Street food and sweets

Street food is a very important part of Indian culture. With most of the life being done outdoors it normal that there are so many food stalls. They are literally everywhere!! Normally so cheap and ready in seconds it was our choice for lunch many days.

The first few days we were a little bit cautious regarding where to eat, we didn’t know if our stomachs were ready to deal with the street cooking, but in the end we just relaxed and enjoyed it. If you go to India don’t forget to try some of these snacks:

  • Samosas. Probably one of the better known Indian savory snacks, samosas are triangle shaped stuffed and fried pastries. They can have different fillings and they can be served with chutney or in chaat (broken into pieces and adding either curry or chutney to it).

  • Pakora. This vegetables dipped in spicy butter and then deep fried snack is an all time favorite in India.
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South Indian flavours

Similar flavours can be experienced in North and South India, though food tends to be a little bit more spicy in the south (to our surprise it wasn’t as spicy as we expected). Some peculiarities of the food from the south are that bread tends to be replaced by rice, that fish is more widely used for cooking and that flavours are much more coconutty.

Thalis, curries, breads… are also very tasty and very easy to find in southern India, but as there were so many other interesting local specialties that we wanted to try, we kind of forgot about them. These are some of the dishes we tasted in Goa and Kerala:

  • Dosa. Savory Indian pancakes made with rice and urad dal (black lentils), served hot, stuffed with vegetable fillings and accompanied with sauces. Trully adictive! I hope that I can find urad dal back at home…

  • Uttapam. Uttapams can somehow be described as the Indian pizzas. This thick pancake is made with a rice and lentils batter (similar to the one used for dosas) to which onions and tomatoes are added. Yummy, a healthy alternative to dosas.

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Sri Lanka, corto pero intenso

En una semana no tuvimos mucho tiempo de saborear todo lo que Sri Lanka tiene por ofrecer, pero al menos nos llevamos un muy buen regusto de nuestro paso por el país del té.

Geográficamente Sri Lanka tiene dos partes muy diferenciadas: las montañas del interior o el Hill Country, y las llanuras del resto del país casi a nivel del mar. En el interior es donde se encuentran todas las plantaciones de té, cubriendo como un manto verde las laderas de las montañas, que por clima y altitud tienen las codiciones perfectas para crecer. El paisaje en el resto del país es totalmente tropical con infinidad de palmeras, plataneros y otros árboles tropicales cubriendo cada metro cuadrado de tierra.

En comparación con India, Sri Lanka es mucho más desarrollado, con mejores carreteras, edificos más modernos, mucho más limpio, con menos pobreza, e incluso más civilizado (hasta algunos coches dejaban a los peatones cruzar en los pasos de cebra!). Por el contrario es más caro, y especialmente para los turistas que tenemos que pagar precios mucho más altos que los locales. Seguramente porque Sri Lanka ha salido de una larga guerra civil en 2009, y con el incremento de turistas todo el mundo quiere aprovechar a hacer dinero por si acaso en un futuro se vuelve a desatar otra guerra civil. Aun así, a día de hoy Sri Lanka todavía es un destino poco turístico, relativamente desconocido y barato.

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Cogiendo olas entre palmeras

Como no teníamos muchos días en Sri Lanka y queríamos pasar al menos tres días en alguna de las playas del sur, muy cansados y casi sin dormir la noche anterior, tuvimos que salir a la carrera de Dalhousie después de la bajada de Adam’s peak.

No sabíamos ni que ruta teníamos que seguir, ni cuanto íbamos a tardar, ni siquiera si seríamos capaces de llegar al sur ese mismo día, pero nos gustaba la sensación de aventura que iba a tener ese día. A base de preguntar a los locales en cada sitio, porque aunque Sri Lanka sea un país más desarrollado que India las estaciones de autobuses son un caos mucho mayor, conseguimos ir saliendo poco a poco del Hill Country y poniendo rumbo al sur. Primero cogimos un bus local desde Dalhousie a Hatton (2 horas), luego un segundo de Hatton a Balangoda (3 horas y media entre plantaciones de te y montañas por un patatal de carretera pero con unas vistas increibles), y finalmente otro de Balangoda a Pelmadulla (1 hora). Para cuando llegamos a Pelmadulla eran ya las 6 de la tarde, estaba anocheciendo, estábamos reventados de tanto bus y del cansancio acumulado, y todavía estábamos como poco a 5 horas en autobus directo a Matara (muy cerca de las playas al sur), bus que muy a nuestro pesar salía solo por la mañana. Así que nuestras únicas opciones eran subirnos a otro autobus local lleno hasta la bandera que nos acercaría un poco más al sur pero sin llegar a Matara, o pasar allí la noche y esperar al día siguiente a coger el bus directo a Matara. No sabíamos que hacer, y justo de la nada apareció un señor que se ofreció a llevarnos a Matara en su Tata nano taxi (4 horas), pero eso sí cobrándonos una millonada en un país como Sri Lanka, unos 60€. Lo pensamos por un momento y aunque nos parecía mucho dinero (en verdad 30 € por persona en un taxi de 4 horas no está nada mal, pero cuando viajas a largo plazo y low cost es bastante!) decidimos irnos con él, así esa noche dormiríamos en nuestro destino y nos levantaríamos el día siguiente ya en la playa. Nuestra playa elegida en el sur fue Mirissa.

