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

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Out of Town

Ulsoor Lake
Originally uploaded by jrambow.
The two of us will be out of town for the next several weeks, so posts will be few and far between.

(We think the statue, near the northeast corner of Ulsoor Lake, was given a Christo-like wrap to protect it during park renovations.)

Sunday, April 23, 2006

At the Beach

A few weeks back we went to the Devbagh Beach Resort, on an island in the Arabian Sea. To get here, we flew to Goa airport and then got driven two hours south to the town of Karwar. From there we took a motor boat on a five-minute trip to the island. The resort was fairly simple, with log cabins on poles, some tents, and an impressive, long beach. It wasn't roughing it, since the resort cooked all the meals, and the cabins were wired for electricity via a generator. The generator worked really well, until the last day, when the two cabins next to ours became occupied by a couple and a woman we collectively called the "VVIPs." I couldn't get anyone to tell us who they were (they weren't Bollywood stars!), but we think they were probably bureaucrats, or bureaucrat relatives (the resort is owned by the state). In any case, the preparations for their visits included the installation of air conditioners in their cabins, and when that AC was turned on in the middle of the night, our ceiling fan stopped turning. It started again after a few hours, but it made for an uneasy night.

The resort shares the island with a fishing village, and on our second day we went for a long walk to check it out.

We wanted to walk all the way around the island, but after going in one direction for 90 minutes and having a brief but intense encounter with a small herd of water buffalo, we had to turn back. We'd thought a guide had said the island was 110 acres, but I think we'd misheard, and it was just the nature preserve itself that was 110 acres.

Don had another memorable animal encounter when he went for a swim and some feral dogs started a tug of war with the shorts he'd left on the beach. Here he is simulating the concern he felt at the time.

The shorts (not shown) were recovered and were more or less unharmed.

For more Devbagh info, here's a post I did for Jaunted. And here's the Flickr photoset.

Saturday, April 22, 2006


Back in New York I hated to shop. Especially for clothes. I wore shirts until they had holes in them. I hated the crowded stores, the overattentive and insincere sales staff, the high prices, the whole hassle of devoting an entire afternoon to the retail experience. I buy everything I can online, but clothes I've never been able to get that way. I have a narrow frame and a lot of stuff doesn't fit right. Everything has to be tried on. I hated that, too.

But here in India, I have surprised myself by taking up the shopping habit and discovered that retail can bring joy as well as aggravation. There are several reasons for this. The most obvious is that my dollar goes a lot further here in Bangalore than it does in Manhattan. At the high end of the mid-range department stores here (the equivalent of say Bloomingdale's), a nice button-up shirt will run you around 800 to 1200 rupees, or $18 to $27. You can pay more than that, sure, but even at the top-of-the-range places shirts will rarely cost more than fifty bucks, which would be a very average price back home. And some things are very much cheaper. I got a pair of prescription sunglasses here for $200; the identical frames and lenses (same brand, everything) cost about $600 in New York. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that it's more fun to buy things when they cost less, but I kind of was.

Another truly wonderful and unexpected thing that I have discovered is that I have the body type of a typical Indian man. So the clothes here tend to fit more often than not. This has changed my life completely. The frustrating experience of finding items I liked the look of only to discover that they made me look like a circus tent has been lessened considerably. You'll see people with the whole range of body sizes here, of course, but on average, the men tend toward the rakelike. I offer as evidence that the smallest waist size generally available for adult men here is 26 inches. In the US you are lucky to find a 28 and more often you start with a 30. I'm a 31, and that puts me more in the middle of the range than at the lower end of it. When you tend toward the median, more stuff is available to you. Hurrah!

The last reason is probably the most important one: there's not that much else to do in Bangalore other than shopping and going to restaurants. Bars and nightclubs are forced by law to shut down by 11:30, curtailing nightlife severely; we've done the few tourist attractions the city offers by now; and it's getting awfully hot. All this makes visiting the city's many air conditioned, often uncrowded malls an inviting prospect. And I'm going to take advantage of it as long as I can. Maybe if I stock up here, I can avoid clothes shopping completely for a year or so after I get back to New York . . .

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Easter Dinner

On Easter, I was feeling a little homesick and wanted to find some sort
of vaguely Eastery food. The Only Place, an old-school sort-of steakhouse,
seemed like the best choice by far -- they'd even hung up over the
street a banner advertising their Easter dishes. It included mutton
biryani (a kind of rice casserole). Not my idea of Easter, but it
definitely sounded good.

The Only Place made for good people-watching -- a lot of expat
westerners, and also many rich-seeming Indians. At the table next to
us, a family of eight or so was ordering steaks for all -- I was
impressed. Don and I both got the Easter special, which was turkey,
mashed potatoes, stuffing, and vegetables. And our own gravy boat full
of gravy. Admittedly, this special brought to mind Thanksgiving more
than Easter, but we were grateful for it.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Parker Meridien

Parker Meridien.JPG
The exit gate (and employee entrance) of the Parker Meridien. The flag is a regional one, for those speaking and identifying with the Kannada language. The hotel had suffered some minor vandalism -- broken lights out front. While we were there, Friday morning, staff was busy putting up a big Rajkumar banner on the front door. We'd walked there to try to get newspapers, but no dice. Not sure how anyone managed to buy a paper, since (almost) all the businesses were closed. More about that later.

