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

Monday, December 31, 2007

Will This Demon Fit in My Carry-On?

Another packing toughie, like yesterday's nativity scene, this was a Pottery Town purchase. It's about 12", and the pottery is very thick. I've wanted one of these for a long time.

The figures are meant to be hung or placed on the outside of a house or construction site to protect it -- mine has a hole in the back of his head, just ready for a nail. Presumably they work by scaring away trouble. They're very common, but it wasn't obvious to know where to get a good one. Sometimes you do see them sold alongside the road.

I don't think that the demon has any particular name -- I think it's more a custom than a particular religious thing. But if anyone out there has more info, I'd love to find out more.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Manger Scene

Here's one of the things I'm struggling to pack up. A couple days before Christmas I walked to Pottery Town, an area near the Cantonment Railway station where lots of (you guessed it) pottery is made. The potters work out of their houses, and I think mainly have standing orders from businesses, but they will also just sell to people who wander by. The place really swells in the days leading up to those Hindu festivals that require idols, but at this time of year the potters also make nativity scenes. This one, with figures about 8 inches tall, cost 250 rupees and it is so heavy. The weird thing is that a friend had to point out to me that Jesus is not at all to scale. He's bigger than the sheep! Anyway, I think I might have to try really hard to get this home.

Tomorrow, I'll show you a very non-Christian item I also picked up in Pottery Town.

Packing Tape Is Your Friend

Unbelievably, our time in India is almost at an end. I know I've thought that twice before, just before we were heading back in July 2006 and then in April 2007, but this time it looks as if it's really the case. I'll try to write up some sort of wordy summing-up (who doesn't love those?), but don't hold your breath.

The last week or so has been full of packing tape, buying stuff (mostly cloth), visits to the tailor to have that cloth hemmed, giving away books, eating too much at fancy places in town, listening to Christmas music, thinking about being unemployed, putting things in piles, and seeing friends. We have no idea how we're going to pack up everything, but I'm sure it'll all end up somewhere.

Meanwhile, the apartment is reacting to our imminent departure by falling apart, even more than usual. A couple weeks back the automatic door closer on the apartment door stopped doing its job and in fact stopped closing in midstream, so I had to unscrew it to close the door. And there's a periodic leak in one bathroom. It's brown and from the floor above and I've avoided it and haven't done anything about it beyond alert the owners of the apartment. And then the electrical outlet for the TV got pulled halfway off the wall because the screws don't go very far into the wall. I used some of that packing tape to fix that one, but maybe I'll try for a more permanent solution. Speaking of the TV, the cable channels are going in and out even more than usual. The end of the month always seems like an unstable time for cable -- maybe it's the bills that the cable operators are putting off paying? And just now we discovered that one of the pins came off the plug to the microwave and stuck in the outlet. Who would even think that such plugs could unscrew? Anyway, if this happens to you, just turn off the switch and extract the pin with a pencil and the screw it back into the plug. That's my handy tip of the day.

Wine Time 18: Flamingo Chenin Blanc

Flamingo Chenin Blanc 2005
380 rupees

Yet another wine we drank a while back. It was hard to be thrilled by it. It had a nice, sweet, honey-like frangrance, but the taste itself was way too sweet for us. Not so memorable. We have to give it a 5 for being boring.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Wine Time 17: Sula Blush Zinfandel

Sula Blush Zinfandel
Rs. 395
12% alcohol

As usual we drank this entry before we could take a picture, so I don't have any photographic evidence of its orange-red, tawny color, perhaps its best aspect. The smell was pleasing -- subtle and fruity, but quick to evaporate. It's not very deep, but it doesn't have anything unpleasant about it either. It's an insubstantial, fruity, fun wine. We give it a six, and we say drink it when you feel frivolous.

By the way, this wine recently one a bronze medal at the India Wine Challenge.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to everyone celebrating it today. This kolam-like message was found in the Russell Market area today.

Last night we had Christmas dinner over at the neighbors. It was pasta with tuna. Not exactly a traditional Christmas goose, but it was wonderful. And then, plum cake. Of course.

And this morning I went to a couple church services. I wasn't sure where to head, since I didn't have any schedules. The first one I reached was St. Mary's Basilica, a huge church. Their nativity scene was attracting a big crowd.

I love the garlands on the reproduction of the Pieta that's outside the church:

I stood outside the church for a while, but this mass was in Kannada or possibly Tamil, so it was somewhat hard to follow. So I left and headed off to another large church, St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, handily located on St. John's Church Road (it's a churchy part of town). The cathedral is 75 years old this year, and all that bamboo scaffolding is there for repairs that are underway. All the poles make it look very post-modern.

Here too the crowds overflowed the church -- you can see the tent out in front so that people could sit on plastic chairs in (mostly) shade.

In related news, I have a post up at Gridskipper about An Indian Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Wine Time 16: Sula Brut

410 rupees
11.5% alcohol

Christmas and (even more to the point) New Year's are right around the corner, and for some people that means a flute of sparkling wine. If you're going for real, honest-to-goodness French Champagne in India, be prepared to pay through the nose --- at least 1200 rupees, and possibly closer to 3000 inr ($75). At prices like that, you'd best make your parties on the small side (maybe just two -- or one!). One of the major English-language papers was recently trying to convince that simply tons of Indians are guzzling down champers every chance they get, but I think it's safe to say reports of Champagne dancing off of shelves are highly speculative.

Luckily, Indian sparkling wines options are readily available, and these include the Vinsura we drank a while back as well as this entry from Sula. They're hardly cheap, but they do start looking reasonable compared to the French stuff.

So how did this one do? It's good, it's nice, it's dry. There's a slight, hard-to-pin-down aftertaste (grass?) that not so great, but not terrible either. It reminded us a little of the Spanish sparkling wine Freixenet -- maybe a little boring, but still a good standby. I'd rate it slightly better than the Vinsura, with a 7.5 for overall goodness. I'd like it even better at 300 rupees, but it's still a reasonable deal at its current price. At least with Sula rather than Moet et Chandon, you can invite more than just yourself to the party . . .

