Travel talk with Twinkle Khanna

If Twinkle Khanna had her own travel show, it would be a series of episodes dedicated to her many misadventures. The Time I Went Looking for Eggs and Ended up Fighting with my Family in a Supermarket;  The Search for French Food in a Russian Restaurant; The Worst Seven Minutes of my Life in an Opera House in Prague; and How Acting as a Human Shield for My Sister nearly gave me Swine Flu.

Khanna had a to-do list for everything in her life, except her holidays. She enjoys holidays with no agenda because they leave her with the best memories and the funniest stories, snippets of which end up in her weekly columns under the name Mrs Funnybones. “I don’t know if I seek out things or adventure seeks me out,” she says.

Your recent trip to Paris has been splashed all over the news. You used an AirBnB while there. Walk us through your holiday.

This was the first time I used an AirBnB in Paris. I went with a really close friend and we stayed at this quaint apartment at Rue de Vaugirard.  

I’m terrible at French and she doesn’t speak the language. As a result, we had a lot of misadventures and unexpected bonuses. Once, we decided to do a spa day. We went to this really fancy place but, the massages were horrid. So, we sought out a Thai place. Our host recommended this dodgy place down the street. My first thought on looking at it was ‘there’s no way this can be good’. It was a nail salon and they had this dungeon below for the massages. I couldn’t understand what the masseuse was saying. There I was, lying down on my stomach and suddenly, I felt two hands and then four hands on me. I looked up to see that she is sitting on my back, like a crab, just like Vikram and Betaal! I didn’t know how to react. It turned out to be the best massage I ever had; my bones were singing her praises.  

This wasn’t your first home-stay experience. When travelling, do you seek out hotels or prefer renting a home?

I like a mix of both. We [the family] just went on a holiday to La Môle in France near St Tropez. We rented this really beautiful home – there were just mountains on one side, wild boars running around, and vineyards everywhere. We had our own chef and the meals were Michelin star level. I walked around a lot and the place was really beautiful. But, there’s a bit of a hit and miss. My husband was fooling around and tried jumping over me on the bed and fell down on the floor because the bed was so small.

This would not happen in a hotel because there you know what you’re going to expect; there aren’t any surprises. I like those surprises; so, I prefer homes and renting out a place. My husband prefers a slightly more standard sort of holiday.

On the same trip, in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, we rented a house. What I didn’t realise was that the house was a little outside the village. My son is a teenager and didn’t know what to do because there was no one of his age. One day, we gave him a cycle and told him to go play paintball at this place in the village. He reached late and had to wait. The place he was waiting at, a few splinters went into his bottom. Then he got hit during paintball. When he had to cycle back, he couldn’t really sit on it because of the splinters and then dogs started chasing him. When he returned, he was hysterical and said he hated the place and the village and wanted to leave. Everyone in my family hated that holiday. I thought it was my best holiday.

When travelling, how important is the place? Would you rather find yourself in a destination that is iconic or one that is off-beat?

 It’s not the place that matters but what happens there. You have four people doing exactly the same things with different perspectives. For me, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence was the village where Vincent Van Gogh was put in a mental asylum but he still ended up painting some of his best work. We visited another village nearby, Les Baux-de-Provence. They had this event called Carrieres de Lumieres. On the walls of limestone caves were projected the greatest art in the world – Rembrandt and Rafael among them – with classical music playing in the background. I thought it was the most amazing experience. After half an hour, the family got bored and asked, ‘can we leave’?

In this small European town, Prague, I took my husband to the opera at the Prague Opera House because I read that it was beautiful. We left the place in seven minutes because it was the worst thing we had ever seen. He kept cursing me about my fetish for seeing this side of life. The thing is, when you are the one who is planning all this, you’ve to put on this stoic face for some time because you can’t show you don’t like it.

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Paragliding in Gstaad.

When travelling, you are thrown into circumstances which are alien to you. These help you grow. You discover things about the city and while doing that, also discover things about yourself.

As the ‘tourist traps’ increase in number, does it become difficult to find an ‘authentic’ experience?

