Early morning Mumbai

Early morning deserted streets. Colaba, Mumbai.

Early morning deserted streets. Colaba, Mumbai.

Mumbai is not much of an early-morning city. Morning rush hour peaks between 9 and 11am, and we’ve heard that the average work day runs from 10am to 7pm or so. Given my penchant for markets, industrial areas and other infrastructure-related attractions, I scheduled a busy morning visiting a few of the more unusual sights throughout the city. Some of these places are best seen at the crack of dawn.

The first stop, the Sassoon fish docks at 5am, was a little too early and smelly for Eliza’s taste, so I left our hotel in the Colaba neighborhood alone while it was still dark for the short walk to the docks. I quickly joined the throngs of sari-clad women carrying big empty plastic tubs on their heads. I entered the docks through an avenue of ice factories, fishing supply dealers, and tea shops into the early hours of the market.

Ladies heading to the fish market.

Ladies heading to the fish market.

Ice factory near the fish market, Mumbai.

Ice factory near the fish market, Mumbai.

Along the sides of the pier, hulking wooden trawlers were packed nose-in, 2 or 3 boats deep. Med stood on the boat decks buried ankle deep in their catch, sorting it into piles of shrimp, squid, and scaly fish of all shapes and sizes. On the pier, men and women ferried baskets of fish on their heads and on long wooden carts to stalls where they hawk their wares, organized neatly by type and size on the concrete floor.

Due to its proximity to a Naval pier, photos were prohibited so I didn’t bring a camera, but I managed to snap a few mediocre iPhone shots on the walk there. It’s always cool to see the fishing-village roots of an otherwise huge and metropolitan city. It’s a side of Mumbai that most people either don’t know about, or can’t drag themselves out of bed to see.

After stopping for a quick chai at a dockside canteen and swinging by the hotel to pick up Eliza, we caught the commuter train to the suburb of Dadar to see the tail end of the wholesale flower market. The highway underpass just next to the train station is packed with shops and stalls selling flowers, wreaths, and even full grown banana trees for temple offerings. Wandering among the baskets overflowing with bright saffron colored marigolds and sweet smelling jasmine buds was a welcome change in sight and smell from the day’s first venue.

Flower market vendors. Dadar, Mumbai.

Flower market vendors. Dadar, Mumbai.

DSC_3806

Roses for sale. Dadar, Mumbai.

Roses for sale. Dadar, Mumbai.

We hopped back on the train just in time to catch sunrise through the always-open doors of Mumbai’s commuter rail cars. Riding the train in Mumbai is an adventure in and of its self. During peak hours, you literally have to fight your way into the packed cars, through a wall of men (women ride in separate cars and are generally spared the worst of the chaos), and hang out the open doors to avoid the crush. The cars were mercifully empty on a Saturday at 7am, and provided a drive-by tour of the shantytowns and highrises of Mumbai in the orange dawn light.

Our third stop, Mahalaxmi Dobhi ghat, is the most famous of the city’s many clothes washing centers. Spread over a couple of acres, dobhi ghat is lined with small concrete cubicles filled knee deep with water and featuring a smooth stone slab in the center where washer men soap, scrub, and beat the clothes of the entire city. The complex is shaded by endless lines of color sorted uniforms, sheets, jeans, and dress shirts drying in the sun.

On our way out of dhobi ghat, we stumbled upon a street vendor selling pieces of a giant paratha (flaky, chewy and delightfully greasy flat breads), topped with bright orange dhal halwa, a deliciously sweet and sticky confection made of semolina, butter, sugar, and flavored with cardamom. The combination was a totally new treat for us, as was the sheer diameter of the parathas, which were sold by ripped off a handful at a time. Stumbling across unique local snacks, especially sold in the street, is my absolute favorite thing about traveling, so the experience added another awesome note to an already eventful day.

Early morning at dhobi ghat. Mahalaxmi, Mumbai.

Early morning at dhobi ghat. Mahalaxmi, Mumbai.

Paratha and halwa outside of dhobi ghat. Mahalaxmi, Mumbai.

Paratha and halwa outside of dhobi ghat. Mahalaxmi, Mumbai.

We arrived at our final and favorite destination at 8am, just as life in the city was beginning to pick up. We hoped the odor of the Buleshwar Pandrapole would help us navigate to it, but after a few minutes of fruitless sniffing we came to a grass delivery waiting in the street, and followed a man carrying a bail of hay through alleys. The Pandrapole was opened in the mid 1800’s to shelter pigs and dogs after the British instituted a policy of shooting strays in the street at night. It now houses a variety of creatures, but the majority of space is dedicated to a hundred or so of the fattest and happiest cows, calves, and bulls either Eliza or I had ever met.

We didn’t see any milking operation there, but we assume it is also used as a local dairy. However, the cause for the cows’ excessive girth is the dozens of local Hindu devotees who come each day to feed the cows as an auspicious offering. The facility sells bundles of grass and grain laddus, baseball sized lumps of yeasty smelling oats. We of course couldn’t pass up the opportunity to feed and pet some furry friends, especially the babies, and although photos aren’t allowed, I managed to sneak a quick shot of Eliza in bovine bliss on my phone.

Petting the calves. Pandrapole, Mumbai.

Petting the calves. Pandrapole, Mumbai.

Feeding the cows, Pandrapole, Mumbai.

Feeding the cows, Pandrapole, Mumbai.

We made it back to the hotel before the streets got too hot and hectic, and avoided the mid day heat by relaxing in our room. Compared to the slog and smog of sightseeing in Mumbai during the day, it was an amazingly pleasant and relaxing experience, and an itinerary I’d highly recommend to anyone with a penchant for offbeat attractions and the fortitude for the early hour and occasional strong odor.

