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

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.