I think the notion of the authentic experience is dubious because wherever you go you are taking yourself and you are corrupting your surroundings. So, you are the inauthentic thing in that pea soup. The only way to have an authentic experience is if you go and live somewhere for a year. These holidays are just ways of seeing different places briefly and I’m not worried about it being an authentic experience, it would be foolish to expect that.

I’m looking at an experience, I like thing are spontaneous. The holidays I remember are the ones where things may have gone wrong at the time but, I really look back and laugh. I will never forget Saint-Rémy-de-Provence even though we had a fight in the supermarket because we couldn’t find eggs. For me, that was my best holiday.

You mentioned this wasn’t your first visit to France. How often do you go there?

I go to France almost every year, in summer. If we go to London or Dubai, it becomes difficult for my husband to walk around anonymously and do exactly what he pleases. We look for places where he can roam around in his shorts and nobody will bother him. And I return to France in the hope that one day, I’ll be able to learn to speak French.

Before heading to Paris, you mentioned trying to learn a little French. Do you do this when travelling to other countries too?

I just do it before I go to France because I’ve studied French for five years in school and yet, can barely speak the language. I had this French teacher called Mrs D’Souza who taught me to pronounce Alps as Allepeys, so that was bad. All I remember from those French lessons was that she had terrible bunions.

I try to learn French before each trip using this podcast, Learn French with Marie. It teaches me rubbish things I don’t need to use like ‘can you find me a doctor’. I persist; I keep walking in this garden and listening to it. I listen for a bit and then I dump her; and every couple of years I start over. 

I d intend to learn French, though. Not for anything else but because I’ve learned its one way to actually combat Alzheimer’s – I have this fear of getting the disease. Learning a language, I heard, through another podcast, is a good for the brain. 

You went to Paris with a friend. How different is it when travelling with family.

My holidays with family are all different. When I travel with my sister [Rinke Khanna], though we are squabbling, there’s always something going on. My sister has specific rituals on the plane – she doesn’t touch anything because of germs – so i end up opening doors and handling trolleys for her.  Recently, we were going to London for our friend’s birthday. On the flight, we sat next to this man who was constantly sneezing and blowing his nose. My sister refused to sit next to him so she used me as a human shield. I was fine when I reached London. The next day, I was sneezing and had a fever and thought I had swine flu. I even ran into the man at the hotel. He saw me and waved. In my head, I was screaming at him for making me fall sick. I had this terrible flu because my sister used me as a shield.

When I go with my family, it’s like I am wrapped in three layers in a box with thermocol and cardboard. I am very safe.

The kids have adapted to our travel lifestyle even if they don’t always like it. My son hates museums. I took him to the Picasso museum in Antibes and told him about the great artist. He spent a lot of time peering at the art and then asks me, ‘Did he do this when he was young?’ I told him this was at the peak of his career. He says, ‘I can also do this…’ What does one you say to that?

Have you ever travelled solo?

I haven’t for a few years now. About ten years back, I went to Barcelona for a trade fair. My husband claims I just kept calling him saying I was at XYZ bus stop. He felt very sorry for me. In my head, I was very proud of myself. I was all alone and was taking buses everywhere and visiting casinos by myself in the evening. I thought I was having a wonderful holiday but, I obviously cut a sorry figure.

What was it like travelling as an actor? Now that you’re a writer, do you travel differently?

I don’t think my interests have changed dramatically even if my profession has.

I’ve been a bookworm my whole life so I’ve always gone to bookstores. Recently in Paris, I walked into Shakespeare and Sons and bought a guide book on Paris. In La Môle, I walked into this tiny bookstore and bought antique and very smelly French editions of Enid Blyton’s stories. I realised that was the same village where the author of the book, The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had grown up. He is my favourite author and that book is my favourite book. I was determined to have a look at his chateau even if it was from a distance. 

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At Hotel du Cap

When we went to Antibe, we stayed at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc. I later realised it was the place F. Scott Fitzgerald had immortalised as Hôtel des Etrangers in Tender Is the Night. He wrote about the history of the place and fictionalised the owners’ stories. The hotel was outstanding but, the history that was fascinating. Yet again, this wasn’t planned but something I discovered by accident.  

Is it safe to assume your suitcase always has books?  