It’s all coming together

Lunch today was goat sate and soup at our favorite roadside stand.

Goat sate, goat soup. Yummy!

Goat sate, goat soup. Yummy!

On March 1st we fly out of Denpasar airport in Bali and after a duty-free shopping trip layover in Doha, Qatar, we touch down in Austria for a family vacation in celebration of Zev’s father’s birthday. Happy Birthday Don!

We will freeze our butts off, we will frolic in the snow with family we haven’t seen in a very long while, and we will gore ourselves on cheese and meats; it will be delightful. We are both over-the-moon excited to see familiar faces and enjoy quality time with close family, it has been too long.

Being away from family has been one of the most challenging elements of this trip, we are both very close with our families and there are just some gaps that cannot be bridged by Skype. Although the breakfast video chats with our parents on the weekend are becoming a delightful ritual.

Beyond family time, we are also getting a resupply of a number of staples. Most products and brands are available even in the furthest corner of the world (hello, Nivea products!), but some products are simply not the same quality as what we have at home or outrageously expensive (deodorant, brasseries, and tampons are a few of the most elusive sundries).

We landed in Bali 6 weeks ago with no idea what we would be doing after this family trip to Austria. But slowly things are coming together. We plan to return to Bali and spend a portion of the spring/summer here, learning more about the culture and fantastic food of Indonesia.

Oh yeah, we took a surfing lesson this weekend. I floundered, Zev surfed. Fun was had by all.

Oh yeah, we took a surfing lesson this weekend. I floundered, Zev surfed. Fun was had by all.

And we also stayed at the uber fancy Conrad Bali, thanks to some HiltonHonors points.

And we also stayed at the uber fancy Conrad Bali, thanks to some HiltonHonors points.

And ate seafood on the beach in Jimbaran, Bali.

And ate seafood on the beach in Jimbaran, Bali.

Amazing grilled prawns.

Amazing grilled prawns.

You buy fish by the kilo and they grill it up for you over smoky coconut husks.

This guy was so bored. You buy fish by the kilo and they grill it up for you over burning coconut husks.

Stuff from around the web:

Traveling is just like this. xkcd FTW.

Vanity Fair piece about tyrannical chefs.

NYT scared me off of junk food, at least until I finished the article.

Sky Scanner, an airfare search engine that is so cool.

Xi’an

Each of our three days in Xi’an was better than the last. Then again, when you start off with a cold rainy day, one of us with a cold, a budget-negotiation crisis over a new tube of fancy face cream, and a 45 minute search for a restaurant that we ultimately decided has been torn down, it’s not hard to improve.

Xi’an is best known as the home of the Terracotta Warriors, the army of thousands of sculpted-clay soldiers buried along with a Qin-dynasty emperor to protect him in the after life. As with many Chinese ancient sights, there was some initial ambiguity as to what was original and what was a recreation, but we eventually figured out that archeologists have spent the last 35 years digging up shards of the wrecked statues, each of which is a totally unique person, and meticulously gluing them back together piece by piece. Only a fraction of the multi-acre site has been excavated, and it still is a awesome site.

True to our character, Eliza and I very much enjoyed the history and scenery of Xi’an, but what really had us enamored with the city was the food. Day one’s dinner search was a bust, but we have embraced APT’s (my former employer) motto that “if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough,” when it comes to our culinary adventures.

Xi’an is the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, and its cuisine is influenced greatly by the Muslim traders who settled there. The Muslim quarter’s narrow alleyways are packed with small restaurants, nut and dried-fruit vendors, and plenty of touristy souvenir shops. We ate dinner in the Muslim quarter Friday night, and we owe the success of the meal to Eliza’s masterful matching of menu items to the must-haves listed in our Lonely Planet guide book.

Xi’an’s signature dish is yangrou paomo, a rich lamb broth soaked up by pea-sized bits of a dense local bread and topped with cellophane noodles and slices of lamb. The tiny chewy bits of broth-soaked bread pushed our chopstick skills to the limit, but was well worth the challenge. Paired with the slippery noodles and flakey, tender, and beyond-delicious lamb slices, the experience was at the same time an exotic adventure and a comforting reminder of home: brisket and matzah ball soup.

Also on the menu were spicy cumin lamb kebabs, braised lamb feet, mistakenly-ordered but surprisingly delicious fried rice (our first fried rice of China, strangely enough) and local Hans beer. The kebabs were served Churrascuria-style, a great way to explore new foods with minimal language skills.

We followed up the meal with fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice from a street stall, which put POM to shame. The fruit stalls sell a pretty wide variety of familiar fruits, but the overwhelming number of persimmons and pomegranates available was a reminder of the seasonality of produce that you barely see in the US.

Not to miss an opportunity to eat, we also indulged in Xi’an’s street food. Most notably we lunched on roujiamo, the local sandwich. We’ve had it a few different ways, but the hallmark traits are a round, dense flat bread filled with meat, fresh veggies and herbs for seasoning, and an extra dash of grease. Our favorite used flakey bread – almost like an Indian roti – with a filling of chopped lamb, chillies, and garlic.

We’re now on the train to Nanjing for some history and seafood. We’re snacking on our last Xi’an treat, a piece of a giant dried fruit and nut cake – think the world’s largest granola bar.

Enjoy the food porn below (and in a subsequent post, due to Internet limitations), and stay tuned for more!

-Zev

Sent from my iPad