Bangalore Central

Bangalore Central
About half of all businesses were open on Friday, and almost all had impromptu memorials, such as this one in front of the large Bangalore Central department store.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

From Springfield to Bangalore

We were so excited to hear that Homer Simpson paid a visit to India on last Sunday's episode (thanks, Alex!). Mr. Burns outsourced the entire nuclear plant to Bangalore, and Homer won the toss to be the one employee to be transferred and not fired.

The Simpsons don't play here in India, but through the magic of the internets, we were able to see what our temporary town looks like when filtered through cartoon magic.

Homer got into trouble right after landing, when a cow took his iPod.

The real streets have a lot more rickshaws and and fewer people. Is that Kemp Fort across the street?

If the Taj Mahal had become part of a nuclear plant, would it cost less or more than it already does to visit? (And no, the Taj is nowhere near Bangalore.)

In the end the plant was outsourced back to Springfield, and there was still time left for a dance number.

Civic Unrest

Well, I got to leave the office early today. There were disturbances in the streets of Bangalore and the riot police were called to keep the peace. Around four o'clock the management solemnly urged the employees to leave immediately to ensure that they got home in case things took a turn for the worse.

No, it wasn't Muslim-Hindu tension, or anger at corrupt local politicians, or a protest against the recent Simpsons episode (sort of) set in Bangalore. What happened was that Raj Kumar, Kannada-language film star, had died. At age seventy-eight. Of natural causes. This is what drives people to the streets in this city?

The answer is yes. I left the office and the streets were filled with people like me, trying to get home in the suddenly heavy traffic. Fortunately, the actual distubances were centered around Raj Kumar's home and also the government assembly building where the body was to be buried, neither too close to my office. I was very lucky and got an autorickshaw right away; the driver was honest and didn't try to extort money out of me in the face of high demand, though he did disconcert me by laughing at all the folks along the road trying frantically to get rickshaws of their own. "Bandh, bandh," he said to me, gesturing at all the shops closing up their shutters on the main throughfare of MG Road. "All bandh." A bandh, loosely speaking, is a strike or a general closure of businesses. And sure enough everything was shutting down, even the main grocery store.

I made it home just fine, without witnessing any trouble other than the traffic. No one seems to have been injured. Raj Kumar was simply a vitally important person to the locals in Karnataka. And to be fair, he was not just a prolific actor (200+ films), he was also an advocate for Kannada-language cinema. And naturally his biography has a bizarre twist to it; in 2000 he was kidnapped by bandits and held hostage for 100 days in an attempt to free some Tamil activists held in jail.

Tomorrow the funeral is scheduled to take place in a large sports stadium in town. The state of Karnataka is declaring two days of mourning. The office will be closed. Stores will be closed. The TV is already given over to Raj Kumar retrospectives. So I guess I'll catch up on my reading.

UPDATE (April 13, 2006): Some serious violence occurred today. At the stadium where the memorial was taking place, some sectors of the crowd turned unruly. Six policemen were injured, and authorities fired tear gas on some groups of mourners. Near the bus station, a city bus was set on fire by rioters, and there were also reports of stones thrown and ATMs attacked. We took a walk this morning; our street was quiet as could be, nobody out except police and all the stores shut up as tight as clams. We walked to the end of Cunningham Road to the Parker Meridien hotel in hopes of getting a newspaper, and we saw that the lamps outside the hotel entrance had been smashed. So we won't be venturing out much until things calm down a little more.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

through thatgayeway, evil will invade the word.

I've always had a weakness for horror movies, ever since watching the Son of Svengoolie on channel 32 in Chicago. So it was an exciting surprise to visit the Landmark store in the Forum Mall a few days ago and see their wide selection of cheap and awful horror movies.

Any guesses as to why I had to have this particular specimen?

In my heart of hearts I knew that only in an alternate universe could there be a grade-Z horror movie "including" Meatloaf and Helena Bonham Carter and, er, "Brad Fitt," but what if I'd tracked down a lost gem that IMDB had neglected to put on David "Se7en" Fincher's directorial resume?

Anyway, I haven't watched much of this movie -- too scary! But I've seen enough to say that Jared Leto et al. don't appear in a movie that sounds much classier when it's called Paura nella città dei morti viventi.

(Random note: Like most movies sold here, City of the Dead was sold in the VCD, not DVD format. You can play VCDs on computers, but I think that many people use special players to watch them -- DVD players are just too expensive. The VCD format isn't as good as DVD, but it's quite enough, especially for stuff like this.)

Friday, April 07, 2006

Hampi photos

Lotus Palace
Originally uploaded by jrambow.
We went to Hampi two weeks ago, and in between sweating a lot we saw some amazing buildings. Here's a set of our photos.