Yes. I always carry books with me. Recently, I was chaperoning my son and his friends and we went for one night to Aamby Valley. I packed one change of clothes and two books but, only managed to read one story from Murakami’s new book, Men without Women. In fact, I carry fewer books now than when I used to be an actress. Now, it’s easy to download a story on my iPad if I run out of books. Back in the day, I remember packing eight books for a 20-day scheduled shoot in Canada as I was worried I would run out. When you’re shooting, you have all the time to read because you’re just waiting.

I read every night before I go to sleep. I can’t sleep otherwise so, at least a couple of pages. That’s the way I put myself to sleep. That’s my nightcap.

Are there other things you can’t live without when you travel?

There’s nothing I can’t live without except a hot water bottle. I’ve realised in certain places it is difficult to find. I’ve had quite the adventure looking for a hot water bag. I went looking for one in France and I was desperate. My neck was hurting and it’s the only thing that fixes it. I went to the supermarket and tried explaining to people what I wanted, in my broken French, but they had no idea what I was saying. Then I saw this cosmopolitan-looking young couple and tried to explain to them, in French, what I wanted. After a 15 minute conversation, he looks at me and says, ‘hot water bottle’? I was so relieved, and requested him to tell the supermarket people in French that I wanted one. He says, ‘We are British, we don’t speak French’!

So, I always carry a hot water bottle. I always carry books, sun block because I burn in a second, and socks.  

Has Instagram changed the way you travel?

I like taking pictures because my memory is not as sharp as it should be. I always feel like there are blank spaces and I can look at the photos and remember it. I had put up a picture of this beautiful lake with the sun in the background and I couldn’t remember if it was sunset or sunrise. That’s what Instagram has done to our brains; it’s made us forget the experience.

It can be a great tool, your photo album that you can flip through and relive memories. But, there are some people who become so obsessive; they’re not really living in the moment. There has to be a balance.

In your columns, you do talk about travel a little. Have your thought about writing about your travels or turning them into a book?

My next book has an element something that influenced me while I was travelling. I’m always watching people and looking at behaviour and I have a keen ear for dialogue. I take copious notes hen travelling. Wherever you go, whatever you do, it comes through in your writing.

I did do a travel book for my family for our wedding anniversary last year. I wrote about our adventures and put in pictures of our best holidays and did illustrations. I have a whole treasure chest of things that are absolutely precious to me – things our parents left us. I dug out letters we had written to each other 18 years ago, and letters his mom had written him and put it in the book.  It was professionally done and there are only five copies in existence. Unfortunately, nobody seems to like the book apart from me. They said they liked it but I have never seen anyone flipping through it or reading it. I think I’m just the nerd in this family and I appreciate these things.

In April last year, you tweeted, ‘As I get older, I travel more’. Why is that?

I definitely do travel more now. I look forward to travelling much more than I used to. I wrote about it recently: I can probably hear the silent call of mortality right now. I need to see everything before I reach the finishing line. But, you can’t be on a holiday for too long because then it stops being one. Every time I am flagging, I travel because it is a way of rebooting myself, getting a new perspective before coming back and diving into this world.

This interview was done for National Geographic Traveller India; link is here

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Talking Mexico with Scott Linquist

Deadly bullrings, pristine beaches, lush tropical forests and lively streets: Chef Scott Linquist has explored Mexico inside out. He’s seen much of what’s there to see and he has, of course, eaten all that’s there to eat. Now, in his most recent stint as a partner at XICO, a Mexican eatery that launched in September in Mumbai’s Kamala Mills, he has curated a menu that ventures beyond tacos and burritos.

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Linquist has years of experience to back his offerings. He was the executive chef at Dos Caminos, New York’s fine dine Mexican restaurant, for nine years, and is also chef and partner at Miami’s quick-service taco shop and speakeasy tequila bar chain, Coyo Taco.

In a culinary career spanning three decades, the Los-Angeles born has made countless trips to Mexico, some of them month-long and each undertaken to hunt down the best of Mexican food. He has cooked a whole pig in Yucatán, downed mezcal or ‘the mother of tequila’ in Oaxaca and gorged on sea urchin tostados in Baja California. His most cherished souvenirs over the years, then, have been the dishes he has added to his menus, inspired from the street food sampled and meals shared with Mexican in their homes.

