Category Archives: travel

Cultural studies in a flurry.

I once read a definition of culture as “everything people make and do.” That’s the one I’m working from for this post, in which I want to briefly touch on many odds and ends that interest me about India, but which I don’t have time to research or think about extensively.

One writer said that India is so diverse in its history and culture that it is more like 60+ countries than it is a unified nation. I think that is one reason that I was really glad to have limits on my explorations. How can one person deal with that breadth of possibilities? I would rather have depth of knowledge about a few things, or lacking that, just more time being exposed to a type of food, or the sound of a neighborhood, or day after day chatting with a native.

It was a treat to be in India when Republic Day was being celebrated last month, and to watch the parade in Delhi on TV with Kate and Tom. The most colorful and impressive aspects of Indian culture and tradition were on display for the international guests sitting in the stands and anyone who tuned in.

I had never seen motorcycle stunt riders before, but they are a huge thing in the Indian Army, and we enjoyed their performance. Women teams performed as well that day, and since then I’ve read about how the Indians have set records for various motorcycle stunts like most men riding a motorcycle (58) and longest ride standing up, etc. On my first day in Mumbai, you may remember that the things that first caught my attention were the trees and the motorcycles. I haven’t stopped wondering.

On our road trip when I was riding in the back of the car and watching traffic behind me, I had the chance to do a lot of people-on-motorcycles-watching. One young family was riding down the freeway at 50 or 60 miles per hour and when I first saw them, the wife looked especially pretty in her colorful sari, because she was smiling so happily as she rode sidesaddle behind her husband. The whole family was obviously carefree and enjoying their ride, a five-year-old boy sitting in front of his smiling father. The father was wearing a helmet.

At least in some places in India, there are laws that say the driver of the motorcycle must wear a helmet. Kate knows this, because when they were in Goa they rented a bike and the rental company gave Tom a helmet because it was the law that he must wear one. Kate wanted a helmet as well, but the shop didn’t have enough for anyone but drivers.

Since I heard that story I’ve been noticing, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone other than a driver wearing a helmet, and often not the driver. Many women in traditional kurtas with scarves around their heads and sometimes faces will ride solo, and they don’t usually wear a helmet.

It seemed like dozens of marching bands streamed past in the Republic Day parade, and my favorite by far was this group from the Oxford Foundation School in Delhi, who changed my life in a minute, turning me into a woman who would do anything to get a pair of velvet Indian salwar pants in that exact shade of green!

Truly, if I were staying only a week longer, I might have bought a sari to wear to a wedding the family will attend. Indian weddings are huge and lavish affairs — one important expectation is that you invite everyone who is in your life in the remotest way. If you work for a large company, you invite everyone in the company, for example.

“We” received an expected invitation to Tom’s co-worker’s Hindu wedding, delivered to the door, a portfolio sort of presentation, accompanied by a shiny box holding a family-sized confection called a ladoo. We cut it into six wedges and finished it off for dessert that night, savoring its indescribable subtle flavors which we think included rose and fennel.

Since then we’ve shopped for the proper wedding attire for the whole family – you need one sort of outfit for the morning part of the event, and another for the evening.

Indian families normally don’t take their babies out until they are six months old, so we haven’t found formal wedding wear that Raj doesn’t swim in. He may have to go a little casual. Kate has a sari now, and another sort of Indian dress; she is very hopeful that they will get more wedding invitations during their stay here so she can make further use of these traditional and fancy outfits. Tom is making do without a pair of elf-like shoes that the sharpest dressers to wear to weddings.

The book Reimagining India that I’ve been browsing has a whole section devoted to Culture and Soft Power, in which various writers treat subjects like Bollywood, Indian food and restaurants, and the mindset of the privileged middle class. One of the writers was at the time of the book’s publication the reigning world chess champion, and he wrote an article on “Making Chess India’s Game.”

