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

Friday, August 31, 2007

Holy Water Turned Away at the Gate

USA Today's blog post about holy water getting confiscated at the Lourdes Airport brought me back to our trip from Varanasi. I'd brought a filled-up plastic water of Ganges water in my carry-on for a friend back in Bangalore. Usually Indian airport officials are a little . . . lax about that whole no-liquids-on-board thing, but this time they were tough and by-the-book. It may have had something (everything) to do with the politicos and their well dressed families that got to cut in line in front of everyone else.

Anyway, unlike the guy mentioned in the Lourdes story, I declined to drink my own holy water.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Coorg: It's Not Just Leeches

As you can imagine, the leeches were an instant conversation starter with the other people staying at Honey Valley. And once we found out that leeches are kind of picky about what they'll attach to, their presence became a lot less disgusting. They are simple creatures, and chemical smells make them unhappy. We slathered on lots of Odomos (mosquito repellent), both on our skin and on our jeans, and then pulled our jeans down into our shoes, so that we were walking on the legs. Don also even put some deodorant on his shins, for that extra bit of protection.

At dinner we were talking to an Australian who was very nonchalant about them -- "just pick them off" was her attitude. She said that they help get rid of the "bad blood" that's in your system (or just in my legs?), encouraging its replacement with "good blood." (My personal trainer also said that my blood was purified from the experience -- I was just hoping for some sympathy.) I don't buy the good-blood theory, but it's a nice thought, right? Soon after the Australian started talking, I saw a leech drop off her ankle. I squished it for her.

We did have a couple more leeches on our jeans during our hikes that week, but using one of the many leaves nearby to pick them off was a cinch. And I'm glad we didn't just hole up inside, because a rainforest in a monsoon is so amazing and beautiful (and muddy). As seems common for the monsoon, at least in Karnataka, it would rain for perhaps 20 minutes and then stop. When we climbed up to the top of a mountain, we were more or less in the clouds. We felt remote, but we weren't all that far from civilization -- cows were there.

And Honey Valley had its own waterfall -- always a big plus in my book.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Getting to Know Indian Wildlife

This weekend we went off to Coorg, a region southwest of Bangalore, to stay on a coffee and cardamon plantation. We got a car and driver to pick us up around 5 am and set out. The driver made great time -- it took about 5 hours. The roads around Coorg were noticeably better than then were the first (and only other) time we went there, in March 2006. Still some bumpy and twisty parts, but much easier going.

The plantation, Honey Valley Estate, is at the top of very rough, unpaved roads. Our car had to stay at the bottom and we were picked up by a jeep for the last few miles. As soon as we got into our room and had a little tea, we headed out for a hike down a slope nearby. There were lots of bugs we'd never seen:

That last one moved like an inchworm, standing on one end and then bending over and pulling itself forward. In fact, it seemed to wave in the air and then head in our direction. The first time we saw it, it seemed really cute.

We walked down the path a little. And then Don felt a prick and a little movement on his leg. There was something black, slightly pulsing, on his shin. With great disgust he ripped the thing off and threw it away. Those things weren't inchworms, they were leeches. Time for a retreat.

After making our way back up the path to a rockier part, we de-leeched our legs and feet. I had three or so on me, with one actually attached through my socks. Only one of them had been there long enough to get really big. I pulled him off and squished him on a rock, happy to see him dead but not so glad to see the four inches of blood that spurted out on the ground. Hey, I was using that!

During the retreat, there may have been disgust. And swears. Maybe even whimpers.

When we got back to our room, Don had to take off a couple more leech friends, and I had to track down one, waiting near the door, that had hitched a ride on my jeans but hadn't been able to suck yet. And here's Don's foot. He'd wiped off the blood but it was still beading up. The chemicals leeches inject into the wounds they make stop the blood from coagulating, but the bites also have things that increase blood flow and spread the chemicals farther into the bloodstream. It's a drug cocktail that guaranteed that the Band-Aids I slapped on my big bite kept getting soaked through.

Soon we'd calmed down enough to wish that we'd just spent the weekend drinking too many pots of tea and going to the Forum Mall to buy shirts with loud patterns. And wishing we had some post-leech-trauma medication. And deciding that if we had to spend the rest of the weekend on the porch reading large books and sending psychic waves of hate to leeches everywhere, then that was A-OK.

Important note: our Outlook Traveller guidebook does say to avoid the area from July-August, "when the rainforest receives heavy showers and teems with leeches." But we didn't really read that bit until we were speeding down the highway. And to us, leeches are something that live in stagnant, dirty water, not something waiting for you on winding paths. Oops! Somehow the many many nature documentaries shown here extolling India's natural wonders never got around to Coorg's evident richness in leeches.

