Iraqis

Ancient Iraq (Mesopotamia) and the surrounding areas are known as the Cradle of Civilization. My 2-week enlightening experience of present day Iraq proves what an amazing civilization it would have been and how resilient her people are even now.

People and Atmosphere

I had pre-conceived notions of what Iraq would be like- a war ravaged country with bomb blasts almost every week in their cities. I thought I would see burnt car tyres and road blocks, gun-toting Army men, armoured vehicles on their highways and old cars on their roads. I expected to see bumpy and broken down roads and run-down houses. (All images fuelled by those seen on TV and in newspapers).

But boy! Was I wrong. The places we visited were nothing like I imagined them to be. Right from our air-conditioned Mercedes buses to the many luxury SUVs I noticed on the roads…to the well-maintained buildings we passed by and the hotels we stayed at, everything was near perfect. Their highways were 4-laned, clean and in good condition. Even the narrow lanes, by-lanes and roads in the cities were clean-in fact even their garbage pick-ups were mechanized (very unlike in India).

Our hotels had well-appointed rooms and bathrooms with latest fixtures and fittings. Even our towels were freshly laundered and sealed in individual wrappings when we checked-into our hotel rooms (I have not seen this even in 5-star hotels). The hotel staff was attentive and most understood Hindi or English.

I imagined there would be many destitute on the streets especially close to the shrines- but there were hardly any and the rare ones we saw, sat quietly by the side of the road not pestering anyone. (Bonding- Spiritual, Social, Cultural) I also thought the locals would be wary of foreigners, but this was furthest from the truth. They were welcoming, polite, friendly and loved India, Indians and of course Hindi movies 🙂

There were numerous foods stalls and restaurants-small and big, and they were super hygienic. The aromatic smell of freshly baked breads (multiple types of these), kebabs and shawarmas filled the streets we walked on every day. Iraqis love their tea and numerous vendors sold flavourful Iraqi chai (they would clean each glass with hot water before serving). The buffet at our hotels was unbelievable, especially considering that we were in a country with poor economy. Table full of baklavas and puddings, cheese, salads and mains were served for every meal.

The one other thing that impressed me was the excellent internet bandwidths. The Wi-Fi never failed and there was never a drop in the download speeds. Their economy might be down, but their bandwidths are certainly not.

Masjids

Thousands of people daily visit the shrines of Moulana Ali’s at Najaf and Moulana Hussain’s and Moulana Abbas Alamdar’s at Karbala, and even then they were well- maintained with constant vacuuming, cleaning and renovations. The very many other masjids and historical places that we visited during our trip were also clean with constant maintenance- this despite the fact that this region has been affected with violence and destruction. (Bonding- Spiritual, Social, Cultural)

Bazaars

The most colourful and full-of-life souks I have even seen. From knick-knacks to prayer items to yards of material, household items, to gold and silver, and meat, food and bread-everything was sold in narrow,scrupulously clean but interconnected by-lanes. A truly Arabian atmosphere was seen here. Hundreds of people would walk these lanes picking up bargains and in the evenings, supper for their homes.

Almost everyone in my travelling group picked up finger-rings and pendants with semi-precious stones (akik, topaz, sapphire, opals, etc.), colourful head scarves, tasbih (prayer beads), masallahs (prayer mats) and many other souvenirs. The shop-keepers would cheerfully strike bargains, offer free samples of dry-fruits and try to please all customers.

IMG_4906
A vendor selling jewellery

It was lovely walking down their curving streets (even though they were chock-a-block with people), watching the many artefacts on display and taking in the different aromas of food, trays of their local sweets, spices and the crackle of the falafels frying in hot oil.

IMG_4884
An Iraqi man selling bread rolls

Safety

I was never really concerned for my safety though my friends back home were worried. There was frisking at regular intervals and though a tad inconvenient, it kept us all safe. Even we women would walk in the streets throughout the night and no one would bother us. It was in fact ultra safe even for women.

Iraq has natural beauty and a lot of history and I would love to come back to explore. Iraqis are proud of their culture and history. The people of this Cradle of Civilization are welcoming and full of hope despite their many problems. I pray that this land of the Euphrates River eventually attains their lost peace and prosperity.

