Two New Yorkers spend six months 18 months!?! in Bangalore and other places in India.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Hampi Road Trip!

So we made it to Hampi after all, but only some travel mix-ups. Ho Ho ho!

To back up, we had made our train reservations late, so that meant neither of us had a seat, just two versions of "wait and see." My status was RAC (reservation against cancellation), while Don's was just a waitlist. When we asked the conductor if we could board, he implied that we could, but it didn't seem likely that we'd both actually get a seat. Since it's a 10-hour trip starting around 10pm, a seat to sleep on is important.

Earlier that day, I'd bought us a bus ticket on a semi-nice bus as a backup. We decided to ditch the train station and go for the bus. We were running late, so we took a rickshaw to the bus station. The bus station is across the street from the train station, but they're both enormous, and we were panicky. Anyway, the jerky rickshaw driver let us off in a completely stupid part of the station, but only after trying to get us to go to Mysore instead. By running we got to the right platform with plenty of time.

Except we were never able to find the right bus. We went to the platform on the ticket, we asked people around us, we asked bus drivers, we asked and asked, but that bus either never showed up or took off from a platform different from the one we thought. (The destinations are only written in Kannada, so it's not simply a matter of reading what it says on the front of the bus.)

There was a Japanese guy who had missed the same bus we did, and he found out that there was another bus leaving at 2:30 am. We nearly went home, but when a bus headed in the right direction showed up at 1:00 am, we thought we were very lucky. A bus official nearby took our ticket, scribbled some stuff on it to make our slightly fancier ticket good for this one, and then we got on, ready to blast off for Hampi.

But the "1:00 bus" was the 2:30 bus. It stayed in place for 90 minutes while everyone sat on board, holding their unreserved seats with their body mass.

(It was around this point that Don and I started saying things like, "When we didn't board that train and we paid that rickshaw driver 50 rupees to abuse us and treat us like fools, that was when I discovered the TRUE meaning of Christmas!" or "When we ran to the bus platform and waited hours for the bus that was 'late' but which had evidently left from another platform anyway, that was when I REALLY discovered the true meaning of Christmas." It's funnier if you say it with crazy-eyes, which is what we both had at this point.)

Providing additional distraction was the somewhat wizened lady who sat down next to us with her five-year old child. First, the lady got up, leaving her child on the seat. Then the girl got up and walked away. I thought they'd got up to leave, so I let a man take the seat. There were lots of worries when the mom and child came back and wanted their seat. Lots of "sorries" from me.

Finally the bus took off.

This was a terrible bus. It had no shocks, and there was lots of bumping even though the road was by and large very good. There was legroom, but that's about the best I can say.

After a couple hours into the drive, I noticed that that child was sleeping on the floor of the bus, under her mother's seat. I guess it was kind of practical, but I did make a point of telling Don so that he wouldn't get up and accidentally step on the kid. (By the way, there was really nowhere for Don to go -- there are no bathrooms on Indian buses.)

A little later, the lady disappeared. Where had she gone? Had she found a new seat? No, she was SLEEPING IN THE AISLE. This was kind of cool, I thought, but it caused a problem. There was now an empty seat, albeit one with a sleeping girl where your feet would go. And a full bus hates an empty seat. When the lights turned on for a moment, a small man or teenager carefully stepped around the mom and slipped into the aisle seat. Soon he was fast asleep, with his head on my shoulder. It was a heavy head, but I didn't have the heart to push him away. What else did I have to do with my shoulder?

But what was the proper etiquette? Should I have let this guy take the seat? He seemed to be taking care to not step on the kid. Luckily, this problem solved itself, since after about 45 minutes (or half an hour? Or 75 minutes? or 3 million minutes?), my bag fell from the storage rack above onto my chest, and from there hitting the guy and then onto Aisle Lady. Everyone woke up, the guy said "bye" and went back to his seat, and the lady got back into her seat.

Only four or five or so more hours to go! I wish I could say it flew by, but I can't remember. It was just too long to remember. I do remember we stopped for a bathroom break at some point, and Don bought early-morning potato chips. They were crunchy.

I wonder if that lady is thinking of me while I'm thinking of her. I suppose I did enough to make her remember me.

After all, I 1) allowed a man to take her seat and 2) allowed another man to take her seat, this time with her daughter on the floor, and then 3) allowed my bag to crash into her while she was sleeping. Perhaps she ALSO discovered the true meaning of Christmas . . .

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

All Hail the Plum Cake

Plum Cake!

America has their fruit cake, sure, but let's face it -- a lot of them are just wretched and they're more a figure of fun than something that everyone actually eats.

I've been lucky enough to have some very good fruitcakes back in the states , so I was excited by Indian Christians' own version of this heavy, heavy treat, the Plum Cake. The cakes started appearing in stores around the 2nd week of December. Selflessly putting our diets on the line, we went through two of the cakes in the days up to Christmas.

The first was small, unfrosted, and rather expensive at 125 rs. Made by the famous Nilgiri's store, it was very dark, fairly moist, and full of little cut-up fruits. It took a little getting used to, but after that I was hooked. Surprisingly, it had the red circle code on it, the Indian symbol for something that's non-vegetarian. Were they using beef suet in this, as in Merrie Olde England? I doubt it, but it's possible I suppose. Or maybe the fact that it probably has a little rum in it make it "non-veg"? This seems more likely.

Our second plum cake, bought at All Saint's for 120 rs., was about the same size but much fancier , with extremely thick almond-flavored fondant frosting on the outside. Don didn't like the frosting at all, but I thought it was kind of fun (there was also a rockhard frosting flower to chomp on). The interior was similar to Nilgiri's, maybe a little lighter tasting.

In both cases, eating the plum cake right before bed caused us to fall asleep so heavily that we could hardly wake up in the morning. It was the Ambien of desserts. Wonderful!

Here's a picture of the plum cake extravaganza at All Saints. Do you think they have enough garlands and cakes? I would like to have a big one right now. (More pix are here.)

