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!

The high and the low.

Kate took me to South Mumbai last week to visit some Must See sites, which I’m sure I could write a book about if I only had enough lives to live. I tell you truly, this exciting life with its realms of experience and knowledge that I can only manage to dip my little toe into is wearing me out. My understanding of many things I present here is slight, and my photos are not as good as you can find other places online. But they are what I’ve seen with my own eyes, and we had good reason for going to these spots, and I was so glad we did.

I’ll start my report with one of the High things, the Gateway of India, which is hard for someone as unskilled as I to photograph, looming as it does so huge at the edge of the sea. The British built this monument to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to India in 1911, and it was completed in 1924. When the last British troops departed India, they passed through the arch, ceremoniously relinquishing power.

Kate and I walked all around, and she took my picture in front of this icon of Mumbai, under which one is no longer permitted to walk. We also had our picture taken with various groups of Indian tourists. But then we sped away, because there was so much to see…

The next High thing on our agenda, which often appears in photos with the Gateway, was the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. This five-star hotel opened twenty years before the Gateway was completed, having been commissioned by the Tata group, a conglomerate founded in 1868 by the man considered “The Father of Indian Industry,” Jamsetji Tata. A staircase leads up to a bust of this patriarchal figure.

I didn’t notice when I took my picture of the exterior that I was including a row of men posing for someone else, but I was happy to have them come along! That picture shows the original building and the tall addition, which between them have more than 600 rooms and suites. “The Taj” is the place where John Lennon, Oprah, and Queen Elizabeth stay when they are in town.

In 2008 a terrorist attack on Mumbai focused on the Taj, where the attackers holed up for days, and where many staff were killed. This garden, which has a waterfall not in the picture, memorializes those who lost their lives:

We wandered around for a little while, appreciating the artful opulence. In the restroom each patron has a clean and folded cloth napkin with which to dry her hands. Everything was elegant and serene and orderly.

I could imagine the lovely dresses in the clothing shop, but I was concerned that Kate not get worn out, so we left The Taj pretty soon and went to lunch at a famous Parsi café called Britannia & Company. “Parsi” refers to the Zoroastrian Persians who emigrated to India centuries ago to escape persecution. There is a large Parsi community in the Mumbai area, from which the Tatas are descended, by the way, and much good Parsi food available. Pilau is probably the center of a good Parsi lunch:

In the rankings of high to low, our lunch was not high cuisine, but it was a high point of the day, and Parsi food ranks high on my list. The next places I’ll tell you about, though, are both low in different ways, which I dare not begin to muse on philosophically. It’s another book to be written.

I have to mention that it was in this busiest part of the city that I saw the most cows, three strolling through one intersection alone.

Dhobi Ghat… In Hindi, ghat means “steps leading down to a body of water.” (It also means “mountain,” as in my last post.) Dhobi is the name of a caste of washermen. Dhobi ghat can refer to any laundromat, but in Mumbai, Dhobi Ghat is the giant open-air laundry that Kate and I visited. My first picture above was part of the view as seen from the road on one side; after, we walked down into the area of washing pens and flogging stones, where drying laundry hung in close rows above us.

Our tour was very informal: we entered what in essence is a little village, started looking around, and a young man asked if we wanted a tour for 200 rupees, about $3, each. We said okay, and paid, and then he walked us through very fast and told us some things about the laundry. I missed much of what he said because I was hanging behind taking pictures, and just generally being overwhelmed and spacey from barely believing that I was in this place. I love doing laundry, but it seems ludicrous for me to say that in the context of Dhobi Ghat. These people take the task of washing clothes to a level that is outer space. But the whole affair lies so low as to be hardly noticeable as your gaze is carried upward by the skyscrapers all around.

Our guide told us that 400-500 people live here, and that he had been born at the “laundromat” himself. Internet articles say that their clients are “neighborhood laundries, wedding decorators, garment dealers, mid-sized hotels, clubs, and caterers.” I believe those things. But so much else that you can read, or even hear residents of Dhobi Ghat say in YouTube interviews, is contradictory or contrary to recorded history, so my questions only multiply and are unlikely to be answered to my satisfaction.

Some of my pictures are dark, because it was dark, especially in a passageway under tarps or some kind of roof, where in the space of five yards motorcycles and a bicycle were parked, a young man was cooking a big pan of potatoes, and an old man was pressing jeans with a vintage iron.

I came upon a man flogging a large wet item on a stone, his back to me, and when he lifted it each time to slap it down again, washwater fell in a shower behind him and on my path. So I timed my crossing, and managed to scoot past between slaps. In places there were little puddles or ditches to hop over, but we got through the busy laundry without getting wet.

