Saturday, December 17, 2011

Ratnagiri, Ganapatipule, Jaigad - Weekend in Mango Country!

One of the great advantages of living in Mumbai is the plethora of travel opportunities available. Maharashtra, with the hilly terrain of the Western ghats, the scenic beauty of Konkan coastline and legendary historic tales of the exploits of the Chhatrapati serves up a delectable buffet of options for the leisure as well as the curious traveller.
The trip to the Konkan coast with Ratnagiri, Ganapatipule and Jaigad is one of the must - dos of anyone planning to travel in the state. It needs a bit more than a weekend (slightly cramped even in a 3 day schedule), and serves up a holiday combining leisure through fabulous beaches, culinary joy in outstanding konkani seafood and the most luscious mangoes, spirituality in a one of a kind religious pilgrimage, and history via the legend of Jaigad fort.
Though well connected by train, I would recommend embarking on the eight hour road trip to Ratnagiri as there is a lot to see and do, and transport on demand is a great advantage.
We had hired a car for our trip and enjoyed one of the more complete travel experiences that we have ever embarked on.
Day 1:
Ratnagiri is approximately 370 km from Mumbai and we left at around 7 AM to beat the Friday traffic. We would be taking the old Mumbai - Goa highway and were keeping our fingers crossed as travel can be disrupted easily on a two lane highway. The plan was to hit Chiplun for an early lunch, and then reach Ratnagiri by around 3:30 to 4:00 in the afternoon. We were lucky, with the traffic and reached Chiplun by around 1.00 for a hearty lunch.
I always research my food when on travel and knew exactly where I wanted lunch in Chiplun.
Hotel Abhishek is easily one of the more famous eateries in Chiplun - at least for the tourist and the restaurant prides itself on its popularity as is evidenced by the numerous pictures of Maharashtrian politicians and theatre and film personalities on its walls. There are so many pictures that it sort of overshadows any other aspect of the decor. The restaurant has a mezzanine floor as well and the seating is what you expect in a typical Maharashtrian Thali joint with very basic, but practical seating arrangements.
Konkan food is one of my favourite cuisines and the food at Abhishek did not disappoint. I ordered Surmai Fry and a prawn curry plate.
The surmai was obviously fresh and was fried with just the right amount of spice. The prawns curry plate was served with the typical reddish curry and with a bowl of rice and two "vade" (which are effectively puris). The vade were slightly different than the version you get in Mumbai as they had a hole in the centre and were almost resembling flattish doughnuts. The taste though was exactly like the ones you get in Mumbai. The meal was expectedly tasty though the taste can take some getting used to if your palate does not have a liking towards sour which is the very essence of "kokum" - the hall mark of Konkan cuisine.
After the hearty meal we almost dozed off as we navigated the rest of the way. Truth be told, we did not miss much. We had initially thought that the road was by the sea, but were slightly disappointed as there was no sea visible until we took the right into Ratnagiri and made our way to Ratnasagar resort where we were to stay.
The resort is located on Bhatye beach and is spread over 3 Km of coast line with over 30 cottages. The rooms are nice and clean, the service is well meaning if not always prompt, and the hotel has an outstanding restaurant serving multi cuisine food aided with access to the freshest sea food and alphonso mangoes which form the culinary bed rock of a Ratnagiri holiday.
The combination of direct beach access, great food, clean and hygienic rooms make Ratnasagar Resorts a definite thumbs up for your Konkan holiday. The only down side I guess would be local transport if one does not have a car as the resort is a bit outside the main town.
There was quite a bit that we planned to achieve in Ratnagiri on Day 1, and we immediately left after freshening up to the palace of King Thibaw from Burma, who had been banished by the British to India to spend his last days in a quid pro quo swap with Bahadur Shah Zaffar ostensibly to quell any rebellion rallying around the former premier in either British colony.
Thibaw's palace is still in relatively decent condition but is obviously not a happy place, given the background of its existence. The palace obviously holds more interest for people who have read Amitava Ghosh's glass palace, and is worth a visit if you have read the novel. We were too late to visit the museum inside the palace as it closes at 5 PM.
The place that is a definite must for all is Thibaw point, the spot from where the exiled king use to stare out into the sea, apparently dreaming of the vessel that will take him back to Burma. The view from Thibaw point, at sunset with the backwaters winding their way past the mangroves to finally reach the Arabian sea is outstanding.
The effect is multiplied by the sight of the fishing village on the banks of the shore near to Thibaw point with colourful fishing boats lining the shore. The evening "azaan" from the number of mosques in the village added to the surreality of the setting as we took in a spectacular sunset.
The last thing to do before we retired for the night was a visit to the home of one of India's greatest freedom fighters - Bal Gangadhar Tilak. One is actually allowed entry and can roam about in the house compound and get a sense of the typical house of a Ratnagiri resident.
The Bharatiya Janata Party take care of the ancestral house of Tilak and deserve credit in maintaining the house in decent condition.We retired for the night after paying our quick respect to one of the founding fathers of India and a sumptuous Malvan lunch at Ratnasagar resorts. The sweet dish of fresh Hapus Mango with Vanilla Ice Cream was the star of the meal as we retired, tired, and very happy with the first day of our "long weekend" break.
Day 2
We had ear marked Day 2 of our stay for our visit to Jaigad fort and Ganapati Pule and left early right after having break fast. Jaigad is around 45 km from Ratnagiri and the coastal road from Ratnagiri to Jaigad is one of the most scenic drives that I have ever been on. The road winds along a slightly rocky coast winding up and down smallish hills with the vast Arabian sea and virgin beaches a constant companion all through. The fort is another one of the famed forts of Chhatrapati Shivaji and was built for the strategic purpose of protecting the meeting point of the Arabian sea with river Shastri. The view from the forts walls is stunning and one can look far out into the sea as well as a significant way down the river inland.
Legend has it that the fort got its name "Jaigad" from the sacrifice on one "Jai" who was an ardent follower of Shivaji Maharaj. The builders were facing issues in construction due to the rough seas and Jai apparently sacrificed himself to the Gods to enable the fort to be built.
Apparently the sacrifice worked and the legend of Jaigad was born. I personally enjoy forts a lot and with the legend adding to the charm, I would not have missed the trip for the world.
We left Jaigad and travelled back 20 km to Ganapati Pule which is one of the most famous destinations in Maharashtra for the religious traveller. The destination also has pristine white sand beaches which the Marathi Manoos claims to be among the best in the world. Ganapatipule is famous for Swayambhu (self originated) Ganapati idol that mother nature herself has created with her waves lapping against the rocky sea shore. A truly unique story and the reason why the place is packed to the brim with devotees paying obeisance to the elephant God all around the year.
We paid our respects at this most unique temple and proceeded to have lunch at the MTDC resort in Ganapatipule. The lunch unfortunately was highly forgettable with the service really slow. Maybe they were too busy with the guests already staying at the resort but the food itself was also nothing to really write home about. The experience was doubly disappointing as I had heard nice things about the resort, but I left there thanking my lucky stars that we were staying at Ratnasagar and not at the MTDC resort in Ganapatipule. Back at Ratnagiri we retired early for the day after taking in another glorious sunset from Thibaw point.
Day 3
Day 3 was a travel day again and we decided to set off early to track back to Mumbai. But this was Mango Country and there was no way we would be allowed back to Mumbai without purchasing some Mango products. The locals had recommended "Bhide" in the main Ratnagiri market and we found every imaginable Mango product available there from squashes to pickle to preserves. The Alphonso Mango or 'Hapus' as the locals call it, is what Ratnagiri is famous for and Bhide was testament to a roaring and thriving business, but our trip served testament that there is a lot more to see and do and love Ratnagiri for.
The trip back to Mumbai took slightly longer than our trip to Mango country mainly due to the weekend market at 'Khed' which took some time to negotiate, the same is pretty unique with all the neighbouring villagers coming to trade their wares and is pretty colourful. We were also stuck for quite a while due to a traffic on the two lane highway which is clearly a peril to tight schedules as even a slight issue with the traffic could hold up many for ages.
One experience which will stay with me from the trip from Ratnagiri and Mumbai was the unique and in our case extremely successful advertising strategy employed by Green Village Hotel which made me decide to stop and have our lunch at this particular hotel.
The hotel is slightly off Khed but what really strikes the traveller is the kilometers of the highway that they have covered with spectacular photographs of their fish, meat and the odd vegetarian dish.
Atleast 30 km either side of the hotel are tantalising posters and hoardings of the dishes served at the restaurant which I think is a fabulous marketing ploy for the slightly hungry traveller. On the way to Ratnagiri we were well fed at Chiplun and avoided the temptation through sleep and a satisfied stomach but on the way back there was no escape from the temptations posed by the posters. Unfortunately the food at Green Village was decent at best and does not live up to the expectation promised through the hoardings, but they do deserve a commendation for their marketing ingenuity. Very hard for anyone to resist! We returned to Mumbai, tired and happy, having spent one of the more fulfilling three day weekend breaks I have ever embarked on. The Mango country is definitely worth more than one weekend visit!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Brothers Dhaba, Amritsar

