Visiting Fatehpur Sikri’s Sufi saint

Forty-three kilometres from Agra lies Fatehpur Sikri, the once-capital of Emperor Akbar’s Mughal Empire.  He moulded the city into his capital and lived there for about thirteen years before being forced to move out due to lack of a sustainable drinking water supply.   The impressive, colossal edifice that is called ‘Buland Darwaza’ or ‘Gate of Magnificence’ was the entrance to his capital city.  It’s a steep climb up uneven steps, but its worth it for the interesting prize encompassed within its inner courtyard.

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Apart from the unimpressive views of a generally uninteresting sprawl of houses, buildings and cars that stretch into the barren dirt, there’s not much to appreciate once you get to the top.   Maybe it’s just me, but I found the entrance a little smaller and less impressive than it seemed from the bottom of the staircase.  Don’t get me wrong. The gateway is still a muscular hulk of a thing.

However, I was more interested in the tomb of Salim Chisti.  Akbar built the glowing white marble mausoleum to house the body of this Sufi saint.  The story goes that Akbar approached the saint asking him to bless him and pray that he would have a son.  After the birth of three sons, Akbar’s ties to the saint got much closer and he held the saint in so much esteem that after his death, he built this tomb in his honour.  It is considered to be one of the best existing examples of sixteenth-century Mughal architecture.  When you go up close, you can see why.  The intricate curves of the glowing marble are mesmerising and the internal panels of jaliwork run along the edges of the area of the structure, showing haunting patterns of evening light across the marble floors.

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Truth is, I hadn’t heard of the myth surrounding Salim Chisti’s tomb until someone mentioned it to me.  The story goes that thanks to Akbar’s wish being granted, Chisti’s tomb became a place of pilgrimage by infertile couples.  In order to have their wish granted, they’d have to tie a piece of thread around the filigree marble of the tomb.  After someone did this once and had a child after, it because an established practice that spread across the country.  The myth has evolved into a grant-any-wish situation for anyone who ties a thread around the cutwork marble wall that separates the inner tomb from the person viewing it.  The lady I met who told me the story was actually on her way to the tomb to remove three threads that she had tied around the tomb twenty years ago.  Although she didn’t tell me what they were, she said all her wishes came true and she was fulfilling a long over-due promise to herself to untie the threads to thank Chisti for granting her favours.

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And yes, I made a wish and tied a thread too.  Hasn’t come true yet, but maybe…one day.

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What was disappointing to see, however, were the filthy grounds and hallways running around the tomb.  Besides pigeon shit and feathers everywhere, there were bits of chip packets, juice packs, crumpled bits of paper scattered here and there.  Walking around the tomb, there were some lovely details in the walls and hallways worth noting.

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I didn’t have time to visit the rest of Akbar’s palace at Fatehpur Sikri.  I did come back and do that on another trip.  But, that’s for another blog!

#fatehpursikri #agra #salimchisti #mughalarchitecture #mughaltomb #emperorakbar

 

Visited in 2013

 

 

Eating out in #Seminyak #Bali

Eating out in Bali was such a pleasure.  I’ve said before in an earlier post that Bali was one of my favourite travel destinations and the food there helped make that happen.  Either we were very lucky or it actually is very difficult to find bad food in Bali.  We stayed in Seminyak so the first part of this post is going to be about the restaurants, cafes and eateries I visited in and around our hotel.  First off, if you’re on a budget, you’ll love this.  A #warung is a small family-owned business like a cafe or a small shop that serves stuff including food.  Sometimes these look really spare, with a few dishes on display and some formica benches and tables inside a poky hole.  Don’t be afraid to eat here – the food is good, local and cheap.  Just observe and go to the ones you see locals frequenting, or ask your hotel for the popular ones in the area.  Language might be a barrier, but that’s why the food is on display – just point to the dishes that appeal.

Some warungs are better established and have turned themselves into larger restaurants.  The most popular one in Seminyak is ‘Warung Ocha’ and we kept going back to try different things because the food was so tasty (and yes, cheap).  They also had the most incredible smoothies – aromatic and flavourful.

