Before I knew it, it was time to explore.

That's Court Suzanne Lenglen!

That’s Court Suzanne Lenglen!

I played tennis thanks to my grandfather. Since the age of four, I had heard tales of the importance of Davis Cup, how the French Musketeers surprised the Americans in 1927, the exploits of the likes of Helen Wills-Moody, Bill Tilden, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson… I heard it all. And I would dream. Dream of one day witnessing it all. The replica of the Davis Cup stands tall as you walk to look for souvenirs. I tried to imagine how things were in 1928. Very different to the giant screen or children slurping on ice lollies I’m sure.

Yes, I'm feeling a bit smug!

Yes, I’m feeling a bit smug! (notice the wrist!)

The little florescent wrist band allowed me certain privileges – like walk down the east tunnel entrance into Court Suzanne Lenglen over which stands the legend’s sculpture, barge into the players area (unfortunately Roger Federer wasn’t playing that day) and watch Serena Williams on the red clay. It was something I had been dreaming for a rather long time.

The bas relief of the legend - Suzanne Lenglen

The bas relief of the legend – Suzanne Lenglen

Apart from the three stadiums – Philippe Chatrier, Suzanne Lenglen and Court 1 – the rest of the 17 courts are open to the public. After a quick bite and a Roland Garros photograph (I was such a tourist!) I went to the open courts to check up on proceedings. Since this was the second week of the Slam, the juniors were showing off their calibre on the red clay. There’s something so magical about the clay sticking to your white socks, I mean it feels real. Yes, this is the French Open.

Court Philippe Chatrier

Court Philippe Chatrier

It was Serena’s defeat which suddenly triggered this memory. Well, I did see the American live in action last summer! Anyway, after a whole day of fun, frolic and laughter (and learning new French words) it was time to head back. But somehow as I walked back to the metro station with the canopy of greens sheltering me, I knew I would be back one day. I only wish it’s sometime soon.

The red clay against the blue sky - almost poetic isn't it?

The red clay against the blue sky – almost poetic isn’t it?

Looking back, falling in love with New Caledonia

That's a gorgeous view of the ocean isn't it?

That’s a gorgeous view of the ocean isn’t it?

It had been a long long journey. 19 hours to be precise. Two transfers and a lot of waiting around drinking airport coffee. But the moment the plane started to hover around a tiny patch of green, my eyes adjusted to the sight and a sigh escaped from my lips. “C’est l’aéroport,” said the portly gentleman on my right, drinking his beer. I smiled, I was finally about to land in New Caledonia!

On the drive from Tontouta to Noumea

On the drive from Tontouta to Noumea

I had never heard of Nouvelle Calédonie to be honest but when I got the chance to visit the tiny French overseas territory in the southwest Pacific Ocean in the summer of 2012, there was no way I could pass up on the opportunity now could I?

I couldn't wait to dive into the clear blue water!

I couldn’t wait to dive into the clear blue water!

To reach New Caledonia, one has to fly into La Tontouta from Australia, the quaint little airport in Grande Terre. The runway is nestled between hills covered with every possible shade of green. As the plane landed, my heart skipped a beat. The beauty around me had captured my imagination and I was in no mood to let it slide.

I was staying in Noumea, the capital. It takes over an hour to drive there from the airport. But the long-winding journey is worth every minute. It’s so peaceful. You see a second vehicle on the road maybe every 10 minutes. The shades of green and brown change colour every second as you drive down the highway. Soft music playing in the car just adds to the romance of the idyllic drive. I was in love, at first sight.

Which way do you want to go?

Which way do you want to go?

If you stay in the heart of Noumea, wake up really early to go for a run. It’s quiet and the blue of the sea is astounding. Joggers are already out running by the boardwalk while swimmers are getting ready to jump in. The sea calls out your name and before you can think, you become one. It’s heavenly.

Walk amidst the greenery in the heart of Noumea

Walk amidst the greenery in the heart of Noumea

Now, imagine this. You’re in the Pacific on an island. What do you eat? Well, I devoured fresh prawns and squids, lobsters, scallops and salmon with relish. But surprisingly, I didn’t really find good fresh fruits you would expect.

Heaven on a plate

Heaven on a plate

Is it weird that I had the best Carbonara in Noumea?