Amritsar. Golden Temple. Brothers Dhaba. The three words go hand in hand and it is due to both the location of the restaurant as well as the taste of the food that Brothers Dhaba has to offer. Brothers Dhaba is walking distance from the Golden Temple and is unmissable to the passer by on the way out of Govind Saab. It is highly recommended to complete the Amritsari Dhaba experience after paying ones obeisance at Govind Saab.
The full name of Brothers Dhaba is Bade Bhai ka Brothers Dhaba and is a direct outcome of the elder brother of the family that owned Bhrawan Da Dhaba starting up his own restaurant in 2001. The two restaurants run side by side without apparent trouble and Brothers Dhaba is clearly positioned on the hygiene platform on a relative level. The restaurant is fully air conditioned and there are a lot of uniformed staff attempting to be very prompt in service.
At Brothers Dhaba, we sampled two dishes which are the trademark of Punjab as a whole and Amritsar in particular. The Amritsari Kulcha and Sarson Da Saag with Makki di Roti. The Amritsari Kulcha is a many layered Kulcha with a stuffing of a potato an onion paste. Amritsar does not go easy on ghee and butter and the Amritsari Kulcha was not an exception. It was cooked to perfection soft when bit into, yet maintaining the essential crispiness of an authentic Punjabi Paratha. The Kulcha was served with Pindi Chole, some salad and a bit of boondi raita and is pretty much a meal by itself.
Sarson da saag and makki di roti is a staple for the Punjab households during winter. The leaves of the mustard plant are cooked into a gravy, and it is served with rotis made from corn flour. The dish is served with a generous dollop of white butter on top of the saag, which immediately banishes all thoughts of health food, but greatly augments the sensations of your taste buds. It is up to you which way you want to go, but Amritsar is definitely not a place for the cholesterol conscious.
The Sarson Da Saag was very tasty but I somehow like the one served at Urban Tadka Mumbai better. You can call me blasphemous but I am just being honest. The Amritsari kulcha however was outstanding and Bade Bhai ka Brothers Dhaba is not to be missed when in Amritsar.
A meal for two at Bade Bhai ka Brothers Dhaba will cost you approximately Rs 200/-
How to get there: As mentioned, Brothers Dhaba cannot be missed when you approach the Golden Temple. It is located right opposite the Amritsar town hall.