Tune in tomorrow, to learn leech wisdom from a plucky Australian and a host of others.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Cosies Will Never Die

And yesterday's BBC News had more about the Agatha Christie comics I was mumbling about yesterday.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Gecko to the Rescue

In addition to our normal levels of cockroaches, ants have decided to join us in the apartment, especially in the kitchen and the bathroom. If I leave out an empty mug with sugar on the bottom, and I usually do, I can be sure that it will be filled with tiny tiny ants in a few hours.

And that's why we're so pleased that a gecko has moved into the kitchen cupboards. The little beasts have been an obsession for a while, and our own couldn't have come at a better time. Here's hoping he eats to bust a gut every day.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Action Without Vision Is a Nightmare

Another day, another press release:

Read between the characters of Queen of Crime-Agatha Christie as it comes in a new avatar! Euro Books, India’s largest Children Publishing House presents the entire collection of Agatha Christie in graphic novels format.

They say that Vision without action is a daydream and action without vision is a nightmare, now read these action-packed crime stories in an attractive captivating format! Also, Euro Books is the pioneer to come up with crime thrillers in graphic novels format in India.

While Agatha Christie’s novels have been hugely popular with generations of Indian readers, the new format of Graphic Novels is just what today’s Gen Next kids would lap up. Millions of kids and teens across the world find these stories are brought to life by lively sketches and make a better read than the traditional novel format.

These books are available across all leading bookstores in India, individuals priced at an M.R.P of Rs 199/- and the pack of 3 at M.R.P of Rs.450/-.

Bookslut says a bit complacently that "no one's going to read these things anyway," but I doubt the good folks over there know how much acreage Dame Christie's paperbacks take up in the average Indian bookstore of any size. I'm guessing a few parents who want to get their kids into reading something will think (probably wrongly) that Miss Marple would be a good means to that end.

The publisher's managing director, at least, would like to get a Christie-as-Literature theory started: he "thinks that Indian children should be invited to read classic titles such as Agatha Christie so that they have knowledge of the past in terms of good writing."

Next up, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew: more here.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Orchid-Gathering Monkey

From the The Hindu:

Well-known botanist T. Ananda Rao has collaborated with ornithologist and photographer S. Sridhar, to bring out “Wild Orchids in Karnataka- A Pictorial Compendium”, which is at once a run through the captivating world of orchids and a journey in the ecological hotspots of Karnataka. The original “Orchid Man”, Dr. Ananda Rao, has dedicated the book to Hanumanthu, a monkey that helped him collect orchids from tall trees in the Western Ghats, in the “orchid guilds”, or the special ecological niches where orchids can be found in the Talacauvery range, the Bababudangiri-Kudremukh National Park area, and in the Dandeli-Sirsi-Yellapur area.

How did the botanist train the monkey to grab all those orchids? Well, it took six months. Much harder than teaching a monkey to do dishes.

Sadly, as the previous link mentions, Hanumanthu was beaten to death by a policeman when the monkey was being used by a street performer. Rao tried to train a replacement, but "it is not obedient. It eats up the entire banana and refuses to do the work. However my field work has come to end point there is no necessary to train a monkey or its young one which is not obedient to do its work. For some period I had hired two tribal men for my fieldwork, but nobody is as good as Hanuman."

[By the way, what does the "-thu" at the end of Hanumanthu's name mean? Is it like "little Hanuman"?]

Friday, August 17, 2007

Penguin Ice Creams, Mysore

I liked this "re-purposing" of the Penguin Books mascot. His distant relation is selling something you'd think the little black and white beasts would know a lot about. The awning with the penguin crowd is also kind of awesome.

The store is semi-famous, I believe. I should have stopped, but was in a hurry.

Green Wall

Green Wall, originally uploaded by jrambow.

More about last week's trip to Mangalore later, but for now here's a picture of what many walls look like during the monsoon, at least along the coast.

Tacky or Wonderful?

Rag Rug, originally uploaded by jrambow.

A confession. Buying a fancy wool or silk rug in India is not very high on my priorities. All the pretentious talking. All the offering of milky tea. All the bargaining and BS-ing. All the ignorance (on my part) about thread counts and natural dyes and blah blah blah. And worst of all, all the looking at rugs.

