Off the beaten track in Orchha

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

It’s already clear that the pace of this tour is much more manageable than the frenzy of the Middle East. For instance, we’ve just left a lovely little town called Orchha where we spent TWO NIGHTS IN A ROW (Orccha is pronounced, it seems, to rhyme with Porch – ah, and not like the name of the killer whale). It was a really nice break, especially since there wasn’t a lot to do in Orchha. There are quite a few temples and palaces, and there’s a river for rafting, but otherwise it’s a sleepy town with one main street. It’s small enough that walking from one end to the other takes about ten minutes, and getting from our hotel to the centre of town was about the same. We arrived mid-afternoon after another interesting train ride and a heart-stopping 15km in an auto rickshaw. They’re the curious three-wheeled vehicles that are half motorcycle and half taxi. All auto-rickshaw drivers (in fact, all Indian drivers) are completely fearless and insane. so traveling 15km in one is not for the faint of heart. We all survived, and after a few minutes to settle in to our luxury tents (with real bathrooms and fridges!), we headed out for an orientation walk around the town. Akshay showed us the good internet café, the freshest sweet shops, and the temple complex, and then steered us towards some local street food.

Aloo Tikki is apparently a specialty in Orchha. We saw a few places that made it, and it looked like they were all serving up a fat potato pancake sort of thing. However, when we actually placed the order it turned out that there was a lot more to it. Each of those fat potato pancakes was just the beginning – once our order was placed the cook moved an appropriate number of those fat cakes into the middle of his wide bowl-like griddle and started flattening them out – this is to give them more surface area to soak up the fat, of course. Then he sprinkled them with chopped onions and cilantro and then sort of chopped it all up together. So much for the potato pancake theory. Then there was scoop after scoop of some stewed chickpeas, and I’m sure there were other spices and things too. By this time we’d moved inside the tiny establishment to await our order. It was served up with a flat wooden spoon in a bowl made of leaves that had been stitched together.

Patti showing off her aloo tikki, in the special dried leaf bowl (which leaked and left aloo tikki stains on my clean pants).

It was spicy and tasty, though several of our group weren’t fond of it, their general opinion being that the cook should have stopped at the flat potato pancake stage. But Patti and I both shoveled ours in, and aloo tikka joined the list of good food I’ve had in India, which includes basically everything that I’ve eaten since arriving. (And that has been a LOT. It seems like we’re eating every time we turn around. Whatever ambitions I had about slowing the creeping weight gain that’s been going on since I left hope are, I think, dead. At least while I’m in India.)

The next morning we had an organized tour of the palace complex near the town. There are two palaces – the Raja Mahal and the Jahangir Mahal, both from around the 16th century. They’re impressive, but I found them most interesting because they have a lovely, abandoned feel and some really fun architecture – secret passages linking the king’s room with those of his concubines, and brackets shaped like elephants, and a lot more stairways and balconies and windows than strictly necessary, giving both palaces a sort Escher-esque feel in places. The plaque outside the Jahangir Palace – the larger and more important of the two, claims that it is the “culmination point of the evolution of Medieval – Indo – Islamic architecture” and “an example of harmonized imagination and organized execution.” Well, indeed.

A view of the Jahangir Mahal Palace, from one of the many balconies

The palaces both had some nice wall paintings that have survived since the 16th century. Most of them depict the life and deeds of the Lord Rama and Krishna, and also of the god Vishnu (one of the most important Hindu gods, though you could be forgiven for glazing over slightly at the mention of any of the various Hindu gods, because there are three hundred and thirty million. No, really.)

A painting depicting Lord Rama, the seventh incarnation of Vishnu, the Preserver.

The palace tour took the whole morning, after which we had lunch in a local place and then Sheila, Jono and Adam went off to do some rafting on the river. Patti and I decided to have the rest of the day off, and there was a shopping, napping, blogging, general relaxing and trying to digest quickly enough that we could cram more food in for supper.

That evening we attended a Puja (prayer) ceremony at the local Ram Rajah temple – dedicated to Lord Rama (he of the mural above), though as indicated by the addition of “Rajah” he is also worshipped as a king at this temple, which is apparently unique. We had to take off our shoes, and weren’t allowed to bring in cameras or phones (not that I have one anymore) or anything leather. As we entered the temple, each of us rung a bell hanging in the entry way – Akshay told us this is to let the god know that someone is coming to offer prayers. There was a fairly large crowd in front of a set of ornate doors, but it was hard to see because the doors were up on a higher level, and people were standing up on that level, so those standing behind them couldn’t really see much. But there was a festive atmosphere – people chanted and sang along with the priests, and at a dramatic moment the big doors were opened and there was cheering and more singing. The idol to Lord Rama was behind the doors, but it was impossible to see anything other than (maybe) the top of the head, and an occasional glimpse of someone waving candles or a fan or something. We stuck around until the singing ended and the devotees raced to queue up to leave their offerings in front of the idol. Most people had flowers and small boxes of sweets for this purpose. And when I say “queue up” I mean that strictly in the Indian sense, which basically means “trample your grandmother to get to the front”. We wandered off for dinner once the trampling started, and I had a nice roasted eggplant dish before heading back to the hotel.