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Front entrance of Warung Ocha
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Noodle dish with egg, chicken and fresh veggies plus a green tea, mint and coriander smoothie

‘The Dusty Cafe’ is a lovely continental cafe if you’re a lover of all things cold coffee or frappe-related, as I am.  The music is chilled out and lounge-y, and they make very tasty crepes.  I ordered the ‘Deep Playa’ which had ham, mozzarella and mushroom shallot sauce in a savoury wheat crepe (for about INR 350), and a frappe.  It’s air-conditioned, which is great if you need to escape the afternoon heat and just read or hang out somewhere quiet.

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A cold coffee
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The ‘Dusty Playa’ crepe
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The Dusty Cafe interior & decor

Absolutely-without-a-doubt my favourite eatery and chill-out place for breakfast and lunch was ‘The Shelter’ cafe.

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Cool interiors of the Shelter cafe on the first floor of a building in a side street

We found it at the tail-end of our holiday but made sure to return anyway.  They kept running out of ingredients, that’s how popular they were.  For breakfast we tried Nalu bowls which were basically homemade granola, yoghurt, juice and fruit combinations of your choice, topped with bananas and served in a large half-coconut shell with a spoon.

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Shelter cafe Breakfast: sourdough bread, two eggs, spinach, bacon, roasted tomatoes, mushrooms, hash browns and avocado with toast
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Nalu bowls with coconut flakes and granola

The smoothies were out of this world.  I tried a Green monster: spinach, cucumber, green apple, coriander, parsley, ginger, lemon, which was a great boost of superfoods to my system. The Shelter Booster was also amazing: papaya, banana, almond butter, coconut oil, flax seeds, honey, soy milk,  cinnamon, honey and ice. Great filler for breakfast!

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Shelter booster smoothie

This sandwich is called the ‘Noah’s ark’ and has roast chicken,bacon, lettuce, danish ham, cheese, aioli and some sort of chutney on freshly made sourdough bread (about INR 315 and worth every paise).

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The lighting at Bo & Bun was all low lights and candlelight, with tables pouring onto the street.  The restaurant was stylish, modern interiors and a little more up-market than some of the other restaurants around. It’s more of a meat-lovers place with lip-smacking pork ribs on offer.

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Pork ribs with messy, tangy, sticky BBQ sauce and chips.

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This was the tasting platter of Vietnamese spring rolls and other bite-sized items we had as a started.  It was tasty but m-eh.  Yes, our expectations were quite high of Bali restaurants in Seminyak by the time we found this place.

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Ok, I did have a sushi craving that needed to be sated.  It happens sometimes and lucky for me,  Sushimi Japanese restaurant, the sushi place on our street, had some tempting weekly offers.  I splurged here.  What can I say, except #sushirocks !

 

‘Fat Gajah’ is a noodle and dumplings restaurant in Seminyak with a low key atmosphere that just about crosses the line into fine dining.  We ordered the Curried Beef noodles which consisted of beef tenderloin, beef floss, crisp beef jerky, bok choy and shiitake mushroom.  We also ordered a filet of something called ‘butter fish’ which had a refined flavour and texture I’d never encountered before.  It was off the specials board, so you may not find it on the menu.

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Curried beef noodles
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Filet of Butter fish

Eating experiences:

Lunch at the Tea gardens in Tegalalang.

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A gorgeous all-you-can-eat buffet dinner and traditional dance at a hotel one evening

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People go on and on about eating ‘Babi Guling’ or roast suckling pig so we went to a lovely, restful restaurant with a maze of greenery and tables dotted here and there, surrounded in water features that tinkled brightly in the background.

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Seemed like a popular tourist stop but we spotted a few locals here too.   In fact, they were visiting with large families so we were hopeful about the food.  The restaurant was called the ‘Dirty Duck Diner’ or ‘Bebek Bengil.’ I passed on the suckling pig and chose a crispy duck creation instead, which turned out to be the house specialty. It was good.  Ask your hotel or local taxi driver for names of the best restaurant that offers the best roasts in your area.

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Crispy duck at the Dirty Duck Diner in Ubud

There are plenty of shack-like places lining the beaches where you can get a local beer and just chill for ages without worrying about someone asking you to leave.  But, I’d recommend trying a shack where you’ll get a wide variety of gorgeous flavours and combinations of fruit and aromatic smoothies, blended with ginger, herbs, lime and fruit.