I don’t even play chess, but I liked his story, and found this paragraph helpful in my “studies”:

One of the things I bring to my play is my Indian identity — my ability to shrug off a loss as destiny and hope for a better tomorrow. I am often described as a “natural” or “intuitive” player. I agree there is something to that. I learned to play chess at high speed. At the Mikhail Tal Chess Club in Chennai, where I began playing chess, we used to play “blitz” — the shortest format of chess in which players use a timer and neither is allowed more than five minutes of total playing time. We embraced blitz to make playing fun; the club was crowded, and blitz was the best way to ensure that the maximum number of players got time on the board. The winner stayed and the loser had to go back in queue. It made the evening more exciting. We all loved it. I learned to play fast, without agonizing about strategy or overanalyzing individual moves. Maybe this is a form of Indian ingenuity: making the most of a situation in which there isn’t much structure.

~Viswanathan Anand 

It just now occurs to me that my India studies have been fast and intense in a similar way. Like the traffic flow on the city streets, it looks chaotic, but under the circumstances it’s the most efficient way to go. I can’t afford to stay here any longer — I would become hopelessly immersed in the Indian jumble, only coming up for air long enough to type a few feeble words on my laptop.

This is not my photo, but I did see many women carrying water in similar containers. People carry all kinds of bundles and baskets of things on their heads in India. Kate and I discussed the weight of water if the containers held three gallons each: two containers = 48 pounds. I hope they only hold two gallons, in which it would impress a mere 32 pounds on each head.

In India, I have seen men sleeping in public every time I go out, often in shops, and I imagine they are workers on break; everyone stays up late here, so they need a nap. But what do I know? Maybe they are drug dealers who work at night and sleep in their uncle’s shop in the day.

India is labor-rich. Kate and Tom explained to me that an economy is either rich in labor or in capital, and in India it is definitely labor. A rule of thumb is that if there is a job you expect one person to do in the U.S., four Indians will be doing it here, because they are available, and machines and technology are not as abundant so they are relatively expensive.

This can be a bit disconcerting when you shop, and two to four store staff hover about, not just waiting to help you but asking you to look at one thing after another you don’t want. In restaurants you have very attentive waiters, often standing a few feet away from your table watching to be sure they don’t miss a cue that you might need something. And just generally, people, people everywhere, walking and riding their motorbikes and carrying things.

Several months ago Kate had told me that many Indians have stopped using the all-purpose “Namaste” for every greeting, because a phrase like “Good morning,” for example, is more specific and useful, and they like it.

It also is essential for the latest fad that was pretty much started by Indians of my age group, a trend that caught the attention of Google and which you may have heard about because of that. As older people started getting hooked up to the Internet, they discovered the joys of wishing all their friends “Good morning!” about eight o’clock every day, by means of image-rich text messages. These texts were using up Indians’ digital storage three times faster than average and causing their smartphones to freeze up.

“Perhaps India’s most famous morning-message enthusiast is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He gets up at 5 a.m. to practice yoga and is known to fire off good-morning messages as the sun is rising. Last year, he admonished a group of lawmakers for not responding to his greetings.”

My son-in-law has been getting these kinds of texts from his Indian coworkers and has jumped on the bandwagon himself. I don’t have any Indian friends who might send me a cheery Good Morning message, but I figure some of you are still in the early part of the day as you read this, so I asked Tom to send an example in my direction. This way I can share a little upbeat and current Indian culture with you my readers and at the same time wish you my best. I hope that in the next several hours, morning or not, your life is rich but not chaotic. And if you ride a motorcycle, please wear a helmet!

Food is fun!

Indian food is so diverse, and delicious to my taste, it’s hard not to eat too much of it. The ingredients, the processing and cooking and serving, all have new and strange aspects. This post is all about food, things I’ve learned about or eaten that didn’t fit into other posts on India.

1 – Veg and Non-Veg

These are the broad categories people refer to when they are telling what foods they eat, not with quite the same meaning as people in the U.S. who might define themselves as Vegetarian, Vegan, Paleo, Gluten-free, Meat and Potatoes, I Eat Everything, etc. Here, Hindus are often “Veg,” meaning they do not eat meat or eggs, because they are Hindus and not for any health-related reasons. Muslims are Non-Veg because they have no religious ban on eating meat in general.

Our family does eat meat and eggs, so we are in the Non-Veg category, but it seems strange to say that, since we do like and eat a lot of vegetables! Hindus who do eat meat would rarely eat beef, and Muslims do not eat pork. Chicken is in abundance, and water buffalo meat, and goat meat, known as mutton.