Wine Time 15: Sula Chenin Blanc

395 rupees

This wine is semi-dry, which for secret Wine Expert reasons actually means "slightly sweet." I'm sometimes a little leery of such wines, because I think a bad sweet wine can be awful, much less bearable than a bad red wine.

Anyway, this one is really, really good. It smells a little like honey, a little like flowers. The flavors are clean, crisp, and not overpowering. We thought it was very tasty. An 8.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Rambo Beer Pub

Since it's almost the same as my last name, I loved the Rambo bar of Calcutta. I discouraged us from going in since it looked so grim, but maybe I shouldn't have: a backpacker site says it's "seedy and toxic-smelling," "a dive for sure," "quite famous" but also "foul and definitely not famous." Intriguing!

Anyway, "off-cum-on" means you can buy liquor for drinking off the premises as well as for drinking on the premises. Either way, we kept walking.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Our Nightly Entertainment

Here's a short video Katherine shot with her camera. Behold the bats, who fly out of the trees in back of our apartment every night around 6:15 or whenever the sun sets. A little before they do their thing, many of the birds all start flying back to the trees. So there's a little bit of sharing going on.

Wine Time 14: Bluefolds Shiraz redux

We already did this wine, but it found its way back into our house all the same. It seemed like a 5.5 last time, but maybe it's a little better than that. How about a 6? It's still thin and kind of dull, but it did improve once we left it open for a while and let it breathe.

Bangalore Gloom

All is gloom in Bangalore today. It's rainy, cold, and gusty. It looks like this:

OK, that's really Minnesota from a couple weeks ago. But here in Bangalore it feels very damp and cold all the same. Everyone who had a sweater or something similar had put it on. And just about everyone seemed a little down in the dumps. On the other hand, my auto-rickshaw driver kindly agreed to slow down a bit near the post office so that I could jump out, put the first batch of my Late January cards into the postbox, and then get back in the rickshaw for the rest of the ride home, all without really stopping.

Do you celebrate with Late January cards? They're exactly like those for Christmas, except they're more surprising, coming as they do three to four weeks after the holiday they celebrate. Try it sometime -- you'll be glad you did.

Which brings me to the free offer. Anyway one sends their address to bangaloremonkey at gmail dot com will get added to this year's Christmas Late January list. We reserve the right to cancel this offer as soon as our hands start hurting or we run out of Scratch and Sniff stamps, whichever comes first.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Wine Time 13: Seagram's Nine Hills Shiraz

465 rupees
13.5% alchohol

I usually keep the empty bottles of wine we've drunk until their contents either get written up here or we've completely forget what exactly the wine was like. I'll try to clear up the backlog, and then at least the apartment will stop looking so much like a frat house.

Here's another wine from Seagram's relatively new Nine Hills line. We reviewed the Chenin Blanc a while back.

Well, we thought this was a good everyday wine, but it's not going to amaze you. It had a very pleasant, smooth, fruity taste, and it was fairly full-bodied and balanced. It other words, it didn't taste like watered-down juice and it didn't have any particular overwhelming taste -- I think most people who like red wine would find this pleasant.

And it also happens to go well with the spicy dark taste of plumcake -- and that's a big plus at this time of year. So we give it a 7.5.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Goat of Ghoom

The Goat of Ghoom cracked us all up. How does he get his hair so curly? And why is he inside the basket? Ghoom is a town a few miles from Darjeeling. It's on most tourists' radar as the first stop the Toy Train makes from Darjeeling. There's also a great monastery.

Soon after I took this picture, Don grabbed the GoG and ran like hell for the Toy Train to make his escape. But the train only goes at a brisk walking speed and he was easily apprehended by more law-abiding goat-fanciers. So we had to give the goat back.

Photos Are Fun

We used to have this blog, see, where I'd post random pictures and go on and about Indian wine, goats, traffic, and other obsessions. Not so much anymore! I hope that will change.

Anyway, our friend Katherine has posted lots of good pictures from her recent visit and vacation with us. Click here for the slideshow.

Friday, December 07, 2007


We left Gangtok this morning, driving about 4 hours over very dramatic roads to Darjeeling, another mountain town. Darjeeling was once a hill station, where the British Raj went to escape from the heat of Calcutta, but now it's a very large city as well. It may be even a little colder than Gangtok. My fingers are a little numb as I'm typing. We've had some fried rice and momos (dumplings) for lunch, we're walked through a tea estate and bought some of their specially-packaged-for-tourists tea, we've looked at many shawls, and after we call our credit card companies to tell they to stop refusing our charges, we'll be making our way back to the hotel. Like Gangtok, it's difficult to find your way after dark, since you have to get to the right level in the town, and of course there are few signs.

Tomorrow we're going to take the Toy Train, a munchkin train that runs as a tourist attraction, just 7 kilometers to a nearby town and its Buddhist monastery. After that, not quite sure. but it may involve carpets and/or hiking.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Heavy Breathing

We're in Gangtok in the mountainous Indian state of Sikkim at the moment. We just drove in a couple hours ago. Although it's not super-high, it's high enough that I feel a little dizzy. It doesn't help that the sprawling city is on a mountain, so going from one street to another involves big flights of stairs. Even with the cardio I've been doing, it's a bit much. So if there are even more typos than usual, that's why.

We had a whirlwind trip of Calcutta that included the following: Park Street Cemetery (super-great and full of very Victorian sentiments), Howrah Station (as Goutham said below just amazingly full of people and very intense); walking over the Howrah Bridge; and an attempt to visit the famous book stalls of College Street (didn't manage to get there -- we tired out first). About the railway station: I'd always thought that Bangalore's terminal was pretty busy, and it is, but Howrah station makes Bangalore's look provincial. Also the Indian Museum and the Victoria Monument. Also some very good food, which I'll post about later.

