No! said the wood carver

I knew it would be a failure, but still I wanted to try to make a small wood carving, Balinese style. I had a private lesson with a very experienced wood carver in Ubud, and I believe, and hope, he was rather used to tourists making a fool out of themselves too. He showed me a design that he thought would be simple enough, and drew it on a block of wood. It was really easy, he promised, showing me his array of tools, and how to hammer out the pattern.

I tried. Some ugly indents was the result. He showed me again. I tried again. He showed me again. I tried again. And again. And again. The result kept being ugly indents instead of a beautiful pattern emerging. In the end he said “No!” (with a clear exclamation mark) and looked at me, somewhat astonished at this complete lack of talent.

And then he showed me how to do it the real way, holding the block between your feet (“but you would be too weak for that”) and getting the most intricate pattern out of the piece of wood in no time. I took some consolation from the fact that he had been practising for about 50 years.

I had more success in the cooking class that followed. The nice sate lilit ikan (fish satay) you can see in the photo had actually been prepared by me. The dish tasted reasonably good too.

National Highway 3

My driver was an incredibly calm driver for being an Indian. He hardly every honked, he used the blinkers, he stuck to the speed limit and he didn’t seem to be at all irritated with those who showed irresponsible behaviour on the road (and there quite a few of those). He was friendly but a little shy, not a very talkative man. When he said something, it was sure to be important. I therefore took due note when he informed me that we would be driving on the National Highway 3, NH 3 for short, from Agra to Gwalior. It is the highway linking Agra with Mumbai, and thus a vital component of the transport infrastructure.

It was a busy road, with the usual mix of cars, trucks, motorbikes, cows, buses, cyclists and pedestrians. It was only very occasionally that someone came towards us, using the wrong side of the road. We made good progress, and there was good hope that we would arrive in Gwalior in good time for lunch.

I was wrong.

Agra is in the state of Uttar Pradesh and Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, but the road also runs through a corner of Rajasthan, so there were two state borders to cross. The driver got out of the car at the Rajasthan border, with all his paperwork in good order. I waited. He didn’t come back. I got out of the car and looked around for interesting photo opportunities, just to pass the time. There weren’t any. You can see how boring it looked.

When the driver finally returned to the car, he told me that the delay was due neither to a long queue nor to an administrative hiccup: the border office had simply been unmanned. When the official finally appeared, the formalities had been promptly dealt with.

At the next border point I was prepared for another long and uninteresting wait. This time I was surrounded by photo opportunities though, and wouldn’t at all have minded half an hour or so in the company of my camera (although I was getting rather hungry). However, here things were more efficient and the paper work quite swiftly done. A quick documentation of the surroundings gave the following result:

We arrived at the hotel in Gwalior five minutes before the restaurant would close. As the lady in reception said: “There is plenty of time”. Yes, of course. No hurry, no worry, but I did have a curry (see blog post “No hurry, no worry, no curry”).

Poori bhaji and other culinary wonders

Twenty years ago I had poori bhaji for breakfast in Udaipur, India. I had three helpings, I thought it was the best breakfast I had ever had. For years I kept a note in my wallet so that I wouldn’t forget the name, should I ever go to India or otherwise be exposed to it again. Now back in India, I have had it every morning that it has been available, and to my great delight, during the past week that has been every day.

So what is it? The poori, also written puri, is deep fried bread, and the bhaji is a potato curry, sometimes with green peas added (the Udaipur one had green peas, and as a green pea lover, I’m extra happy when I spot this ingredient). The only problem I have had on one or two occasions is that I got a bland version adapted to what is considered to be the average western palate since I had forgotten to say that I wanted it spicy. If you have a chance, do try it! And avoid the bland version.

In Delhi I was fortunate to have an evening food walk with Akshaya, a very knowledgeable student and great guide.

Akshaya brought me to little holes in the wall around one of the busiest places I have ever been to, Chandni Chowk, in Old Delhi.


Over a couple of hours and many stops at stands I wouldn’t ever have had the courage to buy food from on my own, I got to try real delicacies: aloo tikki (a hamburger-shaped potato based dish), samosas (you can see them being prepared here below), different varieties of stuffed parathas (flatbreads), one of which was filled with sweet condensed milk, lassi of course, one with saffron, one with rose, daulat ki chaat (milk and cream fluff with a little saffron added), jalebi (a very sweet pretzel) and kulfi, which is a kind of ice cream – I tried the pomegranate and custard apple varieties. I got very full. And had no digestive problems at all.

Towards the end, but before the kulfi, we sat down for a relaxing cup of milk tea, prepared by this gentleman:

In the course of the evening, we also visited a Sikh temple where the community kitchen serves around 14,000 meals a day, all free, all prepared with donated ingredients.