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.