Tuesday, 30 March 2010

One fine day......

Please, somebody, take the buns away.......I can't help it, I love hot cross buns, but lets face it, what's not to love, hot from the oven, butter splattered or for the healthy option, topped with blackcurrant jam, packed with all that vitamin C (oh just taste the difference.....) and really, all this hideous weather is any good for is eating. Thank God it's the chocolate season.

However, in the name of taste and safety the sugar fest has to stop. So, in a grand attempt to embrace Spring and prepare for the, apparently 'hotter than '76' summer that's on it's way (how many times have we heard that, for any of us who can remember that sweet, sweat-sticky summer we know there can never be another...) I headed off to my local green market to fill my home with delicious produce, packed with vim, vigour and health. Of course the joy of living in a big city is that I can actually walk to a market to buy my home-grown, hand-picked, lovingly crafted fruit and veg complete with all their muddied roots and artfully tweaked leaves intact, that lie along side the hand-reared pork, beef, lamb and chicken, surrounded by pretty pictures of their picturesque hutches, coops, barns and styes, their family and friends beaming from the long-grass where they too once roamed free. Unlike my poor friends in the country who have to drive miles and miles and miles in their mighty 4x4s, to shop for their vacuum-packed rashers and mean white eggs in the hyper-markets and monumental Tescos that have replaced the farm shop...go figure. Despite having just returned from the tropics ( I know, I know...) I feel tiered, bunned-out, heavy-lidded I'm wearing my bags for life, so I decided to buy green: cabbage, kale, spring greens and rocket, apples and pears....they're greenish. I've done juicing and lets face it, it's horrid, and messy, but a plate of steamed kale with a hearty squeeze of lemon juice or a bowl of pan fried spinach and garlic....now you're talking. And with puy lentils, sun-dried tomatoes and goats cheese.....better than any multi-vitamined power-shake.

Already feeling fit after lugging all that deliciously leafy goodness home I phoned a friend: the-most-uncomfortable-gay-in-the-city (at 44 he thinks he may have made a mistake....) who happily jumped at the idea of spending a Bank Holiday Monday in the pursuit of art. First we went to the National Portrait Gallery to take a turn around the Irving Penn and oh what a joy, that's what photographs should look like, all those hours of painstaking development, experimenting with different techniques, come to extraordinary life. It's brilliant, really, go eye to eye with Audrey Hepburn and Richard Burton or wonder at how Irving backed Wallace Simpson into a corner, where she becomes the Red Queen. Can the same effect really be achieved with a digital camera? Will you just be able to download the Irving Penn software, or the David Baily package, and hey-presto..........

Then it was off to the cinema and if you're in the mood for something odd and French look no further than 'Lourdes', if you like slow and weird and foreign, and I do, it's brilliant........I shan't tell you what happens, I don't want to spoil it.

After all that, there was only one thing left to do: a fine glass, or 3, of red in the shiny and new 'Dean Street Townhouse', an all-day dinning-room and hotel in a four-storey townhouse, with a long bar and delicious nuts, sort of private members club lite: great service and no costly membership. And once I've lost all the weight embracing the Easter Bunny put on, I want to go back for dinner because the skinny chips looked excellent.....

Top tip: 30 Rock....if you haven't seen it get the box set and laugh yourself into summer....

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Cake.....and eating it too.

"You're living the dream" said the teenage son, "let me eat cake...." My friend was not so sure.
The problem: a male friend of mine popped round for a coffee, carrying a large chocolate, orange and almond cake. Once single, (yes...he was a real single man, straight and in his 40s) he is now going out with a woman he met on the Internet. A woman who bakes for a living.
"That's my dream" said the teenage son, helping himself, " a girlfriend and cake."

My friend settled himself in the Lloyd Loom with his coffee, and his cake, and explained his dilemma: he's just passed the tricky three month marker, but does he want to go any further? Apparently it's all to do with the texting. He illustrated the problem with various examples where the texts in question had resulted in misunderstandings at best and full scale fights at worst. So many ways to communicate and yet......so little understanding. And then there is the talking.....she tells him lots of stuff, stuff he says he doesn't need to know, especially on the phone when he's on his way round to see her. This got me thinking. It has been suggested that single men of a certain age are just that for good reason, unused to living in the rarefied world of women, they are....not really house-broken, so to speak. Could the same be said for their female counterparts? Are old women trying to turn their new boyfriends into girlfriends due insufficient exposure to Match of the Day and Top Gear?

