Ibiza: Where even sunsets have sound tracks.

They’re battered.

There’s no prettier way to put it. Waiting for my flight out of Ibiza, I watch a procession of , muscle-sore party boys and It Girls ouch and groan their way to Departures. As a blonde Brad Pitt look alike passes out on the bench beside me, his friends stand around helplessly, weakly clutching their six packs and water bottles. After some feverish mumbling, they hoist him up, and wobble to their gate. Think: Saving Private Ryan. In slow motion. With tattoos. And massive hangovers.

A weekend in Ibiza, hedonistic party capital of the world, can be rough.

In the sixties, this island, a part of the Balearic archipelago of Spain, became famous as an idyllic refuge for hippies tripping on flower power, ‘love-not-war’ philosophies and acid – not necessarily in that order. Gradually its distinctive music and anything-goes attitude drew bohemians and rock stars, artists and party chasers, the wild and the reckless from all over the world. If you were hip, cool and anti-establishment, Ibiza was the place to be.

Eventually, the 24-hour raves, fuelled by trance, alcohol and a cocktail of chemical uppers (illegal but absurdly easy to obtain) earned it the tag ‘Gomorrah of the Mediterranean Sea.’ By the late nineties, the Vengaboys were trilling about ‘going to Ibiza,’ but for a large part of the party world, the island was ‘over.’ It had become too accessible, too obvious, too crowded. A metaphor for bad behaviour, desperate partying and juvenile high jinks.

Till now. My friends and I land in Ibiza to find it in middle of a rejuvenation. The hippies and artists are reclaiming the North, along with the likes of celebrities like Jade Jagger. The Gucci tourists are back to sipping sangria over spicy paella in Eivissa Town’s graceful medieval Dalt Vila area, flush with designer boutiques. (We’re told that “rupee squillionaire” Lakshmi Mittal’s yacht is anchored here.) Electronic Dance Music, Ibiza’s greatest export, plays everywhere, a sound track to sunsets, full moons and baking afternoons on the beach. And the clubs, some of the best on the world, are vying with each other to source designer DJs and host supremely riotous party nights.

It seems like the ideal place for three girls to channel their inner hippies. We’re concluding a hectic two week holiday, and after hefty doses of culture, history and architecture in Barcelona and Lisbon, we plan to do little besides lounge about in a zen-like stupor all day, soaking up the music, art and atmosphere. And of course, party through the nights.

This is the start of the ‘season’ – which stretches from June to October. We head to rocking San Antoni to watch sunrise from Café Del Mar. However, with its regulation bouncers and grimly chic waiters it seems rather naff so we amble down a line of sea-facing cafes to find a breezy bar with zingy mojitoes and wonderfully eccentric customers.

As the sun goes down in a flaming chaos of colour, a shy Spanish man with a braided beard teaches us tricks on his unicycle, watched appreciatively by the local Don Juan who chats us up using his scruffy dog as an icebreaker. A British playboy, who lives on his yacht, introduces us to passing friends (“everyone knows everyone else here”), and between it all our tousle-haired Argentinean waitress gives shopping tips. This fluid confluence of nationalities is a large part of Ibiza’s magic.

We choose Pacha, arguably the island’s best known club, to party the night away. Although Pacha has clubs around the world, from New York to Munich, its flagship is in Ibiza. It’s Flower Power night, a tribute to the island’s most colourful phase. Bathed in joyful pink, yellow and blue light, the front doors open into a multi-level room where hundreds of people dance to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin… The energy is palpable, the music infectious.

Our charming Polish friend Maciek, a global nomad who has spent six months of a year working in Ibiza for the past 10 years, shows us around the club’s five rooms, capable of holding 3,000 people in all. We dance. We lounge. We sing, ‘All we are saying is give peace a chance,’ with a thousand people, hands in the air. The night ends on the terrace as day breaks, watching the sky slowly turn a delicate shade of blue.

In time-honoured Ibiza tradition, we wake up by afternoon and stumble out with sunglasses, hats and hangovers. There’s a dizzying variety of new age fetishism on offer in town, from snake massage therapy (150 Euros an hour) to nude power yoga. We settle for caffeine instead, sitting placidly at a café, watching determinedly botoxed women in clingy dresses totter by.

The buzz at the café is all about David Guetta, who organizes the ‘F**k Me I’m Famous’ nights at Pacha every Thursday, bringing in the likes of Will.I.Am, Taio Cruz and Black Eyed Peas. Since we’re in the mood for a more placid form of clubbing, we head to Bora Bora beach to snooze in the warm powdery sand while all around us beautiful people in gym-toned bodies and designer swimwear groove to the beat of yet another DJ, in yet another bar.

Maciek drives us out of town to demonstrate why he loves Ibiza on our final day on the island. We glide past wide open fields, quiet beaches and glittering salt pans, Ibiza’s white gold. And always, in the background, the deep blue Mediterranean sea. Our last few hours on the island are spent on Las Salinas beach, soaking up the sun, watching cold jelly-fish laden waves wash upon the shore and listening to a DJ dreamily spin that now intensely-familiar Balearic beat.



This little piggy went to market, This little piggy stayed at the cove, This little piggy got sunburnt…

We notice Joshua’s flaming red flower as he helps us out of the boat at Castaway Island. As we wade through the waves, wriggling our toes in the warm sand of yet another dazzling Fijian beach, he explains the significance. “In Fiji, we have no wedding rings. So wear a flower behind your left ear if you’re single, right if you’re married.”

We thoughtfully sip on chilled Chardonnay cocktails served in tender coconuts as Joshua sums up our first class on Fijian dating. “So, left ear if you’re looking and right if you’re cooking.”

The irony seems a bit unfortunate for the pig-on-a-spit at the Musket Cove Island resort, wearing a jaunty frangipani behind his right ear. Served with tapioca, bowls of bright salad and piles of juicy skewered prawns, this dinner’s an attempt to rediscover the food of traditional Fiji. Destination of choice for tourists from New Zealand and Australia for decades, the islands’ resorts — many owned by expatriates — have spent years focusing on International food with imported ingredients. They now realise it’s time to introduce more local recipes for food tourists and culture-vultures.

Fiji comprises 330 islands in all, of which less than one-third are inhabited. The islanders are so friendly, it’s difficult to believe that this was once a land of fierce cannibals. All that’s left of that lifestyle today are cute brain-picking forks sold in chic boutiques on Viti Levu (site of the nation’s capital city Suva). Apparently they’re great for salads.

Our cooking class is conducted by the beach at Musket Cove Island Resort just before Mr Piggy makes his debut. Under a spectacular island sunset, we learn how to make the much-loved Kokodo. Fresh Mahi Mahi fish is cubed and marinated in lemon, salt and vinegar overnight. Then it’s mixed with finely chopped cucumber, tomato, onion, and capsicum. Finally, the whole concoction is slathered in cool, rich, luxurious coconut cream.