For more extensive (and careful) plum cake tasting, check out Bangalore Belly's investigation. And to make your own, here's a recipe that looks as if it would make something very similar to what we kept eating, day after day.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Off to Hampi, We Hope

So we're off to Hampi in a few hours, either by train or bus. I can't
figure out our train ticket -- one of us is on a waitlist, but it seems
as if there should have been enough cancelations already to move us up
into the next category, which means we get to board but don't yet have
a seat assignment. It's all a little confusing, so I spent a couple
hours in line this morning at the bus train buying back-up tix in case
we don't get on the train. You can normally buy bus tickets at lots of
places besides the station itself, but the one near our house had a
sign saying all systems were down -- it might have been because so many
people are taking off for the weekend. Anyway, we'll be reporting back
on Wednesday.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Indian Math

This week's podcast of the BBC's radio show In Our Time is about Indian Math. Although it's very once-over-lightly, covering thousands of years and a lot of area in just 45 or so minutes, it covers a great deal the early developments in Indian, which included the use of zero, the concept of infinity, and the Pythagorean theorem (before Pythagoras), and the Arabic numerals. One weird fact: those numerals weren't allowed to be used in book-keeping in England until the 18th century. I guess they were still totaling them up with Roman numerals. Must have been annoying.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Counterpoint: Coconuts Are Great!

In the interests of fairness, I fell compelled to respond to the previous post with a reasoned assessment of the properties of coconuts, both positive and negative.
The coconut tree is arguably among the most valuable plants in agricultural use today. The tree provides an energy-rich food in the form of its tasty white meat. Its oil is useful not only as a flavoring and a cooking medium, but also as a hair dressing (in India, at least). When it’s hot outside, the tender coconut (the green, immature coconut) affords anyone with a machete and a straw a liter or more of a refreshing, mildly astringent, and (perhaps most important) sterile beverage. Coconut milk (extracted from the white flesh) is an essential ingredient in Thai curries and various wonderful desserts from many nations. Cream of coconut, the goo extracted from the meat and combined with coconut oil, is the basis of pina coladas and the wonderful Puerto Rican holiday beverage coqui. Dried coconut flesh is used in countless American cakes and candy bars.
Did you know coconut water can be fermented into an alcoholic beverage? It can, and it’s called arrack in many South Indian communities. Did you know that the coconut fiber, known commercially as coir, can be used to make mats and rugs? Well, OK, probably you did, but did you also know that the world’s hardest, thinnest, and firmest mattresses are also stuffed with coir? No? Well, come to India, where these mattresses are the standard. After a while your hipbones get used to it.
Are coconuts difficult to open? Well, yes. Or rather, it takes some practice. The ladies at my office regularly cook with unprocessed coconuts, which they open themselves before scooping out the flesh. Once I received a coconut as a wedding favor and I asked a coworker what I should do with it. “Oh, you know, just grate it over some rice,” she said matter of factly. This was admittedly easier said than done; I managed to open it by smashing it against the counter, but the water was lost, and when I started to go at it with a knife, little bits of shell kept getting mixed in the sweet white flesh. So I have a long way to go. But that’s my fault, not that of the coconut, which has been so good to the tropical peoples of this world. The correct response should not be “I hate coconuts” but rather: “Where can I find someone to open and grate this g-d—m coconut for me?”

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Not Cuckoo for Coconuts

God I hate coconuts. Well, they're fine from a distance, on trees, but I've never been able to open them and get at the flesh or the milk inside. The one time I did, the coconut milk seeped out on the floor. That was where the coconut was after I hurled it down in a messy but effective attempt to open it.

Today, the problem was getting dried ("desiccated") coconut. I was cooking a recipe in a British cookbook, so that was my first mistake -- too many convenience products were used, and it assumed I had a blender.

Dried coconut may exist in India, but at my stores you deal with a copra, the entire dried-out interior of a coconut. It's not ripped into tiny pieces or anything, and it still has a brown coating. It's like a little shrunken head, except it's a coconut.

To try to use it, I first hacked off the coating and then sliced off pieces of the leathery white coconut inside. Then I tried to cut it into smaller pieces, but it didn't work out well at all. I didn't cut myself with my dull knife, that's about the best I can say about it.

To do this job properly, I believe that Indians either use fancy mixer-grinders or maybe grate the whole thing with a stone. Or maybe they do something else. Please let me know what I did wrong if you know.

I just know I'm not going for any recipes calling for dried or whole coconut until I'm back in New York City. Coconuts, you've won this time.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas In Karnataka

If our train reservations change from being waitlisted into actual reservations, then we'll be taking the night train to Hampi this Friday for a Christmas visit. Being full of Hindu ruins from the 1500s , it's not exactly the place to go looking for chestnuts, Jack Frost, yule logs, or figgy pudding. The more likely Christmas destinations include Goa (would have had to plan too far in advance), Calcutta (plane fare seemed too pricey), or somewhere in the southern state of Kerala (we just went there last week).

So I don't know what in the way of Christmas festivities await us, but I am looking forward to checking out Hampi again and seeing some of the slightly off-the-main-drag sights we missed when we went there in the spring.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Our Crumbling Infrastructure

Like Bangalore itself, our apartment's own infrastructure needs a little tuning up. First we have the drain in the kitchen, which got stopped up with rice and little bits of vegetables. I'd beat the dishwasher for the crime, but that would be me. I took the drain apart today, and I got it working, but it's still a little drippy underneath.

As I worked, fruit flies hovered on the kitchen cabinets. There are so many of them there now, I don't know why. Well, I know why they're there -- a couple dirty dishes before we left town -- but I don't know why they haven't died yet. Cunningly constructed traps haven't caught more than one or two.

Finally, I feel that we now have a reputation in the building as slobs. The two ladies who clean the hallways knocked on the door this morning to fill up their water pails. They're done this one or two times before, and I don't know why their own taps weren't working today. Anyway, they filled up their enormous pails in the tap under the shower, and as they did, they started folding the pile of clean clothes that were lying on the bed. (We have a big washing backlog at the moment.) I asked them to stop, but they wouldn't so I had to start doing my own tidying up to not feel weird.

