Tag Archives: food

India Journal: Taj Mahal and Textiles

One of the best days so far is the 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. Yes, it’s definitely a tourist attraction and not off the beaten path. But, how can one come to India and not go there? Certainly not me!

HAPPY THANKSGIVING FOR THOSE IN THE USA!

Taj Mahal, Agra, India. Midday is the best light.

Taj Mahal, Agra, India. Midday is the best light.

We traveled by train and took a taxi from the station to the guesthouse. Both the Delhi and Agra stations are a mishmash of individuals and families, sitting, squatting, waiting, eating snacks. Horse drawn carts and bicycle rickshaws compete for passengers with Tata taxis. Noise and humanity is fierce.

Women visiting from the far north of India.

Women visiting from the far north of India, block prints, tie-dye, embroidered trim.

But not so inside the grounds of the Taj, where manicured lawns and well-mannered travelers offer a visual distraction to the looming white marbled domed building.  Perfect Mughal symmetry. Perfect in every way.

Entry gate to the Taj Mahal, ornate with inlaid jade, coral, lapis lazuli and amber.

Entry gate to the Taj Mahal, ornate with inlaid jade, coral, lapis lazuli and amber.

I feel the presence of many who come from around the world as if on pilgrimage. There is a mix of Moslems, Hindus, Jains, Christians, Buddhists. Women, young and old, wear sarees or the more contemporary pantsuit. The cloth colors are jewels. The patterns and designs signify the region of the wearer. The red bindi mark on the forehead between the brows designates those who are married.

Family members from Gujarat state traveling together.

Family members from Gujarat state traveling together.

For me, this was as much about meeting people and commenting to them about their beautiful textiles as it was about being in the presence of this famous mausoleum. I am beginning to identify the regions where the cloth is woven, and which is made with natural dyes.

Sarees in glorious colors. I prefer the cotton ikat and block prints.

Sarees in glorious colors. I prefer the cotton ikat and block prints.

It was definitely a fashion show that kept my attention from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The weaving is very intricate, especially the ikat, and it is a joy to see the cloth used as daily wear.

Gatiman Express, to Delhi from Agra in 1-1/2 hours.

Gatiman Express, to Delhi from Agra in 1-1/2 hours.

We left the guesthouse to catch the 5:50 p.m. Gatiman express (1-1/2 hours to Delhi) back to Delhi, arriving in time for a late dinner. Buy tickets in advance through a travel agent.

Worker uses damp rag to clean Taj Mahal exterior.

Worker uses damp rag to clean Taj Mahal exterior.

My recommendation is NOT to hire a guide but instead rent the audio cassette in English once inside. There are 16 stops that fully explain the architecture and the history. You can move at your own pace and not be harassed by an over-eager attendant who leads you at his pace.

Women wearing batik block prints Malaysia walk along the garden path.

Women wearing batik block prints Malaysia walk along the garden path.

Guides tell tourists to go inside the monument at 6:30 a.m. for sunrise and  at sunset to see the Taj from the gardens across the Yamouna River.

This saree is a fine quality cotton ikat with natural dyes from Orissa.

This saree is a fine quality cotton ikat with natural dyes from Orissa.

In my opinion, it’s best to see the Taj in midday, when the strong sun glows and the domes are white iridescent. My personal experience was that sunset was not dramatic. There’s pollution in Agra, although locals call it fog!

Buddhist tourists from Japan.

Tourists from Japan. I just loved their style!

Foreigners pay more for admission, 1,000 rupees. You can buy tickets online and then print them out and take them to the ticket office. From the ticket office near the East Gate, there are free electric vehicles to transport you directly to the site.Don’t fall for taxi drivers who tell you it’s too far and you need them to drive you around to get in.

Ikat saree from Assam state in north India near the Bangladeshi border

Ikat saree from Assam state in north India near the Bangladeshi border.

Traveling without being in a group has its downsides. And, it’s not easy here to navigate a world where noise, pollution and traffic (hours of it) dominate the experience. Were I to do it again, I’d do it differently.

Monkeys run free throughout the Taj Mahal grounds, especially the mosque.

Monkeys run free throughout the Taj Mahal grounds, especially the mosque.