At the local market in Nadi, Viti Levu, we weave between bundles of emerald spinach, chunky taro roots and piles of fat ginger. Though lots of produce comes from Australia and New Zealand, the government is now encouraging local farms, and requesting resorts to buy from them. Fish is plentiful, of course. A long, laden counter glistening with Red snappers and Barracuda. Sea bream and Coral trout. Blue fin trevally, Long-nosed emperors and knots of eels. The small fish are tied on a string, forming a necklace only Lady Gaga could wear, and sold in sets of 10.

Over here, families celebrate major occasions with a Lovo feast, also a staple at almost every resort. The work begins early in the day, as the Lovo pit is filled with wood, then set on fire. Rocks are placed on top of this, so they turn red hot. Then food — wrapped in plaited banana leaves — is placed inside, covered and left to cook for hours. The result is delicious: tender vegetables infused with the flavour of charcoal and spices. Meat so luscious it practically falls off the bone.

On our last day we dive off a boat, to swim in the warm Pacific waters clutching a fistful of soggy bread to feed the fish. They swim towards us indolently and nibble delicately, like socialites at brunch. In the evening, despite our sea-tangled hair and flaming sunburns, we make an effort to glam up for dinner. We’re headed to The Plantation, a fine-dining restaurant at the Sonaisali Island resort. After a flurry of dainty starters, we eat slow cooked pork set on a crab cabbage roll paired with a delicate apple and muscatel confit teamed with glasses of heady red wine. Dessert’s a delicate toffee basket filled with ripe tropical fruit topped with sorbet.

Our host suggests we end our evening with Angry Fijians — a wicked shooter comprising banana liqueur, Malibu rum and Bailey’s Irish cream. He kicks off his shoes and leads us to the Zero Bar at the other end of the property, insisting we walk to enjoy the balmy sea breeze. The perfect Fijian antidote to la-di-dah dining: star strewn skies, barefoot bars and giddy nightcaps.

Eating through Hong Kong

Egg tarts as sweet as sunshine


Springy, bouncy, wiry noodles in steaming soup


Flashy Mongkok by night

It’s midnight and we’re prowling through the dark, chilly alleys of Kowloon, Hong Kong.
As Temple Street’s night market quietens down, people flaunting fake Louis Vuittons, triple piercings and shiny leather pants elbow past looking for a late night snack. In true flashy big city style, the neon boards and electronic signage act like disco lights, covering the scene in surreal red-blue-green swathes.
We’re looking for Tim Ho Wan, the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world. This tiny eatery, run by the former dim sum chef of the Four Season’s hotel is so popular we’re warned there’s a three hour wait for tables. Yet, in Mongkok, the locals – busy eating pungent tofu, Siu Mai and a Hong Kong style fried chicken covered in sesame seeds – don’t seem to know its exact location.
By 1 a.m. we stumble upon an alternative: a petite, steamy, bright eatery bursting with teenagers wearing their angst and iPhones as badges of honour. After much gesticulation the owner brings us a warm basket, filled with succulent fish dim sum and a bowl of sharp soya sauce. It’s teamed with sticky fried rice studded with disconcertingly sweet, fatty sausage.
Our Hong Kong food adventure’s off to an interesting start.
The next day we wake up to delicate stir fried vermicelli noodle crunchy with peanuts and a stodgy congee. It’s time to tick off the two next items on our ‘best of Hong Kong food’ list: silk stocking tea and egg tarts.
Hong Kong’s Central Business District is chic and busy, bustling with fashionistas in elegant winter coats and edgy hairdos. At the Good Spring Herbal Pharmacy, young bankers in sharp suits and startlingly feminine manbags delicately sip on ginseng tea, dispensed from an ornate, steaming brass pot. Inside, pharmacists read Chinese prescriptions written in graceful calligraphy, rapidly choosing roots and powders from heavy wooden cabinets and wrapping them up in crisp paper.
After a glass of Sweet Flower tea, tasting of honey and gardens, we trip into the Lan Fong Yuen tearoom. This heaving café claims to have invented Hong Kong milk tea, strained through a silk stocking. Serendipity sees us seated with charming Ad executive Jacqueline Ho, who logs onto Hong Kong’s popular OpenRice website on her iPhone to show us the best places to dine. After cups of the thin, smooth milky tea, served in heavy Lipton cups, she walks us to the Tai Cheong Bakery next door for egg tarts.
Ten minutes in line, and we’re rewarded by a warm, wobbly egg tart. Set in a flaky, buttery, golden pastry shell, the deep yellow tart is silky and just sweet enough to be satisfying. The city’s last British Governer, Chris Patten agrees. The store front boasts a blown-up picture of him pasted across the window, declaring his allegiance.
Day three’s dedicated to noodles. And, hopefully, that elusive Michelin meal. Back in central after a lot of walking, much of it uphill thanks to the city’s steep inclines, we find ourselves staring at an unexpected bonus – the Michelin ‘approved’ sign outside a random restaurant in the CBD. Inside, it’s quiet but for the steady sound of slurping as the family at the next table enjoys their bowl of noodles. Our noodles, however, lack punch – they’re watery and tasteless. The sticky rice served with soy and honey glazed pork is delicious, however. The pork’s so succulent and well done, it can be taken off the bone with just chopsticks.
Ever since travelling-celebrity Chef Antony Bourdain ‘discovered’ Mak’s Noodle in Wellington Street, it’s been a tourist magnet. However, following Jacquline’s advice to pick crowded restaurants, we head to Tsim Chai Kee, opposite Mak’s and positively bursting with the local lunch crowd. Inside, the community beach is so narrow and packed I’m a little worried my hungry neighbour will mistake my elbow for his lunch.
Tsim Chai Kee serves just three kinds of noodles: shrimp, fish balls and beef. My bowl of translucent wantons stuffed with king shrimp set on a generous squiggle of wiry, springy noodles arrives quickly. The noodles, wallowing in a fragrant broth, have to be teased out with chopsticks and a soup spoon.
Nobody bothers with small talk. Everyone’s here to eat, and eat well. Who needs a pat from Michelin with food so good.

