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

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.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Things You Learn

Qutb Minar 2
On our way to and from Leh, we stayed overnight in Delhi. Surprise -- it was hot, which made wanting to leave the air-conditioning of our hotels hard in both cases. But we were glad we did. On the second visit, we took the very long rickshaw drive down to the Qutb Minar and the surrounding monuments. It's an amazing structure, 24 or so stories tall, and built in the 1200s. It's surrounded by the outer walls of a mosque whose columns were taken from 27 Hindu and Jain temples and "repurposed." Lots of locals and Indian tourists were there, partly to see it all and partly to have a picnic or take a snooze in some shade inside the large grounds.

Repurposed Columns

The place is large and full of interesting stuff, so we decided to get one of the tourist guides who hang out by the ticket windows waiting for lost-looking foreigners. These guides are a mixed bag, but even bad guides can be entertaining. You can be sure that every cornball legend about the monument in question will be trotted out. This guy definitely kept our attention -- he was the Da Vinci Code of tour guides.

"Facts" we found out:

  • The Qutb Minar is a big old sundial. The Hindus needed it for astrological reasons. It looks crooked from one angle because it was used to tell the date of the solstice.
  • What's that, you say? The Muslim rulers built it over many years, as all the signs and guidebooks say? Well, carbon dating shows that the foundations were built in the 4th century. So the base was Hindu. Or something.
  • Also, there are people who say that the Taj Mahal was sort of built before the (Muslim) moghuls got their hands on it. (We didn't really get that part. What was there before?)
  • And "Qutb" is Latin for tower. As Don pointed out later, the word is just about the most Arabic-looking word there is. Latin loves vowels way too much for a word like that. The ruler who got the work started happens to be named Qutb-ud-din Aybak. And you have to admit, the Minar looks pretty minaret-like, right? Coincidence?

As you can see, there was a certain pattern in the guide's theories. I wondered if he was just busy making jokes at the stupid Americans' expense, but he seemed caught up in it all. I'd love to go back, get another guide, and see what else I unearth. The truth is out there!

Monday, June 12, 2006

Click Click

Flying into Leh
Originally uploaded by jrambow.
As we got nearer to Leh on the hour-long flight from Delhi, everyone got excited and started reaching for their camera. In this photo, the nice Italian girl sitting next to me was moving back in her seat so that I could get a better view.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Leh Is Very High Up

Wow, that altitude adjustment is no joke. We flew into Leh very early yesterday, and spent the first five hours at the hotel doing little more than sleeping. (I also enjoyed reading the same chapter of A Suitable Boy over and over.) And also, we had to pee a lot. Is that part of the altitude adjustment too? Someone please tell us if it's the Himalayas or just nervous bladders.

Anyway, today was great -- we walked up to the dilapidated Leh Palace, climbed up four rickety ladders, managed not to fall off the hill, and got some great views of the town below. Later that day we climbed up higher, to a gompa (temple) that was closed. And then we got lost in a village and its barley fields. Good times.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Off to Leh

We'll be out of commission this week as we head up to Leh, in the Himalayas. We're flying instead of taking the road, a journey which everyone says is breathtaking (but scary). Only one of the two highways to get there is open yet -- snow's the problem. Leh itself is a desert; it gets just few inches of rain a year. And very little oxygen! The first day or two, you can do very little as you get used to the thin air. The Fodor's guide advises taking (among other things) a "thick novel." I'm taking the farcically large A Suitable Boy, so that's covered, but what I'd really love to have with me is a Playstation 2.

I won't need it for this trip, but British Airway's tips on avoiding jetlag will come in handy for the trip back to the States. If nothing else, following the super-specific advice about when to avoid the sun, when to be awake, etc., will provide lots of distractions. [Via Gridskipper]

Friday, June 02, 2006

Rendezvous with Semi and Simi

semiI've been loving this show, which is on MTV India. Every episode is the same: the suspiciously mannish host has on fake versions of Indian celebs while constantly trying to get them to talk about her beautiful flowers, studio, spirituality, just about anything. With any luck, the celebs fight with either each other or with Semi. It's a little bit Dame Edna, and it's entertaining even if 75% of the humor (and the Hinglish) goes over your head.

The way that Semi is constantly bringing things around to herself while never being less than nicey-nice is a set-up familiar from many U.S. chat shows (*cough* Oprah *cough*). But I didn't even realize until now that Semi is a specific parody of one person in particular: Simi Garewal is a former Bollywood actress and documentarian whose own Rendezvous show evidently airs at the same time as Semi's. Unfortunately, it's on a channel we don't get. So someone's going to have to help me out and tell me what it's like -- from the web site, it's awfully earnest and just chockablock with caring and sharing.


Thursday, June 01, 2006

Defacing/Mutilating an Excellent Book

A Word in Time
I admire the fact that someone at the library took the time to stick in a note about not writing stuff in this well-used (and, yes, excellent) book about language (click on the picture for a close-up of the note.)

I'm not sure if the note is generic or was crafted especially Mr. Howard's work. Either way, I definitely kept my pen out of my hand while reading; the handwritten comments mostly died out after the introduction.