Makhan Dhaba, Amritsar

Fish Amritsari is possibly the most ubiquitous fish preparation found in the menu cards of Indian restaurants. In Amritsar and was saved culinary blasphemy by managing to taste the preparation at the restaurant Amritsar residents consider to be the veritable home of the dish - Makhan Dhaba at Lawrence Road.
Makhan Dhaba has been serving up Amritsari Fish for six decades now and is again a restaurant that is defined by the dish. The restaurant very basic to say the least and has sparse seating arrangements. Residents use the outlet more from a take away perspective, but you have to remember its Amritsar, the land of milk and honey, food is about freshest, purest ingredients, fantastic taste, if you are looking for ambiance you best remain in Mumbai or Delhi. The taste of hot fish, beautifully flavoured served fresh from the frying pan, in cold, wintry Amritsar is an experience to be treasured and a must do in the city of the Golden Temple.
The Amritsari fish is effectively fried freshwater fish, which has been marinated in a spice rub, having a distinct flavour of Ajwain which is the real trademark of the preparation. The fish used for the preparation in Amrtisar is the freshest sole from the waters of the Beas. Makhan Dhaba has apparently specialised in keeping the fish the freshest possible through a special process until the same is ripe for frying. The fish is served to you, soft and tender, the skin is nice and crisp, covering the soft white flesh. The spice rub gives every morsel fantastic flavour.
A nice touch is the fact that as you are waiting for the fish to be served, you are served a morsel after the fish is cooked just right to check for taste. I guess they fry it slightly longer for the customers who are not that comfortable with having fish.
Bengalis, myself included are slightly snobbish about fish, especially freshwater and believes that it is a sing for a non Bengali to even attempt to cook river fish. However I doff my hat to the chefs at Makhan Dhaba and rate the Amritsari fish as high as any that I have ever tasted.
How to get there: Makan Dhaba is on Lawrence road, and seems to have recently changed location slightly. However it is still near Lawrence road and the locals should be able to clearly point the newer whereabouts to you.
Fish Amritsari at Makhan Dhaba is served by weight, in multiples of 250 gm. Each 250 gm will cost you Rs 200/-