And also we had the most horrible hotel. It actually would have been OK if it had cost, maybe 1000 rupees ($25) or less. But with taxes and everything it cost $75! What a rip-off. We'd made reservations elsewhere but they couldn't find them when we arrived. And since we didn't have much time in Calcutta, we had to go with the first place that had an opening. I'll post pictures of the luxury-free lodgings that $75 bought us when we're back in Bangalore.

Tomorrow, Buddhist monasteries and more walking up hills. (huff huff)

Monday, December 03, 2007

Calcutta et al

So as we continue our attempt to see a few more of the places we didn't reach yet, we're heading off this morning to Kolkata, Darjeeling, and Gangtok. Our friend Katherine just flew in from the states yesterday for this trip. In Kolkata we're looking forward to College Street and its many streetside books, Bengali fish, and of course over-the-top British Raj monstrosities, I mean monuments. So I'll try to write in a couple posts this week, but otherwise we'll be back in Bangalore next week.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Getting Ready to Leave

So we have about a month left to spend in India, and we have a lot to do in that month. A friend is visiting, we both have lots of projects to start and finish, and then we have to pack up. And at the moment we're just really ready to go back.

Thanksgiving made me happy, although the food wasn't going to win any gourmet awards. The turkey was a little tough, and the pumpkin pie had been made inadvertently Indian by the over-enthusiastic application of cloves. (As Don said, "I don't think I would have been able to eat this before we came to India.") We even had wine, which is always exciting. The restaurant doesn't technically have a liquor license, so the wine appeared on the receipt as "energy drink." I'll say!

We were seating outside in this tent put up for overflow. It was kind of an odd crowd. A loud Canadian lady next to us with a German companion. On the other side, a table of Italians who objected to a plate of bread because it was really garlic bread. (Is that what they ordered? Who knows? I preferred the least likely scenario, which is that somehow the waiter knew they were Italian and brought them garlic bread for that reason alone.) The Italians happened to be just eating in the Tent of Turkey, but they were actually having steaks and beer and garlic-free bread. And then there was a long table of midwestern Target employees who were in town for a year. They all helped up the American quotient a bit, but by the time we'd gotten there they were almost ready for the sleepy, get up, go home, and eat some more stage.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Parrots Bite Snake

The front page of today's Deccan Herald had this awesome series of photos of a couple parrots picking on a rat snake they hadn't taken a liking too. I think that rat snakes will eat more than just rodents . . . . I think the snake is a very nice color, but I guess I'm glad I didn't see it in the park myself.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to all Americans, one and all. We're headed off to The Only Place in a couple hours, and unlike last year, we actually made reservations this time. So with any luck we won't be carting our turkey, stuffing, and canned cranberries on our laps in the back of an auto-rickshaw hurtling through Bangalore's nighttime traffic.

Wine Time 12: Bluefolds Shiraz

Blue Star Agro & Winery, Pune
Rs. 437

Another one from the maker of Evita, covered yesterday. According to the wine label, this is a "deep purple full-bodied" wine with "an attractive aroma of black pepper with silky tannins that leave a delicious finish" It also goes with tandoor items and "spiced Indian curries." (We thought that bit was funny -- where are the unspiced Indian curries? And curries is kind of vague -- almost like saying "goes with entrees.")

The wine smelled not so nice, a little like rubber (can I just call this sulphur? Maybe). The wine was very thin, and the taste disappeared quickly. It just didn't have much staying power, and shiraz is usually a very muscular wine. We weren't wowed -- 5.5.

Dr. Rathore's notes for a 2004 Syrah earn a rating of VERY GOOD -- he says that the Bluefolds lines are "some of India's best wines." "Syrah" is just an alternate spelling for the same grape as Shiraz, so I guess Blue Star has changed its product's name for some reason. Either way, I'd like to try this one again to see if I might have gotten a bad batch.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Wine Time 11: Evita Ruby Red

Blue Star Agro & Winery, Pune
Rs. 274

This wine is described as "fruity, dry, light, and stable," with a "distinctive bouquet." It's also made from "classic grape varieties," but those are not named. It's also called a "value-for-money" wine that's ideal with "cheese and meat dishes."

Don't cry for me having to drink this wine, because it was decent. It seemed to us a little like a beaujoulais nouveau -- it was drinkable, very light, fun, without much complexity. The only weird thing was a kind of odd smell, a little like rubber or something. But it wasn't bad, all in all. We give it 7.5, with an extra half point for the under-300-rupees price.

Interestingly, Dr. Rathore says that this is one of "Blue Star's cheapest, and doesn't really warrant attention." The 2004 version got an average rating. I think it's a bit better than average -- perhaps it's improved.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Wine Time 10: Vinsura Vineyards Brut Sparkling Wine

Vinsura Vineyards
Brut sparkling wine (methode champenoise)
Sankalp Winery
501 rupees
12.5 % alcohol

Recently I stopped in at the new and fancy Food World Gourmet, which attempts to give expats and other rich and high-living people all the stuff they want. It feels weird going there and looking at overpriced imported grapes from the USA (and nothing domestic!) and so on, but on the other hand it's great to know where to go when you really really want some OK mayonnaise, for instance. Anyway, the store also has a pretty decent liquor store attached, and this bottle comes from there.

Don and I disagreed about this sparkler. I thought it had a weird grassy smell and a slightly off aftertaste. There also were just not that many bubbles -- I think if you're shelling out for bubbly, then it really ought to have lots of bubbles. Here not so much.

Don, on the other hand, thought it was decent though too expensive -- noticeably better than Marquise de Pompadour, probably the major champagne-ish Indian wine.

Overall, we give this a 6.5. I do think it's overpriced for what it is, but it is a reasonable alternative to buying Champagne or other foreign sparklers here, a very pricey proposition. (Also, the label is very nice -- good use of gold-leaf leaves.)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Pinky Bicky

DSC06281.JPG, originally uploaded by jrambow.