Aunque el tsunami de 2004 arrasó muchas de las playas del sur de Sri Lanka, se han recuperado muy rápido y ya no se ven restos de la destrucción que causó. Mirissa, como decía nuestra guía, es una playa paradisiaca de arena fina y aguas turquesas poco desarrollada en cuanto a alojamientos y chiringuitos en la playa. Pero lo que no decía la guía es que la carretera pasa justo unos metros por detras, incluso en alguna zona llega a rozar la playa, y esto para nosotros no tiene nada de paradisiaco. Aun así es una playa muy tranquila y relajada, y con pocos turistas. Al igual que en Palolem, India, por la noche la playa se convierte en restaurante con mesas con velas y se puede cenar con el sonido y la brisa del mar de fondo y los pies en la arena… un auténtico lujo!

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North Indian flavours

All the different flavours, the many textures, the intense aromas and the unusual cooking techniques make the Indian cuisine so incredible and unique. We ate at many dhabas, restaurants and street stalls, we took a cooking course (at Spice Paradise in Jodhpur with Rekha), we tried Beena’s delicious home cooking when visiting Rajesh, and even though we had both previously tried Indian food, we kept being surprised with new flavours every day. We of course did as the locals and ate with our hands, and strange as it sound, everything tastes much better when eaten with your fingertips!

It is impossible to describe in a couple of posts what Indian food is like, I would say that it’s not even possible to do it in a book. And being India such a huge country it is normal that North Indian tastes are very different to South Indian ones. These are some of the pillars of North Indian cuisine:

  • The spices. So important in Indian cooking, the spices are the starting point for every dish and a good spice box is a must in every kitchen. Many cooks, after years of practice trying to find a good balance, are experts in the mixing of spices and don’t like sharing the secrets of their masala (spice mix).

Discovering the land of the tea

After saying goodbye to India and a very short flight from Kochi we landed in Bandaranaike International Airport. Sri Lanka, officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, was known as Ceylon until 1972. Mainly Buddhist it is among Kenya and India one of largest exporters of tea in the world. And, only recently in May 2009, after almost 30 years, they gave end to what has been Asia’s longest civil war between the Sinhalese (Buddhists) and the Tamils (Hindus). Apart from the few things we had read, we new little about Sri Lanka and its customs, so we didn’t really know what to expect.

Our first impression couldn’t have been any better! Everything at the airport was super well organized and new, passing through emigration took us just 5 minutes (we got our visa online in advance), getting a phone SIM card with 3G was a 10 minutes job (what in India took us many hours), there was a free shuttle from the airport to the nearest bus station, people were super friendly… We quickly realized that Sri Lanka was much more developed than India but also more expensive.

With only 8 days in Sri Lanka (a country more or less of the size of Ireland) we had to plan and choose carefully where to go and what to do. We decided to first visit the ancient cities and the hill country before heading south to the beaches. So after doing all the diligences at the airport we headed to Kandy, 115 km from Colombo (3h by bus). Kandy hosts Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist relic: a tooth of the Buddha. We were curious and thought of visiting the temple where they keep the tooth, but the 1100 LKR that costs the ticket made us back away. Kandy was our hub for a couple of nights just so we could go and visit both Sigiriya and Dambulla.

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India, un país de contrastes

Quien nos iba a decir a nosotros hace tres meses que después de 8 semanas en la caótica India nos íbamos a ir con pena. El país del cricket (son los acutales campeones del mundo), de Bollywood, de los currys, de las vacas sagradas, de las especias, del chai, de los saris… nos ha enganchado por todos sus contrastes.

Todo el mundo sabe o se imagina las cosas malas de India: sobrepoblación, mucha pobreza y suciedad, poca higiene, niños pidiendo por las calles, vendedores y taxistas que se aprovechan de turistas, trenes y autobuses llenos hasta en el techo… Todo esto, que hace que viajar en India no sea nada fácil, también te hace recapacitar y enriquece mucho personalmente. Dejando todas estas cosas malas a un lado, uno también es capaz de disfrutar de todas las cosas buenas que India tiene: gente encantadora, servicial y muy curiosa (que no se cortan para nada a la hora de preguntarte cosas), paisajes y ciudades increibles, diversidad de religiones, gastronomía única, cultura e historia…

India es un país gigante, y por tanto los contrastes están muy marcados entre el norte y el sur. El norte es más frío y seco, en algunos lugares desértico, y el sur es totalmente tropical. Esto hace que la gente viva mucho más relajada en el sur y la vida sea mucho más lenta que en el norte. Muchos turistas solo llegan a conocer el norte, que es la ruta más pateada, y se dejan sin conocer el sur con lo que se llevan una impresión equivocada de lo que es India en conjunto.