Aman Chicken, Ludhiana

There are dishes that define restaurants. The cello kebab at Peter Cat, the Bombvil fry at Gazalee, are dishes so tasty and flavorful that the restaurant almost suffers from patrons not going beyond that option in the menu card. There are restaurants that define dishes. Golbari, in Shyambazaar, Kolkata lays down the benchmark for the bengali Kosha Mangsho, Tunday Kababi for the Galaouti Kebab, these are restaurants which are the stuff of legend. Restaurants which are the unquestioned standard bearer of their signature dishes. Even if the dish at other places may taste better to the individual, it is caveat-ed with "as per my taste" as the standards at these holy grails can never be logically surpassed.
Then there are restaurants like Aman Chicken in Ludhiana, which redefines a dish, (in the case of Aman chicken, its just a side dish) and takes it to a whole new level, making the dish not only the star of the meal, but which makes all other versions one has tasted, irrelevant, inconsequential and not even worth spelling through the same words of the alphabet. Aman Chicken achieves redefinition and redefines the Butter Naan.
Punjab is the land of milk and honey, and cholesterol cannot be a factor in the land of five rivers where it is almost criminal to cook without using the purest ingredients and the most wonderful ghee available. So let us not even get into that area, and let us talk of the Butter Naan served at Aman's Chicken. The Naan is beatifully crisp, very hot and packed with so much butter that it has to be brought to the table folded in the shape of a samosa to prevent the butter from spilling out.
Gluttonous, sinful, unhealthy but so very, very tasty that it renders all else you have as an accompaniment, almost unnecessary. The purest Punjabi white butter is used and it is layered as well, permeating to each and every morsel of the bread and ensuring that each piece is as moist and sinfully tasty as the preceding. At Aman's chicken gluttony is not a sin but a way of life.
Not that the sides are any less tasty. The "side"s we ordered at Aman's chicken was half a plate of Tandoori Chicken and half a plate of the Rahra chicken which was cooked as per the high standards of any famed Punjabi dhaba. The Tandoori chicken was tasty and soft but had the advantage of being served before we were captivated by the Butter Naan.
The boneless Rahra chicken was served with a brown, thick and very rich gravy which went delightfully with the butter naan. The greatest achievement was the fact that the Rahra chicken managed to give us a sense of taste with the Butter Naan around. But there was only one thing that remained with me after the meal at Aman's chicken and will remain with me for life - The Butter Naan Redefined!
A meal for two at Aman Chicken without drinks will cost you approximately Rs 500/-
How to get there: Aman Chicken is at Shastri Nagar, near Ishmeet Chowk in Ludhiana. It is easily one of the more famed eateries in the city and you will not have trouble getting directions from the locals.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The South African Sojourn: Its Ayoba Time!

The next series of posts on this blog will be about our trip to South Africa during the 2010. The vacation was possibly the greatest experience of my life so far. I hope to share some of that with you through the series of posts that will follow. Food being an essential aspect of travel will receive adequate coverage, the memorable culinary experiences will be there but will not be the center piece of the posts (at least in most cases).
The posts will be day wise about our experiences. This will hopefully be sufficient to communicate as to what it was like visiting one of the more diverse, beautiful and politically volatile countries of the world while it was hosting of the greatest celebrations in sport and I would venture to say of mankind in general. Viva Africa! Viva Jogo Bonito! FIFA 2010 was definitely Ayoba time! (to translate that into English, it was Celebration time!)
The three things about South Africa 2010 that will stay with me for my life:
1. The joyous congregation of so many nations at one place - Over ten days I interacted with people of close to 30 countries all united by their love of football.
2. The people of South Africa and the ownership displayed by one and all to pull together and make for a great host.
3. Watching the Albiceleste in the famous Blue and White and the Selecao in vibrant yellow play live in front of my eyes while I was pinching myself and thanking God for being granted the opportunity.
Hope you will enjoy the series of posts. Hope to see you for Brazil 2014!

The South African Sojourn - Day 1: We are at the World Cup!