"Stay with it. Tell her you don't want to do the texting anymore to avoid misunderstandings," I said, "Winter isn't over yet, it's cold out here."
"And think of the sex," said the teenage son, heaving another slab onto his plate. "And the cake." No misunderstandings there.

And then there was this: It was raining so I took shelter in a cafe. I squeezed into a corner next to a young Russell Brandian character, deep in conversation with a man of about 50, drinking coffee. The coffee guy immediately smiled at me. I smiled back. I ordered a latte and a glass of water. The coffee guy kept looking over at me, the tables were very close, we were practically sitting together. They talked of music, shows, the CD. Evidently this young man was some kind of classical whiz who was about to turn the classical concert on it's head. I drank some water and then spilled the rest of it over the table. Without missing a beat coffee guy fisted over a sheath of napkins. And smiled. Again. I was in my very own Richard Curtiss movie. His friend got up and left.
"You from London? he asked, "I'm originally from Canada. . .but," (why do Canadians always say that?) "I lived in the states. . . I've been here 30 years." He managed to tell about the restaurants he'd designed, the bands he'd managed, the marriage that was long over, the children who'd grown, the relationship that didn't work out, the move to Australia, the square he'd once lived on right near where I now lived, and why he was renting around the corner, all in about ten minutes.....
"Better go, got work to do" he smiled, took my hand, "that's a lovely name."
So I said, being a grown up, modern-21st-century woman, "We should have coffee."
And he said, "We should, I'm here everyday, it's like my office."
What's that about? Did he not just chat me up? Did I misunderstand?
"He does like you," said my friend, "but not that much."

How do you know you're getting old? You go to a gig and drink tea....very rock & roll .....however, I have spent most of the week dancing barefoot...........after meeting Patti Smith. I say met but that's maybe stretching it a tad, conversed more like. I went to see her perform at a very intimate venue and I have to say her voice just gets better, at 63 the godmother of punk is pure inspiration, she goes from strength to strength. I'm a fan, I won't deny it, so when she announced she would be signing copies of her new book, 'Just Kids' after the show, I decided not to wait to buy it for the knock-down-bargain-basement price that Amazon would surely sell it for, but to get it there and then. The conversation was brief but underneath I felt their was a mutual meeting of two minds, there would be no misunderstandings between us. "Is that with an E?" she drawled. For you Patti.... it could be.....

Top tip: Patti Smith's version of 'The Boy In The Bubble' at top volume will chase away any of those hard-to-shift winter blues.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Goa, Goa, Gone.....

I was 19 the first time I went to Goa. It was a paradise away from paradise then: flaxen-haired travellers stretched out under the arched palms, their skinny, brown bodies adorned with exotic belts of silver from Rajasthan, strings of turquoise beads and hefty bracelets from Nepal. We sat and stared at the unbroken horizon from up-all-night-party sunrise to the bom-shanker of the sunset chillum, waiting for the nuclear flash that would herald the end of the rest of the world as we knew it, or so we believed if Maggie had her way....oh hippy daze.....Now, beer-swilling blokes in Chelsea shirts discuss the low cost of dental work in Margao and restaurant sound systems compete for ear-time. With the rise of low cost airfares and the ubiquitous package tour, exotic travel is no longer quixotic. Where once we lived in palm-leaf huts, dined on bargiis, dhal and super-sweet chai, now it's all cold beers, char-grilled prawns and G & Ts, sun-loungers and boutique hotels. But the sun does still set right there on that unbroken horizon, nuclear bombs are out and instead we fear WMDs and IEDs. The times they certainly are a changing.