Travel:

We flew into Najaf, about 100 km from the capital Baghdad. The shrine of Moulana Ali is located here and this city is considered one of the holiest cities in Shia Islam.

We travelled by bus from Najaf to Karbala-a distance of 80 km. Karbala is another very important centre for Islam.

-Tamanna S. Mehdi

‘Sweat the Alphabets, Dance the Digits’

Just running on a treadmill or doing weights in a gym are okay for a time, but after a while it just gets too repetitive and boring for me. This is the main reason my gym membership is lying unused for a while now.

I miss my Aerobics and stepping classes. I loved the energy of these classes, the gradual way in which the heart rate increased with the speed of the steps from slow to fast all in tune with foot-tapping music. I miss the companionship we shared as a group and with our trainer, egging each other to push ourselves a little bit more every single time. Those workouts worked every muscle in my body making me more flexible and fit; and when combined with weights it was ample strength training.

Wanting to try different exercise regimes led me to the BOKWA workshop early this morning. And what an interesting class it was! Like Aerobics, it is a high cardio workout- sweating to lose weight. Though unlike it, here, the premise revolves around making English alphabets (L, C, J…) and digits with our hands while doing step-aerobics in sync with trending pop music. Confused? So, was I. But once we started, it turned in to a super fun half hour.

To mix things up a bit, our certified trainer also included some kicks and punches. This demo class was a 20-30 minute one and we learnt how to make an ‘L’ and a ‘C’, but a longer class will no doubt be a real high intensity workout. While BOKWA is billed as ‘all age group,  anyone can do this’, I felt a certain level of fitness is necessary as even though the steps are easy to follow, the pace of the workout increases the heart rate very rapidly.

Similarities are drawn between BOKWA and Zumba. Personally I enjoyed BOKWA more, as Zumba is more of a choreographed dance routine where I find myself stressing more on following the dance moves rather than on the workout itself.  Here, the steps are easy to follow and the focus is on the exercise itself.

I read that BOKWA is loosely based on a South African dance form (maybe that’s why we were made to whoop and make other noises through our class) and has been around since 2012, but is getting more popular in India since last year.

I want to try the Barre Workout next. I hear it is done bare foot and is based on postures inspired by ballet dancing using a barre as a support. It is billed as a routine for facilitating quick weight loss and in improving posture. Anyone taking this class here soon?

After the workshop today, I feel revved up enough to use my idle lying gym membership… But oh well, tomorrow is another day 😉

To schedule a BOKWA class call Kiran Kumar (Body Park)-9030767899 or NAV Bhargav (BOKWA trainer)- 9154242700

 Tamanna S. Mehdi

Palaces, Lakes and Memories

It isn’t always about how much sight-seeing we do on a holiday, but rather how much we enjoy in the company of people we travel with. My recent holiday to Udaipur, was just that- time spent in the dear company of friends I have grown up with.

Whether we were waiting for our cabs or spending anxious moments stuck in autos in the narrow gullies of the old city or while we trudged along the castles and forts or even when we were haggling for a good bargain- all we did was enjoy and laugh. It was the most stress free, laidback and carefree holiday I’ve had.

img_3640
Happyness!! 🙂

Our good times also had a lot to do with the city we chose to visit. Udaipur is a laid back city where nothing is more than a 10 minute cab/auto ride away. The soothing water of the lakes around which the city is situated adds to the calmness of this place. The city is steeped in history and has an old-world charm to it. Its narrow curving lanes with family run shops with residences having jharokas (overhanging enclosed balconies) is reminiscent of an earlier era that we hardly get to experience in our modern architecture. It is also very clean- the roads were garbage free, very unlike what we are used to in India.

gpexportphoto-0005
Silver market… Notice the windows…they are residences

Lakes

Udaipur is built around the two main lakes-Pichola and Fateh Sagar and the many bridges across its back waters connect the different localities. We stayed at Hotel Lakend built right on the banks of the Fateh Sagar Lake and it turned out to be a good decision. The area around here is less crowded and more easily accessible.