We landed at O.R.Tambo airport, Johannesburg at 8:30 AM on the 11th of July, 2010 - the day the curtain was raised on the FIFA World Cup. There would have been a sense of excitement all over the world but the mood at Johannesburg, the city hosting the opening ceremony and the match had to be personally witnessed to be really understood.
You could feel it in the poster greeting us as we disembarked from the plane. You could feel it in the Bafana Bafana T Shirts the ground staff were wearing. You could feel it everywhere. The biggest sporting event in the world was about to kick off and we were there in Johannesburg. I think I pinched myself more than once to ensure that it was really true.
Coca Cola greeted us with a complimentary welcome drink on arrival, but our focus was on our most guarded possession, stored safely along with our passports, was the FIFA kit containing, a) The voucher confirming us as ticket holders and b) The MTN Sim Card that we had to activate to get our SA number. We navigated our way through the teeming crowd and reached the help desks as we had heard that tickets could be collected at the airport. At the help desk we were however requested to collect our bags first, the ticket collection center was on the second floor outside the arrival hall.
Proceeding towards the luggage area, we had our first interaction with the fans - a set of Brazilian fans decked in the yellow of the Selecao and already shouting "Campeone". The group of Brazilian fans after clicking a few photos of themselves immediately proceeded to the Duty Free where each Brazilian bought two bottles of Absolut Vodka. Quite clearly they were making plans for a long campaign!
What caught our eye more was the reaction of a certain Portuguese fan who till then was sporting a Portuguese jacket. He saw the Brazilians. Unpacked. Got out a Portuguese flag and put it on his back pack. We would see the fan twice more at the Airport and each time he would display some new Portuguese merchandise - scarves, caps, larger flags, bags, etc. I am pretty sure he had an entire wardrobe full of Portuguese paraphernalia.
Having collected our bags we joined the queue of fans to get our tickets. There were two separate queues. One for those having bought tickets through Bank transfers, the other for those, like us - who had bought tickets through credit cards.
We joined the rather longish queue, a lot of fans were arriving on the opening day of the World Cup and found ourselves behind another Brazilian fan and his South African driver. After enquiring with the driver as to where the exit to the train station was, how long it would take etc. we got talking football with the Brazilian. He spoke with obvious passion about Dunga, the starting XI that Brazil would play and his disappointment that Ronaldinho was not picked.
The queue in itself was like the United Nations - Algerians were in full force, we saw Slovenians, English fans, the Portuguese was there again. The most vociferous lot were the Chileans though, they were busy locating and hugging each other through out the queue with shouts of "Chi-Chi-Chi Le-Le-Le" "Viva Chile!". Their exuberance was infectious and it was definitely one of the more popular slogans of the World cup for the neutral. Any Chilean fan sporting their national colours was always joined by neutrals in shouting out this very slogan all across Jo'Burg.
The ticket came out of vending machines and were fantastic. All one has to do was to insert the card with which the tickets were bought on the internet. The details of the card holder and the ticket details were clearly displayed on the screen. The tickets were then immediately printed by the machine and collected similar to cash from an ATM.
The tickets were personalised with the name of the card holder and a bar code which would have to be used to allow entry into the stadium. The metamorphosis of the anxiety as to whether the card would be read correctly to the total euphoria of seeing the tickets being printed in front of us took all of fifteen seconds!!
So with our new most prized possession - the match tickets, we proceeded to leave the airport after purchasing some talk time from MTN. The service and help at the store was great and the hospitality showed by the South Africans would be a constant highlight throughout our stay.
We had decided that we would be taking a combination of South Africa's newest mode of public transport - the Gautrain to get to our hotel. The Gautrain (pronounced How-Train) is basically Johannesburg's first attempt at an Metro.
The set up is a combination of trains to major hubs and from then on Gau-Buses to the suburban areas. We had pre-researched this on the Gautrain site. We had found that we had to take the Gautrain to Sandton (Johannesburg's key suburban area) and from there take the S6, which would drop us right opposite our hotel. The Gautrain is supposed to act as a major boost to a city which apparently has the 4th worst rush hour traffic in the world. From O.R.Tambo airport to Sandton which is Johannesburgs most posh suburb and the financial capital- the Mumbai equivalent would be BKC, against the Taxi alternative of one and a half hours and R400, the Gautrain took us 15 minutes and R100 each.
We arrived at Sandton at around 1.30 PM and immediately boarded the Gau-Bus. The card reader (we had loaded money at the airport and got a preloaded Gautrain card in return) of the bus was not working which meant that our transfer was going to be free. Our bus driver profusely apologised for the inconvenience (!) and wished us a great stay at South Africa - did I mention South African hospitality?
Sandton, was when the true impact of football fever hit us. The Bafana-Bafana (translated in Zulu as The Boys - The Boys) were playing Mexico in the opening match and all South Africans we laid eyes on were sporting yellow. We also heard a weird droning in the background which I thought were car horns at first but later found to be the sound of the Vuvuzela. South African flags were everywhere, on all the cars, on the road, on all the houses. This was a nation caught up in football fever. The mood was so overwhelming, so buoyant that I found myself really hoping that the Bafana do well and not spoil the scenes of joy and hope all around.
We checked in at our hotel without any hassles and it was only then that we realised how tired we were. We immediately freshened up, hit the bed and alternated between watching the opening ceremony and sleeping. All our sleep was forced out of our system however when the South Africa game started. When the opening goal went in, the hotel staff, all of them decked out in the colours of the Bafana Bafana and armed with vuvuzelas, literally brought the house down only for sanity to return when the Mexicans equalised.
For an early evening snack we ordered a Barbeque Chicken Pizza from Debonairs - one of the more popular South African chains and the official fans choice for the World Cup.
At around 7pm we were on our way out for dinner when we first encountered the darker side of South Africa. We were flatly told not to go anywhere walking as it was not safe to venture out. Not fancying an unwelcome adventure ride after our warning we decided to retire for the day with some more Pizza for dinner.
We were still tired and we had a big day coming up. We were fast asleep by 9 PM South Africa time dreaming about the Albiceleste, Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona. This was the World Cup and we were in South Africa!

The South African Sojourn - Day 2: The dream is realised - Vamos Argentina!