Kundalini questing by the Ganga

It’s a chilly 3 a.m. Dark. Windy. Quiet. Yet, somehow, I find myself racing through a garden grouchily brandishing a frightfully pink yoga mat. I’m accompanied by nauseatingly cheerful people: A fiesta of track pants, tattoos and chic jeweled turbans.
Spiritual Rishikesh’s is not easy to love. Certainly not at first sight. Not if your mantra is materialism, at any rate. Or if your idea of a holiday involves croissants in bed at 11 a.m.
Yet, by 4 a.m. we’re meditating in cross legged silence on a stony floor, ‘awakening our chakras’. Well, some of us are. My chakras only respond to mochaccinos. Fortunately, no-one frowns on Shavasana, that deliciously languid yoga posture. So I lie down and sneakily nap till breakfast.
And a good thing too.
We’re at Parmarth Niketan, set in Rishikesh’s Swarg Ashram area on the east bank of the Ganga. Where the action never stops.
Signing up with Connect With Himalaya (see box) for a healthy holistic holiday I had pictured spa-styled rooms, languid river cafes and quirky boutiques. I quickly learnt that Gaurav Punj’s idea of rejuvenation differed vastly from mine. (In hindsight, I should have got suspicious when his packing list included an LED torch, Electral packets and running shoes, instead of eyelash curlers, body shimmer and stilettos.)
Our power-holiday begins at Parmath, where Rishikesh’s annual International Yoga Festival is in full swing. Resting at the foothills of the Himalayas, beside India’s most holy river, Rishikesh has drawn the spiritually inclined for centuries: powerful mystics seeking solitude, yogis training their bodies into lithe time-capsules, troubled truth seekers desperate for redemption.
They came quietly, setting up kutirs in caves and rocks, living lives dedicated to silence. Then in 1968, The Beatles visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram (now closed), and introduced Rishikesh to the Western world. Suddenly India, specifically this sleepy town, was the cure to disenchantment. Everyone from hippies, high on marijuana and music, to health junkies, touting veganism and six packs, flooded Rishikesh. And Rishikesh absorbed them all.
Today, in addition to being a serious centre for yoga and spirituality, has grown into a refuge for an eclectic collection of karma chameleons, soul searchers and bendy yogis from across the world. They arrive in droves for the festival, all impossibly toned, enviably flexible and inevitably festooned with the usual Kundalini-questing paraphernalia: jingling silver lockets, lotus tattoos and chunky rudraksha malas. Religious songs sung with nasal American twangs and guitars blare on the streets from bookstores abounding with titles such as ‘The soul of love’ and ‘Death must die.’
All this on rustic Swarg Ashram road, crammed with fiercely bearded swamis in saffron, tea stalls fragrant with ginger and beatifically rambling cows.
To be in Rishikesh is to be far away. Cut away from your world, and all its trappings. It’s both disconcerting and vaguely thrilling. Like discovering a secret garden in your backyard.
The festival brings together brilliant and quirky teachers from across the world, demonstrating how incredibly plaint yoga can be — translated into so many powerful, and relevant, versions. While there’s plenty of kooky dancing, cheerleader-style whooping and running around the garden, the most satisfying (and difficult) classes are the ones taught by yogis determined to stay true to the principles of their school – even if they do jazz things up with music and fluidly choreographed movement.
Mohan Bhandhari, for instance, co-founder of YogiYoga in China, takes classes in Hatha Yoga, aimed at strengthening the core and spine. Then there’s LA-based Marla Apt who demonstrates restorative postures using the props of Iyengar yoga. And Kishen Shah, adjunct professor at UCLA, leads students though active and static meditation, demonstrating that stillness can be just as challenging as intense movement.
Yet, it wasn’t all flexing, sweating and downward dogs. Rishikesh is the gateway to the Himalayas, about1360 feet above sea level, and Gaurav ensured we explored it, luring us out of the cafes (abounding with gooey chocolate crepes, bright mezze platters and elegant pizzas) with promises of hills carpeted in flowers and glimpses of mountains draped in snow.
Our walks take us over the delightfully wobbly Ram Jhula bridge and into the Lakshman Jhoola area, crammed with pretty handicraft stores, twinkling tea stalls and quirky cafes. We squeal across the Ganga in a boat, flashing silver with fish. We pant and gasp 2 kms uphill to Kunjapuri temple, majestically overlooking the Gangotri range.
Back at Parmath, it’s time for our last Ganga Arti, an hour filled with singing, music and lamps. As the prayers reach a crescendo, people release bobbing diyas into the inky river, where they rush away in warm circles of light.
Further upstream at Shivpuri, the final leg of our trip, the Ganga changes character, roaring impatiently at the many muddling white water rafters. The first rapid grabs and tosses us playfully, the second has us clinging to the slippery boat in terrified delight, the third forces us to dive in, screaming with the shock of icy water. In half an hour we’re ‘body surfing’ blissfully, holding a rope dangling from the boat and thinking deep thoughts. Like what’s for tea.
Crisp onion pakodas and frothy coffee, in case you’re wondering – intensely satisfying in the way only comfort food can be when you’re tired and hungry. We’re now at Ganga Riviera, run by Anil Bisht of Adventure Trails. A former mountaineer still in the midst of a love affair with the Himalayas, Anil has set his camp right by the river, but well away from the madding crowd. Access involves a half an hour walk, followed by luggage-bearing mules.
Our trek from here is on the old – and startlingly scenic – Badrinath paidal marg, cut into the cool mountains for shade. It’s so silent you can practically hear the mountains breath. Till you hear the tinkle of a rambling horse’s collar. Or run into a shepherd, carrying an adorably cuddly lamb amidst a roadblock of wooly sheep supervised seriously by shaggy sheepdogs.
At night, the sky practically bursts with stars, as we curl up by the crackling bonfire at camp and listen to chilling stories about mountain spirits. As the fire dies, we stumble towards our welcoming canvas tents, lit with flickering lanterns. Then, comfortably exhausted, we fall asleep listening to the languidly hushed murmur of the Ganga.

Connect With Himalaya
Trek to Miyar valley, land of the blue poppy. Though quaint mountain villages, lush pastures and up a theatrically coloured glacier. Get initiated into the mysteries of Ladakh. Stay with the locals in snow leopard country, mountain bike across the area’s moonscape and raft on the Indus.
Or head to the valleys of Rupin and Supin, where you traverse spectacularly high ridges, to discover a mysterious forgotten lake, Baradsaar, revered by the locals.
‘Connect With Himalaya’ (CWH) is all about exploration. The travel outfit introduces city slickers to new travel experiences by following the old rules. Run by Gaurav Punj and Rujuta Diwekar, both passionate about these mountains and their people, Two-year-old CWH encourage trekkers to experience the Himalayas the way the locals always have: Taking on the challenges of the terrain by foot, following the paths of the shepherds and sleeping under the stars. And, most importantly, by moving away from the well-trod paths of the big operators.
“Right now the tour operators show a very limited area, and it’s thoroughly exploited,” says Gaurav, explaining why his routes are refreshing. “Manali, for example, has become a hub of adventure activities and there are now more travel agents than tourists there.” He adds, “You can’t ever know everything about the Himalaya. It’s so diverse — regions, people, culture, geology.” After travelling extensively for many years, he finally realized the best information came from the locals. “I got to know, for example, whom to trust for arranging my trek in Ladakh, or my stay in Munsiyari, or my transportation in Spiti. This is when the idea of CWH was born.”
Focused on sustainable tourism, CWH works with local guides, porters and drivers, in an attempt to inject money into the poor villages. “We believe in responsible tourism, and work on understanding the culture and lifestyle of the Himalaya’s people,” he says, talking of how every trek involves them, with homestays and adventure activities.
CWH offers about 25 trips a year, of which about 60 per cent are completely new, born out of exploratory treks. Their focus is on discovering the unusual, whether it’s a café tucked into a stony cliff or a valley of flowers.
Gaurav insists that evading the coaches and finding fresh destinations is not as tough as you would imagine. “About 90 per cent of the Himalaya tourism is in 10 per cent of the region,” he says, adding with a grin, “I have trips planned for the three years, all new places.”
For these are mountains you can explore your whole life, and still not completely discover.