We arrived in Margao several hours late, our train having travelled at little more than a brisk walking pace for most of the journey. My mother was staying at the delightful Hotel Oceanic, all white-washed walls and bougainvillea, about 15 minutes walk from the sea, and I was billeted at the friend's, a tad closer to the shore. After 2 weeks travelling we were looking forward to a little R & R and perhaps a large G & T. Not all changes are bad.......in 1980 I'd stayed in Chapora village, in the north, and my guilty pleasure was to sneak off to Scarlet's Juice Bar where they not only had electricity but also the only blender in the hood and had taken the radical step of throwing all manner of fruity concoctions, and sometimes even yogurt, into the same mix. Remember, the Smoothy was yet to be invented so this was pretty heady stuff.....

My friend lives in an ex-pat enclave known locally as Beachenders and for good reason. Think small Welsh village with twitching palm leaves instead of net curtains, just sunshine and you've got the idea. Everybody knows everything about everyone else. And believe me they've all got stories. And babies. It's yummy mummys by the sea. It's also party central. The 'local tourists', as the real locals call them, run restaurants and bars, organise yoga holidays, design beachwear and sell jewellery, they work hard and they play hard. As monsoon approaches and the temperature goes up the 'season', as the period from November to March is known, comes to an end. And things start to unravel. Everything and everyone literally gets fried. My friend has not long split up, for the second time, from her boyfriend and the 'I'm fine with it' facade was beginning to slip. I once lived with this woman in America, my year of living dangerously, so know her pretty well, and frankly I should have seen it coming. She was definitely, how shall I put it? Not feeling her best.

However, I did yoga classes high on a hill with a 360 degree view of sea, beach, palm-trees and sea...... not too shabby. Had the most amazing Ayuvedic massages from the small but perfectly formed chap who has the most incredibly healing hands and appears to be able to see inside my soul.....well that's how it feels! Our little party re-grouped for a trip to the Saturday produce market where we bought peppercorns and vanilla. We ate the delicious fish, drank the cold beer and watched that sunset, again and again. And it was good. And Mum said she'd loved it all so mission accomplished.

Back in Blighty Spring hadn't quite sprung. I had thought we'd be greeted by budding trees and blooming Daffs, but hay, the sun is sort of shinning today and the clocks have gone forward so fingers crossed.....

Top Tip: Daffodils.....cheap, yellow and in the shops now!!

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Hot and getting hotter.

Respect for another country's beliefs and culture is important for the conscientious traveller and in India especially one must be reminded about covering one's shoulders, arms or head. So it was with some surprise, as we hurtled towards Mysore train station, that view was obscured by the enormous poster of a gentleman's groin clad in brief black briefs, urging to us to buy his underwear. Swiftly followed by another. And another. Indeed, India is mysterious and magical place.

We arrived in Bangalore with several hours to kill before boarding the night train to Hospet, not enough time to actually enter the city proper but too long to sit with our bags in the station, so decided to deposit them in the left-luggage and find somewhere to eat. But first we had to get us and our cases across 9 platforms. Fortunately in India every station is choc full of coolies, the red-shirt wearing porters who will carry your bags for a small remittance. Two strapping young lads quickly appeared and we set about beating the price down to what translated into a paltry sum, and act made easier when dealing in hundreds rather than the few pence it actually adds up to. We were feverish in our negotiations, having got into the swing of things, and fixed the price before they masterfully hoicked the suitcases onto their young heads and set off. They can't have been too disappointed with the meagre amount as they urged us to use them a few hours later, when we planned to return to the station, so we arranged a time and set off in search of refreshment.

