On the Road in India Part Two: Maharashtra
*This is part two of a series, if you haven't read Part One: Kerala then I recommend you do that first*
Pune is unlikely to be high on your list for places to see in India. Just off the highway a few hours South-East of Mumbai, it's a modern city who's short Lonely Planet entry was mainly focussed on an infamous 'yoga retreat' (sex cult) nearby. It's not a drawcard for your average tourist.
We drove our rickshaw through a run down part of town around lunchtime. There was a crowd gathered around a hole-in-the-wall and we lined up. Vada Pau was the dish of choice here. It's a cumin and turmeric spiced potato pattie in a chickpea batter, deep-fried and stuffed into a soft, white bun that's been liberally spread with a very spicy chilli paste. Chopped fresh chilli and coriander are thrown on the side, along with rings of raw onion, and salty lemon pickle. The scraps of batter left over in the huge vats of boiling oil became crunchy, delicious morsels that were fished out with big wire spoons and added to our plates. The whole thing was phenomenal.
We did the maths and worked out that our meals cost about 15c each. So we went back for seconds.
After lunch we were moving slowly through the traffic when our attention was caught by a group of men on the side of the road. They were rickshaw drivers, waiting at the rank for customers, but they seemed to be having some kind of celebration and were inviting us to join them. We manoeuvred our way through the traffic and parked next to the line of rickshaws. Once there, they began to drape the front of Brucie with bright flower garlands, and gave us temple sweets to eat. They explained that this particular group of drivers have a yearly ritual. They bless the rickshaws for the year ahead by praying and giving offerings to a small statue of the god Ganesha. The fact that we happened to be at that place, on that day was pure luck.
We were then required to smile for photos on about five different phones. We got pretty used to this kind of celebrity treatment during our time in India!
Over the weekend I visited one of the finest Indian establishments Canberra has to offer. Bharat International is actually a supermarket with restaurant attached. There's one in Belconnen and another in Phillip, I was at the Phillip branch. Browsing the shelves here, for someone like me, is like letting a kid loose in a lolly shop. So many spices, legumes, mystery packets that I WANT TO OPEN, industrial bags of rice, and incense sticks galore. A cake fridge stocks piles of brightly coloured sweets that you are expected to order by the kilo. My friends and I shared a delicious lunch here. I was also very excited to see a Vada Pau on the counter, available as a pre-made sandwich, which I took home for dinner later on. It lacked the crunch of the original but the kick of spices was exactly the same.
We finished our excellent meal of parantha and masala dosa with a selection of sweets. My friend Kat, who was a member of the rickshaw gang in India, is an expert on traditional Indian sweets and snacks and kindly chose a selection for us. I remembered some from our time on the road; once while we were driving in the rickshaw a passing car handed us a laddu through their window. It was a fist-sized ball that tasted nutty, sweet and purely delicious. Kaju Burfi are diamond shaped and covered in delicate silver leaf which makes these cashew treats almost to pretty to eat. Almost. A gulab jamun is a ball of boiled down milk soaked in rose water and sugar. They are sticky and almost painfully sweet but soooo good.
What did I learn? In India, DO accept sweets from strangers
Thanks for reading part two, make sure you stay updated for the rest of the series. And please feel free to share this with your friends, family, co-workers, random strangers etc.