Sunday, March 31, 2013

Colaba one Saturday

If you stay in the suburbs of Mumbai, a visit to Colaba once in a while will be a much needed break. Leave home around 11 am, and you'll probably hit the Causeway by 12. I prefer taking a cab and not driving, as finding parking in South Bombay is a pain, and expensive as well. The ride is lovely, as you breeze through the sea link, the skyscrapers on the other side resembling a Manhattan skyline, I often wonder, the city looks good and glamorous from a distance, then reality hits when you're standing in the middle of a filthy street at the Worli sea face by the slums.

 bandra- worli sea link
(mumbai skyline as seen from Haji ali)

My mom had come from Bangalore for the weekend, and although she has lived in Bombay many years ago, she hadn't explored the city enough. (this is quite common among those who stay in the suburbs, they tend to not move around too far from home, except for going to their workplace. The lack of good transport and mismanaged traffic makes it very painful to commute from north to the south)
mario miranda illustrations on the plates and walls

We got down at Cafe Mondegar. The usp of this place is the beautiful murals by the late Mario Miranda. It's one of the more famous restaurants in this part of town, the building is very old and Victorian. A hot day, chilled beer. Feeling good already. I wish there was smooth jazz or golden oldies playing. Hip hop, does not go with the place. After a relaxed lunch we were all set to embark on the long walk down the causeway.

I stress on 'relaxed' cause you need to be very calm, and all fueled up for the next part of the journey. What Colaba is known for. The narrow mile long 'shopping' stretch where you negotiate through insane crowds, bargaining aunties, nagging hawkers and the odd stray dogs.
shopping at the Colaba causeway

If you are not looking for anything specific, you will be more to happy to pick up the random knick knacks that catch your fancy. Fake antiques- your clocks, compass, locks, watches and curios. Flimsy summer 'use n throw' clothing and footwear. Earrings, bracelets and accessories. After the first ten shops, you have probably seen what the rest of the hundred shops have to offer. They all sell the same stuff and they do look 'cheap'. Perfect for students with little budget.

 old mansions enroute the Gateway of India
But take the long route all the way round to the marina. The only part of Mumbai which has any character left when it comes to the architecture. The long stretch up to the Taj, has some beautiful colonial homes (some converted to hotels) with luxurious airy sea facing balconies, the high roofs and pillars. The road that goes all the way down to the Taj, is a lovely walking stretch. 

You can head to the Gateway of India. Better seen from a distance again. Very crowded and dirty up close.  Stop at the Starbucks at the Taj, for a cuppa. If you prefer the chic to the cheap, then check out  Bombay Electric and Good Earth. If your feets hurting after all that walk, try a massage at 'Suko Thai' also in the neighborhood.
Time to head back home, but first a stopover at the famous Haji Ali juice center at Worli. Try their falooda and kulfis. Ice cream with fresh fruit. My first giant bowl of fresh juicy mangoes for the season, yup- 'Mumbai summer' is officially on!
 hawkers at Haji Ali

Monday, March 11, 2013

Sandstone city- Jaisalmer

It's the only living fort in the world. That should make one curious enough to visit this ancient fort city of Jaisalmer. Build out of yellow sand stone, its an imposing structure, that has withstood the test of time, invaders and even an earthquake.

Walking through these cobbled alleyways, you would want to get lost in the lego-like maze. Yellow with spots of bright colored fabric shops. Rajasthan famed for it's colorful 'badhini' dupattas, patchwork quits, colored stones and handcrafted slippers and Jaisalmer is a 'shop-till-you-drop' kind of place. It's a steal if you're looking for a good bargain especially for antiques. Now, one really can't say if they are really antique or just antique finish, but it shouldn't stop you from picking up some seriously unique curios. Look out of the locks. There are shops on the street that sell only locks, some very interesting ones which require up to twelve keys to open, and in a secret sequential order!

