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

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Indian Food at Jaunted

Over at the travel blog Jaunted, I'm doing a weekly post on Indian food. Here are the ones so far:

Any suggestions for next week and beyond?

Monday, February 27, 2006

Making Headlines

Don and John
Originally uploaded by jrambow.
A friend emailed us this cover from last Wednesday's New York Post.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

A Night at the Hookah

Hookah Nightclub
Originally uploaded by jrambow.
During our visit to Mysore last weekend, we met up with an acquaintance staying there for yoga training. He very kindly took us to what's just about the only nightclub for miles around. The Hookah! As you can see from the photo, this Egyptian-themed place is completely awesome. It's part of Planet X, a big sports complex on the outskirts of town. The place also has a large restaurant, drag racing, a bowling alley, and other stuff. Because the place is a little far out, we had to pay a largish rickshaw fee, which included the driver waiting around for us.

Outside the grand entrance to the club, a large sign said "positively no stags," but since our friend Ray knew the doorman, we all got in. Admission was steep, at 400 rupees, but it was good against food and drink. Inside, the Egyptian theme was in full force, with a big sarcaphogus-head for a DJ booth and hookahs.

After a bit, the doorman came up to me and asked me not to take any pictures inside, since he'd seen my camera. Having dancing going on is not exactly encouraged in this area, and it's kind of amazing that there is one at all. Being away from the main drag may have helped.

The small-but-impressive dance floor was packed with what Don said may very well have been the coolest kids for 100 miles around. The music was pretty good -- a mix of hip hop, bhangra, some older alternative music, and, of course, Bryan Adams, who is very big in India (he played Bangalore and Mumbai a couple weeks ago). We were some of the smattering of whites there, but there were also a half-dozen of so black people -- surprising, since I've seen maybe four in my three weeks in Bangalore. I couldn't think of any polite way to ask, but I was wondering where they were from. Ray talked with one of them and solved the mystery. Despite the Yankee caps and athletic gear they were wearing, they were South African college students studying in the area. From the sounds of it, they were a little homesick.

We'd gotten there around 10:15 or so, so it was already approaching the bar's closing time. In Mysore (as in Bangalore), it's at the no-so-wild hour of 11:30. Don and I decided that we had better get another drink to try to recoup some more of that 400 rupees. We ordered two brandies -- it seemed like a good idea at the time. The bartender, who looked as if he was about 16, said what we thought meant that they had no brandy, or maybe just not the brands on the extensive drinks and food menu. First Don and then I gave him our respective tickets anyway, since it wasn't clear what the deal was. I asked for brandy a few more times, for good measure, and the bartender looked at me a little strangely. We weren't exactly heartbroken, but it was a letdown that we'd handed over our soon-to-be-worthless tickets over nonexistent brandy.

At just about 11:30 on the dot, two heaping plates of rice appeared, with forks sticking out of them. Brandy, biryani (the rice dish they'd made), it probably does sound pretty much the same when a remix of "Summer of '69" is blasting in the background and the menu contains so many possibilities.

We all laughed, we couldn't help it, but mostly I felt bad that someone had spent the time cooking up dishes that we definitely couldn't eat at that point. We did manage to get all that rice wrapped to go. Since we were leaving tomorrow, we gave the heavy containers to the rickshaw driver when he dropped us off at the hotel, so hopefully all that biryani didn't go to waste. And that was our big night out in Mysore.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Autorickshaws Rule Our Lives

Autorickshaws from Balcony
Originally uploaded by jrambow.
One of the most important parts of day-to-day life here are the small, three-wheeled autorickshaws that putt around all over. Most (or all?) of them in Bangalore are powered by LPG, liquid petroleum gas, which is a mix of propane and butane (it's the same thing our kitchen stove runs on, by the way).

The autorickshaw driver sits in front and drives an engine that's about as powerful as a scooter. The back passenger bench holds about three people in a pinch, or two of them with packages. (If you're talking about little kids, then rickshaw capacity is much, much higher.) Everything's covered over with a bright yellow vinyl cab.