Is it weird that I had the best Carbonara in Noumea?

DELICIOUS!

DELICIOUS!

Just look at that! Red, green, brown and blue in harmony

Just look at that! Red, green, brown and blue in harmony

One day I was taken to the interiors of the island. Nickel mining is one of the main sources of income in New Caledonia. You go through the dusty red roads, pass innumerable little springs and waterfalls to reach the mines. It’s a different kind of beauty there, very rustic. There’s no sound except of your own breathing. The winds sing you a song, asking you to embrace what lies before you – the majestic natural beauty.

Crossing many streams...

Crossing many streams…

Gushing water, singing over the rocks

Gushing water, singing over the rocks

View from my hotel! Just imagine!

View from my hotel! Just imagine!

That's the race course by the way, in the heart of Noumea

That’s the race course by the way, in the heart of Noumea

I had to bid adieu to Noumea after three days of lazing around, swimming and eating delicious food (I worked a bit too, promise) but surprisingly, I didn’t feel sad. Instead, the warm and friendly smiles from the locals, the cheerful laughs and ‘bonjours’ are so inspiring, that somewhere in my subconscious I knew that I would go back one day. In those three days I still feel I left a part of me on that island, to search for which I would have to return.

Walk along the water in the evenings. There is good nightlife for those interested.

Walk along the water in the evenings. There is good nightlife for those interested.

Don't worry I'll be back... one day...

Don’t worry I’ll be back… one day…

Important tip: Currency used is French Franc. 1INR = 1.45XPF

Oh wanderlust, please never cease

I’m happiest when I’m about to travel. I really am. I revel in the anticipation of the place I’m going to, to immerse myself in its history, taste delicious cuisines and all that have influenced them. Every time I have one of my most treasured possessions in my hand, I know the coming days will be exciting because an immigration stamp always gives me the biggest smile. Last night as I sat in the airport lounge, waiting impatiently to board, it reconfirmed what I had believed in for so long – I have wanderlust and it’s here to stay.

My treasured possession

My treasured possession

It all began when my parents decided to whisk me off to Assam when I was just barely a year old. Though I don’t remember the adventures (due to obvious reasons), my parents insist that I stopped crying the moment I saw a gigantic elephant. With a toothy grin I stared at the animal, and then almost leaped out from my mother’s arms to touch the trunk. A memory which I do recollect, albeit vaguely, is when I was four years old, the parents decided I needed to see India. So a month long summer break turned into a hot desert adventure in Rajasthan. The next year it was cold Madhya Pradesh.

I think I have to thank my parents because they had never stopped me from travelling even during my teen years. Not once would they say ‘you can’t go’. In fact, since I and then my sister moved out, they’ve travelled more than the two of us have managed to! When I call them, I sometimes find out that they are somewhere in the wilderness of the Bengal jungles or lying on some sandy beach soaking up the sun.

I do get to travel a fair bit thanks to my job. It really is fascinating I assure you because not many people can get to do what I do. I write on sports in newspapers which can be fun. You get to meet interesting people, visit exotic countries, cover different kinds of sports… so there really is nothing to complain about. But at the same time, unlike many people, I love to live out of a suitcase. My backpack or suitcase (whichever can be applicable in different trips) is always packed. When I travel I can stay anywhere as long as I get to soak in different cultures, eat like the locals, meet friendly and warm people… I often think if I could do it full time. Maybe? Who knows what the future holds, right?

As the plane touched down at the Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok early morning, I smiled to myself. During immigration when I got my first Thai stamp, I knew it wouldn’t be my last. I just keep my fingers crossed that the wanderlust never ceases.

Loving Amsterdam… on a budget

I remember leaving Amsterdam early one evening last summer, getting on the bus which would take me to Paris the next day. I left behind two days of walking around the quaint city, masterpieces in the museums, tremendously good food and the promise of learning how to cycle. (Yes, I still keep falling down somehow!).

The flower market

The flower market

An expensive city but not in the league of Paris and Rome, Amsterdam stole my heart and has kept it, asking me to go back every single day. It is possible to enjoy everything the city offers when you’re on a tight budget, and discover hidden gems along the way… I may physically be in Delhi, but my heart still lies in Amsterdam dreaming about the Night Watch. Here’s my top 5 things to do in Amsterdam on a budget.