You can read a little about Hampi here.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Someone Like Me for a Member

Lounge at the Bangalore Club
When I was interviewing for this job, one of the managers from the UK casually asked me if I was interested in "club life." "If you are, we can fix you up at the Bangalore Club," he mentioned. "Winston Churchill was a member."
That bit about Winston Churchill is what everybody tells you about the Bangalore Club. He didn't ever settle his drink tab and it is now displayed in the bar for anybody to see. Well, not anybody. It's a club, you see, so you have to be a member, or a guest of a member, to go inside. I didn't really have any experience with this sort of place, although I knew there were clubs along those lines for rich old guys in New York, institutions like the Harmonie Club and the University Club. I'd even read a funny article in the Times about how naked swimming (men only) was the custom at some of them, and so my idea of "club life" mainly involved a mental image of fat moguls dangling and dripping after their morning dip. That, and a healthy suspicion of the whole phenomenon, nurtured by a lifetime of watching movies and reading novels where the country-club set was an easy stand-in for the forces of small-minded status consciousness.

Nonetheless, the Bangalore Club has a couple of things that are hard to come by in India. One is a swimming pool. Fancy hotels have pools, but most won't let outsiders use them, not even for a fee. The other is a fitness center, which I was very keen to have access to. It's hard to get exercise in Bangalore -- it's not a walking city, as the sidewalks are appallingly poor and the traffic makes crossing the street a genuine challenge. And a part of me was curious to see what it would be like to walk into the swankiest club in town. It's not like New York's Union League Club has been knocking on my door with an invitation, or is ever likely to.

So after a very torturous process that took many weeks, involved several passport-size photographs, and required perfect strangers to sign a form attesting that they had known me for six months (thank you, Dr. P. Rao, whoever you are), finally, finally, my very limited temporary membership card was issued and stamped by the secretary of the club. The major drawback, not revealed until I had already jumped through this multitude of hoops, was that I was not permitted to bring guests. That sucked: who wants to sit in an overstuffed leather chair and drink brandy all alone? But, however tenuously and provisionally, I was in.

So, what's "club life" really like, you ask? So far all I've taken advantage of are the gym and the pool. So it's not too different from my usual workout place, the YMHA on 14th St, which also has a gym and a pool. (Well, ok, that's disingenous. It's a lot nicer than the Y: the grounds are beautiful and there's a battery of attendants to hand you towels.) It's busy after work, like any gym, and there are limits on how long you can use the treadmill, like any gym, and there are often too many kids in the pool, like any pool. You'd notice a few differences, too: for example, the stuffed leopard in the club house. I haven't ventured into the bar yet to see that tab of Churchill's, but I'll get around to it sooner or later. Before my membership is up, anyway.

Photo from Bangalore Club's web site

Sunday, April 02, 2006

A Typical Day

Usually we get up around 7:30 or so. If we're lucky, one of us remembers to throw the switch on the "geyser," a hot water tank that's mounted on the bathroom wall. It takes about 20 minutes for the electricity to warm up the water.

The shower is freaky -- it's just a shower head, shower curtain, faucets, and a drain in the floor. When properly operated, it gets the whole bathroom floor wet. And if the drain gets clogged with towel lint or hair, you can flood the bedroom too. That's kind of exciting, but we only did that once.

Showers done and bathroom floor wetted, we get dressed and head out to the local Barista, which is just down the block. This is part of a newish chain of coffee shops that are in the Starbucks model. I can take or leave Starbucks back in the states, but I'm really into Barista, the people that work there and its Texan Potato sandwiches (spicy fried potato slices inside toasted bread) and Mr. Fudgee brownies. The chicken tikka sandwich is also a winner (this was off the menu for a while because of bird flu fears, but it's back). And as Don points out, the fact that we don't have to cross any of the very busy Bangalore streets to get our coffee is also a big point in its favor.

When I get home, I usually throw a load of laundry in our Whirlpool Whitemagic washer with Agitronic Soak. You can only do small loads, and they take about 75 minutes to get done, so it's good to get one going when you think of it. (Besides, you never know when a power cut might take the washer out of commission for an hour or two.) The washer is cold-water only, but the hokey "agitronicness" (basically soaking and agitating over and over for half an hour) really gets our whites white! When a load's finally finished, it's time to put the laundry on a drying rack. No dryer -- they're very rare here.

first-time cookbookWhile I'm doing that, I'm usually getting some posts done for the travel blog Jaunted. That takes however long it takes, but I'm usually done by early afternoon. Then it's time for running errands, writing, bumming around, watching weird Indian TV, coming up with article pitches, etc.
Around then I usually also crack open the First-Time Cookbook. Unlike most of the other cookbooks I've tried to use here, it takes the time to name and investigate, say, the many many different kinds of lentils and beans that can be turned into dal. It was written for India's yuppies, who presumably have little time and don't know about cooking Indian, just eating it (I might have gotten that last phrase from the cover copy . . . ). Anyway, the book's very clear and good -- I'll put up a couple recipes later.