All the rickshaws have meters that are supposed to be used for every trip. Here in Bangalore, the first kilometer costs 10 rupees, and after that it goes up by half-rupees in little clicks. About 75% of the time, the driver refuses to turn on the meter and will want you to pay a set amount to take you to your destination. This amount, of course, is higher than the metered rate would be, with a hefty tip thrown in. The willingness to bargain over the fee and come to an agreement depends on how willing you are to bail and to wait for another rickshaw to come putt-putting down the road. One of our more idealistic guidebooks claims that all locals insist on using meters, and so should tourists. I'm pretty sure that plenty of locals are also paying set fees, albeit ones that are less than mine. Anyway, the point is you can't always get the guy to turn on the meter.

If the meter's off, we always haggle over the price, although that's usually only good for a reduction of 10 rupees. A surprising amount of time, rickshaw drivers don't want to bargain, and we have to wait for another. That's OK, there often seems to be about one rickshaw for everyone in town. (If you later catch your driver bragging to another driver when they're stopped at a light about how much he's charging for the ride, then you didn't bargain hard enough. Not that something so embarrassing ever happened to us . . . .)

If you're going to haggle, it helps to be sure that the driver and you both have the same destination in mind. Street names are not always useful, probably because we often mangle the pronouciation. Landmarks are better, but it can sometimes be hard to know what qualifies as a landmark. Rickshaw-worthy landmarks are not necessarily the same things that maps or tourists think are important. Saying that we want to go to the War Memorial circle, which looks prominent on maps and is a busy intersection, is always met with a blank stare. The Indian Express newspaper building always works, and that makes sense. But Kids Kemp, a local department store, is also good, and I'm not sure why.

All the books warn about drivers that will encourage you to go to craft stores -- they get a commission from the owner for bringing in fresh rubes. Only one driver's tried this with me so far, although I don't mean to minimize the danger. I can think of few things worse than being taken to look at crafts against your will.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Monkey Baby on Ledge

monkey on ledge.JPG
Originally uploaded by jrambow.
This monkey was playing on the outer wall of the Maharaja's Palace. A few seconds before this shot, we were treated to a live demonstration by two consenting adult monkeys that showed how baby monkeys are made. We chose not to get that shot.

Monkeytown, India

monkey on shrine
Originally uploaded by jrambow.
It's a little embarrassing that we had to leave town to get a photo of a monkey, but them's the breaks. This Mysore monkey was really into running up and down the shrine, which was close to the Maharaja's Palace. Sure he looks cute, but now that we've seen the creatures in action (stealing things, jumping at ladies and making them jump in return), we're a little less pro-simian than we were before.

Friday, February 17, 2006

No tansas tangas, no bullocks, no pushcarts

Here's a sign near a big intersection on Cubbon Road. Tansa evidently means horse or horse cart, but I couldn't find much on the web. (Update: That's because the word is actually "tanga" -- see comments.)

The covered wagons, which are drawn by small, perky horses, are often painted with flowers and other designs -- I'll try to get some examples. Both the tansas tangas and the bullock carts are used for hauling cargo like pipes, vegetables, stones, etc. I'm not exactly sure why they're outlawed on Cubbon Road. It is a wide, divided road, so maybe cars want to be sure to be able to go fast. In the background you can see a couple autorickshaws speeding away.


Originally uploaded by jrambow.
Here's the dosa I got once I had the local restaurant's system down. Note the bite marks -- I was too hungry to snap the photo immediately. More about dosas later.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Dosa That Never Came

Yesterday I managed to spend 12 rupees for no lunch at all. Was I the victim of fraud or some other scheme? More like confusion and misunderstanding. The site of the non-crime was the vegetarian restaurant at the end of the block. Surprisingly to me, the restaurant is divided into two sections, self-service and a section with waiters, menus, long waits, etc. I sat down at the waiter side, but I quickly got too impatient and thought I'd try my luck at self-serve. By looking at what everyone else was doing, it seemed easy enough -- go to the counter, tell the guy what you want, and then get a ticket. Hand ticket to guys behind counter, and get lunch. I wasn't sure exactly when you paid, so I just said "masala dosa" and got a ticket.