1. Spend a day at Rijksmuseum
Unlike the Van Gogh museum, tickets for the Dutch national is valid for one year, not a particular date. You do pay 15 euros for a ticket unless you’re lucky to have a student pass but it will be worth every penny. Opened after 10 years of restoration work, its an art lover’s delight. Get lost among the Rembrandts, Vermeers and Steens. Read up on art history in the research library which impresses anyone who walks in. Seriously, do go there. (Do visit the Doelen Hotel if you want see where the Night Watch was painted)

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2. Walk around a lot!
Amsterdam has too many canals! From my hostel near Amsterdam Centraal, if you walked just a few steps, you’d come across one. And another, then another… You cover the whole city in a couple of hours just walking along the canals. Quaint houseboats line the water bodies as tourists fancy a ride in one. Typical Amsterdam houses line either side. You can admire the city differently if you walk in the morning and then at night. The pulse of the city changes completely.

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3. Visit Anne Frank House
a10A few Dutch friends told me that they’ve never visited because its ‘just an old house’. I beg to differ. If you’ve loved reading Anne Frank’s diary growing up, the reality is completely different. Not only does it remind you of the horrors of war, emotions choke you. I hate crying but by the time I left, I could feel my eyes watering. Living in the dark afraid of the sunlight, hoping day after day no one finds out about the hiding place, the lost hopes of ever making it out alive from the concentration camps… the chills don’t leave. Something to learn from the past, of hope and love, all from a young girl who loved to write.

4. Take a free ferry ride
Sometimes a canal cruise may prove expensive. So, why not take the ferry? It’s a free service, leaving every couple of minutes from the dock (behind the station) to Noord (north). Hassle free, get up on one and enjoy the wind caress your face. One can take a short or long ride depending on which ferry you choose to ride. Once you reach the other side, see the city centre from the other side as you sip coffee!

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5. Eating cheap and posing like a pro
From fries to pancakes, herring to cheese, Amsterdam is a foodie’s delight. Local carts easily sell the best stuff. I urge you to try the famous herring. It’s an acquired taste but oh so delish. Then, head to Museumplein to pose in front of the ‘I Amsterdam’ sign. Yes it’s cliched but when in Amsterdam why not!

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I hope to be back very soon darling Amsterdam!

The Christmas hangover

I know its a bit late but I think I’m still suffering from a Christmas hangover. Every year I make it a point to go home (Calcutta) because Delhi really doesn’t feel Christmasy during the 25th. That’s a little weird considering the temperature in the Capital dropped to 2 degrees in the last week of 2013!

So this year as usual, I packed my little bag and went home to celebrate the joys of Christmas at home. We don’t really celebrate the festival (do go for the candlelight midnight mass at St Paul’s Cathedral on Christmas eve if you find yourself in Calcutta) but it’s the food which puts a big smile on my face.

Fish mousse!

Fish mousse!

Let me elaborate. Every Christmas since the past eight years, I’ve been invited for lunch at my friend Brett’s house. Every year when I go back, the house feels so warm and inviting, decorated beautifully with ornaments, candles and Christmas knick knacks. His mum, Paula, is a fantastic cook and singlehandly feeds over 20 people on 25th cooking more than ten dishes, desserts AND starters. There’s something for everyone. Start with chicken liver pate, cold cuts, Christmas cake and of course drinks of your choice. My mouth starts salivating just looking at the lunch table covered with Christmas specialities that have a Goan influence. You have a pork and chicken roast alongside sorpotel and prawn malai curry. Not to mention pork vindaloo and mutton curry (that’s a Bengali favourite) with rice. So, as you can imagine, my jeans have just gotten a bit tighter!

Bring on the pork roast!

Bring on the pork roast!

The Christmas lunch!

The Christmas lunch!

Paula has magic in her hands when making desserts. She started The Sweetiere ( http://www.facebook.com/TheSweetiere ) and has been flooded with requests for classes on hand made chocolates. They are so divine I wish I could have carried some back to Delhi!

Paula Fernandes

Paula Fernandes

Cake and cookies anyone?

Cake and cookies anyone?

I had a fantastic Christmas surrounded by family, friends and gorgeous food. Hope you’ll had a fabulous Christmas too and wishes for a wonderful year ahead 🙂

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