Book Club

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” 
― Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!

Part of my resolution for the new year is to read at least two books a month. I’ll be keeping a running list in case anyone is looking for reading suggestions. Feel free to comment with any suggestions of your own!

January

  • Paris for One, and Other Stories
  • The Madwoman Upstairs

February

  • Scrappy Little Nobody
  • A Gentleman in Moscow
  • Small Admissions
  • Everything You Want Me to Be

March

  • A Handmaiden’s Tale

 

Lentils: all day, every day.

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Ok, so remember those lentils I told you about in my last post? On Christmas day, I made a variation for a dinner I was invited to, and it was fabulous. This was basically an “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of dish. I wasn’t totally prepared to make a something to serve 20 people, so I  decided I wanted to make a lentil salad–lentils are easy to make for a large group, plus I always have them on hand–and it just sort of grew from there.

To make the lentils, follow the basics; cover any amount of lentils that you make with around 3 inches of water. Salt generously. Bring to a boil over medium heat for about 30 minutes, or until tender. Drain and set aside to cool.

I recently picked up a jar of grilled artichoke halves from Trader Joes (seriously, the best stuff is there) and decided that they’d go nicely with my lentils. I also landed on tomatoes, capers, mozzarella, red onion, greek olives, and some leftover zucchini. Remember, I said this was everything but the kitchen sink. If you had feta and not mozzarella, black olives instead of greek, be flexible. Don’t like olives at all? Leave ’em out. Get creative. Do you.

I wanted to lightly sauté the zucchini before I added it, but everything else was a rough chop before throwing it into a bowl.

When I was chopping up the artichokes, I noticed how tasty the oil that the artichokes were in was, so I thought I’d swap that out for the olive oil (about 2-3tbsp) in the basil dressing (also from the last post) . When I went to my garden, I noticed that the parsley was looking pretty and grabbed a handful of that alongside the basil. I also wanted to add a hint of garlic to the dressing, so I slow cooked some smashed garlic cloves over low for around 45 minutes, while the lentils were boiling. Add the garlic, capers, brine, mustard, vinegar, basil and parsley to the blender. With the blender on, stream in the oil. **we’re swapping out our olive oil for the artichoke oil** 

With the dressing complete and added to the veggie mix in the bowl, fold in the lentils until they are coated. Cover and let rest in the fridge until serving.

This should go with out saying, but make sure you taste this. If it needs more salt, add salt, more pepper, then add pepper. I found that I didn’t have to add much extra between the saltiness of the lentils and flavors in the artichoke oil.

Feel free to garnish with extra tomatoes or herbs (I did both). 

 

 

 

Lentil-Stuffed Portobellos with Burrata

I’ve made this dish twice now. Once for myself and a friend, and again a couple of weeks ago when I was hosting book club at my house. (We read Modern Lovers, by Emma Straub) I didn’t have complaints on either occasion.

It is so easy to make, with minimal mess and little clean up required. All good things, especially when you’re cooking for a crew.

You’ll want to make sure you have the following items on hand:

Lentils

  • lentils (1 1/2 cups)
  • 3 medium zucchini or yellow squash, diced
  • small yellow onion (or half of a medium), diced
  • garlic, diced
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 large balls of burrata (room temp)

Dressing

  • basil leaves (1 1/2 cups), chopped
  • 2 tbsp capers, plus 1 tbsp brine
  • 2-3 tbsp mustard (I prefer country dijon, but spicy brown mustard will work too)
  • 3 tbsp rice wine vinegar (or white wine, or red wine, whatever)
  • 6 tbsp olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Mushrooms

  • 6 portobello mushroom caps
  • 1 lemon
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • salt

Assembly

Cook lentils. In a saucepan, cover lentils with a few inches of water seasoned with salt and bring to a boil. Turn down heat and simmer for 25 minutes, or until tender.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Squeeze the lemon into a mixing dish. Slowly whisk in the olive oil. Add a pinch of salt. Assemble the mushroom caps on a baking sheet, stem side up. Brush the caps with the lemon-oil mixture. Place mushrooms in the oven and bake, 25-30 minutes.

Sauté the diced onion, garlic, and zucchini (or squash) in olive oil over medium heat in a large pan (extra points if you have room for the lentils to mix in). Season with salt and pepper. Cook until onions are clear.

Meanwhile, pull out your blender or food processor and start making the dressing. Add your basil, mustard, vinegar, capers and brine. While running, stream in the olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste. If you don’t have a blender or a food processor, chop up the basil and capers as finely as you can and then mix in the mustard, vinegar, and the brine. Whisk continuously while streaming olive oil into the bowl. Add in salt and pepper, to taste.

Plate the mushrooms.

When the lentils are tender, drain before combining with the sautéed zucchini/squash/onion/garlic. Coat the lentils with the dressing, saving some for the table.   Place the room temp burrata on top of the lentil mixture and slice open while it is still warm. The heat will do something special at this point as all of the flavors begin to merge. Serve family style at the table. Top the mushrooms caps with the lentils and burrata and savor every. single. bite.

Serves 6

Recipe adapted from Smitten Kitchen

New Orleans Restaurants: Winter 2016

New Orleans is one of my favorite cities. It’s full of great food, live music on every corner, and the best people watching. My grandmother grew up there, my dad was born there and I still have family to visit every trip. You could say that I feel like I have roots in New Orleans; the city speaks to me. Here’s a quick run down of my favorite places to eat at right now.

Shaya: Located on Magazine street, Shaya lives up to all of the buzz that it has rightfully generated. Advance reservations are highly recommended–it’s a hard meal to come by these days. If the weather permits, sit outside in the courtyard. The menu allows for easy sharing–some favorites include the curried cauliflower hummus (that pita tho), the labneh, babaganoush, and lutenitsa. Pass on the avocado toast, it wasn’t a favorite. The falafel is on point, and the persian rice–just trust me.  Don’t leave without trying the shakshouka; you may be questioning eggs for dinner, but you must have never tried shakshouka before.

