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

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

I'll Take 20 of "I'm with Stupid"

Barbie at Goa Airport
I just came across a newish article by Rolf Potts that tackles Why We Buy Dumb Souvenirs. During a visit to Key West, he was struck by "the bizarre overabundance of T-shirts emblazoned with rude messages." I'm sure there's a much bigger supply in Florida, but even Bangalore has several shops selling touristy shirts like that, and I'm not sure why. Having "Female Body Inspector" covering your chest makes some sort of sense in Key West, but it's really hard for me to get my mind around wearing one in India, even in Goa. Or even worse, taking one back home and trying to convince the recipient that you bought it on the streets of Bangalore. (By the way, if you do need to get some goofball T-shirts while in India, look for the Tantra brand. I've gone on about them elsewhere.)

Rolf also talks about the differences in what people are looking for in Indian markets:

[In] Calcutta's New Market, an unspoken caste system exists between Indian shoppers and souvenir-seeking tourists. The travelers instinctively gravitate toward boutiques that sell carved elephant figurines and decorative jars of saffron, while the Indians shop for rubber bathmats, stainless steel pans, and digital calculators. Buying an electric blender might be more representative of day-to-day Calcutta life than buying Kashmiri silk, although, admittedly, a blender would not look as good in your living room.

But that Indian blender might look awesome in your kitchen, especially once you get that voltage thing sorted out! I agree with him that "department stores and supermarkets" are often a better source for good presents than a souvenir shop is likely to be. Let's just say that when I finally do leave town, my suitcase is going to contain lots and lots of tea. And chickpeas. And maybe one of those cool sari Barbies.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Monsoon, for reals this time

Palm Trees

LighthouseThis past weekend we took a quick trip to Kovalam. This beach town, in the state of Kerala, is at just about the southernmost point of India the Indian subcontinent. As the plane descended, the enormous numbers of coconut trees coming into view made it clear we were in a much different more tropical climate than Bangalore. Kerala is only about 9 degrees north of the equator.

We weren't the only arrivals on Friday -- the monsoon also rolled into town that night, coming from the Arabian Sea and making land a couple days earlier than predicted. This was the actual, real monsoon, not the earlier rains that we (and others) had been calling monsoons at various times in May. It rained as we took the taxi from the airport and through most of the evening, it rained again around 5:30 in the morning, and then it rained on and off on Saturday, as we walked along the boardwalk in the main, touristy part of the beach. We were really soaked by the end, but we were glad for the rain and the way it cut through a bit of humidity.

I don't think I've even been in a place where there was so much moisture in the air. The pages of books stuck together, and newspapers were extra floppy and even sounded different when they were plopped down on the table. My glasses fogged up several times while I was just walking down the street, minding my own business.

When Sunday arrived, it was sunny and nice in the morning. We spent it out on the beach in front of our hotel, the Rockholm. We got a couple hours in, splashing around in the very strong surf, until it was time for lunch at a beach restaurant. And then it was time for more rain and wind. We waited some of it out at the restaurant, the cheesily named Beatles.

Waiting out the monsoon

For more on monsoons, and this time from someone who isn't constantly making it up as he goes along, check out India Travel Blog's Monsoon FAQ -- for background, Wikipedia is also good.


Mosque and temple

Monday, May 29, 2006

When Roaches Attack

We really have an amazing number of cockroaches in the kitchen. I've seen more than few roaches in my day, sure, but I've never been in a place with multiple species living together. They're not living in harmony, but they are living together all the same. The enormous big ones that New Yorkers quaintly call "water bugs." They're here. And midsize ones, and dainty ones that can run faster than a hand can move to smash them, and weird fat ones that I've never seen before. It's as good a reason as I've ever seen for the stainless steel containers that everyone uses here for spices, flour, lentils, rice, and just about everything.

Stuff like Raid and their little roach motels isn't really available here. There's poison powder and spray-on poison, and it all seems too hardcore to use in the kitchen. And even if we put it down, and even if we did a better job of cleaning up, I'm not sure how much good it would do. There's a small hole in the floor, the tile isn't well sealed, and the windows are open to the outside and the many apartments down the hall.

