ZAILY IN INDIA
Zaily is a born and raised New Orleanian like myself but after high school moved to Baltimore for art school and then on to New York City before coming home and setting down roots. She has traveled all over the world, visiting family in Puerto Rico, friends in South Korea and even spending a semester living in Poland. She places great importance on being able to integrate with locals, food, and affordability when she travels, so India seems like an obvious choice. In her mid-twenties she decided to take that trip and spent a few months steeping in the culture, working on her clothing line, HILO, and falling in love with India. Since that trip she has been looking forward to day she could return and explore more. This past year she decided it was time to go back and bring her husband along for the ride. They both took a leave of absence from their day jobs, she working at the boutique, Freda, and he a tattoo artist. The 6 weeks they spent mostly in Mumbai and Varanasi seemed to be invigorating, inspiring and life-changing. This guide is a window into Zaily's return to India.
Collecting Rocks: What were you looking forward to experiencing (in India) again and what were you looking forward to experiencing for the first time?
Zaily: The smells....the food!!!! The attitude of Indian people is unparalleled. The sense of humor you have to have...it's all action...and irony. Extremes. you can't relax in Mumbai. That's why people go to Kerala, Rishikesh, or anywhere other than this crazy city (Mumbai). But I love the craziness. It's the heartbeat of Maharashtra. It's also really fun to get things made at the tailors. In every facet of hospitality, the Indian people go above and beyond. It makes it so special and creates lasting memories of your interactions with locals.
CR: What are your favorite things to eat and drink in India?
Z: Chai 100 times a day. It's safe to drink even on the street because they boil and scald the milk, it's a part of the flavor profile. It's nice to know you won't get sick from something offered so frequently!
Kulfi - a type of ice cream that's kind of grainy and pistachio or mango flavored.
The breads!!! - roti, chapati, naan, paratha....
I love paneer.
Special Mumbai treats like vada pavs, a fried chickpea patty with spicy green chilis with ghee all over it on a cafeteria looking bread roll (paav)
Thali - a standard vegetarian meal option that ranges in complexity. I'm not a vegetarian at all but when I come to India I am, if you see any butcher shop you'll think twice about eating meat!!!! The thalis are usually all you can eat with a number of small silver dishes that the servers refill over and over with different items, like aloo gobi, a few curries, paneer, mango pickles, saag paneer, channa masala....etc then they come and drizzle clarified butter all over it. Everything is spicy and sweet and explosive. Raita or a lassi or some buttermilk tames the spice and helps temper the fire. A regal feeling meal like that for two people is around $15 total. In most small cafés two can easily eat for as little as $5.
Finally, there is very little drinking. Since I'm from New Orleans I see it as a welcome detox. You can certainly drink in the fancy establishments, with a few seedy watering holes around town, but in my opinion it doesn't really work with the vibe of the city. I can't imagine crossing the street for example, drunk. You would probably get hit by something. Your wits need to be sharp --ALWAYS --plus with the amount of digestive discomfort one could encounter or is expecting to encounter...makes getting sick from drinking really unappealing.
CR: What are you feeling most passionate about that could resonate with you once you got home?
Z: Right now there are so many political issues that are disturbing me from home, so I'm feeling particularly aware of being American.... Being a good traveler -- being conscious of my impact on the planet and aware of respecting the customs of the place I am traveling in is more important than ever.
CR: Do you recall having these thoughts last time you were there?
Z: Yes but more so now...I think America is better at hiding our trash, while India just has it all strewn around in plain sight. On this trip I was exposed to really bad air pollution....it freaked me out! Everyone should take some steps towards a more environmentally conscientious lifestyle, in whatever way works for you.
CR: How does Mumbai compare to Varanasi?
Z: Worlds of difference. Mumbai is a cityscape, there is a feeling of a big city, although not with skyscrapers or major modernization....it's an attitude, an energy....it's happening! Varanasi on the other hand has a religious fervor, it's a zoo of animals and priests and pilgrims everywhere....and tiny twisty alleyways where every personal ritual of human life is basically in your face, on the streets...an old way of life. Very simple in ways but also so mythical, so complex! A book was highly recommend to me about Varanasi, it's called Banaras by Diane Eck. This book assisted me in deciphering the countless symbols and roles of individuals who live in Varanasi and is very insightful!
CR: Do you have a preference for either city?
Z: No preference. Every region in India is distinctly different from the next. I will always return to Mumbai, I just have a special relationship developing with the city, there are places I still want to eat at there and more I want to do! It doesn't get old to me, and although many cities, villages or other regions in India are less crowded and more visually interesting at times, I have found my way into a deeper connection with Mumbai and it'll always be my starting point for future trips to India.
CR: What new discoveries did you make in Mumbai on this trip?
Z: The underground art scene! This really blew my mind, because the subject of one large art show was non-binary sexual identity and I didn't think this topic existed in India! You should see the advice given in sex columns in the Mumbai newspaper....quite old fashioned and conservative (compared to what we are used to in the West!) However it's not a concept exposed to the general public, the art shows were in hidden spaces, and you had to be on a list to enter. We made lots more lasting friendships with local hip Bombayites, and explored new neighborhoods in Mumbai that I would love to revisit!