Parkway Bakery: The best po’ boys in town, IMO. There’s a bar area that you can sit at (take any open seat, and order at the bar when they are busy). You can also stand in line on the back side of the building and order at the window. There’s indoor  and outdoor seating available. I get the shrimp po’ boy, fully dressed. If you’re like me and like lots of sauces for your fried pickles, rest easy; there’s a condiment station on the backside of the restaurant.

Willa Jean: Brunch game strong. Did you know they have homemade pop tarts? Well know you do. I got the Shrimp Toast and cheddar grits, but I feel like I could have ordered any number of things and been a happy soul.

Marcello’s: Italian that doesn’t have to be heavy. I’m slightly obsessed with the crabmeat contessa (layers of eggplant, tomato and crab meat). My mouth is watering even thinking about it right now. The pasta options change routinely, so check the menu online–they keep it updated.

Hi Volt: Coffee and breakfast. Enjoy a slice of avocado toast drizzled with walnut oil, or a bowl of quinoa with a poached egg and kefir herb dressing. Their garden district location is my favorite. Take a stroll through the neighborhood after you finish and admire the gorgeous architecture that makes up the historic neighborhood.

Herbsaint: The menu changes seasonally, but my favorite thing on the current menu is the butter poached gulf tuna with chilies and mint. They are located just next to Marcello’s, so it wouldn’t be completely out of line to do apps at one and entree’s at the other (stop judging me).

Seaworthy: This new kid on the block does not disappoint. The oyster selection is notable and they have a extensive seafood offering on their full menu, with a nod to classic New Orleans flavors. Go check out the roof top bar next door at the Ace Hotel before or after. It offers a good view of the city, lounge chairs, and even a swimming pool.

Camellia Grill: For your late night fix. The menu reads like what you’d expect from any classic diner (minus the breakfast po’boys, those are strictly NOLA) and they’re open til 2am on Fridays and Saturdays.

Cafe Du Monde: I feel like I’d be amiss, if I left this place off of my list. Grab yourself a cafe au lait and a plate of beignets, just don’t wear black (powdered sugar is messy). Also, **pro tip** there’s no line to sit down. True, there’s usually some semblance of one formed on the backside, but it’s not real. There’s no one monitoring it. Show up like a local and grab a seat where you can find one.

 

 

 

 

Best Eats in Tallahassee

 

Coffee, etc. 

  • Lucky Goat Coffee: Cold Brew. On tap. With three locations to choose from, this local roastery offers a variety of coffee drinks  as well as a small selection of food items provided by Tasty Pastry Bakery.
  • Catalina Cafe: Another great option, with four locations in town to choose from. Catalina offers specialty coffee alongside a breakfast and lunch menu, both of which are available all day. Iced coffee is served with coffee ice cubes, and the beans are roasted in-house.

Breakfast

  • Canopy Road: This is my go-to breakfast spot on most Saturdays, but be warned: get there early or plan to wait in line. There are now three locations in town to choose from; with their newest location on Apalachee Parkway, which features a large outdoor dining section and a complimentary coffee and water station for while you wait.
  • Maple Street Biscuit Company: Their only downfall is that they are closed on Sundays, but otherwise this breakfast spot is slangin’ biscuit sandwiches and classic biscuits and gravy the rest of the week. Do yourself a favor and try the vegetarian gravy, made with shiitake mushrooms. You won’t regret it {warning: it’s a little spicy}. They’ve recently added salads to their repertoire, for those who want something on the lighter side (why?). You can’t leave without trying the hashups: home fries covered with peppers, onions, and cheese. Arrive hungry, you won’t be leaving with any room left in your belly.

#BrunchGame Strong

  • Liberty Bar and Restaurant: Open for Brunch on both Saturday and Sunday,  Liberty has my heart when it comes to my weekend mid-morning meal. Other people must feel the same way, because there’s usually a solid line forming out the door before their first seating at 11am. If you don’t make it for the first round, no worries; you can drown your brunch sorrows with a mimosa, house-made bloody mary (delish), or some other cocktail of choice at the bar while you wait. My go-to is always the breakfast tacos (side of lime creama, please), but it’s hard to go wrong here. In case brunch isn’t really your thing (blasphemy!), they’re serving up lunch during the week (11-2) as well as an evening menu (served until 11pm) to satisfy too.
  • Kool Beanz Cafe: Consistently good brunch. I go here for the Chilaquiles, specifically. The menu may change slightly week to week, but there are usually some mainstays to count on like the creamed spinach and baked eggs, full english breakfast, or the fried green tomato BLT (with a fried egg, duh), to name a few. They don’t serve liquor, but do have mimosas and wine. Expect a similar experience, if you end up here for lunch or dinner where the menu changes almost daily. This restaurant offers both indoor and outdoor (covered) seating, depending on your preference.

Lunchin’

  • Sweet Pea Cafe: I’m not even going to hide the fact that I eat here multiple times a week. There’s not a single thing on their menu I dislike. They also offer daily specials that you’ll drive out of your way to show up for (I know I do). This vegan cafe is locally owned and operated with offerings ranging from sandwiches to fresh baked goods using as many locally sourced ingredients possible. They also serve up brunch on Saturdays and Sundays (did somebody say Tofuevos Rancheros?). My numero uno is the buffalo tofu sandwich. I actually actively crave this. Whether you’re vegan or not, you’ll love what’s coming out of this kitchen.
  • Paisley Cafe: I love this place. I go here on days I don’t mind a splurge, because (fair warning) I’ve never left spending under $20. Everything is made fresh in the open kitchen, where you can sit at the bar and watch whats going on. They also have a small courtyard where you can enjoy soaking up a little vitamin d on sunny days. Every single thing on the menu is good. Don’t leave without trying the lobster bisque, it’s sensational. I also recommend the veggie press (oh hey, sriracha ranch), where the artichoke hearts are roasted alongside peppers with a swipe of pesto and melted cheese (is anyone else’s mouth watering?). They also have a sinful selection of desserts made in-house as well as a brunch menu on Saturdays and Sundays.