12th June. 2010. A big day. A date that I had looked forward to for five whole months since I was informed through an SMS of a foreign transaction on my credit card in February 2010. Argentina were playing Nigeria at Ellis Park Jo'Burg and I had two tickets for the game. My dream was about to be realised. The blue and white. Messi! Maradona!!
We had done our homework on how to get to the stadium before leaving for South Africa. The South African state was to make public transport specially available for people traveling to the stadium. There would be special Metro buses arranged from Sandton and other hubs to West Gate. From West Gate there would be another set of buses - the Rea Vaya which would take us to Ellis Park. The information in the web was pretty comprehensive and I was armed with a list of locations where the World cup buses would stop. The first task however was to get to Sandton and we decided to take one of the most popular modes of SA transport - the Mini Bus Taxi.
Mini bus taxis are effectively largish Maruti vans/ Omnis used by the regular to get around. The mini bus taxis work very much like the auto rickshaws of Calcutta. They ply along set routes, from CBD to CBD, (CBD = Central Business District) and pick up people on the way. The most curious thing is that the complex set of hand signals that are used by passengers to communicate with the drivers of the vans, (there are books available at most SA book stores to teach the system).The taxis seat 15 people plus driver and are compact without being uncomfortable.
We also got a taste of the continued SA hospitality pervasive throughout the World Cup when a Zimbabwean working in Jo'Burg took time out to walk with us to Nelson Mandela Square from the Sandton CBD, just to show us where we would be getting transport back to our hotel. We would have to take cabs back to the hotel as the Mini Taxis stop plying after 7 PM, he also gave us his business card assuring us that we were free to call him in case we needed any help.
We had lunch at the Nelson Mandela Square food court, at Fish Away restaurant. We ordered the prawn meal which consisted of skewers of barbecued prawns served on a bed of yellow rice. The prawns were tasty enough although slightly bland. Overall a very very decent South African lunch and recommended.
We finished the meal and were soon on our way to catch the bus to the ground. We had read that the bus services were to start four hours before the match started. The match was to start at 4.30PM and we were at our bus stop by 12.45 PM - nice and early. The problem was that there was no bus in sight. Not until 1.00 PM, not until 1.30 PM which is when we started to get really tense.
I was fretting about, asking every policeman and volunteer about the bus and received blank stares in return. The only other person who seemed to know about the bus was this English fan we bumped into, who had availed the bus on the way back from the opening game and who had an annoying tendency to think about the worst outcomes and articulate the same. He was saying that it took two hours to get to the stadium and joking that it would make sense to sell our tickets as there was not way we would be able to reach in time. I can tell you I hated him every time he uttered that statement.
We were so persuasive in our appeals to the police to help us that we also managed to force a policeman to hold up traffic and stop a regular Metro bus only to find out that the World Cup buses were different and this one could not take us to Ellis Park. The only positive out of this was that we ran into two Zambians who were also searching for the buses. One, a resident of Jo Burg and not going to the match, the other was his friend who had come all the way from Zambia to watch Argentina play. The Jo Burg resident was giving his friend a longer than expected ride to the Metro Bus. The love of football unites like no other and all of us entered the Zambians car. Two Indians, One Englishman and Two Zambians all searching for a bus to take us to the match- the truly unique World Cup experience.
We ended up driving for a good 5 minutes going from stop to stop when we finally saw a bus stop which said that it was a special World Cup stop and decided to wait, pray and hope.
We waited at the stop for a good twenty minutes, survived one false start (in the shape of a regular Non World Cup bus) and around twenty fatalistic English comments. Finally, the bus I have looked forward to most in my life, arrived at around 2.30 PM. We were the first passengers on the bus and I almost leaped for joy on finding out that the bus was the right one and we were finally on our way to watch the World Cup.
The journey was smooth after that and we made good time reaching Westgate by 3:00 PM. From there we boarded the Rea Vaya (the tickets were being sold in the bus itself) and found a large number of fans already on it - some had suitcases and had arrived straight from the airport. We could hear chants from Nigerians and Argentinians as we approached Ellis Park.
Once we reached Ellis Park, it was all a blur. The fans, the approach, the stadium, the atmosphere was overwhelming and we could barely stop and collect our thoughts before being overwhelmed again. The organisation at the stadium was excellent. The check in process was very smooth. After going through metal detectors one could enter the stadium premises the MICR code on ones ticket was confirmed.
Soon enough we found ourselves inside the stadium and blessed with 6th row tickets on the end of the pitch where the Argentines were about to embark on their pre match practice.
In all its glory, right in front of us was the chemistry and love between Diego Maradona and the Argentines. El Diego was like a lion who knew he was the star of the show and the main man. He was lapping up the pre match attention. All the tricks were being paraded. Clapping at the crowd. Parading in front of them. Pointing at them. Thumping the AFA crest and saluting them. Pointing to a baby in the crowd and blowing kisses. Here was God in front of his adoring subjects and loving every single moment of it. The stands were a sea of Blue and White - one flag will particularly stand out in memory - that of Mr Javier Catena's uniqe passion and indicating the years he had supported Argentina at world cups.
The match in itself was good without being great - the house came down when Heinze scored and the world was a beautiful place after that. Shortly after, beer was spilled on us when some Argentine fans started fighting with some locals over seats and sitting in the rightful place. The police intervened but not before there was a decent exchange of fisticuffs. It sort of made the football experience complete I guess, but that was an experience we could have done without - the picture on the right is of the hooligans although at the time it was taken - they were just slightly over excited Argentine fans.
On the way back we were again treated to first class SA hospitality with some locals offering to walk us to the Metro Bus stop after theRea Vaya dropped us off at the Westgate hub. We reached Sandton and took a paid Taxi to our hotel to complete travel on all varieties of Jo'Burg transport in a single day. Exhausted and overwhelmed, we returned to our hotel, laden with memories of a lifetime. Argentina 1, Nigeria 0. Fifa 2010. We were there. Vamos Albiceleste! Hasta la victoria, Siempre!