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The coffee plantation we visited presented us with different samples of coffee and tea including vanilla tea which was surprisingly soothing

 

On Ubud high street, we came across a relaxing, open restaurant where we drank our body weight in coconut water to avoid dehydration and ate some spare ribs with rice to fill up our tummies.  Great selection of drinks and if you are lucky enough to get one of the tables overlooking the street, its great for people-watching.

Silver and Blue in #Jodhpur

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Muscular Mehangarh fort looks down protectively over Jodhpur from a height.

I visited Jodhpur in Rajasthan for a work trip twice.  Both times we were driven out of the city by our colleagues, into the Thar desert to meet desert village communities that were struggling to survive in agricultural lands with barely a drop of water to share between them. Drought in these lands has a different meaning altogether. They rely on water tankers, reservoir tanks and wells. We’d worked with communities to identify shared spaces where we had built water reservoirs and rainwater harvesting structures so that they could collect water for their daily needs. While my work trip was engrossing and very engaging, especially meeting the communities and getting to learn about the vulnerabilities they face, my colleagues and I managed to carve out a free day over the weekend to take in the blue city.

My sight-seeing priority was to visit Mehangarh fort, built around 1460. The steep incline leading to its entrance is worth the climb if only to see the best views of Jodhpur’s blue-walled city from across the impressive walls of the structure.  There are lots of entrance gates to the fort, each with its own unique historic moment and the story behind it, but Loha Pol was probably the most disturbing one I encountered.  It supposedly has the handprints of all the royal widows who have committed ‘sati’ that is the Hindu ritual of wives burning themselves on the funeral pyre with their dead husbands.  On closer examination, the hand imprints, though of varying sizes, look a little too uniform to be original.  Perhaps the imprint once made was further worked on and embellished to appear more clearly as evidence that the widow had indeed committed ‘sati.’  The thought that these were palm prints of real people made me shiver.  But a love for the ironic struck me: I wondered whether they all had lifelines that reflected their unnatural deaths.  Unfortunately the palm prints on the wall weren’t defined enough to reveal this.

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Handprints of ‘sati’ royal wives at Loha Pol (gate)

My favourite room of all the interiors was the extravagant and elaborately decorated zenana where royal wives and court women played cards, discussed their love lives and delved into political intrigue.

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Interior chamber room – Takhat vilas

The museum inside the fort has got an interesting collection of fine and applied arts. The rulers of the area had close links with the Mughals, so you’ll also find objects that once belonged to them here. There’s an interesting collection of palanquins, folios from medieval manuscripts and various other objects d’art of significant beauty and value. After visiting the fort, I wanted to buy myself some silver jewellery.  Rajasthan is known for particular silver craftsmanship and designs.  I bought a chain, two stone pendants and a bracelet all in silver, all of which I treasure to this day.

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Traditional silver jewellery design – snake weave bracelet

Next time, if I’m lucky enough to return, I plan to visit the second most popular attraction in Jodhpur: Umaid Bhavan Palace.

If you’re interested in reading more about Rajasthan, read about my visit to Jaipur.

Visited in 2007, 2009

Romance of #thepinkcity #jaipur in #rajasthan

For two years I’d wanted to attend the #JaipurLiteraryFestival. Ironically, when I lived in Delhi, I was so busy with my job that I couldn’t make the time to go there. Only after I moved back to Goa I was able to have the mind space to plan a trip there. My Jaipur visit was part of a long-held dream of wanting to visit the Pink city anyway. So, it made sense to couple my visit with a literary-festival-author-talk binge. I’d been to Jodhpur years before, but again, for work. And everyone knows a work visit isn’t quite the same as a holiday visit. There’s a different kind of focus.

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At Jaipur Lit fest 2015

I booked a room with a heater (it was a cold, windy January in the Rajasthan desert at the time) in an old haveli that was kept together by a few family members and some strutting peacocks. They were all over the place, the peacocks, that is.

The literary festival itself was fun, though packed full of people. I managed to get a seat to most events I wanted to attend and learned about a few new authors that sounded interesting. I listened to Jeet Thayil interview Will Self, heard Hanif Kureishi talk about his writing, watched a fascinating presentation by Simon Singh about the show The Simpsons and where all the mathematical principles presented in the show come from (the show’s writers are all Ivy League graduates in Maths), heard ex-president Abdul Kalam speak to a packed audience that almost caused a stampede. I saw travel writer, Mark Tully, and Welsh novelist, Sarah Waters, strolling around the grounds and attended the launch of Granta’s ‘India’ edition, presented by Urvashi Butalia, founder of Zubaan books.