Dinner Bell

  • Sage: Expect the menu to change each month, based on availability. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a bad meal here. The escargot is rich and lovely, the tempura fried oysters a perfect mix of flavors, and the deviled eggs a solid opener before settling in to one of the entrees they are hosting that month. They also have a fabulously curated wine list, as well as a small bar menu for those who aren’t in it for the long game. I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention that they also have a wonderful Sunday brunch, where I love to sit in the courtyard on days where the weather is cool and calm.
  • Masa: Asian fusion serving up sushi, noodles, and more. I usually end up getting sushi while I’m here, but the Miso Sea Bass is worth an honorable mention. I’m pretty much obsessed with their vegetarian spider roll and if it ever left the menu, I’d probably cry. This is one of our top choices when meeting with friends or celebrating a birthday (they have two semi-private tables), and since their move to a larger location a year or so ago, they now have a full bar and outdoor seating. They also have  lunch service where you can take advantage of some specials.
  • The Southern Public House: There’s something for everyone on this menu. I love coming here for the outdoor dining space and laid back atmosphere. It’s not too far from nearby Cascades Park either, which makes it a prime choice on days when there’s a scheduled event. Enjoy lunch and brunch (Sunday only) options as well. They don’t close their doors throughout the day, so you can show up and stay a while on a nice day and work your way through their lengthy drink menu.

Bar Bites

  • Sidecar Gastrobar: They have a large selection of small plates to choose from with items like Thai Mussels, Crispy Shrimp, or Cioppino, to name a few. You can usually catch live music on the weekends. Be sure to check out their website for a full listing specials Tuesday-Sunday.
  • Bar @ Betton: The sister space of Food Glorious Food, B@B has small plates and happy hour from 4:30-7:30 Tuesday through Saturday. It’s a hard tie between the lavash and the buffalo oysters when it comes to choosing a favorite plate, so I usually end up ordering both to share with friends. Don’t forget to check out the dessert case for a late night treat before heading home. The hardest part will be deciding which one to choose from their lengthy list.

Unexpected Goodness

  • La Tiendita: This place is favorite hidden gem in town. It’s authentic Mexican with a wide menu that will make you do a happy dance. The tacos are simple, the Mexican guacamole is a must, and you can choose from a selection of beers to complement your order. The salsa is full of fire roasted tomatoes and fresh hot peppers; your first one is free, but after that you’re paying for it. They also make a trio of hot sauces in house that are ridiculously good. Like, “I want to smother everything I order in the sauce”, kind of good.
  • El Vireleno: Did someone say papusa? Serving up traditional El Salvadorian food, this restaurant recently relocated to the North Side of town off of Kerry Forest Parkway. You can’t leave without trying one of the many varieties of papusas while you’re here. They are served with this amazing slaw that I’ve tried to replicate many times to no avail. I’ve had a hard time eating anything on their menu that I didn’t love. They also have a friendly staff who will allow you to practice your worn-out spanish with minimal judgement.

Ethnic

  • Mayuri: Set amongst the slew of Indian restaurants in town, this place is my favorite. I have two words for you; Gobi Manchurian. Don’t ask questions, just order it and thank me later. This restaurant is rich in flavor, but can sometimes be slow on service. Don’t go if you’re in a rush. They do offer a solid lunch buffet, but I prefer them for dinner (plus you’ll end up with leftovers for lunch the next day).
  • Bahn Thai: Recently renovated, I get transported back to Thailand whenever I eat here. With a full selection of classic Thai dishes, it’s hard to choose incorrectly. My pick is usually the Pad See-Ew, with a Tom Kha soup.
  • Sakura: The best sushi in town, in my opinion. Their food is delicious, and their presentation always has me excited. Sashimi is served over shaved ice, and the rolls aren’t smothered in rice. Skip the Miso and try the shumai soup. And make sure you ask for the secret special’s menu–which lists any special appetizer or roll that they’ve offered in the past. They also have two private rooms that can be reserved for large parties. *Note: wine, beer, and sake only

Streetfood in Amman, Jordan

It’s 12 o’clock, I’m hungry, and all I can think about is going to Hashem for lunch. The problem is that Hashem is nestled between two buildings thousands of miles away-in Amman, Jordan. This poses an obvious problem for both me and my stomach, since I’m currently lacking both a trust fund and a private jet. I’ll have to settle with memory recall and living vicariously through others for now.

Which leads to my current appeal. Please, trust me; when you find yourself in Amman around lunchtime, go to Hashem. And then go back again, for me.

Just thinking about it now is making my mouth water.

Here’s the deal. This place has been serving delicious Jordanian food since 1952. Located downtown (there’s a great spice shop across the street-go get some), Hashem has hosted nearly every diplomat, royal, and celebrity that has spent time in Amman since it’s infancy. I was told that King Hussein used to go every Friday and sit with the people in the open air seating,  while he was alive.

Hashem is a mix of indoor and outdoor seating, with most people choosing to sit outside. I was thrilled that we got a table outside with a view of the street. I love people watching, especially in foreign countries. Almost as soon as you sit down, you’ll be offered tea. This warm, sugary-sweet concoction is the perfect compliment to the meal ahead. There also isn’t a menu. There’s a pretty standard selection of vegetarian options and alongside the tea, you’ll receive a plate of tomatoes, onions, peppers and mint. You’ll also get a sheet of paper with pita. Before I go any further, take some of that mint front the plate and add it to the tea (yasssss).

Since there wasn’t a menu, we just asked for a mix of items. Very quickly, we started getting plates of hummus, falafel, moutabel, ful medames, and pickles. If you know me at all, you know that this is pretty much my perfect meal. Lots of things to dip and mix and share, plus pickles. Yes. Just, yes.