The ladies also wondered if I wanted a servant. And I really did, especially at that moment.

Sandalwood Stamps

It's too late for many of my Christmas cards, but I'm still very excited about the scratch-n-sniff sandalwood stamp that India just came out with.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Cow Attack!

We spent a long weekend in Varkala, Kerala, eating lots of seafood,
swimming for hours, bargaining for a daily beach umbrella rental, and
just looking out at the amazing views of the Indian Ocean. We did have
one very slight misfortune. We were walking along a twisty road and had
to pass by a cow that was tied up in front of someone's house. Like
most Indian cows, she still had her horns, and this one chose to give
me a little butt with them. It hurt, and I still have a little bruise.

I was very surprised, since the cows I've known in the US were mostly
skittish (and all were hornless), and the cows I've seen in India have
all been apathetic to or bored by people. But this one was a cranky
cow. Maybe it had a calf somewhere. An Indian friend claimed that
because the Indians in Kerala tend to be darker, maybe the cow was
scared or freaked out by white people. This is funny for several
reasons, one of which is that Varkala is full of Europeans and
Americans soaking up the sun and getting a little darker (or redder)
with every day.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Christmas tree

Here's our Christmas tree, bought for 60 rupees at always-fun Nilgiri's supermarket. I'm so glad I found one.

I'm also glad at how much it resembles Charlie Brown's:

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Poo Face!

Rickshaw drivers have a very expressive way of refusing a fare. If they
don't want to head in the direction you need to go, they make a big
show of disgust, as if they just smelled something really raw that you
hadn't quite noticed yet. There doesn't seem to be a rhyme or reason
as to which places are stinky, but it might be that they just aren't
far enough for that particular driver. Anyway, we were first sad
about all the poo faces we generated, but now I think it's kind of fun. If
it didn't think it was exploitive to take a photo at that moment, then
a gallery of poo faces would be wonderful to see.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The State of Christmas Cards

Christmas peacockToday I went on a bit of Christmas card bender, trying to find some cool-looking cards that also had a bit of Indian flavor. You see, right after Thanksgiving, I had panicked -- what if you couldn't find any Christmas cards here, or if they didn't appear until just a week or two before Christmas? Luckily, December 1 or so seems to be the date that the Christmas season begins, because right around then cards started becoming available here and there.

A lot of the cards I saw first just weren't that exciting -- generic pine trees, badly drawn stockings, and very fat Santas, and most of them seemed imported from the Island of Misfit Toys or something. Don't get me wrong, they weren't terrible, but it just seemed a little weird to send cards like that all the way from India.

The best cards I found were at the stationery floor of Gangarams, on MG Road, and also at the Pauline Books and Media Center, on Museum Road. At Gangarams, I liked the cards that had Christmas trees and bouquets made of of pressed leaves and flowers. But the best was still ahead. The Pauline Center was a hotbed of Christmasism. There were two full tables of cards, and the sisters were even playing Silver Bells (by Nat King Cole?) on the speakers. The cards I liked best here ones on handmade-looking paper with a nativity scene and a leaf pasted on the front, and some brightly colored ones showing an Indian Holy Family being greeted by a peacock. These last were made at a convent here in Bangalore.

Related: How to Celebrate an Indian Christmas -- I'm guessing that the audiences is primarily non-Indians (if an Indian celebrates Christmas, isn't it by definition an Indian Christmas?). Either way, I'm certain that step 5 ("Dress in festive, traditional Indian clothing to perform Christmas music played on a stringed sitar, drums and cymbals") will not be accomplished in our house. I can, however, guarantee that Step 1 ("Light and place 'diya,' small candles, throughout your house") will, though -- we're sure to have another power cut sometime soon.

Somewhat less related: Unfortunate Christmas Cards, many of which are actually super-cool.

Future Jain Monk?

Speaking of parades, a fellow blogger named Deepa Krishnan wrote in to say that my theory about the two women who went past the house a couple weeks ago was all wet -- it was "unlikely" that the carriage held a Hindu lady on the way to her wedding. In fact it might be that the women were Jains, and that the older one was about "to begin life as a lady monk." If so, "they are going on a last journey in finery, there will be an elaborate ceremony later where the monk will renounce worldly goods, shave her head, and adopt an austere white." And it is true that the older woman is holding what could be a monk's robe . . .

Here's a bit more on Jainism and its monks and nuns.

Friday, December 01, 2006

World Aids Day Parade

Around 10 am, there was a long parade of school kids, police, and other groups marching down our street on behalf of World Aids Day. (The Times of India has a slideshow of other events today about India.)

Today I did notice a lot more commemoration of the day than I did back in New York. The anchors on the news were either wearing pins, or there was a small logo mentioning it in the corner of the screen. Even the dreaded Airtel phone company got into the act, sending me a little note about the day after I'd sent a text message.

I'm sure the message isn't getting to everyone it needs to get to, and in any case the problem can't be solved in one day. But you have to hope that the message is getting out a little more each day in a country with the most HIV+ people (in absolute numbers) in the world.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Christmas Is Coming

Commercial Christmas
Originally uploaded by GreyArea.
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas -- well, not really. It's in the mid-70s every day (24 degrees C). And without the "trigger" of Thanksgiving and the Black Friday that comes after, when does India decide to put out Christmas stuff? From what I've heard, it's somewhere in early December, logically enough, so whatever merchandise will appear is still unknown.

Our next-door neighbor, a very old Scottish lady who is rumored to have starred in some silent (!) Bollywood movies, put a wreath on her door a few days ago, so that's one sign. And today, on the rickshaw to the gym, I saw a couple girls selling (and wearing) Santa hats. They were in the middle of MG Road (a main shopping drag), going from one stopped car and rickshaw to another.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Turkey Day in India

Happy Happy Thanksgiving to Americans, one and all.

For our Thanksgiving, we headed out to The Only Place, for its annual Thanksgiving dinner.

Unfortunately, we hadn't made reservations, and they were full up. I wish they could have fit us in, since it was early, the place was still basically empty, and I had been looking forward to a little schmoozing. But they wouldn't seat us, so we had to made do with takeout. As it was, this was for the best, since Don was feeling a little under the weather, and turkey always tastes better when you're home, right?