So although it seems dumb to not come back from the place with something substantial that I paid too much for, it's probably not going to happen. Instead, this is my idea of good rug. It's bouncy and cheerful. It's made of scraps. It cost 65 rupees.

True, the stallowners who sold it to me on Commercial Street didn't offer me any tea or any stories about Kashmir, but that was really OK.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Happy I-Day

It's Independence Day today, and that means the streets are very quiet and many stores are closed for at least part of the day. And it also happens to be a very sunny day good for walks in the park -- never something you can count on during the monsoon. I've been trying to finish up some work in between reading lots of I-Day stuff (the BBC, the extra-large edition of today's Hindu).

I've also been thinking a lot about the floods in the north, which have affected 45 million people, and killed at least 2,200. If you can afford it, please consider a donation to a worthwhile charity. One that looks good to us is Oxfam.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Wine Time 3: Chantilli Cabernet Sauvignon

A bit of a surprise. I bought it at the store on a whim, mainly because its label didn't look that annoying, and because I didn't have enough rupees for a fancy-pants reserve wine that was shinier. But we lucked out, because it was actually darn good.

Our wine was bottled in 2005 and cost 368 rupees ($9). It's from Chateau Indage, a winery that began in 1982, and the grapes are from the Sahyadri Valley, in Maharashtra.

The first thing we noticed about this wine was the strong smell of alcohol -- you get a hit of that, and you also get a hit of the slightly sweet smell (like toast) of the oak barrels it was aged in. As for taste, it's dry, but you can also taste a lot of the fruit. For once, I agree with the wine label: there really were "rich aromas of ripe fruit, plums, cherries, and green pepper." (I didn't taste any green pepper, and that's just as well.)

This is a big wine, and I'm not sure how well it would work with lots of Indian food -- I think it would clash with all the strong flavors in a lot of dishes. We had it with some pizza, and that seemed a good fit. It would also be good with a burger.

A good wine! We give it a 7.

Lalbagh Flower Show

This time we got our act together and made it to the flower show, held at Lal Bagh, the botanical garden here. The show's held twice a year, the week before Independence Day (tomorrow) and Republic Day (in January), and perhaps because it's so regular, there are not many announcements about it. To everyone else, I think, it's really obvious when it's about to occur.

Anyway, the show is held mainly in Lalbagh's big Victorian-style glass house , and in addition to lots and lots of flower varieties, there were big sculptures made of flowers -- the centerpiece was one of the Taj Mahal. And then there was the space shuttle.

But the best part, even better than all the incredible flowers and the good, clear non-monsoonish weather we lucked into, was the people-watching. Unlike most flower shows in the states, this attracts lots and lots of people, and it seemed as if every student in the Karnataka was there.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Motimahal Hotel

Perhaps this won't be funny to many other people, but it made me smile to see how prominent the Moti Mahal hotel makes its staff hierarchy. India in general is a very hierarchical place, but even for here it seems unusual to put it on the web site, next to pictures of the rooms and discussion of the size of the banquet halls.

By the way, the restaurant has very good seafood. I could do with some right now.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Snack Time: Aulose Unda

It may very well be because of my weakness for buying snacks at the grocery that Don is always surprised when I tell him that I happen to be on a diet. In any case, it's our loyal readers I'm thinking of when I see products like the one below and grab them.

These appealed to me partly because they seemed pretty simple: you've just got some rice flour, dry ginger, jaggery (delicious palm sugar), jeera (cumin), and elachi (cardamon). As a side note, it's a very rare kind of snack like this that doesn't have cardamon. I personally think it's usually a distracting and overpowering taste, but I'm trying to get used to it -- it's clear from its heavy usage that it's not going anywhere.

And what are these little golf balls like inside? Dry and crumbly! There were slightly gingery, but the main thing they have is a mealy texture.

I could also taste little chunks of jaggery. And those were the best parts. But a much more efficient way of getting that jaggery taste is just to buy big yellow chunks of it at the store, take them home, lock the door, and gnaw on them when no one's looking. (Surely I'm not the only one who does that.)

Anyway, one or two of these might be OK, but beyond that, I think they're doomed to remain uneaten and unloved, at least at our house.

Unda seem similar to laddoos. Here'a recipe for Mangalorean undas with coconut and a little ghee.

Voltage Stabilizer Part 2

So that horrible Voltage Stabilizer drove us crazy with all its "chattering." A couple nights it was so bad and constant that I woke up, and it wasn't a treat to hear it during the day, either. So we unplugged the old one, took if off the cabinet carefully (it seemed to weigh about 40 pounds), and upgraded to the much smaller specimen below-- Oscar. The cost of around 1000 rupees seems like a small price for a much quieter house. And I love its name, red color, and 1970s good looks.