Another great facade. It was the custom in Bhubaneshwar to paint the doorways with the names of those who had been married (and the writing always seemed to be in English, not Oriya). I'm not sure if that's what going on in this house though -- seems unlikely that the bride and groom have such similar names as Pinky and Bicky, but I don't know. The black faces are that of Lord Jagganath.

Bhubaneshwar Housefront

DSC06278.JPG, originally uploaded by jrambow.

This was obviously quite something back in the day. It still is.

Sun Temple Tourists

DSC06337.JPG, originally uploaded by jrambow.

Those umbrellas were very practical. As you can see, the temple's size is impressive -- and it's diminished from what it once was.

Bayview Hotel

bungalow.JPG, originally uploaded by jrambow.

Puri had many Raj-era bungalows that had either always been hotels or later turned into ones. This was one of my favorites. I wish I'd wandered in to have a little look around.

Lord Surya

sun temple.JPG, originally uploaded by jrambow.

Here's Don in front of one of the three statutes of Surya that are at the Sun Temple. It was beautiful -- the stone is a kind of chlorite and has a very nice greenish tinge. The statues are up some slightly steep stairs, and while we were up there the guide tended to be worried that we topple over and bash our heads in. I suppose he'd seen a few mishaps.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Konark and Puri

Orissa was really fun. I think a lot more tourists would visit if it wasn't kind of a pain to get to. You can easily tell it's a lot more rural than, say, Karnataka -- lots of people staring at the firangi (foreigners), even in the big cities, and instead of having to drive for 90 minutes or so to see lots of rice paddy fields, they pop up after about 30 minutes after you've gotten in the car in the city.

Konark's Sun Temple was monumental. It was hard to take it all in. As Don said, you have to love a theme, and making a temple that's a model of Surya the sun god's chariot is just a great idea. The wheels alone are astonishingly intricate -- and big! I'm afraid I might have annoyed our patient guide with my constant questions, but it was so hot, and both of us got a little impatient after being told about all the little carvings. After the guide finished pointing out one, he'd move eight inches to the right and talk about another. It's a big temple, so that ended up taking a while.

Many of the sculptures surrounding the wheels are, famously, X-rated (if you're writing a highminded travel guide, you call them "erotic" or "sensual" -- whatevs). There are lots of explanations for why this temple, along with many others, has many carvings that attract the titters of teenagers (and, OK, me). Some say they're meant to be a metaphor for the bliss that enlightenment can bring. Our guide seemed to hedge his bets by saying it was partly to show the temptations that a holy person should avoid, and partly meant to educate folks so that they'd make some more babies (!), who could grow up to harvest rice, wage war, and carve more sculptures. Well, many of the poses would not create babies, at least directly, but his explanations were as likely sounding as anyone else's, and at least they had the benefit of not minimizing the raunch of the sculptures, making them sound like something that would appear on the front of a romance paperback. (Side note: India's strict but not overly enforced code against obscenity has exceptions for "ancient monuments" and all temples).

And after Konark, on to Puri. I have to confess that although of course we wished we could have been allowed to see the famed Jagganath Temple (only Hindus allowed), it was also with a little relief that we realized we could instead just wander a bit through the town, hit the beach, and go shopping for Puri's amazing handicrafts. Next door to the temple is a private library that's mentioned in the travel guides. If you pay some cash, you can climb up two flights of rickety stairs and get a semi-OK look into one corner of the temple grounds. The folks in charge of the library (or possibly just renting the space) have adopted that peculiar habit (common to many temples) of having a book in which you are supposed to write down your donation. It's then that some not-so-subtle arm-twisting occurs. Everyone above us on the list had paid at least 100 to 200 rupees for their look, or at least that's what the book said (it's very common to cook the books, though I have no evidence that the library does. Those who do often add zeroes to the sums here and there in hopes that future suckers will pay even more. I recommend creating consternation by writing out your "donation" amount in words, as if it were a check, rather than just using numerals.)

We paid 50 rupees for the both of us -- they weren't super-happy with that, but it seemed like plenty. I'd have tried for less, or perhaps tried to give them a fluorescent bulb in exchange if I'd known that their stairs were unlit. I also gave them a couple used books, thinking they could sell them if nothing else, but the librarian and his helper looked at them as if they were alien objects. Few of the library's books (all locked up in cabinets) looked younger than the Nehru administration. I did see a couple people reading newspapers, so it's not completely useless, but all the same the institution seems like little more than a shell existing to shakedown foreigners. And the view? Decidedly meh.

Puri has a lot to recommend it besides the temple, but they're more in the "wander though town" variety rather than any sight in particular. That beach was very, very nice and clean, at least where we were.

SPECIAL NOTE TO HINDUS VISITING PURI: As we walked around the Jagganath temple's exterior wall, I could swear that in addition to the more understandable prohibitions (no leather, no mobiles, no cameras), there was also at least one sign that said "no rubber items"! Did I dream this? Have you ever heard of such a thing? A little lazy googling didn't turn up anything, so I think I misread.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Dunce Cap Fire Extinguisher

Speaking of fire and perils, here's a fire extinguisher installed at the Orissa State Museum, in Bhubhaneshwar. It's not an exhibit, it's there to do a job, but I have some doubts about whether or not it's still able to do it. The good news is that it's not as old as its 1930s-ish design and typeface imply -- the bad news is that it's still from 1971.

Minimax still makes fire extinguishers, but I doubt that this model is still around.

Anyway, I hope the museum doesn't throw these retro extinguishers out when they finally get around to getting new ones -- the old ones would look great, for instance, in someone's stylish, overpriced modern apartment.

Happy Diwali!

Happy Diwali to everyone out there celebrating it. When we got back to the apartment this afternoon, we saw that the decorating for the final day had begun, with rice-flour rangoli/kolams along the entryway and small lights (diyas) on top of every other design.