The turkey was really good -- not up to that of our relatives, of course, but definitely impressive and much appreciated this far from home. (Please excuse the lack of a gravy boat in the following picture.)

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

On the Treadmill

When we first went to India, I thought that somehow I'd magically lose weight. Maybe I thought I'd get sick for a while (nice, huh?). Maybe I thought that because most Indians, at least the younger ones, are skinny, this would somehow rub off on me. But it definitely didn't happen. So for about 6 weeks before we left Bangalore and again now that I've been back, I've been going to the gym.

I suppose like most Westerners, I first toyed with doing yoga or something here. But then I had to be honest: I'd rather have some abs and a lot less weight rather than still more serenity and inner beauty (I have too much already!). So off I go to the gym each day, sweating and lifting and running and drinking endless glasses of water, all the while listening to horrible dance music.

The below video has made the rounds, but I just have to post it since it so completely shows just what my gym routine is NOT like:

Monday, November 20, 2006

Mobile Paperwork

Because of their possible use by terrorists and other unsavory elements, cell phones take a bit of paperwork to get. The government wants each phone traceable to an actual person, basically.

For this second India stay, I had to buy a new one, because I had lost mine just before we left Bangalore in July. Don still had his, but the number had expired from lack of use. So after buying a new one I also bought two new Airtel SIM cards. And that's when the fun began, because I had to provide the following:

  • 2 passport-size photos
  • passport and visa, for photocopying [my store was excellent, in that were able to do the photocopying themselves]
  • driver's license
  • signatures on just about everything, including on the highly restrictive terms of service, both of the photos, and on the photocopies
  • proof of address

It was that last bit that turned out to be a mess. I had an old letter from a foreign company that I thought would work, but I guess it wasn't good enough. Even less impressive was the delivery tag from the Netflix-for-India company 70mm. As a result, Airtel turned off our cell phones yesterday.

So today, Don and I went back to the Church Street store where I bought my phone, and he got to take a crack at filling out all the paperwork himself.

The best part of the "Prepaid Customer Enrolment Form" is a clause for farmers. In India, people who earn all their income through agriculture don't pay any income taxes, so they often don't have a tax number (I think this is true). Therefore there's a part of the form to sign if you're such a person. When I and then Don filled out our forms, the woman at the phone store tried to get us to sign that part. Luckily we both skipped it -- the last thing we need is the India government asking us where our coconut grove or rice paddys are.

Here's another account of a westerner getting a cell phone. It's interesting that he's also saying what several people told me today: it's a lot easier to get service through Hutch than through Airtel. But we still love you, Airtel, as long as you turn those phones back on!

Friday, November 17, 2006


To continue our temporary impersonation of a full-fledged food blog, I made choley yesterday. This is a spicy stew made with chickpeas, tomatoes, onions, and something sour. The sour usually comes from tamarind, but the recipe I used called for lime juice instead.

This was yet another opportunity to come to terms with the pressure cooker, and I think I'm finally OK with it. Unlike those in the U.S., Indian pressure cookers don't let off a little steam at a time -- most of it builds up and up until it can't stand it anymore. A small steam cloud and a huge racket results -- it's like a steampipe breaking or something. Everyone, including cookbooks, call this small explosion a "whistle," but it's way scarier than any whistling I've ever heard. The "whistles" are so important that it's often how you might time how long to cook things -- "give those lentils three whistles, will you?"

Anyway, after 25 minutes and 6-7 whistles and only a little fear and loathing from the cook, the kabuli chana (brown chickpeas) were ready to have browned onions, cooked down tomatoes, and spices added to them. If I do this recipe again, I'm going to use one rather than two sliced chili peppers -- two was just a little too much for our delicate Western palate. But it was really good all the same -- amazing how a good recipe can transform 1-1/2 cups of chickpeas into something edible and interesting.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Fish Curry, Thumbs-Up

The fish curry turned out very good. First I cut the 0.6 kg (1.3 pound) fish fillet up into about 15 pieces and then tossed them with 1/2 t. each turmeric and salt. I let them sit for 15 minutes. Then I heated up about 4 tablespoons of oil and browned the pieces in batches.

I set the fish aside, poured off half the oil, and then came the excitement.

I turned up the heat to high, added four dried red chili peppers, and fried them until they were "plump and black," as the First-Time Cookbook says. This caused a lot of smoke, but it was all over quickly and noone was hurt.

Then it was time to add some mustard seeds and cumin seeds (1/2 t. total), let them crackle for a bit, and then fry a large, chopped-up onion (or five small ones in my case) until it was golder. And then I added spices-- garlic, ginger, chili powder, coriander, cumin, and more turmeric. I fried everything until the oil separated from everything else (the Indian term for this is to "bhuno"). I added 2 cups of water, returned the fish to the pot, brought everything to a boil and then simmered it all for 15 minutes.

It turned out great. I was worried it would be too spicy to eat, but the fried peppers seemed to make the broth peppery rather than hot, and the sauce was excellent when mixed with rice.

I'm thinking that if I make it again, I might throw in a few sliced potatoes along with the fish in the last step. And I'll know not to be too scared of those dried chiles.

Early Morning Wedding?

Well, if it's about 8 am on Wednesday, it's probably time for a parade with a band and a horse-drawn carriage! At least it was this morning, on our street.

I'm guessing this was a bride on the way to her wedding, along with an attendant. I wish I had a better idea what she was holding. And I wish I had a better shot of all the flags the band and marchers were all carrying. If anyone out there can help fill me in, I'll be in your dept.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Fish Time

Tonight we're making Bengali fish curry, (Maachher Jhol), using the always useful and encouraging First-Time Cookbook.

I'm very excited, since i haven't cooked any fish here in India yet.

I know very little about the fish I bought -- kingfish. It looks like a non-oily whitefish. It also cost a lot -- 600 inr a kilo ($6/pound). Of course, I only got about .6 kilos, but I feel the pressure if it turns out lousy.