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Simon Singh’s presentation on Maths in The Simpsons at JLF

I took two days out to rent a cab for a tour of the city and saw these gorgeous highlights, in photo form below:

Hawa Mahal (the palace of winds): 

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Amber Fort:

Exterior views –

Interior views –

Jaipur city Palace:

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If you have time to only see one thing in Jaipur, its the Four Seasons doors at the City palace.  Pay the entry fee and wander deep into the palace till you find the courtyard with the four doors.  You’ve got to get close-up to each one to spot the unique detailing and vibrant colouring of each one, that tells a story of its own.  These photos below barely do it justice.

Blue Pottery:  

Ok, I openly admit that I have a fetish for Blue (and Iznik) pottery.  I spent a couple of hours at the place below buying soapfishes, coaster tiles, bowls and toothbrush holders.

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The Albert Hall museum (state museum of Rajasthan): 

They had a LOT of beautiful objects that I whisked past due to limited time, including an armoury with medieval weapons and lots of interesting earthenware.  There was a floor of fascinating folios from a version of The Panchatantra that I loved.

And I spent an entire afternoon at the Anokhi showroom, buying ethnic wear in print block patterns (yes, yes, another thing I have a fetish for!) and stocking up on their gorgeous blank diaries.

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Block print pattern journals from Anokhi

Visited Jaipur in Jan 2015

My #Bali high, #Indonesia in pictures (no filter)

My visit to Bali was a last-minute proposal from a friend I hadn’t seen in three years and we decided to meet up in this gorgeous South-East Asian paradise, full of colour and surprises.  I hadn’t ever been before and had no interest in exploring #SouthEastAsia (yes, inspite of Gilbert’s best-selling travel memoir Eat, Pray, Love), something I’ve pointed out before in my post about Singapore.  However, after my short 10-day visit, #BeautifulBali turned out to be one of my top five favourite places to visit in the world, after Florence and Venice.  A few photos of my stay are included below.

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Late morning on Seminyak beach
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Bright colours – Seminyak beach
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Offerings to the Gods – flowers, fruit and candy…and coral toe-nails!
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Ubud streetscape, scooters & coconuts included.
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Sunset view from Ku De Ta beach club
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Kima Bali Surf camp (Seminyak) breakfast of delectable rhubarb yoghurt & honey pancakes
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Candy, rice grains, fruit and flowers as offerings – slightly trampled on in a side street.
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Cafe Nomad in Ubud, popular with expats who live here
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Rice terraces of Tegalalang
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Outside the Temple cave of fruit bats
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Spot the fruit bats asleep in the overhang.  Good thing you can’t smell their acidic guano!
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Entrance to Goa Gajah

Below is a Civet cat in a coffee plantation that produces #kopiluwak, the most expensive coffee in the world. The coffee is processed from the civet cat’s excrement, after the cat eats coffee cherries.  The bean’s skin is digested away, leaving behind an intact coffee bean that then goes through processing (picture on the right).  Yes, I tried some Luwak coffee.  No, I didn’t like the taste.

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Ku De Ta beach club

The week we arrived, we didn’t realise it, but the Balinese Hindus were celebrating ‘Nyepi’ or the Balinese ‘Day of Silence’ where devotees burn huge demonic effigies.  It commemorates the Balinese new year and this is just one of the rituals and celebrations that happens before and after the day of silence, when even tourists are asked to stay inside their hotels and the streets are conspicuously empty and silent.

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Balinese ‘Nyepi’ parade of plaster effigies
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Balinese dance in traditional costumes
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Exterior – Balinese palace and temple

I can’t wait to return one day soon 🙂

Visited in March 2015

My (long-ish) list of what to see/do in #Singapore

For decades, I’d never been able to muster up any excitement to travel to #SouthEastAsia.  When the option to visit a cousin who’d moved to Singapore came up, and I asked a few people about it, the overall consensus seemed to be, ‘It’s known for its Financial district and it’s too sterile and boring.  You’ll think so too.’  I went anyway and maybe it was the lower expectation I had, but my first time there was a blast!  I’ve been to Singapore three times in all since then, and each time has been more wonderful than the last. Here are some of my best memories and recommendations from each trip:

First trip: 2009

  • We posed for photos by the Merlion with a grand backdrop of the 1928 Neo-classical style Fullerton Hotel in the background.
  • We also had a night-time river ride down Singapore river and back. The financial district was all lit up like London’s Canary Wharf and made for a garish nightscape along the river.  But some might think otherwise and really love it.
  • If you like theme parks, visit Sentosa island. We loved the Aquarium!
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The Aquarium on Sentosa island
  • We had our first experience of Korean BBQ at Red Pig restaurant on Amoy street which, unfortunately, is now closed down. It was so much fun watching the chef grill our meats on the hot grill at our table itself.  Great recommendation, glad you took us there Pinaki B 🙂
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Korean BBQ at the Red Pig
  • We visited the National Museum, where audio guides were included in the price of our ticket. The museum was deceptively larger than we realized, but also very interesting as it described the development of Singapore from pre-historic origins right through colonial times and into modern Singapore. The displays are vibrant and informative and the audio guide is quite comprehensive about each object it describes.
  • We went to Raffles hotel to sample its famous signature drink, ‘The Singapore Sling’, at The Writer’s Bar and the manager kindly offered to take our photograph. He even directed us to the inner room where framed writings of Rudyard Kipling, Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham are hanging on the wall. They were early customers at Raffles when it was just a bungalow with guest rooms started by a couple of Armenian brothers who were hoteliers and businessmen.
  • We sampled some mall food courts, which served cheap but tasty, quality eats from across South East Asia
  • We shopped for souvenirs in China Town and had relaxing cups of chai in Little India, after devouring Fish Head curry, one of Singapore’s signature dishes.
  • Marina Bay Waterfront Promenade is great for night-time walks and the Esplanade had lots of night-time entertainment options in its ticketed arena – it’s a lovely place to catch a show if that’s your thing.

Second trip: 2015

  • Marina Bay Sands hotel and a handful of cafes in their retail space with a skylight lightening things up – that feel of being outdoors even though its grey and overcast outside.
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Marina Bay Sands hotel and the Science Museum next to it
  • My first sight of Singapore’s latest tourist attraction, Gardens by the Bay, with the zany, metallic flowers reaching into the sky. Quite stunning! It’s the first view you get if walking from Marina Bay Sands hotel on the walkway towards the flowers and you can get some gorgeous pics of the flowers from the height where you are!  Thanks to Patty B for taking me there 😀
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Gardens by the Bay
  • The Asian Civilisations museum had some eye-opening displays that I just loved and if I’d had time, I would have visited the Peranakan museum too
  • Changi Prison and museum was three bus rides away from where my cousin lived, but it was a lovely day out for us both as we walked around the small, free museum with displays about the history of what happened in the little village outside the city, and how people coped when the prison was set up by the Japanese to incarcerate WWII Prisoners of War. There isn’t much else around the area, so plan for lunch or a snack in the museum’s restaurant to keep you going.
  • Sri Mariamman temple and the Buddha Tooth Relic temple – I loved them both and took lots of photographs of the stunning visual details and architecture. Both located in Chinatown area.
  • Had amazing seafood at a popular restaurant (the name of which I can’t recall) while in search of chilli crab but had to settle for chilli crayfish instead, which was just as good I think.  Kudos to locals Ronnie and Gloria for knowing we’d have a great time here!
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Garlic prawns at the seafood restaurant
  • La Pau Sat is one of my favourite spaces in the city, especially when the lunch crowd arrives. Great for people-watching, especially those not glued to their phones. There’s a system of leaving your stuff on the table to ‘book’ seats and going in search of the stall (from over 100) that serves what you want to eat. I couldn’t believe that people were happily leaving their valuables behind to book their seats. When I asked someone about it, they said that no one would dare steal here. Hmmmm. This system wouldn’t work in any place I’ve been to in India.
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La Pau Sat in the Financial district
  • Had my first Coldstone Creamery icecream ever – knarly concept.  Thanks for the intro, Lisa A!
  • Loved the Singapore Art Museum – they were having an open exhibition of contemporary art by local students and artists and it was pretty interesting innovative stuff including installations and sculpture.