And then I made my big mistake. I handed the ticket to the guy in the first booth. He took it, and then he said "coffee or tea." I duly ordered "chai," since it sounded good at the time, and I had to say something.

I went to a table, sipping the chai I hadn't yet paid for, and waited for the dosa that was never going to arrive. The small boy busing the tables, who couldn't have been older than 10, asked me what I'd got, and I managed to get out masala dosa. But it never arrived. I think what happened is that the first guy looked at my ticket, and he assumed it was just one for coffee or tea (they cost the same).

With the boy's help, I tried to get another ticket from the counter guy. This time I paid him. He took my 12 rupees, but I don't think he understood that I'd never gotten my first dosa, just chai tea. After paying 5 rupees more for the chai, and standing around, and trying with the boy's help to explain the problems, I left in defeat. The boy, who clearly has great skills (and faith) in getting things done, even followed me out of the restaurant, pointing out that I should get my money back. I wasn't as enthusiastic as he was about saying masala dosa 20 more times, so instead I retreated to the apartment. Leftovers with a chaser of Nutella and "Dark Fantasy" cookies (they're Oreo knockoffs) go very well with defeat.But don't worry about me -- I'm going back to the place today to finally get a dosa.

Here's a picture of the kind of masala dosa I would have eaten for lunch if I'd been able to get one: [Via Urban Mixer/Flickr]

Monday, February 13, 2006

As Many Arms As Vishnu

Originally uploaded by jrambow.
This is our kitchen faucet.

Monkey Robbers

Still no monkeys for me, although Don has seen a couple. Going by Bangalore Dreamer's encounter with a couple in the Nandi Hills (40 miles north of the city), it's good to keep a good grip on anything tasty when they do appear.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Never Asked Questions

These were going to be called Frequently Asked Questions, until we realized that they hadn't been asked yet. Anyway, we'll keep coming up with questions and answers when we think of it.

Why Are We Here? What are we doing?
From late January through July, Don will be consulting with the copyediting department of a British publisher, which has a branch in Bangalore. To join him and to write about a place undergoing so many changes, John quit his job as a travel editor but continued talking in the third person. He'll be writing about the place and doing freelance writing and editing (resume definitely available on request). For your entertainment, he'll also be trying to do some simple South Indian cooking -- with any luck, hilarity and a big mess will ensue.

Sick days from the water, food, weak stomach, fear of monkeys,
As of 11 February: None yet!

Number of monkeys seen so far?
As of 11 February: Just one, and he was little. Bangalore turns out to not actually have that many. Heh. But we'll definitely find the ones that are here.

Where are you living?
The job came with an apartment. It's in what seems to be a central part of town, with the New Indian Express newspaper's office at one end of the street, and a Le Meridian and a golf course at the other. There are still lots of broken sidewalk and rundown storefronts in between.

How many rupees in a dollar?
We always estimate it at 40. So 500 rupees is $11 or so. You can use this Google search for an exact quote.

Electrical Roulette

Electrical Roulette
Originally uploaded by jrambow.
Getting lights and other things to turn on and off in the apartment is still a bit of a game. Here's a typical electrical outlet. The fan control in the center is obvious, but don't flip the switch to the left by mistake or you'll cut the power to it. I believe the switch to the left of the outlet turns it off in the same way, but don't quote me on that. (Some outlets don't seem to work at all, but maybe we just haven't discovered the magic switch combo for them yet.)

The other switches turn on lights, but there's always at least one switch that doesn't seem to do anything at all. Flipping the nonworking ones fills me with unease -- who knows what I just turned on or off?