But suffice to say that Lake Pichola was where all the action was- an array of hotels and lake front restaurants offered the perfect places to chill and relax. Swarms of ducks swam past us as our motor boat revved around the lake on a cold January morning. We stopped at the Jag Mandir, an island on the lake and sailed past the Taj lake palace hotel built on another island in the centre of the lake. (What-e-‘Numa) The City Palace and the very many other hotels and ghats on the banks formed an idyllic setting.

fullsizerender-1
On the Lake Pichola

Palaces

The whole city is full of palaces and forts. We chose to visit the City Palace, the Monsoon Palace at Sajjangarh and rode the ropeway at Dudh Talai to the top of a fort.

The City Palace is a huge complex and has many palaces built in it. It is grandiose with both Rajasthani and Mughal architecture. The views of Lake Pichola from the many sit-outs and jharokas here were stunning.

The Monsoon Palace is a little away from the city and we hired a taxi to go up the Aravalli mountain range where the palace is located at 3100 ft above sea level. Offering panoramic views of lakes, palaces and surrounding farm lands, this palace is located in a forest reserve and was built by Maharana Sajjan Singh of the Mewar Dynasty in 1884.

The cable car ride was a very touristy thing to do but the ride up was worth it- for the beautiful views. Every spot offered breath-taking vistas of the lakes, the very many castles and the quaint old city.

fullsizerender
View of Dudh Talai, Fateh Sagar lake and the city from atop the cable car

There is a lot more sight-seeing to do especially for history buffs, and if you have the time, I recommend it.

Shopping

Silver jewellery, handicrafts, hand painted cards, clothes, shoes, bags, durries from Jaipur… you name it, and you get it here at excellent rates. The curving interconnected gullies of Hathipole and Chandpole markets are where we spent a good part of our afternoons and evenings. Covering the many shops by foot, peeking in the stores and striking friendly bargains, we all came back with excess baggage 🙂

img_3634
(Needs no caption) 😉

Food

We felt that most of the food at the restaurants catered to foreign tourists and lacked an authentic local taste. We tried the ‘must eat at places’ from all the blogs we read up on, but weren’t very thrilled with the food. We heard a lot about Savage Garden and Ambrai, but apart from their very stunning locations, we did not find the food very appetizing. Upre also has a lovely setting, but the food was strictly okay.

img_3643
View of the Ambrai restaurant

The only place that lived up to its reputation was Hotel Natraj on the station road. A vegetarian place serving Rajasthani and Gujarati thaali, it was our most authentic experience at local food on this trip. The Daal baati churma was an excellent addition to our already wonderful meal. We washed it all down with namkeen chaas and meetha paan at the end.

img_8360
Rajasthani Thaali, Natraj Hotel

The malai khajla, a very famous Bohra sweet found its way back home as well. It is a puff pastry filled with fresh cream. Before it is eaten, it is warmed and hot sugar syrup is poured over it…hmm…yumm…

So, pack a bag, take a break and make your own memories!

Location: Udaipur is in Rajasthan and is accessible from all major metros and cities by air, rail and road.

Weather: The average night time temperature is about 7 C this month (January).

Tip: Book a hotel preferably close to the lakes.

Tamanna S. Mehdi

 

 

My Dear Nani

Just the other day I was saying to a friend, “why do people wait for a person to die to say good things about them?” (Dear Vaaji)

My Nani- she often told me I was her favourite grandchild, but I am sure she said that to all my cousins because she loved all of us equally (I was certainly the most troublesome for her) 😉

Even though my Nani was born in 1932, she had a plethora of knowledge and her thoughts were more progressive than most of us now. Growing up in an age of no Google and with little means of education at her disposal, she nevertheless utilized every opportunity that came her way and completed school. She was a modern thinker and used technology to keep in touch with her siblings, children, in-laws, grand-children and her great grand-children.

A master at languages-she was fluent in English, Gujarati, Urdu and Arabic. Her lucidity in thoughts were clear from her many writings and poems in both English and Gujarati. She was praised by one and all for her well-thought out writings in her free-flowing style.  She read everything I wrote and listened to all the audio and video clippings I sent to her and critiqued, appreciated and encouraged me to nurture my talent.

A voracious reader, she read everything in her sight-magazines, novels, newspapers from cover to cover. Her favourite past-time was solving crosswords and one of her most valued possessions was an old tattered Webster dictionary that she would constantly update with new words in her clear handwriting. (I think she mentioned that she had won that as a prize in some contest at a time when she could not afford to buy one for herself). She was very possessive about it and I remember many a time she chided me for taking it without her permission. 🙂

As a teacher for many years at school, my Nani was loved by all her students. She would often tell me stories from her school days and about her students. She had great oratory skills and me, my sister, brother and cousins have grown up on the very many stories she would tell us.