It was noon, a clock in my photos tells me, and this man with one hand on the door of a big washer has a small glass of masala chai in the other hand. As we walked the lanes and streets we saw little apartments where the workers and their families live; some of them had a curtain pulled across, but in one doorway a woman was sitting on the floor preparing a salad. In the work area we walked past the occasional man stretched out sleeping on a wide shelf.

Dhobi Ghat was built by the British in 1890. Washermen own their wash pens and hand them down through the generations; some of them have installed modern washing machines and dryers. How they manage to keep track of the 10,000 items they collectively process every day is completely beyond me.

I thought the little girls I saw headed to school must be going off-site, but I learned in my research that the residents started their own school after one of their children was in an accident traveling to school elsewhere, and now they also have families from neighboring areas sending their children to the Dhobi Ghat school.

I count it a privilege to have had fifteen minutes in the presence of these hard-working people. When I am home again where I can hang my garments on the clothesline after letting my machines do almost all of the hard work, I will continue to think of them with admiration.

The last stop on our touristy outing was the lowest of all relative to sea level, because it was sea level, Girgaum Chowpatty or Chaupati Beach, a famous beach in Mumbai, but not for swimming. Festivities surrounding the favorite Hindu god Ganesh are held here, and at the end of the yearly celebrations effigies of Ganesh are plunged into the Arabian Sea, unfortunately adding to the trash problem. I found this photo online showing the event:

If I didn’t have a growing sand collection, I would not have taken the time to go to a beach in Mumbai, because a beach where the water is toxic is so disheartening. It’s not just trash, but sewage that pollutes these waters. And did I even want to collect sand from it? We had been trying to fit in a trip to an Indian beach ever since I arrived, and I was grateful to Kate that she insisted I not miss the opportunity.

We didn’t go on to the wet area of the wide beach. I theorized that the dry sand far away from the shore would have been washed by the last monsoons and not be the dirtiest. Nonetheless, when I got a sample home I washed and disinfected the sand with bleach, and then baked and dried it in the oven before filling my little bottle. 🙂

When you read here or elsewhere about all of the air pollution, water pollution, trash, you might think, “Why doesn’t someone do something?” The problems are complex, but sometimes simple baby steps can improve the situation.

We were only on the beach for a few minutes, during which time we were surprised to see big coppery urns — what could they be for? Kate asked a young man nearby, and he said they were waste bins! Many of the trash cans that have been installed all over the city are bright blue plastic barrels, but these elegant receptacles were both functional and beautiful. I did think of how a child would not be able to use them — oops! I guess that’s a design flaw.

While the government and environmentalists keep working on the source of the problems that humiliate the water and the sand, it makes me happy that someone has honored the beach with these trash urns. When I showed Tom my picture of Kate below he said, “Cute wife looking into the greatest trash can in India!”

A hill fort and a holiday.

For the first time since I arrived in India, I left Mumbai with Kate and Tom and Baby Raj and we went on what was their first road trip in this country; they didn’t own a car to do that with until after I arrived, and shortly after Raj arrived a month ago. Often it’s easier to travel with a very young baby than an older one, and they wanted to take me somewhere out of the city, so… we had a brief holiday in Lonavala and Khandala, only a couple of hours south and east of Mumbai. I was surprised at how soon out of the city we were seeing the mountains rise up before us, and even though we took a baby rest stop, we arrived at our hill station retreat in good time.

The only sad thing about this trip was the shame we brought on our family and probably on all westerners by letting Grandma sit in the back of the car with the baggage, a very disrespectful arrangement in the eyes of Indians. Tom would have been very happy to sit there instead, in one of the  side-facing jump seats, but then I’d have had to take the front seat and witness the constant near-death vehicle interactions, and he would not have been able to help the driver with directions. On the bench in the middle it was most convenient that Wilson in his car seat be next to his mother, and in the back I had lots of room to stretch my legs. I could see the scenery and the motorcycle riders and buses and all behind us — much more relaxing.

But at the hotel, every time we drove on to the property, the guards had to open the back door to check for stowaways or bombs or something, and they were embarrassed and/or amused to have to follow protocol when they could see the “auntie” through the window.

Our hotel sat above the Mumbai-Pune expressway. Mumbai is huge, of course, and Pune is the seventh largest city in India, so it’s not surprising that the smog from both of them extends to the mountains. We don’t know what the AQI index might be up there, but in any case it made our viewing of the mountain vistas a bit sad. Tom says that the air could easily be cleaned up in less than 20 years — look what Beijing did! — so I tried to imagine clearer vistas for coming generations.

The British established these hill stations in the mountains all over India as places to get away for a while from the worst heat, so they have had a couple of centuries to develop into towns where people still go for holidays. Our “twin” hill stations lie in the Sahyadri ranges of the Western Ghat mountains.