Travels into The Heart Of Darkness

We would like to say that Koyambedu at predawn, pre-adventure, is inspiring. However, our story begins in a slushy bus terminus alive with the scent of rotting vegetables. We scramble into the bus to Chidambaram, settling on seats shiny with grunge. The mission is to reconnect with Pichavaram, the subject of the first piece in MetroPlus’s popular Road Less Travelled Column, which ran for over four years starting November 2003.

Following RLT tradition, we’re buffeted by wind, burnt by the sun and drenched with rain over the course of the journey. Emerging at crowded Chidambaram — looking vaguely Rastafarian with hair matted with rural grime — we swat amorous flies, elbow away friendly moustachioed men and teeter through suspiciously smelly slush, muttering darkly about Nature being overrated.

But, the journey’s just beginning. For some reason people always seem to enjoy tales of reporters put through trials of fire. Admittedly, it’s inexplicably satisfying to read about writers balancing on stinky fish carts, climbing sweltering rocks and crawling through spooky caves (all genuine MetroPlus RLT experiences) over a cup of comfortable coffee at home. It’s less fun when you’re acquiring a glorious Bob Marley hairdo miles away from your (sniff) hair stylist, (sob) shopping mall and (sigh) coffee bar.

Fortunately the waiters at ‘Vandayar High Class Vegetarian’ restaurant are friendly, despite our clearly irrational demands for a menu. (“Meals, madam, meals. Only meals.”) About six of them wait on us, giggling manically as they advise us on the best way to reach Pichavaram, about 16 km away.

Outside, the sun seems brighter and happier than usual as we clamber into an auto and zip towards the mangroves. Moving deeper into the villages, the auto weaves between goats sprawled across the road like languid Roman emperors, and the breeze gets cooler as the sky gets darker. It speeds unsteadily through emerald fields, tiny huts and flashy statues. Along buildings painted in a tasteful blend of neon green and violent orange. Very Manish Arora. Little seems to have changed since Shalini Umachandran explored Pichavaram five years ago for RLT. The road still boasts potholes, gaudy fertilizer adverts and statues of politicians painted in gold. The TTDC complex, which was under construction when the first RLT was written, is now ready. But it’s still rather basic. There is however a watchtower with a surprisingly sophisticated telescope through which we’re shown the glittering Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram, almost 10 km away as the crow flies.

TTDC’s gushing website states Pichavaram offers “abundant scope for water sports such as parasailing, rowing and canoeing.” In reality, there’s still only one thing to do here. Take a boat into the mangrove forest.

Located in the Vellar-Coleroon estuarine complex, which is the northernmost part of the Cauvery delta, the brooding mangroves form lush forests that spring out of the water. Covering over 400 hectares, these hearteningly healthy trees, with their glossy green leaves, support a bustling community of varied wildlife: birds, insects and animals.

The row boat glides through intriguingly intricate passages of hanging roots carved out by the boatmen. It’s suitably mysterious: an enchanted wood. Sleek crabs scamper past, majestic falcons strut about, elegant kingfishers preen. In the background there’s the constant hum and flutter of insects and birds. It’s magical and yet strangely eerie: Like a huge multipurpose movie set, perfect for “Narnia” as well as “Omen”.

According to boatman Rajendran, hundreds of tourists wind through these waterways during the tourist season, which coincides with school holidays. Fortunately for us, there are no squealing children around. We’re alone. Like valiant explorers.

The azure sky’s perfect, especially once with our feet trailing in the cool water. Schools of tiny fish get competitive and race our boat, showing off their acrobatic jumps in quick flashes of silver. Besides being undeniably decorative, these mangroves absorb excess nitrates and phosphates thus preventing water contamination. They also act as a buffer, minimising damage from raging cyclones. Best of all, they’re not yet a popular destination, making Pichavaram one of the few places you can hear nothing but Nature breathing.

Though, if you’re staying overnight Nature tends to turn into the class bully. Our chaotically coloured room, with damp spots on the roof, flourishing ant community and cheery lizards, can only be accessed through damp fields rife with cows. Since there’s no phone, we’re advised to “open door and shout loudly” if we want anything. By 5 p.m. our boat ride’s done. “What else is there to do?” we ask. “Nothing.”

So we climb the watchtower and watch the sky slowly turn a brilliant orange and the sun sink in a burst of gorgeous hues. In minutes the sky begins to glitter with stars. Suddenly we see a fiery shooting star streaming ceremoniously across the sky. Minutes later the electricity fails, and we’re soon back in our tiny room, gingerly crouched on the bed in pitch darkness, hoping the giant spiders don’t find us. Beyond the window, alive with scurrying ants, the mangroves glimmer mysteriously in the moonlight.

Pichavaram’s not changed an iota in five years. Which is frustrating. But also fabulous.


Paradise Lost. Paradise Regained?

I’ve been to Sri Lanka once – wandering excitedly between Colombo, breathless with tales of war, and Kandy, heavy with an almost eerie silence punctuated only by prayers from the stunning Temple Of The Tooth. Now, with the promise of peace ahead, i’m looking forward to a story that’s completely different from the following, which was written and published in April 2004. Will things change?

BEING mistaken for a terrorist can be rather disconcerting. Especially when the distinctly jumpy man accusing you of plotting to kill thousands looks like he’s going to drop all his possessions and run for his life if you do so much as glance at him sternly. “You can’t trust anyone here,” he says, fidgeting with his beer in a quietly smoky bar. “There’s too much at stake.”

Call him what you want: a conspiracy theorist, a melodramatic worrier, even a kook. Then, take a good look at his country — its past, its present and the projections for its future — and you’ll understand why he, and many other Sri Lankans, think the way they do. The troubled island has seen two decades of gut-wrenching ethnic conflict, after all. Two decades that have crippled its people, both financially and emotionally, with scars that will require more than just economic resurgence for healing. And even today, in spite of two years of apprehensive peace, thanks to a cease-fire agreement between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan Government, things are still far from “normal” in the island, ironically shaped like a just-shed tear.

