Adventures in India, Part 1

It’s been a long time since I wrote about anything on this blog. I don’t think I’ll realistically catch up on everything, but one trip that I want to record is India. These so-called adventures (normal trip to India) took place in April. This is going to be in two parts, because there’s so much to say.

We spent about 2 weeks in northern India – starting in Amritsar, then moving on to New Delhi, Rishikesh and Agra, before finishing up in Jaipur. If you don’t feel like reading on I can summarise with the following: India was hot, chaotic, fascinating and a vegetarian’s dream. Oh and it’s true that there are cows everywhere. I was also asked some interesting questions like, “are those your original eyes?” For anyone else wondering, they are.

Amritsar (Punjab)

This was my first taste of India, and oh what a taste it was! Speaking literally, the food was fantastic here. Speaking culturally, I can only describe it as a shock. In fact, I would say the entire experience of India was a culture shock like no other for me.

When we first arrived, I was struck by the number of stray dogs roaming the streets, the madness of the roads, the noise, the dirt and encountering some very poor people living on the streets. These are the things that shocked me and which I had never seen to such an extent before.

Getting Indian SIM cards was an ordeal and a half, but aside from the SIM cards which we eventually got, the process also involved a guy taking these delightful mugshots of us after about 4 hours of scurrying around in the dusty heat trying to understand literally anything.

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But it was definitely not all negative. In fact, Amritsar was probably my favourite place in India. We stayed in an Airbnb with a lovely couple who served us fresh aloo paratha (basically potato bread with some spices) each morning with some chutneys and yoghurt, arranged a driver to take us to main sights in the surrounding area and generally treated us very kindly. I really loved the food here. One of the local specialities is makhani dahl (black lentil dahl) which is now a favourite Indian dish of mine!

Amritsar is an old city. I saw no high rise or modern looking buildings at all. There was nothing familiar to me in any sense, but after the initial shock and feeling of being overwhelmed, I really appreciated the history and culture here.

The highlight was the Golden Temple, which is the most important temple in the Sikh religion. A close second was the Partition Museum, which was really interesting and well presented. We had a local driver arranged by our hosts who took us around the main places of interest, and as a Sikh himself he was a great companion at the temple and made sure we behaved ourselves and saw everything! Although we still had a language barrier, I would definitely recommend having a local driver or guide, as getting around in India alone as foreigners can be quite difficult and intimidating.

 

Another unexpected highlight was going to the India-Pakistan border from Amritsar. I don’t believe the India-Pakistan border is generally a safe place to be, but this one part called Attari-Wagah is fine. They conduct a ceremony there every night, which involves military displays on either side and then very briefly opening the gates between the two. The most surprising part of this was the build up. It was, like so many things in India, insane. Speakers blaring out what I would describe as Bollywood style music (although I’m no expert), the crowds going absolutely wild with India flags waving and painted on their faces, and just general mayhem, in a very joyous energetic way. At one point the main area between the viewing stands was cleared for women and children to come down and have a big raucous dance. Of course I joined in and it was such a funny happy experience, all the gals dancing together away from those pesky men for a change. Then the ceremony itself was fascinating. We couldn’t see too clearly on the Pakistan side but the uniforms and the style of marching etc. seemed very similar. The main difference I could see in the crowds was that the India side was extremely colourful and rowdy, whereas the Pakistan side appeared a bit more subdued.

 

Chandigarh (Haryana) & New Delhi

From Amritsar we took a bus (again with the help of our hosts) to Chandigarh, which was the most modern and “familiar” feeling city we visited in India. We only spent one night here to go to a cricket match, my first ever! It was actually pretty fun, the Indian fans were so full of joy and energy, I didn’t have to understand the game too much to enjoy myself.

From Chandigarh to New Delhi, where we met friends to celebrate their wedding. We had limited time here and the only thing we really did was attend the Mehndi ceremony for the wedding, which is when the bride and the female guests get their henna designs for the big day. The bride had the most intricate designs on her hands, arms, legs and feet, and the rest of us had some on our hands and wrists only. I absolutely loved this, as you can see from my excited little face and the number of photos I took of my own hands. (Also check out my gorgeous outfit, made to measure in Little India, KL!)

 

Rishikesh (Uttarakhand)

The wedding itself took place in Rishikesh. The Indian airline we were meant to fly with went bust the day before, so we took a 7 hour taxi instead. We took several inter-city taxis in India and they were all ridiculous experiences. They were very cheap for the distances and length of time the journeys took, but the driving in India is truly outrageous. There seems to be no concept of lanes, lots of horn-tooting, and the main tactic to avoid collisions with other vehicles is to SPEED UP and dodge. Still traumatised.

The wedding itself was extremely colourful, beautiful and fun. It was unlike any wedding I’ve ever attended. The groom entered on horse and cart, following a parade of dancers (including yours truly) down the street with a live band. There was no alcohol and honestly it didn’t matter. And finally, the food was all vegetarian and was bloody delicious.

 

Aside from the wedding, Rishikesh was actually a disappointment for me. I found it really dirty, noisy and crazily busy. Cows with big horns roamed small winding streets, in what I considered to be a menacing fashion. It was a very stressful place to be. This is the alleged birthplace of yoga. At the very least, it’s a big hub for yoga lovers and teachers, even if its not the birthplace. And while it’s a naturally beautiful place, I just didn’t get any of the secluded peace you might expect to find there. I didn’t look terribly hard, to be fair, but I was honestly pleased to get out of Rishikesh after a few days of the mayhem.