When I asked the apartment's manager about our many roachy friends, he said we could get an exterminator -- one that would use stuff that would kill "anything -- roaches, bugs, rats." The idea of using something that could kills rats as well as roaches was upsetting. I think I'll keep with the smash-with-the-Times-of-India method, at least in the short-term.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

What I Spent, Part 2

  • Lunch at McDonald's, 99 rupees ($2.17). The placemat had a food pyramid, a picture of the McChicken, and arrows showing which components took care of the protein, carbohydrates, etc. For "fibre" they had to point to the lettuce.
  • Four (just four) replacement blades for our stupid Mach 3 safety razors, 332. To put this in perspective: 332 rupees would buy about 20 kg of tomatoes.
  • Pair of shorts for newly joined gym, 399. Even more tomatoes.
  • Six airmail stamps, letter rate, 90.
  • For me: one-way ticket home, with a four-day stop in Bangkok; for Don: roundtrip ticket from Bangalore to Bangkok, 69317 ($1521) total. I have to leave before he does, because of visa issues.
  • About 2.5 square m of cotton cloth, for more shorts, 148. Having shorts made is easier than actually going to the gym.
  • Rickshaw ride home, with tip, 14.
  • Pani puri from the cart outside the apartment, 9.

For more tedious details, see What I Spent, Part 1.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Four Top Indian Takeaways

Prestige Pressure CookerLast night Don and I were talking over dinner about the ingredients and food ideas that will be easiest to bring back to the United States. And the talk isn't academic -- my visa expires in early July, and Don's job wraps up three weeks later. So it's time to eat those dosas while they're still hot and easily available down the block, and to get a handle on the ideas and ingredients that travel better. Here are our nominations:

  • Fresh lime sodas. Everyone should be making these wherever and whenever limes are cheap. With a handheld juicer, it takes only a little longer to make one than it takes to grab a Coke from the fridge, and it's often a lot more refreshing.
  • Little brown chickpeas, which I think are called kala chana. Before we came, we only knew about the larger yellow ones (called kabuli chana). The little brown and black ones seem much tastier, though they need some serious cooking time to be transformed into something edible. Which brings us to
  • Pressure cookers. Just about every India household with a stove has one or two pressure cookers. Our apartment didn't come with a huge assortment of kitchen stuff, but it did come with two pressure cookers. In addition to saving energy, the intimidating devices also save a lot of time in a place where menus are so focused on lentils and other tough-to-cook ingredients. Don used to use one on occasion back in New York, and I've managed to cook with them a couple times without blowing up the kitchen. They're retro and they're scary -- what could be more fun?
  • Gobi manchurian. Fusion at its best, this Chinese-Indian concoction of deep-fried cauliflower in a tangy, spiced-up sauce has become our default bad-for-you appetizer at so many restaurants around town. We made it at home last night, using a kit from the store. The kit wasn't necessary -- it didn't save any time -- but it did confirm that this delicious dish is also trashy -- one of the ingredients you had to add was a small packet of ketchup.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Three Old-Timey British Authors Who Are Still Superstars in India

  • P. G. Wodehouse. So many collections -- some bookstores seem to have entire sets.
  • Agatha Christie. Ditto.
  • Enid Blyton (Kids' books. Never heard of her til I moved here)

Friday, May 19, 2006

Would you recommend this restaurant to your friends?

QuestionnaireMeals at all but the simplest restaurants here end with a final flurry of objects: finger bowls of warm water with a small chunk of lime floating in them for dissolving all that butter chicken residue, toothpicks in a holder, and sugar-coated saunf (fennel seed) and other chewables to freshen your breath. And then the bill, of course, but not before the waiter has earnestly encouraged you to answer some questions.

Dreaded by some and loved by others (like me), questionnaires appear probably about half of the time we eat out. The top half is full of blanks that only the most naive or starved for attention would fill out completely and honestly: full name, address and phone and email of work and home, names of your wife and kids, and the birthdates of all concerned. And your anniversary.

After trying and failing to think up jokey answers for all those blanks, it's time to move on to the multiple choice questions, which take their cue from Lake Wobegon children. You can always rate the ambience, service, food and whatever as "Excellent," or "Good" -- and yes, even "Average" if you're the sort of jerk that's never satisfied. Very few questionnaires have boxes for marking "Poor" or that teacher's favorite, "Needs Improvement." On occasion I've been moved to shade in my own little "Needs Improvement" box, but it's just not the same.