Pictures coming tomorrow if I can manage to photograph it in a non-hideous manner.

Monday, November 13, 2006

So Many Books

The internet at the apartment, hasn't worked since we got back. Although this has cut down a great deal on frivolous browsing, having to buy Wi-Fi in hourly chunks has also made me disinclined to blog much at all. I've been busy with some freelance projects, and Don's been busy at work, so we haven't seen so very much of India (at least Bloggable India) in the past few days in any case.

Yesterday, I headed up to the Palace Grounds, which do hold a palace. However, it's also used for a lot of other things, including the wonderfully named Princess Academy horse-riding school. But I wasn't there for horses, I was there for the Bangalore Book Festival, during which publishers and bookstores rented stalls to sell books directly to the public.

There were publishers in Hindu and Kannada, Tamil, and other major local mother tongues. There were stalls by university publishers, such as Oxford and Cambridge, and scientific/technical publishers, including Elsevier and Macmillan. But my favorites were the stalls of the local bookstores, and I picked up a couple oddball books from them, including Three Men in a Boat and some short stories by J. F. Powers.

Just about all the stalls seemed to be doing a good business -- I got there around noon, about an hour after it opened, and crowds were already dispersed through the whole enormous building.

Oh yeah, and there was parasailing! Behind the building, not among the stalls. I didn't get too close, but I did see a man's torso floating up, about 30 feet in the air. I couldn't decide if it looked just scary, or scary and fun.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


The internet at the house remains busted, and so I find myself buying Wi-Fi down the street a lot. Because the two sellers are Infinitea and Cafe Coffee Day, I'm in a near-constant state of buzzness.

Today I decided to mix it up a bit, and ordered Infinitea's CHILLED CHILLI CHAI. I somehow elided over that middle word, and it was a big mistake. The drink looks like whisky, smells like diesel fuel, and that chilli makes it really really burn. Ow. Fresh lime soda here I come.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Dewar's Found

Sunday we went on a short walk through some of the older neighborhoods to the north and west of us. One highlight was walking by Dewar's bar, a landmark that's been around since 1933, when this area, the Cantonment, was one big barracks for the British.

It was way too early to stop by, at least for a drink, but I was glad to know where it was. The roads are fairly twisty by it, so it will take a bit of concentration to find it again.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Bug Fight

And I'm back too. I got in early Wednesday. So far I've managed to (mostly) unpack, go on several walks, make messes and then clean them up, and stay up a little later each day.

But what I'd like to talk about at the moment is our never-ending battle with the roaches and the bugs, who got very cocky during our absence. We've been moving stuff out of the kitchen's cupboards and spraying poison to reduce their numbers. One horrible surprise this morning was our canister of atta (wheat flour), which had fallen prey to web-weaving moths of some sorts. And their squirmy grub babies, a dozen or so which fell on the floor when I dropped the thing on the ground (and screamed like a little girl).

The canister had a tight-fitting lid, so the little buggers must have been growing from the inside out. But what were they doing for water? I'm a little too grossed out at the moment to clean the tin -- it's still sitting on the counter. If I knew any six- to eight- year schoolkids, I'd give then the whole thing and ask them to make it into some sort of science project -- it's a little like a terrarium, after all. Another option would be to pitch it into whatever yard it is that holds the rooster we hear each morning -- I'm sure he'd like the little grubs as well as the wheat, and it would be great revenge for us.

Friday, October 27, 2006


Hurrah! I'm back.

Bangalore is the same. Well, there are a few changes. Some major roads now have designated autorickshaw lanes, and for the most part, the rickshaws are staying in them. Even more astonishing and wonderful is that a pedestrian crossing signal has been installed on Cunningham Road in front of the Sigma Mall, making my life a whole heck of a lot easier. Not so great is that the Food Bazaar has stopped carrying Coca-Cola products and has joined the evil Pepsi empire. So my grocery business is going to the scruffier but Coke-carrying Food World.

Oh, and the city's name is changing. As of November 1, Bangalore will be rechristened Bengaluru, which is the Kannada version of the name. This follows the trend started back in '95 when Bombay went local with Mumbai. Calcutta officially opted for Kolkata in 2001. Somewhere along the way Madras became Chennai. Now several cities in our state of Karnataka are jumping on the bandwagon next week, which will coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of the state.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


So I think I saw a pamphlet or brochure for SeventyMM back when I was in Bangalore, but I didn't really follow-up on it. A recent post on the blog Hacking Netflix jogged my memory.

SeventyMM is a company modeled on Netflix. You subscribe for a monthly fee, and then create an online list of movies you'd like to see. The movies are delivered, two at a time, by hand. When you're done with those two, the DVD-wallah comes back for those and gives you the next two on your list that they have on hand. You can keep the movies as long as you want -- there's no late fee.

The biggest difference from Netflix, of course, is the hand delivery. In the States, all the movies come via post, one at a time. Delivery by hand means that the company is going to be limited only to urban areas -- the company is now up and running in Delhi and Bangalore.

Also, since a lot more people in India can watch VCDs than can watch DVDs, most of the movies come in the VCD format. [This might also have something to do with the problem of getting the right region code on the DVDs -- not sure about that.]

And finally, and very handily, you can SMS SeventyMM to arrange a pickup. You can't do any SMSing of Netflix and expect anything to happen.

There's a hokey registration fee of 499 inr, and a deposit (for what?) of 999 inr. After that, you pay 549 inr per month for as many groups of two movies that you can watch that month. Most VCDs in the store were at least 200 inr or so, I believe, so the pricing seems pretty reasonable to me, at least for people who are buying VCDs already. I didn't see any places to rent DVDs or VCDs in Bangalore, so there probably isn't much competition. There's also a scheme by which you can get other people to sign up and then have your monthly fee reduced.

Has anyone tried SeventyMM and had a good time with it? I think we'd like to sign up, so if anyone wants to "refer" us and get a little bit off their monthly fee, email us at bangaloremonkey @

When Do I Get to Go?