And now that it's nighttime, the "crackers" (firecrackers) have started going off. For the past few days the newspapers, in the tut-tutting way they often have, have been full of reports about how the firecrackers 1) cause noise and air pollution, 2) are made by little children and 3) tend to cause injuries. Number 1 doesn't really impress me. It's just one night, people! But talk to me tomorrow after I haven't gotten any sleep. Right now, it's just 8 pm, so the wartime noise outside is just thrilling and not yet annoying.

Number 2 is very depressing and true (although things may be getting better than they used to be). It's especially depressing when you think of all the chemicals and risk that go into making the crackers. I haven't examined any crackers too closely, but some of those sold at stands look as if they're basically gunpowder or whatever tied up into tight packets made of palm leaves. Can you imagine having to tie each of them together, row after row?

As for 3, the injury angle, those suckers are definitely dangerous. I'm certain you could blow your hand off with some of them. Most of the ones I've seen (and are now hearing) aren't tiny little firecrackers, they're like M-80s -- they make a huge boom like a gunshot. They're more about the noise and less about the light. However, I can also see lots of fireworks up in the sky from the apartment windows, so that kind is also very present too.

How are we celebrating? Well, I'd be ashamed if I showed up in a hospital tonight with a blown-up hand or burst eardrums, so instead we just elected to light some lights at the entrance to our door. Boring, but also nice-looking.

Oh, and by the way, New York City celebrated Diwali already -- last month. They have to be first with everything! Actually, the real reason was more pragmatic -- by now it would be just too darn cold to do much outdoors.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Hey there. So we got on a train on Sunday at 2 pm and set out for Orissa, on India's eastern coast. It was a long train ride. 31 hours! This was by far the longest time we've ever been on a train, but for many Indians such distances are not nearly as impressive. Train is still the main way to get from point A to B if A and B are sufficiently far apart. Airlines have only cut into a slice of that market, primarily because of cost but also because there are still limited flights to many points. (We are flying back, and I can't say I'm not happy about it. The flights will cost about double what our 2AC mid- to high-range train tickets cost.)

So the train ride is now just a haze of multiple cups of tea and coffee, tiny pillows, playing cards, reading a lot, staring out the window at the pretty countryside of Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, and fending off the over-attentive attendent who gave us our sheets, borrowed our magazines and travel guides, and was so convinced that we'd be giving him a hefty tip at the end that he gave us a free bottle of mineral water. What we coughed up for him was sufficient, but not enough that he didn't ask for and get the bottle of water back! We hadn't opened it yet, so perhaps it's being handed out this very moment to someone else.

So like everything else that seems endless at the time, we finally pulled into the hard-to-spell but fairly charming Bhubaneshwar, which supposedly once had 7000 temples. This is a useless statistic -- who could ever count the number of temples in a city? Anyway, it still has 100s, and some of them are from the 10th century, some even older, and many are phenomenal. Tomorrow we head to Puri and Konark, both nearby and both also temple-tastic.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Mysore Storefront

traffic school.JPG, originally uploaded by jrambow.

No points for guessing what you head here to learn. This was a good neighborhood to practice with the learner's car, which I saw heading slowly down the road. There was very little traffic, and the street cows seemed calm.

Some of the smaller signs in the center of the storefront, behind the counter, seem a little obscure to me:

Mysore Chicken

mysore chicken.JPG, originally uploaded by jrambow.

Don was in Mysore last week, and I took the train down to see him. Here's a chicken store near his work. The tinsel was probably applied during Dasara, the week before. What I especially love is the mark of Shiva, the three parallel lines, on the chicken.

Monday, October 29, 2007

No Keeping This Fish from Smelling

So yesterday for lunch we headed west to the upscale, suburbanish neighborhood of Indiranagar, which surely has one of the highest number of restaurants per capita in Bangalore. (Koramangala has even more.) Anyway, the Parsi deli we'd first hoped to find had closed, and we couldn't find the Bengali hole-in-the-wall, so instead we ended up at a very fancy Bengali restaurant called 6 Ballygunge Place, a branch of a chain that started in Calcutta .The place was doing a very good business on a Sunday.

I'm no expert on Bengali food, but what I did know is that it's famous for 1) seafood and 2) its pungent mustard sauces. Don's dish, dab chingri, satisfied both requirements. It was prawns in a mustard and coconut gravy, with neither ingredient getting the upper hand and balancing each other out. I did my best to get as much of it from him as I could, but I could have done with more. The dish was actually cooked and served in a tender (green) coconut, which is always fun.

We also got some bhajas: onion, eggplant, and potato pieces covered in batter and deep-fried. Deep-fried vegetables are hard to beat, especially with some strong mustard dip on the side.

And then came the Bombay duck (loitya shutki). Oh boy. As you may know, this is actually a smallish fish that's been dried and salted. It's famously stinky and oily*. As advertised!

The first hint that all this talk about stink was true may have been when Don's dish came first, and only after we'd been served completely did the "duck" come. It was in a bowl. With a lid over it. I think the restaurant didn't want the trashpile-on-a-hot-summer-afternoon smell to escape until the last possible moment.

The fish had been chopped up and then fried with lots of chilis. It was oily, salty, strong, almost like Thai fish sauce or anchovies or something. It wasn't disgusting, but it was overwhelming and spicy and I don't think I'll be putting in the time necessary to acquire this particular taste.

Overall, we though 6 Ballygunge was very, very good. But over at Mouthshut (kind of like Trip Advisor for Indian things) and burrp, the reviews are mixed. If anyone else, Bengali or otherwise, has eaten at this place and has strong opinions about it, I'd love to hear them.

* And ugly. See here.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Wine Time 9: Seagram Nine Hills Chenin Blanc

Rs. 415
12.5% alcohol

As we continue to clear the decks with bottles we've drunk recently, we come to the second of the Seagram's wines we've tried out.

It was a bit of a surprise -- I had it in my mind that chenin blanc was a very mild, sometimes almost watery wine. But this was a concentrated, quite sweet, slightly bubbly wine. It was tasty and fun. We completely randomly had it with masoor dal (yellow lentils with lots of spices), and that's not what this wine is for. As the label says rightly, it will "pair well with [light] salads and appetizers." Actually, we think its sweetness might not even work for many appetizers -- this would probably be nicest as a dessert wine, or something to sip with a biscuit. It would be a good wine to drink on most occasions when you'd be drinking champagne.