She was truly a multi-talented personality. She was a good artist as well. She water-coloured, sketched, did embroidery, stitched clothes… She loved trying different cuisines and was also an excellent cook- taught me a thing or two about cooking. She also had a very graceful and keen style sense. Loved colours and enjoyed accessorizing with her clothes. She pottered around her garden as well. She was very Victorian in a way- an era when ladies knew how to do everything. She not only knew how to do everything but did it well. While I don’t paint or stitch, but I think I get my other creative bursts come from her.

fullsizerender
Nani with her grand daughters Afshan and Alwina

She had so many facets to her life. All her very many different talents and certain quirks 😉 live on through her children, us her grandchildren and her great grandchildren. All of us have some part of her living through us.

This year for my birthday she gave me her most cherished possession, a silver pendant with a design made with tree sap that her favourite uncle had given to her as a child. I will always deeply cherish this kind gesture of hers towards me.

She was a devout person and it was her desire to visit Najaf and Karbala and pay obeisance to Moulana Ali and Moulana Hussain and other revered figures. I am glad she could do it. She now rests eternally in the holy land of Najaf. My dear Nani, we will all miss you. May your soul rest in peace and you look over all of us from above.

Perhaps this is why we talk about them after they leave us- so that we can forever remember them.

img_3349

Mrs. Zehra Hussain- 26th September 1932-26th December, 2016

-Forever yours, Tamanna

Craft ParTea

Half the fun in having a party is in the planning of it.

As I ring in this new year of my life, I decide to have a different sort of soirée – a ‘crafty’ tea with my family and friends. Splashes of colourful paints and a cacophony of loud and cheerful ideas made this a really fun day!

Having a get-together with a DIY craft theme is not a new idea, but I personally don’t know of anyone who has organized one such. It is a more popular children’s theme, so I was apprehensive when I contemplated this for an adult group, but then I thought, why-not?

And just as soon as I zeroed in on this ‘craft’ theme and the guest list, then the invites, menu, decor…all the spokes in the wheels set into motion. Living in a small city, it is a challenge to get supplies- whether they are items needed for making the DIY or key ingredients for food. Whether it’s sourcing something as simple as a cake stand or my favourite cream cheese or even veggies like mushroom or bell peppers- the day I need them they’ll be out of stock! 😦 Hence, my planning needed to account for courier time and last minute tweaks to my menu.

Spanning into days of ‘getting things together’ culminated into this day of fun togetherness on this balmy November afternoon. My group of 20-odd exclusive guests showed up suitably armed with brushes, pencils, rulers, et al. They excitedly opened up to the idea of making decorative home wall décor and for the next couple of hours, as glasses of lemon punch made way for cups of hot tea and coffee, and sandwiches and savoury food led to cake and dessert, the crafty high-tea afternoon turned into a big success.

img_1896
Beverage Preference card

For the DIY

  1. 2 wooden bases each
  2. Acrylic Paints
  3. Glue
  4. Decorative Paper
  5. Embellishments
fullsizerender-1
DIY Supplies

I provided my guests with 2 wooden bases each so they could decorate it the way they liked. While I supplied the above, they got their own scissors, pencils, rulers, brushes and those who wished some laces and coloured beads.

After showing them some samples I had made before, I instructed them to first visualize which room in their houses they would like to display them in. And then, take a few minutes to choose an appropriate paper for their wall décor. Based on that, they selected a colour and then started on their project by applying the first coat of paint.

Menu for Afternoon-Tea

  • Lemon Punch
  • Cream cheese and cucumber sandwiches
  • Chicken and mayonnaise sandwiches
  • Bite-Sized Caprese Appetizer (Tomato and cheese)
  • Naan Pizza
  • Walnut and Date cake
  • Saffron and Pistachio Cheesecake
  • Freshly brewed Tea and Coffee
  • Chocolate with wafers (supplied by a friend)

Taking a break to let the paint dry, we had our spot of tea. Afternoon tea is typically a light meal and is enjoyed between 4:00 pm and 6:00 pm. I limited the menu to finger food so it wouldn’t get oily and messy and also so my friends could snack while working on their boxes.