We also went to the famous ceremony along the Ganges which ends with everyone lighting little baskets of flowers on fire and setting them into the river, but bizarrely I don’t seem to have photos of that. Must have been having a spiritual moment or anxiously avoiding some cows. But here’s a view of the Ganges taken from a small hike we did into the foothills of Himalayas.

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I also got some great pictures of the monkeys who invaded our balcony too.

 

 

That’s all for now. Adventures in India, Part 2 (featuring Agra and Jaipur) coming soon to a blog* near you!

 

*this one.

Veganuary in Malaysia

This post is a little bit different because it’s specifically about food, which is another important part of my life in Malaysia and my #1 favourite thing. Specifically, it’s about my attempt to go vegan this January, or VEGANuary, as people are calling it. You can only really say this word by completely mis-pronouncing the word vegan, but that’s ok.

I am already a vegetarian and have been for just over a year. This “decision” was based on nothing more than a month-long experiment to see if I could do it, with no particularly strong ethical basis, health concerns or conviction. My journey began when I still lived in Belfast, where I was surrounded by familiar ingredients and cooking facilities, as well as plenty of excellent restaurants with vegetarian options. So I didn’t have to compromise on taste, variety or treating myself.

So, it’s possible that I would have continued to live a meat-free life without further educating myself, because it was easy. But I did start to read more about the benefits of a vegetarian diet, not just for me but for the planet (and obviously the animals). I’m not going to go into loads more detail on this, because I don’t want to preach about the ethics of it all, but it’s pretty convincing. I am just going to talk about my own choices and efforts to move to veganism in a non-judgemental and honest way.

Veganuary: why?

My views on and commitment to being vegetarian are always becoming stronger. I feel that, for me, there are many good reasons to give up meat and only one selfish reason to keep eating it. But that reason (wanting to) was based mostly on habit and has now disappeared. At the minute I have no desire to eat meat so it’s easy to be veggie. It’s what I want, in every sense.

But what I do still want is milk, cheese, cream, eggs, butter and more butter. But the reasons I believe in vegetarianism also apply logically to veganism. It’s the same argument and I actually think it’s the right thing for me to do, based on what I’ve learned about the dairy industry. Once I started to really think about this, I had to try it.

Veganuary in Australia

I started while in Australia, specifically New South Wales. Very little effort is required to be a vegan here. With a dark chocolate coconut milk ice cream in hand on day 1, I felt pretty good about it.

During the trip, we stayed with a lovely couple along the Great Ocean Road who kindly offered to cook dinner for us. We didn’t think it would be fair to accept the offer and then ask them to cook a vegan meal. This isn’t a great story for me, because by coincidence the vegetable pasta dish they made DID happen to be vegan, apart from the parmesan cheese I voluntarily, though absent-mindedly, sprinkled on top. Oops.

But this was a small blip as far as Australia was concerned. If I had stayed there longer, I’m fairly sure I’d have continued Veganuary with relative ease and pleasure.

Veganuary in Malaysia

The food scene is amazing but a little bit more complex in Malaysia.

The cheapest way to eat in KL is to eat out. Food is a really important part of Malay culture. For example, I’ve learned that “dah makan?” (have you eaten?) can be used as a general greeting instead of saying hello, or how are you.

The food of KL is particularly diverse. You’ll find a mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisines, but it’s also pretty easy to find Italian and other western food. They just love FOOD, all of it. Here we are enjoying an 8 course tasting menu at a vegetarian Mediterranean restaurant in KL (with a Malay twist, i.e. more spicy than expected).

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A vegetarian can survive eating in all kinds of places here, but my favourites are the Indian restaurants. There are loads of them, where the food is cheap, delicious and in most cases, completely or mostly vegetarian.

This isn’t the best example of banana leaf curry, but it’s the only picture I have, taken in our first few weeks here. You usually get LOADS of rice which they’ll top up unnecessarily, 3 vegetable side dishes, sometimes dips and pickles, and not pictured here – they finish off with 3 vegetable curries that they’ll pour over the rice. I would say the average cost for one is about RM6, around £1.

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However, a lot of the Indian dishes are probably not vegan. I say “probably” because I often adopt a policy of blissful ignorance when eating out. I have been more aware and careful about my choices since January, but I’m sure I’ve still eaten dairy.

Since Veganuary, I am vegan when cooking or eating at home. We cook our own versions of local dishes and sometimes make a nut roast and all the (meat-free) trimmings on a Sunday. I’ve replaced milk with various alternatives like soy, almond or coconut milk and they’re all perfectly yummy in coffee, with granola, or whatever. Did I mention that I have always LOVED drinking milk? Well, I have. I think there’s nothing better than something rich and chocolatey with a glass of cold milk. So if I can replace milk with non-dairy alternatives and still enjoy life, it’s possible for anyone.

What I’m finding more difficult is identifying things which contain dairy, but not in an obvious way. Not eating an egg is a simple choice, but when it comes to pastry, some types of pasta, condiments, sauces, soups and, tragically for me, lots of Indian food, it’s not so obvious.

My future as a vegan?

I cannot strictly call myself a vegan, because I know that I have eaten dairy and will most likely continue to do so, at least occasionally, while I’m living in Malaysia. But this will mostly be accidental and/or relatively incidental. I am still a vegetarian and at the moment I’m happy to have cut down significantly on dairy, because it moves me in what I see as the right direction, and will make more of an impact than not trying at all. I don’t think I’m going to change the world on my own, but my conscience is (relatively) clear in the knowledge that I’m trying.

Here’s a collage of some food I’ve taken pictures of recently, at home and eating out, including various Indian dishes, our vegan roast dinner, Malay spicy fried rice, and the world’s most delicious big samosa (probably not vegan, sigh).