"DOES THIS SARI make me look fat?"
Somehow the bejeweled purple silk didn't feel so flattering on me. Traveling with Philly chef and cookbook author Hope Cohen through India made me stand up straighter and hold my stomach in. Cohen's slim physique is testimony to her dynamic approach to cooking and eating well, the basis of her culinary consulting business and the inspiration for her brand, Fast, Fresh + Simple.
We'd worked together on a cookbook proposal and discovered a shared love of exotic adventures and globe-trotting. On this two-week eating adventure, we traversed markets, chefs' kitchens and street hawkers to sip, savor and sample India's remarkable cuisine. Along the way, we encountered scrawny cows, sumptuous saris, incredible shopping, world heritage sites to rival Angkor Wat and what may well be the dirtiest river on the planet.
I've always been drawn to India. But the idea of being in the world's largest democracy was also intimidating. I'd witnessed stark poverty in places like Brazil and Cambodia. But somehow India, with its chaos and overcrowding, street children, mangy dogs and holy cows, seemed hard to get my mind around. I didn't want a sanitized tour, but I couldn't see myself going to India alone.
So when my Indian photographer friend Bhaskar Krishnamurthy invited me to join him on a visit to his native country, I jumped at the chance, and invited my friend and colleague Cohen to come along.
Krishnamurthy, who lives in Kansas City, Kan., was in India in support of his nonprofit, CLIC Abroad (clicabroad.org), which stands for Children Learning International Cultures. The program educates and empowers high school students in America and rural India by sharing their daily lives through photography. Krishnamurthy was working in a small village near the Himalayas in northern India, and we made a plan to meet in Varanasi to kick off our adventure.
Drenched in color, sights, sounds, smells and impressions, India is a place that will culturally shock you, mostly in a good way, and literally make your head spin. At least it did mine.
Smells and magic
The Ganges is a holy river, and Varanasi is the holiest of cities, a "village" of 1.2 million on the western banks of the famed waterway, a destination for pilgrims to wash away a lifetime of sins and cremate their loved ones to ensure eternal salvation. It is also a warren of crooked streets overrun by scrawny cows, goats, dogs and people, not necessarily in that order.
Redolent with mammalian leavings, Varanasi is not for the faint of heart, and it was a tough entry point for two seriously jet-lagged chicks from Philly.
Even Krishnamurthy complained about the smell.
But we all agreed Varanasi is also magical. The ghats, or steps that lead down to the river, emit a rosy glow at dawn when pilgrims arrive to perform ceremonies, called pujas, and make offerings.
For some, this involved having their heads shaved before bathing, which all kinds of people do after nonchalantly stripping to their skivvies.
Cohen and I weren't down with this. The river seemed like a teeming bacterial petri dish, so the notion of wading even ankle deep wasn't happening. We sat on our boat topside and watched.
We loved the Ravi Shankar-esque band that played after the nightly Hindu fire and gong ceremony overlooking Dasaswamedh Ghat, a magnet for the faithful and some unusual looking yogis who were difficult to classify but fun to encounter.
We were in Varanasi during Holi, the Hindu spring festival that involves indiscriminate spraying of brightly colored powder - one friend termed it paintball for grown-ups. We experienced a mild dose, and saw people covered with dye from head to toe. It was Technicolor in 3-D real time.
So started a 4,000-mile whirlwind crisscrossing of the country, traveling by planes, trains, automobiles, elephants, boats, golf cart, horse and carriage and cycle rickshaw. We traversed seven states, from north to south, and fell in love with incredible India along the way.
Eat, pray, eat more
Culinary travel is huge in India, said Ranjit Vig, managing director of CAAIR Travels, a tour company based in modern New Delhi, a hotbed of high technology, fancy shopping malls and call centers. Vig and his team work with corporate and leisure travelers to create custom itineraries for two to 2,000 people, and interest in local food is epic.
"India is a feast for the senses," he explained. "And tasting authentic food is an important part of that experience."
For us, this meant dining at Bukhara in Delhi's lux ITC Hotel, a renowned North Indian restaurant famed for its grilled marinated meats and buttery dal - creamy lentils that seem to be served at every meal. Presidents Clinton and Obama have feasted here.
We tasted deep-fried bread, or puri, on the streets of Old Delhi and inhaled the heady aroma of turmeric and coriander in a bustling Hyderabad market. As you'd expect, regional cuisine varies widely across the country, with breads, meats and creamy sauces favored to the north and rice, seafood, chilies and coconut brightening menus down south and along the coast.
Krishnamurthy inducted us into a fresh world of Indian vegetarian cuisine, and he also showed us the right way to munch Indian style - eating with the right hand, often using fresh bread to wipe the plate clean. (We also avoided any potential digestive issues by always drinking bottled water and eating only peeled fruits and vegetables.)
"Our trip influenced my cooking in a very powerful way," Cohen later recalled. "The sights, sounds, smells and colors together with the beautiful people reverberate often in my mind. I find myself reaching for the spices that represent the complex flavors in my everyday cooking. A bit of spice swirled into a cup of yogurt and added to a soup or salad dressing, for instance, can elevate a recipe and incorporate the beauty of India's cuisine."
Monkey love, hidden worlds
I wasn't familiar with the monkey position. But a gander at the sexy stone carvings on the temples of Khajuraho illuminated me. That's just one of the Kama Sutra scenes that cover these naughty 11th-century temples; a nine-person orgy, nubile nymphs and interesting horse play are a few others that await.
This gorgeous place is one of 29 World Heritage sites in India. Everybody knows the one that tops the list - the Taj Mahal. I now understand that the saying "It's no Taj Mahal" is apropos. It is equal to all the hype, and more.
And it's definitely worth getting up at dawn to avoid the crowds and catch the pristine white marble bathed in shimmering light.
Then there's Hampi. Located in the southwestern state of Karnataka, this testimony to the vanished kingdom of Vijayanagar is what's left of one of the most beautiful cities of the medieval world. And nobody's there.
Because it takes either an overnight train or a day's drive to reach, Hampi is virtually undiscovered, especially by Americans on the usual Golden Triangle Tours. Now that there's a sparkling new Hyatt Place hotel nearby, hopefully that will change. The natural rocky landscape and intricately carved buildings include temples, elephant stables, royal baths and bazaars, an impressive complex that paints a picture of vibrant 14th-century life.
India makes, the world takes
Trenton may have had the market cornered at one time, but India is the ultimate shopper's paradise, even besting Vietnam and Thailand, my two previous favorite shopping destinations.
In no particular order, here are a few things we squeezed into our suitcases: drawings made by a talented artist afflicted by polio; bindis, for bejeweling foreheads back home; orange flip-flops with a cool round knob between the toes - staff footwear of choice at a yoga resort in Gokarna called Swaswara; organic peppercorns; a carved Buddha; sandalwood beads; embroidered fabric turned into airy summer tops by a diligent seamstress in a dirt-street village; a picture of the Hindu god Ganesha, painted on handmade paper by an artist using a one-haired brush; bangles; Indian coffee and tea; and a do-it-yourself Holi colors kit.
But the real gift I brought home from incredible India was the feeling of warmth and welcome from the people we met along the way. From the woman who painted an intricate henna design on my arms to the shopkeeper who showed us the right way to fry a masala dosa (lentil pancake) to the lovely Fairmont Hotel clerk in Jaipur who schooled us on the intricacies of sari draping, the smiles and warmth of India remains indelibly etched in my mind and heart.
Is India a challenging destination? You bet. But it's also a place of creature comforts, impeccable hospitality, delicious food and brilliant history and culture.
And I can't wait to go back.