After the ridiculous pace of Delhi and the buzz of Agra, Orchha was fantastic. It was small enough and relaxed enough that I was actually able to run both the mornings we were there. Even better, I had a running partner! On our first morning there Adam, one of the guys in our group, decided to come along. It was great, not just because it was nice to have someone to run with, but because it turns out that Adam is ex-Army and a police officer, so I can say I’ve never felt so safe on a run in a strange place. The second morning I went on my own, but having done it once with Adam, it was easier the next day to be on my own, and the most menacing thing turned out to be a mama monkey who did not appreciate me slowing down to have a closer look at her.

Having two days in one place also makes a lot of normal, practical things easier. For instance, I was able to have laundry done (two loads, for only 150 rupee each, about $4.00). And I had the hem let down on a pair of new pants Patti brought for me from home (50 rupee, and they could have been finished in as little as one hour. In fact, I could have had a whole new pair made for just 500 rupee, ready the next evening.) This is one thing that’s hard to get used to – the prices. The exchange rate is about 45 rupee to the dollar, and the bills in my wallet are usually 500s, 100s, 50s, 20s, and 10s. It seems like a lot to pull out 100 rupees for something, so I have to keep reminding myself that’s only about $2.00.

On our last day in Orchha we had a couple of organized activities, both of which were excellent. The first was a visit to the Taragram paper factory, just outside of town. Taragram is a similar sort of project to the carpet factory in Agra – they employ mostly local women, and make paper out of reclaimed or recycled cotton. The factory intentionally uses no modern machinery in order to provide employment for the greatest number of people. We saw the whole process: sorting of the cotton material (mostly offcuts from local garment factories), cleaning and pulping, creating the individual sheets, drying, pressing and trimming. At each stop along the way we could take pictures, and the whole thing was really interesting.

This woman was working making sheets. They worked in pairs, each holding one end of the screen covered with pulp. Then they’d flip the screen over in unison, depositing the wet layer onto a big, drippy pile of other sheets. Then they’d both sit on top of the pile to try and squeeze the excess water out. That’s why they’re wrapped in many layers of plastic like a skirt. (And yes, the photo is out of focus, but I like it anyways. It's not the new camera's fault - it's the fault of the person holding the camera...)

After the paper factory was another highlight – a cooking lesson in the home of a local Indian woman. Vandana welcomed us into her house and showed us how to cook six different dishes, and then, of course, we got to eat them. This is the kind of cool local experience that Intrepid seems to excel at – like the meal with a local family in Russian, or the banya. Certainly they’re a bit formulaic for the person presenting, but they’re much more authentic than anything you’d likely be able to rustle up as an independent traveler.

First we started with masala chai, the milky spiced tea that’s served by the gallon at every opportunity. It was the nicest chai I’ve had so far, and turns out to be quite simple to make if you got the correct spices, none of which were hugely exotic – peppercorns, cloves, green cardamom pods, cinnamon and ginger. After that there was aloo palak (literally “potato spinach) and again, it was super easy and the kind of thing I could envision making for myself on a weeknight. There was also an eggplant dish, and a vegetable pulao (rice), and an odd watery yogurt concoction called raita.

Vandana’s pantry

Finally, Vandana demonstrated her consummate skill with the humble chapati – the mainstay of the diet around here. It’s the Indian version of unleavened flat bread – a simple combination of whole wheat flour, water and salt. But in Vandana’s hands this was kneaded into a lovely dough, portioned expertly into small balls and then rolled with impressive speed into perfectly circular rounds for her small griddle. Once each chapati was cooked long enough on the griddle, having been flipped several times, it was taken off and laid right on the gas flame. If it’s made right this causes it to puff up perfectly, creating a pocket inside. Naturally, all of Vandana’s chapti puffed obediently and then settled down on the growing pile at her side. They were the lightest and best chapati I’ve ever had, but I suppose that’s the kind of skill you get when you make them twice a day, every day, for your whole life.

Vandana, kneading the chapati dough. The entire cooking lesson was conducted on a two-burner gas stove on the floor. And each of us got to try rolling a chapati, and acquitted ourselves reasonably well, since all our chapati did achieve puffiness.

Orchha was an excellent stop, and the balance between free time and organized activity was good. All in all, I’m quite happy with how India is going so far (other than the obvious hiccup of losing my phone, which is still bugging me, and is not dealt with yet). In some ways India has been what I expected, though it’s also so much more. In fact, it’s a bit hard to describe. It really is filthy and crowded and smelly and sad. Yet, for every garbage-strewn ditch or cow eating from a dumpster or insane snarl of traffic, there’s a parade of pink and yellow and red saris or a plate of magical spicy veggies or a crazy wedding celebration glimpsed on the side of the road. I’m definitely glad I came.


Lisa said...

Pam...there's a contentment in your 'voice' that I haven't read for a while...India agrees with you.

FLF said...

I agree with Lisa. And you will note that I have also refrained from any "hair" comments! Enjoy Pam...

Unknown said...

I am glad you seem to have found a tour with a pace that suits you.

It is the classic choice:
Some think less is more.
Some think more is more.

However, with photos of Pam, the latter is definitely better.

How can we comment on your hair and toes if we get photos of neither?

I was not too jealous of your travels in Africa or the Middle East, but now I am turning green with envy.

The food sounds great.


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