It's been a weird couple weeks. Don's been finishing up at the office, and I've been cleaning up stuff around the house and running errands in between doing some freelance work. There have been several hiccups with getting our apartment sublet and ready for our absence. As a result, I'm not quite sure when I'll be heading off to India. Don flies out this Friday, and I hope I don't have wait too long to follow him.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Back to Bangalore

We've been holding out a bit on you, but the truth is we're heading back to India -- for six more months. Don will be working at the same publisher he worked at before, and we're mainly be in Bangalore again, with some stays in Delhi and Chennai and as much other travel as we can fit in.

Naturally, another trip back to India first meant another trip to the consulate. Don paid his call about a month ago, but I just went last Friday. Because the visa "clock" starts ticking the day you get the thing, and because it seemed likely that I'd get another six-month journalist one, I needed to wait until just about the last minute.

Figuring that I had nothing to lose, this time I applied for the 10-year tourist visa. And to my surprise I got it. When I applied back in January, I was working as a travel-book editor -- enough to tag me a "journalist" in the eyes of the consulate. This time, it was easier to be correctly seen a tourist instead. I'm very glad that I won't have to leave before six months, and I'm also glad that I won't have to apply for another visa for quite a while.

By the way, anyone who might have their own visa issues should first check out the India Mike roundup.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Magic Mango Splitting

Mango SplitterIt took an old Cook's Illustrated magazine to alert me to the fact that the world now has such a thing in it as a "mango splitter." Made by the Oxo company, which makes an excellent vegetable peeler, among many other things, the Splitter does what it claims, according to Cook's Illustrated. In a flash, your mango is sliced up into pieces, with the slippery seed all on its own.

All the same, I'm still not convinced enough to plunk down my $12. Isn't a big part of the fun of eating an Indian mango watching it slide halfway down your face and all over your arms? True, it can be hard on your clothes, what with the staining and all, but surely that's a small price to pay, although maybe a bit more than $12.

NPR thought enough of the thing to cover it last year (I can't make the audio or video play, but you might be luckier).

And here's a video of the splitter in action. As you might notice, the mango is pretty firm -- I think that ones in the Americas tend to be a lot less soft than those in Asia.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Breaking Bollywood News

This blog will be out of retirement soon, but in the meantime I just found out via Sonia Faleiro that the Bollywood star and illegal deer-poacher Saif Ali Khan has been filming a movie with Rani Mukherjee just a mile or two from Bangalore Monkey current headquarters (the couch). Sonia reprints the New York Post's Page 6 coverage:

Bollywood bad boy Saif Ali Khan has brought his troublemaking act to the Big Apple, squabbling with his co-star during the shooting of his new film on the Lower East Side and irritating the staff at the Madame X lounge. Khan, the son of a famed cricket king and Indian screen siren, is facing charges of poaching an endangered deer in his native India and has a reputation for doing as he pleases. He and the crew of his new film, "Tara Rum Pum Pum," have been shooting on Orchard Street by day and living it up by night. Khan and his fetching co-star, Rani Murkerjee, have reportedly asked their producer for rooms at separate hotels so they don't have to see each other off the set. The other night, the hunky millionaire and some pals stopped in at Madame X on Houston Street. A bartender there said Khan copped an attitude while throwing back shots of tequila and downing rum and Cokes. "He acted like he owns this joint," said the barkeep."

My knowledge of Bollywood is still sketchy, but I know enough to wish it was John Abraham in our fair city instead. (Photo of Khan and Mukherjee from Bollywood Blog.)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Miss Us?

Hey kids, sorry we've been so gone. Even though we're back in New York now, we will keep posting from time to time about India matters, especially the way the country looks from over here.

Last night we watched a Wide Angle documentary called 1-800-INDIA. It was about the outsourcing boom, looking at the ways that call centre jobs have changed not only the employees but also their families and society as a whole. It did a good job of interviewing the Indians, but it was perhaps a little rah-rah -- I could have done with a grouchy critic or two, if only because I like to disagree at least a little with my documentaries.

I haven't seen it yet, but Morgan Spurlock (of Super-Size Me fame) has an episode of his reality show 30 Days in which an American switches places with an Indian -- outsources himself. I have my suspicions how it all turns out, but I'll shut up until I actually manage to see it.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Bangkok Shots

And here's some photographic evidence of that trip to Bangkok.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Thai Times

Oh, man, did we have fun in Bangkok. What a city. No offense, India, but it was sure nice to be somewhere where traffic lanes are generally observed, the sidewalks aren't a morass of broken stones and gaping holes, and the men don't routinely urinate at the side of the road.

We did the main sights (Royal Palace, National Museum, a couple of temples), but we were mainly interested in eating Thai food and enjoying a bit of nightlife, something we decidedly can't do in Bangalore, which shuts up tight at 11:30 p.m. Bangkok did not disappoint.

We also shopped. The Thais, at least in their capital, are a notably mercantile people, with spacious malls, street vendors jammed into every available corner (especially in the touristy areas of Patpong and Silom), and night markets that set up in city parks and do a brisk business all through the wee hours. The prices are good, and the selection is world-class -- I think the Siam Square Paragon department store, and particularly its food halls, beats any New York equivalent. Not only is the selection comprehensive, but they have the space to display it all elegantly , a combination you just can't find in Manhattan.

It's particularly remarkable that we enjoyed ourselves so much because we both were suffering, especially the first few days, from irritating ailments. John had pulled a muscle in his back, so it was hard for him to walk, and I had managed to irritate my esophagus something awful by not taking enough water with my malaria medication, which made swallowing very painful and eating a real ordeal (which really was a hardship, surrounded as I was by wonderful Thai food). On our first day we went to the Bangkok Christian Hospital to get checked out. Guess what -- it was really great! We had no appointments but we were ushered in and saw English-speaking doctors within half an hour. We had our medications and were out the door about an hour after we wandered in. We each paid about $30 -- medication included. It really makes you wonder why we can't have a simpler and more effective system in the U.S.