2 – An example of wonderful Veg food is the Gujarati Thali meal we enjoyed our first night in the mountains, a traditional spread of a variety of dishes taking its name from Gujarat, the Indian state just north of here. We were the only ones in the restaurant from the beginning of our meal until the end, because we arrived so early, 7:45.

You start out with a plate of empty stainless steel bowls, and then the waiters — we had four for the three of us — alternate bringing to the table pots of soups and stews and drinks which they ladle out, and plates of breads hot off the griddle, and as soon as you have eaten half of anything they are back to refill again and again. We found ourselves eating too fast, because they seemed to be urging us on.

Not only did they bring us refills, but they brought new items after a while, which of course we must try, until we were so plumped out we had to turn our eager hosts away, and finally eat the sweet pudding that I failed to take a picture of. I was trying to figure out what was in it — surely those little red threads bleeding orange and yellow into the creamy white must be saffron, but our waiters said not. I still don’t believe them; there was a bit of a language barrier.

3 – Milk

If you are Veg, you can still enjoy dishes like that pudding, which contained a milk product, maybe yogurt. India has become the biggest producer of milk in the world, though the average dairy milks only four cows and/or water buffaloes. “One of the main reasons India is the highest producer of milk is that it imports a lot of European cows and cross-breeds them with local varieties. But the most crucial reason is that India has had a successful decades-long programme to source milk from small farmers through cooperatives.”

Because Kate doesn’t trust the regulators of these little dairies, she buys milk in aseptic boxes, or cartons of pasteurized. But most Indian households take milk home from little shops that get it fresh daily in half-liter plastic bags, such as I saw when I went out shopping with Kareena. This smiling lady was just receiving the morning’s shipment. Kareena says they boil the milk in a pot when they get it home, and store it in the fridge in the same pot, which they don’t use for any other foods, I think mostly so that the flavors of chili and cumin won’t get into the milk.

4 – Ice cream  I love ice cream, and Indian ice cream is all good, in my experience. In addition to ice cream in interesting flavors they have  kulfi, which is just slightly different, always served in a cone shape. I have eaten chickoo ice cream and sitafal, or custard apple ice cream. Which carries me into the topic of:

3 – Fruit

The chikoo, called sapodilla some places in the world, has been described as malt-y, and Kate and I agreed that the ice cream is so. I ate some fresh custard apple fruit and it was indeed creamy and custardy. I wanted to finish the whole thing. But be prepared for lots of finger-lickin’. As it’s mostly seeds, I think the idea of making ice cream from the pulp was inspired. Custard apple is the Indian version of the cherimoya.

5 – Rose and Pistachio

These are two of my favorite exotic flavors. Back home, I have made an Indian tapioca pudding flavored with both. So when I had a choice of kulfi flavors, I chose pistachio. And the same weekend, after our sweaty stairclimbing hike we stopped in an eclectic restaurant called The German Bakery, where I saw on the menu a Turkish Rose shake. Without a doubt I would order that! And I drank two lemon ginger iced teas as well — I was a little dehydrated and they were small, after all.

6 – Spicy food

Yes, Indians do like to add the heat to many foods. At The German Bakery, Kate ordered a side of Garlic Chana, or chickpeas, for us to share. They were really hard to stop eating!

Not only do Indians like spicy flavors generally, but there are particularly Indian blends of spices that make things taste right to their palates. So they adjust western recipes to make them fit. For example, I was munching on some Sizzling Jalapeno Nacho Crisps that looked like many versions of tortilla chips you would find in the U.S. But they seemed a little odd… When I looked at the ingredient list I found that they had ginger in the spice mix. We would not think of that as a “nacho” flavor.

7 – Sweets

Gulab jamun are balls with a doughnut like consistency, swimming in syrup. They were offered as part of a buffet we ate recently, and we ladled a couple on to our dish of butterscotch ice cream — a pleasantly sticky experience. For once I had left my camera in my pocket, so I found a picture online of gulab jamun.

And for beauty of sweets, you can’t beat this collection that Kate bought at the same store where I was buying dried apricots. Lots of pistachio here, too:

8 – Salads

I did not expect to eat salad in India, because of the possibility of contamination of raw vegetables. At home, though, we do disinfect all of our produce as soon as it comes into the house, and when eating out or ordering in, it turns out that there are many restaurants with excellent reputations regarding the safety of their menu items. Word gets around among expats about the restaurants whose food has never been known to make anyone sick.