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Super-Hot Pepper

Here's an funny story about the super-hot bhut jolokia (ghost chili), which is grown in Assam.

You know, lots of Indian food is not really that hot, but of course the stuff that is, is usually memorable. It's always good to make sure you have some raita (yogurt/curd with spices and vegetables) nearby. Just in case.

Is This What San Francisco Feels Like?

We're still taking a while to get used to the monsoon. It's strange to wake up to grey skies so often, and it's also weird how chilly it often is. At the moment, around 6 pm, it's around 75 F (24 C), but it feels much chillier because of the dampness and the breeze. And it's lasting longer than we thought it would. At least one person had told us that the monsoon usually petered out by the end of July. But no.

All this dampness causes fashion problems. It's hard to know what to wear, since a bright and sunny day can cloud over in a few minutes, and of course vice versa. And a lot of what I could wear still have to be washed. We have a washing machine but no dryer -- just a clothes rack. (Dryers are extremely rare in India.) At the moment that rack is full of still slightly damp clothes from yesterday. It's hard for a cloudy sky and a damp breeze to have much effect on them. It makes me want the sun of March (just a little). Back then, you could dry two batches of laundry a day. It was amazing.

But that sun's not coming back like that for while. Yesterday, I broke down and bought a man shawl (that is, a shawl in manly colors). It looks pretty good on the couch, but I don't think I'll be wrapping it around myself, covering my torso and neck and perhaps my head as well, before leaving the house. That's the way you often see old men wearing them on the streets, especially in the early morning and night.

Friday, August 03, 2007

USD for Me, INR for You

It's normal for most medium- and high-end hotels in India to charge foreigners extra. The usual way they do this is to quote foreigner prices in US dollars, with the Indian price, obviously, in rupees. The trick, if you want to call it that, is that the USD price is almost always higher than the rupee price. I'm a little hazy on how exactly this system arose, but it's clearly a way to get a bigger bite from the foreigner wallet. When it comes time to pay up, the foreigners are actually charged in rupees, so they end up paying more AND still usually having to pay for some sort of currency conversion. The "foreigner tax" generally amounts to paying 10-15% more*.

So, for instance, the Taj luxury hotels chain asks for 13000 rupees for a sea view "luxury" room in Goa when the person staying there is Indian. But for a foreigner, that price is 13,935 INR ($345). That's 935 rupees ($23) extra for not being from these parts. (Of course, the dollar buys fewer rupees than it did last year at this time--the foreigner premium was higher then*.)

I've gotten used to the system (it helps that I rarely stay in places fancy enough for there to be much of a difference, if any, in the prices). But I was a little taken aback to discover a resort that wants foreigners to pay 2800 inr (almost $70, or 33%) extra for a cottage suite. And that's the outdated tariff -- the one the hotel emailed me has the Indian rate at a 1000 rupees less and the dollar rate staying the same. All I can hope is that foreigners get perhaps some sort of keepsake for all that extra cash. Or maybe they could promise to be 2800 rupees' less messy? (Seriously, if I were even thinking of staying here I'd yell and scream to try to get the rate down. Way down.)

But there's a little hope that this may not always be the way things are: The Taj and Oberoi groups, among others, might be getting rid of this system, and Hyatt already has. This is a good thing, I think, and probably a sign of the hotels' increasing confidence. After all, the Taj owns hotels in the U.S. now -- I doubt there are two tariffs listed at the one in Boston.

* Interestingly, at the moment the Oberoi in Bangalore is asking foreigners to pony up "just" the equivalent of 27,265 rupees ($675) for its executive suite, and that's basically the same as the Indian price of 27500. Last year, $675 was closer to 30,375 rupees. Foreigners are getting a (very tiny) deal for now, but we can expect the prices to be re-adjusted when the current rates expire at the end of the month.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Dung beetle

Dung beetle, originally uploaded by jrambow.

The Chamundi temple is at the top of a hill with 1000 stone steps leading down to Mysore itself. Pilgrims walk up, but Don and I took a car up and walked down. Just about every one of the steps had a pile of red and yellow powder on it. The piles were slowly expanding as people walked up, adding a little to the pile each time as a way of puja, or worship. I think I only saw women putting down the powder.

But there's not just powder on the steps. Of course there's also manure here and there from cattle and other animals. Here's a little dung beetle taking advantage of the free food supply. I like how he caught a few specks of color up in his ball.