Keep Calm and Carry Ohm

15/11/08 Day 2 - Breakfast over Kabul

8am local time, 4am home time - we were somewhere over Afghanistan and it was time for breakfast. On this occasion we were given the choice between an English ham omelette or Indian vegetarian breakfast. Hooray! I was so pleased to finally kick-off my curryfest.

According to the flight map we were between Kabul and Kandahar. Looking down at the mountains we spared a thought for the British troops down there somewhere fighting the Taliban.

For plastic airplane food the breakfast was delicious. It was some sort of spicy potato cake with a dal and a glutinous cous cous style dish. Julie couldn't think of anything worse for breakfast so I had double the pleasure!

I was fascinated by the arid Afghani landscape below, spotting dusty villages in the middle of nowhere. This was a vast area of nothingness with rare slithers of green oasis appearing alongside rivers. It's not surprising that people could hide away in those hills forever.

Before long we were descending towards Delhi and the excitement was beginning to build, as was my wind. If I was suffering like that after one curry God help me and everyone down wind of me after two weeks of spicy food!

We touched down smoothly which was when Julie allowed herself to get excited. Before that she was a little pre-occupied with landing the plane.

We collected our bright orange suitcases from the carousel and walked out the airport to be met by a Kuoni rep. "Namastey" he said placing his hands prayer-like together. Next in the traditional greeting we received a garland of marigold blooms each placed over our heads.

"Welcome to India"

This was amazing. We were in India, the most intoxicating country in the whole world. I felt so energised and excited by it all I couldn't sit still.

Our first genuine experience was the craziness of the roads!

We look on in disbelief at what we saw. A man rolling a large tractor tyre down the fast lane of a three lane highway. And of course how excited I got seeing a cow for the first time just chewing its cud in the middle of all this chaos.

Whilst there was officially three lanes in reality it was more of a nine channel mish mash of vehicles. There did seem some order with the slowest on the left, the ox drawn carts and bicycles, then mopeds to auto-rickshaws (tuk-tuks) and then buses and lorries barging their way through, with the faster cars squeezing past them at every opportunity.

Our rep informed us "It is said that you need three things to drive in India. Good brakes, a good horn and good luck!" He wasn't kidding on the "good luck" part! It was a massive free-for-all. Completely disorganised. But somehow, rather unbelievably we never got gridlocked. There was a fluidity to the traffic.

They were busy building a metro system for the 2010 Commonwealth Games which will extend to the airport. Traversing the city underground won't quite be the same.

I wasn't sure what to expect from Delhi. India is a complex country with both ancient and modern in equal measures, especially here in the capital.

We turned up at the Grand Intercontinental just off Barakhambra Road and entered the world of 5 star luxury. Our room on the 20th floor was very spacious and the bed was most comfortable. Our heads sunk into the pillows.

Whilst we had some free time on our hands and the whole of Delhi was waiting for us to explore it wasn't surprising that we decided to catch up on some much needed sleep.

We left our curtains open, not that there was much of a view from our window. It was rather an unimpressive vista of half built tower blocks veiled in a haze. We could see a game of cricket in progress however.

A legacy of the British, cricket is a national obsession. The whole country is cricket mad and the national team is one of the best in the world. They easily beat England last Friday in the first of five One Day Internationals.

Before going to sleep we shared an incredibly tasty Paneer Tikka Kathi for lunch. Small cubes of paneer cheese cooked in a spicy sauce and then rolled up in a warmed flat bread. It was a comforting delight. I must have fallen asleep within seconds of swallowing the last mouthful. In fact I don't even remember falling asleep. I should probably count myself lucky I didn't wake up choking on a mouthful of Kathi.

Two hours later, in a deep sleep, we were rudely awaken by our little travel alarm clock. Dazed and confused we met another Kuoni rep in the lobby who took us to an "evening of traditional dances of India."

Along the way we drove through the streets of Delhi near Turkman Bazar. It was teeming with people. Crowds were gathering around food stalls, lit by paraffin lamps, cooking their poori bread in large oil filled korai pans, heated above a flaming coal fire. It was such an amazing scene, as ancient as India itself. It was disappointing that we only caught a glimpse through our car window but it's an image that has secured its place in my mind.

Having driven past the Feroze Shah Kotla Cricket Stadium we crossed the road to find our salubrious venue for the evening.

We stepped inside and found ourselves in a typically British village hall. It felt so strange. There was even a large black and white photograph of a thoroughly English gentleman up on the wall.

It was straight out of 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum' (a sitcom about soldiers of an entertainment corps) and I half expected "the boys to entertain you" to step on to stage.

We were the first to arrive so we made our way down to the first class front row where the seats were comfortable sofas. Behind us the other rows were standard issue village hall wooden chairs.

We waited to be evicted from our snug VIP settee but instead were served complimentary coca-cola bottles with complimentary straws. As soon as a large coach load turned up filling the room the lights dimmed and the show began.

The performances were quite good. Regional dances from Rajasthan, Orissa, Kerala and the Punjab were all duly represented.

The "balance as many baskets on your head then stand on broken glass" dance was interesting. As was the intricate hand movements of the classical school.

But the one that caught my attention was this guy holding a stick in each hand keeping up a third stick only by knocking it around. It sounds boring but it was really spectacular.

Another performer banged a drum whilst throwing himself bruisingly around the stage.

There must have been a lull in the middle where our interest waned and our jet lag got the better of us. Our eyes rolled and our heads wobbled. We were struggling.

The evening ended in a loud & lively bouncy Punjabi dance which certainly woke us up. Their enthusiasm was very infectious, even their dodgy fake beards added to the fun. If it wasn't for the jet lag we may very well have joined in!

We felt a bit wasteful leaving our untouched complimentary coca-cola behind but we couldn't bring ourselves to drink any.

I actually hate coke.

We made our way back to the hotel where we had booked a table at Baluchi, the Grand Intercontinental's tandoori restaurant.

It's highly regarded as one of the best in town so we were greatly looking forward to our meal. The ambience was perfectly set by the house band which sat in the middle of the restaurant. We sat in the corner on an elevated platform.

We were handed the menu and it was a vegetarian's delight. It was spoilt equally into two, a vegetarian menu and what it classed as a non-vegetarian menu. I was spolit for choice.

I eventually settled on a dish called Ambi Paneer Ka Tikka. It was considered one of the chef's signature dishes. Described as "cottage cheese cubes stuffed with sweet and sour mango relish" It sounded amazing.

Julie chose Lehsuni Mahi Tikka, garlic flavoured cubes of fish finished in the tandoor. We also shared a Dal Baluchi a rich buttery dal made with black urad lentils which was similar to Dal Makhani, a dish I've recently acquired a taste for back home.

When the food arrived we were in heaven. Every glorious mouthful was a culinary joy. The indulgent paratha bread we used to scoop up the velvety dal simply melted in the mouth. The sweetness of the mango filled paneer complimented the dal Baluchi to perfection. And Julie thought her fish was the most outstanding flavour she's ever tasted.

It was a wonderful end to our first evening in India.

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