WHERE TO STAY
Abode Hotel - The best option for style and value! Nestled in a truly pedestrian area of Mumbai, close to everything if you only have a few days!
India Guest House/ SeaShore Hotel- The super cheap, budget traveler option--but with trustworthy, helpful staff and an excellent location. Good for staying a night or two until your room at Abode is available.
WHERE TO EAT
Theobroma - Excellent little french-style cafe with french patisserie options, many of which have an Indian twist. Also, they have drinking chocolate and real cappuccinos, which are hard to find in India, land of instant Nescafe. There's also an outpost in Colaba.
Kala Ghoda Cafe - A stylish little spot that fills up quick with an unassuming, hip clientele. Clean and with healthful options you don't see on every menu in India. Try the cake--dense and decadent, made with almond flour, and served with a thick, almost-but-not-quite whipped cream. Worth going to just for the cake.
Shree Thaker Bhojanalay- THE place to try all you can eat, vegetarian thali prepared in true Gujarati style. The numerous elements of this meal are prepared individually, all drizzled in ghee and served with more bread than you will know what to do with!
WHERE TO SHOP
Filter India - Local hand-pressed stationary, notebooks, art, and gifts.
Sancha tea - have a tea tasting! The sales associates talk about tea the way I'm used to hearing about wine. About the muscatel, notes, bouquet, where the leaves are picked and when.... I bought a variety of Indian teas, from Chai Masala blends to packages of loose leaves plucked in Assam or Darjeeling.
Obataimu - Lifestyle shop with tailoring atelier in back. You select apparel styles from a range of samples, customizing colors and sometimes even fabric choices. The garments are then sewn to order. Since they take 10 days to manufacture, I had them ship my selections to me in another state in India-- it was so worth it!
Bungalow 8 - Super chic, high end apparel and home decor shop in the cricket stadium. Although it seems like a strange place for a luxury shop, walking or cabbing it to the cricket stadium is fun! I went a little crazy here. Lots of hand printed/ dyed textiles and incredible atmosphere of elegant Indian style.
WHAT TO DO
Gateway of India - A short walk along the Arabian sea, where you can watch the horse drawn aluminum chariots of neon roll by and grab a newspaper cone filled with chaat, a roasted peanut and spice blend. Yum.
Neighborhood to explore- KALA GHODA literally meaning "Black Horse" is an area in South Mumbai area of Maharashtra.
*Hiring a guide can be really worth it. You get to meet a local, they help keep touts off of you so you can shop in peace, and help you find things you are looking to buy or try from reputable sources. Hire from a trusted agency. For example, if you stay at Abode they can customize a tour to your preference! Its a good way to get situated and figure out where everything is!
WHERE TO SLEEP
Ganpati Guesthouse- THE place to stay in Varanasi, really— you couldn’t ask for a better location (located directly on the ghats) or better rooms for well under $100 a night. Clean rooms with amenities, views of the Ganges river, and a lovely rooftop restaurant and outdoor terrace where you can have your daily chai or thali. Rooms with balconies come equipped with your very own monkey stick, for protecting yourself or your belongings from pesky visitors!
WHERE TO EAT
Blue Lassi- A lassi a day keeps the doctor away… No really, maybe it’s true! This family business has been churning out lassi (home-made yogurt) mixed with a variety of seasonal fruits and nuts for the last 90 years! The extra dose of probiotics certainly can’t hurt. To get there, Follow the hand painted signs in the alleyways of the old city, and you’ll eventually find your way to the little shop. Cremation workers carry the deceased by as you sip on your lassi— served, by the way, in an earth friendly terra cotta bowl.
Dosa Cafe- Dosa Cafe serves it’s namesake, a south Indian style fermented rice flour crepe, with a myriad of toppings as well as a choice in what oil you’d like your meal prepared with. I always opt for ghee, but if you are tired of all that clarified butter (how could you be??) you can choose an alternative. In addition to all the savory or sweet dosa plates, there is also uttapam— a dish that looks sort of like an Indian pizza. Simply delicious. There are only 3 tables in this tiny restaurant just up the steps from the ghats, so expect a short wait!
WHERE TO SHOP
Tulip Textiles- Hand printed textiles of all kinds, showcasing textile traditions from all over India. This is a teeny little shop with not much air flow, but a helpful and sweet owner, fabulous hand blocked bedding, some apparel, and scarves.
WHERE TO SLEEP AND EAT
Hotel Palace Heights- A standard hotel experience, well located with reasonably priced rooms—but the real reason it’s worth mentioning here is the superb on site hotel restaurant, Zaffran, that specializes in North Indian cuisine— it’s sooooo good!! A pressure cooked cauliflower in herbs and spices sealed the deal for me, a memorable last meal.
WHAT TO DO
I was only in Delhi for a day and a half, but I would go back solely to revisit Shahpur Jat, a village-turned-indie designer enclave that is truly a hidden gem. Shops featuring handmade, non-touristy, non-tchotchke, truly exclusive one of a kind items from contemporary fashion designers and textile artists are scattered among bridal shops for men and women. For me, the best shop in Shahpur Jat is the designer Saurabh Kasotia’s eponymous storefront filled with incredible handmade dresses and accessories that were impossible to pass up! This is not where you score a deal or haggle with the artisans— these goods are worth the price tag and provides valuable support for local makers.