Here, we've plugged in an emergency light that goes on when the power gets cut, which has happened at least twice so far. The building has its own generator, so outages aren't as disruptive as they could be.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Street Cows

cows near garden.JPG
Originally uploaded by jrambow.
Since I grew up on a farm, it's been nice to see a cow or two on the street. From what I understand, Bangalore doesn't have nearly as many cattle as other cities and towns. But it still has enough to be noticeable, especially once you leave the busiest main streets. The cows are all tame -- a lot less inclined than I am to be spooked by the honking horns and crowds. And judging by their size and the size of the fertilizer they leave behind, most seem to get plenty to eat. I think they eat mainly garbage and scraps, although I did see a couple autorickshaw drivers putting some hay down for a couple.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Neighborhood Goats

Don with Goat
Originally uploaded by jrambow.
Here's one of the many goats we saw while walking around the Tasker Town section of town yesterday. Unlike the cows, all the goats were tethered to something and definitely had owners somewhere nearby.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Some Notes on the Office

So I've survived my first five-and-a-half-day work week here in India. Any new job creates a few disorienting days when you start out, but of course I've encountered a slew of cultural differences that have made this week all the more through-the-looking-glass. For one, regimentation is big. Time is regulated by a series of bells that announce the beginning of the day and its end, and when to go to lunch and when to come back. The 45-minute lunch break is a strictly observed affair -- everyone leaves and comes back at the same time. It's a little like high school. As a foreign guest I am free to organize my own time as I see fit, but that's something that most workers here would not expect to be able to do.

Another thing you notice immediately is that labor is cheap. While back home we have one very lovely woman who comes around after hours to clean the entire office as best she can, here there is a team of about six cleaners constantly on patrol with mops and brooms and dustcloths. At the lunch break, when the floor empties out, the cleaners swoop in for more in-depth cleaning, wiping down every monitor and keyboard. The office gleams as a result. There's also a couple of guys who come by with very sweet, very milky tea three times a day. The managers get their tea in china cups, while the workers in the cubicles are served in small plastic ones. There's a whole host of issues with this tea; it's almost impossible to refuse it and once you are served it, you are expected to drink it all. When I haven't managed to finish, the other managers have been sure to comment on this. So I drink it, and when I get back to the States I'll have a powerful caffeine and sugar addiction to kick.

Then there's the guy who comes around to take your order for lunch. You tell him what you want and he orders it from a local place and brings it back at lunchtime. He already knows I like palak paneer. Now this I can see myself missing when I get back to New York . . .

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Birds in the Morning

We've been In Bangalore just about a week now. One of the advantages of the 10-1/2 hour time shift forward is that it's been very easy to get up early. Of course, we might have had to get up early anyway, given all the birds that start calling around 5:30. The crows and the chickens are loudest and easiest to pick out -- I have no idea yet what noise the other common birds here make yet, but together they make a lot of it. As far as appearance, the little green parakeets get bonus points for cuteness, but it's the kites, constantly circling and looking for something to eat, that are really worth staring at. There are also pigeons here, but a whole lot less than in New York, probably because of the kites and similar birds. I'd love to take some of them back with me and see them go to town.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

What I Spent, Part 1

First of an occasional (and shallow) series; with all prices in rupees
On Jan. 30, my second day here, I bought the following:

  • Towels at Home Stop, a kind of Indian Bed Bath and Beyond:
    219 ($5) and 210. The old-fashioned Bombay Dyeing store wanted 600 at first -- I think that was my clue that I should have started haggling. Instead I just retreated and went to spend too much elsewhere.

  • "Genuine" Swatch watch, bought on from a very persistent guy on Brigade Road, 475. He'd suggested 1200 at first.

  • Year-long membership in the British Library
    Nothing, since they wouldn't let me join without proof of my address. That'll be a little tricky.

  • Super-huge road atlas of Bangalore and a cookbook of South Indian cooking, which looks a lot more ambitious now than it did in the store,
    200 and 89.

Breakfast on Air India

Originally uploaded by Wisco.
Here's a good example of the airline meals served between JFK and Mumbai. The round things in the corner were a peeled mango and pear -- not sorbet as I first thought. Everything was decent, and definitely a lot less boring that most in-flight meals. I wasn't sure what to do with the yogurt (mix it in with the main meal?), so I opted to just eat it. Perhaps because this was breakfast, there was none of that milky pudding-like stuff that passes for dessert.