Colombo by night gives every indication of being a troubled city in spite of its well-advertised glitzy casinos, raucous karaoke bars and swinging nightclubs. As darkness falls, the city’s veins are cordoned off and buses sinisterly parked across them to supplement rows of barricades. Well-armed policemen patrol these quiet and largely deserted roads on the lookout for trouble. “If they see you doing anything suspicious, they take you to the Fourth Floor,” says a Sri Lankan woman, whose cousin was taken there for questioning because he was caught taking touristy photographs of the harbour. The “dreaded Fourth Floor”, of the country’s police headquarters houses its investigation wing and apparently terrifies Colombo because, as one Sri Lankan says, “a number of people taken in for questioning there never come out”.

On a drive through the city, citizens casually point out sites of recent bomb blasts like they are a part of the scenery — along with the majestic line up of luxurious, largely under-occupied hotels along the Galle Face Road; the vulnerable, bustling market areas and the places of worship, crammed with fervently praying Sri Lankans watched over by beatific images of the Buddha.

In small-town Kandy, famous for its heavily-guarded Temple of the Tooth — one of the holiest Buddhist shrines in the country (attacked by the LTTE in 1998) — the days are crammed with noisily appreciative floods of blonde tourists. But the nights are similar to Colombo’s: Silent roads, occasional nervous pedestrians, an expectant lull in the air. Almost as though the entire city is expecting bad news. “Tourists who come here say it’s like a cemetery,” shrugs one of the town’s many tour guides.

It’s in Kandy that Kelum Chamara Warnakulasuriya, owner of Loco Lanka Tours, admits that Sri Lankans don’t like being asked too many questions — once he’s sure that no one in the Royal Pub, attached to the beautifully restored more-than-a-century-old Queens’ Hotel, is a well-disguised spy for the LTTE.

“You ask a Sri Lankan about our past, he’ll tell you. But if you ask him about the present, he’ll just keep leading you away from the truth. We have many secrets that we have to keep,” he says, adding, “I live in a village where there are two lakes, which supply Kandy with its drinking water. If someone puts cyanide in the water, boom. there’ll be hundreds of people dead.” Kelum adds. “We don’t trust you because we can’t trust anyone. Your guides won’t tell you much. To tourists, we narrate history, but keep the present to ourselves. There are many places not shown. Many stories not told.”

There are also many potential destinations not seen. The north of Sri Lanka, which is largely controlled by the LTTE, is unsafe and difficult to access. The only flights within Sri Lanka operate between LTTE controlled Jaffna and Colombo, and are both expensive and vulnerable. (In 1998 a flight to Colombo “mysteriously disappeared” — reportedly shot down.) The trains are unreliable, according to one tour operator, since the LTTE has “removed large parts of the railway lines to build barracks”. And the road to Jaffna has four check points — two controlled by the military and two by the LTTE.

However, some of the most beautiful parts of Sri Lanka are in these almost-impossible-to-access areas. “There’s tremendous potential in the country,” says P.K. Mohan Kumar, Chief Operating Office, Oriental Hotel Limited, and former General Manager of the Taj Samudra in Colombo. Mohan Kumar was a part of Sri Lanka’s Tourism Advisory Committee, made up of prominent hoteliers and businessmen and set up in 2000 by Ranil Wickremesinghe soon after he was elected Prime Minister, to promote tourism.

“The East coast is beautiful. It has a series of lagoons and one of world’s last stretches of virgin rain forest. That part of the island is also home to the world’s two largest mammals — the elephant and the whale,” he says, adding, “It could pose a huge challenge to the Maldives …. However, since the 1980s the island has been left unexplored.”

M. Shariq, Deputy CEO, Lanka Travel Operators, takes a similar view. “Sri Lanka has variety,” he says, “unlike the Maldives. We have beaches, wildlife sanctuaries and historical monuments for tourists, and places of religious importance for pilgrims.”

“Many tourists travel within the country,” says Kelum. “Kandy, Colombo … then, they go down South, where it’s safe — Gaulle, Hambantota, Matara.” He adds that European tourists go to Sri Lanka’s many languidly pristine beaches to swim, surf, go on underwater safaris, or just marinate in the deliciously warm sun and sand. “We also have tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya: waterfalls and Buddhist temples in Ella; an elephant orphanage at Pinnewala, near Kandy. At Tissamaharama, tourists can go on safaris, and at Yala there’s a national park.”

Sri Lanka undeniably has plenty to offer tourists, even if they’re cash strapped back packers, although the island was originally targeted at upmarket dollar flaunting, Louis Vuitton-toting visitors. “It was a high-end tourist destination until the 1980s and was expected to become the next Singapore, or Thailand,” says Mohan Kumar, adding that all the big hotels chains — the Taj, Inter Continental, Hilton, Ramada — moved in at that time.

Then, in the early 1980s, the ethnic disturbance broke out and everything changed. Occupancy rates plummeted, flights emptied and the economy began to groan. “Tourism is the third largest source of foreign exchange in the country, after repatriates and garments,” says Mohan Kumar. “But, it’s a very fragile industry. It’s security sensitive and image sensitive — especially if your market is in the developed world. And the traditional Sri Lankan market has always been the United Kingdom and Germany.”

“No foreign tourist has ever been injured, or killed, in Sri Lanka,” claims Kelum. “But when the embassy gives warnings to people, saying `don’t travel to the country’ — like they are doing now for elections — they stop coming. (A travel advisory means that medical insurance is automatically cancelled for any tourist who ignores it, so it affects/stems tourism from the developed world.”)

“Between 1984 and 2000, Sri Lanka was reeling under pressure. The tourism industry was on its knees,” says Mohan Kumar. Today, although Sri Lanka is picking up the pieces and starting over, the job markets’ still depressingly bleak. “Nobody in Colombo has jobs. They’re all sitting at home,” says Sharath, a trishaw driver. “Everyone wants to get out of here. Even if children are clever and complete schooling, there’s no way to make money. The only way out is to get away.”

A guide for foreign tourists at the Temple of the Tooth agrees. “The boys here — we call them the beach boys. Their only aim is to catch a lady, catch a man. And go to Europe, Italy, England. Everyone wants to escape. There’s nothing left.”

If Sri Lanka achieves peace, and stability, however, the country has tremendous potential with its numerous natural advantages: a warm climate, irresistible food and people, a line up of beautiful hotels housed in glamorous heritage buildings, and a range of exotic getaways set in the mountains, forests, valleys and beaches.

Now that the Sri Lankans have had a taste of peace, they’re hungering for it more than ever before — although the more cautious among them counsel against “peace at any cost”. However, an agreement of some sort between the LTTE and the army, and now the LTTE and the LTTE is vital. Otherwise, everybody stands to lose.

“Peace will change our lives, and help allay the pain of our past,” says one well-educated young Sri Lankan, waiting at tables in an empty restaurant in Kandy. “We want peace. We need peace …. We need more jobs. We want a future.”