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The moutabel was garlicky, roasted eggplant perfection. It paired perfectly with hummus and pita. The falafel was fluffy and light, perfectly crunchy. Likely the best falafel I’ve ever had. If you’ve never had ful, it’s basically mashed fava beans mixed with olive oil, spices, and a hint of lemon. It’s worth an order, especially if you’ve never had it before.

I was doing a mental happy dance throughout my entire meal. This was probably one of the best meals I ate throughout this round of travels. So please, do us both a favor and eat here.

{Note: I recently discovered that Hashem also exists in Aqaba. This delighted me.}

But first, London.

Boarding the Heathrow Express to London’s Paddington Station, I tried to remember what I could of my last visit. It had been years since I’d touched my feet on the ground in the UK, and I was excited to have the next 9 hours to explore the city with a friend I’d met while touring Southeast Asia last summer.

Parma planned on meeting us at Paddington to take us on our tour de force and introduce us to the London he knows and loves. We were lucky to have our own personal local guide and I was happy to let him take the reins on the plans for the day. After months of researching and planning for all of our stops along the way on this trip, I was relieved to not have to worry about figuring out the best routes or navigating public transportation. I was just along for the ride.

I spotted Parma through the crowd as soon as we got off of the train and started walking the platform. After a quick round of introductions, we were on our way to for our first stop along the way–Buckingham Palace.

I had made a couple of small requests for our visits; a visit to a park, Trafalgar Square, a visit to a pub. Otherwise, anything was fair game.

Because he aimed to please, we were on our way to the Palace via Green Park, which as the name might suggest, is a nice green space that is just across the street from where the Queen resides and makes for a good substitute for Hyde park when you are short-ish on time, like us, and trying to kill two birds with one stone.

It was immediately evident that the Queen wasn’t in, since the Union Flag was flying. After a quick couple of pictures and a minute or two admiring the guards and the palace, we were off toward our next destination. Because we were mostly walking the city, we needed to allow plenty of time to get from one place to the other throughout the day.

By the way, did I mention the great weather that we were lucky to have during our stopover? I think we brought a tiny piece of sunny Florida with us to the city for the day.

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Trafalgar Square was next up on the list. It was pretty crowded. I paused as I soaked it all in. Slightly ahead of us was a silent protest that was taking place as a rebuttal against the anti-refugee sentiment that had been building. There were rows of masked men and women alike, all drawing the attention of the crowds that gathered in the square. Just behind them stood another row of people holding various signs, playing music, again encouraging glances and pauses of the passerby’s. We walked up the steps to the National Gallery and took a look around. Mostly stone with fountains and some miscellaneous statues the main monument in the center of the square is what really draws your attention. This is Nelson’s Column, in honor of Horatio Nelson who commanded the British Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar. Fun fact: the land that was removed to develop Trafalgar Square was used to level Green Park, where we had been earlier.

 

After absorbing all the square had to offer, it was time to take strides toward the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey. All very popular sites on most tourist checklists. I was happy that we were getting to see the clock tower before renovations begin in 2017, which will be the first work to be carried out in 30 years.

We didn’t spend a lot of time in this area, but it’s easy to take it all in on a lazy stroll. The river Thames is just nearby and so after some pictures of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, we walked over toward the water for a peek. Originally, Parma had planned for us to take the river boat to our next location, but time constrained us from doing that. He had a couple of surprise items for us, one of which was a scheduled thing, so we had to make sure we were there for our time slot. Instead of the river boat, we ended up hopping on the tube and heading to Parma’s to pick up the tickets for one of the surprises he had arranged.

We stepped out of the tube from modern London to a quaint area known as Greenwich where you just knew that all of the buildings had stories to tell and, if we had more time, I would’ve stopped to listen. Greenwich is best known for being home to the Prime Meridian and also the London base of the Royal Navy. The Cutty Sark, a large historic naval ship, is available to tour ($$) as is the Old Royal Naval College (free), among many other sites.

This little slice of the city was idyllic. Pubs and shops lined the rows of streets and the water runs just along the edge. As we wandered around for a few minutes, sans Parma, it was easy to get lost as you twisted through the lanes and explored. We ended up retracing our steps back to where we were all supposed to meet, since it was uncertain as to where the opposite end of the road would deposit you.

Once again, we were back on the tube and heading to our first surprise spot of the day and the reason why we had to be so timely with the first half of our visit: The Skygarden.

Situated approximately 508 ft above ground, at the top of a sleek building in London,  the Skygarden is all windows with sweeping views of the city. Fully equipped with [yes] a garden, a bar, and a restaurant, this is one stop you want to make on your next visit. Just be sure to book your tickets in advance, as the reservation is required and bookings open up three weeks prior with availability varying from 1 space to 65 spaces depending on the time slot. This was one of my favorite places we went while we were in London. It was a great way to get a bird’s eye view, while simultaneously enjoying a handcrafted cocktail (or two!).

I’m just going to put this out there. I love Harry Potter. And Parma, being the magnificent friend that he is, designated the second surprise stop of the day as the Harry Potter Special. While we didn’t make it to King’s Cross Station to see platform 9 3/4 (blasphemy, I know),  I was equally excited to arrive at Leadenhall Market, which is home to Diagon Alley in the first movie, and doubles as a Victorian covered market for the muggle world. If only we all had a Nimbus 2000 to fly around on, I’m sure we could have fit in more exciting HP stops. Next time, London. Next time.

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For those of you following along with my timeline, you’ll notice we haven’t had a moment to spare to stop for food at this point in our tour, outside of a Bounty bar that was tossed our way back in Greenwich (doesn’t count). Parma was intent on showing us St. Pauls Cathedral, which is fantastic, but I found myself wondering when the last time he had 3 hangry girls on his hands was. My assumption was that it wasn’t anytime recently, given that we stopped at St. Pauls BEFORE stopping to eat. We all have to live with our mistakes (I’m looking at you, Parmjit).  Unfortunately, the placement of the sun was not conducive to great pictures of the Cathedral so I had to go old school and look with my eyes instead.  Here’s one I managed to take despite the sun.