Agra is multi-cultural. About 60% of the population is Hindu, 30% is Moslem, and the remaining 10% are minorities: Christians, Jains, Buddhists, etc.

Family from Gujarat, our next destination.

Family from Gujarat, our next destination.

We heard so many languages and I identified people from Japan, Malaysia, the U.K., throughout India by their dress.  My friends here tell me that the traditional saree is making a comeback and more young women who want a cultural connection to their country are adopting the saree for everyday wear.

Architecture of infinite passageways. Built with local red sandstone.

Architecture of infinite passageways. Built with local red sandstone.

Old rickety carts to collect trash and grass clippings.

Old rickety carts to collect trash and grass clippings.

Bas relief plaster embellishment on mosque and entry gate walls.

Bas relief plaster embellishment on mosque and entry gate walls.

We have found the people to be friendly, warm and kind for the most part. The young, educated people especially, who helped us with bags, helped us find our way, helped us get taxis, ensured that we were going in the right direction.

Agra Cantt train station. Bustling, finding our way to the right platform.

Agra Cantt train station. Bustling, finding our way to the right platform.

Of course, the first topic of discussion from Indians is our presidential election. People are so surpised at the outcome and wonder how this could happen. I find myself in a continuous state of apology.

Attendant on the Gatiman Express, fast train between Agra and Delhi.

Attendant on the Gatiman Express, fast train between Agra and Delhi.

My hands clasped together, I bow slightly and say, Namaste. What else can I do?

Festooned horse-drawn carriages take people around Agra town.

Festooned horse-drawn carriages take people around Agra town.

Inside the mausoleum, people stand before the crypt of the beloved queen Mumtaz Mahal who died giving birth to her 14th child at age 38. Shah Jahan is buried with her. Women bend their heads as if in prayer atop the railing, throw rupees into the center. Wishes. I wonder what they wish for?

Moslem women protect themselves from the sun.

Moslem women protect themselves from the sun.

I don’t notice any breastfeeding women here, like I do in Mexico. I see babies cradled and sucking bottles. I do see (and have eaten) plenty of samosas, dal, chickpeas, and banana chips. Spice is king here.

Samosa vendors on the main road beyond our guesthouse.

Samosas on main road. Safe to eat? Probably, but I didn’t tempt fate!

One night could be enough unless you want to explore the Agra Fort, the Baby Taj and take a day trip out to Fatepur Sikri, a stunning, simple palace complex built after the first Mughal invasion of India that was abandoned after 19 years because of water shortages.

Marble floor of Taj Mahal mosque, in form of prayer rugs.

Marble floor of Taj Mahal mosque, in form of prayer rugs.

Colonialism survives in India. Because I’m a foreigner and paid more for the entry ticket, I was segregated to go into a shorter queue, given a bottle of water and slippers to cover my shoes. Later, I stood in line for the ladies room. The attendant waved me to her and I followed.

Detail of Mosque domed ceiling, Taj Mahal.

Detail of Mosque domed ceiling, Taj Mahal.

She opened a door to a private bathroom stall, pristinely clean. I never got to see what the regular person uses. Maybe, it’s because of my venerable age or is it because of skin color?

School girls at the Taj Mahal. Lots of school groups come here.

School girls at the Taj Mahal. Lots of school groups come here.

Women here have their own safe Metro cars devoted exclusively to the and can go into the front of ticket lines before men, too.

Woven baskets at the Agra train station. What's inside?

Woven baskets at the Agra train station. What’s inside?

Bundles of commercial goods ready to load on the train.

Bundles of commercial goods ready to load on the train.

Tending to the Taj Mahal lawn.

Tending to the Taj Mahal lawn.

Recommended travel tips:

  • Take an early morning train from Delhi to Agra.
  • Check into your hotel.
  • Spend Day One at Fatehpur Sikri (an hour from the city) and end it at the gardens. Squeeze in the Agra Fort if your have enough fortitude.
  • Day 2, take a leisurely breakfast. Go to the East Gate to get your ticket stamped, and collect the water bottle and booties. You can’t go into the mausoleum or mosque unless you wear booties or take your shoes off.
  • Leave backpacks behind. No food or drink allowed inside except water.
  • Be prepared to go through security. Separate lines for men and women.
  • Rent a self-guided tour audio casette.
  • Lunch is iffy. Not really any good place to eat but you can get packaged snacks at the Coffee Shop.
  • You came here to see the Taj Mahal. Don’t rush through it!