© Copyright 2000 – 2009 The Hindu

Where do ordinary heroes go?

DAVID SELVES was just 12 years old. But he dived into the water, to support “his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms.” This was in 1886. Two years earlier, Samuel Rabbeth, a 28-year-old doctor, had desperately tried to save a four-year-old suffering from diphtheria, clearing an obstruction in the child’s throat by putting his mouth to the tracheotomy tube. But he contracted the infection and died. And so did the child.

Ordinarily, they would have been forgotten by now. After all, they were neither rich nor powerful.

However, their courage is as arresting today as it must have been then, more than a century ago. Because, in a busy corner of London, there’s an old, hushed park where extraordinary deeds of courage are remembered, along with their ordinary heroes.

Almost hidden

Wedged between office blocks, this park is in the heart of London’s frenetic Barbican, bustling with bankers in expensive suits and secretaries clipping past in gleaming designer boots. Yet, you’ll be lucky to find someone who can give you directions to it. The frantically posing tourists at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, barely a minute away, hardly ever wander here, and Londoners seem to only stop by for a quick absent-minded cigarette or sandwich. But if anyone stops to listen, the powerful stories it tells are compelling enough to leave a lasting impact. Postman’s Park is one of London’s most surprising secrets. It also holds some of the city’s most heart-warming stories.

In the evening, the park is a pool of darkness, locked and bolted. The quaintly named “Guild & Ward Church of St. Botolph-Without-Aldersgate” next door, on the other hand, radiates warmth, with its burnishing lights and Scottish preacher’s lilting sermon. Although the park, set between King Edward Street and Little Britain, seems to be a part of the church (which stands at spot where “a church building has stood for nearly one thousand years” according to a plaque), a notice at the entrance proclaims that it was created with land from the churchyard of Saint Leonards, Foster Lane, St. Botolphs, Aldersgate and the graveyard of Christchurch, Newgate Street. Today it is maintained by the Corporation of London, Open Spaces Department. Once a popular lunchtime destination for workers from the old General Post Office, postman’s park, shaped so irregularly it looks like its been hastily squeezed in, was opened in 1880, opposite an old post office. But it went on to become much more than just a backdrop to hastily-eaten sandwiches and stately trees, thanks to George Frederic Watts, a talented painter and fiery philanthropist.

A different tribute

In 1887, Watts wrote to the Times, suggesting a memorial for ordinary heroes. After all, the rich and powerful are always remembered, whether they’re army generals, film stars or millionaires; celebrated for winning wars, teary lines or making enough money to raise grandiose buildings and glitzy marble plaques. Watts — the son of a London piano maker, who reportedly despised the very-rich and refused a baronetcy twice — campaigned for a memorial to remember regular people, who displayed startlingly heroic acts of courage, and died in the process.

His letter suggested that a memorial of this sort would be a marvellous way to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee Year. But no one paid him any attention. Fortunately, for the few people who stumble upon this moving treasure and the selflessly heroic men, women and children who will be remembered for as long as it stands, when Watts realised that neither the government nor the town planners were really interested in raising marble to ordinary lives, he just went ahead and funded it himself, paying for the first 13 plaques. His widow then added 34 after he died in 1904. Five more were added almost three decades later.

Today, you can wander past the park’s mysterious tombstones draped in so many layers of damp moss that only occasional words shine though, an “alderman” here and “1800” there — it was evidently a graveyard at some point in it’s history. But huddled together in groups of seven at discreet corners, the tombs are clearly not the main show here. Neither are the fountains, which burble politely on the pathway. Or the lush patches of purple flowers, surrounded by carpets of bright yellow maple leaves.

It’s the 50-foot gallery stretching across the end of the park, neatly plastered with plaques (most created by Royal Doulton), crowned by a damp, faded inscription, “In commemoration of heroic self-sacrifice”.

Power in simplicity

The brief descriptions on each tablet are plain and unemotional. But that simplicity is their power. For, these are stories that need no histrionics, or ornate embellishment to move any random reader that happens to wander past.

There is the plaque to John Cranmer, a clerk in the London County Council who drowned when he was 23 years old “while saving the life of a stranger and a foreigner” in 1901. And eight-year-old Henry James Bristow who died in 1890, when he “saved his little sister’s life by tearing off her flaming clothes but caught fire himself and died of burns and shock”.

But perhaps the most vivid is the heart-rending remembrance to Solomon Galman, an 11-year-old who “died of injuries after saving his little brother from being run over in Commercial Street”. At the bottom are his last words. “Mother, I saved him but could not save myself.”


Orchids, Witches, Byron: Sneak Through Secret London

TOURISTS don’t see real cities. They see images, created by slick marketing people and shrewd shopkeepers. Paris, for instance, is the Eiffel tower, flashing gaudily beside overpriced restaurants and stalls festooned with “I love France” key chains. New York, of course, is the Statue of Liberty, and endless sweaty queues for a ferry to Liberty Island. And London, a photograph in front of Big Ben, a longing look though the bolted gates at Buckingham Palace and David Beckham at Madam Tussauds.

Unless, of course, you become a defiant independent traveller. It takes courage. You won’t be able to swap stories with the neighbours on how crowded Trafalgar Square is these days, or how the Champs-Elysées can be frightfully expensive, which might considerably bring down your social standing in the housing complex. (“Can you imagine, he was in New York, and he didn’t go to Macys!”) But you’ll discover a lot more. London for the locals, for instance, is a world away from the Hop-On Hop-Off tourist route.

Orchids and oysters

Languid Sunday mornings are perfect for pottering around the Columbia Street Flower Market in East London. Make your way there, past pretty houses with bright shutters and balconies lush with potted plants. Past friendly Labrador dogs out for a stroll with their owners, gardening enthusiasts excitedly discussing weed control and Londoners laden with bunches of vivid flowers.

It’s like “My Fair Lady” – except it’s the MTV version. Flower sellers holding out giant bouquets of cheery daffodils, bunches of stately white orchids and boxes crammed with potted petunias, all trying to out-shout each other, in an attempt to grab the attention of languid passing customers. Bustling cafés, handing out cups of steaming tea. And the motley crowd, swelling by the minute, includes little old ladies peering at cacti, and multi-pierced hipsters, wandering in after a raucous night, hoping to clear their heads. And maybe score a couple of beers.

This is also a deliciously unusual place to brunch. You can have a bagel in a garden café, accompanied by mugs of strong coffee. Or try oysters from a makeshift counter, where they’re piled besides traditional English kippers. Through it all a street musician provides vibrant background music. Foodies can also investigate the old barns, built like gardening sheds, covered with heavy wooden tables, creaking under the weight of local cheeses, exotic varieties of olive oils and crusty brown bread.