If you've finished with the boxes, you can move on to the short-answer portion, which is often equally optimistic. One I got a couple days ago asked "What is your favorite thing about [this restaurant]?", but it didn't want to risk finding out what I disliked. (It was the questionnaire.)

If you find yourself filling out one of these puppies yourself, for God's sake be prepared to back up your answers. Once, after we wrote a chi-chi restaurant that a couple dishes had been slow to appear and that a drink had never come at all, the waiter followed us toward the door, told us it wasn't his fault, and seemed to be asking us to take it back. When we showed up at the same restaurant the next day, he came over for more profuse apologies. It made us glad that we hadn't had anything to actually complain about, but also thinking that the whole questionnaire thing Needs a whole bunch of Improvement before it'll be worthwhile.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Tea: Not so bad after all

I used to always hate tea. It was super-wimpy, good only as a first step toward making some super-sweet, thirst-quenching ice tea. But moving to India's given me a better appreciation for the stuff in its non-chilly form. For one thing, normal everyday supermarket tea here (e.g. Liptons or Twinings) seems a lot better than comparable tea back in the states. For another, I used to always make and drink cups that were way too weak -- now I make it the standard Indian way, brewed with lots of tea leaves and then finished off with a bunch of milk and sugar. Unfortunately, I'm still drinking it in large mugs, so that now it's 10:30 AM and I'm FEELING VERY NERVOUS AND SHAKY. Better cut down a bit.

Oh, and about "chai." Here it has none of the la-di-da baggage it has in the United States -- it's just normal, supermilky and sweet tea with some cardamom or cinnamon or other spices thrown in. It's what you buy for three rupees from a 16-year-old kid walking down the street with a couple big metal pails of it. The chai is usually so full of milk that the little cup you drink it from gets a milk skin on top if you take longer than a couple minutes to drink it.

Tea here is so common and non-classy that a fancy tea cafe and shop near our house opened in part to try to get Indians to drink their tea straight instead, with little or no additions but with lots of fuss over the tea itself. The place is nice, but I'll be sticking with lots of milk and sugar in my tea.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Parashakthi Temple Trust

Parashakthi Temple Trust
Originally uploaded by jrambow.
This is probably my favorite temple at the moment. I like the massiveness of the goddess (she's maybe a story and a half?) and also the way her feet extend out from the glass. Katherine and I came across the temple on Seppings Road, south of Francis Xavier Cathedral on St. John's Road.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

This Ain't No Monsoon

Start of Rain
All today's papers say that the Southwest Monsoon, which starts at the bottom of India and travels north through most of the year, hasn't even begun yet. The India Meteorological Department is predicting that it will reach the coast of Kerala, India's southwestmost state, on 30 May.

After months with just a couple rains, I thought that the three afternoon rain showers we had on consecutive days last week meant that monsoons were here, but it sure doesn't sound like it. Some of Don's co-workers thought so too. Either way, the monsoons are coming . . .

The Bats at the Window

Even though the first of the monsoon rains began last week (or did they? See the next post), the mosquitoes haven't yet started rising up as a mass. So we still usually leave our windows open at night. That's fine until 5:30 AM or so, when the bats come home to roost. The trees they make their home aren't so very far from the apartment windows, and because of the way their little squeaks echo against the stone, it sounds as if the bats have made it in and are about to swoop down for a vampiric feast.

Don claims that the bats eat fruit or something, but I'm not so sure.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Monsoon Rainbow

Katherine snapped this shot of a rainbow from the living room. The double rainbow was too faint to show up well. The day's rain began about 20 minutes later.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Monsoon Cooking, or My Big Fat Indian Dinner

Here's a guest post from our friend Katherine, who's hanging out with us this week:

After a week and a half of traveling throughout India and experiencing classics of northern as well as southern Indian cuisine, I thought I'd try my hand at cooking an Indian meal. On the menu: green beans in a tomato gravy, moong dal, kachumbar, rice, and kulfi (for lack of time, John and I decided to forgo attempting to make a bread). For guidance, we used Janet and Sayeed Rizvi's excellent The First-Time Cookbook (HarperCollins India, 2003) and Vimla Patil's Indian Cuisine: Dal Roti (Rupa & Co., 1985). The kitchen being equipped with only a two-burner gas range, cooking proved to be an exercise in pot and pan choreography. And the dal recipe required use of an unwieldy pressure cooker, whose sudden, frequent and violent bursts of steam made me jump every time.