“Mexican cuisine is very interesting. Unfortunately, it is poorly represented outside of its original location,” says Linquist, 51. Most people even in the U.S.A., he rues, have only ever seen the food eaten along the border town, which is typically roasted and grilled meats, and tortilla, cheese and beans. “I want more and more people to go beyond that and try the food that the locals there eat,” he adds. “Not the Tex-Mex version.” 

Here, he talks about his trips to Mexico and the special bond he shares with that country and especially its food.

You have been to Mexico more times than you can remember. What is the place like and what is its cuisine like?

I’ve been travelling to Mexico for over 20 years now. I go at least thrice a year, and I have been to all the regions, cities and villages that are significant from a food perspective. The food there varies according to region. In Yucatán, home to indigenous Maya people and located in south-eastern Mexico, the climate is tropical and the food has Mayan influences, while the small state of Oaxaca has Zapotec, and even a few Spanish and French influences. Oaxaca is also the culinary mecca—it is where mezcal, ‘the mother of tequila’ that’s distilled from the local agave plant, comes from. Oaxaca is also popular for its mole sauces. Every time I visit, I try to share a meal with locals in their homes—that’s where you find the best of Mexican food.

You have not only eaten on Mexico’s streets, you have also cooked there. What’s that one Mexican dish you had the most fun experimenting with?

This one was not on the streets, but I had great fun cooking cochinita pibil in the Yucatán jungle. It’s a traditional Mexican dish with Mayan roots, which involves roasting a whole pig in a hole in the ground. The meat is marinated with citrus, garlic, spices, and achiote (the orange red condiment that gives the meat its colour). The pig is then wrapped in banana leaf and laid in the ground for 12 hours beside coals. The resultant sweet and smoky dish is incredible, one of the best I’ve tasted. It’s served with hot habanero chilli and chilled serveza (beer).

When it comes to weird foods, Mexico is no China. But it does have its share of bizarre foods. What all have you tried?  

I have one food philosophy: I’ll eat almost anything at least once in my life. I’ve caught and savoured sea urchins and eaten roe. Mexicans also eat a lot of insects. In Oaxaca, for instance, they also relish chapulines. This dish is essentially grasshoppers toasted over wood fire, and then some chillies, lime and salt is tossed over it. It is eaten as a snack with mezcal, or inside tacos. I’ve also tried gusano, a fat caterpillar that’s roasted till it turns crispy. It has an oozing and gooey centre. But to be honest, I didn’t like the texture. I prefer escamoles instead. Larvae from a giant ant, they look like maggots and are cooked with chilli, garlic, and butter, and are eaten with tortillas. They’re simply delicious.

What have been some of your most memorable meals there?

There are just so many of them. But my first choice will be the tacos served at El Villamelón. Located across the street from Monumental Plaza de Toros México, one of the world’s largest bullrings, this 56-year-old restobar cooks the bull that’s slaughtered in the ring. The dish is called Taco Campechano, which has cecina (beef jerky), longaniza (sausage), and chicharrón (pork rinds), and is served on a corn tortilla. This is a heavy and flavourful meat dish, full of different layers and textures. Definitely the most delicious tacos I have ever had.

Another tasty or rather unique dish I tried was Lamb Barbacoa, in this small town called Zaachila, about 14 kilometres from Oaxaca. Zaachila is known for its Thursday market. Vendors from nearby villages flock to this open-air market to sell flowers, fruit, vegetables, pots and such knick-knacks. But on Sunday, if you’re there when the cooks at La Capilla restaurant remove the steaming roasted lamb, coated with avocado and enveloped in banana leaves, from the brick and dirt pit where it’s left to roast for a day—it’s a sight to behold. They chop up everything, the bones, the insides, and the meat together and you can make yourself tacos using tortillas and condiments. This is served with a consommé made of vegetables and meat juices.

 

 

You have led culinary tours in Mexico. How did it feel to familiarise a bunch of tourists to a cuisine you feel so passionately about?