Magical Diagon Alley

Shockingly close to touristy Leicester square, teeming with drunk teenagers and theatre-goers bargaining for cut-price tickets, is mysterious Cecil Court. A hushed Victorian pedestrian street, it’s lined with old-fashioned stores, and reportedly inspired J.K. Rowling to create Diagon Alley in Harry Potter. Like Diagon Alley, crammed with curious shops and colourful characters, Cecil Court too has its share of magic.

With names such as “The Witch Ball” or “David Drummond Of Pleasures Of Past Times”, the shops here deal in the most delightfully eccentric goods. One dusty little store threw up shoeboxes crammed with old postcards from all over the world, including a bunch from homesick Britishers, posted in India more than half a century ago. (One, strangely enough, gushed about a snowstorm in Poona!) Then there’s the antique dealer, with a wealth of snuffboxes, Victorian charms and even a white stuffed owl that bears a startling similarity to Potter’s pet, Hedwig. Not surprisingly, this is also a meeting place for people interested in magic, most of whom head to the “Esoteric centre”, abounding in mystical books, beads and tarot readers. (London, by the way, has a significant number of wiccans and druids, many of whom are members of official groups such as the “Pagan Federation”.)

For a splash of extra colour, the road even has a turbulent past. Legend (and Wikipedia) has it that Cecil Court was razed in the early 1970s, probably by a Mrs. Colloway, who was apparently running a brandy shop and brothel there.

And, of course, if you need to stock up on Harry Potter money — galleons, sickles and knuts — you’ll find a store at Cecil Court that sells that too.

Byron’s Harrow

At Harrow On The Hill, bustling central London could be centuries away. Walk up a steep, winding path so quiet that the only thing you’ll hear besides your own breathing will be the rustling of leaves.

There’s something about Harrow On The Hill that makes people silently reflective, maybe it’s the languorous silence that wraps the hill. Or the almost intimidating Harrow School, founded in 1572, with its world famous alumni, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and former British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill, amongst others. (There are guided tours of Harrow, made up of a charming muddle of warm, inviting buildings, with random stairs and unexpected quiet courtyards.) Or maybe it’s the spectacular 900-year-old St. Mary’s Church.

Beloved by the poet Lord Byron, who joined Harrow as a student in 1801, St. Mary’s is the quintessential English church. Even tempestuous Byron, infamous for his many roaring love affairs, extravagant lifestyle and wild living (Lady Caroline Lamb, one of his best known ex-lovers, described him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”), found peace here.

Soothing landscape

In the churchyard, beyond the shadowy tombstones, there’s a huge tree under which he used to sit for hours, both as a boy and an adult. It’s easy to see why. The view — green meadows, aged trees and quaint houses dappled with sunshine — is as soothing as a watercolour. Byron’s sentimental poem, “Lines Written beneath an Elm in the Churchyard of Harrow”, was composed here. A part of it is reproduced on the plaque that marks the spot now. When Byron’s beloved daughter Allegra died at the age of five, he insisted on burying her at St. Mary’s. However, today she lies in an unmarked grave and all there is to remember her by is a discreet, easy-to-overlook tombstone, tucked into a corner. And the lines from her father’s poem nearby:

How do thy branches, moaning to the blast,

Invite the bosom to recall the past,

And seem to whisper, as the gently swell,

“Take, while thou canst, a lingering, last farewell!”

Posh Curry

It is as Indian as palak paneer, and as international as champagne. Traditional, like a tandoor, yet sufficiently avant-garde to keep up with edgy food trends. It incorporates age-old ingredients like saffron, and showcases caviar from the Caspian Sea with equal zest. A whole new genre, this is the newest form of Indian cuisine, currently being created by talented chefs in competitive London. Greasy chicken tikka masala has finally ceased to define India.

At Zaika, where the sleek décor is more about clean lines than the typical mirrors-sequins-and-elephants kitsch, and the music more Talvin Singh than thudding bhangra, Chef Sanjay Dwivedi offers a gourmet tasting menu. This includes a tandoori grouper, served with upma (or “Indian cous cous” as they call it) in a surprisingly invigorating champagne and cardamom sauce. The high drama of the meal is sustained by a succession of beautifully designed courses — seven in all — and theatrical frills, like a waitress spraying a thick foam of coconut cream over spice-encrusted scallops, right at the table. There’s pan-fried foie gras, served with wild mushroom naan and mango chutney. And chocolate samosas drizzled with raspberry sauce.

But Dwivedi’s current piece de resistance is his experiment with molecular gastronomy (the science of creating cuisine by treating your kitchen like a laboratory), a steaming portion of fragrant wild mushroom rice, topped with a scoop of tangy tomato “makhni” ice cream and served with mini-poppadums.

Slick and stylish

Slick, stylish and sassy, Indian food in London has certainly evolved from the days “Indian” meant oily balti meat curries and cheap takeaway. While the British have had an enduring affair with “Curry Houses” for many decades, these restaurants haven’t always been the best ambassadors for authentic Indian cuisine. For one, “Indian” in the British restaurant sector is used generically and includes Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Nepalese, and Sri Lankan food, according to Pat Chapman who heads the Curry Club and publishes the popular Cobra Curry Guide, currently in it’s ninth edition this year with about 50,000 copies sold. “Most of these restaurants in the U.K., some 85 per cent or 7,200, are Bangladeshi owned,” he says.

Typically their menu includes lamb jalfrezi, aloo gobi, vindaloos and “chicken naan”. “In a curry house, all the sauces are the same,” states Samir Sadekar, chef of the smart new Imli restaurant in Soho. “They just put in onion, carrots, tomatoes add spices and keep it cooking. Then, when a customer orders something, they’ll mix turmeric for a yellow colour, or red food colour for a chicken tikka.” And this holds true, right from Aberdeen to Brighton.

Nevertheless, these places are still popular and can be credited with having made Indian food a part of the British menu. “It’s also the British affinity for India,” says Chef Vivek Singh, of Cinnamon Club as he sips a luxurious Saffron Gin, glinting with gold leaf, in his trendy restaurant set in the old Westminster Library. “It’s the romance of the Raj… the best time of the Empire, and that just doesn’t go. So the feeling towards spices and silk is deeply engrained.” He adds that he constantly has customers who talk of grandfathers who served in India, “They still have old letters, photographs and paintings.”

Yet, he says even about a decade ago, although Indian food was wildly popular, “when it came to the top five, top 10 restaurants in the city, you would never find an Indian restaurant listed. It was still classified as `ethnic’ and it still had a cheap image.” Justifiably so since there was no quality control. “But because these restaurants were also successful — the most successful in the country — they didn’t need to change,” says Singh.