It's a solid 7.

Wine Time 8: Grover Cabernet-Shiraz

Grover Vineyards
Rs. 380
12% alcohol

Business-oriented people in India often talk about the USP (unique selling proposition) of a business, and it's common to see "USP" this and "USP" that in the newspapers. It may not be unique, but the selling proposition trumpeted on this wine's label is the fact that its shiraz and cabernet sauvignon vines were "imported from France" and are now "thriving" on the "sunny hill-slopes of the Nandi Hills near Bangalore." So you've got a little foreign flavor in these one, perhaps.

We liked this wine. It's a very standard, full-bodied red wine. Let it breath a little by leaving it open for a few minutes before drinking. It's going to go well with meats and other heavy dishes -- we ate it will some vegetarian chili and it was a good match.

This 2007 bottle gets a 7.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What to do if you're attacked by monkeys

Yesterday Slate took on the question of timely question of what to do if you're attacked by a monkey gang.

First off, I'm not really sure what the article considers an attack. Is it just a monkey looking at you cross-eyed? Or is it a monkey actually making a move at you? Hard to tell.

Either way, the main advice is "just give 'em what they want. When monkeys get aggressive, it's usually because they think you have something to eat."

Lousy advice, I think. Isn't giving your goods away just teaching the monkeys to go after more snack-toting people? Is the author possibly on some sort of secret Monkey Food Supply Council? Would she advise us to all keep some potato chips or bananas on hand as monkey mugger money?

And then we're predictably told we can "diffuse the situation": "don't make eye contact or smile with your teeth showing." So nice! I'm learning about monkey ways! But what if I think I can scare them off with some teeth and eye contact?

Somewhat more useful is the advice to carry a stick, avoiding cornering them, and (if all else fails) bopping them on the head. Presumably you can go for a little tooth-baring it things have reached such a pass, but that's not spelled out.

Prevention, I think, would have also been good advice. Keep that water bottle in your bag, and keep and eye on your food. And be careful on those balconies, monkeys or no.

Monday, October 22, 2007


cleaning ladies.JPG, originally uploaded by jrambow.

Lots of rangoli, or colored designs for the floor, were created during the festivities at Don's office.

You can check out more of them here.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


Today is Ayudh Puja, the 9th day of the major Hindu festival of Dasara. Here in the south, it's a day to honor Lord Vishvakarman, the god of artisans and others who make things. It's a day to get blessing for tools and other things that help you do your job. So, a few minutes ago, I saw a row of four cars in the courtyard next to the apartment building being blessed, with garlands on the hoods, ringing of bells and an oil lamp.

At Don's work, computers and other office equipment are all being blessed. Here in the apartment building, there will be a puja (blessing) at 11:00 at the entrance, and I'm trying to figure out if it's OK to bring my laptop down, or if it's just meant for the building as a whole.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Wine Time 7: Madera 2006 White Wine

Nashik Valley White Wine
Sula Vineyards
Rs. 272 ($6.70)
12% alcohol

In our last edition of wine time, we had the surprisingly not-horrible Madera red, which got a respectable 7. And now it's time for the white.

Well, the label's still nice! Thrifty Sula didn't even bother to round up a different tribal-art picture for the white. And the tag line on the back ("an easy-drinking wine from the Nashik Valley, India's premium wine-growing region") is also the same. That's what I call efficiency. Or maybe laziness. Whatever. It saved me from taking another photo.

On to the drinking. Yuck. It's thin, it's slightly sweet, it tasted a little like an overripe melon. It was the sort of wine that would give you a terrible terrible headache if you drank too much of it at a small-gallery opening, the end of a wedding reception, a party at my house, and wherever else plonk is likely to be served. It seems to us that if you're making an entry-level wine, which I guess is what Sula is going for, you better make it extra enjoyable. Maybe not great, but fun. Or you're going to have a lot of people thinking that wine sucks and that a certain very predictable and less over-priced beverage is the only way to go when it comes to alcohol.

This wine is a 3.95, with 0.05 subtracted for the the fact that it costs 2 rupees more than the red version (huh?). The best part about it is the bottle, which is making a handy watering can at the moment.

As for the Complete Wine Guide, Dr. Rathore gives the 2004 edition a very low AVERAGE score. His "tasting" description is wonderfully disgusting: "a bit slimy, saliva, some lime peel, dull sweet finish."

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Monkey Babies

Monkey Babies, originally uploaded by jrambow.

Although it is a scientific fact that monkeys are evil or at least evilish, it is sometimes impossible to resist their cute faces and antics. Also, they are so often forming scenes that make it look as if they may be part of a perfect nuclear or extended family. Of course, all this togetherness is usually because they are busy picking lice and other creatures off each other, but that doesn't make it any less cute. And a nit-picking monkey is a busy monkey -- one that isn't baring its fangs, or trying to steal something, or making other monkeys.

Water Monitor

DSC05955, originally uploaded by jrambow.

I don't know if Sri Lankans get bored of having cool animals like water monitors around, but I hope not. This one was in the moat of the Temple of the Buddha's Tooth, in Kandy. At first we thought the monitor was eating a duckling (there were several ducks nearby). We were trying to be all "Circle of Life" about it, but they we got to be on the water monitor's side completely once we saw the long tail and realized that it was a huge rat being eaten.

Anyway, we didn't see if he managed to get it all down. To his left a crow was watching carefully, hoping for scraps.

No. 18

Over at Gridskipper, I have a post up about one of the more chilled-out restaurants we ate at in Sri Lanka, No. 18. I think they should open a branch in Bangalore. We certainly have our share of fancy restaurants, but they often seem to veer toward the snobby or at least overdone side of the street.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

India Getting on the Wine Map

A lousily written article in the Telegraph points out that the new edition of the World Atlas of Wine will now include wine-producing areas in India as well as China: "The map of the world's most renowned wine-producing areas has been officially redrawn this weekend to include countries such as China, India, Georgia, Canada, New Mexico and Belgium."