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How hard is it to find a pub in London? Apparently, pretty hard when you are looking for one. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I think of England, “pub” is one of the first things that pops to mind, after “fish and chips”, of course. (Now some of you may be thinking what about Stonehenge or The Beatles; but what can I say, food and drink are typically the first thing I’m thinking about.) We had to walk miles before finally bumping into a pub that was open. Ok, it was probably just blocks that felt like miles. But who’s counting?

Since we desired a classic British experience, we made sure to order fish and chips with mashed peas. We were not disappointed. First off, I’m pretty sure I had the entire length of a fish on my plate, and the mashed peas with pearl onions were really quite tasty. The batter was light and airy and the fish just flaked away. Topping it off with a beer, and it’s a pretty impenetrable combination.

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AND THEN WE HAD TO RUN…when we went to pay and leave none of the machines were working to allow cards and even combining all of the cash between us, we didn’t have enough to cover the bill. We were tight on time and this was setting us back a good bit. After about 10 minutes of trying to swipe to no avail, Parma suggested we head on without him so we didn’t miss our return on the Heathrow Express. After giving us a loose list of directions and saying our goodbyes, we walked briskly toward the underground. It would seem that us leaving the pub was exactly what was necessary for the credit machines to start working again, because within minutes we were joined once more by Parma, who informed us that “we would need to walk a lot faster than that” as he started jogging ahead of us.

Now, I’m all for a little exercise in life, but running on a stomach full of food and beer doesn’t quite do it for me.  It wasn’t pretty and I’m just gonna go ahead and kill the suspense now. We didn’t make it back in time to make the return train we needed on the Heathrow Express. But because you’ve likely already read my post about India, you know we made it there on time, and that was solely due to the fact that Parma was rapidly searching other routes for while simultaneuously trying to keep us all calm and without fear that we were going to miss our connecting flight (thanks, friend). Luckily, there was another train that was about to roll out of the station toward Heathrow and we could use our day passes from the tube on it. It had a good bit of stops along the way, but it was still scheduled to get in only 10 or so minutes after the express train we were orginally bound for.

I was dreading the security line at Heathrow, so imagine my delight when we walked through the doors and there was no line. None. There were two people in front of us, and we breezed through with little effort and a some time to spare. Just enough time, it turns out, to change back into comfy plane clothes and settle into our seats for the 9.5 hour flight to India.

 

**a special kudos to Parma, for being the best tour guide a girl could have and also for putting up with us for the day…Xo

 

 

 

India: Rajasthan, Agra, and Delhi

Each time I return from a trip, I hate sharing the details of it. Selfishly, I want to keep it to myself. I want to retain the lasting bits of my experiences and keep them tucked away for only myself to enjoy. This is probably why I try to keep an unspoken rule with myself when I travel in regards to social media; one picture a day at the most, more of a “hey, I’m still alive and enjoying myself” kind of post (hi, mom). I know people who flood their instagrams, facebooks, and snapchats with images throughout their travels and it always leaves me to wonder whether they were so busy trying to capture the moment and share it with the world that they missed the best part: living the moment and sucking it all in.

Eventually, I get around to wanting to share my stories. This typically happens after a couple of weeks go by and I’m ready to start reminding myself of the details of my travels. Little things that slip away, but come back when prompted with a question or when trying to explain a certain place or thing. Again, selfish. The sharing is probably more for myself than it is for others, but I figure it’s a win-win; no harm, no foul.

So now that the obligatory window has passed, I’m ready to share.

In May, I boarded a plane to New Delhi with a nice extended layover in London. I’m still shocked that I managed to grab this ticket for 40,000 SkyMiles with Delta, flying Virgin Atlantic. I’m even more shocked that I got it with the long layover I was hunting for.

PS: I’m a big fan of taking advantage of long layovers on international flights. I basically got a freebie day in London to explore before hopping back on board, falling asleep, and waking up in Delhi. Not a bad deal, if you ask me.

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Our plane landed around 10:45am and the light at the end of my long days (yes, days) of travel was a coffee shop. I’m pretty sure I killed my coffee in record time, though I should have savored my ice remnants more. Come to discover, this coffee shop will be one of the only places on the rest of the trip to have ice (oh, how I missed ice and cold drinks in general on this trip).

A couple of quick notes about traveling to/from India:

  • Visas are  required and are available on arrival for US Citizens. It was fast and easy to manage. You just apply no less than 4 days before your arrival date, pay the fee online, and get your approval form via email to print out and bring with you. Make sure you print this out; you’re going to need it to show to the airline when you check in for your flight.
  • Print out your return flight information. They require it to even walk through the door of the airport in Delhi. You’ll then go through about 7 additional screenings and security checkpoints. One more before getting your boarding pass and checking your bag, another at the customs line, again at the TSA line after customs, when you get to your gated area, when you scan your boarding pass to get on the plane, right before you enter the plane, then once more when you are inside of the plane and flight attendants are directing you to your seat. I now understand the allure of those neck holders for passports and tickets.
  • Use Cleartrip to book your overnight (at the very least) trains in advance.  Definitely do this if you’re gonna be bougie like me and want a sleeper car with A/C, and a locking door (so you can actually sleep). When the weeks got closer to the actual travel days, selections became a lot more limited–and by limited I mean there weren’t any AC1 cars left for the taking. There’s a lot of talk going around about how one should really ride the train like a local: in general class, or the sleeper car, but a 14 hour overnight train ride just isn’t one of those moments. At least not for this girl. {shout out to seat61 for helping me navigate the muddy waters that are train travel in India LIKE A BOSS}

Back to our arrival; India: Day One. When I say the heat punched me in the face, I mean it. This was a full throttle, MMA fighter punch. I don’t think I ever got quite comfortable with it. Even in the evening, it was suffocating.