Where we stayed: Aman Guesthouse. Nice people. Decent room and food. Nothing special except excellent hospitality and a good price.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

India Journal: Visit to Pure Ghee Textile Designs

Ghee, clarified buffalo or cow butter, is the essential cooking and flavoring oil in India. Ghee also has religious significance and is used at life cycle celebrations throughout the country. It is highly nutritious and is part of the ayurvedic system, which forms the basis of spirituality, food, and health.

Eating with one's hands, to become one with the food.

Eating with one’s hands, to become one with the food.

One could say that ghee is the foundation of Indian life and culture, just as the tortilla is elemental to Mexico. I would venture to say that Aditi Prakash carefully chose the brand name Pure Ghee for the textile design company she started seven years ago to connect what she makes to what is second nature here. Elemental. Essential. Necessary.

Trademark cloth flowers embellish zipper pulls on scrap fabric bag

Trademark cloth flowers embellish zipper pulls on scrap fabric bag

Aditi employs women who are migrants, takes them off the street, trains them in sewing skills and gives them employment. Women sew. Men complete the finish work, led by a master tailor from the neighborhood, who supervises the apprentices. There are two levels of quality control and each product is nearly perfect, just like ghee.

Pure Ghee staff member who oversees quality control

Pure Ghee staff member who oversees quality control

Aditi invited Nidhi and me to her home for a simple Indian vegetarian lunch, to see her workshop studio, so I could learn about the processes and products, and meet the staff who make the bags and accessories that make their way to shops and boutiques throughout the country.

Master tailor finishes edges of new bag design.

Master tailor finishes edges of new bag design.

First, let’s talk about lunch.

Aditi says she uses turmeric in everything. Nidhi echoes this. Turmeric has antiseptic healing powers they say. They add it to yellow lentils with salt and cook the lentils in a stove top pressure cooker for about 30 minutes.

Ghee, chili mustard and curry leaves simmer on stovetop

Ghee, chili mustard and curry leaves simmer on stovetop

In a separate spoon with very large bowl, Aditi combines about 1/4 c. ghee, fresh curry leaves, red chilis from her home state of Hyderabad, cumin and mustard seed. The bowl of the spoon goes over the gas burner until the mixture simmers and cooks, coming to a low boil.

Aditi serves lentil soup in small bowls, a garnish to rice and vegetables

Aditi serves lentil soup in small bowls, a garnish to rice and vegetables

This is added to the lentils, that now has the consistency of a thick soup.

In another cooking pot is potatoes, cauliflower and peas.

Food is ayurvedic, Aditi says. Nidhi adds that cooking is not written down but passed through the generations as part of the cultural tradition. She learned from her mother. Both are independent, creative women who prepare vegetarian meals in the Hindu tradition daily for their husbands.

Silk-cotton draw string bags worn with the sari

Silk-cotton draw string bags worn with the sari for evenings, weddings

Homemade roti, a whole grain flat bread that looks like a tortilla (they both make this from scratch), and brown rice are served as a base for the lentils and vegetable medley. Everyone uses shallow metal plates that look like a cake pan.

Aditi Prakash in her showroom. People find us, she says.

Aditi Prakash in her showroom. People find us, she says.

We eat with the fingers of our right hand, important to bring the five elements from table to body, in complete circle of life and sustenance.

Traditional plaque in Aditi's home.

Traditional plaque in Aditi’s home.

Aditi’s husband is a filmmaker. Both work from home and they built a three-level workspace where each has dominion. Aditi supports craft artisans from throughout India and as an industrial designer, has helped many refine their products to bring to the marketplace.

Bag patterns hang in small workshop space

Bag patterns hang in small workshop space

After lunch and a modest shopping spree (thank goodness Pure Ghee accepts credit cards), the three of us went off to the Nature Bazaar, a cooperative of crafts-people and textile artists from throughout the country.