We also had a lot of transportation issues. The subway and elevated train are both excellent, but they don't go to lots of interesting parts of town, so you have to take a taxi or one of the ferries that ply up and down the Chao Praya River. The ferries were fun, but their system was complicated and poorly explained by signs. We also got taken for a ride by a couple of enterprising taxi drivers, which was very frustrating at the time, but easily laughed off later, when you realize that the 150 baht you've been cheated out of is less than four bucks.

John's got all the pictures on his camera, and he's back in the States, so we'll post them later. I'm back at work in Bangalore, finishing up. Just a few more weeks until I am back in the States. Hard to believe it has gone by so quickly!

Monday, July 03, 2006

So Long, Bangalore

This is probably where I should write something thoughtful, but in a few hours we're flying out of town, to Bangkok, and I haven't finished packing. In addition, I'm doing a half-day of posts over at Gridskipper (check me out!), so things are a little busy. My visa expires in a couple days, and therefore this is so long to India, at least for the moment.

Don will be returning after a week -- his work here continues through the end of the month.

And what about the blog? It's not going away.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Roti Without Tears?

"Falstaff," who writes the blog 2x3x7, has a great post about his time Roti-ing in Hell, while making Indian flatbread. I've tried to make chappatis also, naan, which should be even easier than the chappatis he attempted, and both times it's been tiring and frustrating enough to make me swear like a New Yorker and, more important, incapable of enjoying the final results. I suppose I should try some more -- after 5,000 it probably becomes straightforward. Maybe if the kitchen weren't so hot -- and if rice weren't so easy to get ready. Anyway, housewives of India (and everyone else everywhere) making roti, I salute you.

[via Desipundit]

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Idly Vada and Dragonflies

So I was really happy with the five-hour Shatabdi Express train from Bangalore. It leaves at 6 am, which is not fun, but you do get into town and still have most of the day left. I took 2nd class chair, which means you have a reserved seat and they feed you (idly vada and lots of coffee. That's how we roll in South India). I've only taken first class on a sleeper train, but I imagine that on this train, first class consisted of more sucking up by the staff, possibly more elaborate food, a little area for groups of four people that you can call your own, and perhaps a short dance performance. OK, I'm sure there wasn't any dance performance, but wouldn't that be a cool amenity for an early-morning train ride?

First impressions of Chennai: yep, it's humid and hot, but not that bad -- I think they've had some rains to cool things down. And there are so many dragonflies in the air, huge ones, flying 10 stories up outside the hotel window. This would imply that there are also millions of flies and other bugs out there for them to eat.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Red, Purple, and Blue

Tomorrow we're off to Chennai for a week. Don's going to be working, and I'm hoping to have lots of time to see the sights, in between getting some writing done.

The above sign, on Richmond Road near its traumatic intersection with Brigade Road, is for Mid-Day a new, small-size afternoon paper that's starting a Bangalore edition. I think they've got their work cut out for them. In my part of town at least, in the Cantonment, newspapers are not easy to get your hands on -- I can only think of maybe five or so places that reliably have papers. They're definitely not being sold on every street corner. So I wonder who will be waiting to get their news in the afternoon? If they could sell it using boys in the street, I guess people stuck in trafffic are a good audience to aim for.

And not to get all Andy Rooney, but Mid-Day's web site is really irritating to use. Why do I have to download a big PDF file to see stories in their entirety?

(To explain the sign: Lal Bagh, literally "Red Garden" in Hindi, is a big botanical garden in town. Purple Haze is a pub that I suspect is cheesy, but I could be wrong. Bluetooth is the thing that was enabled on the fancy phone I bought and then quickly lost.)

Monday, June 26, 2006

Presents from the PM

Saturday afternoon, I went to the foundation-stone unveiling ceremony for the Bangalore metro. It was held on the Police Parade Ground, between MG and Cubbon Road. The huge tent that was set up held maybe 2000 people. It was perhaps 75% filled -- it was difficult to estimate. The unveiling itself happened about 15 minutes in, but then it was time for speeches by the 16 or so dignitaries. So many speeches.

But it was cool to see the Prime Minister. Two unexpected (and therefore very thrilling) benefits of attending were the rose I got on entering, and the shiny gift box I got when I left. Inside was a cupcake, some cashews, Mysore Pak, and a Frooti, a super-sweet mango drink. All on the Indian taxpayers' dime, I assume.

A very good gift bag. It might have been even more fun to get the box before the speeches of the dignitaries, but I can imagine how it would have gone down -- cupcake wrappers on the ground, Mysore Pak and cashews being swapped right and left, spilled mango juice, hurt feelings, chaos.

Friday, June 23, 2006

The PM Comes to Town

The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, is in town today and tomorrow ceremonially opening and commemorating things: laying the foundation for a ten-lane highway (that's what a "laning" is, right?) to help with congestion between Bangalore and the 330-acre Electronics City business park, laying the foundation for the Bangalore Metro (a 1.4 billion-dollar project), and heading the 100th anniversary celebration for Canara Bank. The Metro ceremony, which is tomorrow, is open to the public. I'm thinking of going, at least to its outskirts.

All along the major streets today were signs welcoming the Prime Minister, as well as hundreds of feet of banners with the logo of his Congress party. It seems to me that political parties here play a much more visible role in government than they do in the United States. It's hard to imagine, say, Bush coming to a city and having lots and lots of elephants on poles in the street medians and in front of post offices. The Congress party dwarfs all other parties here, as far as I can tell, so all the signs might be unique to them.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Dal from Delhi

Dal BukharaEating in New Delhi at the expensive, haughty Bukhara restaurant was one of the restaurant low points we've had here. Despite their problems, they do make a good dal. I was so happy to see that there's a tie-in line of food in grocery stores. It'll be fun to try to reverse-engineer the recipe of their Dal Bukhara from the taste and the ingredients (for the record, they're "Water, Tomato Puree, Black Urad, Fresh Cream, White Butter, Garlic, Iodised Salt, Ginger and Red Chilli Powder").

The dal is in a metallic pouch, and it doesn't need to be refrigerated until the pouch is opened. It's like an MRE, since you just have to heat them up. They're getting more and more popular here. They were new to me when I arrived and there were only one or two lines then. Now, there seem to be five or so.