After applying another coat of colour to their boxes, they glued the paper, added some bling and final touches with the material at hand.

Amid peals of laughter and some very interesting design planning, between passing paints and brushes to making first dibs on decorative papers and embellishments, and as the late afternoon sun set and the lights came on at first sight of dusk, the wall décor slowly but surely began to take shape.

As they say, “in crafting there are no mistakes, just unique creations.” I feel over-joyed that my friends had a great time bonding over craft and afternoon tea. They took away gifts that they created themselves. The attractive wall art is sure to liven up their rooms as many of them told me.

I am truly blessed to have many supportive and loving people in my life. I truly missed having many of them here today. A big shout out to all the shining lights in my life and especially to my Ayun masi, dad, mummy, my sister Sabina and brother, Meher- it is your bright ideas that add sparkle to mine. 🙂

As the evening drew to a close and the last of my guests left, this is what I want my new year to be like- full of planning, parties and happiness. Happy Birthday to me!

-Tamanna S. Mehdi

Phases

So, I go through these phases-I think most of us do. Phases when I want to do something different from my daily routine- read books, learn something new, cook, travel, exercise, binge watch TV shows…

Arty-Sharty

At one such time, not long ago, I wanted to learn art and craft and so I learnt quilling, sospeso and decoupage. I had some really great teachers in Paridhi and Trishla. And really awesome family and friends (you know who you all are :-)) who continue to give me orders and encourage me and make me confident of my newly acquired skills. I would bombard my contact list with pictures of something new I made every day. From photo frames, to soap packaging boxes, jewellery boxes, candles and bottles…I made and decorated literally everything in my sight.

This hobby of mine filled my days with creativity and my mind with positivity and decorative ideas. I realized that this hobby (which started as a time-pass) had quickly become my pleasant escape from the rigmaroles of everyday life- very therapeutic. The happiness I got from creating new things radiated through the rest of my day as well.

(I use Dremel products from Bosch for all my craft needs. They have a wide variety of DIY and hobby tools with all kinds of accessories and high quality Glue Guns. These products can be pre-ordered and bought at Bosch System Specialist-United Hardware Corporation.)

unnamed

Most go to health retreats and spas to attain peace. For me, my craft had become my oasis.

Chop-chop, nom-nom

Then was a phase when I wanted to cook every day. I am not too fond of eating regular daal-chawal, so I would scour the internet and cook books in our home library for international recipes. I experimented with recipes and made Italian, Japanese, Burmese and Korean food. On my travels, I made shopping trips to gourmet grocery stores and called my phoren friends to get me ingredients that I couldn’t get here. I even got my nani to part with her mom’s cherished kaccha gosh biryani recipe. I got tips from my masis, chachis, buas, et al.

From English breakfasts to BBQ dinners, I had a blast inviting friends and cousins over for elaborate meals replete with elaborate table settings. Felt a little bit like Nigella 😉 I also sent across boxes of desserts and mains to family and well-wishers and waited excitedly for their comments on my culinary skills.

The ultimate euphoria, however, is when my two baby nephews say, ‘masi, it is yummy!’ 🙂

My dear friend Anupama and her mom, Usha aunty featured a recipe of mine on their website. I’ll reproduce it below. It’s a Japanese dish called Chicken Katsudon. It was introduced to me by my close friends Suhashini and Laurie on one of their trips to Vizag. They told me it was a popular dish in London as well (where they lived). Some of the ingredients like sake and mirin despite my best efforts I could not get here, so I made do without it. If you do try the recipe, let me know how it turns out for you.

Chicken Katsudon

This dish is a complete meal with fried chicken and rice.