Artist Nidhi Khurana, New Delhi, November 2016

Artist Nidhi Khurana, New Delhi, November 2016

Aditi says this has one of the best selections in all of Delhi, with very fair prices. It is off-the-beaten-path for tourists but well worth the visit. For me, it will need several hours. There are textiles, lengths of cloth by the meter, paintings and drawings, folk art, brass bells, sari, indigo and Khadi clothing, jewelry from Afghanistan.

Pure Ghee workshop in action

Pure Ghee workshop in action

If you haven’t noticed, India is about color, texture and sound. It is about silk, cotton and the resurgence of tradition. Both Nidhi and Aditi say that the sari is standard daily dress for women.

Lunch preparation, a vegetarian Hindu meal accompanied by Hyerabad mango pickle.

Lunch preparation, a vegetarian Hindu meal with Hyderabad mango pickle.

I’m going back to Nature Bazaar today. There are over 100 vendors with central payment stations. And, yes, credit cards accepted. Perfect for the cash crisis in play now. I’ll be writing more about this. Perhaps tomorrow.

Sneak preview of Nature Bazaar: piles of indigo and block prints

Sneak preview of Nature Bazaar: piles of indigo and block prints

 

 

 

Everyday Life in the Campo, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

Those of us who live here in Mexico probably do much the same things that you do every day. Food shop, clean house, exercise, visit friends, read, write, take naps, volunteer, etc. Most of the immigrants I know are retired and live here either part or full-time. We’re from Canada and the U.S.A. for the most part, but Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans are among us, too.

Oaxaca Red casita color. With Gar Bii Dauu. Local endangered succulent.

Oaxaca Red casita color. With Gar Bii Dauu. Local endangered succulent.

Living in Teotitlan del Valle is different from being a city dweller. This village of indigenous Zapotec people holds to a strong, powerful and ancient culture. Many work at weaving wool rugs. Some are musicians. Others are shopkeepers or run comedors. Some are bakers and butchers. A few sew clothing. Many are farmers. In times when there are fewer tourists, many weavers supplement their income by growing and harvesting food.

Plowing my neighbors corn field, a five-hour project

Plowing my neighbor’s corn field, five plus hours of labor

I live in the campo. Out beyond the hubbub of town, amid the traditional milpas of corn, beans and squash. I’m surrounded on three sides by maize fields. Some are tasseling now. Here, the tradition is to plow the furrows when the corn is waist-high to break the crust and allow rain to penetrate earth. This is living close to the soil. Organic. Honorable.

It’s rainy season. Green stretches for miles. Today I awakened to whistling. Out my window was a young man driving a team of bulls plowing the field next to the casita I live in.

Rene's Volkswagen van. Can you guess it's vintage?

Rene’s Volkswagen van. Can you guess it’s vintage?

I grew up in Los Angeles. Miles of freeways. Concrete. Tiny lots separated by six-foot block walls. School yards paved with asphalt. I remember scraped knees and elbows. The hum of car engines passing. We were all jammed together, a jam of humanity. Even more now. Gridlock. I think I’ve become a country girl.

The crop was planted in July. There wasn’t much rain in June and farmers worried about another year of drought. In my absence over the last five weeks, seems that weather has played catch up and everything is growing.

Two teams of bulls on two days, one white, the other black. Take a rest.

Two teams of bulls on two days, one white, the other black. Take a rest.

The young man plowing the field rents out his services. His two bulls are tethered with a hand-hewn yoke that supports a wood plow. He guides the curved stick deep into the earth with one hand to keep the furrow straight. In the other, he holds a switch that gently prods the animals to keep on the straight and narrow. Farm machinery cannot do this job well enough.

A perfect day for plowing the fields.

A perfect day for plowing the fields. From my living room window.

This is his second day at it. Both days, he started at eight in the morning, ended around two o-clock in the afternoon, just before lunch. People work hard here. Five plus hours plowing the field with no break in the heat of the day. The monotony of walking back and forth. The patience of walking back and forth.

Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat, March 2017

My friend, plumber and handy-man extraordinaire René asks me if I know what the greca (Greek key) symbol means that is woven on village rugs.  It’s the step-fret carved into the Mitla temple walls, I answer.