Most of the pouches cost about 40 rupees or so for three (very small) servings; Dal Bukhara is fancy-pants (of course) and costs 68. just throw them in boiling water or pour the contents in a pan. They don't include artificial ingredients, and all the ones we've had so far have been good. I imagine that they're being bought by the armful by all those single IT and call center people.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

In Our Time

caliphThis doesn't have anything to do with India as such, but I wanted to mention a podcast that's got me through lots of airplane and train trips: the BBC's In Our Time. Each week Melvyn Bragg, the show's non-stuffy host, talks with a bunch of smarties about a seemingly random topic.

Shows this season have covered Fairies, Relativism, John Stuart Mill, Prime Numbers, the Abbasid Caliphs, and the Graviton.

It's good stuff -- it's like the one college class that was always worth showing up for, even if it met at 5:30 on a Friday.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Chicken à la Kingfisher

By and large, we've been eating Indian food here, but once in a while the desire for Western food hits hard. Those are the days when we find ourselves doing taste tests of the various pizza chains (Domino's beats Pizza Hut and Pizza Corner by a mile), or paying too much for Skippy peanut butter at the store (it was imported from China).

After I figured out where to get raw chicken a few weeks ago, I came up with the following dish, which we made again on Saturday. It's a takeoff on beef carbonnade that uses local ingredients, including the King of Good Times™.

Chickens here tend more "free-range" (i.e. tougher) than American chickens, so if you're making this with a standard supermarket chicken, it will probably take less time.

Chicken à la Kingfisher

1 to 1.5 kg (2.2 to 3.5#) chicken, with skin on if possible, cut into 8 pieces
5 onions, thinly sliced

5 small cloves garlic (or 3 large ones), peeled and crushed
1/2 to 1 t chilli (cayenne) powder (optional)
1/2 to 1 t turmeric
1/2 to 1 t coriander powder

1 to 1-1/2 cups Kingfisher beer
bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste

If you have time, brine the chicken parts for 2-6 hours in a solution of 1 cup sugar and 1 cup salt dissolved in a quart of water. Keep the mixture refrigerated. Remove pieces from the bring and dry them between two clean towels.

Heat up 3 T. of vegetable oil in a large, deep pan and brown chicken on both sides, doing it in batches. Set chicken aside. Remove all but about 3 T of oil from pan.

Add the onions to the pan and brown them on medium-high heat, stirring often. Add the garlic and spices, and saute for about a minute, until everything is yellow and smells good. Move the onion mixture to the side of the pan. Place the browned chicken pieces, any accumulated juices, and the bay leaf into the pan. Cover the pieces with the browned onions, and pour in enough beer to submerge everything. Cover the pan tightly, and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove cover and cook for 10-20 minutes more until sauce has reduced a little bit and chicken is cooked through.

Serve with mashed potatoes made with curd (lightly fermented yogurt) and a green bean and tomato salad.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Light Switches

Extremely faithful readers might remember our initial mystification with the light switches in the apartment. Until we slapped Post-It labels on them all, we used trial and error to get lights and fans and outlets going.

Judging by a Costa Coffee's light panel we saw in Delhi last week, someone else had the same brilliant idea. Or does everyone in India label their switches all the time, and I'm the only one to think it's interesting? Or even worse, is just about everyone else able to figure out what switch does what without labels?
Labeled Light Switches

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Himalayas in 13 Photos

You can look at another another set of photos from Ladakh, but here's the deal in 13 shots:

Recovering from the altitude took a whole day. We didn't feel so amazing the next day, either.

The approach to the Leh monastery. I developed a bad attitude about halfway there.

Prayer wheels at the Hemis monastery. You turn them (clockwise direction only) to spread prayers outward.

Prayer scarves tied to door, I believe as a sort of offering.

Usually located at the top of a mountain, the Buddhist monasteries had views that sometimes rivaled the structures themselves.

We hired a driver for two days to drive us to a total of six monasteries. I can tell this photo is from the second day because the driver had moved the rose up, so that it didn't cover up the mirror anymore. The driver spoke no English, and we spoke no Ladakhi. He was an aggressive driver and kinda sullen, but maybe you have to be both on roads like these, especially the mountains paths we hit on the second day, heading west of Leh.

The temple complex at Alchi was one monastery that wasn't on a mountain. It was at the bottom of town, sloping down near the Indus. Streams of water were flowing all around the buildings, like small moats.

Likkir monastery's Buddha is huge -- maybe 40 feet tall. Somewhat unusually, it's also out in the open.

While we checked out the monasteries, our driver would hang out and smoke cigarettes. At Likkir, he went behind a barrier and sat next to one of the many streams. How do I know he did this? Because he lost the car keys, and that was where they were finally found. Oh, that was a funny 15 minutes, while we all looked around and wondered when and how we'd get back into Leh. The driver went up the hill a bit more, pressed the boy monks into service (or they volunteered) and one of the youngest found the keys. The kid monk were all very sweet, and used to posing, as you can see.

This is a shrine for a sage at the Spituk monastery.

Geddit? It was a bottle of Old Monk, and there were actual old monks in the vicinity. Oh, never mind. (The bottle most recently held vegetable oil, I think. For the many lamps.)

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Ladakh Pics

Here's the first batch of our photos from the Himalayas. I'll pick out some good ones tomorrow . . . .

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

What's Better than the Qutb Minar?

I forgot to say yesterday that the Da Vinci Code Guide ended his talk by mentioning a new super-duper temple that (in his humble opinion) was more splendid than even the Qutb Minar. But you couldn't get there, he said, because no rickshaw driver would take you! This made it sound even more exotic, but I think he just meant that because it had just been finished last year, few people knew where it was yet. It was only when our friend Katherine sent us the NYT's coverage of the Disney-esque Swaminarayan Akshardham temple in east Delhi that we figured out what he was talking about.

Looks pretty great to me, but I don't see the point in entering it and the Qutb Minar in some monument beauty contest.

The photos are from Mahuresh, who has a nice Flickr photoset of and notes about the temple.