Ingredients

For sauce

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1/2 tbsp butter

1 onion, peeled and chopped

1 tsp ginger paste

3 whole garlic cloves, peeled

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

2 tbsp plain flour

1/2 tbsp curry powder (it has a strong flavour, so use it according to taste)

600ml chicken stock

2 tbs brown sugar/ 1tbps honey

1 tbsp Japanese soy sauce/any dark soy sauce

1 tbsp worcestershire sauce

1 bay leaf

1 tsp cumin powder

2 tbsp tomato paste

1/2 tsp garam masala

For chicken

4 small chicken breasts

100g flour, seasoned with salt and pepper

1 egg, beaten lightly

250g Panko or any other breadcrumb

Oil for shallow frying

Japanese rice or any local rice to serve

Method

To make the sauce, heat the oil in a small pan. Add onion, ginger and garlic and sauté for 2 minutes, then add carrots and cook slowly for 10 minutes with the lid on, stirring occasionally until softened and starting to caramelize. Stir in the flour and curry powder and cook for a minute. Slowly pour in the stock until combined (do this gradually to avoid getting lumps). Add the sugar or honey, tomato paste, soy sauce, worcestershire sauce, cumin powder and bay leaf and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes, so that the sauce thickens but is still of pouring consistency. Add garam masala, and then pass the sauce through a sieve.

Now prepare the chicken. Lay the seasoned flour, egg and breadcrumbs on separate plates. Coat the chicken in the flour, and then dip into the egg and finally into the breadcrumbs. Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the breaded chicken breasts for 5 minutes on each side, or until golden and cooked through. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and leave to drain on kitchen paper.

Optional:

Fry an egg and top it on the rice. Slice the chicken diagonally and serve with the sauce drizzled over.

chicken-katsudon

While I alternate between picking the ladle and rustling something up for dinner or making a curio for our home, I am ready for my next phase. Wonder what new wondrous adventures it will take me on.

Address:

For Dremel: Bosch System Specialist-United Hardware Corporation, 28-16-10, ‘Prospect House’, Opp. Fire Station, Suryabagh, Visakhapatnam. Ph: 0891-2562737/8885514777

Tamanna S. Mehdi

 

 

 

 

One Lazy Sunday

‘Row Row Row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily merrily merrily life is but a dream”. This rhyme ran on loop in my head, as I oared the kayak on the back-waters overlooking the road on one side and the blue waters of the Bay of Bengal on the other.

A kayak is a small, narrow boat which can either be a single or double seater and is propelled by hand oaring. It does not have a motor and is helped along with oars and the wind. This was the first time I was rowing one and it took me a few minutes to get the hang of it. The instructions were clear and the boat was light and easy to manoeuvre.

Lucky for us, there was a break in the hot weather and though the sun was shining brightly, there was a gentle cool breeze. We paddled towards the beach and stopped our kayaks admiring the mighty ocean with its big waves crashing on the beach as fishermen scurried about tending to their fishing nets and sorting their catch for the day.

The plan is to introduce water scooters and banana boat rides on these back waters as well. The thrill of riding these in the ocean where they go up and come crashing down over the crests and troughs of the waves is amazing. On my trip to Langkawi in Malasyia they let us ride the scooters on our own into the open sea and to explore the islands in the vicinity. Hopefully, they will introduce these rides in the open sea here as well.

We enjoyed going up-stream and down-stream on this placid river, but to sail the kayaks in the open seas would be a new thrill altogether. Next stop would be to experience them in the ocean.

Not having had enough of the water, we went to the beach for a dip in the cool inviting waters of the Bay. The water was so clean we could see the sea-bed clearly. The beach was secluded and felt private. The sea wasn’t very choppy and splashing about in the water with the tethered fishing boats bobbing in the back-ground was a perfect end to our very enjoyable Sunday.

What started as a lazy Sunday ended up being anything but. There is nothing really like basking in the great outdoors!

The Ocean Wave firm which manages these water sports is run by brothers Shoaib and Sadiq in collaboration with AP Tourism. They have 4 recreational kayaks. They have life-guards and safety jackets on site.

Take-Away:

·        Adventure

·        Tanned skin

·        Amazing time

·        Big smiles

Pricing  

Kayaks on rent for 30 minutes- Rs. 200/-

Location:

Water sports by Ocean Wave at Mangarimpeta village on the Vizag-Bheemli scenic sea route. Take the right at the go-kart rink and follow the road down to the old bridge.

Swimming at Mangarimpeta beach. The road leading to the beach beside a temple.

Warning:

There are no life-guards at the beach. And the sea here is prone to sudden and strong currents. Be mindful while venturing into the ocean.

 

-Tamanna S. Mehdi