Our only full day  was Saturday, and we chose our destination from among several possible outings: Lohagad Fort on top of a hill, built by the locals in the 16th or 17th century as a fortification against the Moguls, who were able to take and control it for only five years.

We drove a half hour or more up the mountain to the starting point, and from the parking lot Kate and I first walked to the one washroom in that village that is for tourists. It was in a stable attached to a house, where two cows and a dog with puppies were housed. While I waited my turn I admired one animal at close range for a few moments before I turned to see a woman looking at me from the doorstep of her kitchen. We smiled at each other, and I said, “Beautiful cow!” She went back into the house and I could hear her exclaiming something that sounded like “Chri-tien!” I could only guess that she had seen the cross around my neck. Maybe she was a Christian, too?

The woman in the photo below was selling snacks to people as they set out climbing steps, and though we weren’t buying anything she smiled at little Raj in his sling. The brown pods are tamarind.

What a good hike we had then! Kate and Tom each carried small backpacks, and they took turns carrying Raj in the Baby K’tan sling. It takes about 200 steps to reach the gate of the fort, but if you want to go all the way to the top, it is more than 300, maybe even 500 steps. No official information is to be had, and reviewers give all kinds of hearsay information. No one claims to have counted the steps. We didn’t either, being too busy enjoying the views and our fellow hikers, Indians who love to have their pictures taken with westerners. We obliged several times, and enjoyed telling everyone that our baby was just one month old.

Monkeys live there at the fort. We watched quite a few of them just playing in the trees, but most of the creatures were carefully scanning the groups of people going up and down to see if there were any snacks available. They particularly love soda pop and will grab a bottle out of your hands. Kate and Tom knew this and in the past she’d found herself wrestling with a monkey over her drink at another tourist spot in India. So we kept what little we had hidden away.

When we reached the top of the fort we kept going, almost to the top of the hill, and found shade under a tree where Raj could have his lunch in peace. An Indian lady came and sat with us for a while, waiting for her husband to come back from the pinnacle. And then we went up there, too, for another perspective on Pawana Lake down below.

I can imagine how lovely it all must be when the monsoons turn everything lush and green. The air quality is better then, too. Kate and Tom want to return.

I took the above picture trying to catch the situation with the men giving food to the dogs who also hung around the area. Monkeys were climbing on the walls and peering down from various places trying to get in on the deal.

We took about 2 1/2 hours in all, slowly climbing all those stairs, walking and sitting around at the top, me taking pictures of flowers, and then slowly descending the often steep steps on our increasingly wobbly legs. Tom took this picture looking down as we were on our way:

When we got back to the car, only then did we buy something to drink in the safety of our vehicle, and we drove down the bumpy road to our hotel.

The town of Lonavala is about 2,000 ft. elevation, high enough to be a little cooler than Mumbai, especially at night. It really was very pleasant in the day, too. They are famous for their chikki, a yummy kind of praline made with jaggery, and every third shop along the narrow streets of town seemed to have a big CHIKKI sign above it. I bought an assortment including Rose, but didn’t open it until we got home.

Breakfast at the hotel was a stupendous affair. Evidently you must offer breakfast items of every possible sort to please tourists from various cultures with their traditions and dietary rules. That means the full English breakfast of bacon, sausage, omelettes, roasted tomatoes, toast, beans… (I didn’t see any mushrooms, though!) And plenty of vegetarian items: mixed vegetables, potatoes, dal, coconut chutney….

The mostly self-serve area was so huge, I didn’t even see (or need) the place with fruit, cereal and doughnuts, and I didn’t have a dosa made for me, but I ate bites from Kate’s and from Tom’s. Tom’s was a cheese dosa, so light it could be served upright as a cone. And the omelette that was started cooking before my eyes was the most elegant and perfect rendition I have ever eaten.

One more thing we did in the mountains was visit Lion’s Point lookout/overview, a large and rocky parking lot on the side of the mountain not requiring any physical exertion to get to, and providing plenty of photo opportunities for the humans, and soda-stealing opportunities for the monkeys. There were shaded areas with chairs if you wanted to stay a while. We bought some ice cream and kulfi, and showed off Raj.

On the road up to Lion’s Point and down, our driver had to shift gears constantly to maneuver the frequent and steep hairpin turns. High rock walls lined the road through neighborhoods where you could see the occasional cheerful bungalow or villa on the other side, with lots of tall trees and vines spreading their shade and flowers beyond the walls to the road. I could imagine some British colonial writer like Rumer Godden living in one of these places a hundred years ago.

Lower down I had glimpsed an occasional farm near the highway, and on the way back we were on the lookout for one so that the driver could stop, and I would take a picture. But as it turned out, they were much farther down, where the road becomes a freeway with few exits and no shoulder at all.