Now, New Mexico is not a country, and Georgia may or may not be, depending on which one the book includes. More odd is the claim that Canada is a wine newbie. They've been producing lots and lots of good wines, especially on the west coast, for some time.

Anyway, if I see this book in India, I'll have to peek inside to see which wines in the subcontinent made the cut. I hope I can lift it -- as the article says, it used to be 236 pages, but now it GROANS under the weight of its 400 whole pages.

[via Fark]

Friday, October 12, 2007

My Free Newspaper Prize

This morning around 7:30, when I always open the apartment door to leave out the garbage and pick up the two papers we subscribe to, I saw something small scuttle out of the pages and into the apartment. Oh great, I thought, now the monster cockroaches are using the front door rather than just coming up through drains and cracks in the kitchen tile.

But I followed it back into the apartment and the corner it ran to, and it wasn't another cockroach. It was a tiny gecko that had evidently either hitched a ride with The Hindu and The Deccan Herald or had been wandering the halls, looking for something to read.

Either way, I hope he finds reason to stay a while, unlike the others that appear once or twice and then disappear. I know I often bring up geckos, but can you blame me when they're almost beating down the door to come in?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Insults to Religion and Other Crimes

So in the northeast state of Manipur there were these monks from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, aka ISKCON, aka the Hare Krishnas. They were minding their own business selling books, until a possibly drunk jerk comes up and says "Hare Rama, Hare Krishna, beef is the best" five times, a blasphemous take-off on the famous Hare Krishna chant. There was a "heated exchange," some sort of scuffle, and undoubtedly hurt feelings all round. But it didn't end there.

One monk, who had his clothes torn, filed a First Information Report (FIR, or police report), saying that the man had violated Section 295A, the national law that says that anyone "with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of [citizens of India], [by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise], insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to [three years], or with fine, or with both." Interestingly, the monk didn't file any charge about the assault by the old man's associates.

The culprit, Joykumar, was booked and spent three days in jail. He's out on bail now. What the paper calls a "twist" is that a couple days later the monks came and offered the guy some prasadam, food or sweets that have first been offered to the gods and then are considered holy. (Another paper says in fact it was another ISKCON "devotee" that gave the prasadam out.)

I don't agree with this extremely broad law, which obviously can be easily used for all sorts of ends that are bad for Indian society. But let's leave that aside. Wouldn't it have been better if instead of giving the guy some sweets the monks had just decided to not press for charges in the first place? Just because a law's on the books hardly means it needs to be enforced in all cases. I'm certain the monks were insulted, but couldn't they have just let it pass them by? How is spending time in jail likely to make Joykumar think any better about the monks, or any worse about eating a burger?

Related: Fighting Against Censorship, by Amit Varma

Rice Pudding

I'm busy "researching" rice pudding to use up some of the rice that resulted from cooking Persian-style rice last night. The Wikipedia article on the subject cracks me up -- who knew there was so much to say about it? I don't agree that "Over centuries, the European recipe has been simplified, resulting in the modern dish often criticized for its blandness," simply because there are a million zillion recipes for it, some of them much more bland than others.

The Persian rice, by the way, turned out good, but because my pan wasn't that huge, the nice and crunchy coat on the bottom was smallish. It's definitely a recipe that's best with a monster pan.

UPDATE: So I ended up making this rice pudding, skipping the vanilla because I couldn't find it on the shelf (where'd it go?), and subbing a cup of fresh pineapple for the raisins. It turned out very good and non-bland.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Sigiriya Signs

This sign from the city fortress of Sigiriya made us laugh, but you have to admit it gets its message across quickly. I'm not sure how big the danger really was. Further up, near the summit, you could see nests of what may have been hornets. But so many Indian monuments (including the Taj Mahal, if I recall correctly) have nests of bee or hornets or wasps, and I never saw any warnings like this. Any entomologists out there know about noise-hating wasps?

On the same level where you could see some nests was a cage with thin wire mesh over it. One of the guidebooks said this was the get into in case of hornet attack! This was surely set up for the gardeners or caretakers, though -- in other words people more likely to stir up the insects with more than just noise. Anyway, we didn't see any hornets flying around, and we didn't have to make a break for the cage. This was just as well -- it was small, and I could see a lifeboat-style crisis developing over who was going to get to take refuge in the cage.

As for this sign, can we be forgiven for thinking at first it meant "no handicapped people"? Anyway, Sigiriya is the opposite of accessible, with a million steps, so only reasonably mobile people were there. And they did need to be told not to sit on the stone-slab throne to the right.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Prawns: the Salty Snack Food of the Gods

prawn cakes, originally uploaded by jrambow.

Sri Lanka was a blast. We went to the beach, we went to boutiques, we saw ancient ruins, we were beset by touts, and we took the train. And on that train, which went along the coast from Galle up to Colombo, we had what may possibly be the best railway snack food in the world. As you can I hope see from the blurry evidence, this snack is made by taking one or two little prawns and covering them in a salty batter with sesame seeds. Deep fry them and serve to grateful train travelers. They were so good. Does anyone know what these things are called?

Indian trains have lots of sellers with good snack, but I've never had anything as good as this was.

Monday, October 01, 2007


After a couple days in Colombo (the heat! the walking! the security checkpoints!), we've landed in the much more laidback Galle and its old Dutch Fort. So many incredibly beautiful old bungalow-like houses, which miraculously haven't all been changed into boutiques, or boutique hotels, or boutique restaurants. We are staying in one of the old houses that have been changed into a boutique hotel. It's very nice, and I'm loving the swimming pool. Tomorrow we head south a couple kilometers to visit the wonderfully named Unawatuna, a beach-lover's paradise, as the papers in India would say. More later.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Sri Lanka, Here We Come

So we're headed off to Sri Lanka for a week. Pictures and stuff to come. We haven't planned the last half of the trip, so I'm not exactly sure what we'll see. But we are going to Colombo, Galle, Unawatuna Beach, and then probably the ancient cities.