Let me tell how it started. In 2002, when I started the Dos Caminos, we had a research and development budget. Since I was the corporate chef, I started to pick good chefs to take them with me to Mexico. We would fly down for six to 10 days and explore different regions and their specific dishes. Soon, other chefs, interested in learning about Mexican food, started to call saying they’d like to join. A year later, a culinary tour group approached me. I thought why not, and so I started taking people to restaurants and to people’s homes. Together, we’d make mole sauce, cheese and tortillas. I did it for a few years and then stopped once my workload increased. I do intend to start again, though.

The thing is Mexico has a bad reputation… because of corruption, the drug culture. But besides food, there’s still a lot to see and do there. There’s culture and history, and the people are fabulous.

Do you think culinary tours help countries pin their cuisines on the global food map?

Culinary tourism is becoming a big deal. Maybe not so much in the U.S.A. because we don’t really have a food culture but it is indeed prevalent in most European and Asian countries. Food is a really important part of the culture of most places. Not everyone wants to just see the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal. Most want to get down and dirty, go into the backstreets and eat the food that locals eat. On my first visit to Mumbai, I visited this tiny stall near the Taj Mahal Hotel in Colaba and tried goat brains and kidneys. Now I’ve eaten brain before but it’s always been beef. This, though, was tastier.

The story first appeared in National Geographic Traveller, India

 

Urdu poetry meets fine art

“Go on, do a search for visuals for Hindi and Urdu poetry,” Shiraz Husain tells me over the telephone from Delhi. “What did you find? A hand crushing a rose, blood drops, a single tear rolling down or a beautiful woman. Why does the representation have to be so boring?”

It’s a fair question. Husain, 31, an assistant professor in applied arts at Jamia Millia Islamia, has taken it upon himself to change this representation through his project, the Khwaab Tanha Collective (KTC). “I have always wanted to change the visual interpretation of poetry. The literary material should be strong, interesting and as evocative as the actual poem,” say Husain. 

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Shiraz Husain with his artwork. Pics courtesy: Khwaab Tanha Collective

 

Husain, whose father was an Urdu teacher at Anglo Arabic School has grown up surrounded by Urdu literature. “We attended and watched it all, kavi sammelans, ghazal symposiums…if any of it was on TV, we were forbidden from changing the channel,” he says. Add to that a love for painting and it was natural for him to combine the two. He started gifting friends artwork featuring shayari and paintings of the poets.

It was only last year that he began to take this seriously. “I was asked to create some illustrations for Jashn-e-Rekhta, a festival celebrating Urdu organised by the Indira Gandhi National Centre For The Arts. I did three installations and a few posters,” he says. The installations featured dedications to Urdu poets Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf – a framed patterned quilt with a portrait of the poet in the centre created using beads; Rajinder Singh Bedi – a portrait of him using cloth and fabric as a tribute to his iconic story Garam Coat and Ek Chadar Maili Si; and Akhtar ul Iman – a framed image of his iconic line ‘Jinke ghar sheeshe ke hote hain woh doosron ke gharron par patthar nahi phenka karte’ (loosely translated to people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones) with a slight crack in the glass.

The response to those works got him started on the path to KTC. He started by creating posters featuring iconic lines from Urdu poems (their Hindi translation) and a sketch of the poet. He has since branched out to putting up his prints on T-shirts and tote bags; Husain is currently exhibiting his work at the World Book Fair in Delhi.

It isn’t just Urdu poems that feature in his works, but Bengali (Rabindranath Tagore), Hindi (Amrita Pritam) and Punjabi (Paash, the pen name of Avtar Singh Sandhu). “I get a lot of requests to work on poetry in other regional languages. I can’t say no to them,” he says. “I just want more people to know about about literary greats.”

It is why his works feature the poems in Hindi and Urdu (and sometimes English) to reach a larger audience, why he gives his artwork, for free, to any event that is dedicated to regional literature and why his work has already been plagiarised. “I’ve been told that when people start plagiarising your work, you’ve become famous,” he says. “I would rather these literary greats find the spotlight, not me.”

Log on to The Khwaab Tanha Collective on Facebook or Twitter. Posters sell for Rs 100 and T-shirts for Rs 300.