While I prepared the kulfi (mea culpa: we used a store-bought package), John measured spices. It should come as no surprise that a well-stocked Indian pantry entails an enormous selection of spices. Our recipes alone required ginger-garlic paste, chilli powder, turmeric powder, coriander powder, cumin seeds, mustard seeds and coriander leaves (all pretty standard). For the base of the tomato gravy, I sautéed onions and spices in mustard oil, adding the tomatoes once the onions had browned. The gravy simmered a good 40 minutes, long enough for the tomatoes to completely disintegrate. Some parboiled green beans were added to the tomato gravy shortly before serving. With the magic of the pressure cooker, the lentils were quickly converted into dal, but the final seasonings (garlic, tomatoes, green chillies plus spices) were not added until shortly before serving. The kachumbar, a classic tomato, onion and cucumber salad, was the least time-consuming to prepare. John had warned me that cutting onions might seriously sting my eyes, but as I experienced no such side effects, apparently I encountered a relatively mild batch. As an extra precaution against possible pathogens, the cucumbers were peeled and the tomatoes were briefly boiled. The white rice was served plain, which is not to say the Basmati rice available here isn't something special. Yum.

From start to finish, the dinner took well over two hours to prepare. And that despite using shortcuts such as store-bought ground spices and ready-made kulfi mix! Granted, we might have been distracted from cooking by a massive thunderstorm outside: looking out the 6th floor apartment windows, we observed an enormous bank of purple clouds approach from the north. We're not sure, but it may or may not herald the beginning of the monsoon season. I for one was thankful to have been inside -- Don, on his way home from work, was not so fortunate. The roads in Bangalore are prone to flooding, which makes finding transportation home quite a challenge. One could theoretically walk home from the office, but even at the best of times, coping with Bangalore traffic is a daunting task. Let's just say crossing the road in India is much like playing Frogger. . . except that the cars, trucks, motorcycles, foodcart vendors, rickshaws, bicycles and the odd cow, camel, elephant or dog coming at you from all sides are all very real. But to quote a new-found Indian friend, "That's what makes India incredible!"

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Mangoes in Mumbai

Eaten-up mango
Today the New York Times is all over Indians' big, big love for mangoes, especially for the tasty and expensive Alphonso (it's the remains of a cheaper version pictured above). When we flew to Mumbai last month, we got a hint about mango popularity before we even left the airport. Several small boxes of Alphonsos were circulating on the airport's conveyer belt along with the luggage. I'm not sure why anyone was bringing mangoes to Mumbai, because there were loads and loads in Crawford market, as the article shows.

I'm also not sure why the reporter paid so much for his Alphonso mango, but what do I know? I bought six of them for 70 rupees, and took several with us when we moved on to Delhi. The owner of the Delhi guesthouse we were staying at took one look at them and said that they didn't look very good at all. So much for my fruit-picking skills. They tasted great to me. More research is needed.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A Run through India

Posted on 8 May, written on 30 April.
A week ago from yesterday, my sister flew into Bangalore. After giving her a little more than 24 hours to get her India legs, we flew from to Goa and its calm beaches, nearly empty hotels and Kingfishers and onion pakora on the beach. We also spent a day at the Gothic churches of Old Goa and the well-kept houses and government buildings of Panaji.

After that it was on to Mumbai for a couple days of quick visiting. We got someone to try to sell us mangoes for three times the right price, we saw the amazing Prince of Wales Museum, and also the Taj Mahal hotel. It's clearly a vibrant, amazing city, and I hope we get the chance to visit it again. Not sure if we’ll stay at the same oddball, stuck-in-the-1940s hotel, but it did have its moments. Pix of the cool vintage furnishings will be coming soon.

On Sunday, Don headed back to Bangalore for work. The day after, my sister and I flew to Delhi to meet up with our friend Katherine for a tour of the Golden Pyramid, tourist talk for a trip to Delhi, Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) and Jaipur. At this time of year it's a bit less Golden and a bit more the Hot, Dusty, Morale-Lowering Pyramid, at least from noon to 4 or so.