Grecas, Mitla archeological site

Grecas, Mitla archeological site, post-classical Monte Alban

Yes, and more, he says. The ancient Zapotecs believe the two interlocking hands that form the pre-Hispanic greca represent the serpent deity duality and the life-giving connection between earth and sky, water and fire.  

The transformation. Beige to red. Another symbol.

Rene executing the transformation. Beige to red. Symbol of change.

We are eating lunch and the thunder is rolling in. The sky darkens. Earth gives off the aroma of on-coming rain.  The just plowed field next door will soon drink its fill. René packs up his painting supplies. Paint does not do well with humidity.

Handwoven indigo rug with greca design

Handwoven indigo rug with greca design, Teotitlan del Valle

The exterior walls of the casita I live in are getting a makeover. The wasband liked beige. I’m in the mood for Oaxaca Red.

From rooftop terrace, a 360 degree view of Tlacolula valley

From rooftop terrace, a 360 degree view of Tlacolula valley

Locavores in Oaxaca: Eat Local and Who Makes Our Food

People in the Oaxaca valley have eaten locally grown corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, poultry and fruit for centuries, long before the term locavore came into existence. The farm-to-table movement in the United States is one example of eating fresh food produced within 100 miles.

Weighing beans, Teotitlan del Valle Market

Weighing beans, Teotitlan del Valle Market

During the years I lived on an organic farm in Pittsboro, North Carolina, and shopped at farmer’s markets (a habit I formed early in my adulthood), we learned to eat around the seasons. I read somewhere that this is one of the healthiest things we can do for our bodies.

One by-product of the CNTE Section 22 Teacher’s Union strike in Oaxaca is the intended or unintended consequences of returning to locally grown food. The blockades are preventing the big box, semi-trailers filled with imported goods from entering Oaxaca to deliver their loads to Walmart, Soriana and other giant retailers like Coca-Cola.

Magdalena with corn husks to prepare tamales

Magdalena with corn husks to prepare tamales

I’m reminded of the signs in Pittsboro, NC when I visit: Shop Local.  I’m sure you see this where you live, too.

In conversations around town, I’m hearing a mixed bag of blessings and complaints. Everyone loves Walmart, yes?, because of low prices. Others say local Oaxaca city markets like Benito Juarez, Abastos, Sanchez Pascuas, Merced stock everything they need and it’s important to support local merchants so they stay in business.

Organic corn, dried on the cob, ready for planting

Organic corn, dried on the cob, ready for planting

Yet others are inconvenienced because they can’t get a particular variety of yam, brand of toilet paper, or giant coca-cola bottles for less.

There has been a strong movement here against genetically modified corn promoted by Monsanto. I have wondered whether the blockades of the big retail semi-trailers aren’t just an extension of that.

Quesadillas with fresh corn tortillas hot off the comal

Quesadillas with fresh corn tortillas hot off the comal

I hear that by privatizing education, doors will open to international conglomerates to sell, at a profit, sugary drinks and snacks to school children, whose families are already at risk for diabetes and diet-influenced diseases.

Here in Teotitlan del Valle, I do all my food shopping locally at the daily market. Then, fill in what I need at the Sunday Tlacolula market. Yes, they sell toilet paper and paper towels there, along with all the cleaning supplies one needs.

I wonder if this blockade isn’t a good thing to help us raise our awareness for how much and what we need in comparison to who provides it for us. What we eat is important. We have asked the question: Who makes our clothes?

Now, it’s time to ask again here in Oaxaca: Who makes our food?

Yesterday, the fields next to me were plowed and planted with corn. Native indigenous corn, not genetically modified. I know that’s good.

Plowing the milpas to plant corn, squash, beans

Plowing the milpas to plant corn, squash, beans

Gossip and Morning Refreshment: Following the Abuelitas

This morning I arrive at the daily market early, by 9 a.m. I had chicken soup on my mind and want to make some, so I first stop at a stall where I know that cooking teacher Reyna Mendoza buys her pollo. Criollo, advises the woman standing next to me in the aisle as she points to the small whole, white chicken, saying pollo, es pollo, (chicken, it’s chicken) a Spanish lesson for the güera. I smile and nod.

Buying roses, $2.50 a dozen . I always have fresh flowers.

Buying roses, $2.50 a dozen . I always have fresh flowers.