The station itself although very big and very busy had limited resources, but if ever you find yourself stuck there I urge you to check out the large hotel a few minutes walk away with the aptly named D'lish roof-top restaurant. Here amongst the business men and super-sized water feature we did indeed have a delicious dinner, waited on by an inordinate amount of waiters. However, we were back in the station about forty minutes earlier than planned and so with nothing else to do, retrieved our bags from the left-luggage. Immediately two elderly gentlemen lurched forward and vied for our custom. In another country one would have been more likely to offer to carry their luggage but they were tenacious in their demands to transport our bags and so, reluctantly, we agreed, first having beaten them down to the same pitiful price we'd paid the strapping young lads. They weighed up the cases and then, with alarming difficulty, the shorter of the two got one bag on his head while his collaborator attempted to load a second on top and then came the tricky manoeuvre of putting the third on his own. With extraordinary speed they were off, me dashing to keep sight of the wobbling suitcases amongst the sari-wearing-turban-topped crowed, my friend and my mother following in hot pursuit. Despite their bent-legged gait they set a cracking pace. Eventually they found our train on platform 10, an expression of pride mixed with disbelief on the sweaty faces as they relieved themselves of their heavy burden. We all caught up, mortified by the ancient coolies exertions and fisted over a good deal more cash than promised and many congratulations. Stations are loaded with light-fingers so it is wise to keep all baggage in constant contact so I climbed onto the train while my friend passed the cases up. Suddenly the door to our carriage swung open and, unbelievably in a station of such size and traffic, there was one of the boys we'd failed to re-hire, a look of disbelief on his face, "You didn't wait" he said, his disappointment far out weighing our crime. "We gave old men work," I stammered, but he seemed unimpressed.

The early morning air was already hot when we arrived in Hospet and even hotter after the short drive to Hampi. It was 30 years since my last visit to the ruined city and the unique scenery was unchanged, a surreal landscape of sun-bleached boulders, many perched perilously one above another as if a slight breeze might topple them. A setting more suitable to dinosaurs or Fred Flintstone. However, when I had last walked down Hampi Bazaar there was just a handful of travellers, a rag-taggle band of hippies in search of the legendary Hampi chillum beloved of the many natty-haired Sadhus who lived amongst the temple ruins. Now, there were cafes and shops displaying all the usual suspects: carved soapstone, mirrored bags, cheese-cloth pantaloons, studded t-shirts and so on. And people. Lots of people. But, there at the far end rose the unmistakable Gopura tower marking the entrance to the Virupaksha Temple. We were staying at the quaintly named Mowgli Guesthouse, across the river in a street of guesthouses that hadn't existed the last time I'm was there. But first we had to cross the river. During the days we spent there we watched the little motorised row-boat take it's 2 minute journey back and forth, packed with adults, children, animals, bicycles and on one occasion 2, yes 2, motorbikes........The guesthouse was set near a bend in the river, flanked by the emerald green padi-fields, dotted with palm trees and the ever present boulders. A perfect place to watch the hot sun set with a cold beer. Despite my efforts to remind my party to cover up and drink plenty of water my mum did succumb to the heat and so elected to read in the shade on our second day of sight-seeing. Everywhere are the ruins of the once majestic city of Vijayayanagar, the most powerful Hindu capital in the Deccan between the 14th and 16th centuries, where the bazaars were filled with silks, precious gems, pearls and roses, and bejewelled courtesans wandered about the perfumed palaces. We chose to check out the fabulous elephant stables before retiring from the heat to the cool of the Mango Tree restaurant, and sip....well what else? Mango Lassis.

Sad to leave this extraordinary place, we took a hair-raising taxi ride at the unspeakably early hour of 4am, the full moon still high in the starry night above the silver-lit landscape, to catch the train to Goa. The boat doesn't cross the river at night so we had to take the much longer route to catch the 6am train. We soon realised why the driver had brought along a couple of mates for the ride when they were gainfully employed to change the flat tyre, then we off-roaded through the padi-fileds before arriving at the station, stirred and shaken. "I felt like I was being kidnap," confided my friend and as soon as I recovered the powers of speech, I agreed.
Top tip: coconut oil makes an excellent hair conditioner

Friday, 12 March 2010


A Passage To India-the story continues.
Breakfast on holiday can be a thing of beauty and in India the full English is alive and kicking. Whenever I go away I seem to wake up hungry and up in the cool, hill-top air of Coonoor, in Tamil Nadu, it was no exception. We were staying in the amusingly named YWCA Wyoming Guest House, a blue and white colonial style building, resplendent beneath the pink and orange bougainvillea and nestled amongst the deep green tea leaves that grow on every bank and plain in that area. Cooked to perfection by a toothless octogenarian, we ate porridge, poached eggs, tea, toast and mango juice before heading out on day one.