The South African Sojourn - Day 3: A bit of everyday Johannesburg!

Day 3 was a relatively free day for us and we had decided to spend the day taking in the sights and sounds of World Cup fever. The hub of the action in Jo'Burg was Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton City and we immediately proceeded to immerse ourselves into the melee. Sandton City was expectedly buzzing. The blue and white had however given way to Oranje. Holland were playing Denmark the following day and the Dutch fans were making themselves heard. Seas of Orange and Red were all we could see, though the banter was largely good natured.
Nelson Mandela Square is flanked by cafe's and restaurants on all sides and is pretty much the place where all the tourists of JoBurg eat, drink and make merry. The decor was not wholly because of the Fifa World Cup as we noted a distinct sub continental flavor in the decor with the Indian Tricolour and Sri Lankan Lion displayed proudly alongside the Spanish flag in one of the Italian restaurants flanking the square. Chances are that the IPL had a whole host of Indians in the vicinity a few months earlier.
It was in one such restaurant at Nelson Mandela Square - Butcher Shop and Grill that we had our lunch and the meal ranks as one of the best steak meals that I have ever had in my life.
South Africans take their steaks very seriously and the Butcher Shop and Grill is no different. There were atleast three clear differences between my steak eating experiences in India and that I encountered in South Africa. Firstly, the source of the meat is well advertised. The Butcher Shop and Grill sources all its meat from Karan's Beef - which is the South African benchmark as far as quality beef is concerned. Secondly - There is a choice of portion unlike what you get in India. One can choose from Sirloin, T-Bone, and Rump i.e. the cut of the meat. Thirdly - You can actually choose the exact chunk of meat and the weight as I am trying to do in the pic.
The taste was expectedly fantastic, I ordered my steak well done and with Mushroom sauce.
The mushroom sauce was served separate, similar to how mustard is served in India. The other thing I will never forget about Butcher Shop and Grill were the complimentary starters that we were offered while waiting for the steak. We were served some cocktail beef sausages which went very well with the beer that we were having. Quite honestly, The Butcher Shop and Grill is a must do for all the Beef Eaters out there - its pretty much Beef Nirvana. However the non Beef eaters best stay away - the chicken which my wife sampled was slightly tough, not very good and does not augur so well for my non beef eating friends.
After a very large and filling lunch we proceeded to roam around the Sandton City mall and went in to the Checkers super market. I strongly believe that the markets should be a must do in any tour itinerary to get a feel of everyday people doing their everyday shopping and Checkers supermarket gave a pretty good feel of the average South African going about their daily shopping.
I was expectedly blown away by the meat section at the market. The meat market almost resembled a meat library with pretty much as many types and cuts of beef, pork, mutton and chicken one can imagine - It was far superior in variety and quantity than anything I had previously seen.
The day was not all gastronomy however, as we took in the Ghana Serbia match at the Innesfree Park Fan Zone. Fan Zones are really integral to the World Cup experience and South Africa was no different. The fan zone was sposored by Coca Cola and the place was buzzing with South Africans and tourists of all shapes and sizes. There were two giant Screens and plenty of entertainment and food options. The fan zone really gave a sense of the party that the soccer world cup is. Impromptu football games, visible African pride cheering the Ghanaians on, families out in full force enjoying the World Cup experience. The best part - The fan zone was free for all!
We retired early for the night after the Asamoah Gyan penalty sealed Africas first win of the world cup.
We took in the Germany - Australia game from the hotel room as we sampled a chicken Schnitzel from City Lodge Morningsides in house restaurant - McGintys Irish pub. The schnitzel is a preparation of Austrian descent, fried chicken beaten flat out with a coat of bread crumbs - not very different from the ubiquitous cutlet in India but with a lot more chicken. Decent - but nothing close to the experience at the Butcher Shop and Grill.