We returned to Mumbai quite content and with stiffening muscles from our intense stair-climbing. Everyone thought it had been a great first road trip, first hike, first expedition out of Mumbai for little Raj. He had been pretty happy the whole time, often on one or another of our laps as in this picture.

He seemed glad to be home, too, and to just lie on his play mat listening to the familiar white noises and to feel the lack of vibrations and jerks he’d been introduced to lately.

Huckleberry Cat was very curious and no doubt relieved that we were back. I wonder though if he was surprised that we all returned. Perhaps he had hoped that the small strange creature would not. For some reason Huckleberry attached himself to me as never before and sat on my lap for long sessions of nuzzling and snuggling. When I tired of that, he jumped up on the desk to sit by me while I typed. He “talked” to me a lot all evening, but what was he saying? I told him that Raj is here to stay, but I didn’t break the news about my own coming departure. He will discover that soon enough.

In the meantime, I wonder if he could somehow help me to squeeze the overflowings of my mind into a few more coherent posts about India?

We drink and breathe in Mumbai.

Nine of us sat down one day in a very popular restaurant where everything looked clean and spiffy, even the classy uniforms of these waiters who were in abundance to meet our needs. Kate’s (American) Indian friend who was visiting from Saudi Arabia brought us to this place because they had the wonderful South Indian food, different from the Punjabi fare you typically get in the U.S., they say.

While we began to look at the menus, glasses of water arrived on our tables — but were sent back to the kitchen immediately by our host with instructions to bring us bottled water. The glasses were removed, and a couple of liter bottles were brought. The same glasses came back, having been emptied but with drops of water clinging to the insides.

So all our party without comment grabbed paper napkins and began drying the glasses thoroughly, after which we filled them with the good water. Maybe the restaurant water was good, too, but who knows? Water quality is one of the things critical to health that is not reliable in India.

In this household we have a large distiller with a tap from which we take all of our water that is used for cooking, drinking, and teeth brushing. For a month I have been practicing not doing the thing I’ve done once or twice a day my whole life through, to the point where I don’t think about it at all: Turn on the faucet in the bathroom and wet my toothbrush. Now I have to think about it with all my power, and be methodical and slow. So far I don’t think I’ve forgotten, in the bathroom. Then there is the kitchen. Even though the distiller is right there, I have once or twice begun to rinse vegetables in tap water at the sink.

Talking about washing things, we do wash dishes in the sink with that common water, and use them again when they are dry. The kitchen here has one of those handy drying cupboards above the sink.

Breathing is a human activity even more fundamental than drinking, and I have always had a generally healthy respiratory system, and have not stopped breathing without thinking, or comfortably. But if you have asthma, it would be best not to live in Mumbai or Delhi.

For most of my stay the air quality has been typical for wintertime when there are no monsoons to wash the air — that is, the worst. My first week here we took a little trip to the Bandra Fort area where you can look across Mahim Bay to see South Mumbai on the other side of the causeway. Sometimes, but not that day. Tom found an old photo to show the contrast with last June.

Tom and AQI contrast

I got my own view of South Mumbai across the bay last week, and it was middling.

I’d guess the air pollution is the worst thing about living in Mumbai. Heat and humidity are forces to be dealt with, but they are not unhealthy in themselves. The particulates in the air cause respiratory illness and worse. Most days when I see it the Air Quality Index is between 100-200, but a few times it’s been under 100. This site www.aqicn.org starts you in India, but has a search tab that makes it possible to compare various cities of the world that use that particular formula and guide. Here is one of the pages pertaining to Mumbai showing real time information this afternoon when I am writing.

If you haven’t had to be aware of the AQI where you live, you can be thankful! Many Indians who live in Mumbai have their head in the sand about the situation and call the white skies “fog” — because what can they do? In Delhi, where children have been seen throwing up out of school bus windows and schools must close on the worst days, they can’t so easily ignore the realities. I haven’t seen anyone wear a mask, and I haven’t worn the cute one that Kate provided for me as a good expat host must do here. But then, I am not out and about for more than a few hours at a time. When I am, I notice my eyes burning.

In the apartment we have several air purifiers, so we don’t suffer while we’re home. Air conditioners keep the temperature down, and dehumidifiers reduce the moisture  in the air that would cause everything to get moldy during the monsoon especially. Even in this dry season, the one in my bedroom sometimes collects a gallon of water in less than a week. These helpful machines collectively emit plenty of white noise, which people living in cities usually count a good thing.

The difficulties of air and water were some of the stresses I was anticipating coming here, but I have suffered little, for which I am very thankful. Water and air — what simple and delicious blessings they are!