The plan was to just take things easy but of course plans rarely work out. The night before we'd met Sultan, a young man very keen to break into the tourist game he'd started taking groups out for hikes in the extraordinarily beautiful Nilgiris Hills, promising to boldly go where no guides had gone before. His trips had been very popular thus far, judging by the comments from the New Zealanders and the Germans that he proudly showed us in his 'Guest Book'. "7 Kilometers" he proclaimed, "then the tea plantation and the coffee plantation." We explained that we were just arrived, still a little tired, one of us was 72 and none of us in need of unseen sights or rare views of mountain creatures, perhaps we could just go in the rickshaw straight to the plantation and have a cup of tea? "No problem my friend" said Sultan.

And so it was my friend and I found ourselves hacking through the undergrowth, heading to the top of the mountain, barely able to see the sky above such was the density of the Eucalyptus trees, while Sultan ran back down to assist my mother who refused to sit this one out. A situation I believe they both now regretted as he virtually had to carry her to the summit. "If you hear an animal," he said, "make a sound", disappearing back into the trees for the third time on his mountain relay trek. No problem there, making sounds in the countryside whenever I hear anything unexpected is what I do best. I am not for nothing a city girl. Finally, we broke free of the tangled forest and knotty tree roots, and reached the top where perched a tiny painted Hindu Temple. The spectacular view was almost worth it: the mists swirling up from the valley below like cold breath in the hot sunshine, fingers of clammy cloud reaching high up the tree covered mountains. And everywhere tea. We lay down on the rocks, like lizards in the sun, and sucked it in.

Coonoor is a bit of one horse town and I think the horse may have left. But it was a good place to start our journey and we learnt that tea actually grows on trees that are specially 'bonzied' to be bush height for the purposes of picking. You'd be amazed at how much time and energy goes into a cuppa. So, after a couple of nights we headed higher to Ootty, Queen of The Hill Stations as it is known in those parts. This is a place that has definitely seen better days. Once the holiday home of ex-pats, Princes and Maharajahs it is now a popular summer retreat for the rising Indian middle-class. Planning permission is clearly not high on the agenda here and all quaint vestiges of the Raj are more or less obliterated by the indiscriminate over-development of a great many new hotels and the resulting tat that follows a deluge to holiday-makers. But this was where we were destined, to meet the Reverend Stephen and his extended family of orphans at the Happy Home. This was for my Mum the aim of out trip, to make the journey she had intended to do with my late step-father, and so she was very happy to be there. The Reverend's aim is to educate the children and give them a good opportunity for a better life and to earn a living, they have just had their first student accepted overseas. We were greeted with enormous warmth and generosity and the most delicious home-cooked southern Indian delicacies, you'd be hard pushed to find a better Marsala Dosa than the ones Margret made. The young ladies, dressed in their Sunday best, put on a fine show of dance and song before we all tucked into cake and treats. While we were there we also visited some of the projects out in the villages where many of the girls learn how to make clothes and crafts for the tourist industry. The pride with which they showed us their work was palpable and we really had an excellent day out.

Then we were off to Mysore. Little prepares for the vibrancy and frenetic chaos of an Indian city at any time of the day let alone rush-hour and as the light faded and the mosies emerged Mysore was no acception. Our driver swerved to dodge the scooters, top heavy with boxes and bags wedged about the driver, his sari-clad wife riding side-saddle on the back, and played chicken with the black and yellow, buzzing rickshaws and hand-painted trucks. The Green Hotel was an oasis amongst the madness, a 'model of sustainable tourism', with some of the happiest and most helpful staff I've ever encountered, even attempting to fix my mother's mobile after a bottle of hand sanitizer had somehow managed to empty itself in her bag, melting not only the casing but the sim card too........just one of the reasons why I never use the stuff. The city filled our eyes, heads and hearts. We marvelled at the Mysore Palace and sweltered in the dusty forgotten art gallery, a gem of a discovery, wearing our amazing black, floppy summer hats (think Joan Collins goes to the beach) purchased for a snip from a keen entrepreneur outside the Palace, before taking a dip in the pool at the Lalitha Mahal Palace Hotel, a sort of cross between St Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London, only bigger. We drank G & T's on the lawn and feasted on delicious Tandoori chicken, coconut rice and fragrant dal and were fleeced by the Pirate of Mysore market, a cute Johnny Depp wannabee with a fine line in chat and chai who sells his 'essential oils' essentially to idiots who fall for his charms. See a photo of our smiling faces in one of his many note books depicting his happy customers, now known as 'the book of shame'.