Raising the bar

Then restaurants such as Tamarind, which received a Michelin star for the seventh year running this January, began to raise the bar. Our motto is “change your perception of Indian dining”, says Rajesh Suri, Executive-Operations for the Tamarind Group. “We have high standards and inspect all supplies. If the sous chef is not happy with one fillet we send it all back.” Alfred Prasad, the Chef, adds that “London is the best place in the world for a restaurant, and a chef. But you have to be creative. And original. It’s very competitive.” And although they don’t innovate wildly, believing “there is enough diversity in Indian food. We haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg. There are so many regional specialities… the opportunities are endless,” they do “push the boundaries,” to quote celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsey. Roghan Josh with avocado for example, or “butter chicken with herb butter to calm it down,” says Prasad.

Imli, Tamarind’s sister restaurant, on the other hand is about fast, casual dining,” says Chef Sadekar. “Vegetable brochettes, fenugreek wraps, papdi chaat and mushroom tikkis… What we are offering is lighter food, and great quality at affordable prices. For the common man, this food is a revelation. After a meal here people say, `I never knew Indian food was actually like this’.”

With three-year-old Benares (featuring contemporary food from all over India by Chef Atul Kochar) also being given a Michelin star this year, it looks like London is finally taking Indian food seriously. As a result, there’s tremendous competition and every chef is pushing himself relentlessly, resulting in leaps of creativity. “In India people are still following old rules… recipes that are 200 and 500 years old,” sighs Singh. “In India, unfortunately, we can do anything we want with any other cuisine, but we cannot touch Indian food. Indian people will not take any innovation.” He adds, “I create food that is relevant.”

Not just simplistic fusion

“People are changing the way they eat,” agrees Dwivedi. “We’re making food lighter. I don’t do rasamalai. And I don’t do rasagullas. I don’t eat them. Nobody does, unless it’s at a shaadhi… I’d make a crème brulee or chocolate samosas instead.” He insists it’s not simplistic fusion, but all about playing with flavours, textures and techniques. “When people dine at Zaika for an occasion we want them to remember it for the rest of the year.”

“At Cinnamon Club we’re still cooking with spice, still cooking Indian — but in a contemporary intelligent way,” says Singh. “I do a European fish on a Bengali sauce served with lemon rice, which is south Indian: the whole plate is Indian to me. The customer is comfortable because he recognises the fish, yet there’s still a wow factor.”

All this confidence is being reflected in the pricing too. For a long time, people, used to curry house prices, resented expensive meals at Indian restaurants. “It’s a mindset that’s been around for 40 years — Indian food has to be cheap,” sighs Prasad. “We use the same suppliers as Gordon Ramsey. The same vegetables, the same fish… and that’s a three Michelin star restaurant.” Thanks to years of standing firm, and their unwavering quality, Tamarind and the others now charge as much as any top London restaurant, and still have a stream of happy customers.

“I take offence to India being portrayed as just the land of snake charmers and tigers. There’s a brilliant, modern India too,” says Singh definitively. “We are comfortable with the international world, why shouldn’t our food reflect that?”


French Fries in the Desert

Desert rain is almost unbearably alluring. I’m on holiday in Dubai, and yesterday the city was lashed with a tempestuous storm. After the shimmering heat of the day, it was tantalizing. The kind of rain that tempts you outside, inviting you to soak in its’ dramatic, mysterious glamour.

Of course we did nothing of that sort. Dubai’s far too hip for such deliciously hippy notions. The romance of Arabian Nights, complete with images of plush flying carpets, mysteriously smoky hookah bars and glimmering Ali Baba caves, takes a backseat to swinging nightclubs, soaring skyscrapers and Christian Louboutin-studded malls.

However, we do get to soak in the flavours of the world. With a population that’s reportedly 80 per cent expatriate, there’s no better place to take a culinary flying carpet around the globe. There’s Starbucks pushing its skinny macchiatos topped with a crisscross caramel lattice, the German Hafbrauhaus delighting in potatoes and celebrated Japanese Nobu, appropriately set beside an astonishing aquarium, glistening with dancing Stingrays and intimidatingly languid sharks at the unabashedly sparkly Atlantis hotel.

This pot pourri of cultures can be surprisingly addictive. We begin our day with Bikram yoga at a trendy little gym called Stretch, in a room heated to 44 degrees, presumably to eliminate those pesky little toxins. That’s followed by a delightfully-titled ‘Disco Chai’ at the sleepy Al Hara teashop, specialising in the rich, milky, fragrant tea twanging with spices and bobbing with smooth cardamom pods. The days whirl by in a flurry of designer shoe shops, frequent cappuccino halt and some avid star gazing at Tiffany’s, in the best of Audrey Hepburn traditions.

At night, of course, there’s clubbing. Stunning open air 360˚ at the Jumiera Beach Resort that sticks into the sea, providing hookahs and a view to die for, set to addictive house music. The trendy Kewa lounge, with icy mojitoes spiked with generous amounts of fresh mint leaves. And Chi, refuge of the eternally cool, with it’s spicy, bite sized, crisp chilly chicken.

Yet Dubai works hard on maintaining a traditional Arab ethos, which makes for interesting dining. Sometimes bizarrely so. We eat risotto at the Madinat Jumeira hotel, watching European tourists turn tomato-red as they balance gingerly on  traditional abra boats, and then bump into a falconer complete with his wicked looking feathered friend in the hotel’s reincarnation of a souk.

Then, to celebrate the desert rain we head to the popular Reem Ul Bawadi, wrapped in the gorgeous aromas of smoky barbeques and ringed with a parking lots boasting sunshine yellow Ferraris, gleaming Audis and deadly Ford Mustangs. Inside, it’s satisfyingly Arabic. Men in crisp, white kandouras with flowing ghoutta head dresses sit wrapped affectionately by thick rings of hookah smoke. Women in stunningly smoky eye makeup drift by. The ceiling’s covered in a sack cloth, and
liberally dotted with swinging lanterns. The deliberately rough walls are covered with an assortment of swords, ceramic and painting suffused with the golden glow of the sun on sand dunes.

Not surprisingly, the food’s fantastic. Creamy hummus, bounding with flavour and topped with a golden pool of olive oil, teamed with succulent barbequed chicken and a pungent, creamy, addictive garlic dip. They come with fluffy kuboose. A picturesque ink-blue hookah completes the picture, bubbling cheerfully below chunks of glowing

The menu, interestingly, isn’t completely free of the insidious fingers of globalisation. The chicken comes on a bed of French fries for instance. Between the baba ganouj, kibeh and za’atar on saj, there’s penne arrabbiata, margarita pizza and even filet mignon.  Even the hookah comes in every flavour from mint to cappuccino. And yes, there are cheese samosas.

Yet, as the fruity smoke blends with the flavours of the barbeque and the restaurant fills with people of a dozen nationalities, speaking a babel of languages, it still feels like a scene out of the Arabian Nights. Clearly Aladdin and skyscrapers don’t make for a bad combination after all.

Next stop, the Spice Souk, I plan to take a traditional abra across the river to hunt down exotic Arabic spices. 

You have a good week at work. Bwa ha ha.


March 2023