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Life on the water

Our last stop in India before heading to Sri Lanka was going to be the Keralan Backwaters. The backwaters are a network of canals, rivers and lakes mainly natural but also man-made. Covering an area around 900km long, the backwaters have been and still are one of the main transportation methods for the people in the area. Nowadays it is also one of the main attractions for tourists visiting Kerala.

There are many routes through the backwaters and many possible destinations, but we didn’t have much time left, so we had to limit our route to just a couple of areas. While many tourists choose to travel by houseboats, which are expensive and a little bit too posh, we choose to travel by local ferries, which gives you the opportunity to get a little bit closer to the locals. This was our route:

Varkala – Kollam

The starting point for our route around the backwaters was Kollam, which is just 1h away by train from Varkala. We arrived to Kollam after lunch, and the ferry to Alappuzha was leaving the morning after, so we had to stay there for one night. This little town has nothing special, but for some bizarre reason it was very busy and it almost became a challenge to find accommodation. After two hours of walking with our backpacks and asking in many hotels and guest houses, we even run into a place which was for bachelors only (…ummmm….), we finally got to find a room for the night.

Kollam – Alappuzha

The ferry to Alappuzha was departing from the boat-jetty at 10.30. The night before when we bought the tickets we were advised to arrive early if we wanted to get a good spot, and so we did. But even arriving 1h before departure time all the seats in the upper deck were taken, so we had no choice but to seat in the lower deck (during the trip we got to realize that the lower deck was far more comfortable, so happy days!).

The 8h trip to Alappuzha was long but well worth it. The scenery was incredible, beautiful lakes, labyrinths of canals, countless coconut trees, leafy plants and bushes growing alongside all with amazing green hues. We could also see how life grows around the banks of the canals, fishermen on their boats or using the Chinese nets, people bathing or washing their clothes in the water, kids going to school and even WCs on the water.

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Nochevieja en el Varanasi del sur

Salimos de Goa con un par de horas de retraso. Llegamos a Varkala cansados de tren después de 17 horas pero con muchas ganas de disfrutar de la que dicen ser la mejor playa de Kerala, y de entrar en 2012 con calorcito!

De camino al guesthouse, el tuk tuk driver nos informó que durante los siguientes tres días (30 y 31 de diciembre y 1 de enero) había un festival religioso muy importante en uno de los templos de la ciudad, el templo de Sivagiri, y que miles de locales venían en peregrinaje desde muy lejos expresamente para este festival. Como anteriormente ya habíamos estado leyendo acerca de estos festivales en Kerala y de la dificultad de encontrarlos, nos hizo mucho ilusión la idea de poder disfrutar de uno de ellos.

La playa de Varkala se encuentra a unos pocos kilómetros del centro de la ciudad, y está situada a los pies de un pequeño acantilado. La playa está dividida de manera virtual entre la zona norte y la zona sur. La zona norte está reservada para los turistas y la zona sur para los locales, que guarda para ellos un significado religioso ya que los Hindus creen que las aguas aquí son sagradas y limpian sus pecados. Normalmente se pueden ver pujas en la playa, que es un ritual donde hacen ofrendas a los dioses, y en ocasiones también arrojan las cenizas de los muertos al mar, que la marea se encarga de llevar hacia el sur. Por todo ello Varkala es conocida como el Varanasi del sur.

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Our Christmas holidays at the beach

After our hectic month traveling around India it was time to head towards the south to start our Xmas holidays (yes, I’m calling it holidays!). When we were planning our trip, both of us dreamed about the possibility of spending Xmas at the beach, so we organized our itinerary in a way that would make it possible. Palolem was the chosen destination!

On the night of the 21st of December we caught in Mumbay the train that was going to take us all the way to Madgaon (Goa). In the morning of the 22nd we arrived to Madgaon, but our destination was still a good few km away, so we took a pre-paid taxi to Palolem (around 800 INR). Taking a taxi might sound a little bit posh when traveling low cost, but we were tired and it was by far the easiest option to get to the beach. During the hour long taxi ride we were able to perceive the influence the Portuguese had in Goa, which was Portuguese until 1961, the architecture was colonial and we spotted many churches.

Finding accommodation in Palolem was easy peasy, just ten minutes after getting there we already had our hut at the beach. Not super fancy, but perfect for a few days. We were a bit worried about not having booked anything in advanced, Xmas is high season and we thought everything would be almost fully booked, but there were tons of beach huts and we had no problems at all. So after settling in and with our swimming suits on we went to explore the beach and its surroundings.

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