The South African Sojourn - Day 4: Touristy South Africa!

Day 4 in Johannesburg was a day we had earmarked for experiencing a bit of the African wild. After looking at our schedule we had come to the conclusion that there was nowhere enough time to visit Kruger or even take a proper tour to the Pilanesberg reserve.
If we wanted to experience African Wildlife it would have to be the tour to Lion Park which promises sighting of a whole host of African Lions and other wildlife. We booked our Tour through the hotel front desk and decided to go with one operated by Vhupo tours. There was an option to take the Lion Park Tour with the Soweto tour - a big draw for the American and European tourists - Soweto is one of the poor, townships of South Africa, but as we were from the land of Slumdog millionaire we decided to stick to the Lions.

Vhupo tours picked us up from our hotel lobby at 8.00 sharp and we were taken around Johannesburg picking up various people on the way to the Vhupo hub from where we would embark on the various tours that Vhupo offers. The ride gave us the opportunity for taking in a little bit more of the celebration that is the Fifa World Cup.

The streets were all decked up - Vuvuzelas and Soccer Balls were everywhere - on all the street corners and even on the highways. It was also great fun talking to the people who were on the bus with us going to the Vhupo pick up point. We met a couple of Scotsmen overjoyed at Robert Green's mistake in letting in the US equaliser and proclaiming him as the Scottish national hero! We also met an Argentinian couple who were pretty pleased at the good start made by the Albiceleste!

Our guide was also quite informed and gave us a brief history of Jo'burgs development and how it became the premiere business centre of Africa despite being far away from the sea and not being near any river. Johannesburg - the capital of Gauteng (meaning place of Gold) is the city of Gold! It was the place where Gold was discovered in South Africa and extensive mining activity took place. The mining companies came to Jo'Burg and provided jobs to hundreds of people from all over and the city was born. The remnants of these mines were all around Johannesburg. They were in the shape of yellow mounds of earth and were present all around Johannesburg.

We got off at the Vhupo meeting point at the entrance of Soweto and found that we would be receiving an exclusive tour of Lion Park as we were the only people who had opted for the tour on the day. The lion park is a sanctuary where African wildlife is kept within enclosed boundaries. The highlights were the lions of course, but the park also had Cheetahs, Ostriches, Giraffes and Zebras as the other highlights. We went to Lion Park on a Monday which was just after the feeding day for the Lions. The beasts are fed one day in a week and we could see lions fighting over the remnants of their feast from the previous day. In the Lion park one is not allowed to get out of the jeep. Quite an important protocol as we were literally in handshaking distance of some of the lions at the park.

The tour finished with a visit to the place where we could alight and actually hold Lion cubs and play with them for ten minutes. A huge photo opportunity but you need to be careful as some of the cubs had a very bad temper and even sharper claws. One unfortunate visitor had lion cub scratches to show as South African souvenirs. The lion park was quite an experience. Not as good as seeing Lions live in the jungle, but if you do not have the time and definitely want to see the African lion up close then a definite "must do" day trip. The trip to the Lion Park ended after feeding the Ostrich and Giraffe at the park, and we returned happy and hungry to Sandton City where we asked Vhupo tours to drop us off.

We reached Sandton city in late afternoon and we immediately had lunch at one of South Africa's most famous fast food chains. Steers Burgers is a home grown South African chain with over 400 branches across SA. It has also expanded to other parts of the continent.
The burgers go by the tag line flame grilled and are very tasty. What struck me as different from the regular version we are served up at McDonalds in India was the size, the Steers burger was much larger. The quality of the meat - it was much softer and felt that it was cooked as against fried. There was also a lot of juice in the meat and the ketchup which is a must for the McDonalds burger in India was not required. Overall a fantastic, filling quick meal and easily one of the more popular options at the Sandton City food court.
The rest of the afternoon was made shopping both of the window and the real variety as we explored the mall and all the shops. The shop that really stood out was "Out of Africa" which had some really nice South African souveniers. One item which was really cool and we wanted to buy but could not as were sure it would break in our luggage on the way to India were the lamps that were made of Ostrich eggs. Really cool and available both in plain white and in painted varieties. Exhausted and completely satisfied we retired early to our hotel, but not before we had sampled yet another of South Africa's trademark foods. For an early dinner we sampled from Katie's Kitchen the famed Boerwor. Boerwor in Afrikaaner means farmers sausage, "Boer" = Farmer, "Wor" = Sausage. The great part of the preparation is that the same is served right from the Barbeque or South African grill. Hot, tasty and a delightfully light dinner.

We fell asleep quite early. There was a big day ahead of us. We had the Johannesburg city tour ahead of us the next day and of course the small matter of seeing the Selecao! Live! Kaka, Robinho, Luis Fabiano!