I had a friend of a friend, Karan, who I linked up with before the trip and so we were heading to his place to drop off our things and explore a little of Delhi. We had our first train to catch that later that night so we planned on taking in a bit of the city before leaving. When our taxi dropped us of, Karan’s wife, Divya, greeted us and welcomed us into their family home. They live there together, but his parents are also on the same property. This is pretty common . The house was large with multiple floors and a little apartment on the roof that was set aside for guests to use.

On Divya’s suggestion, we wanted to check out an area called Hauz Khas Village that was nearby. We took an overpriced tuktuk over and got our first real taste of India. After walking through, we decided to go to a restaurant named Social, which was also suggested by Divya. Let me just say this: if you find yourself in New Delhi anytime soon, do yourself a favor and EAT HERE. This was one of my favorite meals on the trip. Indian style tapas that will make your mouth happy.  I promise.

 

Did I mention they have a rooftop? With misters? And fans? Well, they do. The roof also overlooks old tombs in the area that sit by a lake, so there’s a nice view with music playing and I didn’t feel at all like I was in what is considered to be one of the busiest, most chaotic cities in the world. (That would happen later, at the train station.)

One of the most daunting things for me on this trip was all of the train travel that we would be doing. Six trains, 15 days. I think it all started when one of my so-called “friends” showed me a video of people trying to board a train in India and the complete disarray that ensues. Ain’t nobody got time for that. We were covering a large span of area in a fairly short amount of time. We weren’t staying anywhere more than 2 days, traversing a total of 14,945 miles across 14 days. Trains were a necessary evil.

THEY STARE AS YOU COME, THEY STARE AS YOU GO. Be prepared for stares. I mean really prepared. The train station that our train to Bikaner originated at was a bit off the beaten path and so no one was sure what to expect. There was one point when our driver was lost and I decided we were in the Indian equivalent of ghetto. Eventually, we turned around and found the train station on the other side of the street. Let me just say, there were not good vibes happening when we were driving through there. The train station wasn’t much better, but there was a different hustle to it. The minute that we stepped out of the taxi and walked toward the station, people were looking at us. There wasn’t a foreigner in sight. We were like unicorns, and this was just the beginning.

Not knowing what to expect, we arrived at the station with a good amount of time to spare. This station was empty of any type of signage that would possibly direct you to knowing what platform to go to, so after a minute of searching, I asked the security guy and he let us know which platform our train would be arriving at. We made moves in that direction, stares all along the way.

If life has taught me anything so far, its to surround yourself with certain people. In this case, I chose the nicest looking family on the platform and surrounded myself with them. They were intrigued by us, and quite possibly giggling quietly thinking about what we were getting ourselves into, since they kept looking over and smiling as if there was an inside joke that we were on the outside of. When the train arrived, they made sure to point it out in a way of confirming this was “the one”. I has already confirmed this on my own given the parade of people running toward it as it came rolling in. Something I quickly learned about the trains here is that there is absolutely no order to the cars, really. Your AC1 or AC2 car could be at the front, back, or anywhere in between the train. Some stops at the station are quick-2 minutes, or so- and you’ve got to get on as people are getting off and as the entire platform is also trying to get on. The best option that I could figure is that if you stand in the middle of the platform, you have time to spot what cars are on the front end as the train rolls in (and start walking in that direction if you spot yours), or start jogging toward the back once the train stops and you see your car hasn’t presented itself yet. This was the method we went with for the remainder of the trip, but I’m open to other ideas.

In Bikaner, we were staying at Vijay guesthouse which, side note, is an awesome place to stay. The proprietors son, Hittu, picked us up from the station to bring us to where we would be staying for the next two nights. Once again, the heat was surprising. At around 110 degrees fahrenheit,  it was going to take some getting used to. We were, after all, in the desert. And even though we are Florida girls, this kind of dry heat was kicking our asses. Thankfully, because we are Florida girls, we all own Froggers and packed those with us like the wonderful gems that they are.

We decided that we would head over to Deshnok Temple that evening. In case you haven’t heard of it, Deshnok Temple (also known as Karni Mata or Rat temple) is located on the outskirts of Bikaner. Its claim to fame is that it houses close to 20,000 black rats within its walls, all of whom are said to be Karni Mata’s males children reincarnated. There are also five white rats in the mix. These white rats are especially holy (they are said to be Karni Mata herself and her four sons) and are supposed to bring great luck if you are able to come across one while at the temple. We saw two. Between that sighting and two rats running across my feet (another lucky blessing), things were looking good for us.

ProTip: Go to temples in the evening, if you can. Oftentimes, this means that you’ll be able to see prayer which can be a special experience to witness.

Bikaner is also home to gorgeous Royal Cenotaphs. These tomb-like monuments date back to the 1600s with their intricate detail and hand painted ceilings and left me awestruck. The level of construction never ceases to amaze me.

 

There’s also a large fort to see while you are here. If you have some extra time, I suggest taking a look. It’s going to cost you to get in, but that’s true of basically every place worth seeing  (if you have a student id, you get a deep discount). Soon enough, our time in Bikaner was coming to an end and it was time to face our second train ride of the trip.

Hittu was dropping us off so we had him help us navigate figuring out platforms, etc. Luckily, this station had much better signage indicating where to go. Unluckily, our train was severely delayed. Hittu offered to show us a few other places in town to kill some time, which ended up being a good thing since the train didn’t end up arriving until hours after it was supposed to. Our next stop was Jaisalmer. Only a 5 hour train, but the delay meant arriving close to 2am. Our gracious host at the guesthouse we stayed at arranged for an early morning pickup from the station and we managed to get to bed somewhere around 4am.

I’m just going to put this out there. Jaisalmer was the hottest place of the entire trip. It was a steady 120 degrees, reaching a peak of 128 degrees when we were, of course, on a camel riding into the desert for an overnight safari. I was beginning to doubt the white rat luck.