So I have eaten salads several times, and they were some of my favorites ever. The Indian chefs seem to be creative in ways that jive with my taste preferences. They don’t overuse the ingredients that I get tired of on the U.S. salad menus, like cranberries, red onion, and avocado.

One I ate was called “Bam Bam Thank You Lamb,” and was made of Romaine and iceberg lettuces, dried tomatoes, black rice, roasted cashews, feta cheese and braised lamb.

The salad below included arugula, chickpeas, puffed rice, amaranth, cherry tomatoes, sprouts, pomegranate, lotus seeds, and feta. Isn’t that wild?

9 – Vegetables, vegetables

I love visiting the neighborhood market and seeing every sort of vegetable imaginable. It’s kind of like this in California, but more expensive, and not as fun somehow. And it’s a joy to watch Kareena cook. She roasted eggplants completely on top of the stove, just turning them every half a minute for fifteen minutes or so.

Others have noted that Indian food is not beautiful or easily presentable as a visual work of art. There are lots of basically brown items. So I think the eye appeal often comes from the shapes and textures, and the aromas and tastes are definitely sensational! Kate and I were talking about this the other night as we lingered over dessert at a South Indian restaurant, a little bowl of creamy, golden brown pudding we shared, and mused over what the ingredients might be.

Eventually we learned from the waiter or figured out ourselves that they were chikoo fruit (photo below of the fresh fruit), millet, milk, ghee, about three golden raisins… a combination that added up to an externally drab affect. But oh, it was lovely, and we did not want it to end.

At home, I have been cooking so little since becoming a widow, compared to my life before that. I wonder if my stay in India will have any effect on my life in the kitchen once I am back again? If I do find that I have been inspired to create something interesting, I’ll let you know here, because food is fun!

a few churches

The Apostle Thomas first brought the Gospel of Christ to India, so the history of the faith here dates from way back. But in this area around Mumbai it’s the Portuguese influence that began in the 16th century that has resulted in many Catholic churches, schools, and convents. The history of Christianity in India is too vast a subject for me to delve into, much less write about, but I don’t want to leave Mumbai without mentioning a few churches I saw and my quite personal and random impressions.

I didn’t visit any of the churches in the uninterrupted line of the Apostle Thomas, because they are not as convenient to get to, and my contact with Catholic churches was also minimal. Tom and I did see the Afghan Church briefly. Many times the old church buildings themselves are a blessing to me, when I consider all the generations of worshipers who have sung and prayed there.

On my first morning, when Tom took me on that two-hour walking tour, we visited St. Andrew’s Church, which was locked. The caretaker was glad to let us in, and we found that we were not the only visitors. A woman was sitting in a pew facing the altar. We sat in silence for a few minutes also, and then went out to see the graveyard.

The most architecturally impressive church I’ve seen was The Basilica of our Lady of the Mount at Land’s End in Bandra, Mumbai. The current church was built in the 18th century, though a chapel in this spot had been built by the Portuguese in the 1500’s.

We made the trip in one of those black-and-yellow rickshaws such as you can see in front in this picture, and we came expecting that we might have to stand outside, because services are known to be crowded. But we were able to sit in the nave on bench pews, and when we came in there was singing already filling the church, very melodic and light.

People were indeed standing outside around the tall side doors that were open wide, and maybe that’s how birds would fly in and out. For a while only rock doves swooped silently across the altar and back, but soon they were joined by a very noisy crow who made it hard to hear the scripture readings. One dove changed course and flew up and down the length of the nave many times, and the crow eventually either flew out or merely fell silent just before the homily, which was a relief.

I enjoyed the outdoorsy feeling, though, and appreciated the simple and uncushioned, beautiful wooden pews. Just outside afterward we met an acquaintance whose photo with his cute niece I’ve been waiting weeks for a chance to post.

One church we attended in the neighborhood was new to Tom and Kate, as was the Basilica. We walked about ten minutes to get to St. Anne’s, including a walk down a very long driveway to accommodate the cars that weren’t planned for. Tom liked that the church was so old that it had been built before streets were needed, and later on they were not laid out so that they passed very near.