Third trip: 2016

  • Din Tai Fung has the best dim sum and noodle-soups around and because it’s a chain, you can find one across the city, and probably even abroad as its starting to go global. And if you have the chance, book a table at Paradise Dynasty restaurant. Try the soupy dimsum, which is a specialty there. Thanks for taking me ther, Bobby K!
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Xiao Long Bao (soupy dimsum) from Paradise Dynasty restaurant
  • I went nuts buying poetry books from local poets at Kinokuniya here. The Japanese bookstore is one of the best brands to be exported across Asia. My first Kinokuniya encounter was in Dubai mall and Singapore has a couple of stores in different malls. They’re great for a sheer variety of books but also for local reads. Very pricey though!
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Singaporean poets from Kinokuniya bookstore

My next trip?

Next time, I’ll visit some of the independent bookstores, more independent cafes, the Chinese Heritage center, see Little India again, visit the Botanic gardens and the Peranakan museum. I’m not sure what it is about the city, but the cultural heritage is so rich and the city has made great strides in putting it on display so that visitors can learn and enjoy the variety, encouraging open spaces as creative hubs so that contemporary modern mixes well with the old. It’s an interesting city with inarguably lots to see and something for everyone. It’s the kind of place I wouldn’t mind staying for a year. Yup, that should give me enough time to really get into the feel of the place and explore it properly.

#Coconut Naan on #Palolem beach

Yes, I live in Goa but I have no sensible reason why it has taken me this long to visit Palolem beach. I visited in January 2017 thanks to a friend dropping by Goa from abroad, and him wanting to hire a cab to check out the beach for a day. It was a lo-ong ride from Benaulim to Palolem, even with a taxi driver who drove like he was a Grand Prix racer. We got there by 11am with a plan to just find a café/restaurant, plant ourselves and chill. beach access full of desperate entrepreneurs desperate for business. ‘Do you want dolphin watching?’ asked one. ‘Boatman?’ asked another at my elbow until I said No firmly enough for him to get the point.   Everyone needed business now that money flow was improving too slowly after the country’s recklessness of demonetisation.

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Colourful cabanas among the coconut trees

Right away, as I started to walk the slight curve of the shoreline, past the line of restaurants and colourful cabanas lining the sandy beach edge, I fell in love with the beach’s unique features. The sand was different here – flatter close to the edge, even though it wasn’t wet and fluffier the further it got away from the water’s edge. It was a different texture and colour too, to Benaulim beach sand; less coarse, almost flakier and more golden. In the distance, I could see a lump of rock, rising out of the water, forming a nice little cove to hide behind if you were in the water swimming or in a kayak. That was another thing, you could hire kayaks and go out onto the water for a short jaunt. We strolled through the sand until we found a restaurant called ‘Blue’ with cover that opened onto the beach but was still deep enough in the shade to keep us cool.

One cold coffee later and out came my laptop so that I could scratch my itch to get some long overdue writing done. My friend donned his bathing suit and disappeared into the water for a couple of hours. Before he melted into the Arabian Sea, he mentioned that when he’d visited Palolem before, he’d noticed that the beach was split into informal enclaves. To the left of the beach entrance was where the Russians hung out. Menus were in Russian; so were signboards. To the right, where we were sitting at that moment, was the British and Israeli part of the beach. After my friend left for his swim, a few families sat down a short distance away, occasionally looking up from their phone screens to discuss what they’d like to order from the menu. They were speaking a language I couldn’t comprehend and I realized that they were speaking Hebrew. I turned to the back of the menu and there it was, staring me in the face – the entire menu translated into Hebrew.

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And what a fabulous menu it was – Indian, Continental and Chinese staples were there, but I spotted the occasional oddity that I’d never seen before on any shack or restaurant menu in the Benaulim area. Coconut naan bread jumped out at me. I’d never heard of it before, let alone tried it. I ordered a plate along with a rum and coke. A hot steaming platter of over-fresh naan sprinkled with shredded coconut arrived. As I chewed the doughy bread, shots of coconut flavor overtook the gentle heat of fluffy carbs and made my tongue ecstatic. I ordered another bread basket when my friend returned to the table and got him to try some. He ordered a third one! We basically spent a couple of hours filling up on fresh coconut naan bread and drinks until our stomachs rebelled against the lack of protein and veg in our system. We ordered a few other menu items which turned out to be less impressive and it was sunset all too quickly. We had a couple of sundowners to celebrate a wonderful day out and the joy of being alive and on a beach, sharing the pleasure of each other’s company.

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Coconut naan