streets and shops inside the fort

Walking back to the hotel totally happy with yourself with all the bargaining and discount you managed to pull off, it's also kind of sad to see the city slowly falling apart. The earthquake did take it's toll on some of the older havelis. Sad to see abandones pillars, intricately carved balconies fallen apart in a corner. Speaking to the owners, they all have the same story. The government isn't doing anything to compensate or help rebuild these ancient structures. Now the families have to resort to opening little shops and sometimes even selling ancestral items from their own homes to making a living and save a bit of money every year to try and rebuild their houses. Some of them told me that rich hoteliers and  politicians in cities like Delhi, even detach the beautifully carved balconies and pillars and transport it to their own homes. Something that's priceless sold for dirt out of desperation.


But the city still endures. As the harsh summer months are about to begin and the tourists slowly dwindle, the city folk and shop owners need to look for alternative sources of income like construction, back in october with a smile welcoming the truckloads of Europeans.

Where to stay: The Victoria Hotel

This family owned hotel has been their home for 26 generations! It's on the upper part of the old Jaisalmer fort, offering stunning views of the fort and the sandstone city from the terrace. It's the sort of place that would take you back to another time.

From the outside, it looks like a small place with maybe four to five rooms, but when the owner took us for a tour of the hotel through a labyrinth of rooms, it was like walking through a maze of history.  Some of the rooms are hidden away and pretty tiny, but each unique and charming in it's own way.
The staff and owner are very friendly and helpful. The rooms are clean and affordable (about 1000 Rs per night)

                                               view of the fort and city from hotel Victoria
Where to eat:

For a light snack before heading out for your long walks, the German Bakery is conveniently located inside the fort. They have the most amazing cheese and tomato sandwich. Yummy cakes and bread. the fruit flavored lassis are very popular amongst the tourists. Oh, try the apple pie as well.

Breakfast at 8th of July Cafe. They have some really nice pancakes and crepes, eggs to order and awesome black coffee.

For lunch and dinner, head straight to 'Trio' It's about a twenty minute walk from the fort, or you could take the rickshaw. It's in the heart of old city Jaisalmer, and they serve a very authentic Rajasthani cuisine. This restaurant has an additional treat of Rajasthani folk singers performing live. The terrace also offers a beautiful view of the lit fort at night.

The Jaisal Italy on the wall of the fort is also famous, i guess for the foreigners who prefer a more familiar cuisine.

But these apart, you have a variety of road side food carts, if you have the stomach to experiment with local fried delicacies.

Where NOT to eat: Safforn restaurant. It's over hyped, over priced. Poor service and awful. Strict NO.

That said, Jaisalmer is pretty much a walking city. Don't take the rickshaw but decide to walk to the Patwa nu Haveli. The sights on your way are as interesting as the destination. The architecture of some of the older houses just blow your mind. The town folk are very friendly and even show you around their homes, and tit bits of information of the old way of life. One of the houses had this interesting room with five doors. The main door was really small- about 3 feet high. It was made this way so that people who come in, were forced to 'bow' down as they enter, as a sign of respect. Another reason for the narrow door was when under attack, only one enemy could enter at a time, bending their head, and the owner who stood ready behind the door, could behead him with a slash of his sword.

colorful doors

 the patwa nu haveli embellished from floor to ceiling

The Patwa nu haveli itself is lavish and decadent. The colored glass murals from floor to ceiling, it gives us a glimpse of a bygone royal era. Honestly I don't know how they even lived here, my eyes would hurt. There is a 'turban gallery' displaying distinct turbans worn by different sections of the society, also making it very apparent the great class divide that existed during those times.

You can spend a leisurely four to five days in Jaisalmer. Exploring exploring nooks and corners of the fort, a day trip to the ghost villages of Khaba and Kuldera, back in the evening for hot masala chai and a book on the terrace, and the lingering melody of the 'raavan haatha' playing somewhere in the backdrop.
For more pictures :

 the abandoned town of Khuldera
street hawker playing the 'Raavan hatha'