Criollo means natural or wild or organic. They eat maize, she says. She then points to the big, plump yellow chickens sitting with their big breasts, proud birds, twice the size of the criollos, and says, these came from Oaxaca and they eat commercial grain (in Spanish, of course). Then, the vendor and the shopper move into Zapotec, a language I don’t understand. Some chismes (gossip), I’m sure.

Mango vendor with an abundant supply.

Mango vendor with an abundant supply.

I love following the little grandmothers, the abuelitas, through the market, with their wool checked faldas (skirts) folded around their waist and tied with a handwoven red wool cinturon (belt) with tassle ends. In the old days, these belts were dyed with cochineal. Some still are.

Plaid wool skirt tied with a cummberbund, floral top, shawl for sun protection, basket to hold market goodies.

Plaid wool skirt, floral top, shawl for sun protection, basket for market shopping.

Plaid skirts, flowered blouses, sometimes aprons, always a traditional handwoven reed shopping basket balanced on the crook of the left arm, long hair braided with colored ribbons and tied together at the end or piled on top of the head like a crown, a rebozo (shawl) covering shoulders or head, sometimes the shopping basket. This is a passing generation.

Village tuk-tuk carries shoppers who don't carry baskets on their heads.

Village tuk-tuk carries shoppers who don’t carry baskets on their heads.

This was not meant to be a long shopping trip. I left the house gate open because I intended to return immediately.  A quick pass through the market for organic chicken, chard, a dozen fresh long-stem roses (40 pesos a dozen, that’s about $2.50 USD), criollo eggs from the gallina (hen), a couple of squash and mangos (it’s the season).

Following the abuelitas as they take a respite

Following the abuelitas as they take a respite

As I was loading my car I noticed a stream of abuelitas entering the doorway of the convenience store across the street. Such a good picture, so I decided to hang out. A few more entered, one at a time.

Inside, a congregation of about six grandmothers. Good for the stomach, they say.

Inside the inner sanctum, a congregation of about six grandmothers.

More than coca-cola inside

More than coca-cola here. Time for a chat and refreshment.

It was by now 10 o’clock in the morning. I waited for them to emerge but they didn’t. And, I remember that this is the ladies’ social hour and the convenience store is where they congregate before going back home to work, prepare meals, do laundry and take care of the grandchildren. So, I decided I was done waiting and would join them!

It's dark inside with obscure lighting. In the shadows I can barely see faces.

It’s dark inside with obscure lighting. In the shadows I can barely see faces.

Believe me! A shot of mezcal at 10:30 a.m. can really get you moving. As I sidle up to the counter cum bar to join the ladies, they welcome me with warm smiles, ask where I live, how long I’ve been here, and admire my filigree Zapotec-style earrings and embroidered apron, sign that I am surely one of them. Or at least a trying hard wannabe. Then, invite me to take photos.

I get a Zapotec lesson, Xa-Yu (how are you?) and chichi-bay-oh (salud) as we raise the cup. I already know Zakchi! (hello, good afternoon). This is really a foreign language.

A convenient stop across the street from the market

A convenient stop across the street from the market

Rosa, as she introduced herself, buys my first drink. Good for the panza, she says, patting her belly. I agree. Mezcal is a medicinal when not abused! She offers me another. I smile and decline, realizing I need to drive home without bumping into any burros.

Next time, my turn to buy.

And, that’s village life in Oaxaca.

For sale, fresh cornhusks for tamales, anyone?

This is, too. Fresh native corn and husks for tamales, anyone?

Norma’s Simple Chicken Soup Recipe

  • 1 small, white organic chicken, cut up, skin removed
  • include neck and gizzards and egg sack
  • 1-2 chicken feet (just like grandma used to make)
  • 4-6 cups water
  • salt to taste
  • 1 serrano pepper, dried
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 2 whole onions, peeled
  • 1/2″ fresh turmeric, peeled

Add chicken and all other ingredients to 6 qt. stockpot. Bring to simmer on stovetop, cover and cook for 4-6 hours*. Chill. Remove fat. Muy rico.

These local, skinny free-range chickens are pretty tough, so to get the meat very tender, it needs to good for a really long time! It’ the feet that give the flavor.