I liked the way the windows were open to the evening (We were at 6 o’clock mass.) and to the courtyard. After the service people hung around in the balmy air (winter is still warm!) to chat.

The atmosphere and the open windows reminded me of church summer camp, especially singing the sort of choruses that hearken back to an earlier period of Christian music in the U.S. at least, such as the ones I’ve copied here, sung out of a book or projected on a screen overhead.

Kate and Tom’s usual parish down the street is newer, and even more accommodating to the weather, the extremes of which I know nothing about. The sides of the nave to a height of eight feet or so consist of louvered, unscreened windows. The louvers were completely open, and large oscillating fans set close blew the pleasantest breeze through the pews. Baby Raj was in the sling and seemed completely asleep through the whole service, but it could be he was listening with his spirit. He was blessed also by the hand of the priest.

I’ve been missing my Orthodox parish, no doubt about it. But it has been a joy to see the lasting effect of faithful witnesses down through the ages in this one community, and to receive through them gifts of grace such as I knew when I saw the sign on St. Peter’s Church here, shortly after Christmas:

JESUS THE FACE OF THE MERCIFUL GOD

snacks and addictions

If you see red stains on the sidewalk in an Indian city, it’s likely they are selling paan nearby. This snack is the only nasty one I am going to write about, so I’m getting it out of the way first. People use it after the manner of chewing tobacco, after they roll some betel or areca nut (Areca catechu) and perhaps tobacco and some other flavors and ingredients into a paan leaf, which is also called a betel leaf (Piper betle) although the plant it comes from is an entirely different species .

I found lots of information online about how healthy the paan leaf is; it is related to kava, so maybe that’s true. But I’m afraid that doesn’t make the whole concoction any less toxic. “Paan (under a variety of names) is … consumed in many other Asian countries and elsewhere in the world by some Asian emigrants, with or without tobacco. It is an addictive and euphoria-inducing formulation with adverse health effects.”

Kate pointed out these paan preparers to me and that made me curious enough to read more about the whole thing. In some places paan is outlawed because the chewers often spit on the sidewalk and it makes an unsightly red mess. It is possible to find recipes in which the betel nut part is optional, so you could eat a non-toxic version if you’re interested. Let me know and I will ask Kate where she found it. 🙂

So, that’s usually a bad sort of snack to be in the habit of eating, but Indians are great snackers all around, and you are in luck if you are looking for something spicy and crunchy. There must be a hundred snacks in this category that I haven’t tasted, but I’ll tell you about a small sample.

This flaky stuff below, poha chivda, is the first such food I encountered. The main ingredient is rice made into crisp flakes about the size of regular rolled oats, to which other very spicy ingredients are added. I can’t personally eat it tidily other than with a spoon out of a cup, but I think it must commonly be eaten out of hand, too. I found a recipe for it which I am linking to just so you can see a better photo of this snack that I love. The main ingredient would no doubt be hard to find in the U.S.:

Bitter gourd is battered and deep fried to make a food that is even more fiery than the above. Eating a whole 2″ diameter ring of this snack keeps me warm for quite a while:

Outside the famous Mary Mount church at Bandra Fort is a snack stand that caters both to tourists and to church people who might need one thing or another as they go in to worship and/or come out hungry:

We came upon a coconut stand, and Tom bought a fresh coconut that was served with a straw. Then he was given a scoop made from a slice of the fruit, with which to scrape out the creamy pulp that was left after we drank the coconut water.

Another favorite of Tom’s is sev puri, which is sold at the same snack stands as pani puri which I mentioned before. I have eaten it two or three times, when we stop on the street and two or three of us stand at the counter and share one of these savory bowls. I know, it looks a mess, but you get to watch it be assembled from several ingredients that combine to deliver a flavor punch with crunch on top. Highly recommended!

The moong dal snack below was offered in our hotel room last week and I have no idea what it is like because I’m saving it for something or other:

So far, the store pictured below was my favorite food shopping experience, for the large variety of dried fruit, snacks and sweets available there. Here Kate and friend Krishna are trying to get the attention of the busy clerks:

And it was at this store that I was introduced to the amazing dried apricots, no bigger than 1 1/2″, with pits intact. The flavor is sunshine bright, and they make a nice little nibble.

It would be easy to become addicted — but I’m counting them as health food!