Fifu, our host at Hotel Fifu (another great place with clean, cold rooms), was incredibly kind and arranged our breakfast to be delivered to our rooms so we could rest before heading out for the aforementioned camel safari. Honestly, he was a bit worried for us. The heat was extreme for him, and he was local. He brought us 6 liters of water just with breakfast that we were to start drinking to stay hydrated. This was undoubtedly one of those times where the pedialyte powders we brought were going to come to good use. I drank more water in a day while I was in India than I do in a week back home.

CAMEL RIDING IS HARD WORK. After an hour drive deeper into the desert, we got to meet our camels Raju, Johnny, and Rocket. It was time to load up and head out. We had a wonderful “camel man” named Saliem who was our guide and caretaker for the entirety of our time in the desert. While I’m pretty sure it only took us 45 minutes to get to our final spot for the evening, it felt like hours. Brutal, brutal hours.

When we got to our final location for the evening, the sun was starting to set and it was time to get dinner started. Saliem got to work building one of the quickest fires I’ve ever witnessed and had hot chai ready for us to sip while we enjoyed the view. Dinner was cooking in the background and we were all just happy that the sun was going to hide out for the night so it could cool down. Too bad I didn’t know at the time that the moon can also burn, and that it would be somewhere around 3am before the breeze started to cool enough to enjoy it.

An early morning ride back meant avoiding the heat of the sun. Better circumstances for all involved. Plus no one really slept that night in the desert, and a nap at Fifu was in order. Was it worth it? Yes. Would I do it again? Yes.

Our next stopover was in Jodhpur. Our train was cancelled, so we ended up getting a driver to take us from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur, which is close to a five hour drive. I’m not going to linger on Jodhpur. To me, it was a necessary stopover since there isn’t a train from Jaisalmer directly to Udaipur and we wanted to stop at Ranakpur, which is situated between Jodhpur and Udaipur. Everything I read alluded to Jodhpur being relaxing and peaceful. It wasn’t. This was one of the sketchier cities we visited and left a lot to be desired. There was a pool at the hotel we were at and that was best part of Jodhpur. A pool.

Moving on.

We took another car to Ranakpur on our way to Udaipur the next day. It was amazing to see the topography changing as we moved out of the desert and into more mountainous terrain. The drive took us through some wonderful small villages and after a couple of hours, we reached the Jain temples in Ranakpur. This was an absolute highlight of the trip. The main temple is just incredible. Completed in 1497, after 50 years of construction and made fully out of marble, there are 1444 columns inside. No two columns are alike, and all are carved top to bottom. The end result is truly magnificent. I don’t think the pictures even come close to doing it justice.

The road from Ranakpur to Udaipur is simply stunning. Small villages are scattered about as you make your way down the mountain’s edge. Mothers are walking with their children while simultaneously balancing jugs of water on their heads, as men are farming the fields. You can tell this is an area of lush greenery during the wet season with so much still flourishing in the heart of the dry months.

Do yourself a favor and add this route to your travel plans immediately, if it doesn’t exist already. You will not be disappointed. It’s about an hour and a half away from Udaipur, so it’s a manageable day trip, assuming that’s your preference.

The Lake Palace in Udaipur. Yes. That’s a palace that is in the middle of a lake. And you can stay there. Excited yet?

You should be.

I’m not even exaggerating in the slightest when I say there were flower petals floating around us upon our arrival. We were given a tour before being shown to our rooms, which faced the city palace, another incredible complex that was the winter home for the former maharaja. You may recognize the Lake Palace from its cameo in one of the older Bond films, Octopussy.

We were only staying for one night, but they were generous enough to allow us a late checkout at 4pm the following day, allowing us to relax and soak up all of the goodness there. This is another one of those situations where a picture does no justice. I had a hard time capturing the feels the palace gave. Maybe you can tell by the smile on my face?

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This was the only city I really wished we had allowed ourselves an extra night in. The temperatures were much lower, and Udaipur offered a gentle lakeside retreat. It has been called the “Venice of the East” and I realize why.

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I don’t know how this hasn’t come up yet, but people will want you take pictures with them. Early on, they’d ask, but by the time we got to bigger cities like Jaipur, there was no permission requested and people are not as sly as they think. If you allowed a picture, there was a domino effect; an onslaught of people wanting a picture too. By the end, it was difficult to not be aggravated by it. Between people asking for pictures or people trying to “help” you out in exchange for money, or just following you while simultaneously begging, it was hard to just enjoy the moment and take it all in. There was all of this noise, and you could not tune it out.  The only reprieve we had from this was when we were in Udaipur.

There was another overnight train to catch, and by this time I was able to easily navigate the station and locate our car. We were on our way to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan.

There’s a lot to do in Jaipur. I wasn’t much into shopping on this trip, since I’m not into being harassed. Everything was pretty cheap in quality too, unless you went to a proper store. If you are looking for home goods then a stop at Rajasthali would be advised. I picked up a great rug there that I had shipped back to the states inexpensively.

If I had to put together a short list of places to go in Jaipur based on my itinerary it would include a stop at:

  • Lassiwala for a traditional lassi.  Go for the plain and make sure you go to the real Lassiwala since there are a lot of impostors. The one you want says “since 1944” on their sign.
  • Birla Temple Built entirely of marble, this temple has a more modern feel. We made it here for 7pm prayer, which was really enjoyable. You aren’t allowed to take any pictures at this temple, and while people were, I wanted to be respectful, so you’ll have to rely on some google images instead.
  • The Amber Fort This massive structure takes a good third of the day to get to and explore. We spent about two hours wandering the grounds.
  • Monkey Temple There are a lot of monkeys. They are sneaky. Watch your stuff. This was also the only place we encountered a snake charmer on the whole trip. It’s a little seedy, so trust your gut. We didn’t get too far before we ended up turning around, but I got some of my favorite photos of the trip while we were here.
  • Four Seasons Two words; Crispy. Corn. This vegetarian restaurant was one of my favorite restaurants on our travels. They had a ton to choose from, the portions weren’t overwhelming (we shared a few items), and it was really inexpensive. My meal cost around $6 including drinks.