In the meantime, here's a big hit from this spring, It's Rocking, from the movie Kay Love Story Hai (What a Love Story). I think the singer, Alisha, sounds amazing. That's Kareena Kapoor in the video, making a guest appearance for the movie.

The Craziness of Z Studio

I love and hate Zee Studio, a English-langauge movie channel here. Their programming seems to have little rhyme or reason -- at least none that I can find. Why else would they follow a completely depressing Serbian movie involving Down syndrome, murder, and suicide by one of the Santa Clause movies, as they did today? A while back I think it was Zee Studio that treated us to Bluebird, another depressing European movie involving learning disabilities. There was bullying in that movie as well as the Dutch language, but no death.

Friday, September 28, 2007

"Hands down . . . his most obnoxious movie yet."

---Slate on Wes Anderson's Darjeeling Limited.

Sounds as if most critics are a little kinder, but not by much. IMDB doesn't have a release date for India. It's not the sort of English-language movie that would get much play here, but I thought perhaps the Indian train thing might make it an exception.

Hobson Jobson

This is fun. Hobson-Jobson, the early 20th century dictionary of Indian-English, is available online. Of course it is.

And here's godown (warehouse). Don and I were just wondering yesterday if it's from "going down", if it's literally taken from an Indian language, or what. Seems as if its actually just the anglicized version of a longstanding Telugu/Tamil/South Indian word for a "place where goods are."

And what's a Hobson-Jobson anyway? Click here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Times (of India) Responds to Iran Prez Attack

A Times of India article today gets very hopped-up over the unwarm welcome given to the Iranian "prez" at Colombia University a couple days ago (Can't find it online, sorry. Click here to go to the whole thing.)

I'm not sure if it was picking on Ahmadinejad per se that was the problem, or whether it was just the fact that the U. was so stuck on inviting him and then they picked on him, but for the Times, this was a case of a head of state being "publicly humiliated" with an "ad hominem attack" by a "partisan academic who was to have welcomed him." Anyway, the article made me laugh -- the line about Bollinger "winding up with a gratuitous flourish, as Ahmadinejad looked on" is great. If only Bollinger had had a mustache to twirl at that point! Those academics, man, they'll getcha with their fancy talk.

And where were the good insults? "You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated" is pretty thin gruel, in the grand scheme of things.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Goats Have Better Things to Eat Than Sugar

Goat Turning Up Nose at Sugar, originally uploaded by jrambow.

Goats evidently try to eat healthy. When we were in Cochin, Don tried over and over to get a goat -- any goat! -- to eat a lump of sugar. He tried four or five of them. In the end, he put the sugar down on the sidewalk near one of the balky goats. In about 15 seconds a crow had flown down and was getting ready to fly away with the refined goodness.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

It's Still Raining

Yesterday I headed to Ulsoor Lake to hopefully see some Ganesh idols being immersed. The idols used in the Ganesha festival are considered inauspicious if they hang around too long after. It's best to do this an odd number of days after the festival, which was last Saturday.) Although I did see a handful of trucks carrying Ganeshes and chanting worshippers, and even an especially large one strapped to a bus, they kept speeding by, probably to the other side of the lake.

And by then it was time for the mild sprinkle to become a downpour. The monsoon is always funny that way. Anyway, it was also time to head west to catch a string quartet concert at the Goethe-Institut. It was really fun to hear some live music; haven't done that in quite a while. The concert started with some High Modern stuff (12 tones, icy notes, dissonance, not sure when it's going to end). That was OK, but it did have the effect of making the Schumann in the second half seem like getting ice cream after a scary macrobiotic meal.

The hall was over-filled (maybe 200 people or more?), which seems usual for "cultural" things in Bangalore. I think there's a big thirst for concerts, theatre, etc. here, but often the spaces are too small for the crowds. Another aspect of the way that the infrastructure here doesn't at all match the city's size.

Almost as wonderful as a Romantic string quartet was the fact that the exterminator came today. He sprayed lots of chemicals all over and applied mysterious "gel" to cracks and walls. He told me that we had many, many cockroaches in the kitchen. I could have told him that. He also asked if we had any servants -- probably because the house seems extra-messy today.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Wine Time 6: Madera 2006 Red Wine

Nashik Valley Red Wine
Sula Vineyards
Rs. 270 ($6.70)
12.5% alcohol

I was momentarily confused when looking over my notes on this wine. "Ghee, vinegar, onion, curry leaves" were all scrawled down. God, just what (and how much) were we drinking that night? But then I realized that this was just an old shopping list, and our actual, highly authoritative wine notes were on the back. (Note to wineries: "flavours of ghee" would look nice on a wine label. Just a thought.)

Speaking of labels, it's clear that the Madera label is designed to tell you that there's nothing fussy inside. The only wine talk on the back says "an easy-drinking wine from the Nashik Valley, India's premium wine-growing region." Nothing about the grapes themselves, which implies it's a blend from many varieties. And the art on the label is especially nice: it's inspired by the artwork that tribal groups do in the Warli region, in Maharastra, the same state the winery is in.

And the wine? Not bad. Fruity, pleasant. It's the kind of wine that would be good for sangria or sipping on a hot day. OK, it's one-dimensional, and the taste disappears quickly, but it's still fun and good. We give this a final score of 7, which includes a half-point bonus for its non-ridiculous price of 270 rupees.

I see that an anonymous commenter said in an earlier post that we should run away from Madera: "Yecch!" Maybe we lucked out, because I thought the bottle we had was very drinkable. But Anon. is in good company: The Indian Wine Guide says that the 2004 version of this wine tasted "watery, acidic, flabby, sulphuric, and unpleasant." Ouch! I think it's gotten better than that.