Right now, in the cold light of a less than spring-like day, it's hard to imagine that somewhere else it's too hot to sit out. But trust me, in Hampi, in the state of Kanataka, it was hitting 35C and that's where we were headed next.......

Top tip: Dove Tinted moisturiser will maintain any tan.....indefinately.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

A Passage To India

Where's Spring? I had hoped to return from my Asian odyssey to something slightly more hospitable than the sub-zero temperatures and icy winds that greeted us at Heathrow. However, the good weather appears to be on hold for the foreseeable, so I have little choice but to set the central heating to Bombay, slather on the Dove tinted moisturiser and pretend the holiday isn't over..........Pina Colada anyone?

Despite my plans to miss out the rest of winter going a-rye, it was good to take a trip, albeit a bit stressful. A girlfriend of mine, who also has a friend living in Goa, had decided to join me and my mother on our adventure and see a bit more of India other than the beach. A bold decision but, being the most experienced traveller of the Asian sub-continent in our triumvirate, I did feel a tad responsible for their welfare. Travelling with my 72 year old mother in India was not that dissimilar to travelling with my son in the same country when he was 10, checking they're drinking plenty of water, they've remembered their hat and haven't wandered off somewhere.............I didn't manage to lose her but we did have to get a train stopped as it began to exit the station without us. We frantically clambered aboard, hoisting our heavy cases up with the help of the hundred or so random folk that always seem to be busy going nowhere on an Indian platform. The stopping of a train greatly bemused my travelling companions but in rural India the sight of three memsahibs in distress is often met with great kindness and much help, needed or not. And so we continued our journey, me, Mrs Moore and Mrs. Moore light, from Ooty to the majestic Mysore then on to the hazy heat of the boulder-strewn ruins of Hampi and finally the beach at Patnam.

At the Mudumalai National Park, in Tamil Nadu, I was particularly keen to encounter the Giant Flying Squirrel having seen a large painted likeness of this unusual beast with it's evil staring eyes by the Park reception, next to a sign saying 'Park closed'. It was apparently 'Tiger counting' week, something the fabulous Bamboo Banks camp, where we were billeted, had failed to mention. But as animals are less sure of the Park boundaries than the rangers there were plenty of wildlife spotting opportunities to be had. Alas, the Giant Squirrel eluded us and we failed to spot a tiger but we did see spotted dear, Macaque monkeys and encountered wild elephants wandering in the roadside jungle, and one who payed our bungalow a nocturnal visit. In a scene reminiscent of Jurassic Park, I sat bolt upright in bed, heart beating hard in a 'what-the-hell-was-that' way, listening to the mighty crack of something large moving outside followed by the unmistakable blustery exhaling that only a creature with a trunk could make. Elephants are not known for attacking harmless strangers in their beds but it felt scary. In the places where they roam wild, the locals consider them as vermin, a nuisance that causes considerable damage, like foxes with their merciless chicken genocide, the pachyderm breakdown the fences, trample the crops and rip up the vegetable patch.

The proprietor of our hostelry, a formidable octogenarian Indian of the old school, with Elephantine ears and a trunkated nose, who spoke RP English, had opened the joint to amuse himself and his wife in the latter years of their apparent glorious lives. He drove about his property on a quad-bike, trailed by two Golden Retrievers, a mischievous old man who saw conversation as sport, to catch-out, cajole and cause offense and at which he was a master, gleefully watching his opponent gulp and gasp as he denounced democracy, education.......the wheel. Unbeatable comment: 'Gandhi that crook, my father put him in jail.....'

To be continued.

Top tip: never leave home without Bach's Rescue Remedy