We went to other places while in Jaipur, but for me, these were the most memorable.

I had decided that we should drive from Jaipur to Agra so we could make two stops along the way. The first, at Chand Baori where the worlds deepest stair well exists, and the second at Fatehpur Sikri, a complex of temples and monuments that also include’s one of India’s largest mosques (Jama Masjid). Neither of these were long stops and both are free, regardless of what random people try to tell you.

Agra’s only saving grace is the Taj Mahal. We didn’t go to Agra fort, because at this point in the trip they were all starting to look the same. We stayed two nights. Not because you need to stay for that long, but because we wanted to be able to see the sunrise and the sunset at the Taj. In hindsight, we probably could have seen sunset and gotten the next train back to Delhi. It was my second least favorite city we went to; I won’t be rushing back anytime soon.

Sunrise was at 5:30am so we got a tuktuk to the East Gate (make sure you specify which gate you want) to purchase our tickets. Since motorized vehicles aren’t allowed within a certain distance, there are lots of people trying to get you to pay for a pedicab to the main entry, but if you wait for a few minutes there are free electric shuttles that will take you. You can also always walk too. They were paving the road and walkway when we were there, which will make for a much nicer walk. Right now its mainly mixture of dirt and asphalt.

Seeing the Taj Mahal is everything you think it’s going to be and more. I’m glad we went so early. Even in the off season, it was the most crowded monument we had been to yet. The ivory white tomb came into view as we rounded the walkway. It was immense. We were still a good distance from it and yet its presence was undeniable. This air of calmness enveloped the grounds and I felt like I could have stayed there forever, breathing it all in.

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I entered the tomb and instantly I was overwhelmed by the peace I felt in the space. The inner walls are around 82ft high with a center dome embellished with a sun pattern. Once again I had a “wow” moment, thinking about how it was built in 1643 without any modern conveniences. The rear of the Taj Mahal overlooks the Yamuna River and offers a momentary sanctum for your mind to rest. 2016-05-25_152155000_64744_iOS

 

 

We were ready for food and decided to over to the Oberoi Hotel to get breakfast. After basking in the light of the Taj Mahal, the Oberoi was exactly what we needed. The perfectly manicured grounds were a sight for sore, trash-ridden eyes. This was Agra’s Lake Palace.

Breakfast was delicious and everything smelled so lovely that I didn’t want to leave and go to our hotel.  I promised myself that if I ever returned to Agra, a stay at the Oberoi would be necessary. Though, I don’t envision going back anytime soon. Not to Agra.

I had read that the best place to see the sunset with the a view of the Taj Mahal was the Shanti Lodge Hotel Rooftop. There was a restaurant at the top that, after walking through a dingy alleyway and up 4 flights of stairs and past the kitchen, I decided not to eat. I ordered a beer instead. There were surprisingly few people here. After reading a few reviews, everything indicated that the rooftop gets pretty crowded, but we sat right down at a table in the far corner, closest to the edge. While the atmosphere at the Shanti Lodge isn’t anything to write home about, the view could not be beat. When you find yourself questioning whether to walk down the alley (and you will) to get to the entrance of the hotel, just put one foot in front of the other and keep walking. Oh, and make sure you eat something before you go.

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Surprise! Our train to Delhi was delayed. Of course, up until we arrived at the station, everything indicated that it would be running on time, but I didn’t even mind because this was the last train we’d be taking on our trip. What I did mind was the lady in purple who would not stop staring at me. I decided she was looking for a staring contest. Game on.

I must have made her uncomfortable with all of the staring (hmm) I was doing, since she eventually ruffled and stopped. By this point in the trip, with less than 24 hours to go, I was not taking kindly to the staring, picture requests, or general harassment that we experienced daily. I was really looking forward to meeting up with Hittu in Delhi before he left to head North, since we didn’t get pestered nearly as much when he was with us. It was also fortunate that we were able to see our friend we made from our first stop in Bikaner before our last stop in Delhi. Full circle. All of my trips have a way of doing this; more on that some other time.

My Delhi experience at the beginning of my trip was completely different from my Delhi experience at the end of my trip. When I left the first time, I was a little meh on New Delhi. There wasn’t anything really striking about it to me. When we came back, this changed. Hittu picked us up from the train station. This time the station was in the center of the city, just near Connaught Place. Our first stop was to a Sikh temple, where any religious background is welcome to attend. This temple also has a large kitchen where volunteers work day and night preparing meals non stop for anyone who wants one. tons of people were in the kitchen preparing chapati, rice, and dal. I asked how many people they feed a day and they told me, thousands.

 

In the middle of Delhi is a sanctuary called Lodhi Gardens. This sprawling park contains mixed architecture that includes mosques and tombs as well as quiet walkways to escape from the buzz of the city. It wouldn’t be a trip to Delhi without a stop at the India Gate. This memorial honors 82,000 soldiers of the Indian Army who lost their lives during the First World War and the Third Anglo-Afghan War. Standing at 138 feet tall, it’s hard to miss when driving through the city.

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Karan and Divya were gracious enough to allow us to rest at their house again on our final night and suggested that we check out a restaurant called Depot29 for our final meal. It’s a good thing we followed their advice. Depot29 is where Indian and Mexican meet and have tasty baby root vegetable tacos that I could eat for days. There was also an incredible mushroom burger with truffle oil that I’m still thinking about. Downstairs, there was live music playing that was wafting into the room. Food + music = my happy place.

Our early flight caused us to have to get back at a decent hour to finish packing up. We said our goodbyes and got back to our room as I contemplated my journey so far. I loved my time in India, but I was ready to move on to the next leg of this adventure: Jordan.